Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

Middleton: Women Beware Women

May 18, 2022

Women Beware Women
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2000) [c.1620]
55 p.

Lust is bold,
And will have vengeance speak ere’t be controlled.

Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women ranks, by reputation, as one of his finest tragedies for the English stage. It is a play in which lust, unruly and illicit, leads all to destruction. It’s a play with a high level of disturbing content, and not something you’d want to take your grandmother to.

It will be worthwhile to look in some detail at the plot, both for clarity’s sake, and because it will give us an opportunity to look at a few examples of the very fine verse. Essentially we have a double plot in which two young women, Isabella and Bianca, become enmeshed in illicit sexual affairs with older men, both through the corrupt dealings of an older woman, Livia.

**

Let’s begin with Isabella, who is Livia’s niece. She has attracted the wanton affections of her uncle (Livia’s brother), and Livia, for reasons not entirely clear, offers to help him seduce her:

LIVIA: You are not the first, brother, has attempted
Things more forbidden than this seems to be.

That “seems” tells us a lot about her. She convinces Isabella that her uncle isn’t actually her uncle, and that an affair with him would lead to certain advantages. Isabella, gullible, takes the bait.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to a newlywed couple, Leantio and Bianca. She has left a wealthy family to marry a humble man, for love, and their new life seems to be one of happiness and harmony. Departing on a business trip, however, Leantio asks that Bianca remain locked up at home while he is away, lest she inflame the desires of other men. This seems excessively controlling and neurotic, but, actually, turns out to be sensible and prudent — although insufficient!

She consents, but, following her husband’s departure, ventures to the window to see the Duke passing by, and, seen by him, is summoned to the castle where, maneuvered by Livia into being alone with the Duke, she is raped. The Duke offers her riches if she’ll consent to be his mistress.

This trauma brings about a dramatic change in Bianca’s character. Feeling herself despoiled by the Duke, she, in an act of apparent self-loathing, decides to throw all away and accept the Duke’s offer:

Yet since mine honour’s leprous, why should I
Preserve that fair that caused the leprosy?
Come, poison all at once.

Livia, the successful pander, seeing this transformation, but sensing a certain anguished reluctance behind it, tells us that

Her tender modesty is sea-sick a little,
Being not accustomed to the breaking billow
Of woman’s wavering faith, blown with temptations,
‘Tis but a qualm of honour; ’twill away;
A little bitter for the time, but lasts not,
Sin tastes at the first draught like wormwood-water,
But, drunk again, ’tis nectar ever after.

I’m not convinced this tells us much about what is actually the case in Bianca’s heart, but it does reveal that we are dealing, in Livia, with a seriously reprobate woman, if we had any doubts.

As Leantio returns home from his trip, he is given a speech on the joys of marriage which, in context, must come across to the audience as ironic and tragic, or perhaps darkly comic, depending on how the lines are delivered:

What a delicious breath marriage sends forth
the violet bed’s not sweeter. Honest wedlock
Is like a banqueting-house built in a garden
On which the spring’s chaste flowers take delight
To cast their modest odours; when base lust
With all her powders, paintings, and best pride
Is but a fair house built by a ditch side.
When I behold a glorious dangerous Strumpet,
Sparkling in Beauty and Destruction too,
Both at a twinkling , I do liken straight
Her beautifi’d body to a goodly Temple
That’s built on Vaults where Carkasses lie rotting,
And so by little and little I shrink back again,
And quench desire with a cool Meditation,
And I’m as well methinks.

That starts out quite beautifully, but there’s something wrong with it. He spends more time thinking about the strumpet than about his new wife, and seems to be struggling still to quench a wayward desire. In any case, even the modest odours of married love are about to take on unpleasant overtones (if, perforce, odours can have overtones). He finds her suddenly discontented with the humble status of his household:

Wives do not give away themselves to husbands
To the end to be quite cast away; they look
To be the better used and tendered, rather,
Higher respected, and maintained the richer.

She announces that she is leaving him to live with the Duke. Leantio’s ode to marriage comes back, but in full reverse:

O thou the ripe time of man’s misery, wedlock;
When all his thoughts, like overladen trees,
Crack with the fruits they bear, in cares, in jealousies,
O, that’s a fruit that ripes hastily
After ’tis knit to marriage. It begins,
As soon as the sun shines upon the bride,
A little to show colour. Blessed powers,
Whence comes this alteration? The distractions,
The fears and doubts it brings are numberless,
And yet the cause I know not. What a peace
Has he that never marries! If he knew
The benefit he enjoy’d, or had the fortune
To come and speak with me, he should know then
The infinite wealth he had, and discern rightly
The greatness of his treasure by my loss:
Nay, what a quietness has he ‘bove mine,
That wears his youth out in a strumpet’s arms,
And never spends more care upon a woman
Than at the time of lust; but walks away,
And if he find her dead at his return,
His pity is soon done, he breaks a sigh
In many parts, and gives her but a peace on’t!
But all the fears, shames, jealousies, costs and troubles,
And still renew’d cares of a marriage bed,
Live in the issue, when the wife is dead.

Pretty grim stuff.

Meanwhile, as Leantio is coming to terms with his wife’s departure, he himself catches the eye of Livia, who makes him an offer that parallels the Duke’s offer to Bianca: become my plaything in exchange for wealth and status. Leantio thinks briefly of his wife (“Why should my love last longer than her truth?”) before he, too, throws away fidelity and takes up the offer.

At this point, in the play, therefore, we have three illicit affairs underway, two adulterous and one incestuous. Although Leantio’s infidelity is, in most respects, parallel to Bianca’s, and is arguably worse for not having been initiated by sexual assault, when he next meets her he has withering words for her:

Why do I talk to thee of sense or virtue,
That art as dark as death? and as much madness
To set light before thee, as to lead blind folks
To see the monuments, which they may smell as soon
As they behold; marry, ofttimes their heads,
For want of light, may feel the hardness of ’em;
So shall thy blind pride my revenge and anger
That canst not see it now; and it may fall
At such an hour, when thou least seest of all:
So to an ignorance darker than thy womb,
I leave thy perjur’d soul: a plague will come!

In addition to being fine verse, this is a noteworthy speech because it signals a transition in the play from prevailing lust to prevailing violence. Indeed, shortly afterward Isabella discovers that she has been carrying on an affair with a man who is actually her uncle. Horrified, she too vows revenge:

If the least means but favour my revenge,
That I may practise the like cruel cunning
Upon her life, as she has on mine honour,
I’ll act it without pity.

And so the play launches into its last act, where sickly feints at romance give way to blood-letting, and lots of it.

It begins in a rather unexpected way: with the introduction of a new, righteous character. The predatory Duke, it turns out, has a brother who is a Cardinal, and this Cardinal (implausible as it may seem to us) is not a hypocrite or a pervert or a criminal, but, it appears, a genuinely good man who grieves over his brother’s sins and urgently calls him to repentance:

’tis a work
Of infinite mercy you can never merit
That yet you are not death-struck; no, not yet:
I dare not stay you long, for fear you should not
Have time enough allowed you to repent in.

And the Duke, much to my surprise, takes his brother’s reproof to heart. Maybe this is a point where the psychology of the play betrays itself as superficial, but he immediately resolves to bring the adulterous relationship to an end. The trouble is that, as in the case of David and Bathsheba, he proposes to stop the adultery but not the relationship; he resolves to kill her husband!

I have vowed
Never to know her as a strumpet more,
And I must save my oath. If fury fail not,
Her husband dies tonight.

Die he does, and the stage is set for a bloodbath at the marriage feast of the Duke and Bianca. I’ll spare the details, but in short order Isabella and her uncle and Livia and Bianca and the Duke — all the principal characters — are dead, and bodies litter the stage in true tragic fashion.

***

On first reading, it strikes me as a very good play, though these things are admittedly hard to judge merely from the page. The story develops surely and comprehensibly, the characters are distinctive, the villainy is clear but clothed in suavity, and, not least, the lucid verse is a pleasure to read. The principal weakness that I see is that the story relies on several abrupt changes of character, in Bianca first, and then in both Leantio and the Duke. Of these, Leantio’s is handled most ably and convincingly, but still seemed too tidy to me.

Rumour is that Middleton’s next project was to meddle with a play called Measure for Measure as it was being prepared for publication. An honour, surely, but in retrospect one that might have been better left alone.

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

May 9, 2022

Meditations
Marcus Aurelius
Adapted by George Chrystal from the 1742 Foulis translation
(Walter J. Black, 1941) [c.180]
120 p.

Marcus Aurelius, he of the golden name and the laudable reputation, has for me always had something of an aura, as it were, about him. Even the terse title of his famous book promised something sturdy and placid, something on which to sit and rest myself. I am happy to have finally made the time for it.

It is rare to have a book, especially one of this kind, written by a man of such eminence. He was Roman emperor, the most powerful man in the world he knew, yet his book is not about conquest or war or even greatness in any worldly sense. It is a book about the interior life, for the most part: about virtue, and the good life, and preparing for death, and learning to be happy. He wrote it for himself.

It is an aphoristic book. Marcus Aurelius spent much of his time as emperor on the road, in the field of battle, and it seems he jotted down his thoughts when he had a fleeting opportunity to do so. The book it most reminded me of, at least structurally, was Pascal’s Pensées. Not the least of its merits is that it stands as a reproach to those of us who think we’re “too busy” to do something worthwhile.

Because of its fractured format, it’s a good book to dip into, and a difficult one to summarize. Today my aim is simply to pluck at a few dominant ideas that I noticed, and to preserve for my own benefit some passages that struck me as especially worthy.

***

Much of the book is occupied with the question of what constitutes good character. Let’s start with an extended sketch that he gives early in his meditations when he is recounting what he learned from various mentors and exemplars:

The counsels of Maximus taught me to command myself, to judge clearly, to be of good courage in sickness and other misfortunes, to be moderate, gentle, yet serious in disposition, and to accomplish my appointed task without repining. All men believed that he spoke as he thought; and whatever he did, they knew it was done with good intent. I never found him surprised or astonished at anything. He was never in a hurry, never shrank from his purpose, was never at a loss or dejected. He was no facile smiler, but neither was he passionate or suspicious. He was ready to do good, to forgive, and to speak the truth, and gave the impression of unperverted rectitude rather than of a reformed character. No man could ever think himself despised by Maximus, and no one ever ventured to think himself his superior. He had also a good gift of humour.

There we have a winsome and compelling portrait of a good man; who would not wish to be spoken of in such a way? One of the character traits in this sketch is integrity: to be what one appears to be, to be candid and honest in one’s dealings with people, to say what one means. This is a matter that comes up frequently throughout the book, and is expressed in different ways. For instance, he tells us that we should

Never esteem aught of advantage which will oblige you to break your faith, or to desert your honour; to hate, to suspect, or to execrate any man; to play a part; or to set your mind on anything that needs to be hidden by wall or curtain. (III.7)

Or, again,

If you discharge your present duty with firm and zealous, yet kindly, observance of the laws of reason; if you regard no by-gains, but keep pure within you your immortal part, as if obliged to restore it at once to him who gave it; if you hold to this with no further desires or aversions, and be content with the natural discharge of your present task, and with the heroic sincerity of all you say or utter, you will live well. And herein no man can hinder you. (III.12)

It might be that certain jealous or envious people will cast aspersions at a man who lives thus candidly before the world, ascribing to him secret hidden motives that he does not have, but this, says Marcus, is nothing to be concerned about:

Though others may not believe that he lives thus in simplicity, modesty, and contentment, he neither takes this unbelief amiss from any one, nor quits the road which leads to the true end of life, at which he ought to arrive pure, calm, ready to take his departure, and accommodated without compulsion to his fate. (III.16)

This is appealing to me; here is something to aspire to. But I fear, on good grounds, that I would fail, as I have failed at lesser challenges. A charge open to Marcus, as it is open to anyone who sets up an ideal, is that it is unrealistic: people just aren’t that good. We are all hobbled by various weaknesses and corruptions. This side of things is muted in the book, but not absent. At one point, for instance, he offers counsel on how to resist the lure of avarice:

Dwell not on what you lack so much as on what you have already. Select the best of what you have, and consider how passionately you would have longed for it had it not been yours. Yet be watchful, lest by this joy in what you have you accustom yourself to value it too highly; so that, if it should fail, you would be distressed. (VII.27)

This is a kind of therapy for temptation and weakness of will. In another place he offers advice to those who, though trying to live in accordance with reason — a Stoic ideal — find that they have fallen into error:

Remember that to change your course, and to follow any man who can set you right is no compromise of your freedom. The act is your own, performed on your own impulse and judgment, and according to your own understanding. (VIII.16)

To be in error is a fault, but to discover an error is an opportunity to exercise both freedom and gratitude. But he goes beyond even such rosy therapies and glass-half-full ruminations once or twice:

This your suffering is well merited, for you would rather become good to-morrow than be good to-day. (VIII.22)

I would bet that St Augustine read Marcus Aurelius.

**

Marcus had to deal with difficult people — not just irritating people, but people scheming against him for something, and perhaps in the grip of a particular vice. We all have to do this from time to time, according to our state in life. Marcus has some counsel for such situations.

Say this to yourself in the morning: Today I shall have to do with meddlers, with the ungrateful, with the insolent, with the crafty, with the envious and the selfish. All these vices have beset them, because they know not what is good and what is evil. But I have considered the nature of the good, and found it beautiful: I have beheld the nature of the bad, and found it ugly. I also understand the nature of the evil-doer, and know that he is my brother, not because he shares with me the same blood or the same seed, but because he is a partaker of the same mind and of the same portion of immortality. I therefore cannot be hurt by any of these, since none of them can involve me in any baseness. I cannot be angry with my brother, or sever myself from him, for we are made by nature for mutual assistance, like the feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth. (II.1)

There are a few ideas here: evildoers don’t know what they are doing, not truly; evil committed against me cannot hurt me, not truly; my own good is consonant with, rather than opposed to, the good of others. Each is debatable, of course, but each is important to Marcus’ way of seeing things. As to the last point, for instance, he cites (or coins) a neat aphorism: “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee. (VI.54)”.

The notion that a good man cannot be harmed by others comes up again and again. At times it is expressed metaphysically:

Material things cannot touch the soul at all, nor have any access to it: neither can they bend or move it. The soul is bent or moved by itself alone, and remodels all things that present themselves from without in accordance with whatever judgment it adopts within. (V.19)

The mind can convert and change everything that impedes its activity into matter for its action; hindrance in its work becomes its real help, and every obstruction makes for its progress. (V.20)

At other times it is stated in moral terms:

Let any one say or do what he pleases, I must be a good man. It is just as gold, or emeralds, or purple might say continually: “Let men do or say what they please, I must be an emerald, and retain my lustre.” (VII.15)

Or, conversely,

The sinner sins against himself. The wrong-doer wrongs himself by making himself evil. (IX.4)

Socrates used to say something very much like this, and there is a kernel of hard truth in it. I may be made to suffer for my integrity, but so long as I’m willing to undergo that suffering, so long as I value my integrity more than I fear the suffering, I cannot be compelled to forsake it. This is a stern moralism, but attractive. Consistently, Marcus counsels us to aim, in freedom, at what is right according to justice, and accept the consequences.

In the present matter what is the soundest that can be done or said? For, whatever that may be, you are at liberty to do or say it. Make no excuses as if hindered. You will never cease from groaning until your disposition is such that what luxury is to men of pleasure, that to you is doing what is suitable to the constitution of man on every occasion that is thrown or falls in your way. You should regard as enjoyment everything which you are at liberty to do in accordance with your own proper nature; and this liberty you have everywhere. (X.33)

We are to look at what is intrinsically right, without regard to extrinsic factors like approbation, reward, or suffering. Keep your eye on the ball. He is especially keen to discount the importance of rewards for good deeds. No doubt he was surrounded by sycophants seeking an imperial back scratch for services rendered, but he would have none of it:

When you have done a kind action, another has benefited. Why do you, like the fools, require some third thing in addition—a reputation for benevolence or a return for it? (VII.73)

Instead, he sketches for us an ideal to contrast with the fool:

Some men, when they have done you a favour, are very ready to reckon up the obligation they have conferred. Others, again, are not so forward in their claims, but yet in their minds consider you their debtor, and well know the value of what they have done. A third sort seem to be unconscious of their service. They are like the vine, which produces its clusters and is satisfied when it has yielded its proper fruit. The horse when he has run his course, the hound when he has followed the track, the bee when it has made its honey, and the man when he has done good to others, make no noisy boast of it, but set out to do the same once more, as the vine in its season produces its new clusters again. “Should we, then, be among those who in a manner know not what they do?” Assuredly. (V.6)

This is a matter that I’ve often thought about. I’m a person who, on those rare occasions when I do some good for a friend, does not expect anything in return. The matter is forgotten. Likewise, when someone does me a good turn, I don’t feel any pressing obligation to return the favour. I am grateful; I say ‘thank you’; and then I move on. I don’t keep accounts, for better or for worse. This can be irritating to my wife, who is much more sensitive to the intricacies of obligation and debt. But I am in agreement with Marcus on this point; I do what I see as my duty, or as right, and why should I place another under a debt for doing so? And when I receive a good from someone, can I not receive it as a gift, or must it place me under some obligation to reciprocate? Well, it is simpler, at least, to be as the horse, the hound, and the bee.

Wrapped up in Marcus’ counsel that we should simply do the right thing is his belief that we should not particularly care about the outcome. We do our part, he says, and the rest is not up to us.

Try to persuade men to agree with you; but whether they agree or not, pursue the course you have marked out when the principles of justice point that way. Should one oppose you by force, act with resignation, and shew not that you are hurt, use the obstruction for the exercise of some other virtue, and remember that your purpose involved the reservation that you were not to aim at impossibilities. What, after all, was your aim? To make some good effort such as this. Well, then, you have succeeded, even though your first purpose be not accomplished. (VI.50)

We encroach here on the Stoic belief that we should strive for detachment from success, fame, and wealth. Instead, we should accept, in humility and simplicity, whatever happens, be it good or bad by conventional standards of judgment. Such things — merely external things that happen to us — are of no ultimate importance:

Now death and life, glory and reproach, pain and pleasure, riches and poverty—all these happen equally to the good and to the bad. But, as they are neither honourable nor shameful, they are therefore neither good nor evil. (II.11)

When under the sway of our passions, we grow attached to things that are transitory and bound to pass away. We want things to be this way, and not that way. But this is a recipe for unhappiness, for all things are transitory, and even if we attain what we want, it will not last. Instead, we ought to receive everything that happens with a kind of detached indifference:

The healthy eye ought to look on everything visible, and not to say, “I want green,” like an eye that is diseased. Sound hearing or sense of smell ought to be ready for all that can be heard or smelt; and the healthy stomach should be equally disposed for all sorts of food, as a mill for all that it was built to grind. So also the healthy mind should be ready for all things that happen. That mind which says, “Let my children be spared, and let men applaud my every action,” is as an eye which begs for green, or as teeth which require soft food. (X.35)

Again, this way of thinking has a certain appeal. For a Christian it must be a limited appeal, for Jesus taught us to ask for our daily bread, rather than to <i>not</i> ask for it. The Christian way is to love rather than to be indifferent. And Marcus’ belief that it is better not to desire particular goods does occasionally cross the line into something that feels perverse:

You will think little of a pleasing song, a dance, or a gymnastic display, if you analyse the melody into its separate notes, and ask yourself regarding each, “Does this impress me?” You will blush to own it; and so also if you analyse the dance into its single motions and postures, and if you similarly treat the gymnastic display. In general then, except as regards virtue and virtuous action, remember to recur to the constituent parts of things, and by dissecting to despise them; and transfer this practice to life as a whole. (XI.2)

This just seems like a therapy for how not to like things: by conceptualizing them in a way that makes them not likeable.

*

A final theme of Marcus’ meditations that I’ll touch on is a familiar one: the brevity of life. This is a common enough trope in the ancient world; we saw it when we were reading Seneca a few moons ago, and it is a perpetual favourite of moralists the world over. All the same, Marcus invests the familiar tune with his own distinctive voice. He emphasizes the moral urgency that human life acquires because of its limits:

Order not your life as though you had ten thousand years to live. Fate hangs over you. While you live, while yet you may, be good. (IV.17)

And he concludes his entire set of meditations with a memorable passage on the inevitability and unpredictability of death:

You have lived, O man, as a citizen of this great city; of what consequence to you whether for five years or for three? What comes by law is fair to all. Where then is the calamity, if you are sent out of the city, by no tyrant or unjust judge, but Nature herself who at first introduced you, just as the praetor who engaged the actor again dismisses him from the stage? “But,” say you, “I have not spoken my five acts, but only three.” True, but in life three acts make up the play. For he sets the end who was responsible for its composition at the first, and for its present dissolution. You are responsible for neither. Depart then graciously; for he who dismisses you is gracious. (XII.36)

All the world’s a stage.

***

The Meditations is unquestionably a great book; it doesn’t need me to praise it. Reading as a Christian, I see its wisdom as limited in various respects, but that it contains genuine wisdom I do not doubt. Stoicism probably never found a better spokesman than Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps the thing that struck me most, as I was reading, was just how immediately it spoke to me. I would go so far as to say that for no book from the ancient world, with the notable and important exception of Augustine’s Confessions, have I felt the centuries melt away as I did with this. Marcus speaks to me as a contemporary, and that is a remarkable achievement.

***

[Aphorism]
The best revenge is not to copy him that wronged you. (VI.6)

[Aphorism]
Men will go their ways nonetheless, though you burst in protest. (VIII.4)

[Human nature and reason]
In the reasoning being to act according to nature is to act according to reason. (VII.11)

[Philosophy]
Had you at one time both a step-mother and a mother, you would respect the former, yet you would be more constantly in your mother’s company. Your court and your philosophy are step-mother and mother to you. Return then frequently to your true mother, and recreate yourself with her. Her consolation can make the court seem bearable to you, and you to it. (VI.12)

[Love those around you]
Adapt yourself to the things which your destiny has given you: love those with whom it is your lot to live, and love them with sincere affection. (VI.39)

[Choose the best]
Frankly and freely choose the best, and keep to it. The best is what is for your advantage. If now you choose what is for your spiritual advantage, hold it fast; if what is for your bodily advantage, admit that it is so chosen, and keep your choice with all modesty. Only see that you make a sure discrimination. (III.6)

[Change and transitoriness]
Consider frequently how swiftly things that exist or are coming into existence are swept by and carried away. Their substance is as a river perpetually flowing; their actions are in continual change, and their causes subject to ten thousand alterations. Scarcely anything is stable, and the vast eternities of past and future in which all things are swallowed up are close upon us on both hands. Is he not then a fool who is puffed up with success in the things of this world, or is distracted, or worried, as if he were in a time of trouble likely to endure for long. (V.23)

[Good zeal]
For what should we be zealous? For this alone, that our souls be just, our actions unselfish, our speech ever sincere, and our disposition such as may cheerfully embrace whatever happens, seeing it to be inevitable, familiar, and sprung from the same source and origin as we ourselves. (IV.34)

[Metaphysical beauty]
Whatever is beautiful at all is beautiful in itself. Its beauty ends there, and praise has no part in it. Nothing is the better or the worse for being praised; and this holds also of what is beautiful in the common estimation: of material forms and works of art. Thus true beauty needs nothing beyond itself, any more than law, or truth, or kindness, or honour. For none of these gets a single grace from praise or one blot from censure. (IV.19)

[Simplicity]
Most things you say and do are not necessary. Have done with them, and you will be more at leisure and less perturbed. On every occasion, then, ask yourself the question, Is this thing not unnecessary? And put away not only unnecessary deeds but unnecessary thoughts, for by so doing you will avoid all superfluous actions. (IV.24)

[Talking himself out of bed in the morning]
In the morning, when you find yourself unwilling to rise, have this thought at hand: I arise to the proper business of man, and shall I repine at setting about that work for which I was born and brought into the world? Am I equipped for nothing but to lie among the bed-clothes and keep warm? “But,” you say, “it is more pleasant so.” Is pleasure, then, the object of your being, and not action, and the exercise of your powers? Do you not see the smallest plants, the little sparrows, the ants, the spiders, the bees, all doing their part, and working for order in the Universe, as far as in them lies? And will you refuse the part in this design which is laid on man? Will you not pursue the course which accords with your own nature? You say, “I must have rest.” Assuredly; but nature appoints a measure for rest, just as for eating and drinking. In rest you go beyond these limits, and beyond what is enough; but in action you do not fill the measure, and remain well within your powers. You do not love yourself; if you did, you would love your nature and its purpose. (V.1)

Briefly noted: Children’s books

May 2, 2022

Today, brief notes on a few read-aloud books that I’ve done with the kids.

*

Tuck Everlasting
Natalie Babbitt
(Scholastic, 1975)
139 p.

If you could choose to live forever, would you? This is the question hanging in the air behind this ambitious little children’s novel. We meet Winnie, a girl of ten who is lonely at home until she meets the Tuck family, who have discovered a spring of water that renders those who drink it immortal.

The natural inclination for a child — for my children, anyway — would be to take the water, and this is a basically healthy impulse, implicitly affirming the goodness of life and of the world. But there would be downsides too, in this vale of tears. The Tucks must keep moving, never able to form long-term friendships with anyone lest their agelessness become evident in time. They must evade authorities who might have a reason to know their history. Their personal development is arrested, and their lives risk losing focus, becoming merely interminable. Which would you choose?

We basically enjoyed the book — a read-aloud with an 8 yo and 10 yo — although there was a narrative thread of romantic undercurrents between Winnie and a 17-year old boy that made my hair stand on end. For crying out loud. The book closed on a strong note.

***

Half Magic
Edward Eager
(Scholastic, 2000) [1954]
192 p.

This is a sweet and funny tale about four siblings who discover a wish-granting charm — except that instead of granting wishes outright, it grants them by halves. A good premise. It makes for some rough going in the early stages of these wish-making adventures, but, once the idiosyncrasies of the charm are (mostly) mastered, the story becomes a delightful romp as they try to figure out what to do with this unlooked-for power, or what this power might be trying to do to them. If you were so inclined, the book could inspire good conversations about the value of reticence in the use of a new technology.

Because there is a simple mapping between the four children in the story and my own children, I changed the names of the characters as I read the book aloud, which occasioned much hilarity as the story proceeded.

***

The Story of Dr Dolittle
Hugh Lofting
(Dover, 2005) [1920]
96 p.

This is a pleasant little tale about a doctor turned veterinarian who has discovered the gift of conversing with animals. He first becomes impoverished because, of course, animals cannot pay him to treat their ailments, but then, responding to a plague striking the monkeys of Africa, he embarks on a great adventure to save them, making many animal friends along the way. He returns home, after a detour to find the missing father of a boy kidnapped by pirates (and the detour is about as arbitrary as it sounds), laden with gifts and with custody of a remarkable little creature — a pushmi-pullyu — that English people will pay to see. Dr Dolittle thereby grows wealthy, but never stops being pleasant.

The story of the book is rather silly, but this is part of its appeal. The main attraction is the writing, which maintains a humorous tone without stooping to punchlines, and which sounds good when read aloud. There is an episode during the African adventures which uses words now considered racial slurs, but this episode has been excised from this Dover edition.

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, III

April 21, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 3
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993)  [1776]
xix + 556 p.

Goths, Huns, and Vandals are our unruly guests as we settle down once again with Gibbon, who in this volume concentrates on the period from the ascent of Theodosius to the imperial throne in 379 to the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455. It’s a period of fracture and friction as the Roman imperium begins to buckle under the pressures placed upon it.

Early on, Gibbon provides us with a convenient summary of the situation that had developed from about the reign of Decius (c.250) until the reign of Theodosius, which is worth reproducing here:

During this period, the seat of government had been transported from Rome to a new city on the banks of the Thracian Bosphorus; and the abuse of military spirit had been suppressed by an artificial system of tame and ceremonious servitude. The throne of the persecuting Decius was filled by a succession of Christian and orthodox princes, who had extirpated the fabulous gods of antiquity: and the public devotion of the age was impatient to exalt the saints and martyrs of the Catholic church, on the altars of Diana and Hercules. The union of the Roman empire was dissolved; its genius was humbled in the dust; and armies of unknown Barbarians, issuing from the frozen regions of the North, had established their victorious reign over the fairest provinces of Europe and Africa.

We have a few themes here: the rise of Christianity, the weakening of Roman defences, and growing pressure around the periphery of the empire from a variety of ambitious tribes. All of these themes continue and are augmented during the period under consideration in this volume.

***

Let’s look briefly at the progress of Christianity. Theodosius, emperor in the east, used his power to effect the extinction of Arianism, which had threatened the orthodox faith in the preceding century. The decline of paganism continued, after its last, unsuccessful, hurrah during the reign of Julian. Gibbon looks dolefully on the waxing enthusiasm among Christians for honouring the saints, a “pernicious innovation” that “corrupted the pure and perfect simplicity of the Christian model”. This period also coincides with the lives of several of the most important Church Fathers: St Ambrose, St Augustine, St Athanasius (for whom Gibbon has a particular disdain), and St John Chrystostom. Of the latter, Gibbon relates a humorous account of the effect of his preaching on the ruling parties in Constantinople:

When he declaimed against the peculiar vices of the rich, poverty might obtain a transient consolation from his invectives; but the guilty were still sheltered by their numbers; and the reproach itself was dignified by some ideas of superiority and enjoyment. But as the pyramid rose towards the summit, it insensibly diminished to a point; and the magistrates, the ministers, the favorite eunuchs, the ladies of the court, the empress Eudoxia herself, had a much larger share of guilt to divide among a smaller proportion of criminals.

Of the churchmen whom Gibbon admires, the foremost is probably Pope St Leo the Great, whose courage played a role, at least, in averting the sack of Rome by the Huns in the middle of the fifth century, about which more below.

**

Governance of the empire continued to be divided between east and west. We open with Gratian ruling in the west, and Theodosius in the east. Theodosius Gibbon considers one of the ablest of the Roman emperors (“his virtues always seemed to expand with his fortunes”), though his reign was marred by acts of cruelty (see Massacre of Thessalonica).

After his death a power struggle arose between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, and “the subjects of Arcadius and Honorius were instructed, by their respective masters, to view each other in a foreign, and even hostile, light; to rejoice in their mutual calamities, and to embrace, as their faithful allies, the Barbarians, whom they excited to invade the territories of their countrymen.” The predictable result was an acceleration of the trends which weakened Rome. In particular, their disputes coincided with incursions by the Visigoths, under Alaric, into Greece (396) and then Italy (400). This was a back-and-forth affair, with skirmishes and battles here and there over the course of several years, and Gibbon writes with poignancy and a certain ironic wit of the occasion on which Honorius, celebrating a minor triumph over the Goths, had a triumphal arch built in Rome, “but in less than seven years, the Gothic conquerors of Rome might read, if they were able to read, the superb inscription of that monument, which attested the total defeat and destruction of their nation”.

The sack of Rome by Alaric’s army in 410, the first such since the Gaul’s had sacked the city about 800 years before, was one of the milestones in the slow decline of the empire, worth more symbolically, perhaps, than practically, since the city was no longer the seat of government. One might think that the event would have sent shock waves through the empire, but the emperor Honorius, at least, received the news with equanimity, as we learn from Procopius:

At that time they say that the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Roma had perished. And he cried out and said, “And yet it has just eaten from my hands!” For he had a very large cockerel, Roma by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Roma which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: “But I thought that my fowl Roma had perished.” So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed.

The sack of the city was a short-lived affair — just 3 days — and Alaric withdrew into Campania. He died the following year, and his brother Athaulf, who succeeded him, ceased the offensive against Rome, having apparently conceived an admiration for its laws and government, saying, “It is now my sincere wish that the gratitude of future ages should acknowledge the merit of a stranger, who employed the sword of the Goths, not to subvert, but to restore and maintain, the prosperity of the Roman empire.” We have reports that within a few years Rome’s prosperity and security seemed to have been restored.

At about the same time, Gaul was invaded by a number of tribes in a series of migrations:

They entered, without opposition, the defenceless provinces of Gaul. This memorable passage of the Suevi, the Vandals, the Alani, and the Burgundians, who never afterwards retreated, may be considered as the fall of the Roman empire in the countries beyond the Alps.

In an attempt to shore up the western empire, Honorius attempted to introduce a form of regional self-government, but it failed due to disinterest on the part of the Romans: “The emperor Honorius expresses his surprise, that he must compel the reluctant provinces to accept a privilege which they should ardently have solicited.” This failure perhaps tells us more about the ultimate reasons for the decline of the western empire than any series of battles could do.

**

In the first half of the 5th century a new threat appeared on the horizon: the Huns, led by Attila. They careened through the Byzantine territories, dealing out defeats to the startled Greeks. Crossing the Rhine, they swept into Gaul, where they were met by a coalition of Romans and Visigoths led by Flavius Aetius, the western empire’s leading general. In 451, at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, Attila’s forces were bested and retreated.

The victory was not decisive, however, for the next year the Huns made an incursion into Italy — scattering, in the process, those living on the north border of the Adriatic onto a series of islands just off-shore that would, in time, become the city of Venice. Attila threatened the city of Rome, and again it was Aetius who came to the rescue: he arranged a diplomatic contingent, including among its members Pope Leo the Great, to meet with Attila; after the meeting Attila withdrew his forces, for reasons that are disputed.

For his services to the empire against the Huns, Aetius earned the adulation of the Roman people, and the envious ire of the western emperor, Valentinian III, who, in an act that shocked observers, had Aetius assassinated. One of Valentinian’s courtiers is reported to have described the act as being that of “a man who cuts off his right hand with his left”. But the fame of Aetius outlived that of the emperor nonetheless; under the Italianate version of his name, Ezio, he has been given the opera treatment by luminaries such as Handel and Gluck, and that can’t be said for everyone.

**

In 455 Rome suffered a further indignity at the hands of the Vandals, who had taken control of the territories around Carthage. Led by their king Genseric, they assaulted and sacked Rome. Pope St Leo the Great again met the oncoming forces as emissary, and although he wasn’t able to convince them to withdraw, he did exact a promise from Genseric that the inhabitants of Rome would not be harmed. The gates were thrown open, and for two weeks the Vandals looted the city.

Gibbon gives us a moving portrait of Rome in the aftermath of the Vandal’s sacking, putting the travails of the city into perspective. It is worth quoting at length:

The spectator who casts a mournful view over the ruins of ancient Rome, is tempted to accuse the memory of the Goths and Vandals, for the mischief which they had neither leisure, nor power, nor perhaps inclination, to perpetrate. The tempest of war might strike some lofty turrets to the ground; but the destruction which undermined the foundations of those massy fabrics was prosecuted, slowly and silently, during a period of ten centuries; and the motives of interest, that afterwards operated without shame or control, were severely checked by the taste and spirit of the emperor Majorian. The decay of the city had gradually impaired the value of the public works. The circus and theatres might still excite, but they seldom gratified, the desires of the people: the temples, which had escaped the zeal of the Christians, were no longer inhabited, either by gods or men; the diminished crowds of the Romans were lost in the immense space of their baths and porticos; and the stately libraries and halls of justice became useless to an indolent generation, whose repose was seldom disturbed, either by study or business. The monuments of consular, or Imperial, greatness were no longer revered, as the immortal glory of the capital: they were only esteemed as an inexhaustible mine of materials, cheaper, and more convenient than the distant quarry. Specious petitions were continually addressed to the easy magistrates of Rome, which stated the want of stones or bricks, for some necessary service: the fairest forms of architecture were rudely defaced, for the sake of some paltry, or pretended, repairs; and the degenerate Romans, who converted the spoil to their own emolument, demolished, with sacrilegious hands, the labors of their ancestors.

The emperor Majorian, mentioned in this passage, who reigned briefly from 457-461, is, for Gibbon, one of the most splendid figures of the age, a “man of great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species”. He was an able general and won several significant victories in Gaul and Iberia, and was able to arrest for a time, though not reverse, the political dissolutions that eroded the cohesion of the empire. Gibbon relates a marvellous anecdote about him:

Anxious to explore, with his own eyes, the state of the Vandals, he ventured, after disguising the color of his hair, to visit Carthage, in the character of his own ambassador: and Genseric was afterwards mortified by the discovery, that he had entertained and dismissed the emperor of the Romans.

Adding that “Such an anecdote may be rejected as an improbable fiction; but it is a fiction which would not have been imagined, unless in the life of a hero.” Somebody, it seems to me, ought to have written an opera or two about him as well.

***

But the glory of Majorian was a last hurrah. This volume peters out with a litany of short-lived emperors who together constitute a portrait of ignominy, violence, and desperation. Presiding over them, providing these twilight years with a certain kind of unity, looms the knife-wielding shadow of Ricimer, whom Gibbon credits with having assassinated at least three, and possibly four, emperors. Let us have a few more operas!

**

The end of this volume marks the approximate mid-point of Gibbon’s great history, and effectively concludes his account of the decline and fall of the western empire. When we think of the empire having “completed” its decline, it was not the case, of course, that it was reduced to dust and ashes. Life continued, and a contemporary might have been surprised to be told that the empire’s decline was complete. Gibbon resists the temptation to draw a bright line at any particular year as marking “the end”.

In the three remaining volumes the focus will be primarily on the eastern empire, though we will also see how the decline of the western empire allowed room for new political forces to emerge, and how those forces eventually began to again affect the political fortunes of the eastern empire. I’m looking forward to it.

[Aphorism]
“The disregard of custom and decency always betrays a weak and ill-regulated mind.”

Newby: A Small Place in Italy

April 7, 2022

A Small Place in Italy
Eric Newby
(HarperCollins, 1994)
215 p.

My visits to Italy have all been urban affairs, but I have sometimes thought it would be instructive, and of course enjoyable, to spend some time in the countryside, and were this fond dream ever to be realized, I think, since a man can dream, that I would look first to some lovely Tuscan villa perched on a hillside.

Eric Newby’s memoir casts a harsh but humorous light on this idyll of mine. His house, in the Apennines near the northern border of Tuscany (the nearest large-ish city appears to have been Lucca), was, in the beginning, the opposite of everything you’d expect from a lovely Italian villa: it was leaking, filthy, broken, infested with scarafaggi, and scarcely livable:

“I felt that one of us would only have to emit one really hefty sneeze to bring the whole lot, beams, floorboards, joists, roof tiles and all, down about our ears.”

But he wanted the house because it was located in an area which he had first come to know during World War II when, as an escaped POW, he had found refuge in the homes of the people living there. Looking back on those months as a sheltered fugitive, he was grateful, and intrigued by what he had seen:

“I found myself in a little world inhabited by mountain people whose way of life was of another century. A world in which there were few roads, scarcely any machinery of a labour-saving kind, one in which everything connected with working the land was accomplished with the aid of mules, cows, and bullocks.”

Several decades after the war, when he was travel editor for the Observer in London, he and his wife decided to buy a house, called I Castagni, in this area, and they lived there each summer for 25 years, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s.

It was still a rustic region in the 1970s; people rarely travelled more than a village or two away, there was no television, families milked the family cow, and carried on with customs of long standing. Part of the pleasure of the book, apart from the entertaining accounts of how they slowly resurrected I Castagni and rendered it safe for human habitation, is in his affectionate portrayals of these disappearing ways of life, and his portraits, both for good and for ill, of the people who lived them.

Over the course of the book, we witness the annual olive harvest, urgent mushroom hunts after a heavy rain, the charm and colour of the local markets, the religious festivals, the funerals, and, in a long central chapter which serves in some ways as the heart of the book, the grape harvest and wine-making.

I imagine that a travel editor for a major newspaper would have opportunities to travel hither and yon, so it is telling that he made I Castagni his second home, returning again and again, presumably in search of something that he couldn’t find elsewhere. The book is obviously a work of love, and well worth reading.

Milton: Paradise Lost

March 31, 2022

Paradise Lost
John Milton
[1674]
Third reading.

I’ve little leisure at present to write about this great poem. Instead, this is just a brief scrapbook of lines and thoughts that I compiled as I was reading.

***

The opening gesture:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

The fall of Satan:

Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.

Satan claims for himself a “fixed mind”, unwilling or unable to repent.

Satan’s non serviam:

Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

(Those first lines were memorably set to music by Nick Cave.)

And Satan’s despairing inversion of the moral order:

So farewell, hope; and with hope farewell, fear;
Farewell, remorse! all good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my good.

***

Does the history of modernity recapitulate the infernal debate of the rebel angels?

First, Mammon counsels that true liberty involves self-invention and freedom from the designs of a Creator:

But rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp.

And he observes that in course of time the contrast between Divine friendship and their current state will be forgotten:

Nor want we skill or art from whence to raise
Magnificence; and what can Heaven show more?
Our torments also may, in length of time,
Become our elements, these piercing fires
As soft as now severe, our temper changed
Into their temper; which must needs remove
The sensible of pain.

But Beelzebub counters that this talk of building an empire outside God’s providence is foolishness:

The King of Heaven hath doomed
This place our dungeon, not our safe retreat
Beyond his potent arm, to live exempt
From Heaven’s high jurisdiction, in new league
Banded against his throne, but to remain
In strictest bondage, though thus far removed,
Under th’ inevitable curb, reserved
His captive multitude. For he, to be sure,
In height or depth, still first and last will reign
Sole king, and of his kingdom lose no part
By our revolt, but over Hell extend
His empire, and with iron sceptre rule
Us here, as with his golden those in Heaven.

If modernity is retracing these steps, we’re still on Mammon’s course, waiting for Beelzebub.

***

An aphorism:

“Goodness thinks no ill where no ill seems”

***

Satan’s rebellion consisted of envy and pride:

He of the first,
If not the first Arch-Angel, great in power,
In favour and pre-eminence, yet fraught
With envy against the Son of God, that day
Honoured by his great Father, and proclaimed
Messiah King anointed, could not bear
Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired.

In Eden, Satan’s agonized incapacity for repentance and lust to destroy:

“The more I see
Pleasures about me, so much more I feel
Torment within me, as from the hateful siege
Of contraries: all good to me becomes
Bane, and in Heaven much worse would be my state.
But neither here seek I, no nor in Heaven
To dwell, unless by mastering Heaven’s Supreme;
Nor hope to be myself less miserable
By what I seek, but others to make such
As I, though thereby worse to me redound:
For only in destroying I find ease
To my relentless thoughts”

***

The fall of Eve:

“Here grows the cure of all, this fruit divine,
Fair to the eye, inviting to the taste,
Of virtue to make wise: What hinders then
To reach, and feed at once both body and mind?”
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat!

The fall of Adam:

She gave him of that fair enticing fruit
With liberal hand: he scrupled not to eat,
Against his better knowledge; not deceived,
But fondly overcome with female charm.

***

Adam’s wish for death:

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man? did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me, or here place
In this delicious garden? As my will
Concurred not to my being, it were but right
And equal to reduce me to my dust;
Desirous to resign and render back
All I received”

Death as a gift in the wake of sin:

“I, at first, with two fair gifts
Created him endowed; with happiness,
And immortality: that fondly lost,
This other served but to eternize woe;
Till I provided death: so death becomes
His final remedy”

***

The poem’s concluding lines:

“They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, II

March 16, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 2
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993)  [1776]
xx + 592 p.

When Constantine gained sole imperial authority in 324, he inaugurated one of the most important reigns that the Roman Empire enjoyed, primarily, I think it is fair to say, because he promoted Christianity to a place of prominence in Roman society. This volume of Gibbon’s history begins with Constantine, and covers a mere 50 year interval, but one rich with circumstance. The emperors we meet are Constantine (324-337), his sons (337-361, with many complications), Julian “the Apostate” (361-363), Jovian (363-364), and Valentinian (364-375).

The volume opens, however, with a larger scale historical consideration of the place of Christianity in the Roman empire from the deaths of Sts. Peter and Paul during the reign of Nero up to the conversion of Constantine. It’s a fascinating story, of course, much of it hidden from view by the passing of time. Gibbon seems to have had a conflicted relationship with the Christian religion, and struggled to write about it with the same generosity and sympathy which he routinely expresses for the pagans that populate his tale. (I wouldn’t want to read too much into the fact that he, as a young man, temporarily converted to Catholicism, but it might not be totally irrelevant.) His professed intention was

“To separate (if it be possible) a few authentic as well as interesting facts from an undigested mass of fiction and error, and to relate, in a clear and rational manner, the causes, the extent, the duration, and the most important circumstances of the persecutions to which the first Christians were exposed.”

The editors of my edition, however, arraign him, not without cause, for the severity of his “clear and rational manner”, remarking that this section of the book amounts to

“a very ingenious and specious, but very disgraceful extenuation of the cruelties perpetrated by the Roman magistrates against the Christians. It is written in the most contemptibly factious spirit of prejudice against the sufferers; it is unworthy of a philosopher and of humanity.”

As I was reading, I was reminded more than once of Chesterton’s observation (in The Everlasting Man) that there is a certain kind of critic of Christianity who is still too close to it to be a fair critic, a critic who, in his memorable phrase, “still lives in the shadow of the faith and has lost the light of the faith.” He goes on to describe such souls in more detail:

Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian. The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard. He does not judge Christianity calmly as a Confucian would; he does not judge it as he would judge Confucianism.

Though naturally I would never claim that Gibbon was “ill-educated”, when I found him contending that the malice which later Christians ascribed to the Roman magistrates was mere projection of their own ill will and intolerance, or referring (I kid you not) to “the swarms of monks, who arose from the Nile, [and] overspread and darkened the face of the Christian world”, or claiming that “the Romans languished under the ignominious tyranny of eunuchs and bishops”, I thought of Chesterton.

Be that as it may, he does make some helpful observations about how the Christians appeared to the Romans, and why that was a problem:

“To their apprehensions, it was no less a matter of surprise, that any individuals should entertain scruples against complying with the established mode of worship, than if they had conceived a sudden abhorrence to the manners, the dress, or the language of their native country.”

The only other group with similar scruples were the Jews, but, says Gibbon, the Jews were easier for the Romans to understand, for they were a nation, identifiably so, while the Christians were a sect, and one making conversions of Romans. It called, from time to time, at least, for a response on the part of the authorities.

The worst of the persecutions of Christians in the first centuries were those under Decius (in around 250). Gibbon attributes the policies to the emperor’s desire “to restore the purity of Roman manners”, which sounds benign enough, and he argues that they were undertaken reluctantly and without any particular animus, though he does concede that the persecution was real and eventually became quite violent:

“The governors of the provinces were directed to apprehend all persons of the ecclesiastical order; and the prisons, destined for the vilest criminals, were soon filled with a multitude of bishops, presbyters, deacons, readers, and exorcists. By a second edict, the magistrates were commanded to employ every method of severity, which might reclaim them from their odious superstition, and oblige them to return to the established worship of the gods. This rigorous order was extended, by a subsequent edict, to the whole body of Christians, who were exposed to a violent and general persecution.”

**

These troubles ended for the Christians, of course, when Constantine came to power. The sincerity of his conversion is, I suppose, something to debate — we know that he deferred baptism until old age on the grounds that the actions he would be obliged to take as emperor were incompatible with the life of a good Christian, which argues for a peculiar kind of sincerity — but Gibbon prefers to think that he was ambitious (“ambition was the ruling passion of his soul”) and knew which way the wind was blowing (“the counsels of princes are more frequently influenced by views of temporal advantage, than by considerations of abstract and speculative truth”). Whatever the truth of that question may be, the upshot was that Constantine made the empire safe for Christians, and opened the door to the Church having a central role in Roman society.

The other of Constantine’s major acts was to found the city of Constantinople as a new capital for the empire. We already saw in the previous volume how the exercise of power in the Roman empire was migrating away from the city of Rome, and Constantine’s path to power is a good illustration of this: “born in the neighborhood of the Danube, educated in the courts and armies of Asia, and invested with the purple by the legions of Britain,” he spent hardly any time in Rome. I was charmed to learn that his original plan was to found a new capital at the site of ancient Troy, which would have been a kind of homage to Rome’s own founding, but that Constantinople was chosen as the site for its strategic advantages — and also, I suppose, because nobody knew where Troy had been.

Gibbon looks disdainfully and regretfully on the massive bureaucracy that thrived in Constantinople, seeing in it a manifestation of the sclerosis overtaking the empire, and, conversely, on the threadbare string of military garrisons — nearly 600 of them — strung out along the vast imperial borders, an increasingly implausible defense against emboldened enemies. His preoccupation with the “decline and fall” of Rome draws his attention also to a particular policy decision made by Constantine, who introduced a distinction between soldiers on the borders of the empire and those stationed in the internal cities; the latter were almost never required to fight, and “insensibly forgot the virtues of their profession, and contracted only the vices of civil life”, while the former were paid less and had little hope of promotion to the cities, which arrangement very naturally bred resentment within the ranks.

Constantine’s reign was, in Gibbon’s judgment, one of initial triumph, but gradual decline into “the opposite yet reconcilable vices of rapaciousness and prodigality”. When he died, he bequeathed power to his three sons, who were to reign in parallel over three regions. I can’t think of a single historical example where this kind of arrangement worked, and it certainly didn’t work here: the next few decades were marred by civil war as the sons contended for power, with Constantius eventually emerging as sole emperor, a man whom Gibbon remarks “may be dismissed from the world, with the remark, that he inherited the defects, without the abilities, of his father”.

*

Although his reign lasted fewer than 2 years, Gibbon devotes nearly a third of this volume to the successor to the House of Constantine: Julian. In Christian history he is remembered as the emperor who tried to reverse Christianity’s displacement of paganism by reviving the ancient rites of the Roman gods (hence, “Julian the Apostate”). Gibbon, however, sees Julian as one of the ablest and noblest figures of Roman history. It is true that his career as a military leader was a splendid one, and that he rose to power on his merits rather than by violence or subterfuge, and it might be true that “he deserved the empire of the world”, and it is plausible that his studies of Plato “had animated him with the love of virtue, the desire of fame, and the contempt of death”, and perhaps it was the case that he “considered every moment as lost that was not devoted to the advantage of the public or the improvement of his own mind.” But are we really sure that “his sleep was never clouded by the fumes of indigestion”? Some things, dear Edward, are too good to be true.

To his credit, Julian attempted to restore the honoured place of pagan worship by example, rather than by force. He believed that religion was a matter of personal commitment that could not be compelled, and he understood that Christian martyrs were a greater advantage to the Christians than to himself:

“Julian was persuaded, that if the diseases of the body may sometimes be cured by salutary violence, neither steel nor fire can eradicate the erroneous opinions of the mind. The reluctant victim may be dragged to the foot of the altar; but the heart still abhors and disclaims the sacrilegious act of the hand. Religious obstinacy is hardened and exasperated by oppression; and, as soon as the persecution subsides, those who have yielded are restored as penitents, and those who have resisted are honored as saints and martyrs.”

And so he followed a policy of religious toleration. His efforts were unsuccessful, of course, and it is easy to see him as a figure of some pathos as he fought a last-ditch offensive. On one famous occasion, Julian visited Antioch in expectation of a great pagan festival, but found none, for “the zeal of Antioch was diverted, since the reign of Christianity, into a different channel. Instead of hecatombs of fat oxen sacrificed by the tribes of a wealthy city to their tutelar deity the emperor complains that he found only a single goose, provided at the expense of a priest, the pale and solitary inhabitant of this decayed temple.” (This episode was memorably integrated into David Bentley Hart’s sympathetic treatment of the decline of paganism in his wonderful story “The House of Apollo”.) In the end,

“The genius and power of Julian were unequal to the enterprise of restoring a religion which was destitute of theological principles, of moral precepts, and of ecclesiastical discipline; which rapidly hastened to decay and dissolution, and was not susceptible of any solid or consistent reformation.”

*

Julian led Roman forces into the field against Persia, but was mortally wounded in battle. He was hastily succeeded by Jovian, a man who reigned for just a few months, but long enough to re-establish Christianity as the official religion of the empire. He also ended the conflict with the Persians by signing a peace treaty that Gibbon calls “infamous”, marking a watershed moment in the decline of the empire:

“The predecessors of Jovian had sometimes relinquished the dominion of distant and unprofitable provinces; but, since the foundation of the city, the genius of Rome, the god Terminus, who guarded the boundaries of the republic, had never retired before the sword of a victorious enemy.”

*

Jovian was followed by Valentinian, who again divided power between the Eastern and Western parts of the empire, reigning himself from Constantinople, while his co-emperor Valens ruled from Milan. It is interesting to note, once again, how Rome had fallen into the background. Gibbon concludes this volume with a whirlwind tour of Roman military activities all along the borders of the empire: in Germany, in Britain, in Africa, in Persia, and along the Danube, where the Goths, who will figure largely in the next volume of this remarkable history, were making incursions into Roman territories.

**

The period covered by this volume is dominated by a few important themes: the establishment of Christianity, growing tensions along the borders of the empire, a major military concession that hinted at a flagging of Roman dominance, and the migration of power away from the city of Rome.

***

[Gibbon the humorist]
“If, in the neighborhood of the commercial and literary town of Glasgow, a race of cannibals has really existed, we may contemplate, in the period of the Scottish history, the opposite extremes of savage and civilized life. Such reflections tend to enlarge the circle of our ideas; and to encourage the pleasing hope, that New Zealand may produce, in some future age, the Hume of the Southern Hemisphere.”

Rilke: Poems

February 22, 2022

Ahead of All Parting
Selected Poems and Prose
Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell
(Modern Library, 1995) [c.1905-1923]
615 p.

Reading poetry in translation is possibly one of the least rewarding activities that a man can indulge in. It’s not so bad with epic poetry, or narrative poetry more generally, because at least there’s a story to tell, and the story can come through decently well in another language. But with more personal, more inwardly-focused poetry, the challenges for the translator become formidable, and I expect that really successful examples are rare.

For instance, I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to read T.S. Eliot in translation. I imagine that the subtle internal rhymes and irregular but still perceptible meter are very difficult to reproduce in another tongue, and I expect it would be hard to appreciate the merits of T.S. Eliot under those conditions.

Then let us both go
While the spreading sky is
Like a patient unconscious on an operating table;
Let’s walk through half-full streets,
Departing quietly
From fitful nights in cheap hotels,
And mediocre restaurants with oysters on the shell:
Streets that are like a long argument
Of malintent
That lead you to an important question …
Don’t ask, “What is it?”
Let’s go and see for ourselves.

Women go in and out of the room
Speaking about Michelangelo.

All this by way of prelude: I surmise that my experience reading Rilke in translation from German might be something like a German’s experience reading Eliot in translation from English. It’s opaque, and there’s no music in it. Here’s an example, plucked more or less at random, taken from the fifth of his ten Duino Elegies:

But tell me, who are they, these wanderers, even more
transient than we ourselves, who from their earliest days
are savagely wrung out
by a never-satisfied will (for whose sake)? Yet it wrings them,
bends them, twists them, swings them and flings them
and catches them again; and falling as if through oiled
slippery air, they land
on the threadbare carpet, worn constantly thinner
by their perpetual leaping, this carpet that is lost
in infinite space.
Stuck on like a bandage, as if the suburban sky
had wounded the earth.

I have no idea what is going on here. Try another case, randomly plucked from his late Sonnets for Orpheus:

Breathing: you invisible poem! Complete
interchange of our own
essence with world-space. You counterweight
in which I rhythmically happen.

Single wave-motion whose
gradual sea I am;
you, most inclusive of all our possible seas —
space grown warm.

How many regions in space have already been
inside me. There are winds that seem like
my wandering son.

Do you recognize me, air, full of places I once absorbed?
You who were the smooth bark,
roundness, and leaf of my words.

I can see from the German on the facing page — and this volume is, mercifully, a dual-language edition, and so only half as long as it seems — that this is a bona fide sonnet, with rhymes and everything. But the English is dismal.

I’m blaming the translator, I suppose, because it seems that Rilke’s reputation ought to be founded on something better than what I found in these pages, and I hope that’s true. On the other hand, the dust jacket contains blurbs praising the translation from the likes of Erich Heller (“the best English rendering of Rilke”) and William Arrowsmith (“instantly makes every other rendering obsolete”), so what do I know?

For years I’ve admired his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, which has been translated many times. For instance (and to take leave of this volume for a moment), by Carl Skoggard:

We never knew his unexampled head
in which the eyes ripened like apples. But
his torso goes on glowing, like a candelabrum,
in which his gaze, merely dialed back, holds

steady and shines. Otherwise, the curve
of the chest could not blind you and in the
slight swerve of the loins no smile could go to
that center which bore the begetting.

Otherwise, this stone would stand here broken
beneath the limpid fall of the shoulders
and would not glisten like the pelt of a tiger;

and would not erupt from all its edges
like a star: For there is no place here that
does not see you. You must change your life.

True, it doesn’t rhyme the way the original does, but the pacing is captured, and it’s a poem with a clear thought that captures an experience that I recognize. Other poems like it, perhaps because of my own defects of character or attention, were all too rare in these pages.

I confess I didn’t read the prose selections.

So I did not have much success with Rilke.

The falling dove lights up the air
With a terrifying flame
Announcing
An end to sin.
The only hope, or not,
Is between one fire and another —
To be rescued from fire by fire.

Who brought the pain? Love.
Love is the hidden weaver
Of the painful, fiery shirt
That we cannot bear to wear.
We only live, and sigh,
Burned by one fire or another.

Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian

February 15, 2022

Memoirs of Hadrian
Marguerite Yourcenar
Translated from the French by Grace Frick
(Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2005) [1951]
347 p.

The novel takes the form of a long letter written by Hadrian to his adopted son, Marcus Aurelius (“Mark”), and this format was a problem for me. “I am trusting to this examination of facts,” he says, “to give me some definition of myself, and to judge myself, perhaps, or at the very least to know myself better before I die.” An honourable purpose, no doubt, but this letter is strictly ruminative. Hadrian doesn’t paint scenes, doesn’t give us any dialogue, doesn’t really vary the tone. We do get a basic outline of the events of his life — where he travelled, whom he met, what he did — but mostly the book is occupied with giving us Hadrian’s thoughts on this or that. For me none of these events came to life, and neither did Hadrian himself.

As an epistolary novel about a Roman emperor, it naturally reminded me of Williams’ Augustus, but I much preferred that book because the points of view were various and it allowed some liberties with its letters that brought them closer to narrative. I will say that Yourcenar, whose professed aim was “to approach inner reality, if possible, through careful examination of what the documents themselves afford”, does grapple ably and in detail with the historical Hadrian; her Emperor is necessarily a fiction, but is certainly no idle fancy, and that dedication to the reality of her subject is something I can respect, though I don’t particularly care for the result.

[The legacy of Rome]
When I was visiting ancient cities, sacred but wholly dead, and without present value for the human race, I promised myself to save this Rome of mine from the petrification of a Thebes, a Babylon, or a Tyre. She would no longer be bound by her body of stone, but would compose for herself from the words State, citizenry, and republic a surer immortality. In the countries as yet untouched by our culture, on the banks of the Rhine and the Danube, or the shores of the Batavian Sea, each village enclosed within its wooden palisade brought to mind the reed hut and dunghill where our Roman twins had slept content, fed by the milk of the wolf; these cities-to-be would follow the pattern of Rome. Over separate nations and races, with their accidents of geography and history and the disparate demands of their ancestors or their gods, we should have superposed forever a unity of human conduct and the empiricism of sober experience, but should have done so without destruction of what had preceded us. Rome would be perpetuating herself in the least of the towns where magistrates strive to demand just weight from the merchants, to clean and light the streets, to combat disorder, slackness, superstition and injustice, and to give broader and fairer interpretation to the laws. She would endure to the end of the last city built by man.

Wordsworth: The Prelude

February 1, 2022

The Prelude
William Wordsworth
(Modern Library, 1950) [c.1805]
225 p. Second reading.

Far better never to have heard the name
Of zeal and just ambition, than to live
Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour
Turns recreant to her task; takes heart again,
Then feels immediately some hollow thought
Hang like an interdict upon her hopes.
This is my lot; for either still I find
Some imperfection in the chosen theme,
Or see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting, so much wanting, in myself,
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In listlessness from vain perplexity,
Unprofitably travelling toward the grave,
Like a false steward who hath much received
And renders nothing back.
(I)

But he was, finally, a good steward and not a bad, not, at least, in this. It is such a beautiful poem: thoughtful in its matter, tender and honest in its expression, subtle in its argument, and written with such grace and eloquence that it rings in the ear like song. It is, I cannot help concluding, one of the greatest long-form poems in English. It is a joy to read.

I would very much like to write about the poem at length, but circumstances are such that, after some months of waiting for an opportunity, I am forced to concede that there is “much wanting, so much wanting, in myself”. At least I was able to read it. I must content myself with a few brief observations and a few quotations of favourite passages.

It is an autobiographical poem, written to his friend Samuel Taylor Coledridge, recounting the story of his childhood and early manhood. Originally intended as the introductory section — hence the title — to a much longer poem that was never completed, it was begun when he was in his late 20s, and remained unpublished until after his death. Its theme is “the growth of a poet’s mind”, and in it Wordsworth tries to discover the roots of his poetic sensibility, tracing back through time the primary influences on his way of seeing and experiencing the world. It is a poem deeply interested in psychology and emotion, of course, but also in politics and religion and, maybe most of all, in all those aspects of the world that stand opposite the human world, confronting us, the world of inarticulate nature — or, as Wordsworth will always have it, Nature.

Though he lived for some years in the great cities of England and France, he was always a country-dweller at heart, always deeply impressed and enchanted by the world of trees and lakes and mountains:

Four years and thirty, told this very week,
Have I been now a sojourner on earth,
By sorrow not unsmitten; yet for me
Life’s morning radiance hath not left the hills,
Her dew is on the flowers.
(VI)

Perhaps we are tempted to see in this a species of the sentimental love of nature that we sometimes see in the Romantics. I don’t think we can entirely rule out such a connection, for the time and place of Wordsworth life gives such a temptation a certain plausibility, but if it is sentimental, it is not cloying or saccharine. He considers his spiritual task to be

To look with feelings of fraternal love
Upon the unassuming things that hold
A silent station in this beauteous world
(XIII)

and that is an honourable calling. And he does not just stand sentinel, but walks as a pilgrim in the world as well. In his great study of Dante, Charles Williams makes frequent reference to The Prelude, which he considers to be the great English-language attempt to do what (in at least one respect) Dante was doing: exploring how encounters with created things can lead us to God, and the poem is, at times, remarkably theological:

More frequently from the same source I drew
A pleasure quiet and profound, a sense
Of permanent and universal sway,
And paramount belief; there, recognised
A type, for finite natures, of the one
Supreme Existence, the surpassing life
Which—to the boundaries of space and time,
Of melancholy space and doleful time,
Superior, and incapable of change,
Nor touched by welterings of passion—is,
And hath the name of, God. Transcendent peace
And silence did await upon these thoughts
That were a frequent comfort to my youth.
(VI)

*

There was one narrative thread that particularly interested me, and I’d like to dwell on it for a few moments, not least because it gives an opportunity to quote at some length from the poem. Wordsworth’s young manhood coincided with the French Revolution — he was 19 years old when the Revolution began in 1789 — and, as with many of his age throughout Europe, the events in France excited his interest and, to some extent, sympathy. The poem devotes quite a lot of attention to his evolving relationship to this political revolution.

One of the first intimations we get of something brewing occurs in a passage describing a walking tour he made in France in 1790, during which he visited the great abbey of Chartreuse. The contrast between the peace of the cloister and the swirling anti-clerical forces gathering strength in the country gave him an ominous sense of foreboding:

In sympathetic reverence we trod
The floors of those dim cloisters, till that hour,
From their foundation, strangers to the presence
Of unrestricted and unthinking man.
Abroad, how cheeringly the sunshine lay
Upon the open lawns! Vallombre’s groves
Entering, we fed the soul with darkness; thence
Issued, and with uplifted eyes beheld,
In different quarters of the bending sky,
The cross of Jesus stand erect, as if
Hands of angelic powers had fixed it there,
Memorial reverenced by a thousand storms;
Yet then, from the undiscriminating sweep
And rage of one State-whirlwind, insecure.
(VI)

And though he remained in France as the first wave of the Revolution swept through the country, he relates how he, as an outsider, observed it with a certain detachment and incomprehension:

But hence to my more permanent abode
I hasten; there, by novelties in speech,
Domestic manners, customs, gestures, looks,
And all the attire of ordinary life,
Attention was engrossed; and, thus amused,
I stood, ‘mid those concussions, unconcerned,
Tranquil almost, and careless as a flower
Glassed in a green-house, or a parlour shrub
That spreads its leaves in unmolested peace,
While every bush and tree, the country through,
Is shaking to the roots: indifference this
Which may seem strange: but I was unprepared
With needful knowledge, had abruptly passed
Into a theatre, whose stage was filled
And busy with an action far advanced.
(IX)

Despite this diffidence, his sympathies, he tells us, were largely with the revolutionaries. He had no native sympathy for monarchy —

Yet in the regal sceptre, and the pomp
Of orders and degrees, I nothing found
Then, or had ever, even in crudest youth,
That dazzled me, but rather what I mourned
And ill could brook, beholding that the best
Ruled not, and feeling that they ought to rule.
(IX)

and if his enthusiasm for the revolution was rather cool, it was principally because he regarded its aims not as radical or dramatic, but as natural and inevitable:

If at the first great outbreak I rejoiced
Less than might well befit my youth, the cause
In part lay here, that unto me the events
Seemed nothing out of nature’s certain course,
A gift that was come rather late than soon.
(IX)

As events unfolded, however, he found himself more and more rallying to the cause of the revolution, keen to see the end of “exclusion”, “empty pomp”, and “state power”, and caught up in the fervour of the times. This waxing of his sympathies, he tell us, was sparked by an encounter in the French countryside:

And when we chanced
One day to meet a hunger-bitten girl,
Who crept along fitting her languid gait
Unto a heifer’s motion, by a cord
Tied to her arm, and picking thus from the lane
Its sustenance, while the girl with pallid hands
Was busy knitting in a heartless mood
Of solitude, and at the sight my friend
In agitation said, “‘Tis against that
That we are fighting,” I with him believed
That a benignant spirit was abroad
Which might not be withstood, that poverty
Abject as this would in a little time
Be found no more, that we should see the earth
Unthwarted in her wish to recompense
The meek, the lowly, patient child of toil,
All institutes for ever blotted out
That legalised exclusion, empty pomp
Abolished, sensual state and cruel power,
Whether by edict of the one or few;
And finally, as sum and crown of all,
Should see the people having a strong hand
In framing their own laws; whence better days
To all mankind.
(IX)

It’s a common enough story, no doubt; youth is easily ravished by novelty and a dream of starting again, now as then. But before long the Revolution turned violent, and this posed a challenge to the young Wordsworth, a challenge that, to his credit, he did not evade. He writes:

Domestic carnage now filled the whole year
With feast-days; old men from the chimney-nook,
The maiden from the bosom of her love,
The mother from the cradle of her babe,
The warrior from the field—all perished, all—
Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks,
Head after head, and never heads enough
For those that bade them fall. They found their joy,
They made it proudly, eager as a child,
(If like desires of innocent little ones
May with such heinous appetites be compared),
Pleased in some open field to exercise
A toy that mimics with revolving wings
The motion of a wind-mill; though the air
Do of itself blow fresh, and make the vanes
Spin in his eyesight, that contents him not,
But, with the plaything at arm’s length, he sets
His front against the blast, and runs amain,
That it may whirl the faster.
(X)

And he writes with feeling of the horror this spectacle inspired in his own heart:

Most melancholy at that time, O Friend!
Were my day-thoughts,—my nights were miserable;
Through months, through years, long after the last beat
Of those atrocities, the hour of sleep
To me came rarely charged with natural gifts,
Such ghastly visions had I of despair
And tyranny, and implements of death;
And innocent victims sinking under fear,
And momentary hope, and worn-out prayer,
Each in his separate cell, or penned in crowds
For sacrifice, and struggling with fond mirth
And levity in dungeons, where the dust
Was laid with tears.
(X)

The saga went on: his hopes were revived at the death of Robespierre, only to be disappointed again, and then the now-ambivalent dream came to a conflicted end with the ascension of Bonaparte — it’s a complicated story. For myself, the whole sequence stands as an unusually detailed and attractively honest examination of the vulnerability of youth to the glamour of change and revolution, and as a compelling case for the value of that optimism, and, finally, as a warning against its blindspots and intemperance.

*

There are so many wonderful things in the poem; I wish I had world enough and time to dwell on it in detail. As it happens, however, it has taken me months of intermittent labour to do even this much, and I must bow before the force of circumstance. Before appending a few particular passages that appealed to me on this reading, therefore, I will simply reiterate my appreciation for a poem of such great beauty, born out of, and witnessing to, a belief that

By love subsists
All lasting grandeur, by pervading love;
That gone, we are as dust.
(XIV)

***

[Solitude]
When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude;
How potent a mere image of her sway;
Most potent when impressed upon the mind
With an appropriate human centre—hermit,
Deep in the bosom of the wilderness;
Votary (in vast cathedral, where no foot
Is treading, where no other face is seen)
Kneeling at prayers; or watchman on the top
Of lighthouse, beaten by Atlantic waves;
Or as the soul of that great Power is met
Sometimes embodied on a public road,
When, for the night deserted, it assumes
A character of quiet more profound
Than pathless wastes.
(IV)

[The inadequacy of books]
—Yes, in those wanderings deeply did I feel
How we mislead each other; above all,
How books mislead us, seeking their reward
From judgments of the wealthy Few, who see
By artificial lights; how they debase
The Many for the pleasure of those Few;
Effeminately level down the truth
To certain general notions, for the sake
Of being understood at once, or else
Through want of better knowledge in the heads
That framed them; flattering self-conceit with words,
That, while they most ambitiously set forth
Extrinsic differences, the outward marks
Whereby society has parted man
From man, neglect the universal heart.
(XIII)

[Daffodils redux]
And, afterwards, the wind and sleety rain,
And all the business of the elements,
The single sheep, and the one blasted tree,
And the bleak music from that old stone wall,
The noise of wood and water, and the mist
That on the line of each of those two roads
Advanced in such indisputable shapes;
All these were kindred spectacles and sounds
To which I oft repaired, and thence would drink,
As at a fountain; and on winter nights,
Down to this very time, when storm and rain
Beat on my roof, or, haply, at noon-day,
While in a grove I walk, whose lofty trees,
Laden with summer’s thickest foliage, rock
In a strong wind, some working of the spirit,
Some inward agitations thence are brought,
Whate’er their office, whether to beguile
Thoughts over busy in the course they took,
Or animate an hour of vacant ease.
(XII)

[A summary of the poem]
Of our long labour: we have traced the stream
From the blind cavern whence is faintly heard
Its natal murmur; followed it to light
And open day; accompanied its course
Among the ways of Nature, for a time
Lost sight of it bewildered and engulphed:
Then given it greeting as it rose once more
In strength, reflecting from its placid breast
The works of man and face of human life;
And lastly, from its progress have we drawn
Faith in life endless, the sustaining thought
Of human Being, Eternity, and God.
(XIV)