Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

Caesar: The Civil War

January 13, 2019

The Civil War
Gaius Julius Caesar
(Landmark, 2018) [48 BC]
200 p.

Caesar’s Gallic Wars recounted his decade-long campaign to bring Gaul under the control of Rome. That tale ended in 49 BC, and is continued here, in Caesar’s first-hand account of the momentous events of the years 49-48 BC, during which Caesar and Pompey contended against one another for control of Rome itself.

Though Caesar had succeeded brilliantly in his Gallic campaign, and had been awarded multiple triumphs by the Roman Senate, and had seen his popularity rise, he had also made powerful enemies. In 49 BC, as he wrapped up his campaign abroad, those enemies, led by Pompey the Great, passed a resolution in Rome requiring him to disband his army or be declared a traitor. Caesar countered that he would do so provided that Pompey, too, would disband his army. (It was one of the marks of Rome’s political decline that an army’s first loyalty was often to its commander rather than to Rome, effectively giving powerful generals their own private armed forces.) Pompey refused, and Caesar, in turn, likewise.

Marching south from Ravenna, Caesar crossed the boundary between Cisapline Gaul and Italy proper — that is, he crossed the Rubicon — with his army intact, thereby violating Roman law and sparking the civil war. It is interesting to note that Caesar passes over this now-famous moment with hardly a comment; it was later writers — Appian, Plutarch, and others — who made much of it.

Fearing that Caesar would march on Rome, Pompey and many of the leading Romans fled south to Capua and then to Brundisium (modern Brindisi). Caesar pursued them and, rapidly building a barrier across the mouth of the harbour, very nearly succeeded in trapping Pompey then and there. But, as it happened, Pompey did escape to Greece where he began assembling an armed force to oppose Caesar.

Caesar, meanwhile, abandoning the chase, went to Rome to argue his case before the remains of the Senate, who decided that negotiations with Pompey should be attempted.

One might naively expect that the Roman civil war would be fought in and around Rome, but in fact this speech before the Senate is the only time in the war that either of the two principals was in the city. Instead, Caesar next proceeded on a course that I did not anticipate: he went north again, first to the southern coast of Gaul, where he established a siege of Marsilla (modern Marseilles), and then to Spain, where he fought a lengthy campaign for control of Ilerda. These episodes are properly parts of the civil war because these cities were loyal to Pompey. Before the year was out, both cities fell to Caesar.

Concurrently (in August of 49) one of Caesar’s deputies, Curio, was commissioned to lead a force against Pompey’s allies in Numidia (modern Tunisia). This ended in disaster for Caesar: there was a clever ruse on the African side, in which they faked a retreat, lured Curio out of his fortifications and into an open plain, where he was surrounded and his army slaughtered. It was the most significant victory for Pompey’s side to that point in the conflict.

With the coming of the year 48, a more direct conflict between Caesar and Pompey was looming. Caesar succeeded in crossing to Greece from Brundisium, and established a camp across a river from Pompey’s camp. A cunning attempt at a flanking manoeuvre by Caesar eventually settled down to a peculiar stand-off: both armies built semi-circular fortifications beginning and ending on the sea, with Pompey’s being entirely enclosed within Caesar’s (like this). It was peculiar because it resembled a siege, but the besieged — Pompey — had ready access to supplies from the sea, and therefore could, it seemed, hold out indefinitely.

But several things happened to break the stand-off. One was that two of Caesar’s senior officers were arraigned for corruption, and in response defected to Pompey’s side, taking with them valuable intelligence, on the strength of which Pompey mounted an attack on a weak point in Caesar’s fortifications, resulting in the deaths of many of Caesar’s men. Caesar’s side was weakened but not defeated. The second thing was that a variety of factors, especially a lack of fresh water, led to Pompey’s being forced to break his army out of the siege and flee, which he did.

Caesar again pursued, and the armies squared off again in August near Pharsalus. Caesar was outnumbered by a factor of two, and his cavalry was barely a tenth as large as Pompey’s. Pompey planned to use his superior cavalry to flank Caesar, but Caesar, anticipating this, placed a specially selected line of infantry to defend that same flank. When the battle began, this anticipation proved decisive; while the main lines fought, Pompey’s flanking manoeuvre failed and, instead, Caesar’s defenders moved around and flanked Pompey, causing the latter’s army to turn and flee for their lives. It was a rout: Caesar reports (how accurately is hard to tell) that he lost just 200 men in the day’s fighting, while Pompey lost 15000.

Pompey, for his part, failed to embody the noble Roman virtues in defeat. He first — before the battle was ended — retired to his tent, apparently stunned, and then, rousing himself, fled. He boarded a vessel and began a circuit of the Mediterraean. As news spread of Caesar’s victory, the tide turned against Pompey, and he was denied entrance at several ports. Eventually he decided to go to Egypt, counting on the support of the young ruler, Ptolomy, and his regents. But the Egyptians, too, could tell which way the wind was blowing, and Pompey was murdered at Ptolomy’s command while coming ashore. His was a sad and ignoble end.


The main contours of this story were familiar to me already, most recently from reading Appian, but it was a pleasure to go over them again, in more detail, and straight from the horse’s mouth.

I’ve already remarked that it was a sign of Rome’s immense power that the Roman civil war was fought, not in Rome, nor even much in Italy, but in Gaul, Spain, and Greece.

It is also worth noting a marked difference between Caesar and Pompey in the exercise of power. Pompey took the view that “He who is not for me is against me”; a lack of explicit support was taken as opposition and treated as such. But Caesar’s rule was “He who is not against me is for me”; cities that withheld support for Pompey were, in his judgement, on his side, and he treated them as such. The result was that people who were not sure which way the conflict would eventually resolve — which was most everyone — were more likely to favour Caesar. By not forcing them to take sides, Caesar didn’t create unnecessary resistance.

Another thing that emerges from this account, as from the Gallic Wars, is Caesar’s brilliance as a general. Again and again he wins by out-thinking his opponent, anticipating their plans or luring them into traps. Even taking into account the fact that it is Caesar himself telling us about his victories, it is hard not to be impressed by his superior tactics.

As was the case in the Gallic Wars, Caesar’s writing is always clear and well-organized. His focus is very much on military tactics and strategy, with occasional feints at politics. I have been reading from The Landmark Julius Caesar, an edition whose many virtues I have sung before. Simply put, I do not believe there is an English-language edition of Caesar’s writings to compare with it.

Accounts of Caesar’s subsequent military campaigns, in Alexandria, in Africa, and again in Spain, have also come down to us, though not by Caesar’s own hand. They are nonetheless included in this Landmark volume, and I think I will tackle them soon.

Adams: Mont St Michel and Chartres

December 20, 2018

Mont St Michel and Chartres
Henry Adams
(Penguin Classics, 1986) [1904]
xli + 398 p.

I went to Chartres on my first trip to France. It was a short train ride from Paris; I remember passing through the Versailles train station en route and caring not a whit for it; my heart was set further down that track. It was a slightly overcast day; perhaps I had hoped to see Chartres draped in an overhanging blue mantle, and so was slightly, very slightly, disappointed as I approached. I met the famous English guide, Malcolm Miller, who has been giving tours there for decades. My dominant memories are of a dimmed, vaulting interior and glory all around.

Henry Adams also saw Chartres, and loved it. He made it, along with the great Mont St Michel, the launching point for this extended imaginative engagement with the art and culture, mostly French, of the 12th and 13th centuries. It is not a book of “art history”, though there is a good deal of art and history in it; it is not a book of theology, though it cannot avoid grappling with some. It is instead something less common: a very personal encounter with great artistic achievements, in which Adams makes a serious attempt to feel his way back into the past:

One needs to be eight centuries old to know what this mass of encrusted architecture meant to its builders, and even then one must still learn to feel it. The man who wanders into the twelfth century is lost, unless he can grow prematurely young.

Mont St Michel he values chiefly as an achievement that brought the political, artistic and religious aspirations of its time into a compelling unity:

The whole Mount still kept the grand style; it expressed the unity of Church and State, God and Man, Peace and War, Life and Death, Good and Bad; it solved the whole problem of the universe. The priest and the soldier were both at home here, in 1215 as in 1115 or in 1058; the politician was not outside of it; the sinner was welcome; the poet was made happy in his own spirit, with a sympathy, almost an affection, that suggests a habit of verse in the Abbot as well as in the architect. God reconciles all. The world is an evident, obvious, sacred harmony.

He emphasizes the masculine character of the Mount, presided over by the warrior St Michael and expressing rugged strength in its form. Chartres, on the other hand, expresses the feminine spirit, being the special domain of Our Lady and expressing her tastes. The Virgin of Chartres

was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her Son, Who, at Chartres, is still an Infant under her guardianship. Her taste was infallible; her sentence eternally final. This church was built for her in this spirit of simple-minded, practical, utilitarian faith,—in this singleness of thought, exactly as a little girl sets up a doll-house for her favourite blonde doll. Unless you can go back to your dolls, you are out of place here. If you can go back to them, and get rid for one small hour of the weight of custom, you shall see Chartres in glory.

Chartres, too, by expressing the Virgin’s glory, expressed the ideals of the time, for she was at the center of that society in a manner that transcended the usual social and political divisions. All disputants, on whatever question, were united in honouring her with “good faith, depth of feeling, and intensity of conviction” as the exemplar of human perfection:

The Virgin still remained and remains the most intensely and the most widely and the most personally felt, of all characters, divine or human or imaginary, that ever existed among men.

Adams takes the time to inspect in detail the structure and decorative programme of the church, meditating upon the rose windows, the portals — west, north, and south — and of course the famous twelfth-century stained glass. (When reading these sections it helped greatly to consult a coffee-table book with pictures of the scenes under discussion; there are pictures in this Penguin edition, but of inadequate quality and too few.) It is clear that he thinks Chartres is the greatest architectural achievement of the time — in fact, he goes further and dubs the smaller of its two spires “the most perfect piece of architecture in the world”.

Although the book’s title would lead one to believe that it is focused entirely on these two great buildings, in fact they account for only half the length of the book. Adams moves on, in the same playful and inquisitive spirit, to a consideration of the literature of the time, and to its intellectual and religious life.

Among works of literature he values especially Le Roman de la Rose, Le Chanson de Roland, the songs of Adam de la Halle, and the wonderful collection of legends Les Miracles de la Vierge. Of these, I especially enjoyed his ruminations on the song of Roland, which I myself have written briefly about, but with far less success. Equally excellent is his appreciation of the religious poetry of Adam of St Victor — most of it, again, in honour of the Virgin — which he praises for its simplicity of spirit and technical excellence.

Later chapters of the book set up a contest, within medieval culture, between the intellectual engagement with faith — represented by Abelard and Aquinas — and an emotional, instinctive approach to the sacred — represented by Bernard of Clairvaux and, in a rare voyage outside France, Francis of Assisi. I didn’t find these sections entirely successful, in part because it wasn’t clear to me that Adams really knew what he was talking about. (For instance, while I would never claim to be a gatekeeper to authentic Thomism, I have read a good deal of and about St Thomas, and I could hardly recognize him in Adams’ portrait.)

Indeed, this might be a general criticism to levy against the book as a whole. It is clearly the work of an amateur (and was, in fact, originally published privately in an edition of only 100 copies, to be shared with friends). His oft-repeated, self-depreciating references to his substitution of imagination for expertise — “what we want is not dates but taste” — might be intended to defuse such criticisms. He needn’t have worried overmuch, for he was obviously a man of intelligence and sensitivity, and the lapses in judgment or errors as to fact must be relatively few.

I will, say, however, that I found his prose to have a certain lugubrious quality; the same complaint put me off his other great book some years ago.

Every so often I read a book that I feel I might, under different circumstances, or given more talent, have written, or tried to write, myself. This is such a book for me; not that I think I could have done it nearly so well, but I’d have liked to try.


[The evangelical power of Chartres]
Any one can feel it who will only consent to feel like a child. Sitting here any Sunday afternoon, while the voices of the children of the maitrise are chanting in the choir,—your mind held in the grasp of the strong lines and shadows of the architecture; your eyes flooded with the autumn tones of the glass; your ears drowned with the purity of the voices; one sense reacting upon another until sensation reaches the limit of its range,—you, or any other lost soul, could, if you cared to look and listen, feel a sense beyond the human ready to reveal a sense divine that would make that world once more intelligible, and would bring the Virgin to life again, in all the depths of feeling which she shows here,—in lines, vaults, chapels, colours, legends, chants,— more eloquent than the prayer-book, and more beautiful than the autumn sunlight; and any one willing to try could feel it like the child, reading new thought without end into the art he has studied a hundred times; but what is still more convincing, he could, at will, in an instant, shatter the whole art by calling into it a single motive of his own.

[The unity of medieval architecture]
The architects of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took the Church and the universe for truths, and tried to express them in a structure which should be final. Knowing by an enormous experience precisely where the strains were to come, they enlarged their scale to the utmost point of material endurance, lightening the load and distributing the burden until the gutters and gargoyles that seem mere ornament, and the grotesques that seem rude absurdities, all do work either for the arch or for the eye; and every inch of material, up and down, from crypt to vault, from man to God, from the universe to the atom, had its task, giving support where support was needed, or weight where concentration was felt, but always with the condition of showing conspicuously to the eye the great lines which led to unity and the curves which controlled divergence; so that, from the cross on the fleche and the keystone of the vault, down through the ribbed nervures, the columns, the windows, to the foundation of the flying buttresses far beyond the walls, one idea controlled every line.

[The synthesis of Aquinas’ thought]
An economic civilization troubles itself about the universe much as a hive of honey-bees troubles about the ocean, only as a region to be avoided. The hive of Saint Thomas sheltered God and man, mind and matter, the universe and the atom, the one and the multiple, within the walls of an harmonious home.

[The 11th century]
The nineteenth century moved fast and furious, so that one who moved in it felt sometimes giddy, watching it spin; but the eleventh moved faster and more furiously still. The Norman conquest of England was an immense effort, and its consequences were far-reaching, but the first crusade was altogether the most interesting event in European history. Never has the Western world shown anything like the energy and unity with which she then flung herself on the East, and for the moment made the East recoil. Barring her family quarrels, Europe was a unity then, in thought, will, and object. Christianity was the unit. Mont-Saint-Michel and Byzantium were near each other. The Emperor Constantine and the Emperor Charlemagne were figured as allies and friends in the popular legend. The East was the common enemy, always superior in wealth and numbers, frequently in energy, and sometimes in thought and art. The outburst of the first crusade was splendid even in a military sense, but it was great beyond comparison in its reflection in architecture, ornament, poetry, colour, religion, and philosophy. Its men were astonishing, and its women were worth all the rest.

Pellowski: Latsch Valley Farm

December 6, 2018

First Farm in the Valley: Anna’s Story
Winding Valley Farm: Annie’s Story
Stairstep Farm: Anna Rose’s Story
Willow Wind Farm: Betsy’s Story
Anne Pellowski
(Bethlehem, 1982)
191 p. + 202 p. + 180 p. + 180 p.

These four books, about several generations of a Polish immigrant family living in Wisconsin, give an engaging portrait of farm and family life over a long century of changes. They are based on reminiscences handed down in the author’s own family. Nothing overly dramatic has been cooked up — which is not to say that nothing dramatic happens — and the stories have a homey, satisfying feel to them.

First Farm in the Valley is set in the 1870s. Latsch Valley is populated by a number of Polish families, and the fact that they live in America is almost incidental: they still speak Polish, observe Polish traditions, and farm very much as, I suppose, they would have done in Poland. Our narrator is Anna, an 8-year old who is an interested observer of the goings-on in her busy household (of eight children, if I recall correctly). This book, like the others, is episodic, with each chapter focusing on a particular day or event, and the reader left to fill in the details between. We read about a Fourth of July celebration, at which the Pellowski children taste ice cream for the first time; about a hail storm that strikes while the children are herding the sheep; about a winter wedding; about a fire at the local school. The family is basically a happy one, held together by bonds of love and their Catholic faith. There are darker rumblings beyond the borders of the home: wandering tramps who might steal goods from the farm or pose a threat, or, more ominously, a diphtheria epidemic that strikes a number of homes in the valley, leaving dead children in its wake.

This second volume is similar in many respects, but is set in the 1910s. Anna appears again, peripherally, now grown with children of her own, but the narrator of this volume is Annie, another young girl who lives down the valley. Some of the stories are quite funny, especially one in which a group of boys plot to release bees, one by one, inside their one-room schoolhouse; Sister Pelagia’s method of dealing with this rambunctiousness is a model of good disciplinary tactics. The family in this book is again a large one, with everyone pitching in to help with chores. We are given a warm picture of farm life, both in the home and throughout the valley.

The third volume, Stairstep Farm, is set in the 1930s and is based on the personal childhood recollections of the author herself. Though things have changed — the children no longer walk all the way to school, and there are cars in addition to wagons — life on the farm is still fundamentally one of a family working together: lots of chores and manual labour, lots of know-how, and a pervasive sense that all is well with the world, in spite of sorrows and setbacks. The family’s Polish traditions are still alive — Dyngus still comes on Christmas Eve, and Polish songs are part of the family’s life — but American life has also begun to make inroads — they get a visit from Santa Claus, and they have learned to speak English, at least some of the time. The narrator of this book is Anna Rose, a 5-year old who wants nothing more than to finally go to school with her big siblings. The stories are about baking, a biting gander, playing games with cousins in the yard, Grandpa being struck by lightning, kicking a pig, riding in the hay wagon, and, most dramatically, a tornado.

In the fourth volume the year is 1967. Our narrator is Betsy, a seven- or eight-year-old, the granddaughter of Annie, who narrated the second volume. Once again the structure is episodic: picking blackberries, putting on a play, going to school, making doughnuts. The texture of modern life has begun to reach the farm: they drive cars, and have a record player. But some things remain the same: this is still a large (8-child) family, close-knit, faithful, and working together to keep the family farm running. Oddly, the tone of the writing is noticeably different from the previous three volumes; it is more verbose, more on-the-nose, and somehow less childlike. I do not know the order in which the books were originally written, but this one does stick out relative to the others.

I’ve just discovered that there is a fifth book in the series, also narrated by Betsy, called Betsy’s Up and Down Year. I suppose I should read it, and perhaps I will, but the inconsistent naming convention for that book — it ought to be called Betsy’s Up and Down Year Farm, should it not? — makes it seem like an adjunct, not an essential, rightly or wrongly.

For the time being I’ve rounded off my time in Latsch Valley. I’ve enjoyed the stay. One could imagine a series of books spanning this same time period that would cross-examine the changes to family life, economic life, technology, and culture, amounting to a sustained sociological critique of how we live now and how we got here. These are not those books; go to Port William if that’s what you want. Instead, these books are heartwarming and entertaining, and could be given with confidence to a child of 8 or 10 years old. Our daughter read them rapidly, and, I’ve noticed, has been reading them again from time to time.

Farewell, Latsch Valley. I may soon pay a visit to the prairie, where I’m told there’s a little house.

Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods

November 22, 2018

On the Nature of the Gods
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Translated from the Latin by P.G. Walsh
(Oxford, 1998) [44 BC]
lv + 230 p.

When Cicero was in his 60s he embarked on an ambitious project to write a series of philosophical works. Though he, when a young man, had studied with several of the leading philosophers in Athens and Rhodes, he was by profession a lawyer and politician, not an original philosopher, which he knew quite well, but he did his contemporaries a service by translating Greek ideas into elegant Latin prose, and summarizing the views of various philosophical schools, often in a dialogue format.

Such is the case with De Natura Deorum, which explores the views of the Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics as to the nature of the gods. There are four characters in the dialogue, each of them, interestingly, based on a real person: Velleius presents the Epicurean view; Balbus defends the Stoic tradition; Cotta is an Academic; and Cicero himself is an interested listener. The principal school missing from the dialogue is the Aristotelian.

Though formally a dialogue, the give and take familiar from Plato’s dialogues, for instance, is mostly absent. Instead, Cicero gives us a series of set speeches in which individual characters present, at length, their views on the question, or rebut the views of others. In the seams between these monologues there is some back-and-forth, but little more.


The dialogue opens with Velleius presenting the Epicurean view. As we recall from reading Lucretius, the Epicureans were materialists who believed that everything is made of indivisible and eternal atoms. Lucretius himself didn’t discuss the gods, apart from a few references here and there, and the present dialogue is actually our best surviving source for what the Epicureans thought about these matters. For them, the gods were akin to material beings (they are said in this translation to have “quasi-bodies”) having human form, but living a life of idleness and bliss — which does, indeed, sound divine. They held that the gods pay no heed to human affairs.

Cotta, the Academic, then steps forward with a critique. He ridicules the anthropomorphism of the Epicurean gods, the ad hoc quasi-materialism, and wonders why we should bother to reverence these beings who care not for us. He contests Velleius’ simple argument that we know the gods exist from common consent.

In the next stage of the dialogue Balbus presents the Stoic case. The Stoics, too, defended the existence of the gods on the grounds that belief in their existence is nearly universal, but added other arguments too: from design of the world, from divine interventions, and from religious practices like divination. Balbus then proceeds to construct something like an ontological argument: God (or a god) is the greatest being, and therefore possesses every good, including reason, sensation, and even sphericity; and, since the universe as a whole is the greatest being possible, the universe itself must be this divine being. In this way, the Stoics arrived at something like a pantheist theology. Against the Epicureans, the Stoics maintained that the gods providentially ordered the world, and that therefore religious practices were right and salutary.

But this view, too, is subjected to an Academic critique by Cotta, who contests essentially every point in the Stoic case apart from the bare existence of the gods. The arguments offered for their existence he finds weak. He rebuts the ontological argument by deducing from it absurdities, such as that if the universe possesses every good then it must be adept at reading, writing, and flute-playing. In one interesting section he even challenges the premise that reason is a good thing, arguing to the contrary that reason makes men cunning in their evil-doing. “That Providence of yours is blame-worthy for bestowing reason on those who she knew would use it unreasonably and wickedly.” He catalogues inconsistencies in stories about individual gods, and concludes that, in the end, we cannot trust much of what the religious tradition has handed down about the nature of the gods. Likewise the pious belief in divine providence is misguided, for if the gods took care for the affairs of men then the good would prosper and the wicked suffer, contrary to fact.

At the conclusion of this critique the dialogue draws to a close. Cotta, who has been the principal critic, never does present his own positive case, if he has one. (He may not; the Academics were largely skeptics.) He only states that he has offered his criticisms out of simple honesty, though he “longs to be refuted”. As the interlocutors disband, Cicero remarks, rather unexpectedly, that his sympathies are with the Stoics, perhaps because this was the school that sought to preserve the rationale for the state’s religious practices, which Cicero was, as a public figure, responsible for upholding and observing.


It is striking that the gods in this dialogue are seen simply as “superior beings”. They are better than us, but not transcendent. They are corporeal, existing alongside us as beings in the world, akin to the “flying spaghetti monster” beloved by modern armchair atheists. Nowhere in the dialogue does the conversation turn to what it could mean to conceive of a high god (i.e. God) as the origin of the being of all else. Had Cicero seen fit to include Aristotelian natural theology in the dialogue this problem could have been partly addressed. As it is, however, the rudimentary metaphysics of these philosophers is in high contrast to what Christian and Islamic philosophers would produce in centuries to come.


Its shortcomings notwithstanding, this dialogue has enjoyed a long tradition of influence in the West. Parts of it (especially the critique of the stories of the Roman gods) were cited by early Christian apologists against paganism. Augustine himself references or quotes from this dialogue more than a dozen times in The City of God. It was also read by the great medieval philosophical schools, and we find citations from it in Abelard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Roger Bacon. It was even more important to Renaissance thinkers, for whom Cicero was a touchstone: it was a favourite of Petrarch, and Montaigne cited it nearly 50 times in his writings. The skepticism of Cotta was especially influential in this period.

Among early modern thinkers, Locke and Hobbes both knew it, and Hume gave his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion the same structure and cast of characters (though with different names). Voltaire, with a characteristic lack of temperance, saw fit to describe it as “le meilleur livre puet-être de toute l’antiquité”, but this, it seems, had the nature of a last hurrah, for in the nineteenth century its influence declined along with the prevailing appraisal of Cicero’s value as a philosopher.

Today it is not widely read, and I would argue that its value as an historical document, describing the leading arguments in theology at the time, eclipses its value as a living source of reflection on the questions it poses. But I am, nonetheless, pleased to have read it.

Stravinsky: Poetics of Music

November 13, 2018

Poetics of Music
In the Form of Six Lessons
Igor Stravinsky
(Harvard, 1970) [1942]
xiii + 142 p.

During the academic year 1939-40 Stravinsky was invited to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard University. In them, he, then, as now, considered one of the great composers of the twentieth century, spoke about creating music, the role of musical form, the importance of tradition, and aspects of musical performance. He was a brilliant and amusing figure with strong views and a playful intelligence; the experience of reading these lectures is, I believe, greatly enhanced by imagining them spoken in his own voice (which one can hear in, for example, this interesting interview).

The title of his lectures — the “poetics” of music — might lead the unsuspecting to think that he would expostulate, in romantic terms, on the ineffable and sublime, but this was not Stravinsky’s way. The title is precise: his subject is poetics, from the Greek poieo, meaning “to do or make”. He speaks not about the pleasant fancies of music, but about the down-to-earth craft of music-making. These were the terms on which he understood his own vocation — not as a revolutionary, and not even as an “artist”, but as a craftsman. This he understood, rightly, to be a return to a pre-Romantic conception of musical composition.

(As is sometimes the case with Stravinsky, one suspects an element of misdirection at play in this self-description; it would seem to apply more aptly to the composer of Pulcinella than Le Sacre.)

If a composer is a craftsman, what are his materials, and what his tools? He defines music in objective language: “a form of speculation in terms of sound and time”. His materials are sounds, which he arranges harmonically and temporally to form structures. In the very interesting third lecture, specifically on “The Composition of Music”, he describes what this process is like for him: a combination of improvisation, accidental discovery, and positive construction in awareness of (if not always in compliance with) established musical forms. He, borrowing from medieval theologians, uses very beautiful language to describe this process of searching and finding as “a spiral of love and understanding”. This is, if you want, a phenomenology of musical composition, which he wants to present as “objective findings” of general application but which can at least be appreciated as a first-hand account of his own experience.

The importance of form to Stravinsky would be hard to overestimate. (The subtitle of these lectures is, again, carefully chosen.) It is fairly common in treatments of musical fundamentals to take tonality as one of the principal organizing features of music. This Stravinsky rejects. Instead he uses the phrase “poles of attraction” to describe what is fundamental to music. The tonal system is but one example of a “pole of attraction”, and not a necessary one. More fundamental is musical form itself, and more fundamental still is melody, which “survives every change of system”.

Form was important to him in part because it imposed limits. “If everything is permissible to me… [then] every undertaking becomes futile,” he says. Using the example of fugue to illustrate his point, he argues for the paradoxical view that “we find freedom in strict submission to the object”. By limiting our choices, we are better able to act. He contends that “strength is born of constraint and dies in freedom”, citing da Vinci, but he might have cited almost any pre-modern authority, for this view, jarring to modern ears, was a commonplace of pre-modern ethics. In applying the point here to art and aesthetics, I expect he intended exactly this jarring effect.

A principal means by which this process of limitation takes place is tradition, which hands down a set of musical forms and techniques for the composer’s use, and part of his task is to appropriate this tradition, imposing it, as he says, upon himself. He is aware that twentieth century music, especially in the person of his arch-nemesis Schoenberg, ruptured the tradition of Western music, and he describes with, it seems, barely controlled fury the plight of the man thus bereft of his inheritance:

“Individual caprice and intellectual anarchy, which tend to control the world in which we live, isolate the artist from his fellow-artists and condemn him to appear as a monster in the eyes of the public; a monster of originality, inventor of his own language, of his own vocabulary, and of the apparatus of his art. The use of already employed materials and of established forms is usually forbidden him. So he comes to the point of speaking an idiom without relation to the world that listens to him. His art becomes truly unique, in the sense that it is incommunicable and shut off on every side […].

Whether he wills it or not, the contemporary artist is caught up in this infernal machination. There are simple souls who rejoice in this state of affairs. There are criminals who approve of it. Only a few are horrified at a solitude that obliges them to turn in upon themselves […].

The universality whose benefits we are gradually losing is an entirely different thing from the cosmopolitanism that is beginning to take hold of us. Universality presupposes the fecundity of a culture that is spread and communicated everywhere, whereas cosmopolitanism […leads to…] a sterile eclecticism.”

One hears echoes of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, which Stravinsky never refers to but which almost certainly lies somewhere in the background, and the general point, here eloquently put, has wider application beyond merely musical or literary tradition.


Stravinsky’s love of musical order and objectivity, and his disdain for radical individualism, led him to dislike much of the music of the Romantic era, and especially to detest the music of Wagner. These lectures are laced with withering anti-Wagner invective too good to pass over in silence:

“How powerful this man must have been to have destroyed an essentially musical form [the symphony] with such energy that fifty years after his death we are still staggering under the rubbish and racket of the music drama!…

Is this what is called progress? Perhaps. Unless composers find the strength to shake off this heavy legacy by obeying Verdi’s admirable injunction: ‘Let us return to old times, and that will be progress.'”

And again:

“For the devotees of the religion of Progress, today is always and necessarily more worth while than yesterday, from which the consequence necessarily follows that in the field of music the … Wagnerian orchestra represents an advance over that of Beethoven. I leave it to you to judge what such a preference is worth.”

His aversion for this music appears to be driven in part by the Romantic reliance on extra-musical elements: tone poems that allegedly tell stories, for example, or, as with Wagner, music designed to express a stage drama. One has to take this with a grain of salt, for Stravinsky himself wrote ballets, which would be susceptible to the same criticism. I wonder, also, if he expressed the same contempt for the music of “old times” which was, so often, written to convey words, which are, in themselves, non-musical. Stravinsky, too, wrote a Mass…


These lectures close with a consideration of musical performance, with which Stravinsky had extensive personal experience, especially as a conductor. He stresses that the performer’s task is not only technical and aesthetic, but also ethical, for he stands under an obligation to present the work in such a way as to faithfully convey the intentions of the composer. Naturally, this is the sort of thing you would expect a composer to say! It is also in keeping with his view that musical pieces are objective productions of a skilled craftsman, like a chair. Presumably Stravinsky must have hated Glenn Gould. But a musician feels an understandable pressure to project his own personality in performance, not least as a way of distinguishing himself from the crowd of able musicians. Most of us, I expect, recognize that a performance of a piece of music reflects a combination of what the composer intended us to hear and what the performer finds in the music. I join Stravinsky in thinking that the composer’s intentions are normative, but I am inclined to give performers some indefinite and perhaps haphazard latitude in interpretation (and, in music written for the harpsichord, I am a positive revolutionary in my insistence that it be played only on a piano).


I very much enjoyed reading through these lectures. I always find Stravinsky stimulating; I cannot think of another person in the musical world today who is comparably articulate and eminent. Part of the problem is surely that the disintegration of our musical tradition which he lamented has been one of the factors causing it to disappear from public life. But he was also just a special person, and it is probably simple folly to expect to find another like him. He can surprise me — as when he quotes, in these lectures, both Jacques Maritain and G.K. Chesterton — and he can provoke, but spending these few hours in his company has been very much worthwhile.


[Sincere ignorance]
In itself ignorance is, of course, no crime. It begins to be suspect when it pleads sincerity.

[Objective music vs subjective interpretation]
It is not easy to conceive how a pianist could establish his reputation by taking Haydn as his war-horse.

[Musical over-saturation]
The time is no more when Johann Sebastian Bach travelled a long way on foot to hear Buxtehude. Today radio brings music into the home at all hours of the day and night. It relieves the listener of all effort except turning a dial. Now the musical sense cannot be acquired or developed without exercise. In music, as in everything else, inactivity leads gradually to paralysis, to the atrophying of faculties. Understood in this way way, music becomes a sort of drug which, far from stimulating the mind, paralyzes and stultifies it. So it comes about that the very undertaking which seeks to make people like music by giving it a wider and wider diffusion, very often only achieves the result of making the very people lose their appetite for music whose interest was to be aroused and whose taste was to be developed.

White: The Sword in the Stone

October 28, 2018

The Sword in the Stone
T.H. White
(Lions, 1991) [1938]
298 p.

It is wonderful that there are so many good books in the world. Read as much as you like; there is always a chance that a book is out there, lying quietly in your path as you approach. You may be thinking of other things, a bit distracted. A book can jump up and surprise you.

Such has been my experience with this, the first part of T.H. White’s Arthurian saga. I’d heard of the book, naturally, but the fact that it is a masterpiece was always discreetly withheld, presumably so as not to spoil the surprise. I’m grateful.

The story is about King Arthur as a boy, when he was but a page in training, and was called The Wart. Nobody expected much of him, except his tutor, Merlin the wizard, who, because he was living his life backwards in time and remembered only the future, knew where The Wart was heading, and laboured to prepare him. The book follows the Wart through a variety of adventures, some mundane (the recovery of a wayward falcon), some thrilling (a night attack, in the company of Robin Hood, on a group of cannibals), and some fantastic (his transformation into a serpent at the behest of Merlin).

This material, good as it is, is elevated by White’s exquisite prose. Few books, much less children’s books, have delighted my ear to the same extent. White can vary the texture — now barbarous, now lyrical, now trim and precise — as befits the occasion, and the language is unfailingly inventive. Here, by way of illustration, is a graceful passage about the onset of autumn:

The summer was over at last, and nobody could deny any longer that the autumn was definitely there. It was that rather sad time of year when for the first time for many months the fine old sun still blazes away in a cloudless sky, but does not warm you, and the hoar-frosts and the mists and the winds begin to stir their faint limbs at morning and evening, with the gossamer, as the sap of winter vigour remembers itself in the cold corpses which brave summer slew. The leaves were still on the trees, and still green, but it was the leaden green of old leaves which have seen much since the gay colours and happiness of spring — that seems so lately and, like all happy things, so quickly to have passed. The sheep fairs had been held. The plums had tumbled off the trees in the first big winds, and here and there, in the lovely sunlight too soon enfeebled, a branch of beech or oak was turning yellow: the one to die quickly and mercifully, the other perhaps to hold grimly to the frozen tree and to hiss with its papery skeleton all through the east winds of winter, until the spring was there again.

That is poetry. Quite apart from the imagery, listen to the sounds: “the cold corpses which brave summer slew”, “still on the trees, and still green”, “tumbled off the trees”. It is one passage picked mostly at random, and not quite representative — the style is so fluid that no one passage could be — but it captures at least some of the beauties here preserved for our delight.

The tale, as White handles it, straddles the boundary between dream and reality. The language can be grounded and precise — as when a snake is described as “dry as a piece of living rope”, which is perfect — yet, at the same time, manifest fantastic elements, like talking animals, temporal anomalies, and transmogrifications. There is a capering tone, a sense that anything might happen. One almost expects Toad, dressed as an old washerwoman, to wander onto the page.

As I read, there were two other books that kept coming to mind. The first, which is admittedly a distant, much more fearsome cousin, was Moby-Dick; something about the tension of White’s writing, like a compressed coil, in combination with a rough whimsy reminded me again and again of Melville. And the second, already alluded to, was The Wind in the Willows, an account of its eloquence and fancy. The Sword in the Stone is not an equal of those great books, but it is resonating with them, in my mind at least.

White wrote three subsequent volumes, and then collected them, with revisions, into The Once and Future King. I must read them, or it, and am accepting advice on which course to take.

Caesar: The Gallic Wars

October 20, 2018

The Gallic Wars
Gaius Julius Caesar
(Landmark, 2017) [c.50 BC]
306 p.

In 59 BC Caesar had convinced Pompey and Crassus to form an alliance with him for power in the staggering Roman Republic, and had been awarded governorship of the province of Transalpine Gaul (that is, the south of modern France). The next year he departed to wage what turned out to be a decade-long contest to conquer the whole of Gaul — roughly, the area bordered on the south by the Pyrenees and in the northeast by the Rhine — and bring it under the governance of Rome. His success had the effect of nearly doubling the geographical size of Roman territory. He himself wrote this account of the campaign (with a slight caveat, below).

Caesar’s motive in undertaking the war is partly obscure. His stated reasons were that several peoples of northern Gaul had appealed to him for assistance as they faced violent incursions from Germanic tribes crossing the Rhine. He defended them and established Roman authority to maintain peace. But historians have not failed to notice that Caesar began the war deeply in debt and emerged immensely wealthy, and there is some natural suspicion that this prospect formed part of his motivation as well.


The war followed a fairly predictable pattern, year on year. Because the armies involved were immense (tens of thousands of men) and because, as always in ancient warfare, they survived by foraging from the lands through which they passed, they could fight only when food could be had. Thus they would begin in around June and wrap up by October; for the remainder of the year the army would hunker down in winter quarters, making weapons or building boats, while Caesar himself would cross southwards over the Alps to mind his other duties.

In the early years of the campaign the Romans enjoyed a marked military advantage. Their opponents had never seen discipline, technology, and expertise such as Rome possessed. A Gallic army might occupy a hill town — not a bad tactic against a near peer enemy — but the Romans, instead of charging uphill in a wild assault, would build a massive circumvallation to prevent any traffic in or out; they would dig great trenches filled with water; they would construct siege towers and massive earthworks by which to breach the enemy’s walls. It was no contest.

But, to the credit of the Gauls, they learned quickly, and by the midpoint of the decade the technological advantage of Caesar’s forces was less obvious. Countermeasures like fiery projectiles and collapsing tunnels were used against Caesar, and the Gauls adopted siege warfare tactics as opportunity allowed. Caesar does not stint to praise the ingenuity of his foes when, in his eyes, they earned it.

Still, the number of Roman defeats was small. Late in 57 part of the army was ambushed in the Alps and had to flee for safety. The winter quarters were attacked in 54, with many Romans killed. The following year the main supply camp, left on minimal manning while the main army was elsewhere, was surprised by a Gallic attack and routed. But these were exceptional; the Romans faced greater or lesser resistance, but mostly prevailed.


The campaign included several famous episodes. In 55 Caesar, keen to demonstrate Roman power to the Germanic tribes harrassing his Gallic allies, did what had been thought impossible: in just 10 days his engineers built a bridge across the Rhine strong enough to march his entire army across. The methods were quite amazing: footings were driven into the river bottom using dropped weights, stabilized against the current by being placed at angles, and the bridge surface was extended from footing to footing until the crossing was complete. They even built deflecting barriers upstream of the footings to prevent logs floated down by the Germans from causing damage. The feat was repeated in 53 at a different location. Once across, Caesar didn’t do much; this was military theatre with a message: don’t think you’re safe just because this paltry creek runs between us.

The other very famous episode, also in 55, and of special interest to English speakers, was Caesar’s crossing of the English Channel into Britain. He embarked in September with a relatively small force, mostly, it seems, from curiosity to see the island which was, in the Roman imagination, the very end of the earth. They first encountered the cliffs of Dover, and, being unable to land, sailed northeast up the coast until they found a beach (probably near modern Walmer). Naturally, the Britons were not overjoyed to see them, and opposed their landing. Nonetheless the Romans were able to establish a small camp, where they remained for about a week before attempting to return to Gaul. En route some of the Roman ships were forced back to Britain by a storm, and this contingent, including Caesar, was attacked again by the Britons, who were resisted only with great difficulty. Finally gaining the upper hand, Caesar imposed on the Britons an obligation to send hostages (a standard penalty for those whom he defeated), and departed. Apparently only one tribe did send hostages, the rest, presumably, hoping that they would never see the Romans again.

But this was wishful thinking. Caesar’s men spent the winter building boats, and in July of 54 he crossed the Channel again, this time with more than 600 vessels in his fleet. Astonished, the Britons failed to even contest his landing. Several conflicts ensued, as Caesar marched his men approximately 100 km inland over the course of a campaign lasting 2-3 months. On those whom he defeated he imposed financial penalties on the understanding — still a pretense, but soon enough a reality — that Britain was now under Roman control. It was Caesar’s last British hurrah; once departed, he never returned to Britain.


The overall arc of the Gallic Wars was of escalating conflict against progressively better organized foes. When first Caesar came to Gaul it was divided into many small tribes, but as the scale of the Roman threat became more evident the Gauls organized into larger groups to increase their chances of success. This resistance culminated in 52 with the formation of a pan-Gallic force led by Vercingetorix. He conceived a new strategy: scorched earth. Attempting to use the size of the Roman army against it, he directed that the Gauls burn their fields, farms, and towns in order to deprive the Romans of supplies. But this tack was only partly successful; yes, it made things harder for Caesar, but he simply foraged farther afield. Eventually he cornered Vercingetorix in the city of Avaricum (near modern Bourges). A difficult siege ensued, but the Romans eventually breached the walls.

Vercingetorix, however, escaped and took shelter in Alesia (modern Alise-Sainte-Reine), where the culminating battle of the Gallic Wars took place. The city was situated on a hill, with strong fortifications. A sizable Gallic army was inside, and another was outside at some distance. Standard procedure was to lay siege to fortified cities, but the presence of the second Gallic army, roaming about, complicated things. Caesar’s response was to make a double-facing circumvallation of the city: walls, towers, trenches, and booby traps facing both toward Alesia and away. Though he had few men to staff such an extensive fortification, the obstacles he installed allowed him time to concentrate his men where the attacks took place. Eventually, their hand forced by hunger, the Gauls broke out of Alesia and attacked, and the second army also assaulted the Romans in a co-ordinated effort. But Caesar and his men proved too strong. Vercingetorix was captured, and surrendered along with all the forces at his command. The conquest of Gaul was, more or less, complete.

More or less, because although Caesar’s own account of the campaign concludes after the siege of Alesia, one Aulus Hirtius appended an eighth and final book in which he recounts the events of the years 52-50, bridging the gap between Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars and Caesar’s account of the Roman civil wars (which I hope to read sometime soon). In these years, we learn, there were a variety of smaller skirmishes against pockets of resistance. But they have the feeling of being an aftermath, or a mopping up operation, and it is perhaps for those reasons that Caesar did not take the trouble to write about them himself.


As in most accounts of ancient warfare, the methods employed by Caesar (and his opponents) can be shocking to us. Even so standard a tactic as siege warfare, involving, as it does, civilians alongside soldiers, fails to meet ethical standards of modern warfare. There were rare occasions when Caesar was especially brutal — as at the siege of Uxellodenum, when he had the hands of the defeated soldiers cut off — and, as was standard, he gloried in reporting how many foes had been killed (often, modern historians suspect, greatly exaggerating the numbers). It is possible that a million Gauls lost their lives in the decade-long fight against Rome, so this was war on a large scale, and, we must admit, despite that fact that Caesar acquired in his own time a reputation for clemency, he would by modern standards be guilty of war crimes. The same, of course, could be said of other Roman generals, and of Persians, Greeks, and Gauls.

The people of Rome, though, had few qualms about Caesar’s methods or aims. Caesar would send back reports, and he tells us, with pride, that he was on several occasions awarded lengthy public celebrations in Rome that outstripped in lavishness and duration those of any previous military commander. When he did finally return to Rome in 49, it was, of course, an epoch-making (or, to be more specific, a Rubicon-crossing) event. His fame and power had waxed greatly, and although he faced powerful opponents, especially in the person of Pompey, it was clear that he was a man with whom the Roman Republic could not avoid a reckoning.


This was a tremendously enjoyable book. Being one of the few ancient accounts of a military campaign written by the responsible military commander, it has special historical value, but the importance of the story it tells has made it attractive to a wide swath of readers. Indeed, The Gallic Wars was for centuries one of the standard books that students of Latin would read in the course of their education, admired for the clarity of its style in addition to the interest of the story it tells.

I read a new edition published in the Landmark series, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The text is enriched by a generous helping of maps, paragraph summaries, timelines, many explanatory notes, an excellent introduction, and a daunting set of essays on various aspects of Roman warfare, economics, and politics. An immense amount of work went into it, and we, the readers, benefit. It deserves to win every pertinent publishing award, and maybe a few others besides.

Thomas: Why Bob Dylan Matters

October 10, 2018

Why Bob Dylan Matters
Richard F. Thomas
(Dey Street, 2017)
368 p.

Book publishers know their business, and no doubt the title of this book will succeed in drawing readers. It worked for me, and it is apropos: certainly the author believes that Bob Dylan does matter. But a more informative title might have been Dylan and Greco-Roman Poetry, or even Intertextuality as a Literary Device in the Works of Bob Dylan. But books bearing such titles might remain on the shelf, unread, and that would be a shame.

The principal argument of the book is that Dylan’s penchant for drawing on traditional songs in his own songs — a practice well established and recognized as part of his art — has expanded, especially in the last two decades, to an engagement with the poets of classical antiquity, and especially with Ovid, Virgil, and Homer. It’s a startling claim on first blush, perhaps, but Thomas makes a convincing case, and he knows whereof he speaks: he is George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard, an accomplished Virgilian, and trustee of the Loeb Classical Library. (In a fit of distraction, I wondered if, given his interest in popular music, he might prefer to be George Martin Penny Lane Professor?)

The evidence comes from the last three collections of original songs: “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006), and Tempest (2012). This in itself makes the book interesting and valuable; it is the only book on Dylan of which I am aware (though, admittedly, there are many that have escaped my notice) that focuses principally on this period.

Thomas first suspected that Dylan might be taking an interest in the classics when he heard “Lonesome Day Blues”, from “Love and Theft”, in which one of the stanzas is:

“I’m gonna spare the defeated
I’m gonna speak to the crowd
I’m gonna teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud”

which reminded him of a passage from Book VI of the Aeneid, in which Virgil writes:

“Remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,
To spare the defeated peoples, tame the proud.”
(Aeneid, Bk VI)

It can’t be a coincidence, and it was intriguing enough that he began listening to the new songs with ears open to further allusions to classical poetry. These efforts were bountifully rewarded with Modern Times. By his estimation, the songs on that record make over 30 references to the exile poems of Ovid. And on the most recent record, Tempest, Thomas finds numerous references to passages in Homer’s Odyssey woven into the fabric of the songs. The same record has a song, “Early Roman Kings”, that leans toward making an interest in antiquity overt.

Given this evidence, a few questions arise. One, perhaps, is a doubt: is it possible that, on the principle that one wielding a hammer sees nails, a classics professor might hear echoes of antique poets that are not really there? If there were but one or two examples, this doubt might be worth entertaining, but having reviewed the evidence Thomas provides, I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that Dylan is actually doing this.

Indeed, among the most interesting aspects of the book is Thomas’ further argument that this interest in antiquity is not new for Dylan. The evidence extends beyond the texts of his songs. For instance, we learn that back in Hibbing, MN, when young Dylan was still Robert Zimmermann, he was a member of his school’s Latin Club, and in 1963, on his first trip to Europe to play for the BBC, he afterwards took a flight to Rome, where he stayed for a few days, plausible evidence that he had a special interest in the city. There is even an early, unofficial song called “Goin’ Back to Rome” (in which, winsomely, Dylan contrives to rhyme “Colosseum” with “always see ’em”).

There is not much evidence from Dylan’s early and middle career that he was thinking of things Greek or Roman. We have “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, which is set in Rome, and Thomas informs us that in draft “Changing of the Guards” has a stanza that seems to have Virgil’s famous fourth Eclogue in mind, but beyond that the pickings are slim.

Yet, consistent with the book’s overall thesis, the evidence picks up since 2000. Dylan has chosen Rome as the site for a number of major press conferences in these years and, even more interesting, the playlists for his concerts in the city have differed radically from those he played in other cities. There does seem to be something special about the place for him. The image on the cover of Tempest is of a statue of Minerva; this same statue is on stage with Dylan on his recent tours. In interviews he has hinted that his most recent work might be rooted further back in history than the folk traditions of American music that everyone associates with him, making references to “the ten hundreds”, or times when “people had only one name”. As always with Dylan, his interviews are elliptical performances, very much part of a cat-and-mouse game with the reporters and fans, and hard to interpret, but it is plausible, at least, that he might be dropping clues for those who have ears to hear.

The bigger question is: why is he doing this? The first part of an answer has to be that, in a sense, this is nothing new for him. His songs have always been in conversation with the folk tradition, with the blues, and with the Bible; fragments of old songs have been worked into his own songs from the beginning. This is an act of creative appropriation of the tradition. We don’t think of his songs as pastiches because he has made these sources his own, and his own artistic voice can be heard through them. A good recent example is “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, which, as Thomas makes clear, is a veritable tapestry of references to Woody Guthrie songs and old folk songs collected by Alan Lomax, yet the result is a powerfully unified original song. As T.S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” In these songs, Dylan steals.

So, granted that he has an established history of creatively stealing from other sources, why has he begun to steal from the Greco-Roman poets? Here, I think, any answer has to be tentative. Perhaps, as Thomas argues, the exile poems of Ovid that pervade the songs on Modern Times appeal to Dylan because he feels himself to be in exile in the world, cut off by his celebrity and his itinerant life from normal relationships and a home. Likewise, perhaps the Odyssey is important to him because he, too, travels the world with nowhere to rest. Perhaps. Or perhaps it is simply that, having spent his life writing verse and song, he has felt an attraction to returning to the original sources of the poetic tradition within which he has worked. In any case, I find it heartening to think that Dylan is grappling with the legacy of these poets, absorbing and transmuting them through his own distinctive artistic pursuits.

I have said that Thomas is a distinguished classicist, and evidently he is also an avid Dylanologist. The great danger to such enthusiasts, that uncritical acclaim I call Dylanitis, is occasionally in evidence, as when he describes Dylan’s widely panned film Masked and Anonymous as “hugely underrated”. But, on the other hand, people who don’t love Dylan don’t write books about him, so we simply keep a few grains of salt on hand, and take one when, for instance, we read that Dylan compares with Eliot in his genius for appropriating the Western tradition.

There is plenty of backward and forward in the book’s argument, which is not presented as neatly as I’ve tried to make it here, and not all of the book’s contents are straightforwardly related to its thesis. At times Thomas pursues a particular line of inquiry at a length beyond what would be perfectly judicious by classical standards. At a few points the book’s argument seems to circle back on itself, with the same evidence coming up again. The result is a book that feels a bit of a jumble, but a jumble of good things. There is a fascinating section, for instance, on the wonderful song “Highlands”, which is obviously in conversation with Robert Burns, but also, Thomas argues, with Dylan’s own “Tangled Up in Blue”. There is an excellent analysis of Dylan’s “autobiography” Chronicles, Vol.1, which, following Clinton Heylin, Thomas considers to be a cunningly constructed blend of truth and fiction, and there is a very good discussion of Dylan’s Nobel speech (which, given the attention it pays to Odysseus, could also be marshalled as evidence of Dylan’s interest in the classics).

When I picked up the book I thought I would simply glance through it, but once I began reading I became interested in the argument, and was happy to read the whole thing. Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it has convinced me to listen again to the most recent albums, which, with the exception of Time Out of Mind, I have not loved. I approach them now with fresh ears.


For an envoi, here is the song that sparked this line of thinking: “Lonesome Day Blues”.

Dickens: Little Dorrit

September 28, 2018

Little Dorrit
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2008) [1857]
853 p.

The practice of throwing debtors into prison, where their means to repay the debt are greatly reduced, is nonsensical, and it must have seemed so to many at the time when debtors’ prisons were used. It seemed so to Dickens, whose own father was confined to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison when Charles was a lad. That early, humiliating experience for the Dickens family became, many years later, the background for this novel on the life and fortunes of the Dorrit family.

At the beginning of the novel Edward Dorrit, formerly a wealthy man, is thrown into the Marshalsea in the expectation that he’ll be out again in a day or two, but days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years, and still he remains. His wife is with him, and his children, including the youngest, little Amy Dorrit — the little heroine, or, at least, the little centerpiece of our story — are born and brought up within the walls. When she becomes a young woman, Little Dorrit leaves the prison to take up humble work as a seamstress, but returns each night to care for her aged father, continuing to make the prison her home.

The main arc of the story’s first half relates how it comes about that an honourable London businessman, Arthur Clennam, befriends Little Dorrit and, with unprecedented tenacity, pursues the Dorrit case through the nation’s financial bureaucracy, with the happy result that the Dorrits are finally released from the Marshalsea.

In the second half the wheel of fortune continues to turn: what was down goes up, and what was up goes down, and soon enough it is Little Dorrit who finds herself in a position to help Clennam. Naturally, there is a romantic element complicating these negotiations.

Woven into the story are the nefarious doings of a French criminal attempting to blackmail Arthur’s family by threatening exposure of a family secret — an underwhelming secret, it must be said, which eventually comes out like a whimper.

Chesterton, in the introduction he wrote to the novel, calls the book “Dickens’s dark moment” on the grounds that “the main business of the story of Little Dorrit is to describe the victory of circumstances over a soul”, a very un-Dickensian project indeed, “not connected in any manner with the special thing that he had to say”. And there is something to this view: Chesterton highlights the contrast between David Copperfield‘s Mr Micawber, himself also a denizen of debtor’s prison, but ebullient and unbeaten in spirit, and Mr Dorrit, who is passive and overmastered.

But I’m not convinced that Chesterton’s argument is quite convincing as a criticism of the novel as a whole. After all, the title is not Mr Dorrit. His daughter escapes the fatalism that afflicts him, and this indeed is why the story follows her. Mind, her character poses different problems for the reader. She is so delicate that one worries she might dissolve in a light rain, a mere wisp of a character. But I am inclined to give Dickens the benefit of my doubt; he clearly intends her to be simple and good, from her top of her mild head right down to the tips of her mild toes.

There are an abundance of secondary characters in the story, many there just to develop sub-plots that have to intersect with the main story at crucial junctures before fading away. My favourite of these was Mrs Plornish, a Londoner with a knack for speaking Italian, or something bearing a distant resemblance to Italian, and an old woman known only as “Mrs F’s aunt” who sits tight-lipped in the corner until, at inopportune moments, she utters oracles.

A novelty of the book — not quite unprecedented in Dickens’ corpus, but not expected either — is the international setting. I’ve already mentioned the (at the risk of redundancy in triplicate) dastardly French villain, and on his trail we visit Calais and Marseilles, but we also follow the Dorrits to a sojourn in Venice and then to Rome, all of which is quite delightful, even if they all feel rather like a variant on Dickensian London.

The chief triumph of the book is Dickens’ satire on government bureaucracy in his invention of the Circumlocution Office, the great study and object of which is “HOW NOT TO DO IT”. If you love Dickens, but haven’t read Little Dorrit, you might enjoy reading the section in which he introduces the Circumlocution Office for the first time: here. Pure delight.

To my mind Little Dorrit ranks somewhere in the middle to low range of Dickens’ novels. I liked it better, I think, than Barnaby Rudge, and perhaps it could be considered a  competitor to Martin Chuzzlewit or even The Old Curiosity Shop. But I would be surprised to find a reader for whom it was a particular favourite.

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

September 21, 2018

On the Nature of Things
T. Lucretius Carus
Translated from the Latin by Ronald Melville
(Oxford, 1997) [c.55 BC]
xxxviii + 275 p. Second reading.

\; \; \; \;  \; \;  \; My purpose is
With the sweet voice of Pierian song
To expound my doctrine and as it were to touch it
With the delicious honey of the Muses;
So in this way perchance my poetry
Can hold your mind, while you attempt to grasp
The nature of the world, and understand
The great design and pattern of its making.”
(I, 943-50)

Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is one of the great epic poems of the ancient world, and, as is claimed in this volume’s introduction, “perhaps the greatest didactic poem ever written in any language”. It is a work plump with fascinating scientific theories, and one with interesting and influential philosophical ideas also; it is, arguably, the latter that account for much of its continuing appeal.

We know little about the author, and the securest dating of the poem derives from a reference to it in a letter of Cicero; it was probably first published in around 55 BC.

The poem consists of about 7400 lines of Latin hexameter, and is divided into six books. The overall argument of the poem is to present and defend the natural philosophy of the Epicurean philosophical school.

Lucretius’ basic metaphysical principles and atomistic physics are described in the first two books; the middle books are devoted to the human person, soul and body; and the final two treat the development of human societies before culminating in an ambitious (if, alas, mostly wrong) naturalistic account of dramatic natural phenomena like lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, and disease.

Lucretius is famous for his spirited and resourceful defence of atomism. The idea is not original with him — that honour is usually bestowed upon the Greek Democritus, of course — but he presents it seasoned “with the delicious honey of the Muses”, a sweetener intended to help the medicine go down. For him, atoms are small, indivisible, infinite in number, eternal, and indestructible. From these characteristics he derives two overarching metaphysical principles which govern all that follows. The first is that atoms do not come into being:

“We start then from her [nature’s] first great principle
That nothing ever by divine power comes from nothing.”
(I, 148-9)

and the second is that they do not pass out of being:

\; \; \; \;  \; \;  \; nature
Resolves all things back into their elements
And never reduces anything to nothing.”
(I, 215-7)

Thus the picture he presents us with is that of a world composed of an infinite number (though a finite variety) of indestructible material bits in motion. These bits, he argues (against Aristotle), are surrounded by a void. The existence of this void he rather deftly deduces from the fact of translational motion, for if there were no void it would be impossible for atoms to move from one place to another, their being impeded by the presence of other atoms. And these two categories, atoms and the void, exhaust his ontology:

“…apart from void and matter no third substance
Can remain to be numbered in the sum of things,
Neither one that falls within the range of senses
Nor one that mind can grasp by reasoning.”
(I, 445-7)

Thus for Lucretius, as for his intellectual descendants, such things as mathematical objects, moral principles, and immaterial souls have no reality.

Atoms move about, bumping into one another and combining in new ways to make new things. He uses a nice metaphor to describe this process, one particularly apt for use by a poet writing poetry:

“Moreover in my verse it matters much
How letters are arranged and linked with others.
The same denote sky, sea, land, rivers, sun,
The same denote crops, trees, and animals,
And, if not all, by far the greater part
Are alike; but the position decides the meaning.
So with real things, when the combination of their atoms,
Their motions, order, forms, shapes, and positions
Are changed, the thing itself must change.”
(II, 1013-21)

Because he believes that the number of atoms is infinite, and that this process has been taking place for infinite time, he does not shrink from the conclusion that our world itself came to be out of just such chance encounters:

“The seeds of things
In random and spontaneous collision
In countless ways clashed, heedless, purposeless, in vain
Until at last such particles combined
As suddenly united could become
The origins always of mighty things,
Of earth, sky, sea, and breeds of living creatures.”
(II, 1058-62)

Thus, step by haphazard step, the world around us has taken shape. Perhaps the most famous section of the poem, in Book V, is that in which he traces for us the slow development of the world from its origins to the establishment of early civilizations: the production of animals, the origins of speech, the discovery of fire, the origin of religion (which he, oddly, considering his other principles, attributes to apparently genuine visions of the gods), the beginnings of metallurgy and agriculture, the advent of music, and the building of cities. The atomic theory he puts to use in a variety of creative ways: to explain sense perception, and the laws of optics, for instance. It is interesting that this broadly evolutionary view of history does not include any conception of the evolution of life; for Lucretius, animal species are distinct and unchanging (V, c.920).

By the same reasoning which leads us to view our world in this way, we conclude that other worlds, too, have and will come to be. Moreover, turning the coin over, they will eventually fall apart again, just as our world one day will:

“So death rightly comes, when by constant flow
All things are thinned, and all things, struck from without
By an increasing hail of blows, succumb;
Since at the end great age finds food to fail,
And without ceasing bodies from outside
Beating on things subdue them and destroy them.
So shall the ramparts of the mighty world
Themselves be stormed and into crumbling ruin
(II, 1139-47)

The naturalness with which his minimalist ontology — atoms and the void alone — leads to this final, whimpering destruction of all that the we know and love accounts for his dousing it with “the delicious honey of the Muses”, even if, perhaps, we doubt that we could be wholly convinced to part with our inheritance even for so sweet-seeming a mess of pottage.

As with many of his modern descendants Lucretius’ forthrightness about the ultimate fate of everything is paired with a strange lacuna. He is quite explicit that his ultimate purpose in writing this poem — his moral purpose — is to provide peace of mind, to teach his reader the art of “being undisturbed”. He aims at this in part by providing naturalistic explanations for unusual and frightening natural phenomena, so as to free the minds of his readers from the anxiety induced when they are experienced as signs of divine displeasure,

“Proceeding to set free the minds of men
Bound by the tight knots of religion.”
(IV, 7-8)

And Lucretius, following “the first who dared / Raise mortal eyes against” religion — namely, Epicurus, the hero of his tale — understands that a central part of achieving this peace of mind must be coming to peace with death. He therefore argues at length, in Book III, that the Epicurean universe in which only atoms and the void exist is necessarily one in which:

“… we may be certain that in death
There is nothing to fear, that he who does not exist
Cannot feel pain”
(III, 866-8)

There is a dignity in this paradoxical conviction that the way to avoid losing all is to definitively lose all, that the creature’s fear can be overcome by its accepting its total self-destruction, fear and all. Perhaps we are impressed by the vision of a philosopher who attends quietly to truth even as the world around him is consumed in a great conflagration. We may feel the persuasive power of Lucretius’ belief that

“True piety is for a man to have the power
To contemplate the world with quiet mind.”
(V, 1199-1200)

If we do feel that persuasive power, we ought to honour it, on the likelihood that there is some good in it. And Lucretius puts our good will to the test when he yields no quarter to those who, though not fearing death, wish nonetheless to extend their lives for as long as possible, for what difference, he argues, could longevity possibly make?

“Live though you may through all ages that you wish,
No less that eternal death will still await,
And no less long a time will be no more
He who today from light his exit made
Than he who perished months and years ago.”
(III, 1090-4)

Perhaps we respond to this detachment by doubling-down on our admiration: here is a man who truly wears his metaphysical hairshirt with Roman fortitude. Or perhaps we doubt that a philosophy that can so readily relativize the value of life is worth our uncritical adherence. The shelter, after all, which the Epicurean seeks from the metaphysical black hole that devours his world is his own interior life: his untroubled mind, his calmness in the face of disorder, his contemplation of truth. Yet do these things survive the destruction that lays all else to waste? Not in the long run — Lucretius tells us that much — but in the short? Now? It is here, I think, that the armour is pierced most effectively. The Epicurean moral universe, like our less systematic but substantially similar reigning view today, is underpinned by the presumed reality of human freedom, which imparts to all the Epicurean virtues a nobility and even a reality they cannot otherwise possess. There is no virtue in patience if one is not free to be impatient — indeed, there is no virtue of patience if there are only atoms and the void. Likewise for courage, and for prudence, and for all the virtues, and for the very notion of virtue as a moral quality, and for moral qualities tout court. Take his mandorla of freedom from him and you take all; yet his own principles do just that.

Famously, Epicurus, and Lucretius after him, tries to save human freedom in his system by introducing “the swerve” — an apparently random motion which atoms make from time to time to prevent the universe’s being deterministic:

“While atoms move by their own weight straight down
Through the empty void, at quite uncertain times
And uncertain places they swerve slightly from their course.”
(II, 217-9)

But this was feeble, being both arbitrary and inadequate to the purpose.

We therefore find, I think, that the Epicurean materialist metaphysics, like the modern one, consumes the metaphysician, leaving no-one to live out his moral ideal. We are left only with random motion and ultimate dissolution. And this, I think, even by Epicurean standards would be a counsel of despair.


I enjoyed re-reading this poem, which I first read at least 20 years ago. In the Roman reading project in which I am presently engaged it was my first sustained dose of Roman philosophy — just Greek philosophy at second hand, admittedly, but who among us can do better? — and I found a good deal to engage with. It is true that the very notion of a great poem about natural science seems slightly quixotic, rather like singing a Mass in honour of, say, Charles Darwin. But one soon forgets this genre-busting aspect, and falls into enjoyment of the poem on its own terms.

The translation of Ronald Melville I found good apart from the title (“On the Nature of the Universe”), which might well be a more fitting translation of De Rerum Natura on some grounds, but to which I nonetheless prefer the traditional English title (“On the Nature of Things”). I do harbour a regret that I didn’t splurge for Anthony Esolen’s translation, not least because I expect his commentary would have been superior to that found in this Oxford edition. But this, admittedly, is speculation, and I suppose that, in a Lucretian spirit, I could moderate my regret by meditating on the Epicurean counsel that, whatever translation I chose, “eternal death will still await”.