Archive for the 'Books' Category

Newman on some great authors

February 15, 2018

In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman discussed prospects for the eventual development of an organic body of Catholic literature in English to rival the Protestant literature that has formed our language to date. In the process, he made reference to a number of the greatest writers of the Western European tradition, including our English ones, and offered brief comments or judgments upon them. Some of these are quite entertaining, others surprising (Pascal!). I reproduce several of them here, without further comment from me.

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Swift and Addison: “the most native and natural of our writers”

Voltaire: “an open scoffer at every thing sacred, venerable, or high-minded”

Pascal: “does not approve himself to a Catholic judgment”

Ariosto: “is allowed on all hands to occupy the first rank of Literature” but is guilty of “coarse sensuality”

Boccaccio: “the first of Italian prose-writers”

Shakespeare: “There is in Shakespeare neither contempt of religion nor scepticism, and he upholds the broad laws of moral and divine truth with the consistency and severity of an Æschylus, Sophocles, or Pindar. There is no mistaking in his works on which side lies the right; Satan is not made a hero, nor Cain a victim, but pride is pride, and vice is vice, and, whatever indulgence he may allow himself in light thoughts or unseemly words, yet his admiration is reserved for sanctity and truth. From the second chief fault of Literature, as indeed my last words imply, he is not so free; but, often as he may offend against modesty, he is clear of a worse charge, sensuality, and hardly a passage can be instanced in all that he has written to seduce the imagination or to excite the passions.”

Pope: “a rival to Shakespeare, if not in genius, at least in copiousness and variety”, “he was actually a Catholic, though personally an unsatisfactory one.”

Johnson: holds “the special title of moralist in English Literature”

Locke: “scarcely an honour to us in the standard of truth, grave and manly as he is”

Bacon: “deserves by his writings to be called the most orthodox of Protestant philosophers”

Hobbes, Hume, and Bentham: “simply a disgrace”

Old English Daniel

February 13, 2018

Daniel
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
20 p.

Continuing my reading of the poems in the Junius Manuscipt, I come to this narrative poem based on episodes in the Book of Daniel, Chapters 1-5. At roughly 700 lines, it is somewhat longer than Exodus, but it seems to me a much more straightforward poem.

The poet tells the story of the sack of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar and the captivity of the Hebrew people, Daniel among them. Daniel gains favour with the king as an able interpreter of dreams. Meanwhile the king is drunk on hubris, and we hear the story of the burning fiery furnace, and of the three Hebrew men, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, who are protected from the flames by an angel of God. The king has a second dream, and again Daniel interprets, foretelling the seven-years madness of the king. Finally we hear the tale of Belshazzar’s feast, with the strange handwriting on the wall and Daniel summoned to read it.

I noted, in comments on earlier poems in this manuscript, that the poets sought to cast the Biblical characters as warriors, mighty in their fury and dauntless, even when this was without any real warrant in the Biblical text. Interestingly, that does not happen in this poem. Instead, the poet sees Daniel as a different kind of hero: a sage, a man of knowledge who sees into mysteries. I do not know if this was a character whom the poet’s audience would have recognized as familiar.

The poem is odd, structurally. The first dream of Nebuchadnezzar is passed over rapidly, but the second is presented in great detail. Even more oddly, the final panel of the poem ends abruptly, after Daniel is summoned but before he interprets the handwriting — he is given just enough time to berate the revelers for their impiety. And of course those of us who teach catechism classes to youngsters are surprised to read a poem about Daniel that never mentions the lion’s den (though the explanation is straightforward enough: that occurs in Daniel, Chapter 6). In his introductory notes, Craig Williamson notes these peculiar features of the poem and points to a lively scholarly debate about them.

My favourite part of the poem is the song of praise which the three young men sing from the centre of the fiery furnace. The imagery is beautiful and the effect is resplendent; let me write out the whole thing:

The three bold surviviors, wise in mind,
Said to their Creator with a single voice:
“Gracious Father, let the full beauty
Of the world’s crafts, each created wonder,
The heavens and angels, the bright clear waters,
Each of your beings in its own degree,
Everything above in its glory and grandeur,
Praise your power and worship you.
Let the sun and moon, the stars in heaven,
The planets parading in the night sky,
The waters of earth and air, the dew and rain,
Praise and glorify you. Let all souls sing,
Exalting the name of almighty God.
Let burning fire and bright summer,
Night and day, land and sea,
Light and darkness, heat and cold,
Frost and dew, rain and river,
Spring-snap and winter-wonder,
Cloud-drift and snow-drift,
All weathers, all seasons, glorify God.
Let all creatures in the curve of creation
Extol your blessings, eternal Lord —
Lightning-flash and thunder-clap,
Earth-hills and summer-spills,
Salt-waves and spring-surges,
The deep thrum of whales singing,
The high drift of birds winging,
Water-flow and wind-blow,
Cattle in the field, beasts in the wild.
Let the children of men celebrate your love,
Bring you the best of their hearts’ hymns.
Let the people of Israel, your faithful servants,
Praise you, proclaiming your glory revealed
In the wealth of the world, in bright nature’s
Bountiful being, in each creatures’ song.
Your hands hold each heart’s virtue,
Each mind’s making, each soul’s yearning.
We three children of God speak out
With a singular voice rising from the flames —
Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael together.
We glorify God in the sanctity of our hearts.
We bless you forever, Lord of all nations,
Almighty Father, true Son of the Creator,
Savior of souls, Healer of hearts,
Holy Spirit, and all-knowing God.
We celebrate your vision in our way of seeing,
Your powerful truth in our best way of being.
You reign supreme in the realm of heaven,
Higher than the sun-road over the world-roof.
You are a Poet making, a Creator shaping,
The Holy Word weaving itself in the world
Moment by moment from beginning to end —
All light, all life, the soul of our seeking,
The way of our walking in every bright land.”
(ll.363-416)

Admitting all of the necessary caveats about reading in translation, I hear in these lines a joyful lyricism that I’ve not encountered before in Anglo-Saxon poetry — albeit on limited exposure. At any rate, I like it.

The fourth and final poem in the Junius Manuscript is based on the New Testament. Christ and Satan will be our matter next time.

Macaulay: For the Children’s Sake

February 6, 2018

For the Children’s Sake
Foundations of Education for Home and School
Susan Schaeffer Macaulay
(Crossway, 1984)
x + 165 p.

I’ve had a middling, half-dormant interest in educational theory since I was myself a student, but becoming a parent, which includes becoming responsible for the education of new persons, not to mention becoming a de facto teacher in many respects, raises the issues afresh. Actually, it’s that the practical decisions about what school one’s children should attend become pressing, and so one begins to evaluate educational practices, and resorts to theory only in an effort to think things through clearly and consistently. It is true that people have been arguing about how best to educate the young for 3000 years, and nobody has settled the main questions yet (such as “What is the point of education?” and “Why are Teachers’ Colleges not carpet-bombed?”), but, still, perhaps the effort is not entirely worthless.

This little book introduces us, at one remove, to the thought and practices of Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), an English educator who lies outside the mainstream tradition, but whose ideas have, in the past few decades, become fairly influential in the homeschool movement in North America, largely because of this book, or so I surmise.

Mason’s starting point is disarmingly simple: children are people, and should be treated as such. Teaching is a personal encounter; so is learning. As such, each child should be allowed and encouraged to develop at his or her own rate and in his or her own way, not made to comply with an set of impersonal objectives and milestones. Writes Mason,

“We must know something about the material we are to work upon if the education we offer is not to be scrappy and superficial. We must have some measure of a child’s requirements, not based on his uses to society, nor upon the standard of the world he lives in, but upon his own capacity and needs.” (from Toward a Philosophy of Education)

This basic commitment explains why she is a marginal figure in the world of public education, for it is difficult to give a mass education model this personal touch (though, to be fair, Mason was herself a schoolteacher and developed her ideas in that context). It is equally clear, and for the same reasons, why homeschoolers have picked her up, for this approach is eminently suitable to their situation.

Mason also believed that since formal education is a preparation for life after formal education, education should be like life. It should be a matter of enjoyment and interest. Children should be encouraged to be motivated by factors intrinsic to education, like curiosity and a love of learning, not factors extrinsic, like grades. We should aim to foster a loving, joyful environment for learning, in which the pleasure of learning is taught by example.

Since students are people, part of their education consists in developing those stable habits of thought and action that will enable them to be successful students and people: the virtues. In this Charlotte Mason is consistent with the classical tradition, for which moral formation is at least as important as intellectual formation. She sought especially to encourage the scholarly virtues in her students: attention, concentration, self-control, and truthfulness.

Since children are persons and their education is our responsibility, we owe them, Mason reasons, the best we have. They should therefore be invited to experience and enjoy our best books, our finest art, our most beautiful music, and so forth. She had a word for educational material that condescends to the child’s intelligence, moral judgment, or aesthetic sensibility: “twaddle”. It’s helpful to have a word, because schools are full of the stuff. We can safely assume, with little risk of error, that all politically-motivated educational materials are twaddle. We want to avoid it:

“The person rises to understand, master, and enjoy whatever he is surrounded with in language, ideas, literature, and in appreciation of beauty. If you share with children the very best, carefully chosen to meet their needs, they will amaze everyone.”

This is actually true. In our home I’ve seen it especially with the music that the kids like. It is my practice not to play pop music at home or in the car, so they do not have much exposure to it; we listen to classical music. At the same time, they are members of a children’s choir in which they sing good sacred music: Mozart, Schubert, Handel, and Gregorian chant. There is no condescension to “children’s tastes”, and they rise to the occasion. My six-year-old son sings Latin motets to himself while building Lego. Our three-year-old’s favourite music is Vivaldi’s Gloria; he sings it in his bed at night. Children will feast on what we feed them, but they are, at first, poor judges of quality. Much of teaching consists in supplying a steady diet of good quality nourishment for their minds and hearts.

And not only should children be given the best we have to give them, but they should be invited to experience and enjoy it on their terms, not ours, taking from it what they find, not what we think they should find. In real life, when we read a novel, we all do so to engage with the story we are reading, but how many of us would persist if, upon finishing each chapter, we had to answer a series of questions about it? Is it wise, then, to ask students to do this? Mason thought not, and therefore counselled against reading comprehension tests. Instead, she had her students do “narrations”, in which they would re-tell, in their own words and after their own manner, a story they had read. When you stop to think about it, this is a brilliant and beautiful idea, for everyone loves to talk about something they enjoyed reading, and, more to the point, narrating a story requires a much more thorough and nuanced and personal engagement with a book than does answering a set of specific questions. Try it.

In fact, narration is pretty much exactly what I’ve been doing on this blog all these years; I can speak from experience: it’s rewarding. Since reading this book (some months ago now), I’ve also been having my daughter give narrations of some of the things she’s been reading, and she, too, responds wonderfully to the challenge. I’m a believer.

Since we want children to engage personally with what they read and learn, another of Mason’s recommendations is that they be given real books to read, whole and complete, rather than compilations of short excerpts from longer books, because doing so puts them into sustained contact with another person — the author — with whom they then begin to develop a relationship.

Indeed, the development of relationships — with God, with the natural world, and with other people — is a key organizing principle for a Charlotte Mason-style education. A relationship with God is best developed through experiencing a faith lived joyfully, with prayer and devotion, in the home and school. A child’s understanding of the natural world she thought best fostered by direct contact with nature, through nature walks, in which close observation and full sensory immersion are encouraged. (In many Charlotte Mason homeschools, it seems that such nature walks take the place of a science textbook, at least for younger students.) Relationships with others are cultivated, as we have already said, through books, historical studies (taking care to try to understand the complexity and foreignness of the past, not interpreting everything within contemporary frameworks or judging by contemporary standards), and interactions with the teacher and with other students. And children must also get to know themselves, which was one reason why Mason believed that children’s lives should have plenty of time and space for unstructured imaginative play; I agree with her heartily on that.

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Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s purpose in this book was to rescue Charlotte Mason’s ideas from the obscurity into which they had fallen, and to present them as providing a compelling educational philosophy for today. She writes well, both about the principles and ideas of Charlotte Mason, and about her own education, which was consonant with Mason’s approach on many points. She has a gentle, thoughtful authorial voice, and, unlike many authors of popular books on education, is not garrulous. (Incidentally, I was surprised to discover, mid-way through the book, that she is the daughter of Francis Schaeffer, the guru of intellectual-leaning Evangelical Christians of a certain vintage.) Although the book is about Charlotte Mason’s approach to education, direct quotes from her are rare, and so it is a little unclear to me how much of the book’s content derives from her, and how much is Macaulay’s interpretation and elaboration.

In a book on education Roger Scruton argued that the purpose of education is not principally to benefit the student who receives it, but to ensure that the culture to which that student belongs is received and perpetuated. I found the impersonal slant of this view jarring, even as I could see the point he was making. The much more personal approach to education proposed in this book is not really inconsistent with Scruton’s concerns though; Macaulay does not propose that there be no core curriculum, or that students, though encouraged to encounter books with their own native intelligence and feeling, somehow create value in things simply by liking them. Rather, she proposes a curated education, in which children encounter what, in the judgment of their teacher, is the richest and most worthy material, whether it be literature, art, music, or what have you. In fact it seems a perfect vehicle for passing on and truly appropriating a cultural tradition, which was what Scruton was advocating.

Darwin: Voyage of the Beagle

January 30, 2018

The Voyage of the Beagle
Charles Darwin
(Penguin Classics, 1989) [1839]
432 p.

When Charles Darwin was yet in his early 20s he signed on as ship’s naturalist aboard the Beagle, bound on a circumnavigation voyage. The purpose of the journey was to chart the coastlines of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and to survey the coasts of Chile, Peru, and several Pacific islands, including the Galapagos. Of course, it turned out that this young scientist’s observations would, in time, overshadow everything else about the enterprise, but that was still several decades away. Upon returning home to England, Darwin published this charming account of the journey and the things he saw along the way.

He seems to have been a born naturalist, with a passion for knowledge of living things that few of us possess. At every opportunity he would make excursions inland, collecting specimens as he went, and reporting on them with winsome excitement: “This day I found a specimen of a curious fungus, called Hymenophallus“. He reports that during occasional bouts of illness he would nonetheless stagger from his bed to pursue his researches. And with each new discovery his wonder at the richness of it all comes shining through:

The number of minute and obscurely coloured beetles is exceedingly great. The cabinets of Europe can, as yet, boast only of the larger species from tropical climates. It is sufficient to disturb the composure of an entomologist’s mind, to look forward to the future dimensions of a complete catalogue.

He remarks also on the surprising tameness of many of the animals found on remote islands unfrequented by men. On the Galapagos islands he found that he could hunt hawks using his gun in an unorthodox fashion: “with the muzzle I push a hawk off the branch of a tree”. And on the little island of San Pedro (now called South Georgia Island) he went fox hunting:

A fox (Canis fulvipes), of a kind said to be peculiar to the island, and very rare in it, and which is a new species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers, that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer. This fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise, than the generality of his brethren, is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society.

For most modern readers his reflections on the history and diversity of life is a principal attraction of the book. We sometimes forget that Darwin’s eventual contribution, in On the Origin of Species, would not be to argue that life on earth evolved, but to propose a particular kind of process — natural selection — as the principal means by which it did so. That species changed over time, and that the earth was of stupefying antiquity, was already well-known before he came along, and he himself is, of course, well aware of this. (He mentions Lamarck on one occasion.)

Nonetheless, he was a keen observer, and his reflections on what he saw retain their interest. He notices, for instance, “in two distant countries a similar relation between plants and insects of the same families, though the species of both are different,” and that although the species one observes change from place to place, proximate regions often have similar species occupying particular ecological niches; this was for him an important fact that deserved explanation:

The Tinochorus is closely related to some other South American birds. Two species of the genus Attagis are in almost every respect ptarmigans in their habits; one lives in Tierra del Fuego, above the limits of the forest land; and the other just beneath the snow-line on the Cordillera of Central Chile. A bird of another closely allied genus, Chionis alba, is an inhabitant of the antarctic regions; it feeds on sea-weed and shells on the tidal rocks. Although not web footed, from some unaccountable habit, it is frequently met with far out at sea. This small family of birds is one of those which, from its varied relations to other families, although at present offering only difficulties to the systematic naturalist, ultimately may assist in revealing the grand scheme, common to the present and past ages, on which organized beings have been created.

Darwin was, even at this young age, an able geologist, and he makes frequent, detailed observations about the geological formations and history that he observes. Naturally he is also interested in the fossils in the rocks. He meditates on the temporal analogue of the regional variation of species — namely, that in a particular place the life-forms have varied over time — and that this temporal variation seems to follow no evident logic. Indeed, he concludes that “no fact in the long history of the world is so startling as the wide and repeated exterminations of its inhabitants.”

It was only when the voyage was reaching its final stages that it visited the Galapagos islands; it was, for most of the ship’s crew, something of an afterthought. But it was here that Darwin was confronted with puzzles of speciation and geography in a particularly clear way. He first noticed that although many of the species found on the Galapagos are unique to those islands, the overall impression one receives is that the creatures are similar to those found on mainland South America, rather than those found on neighbouring island formations:

It was most striking to be surrounded by new birds, new reptiles, new shells, new insects, new plants, and yet by innumerable trifling details of structure, and even by the tones of voice and plumage of the birds, to have the temperate plains of Patagonia, or rather the hot dry deserts of Northern Chile, vividly brought before my eyes.

But after visiting several of the islands in the group he noticed “the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago”, for not only were the forms of life on the islands different from those found elsewhere, but “the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings”. Each island had its own species of tortoise, of lizard, of finch, and of various plants. This he found very remarkable:

We have the truly wonderful fact, that in James Island, of the thirty-eight Galapageian plants, or those found in no other part of the world, thirty are exclusively confined to this one island; and in Albemarle Island, of the twenty-six aboriginal Galapageian plants, twenty-two are confined to this one island, that is, only four are at present known to grow in the other islands of the archipelago; and so on…

He finally described the islands of the group as “physically similar, organically distinct, yet intimately related to each other, and all related in a marked, though much lesser degree, to the great American continent”, and the effort to understand how this state of affairs might have come about would be an important influence on his writing of On the Origin of Species two decades later.

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Apart from his observations of the flora and fauna, he also made interesting remarks on the peoples whom he encountered. I was delighted, for instance, to learn of a charming custom then current among the Catholic people of Uruguay:

On approaching the house of a stranger, it is usual to follow several little points of etiquette: riding up slowly to the door, the salutation of Ave Maria is given, and until somebody comes out and asks you to alight, it is not customary even to get off your horse: the formal answer of the owner is, “sin pecado concebida”—that is, conceived without sin.

He also experienced the amazement of less technologically advanced people at their first exposure to unfamiliar technology:

I possessed two or three articles, especially a pocket compass, which created unbounded astonishment. In every house I was asked to show the compass, and by its aid, together with a map, to point out the direction of various places. It excited the liveliest admiration that I, a perfect stranger, should know the road (for direction and road are synonymous in this open country) to places where I had never been.

At the southern tip of South America, in the region called Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle encountered a people who had little contact with the outside world and who lived what appeared to Darwin to be a life that barely provided for their material needs, with no intellectual or moral culture that he could discern. One reads his account with a kind of horrible fascination at the spectacle of a truly wild human tribe, of a kind that can probably no longer be found. Interestingly, he attributed their state in part to their lack of government or social hierarchy, remarking that “the perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization”, which is perhaps not what we, for whom “equality” is a master word, would have expected him to say. And though it might be easy to dismiss his comments on these matters as merely the prejudices of a Georgian-age gentleman, we note his fierce condemnations, elsewhere in the book, of slavery and all it stands for. He seems to have had no patience for claims of natural human inferiority (or superiority), but had no qualms about calling a spade a spade when it came to social and cultural achievements.

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The voyage of the Beagle lasted about five years, and although of course much of that time was spent on the ship, Darwin took every opportunity to go ashore and explore, often under quite unpleasant conditions. He seems not to have minded. Oh sure, he complained that “a light stomach and an easy digestion are good things to talk about, but very unpleasant in practice”, and he had bad experiences, as when he was set upon by insects in his sleep:

At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body.

But as I read, I was repeatedly impressed at the hardiness of this astute young naturalist, who was happy to sleep outdoors, go without food, and walk long distances over difficult terrain in search of his treasures. And I, at least, am glad that he went to all the trouble, because even apart from its obvious interest as a prelude or an adjunct to his more famous book, The Voyage of the Beagle is a consistently enjoyable work of natural history and exploration.

Cato the Elder: On Agriculture

January 20, 2018

On Agriculture
Marcus Porcius Cato
[c.180 BC]

Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura is, I believe, the oldest complete surviving work of Latin prose, and on account of this distinction I have included it in my Latin history and literature reading project. Were it not for this accidental distinction, it is probable that I would not have read it, for it is not the sort of thing one — not this one, anyway — normally takes up for either business or pleasure. And yet I found, to my surprise, that I read it with some appreciation, both because it put me in contact with a great man in an unusual way, and because it provided a glimpse of a side of history that is not often seen by non-historians: the normal, daily life of ordinary people going about their ordinary affairs.

The great man is, of course, Cato himself; he was one of the leading Romans of his generation, serving terms as both consul (195) and censor (184) and maintaining for decades a place at the centre of Rome’s political affairs. Rome’s political leaders in this period were also her military leaders, and Cato won glory leading a successful campaign in Spain during his term as consul. But he was best known for his role in Rome’s domestic politics, in which he earned a reputation as a formidable moralist. He famously opposed the repeal of the Oppian Law, which forbade Roman women owning jewellery and fancy dress, and he likewise opposed permitting Roman women to inherit family wealth. He was the political counterweight to, and critic of, the great but unconventional Publius Scipio Africanus. These commitments, and others, have not universally endeared him to modern readers — in his Roman Women (London, 1962), J.P.V.D. Balsdon described him as “that self-confident and boorish embodiment of austere moral rectitude”, but the ancients were kinder; Livy called him “a man of acknowledged integrity and purity of conduct” (XXXII, 27), and then went on to praise him in a passage that is worth citing at length:

“So great powers of mind and energy of intellect were in this man, that no matter how lowly the position in which he was born, he appeared capable of attaining to the highest rank. No one qualification for the management of business, either public or private, was wanting to him. He was equally skilled in affairs relating to town and country. Some have been advanced to the highest honours by their knowledge of the law, others by their eloquence, some by military renown; but this man’s genius was so versatile, and so well adapted to all things, that in whatever way engaged, it might be said, that nature formed him for that alone. In war, he was most courageous, distinguishing himself highly in many remarkable battles; and, when he arrived at the highest posts, was likewise a most consummate commander. Then, in peace, if consulted on a point of law, he was the wisest counsellor; if a cause was to be pleaded, the most eloquent advocate. Nor was he one of those whose oratory was striking only during their own lives, without leaving after them any monument of it. On the contrary, his eloquence still lives, and will long live, consecrated to memory by writings of every kind. His orations are many, spoken for himself, for others, and against others; for he harassed his enemies, not only by supporting prosecutions against them, but by maintaining causes in opposition to them. Enmities in abundance gave him plenty of employment, and he never permitted them to lie dormant; nor was it easy to tell whether the nobility laboured harder to keep him down, or he to oppress the nobility. His temper, no doubt, was austere, his language bitter and unboundedly free, but his mind was never conquered by his passions, his integrity was inflexible, and he looked with contempt on popularity and riches. In spare diet, in enduring toil and danger, his body and mind were like iron; so that even old age, which brings all things to dissolution, did not break his vigour.” (XXXIX, 40)

It is extremely rare, and even singular, for Livy to grant such a lavish encomium, and it speaks to the strong impression which Cato made on his imagination nearly 200 years after his (Cato’s) death.

In the passage above, Livy praises Cato in particular for his skill in management of private affairs and his knowledge of country life, and this is pertinent to De Agricultura, which is a kind of manual for the successful management of a Roman farm.

It is a very practical guide, full of down to earth advice on procurement of farm equipment, good practices for working with cattle, advice on caring for olives and grape vines, methods for producing good wine, instructions for medicinal uses of farm crops, and recipes for a variety of things. We learn how to make a wine press, how to best fertilize the fields, and what kind of soil is best for various kinds of crops. Although we do receive counsel on buying and selling the goods the farm produces, one gets the strong impression that this farm is independent, producing and making what it needs to continue operating.

For a modern reader it is interesting to see how closely intertwined farming, and, by extension, ordinary daily life, was with religion. The practical guidance includes a good deal of instruction on the religious aspects of farming: “Make an offering of cakes to Janus, with these words,” we are told; we are reminded that the spring ploughing should be preceded by a sacred feast; the prayers and sacrificial rites to be observed prior to thinning a grove are prescribed; times when the workers should fast are noted. There seems to be no clear distinction in Cato’s mind between this kind of advice and the other kind; for him, religion is a practical matter.

Advice that sounds to us superstitious might have been, from his point of view, just “tried and true”. We are told, for instance, that “Figs, olives, apples, pears, and vines should be grafted in the dark of the moon, after noon, when the south wind is not blowing”, or that, in order to prevent chafing when travelling, we ought to “keep a small branch of Pontic wormwood under the anus” (which, on first blush, I’d have thought would have the opposite effect).

Perhaps the most endearing section of De Agricultura is that in which Cato lauds the virtues of cabbage. He notes that it promotes digestion, is an excellent laxative, can produce an effective purgative, cures colic, makes a good poultice for wounds, treats boils, dislocations, and contusions, heals headaches and eye-aches, restores health to the liver, the lungs, and the diaphragm, remedies arthritis, and cures insomnia, among many other wonders.

As I said at the top, this is not the sort of document I would normally be inclined to read in my personal time, but certainly my other readings in Roman history have been nothing at all like it, and in that sense the time has been well spent.

[Virtues of farmers]
It is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come, their calling is most highly respected, their livelihood is most assured and is looked on with the least hostility, and those who are engaged in that pursuit are least inclined to be disaffected.

[Waste not, want not]
Remember that a farm is like a man — however great the income, if there is extravagance but little is left.

Favourites of 2017: Books

January 2, 2018

All things considered, 2017 was a pretty good year for reading. Long, difficult books were mostly off the table — there’s that volume of Kierkegaard I’ve been seeping through for 8 months — but I found some quite good, short, easier books that were worth reading.

For this year-end reflection, I’ve selected ten good books from among those I read this year. I list them randomly, or nearly so. Links, where present, usually go to my more extensive notes on the book.

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I’ll begin with Livy, whose writing was a thread that ran through my whole year. I began the first volume of his great Roman history Ab urbe condita in January or February, and I finished the fifth and last volume in December. This was a great book with which to kick off my Roman reading project; although it breaks off in the 160s BC, with much of the greatest drama still ahead, my understanding of the history of Republican Rome has improved greatly. I now feel I have context and at least some depth when I see a reference to Cincinnatus, or Camillus, or Hannibal, or Scipio, and a much better sense of how Rome grew from an Italian city among other, comparable, Italian cities to a superpower of the ancient world. I wrote fairly extensively about this history as I was reading. I am looking forward to continuing this reading project in 2018; I expect that much of the year will be spent in the company of Cicero and Julius Caesar.

*

I was given as a gift a huge volume of Anglo-Saxon poetry this year, and I expect that it will be the center of gravity of my medieval reading in 2018, but this year my favourite medieval literature was The Song of Roland, a splendid heroic poem about a battle between the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army, led by Roland, and the Islamic army besetting them as they pass through the Alps. Although not a scrupulously historical poem, it does teach us about the attitudes of Christians toward Muslims a thousand years ago, gives us an intriguing example of the medieval effort to baptize the military virtues, and presents us with a wonderful portrait of Roland, a figure who loomed large in the European imagination for centuries.

*

With my son I have been reading Thornton Burgess’ books about the inhabitants of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows. Beginning with Old Mother West Wind and continuing through the adventures of one little friend after another — Old Man Coyote, Paddy the Beaver, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Sammy Jay, Jerry Muskrat, Grandfather Frog, and others — we have gradually come to feel quite at home in those woods. Though he is certainly less mercurial and virtuosic than, for example, Kenneth Grahame, Burgess nonetheless has a fine talent for diverting tales with memorable characters and moral weight. He wrote, I believe, about 100 of these books, and so our explorations are far from over. So long as my son is content to continue, I am as well.

*

This year I continued my habit of reading — or seeing staged — one Shakespearean play each month. I ventured off the beaten trail and read “Pericles”, a late-ish play (probably c.1608) that was new to me. It was a very pleasant surprise. It has something of the character of a fable, complete with riddles, a beautiful princess, an evil king, miraculous events, and a happy ending. For some time I’ve been interested in the relationship between Shakespeare’s art and medieval literature and drama (I’ve been meaning to read this book, for example), and in no other Shakespeare play have I had such a powerful sense of being on medieval terrain, as though he had adapted a story from The Canterbury Tales. In fact the play is based on a poem of John Gower, Chaucer’s contemporary, and Gower himself appears in the play in a role something like that of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. It’s delightful. Thematically the play is about, among other things, what it means to be a good father, and in particular about the relationships of fathers to their daughters. The final act has a reunion scene that brought tears into my eyes. Highly recommended.

*

Over the past few years I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin sea-faring novels, and greatly enjoying them, but this year I also read The Voyage of the Beagle, a real-life account of a circumnavigation voyage in the 1830s, and I enjoyed it at least as much. It is true that Charles Darwin, the ship’s talented young naturalist, doesn’t tell us much about life at sea, but this particular voyage landed ashore at numerous locations along the Argentine and Chilean coasts, as well as at a few island archipelagos in the Pacific, and I found his many observations on natural history fascinating. The same author went on to write a number of other books on related topics, and it would be interesting to look into those some day as well.

*

Perhaps because I spent a few months this year homeschooling our kids, I read several books on education. Among these the best was Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word, a remarkably rich and thoughtful exploration of the classical educational trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Some descriptions of classical education merely correlate these three subjects with the developmental capacities of children (as Dorothy Sayers did in an influential essay), but Caldecott goes much further, digging deeply into the relevance this general schema has for the child’s intellectual, moral, social, and even metaphysical formation. His organizing question is “What kind of education would enable a child to progress in the rational understanding of the world without losing his poetic and artistic appreciation of it?”, and it leads him to rewarding discussions of tradition, drama, technology, and liturgy, among many other things. If you think that education ought to be richly human, concerned with what kind of persons we should be rather than just what sort of things we might do, calling for the best and wisest counsel we can muster, this is a book for you.

*

The conversion memoir is a genre with a distinguished history stretching back, for English speakers, to John Henry Newman, and further back, to St Augustine, in the wider tradition. These memoirs tend to have certain elements in common, and perhaps the most distinctive thing about Sally Read’s Night’s Bright Darkness is that it doesn’t follow the usual patterns at all. It’s an account of her conversion from comfortable atheism to astounded Catholicism in which, instead of passing over the ground between the two, as a normal person would do, she somehow tunnelled or teleported from one side to the other. This is a poor metaphor for the real substance of her story, which is grace. The other distinctive feature of this book is how beautifully written it is; Read is a poet, and brings a literary sensibility to the manner in which she tells her story.

*

English speakers continue to receive, in translation, by dribs and drabs, literary crumbs that fell from the table of the great German Thomist and intellectual historian Josef Pieper. This year I sat down with a volume that appeared, a few years ago now, under the title The Silence of Goethe. As is so often the case with Pieper, the slender profile of the book belies its rich content, which consists of meditations on the value of reticence and silence for both public and private life, as culled from the voluminous writings of Pieper’s great countryman. Counsel to the effect that “You live properly only if you live a hidden life” has particular value for those of us living in the age of social media, in which the temptation to live even our private lives in public is seductive. That this, and allied, advice comes from a man who was himself one of the best-known figures of his age gives it a certain tried-and-true authority.

*

I read a handful of Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels this year, and Thank You, Jeeves can stand in, on this list, for the lot of them. Published in 1934, it was the first of Wodehouse’s full-length Jeeves novels, and is a delightful tale about Bertie’s retreat to a country cottage in which to practice the banjolele. Jeeves is unable to abide the instrument, and so enters the employ of one or another of the characters circling around Bertie throughout the story, being replaced by a homicidal, drunk valet called Brinkley. Among the most pleasing characters in this mélange is Pauline Stoker, an American girl possessed of a “pre-eminent pulchritude”, to whom Bertie was briefly engaged on a prior trip to America, and for whom he now tries to play matchmaker. At stake are the sale of a run-down manor house and the future married happiness of several of Bertie’s friends. As usual with Wodehouse, the writing is superb and the invention never flagging. Some might take offense at the plot element involving Bertie and the “loony doctor” Sir Roderick Glossop wandering the grounds in black-face, but we are not so censorious.

*

This was yet another year in which I did not read much theology or philosophy, but I did manage one of the early classics of Christian theology in St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. The aim of the book is to provide a defence of the fittingness of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ against those who contended that these centerpieces of the Christian story had an arbitrary or even blasphemous character. Athanasius brings out beautifully the drama of Christ’s saving action as a descent into the world, a battle against evil, and a triumphant elevation of all things into the everlasting and unconquerable life of the Holy Trinity. It is a book that has become a touchstone for a Christian metaphysics of the good, in which Creation itself is caught up into the mystery of Christ.

***

As in past years, it is fun to look at the original publication dates of the books (or plays) I read this year. Here is the histogram:

I skewed modern, as usual, but not so severely as in past years, and the classical and medieval books can at least be said to have made a decent showing. The 20th century was the big winner, as might be expected, but even there it was the early 1900s which got much of my attention, with the average post-1900 publication date being 1955.

Finally, a bit of trivia:

Most books by a single author: Thornton Burgess (12), Shakespeare (12), Terence (6), Wodehouse (5).

Livy V: Rome’s Mediterranean Empire

December 15, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri XLI-XLV
Rome’s Mediterranean Empire
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by Jane D. Chaplin
(Oxford, 2007) [c.20 BC]
xxxiii + 386 p.

Perils of time and circumstance have destroyed most of the books of the ancient world. The fate of Livy’s great Roman history is a poignant case in point: of its 142 original books — one of the literary wonders of the ancient world — only 35 have survived in more than fragmentary form. The five books under discussion today, numbers 41 through 45, came down to us by the skin of their teeth, for they survived in a single manuscript, and they bear the marks of their narrow escape, for all but Book 42 are missing at least a few pages.

When last we sat with Livy, we heard of the Roman expansion east into Macedonia and Greece, and of the conflicts with Philip of Macedon and Antiochus of Syria. By the year 180 BC, the powers of Macedon, the fading remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire, had been pushed from Greece, and Antiochus had been forced to retreat to the eastern edge of the Mediterranean.

It was in that same year, 180, that Philip of Macedon died, leaving the subdued kingdom to his son Perseus. The succession was peaceful, but only because the violence had already, by that date, taken place. Philip had had two sons, Perseus and Demetrius, and prior to their defeat at Roman hands they had quarrelled over who would inherit the kingdom. Perseus, a man of considerable guile, convinced his father to consent to the murder of Demetrius, on the grounds that he was friendly with Rome and favoured an alliance. This was done, to the great regret of his father, and Perseus therefore took the throne uncontested upon his father’s death.

The principal narrative of these five Books, then, relates how Perseus governed Macedonia, how he provoked conflict with Rome (in what is now called the Third Macedonian War), and of how that conflict brought about the end of the Macedonian kingdom.

Initially Perseus concluded a treaty with Rome, but rumours soon began to spread that he was consulting with Carthage and had resumed harassment of the Greeks, who were now under Roman protection. In response, in 171 BC Rome declared war on Perseus and marched an army into Macedonia. But the territory proved difficult for the Romans; the Macedonians were experienced soldiers who knew how to choose their battles well. Perseus himself was a competent commander who more than once handed the Romans a defeat.

After a few years of haphazard, ineffective action, plagued by failure in the field and corruption and incompetence at home, Rome elected as consul a man who promised to act decisively. Lucius Aemilius Paullus was elected in 169 and immediately set out to achieve victory for Rome. He first lured Perseus out of a fortified position, and then met him in open conflict at the Battle of Pydna. The battle had a memorable prelude: on the day prior there was a lunar eclipse, and though the Romans predicted it beforehand, and therefore took its occurrence as a sign of Roman superiority, it took the Macedonians by surprise, and they took it as an ill omen. The Roman advantage in confidence carried over into the battle itself, and the Macedonians were decisively defeated. Perseus and his two sons were captured.

This marked the final destruction of the Macedonian empire, which had been a world power under Alexander the Great just 150 years before. Perseus was brought back to Rome in chains, and Paullus, after some political wrangling against jealous rivals, enjoyed a triumphal parade through the city that lasted a full 3 days. He was to be remembered by Roman citizens as one of the last great men of Republican Rome. (Plutarch included him in his Lives.)

Meanwhile Rome brought Macedonia under her own governance, lowering taxes and promulgating new laws. Diplomatic parties from across the region streamed to Rome to pay respects to the apparently unstoppable power of the still-burgeoning Roman Republic.

**

We might wonder what became of the Seleucid kingdom in the east, which Rome had chased out of Greece in the previous few Books. When Antiochus III died, he was succeeded by his son, Antiochus IV, who proved an erratic and colourful figure. Initially his people called him Epiphanes (“Rising Star”), but soon altered it to Epimanes (“mad one”) on account of his antics. We don’t hear a great deal about him from Livy, other than that when he besieged Ptolemy and Cleopatra (not that Cleopatra, obviously) in Egypt, Rome send ambassadors instructing him to cease. At first he temporized, saying that he’d consider what to do, whereupon the Roman ambassador drew a circle around him on the ground and told him to give an answer before leaving it, whereupon Antiochus relented. It’s a good story, and it showed that Roman power, even unofficial, now extended throughout the Mediterranean basin.

**

As usual, Livy focuses in these Books on military history; this was evidently what most interested him or his readers. But from time to time we get a glimpse of the goings-on back home in Rome, and it is almost always interesting.

We learn, for instance, that there was a fire in the Forum that burned down the Temple of Vesta and caused the sacred flame tended by the Vestal Virgins to be extinguished. The prescribed punishment for this offence was scourging; despite the extenuating circumstances, the scourging was carried out on this occasion as well.

Later there was a law proposed whereby no woman would be allowed to inherit property or money. Our old friend Cato, never one to shrink from eloquent defence of a controversial measure, supported it.

**

Livy’s main historical source for this period was Polybius, who was writing roughly contemporaneously with the events. Although for us the events treated in these 5 Books are, perhaps, of limited interest — few, I think, regard the Third Macedonian War as a conflict of enduring fascination — for Livy this was an important period in Rome’s moral development, when it endured and then overcame lax discipline and corruption to re-establish the preeminence of Roman virtue. His hero, Lucius Aemelius Paullus, embodied those virtues to an exemplary degree.

**

As I mentioned at the outset, although this by no means marked the end of Livy’s history, it does mark the end of the history that has survived to our day. What we have, however, in place of Livy’s full work, are the Periochae, fourth-century abridgements of each of Livy’s 142 Books. They are included in this Oxford edition, and I plan to consult them as my Roman reading project moves forward. The next historian I intend to read is Appian, who treated the civil wars that erupted as the Roman Republican bonds began to strain, but before that I believe I’ll take a few trips to the theatre, to read the plays of Terence. Until then, ave atque vale.

Read: Night’s Bright Darkness

December 7, 2017

Night’s Bright Darkness
Sally Read
(Ignatius, 2016)
152 p.

Not long ago I wrote about Robert Hugh Benson’s memoir of his conversion to Catholicism. As in most such stories, there was in that book a more-or-less clear thread that one could follow as he moved toward the Church: certain questions rankled, particular insights were had, specific errors were rejected or certain truths embraced. At the end, one could understand, largely if not entirely, how it came about that he became a Catholic.

Sally Read’s conversion memoir is, rather amazingly, not like that. She begins as a cradle atheist, brought up by parents who conscientiously inoculated her against any kind of religious faith, and she ends up a Catholic, almost an instinctive Catholic, and, having read the book, it’s very difficult to say how it came about. The drama of her conversion seems to have happened just below the level of apprehension, and I have the feeling that she’s nearly as mystified about it as we are. But the book is still wonderful to read, and strangely edifying.

If we’re looking for a particular moment, we have to look for something innocuous. Imagine, for instance, that she sits down one evening to read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a book grown familiar over many previous readings, but this time something is different:

This time I put the book down when I read the vicar’s assessment of religion: “(Religion) is an art, the greatest one; an extension of the communion all the other arts attempt.” The conversation goes on, by the fire, over Madeira, the rain beating down outside. God, says the vicar, is “merely shorthand for where we come from, where we’re going, and what it’s all about.”

It wouldn’t pass muster in a catechism class, but from this humble beginning, so far as I can tell, the life of faith began to grow in her. She was particularly struck by the thought that a religion could be a form of art, to be appreciated and experienced like a work of art. She was (and is) herself a poet, and the sudden connection between art and religion, like a spark, suddenly altered her understanding of both her own relationship to faith and her own artistic ambitions:

Why, after so many years of reading, thinking, arguing, would this truth penetrate me now? It was as if the tin roof of the sky peeled away. My desperate yearning to write the line, to make the poem, to nail the truth was illuminated. It wasn’t for editors, prizes, readers or myself that I sought so earnestly to harness reality. It was for communion with God, who knows already, who has the metaphor, the poem, already in hand, who is already writing, and already written, the ultimate poem. It was to try to touch that poem.

That night, I barely apprehended this. What I thought was just one word: possibility, and the sibilance of that word seemed like the distant yet all-encompassing black sea that I perceived God to be. A sound like the amniotic roar of traffic in London or the simmer of sea in Santa Marinella that natives unlearn how to hear. I had begun to learn how to listen.

It reminds me of that passage in Augustine (which, naturally, I cannot find) in which he says that each of us,  when we earnestly seek what is good, or true, or beautiful, when we long for that rich and true happiness that will come with the possession of whatever is the deepest and truest good that we pursue — then we are truly searching for God. Everything that rises, as the saying goes, must converge.

But at this point she knew next to nothing about any religion, and had no particular interest in Christianity. But she moved to Rome with her Italian (and agnostic) husband, and, when taking care of her young daughter, fell in with a group of Catholic mothers, and, through them (if memory serves) struck up a friendship with a Byzantine-rite Catholic priest, a good and intelligent man. Before long, she was reading Simone Weil, Josef Pieper, T.S. Eliot, St John of the Cross, and the Gospels, and she was well launched.

There are twists and turns in her story, but always one has the sense that her way has been prepared, that in her progress toward faith, as rapid as it is, she is nonetheless outpaced. Despite the rocky terrain she must cover — she begins as a well-catechized secularist and holds all the traditional pieties on matters like abortion, marriage, and sex — she seems not to stumble, never to find herself on the horns of a dilemma; her difficulties melt away, or are silently displaced. This, I think, is very unusual.

She returns often to her experience of Catholicism as having an aesthetic dimension. The Eucharist she sees as a kind of enfleshed poem:

…to get close to Christ I had to let him into me — not solely through mental prayer and actions, but by physically taking him into my body. There is nothing empty in God’s poetry; nothing is mere metaphor.

Even the hierarchical nature of the Church has for her a poetic effect, for it is “God’s poem — the transformative instrument of the chaos of the everyday.” That’s more suggestive than precise, but it gets one thinking, and this is true of much of her writing, which, true to her calling as a poet, is evocative, sometimes oblique, and often beautiful, just like the story she has to tell.

All this took place just a few years ago. “What do you want me to do?” was her persistent prayer through the whole process, and this memoir is, in part, part of the answer:

God’s revelation to me that spring was already a poem. I only needed to write it down and not attempt to explain its mystery. It is, in a sense, unfinished. It takes the unhesitating energy of that wave at its breaking point; it’s a love letter in response to love.

Old English Exodus

November 26, 2017

Exodus
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
19 p.

After reading Genesis it’s natural to move on to Exodus, and in the Junius Manuscript we do just that. This poem, which runs a brief 590 lines in the original Old English, begins with the terrible tenth plague striking Egypt and ends with the triumph of the children of Israel on the far side of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers so much flotsam and jetsam. The poet has therefore focused his attention on the central episodes in the story of God’s liberation of the Israelites from their bondage, though, as we’ll see, he had other things on his mind as well.

This is a particularly vivid poem, I found, with much striking imagery. Much of it is violent. I remarked in my notes on Genesis that the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons coloured their telling of the Biblical story, and the same is very much true in this poem.

When the angel of death descends on Egypt, for instance, the poet gives us a passage that reminded me of Grendel stalking toward Heorot in the black of night:

“The hall-joys were drained —
The last, lonely song was a cry of suffering,
Of peril and pain. In the middle of the night
God cruelly struck down the Egyptian oppressors,
The many first-born sons. Death stalked the land —
Terror and torment piled up corpses —
Killing was king of that ravaged realm.” (ll.33-9)

When once they have left Egypt, the miraculous guidance of the pillar of cloud and the column of fire excite the poet’s admiration for a lengthy stretch. He remembers, too, the life of Joseph, whose coming to Egypt as a slave was the remote cause of the enslavement from which the Israelites are now being delivered.

The approach of Pharaoh’s army in pursuit spreads fear through the people, and the description of the approaching forces is wonderfully evocative:

“Then the mood of the Israelites grew desperate;
Their hearts lost hope as they saw Pharaoh’s army
Surging from the south, sweeping over the land
With shields gleaming, battle-swords swinging,
Boar-spears thrusting, trumpets ringing,
Banners waving, the cavalry-storm coming.
Dark death-birds circled the strand,
Carrion crows hungry for corpses,
Screeching like hellions for a bloody meal.
Wild wolves sang a hideous evening-song,
Frantic for a feast of flesh and bone.
The beasts of battle held no pity
For any people, Egyptians or Israelites.
They howled for carnage, sang for slaughter.
Those bloodlust guardians of the border lands,
Wilderness-wanderers, bayed through the night,
Spooking the souls of the men of Moses,
Who hunkered down in despair and doom.” (ll.162-79)

I note with interest how the poet pivots from a description of the menace of the Egyptian soldiers — imagined very much after the manner of his contemporary warriors — to a description of the menace of the natural world: the wolves, and the hungry crows, all arrayed against the people of God. One could imagine him taking the opposite tack, depicting the animals, which are God’s creatures, as friends of the children of Israel, but instead he makes them amoral, prowling on the borders and circling overhead, awaiting their chance. There seems no reason for hope.

In response to this threat the Israelites arm for battle, but Moses gathers them together and delivers a stirring speech, reminding them to put their trust in God’s protection:

“They will no longer live to scourge us
With torment and terror, making our lives
A mesh of misery, a web of woe.
There’s no need to fear dead warriors,
Doomed bodies — their day is done.
God’s counsel has been lifted from your hearts.
Remember his covenant and keep it always.
Worship your God, pray for his grace,
His promise and protection, shield and salvation,
His gift of victory in a time of triumph.
He is the God of Abraham, the Lord of creation,
Our eternal Maker of unmeasured might.
He holds our army in his guardian hands. (ll. 280-92)

The staff is stretched out over the waters, and they part, making a way of escape. Interestingly, even as they march across, away from their foes, they do so as if to war, and the poet underlines their ferocity:

As the noblest of people walked through the water,
They raised a banner high over their shields
With a sacred sign, the gold lion of Judah,
The bravest of beasts. The loyal warriors
Would never suffer insult or injury
As long as their lord and leader lived
And they could lift swords, thrust spears
Bravely in conflict with any bold nation.
The soldiers of Judah would always respond
To the call of battle with hard hand-play,
Sword-swipe, spear-stab, shield-thrust,
Blood-wound, body-woe, the cruel crush
Of hard helmets, carnage and corpses.” (ll.338-50)

I wonder if in a warrior culture this crossing of the Red Sea, fleeing from danger rather than confronting it, would have been considered shameful. The poet seems to be taking great care to reassure us that they had lost none of their courage and capacity for destruction.

At this point, as it nears its finish, the poem begins to become more complicated. We leave the Israelites and return to Noah, and then to Abraham, and then jump ahead to Solomon. Perhaps the poet is here calling to mind God’s enduring covenant with the children of Israel, which is here, at the crossing of the Red Sea and the decisive deliverance from bondage, being honoured and fulfilled.

The crossing complete, the path through the waters collapses upon the pursuing Egyptian forces in a scene of carnage:

“The arrogant Egyptians could not hinder his hand
Or escape his doom, the sea’s fierce fury —
He destroyed them all in shrieking horror.
The seas slid up, the bodies slid down;
Dread fears rose, death-dreams plunged;
Fresh wounds wept, bloody tears tumbled
Into the ocean’s embrace. The Lord of the flood
Ravaged the ramparts with an ancient sword
Of storm-winds and wave-walls. Troops perished.
Hordes of the sinful headed toward the bottom,
Where they lost their souls in endless sleep.” (ll.518-28)

And here, at the climactic moment of the poem, before describing the victory song and the joyous dancing of the Israelites, the poet introduces another apparent digression, but one which, it seems to me, is a key to interpreting the whole poem. He inserts a meditation on the pilgrimage of each soul through this earthly life:

“It’s true that our present worldly pleasures
Are transient. Time unravels them all.
Desire and delight fade, touched and twisted
By inevitable sorrow — an exile’s inheritance.
We wander the world pursued by woe,
Our homeless hearts mired in misery.
[…]
The day of reckoning, the hour of doom,
Draws near, a moment of might and glory,
When all our deeds will be judged by God,
And he will lead the steadfast, righteous souls
From their exile on earth to a homeland in heaven,
The light and life of the Lord’s blessing,
Where everyone in that company of joy
Will sing hymns, glorious hosannas,
To the Kind of hosts for all eternity.” (ll.566-587)

The poet is therefore encouraging us to read the story of the Exodus as a metaphor for the deliverance of each soul from the bondage of sin and death, “an allegory of the soul, or of the Church of militant souls, marching under the hand of God, pursued by the powers of darkness, until it attains to the promised land of Heaven”. (So says Tolkien.) This is a common theme in Christian theology, of course, but it is here expressed in a particularly artful and powerful way.

In his introductory notes, Craig Williamson highlights the poem’s “deliberate ambiguities and allusions, its concealed figurations and fulfillments, and its textual and narrative difficulties”, which initially made me think I was about to read an Old English Prufrock. It didn’t turn out that way, but, nonetheless, there is something to what Williamson says; this is a complex, and quite beautiful, poem. At least some of the textual difficulties may have been mitigated by Williamson’s thoughtful translation, which is about 10% longer than the original. At any rate, I enjoyed reading it, and I’m looking forward to the next poem in the Junius Manuscript — which is, mercifully, not based on Leviticus, but on the story of Daniel.

Plautus: Four Comedies

November 19, 2017

Four Comedies
Titus Maccius Plautus
Translated from the Latin by Erich Segal
(Oxford, 1996) [c.200 BC]
xlvi + 242 p.

Plautus is the earliest extant Roman literary figure; he was the author of about 130 plays, of which 20 survive in whole or significant part. Writing at a time when Rome was expanding in power and coming into contact with other major powers in the Mediterranean, his period of success overlaps with the Second Punic War (218-201 BC); Rome was under the greatest existential threat she’d yet known, and so, naturally, Plautus wrote raucous and diverting comedies. Rome was also moving more into the Greek sphere of influence, and this was decisive for Plautus; many of his plays are adapted from Greek originals, even retaining a Greek setting and making frequent jests about Greeks.

On the evidence collected here, his plays are works of quick wit, rapidly developing plot, wordplay, and delightful farce. His characters are not richly developed, but then the plays are not really about the characters; they are comedies of circumstance and situation. This Oxford edition calls Plautus “the single greatest influence on Western comedy”, and his manner does feel familiar (more so than does, for instance, Aristophanes). The characters crack jokes, make frequent asides, and even address the audience. They are unbuttoned affairs in which, it seems, anything might happen.

**

The Braggart Soldier is the longest of the plays in this volume (about 1400 lines), and it illustrates well the attractions of Plautus’ writing. The situation involves a conspiracy among the household slaves to allow the mistress of the house to abscond with a handsome young man, and a boastful husband who is duped into trading her for her non-existent twin sister. It is great fun, and Segal’s translation is part of the pleasure: there is a long sequence in the middle in which he sustains page after page of lines with internal rhymes, and it is quite a delight.

*

The Brothers Menaechmus is about twin brothers, separated as children, who find themselves, many years later, unbeknownst to themselves or anyone else, in the same city at the same time. It’s a delightful little comedy featuring a long string of hilarious instances of mistaken identity. I was quite taken with Segal’s translation, which, though it introduces elements (such as occasional rhyme) not present in the original, is wonderfully witty and engaging.

The play is best known to English speakers as being the play Shakespeare adapted into The Comedy of Errors, and it is on account of this adaptation that English speakers have a motive, and an understandable one, not to get to know the original. The truth is that Shakespeare’s version is incomparably superior, not only in its verbal wit but in its plot construction, for by adding a second pair of twins (the Dromios) as the servants of the twin brothers, Shakespeare exponentially expanded the play’s scope for confusion and comedy. It’s no contest. But presumably Shakespeare chose to adapt Plautus’ play because he saw some merit in it, and he was right so to see. It would be fun to read the two plays in close conjunction. But read Plautus first, to avoid disappointment.

*

Although I anticipated that The Haunted House might have a supernatural angle, in fact the house in question is just one that emits noises because a wayward son and his many drunk friends are inside, hiding from the father, who has returned unexpectedly from a long journey. Meanwhile, outside, a clever household slave concocts a series of comedic diversions to prevent the father from entering. It’s an entertaining play that I imagine would work very well on stage.

*

The last play in this volume is The Pot of Gold, about a miserly father who obsessively guards a pot of gold — that is, not a pot full of gold, but an actual gold pot, though the distinction hardly matters for the play’s purposes. He is one of the best rendered characters I’ve encountered in this set of plays, coming closest to having something like a realistic, albeit exaggerated, psychology. Meanwhile his daughter, soon to be married, is about to give birth — though she is apparently not great with child, for the father is entirely unaware of her condition — having been “ravished” (or, to speak plainly, raped) at a city festival by a relation of her fiancé. In the principal comic scene this “ravisher” approaches her father to confess his crime and ask for her hand in marriage, but her father misconstrues his confession as an admission that he has stolen the precious pot of gold. This is comedy, yes, but dark; the man’s greed corrupts even his closest relationships and, indeed, his whole experience. The play breaks off before the conclusion, but the notes indicate that “most scholars” believe it ends with the father giving the pot of gold as a dowry gift — a redemption story.

Molière was impressed enough by this play to take it as the model for his L’Avare (The Miser); he retained many of the comedic elements from Plautus, including the discomforting humour of the daughter/pot-of-gold confusion, but infused all of the characters with more realism and, in my mind, brought out the interior corruption of the central character with even greater force.

**

I’ve enjoyed each of these plays. In his introductory notes to this volume, Erich Segal makes a distinction between “great drama” and “great theatre”; with his stock characters, loony situations, and comedic high-jinx, Plautus may not qualify as the former, but he might very well deliver the latter. Should I ever have the opportunity to see one of his plays on the stage, I would not readily turn it down.