Archive for the 'Books' Category

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I

January 21, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 1
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993) [1776]
cxxv + 567 p.

And so we arrive at the end — or, more modestly, at the beginning of the end. To crown my years-long reading project in Roman history I have decided to tackle Gibbon’s gargantuan history of the slow faltering and fading of the Roman world. Today we look at the first volume (of six) which covers the period from the reign of Nerva (96) to that of Constantine (325).


In the briefest possible compass, the history of this period goes like this: there was a string of five good emperors, then a rocky mix during which the empire was in frequent crisis and becoming emperor was, more often than not, a death sentence, then followed a period of stability during which imperial governance was split into a Tetrarchy, and finally a series of civil wars by which it was reunited under one emperor. All the while, a new religion that would long outlast the empire was percolating through the vast Roman territories.


Though his grand theme is decline and fall, Gibbon begins by describing what the empire declined and fell from. The period of the “five good emperors” lasted from 96 to 180, and consisted of the reigns of Nerva (96–98), Trajan (98–117), Hadrian (117–138), Antoninus Pius (138–161), and Marcus Aurelius (161–180). Notable, especially in light of what happened throughout the third century, were the long duration of each of these reigns, the manner in which each ended (i.e. without violence), and the peaceful transfer of power. Gibbon wrote a famous, if extravagant, encomium on this golden age of Roman governance:

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honor of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.

High praise, but modulated ominously to a minor key at the end. Gibbons believed that even in these halcyon days the causes which would bring about the eventual dissolution of the empire were quietly taking shape and gathering strength. He argues that, although the empire in this period had ceased to expand, it relied on a high degree of military discipline to uphold the long peace (“The terror of the Roman arms added weight and dignity to the moderation of the emperors. They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war.”) But, perhaps inevitably, a long peace gradually slackened this discipline, and the Romans became content to hire an army rather than themselves defend themselves:

It was scarcely possible that the eyes of contemporaries should discover in the public felicity the latent causes of decay and corruption. This long peace, and the uniform government of the Romans, introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated. The natives of Europe were brave and robust. Spain, Gaul, Britain, and Illyricum supplied the legions with excellent soldiers, and constituted the real strength of the monarchy. Their personal valor remained, but they no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army.


There is a tension, I find, in Gibbon’s writing because on one hand he wants to tell a story about the gradual weakening and collapse of the empire, and this is necessarily a social, institutional, and economic story, in addition to a military and political one, but on the other hand he, like most historians before him, tends to give much attention to military affairs (which are, admittedly, often decisive for the fate of states) and to the doings of emperors. Now, studying the emperors has a specific value of its own, for it is studying human nature when certain restraints are removed (or, as Gibbon puts it, “…in the conduct of those monarchs we may trace the utmost lines of vice and virtue; the most exalted perfection, and the meanest degeneracy of our own species.”), but it is too narrow a focus for the full story that he is telling. We look with a reluctant fascination on the monstrousness of Commodus or Caracella, and with admiration on the wisdom and virtue of Marcus Aurelius or Probus, and with wary regard on the stern and effective governance of Septimius Severus or Diocletian, but one gets the impression that these imperial personalities, as interesting as they are, are often like the white froth on the crest of a wave: they catch the eye, but the real action is elsewhere, below the surface.

This impression is particularly strong as Gibbon’s history traverses the third century, during which emperors came and went with alarming frequency. They sat atop the world for a time, but who now recognizes the names of Pertinax or Quintillis or Gallienus, or can distinguish Carus from Carinus? Their reigns often lasted just a couple of years, and in some cases just a few months, before they were, usually, assassinated. Caesar’s way of death was a lasting tradition.

Gibbon does attempt to identify cultural and institutional causes of Rome’s decline. He draws attention, for instance, to the immense power of the Praetorian Guard, founded under Augustus (if memory serves) to protect the emperor, but existing in later years largely as a rival power of which the emperor himself had to be wary:

In the luxurious idleness of an opulent city, their pride was nourished by the sense of their irresistible weight; nor was it possible to conceal from them, that the person of the sovereign, the authority of the senate, the public treasure, and the seat of empire, were all in their hands. To divert the Prætorian bands from these dangerous reflections, the firmest and best established princes were obliged to mix blandishments with commands, rewards with punishments, to flatter their pride, indulge their pleasures, connive at their irregularities, and to purchase their precarious faith by a liberal donative.

Another was the increasing impatience of emperors with the trappings of Republican politics. Augustus had acquired imperial power for himself while maintaining the pretense of sharing it. The Senate continued to make decisions; consuls continued to be elected; and the machinery of government continued to turn even while real power was concentrated in the emperor. But this façade, which was pleasant to the Senate and the people, grew increasingly thin. Severus, whose enjoyed an unusually long reign (193-211), was the first to openly assert his claim:

Till the reign of Severus, the virtue and even the good sense of the emperors had been distinguished by their zeal or affected reverence for the senate, and by a tender regard to the nice frame of civil policy instituted by Augustus. But the youth of Severus had been trained in the implicit obedience of camps, and his riper years spent in the despotism of military command. His haughty and inflexible spirit could not discover, or would not acknowledge, the advantage of preserving an intermediate power, however imaginary, between the emperor and the army. He disdained to profess himself the servant of an assembly that detested his person and trembled at his frown; he issued his commands, where his requests would have proved as effectual; assumed the conduct and style of a sovereign and a conqueror, and exercised, without disguise, the whole legislative, as well as the executive power.

This was a problem because it destabilized Roman politics, fostered resentments, and undermined public investment in the governance of the empire.

A third systemic, or at least recurrent, problem was the failure of emperors to establish clear succession plans. The imperial throne was not hereditary, and although emperors did often “adopt” sons whom they hoped would reign after them, these preferences did not have the solidity of a true filial line, and in consequence the death of an emperor was often an occasion of political unrest and even civil war. When the deaths of emperors were as frequent as they were in these years, the empire found itself in what sometimes must have seemed perpetual crisis:

The right to the throne, which none could claim from birth, every one assumed from merit. The daring hopes of ambition were set loose from the salutary restraints of law and prejudice; and the meanest of mankind might, without folly, entertain a hope of being raised by valor and fortune to a rank in the army, in which a single crime would enable him to wrest the sceptre of the world from his feeble and unpopular master.

And, in addition to these tensions in the armed forces and the political leadership, Gibbon identifies as a symptom and cause of decline a general relaxation into indolence and excess of public morals. This is a matter harder to trace through the historical record, particularly in a period that has left us little in the way of literary art (which might otherwise have provided a view), but he notes, for instance, that in the middle of the third century a need was felt to resurrect the office of censor in a bid to shore up the Roman virtues in public life. But it was a futile gesture:

A censor may maintain, he can never restore, the morals of a state. It is impossible for such a magistrate to exert his authority with benefit, or even with effect, unless he is supported by a quick sense of honor and virtue in the minds of the people, by a decent reverence for the public opinion, and by a train of useful prejudices combating on the side of national manners. In a period when these principles are annihilated, the censorial jurisdiction must either sink into empty pageantry, or be converted into a partial instrument of vexatious oppression.

It’s worth noting, probably, that our age also is one in which the function of censor appears to be completely futile and impossible. Whom could we entrust with such a role?

Added to these internal matters tending to weaken the robustness and vigour of the Roman people, there were, of course, stresses to the empire from without. A large empire has a long border, and those beyond the border, especially in the north, had never proven very docile or inclined to peace. As maintenance of that border became more difficult or onerous, the pressure on it increased, and Romans living near the borders were subjected, from time to time, to violence at the hands of the barbarians. Gibbon devotes several chapters to describing the two chief powers that threatened Rome from without: the Germanic tribes (though describing them as ‘a power’ is a convenience only, for they were tribal and fractured) and the Persian empire. I cannot resist quoting a brief section in which he compares the wasteland of the northern barbarians to my own country!

Canada, at this day, is an exact picture of ancient Germany. Although situated in the same parallel with the finest provinces of France and England, that country experiences the most rigorous cold. The reindeer are very numerous, the ground is covered with deep and lasting snow, and the great river of St. Lawrence is regularly frozen, in a season when the waters of the Seine and the Thames are usually free from ice.

I’ve never felt any particular kinship with the barbarians before, but this is giving me food for thought.

This volume concludes with an account of the arc from Diocletian (reigned 284-305) to Constantine (reigned 306-337). I have always regarded Diocletian as one of the infamous emperors; in Christian history he is an arch-villain on account of the policy of persecution that he pursued. And it is true that he did do this. But Gibbon, to my surprise, sees him as one of the best emperors, sketching him in this way:

His abilities were useful rather than splendid; a vigorous mind, improved by the experience and study of mankind; dexterity and application in business; a judicious mixture of liberality and economy, of mildness and rigor; profound dissimulation, under the disguise of military frankness; steadiness to pursue his ends; flexibility to vary his means; and, above all, the great art of submitting his own passions, as well as those of others, to the interest of his ambition, and of coloring his ambition with the most specious pretences of justice and public utility.

He prosecuted his policy against the Christians because he saw them as undermining commitment to Roman religion, Roman virtues, and public commitment to the state, all of which might well be true. In any case, without denying that he was a terrible persecutor of the Church, I appreciated that Gibbon has encouraged me to see that he was also more.

In fact, Diocletian introduced an innovation into Roman governance that was to have far-reaching consequences in the long run. He divided the imperial power into a Tetrarchy, such that the empire was ruled jointly from four different locations around the empire, and he himself, though in some sense the first among the tetrarchs, ruled not from Rome but from Nicomedia, in modern Turkey. Now, although the Tetrarchy lasted only about 40 years (from 286 until Constantine reestablished the empire under one power in 324), the idea that the empire might have multiple centres of power, and be ruled from somewhere other than Rome, not only would have been unthinkable in earlier centuries, but proved durable under Constantine and, eventually, permanent.

Diocletian is remarkable for another reason too: as Sulla had done centuries earlier, he reached the summit of power and then chose to voluntarily resign to private life. Predictably, his departure led to eruptions of conflict between the other powers in the Tetrarchy:

The empire was afflicted by five civil wars; and the remainder of the time was not so much a state of tranquillity as a suspension of arms between several hostile monarchs, who, viewing each other with an eye of fear and hatred, strove to increase their respective forces at the expense of their subjects.

Constantius, the father of Constantine, soon succeeded to power in the western empire, and Constantine began making a name for himself, first on the front against Persia in the east, and then in collaboration with his father in Britain.

When his father died in 306, Constantine was acclaimed emperor by his troops, and became one of the tetrarchs. Over the next several decades an uneasy, episodic civil war was fought. The famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge, at which Constantine defeated Maxentius, made Constantine sole power in the west. (It is worth noting, I think, that in this battle it was Constantine who was attacking Rome, and his triumphal entry into the city might — I’m not sure — have been his first time there.) In 324 he defeated Licinius, the sole remaining power in the east, and became, once again, sole emperor. A moment of triumph, perhaps, but one that found the empire in an exhausted state, impoverished, with outsized power in the hands of the military.


I have greatly enjoyed this first volume, and am looking forward to the second.


[A sketch of Hadrian]
He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views, and the minute details of civil policy. But the ruling passions of his soul were curiosity and vanity. As they prevailed, and as they were attracted by different objects, Hadrian was, by turns, an excellent prince, a ridiculous sophist, and a jealous tyrant. The general tenor of his conduct deserved praise for its equity and moderation. Yet in the first days of his reign, he put to death four consular senators, his personal enemies, and men who had been judged worthy of empire; and the tediousness of a painful illness rendered him, at last, peevish and cruel. The senate doubted whether they should pronounce him a god or a tyrant.

[The emptiness of ambition]
The ascent to greatness, however steep and dangerous, may entertain an active spirit with the consciousness and exercise of its own powers: but the possession of a throne could never yet afford a lasting satisfaction to an ambitious mind. This melancholy truth was felt and acknowledged by Severus. Fortune and merit had, from an humble station, elevated him to the first place among mankind. “He had been all things,” as he said himself, “and all was of little value.” Distracted with the care, not of acquiring, but of preserving an empire, oppressed with age and infirmities, careless of fame, and satiated with power, all his prospects of life were closed.

[Advantages of monarchy]
Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate without an indignant smile, that, on the father’s decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself; and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity? Satire and declamation may paint these obvious topics in the most dazzling colors, but our more serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice, that establishes a rule of succession, independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal, power of giving themselves a master.

[Politics and violence]
Those who refuse the sword must renounce the sceptre.

[Crime and punishment]
Whenever the offence inspires less horror than the punishment, the rigor of penal law is obliged to give way to the common feelings of mankind.

Waugh: When the Going was Good

January 15, 2022

When the Going Was Good
Evelyn Waugh
(Reprint Society, 1948)
314 p.

We think of Waugh first as a novelist, of course, and I think it may be little known that throughout the 1930s, when he was writing Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust and other novels, he was also publishing travel books about his journeys to far-flung corners of the world. This selection from those writings, made by Waugh himself, appeared in the mid-1940s, shortly after the publication of Brideshead Revisited.

We read of his visits to Malta and Crete, of his attendance at a coronation in Ethiopia, of an epic journey that began in Yemen, proceeded through Kenya to the Congo, and ended in South Africa, and of a hilarious misadventure through the jungles of Brazil.

Throughout, Waugh is his caustic self, often, I think, with a healthy dash of self-deprecating wit. Unlike some travel writers, he has no particular reverence for the places, or the people, he visits, and the eye he casts on them can be jaded, with humorous results that don’t always leave him unscathed. The writing is, of course, a dream, and the music of the prose is alone enough to recommend the book.

I am delighted to find that David Bentley Hart has written a marvellous review of all of Waugh’s travel writings, and he wonderfully captures the particular merits, and demerits, of this aspect of Waugh’s literary output, even if he doesn’t think When the Going Was Good is a particularly apt selection. If you’re at all interested, I highly recommend reading it.

Martial and Juvenal

January 7, 2022

Translated from the Latin by James Michie
(Penguin Classics, 1973) [c.70-100]
205 p.

Martial in English
Edited by J.P. Sullivan and A.J. Boyle
(Penguin Classics, 1996)
436 p.

Translated from the Latin by Niall Rudd
(World’s Classics, 1991) [c.110-150]
xl + 249 p.

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. My track record with Roman poets — Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus, Statius, and Lucan — has been pretty good; I’ve enjoyed, and often greatly enjoyed, reading them. But nothing is perfect in this vale of tears, and though I had been looking forward with anticipation to both Martial and Juvenal — both entirely terra incognita for me — my hopes have been dashed. They are not, of course, wholly bad, but my experience has been, on the whole, one to evoke tears from the tenderhearted.

Martial, the great epigrammatist, the chronicler of the Roman streets, the man in the corner with the choice barb and the pithy appraisal, was, in my untutored imagination, to play a role in the annals of Roman poetry roughly similar, at least in some respects, to the place of the impressionists in the galleries of Western painting: his was a great relaxation from epic themes to simpler and more quotidian pleasures. And, in a certain sense, I was right, for his poems are simpler and more quotidian: portraits of characters, expressions of emotion, witty observations of human folly, and so forth, and few of the poems are longer than twenty lines — some are as brief as two. He is considerably more relaxed than Virgil or Statius, no doubt.

Munera qui tibi dat locupleti, Gaure, senique,
si sapis et sentis, hoc tibi ait ‘Morere’.

If you were wise as well as rich and sickly,
You’d see that every gift means, ‘Please die quickly.’

That’s pretty good, right? Brief but brutal. And there are others like it:

Nubere Paula cupit nobis, ego ducere Paulam
nolo: anus est. Vellem, si magis esset anus.

She longs for me to ‘have and hold’ her
In marriage. I’ve no mind to.
She’s old. If she were even older,
I might be half-inclined to.

That’s Miche’s translation in his volume. The Martial in English volume contains a translation of the same poem, by Peter Whigham, that is even better:

Paula would wed: I pray to be exempted.
She’s old. Were she but older, I’d be tempted.

That beautiful concision comes close, perhaps, to the deftness of the original, and its charms are undeniable.

But often, I confess, I found Martial merely coarse, merely petty, or merely dull. The ‘everydayness’ of the poems, their lack of pretense and ambition, wore on me after a while. I found myself responding to many of these poems with a casual “Meh” before they disappeared without a trace. I began to wonder why I was bothering.

When I turned from Michie’s translations, however, to the larger Penguin volume, I discovered new life. This volume is quite a marvel, actually: it is a collection of Martial’s epigrams done into English by dozens of poets over the past five centuries. Not only is it a superb education in a particular strand of our poetic tradition, but it allowed me to abstract from the substance — or lack of substance — of Martial’s poems themselves in order to indulge in comparisons of translations, which yields a certain pleasure all its own.

For instance, here is an epigram (3.43) that Michie renders as follows:

You’ve dyed your hair to mimic youth,
Laetinus. Not so long ago
You were a swan; now you’re a crow.
You can’t fool everyone. One day
Prosperpina, who knows the truth,
Will rip that actor’s wig away.

This was a “Meh” poem for me. But then look what Joseph Addison did with it:

Why should’st thou try to hide thy self in youth?
Impartial Proserpine beholds the truth,
And laughing at so fond and vain a task,
Will strip thy hoary noddle of its mask.

That bites much more fiercely than Michie’s did — and I confess an incapacity to disdain any poem that says “hoary noddle”. But then I found that a twentieth-century Welsh poet named Olive Pitt-Kethley has also translated this poem, and in this way:

You were a swan, you’re now a crow.
Laetinus, why deceive us so,
With borrowed plumage trying?
The Queen of Shades will surely know
When she strips off your mask below —
In Death there’s no more dyeing.

Yes! We get the contrast of the swan and crow, which Addison missed, and a rhyme that is more complex than Addison’s and more regular than Michie’s, and, to top all, it concludes with a triumphant pun, the highest form of humour. I love it.

There’s a fair bit of that kind of amusement in the Martial in English collection, and I would readily recommend it to anyone with an interest in Martial. Arranged chronologically, it includes poems by Donne, Jonson, Crashaw, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Coleridge, Stevenson, and Pound, along with a great crowd of less well-known names. If there was one poet in the collection who most impressed me, it was Stevenson, whose poetry I am otherwise innocent of. Here is an example: his translation of epigram 5.34, about the death of a young girl named Erotion.

Mother and sire, to you do I commend
Tiny Erotion, who must now descend,
A child, among the shadows, and appear
Before hell’s bandog and hell’s gondolier.
Of six hoar winters she had felt the cold,
But lacked six days of being six years old.
Now she must come, all playful, to that place
Where the great ancients sit with reverend face;
Now lisping, as she used, of whence she came,
Perchance she names and stumbles at my name.
O’er these so fragile bones, let there be laid
A plaything for a turf; and for that maid
That ran so lightly footed in her mirth
Upon thy breast—lie lightly, mother earth!

That, I think, is really touching, and is a good example of what I found most appealing in this sojourn with Martial and his interpreters.


Though, as I said, I was generally disappointed with Martial, I did find enough to enjoy to fill out the space above. Alas, I’ve less to say for Juvenal. His sixteen Satires, written in the first half of the second century AD, are, in a sense, kin to Martial’s epigrams. They are witty sallies against the excesses and follies of the Roman people of his day. Unlike Martial, Juvenal is a moralist, and a rather steely one, but the poetry didn’t suffer on that account. I simply found them wordy, over-long, shapeless, and dull. I suppose it is obligatory to mention that the English phrases “a healthy mind in a healthy body” and “bread and circuses” come from these poems, but beyond those canonical examples I found nothing noteworthy to latch onto, and I read through the entire collection without marking a single passage. Sad, but true.


Unless there is a surprise lying in wait, I believe this is the last poetry stop on my tour of Roman literature. An anti-climax, then, but it cannot be helped, and the journey has, on the whole, been an excellent one.

Some Damnable Errors About Christmas

December 26, 2021

G. K. Ch*st*rt*n

That it is human to err is admitted by even the most positive of our thinkers. Here we have the great difference between latter-day thought and the thought of the past. If Euclid were alive to-day (and I dare say he is) he would not say, “The angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal to one another.” He would say, “To me (a very frail and fallible being, remember) it does somehow seem that these two angles have a mysterious and awful equality to one another.” The dislike of schoolboys for Euclid is unreasonable in many ways; but fundamentally it is entirely reasonable. Fundamentally it is the revolt from a man who was either fallible and therefore (in pretending to infallibility) an impostor, or infallible and therefore not human.

Now, since it is human to err, it is always in reference to those things which arouse in us the most human of all our emotions—I mean the emotion of love—that we conceive the deepest of our errors. Suppose we met Euclid on Westminster Bridge, and he took us aside and confessed to us that whilst he regarded parallelograms and rhomboids with an indifference bordering on contempt, for isosceles triangles he cherished a wild romantic devotion. Suppose he asked us to accompany him to the nearest music-shop, and there purchased a guitar in order that he might worthily sing to us the radiant beauty and the radiant goodness of isosceles triangles. As men we should, I hope, respect his enthusiasm, and encourage his enthusiasm, and catch his enthusiasm. But as seekers after truth we should be compelled to regard with a dark suspicion, and to check with the most anxious care, every fact that he told us about isosceles triangles. For adoration involves a glorious obliquity of vision. It involves more than that. We do not say of Love that he is short-sighted. We do not say of Love that he is myopic. We do not say of Love that he is astigmatic. We say quite simply, Love is blind. We might go further and say, Love is deaf. That would be a profound and obvious truth. We might go further still and say, Love is dumb. But that would be a profound and obvious lie. For love is always an extraordinarily fluent talker. Love is a wind-bag, filled with a gusty wind from Heaven.

It is always about the thing that we love most that we talk most. About this thing, therefore, our errors are something more than our deepest errors: they are our most frequent errors. That is why for nearly two thousand years mankind has been more glaringly wrong on the subject of Christmas than on any other subject. If mankind had hated Christmas, he would have understood it from the first. What would have happened then, it is impossible to say. For that which is hated, and therefore is persecuted, and therefore grows brave, lives on for ever, whilst that which is understood dies in the moment of our understanding of it—dies, as it were, in our awful grasp. Between the horns of this eternal dilemma shivers all the mystery of the jolly visible world, and of that still jollier world which is invisible. And it is because Mr. Shaw and the writers of his school cannot, with all their splendid sincerity and, acumen, perceive that he and they and all of us are impaled on those horns as certainly as the sausages I ate for breakfast this morning had been impaled on the cook’s toasting-fork—it is for this reason, I say, that Mr. Shaw and his friends seem to me to miss the basic principle that lies at the root of all things human and divine. By the way, not all things that are divine are human. But all things that are human are divine. But to return to Christmas.

I select at random two of the more obvious fallacies that obtain. One is that Christmas should be observed as a time of jubilation. This is (I admit) quite a recent idea. It never entered into the tousled heads of the shepherds by night, when the light of the angel of the Lord shone about them and they arose and went to do homage to the Child. It never entered into the heads of the Three Wise Men. They did not bring their gifts as a joke, but as an awful oblation. It never entered into the heads of the saints and scholars, the poets and painters, of the Middle Ages. Looking back across the years, they saw in that dark and ungarnished manger only a shrinking woman, a brooding man, and a child born to sorrow. The philomaths of the eighteenth century, looking back, saw nothing at all. It is not the least of the glories of the Victorian Era that it rediscovered Christmas. It is not the least of the mistakes of the Victorian Era that it supposed Christmas to be a feast.

The splendour of the saying, “I have piped unto you, and you have not danced; I have wept with you, and you have not mourned” lies in the fact that it might have been uttered with equal truth by any man who had ever piped or wept. There is in the human race some dark spirit of recalcitrance, always pulling us in the direction contrary to that in which we are reasonably expected to go. At a funeral, the slightest thing, not in the least ridiculous at any other time, will convulse us with internal laughter. At a wedding, we hover mysteriously on the brink of tears. So it is with the modern Christmas. I find myself in agreement with the cynics in so far that I admit that Christmas, as now observed, tends to create melancholy. But the reason for this lies solely in our own misconception. Christmas is essentially a dies iræ. If the cynics will only make up their minds to treat it as such, even the saddest and most atrabilious of them will acknowledge that he has had a rollicking day.

This brings me to the second fallacy. I refer to the belief that “Christmas comes but once a year.” Perhaps it does, according to the calendar—a quaint and interesting compilation, but of little or no practical value to anybody. It is not the calendar, but the Spirit of Man that regulates the recurrence of feasts and fasts. Spiritually, Christmas Day recurs exactly seven times a week. When we have frankly acknowledged this, and acted on this, we shall begin to realise the Day’s mystical and terrific beauty. For it is only every-day things that reveal themselves to us in all their wonder and their splendour. A man who happens one day to be knocked down by a motor-bus merely utters a curse and instructs his solicitor, but a man who has been knocked down by a motor-bus every day of the year will have begun to feel that he is taking part in an august and soul-cleansing ritual. He will await the diurnal stroke of fate with the same lowly and pious joy as animated the Hindoos awaiting Juggernaut. His bruises will be decorations, worn with the modest pride of the veteran. He will cry aloud, in the words of the late W.E. Henley, “My head is bloody but unbowed.” He will add, “My ribs are broken but unbent.”

I look for the time when we shall wish one another a Merry Christmas every morning; when roast turkey and plum-pudding shall be the staple of our daily dinner, and the holly shall never be taken down from the walls, and everyone will always be kissing everyone else under the mistletoe. And what is right as regards Christmas is right as regards all other so-called anniversaries. The time will come when we shall dance round the Maypole every morning before breakfast—a meal at which hot-cross buns will be a standing dish—and shall make April fools of one another every day before noon. The profound significance of All Fool’s Day—the glorious lesson that we are all fools—is too apt at present to be lost. Nor is justice done to the sublime symbolism of Shrove Tuesday—the day on which all sins are shriven. Every day pancakes shall be eaten, either before or after the plum-pudding. They shall be eaten slowly and sacramentally. They shall be fried over fires tended and kept for ever bright by Vestals. They shall be tossed to the stars.

I shall return to the subject of Christmas next week.


This essay was written by Max Beerbohm, and first published in “A Christmas Garland” (1912). It captures Chesterton’s style quite well, and seems to me to be an affectionate parody. I always laugh when I read it.

Merry Christmas!

Favourites in 2021: Books

December 22, 2021

Back in 2017 I launched a reading project in ancient Roman history and literature; the year 2021 was, as it turned out, the year in which that project was concluded. The capstone to the whole enterprise, which absorbed a gigantic chunk of my reading time this year, was Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in six volumes and I-can’t-count-that-high pages. Reading it was a great experience, and a fitting conclusion to what has been a tremendously interesting and enjoyable few years of Roman immersion. Notes on Gibbon, and on a few Roman stragglers will, I hope, appear here over the next few months.

In the meantime, I am preparing to launch a similar reading project on the ancient Greeks. More about that another day, perhaps.

Not much reading time was left over once Gibbon was given his due, so I fell back on an old trick: I read things that were short, and, in particular, I turned to reading poetry. I devoted a couple of months each to several poets, beginning with Yeats, and then, honouring his anniversary year, Dante. Reading an epic was so rewarding — though admittedly not clearly in the spirit of reading things that are short — that I decided to revisit both Milton and Wordsworth. In the waning months of the year I spent a few dispiriting weeks with Rilke and, rallying, a few months with Frost.

I’ve enjoyed this poetic sojourn so much that I intend to continue it in 2022, devoting a few months each to individual poets. Although my plans are still inchoate, I’m looking in the direction of William Blake, George Herbert, Shakespeare (the sonnets), Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, perhaps, either Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath.

Another aspect of this reading-short-things strategy is that I’ve been reading plays. At least, I thought I was reading plays, but at year’s end I am surprised to find that I read only three, all by Thomas Middleton, a quite interesting contemporary of Shakespeare. I hope to pull up my socks and make more progress on this front in the new year.

I read a half-dozen novels this year, of which the longest was Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, and the best was, maybe, Rosemary Sutcliff’s Three Legions (which was actually three novels). Novel reading is something I’d like to do more of in 2022, and I am planning to tackle Crime and Punishment again, but the trouble with novels is that they are long.

On the non-fiction side of things, my favourite of the year was Deformities of Samuel Johnson, a totally earnest, perfectly delightful broadside against the great man that made me laugh heartily and at length. I also read a quite wonderful art history book called Rome 1300, and I enjoyed Evelyn Waugh’s outrageous travel anthology When the Going was Good. At year’s end I’m reading, as seems appropriate to the times, a nineteenth-century curio cabinet called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Will 2022 be less mad than 2021? There is but one way to find out.

Suetonius: Lives of the Twelve Caesars

December 15, 2021

The Lives of the Twelve Caesars
(Modern Library, 1931) [121]
361 p.

The twelve Caesars are those who ruled Rome from 48 BC, when Julius Caesar defeated Pompey, to 96 AD, when Domitian was assassinated. Much of this ground, excluding the reigns of Julius and Augustus on the front end and the reigns of the three Flavian emperors at the back end, was covered, and covered better, by Tacitus. Suetonius is less probing and more anecdotal, which is mostly too bad but has a silver lining.

Suetonius typically begins by giving us the family history of the emperor, relates how he came to power, and gives an overview of his chief accomplishments in politics, military affairs, and religion. All of this is well and good, and would be particularly valuable to a reader coming to this history untutored. If you want Augustus’ reign in 10 pages, Suetonius is your man.

He then pivots to more personal commentary on each emperor. What sort of character did he have? What were his chief virtues and vices? Which family members did he murder? Which sexual perversions were his favourites? What entertainments did he stage in Rome? When he died, did the Roman people rejoice or weep?

This is where Suetonius really comes into his own. I know of no other historical source, for instance, that tells us that Julius Caesar had male pattern baldness, or that Augustus liked to eat cucumbers, or that Caligula operated a brothel in his own palace. He is truly the master of imperial gossip.

If Suetonius is to be believed — and it is important to stress that there is some question about this — then it is fair to say that the Roman emperors were a sick lot, mostly. Some considerably sicker than others, granted. The old nostrum about the corrupting powers of absolute power finds ample support in these pages. There are all the sexual crimes and misdemeanors: rumours swirled around Julius Caesar, who behind his back was dubbed “every woman’s man and every man’s woman”; even Augustus, the paradigm case of a good Roman emperor during this period, with a reputation for just governance, moderation, and intelligence, was apparently a Jeffrey Epstein-type who had his friends bring him young virgins to deflower; Tiberius seemed fairly level-headed and restrained at first, but when, in later years, he retired to Capri, he had his rooms painted with pornographic scenes and indulged a passion for pedophilia; Caligula, if possible, was even worse, and is best discreetly veiled. Speaking of veils, Nero wore one, along with a lovely dress, when he had himself married to another man. On and on it goes. The Flavians, starting with Vespasian, seem to have brought a measure of restraint on this front — or maybe Suetonius was still too close to them to write freely.

They were a violent lot too. To some extent this came with the territory; Romans had none of the qualms we have about capital punishment, and they applied it frequently. But the worst of the emperors seem to have relished the power they wielded over the lives of others. In Tiberius’ later years, we are told, “not a day passed without an execution”. Caligula would force parents to attend the executions of their children, and had a special passion for violent spectacles:

“He burned a writer of Atellan farces alive in the middle of the arena of the amphitheater, because of a humorous line of double meaning. When a Roman Knight on being thrown to the wild beasts loudly protested his innocence, he took him out, cut off his tongue, and put him back again.”

Nero, not content with the power to order deaths, was actually accused of venturing into the streets at night to randomly accost and murder civilians: “…he used to beat men as they came home from dinner, stabbing any who resisted him and throwing them into the sewers”.

And to lust and violence we can add greed: Caligula, again, was the worst offender, for, Suetonius says, “seized with a mania for feeling the touch of money, he would often pour out huge piles of gold pieces in some open place, walk over them barefooted, and wallow in them for a long time with his whole body”. Presumably this was in the early days of his reign, because he burned through the imperial treasury in just a few short years with his extravagant living.

Like Tacitus, Suetonius completely misses the importance of Christianity’s first forays into the Roman world. Christians are mentioned once, in connection with Nero, who, Suetonius comments, persecuted this “class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” But the persecution under Domitian, which looms large in Christian history for its many Roman martyrs, gets no notice.

All in all, these are very much “feet of clay” portraits of the emperors. Admittedly, they have a certain diverting quality, like a P.T. Barnum gallery of freaks. There is a reason Suetonius has remained as popular as he has over the centuries. But even the most lurid stories can be redeemed by a touching anecdote or a telling detail. I’d have been willing to read through a good deal of salacious gossip just to learn that Julius Caesar, freshly dead, was carried through the streets of Rome, “with one arm hanging down”.

Callender: Deformities of Samuel Johnson

December 7, 2021

Deformities of Samuel Johnson
James Thomson Callender
Available from

I don’t know about you, but having learned that a book exists with this title I am unable to resist it. Just as bad men have their sycophants, so great men have their critics, and James Thomas Callender, it seems, was a doozy. A cranky Scot with unfettered passions for scurrility and scandalmongering, he assembled this prosecutorial pamphlet with Dr Johnson in the dock. It is, to put the matter plainly, a hoot of a high order.

You might wonder just what aspects of Johnson’s personality or public influence so raised the ire of Callender. He is not shy to tell us. It is a little matter of

“his covetous and shameless prolixity; his corruptions of our language; his very limited literature; his entire want of general learning; his antipathy to rival merit; his paralytick reasoning; his solemn trifling pedantry; his narrow views of human life; his adherence to contradictions; his defiance of decency; and his contempt of truth.”

Of Johnson’s prolixity we can, perhaps, grant the justice of the charge, but obviously anyone intent on accusing him of “want of general learning” or “contempt of truth” is preparing something special, and Callender does not disappoint.

The book actually begins rather promisingly: “Man is endowed with sagacity sufficient to discover his errors, but seldom has fortitude to forsake them.” It is an aphorism worthy of Johnson himself. Among the errors that Johnson cannot forsake are numbered his slovenliness (“his personal appearance cannot much recommend him”) and his inability to speak well in good company (“his conversation would shock the rudest savage”) — that same conversation, of course, which has delighted generations of discerning readers. Taken together, Callender finds in Johnson affirmation of a popular proverb:

“His ignorance, his misconduct, and his success, are a striking proof that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.”

Not content with general accusations, Callender inspires admiration by the assiduity with which he has combed through Johnson’s publications, searching out specific instances of ignorance and idiocy, and the conscientiousness with which he has presented them for our perusal. There is, for example, this atrocious specimen:

[Johnson wrote] ‘M’Leod left them lying dead by families as they stood.’

upon which Cellender comments

This is profound; for no man can stand and lie at the same time. The line ought to be read thus: ‘M’Leod left them lying dead by families as they HAD stood.’

And who can deny that he is right? Zing! There are many more examples of this kind, some even more horrible.

But it is when Callender turns to Johnson’s Dictionary that his case really takes flight. The dictionary as a whole Callender judges a “load of blunders”, concluding that the definitions fall into three categories, “the erroneous, œnigmatical, and superfluous.” Among the former are, for instance, Johnson’s definitions of “fish” or “bird”, from which we might conclude that an alligator is a fish and a bat a bird. Zing! The œnigmatical definitions are especially numerous, for Johnson defines, we learn, a veritable blizzard of words “to be found in no language under heaven”. Just the ‘A’ section, for instance, supplies this delightful concatenation of multisyllables:

“Abacus, Abandonement, Abarticulation, Abcedarian, Abcedary, Aberrant, Aberuncate, Abject, v. a. Ablactate, Ablactation, Ablation, Ablegate, Ablegation, Ablepsy, Abluent, Abrasion, Abscissa, Absinthiated, Abitention, Absterge, Accessariness, Accidentalness, Accipient, Acclivious, Accolent, Accompanable, Accroach, Accustomarily, Acroamatical, Acronycal, Acroters, or Acroteria, Acuate, Aculerate, Addulce, Addenography, Ademption, Adiaphory, Adjectitious, Adition, Abstergent, Acceptilation, Adjugate, Adjument, Adjunction, Adjunctive, Adjutor, Adjutory, Adjuvant, Adjuvate, Admensuration, Adminicle, Adminicular, Admix, Admonishment, Admurmuration, Adscititious, Adstriction, Advesperate, Adulator, Adulterant, Adulterine, Adumbrant, Advolation, Advolution, Adustible, Aerology, Aeromancy, Aerometry, Aeroscopy, Affabrous, Affectuous, Affixion, Afflation, Afflatus, Agglomerate, Agnation, Agnition, Agreeingness, Alate, Abb, Alegar, Alligate, Alligation, Allocution, Amalgmate, Amandation, Ambidexterity, Ambilogy, Ambiloquous, Ambry, Ambustion, Amende, Amercer, Amethodical, Amphibological, Amphibologically, Amphisch, Amplificate, Amygdalate, Amygdaline, Anacamptick, Anacampticks, Anaclacticks, Anadiplosis, Anagogetical, Anagrammatize, Anamorphosis, Anaphora, Anastomosis, Anastrope, Anathematical, Androgynal, Androgynally, Androgynus, Anemography, Anemometer, Anfractuousness, Angelicalness, Angiomonospermous, Angularity, Angularness, Anhelation, Aniented, Anileness, Anility, Animative, Annumerate, Annumeration, Annunciate, Anomalously, Ansated, Antaphroditick, Antapoplectick, Antarthritick, Antasthmatick, Anteact, Auscultation, Antemundane, Antepenult, Antepredicament, Anthology, Anthroposophy, Anthypnotick, Antichristianity, Auxiliation, Antinephritick, Antinomy, Antiquatedness, Apert, Apertly, Aphilanthrophy, Aphrodisiacal, Aphrodosiack, Apocope, Apocryphalness, Apomecometry, Appellatory, Apsis, Aptate, Aptote, Aqua, Aquatile, Aqueousness, Aquose, Aquosity, Araignee, Aratory, Arbuscle, Archchanter, Archaiology, Archailogick, Archeus, Arcuation, Arenose, Arenulous, Argil, Argillaceous, Argute, Arietate, Aristocraticallness, Armental, Armentine, Armigerous, Armillary, Armipotence, Arrentation, Arreptitious, Arrison, Authentickness, Arrosion, Articular, Articulateness, Austral, Arundinaceous, Arundineous, Asbestine, Ascriptitious, Asinary, Asperation, Asperifolious, Aspirate, v. a. Assassinator, Assumptive, Astonishingness, Astrography, Attiguous, Attinge, Aucupation, Avowee.”

I told you he was thorough. And Callender even has a bit of fun with this list, imagining for us how an ESL student using Johnson’s dictionary as an authority might write:

“‘An Admurmuration has long wandered about the world, that the pensioner’s political principles are anfractuous. Their anfractuousness, their insipience, and their turpitude, are no longer amphibological. His nefarious repercussion of obloquy must contaminate, and obumbrate, and who can tell but it may even aberuncate his feculent and excrementitious celebrity. His perspicacity will see without comity, or hilarity, that his character as an author and a gentleman, requires resuscitation, for it is neither immane nor immarcessible. This is a homogeneous truth. Let him distend, like the flaccid sides of a football, his sal, his sapience, and his powers of ratiocination. The mellifluous and numerose cadence of equiponderant periods cannot ensure him from a luxation, a laceration, and a resiliency of his adminicular concatenation with the rugged mercantile race. The loss of this adscititious adminicle would make the sage’s impeccable, but lugubrious bosom vibrate with the horrors of dilution and dereliction. His organs of vision would gush with salsamentarious torrents of spherical particles, of equal diameters, and of equal specific gravities, as Dr Cheyne observes—their smoothness—their sphericity—their frictions, and their hardness,’ &c.”

I told you this was a hoot. But I think my favourite of Callender’s criticisms, because it touches on Johnson’s real, endearing personality, is his reliance on high-brow literary authorities for his examples of word usage. Writes Callender:

“He tells us, on Shakespeare’s authority, that two is, ‘one and one,’ Pope and Creech are quoted to prove, that three is, ‘two and one.’ Four is, ‘two and two;’ and, if you have the least doubt that ‘four and one’ make five, or that five is, ‘the half of ten,’ you will be silenced by the name of Dryden. Six is, ‘twice three, one more than five.’ Seven is, ‘four and three, one more than six.’ Eight is, ‘twice four, a word of number.’ Nine is, ‘one more than eight.’ Ninth is, ‘that which precedes the tenth.’ Ten is, ‘the decimal number, twice five.’ Tenth is, ‘first after the ninth, the ordinal of ten.’ Eleven is, ‘ten and one.’ Eleventh is, ‘the next in order to the tenth, and is derived from eleven.’ Twelve is, ‘two and ten;’ and twelfth, ‘second after the tenth, the ordinal of twelve.’ Thirteen is, ‘ten and three.’ Fourteen is, ‘four and ten.’ Fifteen is, ‘five and ten.’ Fifteen, ‘the ordinal of fifteen, the fifth after the tenth;’ and, if you entertain any suspicion as to the verity of these definitions, read over Boyle, Brown, Dryden, Moses, Raleigh, Sandys, Shakespeare, and Bacon. Thirdly is, in the ‘third place.’ Thrice, ‘three times,’ threefold, ‘thrice repeated, consisting of three.’ Threepence, (three and pence) ‘a small silver coin, valued at thrice a penny.’ Threescore, a. (three and score) ‘thrice twenty, sixty.’ Pope, Raleigh, Wiseman, Shakespeare, Brown, Dryden, and Spencer, are cited to convince you, that these explanations are accurate.”

That is simply wonderful. God bless Johnson, and God bless Callender for his efforts, however malintentioned. This little book may be little more than a curiosity, but there is a time and place for happy, idle diversions, and these Deformities of Samuel Johnson provide them in abundance.

Lucan: Pharsalia

November 30, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wodehouse: Galahad at Blandings

November 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirk: Old House of Fear

October 31, 2021

Old House of Fear
Russell Kirk
(Criterion, 2019) [1961]
230 p.

“When you play with things from the abyss, you run risks.”

The ghost stories of Russell Kirk are wonderful creations. As Halloween approached this year I got a hankering for something in that line, and I recalled that he had written this novel whose title promised something suitably spine-chilling. I took it up with keen anticipation.

I was slightly put out, therefore, when, in the early going, our main character, Hugh Logan, was told for the first time about the grand old titular house :

“But it’s a brave old house, Hugh. And the name is Gaelic, not English: ‘fear’ is spelled ‘fir’ or ‘fhir,’ sometimes, and it means ‘man’ — Old House of Fear is Old House of Man.”

You don’t say? And, for a time, it seemed that this bait-and-switch might be the actual tack the novel was taking. But I am happy to report that as the story progressed the bottom gradually deepened, and strange shapes began to appear in the depths, fleeting at first, but growing bolder.

The Old House is situated on Carnglass, a (sadly fictional) island in the outer Hebrides. An old dying lady lives there, and a wealthy American banker who wants the house sends his lawyer — our hero, Hugh — to negotiate the purchase in person. But the island, he learns, has a bad reputation, and what is waiting for him when he eventually arrives is not at all what he expected. He is not the only party intent on acquiring the house, for one.

It’s a splendid setting, wild and isolated, a natural place for primordial powers to find a refuge from the sleek and brisk powers of the modern world. Kirk once spoke of the “fearful joy” of supernatural tales, and this story conveys that joy, even if not quite so thoroughly or successfully as his best ghostly stories.

Kirk, in his theorizing mode (and of course he is better known for his political and philosophical writing), contended that supernatural tales were better suited to allegorical or symbolic story-telling than more characteristically modern genres such as science fiction. And in passages such as this one:

“With growing speed, the brooding spectre of terror, almost palpable in Carnglass, was enveloping the world. This island was the microcosm of modern existence.”

he hints rather strongly that his story is open to that kind of interpretation. It’s not hard to make headway: on Hugh’s arrival the Old House is already besieged, and even occupied, by a troupe of half-wit criminals who espouse Marxism and have the violent instincts to back it up. Their leader, Dr Jackman, has even been trying to proselytize a young woman who occupies the Old House:

Dr. Jackman did not neglect Miss Mary MacAskival. Upon her he bestowed much valuable time endeavoring to instruct her in progressive social views and in a proper understanding of occult lore… He talked politics and necromancy to her, a queer mixture. The one, she thought, was as mad as the other, or perhaps the politics was a little the madder.

That’s pretty funny in its own right, but it opens up an allegorical reading if we’re so inclined: we see the Old House of Man, with its elusive, uncanny depths, surrounded and infiltrated by crude, thinly rational ideologues with guns. That’s not a bad allegory of modern existence, and it’s certainly a Kirkian one.

Naturally, ideologues with guns cannot, in this story, carry the day.

I enjoyed the book. I did find that the chases and shoot-outs got too much limelight, and the spooky bits too little, and on those grounds I prefer his short stories. But the sense of place is very effectively developed, and I grew quite fond of Mary MacAskival, who charmed me as much as she did our hero. A good book.


Two final notes. First, I stumbled in stupefaction when I read, after a quick shooting episode, that “there were two less snipers to worry about”. Surely that ought to be “two fewer snipers,” no? Kirk wouldn’t make that mistake, would he?

Second, I learned an interesting new word: hoyden. “She was a hoyden of sorts, but quite innocent.” It means “a high-spirited, boisterous, or saucy girl.” A useful word.