Archive for the 'Books' Category

Wodehouse: Uncle Fred in the Springtime

January 21, 2020

Uncle Fred in the Springtime
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2004) [1939]
275 p. Second reading.

Europe stood poised on the brink of war when Wodehouse, with characteristic prescience, penned this discerning novel of false identities, high-stakes gambling, domestic strife, and oversized pigs in bathrooms.

Once again, Blandings Castle becomes Grand Central Station as a host of characters descend upon it seeking one thing or another: one wants money to pay off a debt, another needs funds to start an onion soup bar, another must charm a fiancée’s grouchy uncle, one is a hired spy, and Uncle Fred — well, Uncle Fred is just looking for a good time.

I defy anyone to summarize the plot, which is unusually complicated even by Wodehousian standards, with an impressive tangle of overlapping and intersecting machinations driving it forward. More than once, eggs are thrown at those who sing “Loch Lomond”. Serene above the fray is the majestic form of the Empress of Blandings, ingesting a bar of soap, a froth of bubbles ornamenting her snout.

The central character in the book is Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, 5th Earl of Ickenham — Uncle Fred to us. He had made one previous appearance in Wodehouse’s world, in a short story, but this was the first novel to feature him, and a fine creation he is: dauntless in difficult corners, a shameless and creative liar, and always eager for mischief.

I was cheered to find that several characters from the Jeeves novels made fleeting appearances in this one, most notably the eminent loony-doctor Sir Roderick Glossop, whom Uncle Fred spent much of the novel impersonating.

All in all, it’s a very entertaining book. I have a certain affection for it because it was one of the first, and may have been the actual first, Wodehouse novels I ever read. I don’t remember why I chose it at the time; probably I just happened to see this nice edition for sale and thought it would be as good a place to start as any, which was at least partly true: with Wodehouse, starting anywhere is better than not starting at all.

Webster: The Duchess of Malfi

January 14, 2020

The Duchess of Malfi
John Webster
(Bloomsbury Methuen, 2014) [c.1613]
192 p.

This is auspicious. Almost my first steps off the beaten trail in seventeenth century drama have turned up a play that seems an outright masterpiece.


The Duchess is a young widow. She falls in love with a man below her social class, and marries him in secret. Meanwhile her brothers, anxious to avoid just such a demeaning connection, forbid her to remarry. When the marriage is eventually discovered, violence erupts, and, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, the play ends with the stage littered with bodies.

The play has wonderful characters. The Duchess herself is a strong and noble character, winsome and beautiful, and the arc she follows from admirably strong woman to tragic heroine over the course of the play is wonderfully handled. Her elder brother, a Cardinal, is a fine model of the worldly and corrupt Renaissance churchman (and not only of the Renaissance!). Her younger brother, Ferdinand, is a piece of work: prone to fits of violent emotion, there is something unsettlingly carnal and possessive about his guarding the Duchess against remarriage. The Duchess’ secret husband, Antonio, is open-mannered and honest, a man whose entry into the Duchess’ orbit puts one in mind of a lamb going to slaughter.

But perhaps the play’s greatest character is Bosola, a servant of the Cardinal who begins by spying on the Duchess and ends drenched in blood. His deeds are evil, but he has doubts and misgivings about them that flower into tragic regret. He is one of those rare birds: a sympathetic villain. Here, for example, is his speech at the death of the Duchess:

BOSOLA.  O, she’s gone again! there the cords of life broke.
O sacred innocence, that sweetly sleeps
On turtles’ feathers, whilst a guilty conscience
Is a black register wherein is writ
All our good deeds and bad, a perspective
That shows us hell!  That we cannot be suffer’d
To do good when we have a mind to it!
This is manly sorrow;
These tears, I am very certain, never grew
In my mother’s milk.  My estate is sunk
Below the degree of fear:  where were
These penitent fountains while she was living?
O, they were frozen up!  Here is a sight
As direful to my soul as is the sword
Unto a wretch hath slain his father.
(IV, 2)

It is a great moment: the villain weeps at the state of his own soul. And it is a great speech too, seeming to burst from him in a moment of passion and moral clarity.

I remarked when I read a few of Ben Jonson’s plays that the poetry seemed world’s away from Shakespearean verse. Not so in this play; on the contrary, I was again and again reminded of the Bard. Here, for example, is an exchange between the Duchess and her brothers in the first Act, in which the Duchess says she’ll not remarry, and the brothers, for their own reasons, doubt her:

DUCHESS.                          Will you hear me?  I’ll never marry.
CARDINAL.           So most widows say;  But commonly that motion lasts no longer
Than the turning of an hour-glass:  the funeral sermon
And it end both together.
FERDINAND.                 Now hear me:
You live in a rank pasture, here, i’ the court;
There is a kind of honey-dew that’s deadly;
‘T will poison your fame; look to ‘t.  Be not cunning;
For they whose faces do belie their hearts
Are witches ere they arrive at twenty years,
Ay, and give the devil suck.
DUCHESS.  This is terrible good counsel.
FERDINAND.  Hypocrisy is woven of a fine small thread,
Subtler than Vulcan’s engine: yet, believe ‘t,
Your darkest actions, nay, your privat’st thoughts,
Will come to light.
CARDINAL.            You may flatter yourself,
And take your own choice; privately be married
Under the eaves of night——
FERDINAND.                  Think ‘t the best voyage
That e’er you made; like the irregular crab,
Which, though ‘t goes backward, thinks that it goes right
Because it goes its own way:  but observe,
Such weddings may more properly be said
To be executed than celebrated.
(I, 3)

Even just from this short segment, we have three well-delineated characters with definite points of view. We have neat concision (“The funeral sermon / And it end both together.”), a memorable simile (the crab), an aphorism (“For they whose faces…”), and some delightful wordplay (the last two lines). It is very good poetry and very good drama, and to me, at least, it feels quite close to the verse Shakespeare wrote.

One difference, though, between the two is that Webster’s characters (in this play) generally have short speeches; as a rule, no one character holds the stage for very long. The few exceptions to this tendency are interesting though. In this one, for example, the Duchess tells a moralistic fable to illustrate the fickleness of worldly judgments of rank and worth:

DUCHESS.  I prithee, who is greatest?  Can you tell?
Sad tales befit my woe:  I’ll tell you one.
A salmon, as she swam unto the sea.
Met with a dog-fish, who encounters her
With this rough language; ‘Why art thou so bold
To mix thyself with our high state of floods,
Being no eminent courtier, but one
That for the calmest and fresh time o’ th’ year
Dost live in shallow rivers, rank’st thyself
With silly smelts and shrimps?  And darest thou
Pass by our dog-ship without reverence?’
‘O,’ quoth the salmon, ‘sister, be at peace:
Thank Jupiter we both have pass’d the net!
Our value never can be truly known,
Till in the fisher’s basket we be shown:
I’ th’ market then my price may be the higher,
Even when I am nearest to the cook and fire.’
So to great men the moral may be stretched;
Men oft are valu’d high, when they’re most wretched.—
But come, whither you please.  I am arm’d ‘gainst misery;
Bent to all sways of the oppressor’s will:
There’s no deep valley but near some great hill.
(III, 5)


It would be an interesting exercise (which I’m sure has been done) to go through the play cataloguing references to death. My guess is that it is saturated. Death lurks from behind curtains and casts its shadow from the footlights before eventually assaulting and conquering the stage. Here’s one example, spoken by the play’s truest and gentlest man as he stands in the ruins of a church:

ANTONIO.       I do love these ancient ruins.
We never tread upon them but we set
Our foot upon some reverend history;
And, questionless, here in this open court,
Which now lies naked to the injuries
Of stormy weather, some men lie interr’d
Lov’d the church so well, and gave so largely to ‘t,
They thought it should have canopied their bones
Till dooms-day.  But all things have their end;
Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death that we have.
(V, 3)

But though death snatches away most of the principal characters by the end of the final Act, the very last speech, by Bosola, rescues the play from mere despair and destruction by pointing up a larger moral:

These wretched eminent things
Leave no more fame behind ’em, than should one
Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow;
As soon as the sun shines, it ever melts,
Both form and matter.  I have ever thought
Nature doth nothing so great for great men
As when she’s pleas’d to make them lords of truth:
Integrity of life is fame’s best friend,
Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.
(V, 5)

Alas, but few of these characters can claim that crown!


The play premiered at Blackfriars in London, and played also at the Globe Theatre. Apparently it was one of the first English plays to be performed indoors, with lighting effects. (One scene takes place in complete darkness.) So, at least, was the claim made by the producers of a filmed stage performance that I had the benefit of seeing, and which I highly recommend.

It might be that The Duchess of Malfi is not quite up to Shakespearean tragic standards, but I’d need to spend more time with it before I’d be confident about that. In the meantime, it has been an altogether marvellous discovery for me.

Favourites of 2019: Books

December 28, 2019

It is gratifying to arrive at year-end and discover that, against the odds, I have somehow managed to read quite a nice selection of books over the course of the past twelve months. Today I’d like to comment briefly on those I most appreciated.


I have had three reading projects on the go this year: the first, a multi-year effort to read the complete surviving body of Old English poetry (in translation) I finished up in February. This was a very rewarding project that brought many delights and surprises with it, and I have written about it at some length in this space.

This was Year 3 in my on-going reading project in Roman history and literature. The entire year I passed in the company of the Augustan poets of the first century before Christ, reading the entire surviving poetic corpi of Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus. Of these, the work I enjoyed the most was probably Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but what most surprised me was the poetry of Propertius, a poet whom I’d heard little enough about but whose delightful, passionate, dramatic poetry strongly appealed to me. I am looking forward to continuing this project in 2020, when I plan to sojourn first with Seneca’s plays and letters before taking up the historical works of Tacitus.

A third reading project, launched in the latter part of the year, is focused on plays from the early modern period (roughly 1550-1800). I’ve started on the stage in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and, of the half-dozen or so plays I’ve got under my belt so far, the most impressive has been John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a masterful tragedy that I found totally convincing.

I suppose a fourth, less formal, reading project has been my tour through the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I began the year reading the annals of Psmith and close out the year mid-stream in the chronicles of Blandings Castle. But it seems churlish to deliberate about which of these choice morsels is most deserving of praise, so I’ll not try.


I tackled two long novels this year, and mercifully they were both worth the effort. The Tale of Genji is an 11th century Japanese classic that inducts the reader into the hyper-refined world of the Heian court, where elaborate manners and self-control are the order of the day but, in subdued tones, all the passions and interests of human life are present under the surface. It’s a beautifully written (or beautifully translated) masterpiece that I found challenging but worthwhile.

The second was quite different: in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo I found a gripping tale of injustice provoking a long and patient revenge, and I relished every page. It’s a story that seems tailor-made for the big screen, and somebody should really make a film about it. Hey!

I also read — well, finished — for the first time this year C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, and, despite my mild allergy to science fiction, I found much to admire in it. Like the medieval authors whom Lewis so admired, he found a way to pack a good deal of “sound instruction” into his fiction, and I liked that these books grappled with weighty philosophical and theological themes.

The last fiction book I’ll highlight is Richard Adams’ Watership Down. This was a great favourite of my sister’s when I was growing up, but I, for whatever reason, never read it. I ought to have done so. The story is exciting, but Adams takes the time to develop his characters in rich detail, and I loved how he created for his rabbits an elaborate social and religous culture. The book is also a pretty thoughtful meditation on politics and the common good, for those — not me — with a talent for thinking about such things.


I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to find the time and mental energy to engage with substantial non-fiction, but I did finish a few good books. Two were re-reads: Lewis’ The Abolition of Man is an evergreen meditation on the foundations of moral judgment and on the probable consequences of the modern habit of pouring acid on those foundations; Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture is an essential book that excavates an ancient account of what a well-lived human life looks like, and what practices sustain it. These are two books to read again and again.

I spent a lot of time this year on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility, a learned meditation on the nature and goals of education, especially as conceived prior to John Dewey; that was another country, and Hicks is an excellent guide. I also spent many a happy hour paging back and forth through Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God, a volume that I can confidently recommend to readers in search of an accessible and concise treatment of the basics of philosophical theology. Finally, I enjoyed reading Jacques Barzun’s analysis of Romanticism as a cultural and intellectual movement in European history, and in human society more generally, in his Classic, Romantic, and Modern.


That’s the kind of year it’s been for me. As usual, I’ve made a histogram of the original years of publication of the books I read this year, and it looks like this:

Not a bad spread this year, helped, of course, by the Roman, medieval, and early modern reading projects. Interesting that the 18th century almost got missed entirely.



Longest book: Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (1240 p.)

Oldest book: Horace, Satires (c.30 BC)

Newest book: Harts, The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla (Oct 2019)

Multiple books by same author: Thornton Burgess (11), Shakespeare (10), Wodehouse (6), Ovid (5), Horace (4), C.S. Lewis (4).


Around and about

December 19, 2019

A few interesting articles that have come my way in the past month or so:

  • At The New Atlantis, Aaron Kheriaty reviews the recent history of the spread of assisted suicide and euthanasia, with a special eye on how medical societies have aided and abetted the process by assuming a stance of neutrality toward these “procedures”.
  • In physics news, a new experiment in Germany has put an improved upper limit on the mass of neutrinos. For a long time it was thought they might be massless, like photons, but the discovery of neutrino oscillations implied that they must have some non-zero, albeit very tiny mass, and this new result assures us that they weigh no more than about 1/500000 of the mass of an electron. Still, this has interesting implications for cosmology.
  • Also in the physics world: the first detection of gamma-ray bursts by a ground-based telescope. Gamma-ray bursts are amazing astrophysical events that can release in 1 second as much energy as our sun will generate in its entire lifetime.
  • Some months ago, we read The Tale of Genji. A manuscript of a very early copy of a portion of the book was recently discovered.
  • A few years ago a big media splash was made by a study which found that children with religious upbringings were less generous then their unchurched counterparts. Since religion poisons everything, this result was reasonable, right? But it turned out that the data showed no such thing, and the study has been retracted. In fact, the associations of religiosity in childhood with psychological and social health measures generally run the other way.
  • Daniel Kennelly writes an engaging essay marking the 60th anniversary of A Canticle for Leibowitz.
  • At the New York Review of Books, Matthew Aucoin writes a fascinating account of Verdi’s two late Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff.

For an envoi, here is Desdemona’s “Willow Song” from Otello, sung by Rosanna Carteri in a 1950’s television production:

Pitre: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary

December 12, 2019

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary
Brant Pitre
(Image, 2018)
240 p.

Mary, Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, Theotokos, Our Lady, Queen of Heaven — she has, in Catholic and Orthodox theology and devotion, an honoured and prominent place. Protestants, on the other hand, generally pay her little attention, and, when they do, tend to regard the Marian doctrines and Marian piety as pseudo-pagan survivals or medieval corruptions of Bible-based, New Testament Christianity. Brant Pitre’s fascinating book throws a spanner in those works by making the case for the Catholic and Orthodox view solely on the basis of Biblical texts.

The key to his approach is reliance on Biblical typology: the ancient practice, embedded in the New Testament itself and common among the Church Fathers, of reading the New Testament in light of the Old. Jesus, for instance, is presented in the New Testament as a “new Adam” or a “new Moses”, and those connections are meant to help us understand him. In a similar way, Pitre argues that the New Testament authors — and he draws principally on the Gospels and the Book of Revelation — present Mary in a way that intentionally connects her to a variety of Old Testament figures and motifs, and that the Marian doctrines (Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity, Mother of God, etc) are rooted in these same Old Testament types. Essentially he asks us to read the New Testament as it would have have been read by a first century Jew, who would have known the Old Testament well and would have noticed the allusions and resonances that we often miss, and then to hear in those resonances the distant but unmistakeable sounds of Marian piety as it would eventually unfold.

And so, for example, he argues that just as Jesus is presented as the “new Adam” so Mary is presented, especially in St John’s Gospel and in Revelation, as the “new Eve”, a woman who contradicts and undoes the damage wrought by Eve, and then he proceeds to argue that her status as the “new Eve” is the seed of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Or he argues that Mary is associated (in St Luke and in Revelation) with the Ark of the Covenant, for she bears within herself the Word of God, just as the Ark contained the words of God on stone tablets. Mary’s special role in the Church as universal intercessor (“pray for us, now and at the hour of our death”) is rooted in her role as Queen Mother of the Church; the New Testament connects her with the Queen in the Davidic kingdom (who was indeed the mother of the king, not his wife). He makes a very interesting case that the New Testament also presents Mary as a “new Rachel”, who was, in the first century, seen as a mother figure for all the children of Israel, just as Mary is honoured as mother of all Christians.

The strengths of Pitre’s close reading of the New Testament texts are most evident in a chapter on Mary’s perpetual virginity. Protestants deny this doctrine in part because the New Testament makes a reference to “the brothers of Jesus”. The usual Catholic response to this objection is that “brothers” did not, for the Gospel writers, necessarily mean siblings, but could mean cousins or other relations. Pitre puts meat on this answer, however, by showing that the same men who are called Jesus’ “brothers” are, in other Gospels, said to be the sons of “the other Mary” who, we learn from yet another Gospel, was “the wife of Clopas”. An early Christian source tells us that Clopas was the brother of Joseph, which would explain why, in another place in the Gospels, “the other Mary” is called “the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus” — they were sisters-in-law, in which case the “brothers” were actually cousins. QED. I’d never seen those dots connected before.

There is a lot of Biblical scholarship in the book — copious footnotes, many of them, I noted with interest, from Protestant scholars — but the main arguments are presented accessibly. It is a book meant for wide readership. The nature of the argument it is making — that the New Testament contains allusions to the Old Testament — is necessarily a bit slippery, but he bolsters his case by showing how his understanding of these texts and their significance was part of early Christian theology.

The most important conclusion to be drawn from the book is that, if his arguments are correct, the New Testament authors already saw Mary, in nascent form, very much as Catholic and Orthodox Christians see her today, and that the long tradition of Marian doctrine and piety in the Church is in strong continuity with the New Testament. It’s a stimulating read.

Propertius: Poems

December 7, 2019

Sextus Propertius
Translated from the Latin by Guy Lee
(Oxford World’s Classics, 1994) [c.30-15 BC]
xxv + 205 p.

Propertius is one of the lesser-known poets of the Latin Golden Age. Born in about 50 BC, he was just a young lad when Caesar was assassinated, and was about 20 years old when Octavian finally defeated Marc Antony to bring the civil war to a conclusion. He was brought under the patronage of Maecenas, and so moved in the same circles as Virgil and Horace. While in his 20s he published three books of poetry that, as we’ll see, constitute something like a single artistic project, and then, in about 15 BC, he completed a fourth book of poems. We know little about his later life; a reference to him in a poem of Ovid, dated around 1 BC, implies that he had by then died.

Propertius was primarily a love poet, and his first three books all focus on his love for a particular woman, Cynthia. Who she was, or even whether she was a real person, we do not really know, but Propertius’ obsession with her gives his poems an intensity and a unity that make them very accessible and engaging. It is passionate poetry, much after the manner of Catullus’ great Lesbia poems.

Just as the course of true love never does run smooth, so also the course of ill-fated, inconstant, unhealthy, and uncertain love can be a rough ride. Propertius’ experience with Cynthia has convinced him that love is mad and painful, a “wound”:

Whoever he was who painted Love a child
Don’t you think he had marvellous hands?
First he saw that lovers live senselessly
And that light passions lose great goods.

Nor was he mistaken in adding flighty wings
And making him a god who flies from human hearts;
For we are tossed about on alternating waves
And the breeze, for us, keeps changing direction.

Rightly too is Love’s hand armed with barbed arrows
And a Cretan quiver hangs down from each shoulder:
For he strikes while we’re off guard, before we see the foe,
And after that wound no one is well. (II, 11)

He has moments when he is inspired by the glory of love, when he professes his unfailing faithfulness to Cynthia, and imagines her echoing the same to him:

There let them come in troops, the beautiful heroines
Picked by Argives from the spoils of Troy,
No beauty of theirs for me could match yours, Cynthia —
Indeed (may Mother Earth in justice grant it)
Though fate remand you to a long old age,
Yet to my tears will your bones be dear.

If only the living you could feel this for my ashes,
Then death, wherever, for me would have no sting.
Ah Cynthia, how I fear that love’s iniquity
Scorning the tomb may drag you from my dust
And force you, though loth, to dry the falling tears;
A faithful girl can be bent by constant threats.
So while we may let us delight in loving;
No love is ever long enough. (I, 19)

But it is telling that he can imagine Cynthia faithful only to his bones and ashes, for in life she gave him little enough satisfaction. The poems relate how she absconded with a rich rival suitor, went away on holiday without him, failed to visit when he was ill, tormented him with false promises, locked the door against him, and generally treated him like rubbish. His hapless love for her remains, however:

Happy the man who could weep in his girl’s presence
(Love can enjoy the sprinkling of tears)
Or who, when scorned, could redirect his ardour
(There is also joy in bondage transferred).
My fate is neither to love another nor break with her:
Cynthia was first and Cynthia shall be last. (I, 12)

He suffers fierce bouts of jealousy, issuing warnings to other men who come within her orbit:

She’ll prove no flighty girl in the encounter;
You’ll find her anger is no joke.
Even if she’s not resistant to your prayers,
She’ll still bring you troubles — by the thousand.
You’ll sleep no more. Her image will not leave you.
Her moods make proud men puppets. (I, 5)

Bereft of her affections, he comes to cherish her abuse and anger as a sign, he hopes, of concealed love:

Sweet for me was the fight by yesterday’s lamplight
And all the manic abuse you voiced
When, mad with wine, you overturned the table and flung
Full wine-cups at me in your fury.
Come on then, don’t be afraid, attack my hair
And scratch my face with those beautiful nails.
Bring fire and threaten to burn my eyes out.
Rip my tunic, strip my chest bare.
Naturally I diagnose true passion; no girl
Not deeply in love is so upset. (III, 8)

But at times when even these slender hopes desert him, his thoughts turn startlingly dark and violent:

But you shall not escape; you have to die with me.
The blood of both shall drip from this same blade.
Though such a death for me will be dishonourable,
I’ll die dishonoured to make sure you die. (II, 8)

Mercifully this dark fantasy remains only a fantasy, but the third book concludes the cycle of Cynthia poems with a vicious farewell curse:

Farewell now to the doorstep that sheds tears at my words
And the door I never smashed despite my anger.
But you — may age and the years you’ve hidden weigh you down
And wrinkles come to spoil your beauty!
May your desire then be to root out the white hairs,
While the mirror, alas, accuses you of wrinkles.
Excluded in your turn may you suffer pride’s disdain,
A crone complaining you’re done by as you did!
These curses my prophetic page has sung for you;
So learn to dread your beauty’s aftermath! (III, 25)


This is good stuff: high drama, wrenching passion, flights of fancy, bitter disappointment! His preoccupation with Cynthia, examining their affair from this angle and then from that, gives the whole collection a cohesiveness that makes the poems read something like a diary. I really enjoyed them.

The fourth book, in which he moves on to other subjects (although Cynthia does show up a few times, a memory and ghostly presence), was less attractive to me. The poems are on mythological or historical subjects (including one about Octavian’s victory over Marc Antony at Actium), or spoken in the voice of imagined characters rather than his own, and I found them markedly less interesting.


Like Horace, Propertius has a talent for personal, small scale poetry. In one amusing poem he imagines himself setting out to write an epic poem on an important subject, but just as he stoops to drink from that noble stream of inspiration he is interrupted by Apollo:

‘Idiot, what right have you to such a stream? And who
Told you to turn your hand to epic?
There’s not a hope of fame, Propertius, for you here;
Your little wheels must groove soft meadows.
Let your slim volume be displayed on bedside tables
And ready by lonely girls waiting for their lovers.
Why has your page diverged from its appointed round?
You must not overload the rowboat of your wit.
With one oar feather water, with the other sand,
And you’ll be safe. Most flounder in mid-ocean.’ (III, 3)

In other words, he knew his own limits. The introductory essay to this volume discusses the political side of his poetry, which is not entirely absent. (Anyone moving in Augustus’ circle was writing politically charged poetry whether they wanted to or not. Propertius seems to have navigated those treacherous waters adeptly.) His ambitions were not to be great, as some measure greatness, but to be a great poet who would be remembered:

Yet what the envious crowd withholds from me in life
Honour will pay me after death at double interest.
Everything after death is magnified by age:
A name beyond the grave sounds better in the mouth. (III, 1)

Poignant words, considering that he was largely forgotten for a long time, cast into the shadow of his great contemporaries. Renaissance scholars took some interest in his work after long neglect, and the poetry of Petrarch and Goethe was influenced to some modest extent by him. Ezra Pound wrote a cycle of poems in “homage” to him, and he has received a number of English translations in recent decades. Still, it is hard to think that this flagging and marginal fame was what he hoped for.

Let’s do our small part to remember him by reading one poem in its entirety, a poem in which he celebrates the immortality to be hoped for in poetry:

Let us return meanwhile to our song’s familiar round —
To touch and delight a girl with its music.

Orpheus, they say, bewitched wild animals and held
Back rushing rivers with his Thracian lyre.
Cithaeron’s rocks, hustled to Thebes by music’s art,
Of their own accord combined to bond a wall.
Yes, and below wild Etna Galatea turned
Her spray-drenched steeds toward Polyphemus’ songs.
What wonder, by the grace of Bacchus and Apollo,
If girls in plenty worship my words?

Though my house is not supported on Taenarian columns
And has no ivory room with gilded beams,
Nor do my fruit-trees match the orchards of Phaeacia
Nor artificial grot drip Marcian waters,
Still the Muses befriend me, my songs are dear to readers
And Calliope unwearied by my dances.
Lucky the girl who is celebrated in my book;
Each song will be a reminder of her beauty.

Neither the expense of Pyramids reared to the stars
Nor Jove’s Elean home copying heaven
Nor rich gold fortune of the Mausoleum
Escape the extreme necessity of death.
Or flame or rain will dispossess their honour, or
They’ll fall by thrust of years and their own weight.
But age will not destroy the name achieved by talent;
Talent’s glory stands — immortal. (III, 2)

Jonson: Plays

November 26, 2019

Volpone, or The Fox
The Alchemist
Ben Jonson
(Random House, 1938) [1606, 1610]
225 p.

With these two plays I launch a modestly scaled reading project in early(ish) modern drama which begins in Shakespeare’s London and will eventually spread to cover England, France, and perhaps Spain up to roughly 1800.

Jonson was a slightly younger contemporary of Shakespeare, and the two were, I am told, rivals to some extent. (“Volpone” actually premiered in 1606 at the Globe Theatre in London.) I wanted to read a few of his plays in part because I am interested in getting to know Jonson for his own sake, but also, I admit, as a roundabout way of getting to know Shakespeare better, by seeing how his own style and approach differed from those of a close contemporary.

These two plays were written when Jonson was in middle age, already an accomplished playwright and poet. Both are classified as comedies, although the comedy on offer is far removed from the happy whimsy of plays like “As You Like It” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; a closer Shakespearean analogue might be “Measure for Measure”, inasmuch as the comedy is often dark and admixed with serious dramatic material.

In a certain sense, “Volpone” and “The Alchemist” are the same play — which surprised me. In both, a scheming pair, master and servant, attempt to con a variety of gullible parties in a bid to enrich themselves, and in both they are eventually discovered and undone.

Volpone and his servant, Mosca, have amassed immense wealth, and use the promise of a future bequest to lure sycophants into giving them more and greater gifts. They accept bribes and are not above a cunning extortion. Mosca, in the traditional role (traceable all the way back to Plautus, whose influence on these Jonsonian comedies is striking) of smooth and crafty servant, is a wonderful creation, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Iago for the depravity of his imagination, shamelessness of his impostures, and creativity of his conniving; he is the character whom I think I will best remember from these plays.

In “The Alchemist” the artful pair are Subtle, a pretended alchemist, and Face, his confidence man. Dangling the conventional alchemical promise of transmutation into gold before their clients, they too amass gifts and goods on credit. They seem much less intelligent than their counterparts in the earlier play, having (for instance, and as far as I could tell) no clear escape plan from the web of contradictory promises they make to all and sundry. As in “Volpone”, Jonson mercilessly skewers the grasping greed of his characters, none more memorably than Ananias, an Anabaptist deacon on whose hypocrisy and narrow moralism Jonson plays with a cackling delight that feels personal. (Jonson had converted to Catholicism a decade earlier, although he returned to the Church of England at around the time “The Alchemist” was first staged.) All of Subtle’s subtle subterfuges come to nought, however, when the master of the house returns unexpectedly from foreign lands.

Coleridge apparently praised this play for having what he considered to be one of the most perfect plots in all literature, but I thought it was ripping off Plautus’ “The Haunted House”.


Comparisons to Shakespeare are inevitable, since he is our pole star for the drama of this period. I have already said that I found Jonson notable darker and more malicious than Shakespeare. There is a difference in the language too; they both wrote in iambic pentameter, but Jonson feels more cramped, lacking the airy spaciousness and aphoristic wealth of Shakespeare’s verse. I also found Jonson’s verse, on the whole, more difficult; one of those Shakespearean scenes of lower-class characters (think of Falstaff at play) in which the jargon and repartee are so quick and opaque that we’re puzzled to death gives an exaggerated but decent idea of how Jonson’s plays read. I was fortunate to find a filmed performance of “Volpone” from London’s Greenwich Theatre, which I watched as I read the play, and this improved by enjoyment and understanding of the play immensely.

Jonson doesn’t rely on soliloquy as Shakespeare does (at least not in these plays), but he does rely on the play-concluding address to the audience that is familiar from Shakespeare:

VOLPONE: The seasoning of a play, is the applause.
Now, though the Fox be punish’d by the laws,
He yet doth hope, there is no suffering due,
For any fact which he hath done ‘gainst you;
If there be, censure him; here he doubtful stands:
If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.

This must have been a convention of the theatre at the time.


I have enjoyed this brief sojourn with Jonson, and might consider reading another or two of his plays in the future, should they come recommended.

Pieper: Leisure, the Basis of Culture

November 14, 2019

Leisure, the Basis of Culture
Josef Pieper
(Fontana, 1965) [1948]
140 p. Second reading.

To a certain way of thinking, the idea that leisure might be the basis of culture is akin to the notion that leisure suits might be the basis of fashion — appealing, but probably not true. But of course much depends on just what one means by “leisure”, and among the many wonderful things about this book is its excavation of an older, nearly forgotten sense of the word that has deep roots in our history.


In one sense, the common meaning of “leisure” — understood as “not work” — resonates with the meaning that Pieper is after. But any hint of slovenliness, triviality, or frivolity must be dismissed: for Pieper, leisure is a high and important business, the highest activity, indeed, that human beings are capable of participating in. Its domains are not sand beaches or movie theatres, but philosophy, poetry, and prayer.

Pieper approaches his subject through a series of traditional dichotomies.

Medieval schoolmen, for instance, made a distinction between two types of intellectual activities which they called ratio and intellectus. Ratio was discursive reason, “reasoning” in the prevailing sense, thinking logically from premises to conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, meant understanding, perception of the meaning of abstract concepts, intentionality, and knowledge of truth. The two are different — though not opposites, certainly, for intellectus is a precondition for ratio, which it underlies and informs. Ratio, like our ‘ratiocination’, is what a computer can be made to do — or could do, if it had intellectus, which it does not. To the medievals, ratio meant toil and labour, but intellectus meant illumination and possession. Ratio was a human activity, necessary in practical and speculative matters alike, but intellectus was on the boundary between humanity and higher realms, a kind of spiritual vision, undiscursive and unmediated, not earned by diligent effort, but received as a gift.

Perhaps this sounds esoteric, but I think the distinction in question is intimately familiar to all of us. It is one thing to laboriously work out the value of an integral, but quite another to understand the meaning of the number 3. It is one thing to prove a theorem about triangles, but another to understand what a triangle is. The two aspects of reason are both constantly present to our minds.

A related dichotomy which the medievals observed was between liberal and servile arts. Servile arts were practical in nature: farming, shoemaking, weaving, planning. There was nothing ignoble about them, for they required real skill and knowledge to do well, and, when used to the benefit of the common good, were good. But they were practical, means to certain specific ends, and derived their value from those ends. They were in that sense constrasted with the liberal arts, which had no such practical aim, required no economic justification, but were done because they were good in themselves, and were their own justification. Does such a sphere of activity really exist? There may be — there are — those who say that it does not, but the tradition of “leisure” is founded on the belief that it does. The liberal arts are rooted in leisure.

Or consider a third contrast — the most surprising thus far — which the tradition draws between leisure and sloth. We are today in danger sometimes of seeing these two as synonyms, but in the tradition they are antonyms. For St Thomas, for instance, sloth is closely related not to rest, but to restlessness, mindless activity. It is the condition of boredom, that peculiarly modern affliction that Pieper identifies as a consequence of the loss of the ability to be leisurely. The besetting vice of a workaholic is sloth, toil not ordered to a suitable and worthy good. The cardinal sin underlying sloth was called ‘acedia’, a word that has unfortunately no obvious cognate in English. Pieper relates it to Kierkegaard’s ‘despair from weakness’ (in The Sickness Unto Death): an unwillingness to be what one really is, a dis-integration of the self, a sadness in the face of one’s nature as a creature made by God. The opposite of acedia, and therefore of sloth, is not work, but instead happy affirmation of one’s being, love for the world, and love for God.

The highest form this affirmation can take is the festival, the communal celebration of the goodness of the world, and the highest form of the festival, in turn, is divine worship, praise of the Creator, which is the most intense form of affirmation of the world available to us:

“The most festive festival it is possible to celebrate is divine worship. And there is no festival which does not draw its vitality from worship and that has not become a festival by virtue of its origin in worship. There is no such thing as a festival ‘without Gods’ — whether it be a carnival or a marriage.”

We are not surprised to learn that festivals and divine worship are both closely allied to leisure as the tradition has understood it. (This angle is treated at greater length in Pieper’s wonderful book In Tune with the World.)


What, then, is leisure? Pieper unfolds the concept slowly, showing one aspect here and another there, but gradually a picture emerges. It has something to do with contemplation: leisure means “to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision”. It has about it a kind of passivity: “A man at leisure is not unlike a man asleep”. It is something that we can prepare for, but not something we can will to do; Aristotle said that a man could experience leisure “not to the extent that he is a man, but to the extent that a divine principle dwells within him”. Like intellectus, it is effortless apprehension and possession of truth, or goodness, or beauty. It is an end in itself, a step outside the everyday world of ends and means. It reverences the world as something surpassingly good, and, especially through divine worship, embraces everything essential to a full human life.

The primary examples Pieper gives to illustrate what he means by ‘leisure’ are aesthetic experience, artistic expression and enjoyment, philosophical reflection, love, and religious acts such as prayer and worship. These useless things are the highest to which we can aspire.

Reverence is essential: it is only possible to be leisurely, in this ancient sense, if we can look upon the world as something deserving our reverence, something on which we refuse to impose our will but are disposed to simply receive and behold. We allow our will to be formed by what we encounter, rather than the other way around. This is a reason why we in the modern West have lost touch with the tradition Pieper shows us: the whole thrust of modern thought since Bacon and Descartes has been in the opposite direction: “knowledge is power” and the main thing is to impose our will on the world so as to attain mastery over nature. But the older tradition valued doing and making less than seeing:

“Man’s real wealth consists, not in satisfying his needs, not in becoming ‘the master and owner of nature’ [Descartes], but in seeing what is and the whole of what is, in seeing things not as useful or useless, serviceable or not, but simply as being. The basis of this conception of philosophy is the conviction that the greatness of man consists in his being capex universi.

The ultimate perfection attainable to us, in the minds of the philosophers of Greece, was this: that the order of the whole of existing things should be inscribed in our souls. And this conception was afterwards absorbed into the Christian tradition in the conception of the beatific vision: ‘What do they not see, who see him who sees all things?’ [St Gregory the Great]”


Pieper saw leisure as imperilled in his own day, embattled and eroded, of course, because of modernity itself, but facing a particularly acute challenge in his own time and place — post-war Germany — when an ideal of “total work” was gaining political and cultural strength. As the country tried to reconstruct itself, of what possible value could anything not contributing to that effort be? He saw leisure, with its children, philosophy and art, being attacked or discarded as useless. His distress at this turn, in fact, seems to have occasioned the writing of this book.

Today we are less threatened by a regime of “total work” — though I suppose that those required by their employers to carry around a cell phone might disagree. We are less threatened, at least, by this idea as a civic duty or moral obligation. But another threat has taken its place, especially in recent years. Let’s call it “total politics”. This is the view that no field of human action is finally apolitical: power and privilege infect all. It comes mostly from the left wing, where the premise is more widely accepted. Even a disinterested pursuit of truth, to this way of thinking, betrays an unjust privilege, for who but the privileged could afford to be disinterested? But if devotion to truth is just disguised oppression, then all is lost. By a self-fulfilling prophecy, we can fall back only on will and power. Moreover, if intellectual work is really always implicitly political, why should it not be explicitly so? Hence the drift of whole academic departments into advocacy. And art, too, finds it must pass muster with Vigilants, who police for compliance with political nostrums. And so the capacity for human activity to step outside the political, outside the kingdom of ends, becomes constrained. Those borders are patrolled. And leisure, in consequence, cannot unfold its wings.

We also, of course, face a juggernaut of “total distraction” powered by our communication technologies, an ocean of mental noise that drowns out the inner life and smothers leisure. But this is obvious.

It is a very real question whether intellectual work and academic freedom can, or should, survive in this kind of environment. Pieper in his day already perceived a devaluation in the very concept of “intellectual work”, as though one could hire a philosopher the way one hires an electrician. (We have heard of companies hiring ethicists to evaluate controversial practices. “The best ethicists money can buy.”) He saw academic freedom as contingent on the philosophical — that is, leisurely — character of academic work, and judged that it was abdicated to the degree that academic work became merely political or practical.


If leisure is as important as Pieper thinks it is, and is as embattled as it appears, we will naturally ask what can be done to improve its fortunes. And here we run up against a conundrum, for we have already said that leisure is precisely that realm of human experience which is its own justification, an end, not a means. But this implies that we cannot cultivate leisure “in order that” this or that good result may be achieved or this or that bad result avoided:

“When a thing contains its own end, or is and end in itself, it can never be made to serve as a means to any other end — just as no one can love someone ‘in order that’.”

We are concerned with a realm of human activity that cannot be instrumentalized without destroying it; it must be sought simply for itself. The only path, therefore, or at least the clearest, to a recovery of leisure seems to me the personal: to love it and live it. As a practical matter (so to speak), it means setting aside time for encounters with beauty; it means pondering questions that admit of no technical solution; it means reading widely and deeply in the best that has been thought and said; it means developing a practice of prayerful and attentive silence, and, preeminently, it means honouring and praising the Creator for the goodness of the world given to us.

Or so it seems to me, and in truth I do, in my own life, in a manner consistent with my other duties and undoubtedly hampered by my many faults, try to do all of these things. I do so in some significant measure under the influence of this very book, which I first read many years ago. It would even be fair to say that this blog, for lo! these many years, has been one means by which I have tried to “work my leisure”, to use a phrase from Aristotle. Without claiming that I have been notably successful, for it is always sobering to contemplate the disparity between one’s ambitions and efforts and one’s actual progress, I nonetheless own a debt of gratitude to this book for its, on the whole, good effects in my life. It has been a joy to read it again and find its wisdom undiminished.

Stevenson: The Master of Ballantrae

November 6, 2019

The Master of Ballantrae
A Winter’s Tale
Robert Louis Stevenson
(Eveleigh Nash & Grayson, 1910) [1889]
330 p.

When we think of Stevenson we think first of Treasure Island, or Kidnapped, or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or, if in winter we get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight, A Child’s Garden of Verses. All were already behind him when, in his late 30s, he wrote this intriguing historical novel, The Master of Ballantrae.

Its story begins during the Jacobite uprising of 1745. A noble Scottish family has two sons; not knowing whether the rebellion will succeed or not, the family hedges its bets: one son, the elder and Master, fights for the Bonnie Prince, while the younger sides with the king. During the conflict the elder son disappears (captured, as it turns out, by pirates) and the younger inherits the estate and marries the woman whom his older brother had loved.

When the Master does eventually return, he finds himself barred from the life he had hoped for, and is understandably resentful. So begins the novel’s long, intricate tracing of the sour rivalry between the two brothers. The Master is cunning and charismatic, a man of great courage and resourcefulness, and he bends all his considerable will to undoing the happiness of his younger brother, a comparatively dull though well-intentioned man entrapped, as it were, by his good fortune.

The book uses an unusual narrative technique. The story is told principally through the voice of a family servant, and is cast as a memoir into which he has pulled relevant material from letters and other sources. The story takes place largely in Scotland, but partly in France, and the long final act actually occurs in New York — first in the city and then, finally and fatally, in the wilderness of the Adirondacks.

Stevenson is, of course, a wonderful writer, with the sturdiest prose and an unerring ear for the right word at the right time. This book is particularly notable for the complexity of the two central characters. The elder brother, whose path in life is beset by so many obstacles and injustices, and who behaves toward his family as the most resolute of devils, is nonetheless portrayed as possessed of an unmistakable nobility of bearing and gifted in abundance with all of the secondary virtues — the ones that can be turned to good or ill. And his brother, less winsome but intelligent and conscientious of his duties, is slowly frayed by a besetting fear of what his brother might next attempt.

There are several references in the novel to the fraternal rivalry of Esau and Jacob, and the book could be read as an echo and elaboration of that Biblical motif.

Wodehouse: Heavy Weather

October 30, 2019

Heavy Weather
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2002) [1933]
321 p.

Beginning a day or two after the events of Summer Lightning, this novel features most of the same characters and even a similar plot: Ronnie Fish and Sue Brown still want to marry over the objections of the family, Gally’s tell-all memoir is still attracting thieves of all descriptions, and the Empress of Blandings is still contentedly feeding on all that comes within reach of her terrific, plump snout.

The principal new characters are Ronnie’s mother, Lady Julia, who rushes back to Blandings Castle intent on quashing Ronnie’s engagement to Sue, and Lord Tilbury, a publishing magnate with the rights to Gally’s memoir and determined to make good on them.

Much of the comedy arises from the sheer number of people trying to lay hands on the memoir: some want it destroyed, some want it published, and some just want to sell it to the highest bidder. As the convoluted hunt proceeds, the manuscript itself is passed, like a covert hot potato, from person to person, each with his or her own motives for guarding it. It’s a triumph of character-driven circumstantial humour.

As always with Wodehouse, the plot has been conscientiously constructed, but the real joy of the book is in the writing, which bubbles with wit. It’s a splendid read.