Archive for the 'Books' Category

Greek lyric poetry

December 5, 2022

Greek Lyrics
Translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore
(Univ. Chicago, 1960) [c.650-450 BC]
xiii + 82 p.

If ever you are happy, one way to bring yourself down is to think about the literature that has been lost to the vicissitudes of history. There are particularly agonizing cases: Aristotle’s dialogues, most of the Greek tragedies, swaths of Livy and Tacitus. But spare a tear as well for early Greek poetry, much of which has come down to us in shreds.

In this little volume, Richmond Lattimore gathers together an assortment of surviving verses from several dozen Greek poets who were writing between the seventh and fifth centuries BC. I believe we don’t have much lyric poetry from earlier times, but I don’t know why he drew the later chronological boundary where he did. He has called these poems “lyrics,” perhaps simply to distinguish them from epic. In any case, the designation does not seem a strict one; there is a huge variety here: invective, epitaph, epigram, love poem, political poem, historical poem, inscription, song, myth, and more. It’s a very difficult sort of book to size up.

We’ll look at a few examples.

Maybe the earliest of the poets represented here is Archilochus of Paros (c.680-640). He was apparently a soldier with an avocation as a poet. Based on his showing here, his poetry is among the better preserved, and we may even have some complete poems, such as this one offering counsel to a soldier:

Heart, my heart, so battered with misfortune far beyond your strength,
up, and face the men who hate us. Bare your chest to the assault
of the enemy, and fight them off. Stand fast among the beamlike spears.
Give no ground; and if you beat them, do not brag in open show,
nor, if they beat you, run home and lie down on your bed and cry.
Keep some measure in the joy you take in luck, and the degree
you give way in sorrow. All our life is up-and-down like this.

At the other chronological end is Praxilla of Sicyon (mid 5th c.), for whom Lattimore gives us a fragment from a poem about the death of Adonis, who, in his last throes, uttered these lines:

“Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight,
and loveliest after that the shining stars, and the moon’s face,
but also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.”

It’s rather beautiful, but Lattimore remarks that this mention of cucumbers, in this context, gave rise to a Greek saying whereby one who says the wrong thing at the wrong time might be judged “sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis.”

We have a number of anonymous poems, as you would expect. Most of the inscriptions are so, though the famous epitaph for the Spartans fallen at Thermopylae —

Traveler, take this word to the men of Lakedaimon :
We who lie buried here did what they told us to do.

— is a notable exception, being attributed to Simonides of Ceon. An especially intriguing sub-genre is the anonymous drinking song, like this one:

Underneath every stone there lies hidden a scorpion, dear friend.
Take care, or he will sting you. All concealment is treachery.

It probably sounds better with music.

The most famous of the poets represented here are Solon, the great Athenian reformer and lawgiver, from whom a number of poems survive, including argumentative verse in which he defends his policies; Sappho, about whom we’ll have more to say on a later occasion; and Pindar, whom we’ll also spend more time with later. To my considerable surprise, a full quarter of the book is devoted to a single poet, Bacchylides of Ceos, a contemporary of Pindar for whom a number of relatively long poems have survived. I confess these were among my least favourite of the batch, so I’ll say no more about them.

Lattimore is a renowned translator of the Greeks, prized for his dedication to retaining as much as possible the shape of the Greek verse in his English renderings. Personally, though, in my previous experience with him, I have found that I don’t especially like the result much of the time. It often feels awkward to me, and too much like prose. These poems didn’t change my mind, but they were serviceable and good enough to get the point across.

And what is the point? Why sit down with a mess of tattered pages like this? The question presses more firmly in an anthology, when we get, in most cases, barely more than a taste of individual poets, not really enough for their personalities to come through.

Often a motive for reading old books is to penetrate a way of thinking and seeing the world that differs from our own customary habits. Maybe in so doing we can see ourselves more clearly, and perhaps be startled at what we see. There’s a bit of that here, but it’s not ideal because the points of view are too numerous. Maybe the motive is the opposite: not to see our differences, but to see what we share. If we have something in common with these men and women, given all that separates us, perhaps there we are getting close to what is fundamental to human life. It is a good experiment to take one of these poems, even a couple of lines, and ask ourselves what  we recognize in them. And it is not surprising, I expect, that we find love, and hatred, and admiration of the beautiful, and fear of death, and sadness, and curiosity, and many, many more things that constitute the texture of our lives, then as now. Welcome home!


Pindar: “War is sweet to those who have not tried it.”


Ford: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

December 1, 2022

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
John Ford
(Methuen, 2003) [c.1630]
176 p.

“Peace! Thou hast told a tale whose every word
Threatens eternal slaughter to the soul.”

I don’t know if Romeo and Juliet was a reference point for John Ford when he wrote this play, but it’s a convenient one for us. Those star-crossed lovers violate the wishes of their parents, and so are, in that sense, in the wrong. But Shakespeare, at least in the most common interpretation of the play, brings us around to their side, so that we hope their love succeeds. Imagine, though, how it looked to Signor Capulet: the whole romance was grotesque and intolerable, a sin against filial piety, headstrong and very probably wanton, and so impulsive and uncontrolled that it was likely to lead to destruction.

John Ford has written Signor Capulet’s Romeo and Juliet. There are two young lovers pursuing a forbidden tryst. There is an intelligent and enterprising Friar who gives them counsel. Our Juliet character — here called Annabella — even has a serving lady who is in on her secret. But Ford ensures that we, like Capulet senior, oppose the young lovers with all the opprobrium at our command, and he does it by one neat change: instead of our lovers coming from warring families, they come from the same family. Giovanni and Annabella are brother and sister.

This disturbing premise plays out in about as disturbing a manner as you would expect. The attraction between the two is portrayed as overwhelming and irresistible. When Giovanni first reveals his feelings to his sister, he confesses that he cannot help it:

O, Annabella, I am quite undone:
The love of thee, my sister, and the view
Of thy immortal beauty hath untuned
All harmony both of my rest and life.

And she, for her part, puts up no resistance whatsoever, for she too has fought in vain against her feelings:

Thou hast won
The field, and never fought: what thou has urged,
My captive heart had long ago resolved.
I blush to tell thee (but I’ll tell thee now),
For every sigh that thou hast spent for me,
I have sighed ten; for every tear shed twenty;
And not so much for that I loved, as that
I durst not say I loved, nor scarcely think it.
(I, ii)

Overlooking the family ties between the two, this is not so different from what we find in Romeo and Juliet, nor indeed in a thousand other romances, and maybe that is the point. Plato saw being “in love” as a kind of madness likely to lead a man astray while he suffered under its influence, and this “anti-romantic” view has a distinguished tradition, albeit a minor one in our culture since the chivalric tradition triumphed in medieval Europe. I think it’s plausible that John Ford belongs, at least in this play, to that anti-romantic tradition: look, he says to us, at these wanton fools, out of their minds.

I didn’t do much in the way of background reading on the play, but I did come upon the claim that Ford presents this incestuous plot without passing judgement on it. This is true in a way; there is no Don Giovanni-like epilogue in which the lovers are dragged to Hell. But there is one character in the play who condemns the lovers in the strongest terms, and that is the Friar. He is the first person to speak in the play — indeed, the play opens in medias res with him denouncing Giovanni’s infatuation:

Alone within thy chamber, then fall down
On both thy knees, and grovel on the ground,
Cry to thy heart, wash every word thou utter’st
In tears, and, if’t be possible, of blood.
Beg Heaven to cleanse the leprosy of lust
That rots thy soul. Acknowledge what thou art,
A wretch, a worm, a nothing.
(I, i)

The Friar is presented throughout as a wise, thoughtful man who has enough distance from the situation to judge it fairly and disinterestedly.  As in Romeo and Juliet, I think his response guides ours.

Despite the Friar’s warnings, Giovanni and Annabella pursue their fateful course, and it appears, for a time, that perhaps no reckoning will come. Giovanni even hazards a few attempts at self-justification, arguing, for instance, that posterity will approve of their actions because, as they say, love wins:

If ever aftertimes should hear
Of our fast knit affections, though perhaps
The laws of conscience and of civil use
May justly blame us, yet when they but know
Our loves, that love will wipe away that rigour
Which would in other incests be abhorred.
(V, v)

But the actual responses of the play’s other characters, when they learn the truth, belie this rosy future. Judgement, when it comes, is swift.


The plot is complicated by a number of subplots involving double-crossing servants, a bevy of suitors, and jilted, vengeful lovers. (One character, contemplating revenge on the man who seduced and abandoned her, says at one point, “On this delicious bane my thoughts shall banquet.”  A nice line.) In all cases, lust and infidelity lead to suffering and destruction. It gets pretty gruesome, and, naturally, the play ends with bloodied bodies lying everywhere.


So extreme is the premise that I think there must be a particular point to it. Nobody sits down to write an incest play just because they are interested in the scenario. I’ve suggested above that maybe it can be seen as a kind of re-do of Romeo and Juliet, or of any number of other, similar romances, but done in such a way that we are forced into disapproval. Or maybe it was an attempt to write a reductio ad absurdum of the wayward-lust play. Or maybe, I guess, it was just an attempt to provoke and scandalize the public and earn notoriety for the author. If the latter, then it has had a certain amount of success.

At the level of craft, it’s a well-written play with generally fine verse, and I expect it would work effectively on the stage. Not that I’m especially eager to see it.


Conan Doyle: A Study in Scarlet

November 28, 2022

A Study in Scarlet
Arthur Conan Doyle
(Dover, 2003) [1887]
92 p.

Somehow I made it well into middle-age without reading any Sherlock Holmes stories. How, and why, this happened is a mystery worthy of Holmes himself, but in any case I have now begun to remedy the fault, beginning at the beginning.

A Study in Scarlet was the first Holmes story. It is a full-length novel, rather than a short story, and it tells how Holmes and Watson met and came to be associated, and it introduces us to Holmes’ distinctive methods of detection. As such, it makes a splendid starting point.

The structure of the novel is ingenious. There are murders, of course, up front, and an investigation, and, in time, the apprehension of the culprit, but this apprehension comes not at the end but in the middle. In the second half of the book, Conan Doyle reverses course and gives us the backstory of the murderer and his victims. I found this structure dramatically effective, for although we know (having read the front half) whowilldunit, we don’t know why, and the dramatic interest of the backstory is that it shows us circumstances aligning to give rise to the murderer’s motive. Normally I find the part of the mystery novel that comes after the murderer is identified tedious, but not so here.

This second half of the novel is set in the United States, in Utah, in the early settlements of the Latter Day Saints, and as I was reading I was wondering whether Mormon children today are especially fond of this literary portrait of their forefathers? How nice to have that period of their history captured in a classic of detection! But no. Having read a little further, I think it likely that few Mormon children are encouraged to read A Study in Scarlet.

Conan Doyle wrote another Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, before he switched over to the short story format, so, unless I am murdered in the meantime, that’s where my Holmes reading will take me next.

Homer: Odyssey

November 21, 2022

Translated from the Greek by Robert Fitzgerald
(FS&G, 1998) [c.800 BC]
515 p.

…godlike in counsel,
he that in twenty years had borne such blows
in his deep heart, breaking through ranks in war
and waves on the bitter sea.
(Bk 13)


Theories about the authorship of the Homeric poems abound: they were the work of a solitary genius, or they were created by countless bards in a generation-spanning oral tradition, or they were adapted from an oral tradition by a solitary genius, and so on. But if you were to tell me that the (however construed) author of the Odyssey had nothing whatever to do with the author of the Iliad, I would believe you. From the first page of this poem, the world of the Iliad — the world of hard war, of bruised honour, of brandished spears and bristling helmets, of bellicosity and belligerence — all of that is gone, vanished like a dream, and we find ourselves in a domestic sphere, where slaves are wiping down tables, a fire crackles in the hearth, and a boy sits, daydreaming, when a mysterious stranger arrives at the door. The scale is intimate, and good manners are paramount. We are breathing new air.

Of course, all is not well. The home is troubled by ruffians who circle the lady of the house like wolves, and a great sorrow, a quiet, aching pain, sits stubbornly in the hearts of Penelope and her son, Telemachos, for Odysseus, the lord of the house, is absent, and may be dead. Nobody knows.

In my imagination the Odyssey survived, since I first read it many years ago, as the tale of one man, a sleek, stripped down story (especially compared to the enormous ensemble cast of the Iliad) that flew like an arrow from Troy to Ithaca, with the lion’s share of the story devoted to accounts of the numerous hardships he endured along the way. This, I am surprised to find, was actually quite wrong. The tale, as told, isn’t like a flying arrow at all, but instead like a tangled web of yarn, told us in a non-linear fashion that starts in the middle, and folds back on itself through flashbacks. Even the famous adventures of Odysseus — the cyclopes, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the bag of wind, the sacred cows, the cannibals, and so on — are confined to just four (of 24) books.

The poem is really a family drama, with Penelope and Telemachos getting a significant share of the page-time. Indeed, although we hear briefly about Odysseus at the poem’s opening, and in particular about his longing to return home —

But such desire is in him
merely to see the hearthsmoke leading upward
from his own island, that he longs to die.

— we do not actually see him until Book 5, at which time the poet strikes the same note, stressing for us his desperate desire to return to Ithaca. He has been seven years on Calypso’s island, having no means of escape, and he sits on the shore, looking out:

in his stone seat to seaward — tear on tear
brimming his eyes.

This, then, is one of the leading emotional elements of the poem: homesickness. When a man is unable to go home, his heart is out of joint, and so too his family suffers, and his whole household. And what prevents him going home is not just outlandish danger, not just the wine-dark sea, not just the wrath of Poseidon, but also Odysseus’ own heart, frail against temptation. Again and again we see him beset by seductresses: the Sirens, Circe, Calypso, even, maybe, the youthful Nausikaa. Sometimes he resists successfully, sometimes he is overcome. But, always, too, his fundamental desire to see again his wife and child reasserts itself.

We know that he does eventually get home, with the help of Athena. (And I will note in passing that here, too, in the realm of the gods, the Odyssey is a much more intimate affair than was the Iliad. Athena is Odysseus’ special patroness, and Poseidon is, or becomes, his nemesis, but beyond that the gods play a limited role in the poem. The clamouring crowd of gods that so befuddled me before is silent now, and so much the better.) In the poem’s second half we see how Odysseus conducts himself upon returning home, adopting a disguise and plotting against the confounded suitors who befoul his house with their antics and their vices. And, of course, the plotting finally leads to a bloodbath in which Odysseus and Telemachos together avenge these wrongs. It is all superbly carried off. Homer winks our way when he has the suitors struggle to prepare the bow that will, we know, soon kill them. And when Odysseus, still in disguise, provokes general astonishment by stringing the bow himself, Homer gives us one of his most striking similies, comparing the bow to a lyre and Odysseus to the musician:

like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
(Bk 21)

He begins to play upon it immediately, as the poem erupts in violence and cleansing wrath. Homer again uses a memorable image to convey the aftermath:

In blood and dust
he saw that crowd all fallen, many and many slain.
Think of a catch that fishermen haul in to a halfmoon bay
in a fine-meshed net from the white-caps of the sea:
how all are poured out on the sand, in throes for the salt sea,
twitching their cold lives away in Helios’ fiery air:
so lay the suitors heaped on one another.
(Bk 22)

Let me not be one to take joy in such carnage — and the poet, too, counsels us that “To glory over slain men is no piety.” (Bk 22) — but it would be fruitless to deny that I derived a certain satisfaction from this rough justice.

And justice it is. A central preoccupation of the poem is that there is a set of virtues proper to hosts and guests, and in such virtues the suitors are shamelessly derelict. Over and over the poem shows us contrasting examples of good hosts and bad, of good guests and bad.

Telemachos, in search of news about his father, comes to the houses of Menelaus and Nestor, and, before they know his identity, he is treated with all the honour and deference rightly due a guest. Calypso seems to be a good host, but then keeps Odysseus hostage for years. Circe seems to be a bad host, but then offers him essential aid. Odysseus finds a bad host in Polyphemus (who wants to eat him), and then himself becomes a bad guest (by injuring his host). Odysseus even protests against the cyclops’ incivility, linking it to a lack of respect for the gods:

‘We would entreat you, great Sir, have a care
for the gods’ courtesy; Zeus will avenge
the unoffending guest.’

But Polyphemus gives a belligerent reply:

‘You are a ninny,
or else you come from the other end of nowhere,
telling me, mind the gods! We Kyklopes
care not a whistle for your thundering Zeus
or all the gods in bliss; we have more force by far.’

It is a matter of more than just manners, therefore. And when Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, he finds a gentle and generous host in the wonderful swineherd Eumaios, who, again, not knowing his identity, treats him right. When Odysseus, in disguise, encounters first Telemachos, and then Penelope, they are distinguished by their kindness to him, in sharpest contrast to the taunts and insults hurled by the doomed suitors. The treatment of strangers reveals character.


For all that the story is arranged like a puzzle, it is nonetheless, when we straighten it out, the story of a homecoming. This, I think, is part of what endears it to me so strongly, for I am inordinately fond of stories in which someone returns home, or is reunited with family after an absence. It is this quality that makes the Biblical story of Joseph so affecting for me, and it is this that brings a tear to my eye in the story of the Prodigal Son. So, too, here.

As in the story of Joseph, the reunion in the Odyssey happens in an asymmetric way: one party knows it is happening, and the other does not. Odysseus adopts, at Athena’s behest, the guise of an old, itinerant codger, and he encounters both Telemachos and Penelope without their being aware of his identity. This part of the tale calls for virtues of patience and self-control that are quite unlike those Odysseus needed during his tumultuous journey home. Upon arrival, Athena counsels him:

Patience, iron patience, you must show;
so give it out to neither man nor woman
that you are back from wandering. Be silent
under all injuries, even blows from men.
(Bk 13)

I was moved most, however, by the three occasions on which his self-control fails him. Unless I am mistaken, he weeps three times: on first revealing his true identity to his son, to his wife, and to his father. These last two occur in the poem’s denouement following the slaughter of the suitors.

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms, longed for
as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
(Bk 23)

Pass the handkerchief.

I learned through background reading that the Greeks had a whole set of homecoming epics about the aftermath of the Trojan War, of which the Odyssey was just one. There was a poem about Agememnon’s return home and his murder by Clytemnestra (which would have made a great contrasting double-bill with this poem), another about Ajax’s drowning on his return journey, and yet another about the sojourn of Menealus and Helen in Egypt on their return home. All lost. Don’t put that handkerchief away just yet.


The bloody house cleaning finishes up in Book 22, and I’d like to reflect a moment on the two books which follow. The triumph of Odysseus over his challengers feels like the climax of the story in many ways, so what are the final two books doing?

I should first note that there is, I am told, a scholarly dispute about whether these last two books were part of the poem originally (whatever “originally” may mean in the context of an oral tradition). We need not let this detain us long, since these two books are part of the poem as we have received it, and we’re simply asking what purpose they serve, but I wanted to acknowledge the point.

These two books contain three main things: first, are the reunion scenes, or, maybe better, the revelation scenes, between Odysseus and Penelope, and then between Odysseus and his father, Laertes. I’ve already remarked on how moving I found these scenes, and they are, it seems to me, essential to the emotional arc of the poem. Without them, the homecoming would feel incomplete.

A second element, in Book 24, takes place in Hades. We see the shades of Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ajax, heroes of the Trojan War, conversing as they witness the souls of the slain suitors arriving in the underworld. At first I thought this a very odd addendum, but it does provide Homer an opportunity to sing in fulsome turn the praise of Penelope, the faithful wife. What better way than amid a parade of those unworthy suitors whom she rejected? And the praise comes from the mouth of Agamemnon, who, because of his own (let us say) marital woes has the best cause to admire a good wife:

‘O fortunate Odysseus, master mariner
and soldier, blessed son of old Laertes!
The girl you brought home made a valiant wife!
True to her husband’s honor and her own,
Penelope, Ikarios’ faithful daughter!
The very gods themselves will sing her story
for men on earth — mistress of her own heart, Penelope!’
(Bk 24)

So this, too, though it feels less essential, still fits, and puts an exclamation mark on one of the poem’s central themes.
The third and final piece feints at a return to the violence of the earlier books. The families of the slain suitors descend on Odysseus, Telemachos, and Laertes looking for revenge. But things don’t progress far before Athena interrupts, and, by her godlike power, declares peace. Though it highlights the importance of Athena to Odysseus’ affairs, a constant theme throughout, this nonetheless is, for me, the least satisfying thing about the final book. A dea ex machina is, almost by definition, artistically unsatisfying. That is how my expectations have been trained. It would be very interesting to understand whether and why it was more satisfying to an audience in ancient Greece.


When I read the Iliad, I kept myself alive in part by entertaining a rotating door of translators. No such problem here, so I stuck throughout with Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 translation. It was a happy choice. I have previously read Fagles’ somewhat later version, but I didn’t bother to make side-by-side comparisons.


What an encouraging experience this has been! I was so dispirited after reading the Iliad. I was tormented at night by hard questions. Am I a person who hasn’t the wherewithal to appreciate Homer? What does that say about me? Should I abandon this Greek reading project in its infancy? Should I give up reading books altogether? Maybe watch television instead? Maybe lie down on the train tracks at night? Well! The Odyssey turned all that around. I loved it. I’m a Homer man after all.


And now the big question arises: basking in the Odyssey‘s afterglow, is it time to pick up that long-languishing copy of Joyce’s Ulysses and read it? Has the time finally come?


Plato: Timaeus

November 14, 2022

(Penguin Classics, 1965) [c.375 BC]
121 p.

A friend who knows a good deal more about Plato than I do suggested that this dialogue could make a nice double-bill with Hesiod’s creation poems, and he was right.

The set-up, dramatically, is that Socrates and several young men have reconvened on the day after Socrates’ great speech on the city (viz. The Republic), but this time it is the turn of the young men to speak, and one of them, Timaeus, has prepared a speech about the origin and order of the universe and of human beings.

After a few preliminaries, involving, among other things, the story of how the Athenian reformer Solon went to Egypt and learned about the antiquity of the world, Timaeus plunges into his chosen theme. Although he does not forsake Hesiod’s mythology entirely (“Earth and Heaven gave birth to Ocean and Tethys,” we learn), most of the discussion is in a quite different key. Timaeus’ approach is rational and systematic, drawing partly on metaphysics but, to a degree that surprised me, partly on nuts-and-bolts physics. A significant chunk of the dialogue, for instance, is devoted to describing the Platonic polyhedra and explaining how their shapes give rise to the properties of fire, air, mud, and everything else.

More interesting, to me, were the forays into metaphysics, ethics, and other topics we more readily associate with Plato. Little of this gets argued or developed at length, and of course we have to keep in mind that we are not hearing Socrates but someone else, but still I thought it was interesting to see how and where familiar Platonic ideas popped up.

Timaeus makes an early distinction, for instance, between “that which always is” and “that which becomes but never is”, and argues that while the latter can be apprehended by the senses, only the former can be grasped by understanding. This distinction provides an opening for a brief discussion of Forms; Timaeus claims that if understanding is something different from opinion, then Forms must exist, for to understand simply means knowing them.

This epistemological point is given a moral spin. The physical world, though restive and not amenable to true understanding, nonetheless reflects or instantiates in some way the unchanging order of the Forms, which are intelligible. Using the metaphor of orbits, Timeaus develops the idea that our senses are given us so that we can apprehend the order of the universe and mirror that order within our own souls:

“The god invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding. For there is a kinship between them, even though our revolutions are disturbed, whereas the universal orbits are undisturbed. So once we have come to know them and to share in the ability to make correct calculations according to nature, we should stabilize the straying revolutions within ourselves by imitating the completely unstraying revolutions of the god.”

This is such a beautiful idea. It reminds us of the Pythagoreans, and, unless I’m mistaken, Plato repeats the general idea elsewhere, but the main point is the idea itself. The harmony of the world is an aid, through apprehension and understanding, to the harmony of the soul. Modern cosmology has lost the capacity to make any kind of meaningful connection between physics and ethics, so we are striking a vein of pre-modern gold here. We are tempted to shrug such connections off as simply mistaken, but it might be healthy to resist such temptation. As C.S. Lewis argued in his wonderful book The Discarded Image, we are perhaps too little aware of how our own philosophical, or pre-philosophical, commitments condition our cosmology. We can see the all-of-a-piece interdependence of cosmology, theology, anthropology, etc. when we look at other cultures, but think we are immune. And perhaps it is really true that we are the ones who, finally, see things as they are! But love is blind, and that includes self-love.

In any case, it is evident that Timaeus’ belief that there is connaturality between the order of the world outside us and the possibility of order within us points in certain metaphysical and theological directions. And Timaeus himself gestures in some of these directions. He believes that the world is “a work of craft”, and is, as such, intrinsically intelligible. Although at bottom the material world is the realm of Necessity, the cosmos came to be when Necessity was subjugated to “wise persuasion” by Intellect. The agent that created the world (the famous demi-urge) “wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as that was possible”. It is only because the world is good (or as good as possible) that its influence on us can be expected to be beneficial in the way that Timaeus expects.


In Plato’s dialogues we see a theology that is fairly rich and sophisticated. Comparing his ideas to, for instance, those of Cicero makes the latter appear awfully rudimentary. Plato — or, I guess, Timaeus — understands that if God is the ultimate source of everything, then he must be quite radically unlike anything else. Timaeus remarks at one point that time was created with the universe, which emphasizes just how bold and thorough his conception of the ultimateness of God is.

The dialogue also includes an argument for the uniqueness of God that is interesting. Timaeus says,

…that which contains all of the intelligible living things couldn’t ever be one of a pair, since that would require there to be yet another Living Thing, the one that contained those two, of which they then would be parts, and then it would be more correct to speak of our universe as made in the likeness, now not of those two, but of that other, the one that contains them.

It’s not quite as clearly put as it might be, but this general form of argument remains a mainstay of the classical theist tradition to this day, and I was pleased and, I admit, a little surprised to find it here.

The last thing I’ll mention in passing is a moral claim that Timaeus makes, also in passing, when he says that moral evil is a result of either sickness or ignorance:

No one is willfully evil. A man becomes evil, rather, as a result of one or another corrupt condition of his body and an uneducated upbringing.

I found its appearance here interesting because I think of it as a characteristically Socratic claim, made here not by Socrates (though by one of his acolytes, so perhaps not all that surprising). Whether the claim be true or not is, of course, a much vexed question that I’ll not delve into today.


Reading Timaeus has been a peculiar experience for me. In many ways I found it unlike the other Platonic dialogues I’ve read. Socrates has only a minor role. The subject matter is largely natural philosophy rather than ethics or metaphysics. Much of the content is an odd combination of highly technical and highly fanciful (and Timaeus himself seems aware of this, averring more than once that his account was only “likely” or “as good as another”, and not certain). A reader who maneuvers through the long sections on how the shapes of various polyhedra produce physical properties like softness, wetness, etc. without skimming is more stalwart than me. Yet, at the same time, it is seeded with a number of striking ideas that beckon us into deeper waters.

Many people probably know that for many centuries this was the only complete Platonic dialogue known in the West. It is a little disturbing to see what a one-sided, and wholly inadequate, picture it provides of Plato as an artist and a philosopher. As I was reading, I realized with some dismay that although I know the basic shape of Aristotle’s preservation from antiquity and reintroduction to Western thinkers in the 12th and 13th centuries, I do not know the parallel story for Plato. I don’t think St Thomas knew Plato well at all. Forced to guess, I’d hazard that it was the Fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, and the concomitant migration of scholars westward, that brought about the Platonic revival among Europeans. Everything has a silver lining.

Thompson: Calculus Made Easy

November 7, 2022

Calculus Made Easy
Being a Very-Simplest Introduction to Those Beautiful Methods of Reckoning which Are Generally Called by the Terrifying Names of the Differential Calculus and the Integral Calculus
Silvanus P. Thompson and Martin Gardner
(St. Martin’s Press, 1998) [1910]
336 p.

I’m happy to have finally caught up with this classic, which has been read and appreciated for a century. I picked it up not for my own enjoyment but because I was casting about for a good introduction to calculus for my daughter.

The book provides a good conceptual introduction to calculus, both differential and integral. (The florid subtitle is no lie.) The technical approach is to describe calculus simply using the concept of infinitesimals, rather than limits, which is different from the way I learned calculus, but it’s intuitive and I quite liked it. The geometric meanings of derivatives and integrals are stressed, and this also helps to make the ideas clear. The phrase “fundamental theorem of calculus” does not appear (except in Martin Gardner’s annotations), but he does cover the relevant ideas. Chain rule, product rule, and quotient rule are all derived. The book sticks to single variable calculus except for one brief chapter on partial derivatives. There is a chapter on simple differential equations, and toward the end he describes how to calculate areas, volumes, and arc lengths by integration.

The focus is on practical meaning and applications; the level of rigour is right for a beginner, but would not satisfy a mathematician. (Thompson was a physicist and engineer.) In addition to a conceptual introduction, the book gets into calculating the derivatives and integrals of some elementary functions (polynomials, exponentials and logarithms, trigonometric functions), and the problems, both worked and assigned, require a decent level of algebraic competence to complete.

For my grade 8 student, I’m assigning the mainly-conceptual chapters. With another year of algebra I think she’ll be ready to tackle at least some of the more technical bits.

It’s a very nice book with a well-deserved good reputation.

Massinger: The City Madam

October 31, 2022

The City Madam
Philip Massinger
(Delphi Classics) [1632]

After a reasonably good experience with a play by Philip Massinger, I decided to pluck another from his considerable body of work, and I plucked The City Madam. It’s a domestic comedy about two brothers — one, Sir John, a successful manager of his wealthy estate, the other, Luke, a wastrel and a scoundrel — and about what happens when the latter assumes the responsibilities of the former.

As the play opens, Luke has been brought to the family estate by his brother after having been released from debtors’ prison. The family, thinking ill of him, treat him as they would an abused servant:

My proud Ladie
Admits him to her Table, marry ever
Beneath the Salt, and there he sits the subject
Of her contempt and scorn; and dinner ended,
His courteous Neeces find emploiment for him
Fitting an under-prentice, or a Footman,
And not an Uncle. (I, i)

But Luke, at least initially, appears to be content with his humble station:

I am a Freeman, all my debts discharg’d,
Nor does one Creditor undone by me
Curse my loose riots. I have meat and cloaths,
Time to ask heaven remission for what’s past;
Cares of the world by me are laid aside,
My present poverty’s a blessing to me;
And though I have been long, I dare not say
I ever liv’d till now. (I, ii)

In fact, his character seems to be so reformed — though we, the audience, being privy to his conversations with the other servants, know this seeming to be false — that his brother, Sir John, devises a test: he, John, announces that he intends to devote himself to religious life in a monastery, and permanently transfers ownership and management of the estate to Luke. “Outward gloss,” he says in private, “often deceivs, may it not prove so in him.” Meanwhile, Sir John intends to return to the estate in disguise to see what transpires.

It doesn’t take long for Luke to reveal his true colours. He abuses his sister-in-law and nieces, throwing them into poverty (“Hee’s cruel to himself, that dares not be / Severe to those that us’d him cruelly.”), and entraps the servants by goading them into wrongdoing and then punishing them. In one memorable speech, he reveals that his sudden ascent has inflamed his greed:

Increase of wealth
Is the rich mans ambition, and mine
Shall know no bounds. The valiant Macedon
Having in his conceit subdu’d one world,
Lamented that there were no more to conquer:
in my way he shall be my great example.
And when my private house in cram’d abundance
Shall prove the chamber of the City poor,
And Genoways banquers shall look pale with envy
When I am mention’d, I shall grieve there is
No more to be exhausted in one Kingdome.
Religion, conscience, charity, farewell.
To me you are words onely, and no more,
All humane happinesse consists in store.
(IV, ii)

His wickedness reaches a humorous zenith when Sir John, who has adopted the guise of a Satan-worshipping wizard from barbarous lands (that is, from Virginia!) come in search of virgins for his rites of human sacrifice, finds Luke all-too-willing to offer up his nieces for the purpose (“They are burden some to me, and eat too much.”). Sir John conjures up a procession of all those — family, servants, and friends — whom Luke has harmed during his brief term in power, which only provokes malign laughter from him:

This move me to compassion? or raise
One sign of seeming pity in my face?
You are deceiv’d: it rather renders me more flinty,
and obdurate. A South wind
Shall sooner soften marble, and the rain
That slides down gently from his flaggy wings
O’reflow the Alps: then knees, or tears, or groans
Shall wrest compunction from me. ’Tis my glory
That they are wretched, and by me made so,
It sets my happinesse off.
(V, iii)

But it is too much. Sir John unveils himself, to great acclaim from all hands, and Luke’s downfall is immediate. He is denounced as an “avaritious Atheist” and sent away to some desert, or to Virginia!


Is it a good play? It has its merits: it is funny without being frivolous, it has a pleasing, clear structure with a satisfying ending, and its moral instincts are sound. On the other hand, the verse is, with rare exceptions, pedestrian, and the characters are not especially distinctive.

It has been occasionally revived, including in a series of 2011 performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK, but we could not say that it has had enduring success on the stage.

The title of the play is oddly tangential. There are one or two references to a “City Madam” or “City Dame”, but none, it seems to me, come near the central action of the play.

Let me put it this way: The City Madam has convinced me that I’m finished with Philip Massinger for now; with no ill will, but with no real regret either, I am moving on.

Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment

October 24, 2022

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Translated from the Russian by Pevear and Volokhonsky
(Everyman, 1993) [1866]
608 p. Second reading.

I remembered Crime and Punishment as a philosophical novel; it was an exploration of what happens, or could happen, if amoralism, or some species of moral relativism, replaced belief in an objective moral law. This was sort of right, at a high enough level of abstraction, but in fact it’s a lot more complicated, and a lot more messy. Sure, Raskolnikov is a bit of a theorist, and he believes, or says he believes, that there is a class of great men who can commit what are considered crimes and not only get away with it, but actually retain a kind of innocence because the power of their wills overcome those who would condemn them, or because they have no remorse, or because they act without reference to a binding law, or something. But this doesn’t really get formulated, in the pages of the novel, as a philosophical statement about morality. Raskolnikov just admires those great men who act boldly in ways that would land ordinary folk in jail, and thinks he may be “a Napoleon” himself. He finds out that he is not.

It has been oft-remarked that Crime and Punishment is a thoroughly unusual murder mystery, for although there is undoubtedly a murder to solve, the question for us, the readers, is not who but why. And, this being a murder mystery by Dostoyevsky, we never do find out, because nobody knows, not even the murderer! Raskolnikov is frequently asked for the reason, and more frequently asks it of himself, but he fails to find a stable answer. He did it for money. He did it to help his mother and sister. He did it to test whether he was “a Napoleon”. He did it to experience freedom and power. “Freedom and power, and above all, power! Over all trembling creation, the whole ant heap!” There is an element of truth in all these explanations, but as readers we know that there was something else at work too. In the book’s amazing opening act, leading up to the murders, we witness Raskolnikov roaming the city, fixated on his idea, obsessed with it, unable to shake it off and apparently unable to resist it, and all the while coddling his ego, telling himself “that his reason and will would remain unimpaired at the time of carrying out his design,” even as he had already substantially lost control of both.

Though he is less of a master than he thinks he is, this is still his story: his obsession, his theory, his acts, and his descent into the psychological maelstrom. Yet as we read we notice that Dostoyevsky brings in a variety of other characters: his mother and sister, of course, and Sonia, and Svidragailov, and the police detective Porfiry Petrovich. The role of the last is obvious, but as I was reading, and as the straight line between Raskolnikov’s crime and whatever-the-outcome-will-be became tangled in a web of all these other relationships, I began to wonder: what are these other characters here for? Dostoyevsky, after all, is not telling us the true history of Raskolnikov; he doesn’t have to introduce any characters, so why did he put these ones in? How are they serving the story?

I don’t think there’s any one answer to this question. We mustn’t forget that the novel was originally serialized, so it is possible that Dostoyevsky introduced characters without really knowing what purpose they would end up serving! But one idea kept occurring to me as I was reading, and it was this: Raskolnikov has a theory, a mental abstraction, that he toys with, and in his theory he imagines that he could float free of the realm of moral obligation and moral judgement. But the other characters are in the novel to show us, if not him, that this theory is false. At every step, he is entangled in a web of moral relationships with everyone. After spontaneously doing a good deed for Sonia’s family, for instance, he is flooded with a sense of relief and strength:

“Enough,” he pronounced resolutely and triumphantly. “I’ve done with fancies, imaginary terrors and phantoms! Life is real! haven’t I lived just now? My life has not yet died with that old woman! The Kingdom of Heaven to her—and now enough, madam, leave me in peace! Now for the reign of reason and light… and of will, and of strength… and now we will see! We will try our strength!” he added defiantly, as though challenging some power of darkness.

This, of course, is just the opposite side of the coin to the one he has been obsessing over. Does anyone who thinks they can commit a crime without flinching also fantasize about doing a good deed without experiencing any joy? And a little later, when he tells a lie to his mother to avoid having her learn about his crime, he suffers a crushing realization:

… now he would never be able to talk freely about everything, that never again would he be able to talk freely about anything to anyone. The anguish of this thought was such that for a moment he almost forgot himself.

Passages like these, and there are many, show us, I think, that Raskolnikov’s dream of being “a Napoleon” is really superficial. Even if he could (though he can’t) succeed in stripping one act of its moral qualities, doing this comprehensively is a hopeless task. And that hopelessness, paradoxically, is his hope.


Because Raskolnikov is not “a Napoleon”, he needs his crime to remain hidden. But because he is a human being, he needs to confess it, somehow. There is one spine-tingling moment in which his friend, Razumikhin, guesses the truth, though no words are exchanged between them:

Raskolnikov stopped once more.

“Once for all, never ask me about anything. I have nothing to tell you. Don’t come to see me. Maybe I’ll come here…. Leave me, but don’t leave them. Do you understand me?”

It was dark in the corridor, they were standing near the lamp. For a minute they were looking at one another in silence. Razumikhin remembered that minute all his life. Raskolnikov’s burning and intent eyes grew more penetrating every moment, piercing into his soul, into his consciousness. Suddenly Razumikhin started. Something strange, as it were, passed between them…. Some idea, some hint, as it were, slipped, something awful, hideous, and suddenly understood on both sides…. Razumikhin turned pale.

But this doesn’t count as confession, and so we come to the extraordinary scene in which Raskolnikov finally reveals the truth to Sonia. This was for me the most engrossing and powerful scene in the book, a scene replete with long silences, hesitant words, oblique hints and questions, and as gripping as any thriller. As in the case of the crime, he has reached a point where the truth cannot be any longer concealed: “he felt at the very time not only that he could not help telling her, but also that he could not put it off.” (V, 4) Even so, when it comes to it Raskolnikov sits silently, and I think is only finally able to tell her because she first guesses it:

All of a sudden she started as though she had been stabbed, uttered a cry and fell on her knees before him, she did not know why.

“What have you done—what have you done to yourself?” she said in despair, and, jumping up, she flung herself on his neck, threw her arms round him, and held him tightly.

As the conversation spools out, and gathers a certain amount of momentum, he starts to offer her the various justifications that have been swirling through his head for so long, including his “Napoleon” line of thinking:

“I know now, Sonia, that whoever is strong in mind and spirit will have power over them. Anyone who is greatly daring is right in their eyes. He who despises most things will be a lawgiver among them and he who dares most of all will be most in the right! So it has been till now and so it will always be. A man must be blind not to see it!”

But there are people before whom untruths reveal themselves as hollow, and I think Sonia is one of these. To her, Raskolnikov says something that he never says, I believe, to anyone else: that he did something wrong.

“Well … that’s all … Well, of course in killing the old woman I did wrong … Well, that’s enough.”

Not a fulsome recantation, but as close as he gets before suddenly lapsing back into another of his favourite theories:

“I’ve only killed a louse, Sonia, a useless, loathsome, harmful creature.”

This scene is a truly masterful portrait of a soul struggling to free itself from a burden. Sonia is the only person in the world to whom he could entrust this secret, and he tells her not because he wants to make her complicit or because he thinks she will make excuses for him, but because she is trustworthy, and can absorb it, and because he knows she will not excuse him.


If there is a question about why Raskolnikov commits the murders, there is also a question about why he eventually turns himself in. It’s complicated. He is suffering, of course, in the aftermath of the crime. He is afraid of the police detectives and has been told that his sentence may be less severe if he comes in voluntarily. The presence of Sonia is somehow relevant; remember he actually leaves the police station without confessing and only returns when he sees her in the street. The police detective Porfiry Petrovich, a few days prior to his confession, has a bracing conversation with Raskolnikov in which he advises him to own his actions for his own good:

“You ought to thank God, perhaps. How do you know? Perhaps God is saving you for something. But keep a good heart and have less fear! Are you afraid of the great expiation before you? No, it would be shameful to be afraid of it. Since you have taken such a step, you must harden your heart. There is justice in it. You must fulfil the demands of justice.


“I am convinced that you will decide, ‘to take your suffering.’ You don’t believe my words now, but you’ll come to it of yourself. For suffering, Rodion Romanovitch, is a great thing.”

The punishment Raskolnikov faces not as something to be avoided, but something to be accepted and endured, for to evade justice is not tenable — practically, but above all personally. Suffering for his crime will do him good, and is indeed the only path forward. Here, too, Raskolnikov is up against the realities of the moral life, and can only resist them by doing further damage to himself.


Raskolnikov confesses, but does he repent? There is a crucial episode near the end of the book that encourages us to believe, I think, that he did. Just before going to the police to turn himself in, he has a strange and profound experience unlike anything else in the novel:

He suddenly recalled Sonia’s words, “Go to the cross-roads, bow down to the people, kiss the earth, for you have sinned against it too, and say aloud to the whole world, ‘I am a murderer.’” He trembled, remembering that. And the hopeless misery and anxiety of all that time, especially of the last hours, had weighed so heavily upon him that he positively clutched at the chance of this new unmixed, complete sensation. It came over him like a fit; it was like a single spark kindled in his soul and spreading fire through him. Everything in him softened at once and the tears started into his eyes. He fell to the earth on the spot….

He knelt down in the middle of the square, bowed down to the earth, and kissed that filthy earth with bliss and rapture. He got up and bowed down a second time.

“He’s boozed,” a youth near him observed.

I don’t know exactly what is going on here, and I don’t think he does either, but this seems like a moment of grace, or of honesty, in which something good touches him, some kind of release from the turmoil and terror that he has been enduring, and it is mysterious. It feels like it could be a moment of repentance.

But hearts can be hardened, of course, and grace, if that is what it was, can be rejected. That Raskolnikov did not, finally, repent we have on the word of two authorities: the narrator, and Raskolnikov himself. The former tells us straight-up, in the epilogue: “He did not repent of his crime,” which seems decisive. And Raskolnikov says, in conversation with Sonia,

“Why does my action strike them as so horrible?” he said to himself. “Is it because it was a crime? What is meant by crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course, it was a legal crime, of course, the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed. Well, punish me for the letter of the law… and that’s enough. Of course, in that case many of the benefactors of mankind who snatched power for themselves instead of inheriting it ought to have been punished at their first steps. But those men succeeded and so they were right, and I didn’t, and so I had no right to have taken that step.”

It was only in that that he recognised his criminality, only in the fact that he had been unsuccessful and had confessed it.

It seems that in the end, he fell back on his “Napoleon” theory, though he granted that he himself turned out not to be “a Napoleon”.

What, then, does the future hold for him? At the end of the novel he is in a prison camp, and Sonia is there too, having followed him. It is clear that if the future holds anything good for him, it will be because of her, because of her love for him, and his, also, for her. We are given reason to hope, though the way will not be easy.

He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.

Porfiry, it seems, was right all along.


Well, what can I say? It’s a great novel, one of the greatest, as we all know. It is a relentlessly honest portrayal of a lost soul, wonderfully written. I was commenting to a friend that Dostoyevsky gives the impression, on each page, of being out of control, as if the story has a mind of its own and surges forward without any guidance. We almost never feel the hand at the tiller. Yet on the large scale, over the course of 500 pages, his mastery is complete, at least in this novel. (I’m not so sure about some of the others!)

It may not be the straightforward philosophical novel that I thought I recalled, but it does nonetheless press a philosophical question, or set of questions, about the nature of morality. If a reader holds that the moral order is entirely socially constructed, or relative, or illusory, or some such thing, I find it hard to predict how he will experience the novel, but I expect it would be likely to cause some discomfort. I am aware of at least one person who gave up on moral relativism after reading it.

Most of my knowledge of the Russian classics has been through the translations of Pevear and Volokhonsky. I hope, I really do, that the wildness of their prose reflects something that is really there in the original.

Homer: The Iliad

October 18, 2022

The Iliad
Translated from the Greek by Four Illustrious Translators
[c.800 BC]
c.500 pages. Second reading.

When first I attempted The Iliad, many years ago, it was a sad and dispiriting affair, and I struggled through it without any enjoyment. Now, with quite a few other, if lesser, ancient epics under my belt, I felt sufficiently buoyed up with hope and girt about the loins to try again. Alas! Let me not say that I fared no better, but let me also be honest: it was a sad and dispiriting affair.

The problems for me were principally two, I think. One was the diffuse structure of the poem. I understand the basic shape: the Trojans prevail in battle so long as Achilles sits in his tent, but, stirred to action, he turns the tide and triumphs in the epic confrontation with Hector. But within that basic framework the poem felt aimless to me: there were so many characters, gods and men, churning back and forth in endless succession, speechifying, throwing spears, world without end. Like a great Trojan warrior dragging the body of his foe through the dust, I was dragging my own battered self from one episode to the next, bereft of hope.

The second problem for me was all the fighting. Maybe it’s churlish to complain of fighting in a poem about war; the criticism is just. But, just as I tend to yawn and drift away in films when giant action scenes play out, so here I struggled to maintain attention through all the rock throwing and spear hurling and sword swinging. True, the gruesome deaths Homer grants certain characters reward a certain morbid fascination, but for the most part I found the sword-play immoderately tedious. This bothers me some, because I believe the poet intended those bits to be exciting, and maybe in performance they would have been, but I couldn’t maintain enthusiasm for them.

It was not that I found nothing to like. The siege of Troy, for instance, was motivated by the Greeks’ desire to recover Helen, absconded with Paris and now held securely within the city’s walls. But the poet tells us, early on, that she and Paris have grown cool to one another as the war has played out on the plain before the city, a revelation that casts a pall of pointlessness over the whole affair. This is dramatically effective. I also appreciated the evenhandedness of Homer, who is a Greek writing about a Greek triumph, but who generously grants the Trojans the same heroism and dignity that he lavishes on the Greek warriors.

As the battles raged, I was sometimes tempted to abandon the poem, but I held on in anticipation of the tale of the Trojan horse, which I expected would provide a change of pace and a straightforward storyline. Imagine my chagrin when, inching closer and closer to the end, it gradually dawned on me that the episode of the Trojan horse is not part of the Iliad after all. Ah well.


My first acquaintance with the Iliad, years ago, was through the translation of Richmond Lattimore, made in the early 1950s. This is still a well-regarded translation, often chosen for courses on Homer because it attempts to follow the Greek line as closely as possible: the metre is Homer’s own dactylic hexameter, and Lattimore tried to keep each line of English more or less aligned with the corresponding line of Greek. But personally I found, and find, that the hexameter line is awkwardly long for English verse, giving the poem a baggy, sprawling feel.

This time out I wanted to explore another approach. There are literally dozens of translations available, so I had to choose.

In the 1970s Robert Fitzgerald made a translation in blank iambic pentameter, and this, too, has maintained a good reputation; I was curious to peer into it. A popular version in the past few decades has been Robert Fagles’ translation, written in an irregular metre of five or six beats and said to be vivid and exciting. I was also curious about the 18th century translation, in rhyming couplets, by Alexander Pope; it might be rude to force Homer into a mold so foreign to him, but perhaps a genius could manage it?

In the end, I decided not to decide: I read all four — Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Pope — in rotation, Book by Book. I lost the continuity of a single poetic voice, but I gained a diverting variety, and diverting variety was what I needed.


In fact, I found it a cheering exercise to pause occasionally to compare translations of specific passages, and I’ve chosen a few to present here. Homer is famous for his heroic similes, so I’ve picked one of those; the Iliad is famous, as I’ve already said, for its gory death scenes, so I’ve chosen one of those; and, finally, I selected a charming domestic scene involving Hector and his family, which was a personal favourite.

Let’s begin with the simile. In this one, taken from Book 13, the charging Trojan army is compared to a boulder propelled by a raging torrent. Here is how Lattimore renders it:

The Trojans came down on them in a pack, and Hektor led them
raging straight forward, like a great rolling stone from a rock face
that a river swollen with winter rain has wrenched from its socket
and with immense washing broken the hold of the unwilling rock face;
the springing boulder flies on, and the forest thunders beneath it…

I’m not sure about the “immense washing”, but I like the image of the “springing boulder” and of the forest “thundering” as the boulder crashes through.

Here is Fitzgerald:

Trojans massed and running
charged them now, with Hektor in the lead
in furious impetus, like a rolling boulder
a river high with storm has torn away
from a jutting bank by washing out what held it;
then the brute stone upon the flood
goes tossed and tumbling, and the brush gives way,
crashing before it.

I much prefer this shorter line, and I like also the alliteration of “tossed and tumbling” and the slightly oblique description of the river as “high with storm”.

Now Fagles:

Trojans pounded down on them!
Tight formations led by Hektor careening breakneck on
like a deadly rolling boulder torn from a rock face —
a river swollen with snow has wrenched it from its socket,
immense floods breaking the bank’s grip, and the reckless boulder
bounding high, flying with timber rumbling under it…

Exclamation mark! I think we get a strong sense of motion and drama in this version: “pounded down”, “breakneck”, “reckless”, “bounding”, “flying”. Too much of this could get exhausting, but it serves this particular simile quite well.

Lastly, Pope:

Thus breathing death, in terrible array,
The close compacted legions urged their way:
Fierce they drove on, impatient to destroy;
Troy charged the first, and Hector first of Troy.
As from some mountain’s craggy forehead torn,
A rock’s round fragment flies, with fury borne,
(Which from the stubborn stone a torrent rends,)
Precipitate the ponderous mass descends:
From steep to steep the rolling ruin bounds;
At every shock the crackling wood resounds.

The feeling is entirely different. I’m a sucker for rhyme, and I confess I find this translation congenial, though I can certainly see that it is least faithful from a metrical point of view. Still, it is fascinating to see how Pope is able to fit in all of the essential details, even if taking a few extra lines to do it.


Next let’s look at a death scene. In Book 14, the Trojan Ilioneus runs into the Greek Peneleus, and it doesn’t go well for him. Lattimore puts it this way:

This man Peneleos caught underneath the brow, at the bases
of the eye, and pushed the eyeball out, and the spear went clean through
the eye-socket and tendon of the neck, so that he went down
backward, reaching out both hands, but Peneleos drawing
his sharp sword hewed at the neck in the middle, and so dashed downward
the head, with helm upon it, while still on the point of the big spear
the eyeball stuck.

So Ilioneus’ head was first skewered, then severed, but the eyeball remained fixed firmly to the spear’s tip. Fitzgerald gives us a slightly different picture:

Peneleos drove his spearhead
into the eye-socket underneath the brow,
thrusting the eyeball out. The spearhead ran
straight through the socket and the skull behind,
and throwing out both hands he sat down backward.
Peneleos, drawing his long sword, chopped through
the nape and set the severed helmeted head
and trunk apart upon the field. The spear
remained in the eye-socket.

Where Lattimore had the head “dashed downward”, Fitzgerald has it more gently “set apart”. I notice also that for Fitzgerald the spear remains in the eye-socket, rather than directly in the eye-ball, which strikes me as more plausible. In any case, here is Fagles:

… the one Peneleous lanced beneath the brows,
down to the eyes’ roots and scooped an eyeball out —
the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape
and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide
as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword,
hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head
and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all.
But the big spear’s point still stuck in the eye-socket —

I like the “lanced” and “lopped” and “tumbled”, and I note with approval the spear-transfixed eye-socket again. Finally, Pope:

Full in the eye the weapon chanced to fall,
And from the fibres scoop’d the rooted ball,
Drove through the neck, and hurl’d him to the plain;
He lifts his miserable arms in vain!
Swift his broad falchion fierce Peneleus spread,
And from the sprouting shoulders struck his head;
To earth at once the head and helmet fly;
The lance, yet sticking through the bleeding eye,
The victor seized…

It is interesting that Fagles echoed Pope’s “scoop”, which seems an odd verb to describe a spear’s action. Again, I rather like this rendering, though I acknowledge that certain details, like the weapon that merely “chanced” to find its mark, or the “sprouting shoulders”, aren’t quite apt.


Lastly, let’s take a peek at Hector at home as he plays with his son, little Hectorides. This is from Book 6, and is one of the few passages in the poem not actively flexing its muscles. We’ll take the translators in the same order, beginning with Lattimore:

So speaking glorious Hektor held out his arms to his baby,
who shrank back to his fair-girdled nurse’s bosom
screaming, and frightened at the aspect of his own father,
terrified as he saw the bronze and the crest with its horse-hair,
nodding dreadfully, as he thought, from the peak of the helmet.
Then his beloved father laughed out, and his honored mother,
and at once glorious Hektor lifted from his head the helmet
and laid it in all its shining upon the ground.

The helmet in question, I guess, might have been something like this, and who would blame the child for being a little frightened at it? Next, Fitzgerald:

As he said this, Hektor held out his arms
to take the baby. But the child squirmed round
on the nurse’s bosom and began to wail,
terrified by his father’s great war helm —
the flashing bronze, the crest with horsehair plume
tossed like a living thing at every nod.
His father began laughing, and his mother
laughed as well. Then from his handsome head
Hektor lifted off his helm and bent
to place it, bright with sunlight, on the ground…

I like that “bright with sunlight”, and I find the verse, in this metre, has an appealing poise and stability. Now Fagles:

In the same breath, shining Hektor reached down
for his son — but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse’s full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror —
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight…

I find this a little too intense: “recoiled”, “cringing”, “screaming”, “terrified”. Poor kid. But “fiery in the sunlight” is good. Finally, Pope:

Thus having spoke, the illustrious chief of Troy
Stretch’d his fond arms to clasp the lovely boy.
The babe clung crying to his nurse’s breast,
Scared at the dazzling helm, and nodding crest.
With secret pleasure each fond parent smiled,
And Hector hasted to relieve his child,
The glittering terrors from his brows unbound,
And placed the beaming helmet on the ground.

This is a model of brevity, while still capturing the details we find in the others. I would hazard a bet, also, that little Hectorides would prefer the rhymes.


In the end, my first choice among these translations is Fitzgerald’s. His metre is a good one for an epic in English, giving the verse a noble sense, and his version felt sturdy and steady. Lattimore I thought too spindly and diffuse, and Fagles felt too emotionally volatile after a while. My second favourite was actually Pope, despite the obvious deviations from Homer’s style; the rhymes provided a steady beat that kept me moving forward, and I actually felt that the going was easiest when reading his version.

It’s disappointing, of course, to struggle, again, to appreciate such a great poem. I’d like to have had a more substantial encounter this time out, but it was what it was. I expect to have a better time with the Odyssey, and I’m looking forward to it.

Yeats: Poems

October 11, 2022

Selected Poems and Four Plays
W.B. Yeats
Edited by M.L. Rosenthal (4th Ed.)
(Scribner, 1996)
xliv + 270 p.

For some years I’d been hoping to devote some time to the poetry of Yeats. I was familiar with really only a few of his poems: “Sailing to Byzantium”, “The Second Coming”, “Down by the Salley Gardens”, and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” pretty much exhausted my acquaintance, I believe. For some reason which I cannot now specify, but probably gleaned from references to him here and there, I hoped that I was going to discover in him a friend, a kindred spirit.

I regret to say that this has not happened. I’ve had a tough time with Yeats. True, my collection now has 30 or so pages folded down to mark poems that appealed to me — poems like the simple and direct “A Drinking Song”, the folk-like “To an Isle in the Water”, the humorous “Politics”, or the elegiac “The Four Ages of Man” and “To a Friend whose Work has Come to Nothing”, or, with some surprise, the religious lyric “The Mother of God” — but sadly these were the exceptions. I found Yeats thorny and cold-shouldered, by and large. Truth be told, I simply found a great many of these poems hard to understand. I felt I was reading the poems without an entry point, and they remained, very often, merely cryptic and elusive. I don’t know if this is a common experience with this poet, but it was mine.

This volume also includes four of Yeats’ plays, but I was dispirited and didn’t read them.