Archive for the 'Books' Category

Serraillier: The Clashing Rocks

June 19, 2017

The Clashing Rocks
Ian Serraillier
(Oxford, 1963)
96 p.

My ongoing, fits-and-starts project to find good versions of the classic Greco-Roman stories for my children brought me to this re-telling of the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. A few years ago I read, and mostly disliked, an adaptation of the same story by Padraic Colum, and I hoped for better things from Ian Serraillier, who in my experience is consistently good.

And he is good here. Not great, but good. The story begins with Jason’s wish to marry Medea, and her father’s tasking him with recovering the Golden Fleece before the nuptials can be celebrated. We follow him and his companions through all of their adventures, and Serraillier, unlike Colum, also tells us how badly things turned out for Jason and Medea in the end.

The problem is that there is too much story here for such a brief book. The narrative moves briskly from one episode to another, and there’s not enough space to develop the characters, or really to develop stakes. At one point Heracles and another Argonaut get left behind on an island; this is mentioned almost in passing, and we never hear from them again. New characters pop up, are named, do something, and then disappear again. I understand that this is an odyssey, and is therefore episodic by nature, but I’d have preferred a more patient rendering. Instead, I found myself reading without much investment. It’s still a fine book that I’ll recommend to my kids, but the quest for my Golden Fleece continues.

This edition includes excellent illustrations by William Stobbs.

Way over yonder

June 16, 2017

A few interesting items I’ve stumbled upon in the last few weeks:

  • When Mother Teresa was canonized last year, I missed this superb reflection on her life by Fr George Rutler, who knew her personally. “The canonization of Teresa of Calcutta gives the kind of satisfaction that comes from having your mother declared Mother of the Year.” It’s a quite beautiful tribute to her and her significance for the rest of us.
  • Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture finally appeared, and it’s well worth a listen (or, if you must, a read). Fr Schall has interesting things to say about it, both for better and worse, although I think he underestimates the degree to which Dylan’s body of work has a transcendent dimension.
  • Speaking of Dylan, one of the best things I’ve read about him since he won the Nobel last year is this essay by Carl Eric Scott, published in Modern Age. Scott selects “To Ramona” as one of Dylan’s most underrated songs, a judgement with which I heartily agree.
  • At City Journal, John Tierney writes about something we don’t hear much about: the left-wing war on science.
  • Ben Blatt has written a book called Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, in which he subjects famous works of literature to statistical analyses. It prompted one of the most enjoyable scathing reviews that I’ve seen in a long while, from Matthew Walther: “Never, I think, has a purported piece of “literary criticism” been so disconnected from literature and non-suggestive of all the things that might, and very frequently do, induce people to read.” The review was so withering that I actually got the book, just to see how bad it was. It’s tremendously bad.
  • In the midst of a stew of troubles, Anthony Esolen wrote a graceful critique of illiberal habits of education. It was an elegant farewell note to Providence College.
  • And finally, from New Criterion, a very interesting biographical essay about Fr Reginald Foster, an American priest who was for many years the Vatican’s chief Latinist.

For an envoi, here is Bob Dylan singing “To Ramona”, live in Manchester in 1965:

The Song of Roland

June 11, 2017

The Song of Roland
Translated from the Old French by Dorothy Sayers
(Penguin Classics, 1957) [c.1100]
206 p.

The army of Charlemagne, having successfully laid siege to Saragossa, was returning home to France, its rear guarded by Roland and his companions, when, in a narrow mountain pass, they were treacherously set upon by the Islamic forces that had just surrendered to them. The Christians fought valiantly against greatly superior numbers, and went down to a glorious defeat. Their heroic stand became renowned, with the name of their leader unfurled like a banner over the long reconquest of Spain in succeeding centuries. The story was told many times, with many variations, but the present poem, written by an anonymous but accomplished poet, achieved, I gather, something like authoritative status.

We are in the realm of epic poetry. Our poet sings of the bravery and strength of his heroes, of their superhuman powers of endurance and supreme fighting skills. When we see treachery, it is a grand treachery; when we see loyalty, it is a stirring loyalty. We see nothing by half measures. Still, the poet leaves room for some defects of character in his principals. Roland, especially, is portrayed as brave, but confident to a fault, bordering on hubris, and his self-assurance in the face of overwhelming odds leads to his downfall.

Half-measures apply least of all to the violence of the poem, which is plentiful and plain:

Wondrous the battle, and it grows faster yet;
The French fight on with rage and fury fell,
They lop off wrists, hew ribs and spines to shreds,
They cleave the harness through to the living flesh;
On the green ground the blood runs clear and red. (126)

Even the Archbishop, Turpin, is a fighting man, who rides to battle with sword and spear in hand. Here he confronts one of the lesser Islamic leaders, Corsablis:

His golden spurs he strikes into his steed,
And rides against him right valiant for the deed.
He breaks the buckler, he’s split the hauberk’s steel,
Into his breast driven the lance-head deep,
He spits him through, on high his body heaves,
And hurls him dead a spear’s length o’er the lea.
Earthward he looks and sees him at his feet,
But yet to chide him he none the less proceeds:
“Vile infidel, you lied between your teeth!
Charles my good lord to help us will not cease,
Nor have our French the least desire to flee.
These friends of yours stock-still we’re like to leave;
Here’s news for you — you’ll die, and there you’ll be.” (95)

As the Archbishop’s presence testifies, this conflict is explicitly a clash of religions. When the Christians achieve their final victory (as they do), they proceed to smash the mosques (and, for good measure, the synagogues) and force their captives to be baptized — all except the Islamic queen, whom Charlemagne wishes to convert by persuasion. The poem evinces no doubts about the propriety of this course, and certainly no irony. At the same time, the poet seems startlingly ill-informed about the nature of Islam; on numerous occasions he refers to the Muslims as polytheists who worship “Mahound, Apollyon, and Termagant”. Who Termagant might be, I’ve no idea.

Regardless, it is clear that God fights on the side of the Christians. When Roland is beset with troubles, the whole of France is troubled by storms and earthquakes. Charlemagne is granted illuminating dreams that reveal the schemes of his enemies, and the angel Gabriel visits him.

The form of the poem is flexible: it consists of several hundred short sections, or laisses, each of which contains an indefinite number of lines, with the only requirement being that the lines be metrical and that the line endings in each laisse be consonant, having the same dominant vowel (rather than a strict rhyme). This works extremely well, and I found myself greatly enjoying the sound of the poem. Consider, for instance, this culminating passage about the death of Roland:

The County Roland lay down beneath a pine;
To land of Spain he’s turned him as he lies,
And many things begins to call to mind:
All the broad lands he conquered in his time,
And fairest France, and the men of his line,
And Charles his lord, who bred him from a child;
He cannot help but weep for them and sigh.
Yet of himself he is mindful betimes;
He beats his breast and on God’s mercy cries:
“Father most true, in whom there is no lie,
Who didst from death St Lazarus make to rise,
And bring out Daniel safe from the lions’ might,
Save Thou my soul from danger and despite
Of all the sins I did in all my life.”
His right-hand glove he’s tendered unto Christ,
And from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign.
Straightway his head upon his arm declines;
With folded hands he makes an end and dies.
God sent to him His Angle Cherubine,
And great St Michael of Peril-by-the-Tide;
St Gabriel too was with them at his side;
The County’s soul they bear to Paradise. (176)

It is true that I’m not enamoured of some of Sayers’ choices here — in particular her hokey-sounding metrical crutches, like “County” for “Count”, and her penchant for archaisms in a pinch — but basically I like the way the consonant end-stoppings pile up, giving the poem momentum and a certain musicality.

You’ll note from this most recent passage that Roland dies in comparative peace, rather than in battle. Here the poet solves a tricky problem, for his hero has to die, but, as a hero, he can’t simply be killed in combat. In fact, Roland’s death is due to his own over-exertion, he having exploded his veins by blowing too vigorously on his horn.

The blowing of that horn has summoned Charlemagne’s army to return, and, though they arrive too late to save Roland and his companions, they do pursue, overtake, and defeat the retreating Islamic army. In the final act of the poem, the French return to home and the traitor, Ganelon, who betrayed them to the Muslims out of spite toward Roland, stands trial. Thus the poem covers the full arc of Roland’s story.

And we have to put the emphasis on “story”, because the poem apparently bears little resemblance to actual history, even in its broad outlines. It is true that Charlemagne’s army besieged Saragossa in the year 778, but unsuccessfully, and in collaboration with one Islamic faction against another, and it is true that during their return to France, on 15 August of that year, their rear-guard was ambushed and slaughtered, but by Basques, not Muslims, during which ambush Roland, a duke of Brittany, was among the dead. How that rather minor episode in military history grew in the course of time to flower in the legendary battle of Roland against the Saracens is a mystery, though a happy one. The poem teaches us about the relationship of Christians and Muslims a millennium ago, but not much about real historical events of the eighth century.

I greatly enjoyed reading the poem. In my mind, it compares favourably with El Cid, being better structured, and more exciting, and having better characters. I have the feeling that I’d like a tougher, somewhat less mellifluous translation, but I’m not aware of any such.

Jacobs: The Pleasures of Reading

June 4, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
Alan Jacobs
(Oxford, 2011)
162 p.

Jacobs writes about the pleasures of reading, to be sure, but as a whole the book is more interrogative than simply appreciative. He wants to ask himself certain questions, and he invites us to ask ourselves the same: how do we decide what to read? how do we relate to what we are reading? how do we form judgments about what we read? why do we read in the first place?

As to how we decide what to read, he is resolute in his opposition to prescriptive reading lists. He is, one might say, prescriptive against prescription. Taking Adler and Van Doren as a foil, he argues, with moderate success, that ambitions to read “great books” are usually misguided, mostly because they outsource literary judgement and because they proceed on the basis of obligation rather than pleasure. If your reading consists in a great project to “get through” a list of classics, just for the sake of having done so, your reading is immature, impersonal, and not fun.

Instead, Jacobs recommends reading “under the sign of Whim”. Read what you want. Find books or authors that you enjoy, and follow the threads of connections with other books, authors, genres, and styles. Follow your nose. Do not let anyone else assign or evaluate your reading. His ideal of Whim is not thoughtless or arbitrary, but guided by literary judgement and self-knowledge. You should read what your soul desires.

This contrast between dutiful and whimsical readers is less sharp in real life than in the abstract, and Jacobs does take time to explore the complexities. Lists of great books can be helpful to readers who feel that there is something missing from their reading, who want a new challenge. And devotion to Whim can be narrowing, as he acknowledges. He cites the example of Edward Gibbon, who lived with regret at having not read better books when young, on account of his not knowing what the good books were. So perhaps the great books should be treated rather like seeds: fertile starting points, from which shoots and branches of reading grow.

But, all the same, despite the nod of deference he makes toward the “greats”, his aversion to planned or structured or prescribed reading is radical:

“I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a fine one according to schedule and plan.”

To which I can only respond with an awkward silence. Or maybe not: time is limited, and decisions must be made. It only makes sense to deliberate about how one will spend one’s time, in reading as in anything else, and, having deliberated and prioritized, it’s simple good sense to follow through. This, at any rate, is how I decide what to read: I ponder, weigh, investigate, consult, prioritize, and proceed according to plan. The plan is not set in stone, but it does have a certain authority. I would never rather read an indifferent book over a fine one, under any circumstances, if I can help it.

A separate set of questions crops up when we think about how we read. We read newspapers (if we read them at all) differently from novels, and novels differently from poetry. Jacobs distinguishes reading for information, for understanding, and for pleasure. In some cases we stand in judgment over a book as we read, but in others we sit at its feet, ready to be instructed or transported; the trick is knowing when each is appropriate. He cites Machiavelli’s attitude toward the great authors of the past:

“When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for.”

For Jacobs a principal fruit of reading is silence, both interior and exterior, and one of the best motives for a consistent practice of reading is to cultivate this silence. Books foster attentiveness: “books are the natural and inevitable and permanent means of being absorbed in something other than the self”. He proposes as an ideal the experience of a child lost in a book, rapt. Not all reading can calls forth or deserves deep attention, but the best reading — reading for pleasure — does. Following the advice of Hugh of St Victor’s Didascalicon, he describes the experience of attentive rumination on a worthy text in which the reader returns to specific passages, arguing with them, or appreciating their savour. As a means of cultivating this practice, and of slowing down our reading, Jacobs recommends that we read, re-read, and memorize poetry.

Reflections on silence and attention naturally introduce the book’s minor theme: our age of distraction. Jacobs wants to engage the genuine concerns many people have over their sense of being harried, inattentive, and unfocused. In fact the book itself is partially pitched to those who used to be avid readers but somehow can’t muster the energy anymore. He offers no jeremiad; he is himself a blogger, and a twit, and he is candid about his affection for his Kindle reader. At the same time, he sees the problems these technologies bring with them, and he is at least willing to entertain the possibility that the best course is simply to shut it all off, or, if not, to at least regain control over what occupies our attention. He cites with approval this from David Foster Wallace:

“Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”


As the book draws to a close, Jacobs turns his attention to how we evaluate books, and how our relationships with books can change over time. He gives some lovely anecdotes, as, for instance, about how Auden found his views on Kierkegaard changing over the course of his lifetime. In order to have such relationships, which are a means by which we can chart our own growth in maturity, it is necessary to re-read those books that have been important to us.

Speaking of Auden, Jacobs quotes his brief primer on critical judgments we might make about a book (or, for that matter, a film, or a piece of music, or any work of art):

“I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good, and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

It would be perverse if a book on the pleasures of reading were not itself a pleasure to read, but there is no danger of that here. Jacobs is an engaging writer. The tone is conversational, the book moves briskly across the terrain it needs to cover, and he salts his text with just enough exasperating and ill-conceived counsel that it held my attention throughout.

Doerr: Four Seasons in Rome

May 29, 2017

Four Seasons in Rome
On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World
Anthony Doerr
(Scribner, 2007)
211 p.

I love Rome: I love its pomp and grandeur, its crumbling antiquity, its bustle, its beauty, its cobblestones, its quiet corners, its saints and relics, its fountains and its parks. When I walk the streets of Rome I feel eight feet tall. As such, it is always a delight to me to find a good book about Rome, and this book is one such.

Anthony Doerr, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of whom I confess I had no previous knowledge, was offered a year’s residence, with his family, at the American Academy in Rome. The offer arrived in the mail on the morning that he and his wife returned home from the hospital with newborn twin boys. Consequently they arrived in Rome, a few months later, with two bouncing bambini, the barest smattering of Italian, and no idea what they were getting into. The book recounts their experiences of Rome, yes, but also the challenges and joys of fatherhood, and, as a minor theme, the difficulties of writing a book (his ostensible purpose during his year in residence) in the midst of so many distractions and delights.

Doerr hailed from Boise, Idaho, and had not been to Rome before. Part of the fun of the book comes from his observations of the things that first strike a North American when he arrives in the city: the noise, the rows of parked vespas on the street (which he is tempted to push over, to see if they’ll all fall like dominoes), the tendency of Italians to cluster rather than queue, the inadequacy one feels when trying to speak a halting and insecure Italian to a busy merchant. In one amusing passage he describes entering a hardware store and, realizing he doesn’t know the name for anything he wants, asks for the only thing he can think of — a night light, a luce del notte — and retreats in shame. In another he enters a shop to get tomato sauce, but a request for sugo di pompelmo sets off a storm of confusion, the store-keeper offering him everything under the sun except tomato sauce; only afterwards did he realize he’d asked for “grapefruit sauce”. Anyone who has travelled has had similar experiences, and although I personally feel less embarrassed about my bad Italian in Rome than I do, say, about my bad French in Paris, this has much to do with the geniality of Romans, which one learns of only by experience.

Having infant twins at home meant that he and his wife didn’t get out much, at least at first, but as the year turned, as sleep schedules were slowly re-established, and after they found a good nanny, they were able to snatch a few hours here and there to explore the city. Essentially everything was new to them, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the city again for the first time through their eyes. Like many visitors from the New World, they were most impressed by the sheer antiquity of Rome, its (literal) layers of history, all compressed into such a small area. Rome is “an iceberg floating below our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface”. Rome is also, considering the density of the important monuments and works or art it boasts, rather large; it is “a Metropolitan Museum of Art the size of Manhattan”. It is a city that no man can fully fathom.

Discoveries awaited not only in the streets of Rome, but also at home, in their apartment atop the Janiculum Hill, as their boys grew. Doerr is good at describing the sleeplessness (exacerbated in his case by insomnia), the difficulty of getting from point A to point B with infants, the joy of seeing one’s child learning to walk, the amazement a parent feels when the child speaks (as when one of his twins greets a stranger in the hall with a “Ciao”). Even if one had no interest in Rome (were this possible), the book would retain interest as a memoir of a first-time parent.

And the book is interesting from another angle too, for the year that Doerr spent in Rome was 2004-5, and so coincided with the death of Pope St John Paul II, his funeral (viz. the book’s subtitle), the conclave, and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Doerr is not a Catholic, and so not himself intensely concerned with these events, but, living just to the south of the Vatican, he cannot help but take an outsider’s interest. He observed John Paul II’s gradual decline, the prayer vigils that attended his final days, the astounding avalanche of mourners who filled the city for the funeral, the descent of the world’s press onto Vatican City, and, finally, the white smoke and the ringing of all the church bells of Rome upon the election of the new pontiff, whereupon Doerr found himself, somewhat to his own amusement, running through the streets, stroller and all, to reach St Peter’s in time to see Benedict XVI emerge onto the balcony for the first time. “Is it Ratzinburger?” he asked a neighbour, only to be rudely corrected. Ah, well.

My principal reservation about the book is that Doerr decided to write it in the present tense; I always find this off-putting in a narrative. He also sometimes indulges in vices peculiar to contemporary novelists: sentences bereft of verbs, or missing subjects, or even stranded adjectives. On the other hand, he has encouraged me to add a few items to my “wish list” for my next visit, especially to visit Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, and, were it ever possible, to climb the spiral staircase which winds up through the interior of Trajan’s Column. Alas, I know that this last will never happen.

The ideal audience for this book would seem to consist of North American Catholics who are parents of young children and love Rome. Paint a bull’s-eye on my forehead.


My thanks to Janet for recommending this book to me.

Scruton: Culture Counts

May 23, 2017

Culture Counts
Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged
Roger Scruton
(Encounter, 2007)
118 p.

This book is a reflection on education, aesthetic and moral judgment, the value of a shared culture, and contemporary threats to each of them.

Scruton begins his discussion of education with a statement that brought me up short:

It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions of our age that the purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it.

On the contrary, he argues, the purpose of education is to perpetuate a culture. We educate so the next generation can inherit the knowledge and judgments by which our culture has been formed and in which it consists. No doubt this education will benefit the students, but this is not its purpose, or at least not its primary purpose. “Knowledge gained is a gain for all of us; knowledge lost, a loss that all must bear… This is what education does for us: it keeps knowledge alive…” On this view, core curricula and academic competition make good sense, for not only is there an essential body of knowledge to be learned, but those best able to receive and understand it should be preferred.

And knowledge means more than just facts of history, science, or civics. It includes knowledge, for instance, of “what to feel”: the education of the emotions and the aesthetic sensibility (cf. The Abolition of Man). We must learn what things are good and beautiful, and how we ought to respond to them.

Naturally, this kind of knowledge involves making judgments, both moral and aesthetic, and rather than avoid this point Scruton underlines it: having a culture means making judgments. Indeed, he argues that culture largely consists in a set of shared judgments. They are subjective in the sense of being held personally and based on personal experiences and tastes, but not subjective in the sense of being arbitrary or indefensible. They are rooted in real experience and shared reflection.

As a practical matter, Scruton advises that this understanding of education is well-served by the notion of a “classic” or “touchstone”: an artistic, literary, or religious artifact “whose significance endures across generations and provides a point of comparison for other and lesser creations”. Not only do such works provide an education in excellence, but they also emphasize the shared judgments by which cultures cohere. From the idea of a classic, the formation of a “canon” emerges naturally.

Of course, everything Scruton advocates is vigorously contested in our culture today. Aesthetic judgments (and, I would add, moral judgments, though with less consistency) are habitually relativized, so much so that the whole sphere of distinctively aesthetic experience has nearly disappeared from view; “desire alone remains”. Moreover, even the basic project of passing on culture from one generation to the next is attacked. Scruton writes, here and elsewhere, about the West’s “culture of repudiation”, which no longer aims at appreciation and appropriation of its own heritage but instead attacks the means by which and vessels in which culture is transmitted. Whether this is truly the objective, or whether it is merely the prelude to the reconstruction of culture on other grounds, embodying different values and judgments, is hard to tell, but that it has weakened both our educative institutions and our shared culture is evident.

In principle, the picture of education and culture Scruton paints appeals to me. The culture of which I am a part, which has been formed to a large extent by my religion, and which has in turn formed me, is one which I admire and labour to appropriate. I have a conservative temperament, am inclined to honour the great achievements of the past, and am a believer in the value of cultural continuity. However, the generally happy view of culture as a network of shared judgments darkens considerably at the prospect of that culture reconstructed along other, contrary lines. If education isn’t for students, but for society, then who should decide the curriculum? If not students, then parents? Surely not, for education is not for families, but for society. Who could be entrusted with this responsibility? One fears that in practice the power would fall into the hands of bureaucrats, and one needn’t consider that real-world prospect long to arrive at a dispiriting thought: we no longer have a culture left to preserve. I begin to see the appeal of the individualized, even fractured model of education and culture (or, “culture”), for in troubled times it would, ironically, at least permit one to promote and pursue the traditional aims of education.

Livy I: The Rise of Rome

May 14, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri I-V
The Rise of Rome
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by T.J. Luce
(Oxford, 2008) [c.25 BC]
xxxiii + 372 p.

The Ab Urbe Condita (From the Foundations of the City) is one of the epic authorial feats in world history. This history of Rome occupied Livy throughout his life and in the end consisted of 142 books covering the period from Rome’s legendary founding (traditionally dated to 753 BC) down to Livy’s own time (9 BC). Although only 35 of these books have survived, they alone require about 2500 pages of text in a modern edition. Pliny the Younger tells us of a young man from Spain “who was so impressed by the name and reputation of Titus Livius that he journeyed from the end of the inhabited world just to see him, looked, turned about and went back home”, and it’s little wonder.

These first five books of Livy’s history cover the mythical foundation of Rome, the history of the seven kings, and then the course of republican Rome down to 390 BC, when the city suffered its first major military defeat, at the hands of a Gallic army. How much of this is real history and how much legendary embellishment is hard to say. Livy, who did not pretend to be an original historian and who is open about his reliance on pre-existing sources, notes that few written records survived from this period owing to the calamitous burning of the city that accompanied this same military defeat. Probably we are dealing with an admixture of legend and history, with the proportion of legend greater the more distant the past, roughly speaking.

Livy’s is an annalistic history: he narrates events year by year, rather than following story arcs one at a time and back-tracking. This has its advantages and disadvantages, of course, but I appreciated that I always knew where I was on the timeline.

Everyone knows the two founding stories of Rome — that Aeneas founded the city after fleeing Troy in the aftermath of the Trojan War, and that the twin brothers Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf and somehow founded the city too — but not everyone, I think, knows how the two stories are related. Aeneas was indeed taken to be the remote founder of Rome for having established what was to become Roman stock on Italian soil, but it was many generations before the city itself was formed, and Romulus and Remus were the proximate founders of the city. They argued over which of the seven hills of Rome should be the initial foundation — Palatine or Aventine, respectively — and Romulus (or one of his followers) killed Remus, and went on to become the city’s first king. The Romans dated these events to (what we now call) 753 BC.

Romulus was credited with establishing the basic political structure of Rome, dividing the people into patricians and plebs, and founding the senate. He formed an army and led it into battle against Rome’s neighbours. (One of these outings was the famous rape of the Sabine women.) The subsequent king, Numa Pompilius, was said to have founded the principal religious rites of the Romans. In later centuries Romans looked back at the actions of these first two kings as having established the Roman character as that of a fighting people who honour the gods (as opposed, say, to seeing themselves as a pious people who fight when necessary — an important difference of emphasis).

As time went on, succession of the kingship became gradually more contested, and with the seventh king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who took the throne by murdering his predecessor and those who stood to receive the crown before him, Rome had a genuine tyrant on its hands. He was eventually overthrown and, in 509 BC, the Romans re-founded their government as a republic, maintaining a horror of kingship thereafter.

(It is interesting that the date assigned to the founding of republican Rome might be an instance of the Romans trying to upstage the Athenians, who established their democracy in 508 BC.)

In place of a king, the Romans established the office of consul. Consuls were elected by the senate, two at a time, and governed for a period of one year. The plebs, however, protesting that the consuls, drawn from the patrician class, governed with only their own class’ interests in mind, pressured their leaders to establish a second office, that of tribune, to be elected by the plebs and granted certain powers.

From this point, with the principal pieces of Roman government in place, there are two main threads to the history. On one hand, there are the military and political conflicts with regional powers, and, on the other, persistent internal conflict between the patricians and plebs.

The principal regional powers with whom Rome came into conflict in this period were the Veii, Volsci, and Aequi. It is worth emphasizing just how small Rome’s reach was at this time: their most threatening neighbour was Veii, located just a dozen miles from Rome; so these “wars” are really local skirmishes. Many wonderful stories are woven into this military history — Horatius at the bridge, the courage of Mucius, the vengeful fury of Coriolanus, the reckless lust of Appius Claudius, and the splendid civic virtue of Cincinnatus. It was farmer-general Cincinnatus who led the Romans to one of their first great military victories, against the Volsci and Aequi, around the year 450 BC.

As for Rome’s internal politics, it was a slow-boiling conflict that occasionally spilled over into violence. Around the middle of the 5th century the plebs began to push for the introduction of written law, so as to be less vulnerable to the whim of the consuls. Rome sent a delegation to Athens to study Solon’s reforms, and finally committed to the production of ten (later twelve) large, public tablets outlining Roman law. To produce these Twelve Tables, the Romans temporarily replaced the two consuls with a new form of government by a group of ten men called (sensibly enough) decemvirs, but the power of this office was so badly abused that it lasted only a few years, reverting to the trusted consulship. The Romans also created the office of dictator, a temporary position to be granted to one man in times of emergency, and the office of censor, originally intended to be responsible for taking a periodic census but later destined to become one of the most powerful positions in Roman government.

In Book V Livy narrates two episodes of great importance. The first is the war with Veii. The Romans and the Veii had long been in conflict with one another over land and access to precious resources (like salt). Veii was a strongly fortified city, and a formidable opponent. As matters came to a head, the patrician Camillus, one of the most honoured figures in Roman history, was named dictator and took charge of the army. He directed that a great tunnel be secretly made that burrowed under the walls of Veii and into its sewer system. This was successfully done, and, in an echo of the story of the Trojan Horse, a group of Roman soldiers was able to surprise the citizens of Veii by appearing inside their walls, throwing open the gates and allowing the whole army to enter. The victory was decisive, and the survivors were sold as slaves, leaving the city empty.

It was, to that point, Rome’s greatest victory, but the celebrations were short-lived, for a new enemy appeared on the scene: the Gauls. Livy doesn’t go into great detail about where they came from, but I understand that they were a tribe from north of the Alps who descended into Italy and proved too strong for most to resist. Exactly how they came into conflict with Rome is unclear — Livy gives a few different versions of how and why — but somehow the Romans found them approaching the city walls. Although they mustered an army, the Gallic forces were intimidating and the Roman defenders buckled and fled. The gates were not even secured, and the Gauls entered the city to loot and burn it. Only the Capitol remained defended, and the Gauls began a siege. As the Roman summer wore on, however, the Gauls fell ill as the Romans starved, and eventually the two sides agreed to terms: the Romans would pay and the Gauls would depart. Yet, so the story goes, as the payment was being prepared the contempt of the Gauls so angered the Romans that Camillus, rallying his weakened troops, ordered a sudden attack, and the Gauls were driven out.

Rome was so thoroughly devastated that the people made plans to relocate to the now-empty city of Veii, abandoning Rome for good, but Camillus, in a stirring speech re-imagined by Livy, convinced them to stay and rebuild. For this reason, he was later honoured as the “second founder” of Rome. But though they did rebuild, the memory of this first sack of Rome remained in the Roman imagination as a great horror, and they resolved that it should never happen again. (And, indeed, their resolve was strong, for it would be 850 years before another enemy force breached the walls.)


So ends this first volume in Livy’s history. My knowledge of Roman history is middling to weak, so most of this has been new to me, and all of it has been enjoyable to read. I am looking forward to the next volume.


“Whatever activity is rewarded in a state invariably thrives the most.” (Book IV, ii)

Grahame: The Golden Age

May 4, 2017

The Golden Age
Kenneth Grahame
(Dodd, Mead, & Co, 1922) [1895]
174 p.

As a rule, indeed, grown-up people are fairly correct on matters of fact; it is in the higher gift of imagination that they are so sadly to seek.

On my most recent reading of The Wind in the Willows it occurred to me that the author of such a classic might also have written some other worthy work, and so I made inquiries, and discovered that in the last few years of the nineteenth-century he published two books, The Golden Age and Dream Days, about children. And so here I am, to write a few words about the first of them.

The book is about four children, presumably siblings, living lives of indolence and adventure. To what extent the stories are autobiographical I do not know, but certainly they are autobiographical inasmuch as Grahame himself experienced childhood, and the book is nothing if not an evocation of that experience. What is it like to be a child? We all know, but we also forget. Rare is the book that conjures up the quality and texture of childhood as does The Golden Age. It is a masterful performance. Perhaps Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine comes close, but for me Grahame is better: richer and more artful.

As in The Wind in the Willows, much of the magic is in the writing, which is gorgeous. Consider this passage:

The year was in its yellowing time, and the face of Nature a study in old gold. ‘A field or, semée with garbs of the same:’ it may be false Heraldry — Nature’s generally is — but it correctly blazons the display that Edward and I considered from the rickyard gate. Harold was not on in this scene, being stretched upon the couch of pain: the special disorder stomachic, as usual. The evening before, Edward, in a fit of unwonted amiability, had deigned to carve me out a turnip lantern, an art-and-craft he was peculiarly deft in; and Harold, as the interior of the turnip flew out in scented fragments under the hollowing knife, had eaten largely thereof: regarding all such jetsam as his special perquisite. Now he was dreeing his weird, with such assistance as the chemist could afford. But Edward and I, knowing that this particular field was to be carried to-day, were revelling in the privilege of riding in the empty waggons from the rickyard back to the sheaves, whence we returned toilfully on foot, to career it again over the billowy acres in these great galleys of a stubble sea. It was the nearest approach to sailing that we inland urchins might compass: and hence it ensued, that such stirring scenes as Sir Richard Grenville on the Revenge, the smoke-wreathed Battle of the Nile, and the Death of Nelson, had all been enacted in turn on these dusty quarter-decks, as they swayed and bumped afield.

I note a few things. First, the intricacy of the prose; Grahame belongs firmly in the “more is more” camp when it comes to style. Second, the diction: I’ll admit that “dreeing his weird” defeated me until I consulted the OED; it means, in context, “getting what was coming to him”. Third, the allusions; not even Google knows the source of that first quotation, so perhaps it is Grahame’s invention, but toward the end of the passage we get those references to incidents in naval history which provide the frame for these children’s imaginative world, and indeed this is one of the most striking aspects of their lives: they are imbued with the stories, both imaginative and historical, that they have inherited, of Greek gods and Roman statesmen, of Biblical heroes and military victors, of songs and poetry. In other words, these children had a culture. Part of the pleasure of the book, though it be bittersweet, is to experience what it was like to have a culture in this thick sense, and part of the challenge the book presents is to ponder whether and how it might be possible to give my own children a similar sense of belonging. It may not be, for reading a book like this makes it abundantly clear that between Grahame’s time and ours a chasm has opened, that “some things that should not have been forgotten were lost,” as Galadriel said, that we have been substantially disinherited by our professional amnesiacs. All of which is quite discouraging, but Grahame at least gives a portrait of what we might aim at.

The world of this book is a world of children; there are adults around the periphery — referred to as “the Olympians”, and considered, with frank honesty, as being a different order of creature — but for the most part these children are free to pursue their own inclinations and the promptings of the muses. My own childhood in rural Alberta was much like this, and I’ve always been grateful for it, but such freedoms, it seems, have eroded, whether because of changing times or just changed locale, I can’t be sure. I don’t remember helicopter parents hovering about when I was young. How I would love to allow my children such latitude, to wander, exploring and adventuring, but I dare not. (It’s not that I fear for their safety, but I do, rightly or wrongly, fear meddlesome neighbours and the legal powers of the Children’s Aid Society.)

The pursuits and enthusiasms of childhood, though they be senseless and unimportant in certain respects, have a precious immediacy and vividness that makes them worthy of honour. Indeed, are the preoccupations of adults any less senseless and unimportant?

And perhaps we have reason to be very grateful that, both as children and long afterwards, we are never allowed to guess how the absorbing pursuit of the moment will appear not only to others but to ourselves, a very short time hence. So we pass, with a gusto and a heartiness that to an onlooker would seem almost pathetic, from one droll devotion to another misshapen passion; and who shall dare to play Rhadamanthus, to appraise the record, and to decide how much of it is solid achievement, and how much the merest child’s play?

Serraillier: The Ballad of Kon-Tiki

March 27, 2017

The Ballad of Kon-Tiki, and other verses
Ian Serraillier
(Oxford, 1952)
71 p.

When I bought this book I assumed it was intended for children, it not occurring to me that there might have been times and places where adults would read narrative poetry for their own pleasure. Nonetheless, that seems to be just what we have here: a verse account of the adventures that befell the Kon-Tiki expedition, not especially intended for children.

This expedition, if you do not know, was undertaken in the late 1940s by Thor Heyerdahl and five companions. They sailed a balsa-wood raft, “one flake of foam darker than the rest”, 7000 km across the South Pacific, from Peru to Polynesia, as an anthropological experiment. The story has been told, in prose, in Heyerdahl’s wonderful book The Kon-Tiki Expedition (which I wrote about some years ago). Everybody thought they were crazy to try it, and they sort of were, but they succeeded.

The poem begins with their preparations, with the warnings against rashness, and with the launch. We meet each of the sailors, and encounter a huge storm:

And the trade wind swept them northward
to a raging hell of waters, niagara confounded.
They were whirled about and pounded,
gulped down the ocean’s greedy throat
and spewed out again, up-ended,
checked in mid-somersault
yet still afloat.

Landlubber that I am, the thought of a storm at sea doesn’t immediately put me in mind of a throat. But I note with interest that the same connection is made by Eliot:

Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them…

so perhaps I’m missing something. Serraillier goes on to relate some of the more dramatic episodes in the expedition, such as the encounter with a whale shark, and the time one of the men fell overboard and seemed to be lost. But the greatest drama is reserved for the harrowing landing on the Raroia reef, a massive, bone-crushing coral reef against which they were pushed at their journey’s end, and which they, seemingly by a miracle, survived, though the Kon-Tiki was reduced to wreckage:

the cabin battered,
a house of cards collapsed on deck;
the helm in splinters, and the steering block
a mangled crock;
crossbeam and hardwood mast snapped off,
the bamboo deck ripped up and slapped
like pasted paper on the cabin wall.

There is nothing greatly profound about a poem like this, no layers into which to delve, but, on its own terms, considered simply as a narrative poem about a great and true adventure, I found it enjoyable.


“The Ballad of Kon-Tiki” takes up about half of this volume. The rest consists of a number of other poems, including (sans illustrations) “The Ballad of St Simeon”, which I wrote about last month; seeing it printed in sober black and white reinforces my sense that even that poem is not really intended for children. In addition we get “The Weaver Birds”, which tells an affecting fable about a bird who rescues his mate from trouble, and “The Bishop and the Devil”, a comedic poem in which a medieval French bishop uses the devil’s cunning against him, and a few shorter poems as well. Some of these I liked more than others, but I liked all of them to some extent.

Kelly: Rediscover Catholicism

March 19, 2017

Rediscover Catholicism
Matthew Kelly
(Beacon, 2011) [2nd ed.]
336 p.

Matthew Kelly is by reputation a lively and engaging Catholic speaker and author. When an opportunity arose to peer into one of his books, I took it. This particular book, I understand, has often been given away at parishes, and is one of his most popular.

Based on the title, one would expect the book is written to half-hearted or lapsed Catholics who have to some extent lost their faith and need to rediscover it. And there are sections that seem to be written to that audience. But the book also seems to be intended for dedicated Catholics looking for ways to improve their spiritual life and to bring others to the faith.

The best part of the book for me was the long central section on “the seven pillars of Catholic spirituality”, which Kelly enumerates as: Confession (and he even calls it “Confession”!), daily prayer, the Mass, the Bible, fasting, spiritual reading, and the rosary. I’m sure we all have room to improve our relationship with these touchstones of Catholic life, and his remarks about them were instructive and encouraging.

Kelly appeals throughout the book to a rather chipper formulation of the goal of Catholic life: “to become the best possible version of yourself”. I’m sympathetic to this way of framing the matter (viz. the Biblical idea that Christ came “that you may have life, and that more abundantly”, or the Thomistic notion that the implicit objective of all human action is happiness, or the counsel of St. Irenaeus that “the glory of God is man fully alive”). But somehow Kelly’s formulation also grates on me.  Naturally I do want to become the best possible version of myself, and yes, I do think that my Catholic faith helps me to do that, most importantly by teaching me what that means — but his way of putting it still has for me too much of the self-help / personal-actualization aura about it.

My other criticism is that the book is long-winded. Asked what I was reading, I might well have answered as did the young prince: “Words, words, words”, in plenty. Although you’d never guess it from my gregarious manner on this blog, as a reader I generally favour compression and concision, and in consequence I confess I skimmed through much of this book. But the parts that were good were really quite good, and I think I would recommend it with only slight reservations.