Archive for the 'Books' Category

O’Neill: The Fisherman’s Tomb

August 13, 2019

The Fisherman’s Tomb
The True Story of the Vatican’s Secret Search
John O’Neill
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2018)
256 p.

One of the best — in fact, maybe the very best — of the archaeological sites in Rome is the Scavi, an excavated fourth-century Roman necropolis beneath St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. One steps through the climate-control doors into the past: there is a spacious road lined by small buildings, each with a main doorway giving onto the road; they are family tombs, in an amazing state of preservation — apart from the sawed off roofs on some. The road leads westward, past tomb after tomb, and terminates at a humble looking little monument. Could one look up, through the ceiling, when standing before it, one would be looking up through the main altar of the basilica, up through Bernini’s great baldacchino, and up to the apex of Michelangelo’s dome. It is the focal point of the basilica’s floor plan. The small monument is the tombstone of the fisherman from Galilee, St Peter.

John O’Neill’s book tells the story of how this amazing excavation came about, and of how the tomb, which tradition had always said was there, was re-discovered in the twentieth century after being hidden for about 1600 years. He introduces us to the main people involved, the conduct of the work, and the internal politics that for decades roiled around the interpretation of the excavation’s findings.

**

The excavation was an initiative of Pope Pius XII and was begun, in great secrecy, during the early days of World War II. While the war raged, and as the Nazis occupied Rome, the slow work under the Vatican continued for years. It was all financed, we learn from O’Neill, by an American oilman named George Strake, who did not learn until decades later what his money was being used for. The work, during those war-time years, was led by one Antonio Ferrua and was, unfortunately, done too hastily and to poor archaeological standards. The initial findings were confused — Ferrua fell for a ruse that had apparently been set up to prevent the relics of the saint from being vandalized, and concluded that the bones of St Peter were not there.

It was not until after the war that a young academic, Margherita Guarducci, caught wind of the project, and, after berating Ferrua and his methods in a meeting with the Pope, was herself placed in charge of the site. She established proper procedures for the excavation and spent years studying and untangling a complicated network of scratched inscriptions found on and around the monument, especially those on a nearby wall fragment. This wall had been something of a mystery at the initial uncovering of the site: when the first St Peter’s Basilica had been built by Constantine in 337 his men had planned the church so that, as in the present church, the altar would be directly over the small monument — a decision not taken lightly, as it had necessitated building out the eastern side of Vatican hill and filling the Roman tombs with dirt in order to make a flat foundation for the church — and they had covered the monument in a marble box, but this box had been built asymmetrically so as to also enclose the wall fragment covered with graffiti. It had clearly been done intentionally, but the reason why was not clear until Guarducci came along.

She discovered on the wall fragment numerous inscriptions making reference to Peter, including one which read “Peter is within”. Beneath a corner of the wall was found a cavity with bones. On forensic analysis they were found to be of a man, aged 60-70, of stocky build. It was not a complete skeleton, but enough bones, and from one individual, that the reasonable inference was made that these were the mortal remains of the Apostle.

The historical timeline that was pieced together was something like this:

• c.65: Peter was executed by the Romans, on Vatican hill, and was buried quietly nearby
• c.150: the small wall near the burial place was built (the bricks have been dated to the reign of Marcus Aurelius). Graffiti inscriptions began to be made on the wall, naming Peter.
• c.250: the small monument was built over the burial site
• c.250-337: at some point, bones originally beneath the monument were moved to beneath the wall. At this time they were wrapped in a cloth, fragments of which survive.
• c.337: Constantine builds the first St Peter’s church over the site, encasing both monument and wall in marble, an enclosure that was not breached until the twentieth century

This was Guarducci’s theory, but an entertaining academic feud was about to break out. Ferrua, her predecessor, whose methods she had criticized, refused to accept her account, and waged a decades-long war against it. According to him, his original conclusions were sound: the small monument was to mark Peter’s resting place, but the bones themselves were gone, and the nearby graffiti wall, with all its inscriptions, was irrelevant.

Guarducci prevailed, says O’Neill, until the late 1970s, when John Paul II was elected and Ferrua was promoted to head of the Vatican’s archaeological office, at which point he erased her name and work from Vatican publicity materials, and reasserted his own interpretation. The Vatican therefore found itself in a topsy-turvy situation where a secular (at least at first) layperson was arguing for the authenticity of Church tradition and a senior clergyman was arguing for its in-authenticity. It was not, says O’Neill, until Ferrua died in 2003 that his self-aggrandizing theory lost its influence. Pope Benedict commissioned a thorough review of all evidence in the late 2000s, and in 2013 Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the bones found beneath the graffiti wall as being those of St Peter. (This was before he decided to give a bunch of them away.)

**

So, at least, says O’Neill, but here’s an odd thing: I have visited the Scavi twice, first in 2001 and again in 2005, so straddling the year, 2003, in which Ferrua died. But I detected no change in the story between the first visit and the second; the story in both cases was Guarducci’s. So perhaps O’Neill draws sharper lines in the sand than existed in reality.

In any case, the story O’Neill tells is a riveting one, full of the wonder of discovery. Its import for the historical origins of Catholicism is obvious, and I would recommend the book to Catholics for sure, but also to other Christians, those interested in archaeology or war-time history, or just those with a taste for cut-throat academic in-fighting.

Lowry: The Giver

July 29, 2019

The Giver
Lois Lowry
(Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
225 p.

Imagined futures in which things have gone wrong are often called “dystopian”, but an interesting refinement of the idea holds that a proper dystopia is not just a future where things are worse than they are now, nor even a world in which efforts to create a utopia have failed in catastrophic ways, but a world in which a utopian project has succeeded and, so ill-conceived was the project, thereby made of the world a nightmare. By this measure, Lois Lowry’s middle-school staple The Giver is a true dystopian novel.

Lowry’s future is one that has been very capably managed to death. Difference, being a source of strife and ground for injustice, has been eradicated: the society in which young Jonas, just on the cusp of becoming a Twelve (year-old), is devoted to an ideal of “Sameness”. People live in identical dwellings, have identical families (two adults, male and female; two children, male and female), celebrate their birthdays on the same day, and even have an unwaveringly pleasant climate. Things that might lead citizens to prefer one person over another — things such as parenthood, for instance, or love — are gone: infants come to this community from Elsewhere and are simply assigned to the care of adults, and everyone takes a daily pill to prevent “stirrings” that might lead to spontaneous formation of families. All strong feelings, in fact, whether of joy or sorrow, have been managed into oblivion. It is a very rational, efficiently run place, in many ways thoughtfully designed, and gives every appearance of being exactly what it is intended to be.

The good people of this town could not be so contented as they are had they any memory of things having once been different, and so an historical ignorance is carefully cultivated. All reside on an island in an ocean of time, featureless to the horizon in every direction — all but one, that is. One citizen is specially selected to be Receiver of Memory, a function which the planners and rule-makers, whoever they are, have found advantageous to maintain in case planning for the present should, for them, at least, require some knowledge of the past. Jonas, to his amazement, is selected for this important role, and so he begins an apprenticeship with the elderly current Receiver of Memory. The book is largely an account of what happens to Jonas as he learns about the past and begins to experience feelings: of fear, happiness, anxiety, and love.

Lowry is wonderful at slowly bringing this bizarre world to life, detail by detail. Every so often she lets drop a phrase that reveals afresh just how comprehensively human life has been smothered for Jonas, and how little he realizes it. She is particularly good in her use of language; small verbal tics tell as a lot: children are never called boys or girls but only “males” or “females”, there are no homes but only “dwellings”, no families but only “family units”, and no death but only “release” — a euphemism so vague that Jonas seems to have no clear notion of mortality.

Is this supposed to be a portrait, at some level, of our society? One could imagine a liberal reading in which the bad guys are rule-makers, authorities who suppress individuality, who must fall before the force of strong feelings. The book has been criticized, often, I think, because of the attitude of suspicion it cultivates toward authorities. Given the nature of the authorities in the book, this seems a particularly daft criticism; surely the respective merits of docility and rebellion depend almost entirely on context. Moreover, an entirely different reading is available from a broadly conservative point of view, from which Lowry’s dystopia looks uncannily like a fulfillment of liberal ambitions: severance from the past in the service of social malleability, a total dissolution of the nexus of marriage, sexuality, and procreation, and a kindly violence against the sick and weak. Indeed, this last aspect gives The Giver a potency it would have lacked when first published, even to the extent of making it, to the extent that it has been broadly read as a liberal-minded critique, something like a Trojan horse in the culture war, for those inclined to read it in political terms.

Nothing obliges such a reading, of course; a more personal interpretation might dwell on the goodness of emotions and their importance to a fully human life, and of what is lost to us when we live simply to avoid pain. Or the story can be enjoyed on its own terms, simply as a well-written, mysterious, and exciting tale. It won the 1994 Newbery Medal.

Horace: Satires

July 21, 2019

Satires
Quintus Horatius Flaccus
Translated from the Latin by A.M. Juster
(U Penn, 2008) [c.35-30 BC]
xii + 144 p.

The Satires, in two books, were Horace’s first published poems, having appeared, respectively, in about 35 BC and then 30 BC, he being then in his early 30s. The Civil War between Octavian and Mark Antony still raged, and the fortunes of the Roman Republic were, as yet, in doubt. Horace came, somehow, into the orbit of Virgil, who introduced him to Maecenas, a great artistic patron (and Octavian’s friend who, as it would eventually turn out, would be in a position to make good things happen for his stable of artists). They therefore show us Horace as he takes his first steps into the public eye, at the start of what would turn out to be a brilliant artistic life.

The title under which the poems were published is liable to mislead English readers. For us “satire” means edgy comedy, perhaps with a political or religious edge, intended to puncture and deflate pretensions with wit, or to exaggerate faults in the manner of caricature. But for Horace the word apparently meant something closer to simple gossip. The poems are intentionally informal, loose, and chatty, and though they are frequently comic and have some bite they do not bite very hard.

He wrote in hexameter, a metre most associated with Greek epic; the effect was not so much to make the poems grand in an epic style, but rather grandiose, the high form making a comedic contrast with the quotidian and sometimes vulgar subject matter.

I have read the poems in the translations of A.M. Juster, who chose to render the poems in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. In a sense, this works well, because the metre is for us what hexameter was for Horace: a verse form associated with our high poetry. But I was, at least initially, less convinced by his determination to rhyme. Horace’s poems do not rhyme, and other translators (like David Ferry) have made a pretty convincing case that the poetry in Horace’s poetry, if I can put it that way, is a subtle thing, woven into the rhythms and the diction, art concealed by art. Horace himself makes the argument in these Satires:

Come listen to a bit of my reply:
myself as a real poet. You’d opine
that it is not enough to write a line
in meter, and a person such as me
who writes a chatty sort of poetry
could never be regarded in your eyes
as a real poet. You would recognize
a person who is brilliant, with a mind
that is far more inspired and the kind
of voice that resonates. Based on that thought,
some doubted whether comic verses ought
to count as verse because they can’t convey
great force and energy in what they say
or how they say it. Though arranged in feet
(unlike prose) that incessantly repeat,
it’s still just prose.
(I, 4; ll.58-73)

He intends, it seems, his poems to read something like musical prose, whereas rhyming couplets are about the most obvious kind of poetry there could be, and tend to divide the verse into regular segments rather than mimicking the supple variations of the original.

However, I discovered that Juster is awfully good, and not a little subtle, at penning rhyming couplets. The passage above is a good example, and here is another, plucked more or less at random. A character is describing the food at a lavish, not to say grossly extravagant, dinner party, and says:

“This was caught while pregnant, since the meat
degrades as soon as spawning is complete.
The sauce’s recipe was: oil (first-pressed)
from the Venafran cellar that’s the best;
fermented Spanish fishgut sauce; a wine
that’s five years old and nurtured on a vine
from native shores — but only with some heat
(when warmed up, Chian wine just can’t be beat!);
white pepper, vinegar that comes from spoiling
of Methymnean grapes. I taught the boiling
of green rocket with sharp elecampane
in sauce before those others. In that vein,
Curtillus used unwashed sea-urchin juice
because brine fails to match what shells produce.”
(II, 8; ll.68-82)

This is quite funny, of course; the vices of the gourmand are ever ancient, ever new. But, as to the metre, I think Juster has succeeded, to a large extent, in downplaying the regular rhymes by frequent use of enjambed lines. He does this quite consistently throughout, and has some other tricks up his sleeve too. Take, for example, this case, in which the narrator quotes a fragment of a song:

Why lose your money and deceive yourself
when merchandise is not yet on the shelf?
The playboy sings,
$\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$“The hunter tracks down hares /
through blinding snow, / but he no longer cares /
once they’re brought low,”
$\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ and then analogizes:
“My passion is quite similar; it rises
above the easy prey to chase the birds
in flight.”
(I, 2; ll.145-52)

I love this. The song maintains the regularity of the rhyming couplets, but introduces additional rhymes on the half-lines, making for a kind of syncopated beat — quite suitable for a song! Juster’s own rationale for using rhymed couplets is that they serve the humorous tone of the poems, creating in the reader an expectation that amplifies a joke’s punchline. Maybe so, although the number of outright jokes in the poems is rather small. Nonetheless, I found that the rhyme scheme did not at all interfere with my enjoyment — quite the opposite, in fact, as, all other things being equal, I’d much rather read rhyming poetry than not.

And what of the poems themselves? There are 18 in total, between the two Books, and the subject matter is wide: some moralize in a manner familiar to me from his Epistles, against riches and covetousness, or against lust; more than one orbit around dinner parties and other social events; one, the longest (Book II, 3), seems to be a kind of catalogue of forms of madness; one is written from the point of view of a piece of wood taken from a tree and carved into the likeness of a god; one describes a diplomatic mission from Rome to Brundisium; in one Horace is hounded through town by a man who wants something and will not leave him alone; in another his slave criticizes Horace for being himself a slave to passions. The fable of the city mouse and country mouse is told in one (Book II, 6), but perhaps the most entertaining is the dialogue in the underworld (Book II, 5), a witty spoof on Homer in which Teresias advises Ulysses how to make some money and get ahead.

In certain cases it is obvious that Horace is adopting a persona — all of the poems in Book II are explicitly dialogues, some of which have a character called Horace, some not — but here and there one feels that the real Horace is coming quite close to the surface, as, for example, in this autobiographical passage in which he describes his first meeting with Maecenas, who was to become his life-long patron, with winsome modesty:

$\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ I cannot say
that I was fortunate that happenstance
made you my friend because it was not chance
that put you in my path. Some time ago,
supremely gifted Virgil let you know
about me; Varius then did the same.
When we met face-to-face, my childish shame
led me to choke on words and lose my train
of thought before I went on to explain
just who I was, that I was not the son
of a distinguished father, and not one
who used his Saturean nag to ride
around his houses in the countryside.
(I, 6; ll.76-88)

The charm of moments like this are what I have most enjoyed about reading Horace. Reading poetry in translation, I have said before, can be quixotic, as one can never be quite sure how much of the translator’s poetry was in the original, nor how much of the original’s poetry is in the translator’s. Here, in these Satires, I am in the same quandary, but I can at least testify that I enjoyed the poems, and the fine translation, on their own terms.

Boyagoda: Original Prin

July 14, 2019

Original Prin
Randy Boyagoda
(Biblioasis, 2018)
224 p.

Prin is an academic at a small university in Toronto which, by a series of mischances, has come to be called the University of the Family Universal, or UFU. (One can imagine the mixed-message banner hung in a prominent place: “Welcome to UFU!”) Even in this small pond Prin is a small fish, for his particular expertise — on the symbolism of marine life, and especially seahorses, in Canadian fiction — lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

His professional fortunes, however, are far from being Prin’s main concern as the novel opens, for Prin has cancer, and is looking, with a generous measure of hesitation and indecision, for a way to tell his beautiful young daughters about his condition.

Yet his professional fortunes won’t let him be after all, for he learns that his school faces bankruptcy, and he unemployment (and, one surmises, unemployability) unless something is done, and quickly. Thus is Prin recruited by his academic dean to travel to the Middle East to deliver a lecture (on Kafka, male genitalia as symbols of seahorses, and The English Patient, naturally) as part of a complicated scheme to save the university. The catch: he must travel with a former girlfriend from his graduate school days, a beauty for whom he harbours, against his will, a smouldering charcoal briquette that he fears might erupt into flame if provoked.

Thus far we have a setup for a promising comic send-up of academic life, and I laughed heartily as the pieces fell into place, but Boyagoda is still more ambitious, for in addition to contending against serious illness, the end of his academic career, and his own deceitful heart, Prin is also beset by a religious crisis. He is a Catholic, basically a happy and contented Catholic, who prays his rosary, goes to Mass and confession, and teaches his children to do the same. Yet, for nearly the first time in his life, Prin believes God has spoken directly to him, telling him to do something specific — something he’d much rather not do, and thinks is imprudent or worse — and he can’t understand why.

Now, comic Catholic novels are not thick on the ground — not as thick as they ought to be, if Chesterton’s claim be true that the test of a good religion is whether you can laugh at it. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of a single other: Waugh wrote both comic and Catholic, but not generally in the same book, and while Miss Flannery’s stories have in some cases a comic thread, it is usually a dark thread, whereas Boyagoda’s tone is closer to winking and grinning satire. It’s a fascinating experiment.

The novel makes an audacious swerve in its final act into tense dramatic territory — almost thriller territory, as unlikely as that sounds. I’m not quite convinced that this works, but the book leaves enough questions hanging in the air — it is, apparently, just the first volume in a planned trilogy — that I’m willing to reserve judgement for now.

In the meantime, I recommend this book to Catholic readers, to readers who enjoy a good laugh, to connoisseurs of opening sentences, and (of course) to those with a special interest in seahorses in Canadian fiction.

Here and there

July 11, 2019
• One doesn’t expect to find sound medieval metaphysics expounded in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, but the world is full of marvels.
• We use a good deal of chalk at home, but our days of buying it at the Dollar Store are over. Hagoromo or bust!
• Nearly a sesquicentury into construction, and La Sagrada Familia finally got a building permit.
• My archbishop, Thomas Cardinal Collins, will be speaking this year at the annual Chesterton Conference in the US. The story of how it came about is quite amusing. As a bonus, Word on Fire has also published a good short interview in which the Cardinal explains just what he likes about GKC. (Incidentally, G.K. Weekly, our modest contribution to Chestertoniana, is running on fumes at present. We are seeking an archivist and typist to help generate a queue of scintillating or provocative excerpts from the great man’s oeuvre. Apply within. No pay or benefits.)
• If you’ve ever had to cover your eyes to protect your soul from beholding an architectural monstrosity churned up by the modernist schools — and who among us has not? — James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism might be a heartening jeremiad. Theodore Dalrymple reviews.
• Almost twenty year ago (!) I spent a week on retreat at the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert. It is in New Mexico, a bit north of Sante Fe, at the base of a splendid red-rock cliff, at the end of a long and sometimes-impassable sand road. At that time there were, I would estimate, twenty or thirty monks. I am delighted to learn this week that the community now has 60 monks, with an average age of just 34. A very healthy young monastery! How I would like to go back someday…

For an envoi, let’s watch an ad for Hagoromo chalk:

le Carré: Smiley’s People

July 8, 2019

Smiley’s People
John le Carré
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1980)
384 p.

Persistence pays, in this case. After a perplexing but still satisfying experience with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I was very nearly thrown by a merely baffling experience with the sequel, The Honourable Schoolboy. But here, in the third and final part of the Karla Trilogy, the story returned to the realm of comprehensibility. Indeed, Smiley’s People might be the most straightforward of the lot, and a corking good tale it is.

George Smiley is (still) retired from the British intelligence service, and so is unavailable to receive an urgent call from one of his former agents. When this agent turns up dead, Smiley is recalled to prevent the police investigation from uncovering links to the Circus. This he does, but he also begins a long process of uncovering the reasons why his agent was killed — killed in a manner betraying Soviet involvement. Smiley gathers evidence, follows clues, lays traps, and — persistence pays — gradually works his way back to the person ultimately responsible, whom we are not surprised to learn is Karla himself, Smiley’s Soviet arch-nemesis. More, what Smiley learns allows him to put the screws on Karla, bringing the trilogy to a sombrely triumphant conclusion.

As in the previous volumes, much of the book is devoted to conversations. Smiley is usually after something, and part of the pleasure of the book is seeing how obliquely he goes about getting it; sometimes an interrogation works best when the subject doesn’t realize an interrogation is taking place. In addition, though, this book shows us a good deal of Smiley’s nuts-and-bolts spycraft: misdirection, assumed identities, forensic deduction. There wasn’t much of this in the earlier Karla books, and I found I enjoyed it here.

*

At the conclusion of the trilogy I’m in a position to briefly sum up. I haven’t read much spy fiction, but I understand that le Carré has a strong reputation, and I can see why. He is a patient novelist, taking time to develop characters and writing compelling dialogue. He asks a lot of his readers; the machinations of the plot, which in some sense are the meat and potatoes of the stories he is telling, are almost entirely submerged, merely suggested, rather than spelled out. The reader has to think things through to follow what is happening. (I, evidently, failed to think enough in the second volume.) And his stories, befitting their cloak-and-dagger nature, have a labyrinthine complexity that convinces the reader of their plausibility.

On the other hand, as with many stories that are, at some level, “procedurals”, I’m not sure that there is much depth to these books. The best of them is Tinker Tailor, which has an ambience of quiet paranoia that gives it a fair claim to being a quintessential Cold War novel. Perhaps the best feature of the trilogy as a whole is Smiley himself, who is indeed a fine creation, a man whom, by story’s end, we feel we know. But beyond that, though the prose can be mesmerizing and the plot engrossing (when apprehended), I’m left with a curious sort of empty feeling in the end. This usually happens when I read genre fiction, so perhaps it’s just me.

July 3, 2019

Seeking advice from readers: I am planning a slow-boil reading project in early(ish) modern drama — say, 1500-1800. Here are the plays I am currently planning to read:

Doctor Faustus (Marlowe) – c.1590
Volpone (Jonson) – 1606
The Alchemist (Jonson) – 1610
The Duchess of Malfi (Webster) – 1612
Life Is a Dream (Calderón) – 1635
Le Cid (Corneille) – 1636
Tartuffe (Molière) – 1664
The Misanthrope (Molière) – 1666
The Country Wife (Wycherley) – 1675
Phèdre (Racine) – 1677
All for Love (Dryden) – 1677
The Way of the World (Congreve) – 1700
The Beggar’s Opera (Gay) – 1728
The School for Scandal (Sheridan) – 1777
The Marriage of Figaro (Beaumarchais) – 1778
Wild Oats (O’Keeffe) – 1791

No Shakespeare because the point is to get to know playwrights other than Shakespeare.

Any suggestions for additions or deletions?

Horace: Epistles

June 26, 2019

Epistles
Horace
Translated from the Latin by David Ferry
(Farrar, Strauss, Giroux; 2001) [20, 10 BC]
xviii + 203 p.

The Epistles of Horace, in two books, are loosely conversational, wide-ranging poems, their artifice subtly submerged beneath a genial surface. Of their epistolary nature there is, however, no subterfuge: each is addressed to a particular recipient, sometimes a friend, sometimes his great patron Maecenas, and sometimes even Augustus himself. The first book, consisting of 20 epistles, was published when Horace was in his mid-40s; the second book, containing just 3 longer epistles, appeared a decade later.

It is difficult to state briefly what sort of thing these poems are. They consist of personal reflections, a good deal of moral counsel, comments on the art of poetry and the life of a poet, short fables, and occasional sallies at mythological subjects, all woven together with an unassuming rhetorical style. We know that there is considerable art here — writing in hexameter, every syllable counts — but the poems feel artless. In the last of these epistles, the most famous one which goes under the title “Ars Poetica”, Horace confirms this impression:

My aim is to take familiar things and make
Poetry of them, and do it in such a way
That it looks as if it was easy as could be
For anybody to do it (although he’d sweat
And strain and work his head off, all in vain).
Such is the power of judgment, of knowing what
It means to put the elements together
In just the right way; such is the power of making
A perfectly wonderful thing out of nothing much.

I have been reading the poems in David Ferry’s translation, and although I was initially a little disappointed with his reliance on blank iambic pentameter, which lacks the obvious poetry of, say, heroic couplets, as I continued to read I came to appreciate the suitability of this style for these poems. Horace, too, does not rhyme; instead, his poetry is in the word choices, and the arrangement of subjects, and in the rhythms of the language. Whether Ferry manages to capture adequately those elements of Horace’s art I cannot judge, but the overall impression is, I think, at least leaning in the right direction.

Horace’s persona in these poems is urbane and rational. There are no passionate outbursts, no hearts on sleeves. He muses, offers advice, and renders judgments, literary and otherwise. He often assumes the mantle of sensible moralist:

If the sickness is in your soul, why put it off?
Get yourself going and you’ll be halfway there;
Dare to be wise; get started. The man who puts off
The time to start living right is like the hayseed
Who wants to cross the river and so he sits there
Waiting for the river to run out of water,
And the river flows by, and it flows on by, forever.
(i, 2)

There is a good deal in these poems about poetry. This is especially true, naturally, of “Ars Poetica”, which is by a comfortable margin the longest of the epistles, but remarks on poems and poets turn up regularly: he considers what makes a literary classic, why we admire the ancient poets but sneer at the modern (the phrase “Homer nods” — dormitat Homerus — in reference to lapses in the quality of the ancient poets comes from these epistles), why people want to write poetry, whether a poet should seek the approval of his audience, how to capture the interest of readers (the description of one tactic, to commence in medias res, is another famous coinage from these poems), the value of Greek models, boundaries of good taste, and the purpose of poetry (again, famously, Horace answered: “to delight and instruct”) are all topics that he treats in one way or another.

As to Horace’s appraisal of the value of his own poetry, he is the master of the graceful sidestep. On one hand, he is self-deprecating, averring (as in the Odes) that his style is not suitable for great matters, and even that his poems will, most likely, be used to wrap fish; but, on the other hand, he advises young poets to carefully revise and polish their poems before making them public, and I think we can assume he followed his own advice. The last poem in Book I, addressed “To His Book”, is especially touching in this respect, as the poet lets his poems go with a benediction before offering a delicate self-portrait:

But when the day is nearly done, and people
Are sitting around you, taking the evening air,
Please tell them who I was: son of a freedman,
In humble circumstances, my wings too strong
For the nest I was born in. What your tale subtracts
Because of my birth may it add because of my merit —
The foremost men of Rome, in peace and war,
Were pleased with me and what I was able to do;
A little man, and prematurely gray,
A lover of the sun; easily angered,
But easily pacified. If anyone asks,
I was forty-four years old in that December
When Lollius chose Lepidus as his partner.
(i, 20)

Wodehouse: Psmith III

June 18, 2019

Leave it to Psmith
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2003) [1923]
288 p.

Wodehousian comedy seems to take place in a world of its own, one sharing certain features with ours but more generously endowed with sunshine, pretty girls, and happy happenstance. It comes as something of a shock — shock before delight, you understand — to find that the walls of this world are permeable, and that if characters cannot actually wander out into our own world, they can at least wander from one story-world to another, and that is just what happens here: Leave it to Psmith narrates what transpired when Psmith walked out of his own sphere and into Blandings Castle.

It wasn’t quite so simple as that, of course, for the course of true fun never does run smooth, but, all the same, circumstance did so contrive that Psmith, having assumed the unlikely identity of a modern Canadian poet, entered Blandings Castle as a guest, intent on wooing the attractive young woman cataloguing the castle’s library, and perhaps — if possible — stealing a £20,000 necklace from the lady of the house.

The action of the story, in fact, centers on this diamond necklace, as the action of Macbeth turns on a handkerchief. We see it hung round Lady Constance’s neck, flung from a window, buried in a flower pot, and stuffed in a bird. Much of the joy of the story comes in the gradual discovery of just how many of the central characters are, for one reason or another, in surreptitious pursuit of that glittering garland.

Speaking of central characters, Wodehouse outdoes himself not only in the quality of his comic characters — Psmith, of course, is a comedic figure of the first rank, but the Hon. Freddy Threepwood is nearly as funny as his name, and even the efficient Rupert Baxter, all unwitting, has his moments of comic glory here, in lemon pyjamas — but also in the number of characters arcs he manages at once, each following their own motivations and intersecting in a variety of hilarious ways. It’s a virtuoso performance.

Leave it to Psmith was to be the last of the Psmith books — I think. So the rumours run. I am in some doubt of the matter, because at story’s end he comes on staff at Blandings Castle, which would seem to portend a return in the next Blandings book, Summer Lightning. However, if it should prove not so, and Psmith passes out of earshot for good, allow me to express my thanks for the happy hours spent in his company.

Old English miscellanea

June 7, 2019

Minor and Miscellaneous Poems
Anonymous
Translated from Old English by Craig Williamson
(U Penn, 2017) [c.600-c.1200]
Roughly 200 p.

Most of the Anglo-Saxon poetry which has survived has done so between the pages of a small number of codices: the Junius Manuscript, Vercelli Book, and Exeter Book, plus the manuscripts which have preserved Beowulf and a few other large-scale works (including a complete psalter in Old English verse). But beyond these major sources there survive a large variety of smaller poems and fragments — even individual lines of verse. The last few hundred pages of this gargantuan gathering of poems are devoted to these survivors. I had thought that I’d glance over them quickly, but in the event I found them fascinating, a kind of curio museum liable to throw up a fresh surprise at every turn, and took the time to read through them all.

They are “minor” poems in the sense of being short, not — or at least not always — of being uninteresting. They include relatively well-known historical poems like “The Fight at Finnsburg” and “The Battle of Maldon” (both of which, if memory serves, Tolkien wrote on), and “Caedmon’s Hymn”, which might be the earliest Old English verse that we have. There are the two hymns of St Godric (which I knew from the gorgeous musical settings by Anonymous 4), a calendar poem that describes the seasons and the annual cycle of church feasts, a set of metrical charms for use against diseases and cattle thieves, and some pious moral exhortations in “The Rewards of Piety” and “Instructions for Christians”. There is also “The Grave”, a ghastly meditation on death and decay, and a set of versified commentaries on Latin liturgical prayers like the Pater Noster, Gloria, and Credo.

Speaking of the Pater Noster, my favourite of these miscellaneous poems was “Solomon and Saturn”, a dialogue between the two named figures as representatives of the Biblical and pagan worlds, respectively. This is a novel idea for a poem, and it is doubly interesting to find that the pagan is Greco-Roman rather than, as one might expect, Scandinavian or Germanic. But the content of the poem is the main attraction: in one especially delightful section Solomon describes the effects of the Pater Noster on the devil. Each letter of the prayer assaults the powers of evil with righteous violence:

Whoever earnestly chants the word of God,
Sings out the truth of the Savior’s song,
And celebrates its spirit without sin,
Can chase away the fierce foe,
The champion of evil, if you use the power
Of the Pater Noster. P will punish him —
That warrior has a strong staff, a long rod,
A golden goad to strike the grim fiend.
Then A pursues him with mighty power,
Beating him back, and T takes a turn,
Stabbing his tongue, twisting his neck,
Breaking his jaws. E afflicts him,
Always ready to assault the enemy.
R is enraged, the lord of letters,
And grabs the fiend by his unholy hair,
Shakes and shivers him, picks up flint
And shatters his shanks, his spectral shins.
No leech will mend those splintered limbs —
He will never see his knees again.
Then the devil will duck down in the dark,
Cowering under clouds, shivering in shade,
Hatching in his heart some hopeless defense.
He will yearn for his miserable home in hell,
The hardest of prisons, the narrowest of homelands,
When those churchly twins, N and O,
Come sweeping down with sharp whips
To scourge his body, afflict his evil flesh.
Then S will arrive, the prince of angels,
The letter of glory, our Lord and Savior —
It will haul the fiend up by his hostile feet,
Swing him in the air, striking the stone
With his insidious head, cracking his cheeks,
Shattering his mouth, scattering his teeth
Through the throngs of hell. Each fearful fiend
Will curl up tightly, concealed in shadow
As the thane of Satan lies terribly still.
(ll.119-155)

And so on. This, I believe, is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long while.

*

Beyond these complete poems or substantial fragments, we also have a bunch of really short poems. When Williamson claims to have translated the “complete” Old English poems, he is not kidding. An inscription on a ring, a stray riddle, a metrical phrase carved on a stone cross or casket, a poetic line scribbled in the margin of a manuscript — they are gathered up and set down here. These bits have a certain romance about them; they, and only they, have been spared by the gauntlet of time. In some cases it becomes difficult to decide if something qualifies as Old English verse or not, for in later centuries the line between Old and Middle English became blurry, and the distinction between merely rhythmic prose and bona fide metrical verse can be tricky to descry. When in doubt Williamson has chosen to include it, and I’m glad.

**

Sadly, this browse through the Old English Curiosity Shop brings our journey through the whole surviving body of Old English poetry to an end. It has been a strange and rewarding trek for me through what was, mostly, terra incognita (or whatever the Anglo-Saxon phrase would be), and I am reluctant to let it go. Thanks are due to Craig Williamson for undertaking the massive task of single-handedly translating this marvellous, little-known literature.

I am mindful, however, that during the 18 months that I’ve been a hearth-guest of the Anglo-Saxons, a queue of other big, bulky medieval books has formed on my shelf. Unless I am mistaken they seem to hail from Finland, Iceland, Arabia, and Japan. Decisions, decisions…