Monday, 3 August 2015

Sappho: the great poet of the personal

This week is the inaugural meeting of my new poetry reading group, and muggins here has the job of introducing our first poet. Because I'm a classicist, I thought an ancient poet would be a good start. Because no one wanted to wade through an entire epic, we're doing Sappho, the 7th-century poet of the island of Lesbos.

What will I be saying about her? Well, to me one of the most interesting things about Sappho is the way she's been read: the transmission of her works, and her reception. She was massively admired in antiquity, and her works were edited into nine books (ie papyrus rolls) in the great library at Alexandria. She was known variously as "the tenth muse" and "the female Homer". She was a huge influence on Roman lyric poets: Catullus famously translated a poem of hers, Horace wrote in her distinctive "Sapphic" stanzas, and Ovid in his Heroides (a collection of poems purporting to be love letters by jilted lovers to their ex-boyfriends) has one by Sappho to her certainly apocryphal lover, Phaon, on account of whom she was legendarily supposed to have killed herself.

Now, hardly any of Sappho's work remains. There are only two complete poems. In Stanley Lombardo's excellent translation (which the reading group has tried and failed to get in time from Amazon, so be warned) he renders 73 fragments into English (out of 200-odd in David Campbell's 1982 text for the Loeb edition) and it is a very slim volume indeed. Until the late-19th century the reason we knew about any of these fragments at all was because they had been quoted in other works – in ancient books on literary criticism, metre, etymology, etc. Often they are quoted not because they are regarded as particularly fine in themselves, but because they might illustrate an interesting use of the word "cushion" (say), or provide an example of a particular poetic metre, or grammatical oddity. Lombardo's fr 46, for example, is simply this: "a child, very soft, picking flowers". A lot of them are like that.

In the late 19th-century and early 20th century, however, something extraordinary happened: excavations of a rubbish dump of the ancient town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt turned up a number of papyri – more fragments and some almost-complete poems. In 1937, too, a poem was found written in pen-and-ink on a potsherd – easily attributable to Sappho because tiny chunks of it had been quoted elsewhere.

Still, Sappho has a pretty astonishing reputation, given how little survives. As we read them today, her minute, often deeply resonant fragments, offer us questions: are we to regard them as poetic wholes, like tiny Emily Dickinson poems? What aesthetic value do they have? Are we to see them as analagous, somehow, to the irretrievably broken potsherd on which the hymn to Aphrodite was found? Ezra Pound had an answer, in his poem Papyrus (1916) which is as follows:

Spring ...  
Too long ... 
Gongula ... 

Sappho's "afterlife" is a fascinating story in itself. Although the only "facts" that can be known about Sappho herself are in her poems – and it's important to bear in mind that it would be naive indeed to confuse the poetically constructed "I" of the poems with some objectively clear "real-life" Sappho – she has been the subject of some extraordinary fantasy over the years, the starting point for "biography", fiction and sheer titillation. Aside from anything, there has been the "was she, wasn't she?" question of sexuality. The Victorians seemed especially keen to preserve her from the charges of lesbianism. The great 19th-century German scholar Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff had her down as a sort of Prussian headmistress presiding over a boarding school of chastely virtuous schoolgirls. Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), the eminent professor of Greek at the university of Glasgow, wrote: "It is a little futile to discuss the private character of a woman who lived 2,500 years ago in a society of which we have almost no records." Fair enough, but then he continues: "It is clear that Sappho was a 'respectable person' in Lesbos; and there is no good early evidence to show that the Lesbian standard was low." Which, as Richard Jenkyns points out in his book Three Classical Poets, makes her sound like some Kelvingrove matron. On the other hand, Sappho was a poster-girl for the counterculture. Swinburne thought she was the best poet ever (better than Homer and Shakespeare). HD was also a big fan; and in the early years of the 20th century she was claimed by lesbians as, well, a lesbian.

And yes, the poems contain words of deep and passionate love for other women; how far those relationships would have resembled homosexuality as it exists in today's culture is another matter. Sappho was admired in antiquity for the elegance and exquisiteness of her writing: that seems to me to be right. Other qualities worth admiring: her wit, teasing tone and, I think, the deeply personal nature of her poems. I love the intensely sensuous, pictorial, sometimes synaesthesic nature of her descriptions. 

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George Orwell on Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon"

"Darkness at Noon" (1940) dramatises the Moscow show trials and Stalin’s "Great Purge" of Old Bolsheviks. In his review for the New Statesman, Orwell praised Koestler’s “inner knowledge of totalitarian methods”: “The common people,” argues the Party operative Ivanov, “cannot grasp ‘deviation’ is a crime in itself; therefore crimes of the sort they can understand – murder, train-wrecking and so forth – must be invented.” Many see Rubashov’s confession as a direct influence upon Winston Smith’s.
Orwell used his review as an opportunity to chastise the left-wing press in Britain for their refusal to speak up; a powerful statement made two years after Kingsley Martin refused to publish his despatches from Spain, fearing they would appear critical of Stalin, and therefore socialism: “What was frightening about these trials was not that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.”
Mr Arthur Koestler should know something about prison, for he has spent a respectable proportion of the past four years there. First a long stretch in one of Franco’s fortresses, with the sound of firing squads ringing through the walls twenty or thirty times a day; then a year or so of internment in France; then escape to England, and a fresh internment in Pentonville – from which he has just been unconditionally released, however. In no case, needless to say, has he been accused of any particular crime. Nowadays, over increasing areas of the earth, one is imprisoned not for what one does but for what oneis, or, more exactly, for what one is suspected of being. Still, Mr Koestler can congratulate himself on having hitherto fallen only into the hands of amateurs. If England imprisoned him, it at any rate let him out again, and did not force him beforehand to confess to poisoning sheep, committing sabotage on the railways or plotting to assassinate the King.
His present novel, fruit of his own experiences, is a tale of the imprisonment, confession and death of one of the Old Bolsheviks, a composite picture having resemblances to both Bukharin and Trotsky. The events in it follow the normal course. Rubashov, one of the last survivors of the original Central Committee of the Communist Party, is arrested, is charged with incredible crimes, denies everything, is tortured and is shot in the back of the neck. The story ends with a young girl in whose house Rubashov has once lodged wondering whether to denounce her father to the Secret Police as a way of securing a flat for herself and her future husband. Almost its whole interest, however, centres about the intellectual struggle between three men, Rubashov himself and the two GPU officers, Invanov and Gletkin, who are dealing with his case. Ivanov belongs to the same generation as Rubashov himself and is suddenly purged and shot without trial in the middle of the proceedings. Gletkin, however, belongs to the new generation that has grown up since the Revolution, in complete isolation both from the outside world and from the past. He is the “good Party man,” an almost perfect specimen of the human gramophone. Ivanov does not actually believe that Rubashov has committed the preposterous deeds he is charged with. The argument he uses to induce him to confess is that it is a last service required of him by the Party. The common people, he says, cannot grasp that “deviation” is a crime in itself; therefore crimes of the sort that they can understand – murder, train-wrecking and so forth – must be invented. Gletkin uses the same argument, but his attitude is somewhat different. It is never certain whether he believes Rubashov to be guilty or not; or, more exactly, no distinction between guilt and innocence exists in his mind. The only form of criticism that he is able to imagine is murder. As he sees it, anyone capable of thinking a disrespectful thought about Stalin would, as a matter of course, attempt to assassinate him. Therefore, though the attempt at assassination has perhaps not been made, it can be held to have been made; it exists, like the undrawn production to a line. Gletkin’s strength lies in the complete severance from the past, which leaves him not only without pity but without imagination or inconvenient knowledge. On the other hand, it was the weakness of the Old Bolsheviks to have remains Europeans at heart, more akin to the society they overthrew than to the new race of monsters they created.
When Rubashov gives in and confesses, it is not because of the torture – he has suffered worse at the hands of the Nazis without confessing – so much as from complete inner emptiness. “I asked myself,” he says at his trial, almost in Bukharin’s words, “‘For what am I fighting?’” For what, indeed? Any right to protest against torture, secret prisons, organised lying and so forth he has long since forfeited. He recognises that what is now happening is the consequence of his own acts – even feels a sort of admiration for Gletkin, as the kind of subhuman being probably needed to guide the Revolution through its present stage. The Moscow trials were a horrible spectacle, but if one remembered what the history of the Old Bolsheviks had been it was difficult to be sorry for them as individuals. They took the sword, and they perished by the sword, as Stalin presumably will also, unless he should happen to die prematurely, like Lenin.
Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of brilliant literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow “confessions” by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods. What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them. Correspondents of Liberal newspapers pronounced themselves “completely satisfied” by the confessions of men who had been dragged into the light after, in some cases, years of solitary confinement; an eminent lawyer even produced a theory that the loss of the right to appeal was a great advantage to the accused! The simultaneous cases in Spain, in which exactly the same accusations were made but no confessions obtained, were sedulously covered up or lied about in the Left-wing press. It was, of course, obvious that the accused in the Russian cases had been tortured or threatened with torture, but the explanation is probably more complex than that. Mr Koestler thinks, like Souvarine, that “for the good of the Party” was probably the final argument; indeed, his book is rather like an expanded pamphlet, Cauchemar en URSS. As a piece of writing it is a notable advance on his earlier work.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Becoming Simone de Beauvoir

It is proof, if proof were needed, of Simone de Beauvoir’s mythic stature in France, that to commemorate the centenary of her birth the French news weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published a photograph of Beauvoir’s naked derriere on its January 3rd cover.
Taken in 1952, when Beauvoir was in Chicago visiting her then-lover, Nelson Algren, the photograph shows the great feminist standing in the bathroom, wearing not a stitch of clothes, looking at herself in the mirror. And it was not Algren who took it, but his close friend, the photographer Art Shay. The way Shay tells it, Beauvoir heard the shutter snap behind her and, laughing, chastised him: “Naughty Boy!” (No word on why Shay was around while Beauvoir was in the altogether).
The author of The Second Sex would have turned 100 this year, and in spite of all the tributes, assessments, analyses, and appreciations—a special issue of Le Magazine Littéraire, a three-day conference under the direction of Julia Kristeva, several new books—it is the sexy, controversial aspects of her life that have been emphasized, once again, in the mainstream media: her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, their pact not to marry and to tell each other everything of their extracurricular conquests, their tendency to pass lovers back and forth and how it was all his idea. Beauvoir comes off as a doormat every time—which suits popular opinion just fine, thriving as it does on human fallibility. What sells more papers: a fair and balanced portrait of the “greatest feminist theorist of our time,” or a photograph of her ass?
Even Beauvoir scholars are guilty of projecting their own anxieties onto her, and it is the relationship with Sartre that plays such an ambiguous role in their idol’s life. Did he compromise her or copy from her; inspire her or keep her down? “Sartre trapped Simone de Beauvoir by insisting that she follow him,” maintains Michelle Le Doeff. Edward and Kate Fulbrook have been at pains to show that Sartre cribbed the philosophy in Being and Nothingness from Beauvoir. Even the most recent biography to appear in English was a double biography—Hazel Rowley’s Tête-à-Tête: The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Thinking Simone de Beauvoir apart from Jean-Paul Sartre has not, apparently, been feasible: too many scores to settle, that embarrassing pact, and the paradox of the great feminist in thrall to her boyfriend.
Of course, the relationship between two of the most important philosophers of the 20th century is worth spilling a little—okay, a lot—of ink. It did last half a century. But Beauvoir’s image—not the one that evolves through a careful study of her writing but her popular, mainstream image—could benefit from a little one-on-one time with the lady in question. We can therefore be grateful that Beauvoir’s early diaries have now been released to the public, giving us a glimpse of a passionate, joyful, brilliant young woman, who suspects she has greatness in her, but has no idea of the icon she will become. We meet in them not the older, self-protective Beauvoir who looks back at this period in volume one of her four-volume autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, 1958); rather, we meet the intimate and not-yet-formed Beauvoir, speaking in her own youthful voice, asserting her dedication to ideas, to literature, and to dedicated thought.
When Beauvoir died in 1986, her adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, found these diaries in among her papers (an earlier diary, from 1925, which Beauvoir refers to, has not been found). In 1990 she donated them to the Bibliothèque National in Paris, where they were made available for scholarly research, and subsequently, thanks to the efforts of two American Beauvoir scholars, Margaret A. Simons and Barbara Klaw, the first volume of the diaries appeared in English in 2006 as part of the University of Illinois Press’s Beauvoir Series. But this volume covers only 1926 to 1927; the events of 1929—which chronicles Beauvoir’s meeting Sartre and the beginning of their affair, her passing the agrégation examination (coming in second only to Sartre), her move out of her parents’ home, and the death of her childhood friend Zaza—will be released at a yet-to-be-determined date.
The Cahiers de jeunesse cover the years 1926 – 1930, when Beauvoir was studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, and then preparing for the agrégation (a highly competitive national exam, which women had only been allowed to take since 1905) while finishing her undergraduate degree. She would not meet Sartre until 1929; we are granted three full years of Beauvoirean thought to consider apart from Sartre’s. And we can also begin to assess the young Beauvoir from a different perspective than the account she gave of herself, years later, in her autobiography.
Beauvoir describes in the Memoires the unhappiness of her adolescent years; in 1919 her grandfather (president of the Meuse bank) went bankrupt, and her father, a bourgeois gentleman and lawyer by training, had to go to work. Georges de Beauvoir was a very charming man, but not particularly suited to the professions, and the family’s income steadily dwindled. He moved his family to a cramped apartment on the rue de Rennes, on the sixth floor with a meager supply of running water. Simone and her younger sister Hélène shared a tiny bedroom off of the kitchen. Their devoutly religious mother read their mail, doted on “Poupette” (as Hélène was nicknamed), and gave Simone a hard time about her reading habits. The Beauvoir girls would have to be educated, their father decided, so that they might go out and earn their living—as they certainly would have no dowry. For Simone this was a blessing, and she threw herself into her studies to combat the loneliness, shame, and frustration of her circumstances. She said later that it was after reading Little Women and identifying so much with tomboy Jo that the idea came to her that marriage was not her only choice in life; doubtless the knowledge that she would have to earn her own living compounded this feeling that marriage was optional. As Beauvoir admitted to her biographer Deirdre Bair, even if Jo does marry in the end, her rebellion was fortified early on by exposure to literary women like Jo March.
In 1926 and 1927, the diaries give us a privileged viewpoint on the emotional effects of her rebellion from her bourgeois family. She feels keenly the lack of an intellectual equal to confide in, and she writes repeatedly, in the early years at least, of her utter solitude, trying to make a virtue of her difference, occasionally yielding to her misery in pages of despondent prose. But her misery is countered by wild, exultant intellectual discoveries. She reads widely and deeply, frequently including long passages copied out from books that impress her: Bergson, Barrès, Claudel, Mauriac, Fournier, Jammes, Cocteau, Arland, Gide. All the great French writers of the early 20th-century are represented.
Very early on, she realizes that she does not want to lead a stale, static academic life but rather that her life of the mind must be in the service of something greater than herself. A citation on the very first page (an epigraph, even) from the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz points the way ahead:
A quoi est-ce qu’elles servent, ces complications du cæur? . . . Qu’une vie sorte de lá qui émeuve les autres hommes, et nous sommes justifiés.
What purpose do all these complications of the heart serve? . . . May a life emerge from here which moves other men, and we will be justified.
Thing is, the original citation, from Adieu á beaucoup de personnages (1924), reads “Qu’un cri sorte de lá,” not “Qu’une vie.” A “cry,” not a “life.” Beauvoir’s displacement, be it accidental or purposeful, is telling. But she makes an important connection between her own life and its purpose:
Cette citation de Ramuz est la justification morale de ce qu’un moment j’ai cru futilité et égoïsme; oui, je dois cultiver ces nuances de mon moi, et par respect pour le trésor déposé en moi, et pour autrui . . . ” (6 aout 1926)
This quotation from Ramuz is the moral justification of what I formerly believed futility and egoism. Yes, I must cultivate these nuances of my self, out of respect both for the gift bestowed upon me, and for others. (August 6, 1926)
The “and for others” is not a hurried addition made out of guilt or fear of egotism; in the original French the structure of the phrase indicates that Beauvoir has two distinct ideals in mind. The connection between her gift and the “others,” by which we must understand “humanity at large,” is vitally important both for understanding this period in her life and for understanding the philosophy that she would go on to develop in She Came to Stay (1943), The Second Sex (1949), and the rest of her novels and essays. “When I have inscribed my life on this piece of paper, will it be of any use? When I have gotten down all these images of all my former selves, what good will it be? What good?” (August 7, 1926) Why write? she asks. Why live? Beauvoir is writing for her life, to make sense of her life. But she is also writing to evolve her own philosophy of emotion, working outward from her own experiences.
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Saturday, 1 August 2015

Horace: Vain Riches

There’s no ivory, there’s no
gilded panelling, gleaming here in my house,
no beams of Hymettian
marble rest on pillars quarried in deepest

Africa, I’ve not, as heir
to Attalus, become unwitting owner
of some palace, no noble
ladies trail robes of Spartan purple for me.

But I’ve honour, and a vein
of kindly wit, and though I’m poor the rich man
seeks me out: I don’t demand
anything more of the gods, or my powerful

friend, I’m contented enough
blessed with my one and only Sabine Farm.
Day treads on the heels of day,
and new moons still continue to wane away.

Yet you contract on the edge
of the grave itself for cut marble, forget
the tomb and raise a palace,
pushing hard to extend the shore of Baiae’s

roaring seas, not rich enough
in mainland coast. What’s the point of tearing down
every neighbouring boundary
edging your fields, leaping over, in your greed,

the limits of your tenants? Both the husband
and wife, and their miserable
children, are driven out, and they’re left clutching
their household gods to their breast.


Yet there’s no royal courtyard
that more surely waits for a wealthy owner,
than greedy Orcus’ fateful
limits. Why stretch for more? Earth’s equally open

to the poorest of men and
the sons of kings: and Orcus’s ferryman
couldn’t be seduced by gold
to row back and return crafty Prometheus.

Proud Tantalus, and Pelops
his son, he holds fast, and whether he’s summoned,
or whether he’s not, he lends
an ear, and frees the poor man, his labours done. 

Chasing the Writer - Virginia Woolf: A Portrait

IT SEEMS IMPORTANT to begin with a distinction: a portrait is not a biography. A portrait insists on a singular and often self-reflective view — see my subject this way — while a biography pretends to objective distance. Both are proprietary, opinionated, and presumptuous about their subjects, but a portrait is quite frank about its narrow, intense purpose, which is, chiefly, to evoke a complex emotional presence. A biography, a more ingratiating form, does not suppose readers already know its subject and is careful about making introductions, establishing context, explaining references, looking widely at the time period, at political, economic, and cultural forces. A portrait hopes to persuade readers already familiar with a subject that they have it all wrong. Portraits belong to agitators, and Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, by the late French critic Viviane Forrester and winner of the 2009 Prix Goncourt, is the work of an enflamed agent provocateur.
Forrester has no interest in introducing Woolf to anyone who doesn’t already know her work and what has been written about her. Instead, she wants to explode the assumptions of Woolfian cognoscenti, both detractors and devotees. Her portrait is a Molotov cocktail aimed straight at the popular image of Woolf as frigid and fragile, and frequently mad, a woman whose self-sacrificing husband gave up sex and his own ambitions to keep her sane enough to write masterpieces.
The book’s opening salvo is an indignant attack on both Quentin Bell, Woolf’s nephew and first biographer, and her husband, Leonard Woolf, charging them with creating the myth of Virginia Woolf as “cold.” She may have been as much of a genius as Tolstoy and Joyce, she may have written the incomparable Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and inspired generations of women with A Room of One’s Own, she may have profoundly influenced 20th-century literature, but she couldn’t have an orgasm; also, she was crazy — that was the essence of Bell’s enormously influential portrait, approved by Leonard. “The timelessness, the power, the marvel of the work all becoming secondary,” mourns Forrester.
She implies that this simplistic vision of Woolf as brilliant, but asexual and unstable, was consoling for the men in her life, who would have liked to be geniuses themselves but weren’t. Forrester accuses Bell in particular of condescension, of reducing Woolf, whose work he admits he “did not know very well,” to a sort of freak, not “a complete woman.” She makes a persuasive case, catching him, for example, in inventing a childhood episode of madness for his Aunt Virginia and then presenting it as fact. “Separating the writer from the woman,” writes Forrester bitterly, “to avoid one and disparage the other.”
But it’s Leonard who gets dragged in front of the firing squad. Not only did he encourage Bell’s patronizing portrayal of Virginia; according to Forrester, he was also responsible for his wife’s only true psychotic episode, and probably helped usher her toward suicide. These accusations are fierce and emphatic: Leonard projected his own neuroses and his own frigidity onto Woolf (he had a horror of beginner sex and found most women’s bodies “extraordinarily ugly”). He married her strictly to get out of Ceylon, where he was in the British Foreign Service and where he had fallen into a suicidal depression. (He hated both the place and the position, though he pretended later to have thrown over a fabulous career for Virginia.) Without medical corroboration, he decreed that she was too unbalanced to have children, triggering her legendary mental breakdown immediately after their honeymoon. Then he held the threat of institutionalization over her, coercing her into a secluded country lifestyle that suited him but isolated and disheartened her, while using his marriage as entrée to an aristocratic, intellectual world that, as “a penniless Jew” from the professional class — just barely out of a shopkeeper’s apron — he could not have otherwise hoped to join.
Although Forrester does allow that Leonard was a champion of Virginia’s work, and that his dogged health regimens may have helped her writing, she believes he infantilized and undermined his wife in most other respects. Virginia adored London, but he limited her visits so she wouldn’t get overstimulated. He tacitly approved Virginia’s affair with Vita Sackville-West but carefully dampened it by instructing Vita to make sure Virginia went to bed before 11:00. He also interrupted Virginia while she was working to force her to drink milk, a transgression Forrester finds so outrageous that she mentions it at least half a dozen times.
But Leonard and Quentin Bell were not Virginia’s only oppressors, although interestingly the usual villains, her lustful half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth, are mostly passed over. In subsequent chapters Forrester indicts Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, for being a mawkish grief vampire after his wife’s death, exploiting his traumatized children — the daughters especially — filling Woolf’s childhood home with a “lascivious, poisonous fog,” and creating endless “horrid scenes, sordid hours,” and an “insidiously incestuous atmosphere.” Later, even jotting a line or two in her diary about her father would catapult Woolf into depression. In 1940, just before her death, she was writing about him, and that, along with nightly bombing raids over the house, and the cyanide pills Leonard had obtained — Leonard was convinced that the Nazis would seize them as soon as Germany invaded — seems to have given her all but the final push.
For that, there was Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s beloved older sister. Forrester charges Vanessa with being passively vengeful instead of supportive, wounded by Virginia’s flirtation with her husband, Clive, and dependent on Virginia’s envy of Vanessa’s sexual and maternal life, “a jealousy that Vanessa could not do without.” Far from encouraging Virginia to see herself as rational and resilient, Vanessa repeatedly implied she was a burden. A week before Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse, Vanessa wrote her a scolding letter: “[Y]ou must not go and get ill just now. What shall we do when we’re invaded if you are a helpless invalid?” This, Forrester claims, was the “death blow.”
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Thursday, 30 July 2015

Juvenal: The Emptiness Of Power

Some are destroyed by their power, downed by profound envy,
Some are sunk deep by their long and illustrious list of honours.
Noosed by a rope, their statues are dragged to the ground, even
The wheels of their chariots are smashed, and broken to pieces
With axes, while the legs of their innocent horses are shattered.
Now the flames roar, the bellows hiss, and that head idolised
By the people glows in the furnace, flames crackle around huge
Sejanus; the face of a man who was number two in the world
Is converted to jugs and basins, turned to pots and frying pans.
Deck your houses with laurel, lead a great bull whitened with
Chalk up to the Capitol: come see Sejanus dragged along by
A hook, everyone’s celebrating! ‘Look at the lips, look at the
Face on that! You can take it from me, he was never a man
That I liked’ ‘But what was the crime that brought him down?’
Who informed, what’s the evidence, where are the witnesses?’
‘That’s all irrelevant; a lengthy and wordy letter arrived from
Capri.’ ‘That’s fine, answer enough.’ But what of the Roman
Mob? They follow Fortune, as always, and hate whoever she
Condemns. If Nortia, as the Etruscans called her, had favoured
Etruscan Sejanus; if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously
Smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed
Their new Augustus. They shed their sense of responsibility
Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob
That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,
Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only,
Bread and circuses. ‘I hear that many will perish.’ ‘No doubt,
The furnace is huge.’ ‘My friend Bruttidius Niger looked
Rather pale, when I met him in front of the altar of Mars;
I’m scared that Tiberius, like a defeated Ajax, will exact
Punishment for being so poorly protected. Let’s run swiftly
And trample on Caesar’s foe, where he lies on the riverbank,
Making sure our slaves see us, so they can’t deny it and drag
Their terrified masters to justice, with nooses round our necks.’
Those were the crowd’s secret murmurings regarding Sejanus.
Would you like to be greeted as Sejanus, possess all that he
Possessed, be the one to grant highest office to some, appoint
Others to military posts, be seen as the Emperor’s guardian,
He who sits on the little constricted rock of Capri with a herd
Of Chaldean stargazers? Surely you’d like his troops, their
Spears, his excellent cavalry and private fortress; why
Wouldn’t you? Even those who have no wish to kill, enjoy
The power to do so. But what’s the value of fame and wealth,
If the good that delights is matched by an equal measure of ill?
Would you rather be wearing the purple-edged toga of him
Who’s being dragged along, or rule empty Gabii or Fidenae;
Lay down the law over weights and scales, break vessels that
Give short measure, as a ragged official in deserted Ulubrae?
So perhaps you’d admit Sejanus had no idea what to ask for?
Since he simply kept asking for greater honours, demanding
More and more wealth, he was building a lofty many-storied
Tower, from which the fall would only prove greater, whose
Collapse into shattered ruin would be only the more profound.
What destroyed the Crassi, the Pompeys, and that man Caesar
Who brought the Romans under his lash, and so tamed them?
Simply seeking that place at the top, using every trick that
Exists, simply extravagant prayer granted by spiteful gods.
Few kings go down to Ceres’ son-in-law, Dis, free from
Blood and carnage, few tyrants achieve a tranquil death.  

Translated by A. S. Kline

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë


Emily Bronte


The above image of Emily Brontë – endlessly reproduced – is less a portrait, more an icon. Intense, fierce, inward, solitary, elusive and unknowable: the young author of Wuthering Heights in profile is of a piece with her first, and only, novel.
Her elder sister's work – Jane Eyre (no 12 in this series) – hypnotises the reader through the calculated force of its tone, its "suspended revelations", and its hints of suppressed eroticism. It builds, slowly, to a poignant climax in which, finally, its protagonists are redeemed, though not in a way that's conventional. Wuthering Heights, by contrast, plunges impetuously into a wild and passionate exploration of love in all its destructive manifestations.
Brontë's narrative – fragmented, discordant and tortuous – revolves obsessively around a single, explosive transgression, and the theme of jealousy in the lives of Heathcliff and Catherine, before making a calmer return to the theme in the often neglected second half.
Where Charlotte comes from the puritan tradition of John Bunyan (no 1 in this series), Emily is the child of the Romantic movement, and both sisters are steeped in the gothic. However, it is Emily who takes the bigger creative risks. The first reviews of Wuthering Heights were mixed. Critics who had been swept away byJane Eyre did not know what to make of it. For a long time it was judged to be inferior. Readers who love Jane Eyre are sometimes less enthusiastic aboutWuthering Heights. And vice versa. I've included both in my list because their influence on the English imagination, and on subsequent English-language fiction, has been incalculable.
Looking back, it's clear that where Jane Eyre comes out of a recognisable tradition, and is conscious of that affiliation, Wuthering Heights releases extraordinary new energies in the novel, renews its potential, and almost reinvents the genre. The scope and drift of its imagination, its passionate exploration of a fatal yet regenerative love affair, and its brilliant manipulation of time and space put it in a league of its own. This is great English literature, the fruit of a quite extraordinary childhood.
To look forward, I think we can say that the work as we know it of Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, and even Rosamond Lehmann would have been impossible without it. As a portrait of "star-cross'd lovers" it rivals Romeo and Juliet. There is also something operatic about its audacity and ambition. No wonder film-makers, song writers, actors and literary critics have been drawn to reinterpret its story.
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