A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now



Main site index




by Michael Peverett (unless indicated)


Section 1. To 1588



Contents marked with a * are separate HTML pages. Click on the link to get to them. You can't get to them just by scrolling further down the page!


Prehistory: Avebury and Surroundings    hyperreal prehistory

Euripides (484 BCE - 406 BCE) *     NEW

Epicurus (341-270 BCE)    second favourite philosophy

Plautus          who owns fish?

Catullus (84BCE? - 54BCE?)   NEW

Horace: The Odes     class and chocolates on display

Qasa'id (pre-Islamic Arabic odes)  by Edmund Hardy   

Wolfram von Eschenbach (c.1170-c.1217): Parzival  

Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599)     The Shepheardes Calender

Fulke Greville (1554-1628)          sex and print




Prehistory: Avebury and Surroundings




It was the 31st of May, 2003. Hot and hazy; this mysterious date which is only just spring.


We abandoned my thought of beginning the walk right here at Pewsey station. I had wanted to troll through this valley, which was strange to both of us, to walk a little on the towpath of the canal and to grow threads of inhabitation, like the byssustrådar of a mussel (I don’t know the English word) so that we could discover what contrasts lay in the ascent to the plateau. There just wasn’t time; Mirre, my sister, would eventually have to find a way back to Putney, me to Somerset. It meant another broken link, another loss of perspective, but we drove up to the top of the Marlborough Downs and parked near the Wansdyke.


Probably it just meant that we shared everyone else’s perspective. It was a Saturday. Sponsored walkers, joggers, a St John’s Ambulance man who wiled away the time clipping nettles away from the stile with what appeared to be the scissors from a First Aid Kit.   


The Wansdyke is a very long rampart that runs east-west across central southern England. It’s basically a raised mound with a ditch on the northern side. Here, the ditch attracted nettles and an abundant frost of silverweed. On top, the most eyecatching plants were vigorous masses of germander speedwell. (As often on flat downland, there were few distinctively chalkland plants, apart from the musk thistle Carduus nutans, its fierce armoury of spines defying grazing, like the nettle’s stinging hairs.)


Knowing nothing about the Wansdyke, except that it was very old, we speculated about its purpose. It seemed useless as a fortification (and would need an impossible number of people to man); it seemed grossly labour-intensive as a road (when a naturally beaten path would do quite as well, or better). Perhaps it was intended to mark a frontier, simplifying judgments about intrusion and whose laws were to be obeyed. Here, it was dramatically placed on the southern crest of the chalk, but to the west it passed straight across the low cheese country of West Wiltshire.


[It is, in fact, a defensive frontier, built to defend a Romano-British kingdom to the south, which is why the ditch is on the north side. You can find out about all this at an excellent site:



What was the history of this walk, which began at the Wansdyke and criscrossed around Avebury? Could it be summed up by drawing lines on the map? This would disguise our perception that some parts of the walk were pre-planned, while other parts were spontaneous detours. But perhaps the history should include Paddington station, Millets, our emails and our jobs, the place we grew up?


Every year the cow parsley begins again from the ground. It springs up and flowers, noticeably fond of ancient earthworks. The froth of petals falls, the stems become tough and yellow, the fruits enlarge. It disintegrates into wintry kexes.


The cow parsley frothed on the sides of West Kennett Long Barrow. We were eating “Devon” cookies, manufactured under license in Malta. Perhaps the history of how I came to have these cookies was also relevant? Here’s the timed photograph that I tried to set up. The camera tipped as I pressed the button, so it only shows our feet.


Toughened glass panels have been let into the roof, so you can go into the burial chamber and see something – very rough niches. It dates from around 3500BCE, comfortably earlier than any word we know. Who were they?


The long barrow has some connexion with Silbury Hill, with Avebury, and with Avebury’s predecessor (not rediscovered until 1930), which is known as “The Sanctuary”. The latter site is the oldest and perhaps the most potent. The stone circle was destroyed by a farmer in the eighteenth century (an engraving of it survives). Now there are only concrete markers to show the position of holes in the ground that form a pattern of circles. It’s the most potent because you aren’t distracted by “remains”. You look around at the skyline and it’s quiet and sunny. You’re here. Here.


But all prehistoric sites are primarily what you can’t see, just empty forms and traces. There is nothing old about the horseshoe vetch that clusters on the south face of Silbury Hill. You aren’t allowed to walk on Silbury Hill (in principle, this is because of the recent collapse of a shaft) – but even if you could, you would only be walking on today.


In the car-park alongside Silbury Hill, my phone rang. Loudly I talked Alison through shutting down the Exchange server. “Choose ‘Shut Down’ – just like a PC. Do a cold boot if you can. The power-off button is on the front of it somewhere – it’s the one at the bottom of the rack.”  I was half-conscious of people interrupting me; then I became aware that I was standing beside the information sheet for the Hill. And the information sheet is the bit that matters now – I was right at the heart of the shrine.  Embarrassed, I asked her to call me back, but then I lost reception altogether when we started walking in the direction of Avebury, a well-known effect that some people have excitedly attributed to the monuments themselves.


Later we walked to Fyfield Down, crossing the splendid gallops belonging to the stud and dropping into a dry valley full of sarsen stones. The valley was yellow with bulbous buttercup. I don’t know if the dry valley was formed during a post-glacial period of high rainfall (see G.H. Dury, The Face of the Earth (1959), p. 33) or is due to a glacial period when frozen subsoil prevented the natural percolation of the chalk; the sarsen stones are the remnants of an Eocene cap of silicrete. This place, most likely, is where they collected the sarsens that were used to make the circle at Avebury. A hare ran over a rise in a weedkilled field, stopping dead once it no longer saw us; we could still see its ears, though. Lapwings went through their uneasy routine.


Nature has no ruins; everything, like the carcinogenic cells on the old slides (cf Adrienne Rich), is up to date.


In the very centre of the Sanctuary, someone had laid two florists’ carnations crosswise, and added, by way of sacrifice, some segments of a picnic orange. It seemed to me that the immense durations of the Avebury culture (Avebury itself dates from about 2200BCE) persisted unbroken in that fragile gesture of consent.     


We walked back along a track marked on the map as the Ridgeway. Mirre wondered if she’d ever ride horses again. Her boots were rubbing, they were too small. She was in training for Macchu Picchu. I knew the Ridgeway was a long track, because I’d once walked on it in Oxfordshire. I didn’t know that it was probably even older than the Avebury culture.


We now inhabit the vales. In those days they were impassable, an immense sea of tangled trees, thicket and undrained swamp that without interference had rioted and rotted since the melting away of the last Ice Age. Bronze Age existence was lived out on higher ground. While the relics of later phases of history are engulfed by our own, some marks of these most ancient ones stand clear. The more so since the vanishing of rural labour.


At the solstice it is usual to ban car-parking within a few miles of Avebury, in order to secure the few residents from all but the most dedicated pagans.  


Having misread the timetable, we ended up with an hour to drink bitter-shandy in a pub at Pewsey (“Under New Management”). It was Saturday evening, packed and friendly. 




These vague forms on the land are now indissolubly connected with the idea of leisure. They are, for example, a recurring theme of Andrew Young’s A Prospect of Britain (1956), a book that is now troubling to read – one can’t help meditating on how the author utterly avoids the prospect of any Britain in which people actually live, then or now.  When we read, in a characteristic sentence, “You may feel that you belong to it more than the residents in the ugly surrounding villas”, it is like reading the rules on the lid of an old Spears game that we baulk at playing. But that’s as readers. Then, at the week-end, we go for a middle-class walk and “may feel” that we have turned into Andrew Young.


Prehistoric remains are after all comfortable. They are blatantly surrounded by “don’t knows” (what was the function of Silbury Hill?), and that makes us feel less inadequate. And they are extremely minimal – there is no overwhelming volume of specialist detail to absorb. So we can pretend to be scholars, taxed with the glamorous and easily-conceived problems that are invented for them by a middlebrow novelist.


Despite, or perhaps because, Bronze Age Avebury cannot be seen, its hyper-real dimension flourishes. I am in a newsagent in Bath, which is a local town for me. “My” Bath is a complex network of significant locations; a Chinese Necklace Poplar in the Botanical Gardens, the Riverside Café, two Oxfam shops, an unoccupied house with a gloomy garden of dizzying cypresses, a fleamarket in Walcot Street, a large hospital and so on. I am buying a book of stamps, and have turned round to leave when I see the postcards. STONEHENGE, AVEBURY, SILBURY HILL, THE ROMAN BATHS. The place where I live is transformed and, at first, I think, falsified. I have indeed read that Bath is the oldest continuously inhabited place in Britain. But for us who live like lichens on a sarsen stone these looming ancientnesses have no great prominence. Temporarily I am converted into thinking that the tourist’s visit to the west country is actually a tour into a deeper reality, un-beset by contingency.  





Epicurus (341-270 BCE)





Nothing to fear in God.

Nothing to feel in Death.

Good can be attained.

Evil can be endured.


(Philodemus, The Fourfold Remedy – a renowned summary of Epicurean teachings)


Of all the pre-Christian philosophers Epicurus was least likely to attract a Christian preserver. Nevertheless, an adequate quantity of Epicurean dicta remain, besides the miraculous preservation of Lucretius’ poem.


Even in his own time Epicurus was traduced as an atheist and a sensualist. The former charge was on the right lines, inasmuch as the gods are of no consequence in Epicurean thought – being perfectly self-sufficient, they do not interfere in the lives of men.


Epicurus took care to differentiate his conception of pleasure from sensual excess. “The pleasurable life is not continuous drinking, dancing and sex; nor the enjoyment of fish or other delicacies of an extravagant table” (Letter to Menoeceus).  Nevertheless, his conception of the good is founded on the senses; fundamentally, it is plain fare enjoyed in security. Though he regards “prudence, honour and justice” as inseparable from the pleasant life, the ultimate function of these virtues is to secure pleasure. “The beginning and the root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.” More generally, “The stable condition of well-being in the body and the sure hope of its continuance holds the fullest and surest joy for those who can rightly calculate it”.


A somewhat complex theory of moderation controls the emphasis on pleasure. “Self-sufficiency” and “limits” are terms favoured by Epicurus. This is clear enough when he deprecates the pursuit of vain objects such as fame (“Nature’s wealth at once has its bounds and is easy to procure; but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance”). One can concede, too, the force of his conservatism in “Among the rest of his faults the fool hath also this: that he is always beginning to live.” However, the following saying appears to be wrong: “Nothing satisfies him for whom enough is too little” (alternatively, “Nothing is sufficient for him to whom what is sufficient seems little”). This dissatisfied person could after all be satisfied by some measure of things over and above what is strictly sufficient. Even Epicurus says elsewhere that frugality should not be absolute. In fact he is unable to make a precise definition of what consitutes sufficiency; his statements can only be taken as suggestive.


There are two additional elements in Epicurus’s conception of the pleasant life: philosophy and friendship. Philosophy is instrumental as a means of banishing the fear of gods, death and other transcendental anxieties; also, because it dissuades from pursuit of the unnecessary pleasures (with their inevitable insecurities).


“All friendship is desirable in itself, though it starts from the need of help”. This leaves room for some haziness. The origin in expediency is fully in accord with what Epicurus says elsewhere of natural law and other social advantages, but it gives him some trouble, since the warmth of his feelings outruns practicality. His most satisfactory resolution is: “It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confidence of their help” – which ties up with security again. But there is still a sizeable leap to “Friendship goes dancing round the world proclaiming to us all to awake to the praises of a happy life”.


Behind all this lies the vision of a symposium, a friendly browsing and philosophising thoroughly in accord with Greek tradition. It is, perhaps, a slave-owning conception. Procurement should be modest, Epicurus advises; but he offers no theory of production.


This gentlemanly narrowness of focus needs to be remembered. “To live under constraint is an evil, but no one is constrained to live under constraint.” This can only refer to mental dissatisfaction (for “the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom”) – applied, e.g. to bondage, it would be nonsense. Similarly, the remark “it is vain to ask of the gods what a man is capable of supplying for himself” refers not to physical labour but to tranquillity.


Epicurus’s thought is clearly not heroic, since it lacks a sense of strenuous effort, of love and of tragic insufficiency (these are the features that make it most fundamentally un-Christian). He emphasizes that the procurement of pleasure is easy. The existence of mental suffering is ignored; physical pain is considered negligible and both death and long life irrelevant.


But Epicurus’ position is strong, because he declines to allow any meaning to “good” other than what every human being regards as good. I admire the clarity, for better or worse, of such statements as these:


“No one when he sees evil deliberately chooses it, but is enticed by it as being good in comparison with a greater evil and so pursues it.”


“We must not pretend to study philosophy, but study it in reality: for it is not the appearance of health that we need, but real health.” 


“The laws exist for the sake of the wise, not that they may not do wrong, but that they may not suffer it.”




[Epicureanism is briefly the topic of discussion in Book III of Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814). The “I” of the poem introduces it, zealously pouring scorn on the sub-human aims of this lowly creed. Rather unfairly, it may be thought, he cites Epicureanism as an argument against Philosophy herself:


                                    all too timid and reserved

            For onset, for resistance too inert,

            Too weak for suffering, and for hope too tame... (III, 343-45)


But the despondent Solitary has no sympathy with this zeal.


                                    Ah! gentle Sir,

            Slight, if you will, the means; but spare to slight

            The end of those, who did, by system, rank,

            As the prime object of a wise man’s aim,

            Security from shock of accident,

            Release from fear; and cherished peaceful days

            For their own sakes, as mortal life’s chief good,

            And only reasonable felicity.                                (III, 359-66)


He proceeds to claim that the minor tranquillity aimed at by Epicurus was also an unconfessed motive of monasticism.


Putting these words into the mouth of the Solitary, a man who has lost his faith in Providence, implies a severe qualification of their tenor. At the same time the Solitary’s misfortunes give him a certain authority – for instance, when he reproves the glib courage with which, in his own zealous youth, he would have demanded


                                    from real life

            The test of act and suffering, to provoke

            Hostility – how dreadful when it comes,

            Whether affliction be the foe, or guilt!  (III, 417-20)


There’s little doubt in my mind that for Wordsworth Epicureanism represented far more of a “live issue” than anyone but an infidel could admit. I imagine he entertained it as a secondary philosophy, the way you might support a second football team (If I wasn’t a Christian / United fan...). I think many people do. There are some football teams that, the pundits say, “attract the neutral” – that are (with pardonable exaggeration) “everyone’s second team”. Epicureanism is “everyone’s second creed”, but perhaps only if you have a first one at all. The bases of this discussion have shifted a long way since Wordsworth wrote, and few people today have ever heard the word “Providence”.] 








Plautus: The Rope and Other Plays (trans. E.F. Watling) (c. 254-184 BCE)





It was not until now that I thought this was truly a survey of civilisation. The other things I have included, so far, are like little dibs of rain that happened to fall on my windscreen. But when I am reading the plays of Plautus I feel as if I’m standing on some Mediterranean upland in very early spring. It’s sunny and unexpectedly calm; small, bright  flowers are growing at my feet, on nibbled turf and along the edges of white stone slabs. 


There’s something touching about Plautus’s freshness, his lack of ambition. Reading him, one is witnessing the start of a tradition with incalculable influence.


Sometimes I have a fantasy of all these classics being exhumed and made into big-budget films (sometimes, I’m directing them myself). I’m not sure who the audience would be, but perhaps it isn’t so unlikely. In the vast global television audience, there must be an adequate number of people who wouldn’t mind seeing a Plautine comedy on a particular night. (Meanwhile, on the “Infinite Nature Channel”, each species would have its own TV programme.) Of course, it’s worse than pointless. 


I do begin to doubt the feasibility of my project when I imagine that these lovingly detailed performances of Plautus are acted in Latin. There are perhaps more classical specialists in the world than ever before; yet somehow I doubt that even they would mostly be able to catch Latin straight off the bat. (But I might be wrong about this. The number of pupils taking Latin A-Level in England each year has apparently halved since the 1970s.) So perhaps, despite all our information, there are aspects of past culture that become unrecoverable in practice though not in principle.  Languages rise up like formidable ranges to pen us into a corner, though it may be a wide, fertile valley like English.


Naturally I am reading my Plautus in English, and the superb comedy of Watling’s stage directions, as well as some of his text, is a tribute to the humorous capacities of British culture in the fifties and sixties; though clearly the seeds of those jokes are latent in the Plautine situations. The mixed effect can be judged from an exchange like this:


Gripus. Let them see it? I’ll -

Daemones. It’s perfectly fair, Gripus. You must produce the trunk.

Gripus. It’s not bloody well fair.

Daemones. Why isn’t it?

Gripus. Because as soon as I show it to them, they’ll immediately say they recognize it, naturally.

Trachalio. You damned crook, do you think everybody’s as dishonest as you - lousy liar?

Gripus. All that sort of talk doesn’t worry me, as long as my master here is on my side.

Trachalio. He may be on your side, but the evidence is now coming from my side.

Daemones. Patience, Gripus, and just listen. Tell me briefly what you propose.

Trachalio. I’ve told you once, but in case I didn’t make myself clear I’ll tell you again. These two girls, I said, have a right to be free; one of them - this one - was stolen from Athens as a child.

Gripus. I can’t see what it’s got to do with the trunk, whether they were free girls or slaves.

Trachalio. We shall be here all day, blast you, if you want everything said twice over.


In this extract there is a sort of delicious humour of recognition in such words and phrases as “produce the trunk”, “you damned crook”, “in case I didn’t make myself clear”, etc. The hopelessly disordered way in which these free-and-easy 1950’s men-in-the-street attempt to talk business does provide a genuine insight into aspects of Plautus’s plays. There is of course a certain strain; the dialogue is just a little too jerky, as if the characters talk in different voices from one speech to the next, and Trachalio’s feeble apothegm about “your side... my side” presumably reflects some piece of untranslateable Plautine humour.


Mostellaria (“The Ghost”) is excellent - the hand-to-mouth plot does not matter. Here as well as anywhere one can enjoy the momentary civilisation that Plautus evinces. All the characters are allowed to be individuals and none are outside the generous comic world. Slaves debate as equal individuals with masters, women who are bought and sold are allowed the vivacity of feeling that individuals have. Reading Plautus casts serious doubt on the view that Shakespeare “invented” humanity.


Still, I wonder if slaves ever attended performances. If they didn’t, putting them on stage may have been a little like writing an animal fable. It was amusing to give them fine words. The humanity may have been something that the plays came to nourish, just as the long tradition of animal fables may eventually have had some part in the birth of a genuine tenderness towards animals that didn’t exist at the time of writing. 


Rudens (“The Rope”) is as beyond criticism as literature can easily be. Of its many triumphs perhaps the best is bringing back Labrax and Gripus for a sort of coda - an additional comic scene beyond what we felt we had any right to expect.


Although Gripus, as in the extract above, shows himself sullenly indifferent to the deeper human story in which he is perforce involved, it’s impossible not to sympathise with him. His analogy between the trunk and the fish is not successfully exploded by that pseudo-Gadfly Trachalio (we are, however, on Trachalio’s side – but only because one of the girls likes him and he is decently concerned to sort things out). This question of property and ownership is indeed a mysterious one:


Fishermen are allowed to own the fish they catch - Yes, says Plautus.

Fishermen are allowed to own a trunk they fish up - No, though they deserve some honour and consideration.

Masters are allowed to own men - Yes, though the men can buy their freedom with sufficient initiative.

Pimps are allowed to own girls - No, though they are reluctantly conceded some compensation, along with dishonour. 


It’s hard to make much logical sense of this – it seems that Plautus’ rules are not for all time, since no-one now would accept the third one - and Gripus’ view that “if I’ve got it it’s mine” can only be classed as unanswerable, but unacceptable. For the social fabric of ownership is something that can only be sustained by a mixture of convenience when we’ve got it and coercion if we haven’t.  (And now, we can’t even be too secure about fishermen owning their catch - the seas are smaller and the problem that was disguised by abundance suddenly stares us in the face...)


Not that Gripus himself is exactly a logical thinker:


Ay, a lazy man is worse than useless. I never could abide a lazy man. If there’s work to be done, you’ve got to get up early, and that’s all there is to it....


Take me, now; by working hard I’ve done myself so much good that I need never work again if I don’t want to....


(See how the praise of work is clinched by the wonderful possibility of doing no work at all!)


This soliloquy becomes ever more extravagant; Gripus dreams of “Gripopolis”. Yet we can’t withhold sympathy. He is, after all, a slave, and throughout his blustering we sense the insecurity of a man who, all too realistically, suspects he may end up with nothing. We are pleased when he wins his freedom in the end.


I enjoyed Trinummus, the “Three-Dollar Day”. The piece is a bit of a puzzle. All the characters are so well-meaning and good-natured that there seems little opportunity for dramatic tension. Yet it works; it feels very solidly made. E.F. Watling calls it “a cool and leisurely comedy”. I remember numerous scenes with pleasure. Perhaps the key one is the threesome in which Lesbonicus, infuriatingly for his servant Stasimus, looks a gift-horse in the mouth. It’s so unusual for comedy to concern itself with a “no-strings attached” offer that we can understand why Lesbonicus can’t handle it. The play of the drama is kept alight by people constantly finding themselves in situations that could go wrong - Megaronides at first, Charmides at the end, could each fail to comprehend the virtuous scheming of Callicles. We see the pitfalls looming up and failing to materialize. We see impeccable behaviour, tolerance and forgiveness; but we also see why it’s needed. I found it unusual and rather moving; the unusualness feels like a sort of realism, admittedly of a partial sort (Watling said this, too). The chief technical problem is the ending, as so often (but not in Rudens or even, I think, in Mostellaria). When there has been so little tension in the first place, a happy resolution is flatly uninteresting.


I found Amphitryo  frustrating - perhaps I wasn’t in a very good mood - it was as if I simply didn’t like the situations in the play, and the misunderstandings seemed to be drawn out tediously.







Catullus (84 BCE? – 54 BCE?)


(first published in Intercapillary Space.)



This is about the dead past. Every one of us has sixteen great-great-grandparents, yet I wonder if there’s a single person on earth who can name all sixteen. (Perhaps there are cultures who would go this far, but really I doubt it; instead the ancestor-worshippers go for uni-dimensional lineage, which is the origin of canonization – but I’m anticipating myself.) It doesn’t sound so desperately difficult to know, those sixteen people, but why don’t we know, why would we have to “unearth” them, and why don’t we bother, why is there a repulsive pressure - just “let it go”? Simply, these personal ancestors, now dead and unable to affect our present lives, have slid off the desk of human relevance. They become like the zenith directly over our heads, where we hardly ever look. They become like the dreams of last night whose causality is severed by waking. And since anyway my sixteen are not your sixteen, we never have occasion to talk about them.


That’s how things go. They slip quietly away, those multitudinous ancestors and their loves and grievances, to make space for our own. *see note at end


Anyway, we have something better to talk about: the classic authors. By classic authors I do not mean specifically Greek and Roman authors, I mean authors who are widely embraced by educational schemes and arouse a usually unreflective excitement. And by authors I mean makers in the broadest sense, so this idea also comprehends artists in other media, scientists, thinkers, statespersons who left a legacy behind; for that too is an artefact. They who have left widely-embraced artefacts are in principle capable of causality – like a temporarily out-of-action toy that might if jiggled with long enough suddenly start working again. So it’s a convenient social contract, these canonical pseudo-ancestors, and we willingly agree to talk about Catullus, you and me, though he’s no relative of ours to our knowledge. Of course this is no mystery. It’s why the review pages of the newspapers contain hardly any new art but invariably turn with relief to biographies, histories and of course translations and other re-exhumings of these common inheritances. People are acquainted with Catullus and everyone can tag along to the miniscule debate even if they don’t have their own little axes to grind. And I’m not refusing the invitation; that’s just the kind of re-view I’m writing now – or Mario Petrucci’s pamphlet, to be honest, probably wouldn’t justify such extended attention.


But I’m uneasy. Because we do it, because of the very ease of doing it, we don’t know why we do it. 


The poems of Catullus survive because of a single manuscript that surfaced in the fourteenth century. They were perhaps all written in the last couple of years of his life. He was part of a combatively innovative literary circle – the works of his friends Calvus and Cinna, however, are lost. They disliked most of the other Latin poetry around at the time; that too (fortunately, Catullus would subjoin) is lost. Thanks to that one lucky manuscript Catullus’ own work survives more or less complete, the first collected short poems in Latin Literature. The intimacy and directness of his poems – most of them, anyway – mean that he is easy to take as a sort of honorary modern poet who happened to live a long time ago, like Sappho. He was upper-class, he speaks his mind flippantly and fiercely on national figures but unlike Cicero was not involved in political controversy; we know very little of what he did, apart from have love affairs, see his mates, and travel (in what we suppose a junior capacity) on government service to Bithynia – his poems don’t bother to mention anything he did there apart from look around, so there’s no alienation effect. He is highly accessible and for the last hundred years perhaps the only Latin author who is widely influential on poetry; perhaps not so much a real influence as a sort of reassuring reflective mirror. Modernists (via the Zukofskys) and children of the sixties (see Whigham below) reached out for him, but the unfortunately widest impact of Catullus is on anti-modernist poetry which greets his work with relief as evidence of an a-historical conception of the eternal model of what a lyric poet ought to be; along with, for example, Herrick on Julia’s clothes.


Catullus’ accessibility manifests itself (as with other classic authors) as a pyramid which as you ascend it makes you pay more for less. The base of the pyramid is the immense number of texts, translations and notes that are freely available on the Internet and where this paper is content to take its modest place. The classical authors act as magnets that attract immense communal aggregations of enthusiastic work, a mixture of the amateur and the out-of-copyright.


Everyone knows that these authors sell ten times as many books as any contemporary literature. Their significance as a kind of adhesive of educated society is beyond my ambitions to discuss: it can sometimes feel inspiring, more often a little sad. One of the more impressive monuments of Catullan enthusiasm is http://rudy.negenborn.net/catullus/. This site only contains translations of the poems into many languages, but it has 154 contributors! Here is the English translation of  V by Rudy Negenborn himself:


Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us judge all the rumors of the old men
to be worth just one penny!
The suns are able to fall and rise:
When that brief light has fallen for us,
we must sleep a never ending night.
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will mix them all up so that we don't know,
and so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out
how many kisses we have shared.


That not-quite-idiomatic simple English isn’t the voice of Catullus (which spoke and still speaks Latin, nothing else) but it is the authentic representative voice of the great base of the pyramid, and so is this, for the base has many voices:



Lesbia, let us love and live,
While the greybeards shake their fingers!
Not a penny will we give
For their talk while life still lingers.

Suns may set and suns may rise,
But, as soon as we are bidden,
We must close in sleep our eyes
For ever, and our light be hidden.

Kiss me then a thousand times, etc. 

That’s John Anthony Bernard Harrisson (1909-1983), whose translations – delicately bowdlerized and with a long-superseded biographical note – can be found on his son Geoff Harrisson’s family website (http://members.lycos.co.uk/geoff_harrisson/cat.htm), and it's my example of the weird, various, moving, depressing, essentially un-dialogic murmur that arises from all of us when we’re not talking to anyone in particular. 


Ascending to the middle cornice brings us to the books you can buy “in any good bookshop”. They are inexpensive and handy. For instance, for £6.99 you can buy all of Catullus’ 116 (or 117) poems with English translations by the classical scholar Guy Lee, and rudimentary commentary (Oxford World’s Classics, 1989); enough, anyway, to gain some kind of foothold.


The ostensible target of Lee’s waspish Introduction is Yeats’ disrespectful poem “The Scholars” (“Lord, what would they say / Did their Catullus walk that way?”); the real target I think is that bracingly anomalous Penguin Classic, Peter Whigham’s free-ish translation of Catullus (1966) in a Poundian spirit and a manner strongly recalling both W.C. Williams and the “Children of Albion” – a real piece of sixties culture. At its best it’s like this (from IV, the boat poem):



               you witnessed the beginning

               when she stood

straight on a hill-ridge behind the port,

in your waters

                you saw the new oar-blades first flash,

thence through the impetuous seas

carrying her owner

                the call

first to lee

               then to larboard

sometimes the wind-god falling full on the blown sheet.


While in sharp visual contrast, on the facing page (you know the poem by now)


Kiss me now a

thousand times &

now a hundred

more & then a

hundred & a

thousand more again

till with so many

hundred thousand

kisses you & I

shall both lose count


Whigham comes into his own with the most artful poems (the long LXIV in particular) – where Pound and Jones proved fertile influences – and he instinctively weighs what’s at stake in our stupefyingly patterned way of employing the classic authors, as Lee (for instance) never thinks of doing. Faced with such pages as these we have new things to think about. On the other hand Whigham is inaccurate, disappointingly uneven and sets us a lot of unintentional puzzles – some of them, admittedly, the effect of forty years – that we have no hope of clearing up.


Lee, true to the more conservative objective of giving us a credible “sense” of a historical writer, deserves praise too – for his really skilled deployment of the immense resources of common educated language; this is much better for the long-distance conspectus (as if the main reason people have for reading Catullus is to be able to talk about him, which is indeed largely true) – until the time comes when he too slips out of date, but meanwhile there’s the recent Peter Green translation, and by then no doubt there’ll be A.N. Other.... Lee is at his best with the discursive and epistolary, as here, from LXV:


For lately a wave rising on the flood of Lethe

   Lapped the pale foot of my poor brother,

Whom the land of Troy has snatched away from our sight

   And crushes beneath the Rhoetéan shore.

Shall I never again be able to hear you speaking?

   Shall I never, brother more lovable than life,

Set eyes on you again? But surely I shall always love you,

   Always sing songs saddened by your death,

Like those the Daulian sings beneath the bough’s thick shade

   As she mourns the fate of murdered Itylus –

Yet still despite such sorrows, Hortalus, I send you

   These songs of Battiades translated for you,

Lest maybe you should think your words were vainly spent

   On the wandering winds and slipped my mind...


Lee makes no overt claim to be a poet and values accuracy above all, yet surprisingly is sometimes hard to understand.  Thus he ends poem V (see above) thus:


Or lest some villain overlook us

Knowing the total of our kisses.


where Lee is so concerned to avoid the not-quite-accurate rendering of “invidere” as “envy” that he ends up not really translating it at all, so you have to go back to the amateurs to catch the drift.


Similarly that literary disagreement with Aurelius and Furius, who think the kissing poems are a bit soppy, starts off:


I’ll bugger you and stuff your gobs (XVI, 1).


(Pedicabo ego uos et irrumabo)


which in its search for brevity ends up introducing a fatal vagueness. You more or less get the idea, but the sociolinguistic tone is all wrong. (“I’ll fuck you in the ass and make you suck my dick”).


Finally at the apex of the triangle is the expensive stuff like new scholarship, comprehensive editions in hardback, and the efforts of modern poets.


Thus it will cost you £4.50 to be seen with Mario Petrucci’s Catullus, a pamphlet that contains the Latin texts of eight of the shorter poems along with sort of translations – free versions, imitations, travesties... Economics shouldn’t really come into this, but still, it seems a high price for being on the cutting edge.


Petrucci, of course, is trying to make poems where Lee thinks only of making translations. But this is not necessarily to Petrucci’s advantage. He can’t subside into Lee’s comfortable range of received literary language. Lee is tastefully at ease when he admits “maybe you should think” and “slipped my mind” (in the quotation above), but see what happens when Petrucci tries to mix spoken idiom and classicism:


Not one girl isn’t in the know...


I’ll not tire or wilt in extra time...


What does that sound like? A poet being slangy; no-one else.


Anyhow, down to business.


LXX (Nulli se dicit mulier)


This is the four-line poem about not taking literally what a woman says in passion. “Lesbia would rather tie a knot with me”, begins Petrucci – somewhat encumbered by the idea of marriage – his expression permits the interpretation “have sex with”. But when it comes to the crucial last line he does well: “consigned to air - / inscribed in skipping water”, which is lovely for “rapido” and throws open the prospect of delighting in Lesbia’s mutability and in impermanent inscription. I must add that the poem as a whole runs uncomfortably close to Whigham’s translation, so it’s only a minimal HIT.


XXXII (Amabo mea dulcis Ipsitilla)


Catullus’ lustful after-dinner request. Petrucci renders it more so by making the “tight little door” sexual. The original poem says “make sure no-one bolts your door” but this idea of a protective husband is unwanted. “If you’re up for it” strikes the blokey note but “I’ve pigged out” looks wrong sociolinguistically – blokes don’t talk like that. Why Petrucci thinks he makes things better by incorporating “Then add to this one further favour” (translationese, but he’s not translating anything) and a new weak ending (“as if already nine tenths the way to your place”) I don’t understand. MISS.


LXIX (Noli admirari)


The principal poem about Rufus’ B.O. Petrucci lets the imagery go into overload, and I quite like the climax “day and night in each cave of your armpits is tethered a goat”, but Petrucci says everything twice like someone who can’t decide which of his choice expressions to use. MISS.


XXIII (Furi cui neque)


Catullus’s fantasy about the begging companion Furius. Petrucci is even more fantastic:


                              You eat your way out

of trouble: forest fires, earthquakes, pillaging

armies, lakes of poison, Armageddon – all go

down before an advancing hunger whose each

carcass you call ‘body’ is a cornucopia stuck

in reverse.


And much more. It doesn’t start well but it turns out to be the best of these poems by a fair distance, mainly because the whole matter of supply and nothing, profusion and desert, strikes Petrucci’s environmentalist imagination. HIT.


V (Vivamus mea Lesbia)


The famous-to-the-point-of-hackneyed poem for which I gave those naive translations earlier. Aurelius and Furius might not accuse Petrucci’s version of being a bit soppy; those thousands of kisses have turned into a just-lie-back-and-enjoy-it blow-job, the penny’s become a snatch and even the sun works “its bright end in / and out of the planet’s soft quim”. In all this excitement the original reason for the sun being in the poem slips away. In Catullus’ poem those unnumbered kisses are a desperate recipe against “perpetua nox” – let’s never slow down enough to write our memoirs. Yet Petrucci (again in environmentalist mode) has something to say about unaccountability too: 


                        And whoever

finds the forest of kisses our bodies

have made, would he not walk

in its loving shade?


The ease of a forest, for us, is so critically a matter of not being able to count the trees. So a MISS, but with qualifications.


XLVIII (Mellitos oculos tuos)


In Catullus, this is another poem about thousands of kisses, addressed not to Lesbia but to Juventius. Petrucci goes off on a word-association thing:


Honey – when it come to kissing

we’d out-score Juventus...


Cue footballing metaphors: Catullus as Nick Hornby. It also, of course, hetero-normalizes the poem, makes Catullus catch the 07:10 to Cannon Street every Monday morning and chaff his workmates about the week-end results, and does away with any exclusive elitism (which the neoterics, however, possessed in good measure).  Besides, Italian teams and high scoring don’t go together. MISS.


VII (Quaeris quot mihi basiationes)


The third kissing poem – the one about grains of sand. This is free but the additions are very Catullan (“desires that lie deeper than marrow in bone”), and its ending nods at the future of Catullus’ poems, and at Yeats’ “Scholars”,  besides contemplating the extinction of all our loving moments.


unless curiosity unleashed sets them peering

into our dark of sky a thousand years to gabble

away each speck of light with corrupt tongues.    


Which, I think, is another way of expressing my earlier uneasiness. We keep dressing the marble monuments of these immortal classics, but isn’t the freshness of that past horribly betrayed by exhumation, and reverence a kind of irreverence? HIT.


XI (Furi at Aureli comites)


All of the Latin is given but Petrucci works only on the “not good words” that end it, which in fact he decontextualizes to make a fiercely moralistic close; the rhythm, biblical and crushing:


                                                    and let this adulterer lose

all touch with the faithful who, through that adulterer’s

own folly, must fall  – just as the furthest tallest flower....


But the sound is already contradicting Catullus’ individual pathos, the one cut flower; you can hear it: we’re all going down in swathes, faithful and false together. After earlier suppressions of a marital context this sermon is such an eccentric thing to produce that it collapses the fabric of Catullus and translator altogether, leaving us to witness a pencil-beam into a vast, still universality of expression. And adultery, as on the last page of Troilus and Criseyde, then becomes somehow irrelevant. HIT. 


Mario Petrucci, Catullus is published by Perdika Press (www.perdikapress.com) (ISBN: 978-1-905649-00-6)



*Note: 16 Great-great grandparents. My claim that no-one can name them is perhaps most vulnerable in regard to royalty: Prince Charles' 16 great-grandparents are probably quite easy for anyone to discover; none, I imagine, were commoners. In aristocratic circles such distant forebears continued until recently to seem relevant from the point of view of inherited loyalties, claims and connections.  Better documented still are the 16 (and even the 32) forebears of famous racing thoroughbreds, such as Seabiscuit - but of course their remoteness in time is less - records painstakingly maintained because of widespread belief (probably erroneous, but valuable to horsebreeders) in the relevance of pedigree to racing potential.  




Horace: The Odes




It is not easy to enjoy Horace’s Odes. Not just because they are densely-wrought patterns in a language that few people know, and not just because they employ a meter that I, at any rate, can’t hear (I can hear the difference in quantity between “thunder” and “butter”, but I can’t hear a rhythm based on quantity without being distracted by accents, and it hardly helps to be told that the first syllable of neque is to to be construed as short when in any pronunciation that I have ever heard it is obviously long).


The upshot of this is that a page of Horace’s odes looks distractingly like an opened box of expensive chocolates displayed behind shop-glass. They’re decorative, but you know you can't eat them yourself, and you harbour a strong suspicion that they aren’t edible at all.


This could all be explained to me. But a serious attempt to address our antipathy to Horace needs to deal with at least three other things, which are interlinked (they do become less important, however, if you are slightly tipsy).


1. Boredom. 103 odes is at least 50 too many; it’s difficult to concentrate on what is distinctive in a poem that mainly reminds us of poems we’ve just read. We miss variety and, in their more obvious forms, passion, energy, information.   


2. Horace’s stasis. Others may go off on sea-voyages, brave the weather, engage in “War’s rattling tumults”, and so on. But all this is undercut by the image of the poet who very characteristically never seems to even stretch his legs. (Hence very little happens to him, except that he is almost killed by a falling tree.) He drinks wine and occasionally sacrifices an animal; which means, I suppose, that he gets a servant to do it. For his servants bustle (IV.11), though Horace himself moves only a finger (IV.6).  


3. Advice. Despite the modesty with which he describes his own inactivity Horace is quite free with advice, and we don’t take well to this. He has been hated enough for “Dulce et decorum est”, so much indeed that the energy of that hatred still affects us. The image of the “terrible old clubman” is hard to erase.   


These are problems that impede III.V (Caelo tonantem), a poem extravagantly admired by Landor and others, and more arresting in translation than most. The poem speaks out, in a most severe tone, against those soldiers who settled down under Persian rule in 53BCE (when Horace was eight years old). The speaker-out is the heroic Regulus, who sacrifices himself by returning to a hideous death in Carthage, making his departure – according to the last lines of the poem –


quam si clientum longa negotia

diiudicata lite relinqueret

   tendens Venafranos in agros

      aut Lacedaemonium Tarentum


like a barrister for his week-end in the country. The intention, as we clearly appreciate, is to emphasize Regulus’ stoic manner. But troublesome ironies interfere. Was it not easier for Horace to imagine familiar Venafrum than Carthage? The simile rather tends to ennoble, by association, the Roman gentleman who (like Horace) does go off to Venafrum for the week-end; as if that was itself a rather patriotic act, in marked contrast to the behaviour of those degraded men who took their ease, and raised families, in foreign surroundings.


“Never translate Latin”, says Professor William Harris, whose website you should really visit if you want to get more of an idea of what we’re missing (http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/SubIndex/texts.html). There is no use pretending that “English Horace” is a substitute, even when it produces the fine poems of Dryden and others. Nearly all the poetry of the Odes resides stubbornly in the structure of its original words and meters; and I suspect that the problems might resolve if I understood with more subtlety the differences between Horace’s culture and ours.


The same doubt, of understanding the social context of Latin verses, afflicts Esther Summerson, who makes this aside on the matter of Richard Carstone’s chronic half-heartedness, the cursed legacy of being born into Chancery (Bleak House, Ch XIII):


He had been eight years at a public school, and had learnt, I understood, to make Latin verses of several sorts, in the most admirable manner. But I never heard that it had been anybody’s business to find out what his natural bent was, or where his failings lay, or to adapt any kind of knowledge to him. He had been adapted to the Verses, and had learnt the art of making them to such perfection, that if he had remained at school until he was of age, I suppose he could only have gone on making them over and over again, unless he had enlarged his education by forgetting how to do it. Still, although I had no doubt that they were very beautiful, and very improving, and very sufficient for a great many purposes of life, and always remembered all through life, I did doubt whether Richard would not have profited by some one studying him a little, instead of his studying them quite so much.


To be sure, I knew nothing of the subject, and do not even now know whether the young gentlemen of classic Rome or Greece made verses to the same extent – or whether the young gentlemen of any country ever did.      


Dickens, whose own state of ignorance on the subject matched Esther’s, was taking a flyer; he could reasonably expect his audience to give full force to the criticisms that Esther so modestly yet confidently ventures. This kind of attack on a classical education has since become so commonplace and so effective in destroying its enemy, that it no longer commands assent; at least, not from me. It looks, in fact, like an attack on all study. And there is something chilling, now, in the belief that it is the child who should be studied by the teacher, and have knowledge adapted to it.


The passage looks out of place in Bleak House – for nothing leads us to believe that Richard would have been good at composing Latin verses, to which skill, quite as much as to surgery, Mr Jarndyce’s pointed observation would apply: “The course of study and preparation requires to be diligently pursued”.


The true underlying theme of this aside is class, and it will eventually lead its author to the insights of Little Dorrit and Great Expectations. I take the opportunity of quoting my side of an email exchange, which began with Tim Allen’s assertion that class is a central factor in how modern British “mainstream” poetry is read, interpreted and accepted or rejected.


“The direct connection between class and reading perhaps has something to

do with NOT-READING; the exclusion zones created by interpretive



I have an idea that the limit of your theory might be post-Latin Europe

and its offshoots. Horace springs into my mind as a paradigmatic exemplar

of bad conscience.”


(On being asked to elaborate...)


“Well I'm embarrassed by my rather unthought-out comment but such as it is

the thought goes something like this; that Horace really NEEDed a class

division to operate poetically - to operate as a human, too, no doubt. He

wanted to piss all over the profane, whose opinions were of no account and

who wouldn't even understand him, while at the same time indulging his

need for humility by grovelling in front of Caesars and Maecenases. CLASS

gave him what he needed.


Clipped Horatian tags have been, historically, the classical way in which

the Euro/English patrician class identified themselves.


Shakespeare wrote his play about the patrician class (Coriolanus) while

Jonson was delighting in his discovery of Horace's potential - to praise,

not daisies, but parks...


Oh, and then there's the Somme, Pound, Owen... and Horace exemplifying

the "terrible old clubmen" in the home counties. These are the admittedly

loose connections I'm making...


Obviously I'm not so naive as to suppose that pre-Horatian culture was in

any way a golden age (it was the age of SIMPLE slavery; Horace might even

register its passing - by developing the idea of "class" as a substitute,

finding himself for the first time in Europe in a city culture where there

were crowds of free people who needed to be divided...)


Still it seems to me CONCEIVABLE that there could be a poetry and a

culture in which class does not have the same centrality that it does for

us. There might be societies in which children don't whisper behind their

hands. I don't know. Maybe just as being socially "cut" depends on

registering one's own blindness ("I can't READ this") , so when I stick a

toe outside Western culture perhaps I'm just doubly blind and can't even

register that the "cut" is taking place.”


(On further reflection...)


“My last post could more straightforwardly have made these points: 1. that

historically there is an almost-too-obvious-to-mention connection between

literacy and class 2. In post-Latin culture this was exacerbated by

pioneers such as Horace whose conception of poetry in particular was

deliberately located in Greek forms, thus removing it from the

contemplation of someone who was merely adept in speaking the home-language

of their life and business, reserving it for the leisured and those who (in

their own conception) could demonstrate their commitment to higher things.”


This is all highly speculative (where it is not merely trite), but I slap it on here as one attempt among many to account for why I have, at present, nothing much else to say about The Odes.





Qasa'id (pre-Islamic Arabic odes)


Guest contribution by Edmund Hardy. First appeared in Intercapillary Space.


an introduction to "the suspended ones"

Atlal, the abandoned campsite out in the desert - traces in the sand, tent-peg holes in the rock - is the well-spring of the pre-Islamic Arabic ode (qasida meaning ode; the related verb qasada, to journey towards, to aim). Returning to the site where his beloved's tribe once lived, the poet is cast, by loss, into re-membering. Stop, says the poet, and hear this ode! The oldest recorded qasida, the Mu'allaqa of Imru' al-Qays, begins:


Halt, friends both! Let us weep, recalling a love and a lodging
by the rim of the twisted sands between Ed-Dakhool and Haumal,
Toodih and el-ikrat, whose trace is not yet effaced
for all the spinning of the south winds and the northern blasts

(trans. A. J. Arberry)


This style of opening-up into a poem world is transmitted into Tennyson:


Comrades, leave me here a little, while as yet 'tis early morn:
Leave me here, and when you want me, sound upon the bugle-horn

(from 'Locksley Hall')


The poems were orally transmitted within and between the tribes of the Arabian peninsular (and the area which is now southern Iraq) in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. before being recorded by Islamic scholars in the seventh century.

The qasida is a poem of roughly 120 lines, usually with a single end-rhyme throughout (in Persian, the form developed to be unrhymed). The pre-Islamic qasida is often feverish in its mnemonic desire to preserve, celebrate, mourn and get drunk: until the ode overflows the world.


What life for the beloved, whose love is always lost, whose body is hallucinated through displaced and abundant simile which outshines and - with the gazelles, antelopes and horses - outruns any human one. The mood and intensity of the qasida is established by the opening attitude to the beloved. There are satirical moods, as here from Al-A'sha (my translation):


She braces herself to get up
for otherwise voluptous languor
would throw her back to bed
& she'd never visit the neighbours


We must brace ourselves too. Dissembling simile, eyes white as the whitest oryx, mouth compared to wine as fresh as a cold stream, chains of similes, brief meadows, desert animal birthing, there is no transferable descriptive point: Look again, and there are only the blackened hearthstones, torrent-beds worn deeper every year, the black wing of the crow, the stations (maqamát) of the beloved's departure, the women of her tribe in their embroidered camel litters.


The ninth century writer Ibn Qutayba outlines the formal model of the qasida in Kitab al-Shi'r wa-l-Shu'ara (Book of Poetry and Poets), "I have heard from a man of learning that the composer of Odes began by mentioning the deserted dwelling-places and the relics and traces of habitation. Then he wept and complained and addressed the desolate encampment, and begged his companion to make a halt, in order that he might have occasion to speak of those who once lived there." Then follows the amatory prelude, the nasib; then the desert journey of the rihla, which may include the náqa sacrifice, the slaughter of the poet's mount and the distribution of the meat by a ritual lottery of arrow-shafts (sometimes the nasib and náqa combine, and it is the poet's heart which is shot through and divided communally, eaten up by the nomadic life, see the Mu'allaqa of Labid); then, the final part, the madih, sometimes a thunder-storm, most often a boast or panegyric to the excellence of the tribe which may include a selection of proverbs, a wine-song, an account of a battle, a satire or the taunting of other tribes.


There is a famous collection of pre-Islamic odes, and that is the Mu'allaqát, meaning "suspended ones". These were the seven odes to win in the annual competition at 'Ukaz, near Mecca. These odes were embroidered in gold on Egyptian cloth and hung from the Ka'ba, the ancient shrine. Michael A. Sells suggests: "The image of the seven odes suspended from Arabia's most sacred shrine, a shrine that has since become the ritual center of Arabic culture and of the multiculutral world of Islam, mirrors the generative role within the Arabic-speaking world of the Mu'allaqát and a large number of equally great poems."

Written in a language soon to be fixed in place, the sensibility and structures of the qasida were partly integrated into a Qur'anic literary culture but were also held at a tension to the new supremacy of Scripture. Muslim scholars collected and preserved the oral tradition, memorized and transmitted by ráwis, the authorship of each qasida a model. Sells continues: "The Qur'an appropriated many of the central values of pre-Islamic poetry. The role of the karim (the generous one) in the qasida, for example, is reflected by its similarly central role in the Qur'an" though the creative tension with the pre-Islamic culture, named the "Jahiliyya", time of moral ignorance, is everywhere expressed. "Upon arrival at the Ka'ba, the pilgrim finds the walls hung with tapestries of rare Egyptian cloth inscribed in gold", pasages from the Qur'an. Subsequent Arabic poets of court and market would write or sing of the abandoned campsite, the owl-calls of the desert, the stream-runnels and gazelles, when they were living increasingly urban lives. Jaroslav Stetkevych considers a spiritual nostalgia to be present in such figures of Arabo-Islamic poetry which is not dissimilar to the Arcadia of haymaking and nymphs in groves somewhat disconnected from the mountain district of the Peloponnese.

One poet who continued to write qasa'id in the bedouin style, though he fused the tripartite structure with a more modern feeling for love, desire and the stories of famous lovers such as Ghaylan and Mayya, was Dhu al-Rumma, a poet of the Umayyad Caliphate. His name means "he-with-a-cord-of-rope", perhaps in reference to his ability to tie the elements of life together using the rope of meter, and produce from these exquisite verbal knots.


The sand grouse drink what I leave behind.
    They approach the water hole
after a night journey,
    their sides rumbling.

I resolved. They did.
    We raced. Their wings fell limp
while I stood in front at ease
    with my robe tucked up.

I turned away.
    They tumbled to the rim,
crops and gullets
    squeezing and pulsing.

As if their clatter
    on both sides of the water hole
were groups of men from caravans,
    letting themselves down,

Congregating from all sides
    and taken in
like droves of camels
    at a wayside pool.

They gulped swiftly and passed on
    at dawn
like panic-stricken riders
    from Uháza.

(from Shánfara's "Arabian Ode in L" trans. by Michael A. Sells)


Shánfara's poem (also called the Lamiyyat) is one qasida which breaks all the rules, and Shánfara is known as the "brigand-poet". The scene of the sand-grouse is an interlude between a fight with wolves, and a flight from the law.


Of the various English translators of this poetry, Sir Charles Lyall (1845-1920) stands out for his attempts to imitate the various pre-Islamic Arabic meters (the most common of these is the tawíl, variations on the feet ˘ ¯¯ ˘ ). Lyall's Translations of Ancient Arabian Poetry is excellent; as are Michael A. Sells' Desert Tracings (the best contemporary translation, in print from Wesleyan), Desmond O'Grady's The Seven Arab Odes, and Alan Jones' Early Arabic Poetry in two volumes.


The qasida teems with specific metaphors that require a little research. One may burst with the desire to sing of one's beloved "like a colocynth", a kind of gourd which is known to suddenly explode.


"Barbarian" is a Greek-derived word, barbarikos, the "foreign babbling ones." In the qasida, this is mirrored, as foreigners appear as "Greek-speaking babblers in their forts".


If you wander from the straight path you may, in the desert, see the tayf, the beloved's night apparition, or you may, less happily, meet a Ghul, a female species of jinn, shifting and reconfiguring like the desert itself. The Taj al-Arus, a medieval dictionary, defines the Ghul as "terrible in appearance, having tusks or fangs, seen by the Arabs, and known by them; and killed by Ta'ahbbata Sharran", a reference to a pre-Islamic poet who wrote a ghost poem, 'How I Met the Ghul' (trans. S. P. Stetkevych):


Behold! Two eyes set in a hideous head,
like the head of a cat, split-tongued,
Legs like a deformed fetus, the back of a dog,
clothes of haircloth or worn-out skins!



The gazelle, always "fleet of foot", seen here in the drinking-song section of a qasida by 'Alqama, "Flagon like a gazelle / high on the cliff face," the linen sieve (to seal neck and spout) of the flagon evidently reminding the poet of a gazelle caught in the sun which "flashes white". The camel is often "journey-worn" or "the night-courser" while humans can be "camel-bellied" or else weary as "a stumbling camel". The ostrich, "red-legged clump-wing", the oryx, "sheen-of-udder", "wide of eyes", "wild one", "flat-nosed one", oryx-bull, "tuck-bellied brindle-leg", epithets without nouns (in English, a horse may be "a bay" or a "chestnut").


As Arabic literary culture was re-invigorated by the arrival of printing presses, the development of new political and social forms, and the introduction of mass educational methods in post-1801 Egypt, poets looked to the vigour and style of classical literature where qasa'id seemed to provide the forceful public template of speaking necessary for a new generation. Later, the Egyptian Ahmad Shawqi would begin a poem about food shortages after the First World War by weeping over the abandoned campsite of a beloved; and Hafiz Ibrahim commemorated the opening of an orphanage by first recalling a long night journey (by train not camel-mare).


The picture above is of 'Antara, whose Mu'allaqa (trans. Michael A. Sells) includes this drinking song:


I am known
    when the hot hours calm
to be drinking wine,
    laying down a minted coin,

A tawny luster
    from a goblet of banded glass
near a gleaming pitcher
    stoppered on the windward side.

When drinking, all I own
    I spend away,
though what I am
    is undiminished.


And this account of first meeting the beloved:


I fell for her by chance,
    killing her kinsmen,
coveting, by your father's life,
    what is not to be.






Robert Irwin, 'Night & Horses & The Desert', Penguin, 1999

Alan Jones, 'Early Arabic Poetry' (two volumes), Ithaca Press, 1996

Pierre Joris, 'A Nomad Poetics', Wesleyan, 2003

Charles James Lyall, 'Translations of Ancient Arabian Poetry, Chiefly
Pre-Islamic, With an Introduction and Notes', Hyperion, 1980

Desmond O'Grady, 'The Seven Arab Odes', Agenda, 1990

Wen-chin Ouyang, 'Literary Criticism in Medieval Arabic-Islamic Culture: The
Making of a Tradition', Edinburgh, 1997

Michael A. Sells, 'Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes', Wesleyan,

Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, 'The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry
and the Poetics of Ritual', Cornell, 1993

---- 'The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: MMyth, Gender and Ceremony in the
Classical Arabic Ode', Indiana, 2003

Jaroslav Stetkevych, 'The Zephyrs of Najd', Chicago, 1993

Charles Greville Tuetey, 'Classical Arabic Poetry: 162 Poems from Imrulkais
to Ma'arri', Kegan Paul, 1985





Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170-c. 1217): Parzival


Parzival was begun around 1198 and completed around 1210. It is a narrative poem of 24,810 lines in 16 books divided into 30-line sections made up of couplets, and it looks like this:


‘nû habet iuch an der witze kraft

und helt in alle ritterschaft.’

der site vuor angestlîche vart.

der knappe alsus geborgen wart

zer waste in Soltâne erzogen,

an küneclîcher vuore betrogen,

ez enmöhte an einem site sîn:

bogen unde bölzelîn

die sneit er mit sîn selbes hant

und schôz vil vogele die er vant.

swenne aber er den vogel erschôz,

des schal von sange ê was sô grôz,

sô weinde er unde roufte sich,

an sîn hâr kêrte er gerich.

sîn lîp was klâr unde fier:

ûf dem plân an dem rivier

twuoc er sich alle morgen.

er enkunde niht gesorgen,

ez enwære ob im der vogelsanc.

diu süeze in sîn herze dranc:

daz erstracte im sîniu brüstelîn.

al weinde er lief zer künegîn.

sprach si: ‘wer hât dir getân?

wære hin ûz ûf den plân.’

er enkunde ir gesagen niht,

als kinden lîhte noch geschiht.     (from Bk III, Sections 117-118)


‘Now use your wits and keep all knighthood from him.’ The custom travelled an anxious road. The boy thus hidden away was brought up in the forest clearing of Soltane, cheated of his royal heritage except on one count: with his own hands he whittled himself a bow and little arrows and shot many birds that he came upon. But whenever he shot the bird whose song was so loud before, he would weep and tear his hair – and his hair came in for grief. His body was fair and proud. Every morning he washed in the stream by the meadow. Of sorrow he knew nothing, unless it was the birdsong above him, for the sweetness of it pierced his heart and made his little bosom swell. Weeping he ran to the queen, and she said, “Who has hurt you? You were out on the meadow.” He could tell her nothing, as is still the way with children. (transl. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage, 1961)


[The meter is 4-stress. Most of the lines are basically like English tetrameters, but one line-type unknown to English is the one that ends in two syllables that are both stressed, though the last only secondarily – as above in the lines ending with mor´-gen` and sor´-gen` . The penultimate syllable must be long (presumably to delay the arrival of the final stress, an interesting metrical combination of quantity with accent). Editors of MHG texts use the circumflex symbol to indicate a long vowel.]


The first written account of the story is Chrétien de Troyes’ Li contes del graal, his longest poem but left unfinished, presumably at his death, some time around 1190. There are many unfinished narratives in the world but this one causes more anguish than most. Chrétien was undoubtedly drawing on Celtic oral tradition, but no-one apart from Chrétien seems to have known how the story was meant to continue, and perhaps the legend had not achieved much fixity apart from its key situations, e.g. the hero’s naivety, his upbringing in isolation, his first visit to the Grail castle and his failure to ask the question. *Note 1


Various French continuations appeared soon after Chrétien’s death, but it doesn’t seem that Wolfram knew them – where similar situations arise these can be attributed to both authors drawing the same fairly obvious inferences from Chrétien’s fragment.


The tale of Peredur in the Welsh Mabinogion may draw on earlier tradition independent of Chrétien’s poem, but this is not certain. New material such as the surprising reference to windmills suggests a 13th century composition. Peredur’s ending is not very persuasive as independent testimony to some powerful Ur-legend, though it may restore the hero’s original name.


Wolfram tells us of his own supposed independent source, called Kyot. Reluctantly, this colourful person must be regarded as Wolfram’s invention. Wolfram’s creativity consisted not so much in adding new narrative as in a prolonged meditation on and enrichment of Chrétien’s work. Wolfram applies a much more elaborate and consistent setting. The Middle-Eastern (“heathen”) flavour of the account of Gahmuret in the first two books, and the eventual appearance of Feirefiz, his heathen son, towards the end, are Wolfram’s main additions. In other respects he adds very little to Chrétien’s story, but intensely re-imagines it in order to achieve a greater concentration and unity. Chrétien’s introduction of the Proud Castle with the besieged damsel – it is not followed up in the poem as we have it – is quietly omitted. Wolfram turns Orgeluse into someone that Gawan can fall in love with and happily marry. This does not seem to have been Chrétien’s intention, and the authors of the French continuations (perhaps more aware of the wider context of Gawain’s place in the Arthurian corpus) did not take this path. But where Chrétien calls Orgeluse evil-hearted, Wolfram calls her mighty.


Wolfram’s inventions make for social and psychological depth rather than narrative action. For example, he invents the maid Bene, daughter of the ferryman, and thus creates a situation in which Gawan could please himself with a lower-class girl. The scene is elaborated; everyone behaves well. The nature of Wolfram’s interests requires nothing else, and it is characteristic of the pellucid and measureless depths that he works with. The wonderful scenes of negotiation at Joflanze illustrate the same reluctance to create new and dramatic turns in the plot. This perhaps appears a weakness when Cundrie appears and merely announces that Parzival’s exile from the Grail is now to be resolved; it focusses the reader’s awareness that Parzival is something of an absentee-hero after Book VI. Wolfram patches together a more or less unified tale from Chrétien's fragment, which after astonishing us with the unprecedented bildungsroman of the ignorant Perceval in the first half, then seems to loiter inconsequently in its Gawain adventures until it breaks off - though Chrétien did warn us that he intended to speak for a long time about Gawain before returning to Perceval.


I don't intend a criticism, but I do intend an observation, in claiming that Wolfram's battery of rhetorical devices is very adroit at papering over the defects of his fragmentary source. For example, Chrétien's brief switch back  to Perceval to recount the Good Friday advice of the hermit is very abrupt compared to Wolfram's Book IX.


Or consider the episode with the Bed of Marvels (Bk XI). Chrétien's description of the setting is intriguing. He invents such amazing things as castors for the bed, as well as glass so clear that you can see what is going on inside. But when it comes to the actual trials, they are disappointingly  brief: a shower of darts followed by a lion. The castors in Chrétien are only decorative, but Wolfram turns them into part of the adventure - the bed whizzes about, the floor is like an ice-rink. He adds in a shower of stones, and expands the other trials. When the excitement is over, Gawain is seriously wounded. Yet though Wolfram has a far better sense of proportion and of how to create a world in which meaning can develop, you miss some of Chrétien's occasionally bald clarity. For example,  when Anguingeron pleads with Perceval for his life, he comes up with quite a poweful argument:


"My good friend, don't be so haughty as to refuse me mercy. I assure you and concede that you have got the better of me and are an excellent knight, but not so good that a man who hadn't seen us fight it out, but who knew the two of us, would ever believe that you alone could have slain me in single combat. But if I bear witness that you defeated me in arms in front of all my men outside my own tent, my word will be believed and your fame will be reckoned to be greater than any knight's ever..."


In Wolfram's poem, this passage seems to be vaguely echoed in Kingrun's "God has bestowed much honour on you, and if people say that your strength has prevailed over me and that you have conquered me, you have had your success"  - and again, when Clamidê pleads: "Oh no! noble knight and brave! By me your honor will be increased thirtyfold." But somehow the point of the argument is never reached.


Reading these passages, I feel like speculating that, whatever the truth about Wolfram's literacy, this seems like the way Wolfram might develop a re-telling of a story he had originally heard. He had indeed listened with deep attention, but afterwards he had made the story his own; intending to follow it faithfully, he was nevertheless extremely free and inventive in his rendering - exactly because, when he made his own poem, he didn't have Chrétien's text to hand. He was working from memories.




Wolfram took immense care over working out the family relationships, geography and time-scheme of his story. The upshot is that Parzival creates its own, self-consistent world, but feels quite distinct from the vast narrative edifice, the work of many hands, that rose from Chrétien’s foundations in France.  




Onto the flat plain by the landing place rode the great retinue. The Queen’s squires chose a camp site suitable for the ladies by a clear, fast-running brook, and soon one saw many beautiful tents set up there. Further off many a great circle of tents was prepared for the King and the knights who had come with him. They had indeed left behind them on their ride a broad trail of hoof prints. (Bk XIII, 663)


The structuring of Wolfram’s topography is obviously connected with its foregrounding of the knightly social class. Thus the lands of the poem contain remote castles of fabulous wealth, meadows, rivers and forests, but where is the agriculture? Where does this wealth come from? Wolfram’s theory of production (this is an exaggeration, but you know where I’m coming from) is the staggeringly generous gifts that Gawan or Parzival dispense to all and sundry, and that they have received from a kingly or fair hand or won through adventure. Realism is obviously not the point here, but medieval romances do, as it were without intention, contain much that is in fact realistic and provides an unselfconscious witness to the age. Thus here, the importance of a quick current to eliminate mud (the water for those fabulous banquets could come from nowhere else), the segregation of King’s and Queen’s retinues, and the critical visual statement made by a trail of hoofprints, a structuring principle as central to the medieval eye as tarmac is to ours.   


Because of the gifts and the way that objects change hands through adventure and tourney, noble possessions often do not originate within their own lands. Thus the sword given by Anfortas to Parzival in fact has an unexpected association with Karnant that Sigune explains to us (V, 254). Nothing else in Parzival suggests any link between Lac’s kingdom and the Grail kingdom. Compare the description of Duke Orilus’ arms, armour and horse at V, 261; they come from all over the place.


Thus the life of the ruler in Parzival is radically mobile. His possessions come from many places, and he himself may make temporary court in many places. Return to his “own” castle or lands may be infrequent. The dedication to a quest that prevents this (e.g. Parzival in nearly five years never visiting his wife at Pelrapeire) is a formalization of a favoured travelling lifestyle.   


What we automatically do, when we hear about the Grail sword’s association with Karnant, is try to respond to this as if we were reading a more modern romance in which the mystic and atmospheric connotations of places are evoked.  In order to delight in such atmospheres, we need a conception of places as exotic and fathomlessly individual, something that grew from Shakespeare to Scott and onwards, achieving its heyday in Stevenson, Buchan, Conrad, the movies, the heritage industry and today’s brochures about foreign travel. Tolkien, T.H. White, and others have imported this new source of romance into works that in some other respects look like medieval romances – Tolkien’s locations (the Shire, Rohan, Lorien) are atmospheric, thus a Lorien dagger bears with it a refreshing and mystical breath of its home, even in the sickly surroundings of the Dead Marshes.  


Wolfram’s geography doesn’t have (or doesn’t intend to have) this play of atmospheres. The sword’s history is not intended to provoke the deep suggestion that a Grail atmosphere hangs over Karnant. 




National boundaries and passports did not exist; a “land” still really means a cultivated area like an island within a larger wilderness. When Parzival is said to be in a forest he is not really in any land, but between lands. Thus the question of whether, e.g. Brobarz borders Britain, or Logrois borders Klinschor’s land, really makes no sense.


Wolfram’s geography is consistent but you cannot draw maps of it. In fact there were no maps of that kind in Wolfram’s time – his poem pre-dates a world of scale drawings as per the Portuguese charts, and also a world in which Arabic numerals allowed calculation. As a matter of fact I do have such a map in my head but this must be set down as the kind of anachronism that a reader necessarily imports to fill up imaginative vacuums, like my visualization of the armour and the tapestries, or the Hollywood fanfares that the trumpets seem to sound when I’m reading. (In my map the wilderness of Soltane is towards the top left and the city of Rosche Sabins is in the bottom right, so I suppose it reflects a reading sequence.)


Besides, Wolfram wanted to save the appearances of his sources; at some level he thought of his story’s locations as real. Therefore the city of Pelrapeire in Brobarz (Bk IV) is described as being by the sea because the story contains ships which bring food to the besieged city. Wolfram knows (because the story tells him) that you can travel between Britain and Brobarz, but he does not know how far or in what direction. Hence Wolfram’s romance, like other medieval romances, overlaying source on source, tends to produce a lot of sentences like “In the evening he came to a land called etc.”, the sort of vague geography that the latest author understands must have been roughly true.


In one respect this vague geography has a usefulness. Parzival spends several years on his Grail quest before eventually being invited back to Munsalvaesche, but he cannot seek it. Sigune tells us you can only find it by chance. The land, Terre de Salvaesche, is a waste land for thirty miles around. Despite this, it does not seem to take Orilus long (in Bk V) to travel from Trevrizent’s cave to his camp and from there it is only a mile to the banks of the Plimizoel, where Arthur is encamped.


Mustard and Passage in the Introduction to their very excellent translation oddly conflate two completely separate locations where Arthur makes camp; the banks of the Plimizoel in Books V-VI and the plain of Joflanze in XII-XVI. The former location is recognized by Arthur as drawing dangerously close to the sphere of the Grail. The latter location is close to Rosche Sabins and the Castle of Wonders, and Arthur has to pass through Logrois to get to it. It does indeed have rivers nearby, but they are the Sabins and the Poynzaclins, not the Plimizoel. It is in fact a significant feature of Parzival that sections tend to be organized around a principal location (e.g. Bk IV, Pelrapeire, or Bk VIII, Ascalun) and once these places have been left behind we never go back to them. The exception of course is the land of the Grail, e.g. Munsalvaesche, the one place you can’t go to deliberately (Bk V, XVI), and Trevrizent’s hermitage, central location of Bk IX but previously glimpsed as the location of Parzival’s oath to Orilus in Bk V. Wolfram uses the non-repeating sequence of locations as a way of organizing the past. At Joflanze, for example, he makes frequent references to the earlier scene at the Plimizoel. Thus the places are memory-stations for an audience who are listening to a recitation. *note 2           




The Middle Ages, that civilization so energetic with what now seems misdirected intelligence, left behind astonishing and still unmatchable monuments. Before a cathedral our main sense is of how impossible it would be to get back to the mental or spiritual state where such a powerhouse could be conceived and executed. Reading Wolfram, Chaucer, or the Gawain-Poet, one is bound to have the same feeling about the medieval cultivation of courtly manners. These authors leave a testimony to a civilization that we cannot now attain, for medieval manners (or at any rate the ideal of them) seem many degrees subtler than anything we have seen since. Reading these books, we feel cloddish and provincial.


In Wolfram’s poem it is clear that the incredible elaboration of courtesy and points of honour exists in alliance with a kind of personal aristocratic power that settled governments and legal apparatus would later make obsolete. It’s because Gawan and his peers could, if they wanted, rape and murder their way around the lands that courtesy becomes so critical. Wolfram, however, does not present the behaviour of his heroes as a tight-lipped battle against temptation. Instead, he posits a high but irresistible force of Love as something which, on the contrary, a noble (wert) man ought not to resist (wern). 





Note 1. Chrétien.



Note 2. Contrast Chrétien's Knight with the Lion, which returns several times to the spring and its lady's castle, or the Knight with the Cart, with its returns to Bademagu's tower.









Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599)



The Shepheardes Calender (1579)


“Of the Shepherd’s Calendar as poetry we must frankly confess that it commits the one sin for which, in literature, no merits can compensate; it is rather dull.” Thus begins C.S. Lewis’ account in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century and it’s true. If you want to know, for example, whether it would be more exciting to read, say, The Faerie Queene, or Hero and Leander, or a bit of Chaucer or some lyrics by Wyatt, then there’s no more to be said. 


But still, you get a new job in Bedfordshire and then it’s no longer useful to be told that the landscape is dull. These things happen and you’re going to make the best of it and you want to know how to live there and how to feed your imagination. You’re optimistic and you know that, when you’ve managed to adjust, your imagination will survive the shock, and dullness is going to turn out to be, really, rather interesting. You don’t have the choice of extinguishing Bedfordshire – it just exists and, therefore, there is a way, not perhaps an instantly obvious way, of becoming absorbed in it.


It’s this – let’s call it quietness – that I’m trying to fix on. It can’t be done directly, but these notes have a common purpose in trying to re-direct a focus on it. What one must add at the outset is that The Shepheardes Calender has a beguilingly complex structure, at least in principle. It takes the already complex form that Virgil derived from Theocritus and superimposes an annual cycle, a love-situation of the kind used in sonnet-sequences (semi-static and unrequited), and political commentary of the post-Mantuan type. Plus obscure references to his friends in disguise. Lewis is surely right to say that this is the work of a young poet who had yet to find out what best suits him; the resulting tensions are themselves a source of interest.  



[In what follows, line-length and rhyme-scheme are shown as e.g. a4b3a4b3. The letters indicate the rhyme-scheme and the numbers indicate the number of accents in each line.]






Six-line stanzas, a5b5a5b5c5c5, regularly iambic. The poem ends with an alexandrine.


Januarye is quiet, stately and isolated (like a sunny day in the deep of winter). Spenser’s winter eclogues reflect a tension between the English season dictated by the calendrical scheme and an originally Mediterranean form in which the weather is always suitable for outdoor versifying.


Januarye is to some extent an introduction to the whole sequence. It tells us all we need to know about Colin, Rosalind and Hobbinol. More importantly, it introduces us to the mental climate that the poem will inhabit; often doleful, rather quiet, and engaged with long-term moods not with drama.


It also introduces us to the prevalent neo-Medievalism of Spenser’s style. As early as line ten, we are sensitized to Chaucerian echoes:


Well couth he tune his pipe, and frame his stile.


More integrated with the poem is a general debt to the alliterative tradition, probably Langland in particular. Spenser does not use Langland’s rhythms, but he uses alliteration in a similar way, not as a lapidary feature but as a background that comes and goes like a not-too-summery breeze. (Langland, compared with most of his peers, reduced alliteration and discovered a new flexibility by e.g. alliterating on unaccented syllables, or somewhat vaguely on vowels, or on prepositions and other low-key words.) In Januarye rather more than half the lines contain some sort of fairly overt alliteration – it becomes less prevalent in the last three or four stanzas when a new sharpness of tone appears, especially in the clinching couplets at the stanza-ends:


            Ah foolish Hobbinol, thy gifts bene vayne:

            Colin them gives to Rosalind againe.       (59-60)




            Shepheards deuise she hateth as the snake,

            And laughes the songes, that Colin Clout doth make.      (65-66)


One could easily consider these the best lines in the poem – bright and ringing. However, from a structural point of view the heart of the poem comes earlier:


            St 1-2 describes Colin’s arrival with his sheep.


            St 3 Colin’s invocation to the gods.


St 4-8 Colin’s lament. This has a little sub-structure of its own, gradually receding from the universality of the ground and the season (St 4-5) to the details of trees (St 6-7) and then focussing right down to his own small flock of sheep (St 8).


St 9 The lament sounds like it should have carried on at the same pace, but Colin speeds up, breaks into personal narrative, speaks of Hobbinol (St 10), and the “lasse” who rejects both him and his devices (i.e. songs) (St 11). Then in his growing anguish he breaks his pipe and lies down (St 12).


            St 13 describes Colin going home.


This analysis directs us to the lines at the end of St 4 and 5, the real heart of the poem:


            And now is come thy wynters stormy state,

            Thy mantle mard, wherin thou maskedst late. (23-24)


“Maskedst” contains the idea of illusion, and delusion. Spenser does not equate the seasonal rhythms simply with contrasting emotions: summery joy and wintry pain. Every one of the poems in the Calender makes some sort of rift with that scheme, and their endings are downbeat accords, suggesting prolonged continuities whose surfaces are just ruffled by the poems.   


At the end of the stanza about the sheep:


            With mourning pyne I, you with pyning mourne.  (48)


The two terms are not synonymous here. To “pyne” in this instance is to waste away physically, i.e. the line means “I’m getting thin because I’m sad, but you’re sad because you’re so thin”. Colin has momentarily felt an impulse of care for his flock, fondly addressed as “Thou feeble flock”. At this point, he registers a sense of community with the sheep – Poor fellows, we’re all together under an angry heaven. But the switch to “you” in the last line shows him moving away from identification with the sheep, and it actually expresses a contrast between himself and them. From this point onwards he ceases to make analogies between himself and the state of things around him. It’s the thought of his individual story that destroys the fragile equilibrium of his lament and leads eventually to the small upset, the tantrum at the end of St 12.   






Februarie is written in neo-Medieval couplets. Working out how they’re supposed to go is a puzzle. It is a meter of approximations rather than rules. There is a general approximation to a beat of four accents sounding like this:


Bang, Bang    (pause)    Bang, Crash!


(wherecrash represents the rhyme-word); but there’s a good deal of license about the number of unaccented syllables. The accents are best thought of not as four separate entities but as two two-pronged epithets that the rest of the line works around (they are often highlighted by alliteration, which needs to be looked out for). For example:


Must not the world wend   ||   in his commun course  (11)


(This line, not uniquely, has a little flutter of three unaccented syllables before the meat of the line arrives.)


Occasionally, though not often, a line happens to look like a regular “iambic tetrameter” (“So smirke, so smoothe, his pricked eares”), but it mustn’t be rolled off that way. There must be no pausing at the first comma, but a full caesura on the second:


So smirke so smoothe   ||   his pricked eares


Most commonly the lines look like nearly regular tetrameters, loaded with extra unaccented syllables, producing the characteristic rhythm of “blankety-blank”: “The soueraigne of seas”, “So loytring live”, “You thinken to be || Lords of the yeare”, etc. 


However, no description fully covers all the lines. The verse has a tendency  towards a certain kind of regularity, but never achieves it for more than a couple of lines at a time – and, one suspects, must not do so; just as, in twelve-note serialism, one needs to avoid three notes together that might suggest a common tonality. Alliteration is frequent but not predominant, and it may cut across from one half-line to the next, or drop around the accents rather than onto them. Some lines have no plausible caesura. Hence no reader can predict the rhythm of the next line with confidence; you can’t settle into a lilt. It was meant to sound joltingly rough. 


In Thenot’s lines,


Ne euer was to Fortune foeman,

But gently tooke, that vngently came.    (21-22)


the last word ought to be “comen”.


This dialogue achieves a wonderful contrast between Cuddie’s celebration of youthful vigour and Thenot’s persuasive defence of tradition. The story of the briar and the oak plainly (yet elusively) evokes consideration of church reforms. At the same time this should not distract from the visual image. The briar is a field rose, with waxy, smooth (though thorny) stems – young growth mostly. The oak in those pre-industrial times of clean air would have been covered with tree-lichens (they were not distinguished from moss, and indeed one of the commonest tree-lichens still bears the name “oak moss”); so when the briar talks about “The mouldie mosse, which thee accloieth” he is mainly referring to the masses of shaggy lichen that envelop the twigs. This extraneous growth can give a very misleading sense of a tree’s senility, and the fable thus reports the wonder that everyone feels at how oaks can be so robust and yet apparently tolerate such a weight of other life living on them.  






In tail-rhyme, a4a4b3c4c4b3. The rhythmic pulse is mainly “iambic” but with a large number of deviations, especially in the trimeters.


            Or made preuie to the same


            Whereby by chaunce I him knewe


For the next three centuries of English verse, these would be routinely regularized into


            Or learnèd of the same


            Where him by chaunce I knewe


Spenser could have done it effortlessly, but he clearly wanted the roughnesses. Skipping between two conflicting meters had considerable potential for expression.


A short poem lying between two much more substantial ones, March feels sketchy and speedy rather than minor. And inconsequent, too. Though it is a dialogue, it is not a debate.


Spenser retained the all-male convention for speakers of Eglogues, and sexuality here and in Februarie means above all “corage”: potency, excitement, vigour and energy transmuted into action with hints of violence.

(Compare how swiftly Cuddie’s poetical “corage” cools at the other end of the year, in October.)


Part of the sense of speed and gappiness arises from the thought that now is a time for doing and not speaking. (Compare Cuddie’s remarks about Phillis.)


The clouted ewe with the broken legs is a disquieting image of the season’s potential – of activity’s potential – for real consequences and real disasters. Thomalin’s wound is likewise “in earnest”.






The frame consists of pentameter quatrains, a5b5a5b5, often linked (i.e. successive quatrains b5c5b5c5 c5d5c5d5 etc) – compare the frame of Nouember. The lay of Eliza has a complex stanza-form a5b2a5b2c5c5d2d2c4. Each b line is (usually) uncapitalized, suggesting that it is to be understood in combination with the preceding a line as a divided fourteener. The poem is at first regularly “iambic”, but from line 60 onwards (in the middle of the lay’s third stanza) rhythmic irregularities become the norm. This is odd (though cf. March) but it works well; the splendid lay gains a sprightliness from irregularities that lie aslant the original flow – as if at first we observe the surface of a smooth river in shadow, and then see a play of sunlight across it.     






Neo-Medieval couplets, and see the remarks on Februarie. Yet the effect here is somewhat different. It is a slacker, more garrulous poem (the longest in the Calender) and the talk of the old men looks like it could run on and on: even at the end Piers is saying: “Of their falshode more could I recount...”. It is also in contrast to the urgency of March, whose youthful protagonists have to watch their own sheep. Spenser loosens the fabric, displaces the caesuras and includes a number of lines that it is difficult not to read as iambic pentameters:


Ah Piers, bene not thy teeth on edge, to thinke


Passen their time, that should be sparely spent

In lustihede and wanton meryment.


For Pan himselfe was their inheritaunce


Some gan to gape for greedie gouernaunce


Three thinges to beare, bene very burdenous


Let none mislike of that may not be mended:

So conteck soone by concord mought be ended.


There are also rhyming triplets at 117-119 and 182-84, and a quadruplet at 89-92. As some of these examples show, the poem makes an expressive use of polysyllabic latinate words (especially in rhyme positions), in contrast to Februarie.  


Piers’ fable seems to me very dull, perhaps because fairy-tales of the Snow White type now seem over-familiar.






Eight-line stanzas, a5b5a5b5b5a5b5a5.  


The smooth negotiation of this demanding rhyme-scheme was meant to be noticed, and is even emphasized when two successive stanzas share a rhyme-sound (81-96).


The poem promises a summer idling in the grateful shade, and it delivers it, despite Colin’s sense of alienation; for he does in fact relax and to some extent strives to accommodate the seasonal mood. For example, he attributes his lack of interest in fame to a shepherd’s vocation – “But feede his flocke in fields, where falls hem best”. (We know that this is not the true cause of his lack of ambition, which is Rosalind’s rejection of him.) From the same momentary relaxation arise his confidences about that affair, and the heart-rending simplicity of


That she the truest shepheards hart made bleede,

That lyues on earth, and loued her most dere.


Colin’s belief in his art is briefly strengthened by the softness of the season (“I play to please my selfe”, “I soone would learn these woods”, etc).


The “winding witche” is the wych-elm, a tree that rarely grows straight and provides a canopy of low embowering branches thick with leaves. It is not in fact particularly associated with the South East as the poem seems to imply, but the intended contrast is with treeless hills.      






In quatrains, with the form a4b3a4b3. The b lines are not capitalized, so the quatrain can also be interpreted as two divided fourteeners.


A debate between the lover of hills and the lover of valleys, this poem arises boldly from a sub-theme that had been pervasively present in Iune. E.K. calls Morrell a proud and ambitious pastor, and the woodcut shows him with a tonsure, but the actual poem is more nuanced. It is Morrell who says:


There is the caue, where Phebe layed,

    the shepheard long to dreame.


- beautiful lines that Keats surely lingered on. And it’s Morrell who supplies the concord of the ending:


Ah good Algrin, his hap was ill,

   but shall be better in time.

Now farwell shepheard, sith thys hyll

   thou hast such doubt to climbe.


The hill is also Spenser’s poetry, it seems to me.


Thomalin says:


The hylls, where dwelled holy saints,

   I reuerence and adore:

Not for themselfe, but for the sayncts,

   which han be dead of yore.


Chaucer and his followers permitted rhyme between two identical phonemes, but only if they meant different things, which in this case is what the varying orthography also seems to imply. Despite the fourth line, I take it that “sayncts” does not exactly mean “saints” but is half-way to meaning “holy places”, “holy events”, or “residues of sanctity”. 






The frame is at first a5b5a5b5c5c5, but by line 10 this is already turning into neo-Medieval 4-accent lines of the kind described in Februarie. It becomes regularly  iambic again at 139, introducing the change of mood leading up to Cuddie’s recitation of Colin’s “lay”. The roundelay is a4b4a4b4, with the first two accents of the second line represented by the placed syllables “hey ho”. The lay is a sestina mostly in pentameters, but with two alexandrines, one of them the last line before the coda.


The sestina and its framework (beginning at 139) appear to be a late addition (too late for E.K. to write notes about), but it was an inspired one, making August into a many-sided exploration of how the personal pain of love turns into art that delights, whether itself merry or sad.


The sestina seems to concern a requited – but temporarily absent – love, inconsistent with what we hear elsewhere of Rosalind. But then you can also argue that there is inconsistency generally, since Rosalind in Januarie rejects Colin’s wooing completely, and thus cannot be guilty of the inconstancy that Colin complains of in Iune.  





Neo-Medieval couplets, as Februarie and Maye. The three poems are also connected by thematic material that concerns the recent history of church reform and by a structure that issues in some kind of fable, in this case about Roffynn, his well-meaning dog Lowder, and the treacherous wolf.


The poem takes place late in the day, and a windy day too. The two speakers take a while before they reach an accord. Diggon is bitter, he is politicized in an embarrassing way. Hobbinol, not encountering the expected discourse, needs to turn things this way and that before he can settle. He is (not very flatteringly) portrayed as a timorous, conventional stay-at-home who at first does not understand the sharp discourse of Diggon, and when he does understand is afraid of such plain speaking. But they gradually unite through the fable (which is oddly told in the wrong order); as if they smile over Lowder as a real dog, and it brings them together. After automatically lamenting his inability to offer any real help, Hobbinol is able to produce a resolution by offering Diggon a bed to sleep on. But Diggon has to shelve his uncompromising radicalism and give vent to his (more socially acceptable) personal distress before this sympathetic resolution can be achieved.  






Six-line stanzas, regularly iambic, a5b5b5a5b5a5.


This poem, about the sustenance of poetry, is subtly and multiply linked to its month: the month of harvest and of vintage, but also the month when the sun is perceptibly losing strength and we feel bareness around us.


The poem deliberately outruns its course. After setting forth a mounting (Virgilian) progress into epic, climaxing with


            O pierlesse Poesye, where is then thy place?   (79)


it gestures at moving upward to the stars, goes off at a tangent meditating on Colin’s passions and poetic capacities, and then rejects servitude to love; instead, Cuddie proposes drinking as the obvious way to generate lofty verse. This is unserious, and descends just as inconsequentially into the quietism of


            For thy, content vs in thys humble shade:

            Where no such troublous tydes han vs assayde,

            Here we our slender pipes may safely charme.  (116-18)


The resolution, as of the other poems, is tranquil, certainly, but not precisely a matter for rejoicing – it is not the best, but only making the best.






The frame is mainly a5b5a5b5:b5c5b5c5:c5d5c5d5 etc. The elaborate verses on Dido are mainly a6b5a5b5b5c4c4d2b5d2, but with some irregularities (e.g. c5 at line 79).


The Nightingale is souereigne of song,

Before him sits the Titmose silent bee:

And I vnfitte to thrust in skilfull thronge,

Should Colin make iudge of my fooleree.     (25-28)


sits” is defensible, if one assumes a treble ellision “Before him (it) sits (with) the Titmose (to) silent bee”, but “fits” seems more likely to me, especially in view of  “vnfitte” in the next line. 


Where bene the nosegayes that she dight for thee:

The colourd chaplets wrought with a chiefe,

The knotted rushrings, and gilte Rosemaree?

For shee deemed nothing too deere for thee.


Thereof nought remaynes but the memoree...  (114-17, 121)


The rhythm of the rest of the Dido ode is regularly iambic, but this stanza is bumpy. “Wrought” was perhaps intended to be “wroughten” – this line is a syllable short. The other irregular lines (117, 121) are at least decasyllabic, and could be made semi-regular with some cunning placement of accents, e.g. on “no thing” (defensible) and “remaynes” (doubtful).


I care very little for the Dido ode. The long stanza and the altering refrain (from “O heauie herse” to “O happye herse”) bring to mind later triumphs; but what works in a marriage poem seems glib in a funeral poem. Colin’s epanorthoses, though admired by E.K., are also unappealing to me:


Why doe we longer liue, (ah why liue we so long)


She while she was, (that was, a woful word to sayne)


They are a formal but strikingly crude way of registering emotion; the self-interruption marks passion’s impatience with the ongoing process of speech. Even more crude is the piling up of the vocabulary of  grieslie ghostes”, “streaming teares”, dolefulness and woefulness.


Spenser wrote other poems that can be loosely called elegies, Daphnaida and Astrophel. More accurately they should be called doleful plaints. None of them appears to owe its origin to a personal or deeply felt sense of bereavement; they are not really poems about death. Perhaps it’s significant that The Faerie Queene was perfectly designed to be an enormous poem from which death is markedly absent. What Spenser is poetically sensitive to is not death but mutability. He generalizes and universalizes instinctively – December is a good example of where this can take us.  







a5b5a5b5c5c5 (as Januarye).


December mentions death, as what comes after – “dreerie” but “timely”. This is true in the sense that the fiction comes to an end with the poem. It isn’t true in the sense that Colin is really old, drawing near his latter end, or about to drop down dead. The only thing that’s really going to die, we suspect, is Colin’s attachment to Rosalind.


The poem is a calendar within a calendar. Spenser felt the form deeply, and he used it at the other end of his poetic career in the Mutabilitie cantos – but there he worked from March to February, according to the old idea of when the year started and finished.


His use of it here is complicated. The year’s cycle, from spring to winter, is used as a figure, both of Colin’s love affair (innocence, passion, waste, decay) and of his whole life (youth, manhood, ripeness, age). He is actually singing the song in December, which is imagined both as a long-distant spring (or rather, Colin’s youthful spring extended even to pre-Christmas occupations such as gathering nuts) and as the present onset of winter. A similar complication applies to summer, when his fatal passion has overpowered and alienated him, yet at the same time his skills and achievements continue to expand. But Colin’s knowledge (e.g. of the heavens) will only result in making him more capable of autumnally reckoning his own failure. At some level this allows into the poem a Christian (and Hamlet-like) figuring of the imperfection of man’s triumphs. December in England is, more than any other month, associated with a Christian festival – it’s almost unimaginable without Christmas. Thus the poem very subtly hints at a renunciation of earthly love and the possible birth of spiritual love, as in the Foure Hymnes. 


The final stanzas are pleasingly naive. This naivety has been an intermittent feature throughout the Calender, something that E.K. has been keen to annotate as suitable to a pastoral venture. Its function at the end is surely to detach us from too close an identification with Colin – his fictiveness is underlined. Behind him we hear, perhaps, the voice of the poet announcing the end of his pantomime in shepherd’s garb:


Adieu delightes, that lulled me asleepe,

Adieu my deare, whose loue I bought so deare:

Adieu my little Lambes and loued sheepe,

Adieu ye Woodes that oft my witnesse were:

   Adieu good Hobbinol, that was so true,

   Tell Rosalind, her Colin bids her adieu.


For Colin and Rosalind it really is over, but not for the poem or for the life in which it will find its function, both of them cycling around the calendar for ever, as the Epilogue points out.





A note on “E.K.”


Many readers have assumed that E.K. is Spenser himself. They find it difficult to believe that an unknown poet could persuade anyone else to take the time to write elaborate commentary, and they think Spenser was greatly puffed – in fact, altogether too conveniently – by commentary that already treats his work as just the opposite of what the modest pen-name Immeritô would seem to imply.


Our inability to resolve this simple matter tells us a good deal about how elusive Spenser remains as a personality. References to E.K in the Spenser-Harvey letters do not help, as they can be read equally well either as reflecting Spenser’s somewhat mixed feelings about his real-life commentator or as Spenser indulging in some comic elaboration of his own invented persona. If you think that E.K. is a Spenserian fiction, you may find it significant that Harvey does not trouble to respond to the invitation to refer to E.K. or to pass on any greeting to him.


Nevertheless, though intermittently tempted by the “E.K.=Spenser” theory I currently stand with C.S. Lewis (and Selincourt) in judging that E.K. was a real person, independent from Spenser. McCabe’s remark on the first page of his 1999 edition of the shorter poems (“a literary agent too ideal to be other than fictitious”) reflects a simple lack of historical awareness – and he surely ought to have found room in the next 750 pages to address this important question in a little more detail. It’s true that no new poet today can find a peer prepared to subordinate themselves to close commentary mingled with outbursts of uncritical acclamation, but in 1579 everything was different, and besides Spenser wasn’t exactly unknown. Unknown poets can’t find illustrators either, but that’s what Spenser ended up with; good ones, who read his poems carefully.   


To suppose that Spenser could have gone to the trouble of inventing such a wholly consistent persona, one who shows off his learning at such frequently irrelevant length, is to me unbelievable. It would be the kind of pedantic jeu d’esprit that might have appealed to the Walter Scott who wrote a collection of imaginary seventeenth-century letters, but without Scott’s obvious purposiveness. Lewis pointed out some of the more obvious places where E.K. expresses sentiments at odds with what we know Spenser thought (e.g. of Marot, Arthurian Legend, fairies, etc). It’s difficult to make my case in detail since it can only emerge cumulatively from a prolonged submersion in E.K., but examples of what I mean are the notes on Flora (March), the olive (Aprill), Sardanapalus (Maye), the ill omen of stumbling as evinced by the Lord Hastings (Maye), the Elfs or Guelfs (June), etc. It’s easy to see why E.K. would enjoy the opportunity to produce in the margins a kind of emblem book or syncretistic compilation of learned gobbets, but I can’t imagine Spenser wanting to take the trouble to go down these by-ways.


Or consider the headnote to Nouember:


“This Æglogue is made in imitation of Marot his song, which he made upon the death of Loys the frenche Queene. But farre passing his reache, and in myne opinion all other the Eglogues of this booke.”


The Spenser who makes Guyon feed his thoughts with his own praiseworthy deeds no doubt had a becoming pride in his own gifts, but I can’t believe he would describe even his best poem as far beyond Marot’s capacities.


The problem with McCabe’s dismissal of E.K.’s reality is that he fails to take account of the real and delicate context of the publication. Spenser had been a prolific poet for ten years or more. His poems had circulated but he was reluctant to publish. E.K. spurred Spenser on by writing his elaborate commentaries to the Calendar and also to the not-extant Dreames, which were set to be published in 1580 but never appeared. On E.K.’s own admission Spenser had considerable input into the commentary. The glosses of archaic words are probably his, and a mistake like the gloss to Februarie 119 probably arose because Spenser automatically replied to a question about the meaning of wonned by giving the usual sense without realizing that E.K. was asking about a line where he had used the word in a different way. No doubt, too, they conferred about what not to gloss, e.g. Algrind.


But E.K. surely had a personal agenda (i.e. giving free rein to a mass of learning, itself of considerable potential interest to an audience when books were scarce) and it was apparently he rather than Spenser who arranged for the woodcuts (the Dreames had them too). He also planned to publish a Spenserian treatise called the English Poete. It seems that he was the driving force behind these publications, and in some sense they were (or would have been) his books rather than Spenser’s, whose own judgment on the proposed follow-up (“Therin be some things excellently, and many things wittily discoursed of E.K...”) perhaps indicates understandable misgivings and a possible reason why publication of the Dreames in the end came to nothing. But it was presumably the imminence of this second publication that decided the editors of the Letters to maintain E.K.’s (as well as M. Immerito’s) semi-anonymity.           


I confess to moments of uncertainty in writing this. The Letters do look like a piece of self-promotion in which Harvey and Spenser were prime movers. Perhaps they were capable of inventing an E.K. too.



A circular narrative in The Faerie Queene


In Book III of The Faerie Queene there is a circularity in the story of Florimell (or Britomart). I cannot remember to what extent this has been discussed before, so I’ll give the details here.


In the opening stanzas of Book III, Canto I, Guyon and Arthur meet Britomart, who jousts with Guyon and unseats him. They make it up and ride on together in good spirits. Then, in St 15, they are passed by a “goodly Ladie” (named in the legend as Florimell), pursued by a Foster. Arthur and Guyon set off in the hope of rescuing her. Meanwhile, Britomart comes to Castle Ioyeous and after various adventures there departs with the Redcrosse Knight.


Cantos II and III describe their conversation, with flashbacks concerning the origin of Britomart’s quest. At the end of Canto III, they part, and in Canto IV, after searching many lands, Britomart comes to the sea-shore (St 6). Here she is challenged by Marinell. They fight, and she leaves him seriously injured (St 17). His mother Cymoent retrieves him. Finally, in St 45, the story turns back to Arthur and Guyon. They split up when they come to “a double way” (St 46), and the story now follows Arthur, who is overtaken by nightfall.


The next day, Arthur meets “a Dwarfe” (St 3), who is finally able to give some information about Florimell. He tells us that she is in love with Marinell (St 8), but that five days ago Marinell met “a forreine foe” (St 9) and, rumour has it, is slain. Four days ago, an anguished Florimell left the Court and vowed never to return until she found him, alive or dead.


In the dwarf’s account of Florimell’s time-line, therefore, Florimell’s trouble with the Foster must come after she left the court, which in turn must come after Marinell’s wounding. Yet, on Britomart’s time-line, she sees Florimell in trouble quite a long time before she ever encounters Marinell and leaves him for dead.


There is no simple way in which the time-paradox could be emended away and Spenser presumably incurred it deliberately.  I don’t know what analogues there may have been for a narrative that runs round in a circle like this.  It’s another good example of Spenser’s capacity for surprising us with weird devices.  It’s also, of course, an extreme instance of the wild elasticity of time in Spenser’s land of Faerie. 







Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628)







            I, with whose colours Myra drest her head,

            I, that ware posies of her own hand-making,

            I, that mine own name in the chimnies read

            By Myra finely wrought ere I was waking:

            Must I look on, in hope time coming may

            With change bring back my turn again to play?


            I, that on Sunday at the church-stile found

            A garland sweet, with true love-knots in flowers,

            Which I to wear about mine arms was bound,

            That each of us might know that all was ours:

            Must I now lead an idle life in wishes,

            And follow Cupid for his loaves and fishes?


            I, that did wear the ring her mother left,

I, for whose love she gloried to be blamèd,

I, with whose eyes her eyes committed theft,

I, who did make her blush when I was namèd:

Must I lose ring, flowers, blush, theft and go naked,

Watching with sighs, till dead love be awakèd?


I, that when drowsy Argus fell asleep,

Like jealousy o’erwatchèd with desire,

Was ever warnèd modesty to keep

While her breath, speaking, kindled Nature’s fire:

Must I look on a-cold, while others warm them?

Do Vulcan’s brothers in such fine nets arm them?


Was it for this that I might Myra see

Washing the water with her beauties, white?

Yet would she never write her love to me;

Thinks wit of change when thoughts are in delight?

Mad girls may safely love, as they may leave;

No man can print a kiss: lines may deceive.



Sometimes, though not as often as we pretend, a poem leaps out of the page and hits you between the eyes. Thus it was for me with Myra.


It’s a poem whose strength and inclusiveness (not the most expected virtue of a lyric in that era) are manifest in the opening lines. The lines all start with “I”, but  it’s Myra who swamps them with her tender thoughtfulness. In the first line “colours” must mean something heraldic or emblematic, such as a Greville ribbon. Myra, we gather, made her own decision to wear this ribbon; but the posies that he wore were made up for him by her. Perhaps, like other powerful persons, he enjoyed the holiday of “going along with it”. She even scrawls his name, while he’s still asleep, using I suppose the cold charcoal of the morning hearth (for clearly, this was a consummated relationship). All of this persuades us that the poem’s penultimate line is in earnest: Myra loved madly enough, when she did.


The second stanza summarizes their love-play thus: “that each of us might know that all was ours”. Not the other person, but all. For in the ecstasy of consummation’s early days, we know that we have inherited the earth. That New Testament allusion is mine, but it’s almost forced on me by the “church-stile” of line 7 and by the poet’s sour reference to “loaves and fishes”. For now, of course, everything’s changed - he’s really holding out for a miracle. 


The third stanza is bound together by a theme of delightful guilt. Proud of their secret “understanding” – it really affects them as insight – they enjoy being what other people call “in the wrong”.  I assume that it was a bit naughty for Greville to try on her mother’s ring – irreverent, perhaps. 


The fourth stanza yields up another intimate fragment of their relationship. “O’erwatchèd” (half-hinting at a misprint for “o’ermatchèd”) compresses two meanings – jealousy is tired from staying awake too long (cf King Lear II.2.168) and is outdone in watchfulness by a more desperate passion. The narrator remembers that there was still a pressure to be “modest”; he felt it, but her close breath dispelled it.


The first four stanzas all lead up to a “Must I?” from the narrator. The tone of his questions is open to interpretation: is it bewilderment (Has she really left me?) or is it rebelliousness (Am I really going to play this passive and feeble role?)?


The final line of the fourth stanza moves us decisively towards the latter intepretation. The line is highly compressed. “Vulcan’s brothers” means men in Vulcan’s position, men who behave as Vulcan did. Vulcan, the divine smith, forged a supremely fine net in which he snared his wife Venus and her lover Mars in flagrante. Surely this seemed a triumph both insubstantial and painful, at least once love came to be understood in courtly terms; in effect, it’s Vulcan who ends up trammelled in his own net. 


So the narrator appears to draw back from self-flagellation and forbid himself the anguish of a rejected lover; as most people do, in due course. In the last stanza his problem has disappeared. He can stand back, and reflect, objectively: “Yet would she never write her love to me”. The lines that follow sketch a rather complex train of thought. The fourth line means: of course, I never asked her to. And the final line admits that even if Myra had committed herself to writing, it would mean nothing, for what you can write is not substantial – it isn’t (for example) a kiss, it’s only the word “kiss”, which is just a hollow word once the love itself no longer exists. The last line also reflects back over his own evocation (in print, as he anticipated) of that past relationship. His poem, too, cannot reincarnate their past selves. And thus, since the deadness of that love is finally emphatic, the poem ends by accepting irrevocable change.


[I don’t know if it’s only a happy accident, but to “print a kiss” also suggests a prim, perfunctory formality that is applied, perhaps, to a forehead. Such formal kisses are, of course, often deceptive – they are not “real” kisses expressing real feeling.]


Somewhere at the back of this poem lies Horace; say, the Pyrrha ode (I, V). Temperamentally, the poets are different. One of the pleasing features of Greville’s poem is the pressure of material to get into it; Horace, by contrast, gives the impression in his odes of yielding up, with reluctance, the minimum of detail, buffed to perfection.


The corresponding weakness of most of Greville’s poems (if it is a weakness) is that they lack unity. He is a gifted aphorist, but his aphorisms, by seeming complete in themselves, induce a certain reluctance to carry on reading. New material, usually quite good material, is “built on”, like a house extension in a different style. You would learn lines of Greville by heart, but not whole poems. Even in this poem, it may be felt that the fifth stanza is taking us off in new directions that we scarcely bargained for.


I believe (though I can’t check) that the above poem is Caelica XXII . I should not mind being given Caelica as a Christmas present, but it sounds a weighty one. These are the other poems I have read:



Fye foolish Earth (Caelica XVI). The rhyme of “glory” and “sory”, which is the spine of this poem, is Greville’s favourite one. Here, however, he tries to keep the terms in contrast. The image, of the earth being the cause of its own night, is tenderly powerful (cf. the opening lines of Scene 3 of Dr Faustus). But Greville makes rather a mess of his analogy with love and hope. The latter is seen, contradictorily, as both disturbance (7) and comfort (11). The last line drags in “legions” for the rhyme, which doesn’t so much cap the poem as set if off bubbling again.



Absence, the noble truce (Caelica XLV). This song of praise to the pleasures of absence is so persuasive that the reversal in the last stanza is disappointing. “For thought is not the weapon” is too cheaply said (mainly for the rhyme with “cheapen”). Thought never imagined that it was!



All my senses (Caelica LVI). This is amused, and wordly. Greville, seeing his lover lying naked, falls into a train of besotted fantasy, and misses his opportunity to have her.  I am unsure about the action. “I stepped forth to touch the skye”, says Greville (an odd anticipation of the common ‘60s expression for orgasmic or chemical highs – Neil, Joni and Jimi...). The line implies that he was watching her furtively, and she was unaware of his presence, but when she saw him she ran off. Why then is the lover’s wonder considered the cause of his failure? She would have run off as soon as she saw him whether he paused to drink her in or not. The unpleasant conclusion is that Greville is chiding himself for not committing rape: he should have rushed in and pinioned her, not lingered in “conceipts” about “dainty thrones”. Rape must have been considered (at least, by noblemen) a less unacceptable action than we think it today. That’s the most natural inference to be drawn from the stories of Arcadia and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Accordingly I believe it’s quite possible, a century or two earlier, that Malory and Chaucer were indeed guilty of the rapes that they were accused of; though this has of course been hotly denied, really on the grounds that it’s horrifying to imagine someone with the sensibility and humanity of these great writers behaving in such a way. (cf. – with especial reference to girls of a lower social class – Andreas Capellanus, Malory iii 3, and Parzival XI, 555, where the ferryman leaves his daughter, the maid Bene, alone with Gawan: “He would not have cared if the lovely maiden had been forced to anything...”)



Who Grace for Zenith had (Caelica LXXXIII). This is a poem in Poulter’s Measure which doesn’t have the clownish movement we have been taught to expect. Perhaps a poem such as this could provide a clue to how the “clownish” Poulter’s of Wyatt and his followers might have sounded – because it can’t have seemed clownish at the time. This poem invites, I think, an exaggerated medial break in the alexandrine (not like Spenser’s alexandrine). The medial break is in effect a seventh foot, which balances the alexandrine against the fourteener. The latter always ends with a full pause, so that the measure flows haltingly, suiting Greville’s aphoristic temper. The opening lines, evoking the height of past ecstasy, lighten the whole poem; the rest of it (the longer part by far) anatomises the rejected Greville’s dismal “Constancy”, but the opening is never quite forgotten.  



When as Mans life (Caelica LXXXVII). A poem with many fine lines, but imperfect. I cannot see an explanation for the “But” that hinges the poem (7).



Three things there be (Caelica CV). A powerful poem, obscure in parts but persuasively suggestive. It helps when you work out that in line 17 “Man” is a vocative and “vertue”, which should be capitalized and italicized, is the subject of the next four lines.  



Syon lyes waste (Caelica CIX).  A sombre lamentation, with a pattern of feminine rhymes. Greville’s longing is indivisibly for mercy (her “ever springing fountains”) and for a fearsome judgment; the result is a very serious pastiche of Old Testament prayer: self-righteous and embattled.



When all this All (Caelica ?). The cosmological first stanza is splendid, especially the line “And makes this great world feel a greater might”. But, as in XVI above, when the real subject turns out to be the lover’s rejection, we feel that Greville has somehow undercut the seriousness of his poem. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by contrast, the personal theme and the larger images (say, of a rose, or of winter) are mutually ennobling. Nevertheless the poem ends with a wonderfully resonant question:


What can be good to me since my love is

To do me harm, content to do amiss? 



The world, that all contains (Caelica ?). A beautiful poem about change (surely it anticipates the concept of space/time). In the ninth line, “cleaveth” looks like a mistake in my edition; it should be “cleareth”. I wish the earth was not made to “stand still”; Greville may proceed to save his argument intellectually, but the concession stalls the poem. The last lines (concerning Myra) are pleasing, but we don’t believe (since we are talking sober truth now) that Myra is an exception to the world’s patterns.


Man, dream no more (Caelica ?). This is one of his happiest poems, a ringing call to Christian piety. The strength of these lines is notable:


            For God’s works are like Him, all infinite;


            First, let the law plough up thy wicked heart,


            When thou hast swept the house that all is clear,



Chorus Sacerdotum from Mustapha. This poem, with its admired opening lines, would gain greatly if printed as four six-line stanzas, as indicated by the rhyme-scheme.  In Line 21, “still” means “instil”.



What can one say, in conclusion, from this small sample? First, that Greville, like other poets who happen to be powerful statesmen, is hampered. One is aware of a consistent undercurrent of unease; his lines are not free expression, for they are infected by a habit of speaking what is politic. When I flick forward a few pages in my anthology to George Herbert, the immediate and striking impact is of freedom. Comparison with Herbert also provokes the reflection that Greville’s religious poems do not involve us as they should do. Greville addresses Man, but he speaks from a high dais and seems not to be preoccupied with his own “wicked heart”. Perhaps the high dais is “philosophy”.


So I prefer his sexual poems – at least, I prefer “Myra”. Here he did not have to be so incessantly on his guard; everyone knew sex was just sinful, and this blanket concession, so impossible to square with the practicalities of desire, perhaps allowed the subject a breathing space. I don’t believe, by the way, that Greville was really unfortunate in his amours. I think he was promiscuous, forceful and expert. He was certainly in a position to be. But this intuition doesn’t spoil the poems; if anything it makes them more interestingly complex.  


[I encountered Myra and some of these other poems in an anthology that has become a favourite of mine: A Treasury of Seventeenth Century English Verse from the Death of Shakespeare to the Restoration (1616-1660), edited by H.J. Massingham (first edition 1919); a book that, were there nothing else, would be sufficient to call into question the idea that there were no English studies worth the name before Scrutiny came along. As Massingham immediately confesses, Greville’s poems were no doubt written before 1616, by which time he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and in his sixties.]


[But should you say, in necessary shorthand, “Greville”, or “Brooke”? Usage is unsettled – a sure sign of the author’s failure to achieve first-class canonical status. “Brooke” would be more logical, on the model of “Byron”, for example. Greville, however, is the name used in his poems (e.g. Caelica LXXXIII) – as a Langlandian pun on Greiv-Ill – and is, of course, less likely than “Brooke” to cause confusion with other poets.] 


[This is as good a time as any to provide an invaluable link: http://www.luminarium.org . This contains what is, by current Internet standards (2002), a “wealth” of scholarly material. There are two excellent essays on Fulke Greville; one is concerned with his Calvinistic thought, the other with patriarchal poetry about women’s bodies (Sidney, Greville and Herrick). However, an author such as Marlowe attracts a wilder sort of company, both for good (Drew Milne) and ill (assorted cranks).] 






A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now



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