About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

"Ways of seeing" by John Berger

This is one of the classic texts of art appreciation suggesting that the oil painting tradition in European post-Renaissance art is an attempt by an elite to maintain the sense that the values established in the early development of capitalism of class power based on monetary wealth should be respected. Thus, he suggests that the development of perspective represents the artist suggesting that the viewer's is the correct perception. The nude, almost always female of course, invariably gazes towards the viewer and this, Berger suggests, is because the viewer possesses both the painting and, in some way, the body of the model.

Berger then argues that the ubiquitous advertising image is often based on oil painting convention and represents an attempt to control the viewer by proposing a future in which the viewer is glamorous and envied.

This is a brilliantly thought provoking book.

Perception

  • Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world ... Each evening we see the sun set. we know that the Earth is turning away from it.” (p 7)
  • We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” (p 8)
  • We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” (p 9)
How paintings differ from photographs and film

  • Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware ... of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.” (p 10)
  • The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless ... The camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual. ... What you saw depended upon where you were when.” (p 18)
  • A film unfolds in time and painting does not.” (p 26)

Berger points out that oil paintings is a form of painting that developed in Europe during the Renaissance and that a series of conventions has developed around it.

  • When an image is presented as a work of art the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions ... beauty, truth, genius, civilization, form, status, taste, etc” (p 11)
  • The art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes.” (p 11)
  • The compositional unity of a painting contributes fundamentally to the power of its image.” (p 13)
  • The convention of perspective, which is unique to European art and which was first established in the early Renaissance ... makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything convergys onto the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God.” (p 16)
  • Reproductions are still used to bolster the illusion ... that art, with its unique undiminished authority, justifies most other forms of authority, that art makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.” (p 29)


One of the primary conventions is that of the nude (the vast majority being of women):

  • In western art nudes are essentially passive, often reclining, usually submissive and looking at the spectator. (p 52) “In other non European traditions - in Indian art, Persian art, African art, Pre-Columbian art - nakedness is never supine in this way. ... it is likely to show active sexual love as between two people, the woman as active as the man.” (p 53) 
  • The way of seeing ‘a nude’ is not necessarily confined to art: there are also nude photographs, nude poses, new gestures. what is true is that the nude is always conventionalized - and the authority for it's conventions derives from a certain tradition of art.” (p 47)
  • To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude ... Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise. To be on display is to have the surface of one's own skin, the hairs of one's own body, turned into a disguise which, in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.” (p 54)
  • A nude “is made to appeal to his [the viewer, the ‘owner’ of the painting] sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality ...In the European tradition generally, the convention of not painting the hair on a woman's body helps towards the same end. Hair is associated with sexual power, with passion.”
  • It is true that sometimes painting include a male lover. But the woman's attention is very really directed towards him. Often she looks away from him or she looks out of the picture towards the one who considers himself her true lover - the spectator-owner.” (p 56)
  • Almost all post-Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal ... because the sexual protagonist is the spectator-owner looking at it.” (p 56)

In modern life the most ubiquitous images are 'publicity' images. The purpose of publicity is to make us desire a future state; the images shown are those to which we are supposed to aspire. “The interminable present of meaningless working hours is ‘balanced’ by a dreamt future in which ... the passive worker becomes the active consumer.” (p 149)

  • Publicity principally addressed to the working class tends to promise a personal transformation through the function of the particular product it is selling (Cinderella); middle-class publicity promises a transformation of relationships through a general atmosphere created by an ensemble of products (The Enchanted Palace).” (p 145)
  • Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream or that cream ... but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal. It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer - even though we will be poorer by having spent our money.” (p 131)
  • Publicity works by making us envy other people. It makes us wish to be transformed into the envied ones. “Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. ... It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images.” (p 133)
  • The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness” (p 133

Oil paintings and publicity have many similarities including: “The gestures of models ,,, and mythological figures. The romantic use of nature ... to create a place where innocence can be refound. The exotic and nostalgic attraction of the Mediterranean. The poses taken up to denote stereotypes of women: serene mother (madonna), free-wheeling secretary (actress, King’s mistress), perfect hostess (spectator-owner’s wife), sex-object (Venus, nymph surprised) ... The special sexual emphasis given to women’s legs. The gestures and embraces of lovers, arranged frontally for the benefit of the spectator. The sea, offering a new life. The physical stance of men conveying wealth and virility. The treatment of distance by perspective - offering mystery. The equation of drinking and success. The man as knight (horseman) become motorist.” (p 138)

Both oil paintings and publicity tend to distinguish between images of men and women. This is to do with cultural differences in male and female 'presence':

  • A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. I the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence. The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual - but its object is always exterior to the man.” (p 45) 
  • A woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste ... presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura.” (p 46)
  • To be born of woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually ... She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance what is normally thought of as the success of their life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another. Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control of this process, women must contain it and interiorize it.” (p 46)
  • Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women that also the relation of women to themselves.” (p 47)

Other interesting  comments:

  • The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past.” (p 11)
  • When metaphysical symbols are introduced ... their symbolism is usually made unconvincing or unnatural by the unequivocal, static materialism of the painting-method.” (p 91)
  • The great artist is a man whose life-time is consumed by struggle: partly against material circumstances, partly against incomprehension, partly against himself. Her is imagined as a kind of Jacob wrestling with an Angel.” (p 110)

What I didn't like about this book was the typeface (mostly bold which I found tiring) and the poor quality of the illustrations.

An extraordinarily interesting book. It was written in 1972 and one suspects the anti-capitalist Berger would be even more appalled or intrigued by the images in our modern rampantly capitalist world. What would he make of the images on the internet, both the stylistic conventions of the selfie and of  those pictures posted on social media and the stylistic conventions of internet pornography. Several doctoral theses available here!

July 2017; 154 pages


Saturday, 14 July 2018

"The Darkening Age" by Catherine Nixey

The prevailing perspective is that the glories of the Roman Empire were destroyed by the Barbarian invasions and that learning during the European Dark Ages was kept alive by monks in their scriptoria. Nixey radically revises this thesis. She shows that fanatical Christians destroyed a largely tolerant Roman culture and that Christianity was, to a large extent, responsible for the darkness.

First, she suggests that Roman persecution of Christians was largely a myth. In three centuries there were thirteen years of persecution:
  • Roman Emperors wanted obedience, not martyrs.” (p 78) 
  • Trajan tells Pliny "these people must not be hunted out.” (p 73) 
  • As the early Christian author Origen admitted, the numbers of martyrs were few enough to be easily countable.” (p 61) 
  • It is now thought that fewer than ten martyrdom tales from the early Church can be considered reliable.” (p 62) 
  • The Romans did not seek to wipe Christianity out. iI they had, they would almost certainly have succeeded.” (p 62) 
  • In this world today, there are over two billion Christians. there is not one single, true ‘pagan’.” (p 100)

In fact, it was the other way around. After centuries of tolerance, “From almost the very first year that a Christian emperor has ruled in Rome in AD 312, liberties had begun to be eroded.” (p xxvii - xxix) and within fifty years there were laws banning paganism. 

Many authors acknowledge that there were iconoclasts. “Classical statues were knocked from their plinths, defaced, defiled and torn limb from limb. Temples were razed to their foundations and burned to the ground.” (p xxxi) But they seem to excuse them. “In modern Histories those carrying out and encouraging the attacks [against heathen shrines] are really describe as violent, or vicious, or thuggish: they are merely ‘zealous’, ‘pious’, ‘enthusiastic’ or, at worst, ‘overzealous’.” (p 115)

People were also attacked, often by gangs of marauding monks: “Monks - anonymous, rootless, untraceable - were able to commit atrocities with near impunity.” (p 215) People were mutilated. “Eyes of the erring were gouged out because those who couldn't see the true religion were ‘blind’ anyway. Another Bishop was seized, his hands chopped off and his tongue, which had preached falsehoods, cut out.” (p 223) This could be excused. Citing Deuteronomy the learned Doctor of the Church St Jerome suggested that “a Christian might take the defeated prisoner, enjoy them, rape them - so long as they mutilated them first.” (p 164) The parabalani were “de facto militaries of the faithful” who threatened violence and killed the philosopher Hypatia (p 127) Even this was excused. Fanaticism perverts morality. “Murder committed for the sake of God, argued one writer, was not a crime but actually ‘a prayer’.” (p 222) Justice was rare. “Courtrooms in the east of the empire with disrupted by sinister groups of dark-clad, psalm-chanting monks.” (p 225) Judges fled.

Christianity has a reputation for condemning slavery but even this was perverted by the early church.“When one bishop advised slaves to desert their masters and become ascetics, the church was appalled and promptly excommunicated him.” (p 204)

As for sex. “Male homosexuality was outlawed.” (p xxxiii) “It would be well over a thousand years before Western civilisation could come to see homosexuality as anything other than a perversion.” (p 196) It seems to use that we live in a uniquely tolerant time; one wonders and worries that a cultural pendulum will swing back in the future. But this book suggests that it is perhaps the last millenniium and a half that has been the aberration and that what is 'unnatural' is not gay sex but the intolerance that leads to its condemnation.

Culturally perhaps the most damaging consequence of Christian fanaticism was the destruction of ancient writings. “It has been estimated that less than ten per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era ... It is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains.” (p 166) In an age when manual copying was the only way to preserve ancient texts then simply ignoring an author could consign their work to obliteration. But worse was done. A shortage of parchment led to overwriting: “Palimpsests - manuscripts in which one manuscript has been scraped (psao) again (palin)” repeatedly show Christian texts overwriting classical texts." (p xxxii). And, of course, books were burnt.

Christians distrusted knowledge “To a proto-empiricist like Galen ... intellectual progress depended on the freedom to ask, question, doubt and above all, to experiment. In Galen’s world, only the ill-educated believed things without reason. To show something, one did not merely declare it to be so. One proved it, with demonstration. To do otherwise was for Galen the method of an idiot. It was the method of a Christian.” (p 30) 

There were reasons why Christians hated pagan learning. First of all, it was sexually frank:
  • The famously learned St Jerome, himself an inveterate reader, weighed in advising against ‘adultery of the tongue’.” (p 141)
  • Marcus Aurelius, with queasy precision, described sexual intercourse as ‘the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus’.” (p 142) 
  • Catullus (Carmen 16) says “I will bugger you and I will fuck your mouths.” (p 141)
  • Martial’s Epigram 1.90 describes lesbianism as “rubbing cunts together ... to counterfeit the thrusting of a male.” (p 141)
  • In the Greco-Roman pantheon, not only did brother fight against brother but, worse, brother sometimes did quite unmentionable things with sister. Or with anyone else they could get their hands on.” (p 143)

Perhaps, worse, classical learning challenged Christian ideas. This was made worse because “it was painfully obvious to educated Christians that the intellectual achievements of the ‘insane’ pagans were vastly superior to their own.” (p 150):
  • Roman intellectuals had a version of evolution: “The distinct species of animals were explained by a form of proto-Darwinism ... Nature put forth many species. those that had useful characteristics ... survived, thrived and reproduced.” (p 36) 
  • Ovid’s Metamorphoses ... opened with a version of the Creation myth that was so similar to the biblical one that it could hardly fail to make an interested reader question the supposed unique truth of Genesis. ... Where the biblical Creation begins with an earth that is ‘without form’, Ovid’s poem begins with a ‘rough, unordered mass of things’. ... a god appears and ‘rent asunder land from sky, and sea from land’ before instructing the seas to form and the ‘plains to stretch out’.” (p 39)
Philosophy actually dared to challenge religious beliefs, including Christianity:
  • The works of Greek and Roman philosophy were full of punchy one-liners poking fun at religion.” (p 143)
  • Celsus points out that the crucifixion was seen by many but the resurrection by very few. (p 35)
  • Celsus asked why did Jesus prefer sinners? “What evil is it not to have sinned?” (p 35)
  • Why did God wait so long to send Jesus? Porphyry asked: “what has become of the men who lived in the many centuries before Christ came? ... [Why] did He who is called the Saviour withhold Himself for so many centuries of the world?” (p 47)

The non-Christians urged tolerance and freedom of thought. Pliny the Elder wrote that “God ... is one mortal helping another.” (p 44) Symmachus (a pagan) said: “We see the same stars, the sky is shared by all, the same world surrounds us. What does it matter what wisdom a person uses to seek for the truth?” (p 121) But this didn't duit the narrow-minded Christians. “Heretics were intellectual therefore intellectuals were, if not heretical, then certainly suspect.” (p 148)
Other fascinating asides:
  • The feast of the Liberalia was on 17th March ... at which Roman citizens celebrated a boys first ejaculation” (p 177)
  • Young men didn't go to the baths with their fathers for fear of the uexpected erection; even for liberal Romans, it seems that seeing one's son's hard-on was felt to be a bit much.” (p 194)
  • Is it not true that we are dead and only seem to live ... or are we alive and is life dead?” (Palladas; p 169)
  • Hypatia was “devoted to the life of the mind rather than of the flesh and remained a virgin. ... it is said that one of her students fell in love with her ... Hypatia responded briskly. She brought some of her sanitary towels and threw them before him.” (p 127)
  • Hypatia's father, Theon, wrote commentaries on Euclid that “were so authoritative that they form the foundation of modern editions of his texts.” (p 130)
  • Demons stalk through the pages of Augustine's City of God.” (p 14). 
  • One consequence of the concept of demons was that wicked thoughts were the fault of the demon not the man ... the monkish id is laid bare as monks confessed to being tormented by visions of naked women” (p 17) 
  • Temples to the old gods served as centres of demonic activity. Here they settled in swarms, gorging on the sacrifices made by Romans to their gods. Creep into a temple late at night and you would hear petrifying things: corpses that seemed to speak.” (p 19)
  • Those who criticized Christianity, warned the Christian apologist Tertullian, were not speaking with a free mind ... because they were under the control of Satan and his footsoldiers.” (p 21)
  • Strepitus mundi, the ‘roar of the world’” was “the sound of Christianity pouring, as unstoppable as a tide, across towns, countries and continents” (p 23)
This is a fascinating book which authoritatively challenges a fundamental trope of western history. Coming at a time when western Europe is appalled at the cultural vandalism being wrought by groups such as the Taliban, and ISIS it is a timely reminder that suppression of art and culture and thought and learning is not a trait of one particular religion but seems to be a consequence of people believing that there is only one God.

A must-read. July 2011; 247 pages

Monday, 9 July 2018

"Birds, Beasts and Relatives" by Gerald Durrell

This is the sequel to My Family and Other Animals and it contains the stories that were left out of the first volume but which can nevertheless be very funny. Thus we learn of the wedding and accouchment of Katerina, Gerry going fishing with a convicted murderer and catching cuttlefish with love, Corfiot justice as arranged by Spiro, Margo's spiritualist diet, gay Sven and his accordion, Max and Donald, the wonderfully lecherous Captain Creech, the recluse Countess who argues with her servant, and the gypsy with the talking head and the dancing bear. I laughed out loud on several occasions.

Every chapter is introduced with passages of beautiful description. There is lots of interesting natural history. But, as before, the stars are the wonderfully bonkers members of the Durrell family:

  • Larry has a brilliant line in acerbity: 
    • The entire population of the British Isles seems to do absolutely nothing from one year’s end to another except shuffle around in small circles sneezing voluptuously into each other's faces ... a sort of merry-go-round of reinfection.” (p 314)
    • "I am not going to be turned into an early Christian martyr at my time of life." (p 531)
  • Margo merges and mangles proverbs: 
    • "There's many a slip without a stitch." (p 427)
    • "There are no bricks without fire." (p 446)


Some of the wonderful moments:
  • "'You mean he's a philatelist?' said Larry at length. 'No, no, Master Larrys,' said Spiro. 'He's not one of them. He's a married man and he's got two children.'" (p 426)
  • "Andreas was a gay, kind-hearted, exuberant boy who inevitably managed to do the wrong things. They said of him in the village that he would ride a donkey backwards if he could." (p 462)He tries to fish with a stick of dynamite but after he lights the fuse the fish swim away so he rows after them still holding the dynamite ...
  • "It smelt as strongly of garlic as a peasant bus on market day." (p 464)
  • "Half-asleep and still bee-drowsy from the liquor I had consumed." (p 494)
  • "'Strumpets! How lovely! Donald, we have strumpets for tea'. 'Crumpets,' corrected Donald. 'They're scones,' said Mother. 'I remember a strumpet in Montevideo', said Captain Creech. 'Marvellous bitch. Kept the whole ship entertained for two days. They don't breed them with stamina like that nowadays.'" (p 510)
  • "limericks of such biological complexity that, fortunately, Mother could not understand them." (p 511)
  • "'I'm a bit too old to have babies,' said Captain Creech. The padre's wife choked. 'But', he went on with satisfaction, 'I have a lot of fun trying'." (p 511)
  • "Two hedgehogs, drunks as lords on the fallen and semi-fermented grapes they had eaten from under the vines, staggering in circles, snapping at each other belligerently, uttering high-pitched  screams and hiccups." (p 522)
  • "The grapes ... looked like the jade eggs of some strange sea-monster." (p 540)
  • "As the wine fermented in their brown bellies, the barrels gurgled and squeaked and growled at each other like an angry mob." (p 546)

Beautiful descriptions, wonderful characterisations, hilarious comedy. July 2018


Saturday, 7 July 2018

"No more parades" by Ford Madox Ford

The second book of the Parade's End Tetralogy. At the end of the last book, Some Do Not ... the hero, Christopher Tietjens, heir to a country estate, a complete know all, fiendishly intelligent and yet the cuckold of a wife he won't divorce even though he is platonically in love with Valentine Wannop because it wouldn't be proper, is sent to the British world war one army in France. This book takes place in two days while he is an officer who prepares troops for the front line (his medical classification will not permit him to go to the front).

In this book we explore the parallels between CT and Jesus Christ at the same time as having a detailed commentary on the chaos of organisation that is the military in a war and an examination of the public school system of morality.

In Part One, mostly told as a stream of consciousness from CT's point of view and thus allowing confusions to creep in to the narrative (for example CT initially thinks that Captain McKechne is called Captain Mackenzie), CT is performing miracles of multitasking, issuing orders, helping men to write their wills, calming half-mad senior officers and even writing a sonnet to order in three minutes. Then a messenger whom he refused leave (woman trouble, a theme which reflects CT's own and which is repeated for many of the other soldiers) is killed in an air raid in front of him. Although he realises that 09Morgan would have survived had he sent him home, CT washes the blood from his hands.

The stream of consciousness technique enables FMF to show the chaos and confusion around Tietjens and to impress upon us how overworked he is and how easy it is for him, even someone as brilliant as he is, to make a mistake. This also means that the reader is (probably) aware before Tietjens that the woman waiting at the gate is Tietjens’ own wife (whom he supposes to be in England, causing scandals). This revelation is voiced by the staff officer

Great lines in Part One:

  • Men you worried over there. Each man a man with a backbone, knees, breeches, braces, a rifle, a home, passions, fornications, drunks, pals, some scheme of the universe, corns, inherited diseases, a greengrocer’s business, a milk walk, a paper stall, brats, a slut of a wife.
  • That place was meant for the quiet and orderly preparation of meat for the shambles.
  • pack a million and a half of men into and round that small town was like baiting a trap for rats with a great chunk of rotten meat.
  • These immense sacrifices, this ocean of mental sufferings, were all undergone to further the private vanities of men who amidst these hugenesses of landscapes and forces appeared pygmies!
  • The red viscousness welled across the floor; you sometimes so see fresh water bubbling up in sand. It astonished Tietjens to see that a human body could be so lavish of blood.
  • He hoped he would not get his hands all over blood, because blood is very sticky. It makes your fingers stick together impotently.
  • Why did they shoot them at dawn? To rub it in that they were never going to see another sunrise. But they drugged the fellows so that they wouldn’t know the sun if they saw it: all roped in a chair . .. It was really the worse for the firing party.
  • Captain Mackenzie in the light of a fantastically brilliant hurricane lamp appeared to be bathing dejectedly in a surf of coiling papers spread on the table before him.
  • English people of good position consider that the basis of all marital unions or disunions is the maxim: No scenes.
  • He would, literally, rather be dead than an open book.
  • The lady, Mrs Tietjens, was certainly without mitigation a whore.
  • On the Somme, in the summer, when stand-to had been at four in the morning, you would come out of your dug-out and survey, with a complete outfit of pessimistic thoughts, a dim, grey, repulsive landscape over a dull and much too thin parapet. There would be repellent posts, altogether too fragile entanglements of barbed wire, broken wheels, detritus, coils of mist over the positions of revolting Germans. Grey stillness; grey horrors, in front, and behind amongst the civilian populations! And clear, hard outlines to every thought . . . Then your batman brought you a cup of tea with a little—quite a little—rum in it. In three of four minutes the whole world changed beneath your eyes. The wire aprons became jolly efficient protections that your skill had devised and for which you might thank God; the broken wheels were convenient landmarks for raiding at night in No Man’s Land. You had to confess that, when you had re-erected that parapet, after it had last been jammed in, your company had made a pretty good job of it. And, even as far as the Germans were concerned, you were there to kill the swine; but you didn’t feel that the thought of them would make you sick beforehand . . . You were, in fact, a changed man. With a mind of a different specific gravity. You could not even tell that the roseate touches of dawn on the mists were not really the effects of rum .” A wonderful description of the effects of alcohol on how one views the world.
  • I remember the thoughts I thought and the thoughts I gave her credit for thinking. But perhaps she did not think them.” A clever way of underlining the unreliability of all narration.
  • Nothing but the infernal cruelty of their interview of the morning could have forced him to the pitch of sexual excitement that would make him make a proposal of illicit intercourse to a young lady to whom hitherto he had spoken not even one word of affection. ... And without doubt Sylvia had known what she was doing. The whole morning; at intervals, like a person directing the whiplash to a cruel spot of pain, reiteratedly, she had gone on and on. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress” The effective use of repetition.
  • That was the right of the Seigneur in a world of Other Ranks.
  • All those millions were the play-things of ants busy in the miles of corridors beneath the domes and spires that rise up over the central heart of our comity.
  • a line of ghosts that were tents, silent and austere in the moon’s very shadowy light
  • getting cattle into condition for the slaughter-house ... But it’s better to go to heaven with your skin shining and master of your limbs than as a hulking lout.


Part Two is described from the point of view of Sylvia (Mrs) Tietjens again starting from a third person and then zooming in to her stream of consciousness to the point where I got muddled about what she said to herself and what she said aloud.

Sylvia is sitting in a hotel lounge with Perowne, the man who brought her to France and the man with whom she ran away to France with years ago when she first left Tietjens. She realises that Perowne is no sort of man. Compared to Tietjens no man seems worth having: “almost always taking up with a man was like reading a book you had read when you had forgotten that you had read it. ... You knew the opening, you were already bored by the middle, and, especially, you knew the end”. But this is a problem, Because he infuriates her. He is so good. She is like the woman taken in adultery and she thinks: “And women taken in adultery . . . All of them . . . Like . . . You know Who . . . That is his model . . . ’ She said to herself: ‘Curse him! . . . I hope he likes it . . . You’d think the only thing he thinks about is the beastly duck he’s wolfing down.’ . . . And then aloud: ‘They used to say: “He saved others; himself he could not save . . .

Later, having a meal with CT and a sergeant-major, she starts to compare Tietjens to Jesus more explicitly. Tietjens is omniscient, the soul of charity, refuses to condemn anyone, lives chastely (after his early marriage and even though he wants to sleep with Valentine), annoys the powers that be but helps everyone and is adored. However, when Sylvia compares her CT to JC the sergeant-major demurs: “‘Ma’am,’ he said, we couldn’t say exactly that of the captain . . . For I fancy it was said of our Redeemer . . . But we ‘ave said that if ever there was a poor bloke the captain could ‘elp, ‘elp ’im ‘e would . . . Yet the unit was always getting ‘ellish strafe from headquarters . . .” Yet somehow, ‘getting strafe from headquarters’ (annoying the established church?) makes CT seem even more Christ-like. And when When Sylvia, mainly from mischief, tells the General that her husband is a socialist, she makes explicit comparisons. “‘He desires,’ Sylvia said, and she had no idea when she said it, ‘to model himself upon our Lord . . . ’ The general leant back in the sofa. He said almost indulgently: ‘Who’s that . . . our Lord?‘ Sylvia said: ‘Upon our Lord Jesus Christ . . . ’ He sprang to his feet as if she had stabbed him with a hatpin. ‘Our . . . ’ he exclaimed. ‘Good God! . . . I always knew he had a screw loose . . . But . . . ’ He said briskly: ‘Give all his goods to the poor! . . . But He wasn’t a . . . Not a Socialist! What was it He said: Render unto Caesar . . . It wouldn’t be necessary to drum Him out of the Army’

Sylvia hates him for being perfect and yet, as predicted by the Irish priest who was her confessor and is now in heaven, she is desperately and passionately in love with Tietjens (because he is inaccessible to her).

Lines I loved in Part Two

  • an immense castle that hung over crags, above a western sea, much as a bird-cage hangs from a window of a high tenement building
  • Do you know the only time the King must salute a private soldier and the private takes no notice? . . . When ‘e’s dead . . . ’
  • These horrors, these infinities of pain, this atrocious condition of the world had been brought about in order that men should indulge themselves in orgies of promiscuity . . . That in the end was at the bottom of male honour, of male virtue, observance of treaties, upholding of the flag . . . An immense warlock’s carnival of appetites, lusts, ebrieties

Part Three

The morning after. Tietjens is under arrest back at camp. The reason (as with all FMF narratives) slowly emerges from a muddle of statements. Last night he was in his wife’s room when Perowne came in wearing his dressing gown; he mistook him for room service and violently ejected him; Perowne made loud moan and woke General O’Hara who came to see what the fuss was about and was also pushed out of the room. Tietjens is thus under arrest for striking a superior officer.

Parallels with Jesus recur, for example when Tietjens says: “And then: ‘Oh, yes! I forgive . . . It’s painful . . . You probably don’t know what you are doing.

The final chapter is a dialogue between Tietjens and General Campion (his godfather; wow, another parallel) in which the General acts rather like Pontius Pilate, desperately trying to find a way to help CT but in the end only coming up with the idea of sending him to a front-line regiment, despite his medical exemption, where he will probably be killed during the next German push. The General is, in effect, condemning CT to suffering and death and, kind man that he is, is desperately trying to get CT to help him find a way out of this. But CT refuses to take an easy option.

Lines I loved in Part Three:

  • The beastliness of human nature is always pretty normal. We lie and betray and are wanting in imagination and deceive ourselves, always, at about the same rate. In peace and in war!”
  • “enormous bodies of men . . . Seven to ten million . . . All moving towards places towards which they desperately don’t want to go. Desperately! Every one of them is desperately afraid. But they go on.
  • What the hell is language for? We go round and round.
  • all men will go to hell over three things: alcohol, money . . . and sex. This fellow apparently hadn’t. Better for him if he had!

A stunning book about war and a clever allegory about Jesus. July 2018

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Upstate" by James Wood

Loaned to me by my friend Veronica, author of Alric of Bedanford.

It starts with Alan, a property developer whose company is on the brink of collapse, visiting his mother in the old people's home he can soon no longer afford:

  • He made his way through two huffing fire doors, which bottled a weekend’s stale yeast.” (p 1)
  • It was all pretty good, or as good as can be when one’s whole life has been reduced to souvenirs of selfhood.” (p 4)
But his main problem is the need to travel to Saratoga Springs in New York State where his daughter, Van(essa) who teaches philosophy and has a new, younger, boyfriend, Josh, seems to be on the brink of relapsing into the depression that has haunted her life. He flies to New York Ciry where he meets record producer daughter Helen who is considering leaving her company because she sees that the music industry is on the brink of collapse. So all the characters are contemplating the dissolution of the life that has so far given them some semblance of meaning. As Van points out, observing an old man long since retired who lives on his own since his wife has died as he sips his soup: “He was simply feeding a body, so is it could continue. For what? Well, to continue living alone for a little longer, so that he can eat more soup.” (p 223)

Pathetic fallacy abounds. The town is in the grip of winter and snow is all around. At the end the promise of Spring will lead to Vanessa feeling "her body unclenching" (p 232); there seems to be some sense that the family will pull together to help one another through the struggles. And yet most of the book has images of despair:

  • the widower's musty celibacy.” (p 9)
  • You swallow the universe like a pill, but then you piss it out too, it passes out of you, along with everything else important.” (p 67)
  • If he got rid of desire, as his book on zen Buddhism suggested, what would be left of him? Not a self, as he understood it. A driverless train” (p 75)
  • those atrocious villages in the Cotswolds, where nothing has changed in six hundred years and the genteel inhabitants live like cupboarded gnomes of history, in tiny thatched cottages.” (p 88)
  • “the dirty smoky grey mesh of the air, the defeated food and weak heaters, the dripping toilets full of old yellow bus tickets.” (p 88)
  • they wanted more money and jobs so that the smoky underlit impotent monotony of things could continue just the same as before.” (p 88) 
  • a teenage boy whose feet have outgrown his socks.” (p 95)

There are also some observations and advice about life in general:
  • for kids nowadays the past ... was nothing more than the tree that fell in the forest when you weren't there.” (p 33)
  • even if you can see three moves ahead, act as if you can't: the oil of duplicity that greases the social machine.” (p 98)
  • You should always back your car into the drive, because the journey out is more important than the return.” (p 116)
  • We shouldn't worry too much about the Absurd ... because if under the eye of eternity nothing matters, then under the eye of eternity the Absurd doesn't matter, either.” (p 169) (referencing Camus, the Myth of Sisyphus)

But in the end it comes down to the fact that, “For some people ... happiness is like all the other things you take for granted - inner-ear balance, say, or the regular thump of my heart, or my ability to sleep at night.” (p 202) If this automatic happiness malfunctions, then “Despair was like a sea. It threshed restlessly, just out of sight, always there: the deep enemy of human flourishing, inching away at its borders.” (p 176) On the other hand, Alan the father, to whom the daughters attribute this miraculous ability to be automatically happy, protests: “I’m not buoyant like a boat is, without any effort. I'm buoyant like a human being is. I have to work at it the whole time, or I'll sink in the water.” (p 103) 

A nicely observed and written book about the important philosophical question about the meaning of life and its impact on our ability to be happy.

July 2018; 233 pages


Saturday, 30 June 2018

"My Family and Other Animals" by Gerald Durrell

I read this when I was a child, so long ago that I could remember nothing but the title and the fact that  the writer Laurence Durrell and a taxi driver was involved.

Nowadays this book has become famous again because of the ITV series on the Durrells which has been adapted from this book. This is why I went back to reread the book. I was glad I did.

Although my interest in natural history is rather less than the average person's (I don't even watch wildlife documentaries) the bits about animals are interesting partly because of the anthropomorphisation of them. But that is not the main point of this book. There are two features of this book which make it superlative.

Firstly, there is the brilliant characterisation of a family of eccentrics (and their eccentric friends) who interact in dialogue and events that are some of the funniest I have read. Books are often described as 'laugh out loud. I hardly ever do. With this book I couldn't help laughing. On more than one occasion.

Secondly there is the jaw-droppingly brilliant descriptions.

  • The sea lifted smooth blue muscles of wave as it stirred in the dawn light, and the foam of our wake spread gently behind us like a white peacock's tail. glinting with bubbles. The sky was pale and staying with yellow on the eastern horizon. Ahead lay a chocolate-brown smudge of land, huddled in mist, with a frill of foam at its base. This was Corfu” (p 14)
  • The appearance of a rather pompous judge wearing a wig several times too small.” (p 50)
  • Then he rounded the curve of the road and there was only the pale sky with a new moon floating in it like a silver feather, and the soft twittering of his flute dying away in the dusk.” (p 53)
  • After the swim, my body felt heavy and relaxed, and my skin as though it were covered with a silky crust of salt.” (p 66)
  • Then suddenly the moon, enormous, wine-red, edged herself over the fretted battlement of mountains, and threw a straight, blood-red path across the dark sea. The owls appeared now, drifting from tree to tree as silently as flakes of soot, hooting in astonishment as the moon rise higher and higher, turning to pink, then gold, and finally riding in a nest of stars, like a silver bubble.” (p 145)
  • In a few days small white clouds started their winter parade, trooping across the sky, soft and chubby, long, languorous, and unkempt, or small and crisp as feathers, and driving them before it, like an ill-assorted flock of sheep, would come the wind.” (p 182)


But it is the characters who make the book come alive:
  • Larry, the writer, eternally asserting his own intellectual superiority, with a wonderful line in stupendously rude put-downs: 
    • With a point of view as limited as yours, you can hardly expect me to listen to it.” (p 55) 
    • Why should we have to fall all over the old hag because she's a relation, when the really sensible thing to do would be to burn her at the stake?” (p 198) 
    • You are always ready with the apt platitude to sum up a catastrophe. How I envy you your ability to be inarticulate in the face of Fate.” (p 242)
  • Lesley the man of action, eternally keen on guns and shooting, who builds a boat for Gerry: “the sounds of sawing, hammering, and blasphemy floated round from the back veranda.” (p 163)
  • Margo, always looking for love, always getting things wrong: “before you go throwing stones you should look for the beam in your eye.” (p 254)
  • Mother, forever trying to make the piece, and always finding nice spots to be buried in.
  • Spiro, the taxi driver and incredible Mr Fix-It, stealing goldfish for Gerry from the King of Greece’s Corfu residence, and pluralising all his words: “Whys donts yous have someones who can talks your own language?” (p 24)
  • Theo the fellow naturalist, with a fine line in puns. Talking about a black-headed gull he says that “all the nice gulls love a sailor” (p 296) and then says these birds can be “terribly gullible” (p 297)

A magical memoir. June 2018; 308 pages

Thursday, 28 June 2018

"The Hapsburg Monarchy 1809 - 1918" by A J P Taylor

With his characteristic piercing insight this classic historian dissects the long-time-dying Austrian Empire from the Congress of Vienna to the end of the First World War. Although the intricacies of the politics proved too much for me to follow, the essence of their problems was (a) that Prussia, under Bismarck, was creating its own German Empire by defeating France during the Franco-Prussian war and persuading all the little principalities of the German Confederation to join the Reich while excluding Austria which Bismarck saw as a rival against Prussia for predominance  and (b) the challenge of the many nationalities within the Empire who all wanted some form of autonomy and (c) the fact that they were run by a single man who was determined to hang on to his Emperorship. 

There wasn't much they could do against Prussia although industrial modernisation might have helped. As for the nationalities question they were stymied by the Magyars. They were a minority in Hungary (“In Budapest the Hungarians were little more than a third of the population as late as 1848.” p 24) and yet they predominated and bullied the Empire not only into giving them self-government for themselves but also to retain power over the oppressed minorities in ‘Greater’ Hungary: the Romanians in Transylvania, Slovenes in what is now Slovenia, and Croats in what is now Croatia. Winning self-government they refused to share it with any other nationalities except for the Austrians, not even the Czechs who were part of Austria and whose independence would only damage Hungary in its prestige. But Hungary grew the wheat which fed the Empire. They wanted the Magyars to be in charge. One of their politicians said “Our citizens of the non-Magyar tongue must, in the first place, become accustomed to the fact that they belong to the community of a nation-state, of a state which is not a conglomerate of various races.” (p 222) Attitudes die hard.

What made the book great were the many asides that show how much AJPT understands of the world:
  • Often when European serfs were freed “when the peasants were freed from serfdom, the land was free from the peasants.” (p 18)
  • In Northern Italy “all land was owned by the lords ... this is, no doubt, the principal reason for the industrial development of northern Italy.” (p 18 fn)
  • Backward industry sheltered behind prohibitive tariffs” (p 19)
  • Regimental officers, in every country, are narrow and blundering politicians.” (p 28)
  • They did not understand that politics is a conflict of forces; they supposed that it was a conflict of arguments.” (p 29)
  • Rural life cannot survive the impact of rationalism.” (p 30)
  • Everywhere monarchy was treated as a sentiment rather than as a force; and kings hope to save themselves from Jacobinism by a ‘historical’ camouflage. They collected traditions as geologists collect fossils, and tried to make out that these fossils were alive.” (p 42)
  • The revolutions of 1848 were not caused by the Industrial Revolution, but by its absence. Towns increased faster than the industries which provided employment and goods; and, as a consequence, their growth lead to a declining standard of urban life. Industrial development ... is the remedy for social discontent, not it's cause.” (p 58)
  • University students were the field officers of the revolution; they had not the maturity to provide responsible leadership and certainly did not find it in their professors. Besides, apart from the medical students, they were all bureaucrats in the making; and sooner or later felt the pull of real life.” (p 58)
  • The eighteen-fifties were everywhere in Europe a period of great capital investment; in the Habsburg monarchy barracks took the place of factories and railways, and Austria now lost the economic lead over Prussia which she had hitherto possessed. Even the economic achievements of the old regime was sacrificed. The state railways ... were handed over to a company of foreign capitalists.” (p 89)
  • There was no attempt to consult the peoples and no intention of taking them into partnership; they were regarded as tiresome, wayward children, and the only problem was how to put them in a good humour so that they would pay their taxes and serve in the army.” (p 96)
  • National frontiers, like natural frontiers, are advocated only when they involve an accession of territory.” (p 115)
  • The limitless continents of the idealist.” (p 146)
  • A later attempt to differentiate them [the Ruthenes] from the Russians led to the invention of a Ukrainian nationality; Ukraine is merely Russian for the frontier.” (p 149)
  • “It was common doctrine among nineteenth century conservatives that nationalism was a middle-class movement ... and, if government could not be kept as an aristocratic monopoly, the masses should be called in against middle-class nationalism and liberalism.” (p 165)
  • The greatest consolation of an oppressed class or nationality is to feel itself superior to one still more oppressed.” (p 189)
  • War can only accelerate: it makes a dictatorial state more dictatorial, a democratic state more democratic, an industrial state more industrial, and ... a rotten state more rotten.” (p 232)
  • Until the end of 1915, the war had seemed a purely military affair ... Suddenly, the initial impetus exhausted ... decision cpassed from generals to peoples. In every country new ministries were formed or new courses followed. ... Compromise or the knock-out blow was the issue which lay behind the events of the bitter winter of 1916-17 - behind the rise to power of Lloyd George ... behind the first Russian Revolution and the French mutinies.” (p 240)
  • Every ‘Austrian’ had to be easy going and flirtatious, to love music, and to wear to Tyrolese costume. It would have been as sensible to dress English factory-workers in pink hunting-coats.” (p 258)
  • Slovakia and Croatia could be ‘ independent nations’ only in a German system.” (p 260)
  • During the second world war Austria’s “record of resistance against Hitler was inferior to that of Prussia.” (p 260)

There are some moments of fun too, if humour can be found in the absurdities of autocracy:
  • The new emperor Ferdinand was an imbecile, epileptic and rickety; his character was expressed in his only sensible remark, ‘I'm the emperor and I want dumplings!’” (p 47)
  • With the characteristic impulsiveness which, throughout his life, followed his long delays, Francis Joseph, who had evaded decision for more than a year, now demanded a settled constitutional draft within a week; indeed the general principles was settled during a single conversation ... in the train between Salzburg and Vienna.” (p 100)
  • The foundations of the Austrian Empire were discussed; the fortunes of the Empire swung violently into a federalist, and then back into a centralist channel; but the discussions took place ... in the Emperor's study, and the decisions depended not on the wish of the peoples, but on the sudden autocratic resolve of Francis Joseph.” (p 96)
  • The Habsburg administrators prevented any element of education [in Bosnia Herzegovina]. Kallay ... who directed the administration of Bosnia and Hercegovina for more than twenty years, forbade there the circulation of the History of Serbia which he has himself written.” (p 153 - 154)
Heavy going at times but some great maps.
June 2018; 261 pages

Sunday, 24 June 2018

"The Gathering" by Anne Enright

Veronica, the narrator, comes from a large Irish family. Her brothers and sisters include Ernest, a lapsed priest in Peru, and Stevie, who died aged two, and Midge, who died aged 42 from pancreatic cancer, and Bea, and Ita, and psychotic Mossie, and Liam, and Kitty the actress, and Alice, and the twins Ivor and Jem. The mum, who is rather vague, had seven miscarriages as well.

Liam is dead. He was found in the sea at Brighton. Veronica travels to retrieve the body and brings it back for the wake and funeral. After which she finds it difficult to sleep. So she starts to remember her grandmother Ada who married Charlie whose best friend was Lamb Nugent. There is some family mystery tied up here which Veronica tries to reconstruct from her unreliable memories: "All I have are stories, night thoughts, the sudden convictions that uncertainty spawns ... I wait for the kind of sense that dawn makes." (p 2).

Veronica is unhinged by grief. She is horrid about and to her patient husband and she all but neglects her daughters for months after Liam dies while she wallows in grief. It is all the fault, it seems, of whatever happened all those years ago when Liam and she were little children. And yet Liam doesn't appear to have been destroyed by it; damaged perhaps, but there are other things that could have caused him to find it difficult to settle down, as he has, and is his fondness for a drink a symptom or a cause? In the end the revelation, overlain as it was by outright speculative fantasy and undermined by Veronica's unreliability as a witness, never seemed sufficient to hang a whole book upon.

Nevertheless, it won the 2007 Booker.

Some great lives:

  • "What amazes me ... is not the fact that everyone loses someone, but that everyone loves someone. It seems like such a massive waste of energy ... We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love anymore. And there is no logic or use to any of this." (p 28)
  • "I have all my regrets between pouring the wine and reaching for the glass." (p 39)
  • "London was all flow, it had no edges" (p 78)
  • She thinks that having children is just "feeding the grave" (p 79)
  • "A silence happens, as quick as a door clicking shut." (p 209)

July 2018; 261 pages

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

"Arrow of God" by Chinua Achebe

The third novel in Achebe's African trilogy but, like the other two (Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease), it stands on its own.

It starts with Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of tribal god Ulu, who is watching for the new moon. “The moon he saw that day was as thin as an orphan fed grudgingly by a cruel foster-mother.” This part of his priestly job will become important at the end of the book. It is to do with the announcement of the new year, a task which gives him great power although in many ways "he was merely a watchman". "It was a fight of the gods. He was no more than an arrow in the bow of his god."

But for the most part the narrative meanders around the priest and his family. He has four sons: Edogo who wants to be a wood carver; Obika, a strong man and in some ways his father's favourite but headstrong and a lover of palm wine; Oduche whom has been sent by his father to the mission school so that he can learn the ways of the white man; and little Nwafo, still a boy, but perhaps the one most likely to inherit the priesthood. If there is a plot it revolves around the colonial officer's and their ignorant attempts to bring civilisation by building roads (with forced unpaid labourers who can be whipped) and appointing village leaders to become local kings. Ezeulu is one of those whom they want to appoint.

What makes this book great, and I would rate it higher than either of the other two, is that it understands the people. Each character is portrayed with their strengths and their weaknesses. It is a fond portrait of family life. And when bad things happen, blame is difficult to ascribe. Is it due to the well-meaning but ignorant intervention of the colonial conquerors or is it due to the superstitions and pig-headed clinging to tradition of the villagers?

There are some fabulous descriptions, such as a promise that “went no deeper than the lips.” A man with a hangover thinks “the walking was already doing him some good; the feeling was returning that the head belong to him.” A stubborn man “could never see something and take his eyes away from it.” Caught in a rainstorm two men get soaked: “the cloth clinging as if terrified to their bodies”. These are observations of humanity that transcend time and culture and place.

But perhaps the best thing about the book is all the wonderful proverbs within it:

  • What kind of power was it if it would never be used?
  • To you whatever I say in this house is no more effective than the fart a dog breaks to put out a fire
  • Wisdom is like a goat-skin bag; every man carries his own.
  • In a great man's household there must be people who follow all kind of strange ways. There must be good people and bad people, honest workers and thieves, peace-makers and destroyers ... In such a place, whatever music you beat on your drum there is somebody who can dance to it.” This is repeated . The first time Ezeule says it; the second time it is said to him: “In all great compounds there must be people of all mind - some good, some bad, some fearless and some cowardly; those who bring in wealth and those who scatter it, those who give good advice and those who only speak the words of palm wine. That is why we say that whatever tune you play in the compound of a great man there is always someone to dance to it.” A number of the proverbs are repeated, sometimes very similar but often changed slightly to reflect the character or the context.
  • The white man is like hot soup and we must take him slowly-slowly from the edges of the bowl.” 
  • A man may refuse to do what is asked of him but may not refuse to be asked.
  • The death that will kill a man begins as an appetite.
  • If a man sought for a companion who acted entirely like himself he would live in solitude.
  • A woman who began cooking before another must have more broken utensils.
  • A man who asks questions does not lose his way.” 


Other great lines
  • He was as good as any young man, or better because young men were no longer what they used to be.
  • My things always turn out differently from other people's. If I drink water it sticks between my teeth.” 
A great book by a writer who has really come into his power.

June 2018; 222 pages

Monday, 18 June 2018

"The Aeneid" by Virgil

This is the classic Roman poem about how Aeneas flees the sack of Troy with his dad and his son and quite a lot of other Trojans, how they take refuge in Dido's Carthage before going to Italy where his descendants will found Rome. It was written sometime after 27 BC and unfinished when Virgil died in 19 BC. It is in 12 books, each of about 900 lines of epic poetry. My version was a prose translation by David West published by Penguin Classics.

Some of the ideas in this blogpost reference a CD course of lectures on The Aeneid of Virgil given by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver and published in 1999 by The Teaching Company, Chantilly, Virginia.

Vandiver (1999) suggests that the first six books which tell of the travels of Aeneas before he reaches Italy are modelled on the Odyssey and the last six which are about the wars to found a state in Italy are based on the Iliad.

Book One Shipwreck

Book One tells the story of how Aeneas is shipwrecked on the Carthaginian (North African) shore and how he and his men are given refuge by Queen Dido.

The proem
There is a short section in which Virgil sets out what he will do with this work. This introduces themes:

Vandiver (1999) points out that the The Aeneid starts with the three Latin words arma virumque cano (Of arms and of the man I sing) and thus references Homer whose Iliad is about warfare and whose Odyssey is about the man Odysseus. It also makes a distinction between Homer, who uses the conceit that he is told the tale by the Muse, and Virgil who states categorically cano, I sing (and later asks the Muse to 'remind' - line 8 Mūsa, mihī causās memorā - him of what happens).

Aeneas is pietas which means that he does the right thing, he does his duty, he plays the game, he does noblesse oblige and he makes the right sacrifices etc. (Vandiver 1999)

The founding of Rome is inevitable, it is decreed by the fates. Vandiver (1999) says that the word used is fatum which means that which is decreed; she points out that who decrees is ambiguous: sometimes it seems to be Jupiter and at other times not. Whilst in Homer fate governs what happens to an individual, in Virgil fate controls the destiny of a group of people, the Trojans,

The story

It starts, as the Homeric epics model, in media res (to quote Horace, contemporary of Virgil), with a storm at sea. On landing Aeneas despairs (why couldn’t I have died in battle at Troy; words very reminiscent of Odysseus when he fears raftwreck; Odyssey 5: 295 - 312) but when he has to talk to his men he puts on a brave face and uses his words to rally them: we’ve faced worse than this.

In Book 1 we are introduced to three gods:
  • Juno who is utterly anti-Trojan after the adverse Judgement of Paris and because Jupiter fancied Trojan princeling and pretty boy Ganymede and because she knows that Rome will destroy her beloved Carthage; 
  • Venus who is the mum of Aeneas; 
  • Jupiter who tries to keep the peace and run the show and to some extend is in charge of deciding the fate.

Venus appears (disguised as a huntress) to tell Aeneas to go and speak to Dido. He only recognises his mum as she goes. He goes to Carthage with his mate Achates; they are hidden in a cloud. It is ironic that it is in the Temple of Juno that Aeneas sees murals depicting the Trojan War. This encourages him. Next, he sees that most of his comrades have escaped shipwreck. He hears Dido offer the shipwrecked sailors support and protection. The mist disappears and he reveals himself to her. She calls for a feast. But Venus sends Cupid to take the shape of Ascanius, the son of Aeneas. Dido adores the cute little boy (he must be at least nine to have walked with his dad from the sack of Troy and to have spent the last seven years wandering) and takes him on her knee and in this way her erotic passion for Aeneas is kindled.

Selected good bitsAeolus is king and here in a vast cavern he keeps in subjection the brawling winds and howling storms, chained and bridled in their prison.
When disorder arises among the people of a great city and the common mob runs riot, wild passion find weapons for men's hands and torches and rocks start flying; at such a time if people chance to see a man who has some weight along them ... they fall silent, standing and listening with all their attention while his words command their passions and soothe their hearts.
The glow of youth shone all about him. It was as though skilled hands had added embellishments to ivory or applied gilding to silver or Parian marble.
Through my own suffering, I am learning to help those who suffer.” (1.630)

Book Two: The sack of Troy
Laocoon and his sons being attacked by the serpent
Aeneas fleeing Troy with Anchises on his back and leading Ascanius by the hand

In Book Two Aeneas tells the story of the sack of Troy. Vandriver (1999) says that this is the fullest account of the Wooden Horse and the end of the Trojan war. It contains the famous line “timeo danaos et dona ferentes (I fear the Greeks even bringing gifts)” which Laocoon utters. But,especially after a serpent comes out of the sea to strangle Laocoon and his two sons, and especially after Sinon’s lying tale, the Trojans ignore him. They take the horse into the city. That night the Greek soldiers swarm out of the belly of the hollow horse and open the gates to their comrades who have sailed back in the night. The sack of Troy begins. Aeneas, woken by dreaming of dead Hector who advises him to flee, wants to fight at first. He sees Cassandra dragged from the temple, Priam’s son slaughtered by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, in front of Priam as he stood there in his ancient armour, Priam slaughtered on his palace altar. Then Venus appears in a vision and tells her son to flee. He rushes to the house of his father Anchises but Anchises refuses to leave. Which means that Aeneas has to stay. Then there is a third vision, this time of Ascanius, the little son of Aeneas, with flames in his hair. Anchises sees it as a sign they must go to save his grandson. So they leave. Aeneas takes Anchises (holding the Penates, the household gods) on his back and holds Ascanius by the hand. He tells his wife Creusa to follow “at a distance” (Vandriver 1999 points out that this is a bit odd). When they escape to a mound on which a sanctuary temple of Ceres is, Creusa has disappeared. Aeneas leaves his father and his son and plunges back into the city to seek her. But she has gone. Her ghost appears and tells him he will marry a new bride in a foreign land.
Dido must be hoping it’s her.

Selected good bits
  • I was paralysed. My hair stood on end. My voice stuck in my throat.” 

Book Three Wanderings and Prophecies

Vandriver (1999) points out that Book 3 is based on the Odyssey books 9 to 12 in which Ulysses recounts his wanderings after the fall of Troy; Aeneas even visits some of the same places. Both narratives are to friendly monarchs and there is the offer of a foreign bride.

The story

First they go to Delos where the patron God Apollo prophesies they must “seek out your ancient mother” (their ancestral homeland) which Anchises thinks is Crete, from which Teucer came. But when they build a city (Pergamea) in Crete there is a plague. Apollo is displeased! Aeneas has a dream in which the Penates tell him he’s in the wrong place; they need to go to Hesperia. When he tells Anchises his dad remembers that Cassandra prophesied they would go there (but no one believed her).

They set sail again and a storm drives them to the Strophades, where the Harpies live. They land and find unguarded goats and cows which they slaughter but just as they are sitting down to the feast the Harpies swoop down and befoul the food. The chief Harpy prophesies that they will not be allowed to found a city until they have to eat their tables.

Away they sail again and eventually land at pirus where Trojan prince Helenus has married Hector’s widow Andromache (after they had both been the slaves of Pyrrhus and she had even borne Pyrrhus a son). Helenus prophesies that they will know where the city will be built because they will find a white sow suckling thirty piglets. But before he will have to visit the sibyl in Cumae.

They sail off to Sicily passing the whirlpool Charybdis at the foot of mighty cliffs and pass by Mount Etna. Here they rescue a greek sailor left behind by Ulysses when he fled the cyclops Polyphemus. They take him aboard and flee the arriving cyclopses. Sailing off again, they land at Trapani where Anchises dies.

Selected good bits

The Harpies “are birds with the faces of girls, with filth oozing from their bellies, with hooked claws for hands and faces pale with a hunger that is never satisfied.

Book Four: The love of Dido

Vandiver (1999) points out that this story is unprovenanced suggesting that it is Virgil’s own creation. She suggests it is modelled on a Greek tragedy: there is a lot of dialogue and Virgil refers to Greek tragedy. It has three sections, each starting “at regina [but the queen]”; the next word sets the theme for the section:

At regina gravi [But the queen, serious]”: Dido tells her sister that she loves Aeneas. But when her first husband died she swore never to marry again. But Anna points out she has a duty to herself to love and to have children, and a duty to her people to provide an heir and to have a husband who can protect the realm from external threats. Venus and Juno then make a bargain to push Dido and Virgil together. A royal hunting party is interrupted by a storm and Dido and Aeneas take refuge in the same cave. “Fires flashed and the heavens were witness to the marriage while nymphs wailed on the mountain tops.” Mmmm. Subsequently rumours start to fly around and when Iarbas, a local King who allowed Dido to found her city and proposed marriage to her, hears of them he prays to Jupiter at which point the top god sends Mercury to Aeneas to remind him that his duty is to go to Italy to found Rome. So Aeneas tells his men to prepare the ships for departure.

At regina dolos [But the queen, deceit]”: gets wind of the plans and confronts Aeneas; she thinks he’s going to sneak off. He says that marriage was never on the cards; if he had done what he wanted he would never have left Troy. His fate sends him to Italy and he’s going. She tells him “You are a traitor ... It was the Caucasus that fathered you on its hard rocks and ... tigers offered you their udders. ... Away you go. Keep on searching for your Italy ... Look for your kingdom over the waves. But my hope is that ... you will drain a bitter cup among the ocean rocks ... I shall follow you not in the flesh but in the black fires of death and when its cold hand takes the breath from my body, my shade shall be with you wherever you may be.” Hell hath no fury. Doesn’t move Aeneas. Dido sends sister Anna to beg Aeneas to hang around for just a little longer. Nix. So Dido tells Anna to build a bonfire of all the things that Aeneas has left behind when he went aboard

At regina pyra [But the queen, funeral pyre]”: When Aeneas, reluctant and dithering to the last, is finally persuaded by Mercury to sail away Dido kills herself.

It is a pretty stupendous bit and Dido has some thrilling lines. If the sack of Troy was great for sculptors and painters, this book has inspired plays and operas: such as Dido, Queen of Carthage by Marlowe, and Dido and Aeneas by Purcell.

Selected good bits
But priests, as we know, are ignorant.
What use are prayers and shrines to a passionate woman?
The flame was eating the soft marrow of her bones and the wound lived quietly under her chest.

Book Five: Funeral games
To modern eyes this is a pause in the tension between the drama of the death of Dido and the drama of Aeneas visiting the underworld.

The story
Returning to Sicily and arriving on the first anniversary of the death of Anchises, Aeneas decides to host funeral games. Vandiver (1999) makes the point that these games are modelled on those of Patroclus in the Iliad; and reference the contemporary Trojan games re-instituted by Augustus; and that the dead Anchises represents the past and the competing Ascanius represents the future. There is an exciting sea race,Followed by a foot race in which Euryalus and Nisus compete; a boxing match; an archery contest; and finally a horse parade in which the manoeuvers were labyrinthine (Virgil references the Labyrinth of Crete).

At this point Juno sends Iris (Vandiver 1999 makes the point that Juno often works through a lesser deity) in the shape of a woman to tempt the Trojan women to burn the Trojan boats so that they will stay in Sicily. Aeneas prays to Jupiter who sends a rain storm and only four boats are lost. Aeneas, inspired by an old Trojan called Nautes and by a vision of his father Anchises, who asks his to meet him in “the home of Dis in the underworld”, decides to build a city in Sicily where the women and any man who cares can stay (Vandiver 1999 makes the point that each Trojan must choose between staying with the dead Anchises, the past, or sailing off into the future with the boy Ascanius). Then he sails off. But the helmsman of Aeneas’ boat falls asleep and falls into the sea with a broken part of the poop deck and the tiller. Vandiver 1999 points out that episode references the death of Elpenor in the Odyssey.

Book Six: The Underworld

In Book Six Aeneas travels down into the Underworld and witnesses a procession of the famous Romans of the future.

Given that the end of this book marks the half way stage in the story it seems likely that this is intended to be the pivotal point. Vandiver 1999 points out that it is modelled on the journey Odysseus took to the Underworld. For example, Odysseus meets one of his companions there whom he did not know had died, so will Aeneas; both men travel below to consult a dead soul. There are differences: Odysseus travels alone while Aeneas is accompanied by a guide, the Sibyl; Odysseus doesn’t actually enter the Underworld but stays on the margins, talking to spirits, while Aeneas actually enters; Odysseus narrates his journey allowing for the possibility that he is lying (typical Odysseus!) while Virgil narrates the journey of Aeneas; in the Odyssey the location of the Underworld is vague, beyond the straits of Gibraltar, while in the Aeneid it is very specifically near Lake Avernus.

The story
The ships land at Cumae (a Greek city founded in the eighth century BC near Naples). They find a temple where Daedalus, fleeing Crete, first landed; the doors of the temple has panels depicting the story of the Athenian tribute to the Minotaur in the labyrinth (this story also forms the basis for Mary Renault’s The King Must Die). They enter the Sibyl’s cave; she goes into a frenzy, foaming at the mouth, and sees the river “Thybris foaming with torrents of blood” and prophesies Rome etc and tells him “it is easy to go down to the underworld. The door of black Dis stands open night and day. But to retrace your steps and escape to the upper air, that is the task, that is the labour.” First Aeneas has to find a golden bough on a dark tree hidden in a grove in a dark valley. “So then, lift up your eyes and look for it, and when in due time you find it, take it in your hand and pluck it. If you are a man called by the Fates, it will come easily of its own accord. But if not, no strength will prevail against it and hard steel will not be able to hack it off.” But even before that Aeneas has to find the body of Misenus and bury it. Then he follows two doves who lead him to the tree. “Just as the mistletoe, not sown by the tree on which it grows, puts out fresh foliage in the woods in the cold of winter and twines its yellow fruit round slender tree trunks, so shone the golden foliage on the dark ilex, so rustled the golden foil in the gentle breeze.” The bough resists but Aeneas is able to tear it off. He goes back to the Sibyl. All this while the Trojans are burying Misenus.

Now Aeneas goes to the entrance to the Underworld. “There was a huge, deep cave with jagged pebbles underfoot and a gaping mouth guarded by dark woods and the black waters of a lake. No bird could wing its flight over this cave and live, so deadly was the breath that streamed out of that black throat and up into the vault of heaven.” They walk in. “In the very throat of hell, Grief and Revenge have made their beds and Old Age lives there in despair, with white-faced Diseases and Fear and Hunger, corrupter of men, and squalid Poverty, things dreadful to look upon, and Death and Drudgery besides. Then there are Sleep, Death’s sister, perverted Pleasures, murderous War astride the threshold, the iron chambers of the Furies and raving Discord with blood-soaked ribbons binding her viperous hair.” Aeneas thinks these things are real and draws his sword but they are only “disembodied spirits”. They meet “Charon in his filthy rags” who will only take those who have been buried despite the desperate pleas of the other souls. Here Aeneas finds the Spirit of Palinurus, unburied and so forbidden to cross.

Charon doesn't want to take Aeneas, remembering Hercules and Theseus who also had been living and came to Hades to steal. But the Golden Bough does the trick. The meet Cerberus but the Sibyl feeds him a drugged honey cake and he falls asleep. Then they meet the mourning dead. One of them is Dido who won’t look at him or talk to him and runs from him. (Vandiver 1999 points out that the parallels Ajax who also killed himself and who wouldn’t speak to Odysseus because he considered Odysseus to have wronged him). Then, in the “place set apart for brave warriors” he meets the Trojans who died at Troy and then the place where those who committed crimes and weren’t found out are punished. Finally they find the shade of Anchises and Aeneas tries to embrace it: “Three times he tried to put his arms around his father's neck; three times the phantom melted in his hands, as weightless as the wind, as light as the flight of sleep.” Anchises summons a procession of the future and Aeneas sees all the Roman greats to come.

After the show, Aeneas returns to the surface. “There are two gates of sleep: one is called the Gate of Horn and it is an easy exit for true shades; the other is made all in gleaming white ivory, but through it the powers of the underworld send false dreams up towards the heavens.” Aeneas exits through the Gate of Ivory!

Book Seven
The second half of the Aeneid(Books Seven to Twelve) is concerned with Aeneas arriving in Italy and fighting a war with the Italians led by King Latinus. This is the bit that is like the Iliad.

Vandiver 1999 points out that it mirrors book 1. Aeneas arrives on a strange shoreline. He is welcomed by the ruler. There is a marriage in the offing but the potential bride is already wooed by a local. This marriage will destroy the house of the ruler hosting Aeneas.
The story

It starts with a new invocation to the muse, this time Erato, the muse of epic poetry.

The back story is the King Latinus, descended from Saturn, has only a daughter as his heir. She is more or less promised to Turnus, leader of the Rutulians. Queen Amata, wife of Latinus, is very keen to see the daughter marry Turnus. But portents suggest the match might not be good.

So Latinus visits “the oracle of his prophetic father Faunus” which is a grove in “a huge Forest sounding with the waters of its secret fountain and breathing thick clouds of sulphurous vapour.” When the king “lay down to sleep in the silence of the night on a bed of the fleeces of slaughtered sheep, he would see many strange fleeting visions, hear all manner of voices, enjoy the converse of the Gods and speak to Acheron in the depths of Avernus.” Latinus is warned against Turnus as a son-in-law and he “did not keep it locked in his heart” so rumours spread.

The Trojan leaders have a picnic on the grass; their food laid on “wheaten cakes” and when they have finished they are still hungry so that eat the bread and Ascanius says “Look! We are eating even our tables” and Aeneas remembers this as the prophecy although he misremembers it as something his father prophesied when we were told (Book 3) that it was a Harpy.

The Trojans (not Aeneas) go to negotiate with Latinus who welcomes them after Ilioneus (who was the first Trojan to speak to Dido in book one because he was the oldest of the Trojans who were shipwrecked and so not with Aeneas) makes a speech in which he talks about what haa happened to the Trojans: “The storm that gathered in merciless Mycenae and swept across the plains beneath Mount Ida, and the fate that drove the worlds of Europe and Asia to collide, these are known to all men, those who live far to the north where the ends of the earth beat back the stream of Oceanus, and those who are separated from us by the zone of the cruel sun whose expanse covers the middle zone of five.” Latinus decides that Aeneas is the stranger that the prophecy meant to marry his daughter.

Juno is pissed off and again delegates, this time to “Allecto, bringer of grief ...Her own father Pluto hated his monstrous daughter. ... she had so many faces and such fearsome shapes, and her head crawled with so many black serpents.” Juno tells her to sow discord and mayhem: “It is a task after your own heart. ... You can take brothers who love each other and set them at each other's throats. You can turn a house against itself ... You have a thousand names and a thousand ways of causing hurt.” Allecto throws one of her snakes at Queen Amata: “It glided between her dress and her smooth breasts and she felt no touch of its coils. Without her knowing it, it breathed its viper’s breath into her and made her mad. The serpent became a great necklace of twisted gold round her neck. It became the training end of a long ribbon twined round her hair. It slithered all over her body. While the first infection of the liquid venom was still oozing through all her senses and winding the fire about her bones” she tried to argue and convince Latinus that he was doing the wrong thing. Then she went mad and tried to inflame the people of the city. Then Allecto, taking the appearance of an old priestess, tried to anger Turnus. He laughed it off at first but then he became angry: “It was as though a heap of brushwood were crackling and burning under the sides of a bronze vessel, making the water seethe and leap up, a great river of it raging in the pot, with boiling foam spilling over and dense steam flying into the air.

Then Ascanius, going hunting, chases and kills a stag, the pet of the daughter of the gamekeeper of Latinus, and this precipitates a village brawl, and people start being killed. The villagers complain to Latinus. He refuses to declare was but Juno opens the city’s Gates of War. And the Latins and their allies (there is a roll call) prepare for war.

Book Eight: Aeneas goes to Rome
The story

Aeneas sleeps on the bank of the Tiber and dreams that the river god himself tells him that this is the fated home, don’t give up, and that the sign shall be the white sow with 30 piglets (already foretold by Helenus in book 3).Following the advice of the river god Aeneas and some mates set out in a couple of ships to travel up the Tiber where they find Evander and his son Pallas and their people camped out on one of the hills that will become Rome. When Evander was young he met and hero worshipped Anchises; now Evander’s son Pallas will hero-worship Aeneas. They take a tour of the sites that will become Rome. Now Venus brings her son Aeneas the gift of some weapons including a shield with pictures taken from the future history of Rome: Romulus and Remus suckling from the wolf; the abduction of the Sabine women; Horatio on the bridge; the geese honking to warn of the Gauls; the battle of Actium.

Great lines:

A form of torture whereby living men were roped to dead bodies, typing them hand to hand and face to face to die a lingering death oozing with putrefying flesh in this cruel embrace.

Book Nine: Nisus and Euryalus
The story

Aeneas being absent, Juno sends Iris to Turnus to tell him to make a surprise attack on the Trojans in their newly-built fort. Angered that the Trojans hide behind their walls he decides to burn the ships (thus cutting off the Trojans opportunity to go elsewhere). Vandiver 1999 points out that this reflects the Iliad episode when the Trojans burn the Greek ships. But a miracle occurs. The ships sink and are turned into dolphins. So Turnus settles down to a siege.

Euryalus is a boy who hero-worships Nisus, a gatekeeper who has a plan to sneak out at night, cut his way through the Rutulians, get to Aeneas and tell him the camp is in danger and he must return. He is excited: “Is it the gods who put this ardour into our minds, or does every man’s irresistible desire become his god?” But he is reluctant to take young Euryalus: “You are young and your claim on life is greater than mine.”

Having had their mission approved by the Trojan council they go off, slaughtering drunken and sleeping Rutulians. Euryalus steals some of their armour. But then they are challenged by a Rutulian patrol and they have to run off into the trees. Nisus gets away but Euryalus is weighed down by his booty and gets lost in the woods; he is captured. Nisus goes back to look for his friend and starts to pick of the soldiers of the patrol with well-aimed spear throws but the patrol leader, angered when he sees his men killed from out of the night, decides to kill Euryalus. So Nisus breaks cover to rescue his friend. Too late. And pointlessly for Nisus too is killed. The Rutulians chop the heads off the two Trojans , impale them on spears, and parade them in the dawn before the besieged fortress; the mother of Euryalus is very sad.

Now the besiegers try to storm the fort. Turnus becomes a killing machine. Ascanius fires an arrow that kills Remulus but is then whisked away from the fighting in order that the heir might not be endangered. The Trojans open the gates to fight on the threshold but when the tide of battle turns against them they are forced to shut the gates, leaving some of their own men outside, cut off. But Turnus was inside the gates “like a great tiger among helpless cattle”. He slaughters Trojans and then, when hemmed in on every side, he jumps from the walls into the Tiber, in full armour, and, echoes of Horatio, swims away.

Selected gory bits:
  • The wave of frothing blood welled out of the black hole of the wound, and the steel grew warm where it had lodged in the lung.
  • As he lay dying he strewed around his nerveless limbs and armour blooded with brains, and the two halves of his head hung onhis two shoulders.” 
Book 10: The death of Pallas

Vandiver 1999 points out that one of the themes of the Aeneid is the love between a father and a son. In book 10 the death of Pallas, which will cause his father to grieve (reminding us of Priam grieving over Hector), is paralleled by the death of Lausus who dies protecting his father Mezentius who then, grief-stricken, returns to the battle and is also killed.

The story

Book X starts with a conference of the gods in which Venus pleads for Aeneas and Ascanius and accuses Juno of meddling while Juno points out all the interfering that Venus has done and asks if it is right that the Trojans should be allowed to steal the lands of the Latins. Jupiter decides it is time to end the interference of any gods and to let Fate decide.

The fighting goes on all day. At night Aeneas, his ship accompanied by the sea-nymphs that are the remnants of his other ships, returns from Rome with Etruscan allies and, of course, Pallas, the son of King Evander. As Aeneas arrives there is fire around his head, referencing the flames around the head of Achilles in the Iliad. For this bit, Aeneas is Achilles, Pallas is Patroclus, and Turnus is Hector.

Now is the bloodiest fighting:
  • Aeneas tore a huge gash with his sword in the flesh of his side” “Through Alcanor’s arm went the spear of Aeneas and flew on its way dripping with blood, while the dying arm hung by its tendons from the shoulder” 
  • His forehead struck the ground and his mouth vomited great gouts of blood.” 
  • Pallas ... cut off the hand of Larides. As it lay there, it groped for its owner and the fingers twitched, still half alive, and kept clutching at the sword.
  • Thoas he struck with a rock in the face, shattering the bones and grinding them into the blood-soaked brains.”
Then Pallas faces Turnus. Throwing his spear he calls on Hercules, a family friend. But knowing Fate, Hercules groans and is comforted by Jupiter with the words: “Each man has his allotted day. All life is brief and time once past can never be restored. But the task of the brave man is to enlarge his fame by his actions.” The spear of Pallas penetrates the shield of Turnus and grazes Turnus. Turnus then throws his spear and it goes through shield and breastplate and breast. “In desperation Pallas tore the warm blade out of the wound and blood and life came together after it, both by the same channel. He fell forward on the wound, his armour ringing on top of his body, and as he died his bleeding mouth bit the soil of his enemies.” Turnus takes Pallas’ sword belt.

As when Hector had killed Patroclus, so Aeneas now loses it. He goes on a bloodlust rampage, killing even those who are begging for mercy; those he captures he will use as human sacrifices on Pallas’ pyre (another parallel; Achilles also adopted this barbarian practice for the pyre of Patroclus). After this killing spree the siege is lifted.

Turnus is saved by Juno who fashions a lookalike Aeneas who runs to the ships. Turnus chases him onto the ship. This ship then goes adrift and Turnus ends up, bewildered and alone, in mid-ocean.

Meanwhile Aeneas keeps on killing. Mezentius (who was the Etruscan king but was driven from the throne into exile which is why the Etruscans have allied themselves with Aeneas) becomes leader of the Latins but when he is injured by Aeneas Lausus his son steps in between them to allow his father to escape. “Aeneas drove his mighty sword through the middle of the young man’s body, burying it to the hilt, the point going straight through his light shield ... It pierced, too, the tunic his mother had woven for him with a soft thread of gold and filled the folds of it with blood. Then did his life leave his body and go in sorrow through the air to join the shades.” 

This young death reminds Aeneas of his own love for his father and he becomes sorrowful. Mezentius, having bathed his wound, gets back on his horse and starts hunting Aeneas. But when the spear of Aeneas brings Mezentius’ horse down, pinning his rider underneath, Aeneas goes to kill Mezentius who only asks that he be buried with his son.

Great lines:
  • As each man has set up his loom, so he will endure the labour and the fortune of it.” 
  • Fortune favours the bold
Book 11: The warrior princess Camilla

The Trojans prepare to send the dead Pallas upriver to his father. Envoys from King Latinus request a ceasefire so that both sides can bury their bodies; Aeneas assents and proposes that he and Turnus should meet one on one. The Latins agree.

Meanwhile Evander mourns his dead son Pallas, refusing to blame the Trojans and suggesting that his son’s life will not have been in vain if it means the Trojans win.

Back in the Latin city there are some calling for Aeneas Turnus single combat; this is not their war;, they say; why should their soldiers die? At this juncture the envoys who had been sent to get help from Greek King Diomedes come back with a negative answer. The king decides to sue for peace and offer the Trojans some poor land (presently farmed by the Rutulians led by Turnus). Drances, a counsellor, asks Turnus to accept this treaty: “We have been routed often enough and have seen enough funerals. We have stripped our wide fields bare ... so that Turnus can get himself a royal bride, our lives are cheap. We, the rank and file, are to litter the fields, unburied and unwept.” Turnus accuses Drances of cowardice and calls them to martial glory. “Why then do we disgrace ourselves by stumbling on the threshold?” “Fortune comes and goes. She has mocked many a man, and then set his feet back on solid ground.”
Turnus is described thus: “He was like a stallion that has broken his tether and burst from his stall; free at last he gains the open plain and runs to the fields where the herds of mares are pastured or gallops off to bathe in the river which he used to know so well, tossing high his head and whinnying with delight while the man streams over his head and flanks.

He and his mates get ready for war; he plans an ambush for Aeneas. Meanwhile warrior maiden Camilla leads the Latins in a cavalry battle. She kills lots:
  • He vomited rivers of blood and champed the gory earth with his teeth, twisting himself round his wound as he died.” 
  • She cut inside the arc and began to pursue the pursuer. then, rising above him, she struck again and again with her mighty axe, hacking through his armour and his bones as he begged and pleaded with her and the axe-blows spilt the hot brains down his face.” 
  • As the sacred falcon flies from his crag to pursue a dove high in the clouds, catches it, holds it and rips its entrails with hooked claws while blood and torn feathers float down from the sky.
But then she too falls to a hurled spear. When Turnus hears the news he takers his men back to the battlefield and Aeneas shortly after passes through the point where he was to have been ambushed.

Another great line:
The dead warrior “lay like a flower cut by the thumbnail of a young girl, a soft violet or drooping lily, still with its sheen and its shape, though Mother Earth no longer feeds it and gives it strength.

Book 12: The death of Turnus

The story

Turnus is determined now to face Aeneas in single combat. Latinus urges him to reflect. He can still walk away. And Queen Amata, who has always wanted Turnus as a son-in-law and seems to love him rather more than her daughter does, is distraught.

There is a ceasefire while the terms are agreed: single combat and the winner shall have the country and the girl. But while they are praying at the altars Juturnia, sister of Turnus and semi-divine, makes an eagle grab a swan and fly off only to find the swan to heavy so that he drops it. The Rutulians see this as a portent of their victory so they begin the battle even during the ceasefire. Both armies begin to fight. Aeneas, weaponless, tries to calm the situation but he is struck and injured by an arrow. Seeing Aeneas taken from the field, Turnus reenters the battle.

Venus uses dittany from Mount Ida in Crete to heal Aeneid.

In Book XII.411-415 of Virgil's Aeneid, Venus heals the wounded Aeneas with dittany: “Hereupon Venus, smitten by her son’s cruel pain, with a mother’s care plucks from Cretan Ida a dittany stalk, [dictamnum genetrix Cretaea carpi ab Ida (412)] clothed with downy leaves and purple flowers; not unknown is that herb to wild goats, when winged arrows have lodged in their flanks.” (Loeb translation).

Cretan dittany was prescribed by Hippocrates for digestive complaints and to heal wounds. Aristotle (The History of Animals 612a4) wrote that “Wild goats in Crete are said, when wounded by arrow, to go in search of dittany, which is supposed to have the property of ejecting arrows in the body."; Theophrastus agreed (Enquiry into Plants 9.16.1)

Then Aeneas reenters the fray looking for Turnus. Juturna, the sister of Turnus, now becomes (again in disguise) his charioteer and she keeps him away from Aeneas.
Aeneas then leads his men to the city and they storm it. As they gain entry, the Queen, thinking that Turnus must be dead, hangs herself.

Turnus decides to face Aeneas. “Then Jupiter himself lifted up a pair of scales with the tongue centred and put the lives of the two men in them to decide who would be condemned in the ordeal of battle, and with whose weight death would descend.” Turnus attacks Aeneas but his sword breaks so he wheels his chariot around and flees. Aeneas pursues him.

Meanwhile Jupiter forbids Juno to give Turnus any more help and she agrees. But the bargain is that the Trojans will become Latins “speaking one tongue”. Jupiter sends a monster called Dira to call Juturna away from Turnus and she returns to her river. Aeneas throws his spear and it goes through the thigh of Turnus. On his knees, Turnus begs for mercy. He acknowledges that Aeneas has won the girl and the land but he begs Aeneas to pity Turnus’ father and let Turnus live. And Aeneas hesitates. But then he sees that Turnus is wearing the swordbelt he had taken from the body of Pallas. Aeneas cries: “By this wound which I now give, it is Pallas who makes sacrifice of you. it is Pallas who exacts the penalty in your guilty blood’. Blazing with rage, he plunged the steel full into his enemy’s breast. The limbs of Turnus were dissolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades.
Notice how this description closely parallels the death of Lausus in Book X.

Which is interesting that it ends with Aeneas not being merciful.

Extraordinarily bloodthirsty stuff and well deserving of the titles of epic and classic. June 2018