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Just a dog

Dash in AfghA full-scale dog-blog was always on the cards. I came quite close in this one, when a figure in a photo I’d been shown turned out to be a pioneer of Afghan Hound breeding. But this blog is devoted to a single dog, a fox terrier called Dash who belonged to the archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein.

Actually Stein owned seven dogs in succession, and every one of them was called Dash. The name was more common at one time than it seems to be now: Queen Victoria’s Dash was a King Charles spaniel. It still seems slightly odd to give every one of a sequence of dogs the very same name, and Stein, whose claim to fame is above all as an investigator of the Buddhist cultures of Central Asia, sometimes toyed with the idea that the latest Dash was a reincarnation of one of its predecessors.

Anyhow, the subject of this blog is Dash II, or “Dash the Great” as Stein liked to refer to his very favourite of them all; he also called him Kardash Beg, “The Honourable Snow Companion”, when he discovered with delight that his new dog had a relish for snow. Pets belonging to Aurel Stein could expect to encounter some pretty gruelling climatic conditions.

Stein acquired Dash the Great in 1904, and the dog accompanied him on his Second Expedition into Central Asia from 1906 to 1908, Stein’s most audacious,  most successful, and ultimately most controversial venture into Chinese Turkestan. It was during this expedition that Stein was able to investigate a trove of Buddhist material in the Mogao caves at Dunhuang, removing a large quantity of texts, textiles and paintings. But earlier in the expedition he and his team had made the high-altitude crossing from the very northeastern tip of Afghanistan into Chinese Central Asia, and later he undertook a perilous, and very nearly disastrous, crossing of the Taklamakan desert.

Dash is a regular presence in Stein’s accounts of his expedition, especially the popular Ruins of Desert Cathay (1912), often most visible in moments of particular intensity. As things become very desperate during Stein’s crossing of the Taklamakan desert, his men threatening to mutiny, he is grateful that Dash makes do on “a saucerful [of water] spared from my cup of tea”. As they scale the 16,000-foot Wakhjir pass between Afghanistan and China, the generally irrepressible terrier whimpers with the cold and insists on sheltering beneath Stein’s fur coat. On another occasion he’s roused from sleep in Stein’s tent by the excitement of Stein and Chiang-Ssu-yeh, Stein’s “Chinese secretary and helpmate”, when they find proof that the frontier fortifications they’re investigating date from as early as the first century AD.

Dash chases marmots in the high country, “distinctly provoking for so indefatigable a hunter”, develops a knack of mounting a horse, “jumping up to the stirrup, and thence to the pommel of whoever was offering him a lift”, and gets badly mauled by a pack of semi-feral sheepdogs. When the party finds itself having to cross the Kash river over a ridiculously makeshift bridge, the poor thing is trussed up in a bag and passed along a wire rope along with the rest of the baggage.


The expedition took its toll on Stein. As he crossed back into India in 1908 he suffered frostbite while surveying at high altitude, losing several toes of his right foot after being carried down in agony to Ladakh. When he was eventually fit enough to travel, he describes his departure for Britain at the end of 1908 and enforced separation from Dash, “the last of my faithful travel companions, but, perhaps, the nearest to my heart”: dogs were not allowed on the P. & O. Mail boat. Dash made his own way to Britain on a separate steamer, spent four months in quarantine, and “was joyfully restored to his master under Mr P. S. Allen’s hospitable roof at Oxford.”

P. S. Allen was a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and he and his wife Helen were scholars of Erasmus and two of Stein’s oldest and closest friends; their “hospitable roof” was 23 Merton St., where Stein always stayed on his visits to Britain, and where Dash would actually spend the rest of his life. Stein seems to have decided that his “inseparable little companion” had had enough adventure. At any rate, when he returned to India he left Dash behind with the Allens. The comfortable new home of this canine veteran of the sand and snow deserts of the Taklamakan and Pamir Knot is now part of the Eastgate Hotel.


Dash lived with the Allens for another nine years, and while Merton St. was his home, he was clearly left to wander wherever he liked across Oxford. But as the First World War drew to a close, a new and deadly threat to an increasingly decrepit old dog was being introduced to Oxford’s streets, the motorised Omnibus. Percy Allen wrote to Stein to explain what happened:

He took himself out for a walk one aft. Friday, 27 Sept. [1918], & was run over by a motor bus in Park End St—the street which goes down to the station as the continuation of the High & Queen St. The police brought around his collar next morning, & reported that he had been killed instantaneously, & that they had buried him in their usual place. Helen went to the police station to enquire, as soon as we returned home—10 days later—but by that time it was too late to unearth him & bring him to sleep in the garden where he has so often slept before.

It’s a terribly banal end for a dog who’d seen so much, run over by a bus on Park End St. (Although I’ve subsequently walked the distance from 23 Merton St to Park End St, and Dash clearly hadn’t lost his wanderlust.) Soon the regular letters between Stein and the Allens turned back to the urgent issues of the day, the Armistice just a month or so after Dash’s death, and the Spanish Flu. But for as long as Dash is the focus of these letters between old friends, he provokes a touching outpouring of affection between them. Helen Allen reminisced to Stein about Dash’s life in Oxford:

He has been as outstanding amongst dogs, as his master amongst men; such sagacity & such devotion. I can see him in so many different poses: returning on a Cotswold walk after a chase after a hare, to look which way we were gone meanwhile, locating us & then heading straight for our slow plodding figures; looking up full of enquiry when he heard: “Go and meet him, Dash,” & then bounding forward joyously as he caught sight of Percy…
Such faithfulness as he has shown must surely meet a fit reward.
And we send you many thanks for the added happiness you brought into our lives through Dash.

“Surely a Ulysses among dogs,” wrote Percy Allen to Stein:

full of wise counsel & dignity, & greatly attached to his friends. You brought great pleasure into our lives thro’ him: for wh. we thank you, amice noster, as for so much else. Blessings on Dash the Great.

Stein, in response, thanked his friends for their comforting words:

Never before, I feel sure, had a faithful canine companion’s departure been recorded in words more true and deserved. How grateful I feel to [Helen] for having thus softened the pang which this sad news caused me the enclosed letter for her cannot express adequately. I do not command the inexhaustible goodness of soul which is life’s greatest boon in you both, nor that grace of expressive brief words which mature and constant communion with Erasmus have bestowed upon you both. I never cease to give thanks for all the brightness which you two have brought into my existence for the last twenty years—but my gratitude must be equally great for all you have done to help me in facing sad losses and trials.

Well, we all know dogs can be surrogate objects of affection for people who find it difficult to express emotion. Why else are English people so fond of them? In happier times, too, “Dash” had been a vehicle for the Allens’ affectionate pride in their friend’s success, writing a letter to congratulate Stein on the knighthood he received in 1912:

23 Merton St
Bara din 1912
Many congratulations, dear Master. Am wearing my collar of achievement.
If I had known this was coming, I should not have cried on the Wakhjir.
Whip the young one, and keep him in order.
Bow wow
(Have assumed this title) SIR DASH, K.C.I.E.

Still, just a dog.

Dash photooo

Surprised by C.S. Lewis (with a broadsword)

A bit of passion for your subject is no bad thing in a teacher, and I’ve been known to be pretty adamant about the quality of the literature I’m teaching, particularly if it’s Horace or Virgil. But C.S. Lewis took advocacy of the poetry he was teaching to another level again, on the evidence I’m about to present.

Assiduous readers of this blog know that C.S. and I have history: a dubious story about him and the inspiration for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is repeated under my window ad nauseam by tour guides. But a happier connection is Lewis’ enthusiasm for one of my favourite poems, Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, the story (from the Persian poet Ferdowsi, but reinvented by Arnold as a mini Homeric epic) of the single combat between the warriors Rustum and Sohrab: eventually Rustum slays Sohrab, unaware that Sohrab is his son. I knew that Lewis was fond of the poem because in his autobiography Surprised by Joy he described falling under the spell of Arnold’s evocative scene-setting as a twelve-year-old boy: “what enchanted me was the artist in Pekin with his ivory forehead and pale hands, the cypress in the queen’s garden, the backward glance at Rustum’s youth, the pedlars from Khabul, the hushed Chorasmian waste” (p. 53).

The anecdote that follows is new to me, though. It’s from Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings (p. 214), and I owe it to the immensely well-read John Stoker. (I owe the reference to Surprised by Joy to the equally well-read Gail Trimble, I should add.) Carpenter is describing Lewis’ confrontational style of teaching, which divided opinion among his undergraduates (“A few lapped it up, but some very nearly ran away”):

‘If you think that way about Keats you needn’t come here again!’ Lewis once roared down the stairs to a departing pupil. And on another occasion when an Australian student professed that he could never read Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, and refused to admit its good qualities even after Lewis had chanted a hundred lines of it at him, Lewis declared, ‘The sword must settle it!’ and reached for a broadsword and a rapier which (according to J.A.W. Bennett, who was there) were inexplicably in the corner of the room. They fenced – Lewis of course choosing the broadsword – and, said Bennett, ‘Lewis actually drew blood – a slight nick.’

Those were the days. I’ve a shrewd idea what the HR Manager would say today if I tried to settle a disagreement about the power of Horatian word placement with a duel. I do actually inflict Sohrab and Rustum on my own students quite regularly, on the pretext that it’s a nice encapsulation of Greco-Roman epic style, but I try to resist the impulse to reenact the story with authentic weaponry when I do so.

Anyhow, here’s a chunk of Sohrab and Rustum that Lewis loved and I love, Rustum wistfully recalling his youthful affair with Sohrab’s mother, and Arnold capturing nostalgia perfectly. If anyone doesn’t love it, of course, I’m afraid I’ll have to see you outside:

                                                      as, at dawn,
The shepherd from his mountain-lodge descries
A far, bright city, smitten by the sun,
Through many rolling clouds—so Rustum saw
His youth; saw Sohrab’s mother, in her bloom;
And that old king, her father, who loved well
His wandering guest, and gave him his fair child
With joy; and all the pleasant life they led,
They three, in that long-distant summer-time—
The castle, and the dewy woods, and hunt
And hound, and morn on those delightful hills
In Ader-baijan.

Rednose College, Oxford

Testones be gone to Oxforde, god be their speede:

To studie in Brasennose there to proceede.

I’m calling this a Christmas blog, on the basis that it involves red noses, and that’s about as festive as I get. Anyhow, what we have here is an epigram by the Tudor writer John Heywood (1496/7-1578 or later), shared with me by Bea Groves (thank you!), and it joins my growing collection of theoretically amusing epigrams that aren’t necessarily terribly funny (cf. this one by Martial).

To the poem in a second, but Heywood first: a pioneering English-language playwright and poet/epigrammatist, and a well-connected and successful man, although his Catholic faith became more and more of a liability the older he got, and he died in impoverished exile in the Low Countries. He was married to a niece of Sir Thomas More, which hints both at the advantages he enjoyed and the obstacles he faced; and his grandson was John Donne. Not the least of Heywood’s achievements was his popularization, through his poetry, of proverbial turns of expression. We still find ourselves saying (something like) “An ill winde that bloweth no man to good”, “a dog hath a day”, “Rome was not built in one day,” “eate your cake and have your cake”, to name just a few of Heywood’s proverbs, though it’s a cause of deep regret to me that we seem to have lost “Hungry dogges will eate durty puddings” and “to bring haddock to paddock”. Heywood owed a lot of these proverbs to Erasmus, whose collection of thousands of Latin and Greek sayings, the Adages, was one of the most influential pieces of writing ever composed. Anyone interested in the evidence for that claim, see here.

Now, our poem is just a common-or-garden epigram, not a proverb, and it’s actually concerned with an issue very specific to Tudor England, the debasement of the coinage. We might conclude also that it illustrates Heywood’s limited poetic talents, and how poorly humour travels across centuries, but I leave that judgment to my readers.


A teston is a coin, a shilling, minted by Henry VIII, and as this blog explains the financial pressures Henry faced had led to a drastic watering down of the silver content of a coin whose bullion value was supposed to be equal to its face value. I’m pretty certain the economic consequences of the so-called “Great Debasement” weren’t as straightforward as that blog suggests, and it’s actually an interesting question how much the general user of coinage knows about any reduction in precious metal content. When the same thing happened in third-century AD Rome, there’s an appealing theory that no one was much bothered about it until the reforming emperor Aurelian made the mistake of being upfront and honest about the debasement. That was the point at which confidence crashed and inflation took off, whereas up until then, so the thinking goes, most people had faith in the faces on the coinage: if its value was backed by the authority of the emperor, that was enough to maintain most people’s confidence in the currency.

It’s an intriguing situation if so, since it would be a case of “commodity money”, money worth what it’s worth by virtue of the precious metal it contains, functioning as “fiat money”, possessing value essentially because the government says so.

There’s evidence that the same might have been true of Henry’s debased shillings, and that they managed to retain their face value even as their bullion content plummeted, but the truth of what had happened to the silver coinage clearly did over time become widely known. An unfortunate consequence for Henry was a mocking nickname he received, “Old Coppernose”. On raised parts of the coin image, such as the tip of the king’s nose, the silver wash designed to maintain the appearance of an authentically silver coin would be rubbed off, exposing its essentially copper composition.

Here is an image of a debased teston which I’ve borrowed from the Royal Mint blog:


The joke of Heywood’s epigram is to relate these “coppernose” testons to a college at Oxford University, mine as it happens, called Brasenose or Brazen Nose. We don’t know how the college got its name (one theory traces it to an old word for brewery), but we’re very proud of it and our symbol is a nose. The debased coins, Heywood says, have upped sticks and gone to get a degree at an educational establishment that suits their character, Brazen nose College.

I’m pretty confident that isn’t funny. But it’s interesting that Heywood is implying that debasement is a past practice, now entirely abandoned: the debased testons are leaving the economic scene for Oxford, seems to be his point. This poem and the one that follows it on the same theme come from Heywood’s publication A fourth hundred of Epygrams, from 1560 (epigrams 63 and 64). By this time Elizabeth is on the throne and ostentatiously marking the new age by restoring the bullion content of the coinage: I do wonder how many people were really aware of the debasement until Elizabeth made a big noise about correcting it.

So the poem seems to be a bit of schmoozing directed at Elizabeth from a poet who had got on perhaps a little too well with Queen Mary. But it wasn’t much help in the long run: enforcement of Elizabeth’s religious settlement at the start of her reign made the position of Catholics like Heywood very difficult indeed, and in 1564 he left the country for good, with precious few shillings to his name.

The Fall and Rise of Field Marshal Haig

I think I said my next post was going to be Martial again.

Well, yes and no. I’ve written before on the impact of the First World War on my college, but the most famous Great-War soldier from Brasenose was the British Commander-in-Chief himself, Field-Marshal Douglas Haig, perhaps the most controversial figure the war produced. An undistinguished student at Brasenose from 1880 to 1884, Haig emerged with a Pass degree, despite apparently spending most of his time at Oxford on horseback, but received tutorials from, among others, Walter Pater; at which the mind truly boggles.

Oxford colleges, like every other British institution, were traumatized by the war, and when hostilities were finally over faced the same challenge of creating a memorial equal to the enormity of what had happened. Brasenose’s response should certainly strike us as peculiar, but it clearly made sense to the fellowship at the time.

Within six months of the Armistice the College had decided on a three-part memorial, a monument in the chapel recording the names of 114 men of Brasenose who had dieda portrait of Haig by William Orpen, the war artist and portraitist, and a stone inscription at the entrance to the College reading as follows:


This last one went up first, and was in place just inside the main gate by November 1920; the wooden memorial in the chapel followed sometime between then and May 1921; while Orpen’s portrait of Haig, after appearing in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1921, was hung in Brasenose Hall in January 1922. It was placed, significantly, on the east wall of the Hall, where images of the founders and most significant figures in College history are located. The painting had been partly funded by subscriptions from old Brasenose students, each of whom received a “photogravure” copy, a print, of Orpen’s work.

The striking thing, of course, is how unapologetically proud the College was of Haig in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, and to what extent he dominated Brasenose’s act of commemoration. This Brasenose man was the hero that had let the country to victory, the thinking seems to have been, and giving him the prominence he got was only appropriate.

Needless to say, the oscillations in Haig’s reputation over the years didn’t leave that confident assessment undisturbed. Stories are told about the portrait in Hall, though I’m not sure how true they are: that at a later stage it was removed from display, and only rehung when a descendant of Haig had happened to arrive as an undergraduate. It was certainly moved from the east wall, and now hangs in another corner of the room, quite easily missed.

As for the stone memorial in the Lodge, that was certainly taken down. When I turned up here a couple of decades ago it was under a tarp around the back of the College, and the College magazine from 1969 explains how it ended up there:

During the past year the Lodge-Entrance has been given a thorough refurbishing. Previously it had the appearance of a neglect dating back to its reconstruction in 1885, and the attention was overdue. (The only casualty in the operation was the plaque commemorating Field Marshal Earl Haig (1880) as the first among Brasenose warriors of 1914-18. Its legend, which may be found in The Brazen Nose of 1920, when it was erected, was often regarded as being not wholly in the happiest of taste. Its removal to make room for the Senior Tutor’s enlarged notice board, may or may not demonstrate superiority of the pen over the sword but is unlikely to cause a widespread sense of loss.)

An urbane account that omits as much as it says. You don’t take down a war memorial just to make space for a noticeboard, but then again you do take down a memorial lionising Field Marshal Haig in 1969. The Sixties had seen the First World War, at its fiftieth anniversary, returning to public attention, and Haig did not emerge well from it: there was a classic TV series, The Great War (1964), books like Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961) and A.J.P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History (1963), and the musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1963). The dominant narrative became the one still familiar to us, lions led by donkeys. The film version of Oh! What a Lovely War was released in 1969, and did more than anything to crystallise the perception of Haig as a callous, upper-class buffoon, who was bound to be an acute embarrassment to his alma mater.

Now, though, another 50 years on, Haig is back on the wall again:

Haig inscr

It’s not so much that Haig is back in favour, though it’s true that more recent trends in Great War historiography make him a less toxic old member than he used to be. Really Haig’s back up there because it’s the centenary and it isn’t really acceptable to have a memorial, of any kind, hidden under a tarpaulin. Well, that’s my impression.

But just as the original commemorative plan in 1919 tells us fascinating things about how the war could be regarded in its immediate aftermath; and just as measures taken in 1969 characterize very vividly the view of the war and authority in general that prevailed fifty years later: so the recent re-erection of Haig’s memorial is a more complex, and telling, gesture than it may seem. It certainly hasn’t been returned to the College lodge. The place chosen for it might, to the uninitiated, seem equivalent to its original location: by a gate leading out onto High St. But in fact this is a very quiet part of College, and the gate isn’t used by students. In other words, the inscription has been placed in a position that looks like it’s on everyone’s route, “that those who pass may be put in mind of Field Marshal Earl Haig,” but is in fact well off the beaten track.

An entirely appropriate location for Field Marshal Douglas Haig in 2014, in other words.


A thistle and a rose

St Mary's Entry

I’m doing what I spend a big chunk of the summer doing: staring at the west wall of St Mary’s, Oxford’s University Church.

That’s the view I get as I sit at the computer, waiting for inspiration to hit me: in the photo above, which predates the age of computers just a little, I’m in the curtained window jutting out above the street. Between me and the church is an alleyway, St Mary’s Passage, running from High St into Radcliffe Square, the heart of Oxford University: you can see one side of the circular Radcliffe Camera, a library, that dominates the square, and the Old Bodleian Library behind it.

Needless to say, I’m ridiculously lucky in where I go to work every morning. But I have been known to grumble about the tourists. Twice or three times a day, and in the summer months closer to fifteen times a day, a tour guide will halt his group under my window and explain how C.S. Lewis was inspired to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by what he saw in the alleyway beneath me: a Victorian lamppost, a couple of fauns carved at the top of the main door to the building, and an image of the Green Man on the same door which bears a passing resemblance to a lion with a mane. Hence, the theory goes, Aslan, Mr Tumnus and the mysterious lamppost Lucy sees when she first stumbles into Narnia.

How true that story is, I really don’t know. To be honest, after listening to several thousand retellings of it by now I’m beyond caring. But that isn’t to say I’m not fascinated by my surroundings as I sit in that window. The building, known as St Mary’s Entry, is old, dating back to around 1600, but we know very little about its history: for a long time up until the 1880’s it was a pub, the City Arms, and it only came into full use by the college in 1919. That’s more or less all we know.

But there are some clues, and the best of them happen to be in my office. According to An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Oxford (1939), it contains a number of features that seem to date to the early seventeenth century.

There is an elaborate Jacobean overmantel:


Two fauns that echo the two around the door downstairs, but are much older: the ones outside seem to be Victorian. Here’s one of the fauns inside:


Most intriguingly of all, there is a design around the door of the room featuring roses in the spandrels at the top:


and at the bottom (the authors of An Inventory missed this), thistles:


I suppose all the recent discussion of Scottish independence has made me pay more attention to the roses and thistles, and I had assumed some connection with the Acts of Union in 1706/7, but when I thought about it (with the Jacobean carvings inside the room in mind, especially), the more obvious link was to James I of England and VI of Scotland, a century before the Act of Union, whose coins carried images rather similar to those around my door. James had wanted a full union of Scotland with England, but the issue was as controversial then as now, and they remained sovereign states under one monarch until the reign of James’ great-granddaughter, Anne.

Well, it’s a good excuse to speculate. And whatever I come up with can’t be any less likely than the spiel of the tourist guides.

Once James was in the frame, and a date for the woodwork (independently reached) of the early seventeenth century, what caught my attention was an event I hadn’t previously been aware of, a visit by the king, accompanied by Queen Anne and his eldest son Henry (and the five-year-old Charles, future Charles I), to Oxford at the end of August 1605, two years after his accession to the English throne.

There was nothing low-key about this visit: all Oxford was galvanized to put on the best possible show of itself. We have three extended accounts of it, Rex Platonicus (Oxford, 1607) by the University Orator Isaac Wake, in Latin, which is too busy hymning the king’s praises to provide much in the way of useful detail, but evidently did Wake’s career no harm: he went on to be knighted, an ambassador in Venice and elsewhere, and M.P. for the University of Oxford. What he has to say about James’ arrival will give you a flavour of the whole work: certe ingresso iam Jacobo sensit Civitas quiddam se amplius capere quam quod murorum suorum angustiis comprehendi posset, “For sure, now James had made his entry, the City felt that it held something greater than the narrow compass of its walls could contain.” Flattery will get you everywhere.

Anthony Nixon’s Oxfords Tryumph (London, 1605), is as relentlessly panegyrical as Wake, but a little more concerned with the nitty-gitty of the visit, even though Nixon is seriously confused about Oxford geography. But the real gem of a source for the visit is a document surviving in a manuscript in Cambridge University Library, an anonymous account by a “spy” from Cambridge, The preparacion at Oxford in August 1605 against the comminge thither of King James, with the Queen and young Prince; together with the things then and there done and the maner thereof. This Cambridge witness may, according to John R. Elliott Jr. in The History of the University of Oxford Vol. IV (p.648, n.32), have been one Henry Mowtlowe; but apparently Cambridge sent as many as forty spies “to view in secret and note the whole event” staged by their arch-rivals. For whatever reason, The preparacion at Oxford… provides the kind of realistic detail Wake and Nixon meticulously avoided: the King falling asleep in a long theatrical performance, and waking up to say, testily, “I marvell what they think me to be!”; or the hundred or so “scholars” sent to prison the day before the king’s arrival for some kind of “uncivill” behaviour (apparently involving inappropriate headwear) in St Mary’s church.

The King arrived at Oxford on Tuesday August 27th 1605, riding south from his ramshackle palace at Woodstock. The officials of the University and City of Oxford rode out to welcome him on the Woodstock Road in what was then countryside a mile north of Oxford, and is now the northern suburbs where I live. In a “fair meadow” near Aristotle’s Well (which now lies under a house on the corner of Kingston Rd and Aristotle Lane, but I think what is these days the intersection between Woodstock Rd and Polstead Rd is meant, very near the childhood home of Lawrence of Arabia) there was a bit of timeless town v. gown needle as the city authorities, led by the Mayor, attempted to upstage the University, and were put firmly in their places. It’s great to see that certain things (town v. gown; Oxford v. Cambridge) haven’t changed much in 400 years, and I’ve been enjoying imagining all the houses away as I walk the dog, picturing the Chancellor, Vice-chancellor, “the Doctors, Proctors and certaine Senior Masters … upon their foote-cloath [caparisoned] Horses, verie richlye furnished to meete the King” (Nixon), the speeches to the King from University (in Latin) and City (in English), and the presentation of gifts (the City’s considerably more valuable than the University’s), before James and his entourage continued their progress towards the city.

Just outside the North Gate, James stopped to be entertained by the first of a series of dramatic performances during his four-day stay in Oxford. James was very keen on academic debate, less so (as we’ve already seen) on the theatre. What’s interesting about this short performance is that it bears some kind of relation to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In front of St John’s College, which stood outside the city walls, three “sibyls” recalled the prophecy given to Banquo that his descendants, the Stuarts, would rule Scotland, and added their own prediction of James’ glorious future. The connection has been made with the three witches’ prediction to Banquo at Macbeth 1.3 (“Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none”), and some have even speculated that William Shakespeare might have been in the audience outside St John’s. From there James made his way across the city to Christ Church, where he and the Queen were accommodated: as they rode from north to south of Oxford, according to Nixon, the left side of the street, between Christ Church and St Giles’ church, was lined with academics in precise order of seniority from Doctors of Divinity at the gate of Christ Church to plain old undergraduates up at St Giles’.

Here’s John Speed’s map of Oxford, as it happens dating to around 1605, though much indebted to earlier maps: south is at the top, so James was approaching Oxford from the bottom right. From St Giles’ to Christ Church is about 1,000 metres.

Map of Oxford

In total, James spent four days in Oxford, from Tuesday August 27th to Friday the 30th. On the last day, after visiting the Bodleian Library, he stopped in at my college, Brasenose, but I don’t think my roses and thistles can have anything to do with that since in 1605 St Mary’s Entry, while owned by Brasenose, was not an integral part of the College proper, and was let out to tenants. A slightly earlier map of this part of Oxford here, by Ralph Agas, illustrates this, “Brasen nose Coll” stopping well short of “Saint Maries”.

But there’s another possibility. James’ and the Queen’s accommodation was at Christ Church, Prince Henry’s at Magdalen College; in the course of his time in Oxford James visited New College, All Souls’ and Magdalen as well as Brasenose, St John’s and the Bodleian Library. But by far the majority of the king’s time was spent in the University Church, St Mary’s, just across the alleyway from here.

On Wednesday and Thurday, August 28 and 29, James attended “disputations” in St Mary’s, Latin speeches delivered in favour or against propositions by academics in five subjects, Theology, Law, Physic (Medicine), Natural Philosophy (roughly, Physics) and Moral Philosophy. The form of the exercise, formal and rhetorically sophisticated speeches in Latin, had its roots in the medieval university, and reflected the importance that continued to be attached to the fluent and persuasive presentation of academic knowledge, but the topics addressed were entirely contemporary. Since we’re in 1605, that still leaves them, for us, interestingly poised between the familiar and the archaic. During the Physic disputation, for example, the question was addressed, An creber suffitus Nicotianae exoticae sit sanis salutaris, “Whether the often taking of Tobacco be wholesome for such as are sound and in health”; whilst when the discipline was Natural Philosophy a topic of debate was, An opera artis possit aurum conflari, “Whether Golde may be made by Arte.”

James was tremendously keen on these exercises, regularly making his own contributions to the learned disputes, and allowing the sessions to continue in St Mary’s without complaint for as long as five hours: hardly surprising that he fell asleep in the play that followed. But King James clearly left the Oxford men convinced that in the new king they had someone who shared their own intellectual appetites.

Now, my room with its peculiar decorations is in the shadow of St Mary’s church. If the roses and thistles have anything to do with James’ visit (which is undoubtedly a very big “if”, but I’m stumped for another explanation), it may just be that they are part of the general beautification of the city that was undertaken in preparation for the royal visit. However, the Cambridge witness talks, as one would expect, of a polishing up of the externals: “Against the King’s coming to Oxford, it was provided, that all rayles, posts, barrs of windows, casements, and pumpes, should be newly paynted, and all armes were newly tricked. The like was done also in all the streets of the City, and at the severell Gates thereof, with dials and such like; the streets were very finely paved and well swept.”

The decorations in my room are quite invisible from the street, and I can’t help wondering whether this building beside St Mary’s church was prepared for the use of the royal entourage during those two days of “disputation”, for rest, refreshment, or, who knows, a lavatory break. I can’t explain the rose/thistle motif except as some kind of reference to James, while the quality of the carved fauns and the fireplace decoration seem to me to bespeak a room that expected some important visitors.

What I’m letting myself wonder, of course, is whether James VI of Scotland and I of England took his ease, one day 409 years ago, in what is now my teaching room.

But perhaps I should settle for Mr Tumnus.


Grave 12, Row D, Plot 1

A couple of blogs ago I wrote about Bob Brandt, a predecessor of mine at Brasenose College who was killed at Ypres in 1915. Back then his story set me pondering questions of anonymity and memorials. From the record of Brandt that his family, led by his mother Florence, had left in The Times, especially, I formed the impression of an unusually passionate determination to preserve his memory, one driven (I speculated) by the peculiar circumstances of his death and burial. A friend, Ralph Furse, wrote in the introduction to a collection of Brandt’s letters in 1920, “The surge of heavy fighting swept back and forward over the spot where he fell, and an unknown grave adds to the grief of some who loved him best,” although (as we shall see) there is reason to believe his place of burial was, in fact, known, at least at the end of the war.

Since I first wrote about Bob Brandt, thanks entirely to Oliver Moody, who picked up the blog for a Times article, I’ve been able to make contact with living members of his family. A couple of days ago I visited Dr. Anne Evans, Bob Brandt’s great-niece, who as luck would have it has researched Brandt and many other members of her family, discovering lots of fascinating things which regrettably aren’t relevant here. (A taster, though: colonial Boston was largely constructed from timber supplied by the Brandt family business.) From Anne I learned that my hunch about the impact of Brandt’s death on his family had been in the right ballpark, but that there was a larger story to tell. That story is still very much one of anonymity and memorials, however.

Dr. Evans showed me a lot of archive material relating to her great-uncle, and a thread running through it was the intense devotion of Bob Brandt’s mother to his memory, an echo of which I’d picked up in her scrupulous commemoration of his death in The Times every July. A particular collection of material relating to Bob, including a grainy photo of him breaking a public schools record for throwing a cricket ball, an achievement I’d read about in his Brasenose obituary, was remembered as forming a kind of shrine on the wall of her bedroom; other material may even have been buried with her. Florence Brandt’s bible also survives, interleaved with memories of her loved ones, often clippings from The Times. Again Bob has a special prominence. This is all impossibly poignant to read today, but Anne will I think forgive me for sharing her grandfather Edmund’s (Bob’s brother’s) experience of his mother’s state of mind, an awareness of being eclipsed by his better-looking, more brilliant, dead younger brother. As I said in my previous blog, what I find most compelling about working with the dry records of The Times or the census are these glimpses one gets of flesh-and-blood family dynamics.

Something I also touched on in that earlier blog was the loss expressed by Bob’s friends, and two items in Anne’s archive stood out for me as good illustrations of that. One is a long, typed appreciation of Brandt written by Cyril Bailey, his undergraduate tutor at Balliol College, and for me the editor of a seminal commentary on Lucretius, De Rerum Natura. It’s actually very honest about Brandt’s strengths and weaknesses as an academic, and helped to clarify in my mind why Brandt didn’t stick with his academic position at Brasenose. Bailey also describes, very movingly, the growing friendship between tutor and undergraduate, and a familiar picture emerges of a man who made friends very easily with a wide range of different people–because his own interests were so uncircumscribed. His career at Oxford and afterwards really speaks of a man open-minded and quite undecided what to do with his life. He was very young, and yet, as I say, someone who was the focus of intense affection:

Yet few people I have known h[a]ve made a more lasting impression: when I meet Balliol men now and we speak of loss[e]s it is almost always Bob who is mentioned first, and many tell of the[i]r deep affection for him. One a little while ago, who did not even know him extraordinarily well, said “I think of him almost every day: I have lost seven of my own people in the war and seem hardly to feel it, but Bob–“. And certainly I can well understand this feeling for I know it well…

He had a talent for friendship, as they say, though, as Anne and I discussed, it was noticeably a talent for exclusively male friendship. The following images confirm that talent in a different way, and I think I’ll be forgiven for not even attempting to introduce them, beyond saying that it is a list, in his own handwriting, of people to whom his personal effects should be offered in the event of his death. The names are worth a google; Brandt moved in some rarified social circles.



Brandt did die, of course, and the name at the top of his list wrote the introduction to his collected letters. Either Fox or Sonnenschein (Stallybrass) of Brasenose wrote his obituary in the College magazine, and Bailey of Balliol wrote an appreciation. From his year of social work in London after leaving Brasenose College come the references to “The Mission” and “Dockhead Boys’ Club” in Bermondsey, well explained in this blog on John Stansfeld, who founded the Mission in Bermondsey: I wonder if anything of Brandt’s did end up on the wall there. For his family, however, my conversation with Anne confirmed how very heavily the matter of Bob Brandt’s burial and commemoration had weighed with them. In fact the issue turned out to be even more complex than I’d appreciated, enough to ensure that it has persisted, as yet without any resolution, ever since.

A sketch of the situation is as follows. At the end of the war, or very shortly afterwards, Bob Brandt’s brother Edmund was taken by an officer of the Rifle Brigade, Brandt’s regiment, to see where he was buried at Talana Farm, a cemetery behind the British lines at Ypres that had been in use by French and then British troops from April 1915 to March 1918. The officer in question had known Brandt. Photographs taken by Edmund, such as the one below, seem to focus on a particular burial, Grave 12, Row D, Plot 1, here marked with a dark wooden cross next to a white cross. The much more recent image below it shows the same scene once the original wooden grave markers had been replaced by the official stone memorials of the Imperial War Graves Commission.



It’s easy enough to see that Grave 12, in the middle, is by now marked as anonymous (“A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God”), and flanked on both sides by named tombstones. The family believe, and Dr Evans has convinced me, that by the time the cemetery came to be restored by the Imperial War Graves Commission, any identifying text on the wooden cross shown to Bob’s brother had been lost, hence both the anonymous tombstone and Bob Brandt’s inclusion on the list of missing at the Menin Gate at Ypres. But Dr Evans is marshalling evidence for an approach to what is now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to secure some recognition at Talana Farm that Bob Brandt is indeed buried there. It is far from the first attempt to do so, but it’s certainly going to be the most carefully researched. The family’s plan is that on July 6, 2015, the centenary of Bob Brandt’s death, they will congregate at the cemetery to inaugurate an inscription, even if all it says is that Bob Brandt’s body is strongly believed to lie in this cemetery.

Bob Brandt has become far too real a character for me in the last few weeks for me not to wish Anne and her family all good luck in that campaign.


A Mods Don at Ypres

Brandt DR in MEM 2 L1-2-2

I am a “Mods don”, or at least that’s one, rather old-fashioned way of describing me. What it means is that I’m a tutor at an Oxford college, Brasenose, who’s particularly concerned with preparing the Classics students for their first examinations, Honour Moderations (or Mods), in their second year.

That may all sound like the very definition of an ivory tower, and if so, on this occasion, good. Because this is the story of how deep into the charmed cloisters of academia the Great War penetrated, a story very relevant to the Mods don at Brasenose a hundred years later, but entirely unknown to me until ten days ago.

Mods dons at Brasenose, it’s heartening to learn, tend to have a good innings. My predecessor started here in 1957, his predecessor in 1922. Before him a man named Herbert Fox (remember that name) had held the job since 1889, having himself succeeded to Charles Heberden, who started in 1872. If I can only make it to 2022 I’m having a party, and you’re all invited, since it’ll then be a century since my predecessor-but-one took up his Fellowship, and 150 years since the arrival of my predecessor-but-three.

That much I knew, but it turns out I have another predecessor I was entirely unaware of. I owe this information to David Walsh, author (with Anthony Seldon) of Public Schools and the Great War, who has very generously written an article for the college magazine (which I edit) on the impact of the First World War on Brasenose College. An important theme, in the book and the article, is the disproportionate losses suffered by the privileged elite that attended public schools and Oxbridge in the early twentieth century, precisely because they were a privileged elite, and hence fed the junior officer ranks that found themselves most exposed to danger, and suffered predictably appalling casualties. The fatality rate for all British combatants was one in ten, Walsh and Seldon remind us, for products of public schools one in five.

Druce Robert (“Bob”) Brandt was one such product of a privileged education: Harrow (there’s an image of him at school here) and Balliol College, Oxford. He was a very talented Classicist and, something that seemed to count as much in Oxford in those days, a fine cricketer, too. After an operation for appendicitis almost killed him as he was about to sit Finals at Oxford in 1910, he took an aegrotat (a degree awarded when illness has prevented a candidate sitting the exams: Brandt features in a spoof of a Class List in Punch) and that was enough to secure a fellowship in Classics offered him by Brasenose. It’s slightly harder to get a fellowship here nowadays, but the whole game of academia was very different then. Brandt’s obituary in the college magazine acknowledges that “he would, perhaps, have never made a great contribution to written learning,” but argues that this isn’t the best way to evaluate an Oxford scholar, whose legacy lay, not in massive Germanic works of research, but in his influence on the students he taught: “That is the tradition of Oxford–her way with her biggest men: their work lives for posterity in their disciples: vitai lampada tradunt [‘They hand on the torch of life’, from Lucretius, cf. Sir Henry Newbolt].”


Why Brasenose felt it needed another Classicist in 1910 is quite hard to say. My guess is that it had something to do with the health of Herbert Fox, Fellow in Classics at Brasenose from 1889 to 1921. Fox was another cricketing Classicist, in fact his Wikipedia article gives half a sentence to his thirty years at Brasenose, and almost all the rest to cricket. But he seems to have suffered recurrent ill-health, and spent extended periods recuperating away from Oxford. Eventually in 1921 he took early retirement. I suspect Bob Brandt was brought in to support Fox, with a view, in the longer term, to taking over the role of Mods don fully.

If that was indeed the plan, it wasn’t to be. Brandt found the life of an Oxford academic too tame. “Under all,” he wrote to the Principal of Brasenose, “there lies the conviction that my proper place is not in the educational but in the industrial or political world–the feeling that I must be up and doing, not sitting and talking.” This was in his resignation letter, and in 1913 he left Oxford (though he remained a Fellow of Brasenose until the end of his life) and, according to his obituary, “plunged into social work in Bermondsey.” In other words, Brandt became involved in the Settlement Movement, an effort by university-based social reformers to break down the cultural barriers and massive economic discrepancies between social classes. Middle-class colonies like Toynbee Hall were established as centres for social work in the slums of Tower Hamlets and Bermondsey and elsewhere, desperately deprived areas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then again, I’ve just been sitting in a meeting discussing how to reconnect Oxford and the inner city, so plus ça change. Maybe Teach First is the reincarnation of the Settlement Movement.

Brandt was privileged but idealistic, then. It’s hard not to warm to this young man impatient to make a positive difference. He had also been in the Officers’ Training Corps at Oxford, which we should also consider a sign of idealism in its time, and in 1913 he joined the Special Reserve, something like the Territorial Army. When war broke out in August 1914, Special Reservists were mobilised immediately; Brandt was posted to the training depot at Sheerness, his deployment to France apparently delayed by a foot injury. For a while he was engaged in training up “Kitchener’s New Army”, men who had responded to the call for volunteers at the start of hostilities. Then, in May 1915, Brandt crossed to France with the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. (The details of his service I owe to Christopher Stray and the Balliol College Register; and there is a moving letter to his young godson as he prepared to set out for France here.) Near Ypres on July 6th 1915, at 27 years old, and leading a company all of whose officers “had been knocked out the day before,” Lieutenant Brandt was killed.

War memorial

The Great War memorial in Brasenose Chapel: 1914 and 1915 (photo: Andrew Sillett)

 His commanding officer wrote to his parents:

“Your son fell, wounded in two places, about 6.30 a.m. … during the successful assault on a line of German trenches. The attack had been gallantly led by your son with his company on this section of the front assaulted, and he had reached the German parapet and was engaged in cheering on his men to renewed efforts when he fell, and, it seems, died almost immediately.”

This particular assault may have achieved its aims, but the Ypres Salient was a focus of conflict from the beginning to the end of the war (Alan Palmer’s The Salient is a very readable history), and they were still fighting over Pilckem and Boesinghe, the location of Brandt’s death, in 1918. Officially, by July 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres was over, but “local actions took place from time to time without any appreciable result,” although still at immense cost in casualties, and this was one such essentially pointless action.

The official history of the Rifle Brigade makes depressing reading here. The attack was originally planned as part of a larger action, but was undertaken on July 6th even though the wider plan had been shelved. (A letter to this effect was sent by the Divisional Commander General Wilson to his superiors, but “there seems to have been no reply.”) The impression is strong of a date in the diary that a bureaucratic command structure was determined to honour, no matter the human consequences. “Within five minutes of zero all the officers were out of action,” including “Lieutenant Brandt of ‘B’ Company” “shot through the heart on the German parapet.” The action gained “some seventy-five yards of ground on a frontage of three hundred yards.” The fact that Brandt’s name is inscribed on the Menin Gate at Ypres indicates that he has no known grave.

Obituaries in general, and I suppose especially obituaries written in war time, accentuate the positive. Bob Brandt’s obituary in the college magazine stands out nonetheless. He seems to embody for the writer (Herbert Fox, I presume, although it isn’t attributed) an ideal of Edwardian Oxford, and the epitome of the disaster visited upon Oxford by the Great War:

“All the gifts of the gods were his. It is given to but few to combine intellectual brilliance with sanity of judgement; both were his in pre-eminent degree. It is given to fewer still, whilst maintaining an exacting standard of self-criticism, to enjoy life to the full. No one tried himself by higher ideals than Brandt, yet the grace and charm which sprang from the joyousness of his inner life made him the most delightful of companions and the most lovable of friends… He always looked straight into the heart of a question, and it was a real help to others to know what he saw. But in spite of this very unusual maturity of judgement, he retained to the end the most wonderful, the most seductive, boyishness. It never left him… When with the insight of a master of language he hit upon the exact rendering for some difficult phrase, or detected some spark of hidden fire in an unpromising scholarship candidate, the same thrill of boyish expectancy ran through him as when, with the enthusiasm of a novice, he went in search of an Irish trout, or for the first time opened a Basque grammar, or started in the freshness of the early morning to raid the Oxfordshire fritillaries.”

“He loved life, but he gave it,” the obituary concludes. “For many of us the simple old Greek line has gained a new meaning and a new beauty: Ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν ἀποθνήσκει νέος [‘Whom the gods love dies young’].”

Bob Brandt was missed. In 1926, W. T. S. Stallybrass, the future Principal of Brasenose, had an obituary to write for the college magazine of Herbert Fox, his colleague in Classics. Stallybrass reminisces about his early years as a Law Fellow (he joined Brasenose in 1911) in company with his closest friends Fox and Brandt:  “Those were halcyon days, for Bob Brandt was still with us,” and he quotes from a letter Fox had sent him when his poor health forced him to retire: “The jolliest time I had at B.N.C. was when you and Bob and I were together.” Fox had taken the death of his colleague especially hard, even amid the tide of Brasenose casualties that faced him in the newspaper every morning: “I have just heard about Bob. It is the worst of all,” and later: “Bob’s death becomes more awful every day.” To men like Fox, it seemed the war would leave nothing left of Oxford. Harold Macmillan, wounded at the Somme, never completed his Oxford degree after the war: “I could not face going back to Oxford. Whenever I went there, it seemed to be “a city of ghosts.””

Others outside Oxford mourned Brandt, of course. I’ve spent a bit of time in the census and the Times Archive trying to fill out a picture of him, but he really died too young to leave much of a record. What I did find in The Times was a notice which appeared for many years in the In Memoriam section on the anniversary of his death, July 6. The details vary slightly from year to year, sometimes giving more detail of Brandt’s rank or affiliation (“LIEUT. DRUCE ROBERT BRANDT, The Rifle Brigade, 6th Batt. (attached 1st Batt.)”) or specifying the location of his death (“Pilckem, near Ypres”). A few early notices identify him as “our son” or “our dear son”. There’s a pattern if you look hard enough: notices for a few years immediately after his death in 1915, then a pause until 1925, but then until 1947 a notice every single year, on the 5th or the 7th if July 6th was a Sunday. After that, it becomes more unpredictable again.

I went to death records to shed some light, and reminded myself how evocative of real lives, and intensely moving, the dry facts of deaths and census records can be. It transpired that Brandt’s father died early in 1925, and his mother, Florence, in 1949: it was clearly a mother’s devotion that had ensured his name appeared in the newspaper every year without fail from 1925 to 1947, after which time, I fear, Florence (who died in February ’49) was too frail to make the arrangements. Thereafter the notices appear more fitfully, but it’s clear that Brandt’s surviving siblings, Edmund (d. 1965) and Florence Winifred (d. 1971) continued to honour their mother’s determination to commemorate Bob’s death, albeit less punctiliously with the passing of time.

Bob Brandt, as we’ve seen, was one of “The Missing”, men whose bodies were never found, or never identified, a fact which tempers rather the solicitous words of his commanding officer to his parents. The huge number of missing in this war was a trauma which exercised the post-war world greatly, and called forth some remarkable responses from creative minds: tombs of the Unknown Warrior, like the one in Westminster Abbey; Kipling’s exquisite formulation for their tombstones, “A soldier of the Great War, known unto God” (Kipling’s own son was among the missing); Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall, and his architectural masterpiece at Thiepval, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme composed of interlocking arches in such a way as to create the wall space for 73,357 names. One grieving father mentioned by Seldon and Walsh bought some land on the Somme battlefield where his son, Lt. Val Braithwaite, had died, and erected a cross inscribed, “God buried him and no man knoweth his sepulchre.” The urge to commemorate is all the stronger when the dead have no known grave. It feels intrusive even to speculate, but that Florence Brandt’s son had no known place of burial makes her act of commemoration in print all the more explicable, and all the more poignant. (16.06.2014: in Ralph Furse’s introduction to D. R. Brandt: Some of his Letters, published in 1920, I have subsequently found the following: “The surge of heavy fighting swept back and forward over the spot where he fell, and an unknown grave adds to the grief of some who loved him best.”)


1961 saw Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, with its settings of Wilfred Owen’s poetry; Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War was first staged in 1963, while in 1964 the BBC broadcast its Great War TV series. The First World War was returning to the public consciousness in the early Sixties. The very last notice I could find in The Times, coincidentally or not, appeared on July 6, 1965, the fiftieth anniversary of Bob Brandt’s death.

Piety without the pity



As I may have mentioned, I’ve been marking a few exam scripts recently. I probably shouldn’t specify which exams I’ve been marking, but suffice it to say that I’ve had plenty of time to rue the essay questions I and my fellow examiners came up with a few months ago. A colleague described exam marking to me the other day as like being neither alive nor dead, and that’s about right. An inalienable rule seems to govern marking that candidates will home in en masse on just one or two questions. Which questions they will be, you never quite know in advance, but you can be sure that by the end of the process there’ll be certain topics you feel you never want to hear or think about again.

In 2014, for me, it’s pietas, a Roman virtue and the topic this year of a very popular question indeed. Pietas is the source of both our words piety and pity, and it’s a bit like piety and a bit like pity, but it’s best understood as a sense of duty (Jasper Griffin suggests it’s a sense of duty with added emotion, but I can get quite emotional about duties): a Roman man was pius if he honoured the moral duties he owed to members of his family, his country, the gods, and anyone else to whom he had incurred an obligation.

Pietas is the characteristic virtue of Aeneas, the heroic protagonist of Virgil’s Aeneid. At the very start of the poem he’s introduced (1.10) as insignem pietate uirum, “a man remarkable for his pietas” (which makes the poet wonder out loud why such a virtuous man could be so poorly treated by his great nemesis, the goddess Juno). Thereafter the hero is regularly referred to as pius Aeneas, in the poet’s words and in his own (this is how he introduces himself to a stranger at Carthage who turns out to be his mother Venus, for example: sum pius Aeneas, 1.378). When the Greek hero Diomedes reminisces about the Trojan War in Book 11, he recalls the two great Trojan champions he had faced there, Hector and Aeneas: “Both were remarkable in courage and martial excellence, but Aeneas was the foremost in pietas” (11.291-2). (Download this app, incidentally, and you can hear Diomedes say it…)

The perennial question about pietas and Virgil’s Aeneid is whether, for all Virgil’s determination to associate Aeneas with this virtue, the hero really can be considered to exemplify it. This seems to be one of the deep issues posed by Virgil in his poem, since it concerns the morality of the Roman project itself: no wonder students are drawn to it; no wonder also that they struggle with it. So do I: on the one hand an absolutely iconic image of pietas is Aeneas stooping to carry his father on his shoulders, and clutching his son by the hand, as he makes his escape from Troy in Book 2. The hero proves his worth by sacrificing himself for the interests of his father and son, themselves embodiments of the future of his people and their past. A version of the scene (with the hero also carrying a talismanic figure of the goddess Athena) had featured on a coin of Julius Caesar: Caesar’s family legend of descent from Aeneas, transmitted to his adopted son Augustus, provided Virgil with the topic of his poem.



(A more immediate source for Virgil’s interest in his hero’s pietas was Augustus’ own image as the dutiful son of Julius Caesar–who chased down and punished Caesar’s murderers, for example. On one flank of the great temple of Mars Ultor that Augustus built in Rome, a temple commemorating his defeat of Caesar’s assassins in the massive and bloody campaign of Philippi in 42 BC, there was a statue group of Aeneas, his father and son: this wall-painting from Pompeii gives us some sense of what it looked like. Here is a relief from Aphrodisias with another representation of the scene.)

On the other hand Aeneas’ pietas doesn’t always seem so secure. In Books 1 and 4 Aeneas allows himself to fall in love with Dido, queen of Carthage, and the god Mercury can present it as a dereliction of his duties to his son Ascanius, whose glorious future lies in Italy: Aeneas’ departure from Carthage, chivvied by Mercury (you can see a seventeenth-century realisation of the scene at the top of this post), is a reassertion of his pietas, to his son, his people, and his gods. That’s Mercury’s view of things, and an authoritative one, but there are other ways of looking at it. Aeneas’ leaving of Dido might also be seen not so much as a return to pietas on the hero’s part as a clash of pieties: Aeneas owes something to Dido, too (quite how much depends on whether you believe, as Dido does, that the couple are in some sense married).

Well, if Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido already complicates the morality of Aeneas’ mission to found Rome, in the second half of the poem, when Aeneas has landed in Italy and is fighting a bitter war to secure the Trojan settlement there (the ancestor of the city of Rome), his pietas comes under intense scrutiny, and again and again, it seems to me, Virgil goes out of his way to place his hero in situations where an act of pietas can also be read as a contravention of pietas.

One example comes in what may be the most disturbing stretch of narrative in the whole poem. In Book 10 Aeneas’ young protégé Pallas dies in battle at the hands of Aeneas’ rival Turnus. The loss of Pallas seems to send the hero quite berserk, and he cuts a terrifying figure, indiscriminately massacring his enemies, and even taking eight young men prisoner to sacrifice at Pallas’ funeral. This is a simply astonishing thing for the hero of a national epic to do, even taking into account the precedent set by Achilles in Homer’s Iliad after the death of Patroclus: human sacrifice appalled Romans as much as it would us, in fact the Romans thought of it as the kind of thing irredeemable people like the Carthaginians or the Celts got up to.

But what’s weirder still is that, even as he departs from any kind of recognisably civilized behaviour, Aeneas continues to be honoured with this epithet pius. For example, when he vaunts callously over his dying enemy Lucagus, before mercilessly despatching Lucagus’ brother, the introductory formula to his speech takes an incredibly jarring form: quem pius Aeneas dictis adfatus amaris, “Dutiful Aeneas addressed him with biting words” (10.591). And if we think about Aeneas’ human sacrifice, this act of the most morally trangressive kind is being committed in the furtherance of pietas, the honour Aeneas owes to his dead comrade Pallas. The very depths of impiety are the last word in piety.

Well, pondering as I marked the scripts, and sharing the bewilderment of the students, I went back to a strange and deeply intriguing moment in the work of Virgil’s contemporary, the elegiac poet Propertius. In the first poem of his fourth book Propertius talks of an oracle of the Sibyl at Cumae to the effect that “the land must be pianda (sanctified, literally “made pius“) by Remus of the Aventine” (Auentino rura pianda Remo, 4.1.50). The reference is to the myth of the foundation of Rome by Romulus, in the course of which (according to the dominant version of the story) Romulus slew his own twin brother Remus. What’s remarkable, terrifying even, about Propertius’ formulation is that it suggests the killing of Remus by Romulus was a pious religious act, a sacrifice at Rome’s foundation which would ensure the new city’s prosperity. We find a similar idea in the later historian Florus (Remus was “the first sacrificial victim, and sanctified the fortification of the new city with his blood”, 1.1.8), and earlier in Propertius’ poetry, where he talks of “the walls made strong by the slaughter of Remus” (caeso moenia firma Remo, 3.9.50). But if this is an act of piety, and a religiously sanctioned sacrifice is about as pious (or pius) as you can get, the killing of one twin by another twin is a comparably absolute trangression of the very essence of pietas, which is the observance of one’s obligations to kith and kin besides anything else. There is no closer bond of kinship than twin and twin. So according to Propertius, Rome was made pius by an act of unbounded impiety.

What makes the story of Romulus and Remus relevant to the Aeneid is that it’s generally recognised that this alternative myth of the foundation of Rome is designed to be felt through much of Virgil’s account of Aeneas’ exploits. Specifically, the conflict between Aeneas and Turnus, only finally resolved at the very end of the poem when Aeneas kills the Latin prince, owes a lot, alongside its many debts to Homer’s poetry, to the account of Romulus and Remus in the epic poem Annales written by Virgil’s great Roman predecessor Quintus Ennius. It’s worth adding that at other points in the Aeneid there’s a disconcerting tendency for antagonists, Aeneas and another, to resolve themselves into a twin relationship, before one of them is eliminated: in other words, to follow the pattern of Romulus and Remus. That’s one implication, for example, of the gorgeous matching similes describing Dido as the goddess Diana in Book 1 and Aeneas as Apollo in Book 4. At first blush they suggest the compatibility of the couple, the surpassing godlike beauty of each partner to this budding relationship. But ponder things a little longer and you realise that Apollo and Diana are brother and sister, indeed the twin children of Leto. Not a good recipe for a love affair, after all. But Dido will also die, Remus-like, at the end of it.

What the students find so difficult to make sense of is exactly this: that the hero Aeneas seems to be presented by Virgil as simultaneously impeccably pius and irredeemably impius. The end of the poem restages this dilemma in the starkest terms. Aeneas and Turnus fight their final duel, and Turnus falls. He admits his defeat and begs for his life; and Aeneas is inclined to grant it until he catches sight of a balteus, “shoulder band” or “baldric”, plundered by Turnus from the dead body of Pallas, the youthful comrade of Aeneas that Turnus had slain. In a fit of anger provoked by the sight Aeneas sinks his sword into Turnus, and the poem ends with his death.

Virgil seems to have staged this final act very deliberately to draw out its contradictions. For example, Turnus talks of his own father (and mentions Aeneas’ father Anchises) as he tries to persuade Aeneas not to kill him, working on Aeneas’ pietas, his respect for the ties between father and son. It works, as of course it should with pius Aeneas, and the hero checks his impulse to strike the fatal blow; in this context Aeneas’ fatal burst of temper, which then overcomes these scruples, seems all the more inexcusable. Yet of course to respond as sympathetically as Aeneas does to the reminder of the man that Turnus killed, his comrade and protégé Pallas, and indeed to set out to avenge Pallas’ death at all, is pietas through and through.

Whenever I read the Aeneid, what stands out for me is the extreme paradoxicality of its thinking. It presents us with violence that yields peace, brutality that is piety, poetry that is closely akin to malicious rumour, and I feel as strongly now as when I started working on Virgil that these illogical (in fact consciously mystical, I think) patterns of thought arise from the circumstances of the poem’s composition, the fratricidal civil war from which emerged the emperor Augustus and the (as yet, fragile) peace Rome was experiencing when Virgil wrote. “Fratricidal” is my metaphorical turn of phrase here, but it’s a metaphor the Romans also used of that dark period in their history. Indeed in the depths of the civil wars Horace (in Epode 7) traced what seemed to be Rome’s compulsion for self-destruction to its mythical origins, the fratricide of Remus by Romulus, the killing of twin by twin, with which Rome came into existence in the first place.

The hero whose pietas is realised in acts of the utmost impiety, and Rome the city sanctified by an act unimaginably transgressive. Was Virgil suggesting to contemporary Romans through his theme of pietas that what applied in mythical history also applied in their own time, that only through the moral extremities of civil war could a new and prosperous Rome be generated? That in some deeply mysterious way Aeneas’ pietas consists in acts of impietas? If so, we’re in a very, very strange place.

(Reasonable grasp of the text, & historical/archaeological material is interesting enough, though relevance not always self-evident; mulishly committed to pushing a highly idiosyncratic and implausible line of interpretation, however: 66)

The Rubaiyat of Mods

I haven’t blogged in far too long, and what’s mainly to blame is the examining I’m currently doing. In March every year Oxford Classics students take their notoriously challenging first examinations, Honour Moderations in Classics (or Classics Mods for short).This is the last year of my three-year stint as a Moderator, an examiner of Mods, and tomorrow is the final day of two weeks of examinations. Students will celebrate; and I and my fellow Moderators will get down to grading it all.

Well, to mark this important day, a very rare thing: a poem on the subject of Honour Moderations in Classics. It was written at the end of the nineteenth century by one of my predecessors as a Moderator, A. D. Godley.

Godley was a Classics don at Magdalen College, Oxford from 1883 to 1912, and although he produced some works of scholarship (Socrates, and Athenian Society in his Age, and you’re reading Godley if you’re reading the Loeb translation of Herodotus), he’s best known as the author of humorous verse, which he published in the Oxford Magazine and elsewhere, and issued in collections such as Verses to Order (1892 & 1904) and Lyra Frivola (1899). His most celebrated poem is “The Motor Bus”, in which he treats the words “motor” and “bus” as if they’re third and second declension Latin nouns: What is this that roareth thus?/ Can it be a Motor Bus?/ Yes, the smell and hideous hum/ Indicat Motorem Bum! etc.

But from Lyra Frivola comes the Rubaiyyat of Moderations, another extremely donnish (but also at times rather funny) parody of what was perhaps the most popular (and most parodied) poetic collection of the nineteenth century, Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, his version of the poetry of this eleventh/twelfth-century Persian polymath.

So you’ll find here Godley’s parodies of Fitzgerald’s

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness—

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!


The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

There’s quite a lot of late nineteenth-century university slang here, so here’s a short glossary before you start:

“Schools”: the Examination Schools in Oxford, where students sat Mods in 1899 and still do today;

“plough”: a fail;

“gulf”: an unclassified result, i.e. below a third but not a fail: a “pass”;

“mucker”: a heavy fall; “to go a mucker” is to come a cropper, to come to grief;

In stanzas II and III I think the joke hangs on the examination fee paid by candidates in order to enter the exam, but I’d welcome any better ideas.



  Wake! for the Nightingale upon the Bough

  Has sung of Moderations: ay, and now

    Pales in the Firmament above the Schools

  The Constellation of the boding Plough.


  I too in distant Ages long ago

  To him that ploughed me gave a Quid or so:

    It was a Fraud: it was not good enough;

  Ne’er for my Quid had I my Quid pro Quo.


  Yet–for the Man who pays his painful Pence

  Some Laws may frame from dark Experience:

    Still from the Wells of harsh Adversity

  May Wisdom draw the Pail of Common Sense–


  Take these few Rules, which–carefully rehearsed–

  Will land the User safely in a First,

    Second, or Third, or Gulf: and after all

  There’s nothing lower than a Plough at worst.


  Plain is the Trick of doing Latin Prose,

  An Esse Videantur at the Close

    Makes it to all Intents and Purposes

  As good as anything of Cicero’s.


  Yet let it not your anxious Mind perturb

  Should Grammar’s Law your Diction fail to curb:

    Be comforted: it is like Tacitus:

  Tis mostly done by leaving out the Verb.


  Mark well the Point: and thus your Answer fit

  That you thereto all Reference omit,

    But argue still about it and about

  Of This, and That, and T’Other–not of It.


  Say, why should You upon your proper Hook

  Dilate on Things which whoso cares to look

    Will find, in Libraries or otherwhere,

  Already stated in a printed Book?


  Keep clear of Facts: the Fool who deals in those

  A Mucker he inevitably goes:

    The dusty Don who looks your Paper o’er

  He knows about it all–or thinks he knows.


  A Pipe, a Teapot, and a Pencil blue,

  A Crib, perchance a Lexicon–and You

    Beside him singing in a Wilderness

  Of Suppositions palpably untrue–


  ‘Tis all he needs: he is content with these:

  Not Facts he wants, but soft Hypotheses

    Which none need take the Pains to verify:

  This is the Way that Men obtain Degrees!


  ‘Twixt Right and Wrong the Difference is dim:

  ‘Tis settled by the Moderator’s Whim:

    Perchance the Delta on your Paper marked

  Means that his Lunch has disagreed with him:


  Perchance the Issue lies in Fortune’s Lap:

  For if the Names be shaken in a Cap

    (As some aver) then Truth and Fallacy

  No longer signify a single Rap.


  Nay! till the Hour for pouring out the Cup

  Of Tea post-prandial calls you home to sup,

    And from the dark Invigilator’s Chair

  The mild Muezzin whispers “Time is Up”–


  The Moving Finger writes: then, having writ,

  The Product of your Scholarship and Wit

    Deposit in the proper Pigeonhole–

  And thank your Stars that there’s an End of it!