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Pleasaunce

What follows is sheer speculation, but I should start with an explanation.

Last summer I went with my family to Deal in Kent for a week, and one day, intrigued by theories about Julius Caesar’s landing place in 55 and 54 BC, as one is bound to be, I took a long walk down the coast from Deal to within sight of the White Cliffs at Kingsdown.

In Kingsdown I found myself walking past something fine and unexpected, a beautifully presented Edwardian house by the sea with a Latin text carved in its façade.

The text reads si mea laeta placet casa tu precor hospes adesto, or with punctuation, si mea laeta placet casa, tu, precor, hospes, adesto; in English literally, “If my happy cottage is pleasing, do, I pray, stranger, be here”, or more fluently, “If you like my cheerful cottage, stranger, do please come in.” You may notice, though, that some of the letters are larger than others (I pick them out in bold): SI MEA LAETA PLACET CASA TV PRECOR HOSPES ADESTO. These larger letters, understood as Roman numerals, add up (I + V + L + L + C + C + C + D + M) to 1906, apparently the date when the house was constructed. In other words, it’s a chronogram, about which I blogged here, while here I pondered a connection between this chronogram in Deal and the examples from Oxford (including my own college, Brasenose) that I’d discussed in that blog. I so pondered because this example in Deal is a great piece of work, the nicest I’ve seen. Like the chronogram at Brasenose it is in verse, a dactylic hexameter, and it would be an extremely elegant composition even if it weren’t also a dating formula.

Well, I did some rapid research on the internet yesterday, and I started with one slighter stronger assumption, and one decidedly weak. The strong one is that chronograms of this quality are not easy to produce and are thus likely to be the work of a limited number of people. The weak is the one I’ve mentioned: given that I’ve identified two chronograms in Oxford, one on the façade of Frewin Hall from 1888 and another on the front of the Rhodes Building from 1911, as the work of Charles Shadwell, Fellow and later Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, I suspected that this example might have something to do with him too.

What I established yesterday was that in 1963, in the will of Alan Bruce Blaxland, the house bearing the chronogram, named “Pleasaunce”, was given as his residence at the time of his death. Alan Bruce Blaxland C.B. O.B.E. had been a senior officer in the British Indian Army during the Second World War, his most controversial role perhaps coming after the war when he chaired the court-martials of men who had joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army: he died on September 2, 1963 in the Victoria Hospital, Deal, at the age of 71.

In the 1901 and 1911 censuses we find Alan Bruce Blaxland at the ages of 8 and 18 at home with his family, two further brothers and two sisters, his mother Constance and father Bruce, a Church of England clergyman. In 1901 Bruce Blaxland was vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Lilleshall, Shropshire, and in 1911 of the Abbey Church in Shewsbury.

And it’s with Bruce that I start to indulge in wild speculation. The first step is the observation that both Bruce and Constance were from east Kent, Bruce from Canterbury, and Constance from Eastry, which is just a few miles from Kingsdown — my guess is that the house Alan Bruce Blaxland was living in in 1963 was built by his parents as a holiday home back where they spent their childhoods. The next step, and the ice gets less and less secure the further out I venture, involves the Revd. Bruce Blaxland’s education, since according to this very comprehensive account of his career (and I’ve checked out some of the relevant details in The Times archive), he studied Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford from 1879 to 1882, achieving a First Class degree.

This was, needless to say, precisely when Charles Shadwell was a fellow of Oriel, with his hobbies (as listed in Who’s Who) of “punting, billiards, chess problems, chronograms”. From 1874 to 1887, Shadwell, a man devoted to his college, was treasurer of the college, and from 1905 to 1914 its head. In between he lived at Frewin Hall, Oxford, carried out extensive renovations, and popped a Latin, hexametrical chronogram over the front door. I can think of any number of ways by which Blaxland and Shadwell might have become acquainted, and I’m obviously imaging that either Bruce Blaxland got into chronography himself when an undergraduate, inspired by Shadwell (in which case he was an excellent pupil), or (and I think this more likely) Blaxland requested a chronogram from Shadwell at a later date. The coincidence of an Oriel connection just seems too great to me otherwise.

Anyhow, it’s my blog, and I can speculate as much as I like.

Happy media

Hercules Epitrapezios in the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, and image from the same: https://www.fujibi.or.jp/en/our-collection/profile-of-works.html?work_id=1940

A highlight of a challenging term has been teaching, with Barney Taylor, a new course on late first/early second-century Roman literature–Martial and Statius so far, with Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Juvenal to come next term. One text this brought me back to is the fourth book of Statius’ “occasional” (i.e. lighter, officially non-epic) poetry, Silvae. I’ve a personal soft spot for the Silvae, and Silvae 4 especially, because it was while, in 1997 in Dublin, I was listening to a talk on Silvae 4.3, Statius’ celebration of the new Via Domitiana that the emperor had built, a quick road connection to Naples, that I had an idea from which, a decade later, this book finally emerged. The idea of Musa Pedestris was to encourage readers of Roman poetry to pay more attention to the metrical form that it adopted, which (I argued) potentially contributed as much meaning to its poetry as any other element of the composition. The various metrical forms that Roman poetry adopted had their own independent character, established by usage (and theory about usage) over time, and this could shape in interesting ways the poetry they carried.

Well, in a fit of nostalgia, here’s a blog that illustrates the thesis, or tries to, that if you ignore the metre of a Roman poem, you potentially miss something fundamental. The subject is three interrelated poems about a statue of Hercules, by Statius (Silvae 4.6) and Martial (9.43 and 44), but first a couple of general rules about metrical character or ethos by way of introduction; with a warning that what I’m ultimately going to argue here is that the poets want us to see their manipulation of metrical structures as in some sense equivalent to the sculpting of a bronze statuette.

Statius’ poem is in a metre that we call the dactylic hexameter, and which the ancients as often referred to as the “heroic verse”. This was by convention the most elevated poetic form, a metre fit to tell the tales of heroic figures of epic poetry like Achilles or Aeneas. (The notion that combinations of long and short syllables could have a perceived character might seem odd, but here and here are striking illustrations of how well-established it was; and here a less striking one.) In any case the hexameter is Statius’ favourite metre in the Silvae, and among other things allows this supposedly occasional poetry to rise at times to the level of epic. Another metre, meanwhile, the hendecasyllable, had been much used by Catullus, and is both Statius’ choice for a number of the Silvae and the second-most common metre in Martial’s epigrams. When used by both Martial and Statius it can evoke a Catullan atmosphere (it lends a sense of Catullan spontaneity, freedom and youthful energy to Domitian’s new road in Silvae 4.3, for instance), but it was also considered a kind of polar opposite of the grand hexameter, a vehicle for trivialities, not heroes. The choice of metre for 4.3, essentially a panegyric of the emperor, was thus also arrestingly unexpected. Elsewhere the hendecasyllable is used by Statius for festive or Saturnalian poems.

The three poems I’m concerned with here all address a single topic, a miniature statue of Hercules (less than Roman foot high, according to Statius, 4.6.39) that served as a table ornament and was owned by a man with the excellent name Novius Vindex. The poems are in hexameters (Statius, Silvae 4.6), hendecasyllables (Martial 9.44), and in the case of Martial 9.43 elegiac couplets. A final word on that last metrical system. The elegiac couplet combines a hexameter line with a shorter dactylic length known as a pentameter, and one consequence is that it can carry with it a sense of being closely related to the heroic hexameter, since that provides its first line, yet also inferior, since a pentameter, a shorter length, always follows the hexameter. But note that this kinship with the hexameter securely establishes elegiacs as higher in the metrical pecking order than hendecasyllables.

Here is one example from elsewhere in the Silvae of the kind of subtle play with metrical associations that these poets are capable of.

Silvae 1.2 is an epithalamion, a marriage poem, for L. Arruntius Stella, a patron of poets such as Statius and Martial and a poet in his own right, the author of love elegies in the tradition of Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid. These had their trademark metre, the elegiac couplet that we’ve mentioned, a combination of a dactylic hexameter and pentameter often said to fall short of the epic hexameter by one foot (pente < hex). Statius’ poem (playfully) presents Stella’s marriage to his new bride Violentilla as an abandonment of his elegiac life of dissolute love (his formerly solutus amor must now obey the laws of marriage, 28-9), and the metre of Statius’ own poem, hexameter, is made to express in its own right Stella’s new status as a respectable married man. Elegy herself, embodiment of the metrical form of elegiac poetry, and of the kind of poetry for which that metre was the vehicle, attends their wedding. In Ovid’s love elegies Elegy had been portrayed as limping (deficient in one foot, geddit?) and all the more attractive for it (Amores 3.1.7-10). Statius’ Silvae have survived by a whisker, and the text is often difficult to reconstruct. But at Silvae 1.2.7-10 Elegy tries to slip herself unnoticed among the nine Muses who are hymning the happy couple, and she does something with her foot (the critical word is unclear, but it may suggest a built-up shoe) to conceal her tell-tale elegiac limp. It’s a brilliant conceit, even if we can’t quite see exactly how it works: if Elegy loses her limp, we have the heroic hexameter, and the hexameter here means marital respectability.

But back to Novius Vindex’s statue of Hercules. It was a representation of the the hero is a relaxed state that had both miniature and full-size (and larger than full-size) versions in antiquity (on this ambiguously titled “Hercules Epitrapezios” see M. Beard and J. Henderson, Classical Art from Greece to Rome, 197-8). The originals, big and small, of this image were attributed to Lysippus (on whose remarkable influence as a sculptor of Heracles see here), and numerous copies survive to this day. But Vindex’s statue is claimed by the poets to be an original, the work of Lysippus’ own hand, and furthermore to boast an illustrious history of ownership, having passed from Alexander to Hannibal and on to the Roman dictator L. Sulla. This seems unlikely, although all three of these men did display particular respect for Heracles/Melqart/Hercules, it is fair to say.

Sitzender Herkules, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, https://www.khm.at/it/objektdb/detail/67480/?offset=42&lv=list

A key theme in the poems on Vindex’s statue is the tension inherent in a statue of a great hero (and a statue that had allegedly belonged to some of the most famous figures in history) which is diminutive in size and function, and in the possession of a private citizen. Statius develops this play between big and small, heroic and domestic, public and private at some length, but Martial does similar things in his first epigram (9.43), which can illustrate the theme:

Hic qui dura sedens porrecto saxa leone
       mitigat, exiguo magnus in aere deus,
quaeque tulit spectat resupino sidera uultu,
       cuius laeua calet robore, dextra mero:
non est fama recens nec nostri gloria caeli;               5
       nobile Lysippi munus opusque uides.
hoc habuit numen Pellaei mensa tyranni,
       qui cito perdomito uictor in orbe iacet;
hunc puer ad Libycas iurauerat Hannibal aras;
       iusserat hic Sullam ponere regna trucem.              10
offensus uariae tumidis terroribus aulae
       priuatos gaudet nunc habitare lares,
utque fuit quondam placidi conuiua Molorchi,
       sic uoluit docti Vindicis esse deus.

“This one that sits and softens the hard rocks with outspread/ lionskin, a mighty god in a miniscule bronze,/ and gazes at the stars he once bore with upturned face,/ whose left hand is busy with a club, his right with wine–/ he is no recent object of fame nor the glory of a Roman chisel;/ it is the noble work and gift of Lysippus that you see./ This deity the table of the tyrant of Pella possessed,/ who lies at rest a victor in a world he swiftly subdued;/ by him the young Hannibal swore an oath at a Libyan altar;/ it was he that bade pitiless Sulla lay down his kingship./ Discomfited by the inflamed terrors of diverse courts,/ he rejoices now to dwell in a private house,/ and as once he dined with peaceful Molorchus,/ so the god wished to be the guest of learned Vindex.”

Martial wrote two poems on the same subject, as mentioned. In other words Vindex’s statue provokes in Martial a metrical game he occasionally plays, presenting alternative accounts of a circumstance in different metres, elegiacs and hendecasyllables, the metres seemingly shaping each treatment according to their traditional character. The phenomenon is investigated by Patricia Watson, “Contextualising Martial’s metres”, in R.R. Nauta, H.-J. Van Dam & J.J.L. Smolenaars (eds.), Flavian Poetry (2006), 285-98.

Martial 9.44’s approach to the subject, in hendecasyllables, is strikingly different from his preceding poem. Whereas the elegiacs we have just seen are overtly poetic and formal in expression, 9.44 is colloquial, realistic, and humorous:

Alciden modo Vindicis rogabam
esset cuius opus laborque felix.
risit, nam solet hoc, leuique nutu
‘Graece numquid’ ait ‘poeta nescis?
inscripta est basis indicatque nomen.’              5
Lysippum lego, Phidiae putavi.

“I recently asked Vindex’s Hercules/ whose work and happy creation he was./ He laughed, as is his way, and with a light nod/ “Poet”, he said, “don’t you know Greek?/ My base is inscribed and shows the name.” I read Lysippus. I thought it was Phidias’s.”

This is a controversial poem. Change the text of the first line a bit and it’s Vindex being questioned, not the god himself; and the point of the last line is elusive, too. But what matters for my purposes is the metrical self-awareness that Martial sees fit to flaunt in his book of epigrams, largely for its own sake. I’d merely make a provisional further point at this stage that Martial’s poetic reception of Vindex’s bijou statue of Hercules shares with that statue a mastery of high and low, the capacity to capture it in the elevated, aestheticised terms of dactylic elegy, and also in the colloquial mode of the hendecasyllable.

Statius also seems determined to create a poetic artefact that shares characteristics with the statue it celebrates, and again his approach has a metrical dimension, I think.

Silvae 4.6 addresses Vindex’s statue in terms so close to Martial’s as to make us suspect the guiding hand of Vindex in each–intriguingly, the two leading Flavian poets never explicitly acknowledge each other’s existence. Again, a key conceit in Statius’ poem is the grandeur of the figure of Hercules paradoxically captured in a tiny figure, finesque inclusa per artos/ maiestas (35-6), “small to the sight, huge in impression” (37-8, paruusque uideri/ sentirique ingens). And like Martial again, Statius’ celebration of this diminutive masterpiece ranges between poetic styles. In this case Silvae 4.6 traverses the full spectrum of poetic registers from satire to epic before settling in an intermediary position that the “occasional” Silvae find congenial.

Let me explain what I mean, and what the implications for metre are. Verse satire was a genre pursued by Horace, Persius and Juvenal (and C. Lucilius before them) and was considered Rome’s only poetic innovation–everything else they borrowed from the Greeks. Satire was a genre of criticism, and more generally a poetry that concerned itself with the lowest, meanest aspects of human life. Satire is never entirely convinced that it’s really poetry at all, so unedifying is its content. (It’s a melancholy fact that the one genre of poetry Romans could call their own isn’t certain it is poetry.) A development that crystallized satire’s character was C. Lucilius’ decision to adopt the dactylic hexameter as the signature metre of this anti-genre–an outrageous choice, since it matched the most elevated metre to the tawdry topics of satire. This reinforced satire’s status as a response, or antidote, to the artificiality of epic poetry. Every subsequent satirical hexameter, one might say, advertised the mismatch of content and vehicle.

Statius in 4.6 frames his encounter with Vindex as a dinner to which Vindex has invited him, and he starts his poem with extensive reminiscence of Horace’s Satires, when he insists the joy of the dinner was not a matter of luxurious food, for instance (Kathy Coleman’s commentary to Silvae 4 cites parallels in Horace), but most obviously at the very start, where Statius wandering idly in Rome, described in a conversational tone, strongly evokes Horace doing the same in Satire 1.9 (Statius’ first line alludes to the first and last line of Horace’s poem). But the dinner-by-invitation, cena, and the sermo, “conversation”, that was conventionally the essence of a good cena (the quality of the sermo chez Vindex is singled out by Statius), were the bread and butter (so to speak) of satirical poetry.

Soon enough, though, Statius’ poem rises to a higher register, as Amphitryoniades enters the poem, “Hercules son of Amphitryon” (33), a grandiose epic patronymic filling half the line, and especially when Statius starts enumerating his eminent previous owners. Here is Hannibal’s spectacular introduction by way of illustration (75-8):

Mox Nasamoniaco decus admirabile regi        
possessum; fortique deo libauit honores
semper atrox dextra periuroque ense superbus
Hannibal.

“Presently the marvellous treasure came to belong to the Nasamonian king: the valiant god he, Hannibal, honoured by libation, ever savage with his right hand and arrogant with treacherous sword.”

Statius’ poem will ultimately find its way to an accommodation of these divergent registers, the god Hercules still epically mighty, but relaxed and at peace (and pint-sized, of course) in Vindex’s private home, and this compromise typifies the intermediary poetics to which the Silvae aspire. The interplay of large and small, high and low, in Statius’ poem and Martial’s epigrams has been well investigated by Charles McNelis, “Ut sculptura poesis: Statius, Martial, and the Hercules Epitrapezios of Novius Vindex,” AJPh 129 (2008), 255-76, with an emphasis on Callimachus as a model (Molorchus in particular points in his direction), and McNelis draws out the emulative impulse of Martial’s and Statius’s response to the statue–poetic achievements comparable in artistic dexterity to the statuette itself are the only adequate way to celebrate it.

All I’d like to add is a proper recognition of the role of satire in Statius’ poem, and an observation about metre that links both poets. Martial and Statius react to Vindex’s statue with poetry that seeks to match the quality of a valuable artefact, and that matches it in one particular respect: both poets advertise a control of the high and the low parallel to that of the sculptor Lysippus, a mastery of the spectrum of registers from the mundane to the magnificent. In Martial’s case this is conveyed by two poems in contrasting metres and concomitant styles; but Statius also exploits the scope available to him within the Roman history of a single metre, the dactylic hexameter, shifting between the hexametrical poles of satire and epic with as much deftness as Martial flips from elegiacs to hendecasyllables.

When I was writing about metre many years ago I came to feel that the Romans regarded the metrical forms of their poetry as closely akin to physical structures. Michael Roberts considers Statius a harbinger of the style of late-antique Latin poetry, and in The Jeweled Style (1989), p.21 has this to say of the latter:

“Words are viewed as possessing a physical presence of their own, distinct from any considerations of sense or syntax. They may be moved like building blocks or pieces in a puzzle to create ever new formal constructs. It is this sense of the physical existence of words and of meter as their structural matrix that underlies the ingenious verbal patterns of Optatianus Porfyrius and the Technopaegnion of Ausonius.”

Not the least important respect in which Statius and Martial craft an adequate response to Lysippus’ miniature god, creating poetic artefacts comparable to an exquisite sculpture, is in their absolute mastery of the poetic structures we call metres.

Statua colossale di Ercole, da Alba Fucens (Aq), museo archeologico nazionale di Chieti. Image courtesy of Inabruzzo.it

Messenger

In the last book of Homer’s Iliad, Priam ventures out of the safety of the city of Troy and makes his way to the camp of the Achilles, who is keeping with him the corpse of Priam’s eldest son Hector and daily tying it to his chariot and dragging it around the walls of Troy. Priam is a vulnerable old man moving across No Man’s Land in darkness to a place of greatest danger, and there on the plain of Troy the god Hermes comes to meet him (Iliad 24.360-71, tr. Hammond):

“But the very god, the kindly one, came close to him, and took the old man by the hand and spoke to him with questions: ‘Where is it, father, that you are driving your horses and mules through the immortal night, when other men are sleeping? Are you not frightened of the Achaians who breathe fury? They are your enemies and intend you harm, and they are close by. If any of them were to see you coming through the quick black night with so many treasures, what would become of you then? You are not young yourself, and your companion here is too old for defence against a man who starts a fight with you. But I will do you no harm, and indeed I will protect you from any who would—I look on you as my own father.'”

But what has the god Hermes got to do with the three-metre tall, solid bronze sculpture of a foot that is pictured at the top?

A valid question, to which the beginning of an answer is that the title of that sculpture, a work by William Tucker, is Messenger, and an account of the thinking behind it runs as follows: “Using the energy in the moment of lift of a foot leaping, Tucker describes through just one element of anatomy the idea of the classical messenger Hermes perhaps taking flight.”

William Tucker is an extremely distinguished modernist sculptor who also happens to have been a student at my college, Brasenose, studying Modern History between 1955 and 1958. Earlier in the year he contacted our Fellow in Fine Arts, Ian Kiaer, to offer one of his sculptures to his old college. After some consideration, it has been agreed that Messenger will be installed in the near future at Frewin, an accommodation annexe of Brasenose College on the other side of central Oxford.

Frewin is about to enjoy a major facelift. It is a fascinating spot, in many ways of greater historic interest than the College’s main site. It was a college in its own right once, St Mary’s, and while it lasted Erasmus spent a term there. At its heart is an old house, Frewin Hall, which I’ve written about before, and which has elements from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but a cellar that dates back to the twelfth, and a façade we owe to an eccentric, chronogram-obsessed resident at the end of the nineteenth century. Frewin Hall was badly chopped about in the eighties, but it is going to be restored in the next few years, with its ground floor suite of panelled rooms turned into a student common room/library. I’m excited also, after a chat with the architect, about the possibilities for my favourite space in the entire College, the Norman cellar.

At the same time, a beautiful new accommodation building, planning permission permitting, will be rising to the south of Frewin Hall, and the green areas of Frewin will be replanted and relandscaped. A gift from the greatest artist ever to emerge from Brasenose College, which will be a central feature of the new gardens, could not have come at a more opportune time.

Tucker’s style of sculpture has evolved over time from abstract works like this at MoMA to the more figurative style represented by Messenger. It remains the case that the impact of this piece derives, like any sculpture, from intangible things like size, material and texture as much as from any real object or associations it may evoke. But one of the best arguments for giving Messenger a permanent place at the heart of our educational establishment is the meaning conveyed by Tucker’s sculpture of a rising foot inspired by the messenger god Hermes.

Which brings us back to Hermes in the last book of the Iliad, lending his protection to Priam in the space between Troy and the Achaean camp. Because that is Hermes in his very element. We could consider this fascinating god the denizen of the spaces between, or the divine patron of transition, but in any case Hermes’ special area of jurisdiction is connections. He is of course the means of communication, as the divine herald, between gods and humans, and in a moment like his descent in Aeneid Book 4 to instruct Aeneas to leave Carthage, one level of interpretation is to see the god as the action of the special capacity, reason, that unites gods and humans, according to the ancients. Aeneas when Mercury appears to him “sees reason” in more senses than one. Hermes/Mercury bridges other spaces, escorting the souls of the dead from this world to the next, and a patron also of commerce. He invents the lyre and music; he could be understood as the inventor of language itself. He is the god of thieves and protection against thieves–again, that undefined territory in-between.

I quoted to my colleagues a neat summary of Hermes’ jurisdiction from Arlene Allan, Hermes (Routledge, 2018), 18:

“We may, with [Robert] Parker, categorise this involvement [of Hermes] in mortal life according to the triad ‘transition/communication/exchange’: he moves individuals and societies from ignorance to knowledge (communication); from point A to point B (transition); and from want to satisfaction (exchange). Or we might, as previously suggested, prefer to think of these three general areas as subsumable under the single word ‘translation’ in its various shades of meaning. However, the idea of Hermes can be further articulated by identifying what is accomplished through his interaction. Collectively the evidence points to Hermes as the power behind purposeful individual and systemic movement kata moiran (‘according to destiny’): his is the power that makes connections and builds relationships.”

A college is a society of learning, and Hermes the messenger at so many levels a perfect embodiment of its ethos. Tucker’s statue, with beautiful economy, and a lovely tension between solid metal and the deft movement it represents, captures with a brazen body part, I would propose, the essence of the College of the Brazen Nose.

The Lifeboat Calamity at Wells

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One hundred and forty years ago today, my great-great-grandfather was drowned at sea.

John Elsdon, from Wells in Norfolk, was a fisherman, like many in Wells, and also served on the crew of the Wells lifeboat. In late October 1880 gales were lashing the east coast of England, and on November 1 The Times reported a disaster in Wells (p. 10):

“It is feared that by the capsizing of the lifeboat at Wells on Friday [October 29] 11 of the crew have been drowned. It appears that the boat went out to the assistance of the brig Ocean Queen, of Sunderland, but could not get alongside owing to the falling tide, and was returning when she was struck by a heavy sea, which capsized her, The crew consisted of Robert William Elsdon, harbour master and captain; John Elsdon, coxswain; Samuel Smith, Charles Smith, William Field, George Jay, William Green, Thomas Kew, Charles Hinds, John Stacey, Frank Abel, William Wordingham, and William Bell, all seamen. Of these only Thomas Kew and William Bell have been saved. One of the survivors states that the crew had on their cork jackets. Some clung to the boat, or were entangled in the gear, while others, separated from her, struck out for shore half-a-mile distant. The lifeboat did not right herself until she had been driven a considerable distance, and had her mast carried away. Bell was afterwards found in the boat; Kew swam ashore, and was picked up half dead by the coastguard. One or two bodies were picked up on Friday night and several others were recovered on Saturday. All the 11 drowned men were married, and leave families–Jay as many as eight children. The crew of the Ocean Queen walked ashore at low water.”

Robert William Elsdon was in fact the coxswain of the lifeboat, “Eliza Adams”, while John was his younger brother (and my ancestor). On November 4 The Times (p. 11) published a letter by the local MP which among other things adds the detail that the Wells lifeboat had already executed a rescue on the night of October 29 (of seven souls from the brig “Sharon’s Rose”) before it headed out again to the aid of “Ocean Queen”. In between trips out, the crew had largely been replaced, but the more experienced men, including Robert William Elsdon, 62, and John, 60, were involved in both efforts. Propelling a lifeboat in stormy seas was mainly done by rowing, and I cannot imagine how exhausted they were by the time they set out for the second time:

“Sir,–I venture to make appeal on behalf of the ten widows and 27 orphans of the gallant lifeboatmen who perished from the Wells lifeboat on Friday last. The facts of this distressing case have already been made generally known, and my present object is simply to ask your co-operation in helping me to bring the claims of the bereaved families under the notice of the British public. The lifeboat work has assumed a national character, and, therefore, naturally appeals to every one for sympathy and aid in such distressful circumstances. The district in which this calamity occurred is a poor one, and the county, being an agricultural one, has, like similar counties, suffered much from agricultural depression. I feel sure that the National Lifeboat Institution, to whom the lifeboat belonged, will, as usual, deal most liberally and generously with the fund for the relief of the widows and orphans, but the institution can hardly be expected to meet altogether the requirements of this distressing case. I therefore appeal with confidence to the co-operation of The Times in helping me to bring into prominent notice the strong and urgent claims of the widows and orphans of those noble men who sacrificed their own lives while attempting to save the lives of others. I may mention that the Wells lifeboat had only an hour or so previously been successful in saving a shipwrecked crew, and it was only on a second trip that this dreadful calamity happened, when she was attempting to save the crew of a Sunderland vessel. I beg to add that I shall be happy myself to receive contributions on behalf of the fund, or they may be paid to Messrs. Gurneys and Co., Bank, Wells, Norfolk, or to their London agents, Messrs. Barclay and Co., Lombard-street, E.C. I am yours faithfully, EDWARD BIRKBECK, M.P. for North Norfolk. Horstead-hall, Norwich, Nov. 3″

On November 20 (The Times p.8) subscriptions to the relief fund in the intervening fortnight are recorded. £1,000 from the National Lifeboat Association has been roughly doubled by subventions from such as HRH The Prince of Wales (£20), the Earl of Leicester (£100) and “Kelling Church Collection, per Rev. R. J. Roberts” (£1 3s 9d). Further contributions are invited, but I have no idea if the resulting sum was equal to the need. Robert William Elsdon’s widow Emily describes herself in the 1881 census, taken on April 3, as a “Lifeboat Annuitant”.

My great-grandfather (also called Robert William Elsdon), the son of John Elsdon, was in his mid-thirties by the time of his father’s death, and I think already a dock worker in the London Docks. My grandmother grew up in Poplar, and is listed in the 1901 census, at the age of 13, as a “Factory Lad”. John Elsdon’s widow Harriet, my great-great-grandmother, lived to the age of 91, dying in Wells in 1916, though I don’t know how well my grandmother knew hers. A photo survives of Harriet Elsdon with a daughter (I’m not as yet sure which: Harriet had six in total, I think), son-in-law and two granddaughters, the clothes of the latter suggesting a date in the early 1900s, when Harriet, born in 1824, was approaching eighty:

In 1906, at the initiative of Thomas Kew, one of the survivors, a memorial (image at the top) was unveiled near the Lifeboat House in Wells, with Harriet undoubtedly in attendance: there’s a photo of Kew in front of it here.

Forty years ago my mother and I visited Wells to see the memorial that she had heard about, and arrived, quite by chance, within a couple of days of the centenary.

You can donate to the RNLI here.

Ars

From E. C. Bayley, “Notes on some sculptures found in the district of Peshawar”, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 21 (1852), 606–21, a scan provided by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org).

A particularly excellent initiative from the outstanding Gandhara Connections project based in Oxford, directed by my old friend Peter Stewart, is a series of short, stimulating introductions to Gandharan topics written by Project Consultant Dr Wannaporn Kay Rienjang. The latest of these, on the monastery site of Jamalgarhi, one of the most celebrated archaeological sites in the Peshawar valley, is as highly recommended as its predecessors. For the purposes of this blog, though, it contains the image at the top, an image that set me thinking.

It is E. C. Bayley’s drawing of one of a number of Buddhist sculptures provided to him by two British officers, Lieutenant Stokes and Lieutenant Lumsden, of the Horse Artillery and the Guide Corps respectively, who had removed them from Jamalgarhi. My immediate thought when I saw it was that the Buddha and the figure with his back turned to the Buddha’s immediate left bore a remarkable similarity to another relief I was familiar with from Jamalgarhi. This relief, now in the Indian Museum in Kolkata (no. G-34), is best illustrated by James Craddock’s photograph from 1880 on the British Library site of pieces found in later, more official excavations of the monastery:

Source: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/photocoll/b/largeimage59035.html

The carving in the relief at the centre of this image is especially fine. But what I had been reminded of within this composition was the central figure of the Buddha and the figure to his left, here with Bayley’s equivalents for comparison:

The two compositions, from the realisation of the Buddha and his orientation to the striking presentation of the accompanying figure, back turned, left leg bent, are very similar indeed, and Peter and Kay tell me that such replication in a monastery’s decorative scheme is quite unusual.

Now, my personal interest here is the figure with his back turned to the Buddha’s left, and I’ll come to him presently. Before I do, though, a little bit more on these images as we have them, or indeed don’t have them. Bayley’s sketches of the sculptures that he had received are in fact all that we do now have, because the sculptures picked up by Stokes and Lumsden subsequently travelled to London for exhibition, and were on display in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham when fire broke out at the end of December 1866, destroying (according to the Illustrated London News January 5, 1867, p. 22) “nearly all the north quarter of that magnificent structure, containing the Tropical Department; the whole of the Natural History Collection; the Assyrian, Alhambra, and Byzantine Courts; the Queen’s Apartments; the Library and Printing Offices; the India, Architectural, Model, and Marine Galleries.” (E. Errington, The Western discovery of the art of Gandhara (1987), 90; V. A. Smith, “Graeco-Roman influence on the civilisation of ancient India”, JASB 58 (1889), 107-98 at 113; J. Burgess, “The Gandhara Sculptures”, The Journal of Indian Art 8 (1900), 23-90, at 23-4).

From The Illustrated London News January 12, 1867, p. 1.

They were never photographed before their destruction, and one particular question I have is thus left unanswerable: whether the Buddha’s companion was indeed more discreetly clothed in the relief that Bayley sketched, or Bayley added the pants out of a Victorian sense of propriety.

We shall never know, but what remains of this blog is dedicated to establishing that the posterior of this figure, be it clothed or left magnificently bare, is of the greatest significance. In both images it belongs to Vajrapani, the attendant and guardian of the Buddha who wields the vajra or thunderbolt, symbol of the Buddha’s penetrating insight. A fascinating feature of Gandharan art is its adoption for the iconography of Vajrapani, in many instances, of the Greco-Roman Heracles, perhaps the most striking example (again no longer in existence) being a Vajrapani from the monastery complex of Hadda in eastern Afghanistan:

Image from a Persée scan of Z. Tarzi, “Hadda à la lumière des trois dernières campagnes de fouilles de Tapa-è-Shotor”, Comptes rendus de séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 120 (1976), 381-410 at 395.

In the case of Jamalgarhi, Bayley comments on the Vajrapani he had sketched, “This figure, which has its back turned to the spectator, is admirably designed” (108), and that judgement is easy to understand from the Craddock photo, which shows a remarkably subtle realisation of a muscular Herculean physique.

What’s even more remarkable, though, is the specific source of this Herculean representation of Vajrapani. If we compare the Jamalgarhi Vajrapanis with a reasonably famous image of Hercules…

The Farnese Hercules, front and back, image by erikakettleson on flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/54849035@N08/5075985885/sizes/o/in/photostream/

…we have the same straight right leg and flexed left, the same (shall we say) prominent buttocks, and comparably pronounced musculature of the back. The Farnese Hercules in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, discovered on the site of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, is the most famous example of a very common sculptural image of the hero, the so-called “Weary Hercules”, a work originally by Lysippus in the fourth century BC of which over 80 imitations from antiquity survive (M. Beard and J. Henderson, Classical art from Greece to Rome (2001), 199-202), presumably not including these two examples from Pakistan.

Lysippus’ Hercules didn’t travel directly to Jamalgarhi, or at least not necessarily. Another imitation of the Weary Hercules was discovered at the site of Seleucia on the Tigris near Baghdad in the 1980s. This is a precious historical document, as Parthian Sources Online explains: on either thigh of the statue accounts are inscribed, in Greek and Parthian (calling him Heracles in Greek and Verethragna, the name of a Persian hero, in the Parthian), of its capture by the Parthian king in the reconquest of a client kingdom, Mesene, in AD 151. There is no image I can legally place here, I don’t think, but at this site there are front and rear views of Heracles-Verethragna, and the key element of the latter is described by Antonio Invernizzi in La terra tra i due fiumi: venti anni di archeologia italiana in Medio Oriente (1985), 420-22 using unmistakeable terms that also go much better in Italian, somehow: “I glutei asimmetrici sono un po’ squadrati, divisi da un profondo solco e hanno forte rilievo sulle cosce,” “The asymmetric buttocks are a little square, divided by a deep cleft and stand out prominently from the thighs.”

Lysippus’ Heracles at Jamalgarhi, pronounced buttocks and all, has been as fully accommodated in his new Buddhist context as Heracles/Verethragna was in Parthia. Each relief presents stories from the Buddha’s life, presented in consecutive scenes like a cartoon strip, and in the case of the Craddock photo that is the tale of the white dog that barked. This is a discipline full of beautiful books, I have discovered, but Isao Kurita, Gandharan art = Gandara bijutsu (Tokyo, 2003), recommended to me by Peter Stewart, may take the biscuit, two volumes of images of Gandharan art and explanations of their content, and on p. 325 there is a summary of this story: the Buddha visits the house of Śuka, where a white dog on a couch barks furiously at him. The Buddha reveals that the dog is Śuka’s father and that treasure that his father had covetously buried is there to be dug up. The dog, under the Buddha’s influence, proceeds to do so.

The story represented in Bayley’s sketch is less obvious, though it is clearly entirely different. It looks like someone is threatening violence, the figure to our left drawing a sword, but after reading, with Kay Rienjang’s encouragement, Monica Zin’s brilliant article, “About two rocks in the Buddha’s life story”, East and West 56 (2006), 329-58, I don’t think it’s the resentful and aggressive monk Devadatta. It may possibly be the story of Angulimala, a mass murderer converted by the Buddha and taken by him to a monastery, on whom see Zin again, “The unknown Ajanta painting of the Angulimala story”, in C. Jarrige and V. Lefèvre, South Asian Archaeology 2001 II: Historical Archaeology and Ancient History (2005), 705-13. I’m open to other suggestions, needless to say, but this is an important point: “Heracles” features in scenes which are stylistically very influenced by Greece, but in every other respect, and most importantly in their religious significance, Indian. Heracles on the Tigris was still Heracles to those reading his right thigh, at least, but what looks to me like Heracles at Jamalgarhi really isn’t Heracles any more.

That said, there’s something about the virtuosity with which an artist at Jamalgarhi has rendered the Lysippan model, the boldness with which he presents Vajrapani nude, and with his back to us, that seems to demand we compare it to its Mediterranean forebears. It frankly staggers me (perhaps I am easily staggered) that the movement of Heracles across the vast expanses of the ancient world was not just a matter of his general image and physical attributes crossing cultures, but of the persistence of quite specific artistic realisations of the god-hero: here an image created by Alexander’s favourite sculptor features in a Buddhist tale of a man reincarnated as a dog, and maybe also a man turned from extreme violence to peaceful meditation, and that rather encapsulates the astonishing resilience of an artistic idea while all around it is utterly transformed.

My own small contribution to all of this is to note that Vajrapani’s shapely Lysippan derrière featured not just once in the astonishingly rich embellishment of the monastery at Jamalgarhi but twice. And why not? It is a truly illustrious ancestry that those buttocks can claim.

West is East & East is West

We all have nostalgic memories of the time before Covid, our own private summers of 1914. In my case it’s a trip I took on the coattails of the Oxford Modern History Faculty, and in particular of Abigail Green and Faridah Zaman, to Woking, where we saw the oldest purpose-built mosque in the country (once part of Gottlieb Leitner’s Oriental Institute) and heard from Tharik Hussain about an amazing community history project, Everyday Muslim, led by Sadiya Ahmed. We rounded off the day with a visit with Tharik to Brookwood Cemetery.

Many things I saw and heard and discussed on that day stick in my mind, and I remember also that the weather was dreadful, nothing like the summer of 1914, but something I really haven’t stopped thinking about since is the beautiful Parsi (Zoroastrian) section of the larger cemetery at Brookwood. I’m writing about it now (the trip was back in February) because I’m pondering a lecture I plan to give on Classics and British India; also, though, because of things said in the context of the 2499th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae to do with the Greek/Persian conflict as an archetypal assertion of (superior) West v. (inferior) East. What I offer here is something to lob into that pot, perhaps, but I hope that what emerges most strongly is the respect of this complete outsider for the longstanding Parsi community in this country, and for the power of its cultural expression.

I return to the simple visual impact of the Parsi cemetery, hard to capture in writing. Here, though, is a clip from The Sphere, a long-discontinued Empire-wide newspaper which on July 13th, 1901 welcomed the consecration of the cemetery (the Parsee Burial Ground had been established in 1862, so this was, I suppose, a reorganization of the space on a more formal basis) with the following report:

From the British Newspaper Archive

At the heart of the cemetery stands the tomb (on the left) of Nowrosjee Nashirwanjee Wadia, a leading light in the Bombay cotton industry (The Times April 24, 1952, p.6), and it is a replica of Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae, establishing an Achaemenid theme further illustrated in the Sphere report by architecture and architectural decoration evoking Persepolis. The tombs of the Tata family that now mark the boundary to the avenue similarly (the one on the left is very like the Wadia tomb without the elevation):

The symbolism of this style of funerary architecture is powerful and clear, a claim to cultural continuity with the Ancient Persian builders of Persepolis and Pasargadae. The Parsis are an Indian minority, concentrated particularly in Mumbai, who trace their descent from Zoroastrians who left Iran in the wake of the Arab conquest, or that is the tradition. The religion they profess is of enormous antiquity in Iran, and while there is debate whether the Achaemenid kings themselves observed anything strictly definable as Zoroastrianism, Parsis can reasonably claim religious and cultural community with that early period of Persian history.

There is an excellent collection of essays on Zoroastrianism in M. Strausberg and Y. S.-D. Vevaina, The Wiley Companion to Zoroastrianism, which I’m currently part-way through. One of the editors, my colleague Yuhan Vevaina, also replied to a typically ill-informed enquiry from me about Brookwood with some fascinating scholarship on other Achaemenid revivals in modern times, one of them a close parallel to what I’m talking about here.

R. Schmitt and M. Stolper, “An Old Persian cuneiform inscription on a tomb in the Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 136 (2016), 591-601, is a lovely thing, a scholarly edition of a Persian cuneiform text composed for a mausoleum built less than a century ago. The tomb, in an Achaemenid style of architecture and decoration, was constructed, and the text presumably composed, between 1922 and 1924 for Phirozshaw D. Saklatvala, a representative of the interests of the Tata family (to whom he was related) in the United States. It holds Phirozshaw and his wife Mae, who died in 1934 and 1939 respectively, Phirozshaw’s brother Behram (d. 1944), and an infant daughter of the Saklatvalas, Jerbai, who died in 1920 or 1921, and thus, rather poignantly, motivated the construction of the tomb from 1922. The mother of the Saklatvala brothers, also Jerbai, is buried at Brookwood, as is another brother, Shapurji, who was twice MP for Battersea North, representing the Communist Party. Here are the Tata mausolea again, and Jerbai is the reclining figure on the right beyond the stone pergola–Shapurji is also commemorated there:

The New York Saklatvala tomb is another piece of funerary architecture making powerful use of Achaemenid models, then, and there is every reason to believe it drew some inspiration from Brookwood. N. N. Wadia’s tomb doesn’t feature cuneiform, but it does imitate in its main inscription the style of Achaemenid monuments: I AM NOWROSJEE NASHIRWANJEE WADIA/ OF THE ANCIENT ARYAN RACE OF PERSIA/ A CITIZEN OF THE LOYAL TOWN OF BOMBAY/ WHO LIE HERE PEACEFULLY UNDER/ THE FAR OFF SKY OF WIDE FAMED BRITAIN.

What Yuhan also pointed me towards was discussion of “Neo-Achaemenism” within Iran, where it carries a significant extra charge. A lot of attention is given to Persepolis ’71, the spectacular performance staged by the last Shah in 1971, featuring a pageant of Iranian history back to the Achaemenids, to mark 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. A speech by the Shah before Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae, with an audience of heads of state from across the world, kicked proceedings off. The Shah was claiming a status for his country in world affairs, a Great Civilisation to compete with others, based on the grandeur and antiquity of Ancient Iranian culture in particular. As such, the narrative presented sidelined the Islamic history of Iran, and that, alongside the expense and general excess of Persepolis ’71, ended up fuelling opposition to the Shah’s regime, leading ultimately to the Islamic Revolution at the end of the decade.

Talinn Grigor reads Persepolis ’71 as a kind of internalized Orientalism, Western perceptions of Iranian history adopted by the Shah of Iran, then fired back at a Western audience as a plea for acceptance. (Something somewhat similar is happening on Afghan banknotes, I suggested a few years back.) In contrast, Neo-Achaemenism in Parsi culture lacks the essential controversy of the Shah’s gesture, there being no profound religious tension in a Parsi identity rooted in Achaemenid Persia. But there are still ways of looking at N. N. Wadia’s tomb that put less emphasis on the archetypal conflict of Greeks with Persians, the original assertion that East is East and West is West, and more on the commonality fostered by a shared focus on these ancient events.

The observation I’d make is a bit similar to Grigor’s, that to take Achaemenid Persia as one’s point of reference intersects with significant British or Western myths of origin. That includes the Persian Wars, of course, but also Alexander the Great, who went to Pasargadae to pay his respects to Cyrus, and burned Persepolis to the ground, but for our purposes was also a figure who played a very important role in British Imperial perception of India, and self-perception of their own role there. Lugubelinus has had a lot to say on this matter in the past, but try this hat for size. In other words, Achaemenid Persia is the image of Iran most familiar, and interesting, to the West, too. What gives this thought some force is that the Parsi community was one of the most successful communities within British India, and the most loyal (as N. N. Wadia says of Bombay), commercially and politically integrated with the British rulers of India to a greater degree than any other, hence (among other things) the strong Parsi presence in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The claim to Achaemenid heritage on Wadia’s tomb and elsewhere in the cemetery is proud and assertive, then, but it also grants the Parsis a role in the grand Imperial story of ancient origins.

We can sharpen that point, though with less precision than I imagined in the first version of this blog. The article in Encyclopaedia Iranica on “PASARGADAE”, by D. Stronach and H. Gopnik stresses, perhaps overstresses, the debate surrounding the identity of the site, and the tomb at the heart of it. The Tomb of Cyrus, the model for N. N. Wadia’s tomb, was not identified as such to general satisfaction, they suggest, until George Nathaniel Curzon’s Persia and the Persian Question in 1892, and then the publication of Ernst Herzfeld’s doctoral dissertation in 1908. Curzon devotes twenty scholarly pages of his Persia and the Persian Question to Pasargadae (Vol. 2, 71-90), and fifteen of them to the identity of the Tomb which follows from the first (the evidence is primarily in the Alexander historians): I can offer you the option of a scan from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, formerly the Viceroy’s residence, or from the library of the Archaeological Survey of India. If his identification of the tomb had been as seminal as Gopnik and Strobach suggest, that would be very close in time to the construction of Wadia’s tomb in 1900, and the contribution to an arch-imperialist and indeed Viceroy of India would be interesting.

In actuality, however, as Lindsay Allen has pointed out to me, there is good reason to believe that the tomb at Pasargadae would have been confidently identified as Cyrus’s in certain circles earlier than this. Once again, Talinn Grigor has a very interesting article, “Parsi patronage of the Urheimat”, Getty Research Journal 2 (2010), 53-68, on Indian Parsi involvement in cultural and political developments in Iran in the nineteenth century. Her marvellous survey of what books Parsi boys might have encountered at Elphinstone College in Bombay (which we can certainly assume was N. N. Wadia’s alma mater) includes at least three works that toyed with, or firmly asserted, that it was Cyrus’ tomb, James Morier’s Journeys through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor (1812), Robert Ker Porter’s Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia (1821), and James Fergusson’s Palaces of Nineveh and Persepolis Restored (1851). Here is the building as sketched by Ker Porter:

As Grigor puts it, though, “Educated urban Parsis, who admired and wrote about Iran’s ancient heritage, predominantly read European literature found in British institutions” such as the library of Elphinstone College. It follows then that, even as they recovered their Achaemenid heritage, they did so in works that typically pursued the identification of Pasargadae out of a Western, and classicizing, preoccupation with those places that were relevant to Greek history. Wadia’s proud assertion of independent Persian identity, in other words, also expresses, explicitly in his own voice but implicitly too, a claim to belong. Being mischievous, the Tata purchases of Corus (British Steel) and Jaguar Land Rover might, if we insisted on reading Thermopylae etc. as a charter for perpetual East/West conflict, be Persia’s belated revenge for Salamis. Or you could rather say that for Nowrosjee Nashirwanjee Wadia there simply was no ongoing conflict between East and West, Persian and Greek, just the one shared history.

It occurs to me that I’ve pondered before both the power of Zoroastrian imagery, and its capacity to resolve cultural difference: On St. George and his day. The dragon-slayer is not a bad story to share, either.

Deal or no Deal

I’ve just spent a very pleasant week in East Kent, and evidently didn’t manage to switch off entirely during our holiday. Alone of the family I trudged around Richborough Castle, readily imagining the daunting quadrifrons arch topped with a triumphal statue that welcomed visitors to the province of Britannia and marked the start of Watling Street; and its demolition a couple of centuries later when the current structure, a fortress against Saxon raiding parties, replaced the previously bustling town in the troubled Third Century.

Richborough, in antiquity Rutupiae and variants, could stand for Britain as a whole (Lucan 6.67), and was famous in its own right for oysters (Juvenal 4.141), as Whitstable just along the Kent coast is today. It was probably where part of the invading army in AD 43 originally came ashore, an event that would have fixed its status as the official gateway to Britannia.

But there had been earlier Roman invasions of Britain, of course, those undertaken by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC, and since we happened to be staying close to the front at Deal and Walmer, historically leading candidates for Caesar’s landing spots, I found myself also pondering where they had actually been. In particular, I found THIS, an article in Current Archaeology from a couple of years ago that got some attention in the newspapers at the time. Its essential claim is that interesting archaeological discoveries at Ebbsfleet, some way north of Deal, point to that location as Caesar’s landing place in 54 (it expresses no opinion about 55). This sent me back to Caesar’s account of his expeditions in Books 4 and 5 of his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, and I found myself unconvinced. I’ll set out here what I found unpersuasive about the Ebbsfleet theory, a lot of it relating to Caesar’s own account of things, and maybe also to the importance of studying texts as texts.

Let’s start with that account. Caesar landed in Cantium, Kent, twice, in August 55 and a year later in July 54; his accounts of both invasions are at BG 4.20-36 and 5.5-23. The first invasion, little more than a reconnaissance mission, involved fierce conflict at the point of landing without any significant penetration beyond the shore, while the second saw the Roman forces marching as far as Cassivellaunus’ capital beyond the Thames somewhere in Hertfordshire.

The descriptions of the actual landings are what are at issue here, though, and they are as follows:

In 55 Caesar’s warships and transport craft cross without difficulty from the Pas de Calais toward the White Cliffs, but Caesar realises that a landing there would leave them badly exposed to attack (British warriors were seen massed on the heights), so they move up the coast (“about seven miles”, 4.23.6) and land where the coast is apertum et planum (4.23.6), “open and flat”, both adjectives implicitly in contrast with what he had faced at the cliffs. The landing is opposed by the British and there is fighting on the shore before the Romans can establish themselves. In 54 Caesar sets off with a much larger fleet (over 800 boats in total, he claims, at 5.8.6), but the wind drops and he is carried north with the tide. When the tide turns, and by dint of hard rowing, an unopposed landing is achieved (the British apparently daunted by the enormity of the incoming fleet) at “that part of the island where he had learned the previous summer that disembarkation was best” (5.8.3). The shore at this point is described as molle atque apertum (5.9.1).

The archaeological discovery at Ebbsfleet, posited as Caesar’s landing point in 54, was a large enclosure (encompassing more than 20 hectares), bounded by a defensive ditch. Aside from similarities to Roman camps found elsewhere, and conclusions drawn from a quite speculative reconstruction of Caesar’s indirect route to the British shore in 54, the key find was the tip of a Roman pilum located among pottery of a mid-first-century BC date. That, combined with Caesar’s account of the local topography, including his landing at a “sandy, open shore” (the shore at Deal and southwards is certainly not sandy), makes the case for a landing at Ebbsfleet, I think, but do please read the piece for yourselves.

We probably need a map, and here are two: one lifted from Tony Wilmott’s excellent English Heritage guide to Richborough and Reculver, and after that (since, as the first indicates, the landscape has altered dramatically since Roman times) a contemporary snippet from Google Earth for comparison.

On Tony Wilmott’s map, Ebbsfleet is the red dot furthest south on the Isle of Thanet (on the other map, it’s roughly where Cliffsend is); on the first map the east coast extends only as far south as Deal, whereas the second takes in Deal, Walmer, Kingsdown and the northern edge of the White Cliffs. In Caesar’s time modern Deal would mark the top of the long shingle coastline (though extended by spits to the north) that stretched down to Kingsdown and the White Cliffs (again, alone of my family, I walked the length of this ancient coastline a couple of days ago…).

My feeling is that the positive case for Ebbsfleet (always bearing in mind that it is only the 54 invasion at issue) is not especially strong, but I’ll concentrate on my negative thoughts. One is that a landing at Ebbsfleet would place the Roman troops on the Isle of Thanet when it was still an island. To access the interior (as he subsequently does), Caesar would have had to get his forces across a significant water barrier, the Wantsum Channel, but there is no reference to such a thing in the Commentaries, and it would be most unlike Caesar to fail to mention such a singular achievement. Another consideration is that Caesar’s account strongly implies that the two landings took place in essentially the same location, both explicitly (5.8.3) and by the almost identical language he uses to describe the nature of the shoreline in both instances. If they were at essentially the same spot, that rules out Ebbsfleet as the landing place in 54, since the location in 55, seven Roman miles or so from a point off the White Cliffs, places us somewhere between Deal and Kingsdown and nowhere near Ebbsfleet.

The third point concerns the translation of Caesar’s description of the shoreline. “Sandy, open shore” is the Loeb translation of litus molle atque apertum (5.9.1), with which we can combine the apertum et planum litus of 4.23.6. The Ebbsfleet theory sees this as a good description of Pegwell Bay, the little that remains of the Wantsum Channel. But the word mollis here is less likely to mean “sandy”, “soft underfoot”, than “easy”, “gentle” (i.e. “not steep”), “accessible”. The “traditional” location for the landings, somewhere on the long shingle beach that now extends from Kingsdown to beyond Sandwich (and in Caesar’s day from Kingsdown as far as Deal), is admirably “open” (apertum) but also molle in the sense of “easy of access” and planum in the sense of “level” (especially in comparison to the cliffs further along the coast). For me all of this makes it overwhelmingly likely that this stretch of coast is the real location of Caesar’s landing point.

Here are some images of that shingle coastline south of Deal, the shoreline running south as seen from Deal pier on the left, and the view from Kingsdown toward the White Cliffs on the right. In Caesar’s day the coastline would be further west, but essentially similar in character, we must assume:

An incidental consideration is that the stretch of water from Kingsdown to Deal, known as The Downs, has historically been a place for ships to shelter in the relative protection of the Goodwin Sands a few miles offshore. The unusually calm character of the sea along this coast is one of its most appealing features today, I can add, but it may also possibly be part of what Caesar was pointing to in molle. In any case, its general calmness does not preclude severe storms at times, and Caesar’s fleet was seriously damaged in both 55 (4.28-9) and 54 (5.10). The Goodwin Sands are more familiar as a menace to seafarers than a boon, of course.

All in all, then, I think Walmer is justified in having this memorial on its beach. The inscription is eroded, and a couple walking past when I was there were undecided whether it was Caesar or St. Augustine or “some other Roman”, but it reads, “THE FIRST ROMAN INVASION OF BRITAIN LED BY JULIUS CAESAR LANDED NEAR HERE LV BC.”

I think we can confidently extend that to LIV BC, too.

Dr. Stein

A fragment of very minor interest, barely worth blogging. But it is mid-summer.

I’m still writing a biographical sketch of Sir Harold Deane, first Chief Commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province of British India and formerly political officer in Dir and Swat, at which time he has a claim to have inaugurated the archaeological exploration of (the archaeologically remarkable) valley of Swat.

An optimistic sweep of JSTOR a few days ago introduced me to a fabulous resource, the correspondence of the Directors of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, more than 28,000 letters annotated, scanned and uploaded. Blessings on the anonymous heroes responsible.

Among them are seven short letters which give, as letters sometimes do, a vivid impression of a momentary human encounter. (They are discoverable in the Global Plants collection on JSTOR under the Identifier nos. KDCAS7981-KDCAS7987.) These letters carry dates between October 29 and November 22, 1910, and are all addressed to Sir David Prain, Director of the Gardens at Kew. The author of six of the seven is Lady Mary Gertrude Deane, known as Gertrude, widow of Harold Deane, who had died in 1908 at the age of 54.

The key detail of the exchange (of which we see Gertrude’s side almost exclusively) is her offer to Prain and Kew of the botanical specimens that had been collected by her late husband in NWFP over the course of the last few years of his life. As she explains, it is all still packed in a trunk in the flat she was occupying in Overstrand Mansions, overlooking Battersea Park in south-west London. She and her husband had left India abruptly when Harold was taken ill in 1908, and their possessions, including this trunk, evidently followed them before and after his death just two weeks after their arrival in Britain in July of the same year.

The first letter from Gertrude Deane, on October 29, 1910, contains her offer to donate the specimens to the collections at Kew. On November 1 Gertrude indicates that the offer has been accepted, expressing her pleasure at the news, and on the next day she writes to inform Prain that the trunk has been dispatched to Kew by goods train, enclosing the key that opens it. By November 9 Prain has acknowledged receipt, and on November 18 Gertrude suggests dates when she might visit Kew and see her husband’s collection in its new home. On November 22 final arrangements are being reached for tea at Prain’s house and a viewing, at some imminent but unspecified date, of a selection of her husband’s specimens, now incorporated into the collection at Kew. The seventh letter is an internal memo to the Director from Dr. Otto Stapf, Keeper of the Herbarium at Kew, proposing how the specimens might be presented to Lady Deane when she did visit.

What emerges clearly from this correspondence is Gertrude’s relief and delight that something can be done with her late husband’s collection. It’s easy enough to imagine what her flat felt like, filled with reminders of their life, abruptly curtailed, in Peshawar. For my purposes Harold Deane’s botanical interests illustrate nicely the intellectual dimension of a successful Imperial administrator’s engagement with the territory he managed, an intense concern for the botany of the NWFP parallel to his earlier interest in the archaeological remains of Malakand and Swat.

But the most interesting detail of the correspondence, for me at least, is only obliquely to do with Sir Harold Deane. This is where the thread of letters starts, the original source of Gertrude Deane’s idea to approach Kew, as it is indicated in the first letter to Prain on October 29. Gertrude describes discussing what to do with the material with “Dr. Stein”, who had come to visit her, and the implication is that it was Dr. Stein who had encouraged her to approach Kew.

In 1910 Aurel Stein was in the middle of a three year sabbatical in Europe, a significant chunk of it spent between London and Oxford, largely taken up with cataloguing within the British Museum, and also writing up, the incredibly rich discoveries he had made during his Second Central Asian Expedition, in particular the manuscripts and paintings that he had removed from the “Thousand Buddha Caves” at Dunhuang. Stein has suffered physically during this expedition, to the extent of losing the toes of his right foot to frostbite while crossing the mountains back into India. By late 1910, also, the dog that has accompanied him during the two-year expedition, across hot and cold deserts, Dash the Great, had been released from quarantine (we can all currently sympathise), but would thenceforth stay in Oxford, adopted by Stein’s closest friends, Helen and Percy Allen. Stein had exceptionally good connections within the intelligentsia of the Imperial capital, and Gertrude Deane was benefiting from it.

But what the glimpse of Aurel Stein in that opening letter also tells us is something about who he now was after the Second Expedition. Gertrude Deane begins her short letter of October 29, “When Dr. Stein came to see me the other day…”, and ends it “Dr. Stein served under my husband & is an old friend of our’s. We have known him many years.” She frames her letter with Aurel Stein because she knows perfectly well, I think, the power of the name she is dropping.

Here is Jeannette Mirsky in her biography Sir Aurel Stein, Archaeological Explorer (p. 322) on the transformation to Stein’s status and prospects that Dunhuang and the aftermath had wrought:

“Stein was suddenly seen as a hero. As the knight-errant who had freed documents languishing in a ‘black hole’, he was impressive; as the victor of an ambush set by a merciless cold, he was irresistible. This double victory assured that his requests were no longer ignored or postponed. Suddenly all doors were open to him; he had but to ask and that ‘great machine’, the bureaucracy, listened. If heretofore his work happened to coincide with the interests of the government, now the government bent to facilitate his work. The panorama gained by his new position extended to the furthest reach of his hopes.”

Aurel Stein could indeed be considered Deane’s protégé, as Gertrude suggests: her husband had been a critical source of support at an earlier stage of Stein’s career. But Stein recognised his debts and was scrupulous in repaying them, and in 1910, newly invested with honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, the Founder’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and in June 1910 with the insignia of a Companion of the Indian Empire by the King, he and Gertrude knew that his name could open doors for others, too.

Iphis & Ianthe, full stop.

Youth with a scroll, from the Casa del Cenacolo, Pompeii, photo by Dr Sophie Hay

My Ovid: A Very Short Introduction is edging ever closer to publication, and I’ve been blogging snippets as I’ve gone along. Here’s a final thought on the subject of Iphis and Ianthe, the intensely satisfying story that concludes Metamorphoses IX. (It has been brilliantly retold, relocated to a mildly surreal but very contemporary Scotland, by Ali Smith in Girl Meets Boy.)

The story of Iphis and Ianthe, first of all. Iphis’ father has told his pregnant wife Telethusa that if her child should prove to be a girl she must not be allowed to live. But the goddess Isis appears to Telethusa in a dream and orders her to disobey her husband and raise the child whatever the gender. Iphis is born a girl, but raised by Telethusa as a boy, and her husband never becomes aware of her deceit. Iphis is betrothed to a girl named Ianthe, and they are deeply in love with each other. But Iphis (and Telethusa) live in dread of the marriage day when their secret will be revealed, to Ianthe as well as to Iphis’ father. A desperate appeal by Telethusa to Isis follows, and when Iphis and her mother emerge from the goddess’ temple, a metamorphosis has occurred:

sequitur comes Iphis euntem
quam solita est maiore gradu nec candor in ore
permanet et uires augentur et acrior ipse est
uultus et incomptis brevior mensura capillis,
plusque uigoris adest habuit quam femina. nam quae
femina nuper eras, puer es!

“Iphis follows her mother closely as she goes/ with a stride larger than usual, and the whiteness is no longer/ on her face. Her strength increases, and her very features/ are sharper, and her hair shorter and untidy:/ she has more vigor than she had as a woman. For you who/ were just now a woman, are a boy!”

Iphis and Ianthe, now boy and girl, are married, and so the tale ends.

But why do I call this narrative intensely satisfying? Well, partly because a love story that faces an insurmountable challenge but achieves unexpected resolution and eventuates in a happy marriage answers a few of the requirements of the archetypal narrative plot, and Ovid structures and paces his story to perfection (Ovid is aside from anything else a superb storyteller). Latin also has the resources, in Ovid’s hands at least, to end the story with the two names “Iphis Ianthe” lying next to each other in the last two words of the book.

Partly that, then, but, at the risk of appearing hopelessly cold and donnish, what I like more than anything about this story is how it plays with poetic form. This can perhaps be forgiven the author of a whole book on Roman metrical form, and here in Met. IX there’s a metrical dimension to things, as I’ll explain. But the form I have more in mind is that imposed by book divisions. Metamorphoses has fifteen books in modern editions, and that corresponds to an ancient text divided into fifteen separate uolumina or book rolls (the young man in the image at the top is holding a uolumen). A physical multi-book poem in antiquity would thus have been a great deal more cumbersome than a modern paperback, but so also would the reader’s experience of passing from book to book. The end of Book I and beginning of Book II of the Metamorphoses was not simply a matter of turning the page, but putting aside (and potentially also rewinding) one roll and then locating the next among fourteen others.

Ovid, a poet ever alert to the mechanics of composition (and of reading), has lots of fun with the ends and beginnings of his books, in particular avoiding Virgil’s practice in the Aeneid of tying up an episode tidily in one book. More typical of Ovid’s approach is the end of the previous book, Book VIII, where the horned river god Achelous points to a horn he is missing from his forehead, but we have to wait until Book IX to learn how he lost it in combat with Hercules and how it became the Cornucopia. (Horns proliferate at the end of Ovid’s books, and it’s something to do with the fact that the cornua, “horns”, were the ends of the stick around which books were rolled, and “rolled out right to its horns” was synonymous with “read right to the end”, see Martial 11.107.1: Ovid wants us to be very clear what he is doing with these bookends.) The disorderliness that this lack of respect for book divisions brings to Ovid’s narrative is one of many ways in which Ovid allows the principle of instability, intrinsic to a work about change, to seep into every aspect of the poem.

But if books have a habit of not ending the way they should, it can be a metamorphically disruptive move to do the opposite, too. Alternatively, there’s no more satisfying a conclusion than one that comes after a string of indecisive examples. The story of Iphis and Ianthe is the last story of Book IX, and with its conclusion the book also ends: “Iphis Ianthe” are the final words of the book, as I’ve mentioned. That conclusion, as I’ve also suggested, is heavily underlined in other ways: a narrative neatly wrapped up, a wedding, the newly-weds tucked up in bed. But in formal terms, too, Book IX of the Metamorphoses ends in a very, very conventional way. In fact I’d say that there’s no other book in the Metamorphoses that concludes quite so tidily and conclusively, with the necessary exception of the very last, Book XV.

To make explicit an extra point on form that’s been hovering about the discussion so far, this satisfactory closure operates at a macro and a micro level. On the one hand there is strong narrative resolution coinciding with the end of a book roll; on the other we have the very last line of the book, conueniunt, potiturque sua puer Iphis Ianthe, where the names of the lovers fit to perfection the cadence of the line, the “adoneus” or dum-di-di-dum-dum which ends most hexameter lines, and which in Latin feels most conclusive when, as here, word accent shadows rhythm, Íphis Iánthe.

When I find Iphis and Ianthe such a thoroughly satisfying story, then, it’s partly because at this point everything about the narrative, down to the relation of that narrative to its physical vehicle, the book roll, and even to the placement of words in the verse end, is just tickety-boo.

A journey to the source of Arnold’s Oxus

[An essay on my favourite English-language poem, Sohrab and Rustum by Matthew Arnold, from the TLS quite a few years ago. I don’t think anyone’s reading it there any more, so I might as well blog it.]

This is a story about a spy, an epic poem and a Central-Asian river. Or perhaps, at root, about British children’s reading matter when Britain had an empire. The epic is Matthew Arnold’s narrative poem Sohrab and Rustum, first published in 1853 in a collection prefaced by a classicizing manifesto that this overtly Homeric composition was clearly designed to exemplify. The spy is Arnold’s great secret, appropriately enough, and we’ll come to him presently. The river is the Oxus, on the banks of which the action of Arnold’s poem is set, but which Arnold makes such a constant accompaniment to the human action that it effectively becomes a third protagonist. The coda of the poem, especially, takes leave of its human characters, isolated in their private tragedy, and follows the onward course of the Oxus to the Aral Sea, a passage that divided critical opinion as sharply as did the poem as a whole:

But the majestic River floated on,
Out of the mist and hum of that low land,
Into the frosty starlight, and there mov’d,
Rejoicing, through the hush’d Chorasmian waste,
Under the solitary moon: he flow’d
Right for the Polar Star, past Orgunjè,
Brimming, and bright, and large: then sands begin
To hem his watery march, and dam his streams,
And split his currents; that for many a league
The shorn and parcell’d Oxus strains along
Through beds of sand and matted rushy isles —
Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foil’d circuitous wanderer: — till at last
The long’d-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bath’d stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.

‘Who cares whither the Oxus goes, or what becomes of it,’ complained Charles Kingsley, ‘while Rustum is lying in the sand by his dead son?’

The plot of Sohrab and Rustum is adapted from the most celebrated episode of the Shahnama (‘Book of Kings’) of the Persian poet Ferdowsi (c. AD 1000), the ‘national epic’ of Persian-speaking peoples (although, as we shall see, it came to Arnold indirectly). The hero Rustum has a son, Sohrab, but is unaware of it: Sohrab’s mother, far away in Aderbaijan, has told Rustum their child is a girl. When Sohrab comes in search of his father, and challenges the bravest of the Persians to single combat in an attempt to draw him out, they fight to the death on ‘the low flat strand/ of Oxus’, failing to recognise their kinship until it is too late and Sohrab lies dying by his father’s hand.

Sohrab deserves to be better known, a beautiful poem in its own right but also a fascinating by-product of the British imperial encounter with Asia. It once received much more attention than it does today, a staple of British (and to some extent American) literary education, notwithstanding the confident prediction of Coventry Patmore in 1854 that ‘Mr Arnold has of necessity confined his audience to a small circle of scholars.’ On the contrary, Algernon Swinburne quipped in 1867 that its ‘stream of Oxus’ was almost as familiar to boys at Eton as the Thames, but the strongest (and strangest) evidence for the popularity it once enjoyed is a novel that caused quite a stir on its publication in 1937. The Far-Distant Oxus was written by a couple of teenage girls whose love of ponies was only matched by their devotion to the works of Arthur Ransome, but their title, and quotations at the head of every chapter, came from Sohrab. The child protagonists rename their Exmoor surroundings after geographical features in the poem (‘every member of the gang had become proficient in the art of stilt-walking through the Oxus’), and have adventures that parallel it, including a trip down the ‘Oxus’ to the ‘Aral Sea’.

An issue that came to the fore very soon after publication was Arnold’s sources for the poem. In the second edition of the collection Arnold was explicit about them, printing after the text of the poem a summary of the legend from Sir John Malcolm’s History of Persia and sections of a review of Jules Mohl’s ongoing French version of the Shahnama (translating its more than 50,000 couplets was a life’s work) by the French essayist Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and claiming thereby to have put ‘the reader … in possession of the whole of the sources from which I have drawn the story of Sohrab and Rustum.’ What provoked Arnold to divulge his sources was an at times scorching review of the first edition by an anonymous critic who, alongside qualms about Arnold’s religious commitment, had effectively accused the poet of plagiarism. ‘Some of the passages given by Sainte Beuve from M. Mohl’s version are simply translated, and very closely translated, by Mr. Arnold’ who ‘has not thought fit to offer a single syllable of acknowledgment to an author to whom he has manifestly been very largely indebted.’ The reviewer sets part of Mohl’s translation alongside a section of Sohrab ‘that our readers may judge for themselves.’

Arnold is indeed indebted to Ferdowsi, or rather to Sainte-Beuve’s citations of Mohl’s translation of one thread of the complex textual tradition of Ferdowsi’s poem, but for the reviewer (who turned out to be a friend, John Coleridge) to accuse Arnold of an excessive debt to Ferdowsi is a decidedly eccentric line of criticism when the poem is so overwhelmingly indebted to another poet entirely. In fact Sainte-Beuve’s most significant contribution to Sohrab, aside from the story itself, was his insistent assimilation of Ferdowsi to Homer, ‘l’Homère de son pays,’ and his hero Rustum to Achilles. Arnold’s poem is, in Oscar Wilde’s words, ‘a wonderfully stately epic, full of the spirit of Homer,’ an episode which has transformed the Persian narrative into a model example of Western epic technique. The passage cited by Coleridge as unadulterated Ferdowsi, where Rustum addresses tenderly the unknown warrior Sohrab at their first encounter, is a case in point, an obvious recollection also of a moment in the Iliad when Achilles rejects, with a disturbingly untimely lyricism, the Trojan Lycaon’s plea for mercy.

But Arnold’s engagement with Greco-Roman epic was more profound than the occasional reminiscence of Homer. What he achieves in the poem is in fact a remarkable condensation of classical epic. The sequence of duels with which the Iliad and the Aeneid move towards their denouements, Hector against Patroclus, Achilles against Hector, Turnus against Pallas, Aeneas against Turnus, are boiled down here into one quintessential encounter between, as it were, Achilles and Patroclus, Aeneas and Pallas, a conflict between friends and intimates, here presented by Arnold in the starkest form possible: father against son. The Oxus can be read in a similar way, a realisation of an archetypal image of epic inspiration. When the ancient critic Longinus sought to illustrate humans’ innate attraction to the sublime in literature, he used the analogy of rivers: ‘by some sort of natural impulse we admire not, surely, the small streams, however clear and useful they may be, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and even more than these the Ocean.’ Ocean, the world-circling river and mythically the source of all others, is a common figure for Homer’s transcendent genius. Perhaps Arnold’s greatest achievement in Sohrab is to give a poem which is in the last analysis only the length of a single book of Virgil’s Aeneid the gravity of a full-scale epic, and it is the Oxus more than anything that bestows that (somewhat specious) epic status.

That is one way of reading Arnold’s Oxus, but only one. The Oxus is a counterpart of Longinus’ European rivers, yet it matters that the fit is not quite perfect, that this river is ‘far-distant’ from Europe. For there is a quite different way of considering the Oxus, and of contemplating the genesis of Sohrab and Rustum, that reads the poem not, as Arnold wished it to be read, as a return to universal, timeless principles of literary composition and human value (as embodied above all in the Homeric model), but as the reflection of much more specific cultural conditions in nineteenth-century Britain—a heroic poem with feet of clay. It is paradoxical, but only at first sight, that in Arnold’s Central-Asian river also resides much of the inalienable Britishness of this poetic exercise.

The clue is in a letter from Arnold to his sister Frances (Fan) a quarter of a century after his composition of the poem, describing an encounter at a dinner party with Sir Henry Yule, a great expert on Central Asia and editor of Marco Polo. Yule, a literal-minded old soldier, had queried a reference in Sohrab to a prophylactic against altitude sickness:

But as a troop of pedlars, from Cabool,
Cross underneath the Indian Caucasus,
That vast sky-neighbouring mountain of milk snow;
Crossing so high, that, as they mount, they pass
Long flocks of travelling birds dead on the snow,
Choked by the air, and scarce can they themselves
Slake their parched throats with sugar’d mulberries —
In single file they move, and stop their breath,
For fear they should dislodge the o’er hanging snows —
So the pale Persians held their breath with fear.

Rather than ‘sugar’d mulberries’, Yule’s informants had talked of sucking cloves of garlic. ‘But he had been sure, he said, that I had authority for the mulberries, I was so faithful about Asiatic things.’ And Arnold confirms that he had: ‘Burnes says that the pedlars eat them in crossing the highest passes, but it was curious to find my poetry taken so seriously.’

‘Burnes’ is Alexander Burnes, author of Travels into Bokhara (1834), in which he had reported how travellers in the Hindu Kush ‘carry sugar and mulberries with them, to ease their respiration.’ Travels into Bokhara may be an obscure title today, but it was a sensation in its own time. It was the story of Lieut. Burnes’ expeditions into the little-known regions beyond the north-western boundary of British-controlled India: its three volumes recounted an intelligence-gathering mission in 1832 through Afghanistan to Bokhara, and a journey up the river Indus in the previous year to deliver a team of shire horses to the Maharajah of the Punjab (and reconnoitre the strategic waterway as he went). Burnes’ exploits made him a celebrity on his return to Britain in 1834, and the account he published shifted 900 copies on its first day on sale. In the words of Peter Hopkirk, ‘Burnes’s epic … brought to the reader for the first time the romance, mystery and excitement of Central Asia’—a weighty responsibility, given where that fascination took the British in the following decade. Burnes himself would reap what he had done much to sow, lynched by a Kabuli mob in 1841 while serving as a high official in the British occupation of Afghanistan.

The impact of Burnes’ Bokhara on Sohrab and Rustum extends far beyond the pedlars from Kabul and their folk remedies. To read Burnes’ description of the Oxus after Arnold’s poem is, quite simply, to revisit familiar terrain. A recurrent image in Sohrab, for instance,is of a derelict structure isolated in an uninhabited landscape: a tent is placed on a hillock ‘a little back/ From the stream’s brink’, ‘The men of former times had crowned the top/ With a clay fort; but that was fallen, and now/ The Tartars built there Peran-Wisa’s tent’; and Rustum himself is ‘like some single tower, which a chief/ Has builded on the waste in former years/Against the robbers.’ The model is from Burnes’ account of a section of the route he and his companions followed after leaving Bokhara: ‘There was no water throughout the whole march, and no signs of inhabitants but a ruined fort, that had once served as a look-out from the Oxus.’ Another passage in Burnes treats of the ‘Source and course of the Oxus’ from the Pamirs to the Aral Sea, and is the origin of Arnold’s coda. When it was, precisely, that Matthew Arnold’s imagination was first fired by Bokhara is now beyond recovery, but he seems to have been consulting the first edition of 1834, and it was quite possibly when everyone else was devouring the glamorous young Lieutenant’s memoirs, in the mid-1830s, Arnold’s impressionable teenage years. Whenever it was, Sohrab and Rustum reveals itself as perhaps the most striking symptom, albeit belated, of the intense excitement that Burnes’s mission of espionage provoked in his homeland.

Arnold was happy enough to acknowledge his debt to Sainte-Beuve’s refraction of Ferdowsi, and positively evangelical about the Homeric inspiration of his poem. By comparison, Arnold’s other great model, the source of the Central-Asian scene setting so essential to the poem, goes unacknowledged. An intriguing exchange is recorded between an American scholar, F.L. Jouard, and Arnold’s surviving sister Fan. Jouard was researching another poem with a Central-Asian theme, The Sick King in Bokhara, and was struck by the accuracy of Arnold’s evocation of Bokhara, a place he had obviously never seen. ‘After searching in vain for some time—as neither Arnold’s Note-Book nor any critical works that I know of [in 1906] contain any allusion to the subject—I finally wrote to the poet’s sister, Miss Frances Arnold… In reply, she very kindly sent me the following extract from a work on Bokhara by Lieut. Burnes, adding, however, that it was very doubtful whether her brother had actually obtained the story from that source.’

And yet her brother indubitably had, just as he had obtained a great deal of material from the same source for Sohrab. Fan’s fastidiousness about her brother’s tastes in reading is intriguing, and the recovery by scholars of Burnes’ importance for Arnold (in The Strayed Reveller as well as Sohrab and The Sick King) has been a laborious business (aided by a stirling contribution on the letters page of the TLS on April 11 1936). From Arnold himself, there was little guidance, and none in the public realm: that reference to Burnes in a letter to Fan, a note in his diary, ‘Burnes’s Bokhara ii’, in January 1853, as he was composing the poem, and Fan’s own contradictory indications to Jouard. ‘It was the hard fate of Alexander Burnes,’ according to Sir John Kaye’s forthright assessment in 1851, ‘to be over-rated at the outset and under-rated at the close of his career.’ We might speculate why Arnold denied Burnes the limelight shed so generously on Homer and Sainte-Beuve. Was Travels into Bokhara not so incontestably an example of the ‘great actions, calculated powerfully and delightfully to affect what is permanent in the human soul’ that Arnold wanted his readers to find in Sohrab and Rustum?

Suppressed by Arnold, it could nevertheless be argued that Burnes’ contribution was the one that did most to ensure the longer-term success of Sohrab. Teachers may have set it for the lessons it taught about epic technique, but what did it for the twelve-year old C.S. Lewis was the ambience: ‘I hardly appreciated then, as I have since learned to do, the central tragedy; 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.’ To the authors of The Far-Distant Oxus, the exoticism of the scenery is the key. ‘Why do we pretend that this is Persia,’ asks one of them—to be told, ‘Because Persia is a marvellous country, miles of open land and deserts, magic beliefs in stars, beautiful Arab horses, mystery.’ A sequel to The Far-Distant Oxus was entitled Escape to Persia.

The Hon. George Nathaniel Curzon no doubt encountered Sohrab during his time at Eton. He certainly carried it with him as he pursued an unusually intense interest in Central Asia, the culmination of which, in 1894, was an expedition by the Member of Parliament for Southport to the source of the Oxus in the high Pamirs. In 1888 he travelled on the new Transcaspian Railway through the Central Asian states recently subjugated by the Russians. At Tcharjui Curzon encountered the Oxus, and only Arnold’s epic magniloquence could meet the needs of the moment:

There in the moonlight gleamed before us the broad bosom of the mighty river that from the glaciers of the Pamir rolls its 1,500 miles of current down to the Aral Sea. In my ears were continually ringing the beautiful words of Matthew Arnold, who alone of English poets has made the Central Asian river the theme of his muse, and has realised its extraordinary and mysterious personality. Just as when upon its sandy marge the hero Rustum bewailed his dead son, so now before our eyes

                                        the majestic river floated on

Out of the mist and hum of that low land

Into the frosty twilight, and there moved

Rejoicing through the hushed Chorasmian waste

Under the solitary moon.”

Little did Curzon realise it, but ‘Charjooee’ was where Burnes had encountered the Oxus on his return journey from Bokhara, and thus the source of much of Arnold’s scenic detail: Sohrab had come home, and Arnold’s poem formed the unlikely link between one of the last players of the Great Game, as the imperial manoeuvres between Russia and Britain came to be known, and one of the first, Alexander Burnes.

Peter Levi, a more recent visitor, wrote a very odd thing about Arnold: ‘there are some lines in “Sohrab and Rustum” and “The Strayed Reveller” that give a clearer, sharper, more accurate sense of what central Asia is like than any other sentences in the English language.’ If so, it is a remarkable achievement for a poet who, though he ventured a little way beyond Dover Beach, had never gone anywhere near the Oxus. But it illustrates nicely the point that, of the three great sources for Sohrab and Rustum, Homer, Sainte-Beuve and Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes, it is not at all clear that the last is not the most significant of all.