Here is Nisbet & Hubbard on an unusual, arresting word used by Horace at Odes 2.7.8, malobathro. It’s a fascinating word in itself, as N&H explain, a borrowing from Sanskrit interestingly distorted in the process of transfer. It reminds me a bit of how we got “orange” from “naranj”.
The clever explanation of the Greek loss of ta-, as N&H say, comes from Eduard Schwyzer; meanwhile Bertold Laufer suggests that the source of μαλάβαθρον was what we call patchouli leaves, which Henry Yule in Hobson-Jobson records as being “sold in every bazar in Hindustan,” and “used as an ingredient in tobacco for smoking, as hair-scent by women, and especially for stuffing mattresses and laying among clothes as we use lavender.”
“In a fluid form,” Yule continues, “patchouli was introduced into England in 1844, and soon became very fashionable as a perfume,” especially popular on the hippie scene in the 1960s and ’70s. In Horace’s poem the malobathrum, not so differently, is a fragrant oil worn in the hair at symposia or drinking parties, and it features in Horace’s reminiscence of a scene from his younger, wilder days. In the tiny poetic forms of his lyric verse Horace selects his words very carefully indeed, and while thinking about this poem for a Natalie Haynes programme recorded last week I got to wondering what he saw in this peculiar word.
Let’s start with Odes 2.7.
The poem welcomes an old friend and comrade back to Rome after a long absence. Many years before, Horace and Pompeius had shared the experience of fighting for Marcus Brutus against the forces of Mark Antony and the future Augustus, the assassins of Julius Caesar against his heirs. After the crushing defeat of the “tyrannicides” at Philippi in 42 BC, Horace had made his peace with the victors and returned to Rome, before long finding a patron in Augustus’ right-hand man Maecenas, and enjoying the literary celebrity that followed. But Pompeius, so this poem tells us, had continued the fight against Augustus, perhaps with Sextus Pompey (to whom he may have been related) until his final defeat in 36 BC, and subsequently with Antony when he and Augustus came to conflict.
Now, finally, in middle age, Pompeius is back home, and Horace throws a party for him, or perhaps give him a party in poetic form in lieu thereof. The general scenario has parallels elsewhere in the Odes: in 3.14, for example, Horace contrasts his peaceable state of mind in a Rome ruled by Augustus with his youthful bravado at Philippi; while in 1.7, addressed to L. Munatius Plancus, founder of the city of Lyons, Horace again seems to contrast the violence of the Civil Wars with the peace and friendship represented by a drinking party. The lyric poetry that Horace is writing spends a lot of time in the symposium, but Horace lends the act of drinking with friends a greater significance: his poetic symposium, a place where Pompeius, Plancus and we the readers come together as friends, is a space where Romans can forget about their differences and rediscover what they have in common. The oblivion brought by consumption of alcohol becomes a metaphor for Rome’s rejection of past conflict. Friendship, restored after the moral chaos of civil conflict is important throughout Horace’s poetry. Here in 2.7 the last word is amico: a friendship has been restored out of the turmoil of Roman fighting Roman.
Malobathrum, patchouli, is what I’m really concerned with, though. Here’s the whole poem, with David West’s translation slightly adapted, the malobathrum at l. 8:
O saepe mecum tempus in ultimum
deducte Bruto militiae duce,
quis te redonauit Quiritem
dis patriis Italoque caelo,
Pompei, meorum prime sodalium, 5
cum quo morantem saepe diem mero
fregi, coronatus nitentis
malobathro Syrio capillos?
tecum Philippos et celerem fugam
sensi relicta non bene parmula, 10
cum fracta uirtus et minaces
turpe solum tetigere mento;
sed me per hostis Mercurius celer
denso pauentem sustulit aere,
te rursus in bellum resorbens 15
unda fretis tulit aestuosis.
ergo obligatam redde Ioui dapem
longaque fessum militia latus
depone sub lauru mea, nec
parce cadis tibi destinatis. 20
obliuioso leuia Massico
ciboria exple, funde capacibus
unguenta de conchis. quis udo
deproperare apio coronas
curatue myrto? quem Venus arbitrum 25
dicet bibendi? non ego sanius
bacchabor Edonis: recepto
dulce mihi furere est amico.
You and I have often been led to the edge
of doom with Brutus in command,
and now who has made you a Roman again
and restored to your ancestral gods and Italian sky,
O Pompeius, first of my friends, with whom
I so often broke into the lagging day with neat wine,
head garlanded and hair sleek
with Syrian malobathrum?
With you I knew Philippi and speedy flight,
leaving my little shield behind, shame to say,
when virtue snapped and the chins
of blusterers touched the base earth.
I panicked, but swift Mercury carried me off
in a dense mist through the enemy ranks,
while a wave sucked you back into war
and swept you along in a boiling sea.
So pay to Jupiter the feast that was vowed,
lay down your body weary with campaigning
here under my laurel tree, and have no mercy
on the casks of wine I have reserved for you.
Fill up the polished Egyptian cups with Massic
for forgetfulness and pour fragrant oils from full shells.
Whose business is it to run
for garlands of moist celery
and myrtle? Whom will Venus choose as master
of the wine? l shall run wild as any Edonian
at her Bacchic orgies. My friend is back.
What joy to go mad!
In the second stanza, with a few deft strokes, Horace sketches that youthful existence he led with Pompeius in Brutus’ camp, the informality of sodales, “mates”, the drinking initiated far too early in the day, garlands, Horace’s hair still full and sleek (at Epistles 1.20.23 a couple of years later, as West notes, Horace is praecanus, prematurely grey), and the indulgence of malobathrum. I think this exotic word, and the substance it denotes (“Syrian”, as Nisbet & Hubbard remark, could imply a source much further east), suggests in its own right not just a place apart, far from the “Italian sky”, but also a distant, irrecoverable time. Smells are notoriously evocative: for research purposes I have been sniffing patchouli oil, and it’s a scent that stays with you. I don’t know if the name of a scent can share any of that evocative power, but I do think that Horace, on the tiny canvases he allows himself in his lyric poetry, gets as close as any poet to making words do for us what a scent can.
Here one exotic vocabulary item, as exotic to read as to smell, vividly evokes… what? Long-distant youthful abandon, it seems to me, time out of mind.
One of the big surprises that Virgil springs on his readers as the Aeneid gets under way is to take them straight to Carthage.
This city is really the last place that a Roman epic should start, the most relentless and dangerous enemy that Rome in its long history felt it had faced: the threat of Hannibal coming to get them was a favoured Roman method for getting the kids to eat their greens, long after the city (and the threat) had been eliminated in 146BC, so deep ran the fear evoked by Rome’s greatest imperial rival.
But Virgil doesn’t just drag his Roman epic to enemy HQ, he then compounds the scandal by making a place that Romans very well knew represented all that was most despicable in human behaviour, all that was most uncivilized, most un-Roman, a really rather decent place, even — terrifyingly — a place quite reminiscent of Rome. I tell my students, though they probably don’t believe me, that what is most clearly evoked by the scene that meets Aeneas as he approaches Carthage for the first time, the busy building activity of the rising city, is Rome in the first years of Augustus’ principate, the time and place of Virgil’s writing, and Romans’ first reading, of the poem.
It is indeed a shocking way to open a Roman national epic, almost as if Virgil was out to offer his Augustan readers no kind of simple answers.
By the time Aeneas leaves Carthage, it has assumed an altogether less friendly, though also more familiar, appearance. One way of understanding the trajectory of Aeneas’ stay in Carthage is as the creation of a Carthage recognisable to Roman readers, answering to the deep prejudices they had developed about their mortal Mediterranean rival during the Punic Wars. By the end of Book 4 Dido has sworn undying enmity to Rome, conjured up Hannibal from her own ashes, and generally started to look a lot like an existential threat. What’s quite interesting here is that Aeneas shares responsibility for the creation of this monster: Carthage would not be Carthage if Aeneas hadn’t met, loved and abandoned Dido.
But another respect in which Carthage becomes recognisably Carthage by the time Aeneas leaves it is in its religious character. In a brilliant article James Davidson* argues that Dido’s suicide at the end of Book 4 is meant by Virgil to inaugurate something that the Romans associated very strongly with Carthage, something they found especially deplorable: human sacrifice.
Now, a lot of what the Romans believed about the Carthaginians, for example their sexual immorality and their Punica fides, an alleged incapacity to honour an agreement, we can dismiss as the prejudice of a warring nation for its enemy. But it is generally accepted these days that the sacrifice of humans, and especially children (apparently children of the elite), at the temple of Tanit (Virgil’s Juno) was indeed an important element of Carthaginian religious observance. The sacrifice was a means to secure the goodwill of the gods, and Diodorus Siculus (20.14.4-6) records the frenetic activity occasioned by an unexpected raid on Carthage by the Sicilian tyrant Agathocles in 310BC, a crisis (it was evident to the Carthaginians) caused by their neglect of the gods which could only, the logic went, be resolved by appeasing those gods — with the most valuable thing it was possible for them to offer, their own children or themselves. Diodorus’ account is without doubt exaggerated, but the event itself, less some of the more lurid details, is entirely plausible:
“They also alleged that Cronus [i.e. Baal] had turned against them, inasmuch as in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons (τῶν υἱῶν τοὺς κρατίστους), but more recently, secretly buying and raising children, they had sent these to be sacrificed; and when an investigation was made, some of those who had been sacrificed were discovered to have been supposititious. When they had considered these things and saw their enemy encamped before their walls, they were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honours of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.”
We have already contemplated two ways in which Virgil’s readers probably reacted to his depiction of Carthage: surprise at the friendly, principled face it presented to Aeneas on his arrival, and a familiar horror at the vengeful promise of eternal enmity voiced at his departure. But one of the most effective things Virgil does, in Book 1 especially, is to sow something else in his readers’ minds, periodically qualifying the positive impression made by Dido and her city with niggling hints of that more familiar, much more intimidating Carthage. Again Davidson picks up on these dissonant notes, and he almost says what I’m about to say, and I’m pretty sure thought it. It’s obvious enough when you think about it, but still a great example of Virgil’s ability to manipulate his readers’ responses to his story.
Someone who harbours serious concerns about the Carthaginians is Venus, Aeneas’ divine mother. At 1.643ff. Aeneas, who has by now met and been warmly welcomed by Dido, sends word to the Trojan ships for his son Ascanius to join him in Carthage, at which point Venus hatches a plan to substitute her divine son Cupid for Ascanius, and thus ensure that Dido, under Cupid’s influence, will fall in love with Aeneas and do him no harm. (Venus’ plan is not flawless.) The grounds for the goddess’s anxiety about Carthage are given at 661, quippe domum timet ambiguam Tyriosque bilinguis, “since indeed she fears the untrustworthy house and the two-tongued Tyrians.” Clearly here Venus’ concerns evoke those raw Roman prejudices about Punica fides, “Punic faith”, their congenital untrustworthiness, a jarring reminder of how Carthage really is amid the overwhelmingly positive representation of Dido and her city.
But I can’t help feeling that the swapping of Cupid for Ascanius is still a bit undermotivated, Dido perfectly capable of falling for Aeneas without Cupid’s intervention. And if we do need a bit more reason for Venus to keep the boy Ascanius well away from Carthage until she’s confident Carthage isn’t behaving like Carthage, well, perhaps the most deep-seated of all Roman misgivings about the place was what they did to children there.
As Diodorus suggests, the really valuable children were the high-born, the children of the elite; in fact only the highest-born would do. No child was more elite than Ascanius, ancestor of the Romans, and of the Julian family in particular: he is the character that represents in the Aeneid all the promise of Rome’s glorious future. Virgil intrudes, with exquisite subtlety, a reminder of what this place where Aeneas was busily making himself at home was in the habit of doing to boys of such extraordinary promise.
How terrifying a threat Carthage actually posed to Rome.
*J. Davidson, “Domesticating Dido,” in M. Burden (ed.), A woman scorn’d: responses to the Dido myth (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), 65-88.
Essential to Virgil’s Aeneid is the claim that the Trojan hero Aeneas was the direct ancestor of the ruling family of Rome, the Iulii or Julii: Augustus and his adoptive father Julius Caesar were descendants of Aeneas, and through him of the goddess Venus, Aeneas’ mother.
Virgil didn’t invent all this: it seems to have been part of Julius family self-promotion for some time. The coin at the top, an issue of Julius Caesar in about 46 BC, thirty years before the Aeneid, shows Aeneas carrying his father and the palladium (a figure of Athena that was a talisman of the city of Troy, and then of Rome) out of Troy on one side (with CAESAR making the connection crystal-clear); the profile on the other side is Venus. Politics in the late Republic was awash with candidates for office claiming to be descended from Hercules, Odysseus, one of the Roman kings, vel sim. So the Julii weren’t doing anything wildly unusual here, odd as it may seem to us.
Iulus was a key component of this claim: the son of Aeneas, also known as Ascanius, he travels with his father from Troy to Italy and features prominently in various episodes across the poem. The importance of Iulus and his name is signalled by Jupiter in Book 1, when he explains to a troubled Venus that Ascanius would now also be known as Iulus (Aen. 1.267-8), and that a member of the Julian family, its name derived from Iulus, would in time come to rule the world (Aen. 1.286-8).
Now, Virgil had Julian family lore to draw on, as I say, but that didn’t make it plain sailing. Some very interesting scholarship has been done recently by Sergio Casali* and Alessandro Barchiesi†, drawing out how tendentious Virgil’s claims about Augustus’s ancestry were even in a Roman context. Virgil’s most authoritative sources and predecessors for the story of Aeneas, Q. Ennius and Cato the Elder, had both rejected any connection between the Julii and Ascanius/Iulus: Ennius in his epic poem Annales (the great predecessor of the Aeneid) denied that Aeneas had had any male children (Casali pp. 104-106), while Cato in his Origines, the first work of historiography written in Latin, stated that Iulus had died childless (Servius at Aen. 6.760 = Cato fr. 8; Barchiesi pp. 6-7). Cato’s version of events may have been a conscious contradiction of Julian family propaganda. In either case, at any rate, influential accounts of the prehistory of Rome did not say what Virgil needed them to say, and a lot depended on Virgil’s ability to convince his readers of his alternative version of things (to make them believe in Iulus, essentially.)
Lucretius offers an interesting perspective on the challenges facing Virgil in forging a heroic ancestry for the Emperor. De Rerum Natura, Lucretius’ explanation of Epicurean philosophy in epic form (which made him Virgil’s most important recent predecessor), is addressed to Memmius, most probably C. Memmius, a prominent Roman politician with apparent Epicurean sympathies. Lucretius starts his poem with a hymn to Venus, asking her for inspiration, and in the process says complimentary things about Memmius. In a way Venus, Memmius and Lucretius will all be collaborators in the creation of the De Rerum Natura: the goddess is asked to be Lucretius’ “partner in writing the verses/ that I am attempting to compose on the nature of things (de rerum natura) for my friend of the Memmian family, whom you, goddess, have willed at all times to excel, endowed with all gifts” (te sociam studeo scribendis versibus esse,/ quos ego de rerum natura pangere conor/ Memmiadae nostro, quem tu, dea, tempore in omni/ omnibus ornatum voluisti excellere rebus, 1.24-7).
In fact Lucretius’ address to Venus suits his addressee as much as the poet, and the choice of deity is no doubt partly to be explained that way: the Memmii, like the Julii, had a family myth that they were descended from Venus, and that they were Troiugenae, of Trojan ancestry (the Roman equivalent of an ancestor on the Mayflower). The evidence for the Memmian claim about Venus is partly the emphasis on the goddess in coinage minted by members of the Memmius family (this is an example from the 80s BC), and partly here in Lucretius. Stefan Weinstock‡ further suggests (p. 23) that what Lucretius says about Venus’ special concern for Memmius, the aura she lends her favourite, is rather like things said about the favour shown by her to Julius Caesar (Dio 43.43.3; Suetonius, Julius Caesar 49.3; Velleius 2.41.1).
As for the Trojan origin of the Memmii, the first line of De Rerum Natura (to which we’ll come momentarily) and a detail in Aeneid 5 (relevant later) make that perfectly clear. But if C. Memmius played up a Trojan connection it also gives extra point to a jibe aimed at him by Cicero (Ad Att. 1.18.3): recounting gossip about Memmius’ adulterous behaviour, Cicero dubs him “our Roman Paris” (noster Paris), preying on the wife of “Menelaus” (M. Lucullus), and because this Paris is even worse than his Trojan counterpart also on the wife of “Agamemnon” (L. Lucullus, M.’s brother). All in all, it does rather look as if the Julii and the Memmii were promoting their claims to political advancement in pretty similar ways.
The opening line of the De Rerum Natura, addressed to Venus, draws Memmius and Julius Caesar especially closely together: Aeneadum genetrix, hominum diuumque uoluptas, “Mother of the descendants of Aeneas, pleasure of men and gods.” It’s a fantastic way to start, defining the goddess simultaneously in Roman and Epicurean terms: she is the ancestor of the Romans (the descendants of Aeneas) in the first half of the line, and she embodies the fundamental Epicurean principle of uoluptas, pleasure, in the second half. Lucretius’ first verse thus encapsulates the whole project of his poem, to take Rome and make it Epicurean.
But in the unusual word Lucretius selects for the Romans, Aeneadae, “descendants of Aeneas,” there’s a further implication, it seems to me. As already suggested, the evocation of Venus is inseparable from the dedicatee of the poem, C. Memmius, who claimed descent from the goddess. But what is to prevent us thinking that Memmius didn’t only share with Julius Caesar the claim of descent from Venus but also, more specifically, the descent from Venus’ son, Aeneas himself? We’ve already seen, after all, how hard Virgil had to work (through Ascanius/Iulus) to establish a unique line from Aeneas to Julius Caesar and Augustus. Given that we know the Memmii claimed Venus as an ancestor, and claimed to have originated in Troy, Aeneas would be an obvious hook to hang it all on. Certainly the very first word of the De Rerum Natura comes into clearer focus if Memmius considered himself an Aeneades, “descendant of Aeneas.”
So did C. Memmius actually claim Aeneas as an ancestor? Could Virgil, if Roman history had taken a slightly different turn, have written an Aeneid in honour of Memmius?
The Memmii do actually feature in the Aeneid, and this might help us see what Virgil does with the awkward fact, always assuming I’m on the right track so far, that the Memmii were basically making the same claims about their glorious ancestry as the Julii were. In Book 5 the contestants in the boat race during Anchises’ funeral games are identified as ancestors of Roman families: Sergestus the forebear of the Sergii, Cloanthus of the Cluentii (Servius ad loc. adds Gyas of the Geganii), and Mnestheus, genus a quo nomine Memmi (117), “from which name comes the race of Memmius.”
So the Memmii do have a Trojan ancestor, according to Virgil, but it’s Mnestheus, not Aeneas. Who is this Mnestheus? As Weinstock explains (p. 23), his name is related to “Memmius” rather cleverly, Mnestheus suggesting Greek μνήμων (mnemon, “mindful”) and Memmius the Latin equivalent memor. In the Aeneid Mnestheus is a significant character, one of the most prominent Trojans after Aeneas himself, and (as Barney Taylor points out to me) he’s Aeneas’ cousin: both of them are descended from Assaracus (Aen. 12.127; Ennius frs, 28-9 Skutsch; Aen. 1.284). But the other thing to say about Mnestheus is that there’s not much sign of him before Virgil. There’s a Menestheus in the Iliad (leader of the Athenians, 2.552), but that’s all. It follows, of course, that the idea that the Memmii were descended from a Trojan hero called Mnestheus is, for us at least, first attested in Virgil.
It’s all very intriguing. Mnestheus is really as close to Aeneas as he can be, almost interchangeable with him, you might say. The question I’m asking myself, obviously, is whether he’s Virgil’s invention, necessary to ensure that the pure ancestry back to Aeneas belongs exclusively to the Julii, and to Augustus. Invented Trojans are not thin on the ground in the Aeneid: in fact very few of Aeneas’ companions were characters already in Homer or other accounts of the Trojan War. But it’s a slightly different state of affairs when so much depends on the status of an individual: it matters a lot, for example, that Aeneas had already featured in the Iliad, providing that indisputable continuity from Troy to Rome.
If the Mnestheus/Memmius link was indeed concocted by Virgil, it illustrates two things at least about the Aeneid. One is the delicate balance that Virgil needed to maintain between celebrating the emperor Augustus and not ruffling the feathers of the wider elite on whose goodwill Augustus’ settlement depended: the Memmii are still done great honour in this poem, given ancestry in Troy, in an impressive warrior named Mnestheus. But they don’t get a piece of Aeneas. The other thing it illustrates, though, is the power of a story told with sufficient confidence to shape important details of national ideology. Virgil may have got Iulus from Julian family lore, but if he did indeed conjure Mnestheus up out of thin air, he has convinced us by sheer narrative bravado not just of the existence of a Trojan hero called Mnestheus but also that the claim of the Julii to descent from Aeneas is the only valid one.
An absolutely fascinating wrinkle to end with, though. In Ephesus Austrian archaeologists found the remains of an impressive monument, maybe funerary, for C. Memmius’ son, also C. Memmius (some images and description here). Mario Torelli has written a brilliant, if speculative, article⸸ on this building, arguing from reliefs of potentially heroic figures which perhaps decorated its third level, and from a fragment of a Greek inscription with the genitive of a name ending “–stheus” which originates somewhere on it, that one of the functions of the monument was to celebrate the younger C. Memmius’ descent from (Mne)stheus.
Theories about the date of this monument range from the early to the late Augustan period, the 30s BC to the first decade AD, but Torelli wants to place it much earlier, in the late 50s or early 40s BC, a full generation before the Aeneid. That wouldn’t suit me very well, but I think it’s fair to say that the date of the Memmius Monument is really anyone’s guess. The idea that Mnestheus might be depicted on it is incredibly appealing, though: if we could assume a date later than the Aeneid, it might make my point about the power of Virgil’s fiction rather well if C. Memmius junior had adopted an ancestry formulated in the Aeneid.
We somehow have to square Aeneadum and –σθέως, I suppose, but there’s every chance I’m barking up the wrong tree.
* S. Casali, “Killing the father: Ennius, Naevius and Virgil’s Julian imperialism,” in W. Fitzgerald & E. Gowers (eds.), Ennius perennis: the Annals and beyond (Cambridge, 2007), 103-128;
† A. Barchiesi, “Jupiter the antiquarian: the name of Iulus (Virgil, Aeneid 1.267-8),” in R. Hunter & S. P. Oakley, Latin literature and its transmission (Cambridge, 2016), 1-9;
‡ S. Weinstock, Divus Julius (Oxford, 1971);
⸸ M. Torelli, “Il monumento efesino di Memmio. Un capolavoro dell’ideologia nobiliare della fine della repubblica,” Scienze dell’Antichità 2 (1988), 403-426 = M. Torelli, Il rango, il rito e l’immagine (Milan, 1997), 152-74.
I may, with a bit of luck, be in the process of arranging to write a Very Short Introduction to Ovid, and I’ve been thinking hard about the structure of a book that has to encapsulate a lot of texts, and the most scintillating of authors, in a “very short” format. In particular, how to capture Ovid’s afterlife, the huge impact he has had on more recent literature and art, is a poser. I’m pondering at this stage a chronological approach, the “aetas Ovidiana” of the 12th and 13th Century followed by the Renaissance followed by modernity, perhaps. But I still need to decide how to do all that in just a few thousand words.
Well, here’s an Ovidian motif with a medieval afterlife, in one case surprising and hard to explain; while in the other, I think, Ovid meets his medieval match. Amores 2.4 sees Ovid deploring his own mendosi mores, his reprehensible character and lifestyle: there is no woman in Rome he doesn’t fancy, as he explains at some length and in some detail: nam desunt vires ad me mihi iusque regendum;/auferor ut rapida concita puppis aqua./non est certa meos quae forma invitet amores—/centum sunt causae, cur ego semper amem (7-10), “I haven’t the strength or will to control myself;/ I am swept away like a ship driven by fast-moving water./ There is no particular beauty that provokes my love:/ I have a hundred reasons to be constantly in love!”
One such irresistible reason, at 31-2, is a woman who dances seductively: ut taceam de me, qui causa tangor ab omni,/illic Hippolytum pone, Priapus erit! “To say nothing of me, as I am affected by everything,/ put Hippolytus in my place and he’ll turn into Priapus!”
It is a very naughty, very brilliant example of the wit that Ovid is famous for; not perhaps easily defensible in the current day and age. Hippolytus is the archetype of sexual self-restraint, as seen in Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus and various Phaedras; while Priapus looks like this:
Priapus was a kind of over-sexed scarecrow, associated with gardens and orchards: his physical appearance represented an implicit threat to anyone rash enough to try to steal the fruit he protected.
This makes what follows odd, to say the least. In around the thirteenth century someone in Constantinople translated Ovid’s erotic poems, the Amores, Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris, into Greek. The translator may well have been the most famous Byzantine translator of Latin poetry, Maximus Planudes, monk and humanist, best known for his anthology of Greek epigrams: Planudes’ translation activities tend to be associated with the movement to unite the eastern and western Churches, itself related to the hope that help might be forthcoming from the Christian West to defend the city against the Muslim Turks. We do not any longer have that original Greek translation, but we do have excerpts from it in a kind of commonplace book containing morally improving excerpts from a range of ancient authors. The notion of Ovid as morally improving would strike the emperor Augustus as odd, for starters, but the excerptor does generally, sometimes by quite extreme means, manage to keep it clean. Amor, “love”, is translated as τόδε τὸ πρᾶγμα, “this topic”, the puella, the target of sexual interest, becomes an inoffensive φίλος, “(male) friend,” and oscula ferre, “kiss,” turns into προσειπεῖν, “talk to.” E. J. Kenney, to whose article (“A Byzantine version of Ovid,” Hermes 91 (1963), 213-27) I owe these examples, comments: “always at the elbow of this medieval Podsnap [the excerptor] was the spectre of the Young Person. Just as his brethren of the West allegorised Ovid to make him respectable, so this Greek monk, as he must have been, proceeded to purge Ovid of his regrettable lasciviousness by drastic methods” (225).
Sometimes, though, it appears that the excerptor-monk lost concentration, and Amores 2.4.32 is a case in point: most unexpectedly, we find illic Hippolytum pone, Priapus erit literally translated into Greek for the edification of those Byzantine schoolboys: ἐκεῖσε θὲς τὸν Ἱππόλυτον, καὶ Πρίαπος ἔσται. A shocking dereliction on the part of the monk in question, as I hardly need to emphasise.
Over in Western Europe there were indeed comparable efforts to make Ovid respectable, often involving the allegorizing of the myths of the Metamorphoses. But another approach was taken by the Archpoet (Archipoeta in Latin), an anonymous poet whose pseudonym was apparently derived from his patron, Rainald of Dassel, both Archbishop of Cologne and Archchancellor of Italy. The Archpoet’s masterpiece, his “Confession”, is perhaps the most famous of medieval Latin lyrics, and it’s directly inspired by Ovid, Amores 2.4.
The poem can be dated to 1162 or more likely late 1163, when Rainald, a close adviser of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa as well as a promoter of classical learning, spent time in the north Italian city of Pavia during an embassy to the Pope: Pavia, as we shall see, is where the Archpoet implies that he is delivering his confession. Picking up on Ovid’s word confiteor (3), “I confess,” a word that Christianity had vastly enriched in meaning, the Archpoet delivers a textbook Christian confession: “confession, contrition, purpose of amendment, imposition of penance, and absolution” (Walsh, Thirty poems from the Carmina Burana, 67; cf. H. Watenphul/H. Krefeld, Die Gedichte des Archipoeta, 139). Everything has changed in Latin poetry: the lines are short and rhymed, the rhythms simplified and accentual, the Old and New Testaments compete with Ovid as the target of allusion. Yet somehow, at least for as long as the Archpoet is confessing his sins, the essence of Ovid has been successfully transplanted to the Holy Roman Empire (2-3):
Cum sit enim proprium viro sapienti
supra petram ponere sedem fundamenti,
stultus ego comparor fluvio labenti
sub eodem aere nunquam permanenti.
Feror ego veluti sine nauta navis,
ut per vias aeris vaga fertur avis.
non me tenent vincula, non me tenet clavis,
quero mei similes et adiungor pravis.
For though it be proper for a wise man
To set his foundations upon a rock,
I in my idiocy am like a flowing river
Never staying still under the same sky.
I am borne along like a sailor without a ship
As a wandering bird is carried through the paths of the air.
Chains do not hold me, nor a key:
I seek like-minded people, and my friends are the depraved.
There are striking parallels between the classical and medieval poet: both are manipulating some well-established and highly artificial poetic conventions, the goliardic persona of the morally wayward vagabond in the Archpoet’s case, and the morally dubious elegiac lover in Ovid’s; important to both also is a claim to youth, and the irresponsibility stereotypically associated with it. In addition, each poet is deploying a verse form that embodies their assumed persona, the trochaic Vagantenstrophe or goliardic measure in the Confession, and the elegiac couplet in Ovid’s Amores.
But it’s Hippolytus we are concerned with, and the Archpoet’s answer to Ovid’s Hippolytus/Priapus witticism brilliantly exploits the city in which he finds himself. Pavia had a dubious reputation, according to a proverb quoted by Landulf of Milan in his Historia Mediolanensis (3.1): Mediolanum in clericis, Papia in deliciis, Roma in aedificiis, Ravenna in ecclesiis, “Milan for clerics, Pavia for pleasures, Rome for buildings, Ravenna for churches.” Or as the Archpoet puts it (8-9),
Quis in igne positus igne non uratur?
quis Papie demorans castus habeatur,
ubi Venus digito iuvenes venatur,
oculis illaqueat, facie predatur?
Si ponas Ypolitum hodie Papie,
non erit Ypolitus in sequenti die:
Veneris in thalamos ducunt omnes vie;
non est in tot turribus turris Alethie.
Who when placed in the fire is not burned?
Who spending time in Pavia may be considered chaste
where Venus hunts young men with her finger,
traps them with her eyes, ensnaring them with her face?
Place Hippolytus in Pavia today,
He won’t be Hippolytus tomorrow:
all roads lead to the bedchambers of Venus;
Amongs all those towers there is no tower of Truth.
(Pavia was famous, as S. Gimignano is today, for its towers.)
An unfortunate colleague of mine met me on the airport bus over the summer. I was off to Cartagena for a jolly, and he to Pavia to give a paper. When I did what I felt compelled to do and warned him of the threat to his immortal soul posed by that city, he told me I was the second Classicist in a week to quote the Archpoet’s couplet at him when he mentioned where he was going.
But how could I resist? In Si ponas Ypolitum hodie Papie/ non erit Ypolitus in sequenti die the Archpoet fulfilled his boast at 18.4: Nasonem post calicem carmine preibo, “After a glass I shall surpass Naso in song.” But he surpasses Ovid in a more profound sense too, perhaps. Some scholars doubt the genuineness of the contrition that the poet-persona claims to feel at the end of this confession, feeling that his vices have been recounted with too much gusto for us really to accept that (23) iam virtutes diligo, vitiis irascor,/ renovatus animo spritu renascor;/ quasi modo genitus novo lacte pascor,/ ne sit meum amplius vanitatis vas cor, “Now I love virtues and loathe vices,/ renewed in the mind I am reborn in the spirit;/ like a new-born I feed on fresh milk:/ may my heart no longer be a vessel of vanity.” “The main body of the Confession is more of a defense than a confession,” suggests S. Shurtleff. But I suppose it seems to me that one cannot adequately repent one’s sins without first fully acknowledging them; and anyway that’s to take the exercise a bit too literally. Certainly, as the poet promises to reform, classical allusion gives way to scriptural. The Latin model is displaced by the biblical.
Are we focusing too much on the Ovidian sins the Archpoet admits to, then, and too little on his remorse? Is this in fact the most important respect in which the Archpoet has improved on Ovid, by capping the unresolved immorality of the pagan Roman with the Christian promise of redemption?
Some things I’ve been reading:
P. G. Walsh, Thirty poems from the Carmina Burana (1976);
H. Watenphul/H. Krefeld, Die Gedichte des Archipoeta (1958);
E. J. Kenney, “A Byzantine version of Ovid,” Hermes 91 (1963), 213-27;
P. Godman, The Archpoet and Medieval Culture (2014);
K. Langosch, Die Lieder des Archipoeta (1965);
F. Adcock, Hugh Primas and the Archpoet (1994), with an introduction by P. Dronke;
P. Dronke, “The Archpoet and the Classics,” in P. Dronke, Sources of Inspiration (1997), 83-99;
J. Hamacher, “Die ‘Vagantenbeichte’ und ihre Quellen,” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 18 (1983), 160-7;
S. B. Kugeas, “Maximos Planudes und Juvenal,” Philologus 73 (1914), 318-319;
J. Herrin, Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire (2007);
S. Shurtleff, “The Archpoet as poet, persona and self: the problem of individuality in the Confession,” Philological Quarterly 73 (1994), 373-84.
Way back last October I was helping Mary Beard and Peter Stothard introduce Virgil’s 9th Eclogue at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, gamely claiming that it was the best poem ever written. I’d still insist it was one of the very best Latin poems ever written, at least, up there with Odes 3.29.
What makes Eclogue 9 so great, to my mind (and in a couple of sentences), is that it takes the conventions of pastoral poetry and essentially shreds them. Pastoral (also known as bucolic) is a peculiar but very resilient genre of poetry. It describes a world populated by idealized herdsmen, living a carefree life in a sympathetic landscape. The Eclogues start off in typical fashion (1.1-3): “You, Tityrus, lie beneath the canopy of a spreading beech,/ and practice your woodland music on slender pipe.” The shade from the midday sun, and especially the song that we are told that Tityrus is singing about his lover Amaryllis, are classic pastoral motifs. But if I give you the whole of the first five lines of Eclogue 1, the nature of Virgil’s project is clearer:
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
siluestrem tenui Musam meditaris auena;
nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arua.
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.
You, Tityrus, lie beneath the canopy of a spreading beech,
and practice your woodland music on slender pipe;
I am leaving my country’s boundaries and sweet fields.
I am an outcast from my country; you, Tityrus, at ease in the shade
teach the woods to echo “beautiful Amaryllis.”
It is characteristic of Virgil’s pastoral poetry that the blissful scene around Tityrus is set against the dire circumstances affecting the herdsman addressing him, Meliboeus, who has been expelled from his land. This sharpens the appeal of the pastoral dream, but it also betrays its fundamental fragility.
In Eclogue 9 two herdsmen are experiencing the same as Meliboeus in Eclogue 1. Moeris and Lycidas, the latter a younger man, wander through a shattered landscape, dispossessed of their land and unable to do any of the things pastoral characters are supposed to do: they cannot stop, cannot recline under a shady tree, and above all cannot sing. Indeed they cannot any longer remember the songs that they used to sing. In Eclogue 1 and 9, furthermore, the destruction of the pastoral world is associated by Virgil with contemporary events in Italy, especially the land confiscations (to resettle the demobilized troops) that followed the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. These pastoral poems are thus in some respects spectacularly artificial compositions (a lot of the impact of Eclogue 9 derives from its systematic reversal of one poem in particular, the 7th Idyll of the Greek poet Theocritus, his great predecessor in pastoral poetry, for example), but they also offer an urgent commentary on some of the darkest days in Rome’s history, the chaos that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44, in middle of which Virgil was composing these exquisite pastoral poems.
My main job at Cheltenham is to do some close reading: literally reading chunks of the poem out loud in Latin, but also drawing out what I think is most important about the detailed composition of the poetry. Preparing for this–and that includes working out with Mary and Peter what to emphasise (the event is only an hour long)–is excellent discipline: I always end up seeing much more even in very familiar poems than I had before. Occasionally enough to dash off a blog about it…
This time I came away thinking about prosody. Prosody is closely related to metre, in which readers of this blog will know I have a passing interest (here, here, and here, for example). Specifically, prosody concerns how the words of poetry are set in their metrical scheme: what kinds of word are allowed where, what pauses there should be in a line, etc.
One example of a prosodical issue in Eclogue 9 is the “bucolic diaeresis”, a habit of introducing a pause between sense units after the fourth foot of the (six-foot) hexameter line. It doesn’t sound too significant, but it was common in Theocritus’ pastoral poetry and, while less regular in the Eclogues, Virgil seems to reserve it for moments when he wants to evoke a pastoral atmosphere especially strongly: the “bucolic diaeresis” retains its bucolic associations, in other words.
At Eclogue 9.51-4, for instance, Moeris complains that he can’t remember songs any more:
omnia fert aetas, animum quoque; saepe ego longos
cantando puerum memini me condere soles:
nunc oblita mihi tot carmina…
Time takes everything away, the memory too; often I remember
as a boy putting the long days to rest with singing:
now I have forgotten so many songs…
There’s a reminiscence here of a celebrated poem by another Greek poet, Callimachus (translated by Cory), but what interests me is how, as Moeris recalls the days when pastoral was pastoral, when all day could be spent in carefree song, he introduces a “bucolic diaeresis”, the strong sense break between quoque and saepe. The prosody is evoking that long-lost pastoral past in its own right.
Sticking with the “bucolic diaeresis” for a moment, toward the end of the poem Lycidas makes a final desperate effort to persuade Moeris to stop and sing, in other words to recover the pastoral fantasy (9.59-62):
hinc adeo media est nobis uia; namque sepulcrum
incipit apparere Bianoris. hic, ubi densas
agricolae stringunt frondis, hic, Moeri, canamus:
hic haedos depone, tamen ueniemus in urbem.
From here on there is half our journey to go; look, the tomb
of Bianor is coming into sight. Here, where the farmers
are stripping the thick foliage, here, Moeris, let us sing:
put the kids down here; we will reach the City all the same.
Again, Lycidas’ pleas gain extra force by an intensification of the pastoral ambience. The first two lines imitate Theocritus Idyll 7 very closely, but each also has a strong “bucolic diaeresis”, uia || namque and Bianoris || hic. Lycidas is refusing to give up hope, and his prosody reflects that.
Moeris, the disillusioned older man, will have none of it. The poem ends with an abrupt couplet expressing his adamant refusal to sing (66-7):
desine plura, puer, et quod nunc instat agamus.
carmina tum melius, cum uenerit ipse, canemus.
Say no more, boy, and let’s get on with the matter at hand.
We shall sing songs better when the master comes.
(“The master” refers to Menalcas, a poet-figure whose absence from the scene earlier in the poem is a symptom of the disruption in the countryside. His return is a faint hope, one presumes.)
I’m going to focus on another detail of prosody here. In desine plura, puer Virgil does something naughty, introducing a syllable quantity that is strictly illegal. The seven syllables of the phrase should follow the pattern long-short-short long-short-short long, but the -er of puer, “boy,” is a short syllable. Now the rule that Virgil is breaking here is not an absolutely hard-and-fast one, but this is still a very rare license, only occurring when it does in the first syllable of a metrical foot, and normally only (as here) before the main caesura (a conventional pause) of a verse. Virgil will have been aware of similar moments in Homer’s hexameters and in other Greek poets, and sometimes his practice reflects an older pronunciation of the Latin words (syllables short in his day which had once been long). More often, though, and this is the case here with puer, Virgil simply places a short syllable where readers would firmly expect a long syllable to go. The best discussion of Virgil’s practice is in R. G. Austin’s wonderful commentaries on books of the Aeneid, for example his note at Aeneid 4.64 (pectoribus inhians), but Austin’s most important observation is that Virgil was sometimes clearly just exploiting the license for artistic effect: “Whatever the technical explanation of the matter, Virgil’s pleasure in using the device is obvious, and his skill as plain.”
So the question that occurred to me in Cheltenham was why Virgil had introduced a short-weight syllable at the end of desine plura puer.
I think it’s a very subtle, rather beautiful effect rounding off this pretty marvellous poem. In a sense Eclogue 9 is all about silence. The characters struggle, and fail, to remember the songs that are the quintessence of the pastoral pipedream: the pastoral world has lost its all-important music. We should note also that Virgil is coming to the conclusion of his own poetic collection: there is one more poem and the Eclogues will end, and since Virgil has encouraged us to see the Eclogues as themselves pastoral songs, the songs of pastoral figures in their idyllic surroundings (he refers to himself as Menalcas or Tityrus, names of herdsmen, for example, and Virgil’s poetry has a deliberately singsong quality), the fact that Virgil’s poetry falls silent at the end of the collection itself works as a protest against the forces that make the pastoral dream impossible, the civil wars pitting Roman against Roman.
Here Moeris, in the face of their overwhelming misfortunes, demands silence from the ever-optimistic Lycidas: “Say no more, boy.” In the subtlest way possible Virgil underlines that enforced silence, lengthening the pause at the caesura after puer with a syllable that falls ever-so-slightly too short. It might be just that phrase that is enhanced by that extended lack of sound, but desine plura, puer, in the context of a collection of pastoral songs, songs that conjure into existence a bewitching alternative existence, is a devastating statement. Within the poetry we “hear” momentarily the suppression of all poetry.
It is very, very technical stuff, sometimes, Roman poetry. But that can also be when it’s at its most gorgeously expressive.
Just because, here’s a section from the versified survey of metres by Terentianus Maurus, perhaps around A.D. 300, where he describes the bucolic diaeresis, followed by my best effort at an English version, aided by Cignolo’s edition (2002). At 2129-30 Terentianus translates the very beginning of Idyll 1 of Theocritus (“the child of Sicily”) into Latin (the Greek is Ἁδύ τι τὸ ψιθύρισμα καὶ ἁ πίτυς, αἰπόλε, τήνα,/ ἁ ποτὶ ταῖς παγαῖσι, μελίσδεται, ἁδὺ δὲ καὶ τύ/ συρίσδες, and both Greek lines have bucolic diaereses); and at 2133-4 he quotes the first two verses of Eclogue 3 of Maro (Virgil), exhibiting a nice opening example in an Meliboei. The “tetrameter” is the first four feet of the six-foot hexameter verse:
pastorale uolet cum quis componere carmen,
tetrametrum absoluat, cui portio demitur ima
quae solido a verbo poterit conectere uersum, 2125
bucolicon siquidem talem uoluere uocari.
plurimus hoc pollet Siculae telluris alumnus:
ne graecum immittam uersum, mutabo latinum,
‘dulce tibi pinus summurmurat, en tibi, pastor,
proxima fonticulis; et tu quoque dulcia pangis.’ 2130
iugiter hanc legem toto prope carmine seruat:
noster rarus eo pastor Maro, sed tamen inquit
‘dic mihi, Damoeta, cuium pecus? an Meliboei?
non, verum Aegonis: nuper mihi tradidit Aegon’.
If anyone wants to write a pastoral poem,
let them round off the tetrameter, to which a final section is lacking
which can complete the verse starting from an unbroken word,
since they have decided that such a verse be called “bucolic”.
A son of Sicily is best known for this:
so as not to introduce a Greek verse, I shall translate into Latin:
“The pine whispers sweetly, look, shepherd,
The one right by the springs; and you too make sweet songs.”
Theocritus observes this rule almost continually throughout his poetry;
for that reason our shepherd Maro, though sparing with it, still says
“‘Tell me, Damoetas, whose is the flock? Meliboeus’s?’
‘No, Aegon’s: Aegon handed it over to me the other day.’”
(Terentianus Maurus, De litteris de syllabis de metris 2123-2134)
Just a curiosity, this, and as much as I can manage at a stupidly busy point in the academic year.
It comes from what is perhaps the closest thing the ancient world had to a blog, the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. Around the middle of the second century A.D., initially during an extended stay in Athens (hence the title), Gellius collected information on topics that interested him, presented in short, self-contained notes on word use, antiquarianism, philosophy–whatever had caught his attention. The twenty books of the Noctes Atticae, all but one still extant, preserve some precious material: something I’ve been writing recently on the Roman priests of Jupiter known as the flamen and flaminica is very dependent on Attic Nights 10.15, for example.
The last note in Book 18 runs like this (NA 18.15):
“In the long lines called hexameters, and likewise in senarii (iambic trimeters), scholars of metrics have observed that the first two feet, and also the last two, may consist each of a single part of speech, but that those between may not, but are always formed of words which are either divided, or combined and run together. Varro in his book On the Arts wrote that he had observed in hexameter verse that the fifth half-foot generally ended a word, and that the first five half-feet had equally great force in the creation of a verse as the following seven; and he argues that this happens in accordance with a certain geometrical ratio.”
(In longis uersibus, qui hexametri uocantur, item in senariis, animaduerterunt metrici primos duos pedes, item extremos duo, habere singulos posse integras partes orationis, medios haut umquam posse, sed constare eos semper ex uerbis aut diuisis aut mixtis atque confusis. M. etiam Varro in libris Disciplinarum scripsit obseruasse sese in uersu hexametro, quod omnimodo quintus semipes uerbum finiret et quod priores quinque semipedes aeque magnam uim haberent in efficiendo uersu atque alii posteriores septem, idque ipsum ratione quadam geometrica fieri disserit.)
The issue here is the metre of epic poetry, the dactylic hexameter, and with less emphasis the iambic trimeter, metre of dialogue in tragedy, both lines consisting of six metrical feet; specifically at issue is where word breaks or caesuras were expected to fall in the verse line. The first sentence is essentially concerned with the convention in both the hexameter and the trimeter that a major word break falls within the third or fourth foot; or to put that another way, the convention that a word break should be avoided between the third and fourth foot, that is, a caesura dividing the line into two exactly equal parts.
The second sentence continues the interest in how a hexameter line was articulated, but takes a peculiar turn. It cites M. Terentius Varro, the celebrated polymath of the first century B.C., noting in his nine-book Disciplinae (maybe in the book on music; maybe in the book on geometry: only fragments of the Disciplinae survive) that the (Latin) hexameter was normally divided into two at a caesura in the middle of the third foot: analysed in terms of half-feet, semipedes, this break divided the line into five half-feet in the first section of the line and seven in the remainder of it. Then the mysterious further observation that although unequal in length, the first part of the line had “an equally great force in creating the line” as the longer second, and that this was in accordance with “a geometrical ratio.”
Varro’s idea is elucidated very deftly by the world expert on Gellius, Leofranc Holford-Strevens,* revisiting an explanation by Henri Weil** in the nineteenth century (online here in German and here in French). The key to understanding Varro is a long account of verse structure in the fifth book of the De Musica of St. Augustine, where it looks very much as if Augustine is following the same passage in Varro as Gellius is citing. It is an essential feature of a verse properly so named, according to Augustine, that it is divided into two unequal, and thus not interchangeable, parts. This characteristic of a verse is inherent in its very name, he claims: uersus, quia uerti non potest, “It is called a verse, because it cannot be reversed.” Considered more closely, however, these superficially unequal parts of the hexameter and the trimeter turn out to share “an amazing equivalence,” aequalitas mirabilis (De Musica 5.12.26). This hidden balance is revealed by mathematics: if the seven parts of the longer section of the line are further subdivided into three and four half-feet, the sum of the squares of 3 and 4 (9 + 16) equals the square of the five parts of the shorter section, 25. Augustine thus seems to be giving us what is unstated in Gellius: “the first five half-feet have equally great force in making a verse as the following seven,” and this is so in accordance with a “a certain geometrical ratio.” At this more esoteric level, the unequal components of the hexameter line in fact prove to be equal.
This is a fascinating line of thinking, but (it hardly needs saying) thoroughly unhinged. It isn’t entirely certain that Augustine’s idea can be blamed on Varro. It suits Augustine’s project in the De Musica as elsewhere, “to demonstrate the presence of an organizing principle functioning in every aspect of reality,”*** very closely indeed, after all: even by studying poetic metre we can rise from the disorder of the corporeal realm to the perfection of the spiritual. But we also have Gellius’ heading for this chapter, which seems to characterise Varro’s original observation as highly peculiar: Quod M. Varro in herois versibus observaverit rem nimis anxiae et curiosae observationis, “That Marcus Varro noted in heroic verses something requiring excessively anguished and painstaking observation.” That does sound like Varro also was dealing in squares. It’s also not obvious what else Varro could have meant by “a geometrical ratio,” or at any rate what he could have meant that would have drawn this interest (and this heading) from Gellius.
But what does any of this matter? Not a lot, for sure. But let’s assume that Varro did believe that the hexameter, in particular, metre of the highest poetic forms, possessed this remarkable character, that beyond its superficial imbalance it embodied a near-mystical perfection. Varro’s voice was an influential one, and not only on later figures like Gellius and Augustine. So we can’t exclude the possibility that Virgil, for example, a younger contemporary of Varro, when he described Dido, Queen of Carthage, in a hexameter of perfect elegance, regina ad templum, forma pulcherrima Dido (Aeneid 1.496), the line disposed into two parts of five and seven half-feet, felt that he was wielding a metrical form that was itself of ineffable beauty.
*L. Holford-Strevens, “Parva Gelliana,” Classical Quarterly 44 (1994), 480-89, at 483-6;
**H. Weil, “Die neuesten Schriften über griechischen Rhythmik,” Jahrbücher für classische Philologie 8 (1862), 333-51, at 336-7; idem, Études de littérature et de rythmique grecques (Paris, 1902), 142-4;
***P. d’Alessandro, Varrone e la tradizione metrica antica (Hildesheim, 2012), 101-146, at 132.
Last week, strictly as a stress-reducing measure, I did what anyone else would do and researched the life of a nineteenth-century pastor.
100% to blame for all the time I wasted, and the time you are currently wasting, is Adele Curness, who tweeted an image of a graffito from the choir stalls of Brasenose College Chapel. E.S. Radcliffe, who had expended such loving care inscribing his name there, was easy enough to find once I opted for Edmund over Edward: he turned out to be Edmund Stringfellow Radcliffe, who was born on February 23 1775 and died on January 20 1826. A Lancastrian from a prosperous background, he was typical of the intake to Brasenose College at this period in its history.
Entering the church, like many of his student contemporaries, Radcliffe lived a comfortable and uneventful life, to all appearances. He secured the living of Walton-le-Dale near Preston in 1803, and adding a Perpetual Curacy of Burnley in 1817. This was pluralism, the holding of multiple offices, but a comparatively benign example if Radcliffe was also able (unlike many of his clerical contemporaries) to serve the parish of Burnley, around 25 miles away. In 1810 he married Frances Ford (born 1789, seemingly of a similarly well-to-do family), and between then and Edmund’s death they had a large family, nine children (by my count) in total. It was these that I found myself, in an entirely unsystematic fashion, chasing through the census records this week.
Here they are:
1. Edmund Ford, born 1811, dies as an infant in January 1812;
2. Edmund Ford, born 1812;
3. Frances Emily, born 1813;
4. Sarah Ann, born 1815;
5. Dulcibella, born 1817;
6. Robert Parker, born 1819;
7. Charles Wilbraham, born 1821;
8. John Randle, born 1823;
9. George Travis, born 1825.
After Edmund Stringfellow Radcliffe’s death in 1826, his widow Frances moved from Lancashire to Rugby, where all her sons went to school. Rugby School was enjoying its heyday under the direction of Thomas Arnold, headmaster from 1828, and by settling in Rugby Frances was ensuring that her sons enjoyed the free education available to local boys or “foundationers”. A few years earlier the mother of William Webb Ellis, left all but destitute after her husband’s death in the Peninsular War, had moved to the town and secured the same for her son: the rest is very dubious history. Of Florence’s children I’ve spent most time this week reading about Charles Wilbraham Radcliffe (no. 7) and his violent fate, but the other children also illustrate in their way nineteeth-century English not-so-genteel lives.
Frances’ first surviving child, Edmund Ford Radcliffe, who had been given exactly the same name (memorialising his father and mother) as his dead brother, subsequently entered the the Civil Service in Bengal, and became a judge: at the time of the 1851 census three of his daughters, all born in the “East Indies”, are staying with grandmother at Elm Cottage, Church Walk, in Rugby: this house, now listed, I think. He died in 1864, his place of death given as Rugby, presumably in his mother’s house.
Frances Emily Radcliffe (No. 3) married the heir to the tea firm Richard Twining III at the family’s local church in Rugby in 1831, at the age of 17. She lived a very privileged life in the Twining family house on the Strand (she, her husband and three children are all there in the 1841 census), but she died in childbirth in 1847.
Neither Sarah Ann nor Dulcibella (nos. 4 and 5, the latter, I think, a family name on her mother’s side: a couple of her nieces certainly share it) marry. When Frances their mother dies in 1872 (she was 83), they live on at Elm Cottage, describing themselves in the 1881 census as “annuitants”. Sarah Ann dies in 1895, Dulcibella in 1901. Meanwhile Robert Parker Radcliffe (no. 6), whom we find visiting his mother in Rugby in the 1861 census, was an officer in the Royal Artillery: he lived until 1907. Leaving no. 7 (Charles Wilbraham Radcliffe) aside for a moment, John Randle Radcliffe (no. 8) followed his father into the church, the only one of Edmund’s children to do so. He is staying with his mother and sisters (and nieces) in Rugby in the 1851 and 1871 censuses, “Studying for the Church” in 1851, holding various curacies in the vicinity of Rugby before becoming vicar of Snitterfield, close to Stratford-upon-Avon and thus not far either from Rugby, in 1877. He served the parish until his death in 1898, never marrying.
The youngest of the siblings, George Travis Radcliffe (d. 1904), is another India hand, rising to command the 7th (later called the 3rd) Madras Light Cavalry. As an officer in the Indian Army he was following in the footsteps of his older brother Charles Wilbraham Radcliffe, to whom I turn. Charles has left the fullest record out of all his siblings, for the worst reasons.
At the time of the so-called “Indian Mutiny”, the uprising against British rule in 1857, Capt. C. W. Radcliffe found himself in Lucknow, serving with a regiment of Bengal cavalry. When elements of it started to desert and the regiment was disbanded, Radcliffe took command of a unit of Volunteer Cavalry in actions against rebels near Lucknow, and then joined the rest of the British combatants and non-combatants (including his wife Emily and three children) as they took refuge in the Lucknow Residency, starting a siege that lasted from June until November 1857.
Many of the survivors of the siege, rapidly converted into a classic imperial story of triumph snatched from disaster, subsequently published diaries or memoirs, and we hear a lot both of Capt. Radcliffe and his wife and family. A prominent figure in the defence of the Residency, he was killed the night before the “first relief” (really a reinforcement) on September 25, 1857, when a British force fought its way through to the Residency, but were too depleted to attempt evacuating it. The siege would not be broken for another 61 days.
In the diaries of Lady Inglis (wife of the commanding officer for the first 87 days before the “first relief”, not published until 1892), we hear that Radcliffe was severely wounded, and needed his arm amputated. A Lady’s Diary of the Siege of Lucknow, Written for the Perusal of Friends at Home by Mrs. James P. Harris, published in 1858 by John Murray (who had cornered the market with the Afghan War diaries of Lady Sale and Vincent Eyre a few years before), confirms that the injury was fatal:
September 25, Friday
The enemy made two attacks during the night. Captain Ratcliffe of the 7th Cavalry was mortally wounded at the Cawnpore battery by a round shot. He will be a terrible loss to his wife and a very large family.
Continued firing in the city all day.
Kaye in his History of the Sepoy War III.542 talks of “one of the very best of our officers … ever foremost in attack and defence, whose cheerfulness, under all depressing circumstances, had set a gallant example.” The conditions within the Residency during the siege were appalling, food in short supply and disease running rife, over and above the constant threat of snipers, artillery and mines. One of Radcliffe’s children, Ada Maud, had died of cholera during the first part of the siege.
We could hardly be further away from Edmund Radcliffe patiently carving his name during chapel services in Brasenose. But a much more recent Brasenose student, J. G. Farrell, based his Booker-winning novel The Siege of Krishnapur on the Siege of the Lucknow Residency. In it he shows the trappings of “civilisation” progressively falling away from the British defenders as the appalling siege drags on, and I couldn’t help thinking of that as a couple of internet searches took me from an Oxford college chapel to the unspeakable brutality (on both sides) of the “Indian Mutiny”. A church in rural Lancashire, a public school, the desperate privations of a beleaguered British outpost, some tea, is not an outrageous summation of the Victorian scene. I remain deeply intrigued by the contradictions of “the peculiar lives led by the British officer class in nineteenth-century India, privileged, violent and above all precarious.”
A couple of grandchildren to remind us that life goes on. Eva Mary Radcliffe, daughter of Charles, was born after her father’s death in 1858: her daughter Eva Mabel Radclife Freeth lived until 1960. William Scott Warley Radcliffe, son of Robert Parker Radcliffe (no. 6), like his father an army officer, died in 1954. Another Dulcibella, Dulcibella Eden Radcliffe, daughter of George (no. 9), married Charles Owen Hore in 1889, and died in 1946, longterm resident of a grace-and-favour apartment (formerly occupied by Lady Sale) within Hampton Court: take a look at this fascinating document, pp. 21 and 44.
This is the last will and testament of William Hulme of Kearsley, a well-to-do but otherwise fairly nondescript Lancastrian gentleman who died on this day (29 October) in 1691: the will is dated a few days earlier. It caused quite a flutter when it was brought to my college, Brasenose, a couple of weeks ago.
Hulme had been a student at Brasenose, and the most important stipulation of his will was designed to support scholarship here. The income of his reasonably extensive land holdings (in Heaton-Norris, Denton, Ashton under Lyne, Reddish, Harwood and Manchester) was to be used to support “four of the poor sort of bachelors of arts takeing such degree in Brazen-Nose Colledge in Oxford, as from time to time shall resolve to continue and reside there by the space of four years after such degree taken,” the students by implication originating in the North West. In other words, the money was to help scholars who had earned a bachelor’s degree to work toward a master’s, and Hulme’s intent was seemingly to ensure high-quality representatives of the Church of England in a part of the world, Lancashire, where Nonconformism was making inroads.
(The relation between Brasenose and Lancashire is not coincidental: there were connections going back to its founders early in the 16th century, Sir Richard Sutton and William Smyth, Bishop of Lincoln: Smyth, a protégé of the Stanleys at Knowsley Hall, was born at Farnworth, as it happens only a couple of miles from my own birthplace at Whiston Hospital. Meanwhile Sutton was apparently a Cheshire man, from Macclesfield. Brasenose in the 17th century was the obvious choice of Oxford college for a young man from the North West, as it had been for Hulme himself. Farnworth’s only other other claim to fame, as far as I know, is as the alleged inspiration for Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound.)*
So it was a generous but comparatively modest bequest to my college, and given with a fairly narrow aim in view. So what? I hear you cry. Well, what makes Hulme’s will of more than strictly local interest is where some of the land he bequeathed happened to be located.
Manchester in Hulme’s day was a small town clustered around the Collegiate Church, now Manchester Cathedral. In the next two centuries, as the Industrial Revolution took hold, the agricultural land that Hulme had owned on its outskirts would become some of the most valuable real estate in the country, massively increasing the original bequest.
But first, Hulme’s will at the top. What we are looking at is the probate copy of the will held by its executor, his cousin William Baguley: you can just see the corner of the probate notice attached to it in the photo at the top. There is a great explainer of the process of obtaining probate in this period on the University of Nottingham website (and my thanks also to our archivist Helen Sumping and Dr Thomas Olding of the University of Winchester for making sense of this for me):
“When the will was sent to the probate court or registry to be proved, it was copied into a register. A certified copy of the entry was written out by a clerk for the executor to take away with him. Attached to it was a probate certificate, which was the official authentication and permission allowing the executor to deal with the testator’s estate.”
Our document is sealed by the Bishop’s surrogate Edmund Entwistle, and signed by Henry Prescott, deputy registrar. So this is the copy of Hulme’s will that Baguley took away with him from “the probate court or registry”, and with reference to which he realised the testator’s wishes in the shape of the Hulme Trust: a truly remarkable survival.
William Hulme’s will is now safely in the College archives, but just a few months ago it was up for sale on eBay. My eagle-eyed colleague Chris McKenna spotted it there (it had already at that stage been sold, for a princely £75) and I contacted first the vendor, and then via him the purchaser, offering to buy it from him. To our good fortune the purchaser, Mike Buckley, turned out to be a historian with a particular interest in William Hulme, and he himself had been stunned to see such an important document on sale. When I contacted Mike he spontaneously offered to present it to the College, his only concern being that it be safely preserved. All he’d let us offer him in return was dinner in College, and we’re greatly in his debt. Meanwhile the vendor was able to tell me that he’d bought the will along with a lot of other legal documents from a dealer at the Newark Antiques Fair, and that he assumed the original source was a solicitors’ office. He has promised to look out for the dealer at future fairs to find out where these documents did originate, but wherever it was must represent some kind of continuity with the executor William Baguley or his lawyers at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, and that’s an exciting idea.
At any rate, this piece of parchment kicked off something remarkable. The history of the Hulme Trust is excellently told by I.B. Fallows in William Hulme and his Trust, but it is essentially the story of a comparatively modest arrangement to support the proper education of clerics which within a hundred years was generating so much money that the trustees didn’t know what to do with it. Fallows tracks the ballooning revenues of the Trust as Manchester expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, £95 in 1693, £280 in 1750, £1,176 in 1794, and £5,161 in 1825 (with accumulated savings and investments of £40,782). In Fallows’ words (p. 84), expressing the situation in 1770,
Suddenly large amounts of land were required for new factories and for the housing of the workers who manned them. Struggling farms in the damp, cotton-friendly estates of long-dead Hulmes could be leased or sold to the new manufacturers. Coal mining and associated heavy industry suddenly exploded. Trustees of the Hulme estates were controlling an asset whose revenues were likely to spiral beyond all their conceivable needs in the next generation. A trust which had been started with the modest aim of assisting four poor scholars and improving the quality of Anglican preachers now had far more money than it required.
The challenge for the Trust through the 19th century was to find an application for the vast sums they found themselves managing that was broadly compatible with Hulme’s wishes. The letter of his will was certainly observed: between 1691 and 1881 a total of 641 young men (not exclusively “of a poor sort”, but the trustees did on the whole observe the original purpose) were enabled to continue their studies at Brasenose, the numbers of exhibitions awarded increasing over time along with the value of those awards. Fallows tracks a representative selection of the scholars, the overwhelming majority of whom took holy orders. One example is William Webb Ellis, perhaps the most famous product of Brasenose after Michael Palin. Ellis was the son of an officer killed in the Peninsular War who attended Rugby School as a foundationer (a nob-fee-paying local resident, as his mother had moved her family to the town with that in view) and there, allegedly, invented Rugby the sport. Whether he really did is doubtful: the story seems to develop after his death, in the context of the split between Rugby Union and Rugby League in the 1890s. But he certainly was a young man of straitened family circumstances who went on to have a successful career as an evangelical rector of various parishes in London and Essex.
Funding MA’s like William Webb Ellis still left lots of money unused, however, and the Trustees tried various ways of spending it. For a long time from the end of the 18th century they attempted to persuade Brasenose College to let them use the money to build special accommodation in Oxford for the Hulme Exhibitioners, but rather to their credit the College was unwilling to introduce this distinction between the undergraduates, Exhibitioners and others. That option closed off, the Trustees set about purchasing advowsons, the right to nominate their choice as priest in a parish, thereby providing livings for the men who had benefited from the exhibitions at Brasenose. But while that could be considered a reasonable extension of the terms of Hulme’s will, as the wealth of the Trust grew so did the desperate need of the new north-western cities for an educational infrastructure, and pressure increased to direct the funds more to the benefit of Manchester in particular.
As the story was told to me years ago, the good citizens of Manchester diddled Brasenose out of its rightful inheritance, leaving only such reminders as Brazennose St in central Manchester. In fact Brasenose and its students had benefited greatly from the Trust, and might have benefited more had they agreed with the Trust’s plans at an earlier stage. A series of Acts of Parliament had extended the capacities of the Trust, and finally in 1881 the Charity Commission proposed, and an Act of Parliament confirmed, a radical new plan which saw funds directed to a range of schools in the vicinity of Manchester, including Manchester Grammar School, Manchester High School for Girls, William Hulme’s Grammar School (also in Manchester), Oldham Hulme Grammar School (Mike Buckley’s old school), Bury Grammar School (the alma mater of Fallows), and what would develop into Manchester University. Fallows estimates that 120,000-150,000 young people, female and male, between the ages of 11 and 21 have benefited “directly (through personal scholarships) or indirectly (through help given to their school or college)” since 1881. Brasenose continued to benefit, too: one corner of New Quad was built with Hulme money and we still draw income to support our educational activities, along with a collection of beneficiaries in the North West.
A striking thing about William Hulme from the perspective of my college is how invisible he is. There’s no portrait of one of our greatest benefactors in the Hall, and when I asked the archivist what material there was related to him to show to Mike Buckley when he visited, the answer was very little. We have a long grace for special occasions which names all our benefactors: Gulielmus Hulme was apparently only added to it in 1975. The Hulme Common Room for graduate students was established in 1963. Aside from that, the only physical memorial to him in College is a Latin plaque (below) put up at one end of the Hall by Church of English priests who had benefited from Hulme Exhibitions, in 1902, when that role of the Trust was reaching its end.
The peculiar absence of Hulme from the College narrative no doubt tells us something about privileged Oxford’s relations with the country’s industrial heartlands, but it also reflects the sheer oddity of this whole story, in investment terms the ultimate “sleeper”. Everything after all hinges on a massive fluke, that a quiet backwater in an undeveloped part of the country, and that is undoubtedly what the market towns of south-east Lancashire were in the 17th century, would become the dynamic engine of the Industrial Revolution. The impression one gets is that in Brasenose the impact of Hulme’s legacy for a long time just didn’t really register, yet Fallows calculates that a total of somewhere in the region of £20,000,000 has been disbursed by the Trust since its inception. I suppose the story of Hulme’s legacy in turn is a microcosm of Britain’s story in the 18th and 19th centuries, but who could possibly have predicted the colossal impact of a minor Lancastrian landowner’s will?
Early in the summer a retired colleague said something to me I’ve struggled to forget since. She was describing all the heavy responsibilities she found herself bearing, out of the goodness of her heart, for aged friends and loved ones, and she concluded: “Don’t get old, Llewelyn.” It caught me at a slightly low ebb, suffering from something it’s taken the summer to work out is nothing significant, well, nothing more than one of those skeleto-muscular reminders that time is remorseless. Hence the disproportionate impact of a passing remark, no doubt, anyhow.
I am now in my fiftieth year, and to a Latinist one thing that means is that I’m roughly the same age as Horace when he wrote his fourth book of lyric poems, the Odes. If our comparable ages matter at all, it’s because age matters to Horace. His poetry is not in any straightforward way autobiographical, but he did construct a kind of parallel biography out of his poetry, matching the sequence of poetic genres he undertook to the stage of life at which he was writing, aggressive iambic and satirical poetry in his younger days, detached epistolary musings in his dotage. It was in middle age that Horace wrote the Odes (Horace was born in 65BC; Odes Books 1-3 were apparently published as a collection in 23BC), and again lyric was an age-appropriate choice. The male lyric voice is quite precisely defined in this respect: he’s not as young as he was, he’s seen a bit of the world and is wise to it (though perfectly capable of losing his head, just quicker to regain it than his younger self), but above all he’s sensitive to his years, regretful of the passing of time and acutely aware of his mortality.
The persona Horace adopts in Odes 1-3 is all of those things. Already in these books Horace spends a lot of time contemplating his inevitable death and pursuing activities to mitigate that gloomy prognosis, mainly involving alcohol and serial monogamy. His most famous motto, carpe diem, means “pick the day”, as if the day is an apple that you must pluck and eat while you still can–and who knows how long that will be? In its original context in Odes 1.11 Horace has one particular activity in mind for himself and the young woman, Leuconoe, to whom this advice is directed, and it isn’t a game of monopoly.
Between Odes 1-3 and Odes 4 there was a gap of as many as ten years. The date of Book 4 is disputed, but Horace himself gives his age as circa lustra decem at 4.1.6, “around fifty,” and in-between times he’d written a book of meditative Epistles as well as a long hymn for Augustus’ Secular Games in 17BC. We’re presumably around 14BC. The same lyric themes of the rapid passage of time, the unpredictable future and imminent mortality are found in the later book, but if time was an issue already in 1-3 (as it must be in any lyric poetry), it’s an urgent one in 4, a book deeply conscious that its author is too old to be writing it. The book opens with Horace insisting he’s past it (3-4, non sum qualis eram bonae/ sub regno Cinarae, “I’m not the man I was when good Cinara ruled my life”): Venus should leave him alone and pick on young men like Paullus Maximus. At the end of 4.11 he calls a definitive end to love affairs (29-36), which implies, as in 4.1, a farewell to lyric poetry: age iam, meorum/ finis amorum/ (non enim posthac alia calebo/ femina), condisce modos, amanda/ voce quos reddas; minuentur atrae/ carmine curae, “Come now, last of my loves (for after this I shall feel no passion for any other woman), learn some tunes to sing with your lovely voice. Black anxieties will be lessened by song.” When the lyric song is over, an implication is, there will be nothing to distract him from those anxieties.
There is another poem in Book 4 that’s all about age, Odes 4.13, but in this case the subject is not (or maybe, not directly) Horace. It’s also the most troubling poem of the book to read, a brutal, vengeful celebration that a woman he once loved, Lyce, is getting old. That, at any rate, is where it starts (David West’s translation after the Latin):
audiuere, Lyce, di mea uota, di
audiuere, Lyce: fis anus, et tamen
uis formosa videri
ludisque et bibis impudens
et cantu tremulo pota Cupidinem
lentum sollicitas. ille uirentis et
doctae psallere Chiae
pulchris excubat in genis.
importunus enim transuolat aridas
quercus et refugit te quia luridi
dentes, te quia rugae
turpant et capitis niues.
nec Coae referunt iam tibi purpurae
nec cari lapides tempora, quae semel
notis condita fastis
inclusit uolucris dies.
quo fugit Venus, heu, quoue color, decens
quo motus? quid habes illius, illius,
quae spirabat amores,
quae me surpuerat mihi,
felix post Cinaram notaque et artium
gratarum facies? sed Cinarae brevis
annos fata dederunt,
seruatura diu parem
cornicis uetulae temporibus Lycen,
possent ut iuuenes uisere feruidi
multo non sine risu
dilapsam in cineres facem.
The gods have listened, Lyce, the gods have listened
to my prayers; you’re becoming an old woman
and you still want to be thought beautiful,
you still play about and you drink too much,
and sing in your cups in that wobbling voice of yours
to rouse the sluggish god of love, but he is out
for the night, on duty on the lovely cheeks
of a young Chian lyre-player.
That demanding god soars over dry oaks.
He flies away from you, your black teeth,
your wrinkles, and the snow
in your hair. You are ugly.
Neither Coan purples nor precious stones
bring back the time
buried in old calendars
by the swiftly flying days.
Where has your charm gone? Where is your complexion?
Where is that lovely way of moving? What remains
of the girl who breathed the breath of love,
who stole me from myself,
the girl I so loved after Cinara, and where is
that artful beauty of yours I knew so well? But the Fates,
who did not give Cinara many years,
were to keep you alive
as long as any ancient crow, to raise
a laugh among hot-blooded young men
as they see your torch
crumbling into ashes.
This is Roman literature at its most indigestible. A man assesses a mature woman on her looks, and judges her worthless by virtue of his own failure to find her attractive. What interests me about this poem, though, is the possibility that in as limited a way as a Roman male could manage, Horace evinces some awareness of this imbalance. There’s a hint of that, nothing more, in the shift of tone in the fourth stanza from the vindictive opening to something (slightly) closer to empathy, a general principle that the past is irrevocably the past followed by Horace’s expression of his own dismay at Lyce’s aging, a very different response, at least, from the triumphant taunts he started with. But the conclusion is again merciless: the young men laugh at her; she is a torch that has burnt itself out; she would have done better to die before she lost her looks, like Cinara.
But if I can try to recall my reaction on first reading this poem, it was to be appalled by Horace’s nastiness, but also left with a sense that there was an unavoidable further implication. I can’t personally read this repulsive poem without the rest of Odes 4 in my head, a book preoccupied with aging, as we’ve seen, and first and foremost with the aging of the author. If Lyce is getting old, Horace must be older; if she is too long in the tooth for this game, Horace has already told us he is too. “I am not the man I was when good Cinara ruled my life,” he says in the first poem of the book; here he reminds us of Cinara, and cannot help but remind us in the process that if anyone’s obsolescent, it’s Horace himself. On the matter of names, “Lyce” carries its own associations: we’ve met her just once before, in Odes 3.10, a poem in which the poet ultimately claims to be too old to take love affairs too seriously, or even to be physically equal to them. This at any rate, for what it’s worth, is how I feel compelled to read Odes 4.13: the brutality of it is shocking, but it’s also self-directed, self-eviscerating. There’s every chance I’m indulging the old misogynist, but if I’m not, the loathing he directs at Lyce entails self-loathing: every nasty jibe Horace makes about Lyce drives home, in turn, how old he is, how decrepit, how close to death.
Horace didn’t get old, or not by our standards: he died just a few years later in 8BC, at 56.
There’s a very nice article on this poem, and some similar ones in the Odes and Epodes, by Carol Esler in T. M. Falkner & J. de Luce, Old Age in Greek and Latin Literature (1989), 172-82. David West’s essays on the Odes in his translation/commentaries are always eye-opening (the one on 3.10, for example, I lean on here).
(This is a book review from nearly a decade ago. I wrote it for the LRB, but at the last moment they rejected it as insufficiently controversial, as far as I recall. It was already far too controversial for a College that had turned very toxic indeed under pressure of our quincentenary celebrations, so that was absolutely fine by me. But it’s a long time ago now, and all the current talk of statue destruction made me think of it. As well as a book review it’s also a meditation, by a younger version of myself, on the peculiar place I work in. A exceedingly minority interest, either way.)
J. Mordaunt Crook, Brasenose: The Biography of an Oxford College. Oxford, 2008.
On 9 March 1881, the ‘bump supper’ celebration of a Brasenose success on the river turned ugly. ‘In the flickering light of bonfires,’ recalled L.R. Farnell, the scholar of Greek religion, ‘could be seen the figures of some two hundred young men bounding and leaping high . . . and passing from lurid light into deep shadow alternately; and the leaping was accompanied by terrifying yells and the most fantastic music ever devised by savages standing on the verge of culture.’ Finally, the undergraduates turned their attentions to a statue that had stood in the middle of Old Quad lawn for 150 years, and defaced it with indelible paint. It and its obscene graffiti were quietly despatched to a scrapyard soon after.
The target of their drunken assault, whether or not those Victorian hoorays were aware of it, was an appropriate one. Although universally known as Cain and Abel, the statue was in fact a copy of a Renaissance image of Samson slaying a Philistine. Walter Pater, a fellow of the college, found some consolation in the sight of these Brasenose athletes (‘like panthers,’ he had described them) leaping naked over bonfires. But the presence of the arch-aesthete in Oxford’s heartiest college during its most philistine phase throws up manifold anomalies: the mind boggles, for example, at the notion of Pater tutoring the future Earl Haig. On the matter of the statue’s destruction, Pater was defensive. If we can believe Edmund Gosse, it was ‘almost the only thing that ever ruffled him’: on mention of the statue, ‘Pater would sit up in a moment, and say, with great acidity, “It was totally devoid of merit, no doubt.”’
Pater’s dilemma, as the aesthete amongst athletes, is one for which a modern Fellow of Brasenose, contemplating the history of the college, is bound to feel some sympathy. Everything about that Victorian venting of testosterone, after all, is apt to set a contemporary academic’s teeth on edge. But our misfortune is that the events of that night are not so unrepresentative of Brasenose culture as we might like. This is ‘Good old BNC’, historically the jovial, well-lubricated and none-too-intellectual champion of causes long lost elsewhere, even in Oxford. In Brasenose’s tolerant atmosphere, for example, the ‘pass man’ (the wealthy sportsman with no interest in an honours degree, and no aptitude for it either) survived and flourished far longer than at other colleges, and the admission of students on the exclusive basis of sporting ability continued to be practised almost to within living memory. ‘As Balliol enlisted clever heads, so B.N.C. enlisted stout legs and arms,’ reminisces a late 19th-century undergraduate. In the later 1880s, sensationally, a top-flight Etonian rower was actually rejected: ‘he couldn’t spell; he could hardly even write his own name; we had to draw the line somewhere.’
Now this is all, as they say, history, and perhaps none of it would matter very much if 2009 weren’t the 500th anniversary of Brasenose College, and our history consequently hard to duck. Any anniversary, let alone the celebration of half a millennium of existence, is bound to expose the subject of celebration to a rather unforgiving light, and J. M. Crook’s elegant college history is only the most explicit contribution to this unavoidable exercise in navel-gazing. But as we, the current Fellows, make the claim to continuity with our predecessors which is presumably essential if the simple age of the institution is going to count for anything, the process is not painless. On the crucial question of what exactly it is that we are celebrating – what an Oxbridge college is actually for, these days – there is less consensus than one might like. The university (in the shape of the subject Faculties) may well have just as great a claim on our time and loyalty as the college, for example, and issues such as how we admit students, how the college is administered, which of the various types of employment contract we hold, and indeed how we teach, have the potential to weaken further the identity and cohesion of the diverse group of scholars that constitutes a college fellowship. The tutorial, the most familiar expression of the Oxford teaching system and rightly regarded as the bellwether of the health of the collegiate system and Oxford education in general, is under pressure everywhere. It is a matter of dispute whether an individual college should aspire to be ‘known for its strengths’ in medicine or law or PPE: self-evidently true for some, a hopelessly parochial throwback for others. So, 500 years of what? An elite educational institution? An extremely picturesque hall of res? A Grade I listed coffee room? The young hooligans of 1881 had a clear idea what they were celebrating, and, judging by the stocks of paint they got in, a good plan of how to celebrate it. Can we say the same of ourselves?
One can cite a host of contemporary niggles (such as I have) which can sour a college’s atmosphere, and no doubt the Fellows of 1881 could have done the same. But perhaps a clerical friend of mine is right to trace the problem farther back. On this analysis the staff of the modern University of Oxford are secular cuckoos in an essentially religious institution: Oxford colleges are monastic foundations which have abandoned the monastic rules which were crucial to maintain harmony within diverse and densely populated communities. I think there’s a lot in that, and we would all do well to read the Rule of St Benedict. It is certainly the case that to a modern Fellow it is only really with the last quarter of the 19th century that the landscape of Oxford University becomes familiar at all. The great watershed is the growth in the authority of the university (at the expense of the colleges) that followed from the Royal Commissions of 1850, 1871 and 1877; and just as important for the academic culture of the place, the secularisation of Oxford which allowed dons to marry and move out to the suburbs in North Oxford which are way beyond the means of their modern counterparts. Before that point Brasenose was a clutch of actual or apprentice clergymen, and its history the story of the (disproportionate, to the secular eye) impact made by theological controversies. It is hard to summon up much fellow-feeling for the men who heckled Archbishop Cranmer as he hobbled up Brasenose Lane on his way to be burned. But for most of the 19th century Brasenose is hardly less alien, a community thoroughly identified with the Church of England: even a superficially interesting figure like William Webb Ellis, a scholar at BNC shortly after his alleged invention of rugby, turns out to have been yet another common-or-garden aspirant to the Anglican priesthood, a profoundly unremarkable man quite oblivious of the myth that the late-Victorian cult of team sports would build up around him.
Such continuities as can be identified between today and pre-1850 Brasenose are either coincidental or functions of the simple physical restrictions of the site. It is a pleasant surprise, but gives us very little insight into Regency Oxford, to find that as long ago as 1821 the Phoenix, a dining club along the objectionable lines of the Bullingdon (these days excluded from the college), was encountering ‘violent opposition throughout the College’ for its social exclusivity. (That does tell us something about the Phoenix, mind you.) As for the physical environment, a history does provide good evidence of a local kind of architectural determinism. Enforced intimacy forges peculiarly collegiate virtues and vices, key to which are the subordination or not of the typically burgeoning academic ego to the higher interests of the community. On the one hand we find sworn ideological enemies during the Commonwealth, an intruded Puritan principal and a Royalist bursar, co-operating to rescue the college in its darkest hour. But rather more in evidence are the bitter feuds which, once sparked, the college environment is peculiarly adept at inflaming. I was once shown what my guide called the ‘million pound bookcase’, a nondescript item of furniture somehow implicated in the mutual loathing between two ancient historians, Hugh Last and Sir Ronald Syme, which cost Brasenose any part of Syme’s large estate on his death in 1989. The consumption of alcohol, pursued with prodigious application, it seems, by every generation of Brasenose students and Fellows, also no doubt has its roots in the intense sociality dictated by the college environment. This hardly differentiates Brasenose from any other institute of higher education, of course, but drinking achieved an iconic status in this college, reflected in the annual Ale Verses celebration on Shrove Tuesday, and a popular etymology of Brasenose’s peculiar name from an old word for ‘brewery’. This at least bodes well for the 2009 celebrations. Whatever other anxieties there may be, nobody familiar with the college’s history can harbour the slightest doubt about this Fellowship’s capacity to organise a piss-up in a Brasinhuse.
Yet it is the culture of the college since the reforms of the later 19th century, starkly but adequately exemplified by the vandalising of Cain and Abel, that confronts a Fellow today. No individual contributed more to the crystallisation of Brasenose’s modern reputation than the hard-drinking, sports-obsessed principal, W.T.S. Stallybrass, who dominated the college between the two world wars. To say that Stallybrass set no great stock by academic excellence would be an understatement: Blues proliferated, Firsts were practically unknown. But there is no doubt that, as it excelled on the rugby pitch and the Thames, Brasenose also developed a strong corporate ethos focused on its clubbable principal. When, at the start of hostilities in 1939, Brasenose men joined up with the RAF en masse, and then were killed en masse, Stallybrass had taken photographs of them when they had visited him on leave, and wrote all their obituaries (‘in the air, on the rugby field . . . he did not know what fear was’; ‘only the examiners could defeat him’). The photos, the obituaries, the appallingly large WWII memorial in the college chapel – all this is terribly moving. But the war and the social changes it wrought did for that particular ideal of collegiality. Stallybrass himself fell from a train out of Paddington in 1948, shortly after being defeated in college by other Fellows determined to improve academic standards. After the war the sporting types in whom Brasenose had specialised increasingly found Oxford’s doors closed to anything except academic talent. Crook quotes Jan Morris on the tragedy of ‘Carruthers’, the archetypal nice-but-dim pass man, who had ‘survived at Oxford until the Second World War, which he won.’ Brasenose College, Crook suggests, had been Carruthers’s veritable alma mater.
Stallybrass died on St Jude’s Day, patron saint of lost causes, and it all adds up to a compelling myth: the Golden Age of the college, lost along with all those young men shot down over the Channel. Was the Oxbridge college itself the last of Brasenose’s lost causes, only truly possible when a coherent ethos, forged in manly endeavour on the water or the rugger pitch, bound its members together? The problem of course is that, intensely poignant as Stallybrass’s photographic record is, Carruthers didn’t really win the war, or didn’t do so single-handedly. I am bound to think of a clever Welsh grammar-school boy who went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1938, but found there a society so rigidly stratified and unsympathetic to someone of his background that he welcomed the opportunity to join the army and leave Cambridge the following year. That man, my father, did his bit for the war effort too, landing on D-Day, fighting through to Germany, losing a lot of friends; but I don’t think he ever went back to Cambridge, and by all accounts Trinity Hall was a lot less exclusive than Brasenose at that time. Another combatant on D-Day was Brasenose’s Nobel laureate, William Golding, on whose literary career the hearty Brasenose of Stallybrass had a tellingly minimal influence. In the case of J.G. Farrell, an undergraduate in the 1950s, it was the onset of polio and treatment in an iron lung that transformed him from a stereotypical Brasenose hearty into a novelist.
A college history must of course be selective, but sometimes selection can collude too closely with its subjects. A peculiar decision taken by Crook is to list all the members of the Phoenix club from its foundation, while the Fellows of Brasenose (rather more central to the project, one would think) go unrecorded. And here is another atypical Stallybrass undergraduate, relegated to a footnote: Peter Twinn, mathematician and entomologist, who at Bletchley Park in 1940 is credited with having broken the German Enigma code for the first time. As Crook admits, ‘BNC between the wars was very much a masculine, almost aggressively homosocial, society.’ John Betjeman feigned a limp whenever he entered the college, calculating that the hearties would not pick on an aesthete who was crippled. The idyll constructed by Stallybrass was built on the exclusion of women, the lower classes and overt exercise of the intellect. Indeed, it was a gentleman’s club, with all the qualities of such a place, loyalty and cohesion, but like a club, defined as much by those whose faces didn’t fit as by the membership.
Notwithstanding populist stereotypes of ‘the old boy network and the old school tie’, the ideals of Stallybrass are as dead as the Oxford dodo. But like the country as a whole, a college can lose its empire (on the playing fields in this instance) and struggle to find a role. In the face of an assertion of collegiate identity as confident as Stallybrass’s one can allow oneself to doubt the role of a college that lacks the same muscularity of purpose. Ambivalent (at best) at what we have been, labouring under our own collegiate Curse of Cain, Pater’s accommodation with the philistines, we may even countenance the possibility that a college is just an anachronistic survival which, like the monarchy, can only compromise so many times with prevailing circumstances without losing its identity entirely. What, to pose that crucial question one more time, is there to celebrate?
A college, as Crook well puts it, is ‘a permanent set of buildings and an impermanent set of people’: on the one hand the Oxford architecture that seemed to William Morris almost organic (buildings that ‘look almost as if they had grown out of the roadway’); on the other, the constantly shifting populations of students, staff and Fellows. What a college most obviously is (though superficially) is a cumulative building enterprise, the architectural sum, not always so felicitous, of centuries of construction. But the wrong conclusion can be drawn from this, the wrong answer to the big question of what we are. It is perhaps the clearest sign of our lack of self-belief that the most insistent answers to the demands of a quincentennial celebration have been that something should be built. Throwing up a new structure, needed or not, is of course the perennial Oxford substitute for creative thinking: the evidence is everywhere. But the great paradox of Oxford is that the impermanent element of this peculiar concoction, the people, is what really matters; the familiar Oxford of quads, crenellations and spires (say it quietly) is quite tangential to the serious project of teaching and researching. In Brasenose this might be called the Narnia Principle, in deference to a couple of gilded fawns, a Victorian lamppost and a scruffy double-doored exit from the chapel, which the imagination of C.S. Lewis, no doubt on a wintry night, transformed into the kingdom of the Snow Queen. Strictly speaking, Narnia begins in a shabby backyard which currently houses the recycling bins. It isn’t of course that building is insignificant or unnecessary in a collegiate university. This is a city in which academics, let alone students struggle to afford accommodation; and I treasure the view of the Radcliffe Camera and University Church I have from my teaching room. But good building must embody a recognition of the relative importance of stone and the creative temperaments that animate it. Dreaming spires, and all that. With a bit of luck the Credit Crunch will do for any such plans, just as surely as it is sending Oxford graduates flooding into teaching and research.
So what should we do to mark the 500th Anniversary of Brasenose? It is easier to say what we shouldn’t, but I do know that Stallybrass’s belief that a shared intellectual endeavour is insufficient to bind a community together is utter nonsense. More than nonsense, actually: a terrifying lack of confidence in our mission as researchers and educators, as if an aptitude and enthusiasm for academic subjects has less power to galvanise young people than an aptitude for propelling a boat. The least that our quincentenary requires is a bout of quiet introspection proper to a collection of scholars, even secular ones: we should remember what we are and what we are not and re- discover our pride in it; we should forcibly restate the value of the education we offer and the research we do, and resist those pressures of administration and self-justification which constantly distract us from the things we are qualified to do. We should indeed read and digest the Rule of St Benedict, but we should also celebrate what our college does best: it harbours a community not defined by ethos (which can easily become class) but by aptitude. The fondest memories of its alumni/ae are not of high jinks but of intellectual excitement. Its architecturally-enforced intimacy may prolong feuds between colleagues, but it also fosters tolerance and openness: it is precisely the manageable scale of the constituent colleges which makes intimidating Oxford accessible. Indeed, the greatest boon of the physical restrictions of a college is that it makes it, as an institution, maximally intolerant of hierarchy. If that still sounds too monastic a prescription for the 21st century, we might also stretch to a cheap reproduction, emphatically positioned in the middle of Old Quad, of Samson slaying a Philistine with the jawbone of an ass.