Deeds, not words. That’s the little motto I sometimes call to mind when I’m struggling for inspiration to write, or when I’m trying to remind myself of what matters most. It’s a prompt to remember that life is for the living, and that getting on with things in the world is what, before anything else, gives life its shape and meaning.
The phrase came to mind more than once today, and for quite distinct reasons, as I read through pieces of writing that jumped up at me from various locations on Twitter: from this moving piece on the life of the unheralded Jesuit priest, Vicente Canas; from this superb piece on the controversy surrounding the scholar and Soviet informer Anthony Blunt; and from this beautifully written blogpost on being diagnosed with autism as an adult.
In each case, the writing points to truths about how to live in the world.
With Canas, a rich picture is evoked of a priest who lived in poverty while embracing the culture of an Amazonian tribe. For defending the land rights of the tribe, he ended up dying a martyr. ‘In the eyes of the world’, says the article, ‘he lived an ‘insignificant life’ and he died unnoticed’. Not quite unnoticed, of course – and it’s an honour to pay Canas some notice on this blog.
With Anthony Blunt, a controversy ensued when it emerged publicly in 1980 that he had betrayed his country to the Soviets, acting as an informer. In particular, should his fellowship of the British academy be revoked? Amidst the controversy, the late church historian Owen Chadwick emerges as something of a hero. Chadwick is someone only really known to me through the brilliant books of his that I’ve read: The Secularisation of the European Mind in the 19th century, Newman, From Bossuet to Newman and Hensley Henson. As a historian, the article fairly characterises him as one who ‘wrote like an angel, and still repays reading for his grace of mind, his delicate judgement, his rich historic instincts, his bleakness about earthly motives and his countervailing generosity of spirit’.
Having already known Chadwick the historian, I could now meet Chadwick the man – practical, wise, humane: ‘He believed both in the reality of repentance and the duty of forgiveness, and that both were fundamental to human decency and self-respect’. Putting his principles into action, Chadwick won the day.
Finally, in Cora Beth Knowles’ reflections on her discovery that she is autistic, I found a deep honesty and humanity: her post confronts in an understated way the nature of the process of diagnosis, and the awkwardnesses and uncertainties surrounding it. She links her desire to be tested, movingly, to a desire to connect with her son, and she reflects – again movingly – on her life and character. The post, for me, is an object lesson in how a deed – here, taking the plunge and doing a test – can invigorate and enrich, while serving also as inspiration to others.
In case all this seems a bit far-removed from my usual posts about the ancient world, there might just be a connection of relevance to point to: an interview I did last week, for Cora Beth’s website (as luck would have it), about an ancient text I sometimes turn to when in need of cheering up: Minucius Felix’s Octavius. The interview can be viewed here.
The Octavius might not seem an obvious text to turn to when in need of cheer: it describes a religious argument between a Christian (Octavius) and a worshipper of the polytheistic deities whom he tries (successfully) to convert. Not exactly bucolic poetry, then. And certainly not a text (I would think) that could enthral devout postmodern secularity.
Then, too, there’s the fact that one might read the Octavius simply as an exercise in persuasion, as a text which confidently, if urbanely, tries to show educated Roman readers how Christianity can become a good and thinking person’s best option as a religious philosophy; though certainly the debate between the speakers can be seen as one which begs as many questions as it answers.
And yet – there are beautifully observed features of the text (as I say in the interview) that capture the imagination and enable the reader really to enter the scene.
So, for example, the children of Octavius are described as being now at an age where they speak innocently and endearingly in half-formed words.
And, as the debaters walk along the beach, they enjoy feeling a gentle breeze blow against their bodies and sense the sand sinking away beneath their feet. And then they see a gathering of small boys skimming stones across the sea water, competing to skim their own stone the furthest.
If there is a winning dimension to this text, it is – for me – in these details, and in the charitable tone its author manages to convey.
And so here again, perhaps, is an illustration of how the ‘deeds, not words’ formula can apply. Since it’s in the context of descriptions of human beings being human in uncomplicated, quotidian ways (toddlers speaking jumbled words, men feeling the elements, boys skimming stones) – their actions in other words – that the text really comes to life and leaves an impression.
Last week was Classics week at school (pictures on the departmental twitter feed here). It was an opportunity to put on a range of events – talks, trips, a quiz, a baking competition etc. – with the aim of building a sense of what the study of the ancient world is and can be about, and why it’s exciting. The theme for the week (proposed by one of my colleagues in the Classics department) was the Trojan War.
This made sense as it’s a theme that dovetails neatly with the special exhibition currently showing at the British Museum on just this topic. And the theme worked well: we were very happy to welcome Dr Simon Pulleyn from UCL to talk to us about some aspects of the depiction of Helen in Homer’s Iliad, as well as about some of the linguistic questions which arise through study of the poem. Over the course of the week, and as with the British Museum exhibits, there was a chance to range widely – looking not just at the poetry of Homer, but at the way the Trojan war has been thought about and understood more broadly through time and space.
I myself started the week with a Monday morning assembly touching on a few of the contexts in which the Iliad has had an important impact. These formed the basis of 3 further talks I gave over the course of the week (possible overkill, I concede, but I couldn’t help myself…).
I looked first at the reception of Homer’s gods in ancient Greece, where the description of his poem as ‘Bible of the Greeks’ is not wholly misleading; at the use made of Homer by the Roman poet Virgil, particularly in connection with his depiction of the emperor Augustus in the Aeneid; at the use of the Iliad in the context of psychological therapy for Vietnam war veterans, as outlined in the brilliant book Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay; and at some of the recent retellings of Homer from female perspectives, in books like Margaret Attwood’s Penelopiad and Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls. There is in fact an ancient pedigree for this last sort of writing: we see it most clearly on display in Euripides’ fifth century BC play, The Trojan Women.
By the end of the week, like everyone else, I was ready for a rest. But I’ve been waiting to find a chance to write up a few thoughts about the subject matter of my final talk of the week: this concerned the way St Augustine, in his magnum opus The City of God, writes about the Trojan war, just a few years after the sack of Rome by Visigothic invaders, in the early 5th century AD.
Augustine wrote at a time when stories of Troy, as presented (in particular) by Homer and Virgil, were coming to be viewed in a new and different light. The Christianisation of the Roman west was by now well underway (it had been more than a century since the accession of the emperor Constantine), and Christian thinkers had for decades now been aiming to recalibrate popular understandings of the shape and significance of Roman – and cosmic – history. Writing the Trojan war out of history (and out of Roman religion) – or at least writing it off – was part of this process.
For first century BC Roman writers like Virgil and the historian Livy, stories of the Trojan war could occupy a proud place of precedence in their tellings of the origins of Roman history. But this way of situating and explaining the development of Roman history, and indeed world history (in relation to the Homeric tales of Troy) was something that made a good deal less sense for writers inspired by Christianity.
Christian writers tended to see the history of Rome, and indeed the history of the cosmos, in an altogether different light. They wanted to tell historical stories that followed a trajectory featuring not Achilles, Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, but instead tales of the Bible – of Noah, Abraham, Isaac and King David.
Christian history writing, as the great historian of historiography Arnaldo Momigliano emphasises, is profoundly influenced in its most fundamental conceptions by Jewish history writing. The foremost influence over the early Christian historiographical tradition, in fact, was the first century AD Jewish historian Josephus.
Augustine himself was not a historian. But in his City of God – a work of theology – he presents passages of prolonged reflection and argument about historical topics. And, like Christian historians, Augustine is fundamentally uninterested in sustaining older linear narratives of Roman history. He is interested rather in vindicating and championing new, Christian ways of seeing and understanding the past.
His treatment of the Trojan war – to which he turns his attention in book 3 – is a case in point. For Augustine, Homeric accounts of the war at Troy do not count as credible historical records. He is particularly unimpressed by Homer’s Trojan gods, most notably Apollo and Poseidon. Poseidon, he notes, was simultaneously credited with building up the city walls of Troy, and – then – with joining the Greek assault on the city.
Poseidon punishes Trojan bad faith (the bad faith in question being the failure of Laomedon, Priam’s father, to pay the sea god for his help in constructing the original city walls of Troy, as outlined at Il. 21.441f.). Meanwhile, Augustine wonders wryly whether it’s more dangerous to believe in such a god or to let him down. He also wonders why – if Troy’s gods are indeed Rome’s gods, as Roman tradition had maintained – a Trojan act of bad faith was punishable in this way, while the perjurious acts of unscrupulous Roman senators apparently were not.
Augustine mocks the idea that the Homeric gods could have had any serious issue with the adultery of Paris (when he took Helen, Menelaus’ wife). The gods themselves were serial adulterers, he notes. He also dismisses the idea that the leading men of the Roman imperial period could reliably trace their ancestries back to Troy, and indeed to the gods themselves (‘Caesar’, he notes, was ‘convinced that Venus was his ancestress’).
Here he takes issue with the subtle perspective of the first century BC Roman encyclopaedist Varro, who supplies Augustine with much of his raw material in the City of God. In Varro’s eyes, a prominent Roman who constructed his identity with reference to divine Trojan ancestors was making a positive move. It was positive, he thought, because it might make him more energetic in action, more bold in undertaking noble deeds, and more secure within himself. The dangers of hubris, apparently, did not loom large in Varro’s view of things!
But, back to Augustine, whose major query about the Homeric (and Roman) gods was this: why should these gods have been so incapable of protecting Troy, yet so capable of protecting Rome (at least, that is, during its years of imperial greatness)? And what was missing from Troy that Rome had come to possess, so that the gods might favour one city, but not the other? Here, in Augustine’s view, was a key and unanswerable question – and it is a question whose unanswerability (he thought) ought really to undermine in its very foundations the traditional, and rather naive, Roman religious worldview.
Augustine has a final point about Troy. He notes that the Roman general Fimbria, in the early 1st century BC, brutally razed a rebuilt latter-day Troy, completely destroying the city and ordering the slaughter of all its inhabitants. But wait: was this not the city that had given the Romans their gods? Why, then, should a Roman general destroy a city whose gods (which were also his own) ought to have been protecting it? The flawed logic of Roman theology is, for Augustine, exposed here all too clearly.
In Augustine, the tragic fate of ancient Troy, and the stories told by Homer, are not subjected to thoroughgoing scrutiny – historical, literary, archaeological – in the ways characteristic of modern scholarship. Augustine’s exploration is motivated rather by a desire to dislodge a theological perspective whose weakness he feels confident in identifying. He does not accept that ‘the gods’ acted as protectors either of Troy or of Rome in its imperial heyday.
Even in his doubts, however, Augustine remains very much a theologian: he does not wish to suggest that no god can act as the protector and champion of a people through history. Indeed, his contention is that the rise of Rome, and the city’s greatness, are things that have in fact happened under the oversight of the Christian God, rather than the gods of Troy. Given the recent sacking of Rome, this might seem (and might have seemed also in the 5th century) a quite remarkable point of view for a Christian theologian to advance.
Featured image (top) is Destruction, from Thomas Cole’s series, The Course of Empire.
Last week two of us Classics teachers accompanied my class of 12 year olds to the Roman remains of Verulamium in St Albans. It’s a fun trip to make, though on this occasion the weather was pretty grisly, which made walking around the site of the ancient town a bit less enjoyable than usual.
The pupils particularly enjoyed seeing the Roman theatre, parts of which have been pretty well preserved, and testing out its acoustics. Next to the theatre lie the remains of a building which archaeologists have labelled the site of several ‘shops’: a carpentry shop, a bronze worker shop and so on.
I asked my pupils to think about how an archaeologist might be able to arrive at this sort of verdict concerning the nature of a Roman building. Just how much evidence of (e.g.) bronze-working did the archaeologists who dug up this building discover? Had they inferred a great deal from not a lot, or had they not had to do much inferring at all? I didn’t actually know the answer to this question myself (I presume the basis of an answer to it can be found lurking somewhere in one of the 1960s excavation reports).
But just keeping such questions in mind matters, I think, when visiting archaeological sites. Our ancient historical picture of a place like Verulamium really can depend on how we interpret individual pieces of evidence (which might conceivably be understood in a quite different way and with startling implications). For a good example of this, in relation to Verulamium itself, see here.
In the afternoon, we arrived at the Verulamium museum for some artefact handling and a look around the museum exhibits. One of the exhibits – a brief video – prompted me to think again about the challenges of interpreting evidence – this time textual evidence. The video in question pronounced confidently that St Alban had died a martyr in the Diocletianic persecution of the early fourth century. Despite having some familiarity with the history of this period, this wasn’t a claim I’d encountered before – so I did a little digging around later that day and came across a number of interesting findings, which I’ve written up below. Things, in short, are a bit more complicated than the museum exhibit was letting on.
The first surviving document to make any kind of reference to St Alban is a work of Latin hagiography written in 480 AD, which was dedicated to another figure altogether – Saint Germanus, bishop of Auxerre – and was written by Constantius of Lyons. This text makes reference to the tomb of the ‘blessed martyr Alban’. The text makes no reference to any martyrdom, however. It simply recounts that Germanus ‘prayed to God through the saint’ (i.e. with Alban’s intercession) and that he was thus afforded a safe voyage back to Gaul.
A text of the sixth century monk Gildas, written in Latin in Britain, contains the earliest surviving account of Alban’s martyrdom, which he places in the Diocletianic period. In this text, Gildas suggests that Alban hid a Christian confessor in his home and that he then disguised himself as the confessor, thereby saving the confessor from persecution but sacrificing himself in the process.
Gildas writes affectionately of Alban, but his account does not go into much detail. By the eighth century, when St Bede was composing his Ecclesiastical History, a more elaborate story of Alban’s encounter with his Roman persecutors could be told. Was this the product of additional, otherwise unattested source material that Bede had managed to access? Or does it rather reflect an increasingly imaginative engagement with the figure of St Alban on the part of later antique Christians, for whom it mattered to try to enter into the viscerally lived experience of one of their heroes in as much detail as possible?
A common approach among historians is to assume that some version of the latter question is the one most worth asking when considering the development of hagiographical traditions in late antiquity. But the former question can be, and often is, worth posing too. And in this case it is indeed: three manuscripts which seem to predate Bede’s account but which closely match many of its details were brought to light in 1904 by the German scholar Meyer.
In Bede’s more elaborate account, which features (among other things) a dialogue between Alban and the judge who sentences him, references to local topography, and a story about a soldier who blinds Alban, the martyrdom of Alban is placed not during the Diocletianic persecution but during the much earlier reign of Septimius Severus.
In the 12th century account of Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, Alban’s martyrdom is specifically connected with the reign of Diocletian once again.
All of the surviving written accounts of Alban’s life and death were written at something of a remove from the earliest Christian centuries. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in particular, was writing at a considerable distance from the early fourth century. For all their colour, the extent to which these (increasingly elaborate) accounts of Alban’s martyrdom represent the truth about the historical figure who seems to have inspired them is obviously a vexed question. There is also a very large question mark as to whether the persecutions under Diocletian ever took place in the western Roman empire (it is clear there were at least some persecutions in the east, but good reasons to doubt that they also happened in the west). These are the sorts of vexed questions that bedevil the study of very many early Christian figures and the written accounts that purport to record their experiences.
What can be said with conviction, I think, is that the museum exhibit I chanced upon at Verulamium was just a bit too confident in its definitive placing of St Alban’s death in the reign of Diocletian (and thus too confident too in the trustworthiness of Gildas and Geoffrey of Monmouth).*
*For the history of the development of the written accounts of St Alban’s life and martyrdom, I relied here on the introductory chapter of J. Van der Westhuizen (1974), The Lives of St Alban and St Amphibal by John Lydgate, which can be accessed digitally here. Relevant portions of the Latin texts of Constantius, Gildas and Bede are all included.
**For my pupils, I hope this post can serve as an object lesson in why you should try to read and listen in a questioning frame of mind, even in contexts you might usually consider reliable. I hope it helps also to show that summaries in places like Wikipedia – which has an extended, and in some ways quite helpful, section on St Alban – might be in important ways misleading.
One of the more tantalising references I came across over the course of my doctoral research was to a poorly attested ritual of early Christianity: the love (Gk agape) feast. A number of early Christian writers do make reference to such feasts, but none really spells out in detail what they took their significance to be or what they understood them to entail. Some scholars have assumed the love feast was essentially a parallel and/or coterminous practice with what would in the fullness of time become known as the Eucharist. Another point of view is that love feasts were a separate practice altogether which simply died out.
Some ancient observers felt that love feasts were occasions for controversial goings-on. The second century Christian author Tertullian, writing in Carthage, suggests that some non-Christians suspected Christian love feasts of being occasions for debauchery. Both Tertullian and another second century African Christian writer, Clement of Alexandria, suggest that some participants in love feasts were prone to going over the top – indulging themselves a bit too much in the act of feasting while forgetting their modesty (whatever exactly this might mean). Scattered comments of this kind are not generally taken as a reliable source of information, but they perhaps reveal something of the sorts of rumours and comments that observers might make about those who took part in the love feast ritual.
My less than perfect memory of the meagre documentary record on ancient Christian love feasts was brought to the forefront of my mind yesterday by an unexpected source: a poem by WH Auden.
Auden is a poet I like. Apart from the crisp elegance that characterises much of his best work, there’s also his willingness to bring together contrasting moods and effects in his writing. Humour can be intermingled with seriousness, for example, and he manages to create scenes of everyday events which paradoxically convey – or try to convey – a sense of the transcendent. Likewise, what seems ephemeral can be related to what feels more permanent in his poems, and human foibles and human depths belong together, not apart, in what he has to say. In fact, he can at times seem to suggest that it is through our foibles that our depths may somehow become most visible to us.
The overall effect of such juxtapositions, I think, is to produce a poetry that is at once fully engaged with the quotidian ordinariness of so much human activity, while at the same time capable of finding mysteriousness, beauty and profundity in that very same ordinariness. The Love Feast, a poem which directly references the world of early Christian ritual, is for me a clear example of this:
In an upper room at midnight
See us gathered on behalf
Of love according to the gospel
Of the radio-phonograph.
Lou is telling Anne what Molly
Said to Mark behind her back;
Jack likes Jill who worships George
Who has the hots for Jack.
Catechumens make their entrance;
Steep enthusiastic eyes
Flicker after tits and baskets;
Someone vomits; someone cries.
Willy cannot bear his father,
Lilian is afraid of kids;
The Love that rules the sun and stars
Permits what He forbids.
Adrian’s pleasure-loving dachshund
In a sinner’s lap lies curled;
Drunken absent-minded fingers
Pat a sinless world.
Who is Jenny lying to
In her call, Collect, to Rome?
The Love that made her out of nothing
Tells me to go home.
But that Miss Number in the corner
Playing hard to get. . . .
I am sorry I’m not sorry . . .
Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.
What interests me particularly about this poem is how it adopts the language of the early church within its description of a twentieth century drinks party. Each stanza describes some feature of the atmosphere at the party: the concerns and activities of different individuals are highlighted. But in each stanza too, there are allusions to the life of the early church.
In the first, there is a reference to ‘love according to the gospel’, a phrase which is used not with a specifically religious connotation but to denote the music at the party (‘of the radio-phonograph’). The second stanza contains a reference to worship, and the third to catechumens (i.e. individuals under instruction awaiting entry into the church’s sacramental life). By this stage of the poem, a religious analogue to the revelry of the party is starting to become clear.
The second half of stanza four (‘the love that rules the sun and stars’) is redolent of the famous phrase of Dante’s Paradiso (‘L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle’), while ‘Permits what He forbids’ is a phrase with obvious theological connotations (both the capitalised H of He and the underlying idea that divine prohibitions do not limit human free will).
Stanza five’s references are to a ‘sinner’s lap’ and a ‘sinless world’. I find the latter phrase slightly puzzling. Is it a (to me, rather unintelligible) reference to the dachsund’s back of the same stanza? Does it denote the mindset of the archetypal sinner (i.e. someone who sees no sin in the world)? Or does it mean something else altogether?
Jenny’s collect call to Rome in Stanza six could also have a religious significance. Beyond the literal meaning of the text, could an allegorical meaning here be possible? Jenny might here be a Catholic – perhaps even a Catholic convert – who is viewed as having farmed out her spiritual life to the Church of Rome, in a way that the more self-reliant, self-determining Anglican never would. This may be to read far too much into the phrase, but it’s an interpretation that attracts me nevertheless.
What seems to me altogether less contentious, though, is to take it as a given that the phrase ‘The Love that made her out of Nothing’ in the same stanza denotes the classical theistic doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. This is a weighty phrase for Auden to use and it is interesting that he uses it to identify what moves him, the poet within the poem, to act as he does (i.e. in deciding to go home – though perhaps love is what moves him more generally).
The playful final stanza of the poem alludes to a phrase of St Augustine’s Confessions (‘Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet’), a phrase which leaves the reader in doubt about which version of St Augustine (the blooming youth or the more sexually restrained older man) he is going to emulate.
The theological references in each of these stanzas are of course underscored by the title of the poem itself, a title whose ancient Christian resonances I’m sure Auden would have wished to invoke. The cumulative effect of the language of the poem is that Auden’s love feast is an environment in which ancient ideas find fresh expression. Auden moulds Christian ideas into a living tradition. Contrary to how Christian theology is often conceived and practised within institutional religious settings, here it is presented in an experimental and unfamiliar way within the most relaxed and informal of contexts.
Scholarly debate surrounds the topic of Auden’s Christianity. Certainly he was for much of his life a practising Anglo-Catholic, but just how sincere was his devotion? A common view seems to be that Auden was in his later years only really captivated by Anglo-Catholic ritual, ceremony and aesthetics. Church teaching was a different matter.
A more complicated story than this, however, can be told (see here). And, at the time Auden wrote The Love Feast in 1947, aged 40, a renewed embrace of his childhood Christianity had come to seem possible.
In 1966, now an older man, he delivered a sermon in Westminster Abbey which contained the following words: “Those of us who have the nerve to call ourselves Christians will do well to be extremely reticent on this subject. Indeed, it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn’t one, either in faith or morals.” Auden’s Love Feast may perhaps be read as a glowing and gently suggestive example of precisely this reticence.
I have just finished reading the 200 or so pages of the recently (well, fairly recently) published Penguin edition of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and other prison writings (mostly letters), edited by Colm Toibin. It has been a harrowing, serious and affecting read, which though at times a little repetitive, is nonetheless punctuated by plenty of purple passages of searingly beautiful prose.
De Profundis accounts for the main body of the book’s text. It takes the form of a letter addressed to Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie). Bosie is upbraided throughout the letter for his callousness, frivolity and duplicity over the course of his relationship with Wilde, who himself emerges as a deeply forlorn and tragic figure from his own extended and damning description of Bosie’s behaviour.
The received wisdom is that the letter cannot be read as an accurate account of Wilde’s relationship with Bosie (since it contains, apparently, too many petty, foolish and untrue accusations). What is remarkable about the letter, Toibin thinks, and what makes it (in his estimation) Wilde’s ‘greatest piece of prose-writing’, is the ‘change it marks in Wilde’s imaginative procedures’: the ‘high priest of flippancy and mocking laughter has set himself suddenly and shockingly against shallowness’.
I am far too unread in Wilde to be able to concur with confidence that the serious tone of De Profundis is indeed entirely out of keeping with the tone he had adopted in his previous writing. It is certainly true, though, that De Profundis repeatedly takes aim at shallowness: Wilde at one point produces the memorable aphorism that shallowness is ‘the supreme vice’.
Something that struck me as I read what Wilde had communicated to the outside world during his two year stay in prison was the extent to which he knew he could find in reading books a source of deep consolation while confined in his cell. For his first few months in prison, however, reading had not been possible. This must only have served to sharpen his sense of how empty life could be – and must have been – without it (particularly, of course, within the confines of a small cell and over a course of hard labour).
In a letter sent after 13 months of imprisonment, Wilde wrote to the Home Secretary (no less) that one of the chief causes of the mental suffering he had experienced in jail had been the lack of ‘suitable or sufficient books, so essential to any literary man’. The ‘physical privations’ of jail, he continued, ‘are as nothing compared to the entire privation of literature to one to whom Literature was once the first thing of life’.
A subsequent letter, written 4 months later, indicates that Wilde had, as a result of his initial letter, been granted access to some new books in the now somewhat replenished prison library (he had complained to the Home Secretary of his dissatisfaction with the existing stock). What he liked to do when reading the books that gave him satisfaction, he wrote to a friend, was to take notes from them, copying lines and phrases from poets that spoke to him.
So what sort of reading might a master literary craftsman turn to when at his lowest ebb? Wilde had been able to exert an influence here: when writing to his contacts outside jail, he had given an indication of the sort of book he wished to have accessible to him in the prison library.
Of all the things he chose, the book that stands out before all others as the most important source of inspiration for the incarcerated Wilde is Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Indeed the very title of Wilde’s De Profundis itself contains a possible allusion to this text. In the Inferno (the first part of the Divine Comedy), Dante had depicted himself going down to the depths of hell, accompanied by his guide, the Roman epic poet Virgil. Wilde implies that this is a journey he too (like Virgil and Dante) has had to make.
In what ways does Dante speak to Wilde? Part of the answer here is that he speaks to him through the medium of epic poetry, which – by its nature – is a serious, weighty and grand form of writing. What kind of consolation can such writing offer? Without wishing to rely too heavily on my own pretty sketchy knowledge of The Divine Comedy, and indeed of Wilde, I want briefly to hazard an answer to these questions, as I think Wilde gives a profound illustration of how epic poetry, written in the classical tradition, can speak to the heart of the individual.
As I have mentioned, it seems to me that in De Profundis, Wilde seems very clearly to invite his reader(s) to see that he has taken the same sort of route as that which Dante himself follows in the Divine Comedy. He has passed through the depths of personal hell. And, with Dante somehow guiding him, he has managed to find the route upward toward a kind of spiritual awareness. This awareness has consisted in a dramatic and apparently newfound understanding of the reality and personhood of God through Christ (in a way roughly analogous to Dante’s experience in paradise in the final section of the Divine Comedy).
The first mention of Dante in De Profundis introduces a paradox. Wilde refers to how Walter Pater’s (then recent) book Renaissance had posed a problem to his pre-existing understanding of Dante. Pater mentions in his book that Dante encounters in a very lowly situation in the inferno (i.e. hell) those who wilfully live in sadness. To dwell sustainedly on your own misery, he sees, is to wallow in the darkest pits of the damned. And yet, notes Wilde, this Dante who condemns self-pity is the same Dante who says that ‘sorrow remarries us to God’. How could it make sense, in this light, for Dante to be so harsh to those ‘enamoured of melancholy’ in hell, Wilde wonders.
Wilde does not proceed to offer a neat resolution to this apparent quandary, but subsequent sections of his letter reveal that he has found a way to see through it. For Wilde, as for Dante, in order to find God one must find him through a spiritual journey which passes through the darkest and most harrowing depths of sorrow. In the phrase of St John of the Cross (who was influenced, like Dante, by the theology of St Thomas Aquinas), one must experience the dark night of the soul. Dante depicts this in terms of a physical journey, through hell initially, via purgatory, through (finally) to paradise. But Dante’s text can equally be read as an allegory: it is a story of the stages a human soul must move through in order to establish a relationship with the divine.
Wilde has come to feel (under the special influence of Dante in particular) that sorrow is not the final word in truly lived human experience (even in jail), even if it is a vitally important component of it. Like Dante, he thinks that it does however deserve sustained attention – and he accordingly offers an arresting, melodic and sombre meditation on the subject in which Sorrow, capitalised, acquires a dramatic and hypostasised personality all of its own.
‘Behind Joy and Laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous. But behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask…there is no truth comparable to Sorrow. There are times when Sorrow seems to me to be the only truth. Other things may be illusions of the eye or the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of Sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or a star there is pain…more than this, there is about Sorrow an intense, an extraordinary reality…for the secret life is suffering, It is what is hidden behind everything’, he writes.
Wilde’s heartfelt depiction of the nature of Sorrow, I think, can be seen as a reflection of all that is most harrowing not only in Wilde’s own personal and spiritual experience (but in Dante’s Inferno too – the ‘city of weeping’, of ‘eternal sorrow’, of the ‘lost people’).*
Wilde proceeds from here in what might seem (particularly if Dante’s likely influence is not appreciated) a surprising direction. Having linked Sorrow to Truth, he then links it to Beauty and to Love, before alluding briefly to the problem of evil (or, more precisely, to the problem of pain).
He had previously thought, he says, that suffering proved that God did not love man, and that wherever there is sorrow, the whole face of creation has been marred. ‘Now it seems to me’, he says, ‘that Love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world…if the worlds have indeed been built out of Sorrow, it has been by the hands of Love, because in no other way could the Soul of man for whom the worlds are made reach the full stature of its perfection. Pleasure for the beautiful body, but Pain for the beautiful Soul’.
A few lines later, he reveals that these insights have helped to generate in him a ‘new life, as through my love of Dante I sometimes like to call it’.
I do not think I share Wilde’s sense that by developing a sufficiently tragic and romantic sensibility, one can begin to come to terms with the problem of evil. I do share his view, however, that by acquiring such a sensibility, one can begin to approach in new light the figure of Christ – as he does at length in several rich, lyrical and beautifully rendered paragraphs over the subsequent pages of De Profundis. Rather than summarise these pages here, I will simply recommend them as wonderful (and provocative) reading.
Wilde’s encounter with the figure of Christ, as outlined in those pages, is facilitated not only by Renan’s Vie de Jésus (among several other significant texts). It also relies heavily, I think, on his engagement with Dante. It is not just that Wilde quotes directly from Dante’s description of his journey through purgatory to add colour to his description of Christ (who, he says, saw that the soul of each person should have the ‘manner of a child who laughs and weeps and behaves childishly’).**
It is also that, in order to arrive at his contemplation of the personality of Christ in De Profundis, Wilde has first had to confront and move through the depths of his despair and degradation – both in terms of the humbling vicissitudes of his relationship with Bosie, but also in terms of his experience of desperation and sorrow while in jail. This sense of somehow moving from a personal nadir of sorrow and deep anguish, all the way through to a dramatic personal and spiritual communion with God through Christ, establishes Wilde on precisely the same trajectory as that represented by Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy.
But there is a further connection. In the Divine Comedy, as has already been mentioned, Dante encounters Virgil, who becomes his guide through his journey to hell (and beyond). In a similar way, I think, Wilde – despite not writing within the same tradition of epic poetry – manifestly considers Dante to be his foremost literary and spiritual guide, as he moves through the darkest depths of despair, and (somehow) beyond.
I mentioned in a previous post, which considered the dynamics of the interaction between Aeneas and Dido in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, that one important feature of epic poetry is that it can help to nurture in attentive readers a sensitive, thoughtful – and, above all, humane – approach to human dialogue and human relationships. Wilde’s reading of Dante reveals a further area in which epic poetry in the classical tradition can be seen to have something profound to say to its readers, even centuries after the event of its composition: in the context of spiritual awakening.
When Aeneas catches sight of the ghost of Dido, his abandoned lover and the former Queen of Carthage, amongst a group of shades he passes on his journey into the depths of the underworld, he stops to try to talk to her. The conversation does not get off the ground. Hearing Aeneas speak, Dido shows no emotion in her facial features, which are left ‘unmoved, like hard rock’. This is in spite of the fact that we know ‘her mind is burning’. When Aeneas finishes speaking, she avoids all eye contact, staring at the ground, before retreating back into the shadows without saying a word.
Aeneas’ attempt to start a conversation with Dido is a striking failure, not least because Dido’s ghostly reticence stands in stark contrast with the outspoken, though increasingly troubled figure whom Aeneas has known in her earthly life. When he last saw her, she was in a state of furious indignation and deep melancholy at his impending departure from her kingdom. She had certainly had things to say to him previously. Why are things different now?
One reading of her response (or lack of response) to Aeneas in the underworld is that, in light of the devastation he has caused her (devastation which seems not entirely to have subsided), she really has nothing to say to him anymore. Coming face to face with him here perhaps gives Dido an opportunity to show Aeneas that she is now in a new state of mind, detached from the emotions which brought about her premature death. She is showing him that she has moved on from her state of earthly passion; that she has cried more than her share of tears for this man; and that she has perhaps found some peace of sorts in the company of the shade of her prematurely deceased husband Sychaeus (whose presence she seems to retreat toward).
Despite being plausible enough as far as it goes, for me this reading of the meeting of Aeneas and Dido in the underworld misses much of the richness and subtlety of Virgil’s presentation of their encounter. I think we can read more deeply into the dynamics of their responses to one another by looking carefully at the tone Aeneas adopts in his address of Dido and focussing on this as the likely cause of her response to him. Dido’s body language and withdrawal from Aeneas may best be seen, I think, as an implicit rejection – above all – of his tone, and the buoyant self-confidence and forthright and assertive, yet seemingly well-intentioned tenderness, it conveys.
If this is correct, one can perhaps imagine Aeneas’ words not only passing literally through Dido’s ghost, failing to register a physical impact on a phantasmagorical entity now bereft of its mortal existence. One can also imagine him talking through her, in the sense of missing the mark: missing the mark, that is, insofar as he adopts an emotional and rhetorical pose which falls well short of the kind of delicate sensitivity which an appropriate handling of this interaction would have involved.
Aeneas has entered the underworld to try to find his dead father Anchises. His motive is not simply that of a devoted son. He wishes to benefit from his father’s wisdom and foresight. He will rely on these to strengthen him as he strives to find a new homeland for his band of refugee Trojan warriors. His quest for a new home is not simply about finding appropriate land to settle. It is shown by Virgil to link profoundly to the story of the foundation and future greatness of Rome, not least insofar as Aeneas – despite being a Trojan hero – is made to embody many of the paradigmatic virtues of first century BC Augustan Rome.
Part of Aeneas’ problem is that he is so deeply caught up with the serious business of being the hero, leader of men and all-round man of action and adventure that he is. Virgil tells us that Aeneas addresses Dido with ‘sweet love’ in his voice (6.455), but just how much sweetness is this Odyssean swashbuckler capable of?
‘infelix Dido’ (‘unhappy/unlucky Dido’), he begins. This is a phrase which echoes other passages in the Aeneid, but it doesn’t obviously stand out for its sweetness, nor does it speak volumes for Aeneas’ capacity for sensitivity. Dido may indeed be unhappy, though why mention it – especially given that he himself is right at the root of this unhappiness?
He proceeds to ask two questions. The first aims to clarify whether Dido did indeed meet her death with a sword. The second asks if he himself had been the cause of her suicide. Aeneas immediately confronts Dido, then, with two of the most traumatic details of her existence. And, what’s more, he asks with a self-interested tone. Was Aeneas, by any chance, on her mind as Dido experienced her deepest moments of desperation?
One can understand Aeneas’ curiosity, perhaps, but why does he need to know this as a matter of urgency? One might even suggest that it is more than a bit cumbersome and unthinking of him to ask the question at all. He is rather like the person who, although he may have well-meaning concerns for an individual on his mind, just can’t help leaping into a conversation by voicing these concerns directly and straightaway, quite without regard for the emotional turbulence that doing so may cause the other party.
Aeneas continues by protesting that he didn’t want to leave Dido when he did (‘invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi’: ‘I left your shores unwillingly, O queen’). This is not exactly new information. He has already told Dido, right on the brink of his departure from Carthage, that he is not leaving of his own accord. Here he seems to assume that she simply didn’t believe him first time round.
So now he uses emphatic words in a dramatic tricolon to promise that it really is true: ‘by the stars, by the gods and by whatever kind of faith exists within the depths of the earth’. But even if (on a charitable reading) Dido may now be better convinced of something she wasn’t before, what should this matter now? The deed has been done: Aeneas seems more concerned to justify and perhaps exculpate himself to Dido, than he does to empathise seriously with her feelings during her desperate last moments of life.
He then tells her that he cannot believe that such great grief was caused to her by his leaving Carthage. Clearly he was not paying sufficient attention during her extended emotional outpourings in Book 4. While speaking of her distress, Dido had pointedly referenced her own mortality, even claiming she was ‘going to die’ at one point (4.307). Has Aeneas simply forgotten this? Was he himself too distressed to register it when he heard it first time round? Or was he, rather, just insufficiently sympathetic to Dido’s pain properly to grasp it, being rather too focussed (for instance) on his own divinely ordained prerogatives to recognise it?
Toward the end of his speech, Aeneas issues a pair of direct commands, telling Dido to ‘stop’ and instructing her not to remove herself from his sight. Rather than telling her so abrasively what to do, could he not have implored her with soothing words, gently inviting her to share some words with him? The direct language Virgil employs helps, I think, to underscore the fact that this Aeneas is inescapably a forthright man of action who is used to commanding others with a strutting confidence. A less forthright (and more effective) approach would, perhaps, have involved a more delicate appeal to the sensibilities of his tragically jilted lover.
It is a commonplace to point out that Virgil’s Aeneas, as a prototypical Roman, simply tramples over the Carthaginian Dido in a way that represents the later Roman trampling of Carthage itself in the Punic Wars.* Aeneas stands for Rome, then, and Dido for Carthage. Many readers of Virgil sense that he is profoundly alert to the darkness and tragedy of military conquest and (specifically also of) Roman imperialism. In my opinion, Aeneas’ speech to Dido in the underworld sustains this reading. Through Aeneas, Virgil conveys something of the tactless bluster of the conquering Roman mentality, as it comes face to face with the tragic queen it has (seemingly unwittingly) brought to ruin.
TS Eliot found in Aeneas’ address of Dido in Book 6 something rather different from what I find here. For Eliot, Aeneas’ words disclose ‘civilised manners, and a civilised consciousness and conscience’.** Many other readers have found something similar, and some have admired Aeneas for his emotional articulacy in the passage, finding in him something approaching an exemplary figure who plainly and directly speaks his mind in a difficult interaction. My own reading challenges this view, which to me seems altogether too tidy and clipped. Even if Aeneas has to leave Carthage to fulfil his destiny, he still manages to get things wrong with Dido in the way he talks with her, I suggest.
Book 6 of the Aeneid, with its account of Aeneas’ descent into the underworld, enjoyed an extended afterlife as an inspiration for medieval and early modern Christian imaginings of hell. Both Dante and Milton made features of Virgil’s account central to their own epic poems.
Contemporary readers are unlikely to look to Virgil as a resource when trying to picture any possible life after death. But Virgil’s characters, and his art as a storyteller, may still hold lessons not only for how to think about human relationships, as I have explored here, but (also, among other things) for contemporary attempts to do theology.
It is a truism of many such attempts in recent Christian writing that God is a God of love who can somehow be found through the experience of love in human relationships. As a rich resource for helping people to think through the meaning of sensitivity, sympathy and love in their relationships, Virgil’s writing could arguably be as instructive to this sort of theology now as it was in stimulating the religious thought and experience of medieval Christianity.
*For example, Bruno Currie, Epilogue, in Epic Interactions: Perspectives on Homer, Virgil and the Epic Tradition, pp. 351-2.
**TS Eliot, What is a Classic? p. 20
The featured image is a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder of Aeneas with the Sibyl in the underworld.
Poetry offers many things to its readers and listeners. One thing I have thought a lot about recently is how it offers an important emotional resource in times of hardship. When there is a felt need for reflection, for contemplation, for grief, or – perhaps in response to these – for renewal, as of course there will be in most human lives at some point or other, recourse to a poet’s voice represents a certain kind of therapeutic possibility, a way to heal (or at least to accompany) the troubled or weary spirit.
I have found in my adult life that accessing poetry as a source of consolation can be less a question of painstaking analytical reading (which I seem to recall was the chief characteristic of my experience of dealing with poems while growing up) and more a matter of soothing contemplation. Just a few short verses or phrases, for whatever reason, can resonate, opening the way for meditation. A poignant line can reappear, as if from nowhere, in my (as in others’) consciousness. When it does, I have found, it can help illuminate one’s approach to an area of concern (if one does not become aware that it has already long *been* illuminating said area), or even to the business of life and its vicissitudes more generally.
When Virgil’s hero Aeneas contemplates the destruction of his home city and the terrible deaths of so many of his countrymen and relatives, including the tragic death of his wife Creusa, he understandably experiences – and sometimes attempts to articulate – tremendous sadness. Reflecting in just this fashion midway through book 1 of the Aeneid, Aeneas utters the following plaintive phrase: ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.
The phrase is awkward to render literally, though the translation of Robert Fagles is pretty good. He has it as follows: ‘the world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart’. To capture the essence of what I take to be the meaning of these words a little more closely, I would depart (still) further from their literal sense. My version of a loose but hopefully not unfaithful translation is: ‘there are tears to be shed for worldly things, and the realities of mortal existence touch me in my depths’.
Any reader of Virgil will know that a melancholy mood suffuses much of his writing. But, for me, the Latin phrase ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’ captures more than any other that I can call to mind something important not just about Virgil’s depiction of the psychology of Aeneas, but about Virgil’s own poetic temperament. For this is a phrase, I think, in which Virgil tries to tell his readers about something more than just how Aeneas, his lead protagonist, is feeling.
The tone of his words also suggests that he wants to intimate to his readers that their/our own contemplation of human affairs may engender a tearful response. A cautious interpretation of such a sentiment might be that Virgil is pointing toward the sad presence of unfortunate realities (such as death, misfortune and injustice) in the world, and suggesting that tears are indeed a fitting response to these. A bolder interpretation than this, though, would be that Virgil is hinting that there is something to lament and mourn in the very nature of human affairs per se. From this perspective, he can be taken to be suggesting that tearfulness must lie at the heart of any genuine response to our human predicament itself, and that this is so particularly in relation to the awful brutality of the military and political realities we may find ourselves confronting.
One does not need to find in the phrase ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’ a precursor to Christ’s tears in the Garden of Gethsemane (as did the German critic Haecker)* to identify an area of possible commonality between Virgil and Christianity here. If (for Virgil) a tearful response to human affairs may be a fitting one, then how far are we from the Biblical world of the Book of Lamentations? And how far from the notion (one that is of course fundamental to the doctrine of original sin) that there is something utterly broken and flawed (and, thus, presumably lamentable) in our all-too-human world? Having said this, however, it ought still to be conceded that the Christian tropes that Virgil’s readers in the Middle ages purported to identify in his pre-Christian poetry appeared most clearly in other areas of his writing.**
The subjects of melancholy and lamentation are broached in literature in many ways I have yet to discover. One author I have come across recently who handles them with considerable tenderness and depth of feeling is Giorgio Bassani, in his beautiful series of novels about the Jewish community in Ferrara in the run-up to the second World War. I intend to write something soon about this writer and the heartrending ways in which he deals with sadness and tragedy (amongst other themes) in his novels.
For the time being, though, I will conclude with the admission that, if there is a single short phrase more gently expressive of the simple reality and sorry experience of human melancholy than that of Virgil, I have not yet found it. For this reason, the phrase which offers the go-to point of contact for what melancholy means to me remains ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.
*As described by Philip Hardie, The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid, pp. 143-4.
**As identified by P. Hardie, op cit. I recommend Hardie’s book, which I read and greatly enjoyed a few months back, to anyone interested in this topic.
***The featured image is from Ingres’s Virgil Reading the Aeneid.