Love Minus Zero: an attempt at Dylanology

Bob Dylan sings Love Minus Zero, 1965

I’ve been meaning for a while to share some thoughts on this, one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs. I decided I’d spend a few moments this weekend tidying up my initial musings – and here below is the edited version. The simple but beautiful melody of the song is something I don’t touch upon, but new listeners might enjoy the tune as much as Dylan’s words, which form the basis of my comments. The video too is worth viewing: Dylan manages to captivate some of the people he’s with when he performs the song.

I make no pretence at subject specialism in offering my reading of Dylan’s lyrics here. The reading is very much my own – and open to improvement! (Some confident words of comment on the song can be read here).

Here, for clarity, are the lyrics of the song:

My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
And make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring
The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows rainy
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

This, I think, is a song about an exceptionally captivating woman who doesn’t feel capable of sharing her full self with the poet. She is a free spirit, utterly unpretentious, and she can’t be bought with romantic gifts. She speaks in understated but direct tones while adopting a position of remove from the everyday scenes she sees around her. She avoids the temptation to judge those she perceives as she looks on. She likes to encounter reality simply, vividly and without affect, embracing a total perspective that confronts things as they are, refusing to dilute the truth by idealising it. This makes sense, for she herself feels raw and undilutable: her determination to live and think truly produces the comparison with ice and fire, these being natural phenomena which are powerful, blunt, pure and difficult to tame.

All around her the world carries on its business – people live their lives, caught up in the words, stories, activities and environments which occupy them. They repeat things they hear, discuss gossip, and read books and draw their own conclusions as they go about their daily tasks.

Naturally things don’t always play out well: whenever the delicate edifice that constitutes civilised society breaks down, this woman is all too aware of it. The matchsticks out of which humans construct statues (i.e. objects to venerate) are redolent of the ominous statue of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel: this too turned out to be ephemeral, flimsy and prone to falter. All that is solid can melt into thin air. And mighty empires fall.

A series of further images evokes the vast array of human activity that stands to represent the ‘real’ – human life and human society in its true outlines.

The horsemen represent, in my reading, the movers and shakers in the world: the bourgeoisie. These horsemen stand – like knights on a chessboard – in superior relation to the ordinary pawns who can’t help but bear a grudge against them. The ceremonies performed by the horsemen perhaps symbolise the power to enact authoritative ritual in a society: perhaps this is what the pawns resent when they hold their grudge.

The dangling cloak and dagger and the madams’ candles, meanwhile, suggest intrigue, mystery, secrecy: the hidden side of life in this world. As for the ‘banker’s nieces’ (who seek perfection, and who seem to recall the banker’s niece in A portrait of a Lady), could they represent those around us who devote themselves to the unending pursuit of beauty, glamour, success, finery? This would fit with the idea that what they’re seeking is ‘all the gifts that wise men bring’ (i.e. presumably, gold, frankincense and myrrh, the gifts which symbolise the treasures of this world in the nativity).  

The woman of the song is acutely aware of this bigger picture. She sees it all, and she looks on wryly and imperturbably at the scenes which confront her. She winks at what she sees, but she doesn’t argue or judge. The wink, I think, is not necessarily a sign of ironical or callous indifference, for there seems to be a serious moral dimension to her approach.

On one hand, as already mentioned, she is careful not to judge or to argue about what she sees (she ‘knows too much’ to do this). On the other, while being keenly aware that success in being human necessarily involves failure, she paradoxically maintains a tough and pitiless view of how failure, in the final analysis, cannot constitute any kind of (worldly) success. Does she get this right? It might seem to clash with her position of knowing remove. Perhaps her wink is slightly callous after all.

This woman, despite sharing herself and her perceptions with the narrator, won’t allow herself fully to embrace his affections. She prefers instead to loiter, injured, in the person of Poe’s raven, at his window, in the pouring rain as it beats down on her. She refuses the warmth and safety of his home, despite her vulnerability – and so she remains something of an outsider to him, as she is to the world.

There is no suggestion that the narrator thinks this raven’s broken wing could be healed by coming inside, but perhaps the wing’s brokenness is what prevents her from flying off rather than any special sense that she would like to stay perched on his particular precipice, haunting him.

The narrator may happen to be a good and understanding listener who can appreciate this unusual individual’s depth at a moment when she is looking for someone capable of doing this. A convenient – and temporary – object of interest. This raven has set a clear limit around the scope of their interaction, making clear its limited boundaries.

The song’s lyrics are about finding and knowing a strikingly perceptive person who is capable of sharing the profundity of their reading of the world. But the lyrics also indicate the limits of this particular relationship: they respect the integrity of Dylan’s ‘love’ as she finds her own way. The raven will disappear into the night any time she wishes – if, that is, she can brave the dark while carrying her wound.

Just another day on the Via Sacra

You’re ambling along one of the main thoroughfares of ancient Rome, minding your own business, with not a lot on your mind. It’s a route you know well and, despite being a pretty important figure round these parts, you’re blending fairly well into your surroundings: no one is really noticing you.

Though of course someone does. Oh dear. A pest, a bore, a social climber, a wannabe literary type strides up. He peppers you with conversation, having grabbed your hand with a note of urgency, and he insists on addressing you with an uncomfortably over-familiar greeting: ‘Dahhhhhling’. The campness of the greeting doesn’t offend but the presumption does.

So what can you do here? Naturally, you must do your best to deflect him: you suggest (not perfectly) politely that you really must be getting on now, that you’re due on the other side of town, that you need to see someone who’s not very well and whom he definitely doesn’t know. Your implication is that there won’t be a welcome for him at the end of it if he follows you on your journey.

The truth is that this bore, this try-hard, this nobody wants you not for your conversation, but for your contacts. He doesn’t seem to care sincerely for your everyday affairs, nor for your welfare more generally… still less does he show any sign of caring to praise or discuss your poetic genius! Hmmph.

Let’s be clear, then: it’s influence, introductions, and a route upward he’s after. And you represent a nice networking opportunity. Which is to say you’re a cog in a machine here: not a figure of veneration, nor – frankly – any kind of inspiration.

This might just be an example of the cost of your literary celebrity: dealing with people who care about your connections, not your talent. Well, sort of. In a way – and let’s admit this very quietly – this whole interaction is in fact a nice reminder that you matter. That you know important people and that important people care about your work.

But shhhh. Back to what an ordeal this whole thing is. That feels safe and modest. And yes, it’s awkward being you, right now, in this situation. But then again: you’re good at doing awkward. It is, in fact, one of your talents (if you do say so yourself!).

Now, before you rejoin the conversation, consider this: doesn’t this pest remind you of someone? Well, ummm yes. Because of course there was a time not too long ago when you yourself weren’t exactly flavour of the month among the Roman cognoscenti. Could this be the reason, then, why you’re not quite able to summon the brusqueness his impudent outpourings deserve? Why you’re (just about) prepared to indulge him where others would have given him a brisk dismissal?

See, this is why you’re good at awkwardness: you like finding yourself in your adversaries.

And so there you have it, maybe. Now: allow yourself to be peppered! And don’t pretend there’s nothing of creative interest here for you. Because, actually, this might just be the scene of a poem for a talented poet like you. A walk down the Via Sacra with this character might well titillate your regular readers, if skilfully done. And if you go to print, then future pests will have a way to know what you’re really thinking!


Looking back on 3 weeks of reading Horace’s Satire 1.9 with my sixth form classes, I thought it might be fun to try to give a sense of the scene we’ve been looking at together. Above was my hasty attempt to do just this. In it, I wanted to try to capture something of the delicate sensibility and subjective awareness I think we encounter in the poem, but also to bring to light a few further ideas and issues that may simmer beneath the surface of the poem in a way Horace himself does not.

While we’ve been looking at the satire together, I’ve been trying to put my finger on the full range of experiences that pupils (and teachers) might hope to have when reading it.

A big focus when looking at the poem has been on its stylistic and literary features: the way words and phrases are used and manipulated, the way the writer creates effects. There is a subtle genius to the way Horace presents his account of the encounter with the literary pest that is made manifest through close study of his Latin.

One feature of the poem I’ve tried to emphasise is that it’s useful to think in terms of 3 voices being in play in the poem: the voice of the narrator (Horace) when he’s speaking with the pest, the voice of the pest himself, and then the voice of the narrator when he’s not speaking with the pest (that is, when he’s relaying to the reader his inner thoughts about their encounter).

I stressed the interest of thinking about these different voices, about how Horace plays them off against each other – but also about how we get a very interesting (and uncannily contemporary-feeling) sense of the narrator’s subjective consciousness as a result of this style of writing.

On this latter point, it strikes me that the poem calls to mind something of what it’s like dealing with everyday interactions for us, still today. For it shows an example of a context in which we might say one thing and think another, and it gives an example of how and why a person might be led to do this.

Its central theme, maybe, is the subtlety and complexity that can be at stake when dealing with everyday human interactions of the kind we might find tricky or awkward, as we try to negotiate them. Rather than trying neatly to dissolve (or resolve) any of this trickiness, Horace just takes us into one such situation, and shares an account of dealing with it (or not dealing with it). It’s an invitation, perhaps, to reflection.

And so maybe, then, I should have asked pupils to think in terms of 4 voices being important for their reading of the poem: the fourth being their own. Because there is an implicit invitation from Horace to join him in the poem, to try to wrestle with the situation involving the pest, with him. I suppose this post has been my attempt to take part (just a little) in this very process, and to give an expression to my own ‘fourth voice’.

An Ancient Christian Ritual in WH Auden

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.

St Augustine, by Botticelli

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.

Wilde’s Inferno: Reading Dante in Reading Gaol

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.

Botticelli’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno

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.

Walter Pater, the literary critic, whose writing provided Wilde with food for thought while he was in prison

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.

Dante, accompanied by Beatrice, ascending to the sphere of the sun in Paradise, as depicted by Giovanni Di Paolo

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.

*Inferno 3:1-3.

**Purgatorio 16: 86-7, trans. C. Sisson.


Talking through Dido: the failure of forthright tenderness in Aeneid 6

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.

Aeneas in the Underworld, by Rubens

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.

Virgil and Dante in Hell, by Delacroix

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.

Ginsberg meets Ovid

The first part of my final lesson today took a somewhat unusual path. It began with an impassioned attempt on my part to argue that the translator of Latin literature should never give in to any temptation (exacerbated though it may be by the necessity of passing public exams) to treat Latin poetry as a jigsaw puzzle; a puzzle in which the only thing we’re really concerned with is how to solve a set of problems, how to spot and decode grammatical detail and structure, how to provide answers to technical questions. Translating Latin poetry is not, or should not be, just like solving an equation.

The immediate inspiration for this diatribe came, I think, from two sources. First, I had fresh in my mind two blogposts (one by Johanna Hanink, another by Joel at sententiae antiquae) which discuss the inanity of having to translate for a teacher who treated the Latin language in a particular way – as a context for exercising their own highly developed penchant for pedantry. Second, my own recent reflections about how poetry (in this case the poetry of Virgil) can offer a source of consolation in times of melancholy were fresh in my mind too.

And so I launched into a brief expostulation. The essence of my point was that (though this can seem unlikely to at least some of the gadget-obsessed teenagers I teach) poetry can and has really *said* something to people over the course of its millennia-old literary career. It can and has undercut and exposed the shortcomings of everyday speech and everyday patterns of thought. It has meant and made meanings that defy easy categorisation – meanings that have created space and freedom for people to be. It has done many interesting things in that strange grey netherworld between acceptable and unacceptable public discourse. And, moreover, it has laboured to draw its audience into questioning the mores of many of those who arrogate to themselves the role of defining what acceptable public discourse is.


The poetry of Ovid (which is what the lesson was about) arguably possesses all of these qualities. Ovid’s is a poetry which can push at various kinds of boundaries, invite heartfelt contemplation, transgress approved social mores, and probe and re-envisage mythical religious stories. It can look at individuals in odd and unexpected ways, as they make their way through remarkable or merely quotidian situations. While doing so, it can establish unlikely juxtapositions, drawing disparate stories and personalities into an unanticipated common thread. Perhaps before anything else (though this is of course my particular take on things), it tries to evoke a special kind of beauty using the richness of words and images.

I try never to lose sight of these characteristic elements of Ovidian poetry in my lessons – and any pupils who are reading this are welcome to take me to task if, on any occasion, they feel the elements in question have disappeared entirely from view.

Today my method of making a point about the way in which poetry can still *mean* in our own contemporary context was to point to the poetry of Allen Ginsberg – specifically his 1956 poem, America. This is a poem which self-consciously pushes boundaries in both form and content. I leave readers to see this for themselves (the poem is available online here).


From my point of view in the lesson, the point of adducing this poem was not simply to show how a piece of poetic writing – in a recent and reasonably familiar, and thus hopefully easily relatable context – could really *mean* and speak very powerfully (even if, perhaps, offensively) to its readers. It was also to show that there is a parallel between the way that Ginsberg foregrounds a deep and dramatic attention to the individual (in this case Ginsberg himself), and their feelings, fears, and subjective consciousness, and the way that similar tendencies are also perceptible at times in the ancient poetry of Ovid.

So that is my story of how – today – an unlikely meeting took place between Ginsberg and Ovid.