Virgil, The Aeneid

AeneidReading great books involves a juggling act. The reader must adroitly balance text and context, evaluating a work on its own merits while embedding that work in the “great conversation” across time and space. After filling a lacuna in my education by reading Virgil’s Aeneid, I find myself juggling. As much I try to handle The Aeneid independently, I cannot resist comparison to the epic poems of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Virgil, following the Roman pattern, borrows and adapts from the Greeks to craft his own poem about the founding of Rome. To apply a musical metaphor, creative improvisation deserves praise even though the score is not original. In his excellent guide, Virgil: The Aeneid, K. W. Gransden writes: “Despite Virgil’s immense and continuously proclaimed debt to Homer, the true value of the Aeneid lies in its transformations of Homer, in the way in which the larger themes and values of the Homeric world are modified by the ‘later’ sensibility of the Roman poet.”

Gransden lucidly explains how The Aeneid is in conversation with its Greek predecessors:

His masterstroke was to see in the story of Aeneas an opportunity to create a structural and thematic reworking of both the epics of Homer. The Iliad is a story set in the war between Greeks and Trojans; the Odyssey is the story of one Greek hero’s homecoming after the sack of Troy. Virgil reversed this sequence: the first half of his epic tells of the journey of the Trojan hero Aeneas after the fall of Troy in search of a homeland, the second half of Aeneas’ arrival in Italy, of the war he was obliged to fight to establish his settlement, and of his victory over a local chieftain, Turnus. The ancient Life of Virgil described the Aeneid as quasi amborum Homeri carminum instar: ‘a sort of counterpart of both the Homeric poems.’

Going into more detail, he writes:

It is clear that Virgil intended his poem to fall into two ‘halves’ corresponding structurally to the Odyssey, which also falls into two halves: Odyssey 1 to 12 describes Odysseus’ nostos or homecoming from Troy; books 13 to 24 describe his actions after arriving home in Ithaca, including the killing of the suitors of his wife Penelope. The first half of the Aeneid (books I to VI) describe Aeneas’ journey from Troy to his new home in Italy, while books VII to XII describe his actions in Italy, including his killing of Turnus, a rival suitor to the Italian princess Lavinia who is destined to marry the stranger from across the sea. Thus in one sense the whole of the Aeneid might be called ‘Odyssean’ in that it reflects both the theme and the structure of the Odyssey; it begins in media res (in the middle of the story) as had the Odyssey, and includes a ‘flashback’ in which the hero narratives his previous adventures to a royal host who has sheltered and succored him. But there is a further complication, in that the second half of Virgil’s poem is about war, its mise-en-scène is a battlefield: Odysseus’ killing of the suitors at the end of the Odyssey is in comparison merely a violent domestic episode which takes place inside Odysseus’ own palace. So Virgil turned from the Odyssey to the Iliad and modeled his last six books on Homer’s tragic poem of war. Nor can we oversimplify Virgil’s structure by assuming that there is nothing ‘Iliadic’ in the first six books of the Aeneid and nothing ‘Odyssean’ in the last six.

Finally, Gransden claims:

Aeneid VI is the pivot of the whole poem. It is the transition from the ‘Odyssean’ to the ‘Iliadic’ Aeneid, as it is Aeneas’ personal transformation from the role of wanderer to that of dux (commander, leader), from exile and near-despair (as articulated in his speech during the storm, when he wishes he had died at Troy) to a sense of mission and responsibility, the result of his meeting with his father in the underworld.   

To summarize, I would say the “Odyssean” Aeneid involves the drama of adventure and romance while the “Iliadic” Aeneid involves the tragedy of war. Evidence for this interpretation can be found in the very opening lines of the epic, known as a proem or brief statement of the poem’s subject:

Arms and a man I sing, the first from Troy,
A fated exile to Lavinian shores
In Italy. On land and sea, divine will –
And Juno’s unforgetting rage – harassed him.
War racked him too, until he set his city
And gods in Latium. (trans. Sarah Ruden)

Arms signals the martial theme of the second half while man signals the humanist theme of the first half. Recall the the proem of The Iliad concerns arms:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end. (trans. Robert Fagles)

Now recall that the proem of The Odyssey concerns a man:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home. (trans. Robert Fagles)

The genius of Virgil lies in reversing the sequence of Homer’s poems, compressing the Greek bard’s forty-eight books (the combined total for The Iliad and The Odyssey) into twelve, and then developing a hero admired by pagans and Christians alike for his piety and bravery.

Since I have always been partial to The Odyssey over the The Iliad, it came as no surprise that I favor the “Odyssean” Aeneid, especially Book 2 on the fall of Troy, Book 4 on the passion of Dido and Aeneas, and Book 6 on Aeneas’ visit to the underworld. That said, there are unforgettable moments in the “Iliadic” Aeneid, such as the death of Trojan warriors Euryalus and Nisus (Book 9), the council of gods at Mount Olympus (Book 10), the subplot of Camilla, the Amazonian figure and leader of the Volsci (Book 11), and the climax of Aeneas killing Turnus (Book 12). My impression is that Virgil’s best epic similes reside in the “Iliadic” Aeneidwhere he repeatedly invokes the muse, starting in Book 7:

Goddess, direct your poet. Savage warfare
I’ll sing, and kings whose courage brought their death;
The Tuscan army; all Hesperia rallied
To arms. This is a higher story starting,
A greater work for me.

War, it appears, strains the poet more than adventure and romance, hence the “-er” suffix in the comparative adjectives of “higher story” and “greater work.” Virgil’s invocations to the muse in the second half of the poem amount to what contemporary poet Mark Jarman calls an “unanswered answered prayer”: they were “unanswered” because Mount Helicon is not home to patron goddesses of art but “answered” because Virgil’s writing is undeniably inspired.



Drinking in its voluptuousness: Thomas Mann, Death in Venice


Photograph by Christopher Benson. Taken on the Air Dolomiti flight between Munich, Germany and Venice, Italy.

Whenever I travel, I read literature with settings in the places that I visit. On my recent holiday, I read the world-famous masterpiece, Death in Venice (1912), by Nobel laureate Thomas Mann. This novel could not have been more fitting because the protagonist begins in Munich, where my family started our trip, and then progressed to Venice, as we did.

Published on the eve of World War I, a decade after Buddenbrooks had established Thomas Mann as a literary celebrity, Death in Venice tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful but aging writer who follows his wanderlust to Venice in search of spiritual fulfillment that instead leads to his erotic doom. In the decaying city, besieged by an unnamed epidemic, he becomes obsessed with an exquisite Polish boy, Tadzio. “It is a story of the voluptuousness of doom,” Mann wrote. “But the problem I had especially in mind was that of the artist’s dignity.”

I am haunted by this story, with its stately prose and allusions to Greek mythology. The themes of Death in Venice are the luster of youth, the languor of age, the threat of mortality, the danger of beauty, the frustration of desire, and the intensity of erotic longing. Mann also trained my eyes to see Venice, a city that symbolizes enervated beauty. Here are some favorite passages.

On art

On a personal level, too, art is life intensified: it delights more deeply, consumes more rapidly; it engraves the traces of imaginary and intellectual adventure on the countenance of its servant and in the long run, for all the monastic calm of his external existence, leads to self-indulgence, overrefinement, lethargy, and a restless curiosity that a lifetime of wild passions and pleasures could scarcely engender (p. 23).

Innate in every artistic nature is a wanton, treacherous penchant for accepting injustice when it creates beauty and showing beauty for and paying homage to aristocratic privilege (p. 47).

On solitude

The observations and encounters of a man of solitude and few words are at once more nebulous and more intense than those of a gregarious man, his thoughts more ponderable, more bizarre and never without a hint of sadness. Images and perceptions that might easily be dismissed with a glance, a laugh, an exchange of opinions occupy him unduly; they are heightened in the silence, gain in significance, turn into experience, adventure, emotion. Solitude begets originality, bold and disconcerting beauty, poetry. But solitude can also beget perversity, disparity, the absurd and the forbidden (p. 43).

On the sea

“I shall stay, then,” Aschenbach thought. “What better place could there be?” And folding his hands in his lap, he let his eyes run over the sea’s great expanse and set his gaze adrift till it blurred and broke in the monotonous mist of barren space. He loved the sea and for deep-seated reasons: the hardworking artist’s need for repose, the desire to take shelter from the demanding diversity of phenomena in the bosom of boundless simplicity, a propensity – proscribed and diametrically opposed to his mission in life and for that very reason seductive – a propensity for the unarticulated, the immoderate, the eternal, for nothingness. To repose in perfection is the desire of all those who strive for excellence, and is not nothingness a form of perfection? (p. 55).

On the sun

Was it not common knowledge that the sun diverts our attention from the intellectual to the sensual? It benumbs and bewitches both reason and memory such that the soul in its elation quite forgets its true nature and clings with rapt delight to the fairest of sun-drenched objects, nay, only with the aid of the corporeal can it ascend to more lofty considerations (p. 82).

On beauty

On the grass, its mild slope propping up their heads, two men lay sheltering from the day’s torrid heat: one elderly, one young; one ugly, one beautiful; the wise beside the desirable. And with compliments and witty, wheedling pleasantries Socrates instructed Phaedrus in the nature of longing and virtue. He spoke to him of the intense trepidation the man of feeling experiences when his eye beholds a representation of eternal beauty; he spoke to him of the desires of the base and impious man who cannot acknowledge beauty when he sees its likeness and is incapable of reverence; he spoke of the holy terror that seizes the noble man when a godlike countenance or perfect body appears before him, how he trembles and loses control and can hardly bring himself to look, yet respects it and would even make sacrifices unto it as he might unto a graven image were he not fearful of seeming foolish in the eyes of men. For beauty, my dear Phaedrus, and beauty alone is at once desirable and visible: it is, mark my words, the only form of the spiritual we can receive through our senses and tolerate thereby. Think what would become of us were the godhead or reason and virtue and truth to appear before our eyes! Should we not perish in the flames of love, as did Semele beholding Zeus? Hence beauty is the path the man of feeling takes to the spiritual, though merely the path, dear young Phaedrus, a means and no more . . . And then he made his most astute pronouncement, the crafty wooer, namely, that the lover is more divine than the beloved, because the god dwells in the former, not the latter, which is perhaps the most delicate, most derisive thought ever thought by man and the source of all the roguery and deep-seated lust in longing (pp. 83-85).

Nature trembles with bliss when the mind bows in homage to beauty (p. 85).

He was more beautiful than words can convey, and Aschenbach felt acutely, as he had often felt before, that language can only praise physical beauty, not reproduce it (p. 95).

“For beauty, Phaedrus, mark thou well, beauty and beauty alone is at once divine and visible; it is hence the path of the man of the senses, little Phaedrus, the path of the artist to the intellect. But dost thou believe, dear boy, that the man for whom the path to the intellect leads through the senses can ever find wisdom and the true dignity of man? Or dost thou rather believe (I leave it to thee to decide) that it is a perilously alluring path, indeed, a path of sin and delusion that must needs lead one astray? For surely thou knows that we poets cannot follow the path of beauty lest Eros should join forces with us and take the lead: yes, though heroes we may be after our fashion and chaste warriors, we are as women, for passion is our exultation and our longing must ever be love – such is our bliss and our shame. Now dost thou see that we poets can be neither wise nor dignified? That we must needs go astray, ever be wanton and adventurers of the emotions? The magisterial guise of our style is all falsehood and folly, our fame and prestige a farce, the faith that the public places in us nothing if not ludicrous, and the use of art to educate the nation and its youth a hazardous enterprise that should be outlawed. For how can a man be worthy as an educator if he have a natural, inborn, incorrigible penchant for the abyss? Much as we renounce it and seek dignity, we are drawn to it. Thus do we reject, say, analytical knowledge: knowledge, Phaedrus, lacks dignity and rigor; it is discerning, understanding, forgiving, and wanting in discipline and form; it is in sympathy with the abyss; it is the abyss. We do therefore firmly resolve to disavow it and devote ourselves henceforth to beauty alone, which is to say, simplicity, grandeur and a new rigor, a second innocence, and form. But form and innocence, Phaedrus, lead to intoxication and desire; they may even lead a noble man to horrifying crimes of passion that his own beautiful rigor reprehends as infamous; they lead to the abyss; they too lead to the abyss. They lead us poets thither, I tell thee, because we are incapable of taking to the heavens, we are capable only of taking to profligacy” (pp. 136-137).

On a relationship by sight alone

There is nothing more curious or delicate than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who encounter and observe each other daily – nay, hourly – yet are constrained by convention or perhaps caprice to keep up the pretense of being strangers, indifferent, avoiding a nod or word. There is a feeling of malaise and overwrought curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally stifled need for mutual knowledge and communication, and above all a sort of strained esteem. For a man loves and respects his fellow man only insofar as he is unable to assess him, and longing is a product of insufficient knowledge (pp. 92-93).

On passion

For passion, like crime, is antithetical to the smooth operation and prosperity of day-to-day existence, and can only welcome every loosening of the fabric of society, every upheaval and disaster in the world, since it can vaguely hope to profit thereby (p. 100).

Yet it cannot be said he was suffering: he was drunk in both head and heart, and his steps followed the dictates of the demon whose delight it is to trample human reason and dignity underfoot (p. 102).

Aschenbach sat at the balustrade, occasionally cooling his lips with the mixture of grenadine and soda water sparkling ruby red before him in the glass. His nerves took in the vulgar tootle and soulful melodies with avidity, for passion dulls one’s sense of discrimination and yields in all seriousness to charms that sobriety would treat as a joke or reject with indignation (p. 110).

He might then lay a farewell hand on the head of that taunting deity’s agent, turn on his heel, and flee the quagmire. Yet at the same time he felt infinitely far from seriously wishing to take such a step. It would lead him back, restore him to himself, but there is nothing so distasteful to oneself when one is beside oneself (p. 124).

Tadzio walked behind his family, usually letting the governess and his nunlike sisters pass ahead of him when the street narrowed and, sauntering along on his own, he would turn his head periodically to glance over his shoulder with his unusual twilight-gray eyes and make certain his admirer was still following him. He would see him and did not betray him. Intoxicated by this knowledge, lured forward by those eyes, tied inextricably to his passion’s apron strings, the love-smitten traveler prowled on after his unseemly hope – only to see it slip away from him in the end (p. 134).

On Venice

The air was still and noxious; the sun burned intensely through the haze, which colored the sky a slate gray. Gurgling water lapped against wood and stone. The gondolier’s call – half warning, half greeting – was answered from afar, from the silence of the labyrinth, by some curious accord. Clusters of blossoms – white and purple, redolent of almonds – hung down over crumbling walls from the small gardens overhead. Moorish window frames stood out in the murk. The marble steps of a church descended into the water, where a beggar, in affirmation of his indifference, squatted with his hat out and showed the whites of his eyes as if he were blind. An antique dealer posted outside his lair beckoned the passerby ingratiatingly in the hope of fleecing him. Such was Venice, the wheedling, shady beauty, a city half fairy tale, half tourist trap, in whose foul air the arts had once flourished luxuriantly and which had inspired musicians with undulating, lullingly licentious harmonies. The adventurer felt his eyes drinking in its voluptuousness, his ears being wooed by its melodies; he recalled, too, that the city was diseased and was concealing out of cupidity, and the look with which he peered out after the gondola floating ahead of him grew more wanton (pp. 103-104).

Why I am reading “The Aeneid”


Andrew Wyeth, “Wind from the Sea” (1947)

This summer I am filling a lacuna in my education by reading the great Roman epic of Virgil’s Aeneid. A trip to Italy provides some extra motivation. But the deepest reason owes to one of my favorite authors, Willa Cather, who found inspiration in Virgil’s work. Her novel My Ántonia includes an epigraph from Virgil’s Georgics, “Optima dies . . . prima fugit,” which is explained later when Jim Burden studies Latin at the University of Nebraska:

One March evening in my sophomore year I was sitting alone in my room after supper. There had been a warm thaw all day, with mushy yards and little streams of dark water gurgling cheerfully into the streets out of old snowbanks. My window was open, and the earthy wind blowing through made me indolent. On the edge of the prairie, where the sun had gone down, the sky was turquoise blue, like a lake, with gold light throbbing in it. Higher up, in the utter clarity of the western slope, the evening star like a lamp suspended by silver chains – like the lamp engraved upon heavens, and waking new desires in men. It reminded me, at any rate, to shut my window and light my wick in answer. I did so regretfully, and the dim objects in the room emerged from the shadows and took their place about me with the helpfulness which custom breeds.

I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the Georgics where to-morrow’s lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. “Optima dies . . . prima fugit.” I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. “Primus ego in partiam mecum . . . deducam Musas“; “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.” Cleric had explained to us that “patria” here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little “country”; to his father’s fields, “sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.”

Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the Aeneid unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the Georgics, where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, “I was the first to bring the Muse into my own country.”

We left the classroom quietly, conscious that we had been brushed by the wing of a great feeling, though perhaps I alone knew Cleric intimately enough to guess what that feeling was. In the evening, as I sat staring at my book, the fervor of his voice stirred through the qualities on the page before me. I was wondering whether that particular rocky strip of New England coast about which he had so often told me was Cleric’s patria. 

As a Christian, I am reading The Aeneid to deepen my hope for a patria that claims my affections. If this earth does not provide me a little neighborhood, heaven promises being-at-home, as St. Paul said to the Philippians: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that ables him even to subject all things to himself” (3:20-21).

Confessions of our modern age

Seniors at our school take Modern European Literature. We end the year with two confessions, a genre of literature that seems fitting to the burdensome question of modernity after the death of God, as Kierkegaard puts it in Repetition (1843): “Guilty—what does it mean? Is it hexing? Is it not positively known how it comes about that a person is guilty? Will no one answer me?”

We study T. S. Eliot’s major poem after his conversion to Anglicanism, “Ash Wednesday” (1930), and Albert Camus’ last novel, The Fall (1956). Both works are addressed to a silent confidant. At first blush, they seem polar opposites. Eliot’s speaker confesses at the beginning of Lent, the penitential season of the Church that anticipates the empty tomb of the risen Savior, whereas Camus’ narrator confesses from the shadow of the cross. But these speakers are in a similar predicament as they reckon with the doubleness that guilt engenders. When it comes to the condition of life in modernity, “we are in the soup together,” as Jean-Baptiste Clamence says. The Christian supplicant is riven between the old self and new creation (Romans 6:1-14, Ephesians 4:17-32). The atheist bourgeois is riven between being a sanctimonious judge and sincere penitent. Interestingly, neither author suggests a full exit is possible from this doubleness because, as the speaker of “Ash Wednesday” holds, “this is the time of tension.” For Eliot it is “the time of tension between dying and birth,” but for Camus it is the time of tension between birth and dying—a syntactical inversion that reveals the Christian hope of becoming born again (John 3:1-15) and the atheist resignation to a happy death, as declared by the protagonist in The Fall: “I am happy—I am happy, I tell you, I won’t let you think I’m not happy, I am happy unto death! Oh, sun, beaches, and the islands in the path of the trade-winds, youth whose memory drives one to despair!”

In modernity, the Christian life consists of a paideía of the soul, learning “to care and not to care,” “to sit still / Even among these rocks,” making real “Our peace in His will.” By contrast, the atheist life consists of a license to absolutized freedom, “The essential thing is to be able to permit oneself everything, even if, from time to time, one has to profess vociferously one’s own infamy. I permit myself everything all over again, and without the laughter this time.”

Choosing Christ

What is my take-away from T. S. Eliot’s poem, “Ash Wednesday“?

I am fixated by this line in section V, “Will the veiled sister pray for / Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee.” First, I believe the speaker includes himself among “those who walk in darkness.” We can identify “those” as believers since the non-believer does not make the choice for Christ. Second, such believers walk in darkness because they “chose” Christ in the past but “oppose” him in the present; the verb tenses are critical to understanding the speaker’s predicament of being “torn on the horn between season and season, / time and time, between / Hour and hour, word and word, power and power.” Third, if a Christian desires to live out St. Paul’s baptismal logic—to “walk in the newness of life” (Romans 6:4)—he will need to deliberately “choose” Christ in the present, season after season, time after time, hour after hour, until his very being has “opposed” Christ, as a stance in the past. “Ash Wednesday” ends on a hopeful note because the speaker is choosing Christ in the present; he intimately addresses God without the mediation of the Lady or Virgin: “And let my cry come unto Thee” (Psalm 102:1-2). The movement of the poem is from walking in darkness (“chose thee and oppose thee”) to walking in the light (choose thee and opposed thee), however bleary-eyed and dumb (1 John 1:5-10).

Murderers without malice


Ray Fearon as Macbeth and Tara Fitzgerald as Lady Macbeth at The Globe Theatre’s production of Macbeth in June 2016

According to the poet W. H. Auden, “Macbeth is the best known of Shakespeare’s plays.” It was unknown to me until 2016 when I saw a hot-blooded production of the play at the Globe Theatre in London. Since then I have taught Macbeth two years in a row. I am enthralled by how the story explores the psychology of guilt and the nature of evil. In his Lectures on Shakespeare, Auden makes this astute observation:

Usually in tragedy a good person is made to suffer through a flaw in his goodness. In Macbeth this pattern is reversed: it is the streak of goodness that causes pathos and suffering. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth attempt to be murderers without malice. The Witches, who, like Iago, represent the world of malice, may suffer in much worse ways, but their suffering can’t be seen – they enjoy what they do. What Macbeth does can only be done without suffering if it is entirely malicious. Richard III finally breaks down, but in most murders there is no remorse, because the murderer is full of malice. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth never show direct malice. They would act as devils without becoming so, and that destroys them. Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that during the murder of Duncan, Duncan’s grooms cried “God bless us” and “Amen” in their sleep and that

“I could not say “Amen!”
When they did say “God bless us!”

Lady Macbeth: Consider it not so deeply.

Macbeth: But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”?
I had most need of blessing, and “Amen”
Stuck in my throat.

Lady Macbeth: These deeds must not be thought
After these ways. So, it will make us mad. (II.ii.29-35)

“Settle which side you’ll fight on”: Passages from “Where Angels Fear to Tread”

coverAs I anticipate travel to Italy this summer, I decided to watch the 1991 film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), which is set in a fictional hill town of Tuscany fashioned after the medieval town of San Gimignano near Florence. The title of this book originates from a line in Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Poetic Criticism” (1711): “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Having previously read Forster’s other novel set in Italy, A Room with a View (1908), I was eager to know the story of Where Angels Fear to Tread, as summarized by Penguin Classics:

A wonderful story of questioning, disillusionment, and conversion, Where Angels Fear to Tread tells the story of a prim English family’s encounter with the foreign land of Italy. When attractive, impulsive English widow Lilia marries Gino, a dashing and highly unsuitable Italian twelve years her junior, her snobbish former in-laws make no attempts to hide their disapproval. But their expedition to face the uncouth foreigner takes an unexpected turn when they return to Italy under tragic circumstances intending to rescue Lilia and Gino’s baby.

Here are my favorite passages from the novel.

Chapter 5

“So one would have supposed. But she never cared for her mother, and little girls of nine don’t reason clearly. She looks on it as a long visit. And it is important, most important, that she should not receive a shock. All a child’s life depends on the ideal it has of its parents. Destroy that and everything goes—morals, behaviour, everything. Absolute trust in some one else is the essence of education. That is why I have been so careful about talking of poor Lilia before her.”

Chapter 7

It was too late to go. She could not tell why, but it was too late. She turned away her head when Gino lifted his son to his lips. This was something too remote from the prettiness of the nursery. The man was majestic; he was a part of Nature; in no ordinary love scene could he ever be so great. For a wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and—by some sad, strange irony—it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy. Gino passionately embracing, Miss Abbott reverently averting her eyes—both of them had parents whom they did not love so very much.

Chapter 8

“Why, yes,” he stammered. “Since we talk openly, that is all I am after just now. What else is there? If I can persuade Signor Carella to give in, so much the better. If he won’t, I must report the failure to my mother and then go home. Why, Miss Abbott, you can’t expect me to follow you through all these turns—”

“I don’t! But I do expect you to settle what is right and to follow that. Do you want the child to stop with his father, who loves him and will bring him up badly, or do you want him to come to Sawston, where no one loves him, but where he will be brought up well? There is the question put dispassionately enough even for you. Settle it. Settle which side you’ll fight on. But don’t go talking about an ‘honourable failure,’ which means simply not thinking and not acting at all.”

“Because I understand the position of Signor Carella and of you, it’s no reason that—”

“None at all. Fight as if you think us wrong. Oh, what’s the use of your fair-mindedness if you never decide for yourself? Any one gets hold of you and makes you do what they want. And you see through them and laugh at them—and do it. It’s not enough to see clearly; I’m muddle-headed and stupid, and not worth a quarter of you, but I have tried to do what seemed right at the time. And you—your brain and your insight are splendid. But when you see what’s right you’re too idle to do it. You told me once that we shall be judged by our intentions, not by our accomplishments. I thought it a grand remark. But we must intend to accomplish—not sit intending on a chair.”

“You are wonderful!” he said gravely.

“Oh, you appreciate me!” she burst out again. “I wish you didn’t. You appreciate us all—see good in all of us. And all the time you are dead—dead—dead. Look, why aren’t you angry?” She came up to him, and then her mood suddenly changed, and she took hold of both his hands. “You are so splendid, Mr. Herriton, that I can’t bear to see you wasted. I can’t bear—she has not been good to you—your mother.”

“Miss Abbott, don’t worry over me. Some people are born not to do things. I’m one of them; I never did anything at school or at the Bar. I came out to stop Lilia’s marriage, and it was too late. I came out intending to get the baby, and I shall return an ‘honourable failure.’ I never expect anything to happen now, and so I am never disappointed. You would be surprised to know what my great events are. Going to the theatre yesterday, talking to you now—I don’t suppose I shall ever meet anything greater. I seem fated to pass through the world without colliding with it or moving it—and I’m sure I can’t tell you whether the fate’s good or evil. I don’t die—I don’t fall in love. And if other people die or fall in love they always do it when I’m just not there. You are quite right; life to me is just a spectacle, which—thank God, and thank Italy, and thank you—is now more beautiful and heartening than it has ever been before.”

She said solemnly, “I wish something would happen to you, my dear friend; I wish something would happen to you.”

“But why?” he asked, smiling. “Prove to me why I don’t do as I am.”

She also smiled, very gravely. She could not prove it. No argument existed. Their discourse, splendid as it had been, resulted in nothing, and their respective opinions and policies were exactly the same when they left the church as when they had entered it.

Chapter 10

“Silly nonsense!” he exploded, suddenly moved to have the whole thing out with her. “You’re too good—about a thousand times better than I am. You can’t live in that hole; you must go among people who can hope to understand you. I mind for myself. I want to see you often—again and again.”

“Of course we shall meet whenever you come down; and I hope that it will mean often.”

“It’s not enough; it’ll only be in the old horrible way, each with a dozen relatives round us. No, Miss Abbott; it’s not good enough.”

“We can write at all events.”

“You will write?” he cried, with a flush of pleasure. At times his hopes seemed so solid.

“I will indeed.”

“But I say it’s not enough—you can’t go back to the old life if you wanted to. Too much has happened.”

“I know that,” she said sadly.

“Not only pain and sorrow, but wonderful things: that tower in the sunlight—do you remember it, and all you said to me? The theatre, even. And the next day—in the church; and our times with Gino.”

“All the wonderful things are over,” she said. “That is just where it is.”

“I don’t believe it. At all events not for me. The most wonderful things may be to come—”

“The wonderful things are over,” she repeated, and looked at him so mournfully that he dare not contradict her. The train was crawling up the last ascent towards the Campanile of Airolo and the entrance of the tunnel.

“Miss Abbott,” he murmured, speaking quickly, as if their free intercourse might soon be ended, “what is the matter with you? I thought I understood you, and I don’t. All those two great first days at Monteriano I read you as clearly as you read me still. I saw why you had come, and why you changed sides, and afterwards I saw your wonderful courage and pity. And now you’re frank with me one moment, as you used to be, and the next moment you shut me up. You see I owe too much to you—my life, and I don’t know what besides. I won’t stand it. You’ve gone too far to turn mysterious. I’ll quote what you said to me: ‘Don’t be mysterious; there isn’t the time.’ I’ll quote something else: ‘I and my life must be where I live.’ You can’t live at Sawston.”

He had moved her at last. She whispered to herself hurriedly. “It is tempting—” And those three words threw him into a tumult of joy. What was tempting to her? After all was the greatest of things possible? Perhaps, after long estrangement, after much tragedy, the South had brought them together in the end. That laughter in the theatre, those silver stars in the purple sky, even the violets of a departed spring, all had helped, and sorrow had helped also, and so had tenderness to others.

“It is tempting,” she repeated, “not to be mysterious. I’ve wanted often to tell you, and then been afraid. I could never tell any one else, certainly no woman, and I think you’re the one man who might understand and not be disgusted.”

“Are you lonely?” he whispered. “Is it anything like that?”

“Yes.” The train seemed to shake him towards her. He was resolved that though a dozen people were looking, he would yet take her in his arms. “I’m terribly lonely, or I wouldn’t speak. I think you must know already.” Their faces were crimson, as if the same thought was surging through them both.

“Perhaps I do.” He came close to her. “Perhaps I could speak instead. But if you will say the word plainly you’ll never be sorry; I will thank you for it all my life.”

She said plainly, “That I love him.” Then she broke down. Her body was shaken with sobs, and lest there should be any doubt she cried between the sobs for Gino! Gino! Gino!

He heard himself remark “Rather! I love him too! When I can forget how he hurt me that evening. Though whenever we shake hands—” One of them must have moved a step or two, for when she spoke again she was already a little way apart.

“You’ve upset me.” She stifled something that was perilously near hysterics. “I thought I was past all this. You’re taking it wrongly. I’m in love with Gino—don’t pass it off—I mean it crudely—you know what I mean. So laugh at me.”

“Laugh at love?” asked Philip.

“Yes. Pull it to pieces. Tell me I’m a fool or worse—that he’s a cad. Say all you said when Lilia fell in love with him. That’s the help I want. I dare tell you this because I like you—and because you’re without passion; you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful. So I can trust you to cure me. Mr. Herriton, isn’t it funny?” She tried to laugh herself, but became frightened and had to stop. “He’s not a gentleman, nor a Christian, nor good in any way. He’s never flattered me nor honoured me. But because he’s handsome, that’s been enough. The son of an Italian dentist, with a pretty face.” She repeated the phrase as if it was a charm against passion. “Oh, Mr. Herriton, isn’t it funny!” Then, to his relief, she began to cry. “I love him, and I’m not ashamed of it. I love him, and I’m going to Sawston, and if I mayn’t speak about him to you sometimes, I shall die.”

In that terrible discovery Philip managed to think not of himself but of her. He did not lament. He did not even speak to her kindly, for he saw that she could not stand it. A flippant reply was what she asked and needed—something flippant and a little cynical. And indeed it was the only reply he could trust himself to make.

“Perhaps it is what the books call ‘a passing fancy’?”

She shook her head. Even this question was too pathetic. For as far as she knew anything about herself, she knew that her passions, once aroused, were sure. “If I saw him often,” she said, “I might remember what he is like. Or he might grow old. But I dare not risk it, so nothing can alter me now.”

“Well, if the fancy does pass, let me know.” After all, he could say what he wanted.

“Oh, you shall know quick enough—”

“But before you retire to Sawston—are you so mighty sure?”

“What of?” She had stopped crying. He was treating her exactly as she had hoped.

“That you and he—” He smiled bitterly at the thought of them together. Here was the cruel antique malice of the gods, such as they once sent forth against Pasiphae. Centuries of aspiration and culture—and the world could not escape it. “I was going to say—whatever have you got in common?”

“Nothing except the times we have seen each other.” Again her face was crimson. He turned his own face away.

“Which—which times?”

“The time I thought you weak and heedless, and went instead of you to get the baby. That began it, as far as I know the beginning. Or it may have begun when you took us to the theatre, and I saw him mixed up with music and light. But didn’t understand till the morning. Then you opened the door—and I knew why I had been so happy. Afterwards, in the church, I prayed for us all; not for anything new, but that we might just be as we were—he with the child he loved, you and I and Harriet safe out of the place—and that I might never see him or speak to him again. I could have pulled through then—the thing was only coming near, like a wreath of smoke; it hadn’t wrapped me round.”

“But through my fault,” said Philip solemnly, “he is parted from the child he loves. And because my life was in danger you came and saw him and spoke to him again.” For the thing was even greater than she imagined. Nobody but himself would ever see round it now. And to see round it he was standing at an immense distance. He could even be glad that she had once held the beloved in her arms.

“Don’t talk of ‘faults.’ You’re my friend for ever, Mr. Herriton, I think. Only don’t be charitable and shift or take the blame. Get over supposing I’m refined. That’s what puzzles you. Get over that.”

As he spoke she seemed to be transfigured, and to have indeed no part with refinement or unrefinement any longer. Out of this wreck there was revealed to him something indestructible—something which she, who had given it, could never take away.

“I say again, don’t be charitable. If he had asked me, I might have given myself body and soul. That would have been the end of my rescue party. But all through he took me for a superior being—a goddess. I who was worshipping every inch of him, and every word he spoke. And that saved me.”

Philip’s eyes were fixed on the Campanile of Airolo. But he saw instead the fair myth of Endymion. This woman was a goddess to the end. For her no love could be degrading: she stood outside all degradation. This episode, which she thought so sordid, and which was so tragic for him, remained supremely beautiful. To such a height was he lifted, that without regret he could now have told her that he was her worshipper too. But what was the use of telling her? For all the wonderful things had happened.

“Thank you,” was all that he permitted himself. “Thank you for everything.”

She looked at him with great friendliness, for he had made her life endurable. At that moment the train entered the San Gothard tunnel. They hurried back to the carriage to close the windows lest the smuts should get into Harriet’s eyes.

A guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) is a voice well-known to Catholics and Southerns. Since I am neither Catholic nor Southern, I did not encounter her fiction until last year when I taught some of her short stories in my American Literature class. That encounter was transformative. O’Connor is to the modern world what Dante was to the medieval world: their stories are told with the most developed sacramental vision of life that I have encountered in literature. In his chapter on The Divine Comedy in The Great Books: A Journey Through 2,500 Years of the West’s Classical Literature, philosopher Anthony O’Hear succinctly describes this sacramental vision:

God is presented not as a remote philosophical First Cause but rather as present in the whole of creation and infusing all, from the smallest things to the greatest, with the power and attraction of his love, encompassing and embracing them all, and where we will let him, burning away the defects of personality and individuality until, in our humanity, we are at one with the divine, just as the divine is itself revealed as ultimately having a human form and face.

I have dedicated myself to reading nearly everything O’Connor wrote, including The Complete Stories, Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, and The Prayer Journal. Last summer I taught her novel, Wise Blood, and this summer I will participate in a seminar at St. John’s College on both of her novels.

We address Flannery O’Connor’s only two novels, in order to encounter the full power of her literary artistry, along with the startling sophistication of her theological and philosophical thought. O’Connor’s novels are, as her friend William Sessions put it, “dense and violent texts” that illustrate O’Connor’s deep sense of mystery, her complex perspective on prophecy and choice, and her keen eye for the grotesque aspect of the human condition. Written in the 1950s, as American Catholics struggled to come to terms with the atomic age, O’Connor’s novels take up questions of technology, metaphysics, and faith, all of which help us understand more fully the contemporary predicaments that continue to plague American life today.

In Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers!, Carl Linstrum muses: “Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.” After reading O’Connor’s Complete Stories, I am convinced that Linstrum is right: O’Connor, more or less, tells the same story over and over again. This repetition is not monotonous because it functions like a leitmotif in music; each variation creatively returns us to the center. And what is the central idea of O’Connor’s stories? In Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring, Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner provides an answer: “For her, writing and faith were life itself and were tightly bound to one another. She identified ‘conversion,’ that is, a ‘character’s changing,’ as the only real subject of good literature, and one can see in her work that what creates story, what creates the necessary conflict, is a character’s resistance to God’s grace, often leading violently to sudden revelation.”

Flannery O'ConnorSince most readers are not likely to undertake all 31 stories in The Complete Stories, let me offer a guide.

  • The six stories from her master’s thesis, The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories (“The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “Wildcat,” “The Crop,” “The Turkey,” “The Train”), are weak compared to her mature work. They show OConnor at the beginning of her writing career. I regard “The Turkey” as the most promising story because it contains elements in her best stories, such as the use of emblems, revelation arising out of crisis, and the unexpected intervention of grace, albeit in rudimentary form.
  • Four of the stories  – “The Train” (which belonged to her master’s thesis), “The Peeler,” “The Heart of the Park,” and “Enoch and the Gorilla” – were revised and incorporated into her first novel, Wise Blood. Skip these stories because they do not stand well on their own; they are better understood and appreciated when folded into the larger story of Wise Blood.
  • “You Can’t Be Pooper Than Dead” is the first chapter of O’Connor’s second and last novel, The Violent Bear It Away. Once again, read this with the novel rather than separately.

In my opinion, here are the essential stories:

  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find
  • The River
  • The Displaced Person
  • A Temple of the Holy Ghost
  • The Artificial Nigger
  • Good Country People
  • Greenleaf
  • The Enduring Chill
  • The Comforts of Home
  • Everything That Rises Must Converge
  • The Lame Shall Enter First
  • Revelation
  • Parker’s Back

On abstruse and accessible poems

david-pascal-sign-on-country-road-reads-fresh-poetry-new-yorker-cartoon_i-g-65-6591-zkv2100z.jpgA friend and I have a spirited disagreement about what kind of poetry is better. He favors abstruse verse, whereas I favor accessible verse. By using the word “favor,” I recognize that each of us makes exceptions. Ted Kooser is one of America’s most notable contemporary poets, who served as the United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004 – 2006 and won the Pulitzer Prize for his book of poems, Delights & Shadows. In The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practice Advice for Beginning Poets, Kooser expresses my sentiments well:

Part of the reason for our country’s lack of interest in poetry is that most of us learned in school that finding the meaning of a poem is way too much work, like cracking a walnut and digging out the meat. Most readers have plenty to do that’s far more interesting than puzzling over poems. I’ll venture that 99 percent of the people who read the New Yorker prefer the cartoons to the poems. 

A lot of this resistance to poetry is to be blamed on poets. Some go out of their way to make their poems difficult if not downright discouraging. That may be because difficult poems are what they think they’re expected to write to advance their careers. They know it’s the professional interpreters of poetry – book reviewers and literary critics – who most often establish a poet’s reputation, and that those interpreters are attracted to poems that offer opportunities to show off their skills at interpretation. A poet who writes poetry that doesn’t require explanation, who writes clear and accessible poems, is of little use to critics building their own careers as interpreters. But a clear and accessible poem can be of use to an everyday reader.

It is possible to nourish a small and appreciative audience for poetry if poets would only think less about the reception of critics and more about the needs of readers. The Poetry Home Repair Manual advocates for poems that can be read and understood without professional interpretation. My teacher and mentor, Karl Shapiro, once pointed out that the poetry of the twentieth century was the first poetry that had to be taught. He might have said that had to be explained. I believe with all my heart that it’s a virtue to show our appreciation for readers by writing with kindness, generosity, and humility toward them. 

As a proud Nebraskan, Kooser writes accessible verse about life in the Great Plains. Here are two lovely examples.

Abandoned Farmhouse

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

So This Is Nebraska

The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.

On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.

So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.

Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.

You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,

clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like

waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.

Why Austen’s prose is like poetry

As a longtime reader of Jane Austen’s fiction, I appreciate this perceptive observation in John Wiltshire’s book, The Hidden Jane Austen:

Austen employs a vocabulary more restricted than many other novelists’, and when she uses metaphoric language it is usually to register its banality. Instead she gets her results, and controls her meanings, largely through the precise exercise of syntax: grammatical construction, punctuation, emphasis and rhythm. Her writing therefore rewards the kind of close consideration that poetry requires: a considering attentiveness, both focused on the immediate words and able, if one is a re-reader, to recall or bring into play memories of other passages or episodes in the novel as one responds to the current page. And as in poetry, the pauses, spaces and silences in the writing contribute essentially to its meaning, and to some extent, as in poetry, make it unparaphrasable. 


Jane Austen could use the standard or formal phrasing and punctuation that she inherited from mostly masculine writers in the eighteenth century to telling and elegant effect, as every reader knows. But when her characters speak she very frequently employs a distinct register of syntactic markers as signals for the informality of conversational utterance . . . Among such mimetic markers were dashes of varying lengths, exclamation marks, incomplete sentences, italics and repetition. One sure sign that the narrator is moving away from the narrator or author and into a character’s inner speech is the presence of dashes in company with repeated words and phrases. ‘He must — yes, he certainly must, as a friend — an anxious friend — give Emma some hint, ask her some question.’ In representing even Mr Knightley’s struggle with his conscience Austen is the beneficiary of the sentimental tradition. Here, as elsewhere in her writing, dashes are among ‘these discursive cracks where emotion lies,’ as Ariane Hudelet puts it. 


Jane Austen . . . displayed the involuntary self-betrayals and traced the intricate, devious and even unconscious ways her characters protect themselves from knowing themselves and their motives. Largely dispensing with the poetic language of feeling, Austen can nevertheless lodge emotion in other discursive gaps besides dashes — in the silences or pauses that the prose dramatizes, in what the narrator understates, and in what she simply elides by shifting the reader’s focus.