And prove new, wilder ways: for virtue thereIs not that narrow thing, she is elsewhere;

From Ben Jonson’s Sejanus His Fall, the speech of Macro – Sejanus’ toppler and successor – at the end of Act 3.

I will not ask, why Cæsar bids do this;
But joy that he bids me. It is the bliss
Of courts to be employ’d, no matter how;
A prince’s power makes all his actions virtue.
We, whom he works by, are dumb instruments,
To do, but not inquire: his great intents
Are to be served, not search’d. Yet, as that bow
Is most in hand, whose owner best doth know
To affect his aims; so let that statesman hope
Most use, most price, can hit his prince’s scope.
Nor must he look at what, or whom to strike,
But loose at all; each mark must be alike.
Were it to plot against the fame, the life
Of one, with whom I twinn’d; remove a wife
From my warm side, as loved as is the air;
Practise sway each parent; draw mine heir
In compass, though but one; work all my kin
To swift perdition; leave no untrain’d engine,
For friendship, or for innocence; nay, make
The gods all guilty; I would undertake
This, being imposed me, both with gain and ease:
The way to rise is to obey and please.
He that will thrive in state, he must neglect
The trodden paths that truth and right respect;
And prove new, wilder ways: for virtue there
Is not that narrow thing, she is elsewhere;
Men’s fortune there is virtue; reason their will;
Their license, law; and their observance, skill.
Occasion is their foil; conscience, their stain;
Profit their lustre; and what else is, vain.
If then it be the lust of Cæsar’s power,
To have raised Sejanus up, and in an hour
O’erturn him, tumbling down, from height of all;
We are his ready engine: and his fall
May be our rise. It is no uncouth thing
To see fresh buildings from old ruins spring.

But that is not my fault. It only proves that the characters of prophet and poet are implied in each other

A fuller edition of a quote found in the introduction of the Yale Ben Jonson edition of Sejanus His Fall, from William Hazlitt’s Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (online here). It was cited in relation to the unavoidability of politicizing material that is political at its core but I repeat it more for joy of Hazlitt’s style, however out of fashion it all is now.

His tragedy of’ The Fall of Sejanus,’ in particular, is an admirable piece of ancient mosaic. The principal character gives one the idea of a lofty column of solid granite, nodding to its base from its pernicious height, and dashed in pieces by a breath of air, a word of its creator-feared, not pitied, scorned, unwept, and forgotten. The depth of knowledge and gravity of expression sustain one another throughout: the poet has worked out the historian’s outline, so that the vices and passions, the ambition and servility of public men, in the heated and poisoned atmosphere of a luxurious and despotic court, were never described in fuller or more glowing colours. I am half afraid to give any extracts, lest they should be tortured into an application to other times and characters than those referred to by the poet, Some of the sounds, indeed, may bear (for what I know) an awkward construction: some of the objects may look double to squint-eyed suspicion. But that is not my fault. It only proves that the characters of prophet and poet are implied in each other; that he who describes human nature well once, describes it for good and all, as it was, is, and, I begin to fear, will ever be. Truth always was, and must always remain, a libel to the tyrant and the slave.

All this beforehand counsel comprehends. But will is deaf and hears no heedful friends

From Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (491-504), Tarquin’s all too self-aware self-justification – though I think he here acts as most of us (in milder situations, of course) and summons argument enough to crest into momentary self-delusion but not so much as to free him from later reflection. So feels the sense of the narrator’s ‘Drunken Desire must vomit his receipt / Ere he can see his own abomination’ in the aftermath (703-4).

“I see what crosses my attempt will bring;
I know what thorns the growing rose defends;
I think the honey guarded with a sting;
All this beforehand counsel comprehends.
But will is deaf and hears no heedful friends;
Only he hath an eye to gaze on beauty
And dotes on what he looks, ’gainst law or duty.

“I have debated, even in my soul,
What wrong, what shame, what sorrow I shall breed,
But nothing can affection’s course control
Or stop the headlong fury of his speed.
I know repentant tears ensue the deed,
Reproach, disdain, and deadly enmity,
Yet strive I to embrace mine infamy.”

These forceless flowers like sturdy trees support me;Two strengthless doves will draw me through the sky

From Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis lines 165-176, a portion of Venus’ attempted seduction. I feel there’s a classical parallel to the images of Venus’ weightlessness (‘These forceless flowers …”) but I can’t right now conjure anything from Ovid or the other likelies and the commentaries don’t help.

‘Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear,
Or, like a fairy, trip upon the green,
Or, like a nymph, with long dishevell’d hair,
Dance on the sands, and yet no footing seen:
Love is a spirit all compact of fire,
Not gross to sink, but light, and will aspire.

‘Witness this primrose bank whereon I lie;
These forceless flowers like sturdy trees support me;
Two strengthless doves will draw me through the sky,
From morn till night, even where I list to sport me:
Is love so light, sweet boy, and may it be
That thou shouldst think it heavy unto thee?

The slippage of meaning in ‘light’ (weightless vs. wanton) is easy to spot. A bit below the surface is the flavor of ‘primrose’ – Shakespeare twice later uses it in ‘dangers of pleasure’ contexts.

Ophelia to Laertes in Hamlet 1.3:

I shall th’ effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.

And the Porter in Macbeth 2.3:

knock; never at quiet! What are you? But
this place is too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter
it no further: I had thought to have let in
some of all professions that go the primrose
way to the everlasting bonfire
[Knocking within]
Anon, anon! I pray you, remember the porter.

I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house wherein at ease for aye to dwell

From Tennyson’s The Palace of Art – recalled thanks to a quote (somewhat inappropriate given Morris’ sociability) in the early pages of William Morris and his Palace of Art. This brief prompt has a good overview of the poem’s perspective, as does this full text. Below is an excerpt from the conclusion. The subject is the speaker’s soul:

I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house
Wherein at ease for aye to dwell.
I said, “O Soul, make merry and carouse,
Dear soul, for all is well”.

A huge crag-platform, smooth as burnish’d brass,
I chose. The ranged ramparts bright
From level meadow-bases of deep grass
Suddenly scaled the light.

Thereon I built it firm. Of ledge or shelf
The rock rose clear, or winding stair.
My soul would live alone unto herself
In her high palace there.

And “while the world runs round and round,”
I said, “Reign thou apart, a quiet king,
Still as, while Saturn whirls, his stedfast shade
Sleeps on his luminous ring.”

To which my soul made answer readily:
“Trust me, in bliss I shall abide
In this great mansion, that is built for me,


Back on herself her serpent pride had curl’d.
“No voice,” she shriek’d in that lone hall,
“No voice breaks thro’ the stillness of this world:
One deep, deep silence all!”

She, mouldering with the dull earth’s mouldering sod,
Inwrapt tenfold in slothful shame,
Lay there exiled from eternal God,
Lost to her place and name;

And death and life she hated equally,
And nothing saw, for her despair,
But dreadful time, dreadful eternity,
No comfort anywhere;

Remaining utterly confused with fears,
And ever worse with growing time,
And ever unrelieved by dismal tears,
And all alone in crime:

Shut up as in a crumbling tomb, girt round
With blackness as a solid wall,
Far off she seem’d to hear the dully sound
Of human footsteps fall.

As in strange lands a traveller walking slow,
In doubt and great perplexity,
A little before moon-rise hears the low
Moan of an unknown sea;

And knows not if it be thunder or a sound
Of rocks thrown down, or one deep cry
Of great wild beasts; then thinketh, “I have found
A new land, but I die”.

She howl’d aloud, “I am on fire within.
There comes no murmur of reply.
What is it that will take away my sin,
And save me lest I die?”

So when four years were wholly finished,
She threw her royal robes away.
“Make me a cottage in the vale,” she said,
“Where I may mourn and pray.

“Yet pull not down my palace towers, that are
So lightly, beautifully built:
Perchance I may return with others there
When I have purged my guilt.”

Chevaliers de St Louis, meagre Marquises, and ladies of the scarlet order of Babylon

Some early journey samples of William Beckford‘s account of his Grand Tour. Beckford – really only known for Vathek now – is most enjoyable (for me) in his carnivalesque collages of the towns he passes through.

I’m using an abridged edition put out by Penguin in the mid 80s (edited by Elizabeth Mavor) that is based on a 2 volume Travel-Diaries of William Beckford of Fonthill from 1928.

Of Haarlem:

Here we arrived just as day declined: hay was making in the fields, and perfumed the country far and wide with its reviving fragrance. I promised myself a sentimental saunter in the groves, took up Gesner, and began to have pretty pastoral ideas as I walked forward; but instead of nymphs dispersed over the meadows, I met a gang of waddling fishermen. Letting fall the garlands I had wreathed for the shepherdesses, I jumped into the carriage, and was driven off to the town. Every avenue to it swarmed with people, whose bustle and agitation seemed to announce that something extraordinary was going forward. Upon inquiry I found it was the great fair at Haerlem; and before we had advanced much farther, our carriage was surrounded by idlers and gingerbread-eaters of all denominations. Passing the gate, we came to a cluster of little illuminated booths beneath a grove, glittering with toys and looking-glasses. It was not without difficulty that we reached our inn, and then the plague was to procure chambers; at last we were accommodated, and the first moment I could call my own has been dedicated to you.

You will not be surprised at the nonsense I have written, since I tell you the scene of the riot and uproar from whence it bears date. At this very moment the confused murmur of voices and music stops all regular proceedings: old women and children tattling; apes, bears, and show-boxes under the windows; French rattling, English swearing, outrageous Italians, frisking minstrels; tambours de basque at every corner; myself distracted; a confounded squabble of cooks and haranguing German couriers just arrived, their masters following open-mouthed, nothing to eat, the steam of ham and flesh-pots all the while provoking their appetite; squeaking chamber-maids in the galleries above, and mine hostess below, half inclined to receive the golden solicitations of certain beauties for admittance, but positively refusing them the moment some creditable personage appears; eleven o’clock strikes; half the lights in the fair are extinguished; scruples grow faint; and mammon gains the victory.

And of Spa a few days later:

Next morning [July 6th] a zigzag road brought us, after many descents and rises, to Spa. The approach, through a rocky vale, is not totally devoid of picturesque merit; and, as I met not cabriolets or tituppings on the chausee, I concluded, that the waters were not as yet much visited; and, that I should have their romantic environs pretty much to myself. But, alas, how widely was I deceived! The moment we entered, up flew a dozen sashes. Chevaliers de St Louis, meagre Marquises, and ladies of the scarlet order of Babylon, all poked their heads out. In a few minutes, half the town was in motion; taylors, confectioners, and barbers, thrusting bills into our hands, with manifold grimaces and contortions. Then succeeded a grand entre of valets de place, who were hardly dismissed before the lodging-letters arrived, followed by somebody with a list of les seigneurs and dames, as long as a Welsh pedigree. Half an hour was wasted in speecehs and recommendations; another passed, before we could snatch a morsel of refreshment; they then finding I was neither inclined to go to the ball, nor enter the land where Pharoah reigneth, peace was restored, a few feeble bows were scraped, and I found myself in perfect solitude.

A note adds: ‘Pharoah’ was contemporary slong for strong ale or beer. ‘The land where Pharoah reigneth’ was most likely a tavern of some kind.

French Art Deco

Now that I have to spend days in my office again I’ve begun going through all the many art books I’ve accumulated in the last 18 months but was unwilling to port home. Today’s book was French Art Deco, a survey of the period based on items in the Met’s collection. Below are some favorites. The Met’s website is cruel about even increasing the size of images but the book’s listing at least links all the items featured.

Séraphin Soudbinine’s Fortissimo and Piannismo screens – which remind me of early Sienese painting.

This Robert Lallemant vase which draws on Chinese predecessors while also looking very Bladerunner:

Armand-Albert Rateau’s dressing table and (not featured) matching hand mirror:

If you do not know how to keep still in this crazy world, you will be drawn into all kinds of unnecessary trouble

From Eva Wong’s translation of Lieh-Tzu. I’m told it’s a rather free translation and that the recent French edition Les Fables de Maître Lie (ISBN 9782910386443) is far better but it remains en route at the moment and I don’t trust my attention span.

The Value of Emptiness

Someone asked Lieh-tzu, “Why do you value emptiness?”

Lieh-tzu said, “Most people like to be praised. They feel good when their accomplishments are acknowledged. However, I feel we would be better off if we were empty of attachments and not imprisoned by recognition, approval, and disapproval. In the long run, we’d have fewer things to worry about. That’s why I value emptiness.”

Lieh-tzu paused and then continued, “Even if you were given credit for doing something, you should realize that it was not entirely your own doing. Events occur because conditions are right, and your action only contributes to one of the many conditions. We are accustomed to thinking that when things happen, they are our ‘accomplishments’; we don’t understand that there is actually nothing to accomplish. Therefore, rather than accept credit that does not belong to anyone, why not quiet down and think about the workings of heaven and earth?

“Seeing the emptiness of things can help us cultivate stillness and peace of mind. If you do not know how to keep still in this crazy world, you will be drawn into all kinds of unnecessary trouble. You will lose your view of the Way, and, when you realize it, it will be too late, for in losing the Way, you will have also lost yourself.”

Chuang-tzu once told a story about two persons who both lost a sheep. One person got very depressed and lost himself in drinking, sex, and gambling to try to forget this misfortune. The other person decided that this would be an excellent chance for him to study the classics and quietly observe the subtleties of nature. Both men experienced the same misfortune, but one man lost himself because he was too attached to the experience of loss, while the other found himself because he was able to let go of gain and loss.

Le terze rime di Dante

From Florentine publisher Leo S. Olschki’s September newsletter – a new facsimile edition of the 1502 Aldine press edition of the Commedia. The press release is here. Only some is Englished so the first part is hastily put below, as is a closer up photo of my just arrived copy.

It is thanks to Aldus Manutius if the exile Machiavelli was able to read Dante and Petrarch during the halts in his walks in the woods surrounding Sant’Andrea in Percussina, on the border of Florence. The production of “handheld books”(enchiridia) was inaugurated with Virgil in 1501. The format (8vo) was until then dedicated to devotional texts. These small books lack commentary – the reading should run easily for the reader – and are free from the scholarly frills essential for other types of editions. For the Divine Comedy specifically the title – strangely, considering tradition – is not even explained: Dante’s Three Poems

A hippopotamus making beer

I was paging through a recent edition of the twelfth century comic ‘beast epic’ Ysengrimus and was reminded of these two papyri from the British Museum’s collection.

This first (details and expandable image here) is described as:

Papyrus with satirical vignettes: a figured scene in which animals ape human activities, but in a topsy-turvy world, they act against their natural instincts. The lion does not attack the gazelle but plays a board game, probably ‘senet’, with her. The pair grasps the playing pieces with great difficulty; the lion also holds a dice made from an animal bone. Even when the lion wins, he claims his reward in the bedroom: although the end of the papyrus is damaged, it is surely the same gazelle who is depicted there lying on her back on the bed. The rampant lion who overwhelms her certainly wears the same triumphant expression. Framed by this scene is one in which goats and geese are driven along by their natural predators the hyena, fox, and wild cat who walk upright like human herdsmen, wielding a goad, carrying their possessions in a bag slung over a pole carried on the shoulder, leaning on a staff or playing a double flute. As a further irony the cat cradles a gosling.

The second (details and expandable image here) gets a lengthier commentary:

Illustrated papyrus: fragments of an illustrated papyrus showing animals engaged in human activities, including a hippopotamus making beer, a cat waiting on a mouse, a lion making beer and a canine carrying grain.

It is uncertain how the papyrus would have been ‘read’; the scenes do not represent a narrative sequence of successive events, and are thus unlikely to be a mnemonic summary or illustration of narrative tales, or to have been verbalized into a spoken narration.

Such papyri are often composed of parodies of types of scene from official and religious art, suggesting that the effect of the humour and the manner in which the papyrus was ‘read’ were purely visual. The sequence of images representing comic role-reversals is similar to the episodic textual images of social reversals in classic poems like the ‘Dialogue of lpuur and the Lord of All’. It has been suggested that the papyrus images are social satire that mocked officials by portraying them as animals, but it is more likely that these scenes were not subversive or programmatic social satire aimed at particular classes, but principally expressed a holiday mood. The world turned upside down may be connected directly with the New Year feast and the drunkenness of religious festivals – which would explain why some similar types of scene occur on Greco-Roman Period temple walls. They are, however, also connected with relaxation of a less liturgical nature, constituting laughter pure and simple; this carnival atmosphere has left little trace in the monumental record. Although a modern audience’s response is spontaneous, it is difficult to reconstruct the original cultural context and suggest a plausible interpretation. The provenance may have been the village of Deir el-Medina.

A close-up of the brewer hippo: