Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Heptaméron by Marguerite of Navarre.

1898 edition of Héptameron.
The Heptaméron is a collection of short stories within a frame narrative, written by Marguerite de Navarre (known also as Marguerite of Angoulême) and first published nine years after her death in 1558. The concept was inspired by Boccaccio's Decameron (1348-53): in Boccaccio, a group of seven women and three men are staying in a villa in Florence hoping to escape the plague that was ravishing Italy at the time. For the ten days they were there, each person would tell a tale each day, thus there were a hundred stories told. The title Decameron comes from the Greek δέκα meaning ten and ἡμέρα meaning day, so δέκα-ἡμέρα would mean a 'ten days'. In the Heptaméron's case, ἑπτά means seven, so ἑπτά-ἡμέρα simply means a 'seven days'. In Marguerite de Navarre's frame collection, which was originally titled Histoires des amans fortunez (Stories of Fortunate Lovers), a group of five men and five women stranded after floods in the Pyrenees Mountains. To pass time they decide to each tell a story every day. The Heptaméron was planned to encompass ten days like Boccaccio's Decameron however it was unfinished: each member of the group tells a story each day for seven days, and then two members tell a story on the eighth day, giving a total of 72 stories.

Each day, like the Decameron has a specific theme:
  • First Day: 'A collection of low tricks played by women on men and by men on women'.
  • Second Day: 'On which is discussed all manner of thoughts, at the pleasure of the storytellers'.
  • Third Day: 'Of ladies who have goodness and purity in love and of the hypocrisy and wickedness of monks'.
  • Fourth Day: 'Principally of the virtue and long-suffering of ladies in the winning over of their husbands, and of the prudence of men with respect to their wives for the preservation of the honour of their house and lineage'.
  • Fifth Day: 'Of women and girls who have held honour dearer than pleasure, of some who have done the opposite, and of the simplicity of others'.
  • Sixth Day: 'Of the deceptions perpetrated by men on women, by women on men, and by women on women, through greed, malice and desire for vengeance'.
  • Seventh Day: 'Of those who have acted contrary to their duty of to their desires'.
  • Eighth Day: 'Truthful accounts of deeds of folly, which may serve as lessons to one and all'.
The ten characters are:
  • Oisille
  • Parlamente
  • Hircan
  • Longarine
  • Simontault 
  • Ennasuite
  • Dagoucin 
  • Geburon 
  • Nomerfide
  • Saffredent
Like the Decameron, the Heptaméron has themes on love, society, the church, and social class. The church in particular receives many criticisms, as in Boccaccio and also in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (1386-94). Furthermore, following the stories are debates or discussions on the issues raised: this means that not only do the characters telling the stories develop within this framework, but also we see a variety of different perspectives on a variety of subjects from men and women of different social standing, be it social class, gender, or marital status, which gives further insight into France during the Renaissance.

Another interesting element of the collection is that, when the author acknowledges her debt to Boccaccio, she writes through the character Oisille  (who is most likely based on Louise of Savoy, 1476 - 1531) that each story must be true:
... I don't think there's one of us who hasn't read the hundred tales by Boccaccio, which have recently been translated from Italian into French, and which are so highly thought of by the most Christian King Francis I, by Monseigneur the Dauphin, Madame the Dauphine and Madame Marguerite. If Boccaccio could have heard how highly these illustrious people praused him, it would have been enough to raise him from the grave. As a matter of fact, the two ladies I've mentioned, along with other people at the court, made up their minds to do the same as Boccaccio. There was to be one difference - that they should not write any story that was not truthful...
Could they be truthful? That is unclear though some are generally agreed to be such, and the narrators of each tale do seem to be based on real people. Whatever the case the stories are great fun, like Chaucer and Boccaccio before her rather bawdy at times, very biting, and above all else very engaging.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Isabella, or the Pot of Basil by John Keats.

Isabella by John Everett Millais (1849).

Isabella, or the Pot of Basil is a poem by John Keats which was first published in 1818. The story of Isabella comes from Boccaccio's Decameron (the fifth story told on the fourth day) in which Filomena tells of how Lisabetta and Lorenzo fell in love, but Lisabetta's brothers disapproved and murdered Lorenzo. When Lisabetta finds his body she decapitates him, unable to move him in any other way, and keeps his head in a pot of basil. When her brothers discover this they take the pot and flee to Naples, and poor Lisabetta cries herself to death.

Keats' 63 verse poem is far longer than Boccaccio's tale but, though Lisabetta's name has changed to Isabella in the poem the story remains roughly the same. It begins,
Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!
Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love’s eye!
They could not in the self-same mansion dwell
Without some stir of heart, some malady;
They could not sit at meals but feel how well
It soothed each to be the other by;
They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep
But to each other dream, and nightly weep.
Keats goes on to describe their ever-deepening love for each other ("With every morn their love grew tenderer, /  With every eve deeper and tenderer still" and how sad they were to be kept separated ("A whole long month of May in this sad plight / Made their cheeks paler by the break of June"). When they see each other they fall yet deeper in love, and that night,
Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,
Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart
Only to meet again more close, and share
The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.
She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair
Sang, of delicious love and honey’d dart;
He with light steps went up a western hill,
And bade the sun farewell, and joy’d his fill.
The problem is that Lorenzo is a working man, and Isabella is to marry a nobleman; her brothers wishing her to marry well:
These brethren having found by many signs
What love Lorenzo for their sister had,
And how she lov’d him too, each unconfines
His bitter thoughts to other, well nigh mad
That he, the servant of their trade designs,
Should in their sister’s love be blithe and glad,
When ’twas their plan to coax her by degrees
To some high noble and his olive-trees.
And so they kill Lorenzo: "And at the last, these men of cruel clay / Cut Mercy with a sharp knife to the bone" and bury him in the forest. They tell Isabella Lorenzo has gone on a long trip:
They told their sister how, with sudden speed,
Lorenzo had ta’en ship for foreign lands,
Because of some great urgency and need
In their affairs, requiring trusty hands.
Poor Girl! put on thy stifling widow’s weed,
And ’scape at once from Hope’s accursed bands;
To-day thou wilt not see him, nor to-morrow,
And the next day will be a day of sorrow.
However Lorenzo appears to Isabella in a dream and tells her of his fate,
It was a vision.—In the drowsy gloom,
The dull of midnight, at her couch’s foot
Lorenzo stood, and wept: the forest tomb
Had marr’d his glossy hair which once could shoot
Lustre into the sun, and put cold doom
Upon his lips, and taken the soft lute
From his lorn voice, and past his loamed ears
Had made a miry channel for his tears.
Isabella and the Pot of Basil
by William Holman Hunt (1868).
Once awake she, with her nurse, goes in search of his body, and, finding it, she takes his head and, once home, conceals it in a pot of basil - "Sweet Basil, which her tears kept ever wet." Keats goes on,
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.
Her brothers, seeing her behaviour with the basil pot, steal it and examine it, and, finding Lorenzo's head, "And so left Florence in a moment’s space, / Never to turn again.—Away they went, / With blood upon their heads, to banishment." Isabella, bereft, cries herself to death:
And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,
Imploring for her Basil to the last.
No heart was there in Florence but did mourn
In pity of her love, so overcast.
And a sad ditty of this story born
From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d:
Still is the burthen sung—"O cruelty,
"To steal my Basil-pot away from me!".
I do always find the Romantics a little difficult and this poem is no exception, but even so I did love it. It is, I admit, a little melodramatic to the point of being mawkish on occasions, but for me it works. It's very beautiful and very absorbing, though perhaps not my favourite Keats poem.




And that was my 35th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - A Good Sort of Woman by Samuel Johnson.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Book IV (Cantos VII -XII) of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser.


Amoret rapt by greedie lust
  Belphebe saues from dread:
The Squire her loues, and being blam'd
  his dayes in dole doth lead.

We left Book IV Canto VI with Britomart explaining to Scudamour that Amoret had disappeared: in Canto VII we find out what happened to her. After the great tournament she left with Britomart who very quickly fell asleep. Unable to do so herself Amoret went for a walk when she has kidnapped by a man:
It was to weet a wilde and saluage man,
Yet was no man, but onely like in shape,
And eke in stature higher by a span,
All ouergrowne with haire, that could awhape
An hardy hart, and his wide mouth did gape
With huge great teeth, like to a tusked Bore:
For he liu'd all on rauin and on rape
Of men and beasts; and fed on fleshly gore,
The signe whereof yet stain'd his bloudy lips afore.
She is dragged deep into the forest where no one could hear her cry for help, however she finds another prisoner, who later reveals her name to be Aemylia. She tells Amoret of how this man has raped, killed, and eaten seven women so far:
This dismall day hath thee a caytiue made,
And vassall to the vilest wretch aliue,
Whose cursed vsage and vngodly trade
The heauens abhorre, and into darkenesse driue.
For on the spoile of women he doth liue,
Whose bodies chast, when euer in his powre
He may them catch, vnable to gainestriue,
He with his shamefull lust doth first deflowre,
And afterwards themselues doth cruelly deuoure. 
Now twenty daies, by which the sonnes of men
Diuide their works, haue past through heuen sheene,
Since I was brought into this dolefull den;
During which space these sory eies haue seen
Seauen women by him slaine, and eaten clene.
And now no more for him but I alone,
And this old woman here remaining beene;
Till thou cam'st hither to augment our mone,
And of vs three to morrow he will sure eate one.
She then tells Amoret of how she came to be in the forest: she is the daughter of a Lord she fell in love with a squire, and her father forbade her to marry him. The two ran away but Aemylia was captured by the man. When he appears again she runs away and as she runs she sees Timias, who is still pursuing her sister Belphoebe. Timias tries to rescues her and fights the man, but it is Belphoebe who saves them both with her bow and arrow. She chases the evil man then rescues Aemylia and an old lady, also a captive, however she is hurt to discover that Timias appears to fall for Amoret. Belphoebe refuses to let him explain himself so he leaves and goes on to live as a hermit. 
His wonted warlike weapons all he broke,
And threw away, with vow to vse no more,
Ne thenceforth euer strike in battell stroke,
Ne euer word to speake to woman more;
But in that wildernesse, of men forlore,
And of the wicked world forgotten quight,
His hard mishap in dolor to deplore,
And wast his wretched daies in wofull plight;
So on him selfe to wreake his follies owne despight.
When he meets Arthur again, Arthur does not recognise him.


The gentle Squire recouers grace,
  Sclaunder her guests doth staine:
Corflambo chaseth Placidas,
  And is by Arthure slaine.

Timias, alone and heartbroken, continues his penance, but he is joined by a turtledove. He feeds the dove and she sings to him, and the two become friends:
Thus long this gentle bird to him did vse,
Withouten dread of perill to repaire
Vnto his wonne, and with her mournefull muse
Him to recomfort in his greatest care,
That much did ease his mourning and misfare:
And euery day for guerdon of her song,
He part of his small feast to her would share;
That at the last of all his woe and wrong
Companion she became, and so continued long.
One day he gives her a jewel that once belonged to Belphoebe, She flies off with it straight to Belphoebe, and the dove leads her back to Timias. Like Arthur, she does not recognise him such is his change but he explains and the two are happily reunited. Meanwhile Arthur, not realising he has already been reunited with his squire, continues to look for him. On his travels he sees Amoret and Aemylia, now both ill with their dreadful encounter. With his magic potion he restores them and they tell him of their ordeal. With Arthur they go on to seek their rescuer, Belphoebe, and as night falls they take shelter in a little house inhabited by a vile witch, Sclaunder, who lives to besmirch the reputation of others with her slanders (hence 'Sclaunder'). In the morning they leave and are soon met with another adventure: a squire and dwarf escaping a giant, Corflambo, and his beautiful but unchaste daughter Poeana. This squire goes on to tell the story of another squire who, it is revealed, is the squire who Aemylia ran away with. He was looking for her but was captured by Poeana, his only way to survive was to pretend to reciprocate her 'love'. The dwarf, we learn, is his guard, to ensure he does not escape. Now the squire telling the story is trying to help his friend, the captured squire, who, as it happens, looks exactly the same as him. The narrating squire tells Arthur of his plan to switch places with the captured squire, thus making it possible for the captured squire to be faithful to Aemylia, however, when he tries himself to escape (bringing the dwarf with him), he is pursued by Corflambo. Aemylia then sees and recognises him - Placidas - and she asks about her love, the captured squire, whose name is Amyas.
Then gan he all this storie to renew,
And tell the course of his captiuitie;
That her deare hart full deepely made to rew,
And sigh full sore, to heare the miserie,
In which so long he mercilesse did lie.
Then after many teares and sorrowes spent,
She deare besought the Prince of remedie:
Who thereto did with readie will consent,
And well perform'd, as shall appeare by his euent.

The Squire of low degree releast
  Poeana takes to wife:
Britomart fightes with many Knights,
  Prince Arthur stints their strife.

Now Corflambo has been defeated by Arthur, Arthur must now find a way of rescuing Amyas from Poeana. He re-attaches Corflanbo's head - 
... That headlesse tyrants tronke he reard from ground,
And hauing ympt the head to it agayne,
Vpon his vsuall beast it firmely bound,
And made it so to ride, as it aliue was found.
and returns to the prison with Placidas. He narrowly avoids being seduced by Poeana's song, they capture her, free Amyas, and proceed to ransack the castle, which is filled with stolen goods. Amyas and Aemylia are reunited, and Arthur even manages to convince Placidas to marry Poeana. He then leaves with Amoret. As they make their way they see four knights fighting: Blandamour, Paridell, Claribell, and Duron. Spenser describes them as:
... sterne Druon, and lewd Claribell,
Loue-lauish Blandamour, and lustfull Paridell.
Britomart and Scudamour are also there and they watch the fight, which is over Florimell. Remembering she left with Britomart, they begin to attack her and Arthur has to intervene. Britomart then expresses her dismay at having lost Amoret, and Scudamour tells them all of how much he loved her. Claribell then asks Scudamour to relate how he came to fall in love with Amoret.

I need to say at this point: I'm rather lost as to where Amoret actually is: she ought to be, as I understand, with Arthur, but appears to be unnoticed. 


Scudamour doth his conquest tell,
  Of vertuous Amoret:
Great Venus Temple is describ'd,
  And louers life forth set

Scudamour goes on to tell how how he came to love Amoret, beginning by saying that love does indeed hurt, but it teaches one endurance and steadfastness:
... And yet such grace is giuen them from aboue,
That all the cares and euill which they meet,
May nought at all their setled mindes remoue,
But seeme gainst common sence to them most sweet;
As bosting in their martyrdome vnmeet.
So all that euer yet I haue endured,
I count as naught, and tread downe vnder feet,
Since of my loue at length I rest assured,
That to disloyalty she will not be allured.
He then described how, as a youth, he went to the Temple of Venus to win the Shield of Love, which in turn would win him Amoret. He battles 19 knights, then Doubt and Delay, then Danger, Hatred, Murder, and Treason. Finally he gains access to the garden:
In such luxurious plentie of all pleasure,
It seem'd a second paradise to ghesse,
So lauishly enricht with natures threasure,
That if the happie soules, which doe possesse
Th'Elysian fields, and liue in lasting blesse,
Should happen this with liuing eye to see,
They soone would loath their lesser happinesse,
And wish to life return'd againe to bee,
That in this ioyous place they mote haue ioyance free.
He then goes to the Temple of Venus itself where he meets Concord, the mother of  Friendship and Peace and the two brothers Love and Hate, who Concord keeps in harmony. He is let into the Temple and he sees the statue of Venus:
Right in the midst the Goddesse selfe did stand
Vpon an altar of some costly masse,
Whose substance was vneath to vnderstand:
For neither pretious stone, nor durefull brasse,
Nor shining gold, nor mouldring clay it was;
But much more rare and pretious to esteeme,
Pure in aspect, and like to christall glasse,
Yet glasse was not, if one did rightly deeme,
But being faire and brickle, likest glasse did seeme.
He offers a prayer of love to the statue then sees Amoret surrounded by other women: Womanhood, Shamefastnesse, Cherefulnesse, Modestie, Curtesie, Silence, and Obedience. He declares his love for Amoret and though she expresses some reluctance (modesty, presumably), the statue smiles with approval.


Marinells former wound is heald,
  he comes to Proteus hall,
Where Thames doth the Medway wedd,
  and feasts the Sea-gods all.

In this we return to Florimell, who we haven't seen since the end of Book III. She is still the captive of Proteus pining for Marinell who has declared that he will never love a woman. He, meanwhile, is still suffering the wounds inflicted by Britomart in Book III whilst his mother desperately searches for a cure. She is finally helped by Tryphon ("This Tryphon is the seagods surgeon hight"), however, fearing he will be injured again, she keeps him with her against his will.

Meanwhile a wedding takes place between Thames and Medway: the Thames is a river that begins in Gloucestershire, runs through London, Oxford, Reading, and Windsor, and finishes up in the North Sea from the Thames Estuary (Jerome K. Jerome wrote about this stretch in Three Men in a Boat, 1889; I never imagined I'd find something in common with Jerome K. Jerome and Spenser but there it is!), and Medway, another river, begins in Sussex, runs through Tonbridge, Maidstone and the Medway, and too ends in the Thames Estuary and into the North Sea. Canto XI describes the guests at the wedding feast (hosted by Proteus), a mixture of Greek gods and goddesses and rivers from around the world. I was gratified to see a mention of the River Tyne, which I grew up next to - 
Next these came Tyne, along whose stony bancke
That Romaine Monarch built a brasen wall,
Which mote the feebled Britons strongly flancke
Against the Picts, that swarmed ouer all,
Which yet thereof Gualseuer they doe call...
The Canto ends,
The which, more eath it were for mortall wight,
To tell the sands, or count the starres on hye,
Or ought more hard, then thinke to reckon right.
But well I wote, that these which I descry,
Were present at this great solemnity:
And there amongst the rest, the mother was
Of luckelesse Marinell Cymodoce.
Which, for my Muse her selfe now tyred has,
Vnto an other Canto I will ouerpas.

Marin for loue of Florimell,
  In languor wastes his life:
The Nymph his mother getteth her,
  And giues to him for wife.

One of the guests at the wedding is Cymodoce, the mother of Marinell. Half-mortal, he is unable to partake in the feast and so waits outside. There he hears Florimell crying and begging the gods to send Marinell to come and rescue her. He is greatly moved and finds himself falling in love with her, frustrated that there seems to be no way he can help her. He becomes love-sick, and, after the wedding is over, Cymodoce seeks advice from Apollo who confirms that Marinell is indeed in love. She confronts him and tells her he is in love with the imprisoned Florimell. Although anxious of the prophecy that a woman would be his downfall, she appeals to Neptune who eventually agrees to have Florimell released. Florimell is then reunited with Marinell:
Right so himselfe did Marinell vpreare,
When he in place his dearest loue did spy;
And though his limbs could not his bodie beare,
Ne former strength returne so suddenly,
Yet chearefull signes he shewed outwardly.
Ne lesse was she in secret hart affected,
But that she masked it with modestie,
For feare she should of lightnesse be detected:
Which to another place I leaue to be perfected.
And there ends Book IV.

♔♔♔♔

Before I try to summarise Book IV let me say one thing: Book IV is the hardest book yet, at least I found. The allegory is a little trickier, and the subject of friendship far more complex than I originally thought. 

The first thing to say is on the title:

The Fovrth
Booke of The
Faerie Qveene.
Containing
The Legend of Cambel and Telamond,
or
Of Friendship.

The Fourth Book does indeed contain the legend of Cambel and Triamond, but, unlike Redcrosse of Book I, Guyon of Book II, and Britomart of Book III, Book IV does not centre around the title characters, in fact the main stories seem to be of Britomart and Amoret, and Florimell and Marinell. Nevertheless the story of the friendship of Cambel and Triamond offers a focus or perfect example of the virtue of friendship. Spenser writes of Cambel, Triamond, and their companions in a most harmonious way:
Couragious Cambell, and stout Triamond,
With Canacee and Cambine linckt in louely bond.
Triamond himself is referred to as Telemond in the title of the Book, which is at first confusing: Spenser's characters often have very similar names so it would not be unexpected to have both a Telemond and a Triamond, but no, not in this case, the two are one and the same. The name 'Telemond' recalls the Greek word 'τέλος' - 'telos', meaning purpose or goal. Triamond is also interesting: The Faerie Queene has an element of theology, and 'tri' or 3 suggests wholeness and unity in the Bible, for example the Trinity, The 'mond' part of his name suggests 'monde', French for world. Taking into account Triamond's brothers, we have Priamond, meaning 'first world', Dyamond, meaning second world, and Triamond, meaning third world. Here one must think on a spiritual level: the first world suggests this world, the physical world. The second meaning the stars and planets, and the third referring to heaven. Triamond ultimately embodies all three worlds as his brothers' soul pass to him. As Spenser writes, "Stout Priamond, but not so strong to strike, /   Strong Diamond, but not so stout a knight, / But Triamond was stout and strong alike". With Triamond is Cambell, then Cambel's sister Canacee, and Triamond's sister Cambina. Cambell and Cambina are lovers, as are Triamond and Canacee, thus the group is bonded both familiar love and erotic (or perhaps chaste) love. There are three types of love in the Bible: ἔρως, meaning erotic, as seen in the lovers above, then φιλία or philia, in this context a brotherly / sisterly love seen in the above siblings, then ἀγάπη or agápe, which I'll go on to mention. Ultimately, though, Cambell, Triamond, Cambina, and Canacee represent harmony in love, life, and the universe. 

Interestingly Spenser borrows from Chaucer in reiterating this. The names Cambell and Canacee come from the unfinished Squire's Tale from The Canterbury Tales. This isn't the only reminder of Chaucer, however; there is a distinct echo of Parlement of Foules (1382) in the story of Scudamour's visit to the Temple of Venus. In Parlement of Foules the narrator also visits the Temple of Venus where the birds talk of love, friendship, fulfilment and harmony.

This harmony is crucial to understanding Book IV. As ever, Spenser uses contrasts to make his point. Most pertinently, we have Ate or Atë. In Hesiod's Theogony she is the daughter of Distress (Eris) and brings misery, ruin, folly, and dissonance. Spenser writes,
Her name was Ate, mother of debate,
And all dissention, which doth dayly grow
Amongst fraile men, that many a publike state
And many a priuate oft doth ouerthrow...
Her contrast is Concord:
Concord she cleeped was in common reed,
Mother of blessed Peace, and Friendship trew;
They both her twins, both borne of heauenly seed,
And she her selfe likewise diuinely grew;
The which right well her workes diuine did shew:
For strength, and wealth, and happinesse she lends,
And strife, and warre, and anger does subdew:
Of litle much, of foes she maketh frends,
And to afflicted minds sweet rest and quiet sends.
In Book IV we see reasons for harmony and most importantly lack of harmony. Lust and lack of temperance threatens order. We've seen the importance of holiness in Book I, temperance in Book II, Chastity in Book III, and now the three culminate almost in Book IV on friendship. Furthermore the presence of Britomart recalls Book III's chastity theme, linking it to friendship and love, themselves linked. The ideal harmony is shown by the titular characters; the striving towards this harmony is shown in the other friendships, and the contrasts: Blandamour, Paridell, and Braggadochio who are easily induced to fight one another, in this case a false idol - "False Florimell". Unity or marrying together produces a perfect whole. In the case of the marrying of the rivers, Spenser also describes a bond of primordial energies. Not only this but he continues his previous themes of writing on England, placing the Thames at the centre: the Thames, of course, runs through London, the centre of the Tudor monarchy, suggesting all rivers of England and abroad come together at this central point, greatly flattering Elizabeth I.

Book IV, as I've said, is very difficult and incredibly dense, but it does have similarities in structure and the idea of overcoming obstacles to reach an ideal. We have the adventures, the meetings of similar and contrasting knights or monsters, a challenge (entering a castle which represents an evil), and the overcoming of a challenge with a resolution. Even so, this was the hardest book yet, though for some reason I took more pleasure in trying to decipher it as best I could, and I look forward to reading the first half of Book V, which centres around justice and Sir Artegal. Until then, here are the illustrations by Walter Crane for Cantos VII - XII of Book IV:

Friday, 26 August 2016

Peace by Aristophanes.

Peace is a comedy by Aristophanes, first performed in 421 B.C. (of the surviving plays it follows The Wasps). Like many of Aristophanes' plays the major theme is war; when Aristophanes was writing the Peloponnesian War between the Athenians and the Spartans was being fought (it lasted from 431–404 BC), something that influenced many of his works. As he was writing Peace the first half of the war was coming to an end and a treaty known as the Peace of Nicias was to be signed by both parties; Peace anticipates this treaty and it was performed just a few days before its signing, at which point, it's worth noting, the war had been going on for some ten years.

Aristophanes' Peace (Εἰρήνη) is an allegorical play that tells the story of Trygaeus, an Athenian frustrated with the war and seeks himself to bring about peace by finding and rescuing Peace, the allegorical figure of the title. It begins with two slaves of Trygaeus who are kneading two cakes of dung. Trygaeus himself shortly appears unsteadily riding the back of a dung beetle:

Tʀʏɢᴀᴇᴜs: Fair and softly, my beastlet, and first.
Start not at once with a violent burst,
In the proud delight your eager might,
Ere your joints with sweat are relaxed and wet
From the beautiful swing of your stalwart wing.
And breathe not strong as we soar along;
If you can't refrain, you had best remain
Down here in the stalls of your master's falls.
An explanation, clearly very much needed, is given: Trygaeus tells his incredulous slaves that he intends to fly to the heavens and to meet with the gods and get them to agree to bring about peace; either he will reason with them or he will threaten them with legal action if necessary. However when he arrives he finds only Hermes, the messenger; the rest of the gods have deserted their heavens hoping never again to be troubled by war. War himself is to move into their abode, Peace meanwhile has been captured and imprisoned. War carries a mortar in which to grind the Greeks down; his pestles, however, are no used to him: they were Cleon, the Athenian general and butt of many of Aristophanes' works, who had died the year before in 422 B.C. and Brasidas, the Spartan officer who also died in 422 B.C. As he seeks out new pestles Trygaeus implores the Greeks to help him release Peace. She is finally released along with Festival and Harvest, Hermes explained she ought to have been released earlier but the Athenian council kept voting against it, and the players and Chorus celebrate her new freedom. Trygaeus marries Harvest, Festival joins the audience, and Peace is honoured. There are some who have profited from War who need some extra persuading, and anyone who deliberately attempts to disrupt the basic harmony is sent away. This new peace-time is on the whole welcomed, though there is some anger and sadness at those who let war happen in the first place.

It's another great play from Aristophanes: he harks back to a simpler time before the Peloponnesian War, and I really enjoyed that mythical element of Peace shut away in a cave before being freed, and this meeting of myth and politics. It's said that this play marks the beginnings of the transforming of old to new comedy in that there is no "agon" - no debate between Peace and War: War is a barbaric figure who is incapable of a reasoned debate. Peace wins, Peace would always win in Aristophanes play, she simply needed help. It's interesting too in its portrayal of a society tired out by all the fighting and a government and certain people who actually benefited from unrest. 

I've been reading Aristophanes for some eighteen months now and I've read the plays that follow - The Birds, Lysistrata, The Poet and the Woman, The Frogs, and The Assemblywomen, as well as the final surviving play Wealth, however that was one I did want to re-read. What I would say now is I feel his plays from The Clouds and The Wasps to The Frogs are his finest, though I did like the first two: The Arcanians and The Knights. The final two, The Assemblywomen and Wealth really aren't favourites of mine at all and I'm rather reluctant to re-read Wealth. Nevertheless I do need another go at it having skimmed well over half of it the first time around. So, I shall revisit Wealth this weekend and post next week.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

A Group of Noble Dames by Thomas Hardy.

A Group of Noble Dames is Thomas Hardy's second short story collection (following Wessex Tales, 1888) and was first published in the same year as his novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles in 1891. The book is a frame narrative: the overall story is that the members of the Wessex Field and Antiquarian Clubs have gathered together for a dinner and they each tell a tale, some before dinner, some after dinner:
It was at a meeting of one of the Wessex Field and Antiquarian Clubs that the foregoing story, partly told, partly read from a manuscript, was made to do duty for the regulation papers on deformed butterflies, fossil ox-horns, prehistoric dung-mixens, and such like, that usually occupied the more serious attention of the members.
This Club was of an inclusive and intersocial character; to a degree, indeed, remarkable for the part of England in which it had its being—dear, delightful Wessex, whose statuesque dynasties are even now only just beginning to feel the shaking of the new and strange spirit without, like that which entered the lonely valley of Ezekiel’s vision and made the dry bones move: where the honest squires, tradesmen, parsons, clerks, and people still praise the Lord with one voice for His best of all possible worlds.
The present meeting, which was to extend over two days, had opened its proceedings at the museum of the town whose buildings and environs were to be visited by the members.  Lunch had ended, and the afternoon excursion had been about to be undertaken, when the rain came down in an obstinate spatter, which revealed no sign of cessation.  As the members waited they grew chilly, although it was only autumn, and a fire was lighted, which threw a cheerful shine upon the varnished skulls, urns, penates, tesseræ, costumes, coats of mail, weapons, and missals, animated the fossilized ichthyosaurus and iguanodon; while the dead eyes of the stuffed birds—those never-absent familiars in such collections, though murdered to extinction out of doors—flashed as they had flashed to the rising sun above the neighbouring moors on the fatal morning when the trigger was pulled which ended their little flight.  It was then that the historian produced his manuscript, which he had prepared, he said, with a view to publication.  His delivery of the story having concluded as aforesaid, the speaker expressed his hope that the constraint of the weather, and the paucity of more scientific papers, would excuse any inappropriateness in his subject.
The stories are:

Part I: Before Dinner
  • The First Countess of Wessex by the Local Historian
  • Barbara of the House of Grebe by the Old Surgeon
  • The Marchioness of Stonehenge by the Rural Dean
  • Lady Mottisfont by the Sentimental Member
Part II: After Dinner
  • The Lady Icenway by the Churchwarden
  • Squire Petrick’s Lady by the Crimson Maltster
  • Anna, Lady Baxby by the Colonel
  • The Lady Penelope by the Man of Family
  • The Duchess Of Hamptonshire by the Quiet Gentleman
  • The Honourable Laura by the Spark

One aspect that always fascinates me about Hardy's works is how he changed from his very first publication, How I Built Myself a House (1865): the cheery, breezy, comic short story not unlike Jerome K. Jerome or George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary of a Nobody (1892) to the harsh and bitter Jude the Obscure (1895), described by one reviewer as "obscene". As I wind my way through Hardy's works each book is a step forward to the final novel, and in A Group of Noble Dames the theme of disappointment and marital failure is yet more apparent than in previous works (as to why Hardy changed is a matter for a biography: I have Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man planned for later this year).

Hardy, I feel, often focuses on the working or lower classes of Wessex, and though these stories are too set in Hardy's Wessex they are more concerned with the upper classes. Failure and hypocrisy are the major themes in these stories, as well as the aforementioned disappointment in many. Circumstance and Fate, an important part of Hardy's later works, are the guiding forces of the stories; then, there is the irony: this group of dames are not all noble, some very far from it. 'Noble', in this context, simply means aristocratic. The second definition of noble, meaning very moral and highly principled, is the irony of the book and its title. His characters are flawed, and the worst of them are stubborn, shallow, proud, deceitful and at times very unkind and selfish. For that one could call it a critique of the higher classes.

Harsh at times as it is, it's still a very engrossing read. Hardy's characters are complex and life-like, he paints such a vivid picture one imagines they're all real, even those telling the stories. And perhaps they are, Hardy was often inspired by tales told in his local area. It feels too like a modern Pickwick Papers, the idea of the characters of a local history club gathering together and telling stories are not unlike the tales told within The Pickwick Papers. It's an excellent collection, very clever and very memorable, and it really shows off Hardy's exceptional talent.

To finish, some illustrations by Alfred Parsons and C. S. Reinhart from the 1891 edition:



*******
Further Reading

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...