Sunday, 31 January 2016

Alcestis by Euripides.

Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis by Frederick Leighton (1869-1871).
Thanks to Adam and winning the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge I managed this month to get a hold of The Complete Dramas of Euripides, something I've wanted for quite some time, and I'm hoping I may be able to read all the plays in 2016. In the book the plays are simply arranged in alphabetical order, which is as good a way as any to work through an author, and so I start with Alcestis (Ἄλκηστις), which was first performed in 438 B.C.

In the Prologue Apollo explains of how he persuaded the Fates to allow King Admetus to live beyond what would be his natural lifespan, saving him from the possible revenge from Apollo's sister Artemis after he failed to make a sacrifice in her honour. However in order for this to happen Admetus must find a replacement for him when Death arrives. The only person who is willing to give their life so that Admetus may have his is his wife Alcestis. And so at the beginning of the play we see her dying, with Death (Thanatos) arriving to take her to the Underworld. Admetus and Apollo get into a heated argument, Apollo leaves prophesying that she will be rescued from Thanatos, Nevertheless Alcestis dies and Thanatos claims her.

From here we see Admetus, his children, and the people mourning her, led by the Chorus: the fifteen men of Pherae (after some confusion over whether or not she has actually died). Admetus has promised, at his wife's request, that he will never remarry and have their children raised by an unfit step-mother. He is in deep mourning, however when Heracles arrives he conceals this: Admetus is famed for his hospitality - this is why Apollo intervened in the first place to give him a longer life, as thanks for showing him hospitality when he was exiled from Mount Olympus. And so Heracles stays in ignorance, unaware of his friend's pain, and causing the servants enormous irritation as they feel they cannot mourn Alcestis properly. Eventually one of them, in anger, tells Heracles what has happened. Though very embarrassed and hurt by this, Heracles leaves to find Thanatos: he wrestles Alcestis from him and returns her home to Admetus.

Alcestis is really a tragicomedy: too tragic to be a comedy, and too funny to be a tragedy. Nevertheless it is still often classed as a tragedy, which is a reminder that in Greek plays a tragedy does not have to end horribly (this was also the case in Aeschylus' Orestia). Even so I really enjoyed this play however problematic it was, such as the acceptance of Admetus of Alcestis to take his place in death, and that Heracles was to be shown such lavish hospitality. These questions are central to the play, but so too is the nature of loss, mourning, and remorse, and Alcestis' love and devotion to her husband. It's a very moving play.

And as I'm reading these in alphabetical order, in a few weeks I'll be reading Andromache (425 B.C.).

Heracles and Alcestis by Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix (1862). 

The Plays of Euripides

Alcestis Medea  | Heracleidae | Hippolytus | Andromache | Hecuba

Friday, 29 January 2016

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Illustration from the Gawain manuscript.
I've been meaning to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt) for years. It was composed in the mid to late 14th century by an unknown author who is referred to as 'the Pearl Poet' (the manuscript contains three other poems: Pearl, Purity, and Patience, but it is not absolutely certain all of these poems share a common author).

It's based on Arthurian legend and begins on New Year's Eve during a celebratory feast at King Arthur's court. A stranger arrives - the Green Knight - with a challenge: whoever brave enough may strike the Green Knight with the Green Knight's own axe, but on the condition that a year and a day later the Green Knight may return and the striker is to receive a blow in return. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge, striking the Green Knight and severing his head, but to the amazement of the court the Green Knight picks up his head and rides away after reminding Sir Gawain,
Be prepared to perform what you promised, Gawain,
Seek faithfully till you find me, my fine fellow,
According to your oath in this hall in these knight's hearing.
Lady Bertilak and Sir Gawain.
Autumn approaches and Gawain leaves the court in search of the Green Knight. Having battled with monsters and the bitter elements Gawain eventually arrives at the castle of Sir Bertilak. He is welcomed, and the two play a game, deciding that when Sir Bertilak goes hunting on his return he will exchange with Gawain whatever Gawain has 'won' during his day at the castle. What Gawain 'wins' is the kisses of Lady Bertilak, which he exchanges with Sir Bertilak, however on the third day Lady Bertilak gives him her green sash which she promises will make him invisible and unable to be killed. With the impending battle with the Green Knight Gawain keeps it to himself, not exchanging it with Sir Bertilak.

The following morning Sir Gawain sees a green chapel and, despite his guide begging him not to, he approaches it and comes face to face with the Green Knight. The Knight moves to strike him twice however stops before hitting him. On the third time he strikes again, breaking Gawain's skin but not killing him: it is revealed the Green Knight is Sir Bertilak - the two aims falling short were in reference to the kisses from Lady Bertilak, and the scar Gawain will be left with is to pay him back for keeping the green sash. Gawain explains he kept it not to be deceitful but to save his life. Sir Bertilak forgives him, and tells him that this was all the doings of Morgan Le Fay, the enchantress of Arthurian legend, who wished to test the honour of the Arthurian Knights. Gawain then keeps the sash and returns to the court to tell them of his adventures; he will, he says, continue to wear the sash as a reminder of his failing to behave honourably and give it to Sir Bertilak as agreed.

Morgan Le Fay by Frederick Sandys (1864).
One of the most exciting reasons for me reading this poem was the original text: when I bought this I hadn't checked the book out properly (something I'm frequently guilty of doing) and I was disappointed to see that it was a translation. I have read Chaucer's works in Middle English and the Peal Poet is a contemporary of Chaucer's, so there was no reason for me not to read the original. Except there was: there was every reason! I'll start first with Chaucer: these are the famous opening lines of The Canterbury Tales (General Prologue) in Middle English:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
This is not an easy read, but it is on the whole possible (though when I first read it I found myself consulting the glossary a great deal). Now, here's a sample of the original text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the first verse of Part I:
SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wroȝt
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe:
Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde,
Þat siþen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
Welneȝe of al þe wele in þe west iles.
Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swyþe,
With gret bobbaunce þat burȝe he biges vpon fyrst,
And neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;
Tirius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,
Langaberde in Lumbardie lyftes vp homes,
And fer ouer þe French flod Felix Brutus
On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settez
wyth wynne,
Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi syþez hatz wont þerinne,
And oft boþe blysse and blunder
Ful skete hatz skyfted synne.
The Heptarchy by J. G. Bartholomew (1914). 
This, for the average reader, is impossible! Certain words can be worked out: 'Troye' must be 'Troy', "sege and þe assaut" must surely relate to war; siege and assault, "tricherie" "trickery", "Bretayn" for "Britain", and there's "Rome", "French", and "Felix Brutus". Looking closely some works can in fact be understood; some of it is familiarly English, however I think it would take quite some study to be able to really understand it, or even just get the gist. The question, though, is why? Why would a contemporary of Chaucer's write in what almost looks to be another language? The answer is quite simply down to location. Chaucer was a Londoner, and the Pearl Poet was from the North-West Midlands: the Lancashire or Cheshire region (the settings of some of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, for example). Northumberland, or Northumbria as it was then, also had its own distinctive dialect. Here, for example, is the Lord's Prayer in Northumbrian:
FADER USÆR ðu arðin heofnu
Sie gehalgad NOMA ÐIN.
Tocymeð RÍC ÐIN.
suæ is in heofne and in eorðo.
HLAF USERNE of'wistlic sel ús todæg,
and f'gef us SCYLDA USRA,
suæ uoe f'gefon SCYLDGUM USUM.
And ne inlæd usih in costunge,
ah gefrig usich from yfle.
From a little reading I've learned that the English we speak today, and the Middle English that is the most understandable to us, is Chaucer's 'London dialect'. Though the 'seven kingdoms of England' (what is called 'The Heptarchy':  East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex) had been united for quite some time differences in language still persisted and part of the unification of our language is down to the invention of the printing press which was introduced in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. This introduced a 'standard' of language based on the London dialect, which is known as the Chancery Standard, which is most similar (but not identical) to Chaucer's dialect (for example, in the quoted verse above, Chaucer wrote "So priketh hem Nature in hir corages" - "hir" would later be standardised as "their"). That, then, is why Chaucer and the Pearl Poet's language appears so different!

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is, I believe, only the second Arthurian legend I've read (the first being The Epic and Le Morte D'Arthur by Tennyson). I'm still very much a  novice but I have enjoyed them and hope to start Tennyson's The Idylls of the King (1859) this year. I fear I'm a while off being ready to read Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur however!

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy.

The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy, first published in 1876, is somewhat of a surprise. It's described as a London society comedy, which does seem rather far removed from our Wessex tragedian's usual works. Hardy himself said in the preface, "This somewhat frivolous narrative was produced as an interlude between stories of a more sober design..."; it came after Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) and before The Return of the Native (1878).

It's about Ethelberta Chickerel, a butler's daughter who is employed as a governess by Sir Ralph and Lady Petherwin. Their son falls in love with her and they elope, but only two weeks later he dies leaving Ethelberta Petherwin as a widow. Very shortly after Sir Ralph dies and Lady Petherwin sends Ethelberta to Germany to finish her education. When she returns she lives a luxurious life with Lady Petherwin but when Lady Petherwin discovers that Ethelberta is a poet she disinherits her. After her death Ethelberta is left penniless, so in The Hand of Ethelberta Hardy writes of her plan to regain the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed: she and her family move to London, she conceals her humble origins and mixes in high society, she becomes a professional story-teller, and she attempts to find a wealthy husband. There are four suitors: the elderly Lord Mountclere, the arrogant Mr Neigh, the artist Eustace Ladywell, and the musician Christopher Julian with whom both she and her sister Picotee are in love.

Ethelberta is a great social chameleon who is determined to succeed both as a poetess and in finding a suitable match. There are suggestions that she is perhaps even the alter-ego of Hardy himself: he too had humble beginnings (the son of a builder) and worked hard to become a successful writer. It was also an attempt to widen his range, not to become known only for tales from rural Wessex with a preoccupation of fate and destiny. Finally, The Hand of Ethelberta is at its heart a parody of London society and of the kind of romantic novel popular at the time. Yet despite all of this I could not love the novel or the central characters. It was enjoyable enough, but seemed a little flat: it is not a great work, and it is not entertaining enough to forgive it for falling short. Nonetheless it is a curiosity and I'm glad I've read it, but it is certainly not one I'll re-read.

'So Ethelberta went' by George du Maurier for the 1876 edition of The Hand of Ethelberta.
Further Reading

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Books III and IV of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

The Metamorphoses read-along continues with Books III and IV...

Book III

Cadmus | Acteaon | Semele | Teirésias | Narcíssus and Echo | Pentheus and Bacchus [I]
Acoletes and the Lydian Sailors | Pentheus and Bacchus [II]


Cadmus Slays the Dragon by Hendrick Goltzius (1588).
Dragons tooth → Spartoi ("sown men"), the founders of Thebes

We left Book II with Jupiter, disguised as a bull, carrying off Europa into the sea. It falls to Europa's brother Cadmus to find her or face being exiled by their father. When he is unsuccessful he turns to the Oracle of Apollo to ask for assistance, and is told,
If you make for the wilds, you will soon be met
by a cow that has never been yoked or harnessed to draw a ploughshare.
She is to guide your path, and where she settles for grazing,
found a city with walls and name the region Boeótia.
He finds the cow and follows her and when they reach the spot he makes a sacrifice to Jupiter but he and his men encounter a dragon. Only Cadmus survives and, guided by Minerva, he slays the dragon and buries the dragon's tooth. From that a race of warriors are born and they fight each other until only six remain: Cadmus, Echíon, and four others not mentioned by name (Udaeus, Chthonius, Hyperenor and Pelorus). Together they found Thebes.


Diana Turns Actaeon into a Stag by Hendrick van Balen (1605).
Actaeon → Stag

Ovid continues, telling us of what happened next for Cadmus:
Thebes had her walls, and Cadmus' exile might have thought
to have brought him nothing but luck. He had married Harmónia, daughter
of Mars and Venus, a most prestigious match which had yielded
a brood of numerous sons and daughters and much-loved grandsons,
grown into fine young men. But never forget the ancient
saying: 'Wait for the final day. Call no man happy
until he is dead and his body is laid to rest in the grave.'
He goes on to tell the story of Cadmus' grandson Actaeon: one day he and his men are out walking when Actaeon accidentally Diana and her maids bathing. She splashes him with water, saying,
'Now you may tell the story of seeing Diana naked -
If story-telling is in your power!'
And there she turns him into a stag. He flees, but his own hunting dogs kill him.


Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1894-95).
Juno → Beroë 

When Juno, Jupiter's wife, hears of Actaeon's fate she "quietly gloated", reminding us that Actaeon's grandfather was Cadmus, the brother of Europa who Jupiter had kidnapped. However when she learns that Semele, the daughter of Cadmus and a favourite of Jupiter's, is pregnant with Jupiter's child she flies into a fury and is determined to destroy her. She disguises herself as Semele's nurse Beroë and advises, "If his godhead is genuine, make him give you a pledge of his love.
'... Ask him to take you in all the majestic splendour he showswhen he comes to the arms of Juno, dressed in his full regalia!'
When next she sees Jupiter Semele asks him to grant whatever she wishes, and he swears on the River Styx he will. She asks,
Come to my bed as you come to your wife, when Juno
embraces your body divine in the pact of Venus!
Unable to refuse he does so:
And so, with a heavy sigh and a heavier heart, he ascended
the heights of the sky.
As his face grew dark, the mists closed around him;he gathered his threatening clouds, the gales with the flashing lightening,the rumbling thunder and fearful bolts that none can escape.
But he did whatever he could to lessen his violent impact.
The flaming bolt with which he had hurtled the hundred-headed
Typhon to earth was left on the shelf, too deadly to use.
Instead he seized a less heavy weapon ('his everyday missile',they call it in heaven) forged by the Cýclopes, giant smiths, to be less fiery and fierce, less charged with the power of his anger.
Semele is killed but her baby is saved: the baby who will come to be known as Bacchus ("twice-born":rescued once from his mother's womb, then stitched into Jupiter's thigh to be born again).


Teirésias (man) → Teirésias (woman) → Teirésias (man)

In this Jupiter, drunk, observes to Juno that he believes women enjoy sex more than men. Juno disagrees so they decide to ask Teirésias who, as Ovid tells, has been both a man and a woman: as a man he encountered two snakes mating and he hits them with his staff and by doing so he is turned into a woman for seven years, after which he sees the two snakes again, hits them again, and is turned back into a man. He confirms Jupiter's suspicions that women enjoy sex more, so Juno blinds him. Jupiter tries to comensate and gives him the gift of clairvoyance (he is depicted as a clairvoyant in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles).

Narcíssus and Echo

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse (1903).
Echo  an echo
Narcissus  a daffodil (Latin name: Narcissus)

One of the first to consult Teirésias is Líriope, who had once been raped by Cephisus the river-god and given birth to Narcíssus. She asks him if her son will live to old age, and he replies "Yes... so long as he never knows himself". Ovid goes on to tell of how Narcíssus "died of a curious passion". Here we meet Echo, a talkative young nymph who once distracted Juno from catching Jupiter once again being unfaithful. To punish her, "Echo could only repeat the words she heard at the end of a sentence and never reply for herself". One day Echo encounters Narcíssus and falls in love with him, however he is uninterested as she cannot speak for herself. As she wastes away in her heartache to nothing but her voice Narcíssus sees his reflection and falls in love. He too pines away, and he dies:
The body, however, was not to be found -
only a flower with a trumpet of gold and pale white petals.
Pentheus and Bacchus [I]

The birth of the Sun and the Triumph of Bacchus by Corrado Giaquinto (1761).
The fate of Narcíssus boosts Teirésias' repuation, however Péntheus, son of Echicon (one of the founders of Thebes) treats the gods with contempt and calls him a blind old fool. Teirésias responds by telling him he will be punished by Bacchus for this. When Bacchus arrives in Thebes the wild festivities begin. Péntheus attempts to capture Bacchus however his men return with Acoetes, a new convert. Péntheus asks him,
Where is your home, and why do you practise this new religion?
Aloetes and the Lydian Sailors

Sailors → Dolphins

Aloetes proceeds to tell his story: when he was a fisherman he and his friends took a young boy captive. This boy, it was later revealed, was Bacchus. Aloetes realises and tries to convince the other sailors but they don't believe it, and Bacchus eventually turns them all (except Aloetes) into dolphins.

Pentheus and Bacchus [II]

Pentheus, Being Chased by the Maenads by Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre.
Pentheus is unconvinced and he goes to the festival, however in the chaos and frenzy he is mistaken by his mother to be a wild boar. The women descend upon him and tear him apart, killing him.

Book IV

The Daughters of Minyas [I] | Pyramus and Thisbe | Mars and Venus
Leucothoë and Clytië | Salmacis and Hermaphroditus
The Daughters of Minyas [II] | Ino and Athamas | Cadmus and Harmonia | Perseus [I]

The Daughters of Minyas [I]

Since Pentheus was torn apart at the Bacchus festival very few people now question Bacchus' status as a god. However Alcíthoë and her sisters - the daughters of Minyas - still refuse to believe and concentrate their devotions to Minerva. As the festival goes on the sisters stay at home at their looms and decide to tell each other stories.

Pyramus and Thisbe

Thisbe by John William Waterhouse (1909).
White-berried mulberry bush → Red-berried mulberry bush

The story one of the sisters tells is that of Pyramus and Thisbe: the two fall in love but their fathers oppose the marriage and the only way they can communicate is through a crack in the wall that divides them. They decide to run away and meet each other at the tomb of Ninus under a mulberry tree - "a tree which was tall and heavily laden with snow-white berries". Thisbe arrives first however she is almost attacked by a lion who smears her cloak with the blood of a cow recently slaughtered. Pyramus later arrives and finds the cloak, and, assuming it is the blood of Thisbe, he stabs himself with his sword. Thisbe returns from her hiding place and finds him. She too kills herself with the sword, and their blood turns the mulberry bush red.

Mars and Venus

Venus and Mars by Frans Floris.
In this short tale Leuconoë tells of how the affair between Mars and Venus is revealed by the Sun, Hyperion.

Leucothoë and Clytië

Clytie by Evelyn de Morgan (1887).
Clytië → Sunflower

In this Venus takes her revenge: she makes the Sun fall in love with Leucothoë. He is love-sick for her - rising too early to see her and setting too late in the day. When his love-sickness is too much he doesn't rise for days leaving the earth in darkness. They have an affair but Clytië, who herself is in love with him, tells Leucothoë's father who buries her alive. Hyperion cannot restore her despite his efforts. Clytië's plan to win the Sun of course fail, and -
She never stirred from the spot. She only gazed on the face
of the god in the sky and followed his course with her turning head.
They say that her limbs caught fast in the ground, and a bloodless pallor
changed her complexion in part to leaves of a yellowish green;
but the red in her cheeks remained and a flower like violet covered
her face - the heliotrope, which is firmly rooted but turns
on its stem to its lover the Sun, still keeping faith in its new form.
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by Scarsellino (1585).
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus → One person (inter-sex)

Alcíthoë is the next of the daughters of Minyas to tell a story. She tells of Hermaphroditus, the son of Aphrodite and Mercury with whom a nymph, Salmacis, takes a fancy to. He rejects her however she grasps him and prays to the gods to make them one. The gods answer her prayer and they become one.

The Daughters of Minyas [II]

The Daughters of Minyas by Jean Le Pautre (1676).
Daughters of Minyas → Bats

At the end of these stories told by the sisters worshippers of Bacchus arrive and they turn the sisters into bats.
... When they tried to speak, their minuscule bodies would only
allow them to sigh for their lot in the thinnest and shrillest of squeaks.
Their haunts are covered spaces, not trees; as they loathe the daylight,
they fly in the night and take their Latin name from the evening [vespertilio meaning 'bat', from vesper, meaning 'evening']
Ino and Athamas

The Fury of Athamas by John Flaxman (1790-94).
Ino → Lucothoë
Her son → Palaémon
Her friends → Rocks and gulls

Bacchus' success and status as a god is confirmed, much to the anger of Juno. She visits the House of the Dead and plans to drive Athamas and his wife of Ino (daughter of Cadmus) mad. With the help of the Furies she succeeds and Athmas, believing his wife and children to be a lioness and cubs, kills one of the children. Ino escapes by leaping into the sea with her other child and Neptune turns them into sea deities: Ino becomes Lucothoë and her son Palaémon. Ino's friends mourn and attempt to jump into the sea with her, so Juno turns them into rocks and seagulls.

Cadmus and Harmonia

Cadmus and Harmonia by Evelyn de Morgan (1877).
Cadmus and Harmonia → Snakes

The happiness of Cadmus, as promised, is indeed only transitory. Deeply unhappy at his family's fate Cadmus he leaves Thebes and wishes to the gods that he would turn into a snake. His wish is granted, and Harmonia wanting to stay with her husband wishes the same. The two become snakes and slither off together.

Perseus [I]

Atlas → Mountain
Plants → Rocks → Coral
Medusa's blood → Chrysaor and Pegasus
Medusa's hair → Snakes

The final tale of Book IV is that of Perseus, son of Danae who was impregnated by Jupiter with a shower of gold. He travels the earth with his winged sandals, and one day comes across the garden of Atlas and sees the Apples of the Hesperides (golden apples). Atlas refuses to let him in, having foretold that a son of Jupiter would steal the apples, so Perseus leans over to steal one and there he finds the head of Medusa, who he had previously slain. Atlas sees the head and is promptly turned into a mountain which now supports the heavens. Perseus leaves and soon encounters chained to a rock the Ethiopian princess Andromeda with whom he falls in love. He can only marry her if he battles the monster who is about to kill her. He does so, they are married, and at the wedding feast he places Medusa's head facing down on a platter softened with plants. These plants turn to stone, and Perseus throws them into the sea where they turn to coral. He then tells the story of how he came to kill Medusa: he stole the eye of the Graeae (witches) and was able to look at Medusa through his shield, thus only seeing her reflection. He decapitated her, and from her blood Chrysaor and Pegasus are born. He then tells of how she came to have snakes for hair: Jupiter raped her in the temple of Minerva, and Medusa by turning her hair into snakes.

The Perseus Series by Edward Burne Jones

The Call of Perseus
Perseus and the Sea Nymphs
Perseus and the Graiae
The Finding of Medusa
The Death of Medusa
The Rock of Doom
The Doom Fulfilled
The Baleful Head
Books I & II

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Eumenides by Aeschylus.

The Oresteia (458 B.C.) ♔

The Eumenides (Εὐμενίδες) is the final play of Aeschylus' trilogy The Orestia. So far we've seen how Orestes' mother Clytemnestra along with her lover Aegisthus killed Agamemnon, Orestes father (Agamemnon) and then how having plotted with his sister Electra and friend Pylades, Orestes killed Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, revenging his father (The Libation Bearers). We left off from The Libation Bearers with Orestes immediately being pursued by The Furies. 

Les remords d'Oreste by Philippe Auguste Hennequin (1800).
In The Eumenides Orestes continues to be tormented by the Furies, known also as the Erinyes: the deities of vengeance, or the personification of the anger of the dead. After wandering as an outcast he consults the Oracle of Delphi: Apollo. Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, first encounters the Furies:
Terrors -
terrors to tell, terrors all can see! -
they send me reeling back from Apollo's house.
The strength drains, it's very hard to stand,
crawling on all fours, no spring in the legs...
an old woman, gripped by fear, is nothing,
a child nothing more.
Orestes and the Erinyes by Gustave Moreau (1891).
She leaves and we see Apollo with Orestes, surrounded by Furies who are sleeping under a spell: Hermes stands near by; Apollo tells Orestes he is unable to help him but directs him to Athena, the goddess of law and justice, and he will be accompanied by Hermes. As they leave the ghost of Clytemnestra appears to wake the Furies up.

When Orestes reaches Athena he is again surrounded by the Furies, and he begs Athena to help him. There is a trial with a judge, Athena, and twelve jurymen. Apollo speaks on behalf of Orestes and the leader of the Furies speaks on behalf of Clytemnestra. As the jury cannot reach a verdict (they are equally divided) Athena finds in favour of Orestes: thus vindicated he returns to his home as king. The Furies are persuaded to accept the judgement and Athena renames them 'the Eumenides', or 'the kindly ones' and they are to be honoured by the people of Athens, they will not only punish the bad but reward the good.

And so Aeschylus' tragedy ends happily. The curse of the House of Atreus and the cycle of revenge killings is at an end. The Eumenides is an interesting play in its concern with a system of justice - the trial of Orestes headed by Athena, so the sheer darkness of the previous plays, Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers is absent. The Furies, however, are indeed terrifying, and they serve not only as personifications of anger as I said but also physical manifestations of Orestes' guilt. The Oresteia is a very complicated trilogy in its themes of revenge, guilt, and justice, and though there is a definitive ending the subjects are not dealt with in a simple way. There are arguments and counter-arguments all equally compelling. But above all the lesson from The Eumenides and indeed the whole of The Oresteia is that mercy should and will prevail.

Finally, I must mention Proteus (Πρωτεύς): this is a satyr play which would have followed Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Only two lines of it have survived, however:
A wretched piteous dove, in quest of food, dashed amid the winnowing-fans,
its breast broken in twain [translated by Herbert Weir Smyth]
It's believed that this play would have been based on Book IV of Homer's The Odyssey in which Agamemnon falls out with his brother Menelaus (who travelled with Nestor); Menelaus, on the voyage home from Troy, finds himself off the coast of Egypt where he consults Proteus, a seer and god of the sea, to learn of his future fame and fortune. Proteus would tell him, among other things, of the death of Agamemnon and how to return home. Menelaus would have been aided by the satyrs, who would have served also as a chorus.

So, there ends Aeschylus' The Oresteia. I have wanted to read this for quite some time but it's been one of those books that I find quite intimidating. I loved it, and though it was hard it is a very rewarding read on many levels. I'm very happy I've finally tackled it!

The Libation Bearers

♔ Surviving Plays of Aeschylus ♔
The Oresteia (458 B.C.)
 Agamemnon The Libation Bearers | The Eumenides

Monday, 25 January 2016

Shellfish for Monsieur Chabre by Émile Zola.

Shellfish for Monsieur Chabre (Les Coquillages de Monsieur Chabre) is a short story by Émile Zola first published in Vestnik Evropy (The European Herald) in September 1876, then later in Zola's A Flash in the Pan (Naïs Micoulin, 1884), which also included La Mort d'Olivier Bécaille, NantasMadame Neigeon, and Jacques Damour).

It's divided into six chapters (though only thirty pages) and is a fairly rare example of Zola's lighter side. Monsieur Chabre, a wealthy retired corn merchant, has married a young woman - Estelle Catinot - and it is Chabre's dearest wish that they would have a child. Zola writes of Estelle, 
Madame Chabre was acknowledged as a young woman of perfect breeding, adequately pious and incapable of giving rise to the slightest breath of scandal, brought up, indeed, in the soundest of middle-class principles by a strict mother.
Zola fans, or at least those who have read Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille, 1882) know precisely what Zola thinks of "middle-class principles" and this story is a more light-hearted dig at the bourgeoisie under the Second Empire. 

So Monsieur Chabre seeks the advice of his doctor who recommends the Chabres leave Paris for a seaside resort and, for Monsieur Chabre, to eat plenty of shellfish. So they head off to Pouliguen, a small resort near Saint Nazaire (western France) where Chabre eats lots of shellfish. Meanwhile Estelle meets Hector Plougastel, and the two spend more and more time together.

It is obvious to the reader almost from the start whether Estelle will be pregnant on their return to Paris but that is of no matter. It is a light and fun read, a little silly I dare say, but it is wonderfully descriptive of the French seaside resort, and an almost sweet tale of the very shy Hector Plougastel and the more confident Estelle Chabre dropping her middle-class sensibilities. Chabre, who could have easily been painted by Zola as a cruel man, is not - he is almost naïve and, were it not for the lack of a child, I dare say he'd be a happy, genial sort. Unlike many of Zola's endings no one suffers horribly, indeed at all, and Shellfish for Monsieur Chabre is simply a tale to enjoy (if one can put aside feeling sorry for Chabre), not least for the portrait of the quiet town of Pouliguen.

This was my fourth read for the Deal Me In Challenge: next week, Lycidas by John Milton.

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Book of Margery Kempe.

Margery Kempe.
Manuscript of The Book of Margery
 (the Proem).
The Book of Margery Kempe is believed to be the first English autobiography. It is Margery Kempe's story of her own life as a Christian mystic of the late Medieval period, written in the 1430s (making this, I think, the first 15th Century work I've read). Margery Kempe is one of the most striking people I've ever come across. She was born and lived in Norfolk in an area then known as Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn). She was middle class, daughter of John Brunham, a merchant, town mayor, and later Member of Parliament. She married John Kempe, a town official, and together they had fourteen children. Unusually for a married woman with a living husband and children she was also a mystic: a person who believes and is believed to have a direct relationship with God and / or Jesus. At the time, of course, not everyone did believe that: she was a divisive character, some helped her, some wanted her burned at the stake. The manifestations of her mysticism were often public and fairly extreme.

Stained glass window depicting Julian of Norwich
in Norwich Cathedral.
Like St. Augustine's Confessions her concern in her autobiography is her spiritual life. It begins with the breakdown she suffered after the birth of her first child: she has visions of demons, but when Christ reveals himself to her she begins to recover and from there she devotes herself to living a religious life serving Jesus all the while resisting some great temptations she faces along the way. She goes on pilgrimages, to Rome, Jerusalem, France, and Germany for example, went to confession often multiple times a day, and even for a period wore a cilice: a hair shirt. Some of the visible manifestations of her mysticism included uncontrolled and often loud crying fits during church services or when reminded of the suffering of Jesus, something which frightened and angered witnesses. Even her clothes were remarkable: for a while she wore all white, something quite radical then: virgins, regarded as holy and virtuous, could wear white to express their chastity. Margery was married with fourteen children: society would not have accepted her wearing white as though she was a virgin and this would have caused great offence to some. But Margery eventually has a chaste marriage and her travels take her through England, at one point even meeting Julian of Norwich, another mystic of the time (also the first English author; she wrote Revelations of Divine Love in 1395). Of this meeting Kempe wrote, "This anchoress was expert in knowledge of our Lord and could give good counsel. I spent much time with her talking of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ." Though arrested on several occasions, mocked, derided, even attacked for her spiritual life Margery remains true to her faith, doing as Jesus and the saints bid, and avoiding sin wherever she can.

It is an amazing book: it's exciting to read being the first English autobiography, and how incredible to hear a woman's voice: her own story, her own words, from the Medieval period. And her life was fascinating, extreme. She was a remarkable woman and that her autobiography survived is a wonderful thing. 

Further Reading

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Waves by Virginia Woolf.

I'm a huge Virginia Woolf fan, but if I really analyse it it's the 1920s Woolf I love: Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando (not so much Jacob's Room, admittedly), The Common ReaderA Room of One's Own - these are my favourites, these, I think, are her finest. 1910s Woolf (The Voyage Out and Night and Day being the two novels of that time) I enjoy, and I could never get into to 1930s Woolf as much. I loved Flush, it's hard not to, and there is The Common Reader Second Series from 1932, but Three Guineas, The Years, and The Waves are not favourites. And sadly Between the Acts, 1940s Woolf, was lost on me (though I was inspired to try again by this post by Simon Lavery).

That said, I think my second read of The Waves was a little more successful. It's Virginia Woolf's seventh novel (if you count Orlando as a novel: some count it a biography) and was published in 1931. It's her most 'experimental' - and yes, by that I also mean 'hard'. 

There are nine parts to The Waves and in each part we see the characters mature and develop from infancy to old age. There are six characters - Bernard, Neville, and Louis, and three women - Rhoda, Susan, and Jinny. The characters tell their own story or they tell the story of the others - there is no authorial intervention, Woolf in that sense is absent but for the description of the waves which separates each of the nine parts: the sea ebbing and flowing, the sun rising and setting above it. We learn from them of their childhood, their adolescence, and adulthood - Louis and Bernard are businessmen, Susan a mother and wife of a farmer, Jinny the socialite, Neville the artist, and Rhoda, forever an outsider. In Woolf's earlier novels she used 'stream-of-consciousness' to express the inner lives of her characters, but in The Waves I wouldn't call it 'stream-of-consciousness' - the monologues of the characters are too structured and it is not one continuous flow. I think there's an element of it, but at the same time it's more self-conscious. This is one reason I didn't love it - it did feel highly unnatural, and I found it hard to settle into that. It is not the natural, meandering river-like thoughts of, say, Clarissa Dalloway - each thought has a purpose to it - these thoughts reveal an aspect of a character or the characters as a whole and it's supposed to - it's why it's there. It's contrived, in short, and feels contrived and artificial.

So The Waves left me divided. I loved reading it, and looked forward to reading it when I wasn't already, but though it's a very compelling novel I found it hard to love. It is hard to keep track of the characters: there are 'hooks' if you will - for example Louis is 'the Australian', and that little detail makes his character distinct from the others. However, the characters are also a single unit. I didn't find the style of each monologue terribly different from another; confusion quickly and frequently arises and this group of friends become one self. This I have no doubt was deliberate - each character struggles with their sense of identity and try and strike out as individuals, but this truly is a struggle. Their attempts of order, too, are thwarted, and they become tossed about as if in a wave. 

The novel is almost dream-like. It has great beauty and sometimes eloquence, and Woolf communicates in this manner not only the idea of 'self' in each character, but also how it may be thwarted and undermined. There is no reality to it, which is why I found it hard - and the expression of the thoughts of each character is as I said highly unnatural and contrived. The poetry of The Waves and it's wonderful fluidity and motion makes it a beautiful read, and though it captures the essence of thought it is not representative. But does that matter? I don't suppose we're meant to actually identify with it, we're simply presented with six other individuals that bear no relation to our selves. It is, I do believe, a successful novel: by that I mean Woolf produced exactly what she wanted to produce; my not quite liking it is not down to something Woolf did wrong. She did nothing wrong - it's stunning, powerful, and memorable. I did thoroughly enjoy the challenge of the novel: I know I sound like I'm apologising for writing a bad review, but really I wasn't writing a bad review, just sharing some of my difficulties. I know this is a favourite of many Woolf fans, but for me, my heart lies with Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and To the Lighthouse.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The History of Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson.

Samuel Richardson by Joseph Highmore (1750).
I have wanted to read The History of Sir Charles Grandison ever since I first read Clarissa in 2012. It is one of Richardson's epistolary novels: Richardson's other novels are Clarissa, (1748), and the Pamela novels: Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740), and Pamela in her Exalted Condition (1741). Sir Charles Grandison followed Clarissa in 1753. I loved Clarissa and basically hated Pamela (Virtue Rewarded) so I was looking forward to seeing where Sir Charles would fit in. And, it's said to be one of Jane Austen's favourite novels; she even re-wrote it as a play, which made it all the more intriguing.

I ended up giving Sir Charles four stars on Goodreads: three stars really, but that additional star out of respect for Richardson's achievement. In fact it falls exactly between Pamela and Clarissa in more than just one way. Samuel Johnson wrote of Clarissa that one ought to read it for the sentiment; if one read it for the plot one would hang oneself. The much shorter Pamela on the other hand has a little more action from what I remember. Sir Charles, which was eight volumes, with each volume at around 300 pages long (2.400 pages in total) has action, more so than Clarissa, but it is so very long. It is not an easy read by any stretch.

Manuscript of Jane Austen'sSir Charles Grandison.
That said, it starts out with great excitement: the heroine Harriet Byron (good and virtuous, but not quite at the dizzy heights of Pamela or Clarissa) begins with three suitors - Mr. Orme, Mr. Greville, and Mr. Fenwick. Her stay in London adds a further three to the collection - Sir Rowland Meredith, Mr. Fowler,  and Sir Hargrave Pollexfen: he is the worst of the six by far, and following an argument with Harriet he kidnaps her, imprisons her, and tells her she will be his wife. Happily she is rescued by Sir Charles Grandison, and Sir Pollexfen demands a duel with Sir Charles. He refuses however, saying duels are damaging to society and that he is not so much of a coward to fear being labelled a coward. He manages to get Pollexfen to apologise, though he still attempts another proposal. But Harriet refuses - she has fallen in love with Sir Charles. However the path to true love does not run smoothly in this novel: Sir Charles has already promised himself to Signorina Clementina della Porretta. The vast bulk of the novel is dealing with this: Sir Charles' promise and Harriet's love for Sir Charles, and the events concerning Harriet and Sir Charles' immediate circle.

It's a slow novel, but in defence these matters can't be rushed! Really it does take some stamina, all of Samuel Richardson's novels do I think, and I would benefit greatly from a second read (which I'm more than willing to do, but not this year). One aspect that's hard is Sir Charles himself. He's good and that's an end to it. There's no development of character, simply changes in circumstances, and his unwavering dedication to that which is good and moral makes him more virtuous than Richardson's most famous character Clarissa Harlowe. But to see the flurry of activity around the still-point that is Sir Charles is what makes Sir Charles Grandison an interesting read, if only for the portrayal of the drawing rooms many of us have come to love in Austen. And this novel is an important battle in the war between Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding: Pamela was satirised by Fielding in his Shamela (1741) and The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his Friend, Mr. Abraham Abrams (1742). Then came Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749): Richardson wrote of it,
Why did he make him a common -- What shall I call it? And a Kept Fellow, the Lowest of all Fellows, yet in Love With a Young Creature who was traipsing after him, a Fugitive from her Father's House? -- Why did he draw his Heroine so fond, so foolish, and so insipid? -- Indeed he has one Excuse -- he knows not how to draw a delicate Woman -- he has not been accustomed to such Company -- And is too prescribing, too impetuous, too immoral, I will venture to say, to take any other Byass than that a perverse and crooked Nature has given him; or Evil Habits, at least, have confirm'd in him. Do Men expect Grapes of Thorns, and Figs of Thistles? [source]
Sir Charles Grandison was, in part, a response to Tom Jones (and it's "truly coarse-title"), and part a desire to write a decent male character to follow the evil Robert Lovelace of Clarissa.

It is a very worthy read in short, but I found it tough to get a hold of. This Christmas however I was lucky enough to get an eight volume set published in 1776 (making these books the oldest I own) so I read this in 18th Century English, which was an amazing opportunity. The biggest and hardest-to-get-used-to difference of all was what is called the "long S", which looks like this: ſ. Here's the first page of Sir Charles with the ſs:
L E T T E R  I.
Miſs Lucy Selby, To Miſs Harriet Byron
Aſhby-Commons, Jan. 10
Your reſolution to accompany Mrs Reeves to London has greatly alarmed your three Lovers: And two of them, at leaſt, will let you know that it has. Such a lovely girl as my Harriet, muſt expect to be more accountable for her ſteps than one leſs excellent and leſs attractive.
I got used to this quite quickly on the whole (though I was still startled by "out of the mouths of babes and ſucklings" in Vol. IV!). There are other differences too: "exact", for example, becomes -
(There's no unicode for that "ct". The image was found here). Also, "choose" becomes "chuſe", and "afflict" - 
(Note the closeness of the "ffl").

All in all then, reading Sir Charles was a great experience for me and however hard I found it it was worth it: when I've got more time I'd like to re-read it and write more on it, something less focussed on Harriet and Sir Charles, more so on their circle. For now: if you can get a hold of it then do so, but be prepared for a tough (but worthy) read!

To finish - four illustrations from the British Museum:

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus.

♔ The Oresteia (458 B.C.) ♔

Agamemnon The Libation Bearers | The Eumenides

Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon 
by Frederic Leighton (1869).
The Libation Bearers (Χοηφόροι) is the second play in Aeschylus's trilogy The Oresteia. In the first, Agamemnon, we were left with the chilling scene of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus, Clytaemnestra's lover, celebrating their murdering of Clytaemnestra's husband Agamemnon. In this second play we will see the consequences of her actions. 

As was told in Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon had four children - Iphigenia, Electra, Orestes and Chrysothemis. Before setting off to fight in the Trojan War Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia to ensure a safe voyage (one of the reasons why Clytaemnestra killed him). Orestes is absent in Agamemnon (in Sophocles' play Electra he had been smuggled away by Electra to Strophius of Phocis for his safety). Chrysothemis I don't recall being mentioned, though in Sophocles' Electra she was portrayed as the passive sister, accepting the situation without wishing to challenge it. And finally Electra: she has been treated very badly and dearly wishes for her brother's return so they may revenge their father's death.

The Libation Bearers begins with the arrival of Orestes who is found standing with his companion Pylades at the grave of Agamemnon mourning. Clytaemnestra meanwhile has been having very vivid nightmares and she orders Electra to pour libations (libations are drinks or a drink poured as an offering to the gods) over Agamemnon's grave. The chorus explains,
Terror the seer of the house,
the nightmare ringing clear
breathed its wrath in sleep.
in the midnight watch a cry! - the voice of Terror
deep in the house, bursting down
on the women's darkened chambers, yes,
and the old ones, skilled at dreams, swore oaths to god and called,
'The proud dead stir under the earth,
they rage against the ones who took their lives.'
But the gifts, the empty gifts
she hopes will ward them off -
good Mother Earth! - that godless woman sends me here...
I dread to say her prayer.
What can redeem the blood that wets the soil? 
And so Electra goes as she is bid, but Orestes and Pylades hide from her at first. She finds the locks of hair Orestes has put on the grave and sees his footprints. He eventually reveals himself and convinces Electra he is indeed her brother. He tells of how Apollo (to whom Cassandra had prayed in Agamemnon) has commanded him to avenge his father's murder. Urged on by the chorus they plan how Orestes can gain access to the palace: he disguises himself as a traveller to inform Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus that Orestes has been killed. He does so and manages to get Aegisthus alone, reveals his true identity, then kills him. Clytaemnestra hears the shouting and enters the scene: she begs him not to kill her as he drags her towards Aegisthus' body. She hesitates but Pylades urges him on. He kills his mother, and in a manner reminiscent of Clytaemnestra standing over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra in the palace gates, Orestes stands in the same place over the bodies of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. His victory is short-lived, however: when he leaves the palace he is immediately tormented by Furies:
Oʀᴇsᴛᴇs: [screams in terror] No, no! Women - look - like Gorgons,
shrouded in black, their heads wreathed,
swarming serpents!
- Cannot stay, I must move on.
He rushes away followed by Pylades, and we will see him in his madness in the final play, The Eumenides.

I am so impressed by this play, as I was with Agamemnon - the darkness and tension are palpable. There's such force to it, a truly remarkable play, though it is very difficult and again I am indebted to Sophocles for his Electra which introduced me to the Oresteia. I'm very excited to read The Eumenides now!

The Remorse of Orestes by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1862).
The Eumenides

♔ Surviving Plays of Aeschylus ♔
The Oresteia (458 B.C.)
 Agamemnon The Libation Bearers | The Eumenides

Popular Posts of the Year