Waiting for the Barbarians

This morning, C. P. Cavarty, translated by Edmund Keeley, reproduced here in blatant disregard for the copyright of both, to those who are directionless now we are free from the lockdown at last:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

      The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

      Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What’s the point of senators making laws now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
      He’s even got a scroll to give him,
      loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

Books

Wonder of the Peak 0: introduction

De Mirabilibus Pecci is one of the lesser works of Thomas Hobbes, but influential, as others have followed him to explore and describe the Seven Wonders of the Peak. Over the next seven days (if I can manage it) I would like to look at them too.

William Camden may have been to record the tradition of seven wonders in the Peak District:

There are in High Peake wonders three,
A deepe hole, Cave, and Den,
Commodities as many bee,
Led, Grasse, and Sheepe in pen.
And Beauties three there are withall,
A Castle, Bath, Chatsworth.
With places more yet meet you shall
That are of meaner worth.

The Peak District is a wonderous place, certainly, and choosing just seven places for a list is limiting. The list, by Camden then by Hobbes, is fixed now, and ranges in themes that explore the eclectic nature of the Peak District.

Hobbes was born, of course, in Wiltshire, but he travelled widely, and lived for many years as a guest of the Earls of Devonshire, his patrons. He composed De Mirabilibus Pecci (‘Of the Wonders of the Peak’) as a grateful tribute to the 3rd Earl, his former pupil and his patron (who owned much of the Peak). It is a long poem, in Latin so I cannot comment on the quality of the poetry. The quality of the seven wonders he listed however I can explore. Mercifully for readers, I will do so in prose.

See

0 Introduction – 1 Chatsworth2 The Ebbing and Flowing Well3 Eldon Hole4 St Ann’s Well5 Poole’s Cavern6 Mam Tor7 The Devil’s Arse

In praise of plagiarism

Many books, poems and art are fine, but in need of improvement by a more skilful hand, or just a different voice. Some great authors have built monuments which define style and art, but most have slips that could benefit from a brush-up or are in places a semi-tone off. Another hand could step in and make it perfect, but modern sensibilities condemn this as a cheat’s trade.

Without constructive plagiarism, we would lack several great plays by Shakespeare: Hamlet was a complete lift from Thomas Kyd’s version, which itself was from Saxo Grammaticus; the Merchant of Venice is largely swiped from Marlowe’s grim The Jew of Malta. Each was written when the original writer was barely cold in the grave, but each was turned inside out and improved immeasurably.  Bach swiped others’ tunes continually and magically transformed them into something new. A great artist need not be completely original when he can be an alchemist, performing transmutation of weak material into gold.

In the modern day though, this treatment of another’s work unless radically undone and rewritten is looked down upon as if it were a sort of theft.

We do permit radical film adaptations, because it is such a different medium. I never hear complaints against Coppola that he stole from Conrad when he made Apocalypse Now, because it is a new work of art adopted from Conrad’s work. It can be an improvement: Ray Bradbury said that the changed ending in the (original) film version of his most celebrated novel was possibly a better conclusion that the ending he wrote. (That is a curse for a writer who creates such perfect fluidity of plot – how can it end? The ending is where many great works fail.) As a book, I would count Fahrenheit 451 amongst those great works which should not be bowdlerised, of which it would otherwise be in danger because at least a shadow of it has become part of common culture, and because what was when written a work of wildly fantastical dystopian fiction is becoming, horribly, prescient. For film adaptation, changes are necessary for the medium.

Not all works deserve such reverent preservation: the books that fade out in the middle; the poems that have a couple of great lines and an idea but then turn mediocre; the film which wastes its premise; the music that find a pretty section and repeats it endlessly for want anything better – I would argue that we should be happy for an artist to improve on these.

It is part of our preconception of art and literature that it should be a single, inspired piece. That is an attractive idea, but I would say it comes more from a superstitious desire for purity than from rational consideration. As we know though, the love of purity is at odds with the creative spirit.

If a fine house is built, but the garage at the side is poorly proportioned, we do not insist that the whole house be demolished and started from the foundations:  we get a new builder to knock the poor bits down and build then better. If a good book has almost been written but goes wrong somewhere, it makes sense to let someone write it. Editors of cheap novels arrange that more than you might think: they are not daft. In the film world they understand this very well: when a film goes awry, the studio sacks the director or the scriptwriters, but keeps as much as possible of the good work they have already done. (Sometimes they get it wrong, which is why the Director’s Cut is often better than the original. There is, for a true artist, such a thing as purity of conception.)

Shakespeare did not face copyright claims, so he could do what he liked with other people’s work. Today we would need permission, and the profit of any ‘improved’ book would go mainly to the original author whose donkey-work has provided the bulk of it. That accepted, there is no other reason not to revisit works which could be improved markedly by others. I read plenty of poetry I would like to rewrite.

It is not cheating but perfecting; not dishonouring an original author, but making their hard work flower into what it deserves to be.

See also

Books

Ban ‘Jerusalem’? Yes: long overdue

The BBC can’t get anything right these days. The flurry today may have been an exercise in misdirection, but it showed up the angry divisions in society, as if we needed to be reminded of them. I love the patriotic songs lifting the spirit, but Jerusalem I would lose without hesitation.

The BBC organise the Promenade Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, and have done every peacetime year since Henry Wood founded them. Today’s scandal broke from unofficial sources; a claim that the Beeb were to ban forever the famous patriotic songs which characterise the Last Night of the Proms. All hell broke loose. Actually this may have been a fake story, a softener before they revealed that the music would be there but not sung, because of the possible coronavirus risk.

A year without Rule, Britannia at full volume is unthinkable, and we must have Land of Hope and Glory belted out with gusto in the Royal Albert Hall or there has indeed been a revolution against us, the right-thinking people of the nation. They are grand, patriotic songs wrapped in the Union Jack that lift the spirit and remind us, in spite of all the vandals are trying to do, that Britons are a great nation and that we shaped and continue to shape the world and we can feel very glad about it.

(I saw this evening that Land of Hope and Glory sung by Vera Lynn has reached Number 1 in the download charts: it might restore my faith in the taste of the public.)

However one of the Proms songs, Jerusalem, or And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time, should be ditched forever.

It is not one that comes under the usual woke condemnation: it is not imperial or racial or whatever other boo-words they usually use to tag things that might make them think. It has a soaring tune by Parry – one of his best, and it is a cracker to listen to because of that tune. However the words – they pretend to be a hymn but are a disgrace to theology and although Jerusalem is a very popular song and has been used as a hymn ever since it was set to music, it has been banned from many churches because its words are blasphemous nonsense.

The words are a poem by William Blake, one of the weirdest of 19th century poets and painters. He was considered mad in his own age: the calm consideration of his legacy in later years does nothing to dispel that. His ideas were both radical and irrational and he grasped for a spirituality receiving an inspiration unlike that for a prophet and more like that received by the Gadarene Swine.

The poem he wrote which has become the famous ‘hymn’ is based on a mediaeval legend invented to fleece pilgrims out of cash in Glastonbury: the monks, to ‘prove’ how ancient their establishment was claimed that Jesus himself, as a child, came to Somerset and founded the abbey. The story takes the Lord’s name in vain in a most scandalous manner but it drew gullible pilgrims in droves. Blake took that blasphemous legend and made it into a poem, and that is what gets sung at the Proms.

This has been characterised as the only hymn in the book consisting of questions the answer to all of which is “no”. And did those feet..? No they did not. That rather knocks out the whole conceit of the piece.

There is a lot to be said for inspiring the listener and the singer to exertions to bring about a paradise on Earth, and the confused mixing up of images from Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and from the Book of Kings and from Blake’s fevered imagination has a breathless quality that for that moment makes you feel you can achieve – but it is built on that fatal, ill concept so that to get to the soaring verses about whacking people with swords we are made to sing blasphemous nonsense about Jesus as a bairn in England.

One should also object politically: it sings of England, not Britain. In Blake’s time the word ‘England’ was used to mean the whole of the British Isles, but it sits ill today and suggests “there is a special blessing for all who live south of the Tweed – not for Scots though”.

Jerusalem the city has a long history in metaphor, and Hobbes looked at this in the scriptures in forensic detail (and if I every get round to it I will write about that). Blake’s poem though has none of that: it is heretical nonsense and should be cast out at once.

I will enjoy Parry’s tune without the words. If a poet can write better words, freed from Blake’s phrenzy, he may make something which is worthy of Parry’s triumph.

Dane-geld

I have watched the press-pack and timorous MPs demanding a human sacrifice as the price of leaving the government alone, and making the news not breaking it, so today I leave the field to Rudyard Kipling:

IT IS always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say: –
“We invaded you last night – we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: –
“Though we know we should defeat you,
we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

See also

Books