Purely by coincidence, I’ve been immersed in different time periods for the past week. There’s my ongoing project of reading The Faerie Queen to start with. One canto per day hasn’t been working out, but six cantos at the weekend is doable, so that’s the revised approach I’m taking. To start with, I was reading it aloud to myself, to help with rhythm and pronunciation, and I find it oddly hypnotic. I love all the ‘quoth he’ and ‘quoth she’ stuff, the rhymes that are odd to my ear (‘sound’ and ‘wound’). For a couple of days, due to connections I can’t quite place, I also had Donne and Shakespeare in my head as well, respectively ‘And so good morrow to our waking souls’ and mis-remembered fragments of the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. The latter we were made to remember at school and then write out, punctuation perfect. I’ve no idea why. I don’t know anything about Spenser, but his language seems older than Shakespeare, so did he go in for deliberate archaisms?
Whatever, it’s thoroughly enjoyable, and there are worse ear worms to have than dear old Donne.
A step further back in time, and I’m listening to Wolf Hall, rather marvelously narrated by Simon Slater. I saw the play back in March, and then Bring up the Bodies late in July, and both were wonderful, gripping pieces of theatre. I know the books are something of Marmite texts and that’s fair enough, but I find them astonishingly rich, detailed and human. And awful too, of course, in the way in which Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell become monsters. It’s a shame Wolsey couldn’t stick around for longer, but apparently there’s a great contemporary biography of him, so…
And finally, I read John Williams’ Augustus. I was initially a bit dubious about this, because although I loved Stoner, novels set in Roman times always have I, Claudius to live up to. Or The Memoirs of Hadrian. For me, Augustus takes its place comfortably in that company, giving flesh to the bones of a cast of characters whose names resound, drawing one in so thoroughly to the world in which it’s set that it seems immediate and relevant. The story of the shift from republic to empire I find consistently compelling and tragic, Augustus both hero and villain.
But this is Julius Caesar talking:
How long have we been living the Roman lie? Ever since I can remember, certainly; perhaps for many years before. And from what source does that lie suck its energy, so that it grows stronger than the truth? We have seen murder, theft, and pillage in the name of the Republic – and call it the necessary price we pay for freedom. Cicero deplores the depraved Roman morality that worships wealth – and, himself a millionaire many times over, travels with a hundred slaves from one of his villas to another. A consul speaks of peace and tranquillity – and raises armies that will murder the colleague whose power threatens his self-interest. The Senate speaks of freedom – and thrusts upon me powers that I do not want but must accept and use if Rome is to endure. Is there no answer to the lie?
I have conquered the world, and none of it is secure; I have shown liberty to the people, and they flee as if it were a disease; I despise those whom I can trust, and love those best who would most quickly betray me. And I do not know where we are going, though I lead a nation to its destiny.
(Augustus, p. 19)
Plus ca change…