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Hilaire Belloc 150 years on

Hilaire Belloc was born on 27 July 1870. He died a couple of weeks before his 83rd birthday, in 1953. To British and American  Catholics of those times it would have been unimaginable that one day  his name would fade, for he was by far the starriest defender of the Faith, and his books were on the shelf of every literate Catholic – histories, in abundance, travels, poetry, apologetics, economics, politics. I still treasure a bookmark made for me when I was about six,  by a teacher,  Sister Mary Alban OP, inscribed in her matchless calligraphy ,  with Belloc’s lines about the grace of God being in courtesy –  not always a grace of which he availed himself.

It is now forty years since Belloc’s grandchildren approached me and asked me to write his life. I was an unlikely choice, being the Hon Sec of the Wishy Washy Society, whereas Belloc liked banging the drum.

Remember The Arundel Carol – “May all good fellows who here agree/Drink audit ale in Heaven with me/And may all my enemies go to hell,/ Noel, Noel!”.

 I still feel grateful to the family for asking me to chronicle his life . “When I am dead, I hope it may be said/His sins were scarlet but his books were read”. Alas for him, his sins were of a kind we find unpardonable and largely for this reason, the books  go unread..

Imagine a modern reader ,  who had barely heard of him,  picking up a volume of  Belloc’s  verse in a second-hand bookshop .  She might be  surprised by how good it is.  Such a reader  might place the poet in the tradition of English pastoral. 

Spirits that call and no one answers

Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.

Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers,

And never a ploughman under the sun,

Never a ploughman. Never a one.

But the pessimism of the poem is coming from a different imaginative world than that inhabited by his Prot public-schoolboy  “Georgian”  contemporaries ,

Likewise the  poems seemingly for children are animated by  something  hard-edged which is at variance with anything we would call either  English or Pastoral .They depict children who  were incorrigible – Henry King, whose habit of chewing little bits of string led to his grisly fate – “Oh my Friends be warned by me/That Breakfast, Dinner/Lunch and Tea/Are all the human frame requires/With that the Wretched Child expires”. Matilda dies in flames. Jim who did not keep a hold of nurse, is devoured by a lion. Lord Lundy’s inability to restrain tears leads to the anathema of his grandfather –“Sir! You have disappointed us!/We had intended you to be/The next Prime Minister but three:/The stocks were sold: the Press was squared./The middle class was quite prepared./But as it is! My language fails/ Go out and govern New South Wales”.

The child who has  absorbed  these verses has actually learnt to be subversive. The England depicted, where the “hoary social curse” stinks “a trifle worse/Than in the days of Queen Victoria” is being  judged  by a quite different value-code. “The moral is, it is indeed/You must not monkey with the Creed”.

Belloc, though  for a time a Liberal MP,   and though the celebrant  of the Sussex pines, was not really English: he was  half French . His  Englishness was that of the awkward squad: his mother, a redoubtable feminist called Bessie Parkes was descended from  the great chemist Joseph Priestley, and from nonconformist radicals. It was through  Cardinal Manning she  became a Catholic, and it was Manning’s Catholicism , with the social radicalism of Rerum Novarum, and an Ultramontane hope that the Papacy would provide the conscience of Europe, which guided Belloc’s thought.

The book which expounds his political  outlook most succinctly is The Servile State (1927), an application of the principles of Leo XIII and Cardinal Manning to the world scene of the 1920s. Faced by the instability of the Capitalist system (he published his book two years before the Wall Street Crash of 1929) and by the social injustices it inevitably produced, he foresaw only three possible solutions. First was Collectivism, the experiment already being tried in Soviet Russia with catastrophic effect. Secondly, the re-establishment of Property by Distributism in which the mass of citizens should severally own the means of production”. (Sometimes nicknamed Three acres and a cow). Third, what he called A Servile State which is really what we live in today.

The twentieth century saw a number of heroic attempts to put the ideas of this great book into practice. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement in the United States springs at once to mind. There was the Ditchling Community in Sussex, where Eric Gill and his Guild of Craft workers put many of Belloc’s views into practice. 

Belloc saw that  all this political and economic  evil went hand in hand and stemmed from  the loss of the Catholic faith in Europe .

The ideas of The Servile State, so distrustful both of the tyranny of state and of market, are echoed in many of the encyclicals  of John Paul II  . Whether there would be much chance of  Belloc’ s histories enjoying widespread popularity again, one rather doubts.  They were composed at lightning rate: he wrote the life of James II in a fortnight on a holiday in North Africa, with no books to hand. The best of the historical books relate to France. His history of Paris, which gives out in the 18th century, is packed with good stuff. The revolutionary histories – the Life of Danton in particular – are marvellous.

Rereading  the chatty travel-books, notably The Path to Rome, when he walked to the Eternal City  opining on everything under the sun,  and The Cruise of the Nona, his book about sailing (he was a passionate yachtsman) ,  has been disillusioning .  I found the former arch and purple prosy, and the latter – despite its many sad  beauties, blustering and absurd.

No, worse than absurd. For here one comes to the core  difficulty, and the reason why the Church in our day has distanced itself  both from what Belloc stood for and his way of standing for it.

What I  first found most attractive about Belloc’s Defence of the Catholic Faith , still has enormous appeal.  He  propounded not the inner life,  but  the Catholic Thing, “the Thing that is the core and soul of all our history for fifteen hundred years, and on into the present time: the continuator of all our Pagan origins, transformed, baptised, illumined; the matrix of such culture as we still maintain”.

If  you value the common European heritage from  “the pagans on whom we all repose)  to Dante , from St  Benedict to St Dominic , from Aquinas to John Paul II, there is  something obviously attractive about the Bellocian catchphrase , “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith”.

But, but, but….when you read The Cruise of the Nona, with its adulation of Mussolini, its casual antisemitism,  then you realize it is not just Belloc you are finding repellent: it is a whole mindset, exemplified , distinctively but not uniquely French ,  which carries along with its piety a bundle of odious falsehoods and sheer nastiness.

Before I researched this article, I’d promised myself not to express priggish horror at Belloc’s  unreconstructed  views, picked up when doing his National Service in the French Army, in the 1890s .  Why not just celebrate Belloc the elegist,  , the humorist ,the tramp who in the Path to Rome was a sort of Edwardian Jack Kerouac,  the yachtsman who gazed with such lyricism and such heart break at the sea, “the common sacrament of this world?” Why not just cast out the slimy dark bilge water gurgling around in the stern of his old boat the Nona and bucket out the filth, without mention, into the ocean? And the answer must be, that, in his lifetime, Belloc was not just a supremely entertaining journalist-poet.  He had also set up his brass plate as a Catholic apologist and as he banged the drum for “Europe and the Faith”, he dragged all his less salubrious prejudices into the foreground, actually making them part and parcel of his defence of  Catholicism  itself.

The anti-semitism can not be overlooked.  The Cruise of the Nona , published in 1925, still persists, against all the contrary  evidence then available , in proclaiming the guilt of Dreyfus.  If the familiar pattern – hatred of the “Money Power”, distrust of international capital, slithering into   the bullyism of   antisemitic cliché , –  could be detached from Belloc’s Catholicism, one could , almost, laugh it off as an ugly period detail. These horrible ideas, however, persist to this day. Consider the underbelly of Le Pen’s Front National

Belloc himself was not a Nazi, if only because he detested Germans even more than he disliked Jews  . He was the first British journalist to denounce the Pope, Pius XII, for not doing more to protest against the Hitler regime and in particular the persecution, later massacre, of the Jews. But I never found a scintilla of evidence that Belloc could see a connection between the sort of anti-semitic views he expressed throughout his life, and the horrors of the Third Reich.

The pilgrim Church went on a very long journey after 1945 towards a discovery of how true Pius XI’s words had been, that we are all spiritual semites.  The present Holy Father, with his call to  everyone to read the Scriptures,  could not be further from Belloc who dismissed the Epistles of Paul as those of a “muddly old yid”.

I do not want, however,  to end negatively.

In early life he had dreamed of being a don at Oxford and he never forgave All Souls’ for not giving him a fellowship.  Thank God  they  didn’t.  He  rampaged off, after Oxford, to become  one of the great men of Fleet  Street ,  absurdly opinionated, drunken, sometimes hilarious and sometimes hectoring. He was a better writer in every way than his chum Chesterton. For one thing, you sense in his writing, especially in the funny verses,  a deep sense of life’s cruelty and  sorrow.  In his religion,  Belloc was honest enough to find no consolation for this sorrow, which stemmed from the loss of his wife and two beloved sons.  Apart from the sea,  it was drinking and laughing with friends which brought consolation. I find that – and his absolute absence of humbug – very sympathetic.

From quiet homes and first beginning

Out to the undiscovered ends

There’s nothing worth the wear of winning

But laughter and the love of friends.

            This article was written for The Tablet, and appears in their issue of 24th July 2020.

Perjuring Bishops

This picture could be entitled “Laughing all the Way to the Bank”.

Like many old hacks, I have done a range of jobs in the Street of Shame. While I was Literary Editor of the Evening Standard, a  dream job which could scarcely be described as demanding, my  editor, Paul Dacre – a demon-figure for  the chattering classes but the kindest and best employer I ever had and certainly the best editor – suggested I cover trials. I sat through every day of several famous ones – including Rose West at Winchester Crown Court and  the William Kennedy Smith trial for rape in  Palm Beach, Florida.  (Kennedy Smith was acquitted, West was sent down for life, both interesting judgements in my view). In some ways the most instructive, however,  from a legal point of view, was the trial of Jeffrey Archer for perjury. It emerged that he had lied in court, when suing a newspaper for a story that he had given money to a woman, in a brown paper envelope, who mysteriously died shortly before the perjury case.

He was sent down for four years and served two – 2001-3.  The trial was interesting because the Judge, Mr Justice Potts, made it so clear to the jury  that perjury really strikes at the heart of the entire legal system. You simply can not have a system of justice which is effective if the word of witnesses and plaintiffs and defendants is unreliable. Hence the significance of their swearing to the truth of their statements on the Holy Bible .

I do not know Jeffrey Archer’s religious beliefs, and it could well be that he thought  the Bible was a work of no more significance than one of his own novels. You might have guessed that the wife of an Archbishop of Canterbury would think otherwise, but apparently not.

A former Dean of Canterbury, an old chap called Victor  De Waal (father of the charming, and famous potter) has now admitted that he had a fling with Lindy Runcie, while her husband Bob was Archbishop of Canterbury. Why de Waal wants the publicity at the age of 91, we are not in a position to say. His affair with Mrs Runcie  was  no one’s business but their own, you might say, and how can a gutter journalist like myself justify bringing a private matter such as this to the public notice?

Good question, but I would submit, m’ lud,  that it WAS in the public interest if the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of the Mother Church of the Diocese of Canterbury were having a friendship the Dean now deems to have been “inappropriate”. After all, the Church presumes to tell people how they should behave in the bedroom, whether it is admissible for unmarried people to sleep together, whether it is in order to be gay, divorced whaddever.

Rosalind Runcie, when she read a reference to her affair with de Waal in the Daily Star, sued for libel. She won substantial damages which she spent, it was said, doing up the gardens  at Lambeth Palace.  Some genial old Anglican bishop once said that he always thought of the Ten Commandments as like an exam “seven only need be attempted”. Clearly,  Lindy Runcie thought the same, choosing to ignore the injunctions both against committing adultery and bearing false witness. When I think of the , admittedly repellent, Jeffrey Archer doing two years in prison for committing perjury, it seems preposterous that Mrs Runcie, later Lady Runcie, was not banged up for committing the same offence.

Another of my journalistic assignments in days long gone was to write a column for Private Eye about the bishops of the Church of England. My by-line was Lucy Fer. All sorts of disobliging things were written by Lucy Fer about most of the diocesan bishops and some of the smaller fry. I liked a letter, sent to Lucy, by a Jamaican lady  who said she was prepared to have ONE of her sons abused by the bishop but when he did it with all three she felt that it was a step too far. Only one bishop, Bath and Wells, sued.  He had done a real estate fiddle, and sold a property for grossly under its market value to favour a friend. He also perjured himself, since I knew for absolute fact that the matter over which he complained was true. He settled out of court and got £43,000 which he said he was going to give to charity but , as far as investigation was possible, no evidence was ever found which suggested the money  ever left the bishop’s own bank account.

While I was writing my Lucy Fer pieces I often had twinges of conscience, thinking it was rather mean to reveal  quite what a shower the bishops were. The story of Rosalind Runcie’s  making substantial sums of money out of lying, while holding a Bible in her hands, makes me realize that, as a character says in one of I. Compton Burnett’s novels, cynicism can never go too far.

Dickens – Racist

Those who spray-painted the Dickens Museum in Broadstairs with the words DICKENS A RACIST were unfortunately accurate in their description.

In 1865, there was a rebellion of plantation workers in Jamaica. The manner in which it was suppressed provoked outrage. That eloquent liberal John Stuart Mill, called for the Governor of Jamaica, Edward John Eyre, to be prosecuted for murder.

The rebellion had been instigated by a Baptist preacher called Paul Bogle, now a national hero in Jamaica. In the course of the uprising, 18 British militia-men were killed. Eyre’s response was to have 600 Jamaicans flogged. He burned down 1,000 houses and killed 439 people, including one of the mixed-race members of the Assembly, George William Gordon. The only possible defence for Eyre’s monstrous, truly monstrous, behaviour, was to suggest that Black Lives really do NOT matter. Eyre was prosecuted but he was exonerated in the Queen’s Bench, his legal costs were paid for by the Government and he lived out a comfortable retirement in Devon.

The incident was not typical of the way the British Empire was run. The very fact that John Stuart Mill, and other decent individuals, wanted to prosecute Eyre for murder shows that Victorian men and women did have a conscience about it.

Charles Dickens, in common with many others, vigorously defended Eyre’s position. It is not the only example of Dickens’s racism. The depiction of Fagin in Oliver Twist is  plainly coloured by all the old antisemitic stereotypes. His mockery of Mrs Jellyby, in Bleak House, stems from her wish to support African charity-work .

In my  recent book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, the mystery is – how could such a  mixed-up character have come to write such wonderful books? And, more, how could someone who was so  genuinely humane   have been so monstrously unkind, domestically,  and – on occasion publicly. He was, for example, an assiduous prison visitor, but he  pressed for ever tougher, and more pointless punishments in British prisons.

The answer is, of course, that we are all a mixture of good and bad, and in the case of great geniuses, the  extremes of vice and virtue are often glaring. When it came to pricking the conscience of the steel-hearted Victorians about child poverty, no one did it better than Dickens. When it came to imagining what it would be like to work as a poverty-stricken, recently liberated slave in Jamaica, the great novelist’s capacity for empathy deserted him.

Does this justify someone vandalising a Dickens Museum? That is for the magistrates to decide. We live in angry times. John Stuart Mill, who denounced the behaviour of Governor Eyre, worked for many years, as did his father, for the East India Company which exploited, diddled, and murdered many of his fellow-mortals. The past is a bloody awful place. We maybe learn more  about it by reading the words of our ancestors than by smashing their statues or daubing paint on walls. But such actions are, I am afraid, very understandable .    (This article appeared in The Daily Telegraph, June 30, 2020.)

Poets’ Fountain

There is an excellent article in the June 19th, 2020 edition of the Times Literary Supplement on the question of statues,  and the topical question of their  ethics: when to remove, or put up  ,  statues of individuals once admired, now deemed obnoxious. – will find it.

The author points out for example that there was considerable opposition, from Irish MPs about the erection of a statue of Oliver Cromwell, in 1895, outside the Houses of Parliament.  The statue had to be surrounded by a steel barrier to prevent attacks from the Fenians. The sculptor was Hamo Thornycroft.

Another Thornycroft sculpture, of which I had never heard , is the Poets’ Fountain. It was erected at the end of Park Lane, and depicted Milton, Shakespeare  and Chaucer.  Erected in 1875   it  was (slightly) damaged by enemy action during the Second World War. This was used as an excuse never to put it back. The anonymous TLS author asks “might a new poets’ memorial, including the original trio but adding more by popular vote be welcome? Then again, poets with unblemished reputations also might be in short supply”.

The questions raise any number of mare’s nests. Rudyard Kipling’s IF was voted not long ago to be the nation’s favourite poem – by a long margin.  But just imagine what would happen if you tried to add Kipling to Poet’s Fountain! Given the fate of the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, his  chum Kipling – the author not only of IF but of “The White Man’s Burden” would surely be asking for a red paint job before it was even erected. Auden said that “Time that with this strange excuse, pardoned Kipling and his views”… but that was written a very long time ago, and I am not sure Time is making those kind of excuses just at the moment.

 Chaucer?  My first six weeks of lockdown were spent reading the entire works of Chaucer and I absolutely loved it. But … The Prioress’s Tale? Oh dear. The virulent antisemitism… I know that when  Chaucer wrote the tale, there were no Jews in England – they had all been long ago expelled – but even so, it makes your hair stand on end.  And then there is the  possibly Rolf Harris side to Chaucer: Cecilia Chaumpaigne, daughter of a London baker, was the young person in a case in which Chaucer was accused of “raptus”. Whether this was mere abduction or actual rape, and whether Chaucer fathered a child with this girl remains unclear, but he paid her £10, the equivalent of his entire annual salary as a Customs Collector. You do not pay that sort of hush money unless you have something to hush up.

However much we love the poetry of Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound , (well I love Ezra’s poetry even if some of you do not!)  it is not difficult to imagine the reactions if you started trying to add them to Poet’s Fountain. Obviously, and hooray, – there would be calls for the big trio (assuming Chaucer survived because of all-round genius despite the objections I have raised)…to be joined by women. C.Rossetti, Stevie Smith., Hilda Dolittle (HD) and Vita Sackville-West, three paces  forward !  Not to mention Sylvia Plath, of course… Even the thought of it, however, makes me see trouble of some kind ahead. If you had to choose just ONE female poet, I think I’d plump for Charlotte Mew , but there would be howls that she was not well enough known, that she was too sad, and that her ghastly end (drinking a disinfectant called LYSOL) did not provide a suitable role model for young aspirant female poets of today. That line of thinking will lead you to a “popular” choice.

At one of these literary festivals one is kindly asked to, I met Pam  Ayres. Loved her. She is an extremely nice woman, and I love her verses, but if you put her on a plinth with Milton and Shakespeare, you would be making a mockery both of her and of poetry itself.

So –  a nice idea, but maybe the Poet’s Fountain should remain dry.

If you haven’t read Charlotte Mew, try her. Well, that’s for another Blog maybe.

Darwin’s The Descent of Man

It will be interesting to see how long it is before someone reads Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and decides that his statue should be removed from the Natural History Museum. He was not merely, like so many Victorians, profoundly racist. He it was, especially in that disgusting book , who tried to give racism a “scientific” justification .

Writing as a scientist of international renown, Darwin used his reputation to state that the inferiority of “savages” to “civilised” people was an observable fact. He claimed that the size of people’s skulls and their intellectual faculties were correlative (something which every scientist in the world now knows to be nonsense).  He rejoiced that the nineteenth century was one “in which civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations”. The subjugation of Africa and parts of Asia was the only hope the inhabitants could have of gaining a modicum of “civilisation”.  Northern  Europeans were superior to all the other races in the world because of their greater energy . The immense Negro and Portuguese  element in Brazil, for example, accounted for the fact that Brazil was economically more backward than, say, France.

Although, in the Origin of Species, Darwin  was obliged, for his theory to work, to believe that “the American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans” all derived from a common ancestor, this by no means meant they had all evolved subsequently at the same pace.

The sixty year old Darwin looked back to his younger self, who had visited Tierra del Fuego on HMS Beagle.  He repeated the claim he had made earlier that the inhabitants were cannibals, which is completely untrue, In his  laughably ignorant and wrong-headed reflections on the “evolution” of human language, he says that, whereas the civilised languages have huge vocabularies and complicated grammars, the inhabitants of Tiera del Fuego spoke a language “which scarcely deserves to be called articulate”. What he meant was, he did not bother to learn the Yaghan language which actually has a vocabulary of over 30,000 words. The Descent of Man gives the impression that “savages” of this planet do not really have languages at all, in the civilised sense of the term.

It was the Descent of Man which inspired Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, to evolve his idea of “eugenics”. In his conclusion to The Descent of Man, Darwin said that if the prudent avoid marriage, while the reckless, marry, it was inevitable that “inferior” members will supplant superior members of society. In the hands of Galton and his followers, this led to a fear of “race suicide”. Sidney Webb, for example, founder of the New Statesman, the London School of Economics, and a pioneer of the Independent Labour Party,  feared that Britain was “gradually falling to the Irish and the Jews”, which was why, in his newly-founded LSE he established a Professorship of Eugenics.

All these Darwinian views were, of course, adopted wholesale in other parts of Europe. Less than thirty years after Sidney Webb founded the Chair of Eugenics in London, Germany was enacting the Reich Censorship Law, the Blood Protection Law, the Marital Health Law and the Nuremberg Laws for racial segregation, all based on the bogus Victorian science which started life in the gentle setting of Darwin’s study at Down House –  now property of the National Trust. Surely they should think seriously about dismantling this seedbed of bogus racist theory?

I was vilified in some quarters, three years ago, when I published Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker, but I do not retract my view that although he was a brilliant naturalist, Darwin’s scientific theories are flawed, many of them are plain wrong, and his socio-political views, dressed up as pseudo-science, have done untold damage to the world.

Louis MacNeice’s FAUST

One of the reasons that Germany’s greatest literary genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is all but unread in the English-speaking world, is the very great difficulty of translating his poetry.

The best of it, arguably, is the lyric verse. Undoubtedly the most interesting is contained in Faust, which displays a vast range of tone, a superfluity of styles and modes –  now caustic, now lyrical, now sublimely spiritual, now melodramatic. It is symptomatic of the general English ignorance of Faust that most people, if they allude to it, assume that Goethe repeated the traditional story from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, of Faust’s “bargain” or “pact”, with the Devil. In fact, it was only after completing a version of Part One of Faust that Goethe got round to reading Marlowe. He totally subverted the original Faust legend, which he had first picked up as a child from watching versions in puppet theatres. His Faust feels in no danger of going to Hell, since he does not believe it exists. In the second part of the drama, Faust makes an imaginative journey back into the ancient world,. He embraces Classicism, and the grinning, nihilistic Mephistopheles  is out of his depth when meeting his rivals, the Sirens, the witch Erictho, the Centaur-Mage-Medic Chiron, etc etc

How could we poor English be expected to make sense of it all? One of the moments in our history when we were most likely to do so was in 1949, the bicentenary of Goethe’s birth, when the radio broadcast six totally inspirational episodes of Faust. The translation was by a BBC employee, the poet Louis MacNeice.

A young classics don, Louis MacNeice had joined the BBC as war work in 1941 and he continued to work there until his early death in 1963.  His Faust is easily the best translation I have ever found, and  although it is not complete (he cut the longer disquisitions on science, for example) it is one which will set you on the path to reading the thing in full and eventually tackling it in German.

Compare and contrast MacNeice’s version of a famous speech –  where Faust speaks of being “two souls” at war with one another, with that of Coleridge. (Faust is addressing his student-sidekick Wagner – nothing to do with the famous composer).

You are only conscious of one impulse. Never

Seek an acquaintance with the other.

Two souls, alas, cohabit in my breast,

A contract one of them desires to sever.

The one like a rough lover clings

To the world with the tentacles of its senses;

The other lifts to the Elysian Fields

Out of the mist on powerful wings.

Now  Samuel Taylor Coleridge: –

                                     In my bosom

Two spirits are contending, each attempting

To separate from the other. One with strong

But sensual ties is fettering me to earth;

The other powerfully soars, and spreads

Its wings to loftier emprize…

The original German does not have the “Elysian Fields”, but MacNeice perhaps inferred them from the words “Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen”, to the fields  of higher thought. In German, the Elysian Fields are known as “die Gefilde der Seligen”.

Coleridge only translated a very truncated version of Faust Part One. MacNeice boldly translated the whole work,  pruning, as I say,  the repetitions  and some of the wafflier bit of geological speculation etc .

His finest passages – and they are  also among   the finest passages in the German –   are found in his translations of Part Two, Act II, when Faust was transported by magic to the Pharsalian fields, where Caesar and Pompey had  fought their great battle against one another –

But here at Pharsalus was fought a master model

To prove how might opposes greater might and tears

To shreds the lovely thousand-petalled wreath of freedom

While the stiff laurel twists around the royal head.

It is here that Faust really takes leave of the old Nordic, Gothic Christian fantasy of a Devil and embraces, as Goethe did, the Classical. “(The Classical is  what I call healthy, the Romantic is sick” as Goethe said in old age to Eckermann on 2 April, 1829).

MacNiece was of course a classicist –

Which things being so, as we said when we studied

    The classics, I ought to be glad

That I studied the classics at Marlborough and Merton,# 

     Not everyone here having had

The privilege of learning a language

     That is incontrovertibly dead,

And of carting a toy-box of hall-marked marmoreal phrases

     Around in his head.

At Marlborough, incidentally, he had been a contemporary of Anthony Blunt and John Betjeman. Their dormitory chat must have been a cut above the average.

MacNeice was certainly a better classicist than Goethe, , but , with his combination of colloquialisms and the high style, he was able to convey some of the way that in Faust we lurch between the sublime, the satirical, the coarse-grained, the spiritual, the high and the low. While Faust, like Goethe on his Italian Journey, is awestruck,, in a Grand Tourist way to be in the mysterious presence of the ancient world –

Here, through a miracle, here in Greece! I stood

On her soil and felt at once the soil was good

Mephistopheles claims to feel at home among the spirits, monsters, sirens etc of the ancient world; he is actually , Gothic northern grotesque that he is, a bit out of his depth and soon has to revert to rather chippy negativism which does not convince

The Greeks were never up to much! They daze you

With licensed sensuality which betrays you

Into committing sins which look like fun –

Our sins seem gloomy by comparison.

This is the MacNeice who said that

“It’s no go the merry-go- round, it’s no go the ricksaw/All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow”.

It would be great if the BBC still possessed recordings of the original 1949 radio production of MacNiece’s FAUST. But if not, surely we would all tune in to a revival. Faust must, in its finished form , especially in Part Two be all but impossible to stage. But radio would allow us to fly through the air on horseback with Mephistopheles and to go again with Faust in spirit or dream to the “Classical Walpurgisnight”.  Tuned into the radio, we could tap into the experience Faust himself has, as he reconnects with the imaginative, legendary and literary past.

A sphinx like this saw Oedipus stand in hope;

Such sirens made Ulysses writhe in rope.

I feel some new force fill me, thrusting through

The forms are great and great the memories too.

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