A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Lifeless Load, a Nameless Thing

The death of King Priam

I am currently reading Joseph Spence’s (1699-1768) Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men (Oxford, 1966, “Anecdotes” for short). It is a large collection of table talk and backstairs gossip, harvested mostly from conversations Spence had with Alexander Pope and his circle. It contains some very funny anecdotes, one of my favourites being a story about the Duke of Marlborough’s legendary love of money. Shortly before his death, the old Duke was playing cards with Dean Jones one evening at Bath, and when they finished, he was up on his opponent by about sixpence. This obscenely wealthy magnate, the builder of that monstrous pile, Blenheim Palace, pestered Jones for that sixpence all evening. He claimed that he would be needing it to pay for a chair to take him home that night. Poor Jones told him he had no silver on his person, but he eventually broke down under Marlborough’s incessant nagging and somehow managed to make change from a guinea and thus paid the glorious Duke his sixpence. However, later that night it was observed that Marlborough opted to walk home instead, to save the cost of a chair (see Anecdotes #369).

Besides these entertaining biographical tidbits, much of Spence’s Anecdotes is filled up with conversations in which Spence and Pope nerd out over the technical and critical aspects of the poetical arts. At some point in early May, 1744 there occurred the following exchange between the two men:

“‘I did not use to like a verse in the Iliad,’ [said Spence,] ‘perhaps from its having a liquid in almost every word in it:

          He lies, a lifeless Load, along the Land.’

Aye [said Pope,] but that does not make it run on like a river-verse; it only weakens it. ‘Tis as the thing described, nerveless and yet stiff” (Anecdotes #399).

Now, the line that so bothered Spence was Book XV, line 507 in Pope’s translation of the Iliad, describing the dead Lycophron, slain by Ajax. As consummate an artist and critic as Pope was, I am nevertheless compelled to side with Spence here, though perhaps for other reasons than his.

First, despite Pope’s protestation to the contrary, the line does seem to run on in a slow meandering fashion. Indeed, the preponderance of “liquids” – the lack of hard consonants – does not merely “weaken” the line; it downright kills it. If Pope’s intent was to illustrate by sound the image of a “lifeless load”, he succeeded, though to ill effect in my opinion.

Second, the problem is not merely that there is a preponderance of liquids; rather, there is a preponderance of the same liquid. The alliteration of “L” is overdone, and the overall effect is to give the line the grating sing-song quality of Middle English alliterative verse, thereby destroying whatever sense of loftiness the line was meant to convey. The line’s subject matter should make it point to the reader and say “This terrible thing has happened: laugh if you can.” Instead, the line is practically a burlesque and is more apt to invoke laughter than suppress it.

Third, perhaps less importantly, the choice of “along” as a preposition is somewhat jarring. There seems to me to be an active quality to it that is out of keeping with something dead. One more often comes across the preposition “along” in tandem with an active verb, as in the following other examples from Pope’s works:

        “On which a mimic Serpent creeps along
                                                      (Iliad, XI.50)

         “Flies o'er th' unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.”
                                                     (An Essay on Criticism, l. 373)

         “A needless Alexandrine ends the Song,
          That like a wounded Snake, drags its slow Length along.”
                                                                          (Ibid. ll. 356-357)

A dead body neither creeps along, skims along, nor drags itself along. It just lies. And although I suppose it’s not grammatically incorrect to say a dead body may lie along something, it more typically lies upon it, as would a rock, a bag of sand, or some other weighty but lifeless object. These are passive things for which the default motivating force, if they can be said to have one at all, is the downward pull of gravity.

Ironically, the last example – “That like a wounded Snake, drags its slow Length along” – has a similar lazy dulling effect as the “lifeless load” line that disgusted Spence, except that here the effect is intentional; it makes a point.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about Pope’s lifeless line of lolling “liquids” is that in writing it, he knew of and was probably imitating a much better example. I refer to Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Æneid, II.560-561, describing the dead body of King Priam:

         “On the bleak Shoar now lies th’ abandon’d King,
          A headless Carcass, and a nameless thing.”
                                          (Dryden’s Æneid, II.762-763)

It is a haunting end to a great man, and my only quibble with the versification is that in the first line I would remove “now”, which really does no work, and expand the contracted second definite article, as in

         “On the bleak shore lies the abandoned King”

But this is a mere bagatelle. As they stand, the lines approach perfection, insofar as they most effectively evoke the terrible image of a great leader of men, whom “Monarchs like Domestick Slaves obey’d,” reduced to pointless carrion. The entire passage from which they are plucked raises up a sublime terror in the reflecting reader, who is left enveloped in a void silence.

Curiously, as Pope (unsuccessfully) imitated his hero Dryden’s lines, Dryden was himself imitating Sir John Denham (1614-1669). “Imitating” is putting it charitably. In 1656, Denham published The Destruction of Troy, his translation of the first 561 lines of Book II of the Æneid. In it, we find the following couplet (ll. 547-548):

         “On the cold earth lyes this neglected King,
          A headless Carkass, and a nameless Thing.”

If I may be allowed to end on a note of pettiness, mark that the King here lies on the cold earth, not along it.

Actually, I will not quite end there. As far as I can make out (for the geography is not entirely clear), in Dryden’s Æneid, Priam was killed by Pyrrhus upon an altar, presumably somewhere in his palace. Now, how did his body get from there to “the bleak shore” upon which it lay? I don’t have an answer, but I can’t help thinking that a reader of Dryden’s day might have thought, perhaps subliminally, of a different sense of the word “shore” here, for at that time it was also a slang term for a sewer, as in the following obscene lines from Lord Rochester, writing about a notorious London prostitute of his day:

         “Bawdy in thoughts, precise in Words,
          Ill natur'd though a Whore,
          Her belly is a Bagg of Turds,
          And her C--t a Common shore.”

                          (“On Mistress Willis,” ll. 17-20)

The thought of great Priam’s corpse lying in such circumstances would make his death seem even more pathetic. Against this interpretation, however, is the fact that a body would normally lie in a sewer, not on it.

So here lieth the lesson: As I discovered when trying to learn German many years ago, those little prepositions can mean everything. Indeed, to paraphrase Wittgenstein (or was it Lichtenberg?), an entire metaphysics might be drawn from them.

No comments:

Post a Comment