The Cultural Tutor

Areopagus Volume LXIV

Published 6 months ago • 31 min read

Areopagus Volume LXIV

Welcome one and all to the seventy fourth volume of the Areopagus. Something different this week. People often ask me what books I would recommend. Inasmuch as I have any right to do such a thing, that is what I have chosen to do. And so, it being the Christmas Season, I offer you a metaphorical "advent calendar" of twenty four books. Some of them you may recognise from previous volumes of the Areopagus; others, I suspect, will be completely new. The criteria for my selection was simply this: books that I have found useful in my work. In other words, if you are interested in the things I write about, these are some of the books that have helped me to write about them. And, I should add, I have endeavoured to select books that are not particularly well-known — you do not need me to recommend Dante, for example, and I have quoted Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria often enough in these pages that further recommendation is unwarranted. Now — onwards! And where else I could turn but to Emily Dickinson for our introductory verse?

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

The rubric of this volume being written and read, our tone set by the inimitable Dickinson, let us make haste and see what here awaits...

Musical Prelude

Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata

Franz Liszt (1858)

Performed by Mikhail Pletnev
View from my Window at Mornex by John Ruskin (1862)

In all the volumes of the Areopagus I have somehow managed to not yet share or write about Franz Liszt. Well, he is a giant of musical history. His career started at the age of nine when he gave his first public performance in Vienna, and soon enough Liszt had established himself as the greatest pianist of the age — and perhaps, to this day, of all time. He was a veritable superstar, famous not only for his unmatched virtuoso keyboard skills but also for his dashing looks and his glossy locks of black hair, no doubt thrown around as he graced the palaces and concert halls and fashionable clubs on his tours of Europe. But Liszt was not only a performer; he also wrote a music, much of it of the highest order, and insodoing influenced a generation of composers. His Romantic music, often experimental, always emotional and brooding, and frequently drawing on the folk music of his native Hungary, reshaped the European musical landscape. Liszt was also a keen patron of the other musicians, be they well-known or young and upcoming.

His Dante Sonata, as it is called, comes from the second of three large piano suites he wrote over the course of nearly three decades called Années de pèlerinage, meaning "Years of Pilgrimage". It was inspired by the works of Goethe and is, broadly, a selection of musical tributes to the great works of Romantic literature and the landscapes that inspired them, whether in Italy or Switzerland. He also took inspiration from the Renaissance; there are pieces based on the works Michelangelo, Raphael, Petrarch, and — in this case — the greatest of all Medieval poets, Dante Alighieri.

An Advent Calendar of Books

Past and Present
Thomas Carlyle (1843)

Nobody writes like Thomas Carlyle. They said that during his lifetime and it remains true; his style is unique, and I am yet to come across anybody before or since who uses the English language like he did. Every new sentence works thunderous magic with words and punctuation I did not before think possible. This, in itself, makes Carlyle worth reading. But — and more importantly — his Past and Present is also unlike any other book you shall find. It compares the lives of Medieval monks with those of the working class in 19th century Britain. Part of Carlyle's intention was to bring history to life for us; that he does to full effect. Carlyle reminds us that our ancestors were not merely names, and that history is not merely facts and dates and places. "History" was, and is, living people who did things and said things and built buildings in a continuous process leading right up to the present day. Rarely shall you read history so barnstorming, thrilling, and full of life as in Carlyle's Past and Present; it is electrifying and unforgettable and — above all — edifying. We learn to see and feel history through his record of life at the Abbey of St Edmundsbury in the 12th century. Then comes Carlyle's address to what was his "present day" — a deep concern for the labourers of industrial Britain, who were then being subjected to miserable working conditions, and a broader review of the socio-political, economic, and cultural state of the country as a whole. Thus we learn about the Middle Ages and about the 19th century. And, through Carlyle's quasi-prophetic, sage-like musations on the nature of civilisation, we learn a great deal about the 21st century also.

Another world, truly: and this present poor distressed world might get some profit by looking wisely into it, instead of foolishly. But at lowest, O dilettante friend, let us know always that it was a world, and not a void infinite of grey haze with fantasms swimming in it. These old St. Edmundsbury walls, I say, were not peopled with fantasms; but with men of flesh and blood, made altogether as we are. Had thou and I then been, who knows but we ourselves had taken refuge from an evil Time, and fled to dwell here, and meditate on an Eternity, in such fashion as we could? Alas, how like an old osseous fragment, a broken blackened shin-bone of the old dead Ages, this black ruin looks out, not yet covered by the soil; still indicating what a once gigantic Life lies buried there! It is dead now, and dumb; but was alive once, and spake. For twenty generations, here was the earthly arena where painful living men worked out their life- wrestle,—looked at by Earth, by Heaven and Hell. Bells tolled to prayers; and men, of many humours, various thoughts, chanted vespers, matins;—and round the little islet of their life rolled forever (as round ours still rolls, though we are blind and deaf) the illimitable Ocean, tinting all things with its eternal hues and reflexes; making strange prophetic music! How silent now; all departed, clean gone. The World-Dramaturgist has written:
Exeunt. The devouring Time-Demons have made away with it all: and in its stead, there is either nothing; or what is worse, offensive universal dustclouds, and grey eclipse of Earth and Heaven, from 'dry rubbish shot here!'—
Truly, it is no easy matter to get across the chasm of Seven Centuries, filled with such material. But here, of all helps, is not a Boswell the welcomest; even a small Boswell? Veracity, true simplicity of heart, how valuable are these always! He that speaks what is really in him, will find men to listen, though under never such impediments. Even gossip, springing free and cheery from a human heart, this too is a kind of veracity and speech;—much preferable to pedantry and inane grey haze! Jocelin is weak and garrulous, but he is human. Through the thin watery gossip of our Jocelin, we do get some glimpses of that deep-buried Time; discern veritably, though in a fitful intermittent manner, these antique figures and their life-method, face to face! Beautifully, in our earnest loving glance, the old centuries melt from opaque to partially translucent, transparent here and there; and the void black Night, one finds, is but the summing up of innumerable peopled luminous Days. Not parchment Chartularies, Doctrines of the Constitution, O Dryasdust; not altogether, my erudite friend!

The Consolation of Philosophy
Boethius (523)

In 522 AD a man called Boethius was arrested. He had been an erudite, respected, and successful scholar, an influential politician, and lately King Theoderic's chief of staff. But, when he defended a fellow senator unfairly accused of plotting against the paranoid king, Boethius lost the king's trust and was himself charged with treason. As a test of their loyalty the king asked the senate to oversee Boethius' trial and pass judgment on him: they were cowed by royal might and betrayed their former friend — Boethius was sentenced to death. In prison, awaiting his execution, Boethius wrote a short book called the Consolation of Philosophy. And yet... this man did not feel sorry for himself and he did not lament his unfair fall from grace. Rather — somehow! — Boethius found it within himself to be happy, even at the very end of things and despite all that had happened. Little wonder this treatise was a "best seller" for nearly one a half thousand years. In some sense it is comparable to our modern Self Help books; Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy is the very first and still, I dare say, the very best. That old phrase "timeless wisdom", if it does not apply to this book, means nothing at all.

Pliny the Younger (100-113 AD)

It would be unconscionable of me not mention our old friend Pliny the Younger. Though other ancient writers — Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus — are more famous, and no doubt wrote of weightier matters and wrote in a graver and nobler manner, Pliny stands apart from them and is remarkable precisely because of his ordinariness. He was a successful lawyer and civil servant who worked under the Emperors Domitian and Trajan; by the latter he was appointed Governor of Bithynia, a Roman province in modern-day Turkey. Pliny was also involved in Rome's literary circles. His uncle, known as Pliny the Elder, was one of the most highly regarded philosophers of the age, and his friends included the likes of Tacitus and Suetonius. Thus Pliny had an interesting life, whether in the courts at Rome, in his country estates by the coast, in his native Como, or in the provincial administration at Bithynia — he was even present at the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, where his uncle died.

And Pliny wrote about all of these in his letters — to family, friends, acquaintances, and even the emperor. Some of them are simply love letters to his wife. Others discuss the literary fashions of Rome, the state of the housing market, the exhaustion of life in the city, his love of books, memories of his uncle, particular legal cases he was working on, the politics of the Senate and the Imperial family, his dislike of sports, his difficulty with a new religious sect called "Christianity", how the Roman postal system worked, and all other matters dry and sundry. Pliny's letters bring Ancient Rome to life in a way that grand historical narratives simply cannot, because we see the Romans through their own eyes, with all their petty concerns and simple hopes, the boring details of their administration and the rough-and-tumble of daily life. Any mysticism surrounding Rome is dispelled by Pliny, for we come to know him also, his habits and his bugbears withal, and with his affable nature he starts to feel like a friend.

To Minicius Fundanus,
​It is extraordinary how, if one takes a single day spent in Rome, one can give a more or less accurate account of it, but scarcely any account at all of several days put together. If you ask anyone what he did that day, the answer would be: 'I was present at a coming-of-age ceremony, a betrothal, or a wedding. I was called on to witness a will, to support someone in court or to act as an assessor.' All this seems important on the actual day, but quite pointless if you consider that you have done the same sort of thing every day, and still more pointless if you think about it when you are out of town. It is then that you realise how many days you have wasted in trivialities.

Orlando Furioso
Translated & Introduced by Barbara Reynolds

It is not for Orlando Furioso itself, that wild and wonderful epic poem composed by Ludovico Ariosto in the early 16th century, that I make this inclusion. Rather, it is for Barbara Reynolds' introduction to this particular volume published by Penguin Classics. Reynolds was a marvellous scholar and, like all the best translators, herself a supremely talented writer and poet. Thus, if you do wish to read Orlando Furioso, I can heartily recommend her translation. Nonetheless, as I said, it was her introduction that I somehow remember best. Never have I read, so succinctly and eloquently expressed, such a perfect introduction to the history of epic poetry in Europe. She effortlessly describes the three major schools — Classical, Carolingian, and Arthurian — and explains how they were slowly drawn together unto one style, as embodied in the work of Ariosto. It is often in these introductions that one finds the best scholarship, and if ever I could hope to match in my own work the achievements of another scholar, it is Barbara Reynolds who ever since I read her elegant introduction all those years ago, has set the bar for me.

Bryan's Dictionary of Engravers and Painters

I cannot recall exactly where I bought this two-volume encyclopaedia of artists and engravers, but I do remember that it only cost me £10. This is, put simply, a very useful book. What more need I say? Well — it is also a delight to hold and peruse. These old tomes with their firm leather bindings, gilded letters, and marbled endpapers are miniature works of art in their own right. And here, as in Dr Smith's dictionary, one finds certain anecdotes about artists that are not easily discovered elsewhere. It also has an impressive range and gives short but useful accounts of genuinely obscure artists. But perhaps even more valuable than any of this historical information are passing remarks about the merits of these artists. For tastes change radically from one decade to the next, never mind two centuries, and here we essentially have a catalogue of contemporary Victorian opinions about what makes good art and who was a good artist. Thus, rather than reading what contemporary historians say that Victorians did or did not like, we can get it straight from the horse's mouth.

On the Art of Writing
Arthur Quiller-Couch (1916)

Arthur Quiller-Couch does not rank highly, as far as I can tell, among the great English essayists. Indeed, I only discovered him by happenstance in a second-hand bookshop. But allow me to say that this was a happy discovery, for his essays on English literature are not only insightful — they are, almost as importantly, filled with a serious passion for literature (which is less common in literary criticism than one would hope!) and, most importantly of all, Quiller-Couch is both witty and eloquent. On the Art of Writing is a set of several lectures he gave to students of Cambridge University. I have quoted them before and I shall certainly quote them again. Here we have not a set of technical rules for how to "write well"; it is a delicately weighted compendium of principles suitable for any and all writers, none of it any less true or useful now than it was one hundred years ago. On Jargon is particularly good, but I also think his lectures on the nature of verse and the nature of prose are enlightening. Quiller-Couch had an ability to write with great precision about topics most of us can only approach with vague and spoofy language. And, I restate: he is never boring. A wry comment, a sardonic remark, or witty putdown waits around every paragraph corner.

The Lost Steps
Alejo Carpentier (1953)

I have not returned to this book for many years. Nor do I think I have ever quoted or directly drawn on it in any of my work. But sometimes a single book can change the course of your life. This much is true of Alejo Carpentier's exquisite novel The Lost Steps, which I picked out at random from a second-hand book shop more than ten years ago. He is usually credited as the creator of "magical realism", two words which, though well-meaning, tend to be somewhat misunderstood and end up being a limiting stereotype of Latin American literature. Well, Carpentier is a sumptuous and intoxicating writer. I have since read all of his novels and, on any given day, I'd be inclined to say that he is my favourite novelist. But, more to the point, The Lost Steps was my step beyond what one might call the European Canon. Today's selection is largely drawn from that canon, if only because it represents the bulk of what I write about and therefore will, I think, be of most interest to you. But I have endeavoured to read beyond the confines of Europe and wherever I have done so those efforts have been richly rewarded. It was, first of all, a love for Latin American literature that Carpentier gave me; but, more broadly, The Lost Steps encouraged me look further afield. Who knows? It may well do the same for you.

Cathedrals, Abbeys, and Churches of England & Wales

This one was a gift rather than something I found in a charity shop — and it is glorious. Two volumes detailing the history of Britain's foremost religious architecture. Each chapter tells the story of how and when these cathedrals or churches were built in a sort of fact-laden but elegant narrative, recreating before our eyes the image of some great pile of stones rising from among the rooftops of a Medieval town, as commissioned by such-and-such a bishop and its works directed by such-and-such a mason, along with the happenings of the day and their consequences for these centuries-long construction projects. This feeds into the total description of the cathedral as it stands today (or, rather, stood then); every detail, whether rose window or misericord, is given due attention. The consequence is a total understanding of the church or abbey or cathedral in question: the delightful complexities of its construction, the stories of its historical times, and the specific details of its architecture and art. Another rich and wonderful resource, complete with beautiful drawings and diagrams.

I should also mention that the editor is not afraid of expressing his opinion. One finds above, for example, what we might call a "one star review" of the western transept of Lincoln Cathedral. To read such plain and passionate criticism of architecture is somehow rather refreshing, especially because in the 21st century we tend to treat all Medieval architecture with blind reverence.

Hopes and Fears for Art
William Morris (1882)

Hopes and Fears for Art is a collection of five lectures delivered by William Morris in the late 1870s. He was a poet, historian, public intellectual, and pattern-designer whose patterns are still very popular. Morris & Co., his company, manufactured everything from wallpaper to stained glass windows, and produced some of the most beautiful things in all of Victorian Britain. Now, there is a sense in which these five lectures state and restate the same thing; they are a miniature corpus of Morris' core beliefs about art and its role in society. But those core beliefs he held so deeply, and those beliefs are so truthful and vital, that they bear restatement.

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

He also writes with effortless elegance; you are carried along from the beginning to the end of his lectures without pausing to take stock. And, of course, Morris knew what he was talking about. This short volume is at once delightful, worrying, urgent, and uplifting. He decries of ugliness of "modern architecture" in his own day, along with the misery of working people and the mindless labour the industrial revolution had forced them into, and yearns throughout for a day when Art receives its proper due and the world at large, not only physically but culturally and spiritually, is beautified by it. But Morris does not only yearn; he lays down bright and sharply formulated principles and methods by which to achieve this rebirth of arts. There is little he said in the 1870s which does not also apply in the 21st century. And, what's more, you will gain a deep and serious understanding of the nature of art in these lectures of Morris.

Another Blow for Life
George Godwin (1864)

We are all dimly aware that life was far from ideal for most people in the 19th century; Another Blow for Life makes this abundantly clear. It was written by the architect and social campaigner George Godwin, who had surveyed the city of London and reported his findings: poverty, squalor, crime, and destitution. It takes the form of a narrative journey through the metropolis layered with anecdotes, statistics, suggestions for improvement, and even some poetry. He writes throughout with a moving sympathy for his fellow human beings; not by long and weepy odes to their suffering, but with simple and straightforward observations about the disastrous plight into which these millions had been cast. Godwin was a catalyst for change — he successfully campaigned to improve the housing, sanitation, and urban planning of London. And so this is both a landmark of humanitarianism and a startlingly direct historical insight into the urban life of Victorian Britain. And, shocking as it is for us to read of the material misery of Victorian Londoners, imagine how shocking it must have been for people at the time! In this way Another Blow for Life is timeless, for there are people around the world living even now in conditions much like those described by Godwin. His humanitarian call echoes in the 21st century.

Medieval Chronicles

Forgive me for breaking the rules established at the outset of this newsletter, but here I must recommend several books in one go. For I have said it before and I shall say it again: the best way to understand history is not by reading what modern historians say about the past; it is by reading what people in the past had to say about themselves. Thus the many chronicles that have survived are an invaluable and ideal way to plunge oneself into that thing we call "history". The Alexiad by Anna Komnena is an account of the reign of her father, the Byzantine Emperor Alexios, and the court intrigues and geopolitics of the late 11th and early 12th centuries Constantinople more generally. There is the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a window into the Dark Ages in Britain, or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which carries us from the age of Bede through to the 12th century. One might also read the Chronicle of the Abbey of St Edmonsbury, which inspired Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present, or Froissart's Chronicles or you could even read something like the letters and documents from the trial of Joan of Arc. Not so long ago Penguin Classics published Chronicles of the First Crusade, a compilation of first-hand accounts of the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century. It draws mainly on the accounts of Raymond d'Aguilers, Fulcher of Chartres, and the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum, all of whom were attached to the armies of the European crusaders; but this volume also contains letters and accounts written by people on the other side of the conflict. In each case we see history through the eyes of the people who lived in these long-gone times, and all the while we discover things we would not find in other books; details of life easily missed but vitally important. These chronicles are fascinating, entertaining, shocking, moving, delightful... they are history.

Ornament and Crime
Adolf Loos (1913-1928)

Ornament and Crime is the name of Adolf Loos' most notorious essay; it is also the name given to a general collection of his essays published by Penguin a few years ago. This is the volume of which I speak. Adolf Loos was an immensely influential Austrian architect whose radical ideas about architecture and design reshaped the course of architecture in the 20th century. I have included here a photograph of a building he designed in Vienna in 1912; the fact that it looks like it could have been built today speaks to how much of a prophet Loos was. He was a strange man and his essays are also strange, run through with relentless barbs and satire. But they are also deeply insightful and reveal much about the state of European culture at the beginning of the previous century. If you want to understand where modern architecture came from, the essays of Adolf Loos are necessary reading.

Toward an Architecture
Le Corbusier (1924)

From Loos we move to Le Corbusier, who was the most influential architect of the 20th century. That is, at least, the general consensus. In which case it is surely worth reading the book in which he stated the ideas and principles that would define his architectural career; the book which a generation or more of architects read and took as gospel. I suppose there is little more I need say than that. It is a peculiar work, reading more like a mystical manifesto than an architectural treatise, but it is terribly fascinating and revelatory for anybody who wants to understand why the modern world looks the way it does. I would have included Vitruvius' De Architectura in this list had I not written about him a fortnight ago, and I only decided against including Leon Battista Alberti's On the Art of Building and Palladio's Four Books on Architecture because they are much harder to get hold of than Toward an Architecture — this latter being, in any case, of more recent import.

Collected Poems
Rupert Brooke (1915)

This book I include not precisely because it has been useful; rather, the poetry of Brooke has been a companion of mine for years. His was the first volume of poetry I ever bought, and this little book bound in green leather has travelled the world with me. I shall not say that Brooke was a "great" poet, but inasmuch as I have come to love poetry I can never take away from Brooke the fact that he helped to inculcate this love. There is nothing startlingly complex about his verse, but nor is it simplistic. He was a young man with evident lyric talent, a deep and troubled heart, a perceptive mind, and a compelling character. Perhaps it is mere sentiment that inclines me to include Brooke in this list? Not so; Brooke has been unfairly treated by posterity as a sort of blindly patriotic, jingoistic supporter of the First World War, largely because of his sonnet The Soldier. I share Brooke, then, at least in part, to redeem him from this unjust condemnation. And if you are interested in poetry but don't know where to start, and find that the "famous names" are rather a lot to deal with, Brooke might just be the place to start.

The Wayfarers
Is it the hour? We leave this resting-place
Made fair by one another for a while.
Now, for a god-speed, one last mad embrace;
The long road then, unlit by your faint smile.
Ah! the long road! and you so far away!
Oh, I'll remember! but . . . each crawling day
Will pale a little your scarlet lips, each mile
Dull the dear pain of your remembered face.
. . . Do you think there's a far border town, somewhere,
The desert's edge, last of the lands we know,
Some gaunt eventual limit of our light,
In which I'll find you waiting; and we'll go
Together, hand in hand again, out there,
Into the waste we know not, into the night?

Description of England
William Harrison (1587)

William Harrison's Description of England was originally published as part of Holinshed's Chronicles, a vast history of England, Scotland, and Ireland compiled during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The bulk of the work was done by Raphael Holinshed, and it was from this chronicle that William Shakespeare drew most the material for his history plays. But a man called William Harrison was also commissioned by Reginald Wolfe — the publisher behind the chronicle — to do something different. Rather than collate and write history, as Holinshed was doing, Harrison was asked to write up a description of modern England: its people, fashion, food, laws, architecture, animals, agriculture, art, furniture, folk customs, religion, practices, flowers, dogs, and anything else he could think of. Harrison consulted historical manuscripts and letters, but he also carried out his own investigations, travelling the country and speaking to ordinary people in order to create what he called his "foul frizzled treatise." This is a uniquely detailed, insightful, and characterful description of life in Elizabethan England. Anybody interested in that era simply must read Harrison's work. It is often funny, frequently surprising, strikingly sympathetic, and bursting with trivial details more informative than any history book I have ever read. To give you one example, here are people complaining about the rent going up. Sound familiar?

And, for one more, this was the beginning of his attempt to explain how Englishmen brewed their beer; alongside a criticism of foreign writers who had described it wrongly!

In Praise of Shadows
Junichiro Tanizaki (1934)

If you want to learn about Japanese architecture there is no better place to start than with Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows. It was written at a time when Japan was changing quickly under the influence of the west; this little book is something of a lament for the fading away of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Thus Tanizaki lovingly and precisely describes those aesthetics for us — the lacquer, the thrusting eaves, even the toilets — and coequally explains how western aesthetics are incompatible with them, and have thus destroyed them. But Tanizaki, like all the greatest writers, is not merely a sentimentalist. He writes with a mixture of dispassionate analysis, resigned irony, and perceptive poetic insight — and a profoundly informative and concise artistic expertise. Large textbooks about architectural styles or the architectural and aesthetic histories of particular countries can be intimidating; In Praise of Shadows is a slim volume which demands to be read and casts a spell over those who are lucky enough find themselves reading it.

The Metropolis of Tomorrow
Hugh Ferriss (1929)

This is a most delightful book — and inspiring! Hugh Ferriss was the foremost architectural draughtsman of 1920s America. He did not design buildings; rather, he took the designs of other architects (like Raymond Hood, of Rockefeller Center fame) and visualised them with his huge charcoal drawings, shrouding these soon-to-be skyscrapers in shadow and bathing them in spotlights. He helped to define what we now think of as Art Deco architecture and partly created the skyline of New York City. And, I should say, his drawings also inspired the Gotham City of Batman!

Ferriss was sufficiently popular across the United States that he was able to publish a book of his own in 1929. The Metropolis of Tomorrow is his architectural manifesto: an analysis of cities as they currently existed and a vision of what they might be like — and should be like — in the future. Ferriss was not only a supremely talented artist; he was also a poet, an eloquent writer, and a perceptive thinker. His vision for the cities of the future, disregarding for one moment how awe-inspiring and futuristic his drawings remain to this day, is a serious proposition and deserves solicitude. For Ferriss' proposals are filled with optimism and defined by a deeply conscious form of urban planning. Consider, for example, how he reworked Louis Sullivan's famous (and misquoted and misunderstood) aphorism "form follows function" to "feeling follows form". He knew that architecture and urban planning have a powerful psychological impact on human beings; our cities can make us depressed or they can make us happy. Ferriss staunchly believed, as a matter of the greatest importance, that they must do the latter. So The Metropolis of Tomorrow is the lost vision for a better future, a still-relevant manifesto for how we ought to build cities, and an artistic spectacle of supreme imaginative grandeur.

An Apology for Poetry & A Defence of Poetry
Philip Sidney (1580) & Percy Shelley (1821)

Two in one. I first read these essays separately and now I own a delightful little book that contains the both. I have quoted them before and quoted them often in the Areopagus, but I share them in this list simply because I have taken so much from the reading of them. Even regardless of their substance, the fact that they were each written by master poets means that they are, purely in terms of style and form, gloriously composed. "What does beautiful prose look like?" one may ask. This! I respond. And then, regarding what they actually say, rarely shall you find such impassioned defences of the art of poetry — defending it not as some luxury or frivolous past time, but as a fundamental element of any society, a driving force for human civilisation, without which there would be neither humanity nor civilisation to speak of. Oft have I quoted that final retort of Sidney's, a withering response to any and all who dispute the value of poetry:

But if—fie of such a but!—you be born so near the dull-making cataract of Nilus, that you cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry; if you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry, or rather, by a certain rustical disdain, will become such a mome, as to be a Momus of poetry; then, though I will not wish unto you the ass’ ears of Midas, nor to be driven by a poet’s verses, as Bubonax was, to hang himself; nor to be rimed to death, as is said to be done in Ireland; yet thus much curse. I must send you in the behalf of all poets:—that while you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.

Sidney's Apology is rather more technical. This also makes it very useful; here we have a poetic genius describing in depth his understanding of the nature of poetry and how it ought to be written, contrasting and comparing the linguistic qualities of Greek, Latin, Italian, French, and English, going into great detail on prosody, rhythm, meter, rhyme, and even rhetoric. Shelley's Defence, meanwhile, is almost a polemic for all art and its vital good for humankind. A brief excerpt should give you some sense of what a drastically powerful essay it is. One wonders why it isn't more famous.

Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life, and veiling them, or in language or in form, sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide—abide, because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.

The Metaphysical Poets

I almost always begin each volume of the Areopagus with poetry. That is because I like to read a little poetry before I start writing this missive for you — it gets my brain working, engages my creative faculties, awakens my heart, and sets a sort of tone. Thus, without poetry, I wouldn't be able to write the Areopagus at all. Rather than cheating (as I already have done with the Medieval Chronicles inclusion) by listing the various poetry books I usually turn to, I shall restrain myself and mention only one. It is an anthology of "Metaphysical Poetry", that peculiar style of English verse that emerged in the first half of the 17th century. Rather than Enheduanna, Sappho, Pindar, Virgil, Khayyam, Rumi, Hafez, Cavalcanti, Petrarch, Spenser, Sidney, Wordsworth, Browning, Tennyson, Arnold, even Michelangelo, all those Romantics, Thomas, or the War Poets, I mention the Metaphysicals because I find that they always give me food for thought. There was always some particular problem they seemed to wrangle with and, even if Metaphysical Poetry can be lyrically lacking, they are inevitably engaging. Take, by way of one example, John Hall's On an Houre-glasse, with which I once opened an instalment of this missive:

The Education of a Christian Prince
Erasmus (1516)

Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince is one of, if not the, most famous thing written during the Renaissance. One hears it endlessly quoted and every Waterstones (the main British bookstore, I should say) has a copy. Very well. But its litany of amoral advice for unscrupulous politicians, prioritising power and success over any notion of truth, justice, or fair play, does not paint a fair picture of that period. Strange, then, that only three years after Machiavelli's masterpiece the greatest scholar of the 16th century Erasmus, the "first European", the man who during the Reformation refused to join either side and said "I am a lover of liberty. I will not and I cannot serve a party." should have written his own manual of advice for rulers. This was a popular genre during the Renaissance and thereafter, in all cases inspired by Xenophon's Cyropaedia, written in the 4th century BC. But Erasmus', dedicated to and intended for the future Habsburg Emperor Charles V, stands apart as a lighthouse of humanism. Here, in this treatise, we find the liberal principles of education, literacy, justice, restraint, anti-imperialism, pacificism which defined the work of Erasmus and the ideals of Renaissance humanism more broadly.

On Painting
Leonardo da Vinci (1817)

When Leonardo da Vinci died it was his heir, Francesco Melzi, who collated and published his now legendary notebooks. Among Leonardo's papers was a series of advice aimed at young artists. Melzi compiled all this advice into a standalone treatise called On Painting, which would only be published in full in 1817. This is interesting, in the first place, simply because we can read the words of a man who was surely among the most intelligent who has ever lived. But, more than this, it also contains advice that remains even today both useful and instructive for painters and artists of all trades. There are principles to live by in this book. It also serves as a fabulous, hands-on introduction to Renaissance art. Read this, and you shall come away with a deeper understanding of the art of Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and all their contemporaries and successors. If you do read it and are looking for something else along similar lines, Leon Battista Alberti's On Painting is the next place to go.

The painter who entertains no doubt of his own ability will attain very little. When the work succeeds beyond the judgment, the artist acquires nothing; but when the judgment is superior to the work, he never ceases improving.

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

I will not retell the bittersweet tale of Abelard and Heloise here — you may recall that I wrote about them in the Areopagus several months ago. Theirs is a story for the ages, perhaps the greatest love story ever told. And it was real. These two lovers — the internationally famous and controversial philosopher Peter Abelard, and the preternaturally talented philosopher-writer-abbess Heloise d'Argenteuil — will bring the Middle Ages to life in a way that, I think, nothing else can. They blaze forth from that 12th century in which they lived and burn us up in the inferno of their love! Even though they were involved in religious politics and cultural divisions at the highest level, and were renowned and repudiated in equal measure, their love affair is timeless — a story more moving and heart-wracking than anything even Shakespeare could have hoped to write. The letters which tell this story, written by Heloise and Abelard themselves, both to one another and to friends, have come down to us. I shall not speak of their immense influence on European literature and philosophy, nor even of the influence of these two figures as individuals. All I shall say — having discussed, I know, nothing of their story — is that their letters reveal a depth of soul and breadth of intellect one is rarely exposed to. Heloise is also, as far as I am aware, by far the most powerful female voice of all the Middle Ages. Many a tear has been shed in the reading of her letters to Abelard; many more shall be shed in time, and perhaps even yours should you choose to read her words.

Translators' Note to the Reader
From the King James Bible (1611)

I have quoted the Translator's Note to you before; it was there I found that splendid phrase "Gentle Reader", and there I stumbled across a most perfect description of the importance and power of all translation, and what good it has done for humankind:

Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel.

The Translator's Note is bizarrely under-read. Here that committee of forty seven who translated the Bible into English explain their methods, their justification, the linguistic difficulties they encountered, the theological issues they confronted, and the political hostilities they faced. Given the importance of the King James Bible to all of English literature and indeed all use of the English language since its publication, there is surely some value in reading what those translators had to say for themselves. Should you venture to do so then your efforts shall bear rich fruit indeed. One gets a direct insight into the religious politics of early 17th century Britain and of Europe more broadly, but that is only half the value of this Translator's Note. In full it is a manifesto for literacy, a miniature theological treatise, a model of how to write at once with erudition and humility, and a uniquely insightful meditation on its times.

The Stones of Venice
John Ruskin (1851-1853)

Had I not decided to include no more than one book by any given writer then I would have filled this list with the collected works of John Ruskin. This I have not done. Rather, after lengthy deliberation, I have decided that if there is a single work by Ruskin I should recommend then it is his Stones of Venice. How difficult not to choose The Elements of Drawing (Claude Monet's favourite book) or Unto this Last (Gandhi's favourite book) or The Bible of Amiens (Marcel Proust's favourite book) etc. Alas!

The Stones of Venice is not short — but it rewards reading in full. The ostensible purpose of Ruskin's three-part masterpiece was to describe the rise and fall of Gothic architecture in Venice. But, much more than this, it became a sort of vast and encyclopaedic treatise on art, architecture, history, society, and religion all rolled into one. Regarding Ruskin's style, I am not sure you will find more eloquent, powerful, and precise prose anywhere else in the whole history of English writing. And, more to the point, you will learn from Ruskin more in one page than you could learn from a hundred other books about architecture. Even his footnotes and appendixes contain ideas and observations and explanations of more value than some writers have written in a lifetime's work. Little wonder it was so popular and so profoundly influential. I shall simply leave you, however, not with any of Ruskin's artistic or architectural analysis — for how could I choose? Rather, to set the scene, I offer an excerpt from the opening paragraphs of the second volume of The Stones of Venice, called The Sea Stories, where Ruskin describes for us the setting of Venice in its famous lagoon:

Through this salt and sombre plain the gondola and the fishing-boat advance by tortuous channels, seldom more than four or five feet deep, and often so choked with slime that the heavier keels furrow the bottom till their crossing tracks are seen through the clear sea water like the ruts upon a wintry road, and the oar leaves blue gashes upon the ground at every stroke, or is entangled among the thick weed that fringes the banks with the weight of its sullen waves, leaning to and fro upon the uncertain sway of the exhausted tide. The scene is often profoundly oppressive, even at this day, when every plot of higher ground bears some fragment of fair building: but, in order to know what it was once, let the traveller follow in his boat at evening the windings of some unfrequented channel far into the midst of the melancholy plain; let him remove, in his imagination, the brightness of the great city that still extends itself in the distance, and the walls and towers from the islands that are near; and so wait, until the bright investiture and sweet warmth of the sunset are withdrawn from the waters, and the black desert of their shore lies in its nakedness beneath the night, pathless, comfortless, infirm, lost in dark languor and fearful silence, except where the salt runlets splash into the tideless pools, or the sea-birds flit from their margins with a questioning cry; and he will be enabled to enter in some sort into the horror of heart with which this solitude was anciently chosen by man for his habitation. They little thought, who first drove the stakes into the sand, and strewed the ocean reeds for their rest, that their children were to be the princes of that ocean, and their palaces its pride; and yet, in the great natural laws that rule that sorrowful wilderness, let it be remembered what strange preparation had been made for the things which no human imagination could have foretold, and how the whole existence and fortune of the Venetian nation were anticipated or compelled, by the setting of those bars and doors to the rivers and the sea.


Question of the Week

Last week I asked you:

What does it mean to "be a good person"?

But the answers to that question I shall roll over to next week. Thus there is more time to respond (simply email me!) for those who wish to so do.

And that's all

Enough digital ink has been spilled today. Two words only, then, remain to be written:

Thank you.

Until next week — good night!


The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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