Barry Baldwin ~ Some Bookcases

Reprinted with permission of the author himself, who years ago had to deal with yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter.

(Companionette to Harry Bruce’s Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers, McLelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2009.)

“To keep on sending little frogs… is like keeping on teaching Latin and Greek. What’s that for? Most of the somewhat good writers know little of either” – Fort, Books, p668.

Homer was said to be blind. His name means ‘hostage’. Three links with the sightless, once gaoled epicist John Milton.

The anonymous Contest between Homer and Hesiod (paras315–26) has the latter win a poetic cutting contest. But Hesiod was soon murdered by the brothers of a girl he allegedly seduced. Homer, having composed his own epitaph, fell fatally into a clay pit.

Archilochus (seventh century) was a mercenary soldier, Forsythian “Dog of War”. His name means “Leader of the Pack” (thus, patron saint of the girl group Shangri-Las). His fragmented poems run from nonchalant confession of cowardice (“Threw my shield away, can always buy another”) to squaddie consolation (“Ares is a democrat”), to (fr103) the still-puzzling “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing,” which always fascinated that old windbag Isaiah Berlin (cf. his published letters & Michael Ignatieff’s biography).

Classical writers were rarely Men of Letters’, insulated from reality. Aeschylus fought at Marathon and Salamis, only to perish when an eagle dropped a tortoise onto his bald head. Sophocles was elected to both military and civilian offices, possibly commanding a fleet against the Samian one led by the philosopher Melissus (Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve can’t compete there). When accused by his son of senility, he won the case by reciting lines from his new Oedipus at Colonus – son was adjudged the real lunatic. Three competing versions of his death: 1) asphyxiated from reciting a long passage from his Antigone without drawing breath; 2) choked on grapes at a wine festival; 3) died of joy over his last drama competition.

Euripides is said to have lived in a cave, in a ménage à trois with wife and amanuensis Cephisophon, possibly an unacknowledged co-author (shades of Dorothy Wordsworth). Self-exiled to Macedon, he was eaten alive by wild dogs.

Plato was sold into slavery in Sicily – a pity he was ransomed. Aristotle landed a plum job: tutor to Alexander the Great, at whose poisoning some suspected he connived. Many and various were the foibles and fates of Greek eggheads (no wonder they intrigued Bertrand Russell, no stranger to anecdote and scandal), best read in their Lives by Diogenes Laertius.

Poet-librarian Callimachus was the Greek Philip Larkin. Which hat was he wearing when proclaiming “A big book is a big evil”?- I never met a student who disagreed.

“Water-drinkers can’t write good poetry” (Horace, Epistles, bk 1 no19 vv1-11, instancing Homer and Ennius). Not all agreed: “Water is Best” ran one Greek proverb. Horace was thinking of Athenian comedian Cratinus, said (Aristophanes, Peace, V7700-3) to have died of grief at seeing a wine-jar smashed. He would have agreed with Brendan Behan’s “I’m a drinker with a writing problem.” Not so Julius Cæsar, an energetic author (he dictated his book on grammar while galloping on horseback in Gaul – one both pities and admires his secretary), so temperate as to be dubbed (Suetonius, Caesar, ch53) “the only sober man to ruin Rome”.

Comic playwright Terence (so Suetonius’s biography) was an ex-slave who slept his way into literary eminence (no shortage of modern parallels there), earned unparalleled monetary success with six plays, then simply vanished – a superior ancient Simon Dee.

The ultimate literary workaholic was Pliny the Elder. According to his nephew’s account (Epistles, bk3 no5), he read and wrote through the night, was read to during meals, litter-rides, and bathing, though didn’t prefigure Voltaire in using a mistress’s naked back as book-rest. (Bruce, pp165–71, adducing, e.g., Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Orson Welles for these and similar habits.)

How to choose between Virgil’s two rival maxims, Omnia vincit amor or Labor omnia vincit?

“Perhaps if Existence should stop sending little frogs, and stop teaching Latin and Greek, a whole would be in a state of amnesia” – Fort, p669.

Classical Corner 137: Fortean Times 273 (May, 2011), p. 19.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s