Seventeenth Friend: A. E. Housman, “Here Dead Lie We”

Today, we’ll meet Mr. Alfred Edward Housman, a popular English poet and a staple of English literature classes, so I assume that most folks are at least aware of him. He was born in 1859 and attended Oxford, but failed his final exam due to emotional turmoil, apparently due in part to struggling with homosexual desires. So, he spent ten years (1882-92) working as a clerk at the Patent Office while spending his free time studying and writing articles about Latin literature. Today that would’ve been the end of it since he didn’t have any official credentials, but those articles did gain scholarly attention and he was hired as a professor of Latin at University College, London, and later at Cambridge. His largest contribution to the Classics from there was in editing and annotating a still respected edition of Marcus Manilius’ Astronomica. He passed away in 1936.

Now, let’s set aside his academic career and look at his poetry. Most of his work is in a traditional English style, with regular metres and conservative rhyme schemes. They’re also on the pessimistic side, as in his most famous poems, “To an Athlete Dying Young” and “When I was One-and-Twenty.” One might worry that a Latinist writing in a conservative style would produce overly formal poems, but Mr. Housman is popular for good reason. His style is approachable even for general audiences and his themes are easy to relate to. For example, take a look at “To an Athlete Dying Young.”

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Anyone old enough to have been through high school will likely have known local athletes celebrated for their accomplishments, which are often soon forgotten, and those middle aged and older will have seen even famous professional athletes whom they admired when growing up now obscure and growing old. We can imagine how this may feel for the athlete itself, and it’s natural to wonder if, perhaps, it’s better in a way to die while still at the height of fame and renown.

Of course, when we’re young we assume, without much thought, that the good times will last forever. Early death is also the theme of this poem, “Here Dead Lie We,” which is a war poem:

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

This is very short, but there a few things going on. Honour is important, and it’s extremely important to young men. The first two lines, then, might have us expecting either a patriotic work lauding them for their sacrifice, or to mourn their early deaths for something ambiguous like shame and honour, for what Wilfred Own called “that old lie,” “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (from Horace, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”).

The next two lines, though, are more ambiguous than that. “Life […] is nothing much to lose.” It’s not? Even if we consider it less important than shame and honour, the reason we praise men who risk their lives, even setting aside public holidays like Veterans Day, is because life is a great deal to lose. So, did the speakers not sacrifice much after all?

Maybe, but the last line takes a very subjective turn. “But young men think it is, and we were young.” The weight of sacrifice, apparently, is in the eye of the beholder.…

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Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry

When looking across the Western literary canon, it quickly appears that writing is, in a sense, a man’s game. Take a list of recommended authors from before the era of political correctness, and one generally finds only a few women represented. To take a convenient example, Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s list of essential authors from the first appendix to How to Read a Book (which includes fiction and non-fiction) has only one female author, with Jane Austen standing alone to represent her entire sex. Now, that doesn’t particularly bother me; I don’t believe that we should grade on a curve so that we can include mediocrities like Maya Angelou or Rupi Kaur on “great authors” lists. There are, however, a handful of women who even a vile Reactionary like myself will gladly give credit to. Besides Austen, works by Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others all have a space on my bookshelf.

By far the longest-standing of all of these, though, is Sappho, widely respected among the ancient Greeks themselves and ever since. When discussing her poetry, though, we quickly run into two problems. First, a minor one, is that we don’t know much for certain about her. She’s hardly unique in this, as the lives of Homer and Hesiod are also largely mysterious. For Sappho, we know that she lived on Lesbos in the early Sixth Century B.C. There are also many stories about her that may or may not be true; translator Mary Barnard’s biographical note in her edition of Sappho’s poems lists some of these:

That she was born in Mitylene, or in Eresus on the same island;
That her birth date was about 612 B.C., or earlier, or later;
That her father’s name was Scamandronymous, or Eurygus, or Simon, or Eunominus, or Euarchus, or Ecrytus, or Semus;
That her mother’s name was Cleis;
That she married a merchant of Andros, named Cercolas, and had a daughter Cleis; or, contrariwise, that Cercolas is a fictitious name, and that Cleis was not her daughter;
That Sappho herself was a prostitute; that she was not;
That, maddened by her hopeless love for Phaon, a ferryman, she threw herself from the Leucadian cliffs […]; or, contrariwise, that she died at home in bed, tended by her daughter, Cleis […];
That the girls whose names are mentioned in the poems – Anactoria, Atthis, Gongyla, Hero, Timas – were her pupils, and participants with her in the religious exercises of kallichoron Mitylene (Mitylene of the beautiful dances); or, conversely, that they were no such thing.

How much of this is true? The name “Cercolas” is almost certainly fake, the prostitution charge can safely be discarded, and the story about Phaon is also unlikely. Some of this information came via Athenian comedians, which is like writing a biography of American presidents based on Saturday Night Live skits, others are possibly legendary accretions. There is a story that she was exiled to Syracuse, which is interesting because it would indicate an involvement in political life. Also, whether she was indeed a priestess, and what her relationship was to the other people mentioned in her work, does influence how we interpret some of her poems.…

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The Wicker Man

It’s Halloween night (well, in my time zone, which is the only one that matters anyway), and when I think of Halloween, I think of Christopher Lee. I imagine that most readers will be aware that he made his name at Hammer Studios, starring in films like their Dracula series or Rasputin: The Mad Monk, and though I certainly think he was great as both Rasputin and the second-most famous Dracula (following, of course, Bela Lugosi), the film that comes to my mind first is also the one that he considered to be best he’d ever been in, The Wicker Man.

Now, The Wicker Man appears, in my observation, to be fairly well-known among horror fans, but is semi-obscure to wider audiences and what name recognition it does have comes partly from the botched remake. With that in mind, I’ll begin by offering a few observations on the film as a whole with minimal spoilers, then move into more specific remarks. I’m doing that because this is a movie where it is best to go in without knowing the ending, which has two aspects. One is the resolution to the fate of the missing girl the protagonist is searching for, and the other is the very end. Even if you already know one, I’d recommend watching the film anyway without spoiling the other.

So, the premise of this film is a classic mystery setup. Scottish Police Sergeant Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward) has received a message from the isolated island of Summerisle, stating that a girl by the name of Rowan Morrison has been missing for several months. When he arrives and begins asking the locals about the situation, he quickly finds two things. One is that, though everyone he speaks to claims not to know her, it’s soon apparent that the locals and Lord Summerisle (played by Lee), leader of the island, know more than they’re letting on. Though The Wicker Man is typically classified as a horror movie, most of it is more like a mystery or detective story; the horror elements, for the most part, are only clear in the last 1/4 or so.

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A Confucian View of History: The Book of Documents

Note: This is another old Thermidor article, originally published on October 6, 2017. As with the other reposts I’ve only done some light editing.


When beginning a study of Confucianism, the most common starting-point is the Analects of Confucius, a reasonable choice since it’s the most easily available book of the Confucian canon as well as the book most that gives us the most material from Confucius himself. When reading it, though, one quickly realises that Confucius draws a great deal of his teaching from prior sources. “A transmitter and not a maker,” he describes himself in Book VII, Chapter I of that work, “believing in and loving the ancients.” Who, then, were the ancients whose teaching he transmitted?

The sage draws from a few sources; among the most prominent is the Book of Odes, which I’ve previously discussed, a collection of poems and folk songs that fits with the emphasis the Confucians place on literature and music. The Book of Changes and Spring and Autumn Annals, respectively covering divination and history, also come up often. Finally, there’s the Book of Historical Documents, another primarily historical work. Despite having the most generic title of any book besides Aristotle’s Topics, the Documents is invaluable because it collects imperial speeches, decrees, and charges to ministers, as well as counsels given by advisers to their sovereign, many of which do appear to be contemporaneous with the reigns they describe. Exactly how many are contemporaneous is uncertain, and the ancient editors themselves indicate that the first few were later compositions by beginning them with the formula “Inquiring into antiquity, we find that…” Traditionally, much as with the other classics previously mentioned, this editorial role has been attributed to Confucius himself, and though there’s little evidence for that besides this much later tradition, his endorsement of the collection has given it a prestigious place in Chinese scholarship ever since.

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Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Even if you haven’t read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you almost certainly know the premise. The image of Jekyll and Hyde has entered the English language as an idiom right along many allusions to Scripture and Shakespeare, and it’s been adapted into other media many times. Talking about it here, then, seems almost like a waste of time; after all, it’s already one of the most famous stories in English.

Well, I’ve found that many classic books, even if they are well-known, are in reality often seldom read, so one can never assume that just because something is famous that many people are actually familiar with the original work. Besides, there are a handful of books that are more enjoyable in their adaptations than in their original form, like Dracula, I’m afraid to say. At a glance, Jekyll looks like it may fall into that category, since it’s old, everyone knows the plot twist and themes, and it’s written in a slow-paced, wordy style common in the Nineteenth Century but unpalatable to many today. So, is Jekyll still worth reading?

I’m actually not going to give an unqualified “yes,” but will say that for most people, especially if you’ve managed to avoid spoilers your whole life, will enjoy it as long as you have the patience for Stevenson’s writing style. Not that his style is bad, of course – as we’ll discuss shortly, I think it’s very good. It’s just not for everyone. It is short, though, so it’s worth a shot.…

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Examining Neovictorian’s Sanity

Note: This is another article first published at Thermidor, on May 24, 2018. I’ve been republishing these in chronological order, but since Sanity is still fairly new I decided to expedite this one.


How does one go about writing a “Right-wing” novel? The wrong way is to emphasise the “Right-wing” part, which transforms the novel into mere propaganda. At best, an ideological novel will succeed only in entertaining the already converted. Rather, the author should focus on writing a good novel. For those deeply invested in politics this can be hard to do, since they likely took up the pen at least in part because of a belief in the role of art in the culture war. Why take the time to write something and not take full advantage of an opportunity to spread the gospel, so to speak?

It’s important to understand, though, that few have ever changed their beliefs based on a single work of fiction. Rather, fiction operates as part of a larger cultural milieu, not acting alone as a single work but in combination with dozens of other books, movies, songs, and so on, and even then the effect is generally subtle. Besides, it’s unlikely that a Reactionary author will be confused for a Leftist since one can typically guess the rough ideological position of several of the Right’s favourite authors even if they aren’t explicit, as with, say, Tolkien or O’Connor. Even Chesterton almost managed to restrain himself in his fiction.

I bring this all up because preachiness was my main concern going into today’s novel, Sanity, written by Neoreactionary blogger Neovictorian. Since I only knew him through Twitter and his articles and was unaware of any previous experience he may have writing fiction, I feared that his book would turn out as either a political tract thinly disguised as a story or a wish-fulfilment fantasy. Though there are NRx and broader dissident Right gang signs all over the joint, they never get in the way of the narrative and the end result is, I’m happy to say, a genuinely good novel that stands well on its own as a novel.

Though fairly short, Sanity is difficult to summarise because it’s one of the fastest-paced books I’ve ever read. Chapters are seldom more than a few pages long, and every one skips to a new time or location with something significant happening in all of them. Even the slower chapters, with the protagonist, Cal Adler, camping out in the desert or just having a conversation with someone take on a narrative significance in part because of the contrast with the frenetic pace of the rest of the book. To give an idea, the very first chapter opens with a mass shooting, then the next chapter skips ahead a few years to Cal thinking back on the experience, and the next skips all the way back to his school days dealing with a playground bully. Soon he’s in high school and the guidance counsellor is essentially giving him an invitation to a secret society, and the rest of the work follows Cal as he moves from one experience to the next, job to job, place to place, in a way that seems almost random but which, by the novel’s climax, has has worked its way to a classic rebirth metaphor.…

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Hesiod’s Works (and his Days, as Well)

Note: This is another old Thermidor post, originally published on May 18, 2017.


Among Greek poets, two stand tall above all the others, Homer and Hesiod. One can easily see Homer’s appeal, with his renowned tales of heroes, war, and adventure, told with great craftsmanship and sublimity. Then you have Hesiod, who surveys the fields, tugs at his overalls, and says, “Good season for crops.”

Well, okay, that’s totally unfair to Hesiod, but the two poets’ themes and subject matter could hardly be more different. Before getting into that, though, let’s back up a little.

Hesiod lived between 750 and 650 B.C., roughly a contemporary of Homer. There’s even a story among the ancient Greeks that the two competed against each other in a poetry competition, but historians apparently dispute this, because there’s nothing historians hate more than a good story. Hesiod won that alleged competition, but even if that did happen, Homer got the last laugh since Hesiod today sits in his rival’s shadow. Many people have read The Odyssey for school, and possibly The Iliad as well. Even the average philistine, then, is at least aware of these works. On the other hand, though Hesiod is by no means an obscure figure, The Works and Days, Theogeny, and The Shield of Herakles have nowhere near the presence of Homer’s epics.

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Ego

Time for the conclusion of serial experiments lain.

Layer 13: Ego begins with blue static and Lain saying she’s confused again. Well, so are we. Rather than a voice-over we start with a recap of the last part of Layer 12. Alice doesn’t handle it so well, and we’re then shown a screen with the message, “ALL RESET” and on a second line, “Return.” Rewind!

The next few scenes show us what the different characters are up to now, after Lain presumably fixed things by undoing everything Eiri had done. Everyone is living, well, not quite happily ever after, but better. Only a couple people seem to notice that Lain isn’t there. Lain, however, is not happy. She has a conversation with a double about omnipotence and omnipresence. When Lain gets fed up with that, the image of her father appears in the sky, and they have some tea in the clouds.

Now comforted, Lain meets a now adult Alice, and they have a short conversation. The blue static returns, one more time, and Lain says to the camera, “I promise you I’ll always be right here. I’ll always be right next to you, forever.”

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Aristotle’s Poetics

Note: This is another post originally published at Thermidor Magazine, in this case on March 21, 2017. Again, I’m posting this with only minimal editing.


Much of the process of moving politically Rightward consists in correcting the inadequacies of ones education. This process is most obvious in things like history or human biodiversity, but is certainly present in the arts, as well. Though a handful of books from the Western canon are still commonly covered in school, like Beowulf or The Odyssey, most curricula, even at the university level, fall far short of a comprehensive treatment. I majored in literature in college, and even aside from the cultural problem of being one of the few students truly passionate about this stuff, my formal education covered very little written prior to about 1800 aside from Shakespeare, and almost nothing not originally in English.

How does one go about correcting this? The simplest is just to start reading. Beginning with the Classics is a solid option, and I’ve offered my own suggestions elsewhere, but almost anything is better than nothing, so, as long as one builds a habit of reading, most works above the level of young adult literature will do as a start. SWPLs are deservedly mocked for their obsession with the Harry Potter series, not because they started their reading “careers” there but because they stopped there. So even relatively light material will work as a starting point, as long as one progresses towards the Classics.

Now, though selecting one’s reading according to whim is good enough for many, some of us do prefer a more structured approach and appreciate some guidance. One often recommended resource is Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book, which focuses on non-fiction but much of their advice is broadly applicable. They also include a handy list of recommended reading. Henry Dampier’s review from a couple years ago offers a solid overview. For something more specific to poetry, there’s Ezra Pound’s idiosyncratic but helpful ABC of Reading, which is especially valuable for anyone interested in Pound’s own work. Those who feel a little braver, though, and really want to get into the nuts-and-bolts of how fiction is put together, may want to take a look at Aristotle’s straightforwardly-titled Poetics.…

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Landscape

We’re coming into the home stretch of serial experiments lain. In Layer 12: Landscape, the voice-over returns. “Oh, okay… So that’s how it works. I had no idea the world was this simple. I always thought the world was such a big and scary place, but once you figure it all out, it’s all so easy.” A second voice adds, “See? I told you it would be.” The episode proper opens at school, with Alice gloomily watching Lain gossip with Julie and Reika. Lain sends Alice a message saying she should just rewrite bad memories. A static-covered image of Lain takes up the screen and apparently addresses the audience directly. “People only have substance in the memories of others. That’s why there were all kinds of me’s. There weren’t a lot of me’s, I was just inside all sorts of people, that’s all.”

In a voice-over, Eiri talks about how the world can be explained entirely in materialistic terms, and how people were originally all connected – and have now been reconnected through Lain’s efforts. By sharing information seemlessly Man can figure out what kind of animal he is and evolve by his own power. In a parking garage the MIBs discuss their situation, and how their client had been working with Eiri all along. The Tachibana boss shows up, hands over a suitcase full of money and tells them to run to a place with no electricity or satellite coverage, and leaves. Both die after seeing a vision of Lain.

Alice goes to Lain’s trashed house, and speaks with her. Eiri appears, is goaded into manifesting bodily, and is destroyed.

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