The Lively (and Nauseous) Genius of Martial’s Epigrams

Note: This is the final repost from Thermidor, originally published June 5, 2018. As with all of these, this is presented with only minimal editing.


Last time we talked about Roman poetry, it was on Catullus’ “stately bawdiness.” Today, we’ll move forward roughly a century to Martial, who was born in what’s now Spain in A.D. 40. He moved to Rome at twenty-four years old to pursue a literary career, with some success, but eventually grew tired of life in the capital and so moved back to Spain in 100. We don’t know the exact date of his death, but it was no later than 104.

As for his work, well, it can be rather divisive. On the one hand, Pliny the Younger called him “a man of an acute and lively genius, and his writings abound in both wit and satire, combined with equal candour,” though he added that he did not expect his poetry to be “immortal.” On the other hand, Lord Macauley wrote in a letter that “I wish he were less nauseous. […] Besides his indecency, his servility and his mendicancy disgust me.”

Of course, much the same could be said of Catullus, in whose tradition Martial followed. Like his predecessor, Martial is known for his short, often comical poems skewering fair-weather friends, the shallow rich, and promiscuous men and women, among other (mostly) deserving targets. However, he doesn’t work in obscenity and abuse quite as often as Catullus. Make no mistake, there is plenty of both in Martial’s Epigrams, but he was also more dependent on his patrons that Catullus was, and those patrons included the emperor Domitian. This is the “servility” that Lord Macauley referred to, and between the poems abusing Rome’s narcissists and cheapskates one finds others praising his rich patrons, and given the tone of the rest of the Epigrams one can’t help but question his sincerity in these.

Before going farther let’s take a look at one of his poems about his “friends,” translated by James Michie. This is from Book X, Epigram 15:

Crispus, you’re always saying you’re the friend
Who loves me best. But your behaviour offers
No evidence for it. When I asked, “Please lend
Five thousand,” you refused me though your coffers
Are crammed to bursting. And though fellaheen
Sweat on your profitable Nile estate
Have I had one ear of spelt from you, one bean?
Have you ever given me in the chilly season
A short-cut toga? Or sent silver-plate,
Even half a pound of it? I see no reason
Why I should count you as a friend – apart
From the informality with which you fart.

It makes one feel good about the brotherhood of Man to know that, in all times and all places, we can all agree that fart jokes are universally funny. You won’t find those in Virgil, by the way.…

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A Child’s Garden of Verses

There are two important parts of the Christmas holiday; the first, of course, is the Nativity of Our Lord. Second is a focus on family, and children in particular. Christmas puts me, and many others, into a nostalgic mood, thinking back to Christmas Mass, exchanging gifts on Christmas morning, then going over to my grandparents’ house to have dinner and play with my cousins. God willing, I’ll be able to extend these experiences to a new generation, but with last year’s addition of my nephew to the family children are once again part of the Carroll family’s Christmas.

Today’s book isn’t about Christmas, but it’s relevant at this time of year because it is about childhood, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, first published in 1885 but reprinted many times since. Mine is a reprint of an edition illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith, whose illustrations are what first caught my eye when I spotted the volume in a bookstore. Also of interest is the author; Stevenson is best known as a prose writer, especially for his adventure story Treasure Island and horror classic Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Does his talent in prose carry over to poetry?

Honestly, it’s a little difficult to tell. Because children are the intended audience, his metres and rhyme schemes are kept simple, and his subjects are all things of interest to children. The length of the poems varies considerably, from a single couplet to a few pages, but all fairly short. None of this, though, should be taken as a shortcoming, as Stevenson’s verse is consistently charming and pleasant to read. Consider, for instance, “Bed in Summer.”

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

Poetically, it’s simple as can be. Rhymed couplets of four feet each, except the first line, though its short length and natural language keep it from getting monotonous. Yet, it’s charming because I remember, when I was very young, bed time being a significant concern for me, and in the summer time there was still some light when I had to go to bed – a problem I’m sure was worse for children who lived farther north than me.…

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How to Read the Iliad

Note: This is another republication from Thermidor, where it first appeared on March 20, 2018.


“The classics have more and more become a baton exclusively for the cudgelling of schoolboys, and less and less a diversion for the mature.” Ezra Pound’s observation, from a 1920 essay on translations of Homer, may have been true at the time but has, in the following decades, become somewhat optimistic. Often, schoolboys aren’t really taught the classics at all, but insofar as they are, “cudgelling” is still about right. I can’t completely blame those reluctant to read old books, since the very sight of anything from the Odyssey to The Scarlet Letter is apt to bring back memories of chapter quizzes and book reports due by next Friday.

Even if we get past the cudgelling, though, Pound’s reference to the classics as a “diversion” may surprise some readers. Aren’t they supposed to improve our moral character, erudition, cultural literacy, and those sorts of high-minded things? Well, sure, they can do that. However, we’re unlikely to get any of those benefits if reading is too much of a chore, and it’s worth remembering that literature is written, first and foremost, to be enjoyed. Shakespeare, it’s often pointed out, wrote for a popular audience. We may also note that in the Poetics, despite the dry literary analysis, Aristotle clearly enjoys the pleasure and spectacle of poetry and drama, and in Timber, or Discoveries, Ben Jonson says that poetry, among other things, “delights our age,” “entertains us at home,” and “shares in our country recesses, and recreations.”

This is why, though literature has always been a primary hobby for me and one that I’m eager to share, I don’t insist on others delving into it as much as I have. One should have an interest in the arts, but if that’s music, painting, or something else, that’s fine. The goal is to have something, almost anything, better than blockbuster movies, top 40 radio, and other components of mass culture to spend one’s time on. Even non-artistic hobbies, like fishing or target shooting, will work for this purpose. Also, if you do choose to pursue literature, I’d encourage you to focus on an area of particular interest to you. Do you remember liking, say, Poe’s short stories in school? Then start by seeking out other Gothic or Nineteenth Century authors. Do you have a fondness for the Middle Ages? Go check out the many Arthurian romances, then, or a volume of Boccaccio.

Now, with all that said, there are a few authors who every educated person should have a basic familiarity with. These writers are also good starting points if you want to take the study of literature seriously, or if you’re just not sure where else to begin. Exactly which authors would go on that list is debatable, but people like Ovid, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare will be near-universal choices. Another would be Homer, and he’s the one I’ll focus on here, and specifically the Iliad.

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Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Over the past year, I’ve read through a lot of academic analyses of anime and anime fandom, some on my own out of curiosity and others for academic purposes (yes, really). The overall state of academia in the anime studies field is pretty similar to what you’d find elsewhere, that is, abysmal and embarrassing. I’d say that Bl. John Henry Newman wouldn’t be impressed, but then, neither would anyone who isn’t fully embedded in the university system. Most readers probably don’t need a lot of examples, but I’ll provide a couple selections anyway just because they’re so bad they’re actually pretty funny. This is from Steven Brown, in Tokyo Cyberpunk, discussing Ghost in the Shell.

One might wonder whether such transnational hybridity and geographic indeterminacy reinforces rather than resists the dreams of the techno-orientalists by offering an illusion of Asia or Japan, such as is critiqued by Ueno Toshiya in his influential essay “Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism.” According to Ueno, Japanese animation functions “as a cultural and ideological apparatus to cover and disavow the reality of global capitalism,” which he sees as inextricably linked to the exploitation of labor forces in Asia in a post-Fordist economy. In response, [GITS director] Oshii has suggested that he is not interested in representing real nations such as Japan so much as he is in exploring the liminality of borderlines.

Here’s Samantha Close, from an article called “Fannish Masculinities in Transition in Anime Music Video Fandom.”

Politically engaged scholarship often interrogates the experiences of groups without privilege. But in order for social change to happen, privileged identities must also be reworked. An analysis of anime fandom in the early 2000s shows that fan works, such as fan video and cosplay performances, concretize masculinities that are both transgressive and desperately seeking normative confirmation. By means of queer and masculinity theory, I argue that fandom is a uniquely generative space for reworking masculinity. This will only remain true, however, if it can hold onto its subversive practices in a time of increasing mainstream attention.

Fortunately, the field isn’t a total loss. Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams, edited by Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., and Takayuki Tatsumi, isn’t bad. It’s a collection of essays by various authors and so the quality certainly varies from one piece to the next, but some of the entries are legitimately interesting, about anime but also Japanese science fiction generally since the book also includes SF works in film and literature. If you have any interest in Japanese SF, I can give it a genuine recommendation, especially if you can get it used or at a library. The Anime Machine, by Thomas Lamarre, also has some good material for those interested in animation as animation, and Anime: A History, by Jonathan Clements, is often recommended and looks promising, though I haven’t had a chance to read it myself.

Another legitimately good book, and the one I want to focus on today, is Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, by Azuma Hiroki, originally published in 2001 and translated for the English edition in 2009.…

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Nineteenth Friend: Thomas Randolph, “Upon his Picture”

Thomas Randolph was born in 1605 and was another member of the Tribe of Ben. I normally like to write a little about our friends’ “day jobs,” but unfortunately Randolph died young, at twenty-nine years old in 1635. Fortunately, he did see a good deal of success in his own lifetime primarily as a dramatist but also as a poet, as one would expect of a friend of Ben Jonson and his circle, and many expected him to eventually become poet laureate. His short life had its other excitements, though; my personal favourite poem of his is “Upon the Loss of his Little Finger,” which loss occurred during a fight in a tavern.

Those interested in American history may be interested to know that he also has a tangential connection to our country as the uncle of William Randolph, the influential Virginian colonist.

In any case, like some other poems of this era we’ve covered I don’t think “Upon his Picture” requires a great deal of explanation. It’s just solid, classic English poetry:

When age hath made me what I am not now,
And every wrinkle tells me where the plow
Of time hath furrowed; when an ice shall flow
Through every vein, and all my head wear snow;
When death displays his coldness in my cheek,
And I myself in my own picture seek,
Not finding what I am, but what I was,
In doubt which to believe, this or my glass:
Yet though I alter, this remains the same
As it was drawn, retains the primitive frame
And first complexion; here will still be seen
Blood on the cheek, and down upon the chin;
Here the smooth brow will stay, the lively eye,
The ruddy lip, and hair of youthful dye.
Behold what frailty we in man may see,
Whose shadow is less given to change than he!

The main, ironic thrust of the poem is clear enough.

The first half of the poem feels very cold, with its “snow,” “ice,” “coldness,” and “glass” (specifically meaning a mirror, in this case). I would’ve expected to see more warm imagery in the second half for contrast, but he doesn’t do that. Even the imagery he does use isn’t very vivid; “blood on the cheek,” “smooth brow,” “lively eye,” “ruddy lip,” and “hair of youthful dye.”

Whether this is a weakness per se, I’m not sure. It does make the picture, the imitation of his younger self, less of a focus than the narrator’s older self.

Of course, there’s also the notable irony to this poem aside from the contrast between his mirror and his painting. Randolph here speaks speculatively of “When age hath made me what I am not now,” but unfortunately he did not live to see old age, a great loss to his friends and to the world of English poetry.…

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“A City for Sale” – Sallust’s Histories

Note: I’m continuing to repost my old Thermidor articles; this one was originally published on February 19, 2018. As usual, I’ve done only minimal editing.


When sorting through works from the Classical world, we can divide them into three broad categories of history, philosophy, and literature. The value of the latter two are plain enough; early philosophers raised questions of eternal relevance and laid the foundation for those who came later, and for the poets and dramatists, true beauty is timeless. What, though, of history? After all, history’s primary purpose is to tell us “what happened,” and we can usually get this more easily from modern historians, who can review not only the ancient historians’ works, but data from other historical documents, archaeology, etc. Obviously, if you are a historian you’ll need these early sources, but what about the lay reader?

There are, I think, three things that make ancient historians worth reading for an educated layman. First, they do cover the basic, surface-level “what happened” aspect of history. Their work is often criticised for inaccuracy, and sometimes with reason, but despite their shortcomings, biases, and lack of modern methodology, it’s worth remembering that these were intelligent men and in some cases were well aware of their own difficulties. Herodotus, for example, emphasises several times that he can only relate to the audience what he has heard, and sometimes expresses doubt about the version of events he’s been given. Plutarch says at the beginning of his biography of Theseus that, “after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off, Beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions, the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables.” Similarly, Livy, in the preface to Ab Urbe Condita, refers to “The traditions which have come down to us of what happened before the building of the city [of Rome], or before its building was contemplated,” which are “suitable rather to the fictions of poetry than to the genuine records of history.” Both Plutarch and Livy, then, are well aware that the events they describe of ancient history are dubious in many places and alert their readers to the fact, but ultimately decide that giving a highly uncertain account is better than no account at all.

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Stately Bawdiness: The Poetry of Catullus

Note: This is another old Thermidor post, originally published on January 18, 2018.


Having covered some of the great Greek poets, including Hesiod and Sappho, it’s time to move on to some of the Romans. With the Greeks, I tried to approach their literature roughly in chronological order, but here I’ll begin in the late Republic with Catullus. He’s among the Classical world’s most popular poets, at least among those who don’t have the mixed blessing of being frequently assigned to bored high schoolers like Homer, and perhaps the best way to introduce Catullus and see why is to jump right into one of his poems:

Furius and Aurelius, Catullus’ comrades,
Whether he’ll push on to furthest India
Where the shore is pounded by far-resounding
Eoan rollers,

To Hyrcania or effeminate Arabia,
The Sacians or the arrow-bearing Parthians,
Or those levels to which the seven-double
Nilus gives colour,

Or make his way across the towering Alps
To visit the memorials of great Caesar,
The Gallic Rhine, those horrible woad-painted
And world’s-end Britons –

All this, whatever the will of Heaven above
May bring, ready as you are to brave together,
Simply deliver to my girl a brief dis-
courteous message:

Farewell and long life with her adulterers,
Three hundred together, whom hugging she holds,
Loving none truly but again and again
Rupturing all’s groins;

And let her not as before expect my love,
Which by her fault has fallen like a flower
On the meadow’s margin after a passing
Ploughshare has touched it.

There’s a certain gravity or stateliness we tend to associate with just about anything written in Latin, and understandably so. Most of the books that have come down to us comprise the Roman highlight reel of Caesar and Cicero, Tacitus and Livy, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, and so on. As Latin passed out of common usage it was taken up by Medieval and Renaissance scholars, who generally used it for serious topics of philosophy, science, history, and the like.

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New at American Sun: The Things They Carried

If you have a good memory, you may recall that I published a review of Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried over at Thermidor Magazine on July 27, 2017. With Thermidor in the same condition as Old Howard, I’ve been republishing my old articles here, but for this one I’m making an exception – you can find it over at The American Sun. I think it was one of my best reviews from last year, so please give it a read, then give The Things They Carried a read.

By the way, several former Thermidor contributors were involved in starting The American Sun just a few months ago, so they’ve republished a few things lost in Thermidor’s closure. It’s off to a good start, and if you enjoyed Thermidor you’ll probably enjoy this new project, as well.

As for me, I’ll certainly follow them, but for the time being I only plan to contribute sporadically. I don’t have the time to commit to frequent contributions, since I’ve had a tough time keeping my own blog going, but I do want to help them out so I’ll be sending any future reviews that seem up their alley their way, as I did here.…

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Eighteenth Friend: Thomas Campion, “Rose-Cheeked Laura”

Today we’ll meet Mr. Thomas Campion, who was born in London in 1567 and lived to 1620. Yes, once again, there was just something about this era in English literature where it seems like every single Englishman couldn’t help but write fine poetry. Mr. Campion’s day job was physician, but he was also a songwriter and musical and literary theorist in addition to being a poet.

A few of our friends, like John Crowe Ransom, did write literary theory but we haven’t covered this much yet, so I think it may be interesting to spend a few moments looking at Mr. Campion’s Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Don’t worry, I won’t get into the nitty-gritty since even I find this type of thing a bit dry (see Aristotle). For most of the pamphlet he discusses the types of poetic metre and which are most apt for use in English, but he opens with an extended criticism of rhymed poetry.…

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The Everlasting Empire

Note: This is another repost from Thermidor Magazine, originally published on December 20, 2017. As usual, it is republished here with minimal editing.


When looking at an outline of Chinese history, one of the most striking things is the longevity of China’s imperial structure, lasting from the unification of China in 221 B.C. all the way to A.D. 1912. As far as I’m aware, the only Western state to even approach this record is the Roman Empire, beginning (to use one common starting date) in 27 B.C. and not fully collapsing until 1453. Now, China was obviously not a serene empire, as dynasties certainly did rise and fall, sometimes with anarchic periods in between these the collapse of one and rise of the next. Nonetheless, each succeeding dynasty adopted the basic structure and governing ideology of its predecessor. Not until the Twentieth Century was the imperial structure  fully destroyed and left behind. How was this possible?

That’s the question Yuri Pines seeks to answer in The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy. To start, he argues that China could  easily have broken into many smaller states, as happened in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. He points out that during the Warring States period, which lasted 453-221 B.C., the various Chinese states were not only politically disunited but had shifted away from each other culturally, as well. At this stage China resembled post-Roman Europe, where political divisions solidified into permanent cultural division and eventually into nation states. One easy, and at one time common, answer to why this worked out differently in China is geographic, but Pines rejects this explanation. “The Chinese terrain,” he says, “crisscrossed by mountain ranges […] and huge rivers, was as conducive to the emergence of small independent polities as any other part of the world, with many regions […] easily defensible against outsiders’ attacks.”

Demographics also fail to provide a satisfactory answer to Chinese unity. Pines explains, “[N]ot only did ethnic minorities continuously occupy important pockets within so-called China proper, but also the core ‘Han’ population remained highly diverse in terms of spoken language, customs, modes of life, and even religious beliefs and pantheon.” He concludes that the answer, then, is largely ideological.

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