Virgil is wiser than Homer; Dickens is at his best in The Pickwick Papers

Still on the subject of summer reading, I have been pointedly ignoring all the features in various papers that give critics’ recommendations of what to read over the summer. There was a time, in my book-reviewing past, when my opinion used to be solicited, but on the whole this “summer reading” or “Christmas reading” lark is just another way of giving a bit of free publicity to friends’ books. Besides, one was supposed to recommend something published in the last year – and everyone knows that all the good books were written by people who have been dead for decades, or in some cases, centuries, even millennia.

Anyway, my summer reading is Charles Dickens’s early work The Pickwick Papers. I always feel summer is the time when one should fill in the gaps and take up one of those books one has always meant to read and never has. I have never read anything by Dostoevsky, and probably never will, but I have read most of Dickens, and now that I am almost 200 pages into Pickwick, I keep on asking myself how I could have left it so long. Pickwick is a simply marvellous book, the best of Dickens, in that it has none of his faults (the convoluted plots, the melodrama, the emotional blackmail, the overheated rhetoric) and all of his genius – his light-hearted sense of fun.

Incidentally, before Pickwick I re-read A Tale of Two Cities: that too is a “good” Dickens, in that the plot is relatively streamlined, even if the novel is politically confused at its heart. Dickens cannot really make up his mind about the French Revolution, can he? He hates the Terror and its violence – his portrait of Madame Defarge and her sidekick the Vengeance represents his melodramatic streak at its best – but he also hates the aristocracy and the Catholic Church, treating both with scant respect and less understanding – his tendency to caricature at its worst.

But Dickens was pretty confused in many ways, wasn’t he? The great educational reformer who sent his son to Eton; the outwardly pious novelist who seems to have a real animus against organised religion; and a man whose writing gives off some pretty weird signals about matters of the heart. Yet, luckily, none of these things surface in Pickwick, or are present to distort that novel’s lively and engaging tone.

My other summer reading is of authors who died millennia ago. My many years of education do have something to show for themselves after all: I mean an appreciation of Catullus and Horace and Virgil. I have an edition of Catullus dating back to 1914 that I picked up second hand, and I have to say that there is nothing greater in my estimation than Carmen XXXI, the Sirmio poem:

Paene insularum, Sirmio, insularumque
ocelle, quascumque in liquentibus stagnis
marique vasto fert uterque Neptunus,
quam te libenter quamque laetus inviso,
vix mi ipse credens Thyniam atque Bithynos
liquisse campos et videre te in tuto.
O quid solutis est beatius curis,
cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino
labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum,
desideratoque acquiescimus lecto?
Hoc est quod unum est pro laboribus tantis.
Salve, o venusta Sirmio, atque ero gaude
gaudente; vosque, o Lydiae lacus undae,
ridete quidquid est domi cachinnorum.

You do not have to know much Latin to appreciate this poem. There are two things I love about it, its sound, and its evocation of feeling. It is completely satisfying on both fronts. And because it is so good, no English translation ever seems to do it justice. This is what Thomas Hardy makes of it:

Sirmio, thou dearest dear of strands
That Neptune strokes in lake and sea,
With what high joy from stranger lands
Doth thy old friend set foot on thee!
Yea, barely seems it true to me
That no Bithynia holds me now,
But calmly and assuringly
Around me stretchest homely Thou.

Is there a scene more sweet than when
Our clinging cares are undercast,
And, worn by alien moils and men,
The long untrodden sill repassed,
We press the pined for couch at last,
And find a full repayment there?
Then hail, sweet Sirmio; thou that wast,
And art, mine own unrivalled Fair!

Hardy was one of our great poets, but I notice that he completely ducks the final idea in Catullus’ poem, namely that of the smiling waves of the lake expressing the
laughter of home – if indeed that is what it means, for the lines are obscure. Which leads me to conclude that Catullus is a better poet than Hardy, and that you can express more in Latin than you can in English.

I have never been to Sirmio, on Lake Garda, and I doubt I ever will; but it exists in my head as a perfect place. I have never had the Sirmio-feeling, but I instinctively recognise it, and perhaps will find it in heaven.

But I have been to Gaeta. This Italian seaside town between Rome and Naples is immortalised by Virgil, who recounts that it is named after Aeneas’s nurse who was buried there. The lines come at the beginning of the seventh book of the Aeneid:

TU quoque litoribus nostris, Aeneia nutrix,
aeternam moriens famam, Caieta, dedisti;
et nunc servat honos sedem tuus ossaque nomen
Hesperia in magna, siqua est ea gloria, signat.

I have recently discovered Dryden’s verse translation of the Aeneid, in a cheap modern edition and he renders the lines thus:

And thou, o matron of immortal fame!
Here dying, to the shore hast left thy name:
Caieta still the place is called from thee,
The nurse of great Aeneas’ infancy.
Here rest thy bones in rich Hesperia’s plains:
The name (’tis all a ghost can have) remains.

It is a good translation, and it does its best to bring out the plangent nature of an immortal name. But it can’t quite capture the many-layered nature of the original. Virgil says so much in little, often subtly undercutting the apparent meaning of what he says. The Aeneid is a poem about fame; and these lines, perhaps among its most beautiful, really tell us that fame is in the end little consolation in the face of death – the exact opposite, incidentally, of the message of the Iliad, where Achilles’s short life is compensated by an eternal fame. Virgil, in my humble opinion, was wiser than Homer. That’s why he is my perennial summer reading.