Paul Gavarni’s 1843 illustration to the poem

La captive
Si je n’étais captive,
J’aimerais ce pays,
Et cette mer plaintive,
Et ces champs de maïs,
Et ces astres sans nombre,
Si le long du mur sombre
N’étincelait dans l’ombre
Le sabre des spahis.

Je ne suis point tartare
Pour qu’un eunuque noir
M’accorde ma guitare,
Me tienne mon miroir.
Bien loin de ces Sodomes,
Au pays dont nous sommes,
Avec les jeunes hommes
On peut parler le soir.

Pourtant j’aime une rive
Où jamais des hivers
Le souffle froid n’arrive
Par les vitraux ouverts,
L’été, la pluie est chaude,
L’insecte vert qui rôde
Luit, vivante émeraude,
Sous les brins d’herbe verts…

Harfaegrus Canticum, ed Sue Doe Schok (Liso University Press 2021) pp xxix + 121

For centuries the Harfaegrus poem has been known only via scattered references in other texts, a few quoted lines and a single marginalium illustration of what scholars assumed was an octopus. Now the whole text has been discovered, in a bricked-up chamber in what was (before Soviet occupation) a Czechoslovak monastery and what has been — since the fall of the old regime — a restaurant. The owner, looking to expand, knocked through and discovered a remarkable cache: painted icons, old Bibles with unusual apocrypha and…

One of those rather neglected Beatles albums: from their golden period, yet perhaps (by association with the dreadful film) seen as a lesser work. But less it isn’t.

A relistening is an interesting exercise. McCartney’s songwriting in the “Magical Mystery Tour” title track is, it now strikes me (which didn’t it strike me before?) surprisingly clanking and melodically dull. This is a repetitive cul-de-sac of a song, really. Yet it is saved, and more than saved, by its brass, its harmonies and above all by Ringo’s storming drumming. I could listen to it all day.

“The Fool on the Hill”…


Love is a difficult thing to write about, not because it manifests itself in the world in impossible ways (I mean, impossible to apprehend, impossible to reproduce in the novelistic idiom — although there may be something in this) but because love by its nature inflects so large a quantity of desire that its representation gets pulled out of shape. Love in fiction becomes the textual expression of how we desire love to be. As a result we are continually getting it wrong. I’m talking about more than the simple form, the familiar erotic-romantic fantasies where you get the…

Available from all good bookshops etc


First, some thoughts on Madeline Miller’s Circe (Lee Boudreaux US/Bloomsbury UK 2018), the follow-up to her internationally-lauded and bestselling debut, The Song of Achilles. That novel retold the story of the Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus. This new novel casts its net a little wider: Circe is our narrator, but Odysseus’s dalliance with her is only a small part of the tale’s larger ambition.

Circe is a book of two halves, of unequal quality. The first is a rattle-bag of Greek myths, from Circe’s birth, fathered by the sun-god Helios, to her witnessing first-hand the punishment…

Eugène Delacroix’s illustration of Faust seeing Helen for the first time

In Doctor Faustus, some scholar friends of the title character ask him to use his mephistophelean powers to summon Helen of Troy:

FIRST SCHOLAR. Master Doctor Faustus, since our conference
about fair ladies, which was the beautifulest in all the world,
we have determined with ourselves that Helen of Greece was the
admirablest lady that ever lived: therefore, Master Doctor, if
you will do us so much favour as to let us see that peerless
dame of Greece, whom all the world admires for majesty, we should
think ourselves much beholding unto you.

Faustus obliges, ordering his devils to bring…

Tolkien, having coined the name, then (as was his wont) invented a mock-etymology for it. But this is widely misunderstood — as for instance by Wikipedia: ‘He set out a fictional etymology for the name in an appendix to Lord of the Rings, to the effect that it was derived from holbytla (plural holbytlan), a speculative reconstruction of Old English, meaning “hole-builder”’. This isn’t right, though. Tom Shippey knows better:

Hol of course means hole. A “bottle” even now in some English place-names means a dwelling, and Old English bytlian means to dwell, to live in.

Shall I display my thin shins
By donning plus-fours, like Tintin’s?
Or would this make people cry “oh put them away!
Yours are not so nice as those drawn by Hergé”?

Lorna Sage, reviewing Romancing. The Life and Work of Henry Green (by Jeremy Treglown) some years ago:

The war saved Green. He had managed to write Party Going, a satire about the shallowness of the “flash social milieu” of which he had been a part, but it had taken him ten years. He was proud of being one of the first to join the Fire Service. A sensation of purposeful activity such as he had not felt since his early days in Birmingham, put the spring back into his step. The Blitz which Green describes in Caught was short but…

If I were to construct a university-level English Literature course on friendship, I wonder what I’d include in it? Friendship, after all, is hugely important, in life and therefore in literature.

  1. Start with Aristotle, I suppose.
  2. Wordsworth and Coleridge? I wrote a long post, a couple of years back, on Coleridge’s The Friend, which goes into that famous, bumpy partnership, and tries to theorise ‘friendship’ as such.
  3. Dickens’ Great Expectations, perhaps. Jo Gargery’s ‘ever the best of friends, old chap!’ and so on.
  4. Stevenson’s Kidnapped?
  5. Famous Five, or some other widely-read children’s book that centres friendship?

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.

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