Virgil and Durrell in Arcady:
Umbra, Penumbra, and Dark Pastoral
surgamus: solet esse gravis cantantibus umbra,
iuniperi gravis umbra; nocent et frugibus umbrae.
Let us rise. The shade is oft perilous to the singer—perilous the juniper’s shade, hurtful the shade even to the crops.i
—Virgil, Eclogue 10.75-76
Tread softly, for here you stand
On miracle ground, boy.
A breath would cloud this water of glass,
Honey, bush, berry and swallow.
This rock, then, is more pastoral, than
Arcadia is, Illyria was.ii
—Durrell, “On Ithaca Standing” (1937)
Arcady, not Arcadia. Arcadia originates from Ancient Greek, Arcady from Renaissance English.iii Although interchangeable, the variants are not equivalent. When discussing Virgil’s pastoral landscape, Robert Coleman distinguishes between the Arcadia of the Peloponnese and the Arcady of myth. He calls the latter a “state of mind”, and, as Bruno Snell argued, “Arcadia is not an area on the map.”iv Virgil first mentions Arcadia in Eclogue 7.4, but it’s unlikely he ever saw the remote area. Aelius Donatus in Vita Vergilii says that Virgil travelled to Athens and nearby Megara; he does not record a journey to Arcadia.v Lawrence Durrell, on the other hand, knew Greece intimately. He stood on Ithaca in 1937.vi He resided on Corfu, Rhodes, and Cyprus and travelled throughout Attica, the Peloponnese, and various Greek islands.
Ithaca is one version of Durrell’s Arcady. Of course he knew that the island was Odysseus’s home and the destination of his travels from Troy. Like Byron swimming across the Hellespont, Durrell may have enjoyed drawing parallels between himself and some of his literary predecessors. He cherished Greece, he pursued an Odyssean path across the Eastern Mediterranean, by accident or not, but the trajectory of his life was more Roman than Greek. He wasn’t like his friend and fellow writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, another philhellene, who divided his time between Kardamyli on the Mani Peninsula and Dumbleton, England.
Leigh Fermor and Durrell met in Cairo in 1942 and shared similar visions of Greece. In the 1930s, Henry Miller had previously befriended Durrell, and both had similar interests in the Greek experience. For all these writers, Greece became a private domain, but, unlike Byron and his historical approach, they based their vision on the present, as Edmund Keeley adduces, that is, on “what they could actually see”.vii Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi (1941) and Leigh Fermor’s Mani (1958) exemplify this method, as does Durrell’s reification of Ithaca. The new vision, however, was not as phenomenological as it might seem. Peter Green describes Leigh Fermor as undertaking a “quest for the Earthly Paradise”;viii the same could be said of Durrell and Miller, albeit in their unique ways. As Green points out, James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon (1933) coincides with Leigh Fermor’s “Great Walk” across Europe,ix and Frank Capra’s eponymous film released in 1937. Durrell and Miller saw it repeatedly in Paris;x it fed their need to find “Shangri La” in Greece or elsewhere. Elsewhere could mean either fantasy or place: either Durrell’s mythical Tibet or Miller’s Big Sur, California.xi
Durrell and Virgil have much in common. Durrell’s “rock” of pastoral is based on a personal vision of Greece and is as unsubstantial and mythic as Virgil’s invention. The two poets stand together on fictive turf and might be called “Arcades ambo” (Arcadians both [Ecl. 7.4]), if we emphasise Arcadia as Arcady, that is, as an imagined place.
Virgil was an exile from his native Andes in Cisalpine Gaul, and Durrell was a refugee from a distant and obscure past. Born in India in 1912 during the British Raj, he was sent to England for schooling at age eleven. At sixteen he was left fatherless. He never returned to India. Durrell called himself an “expatriate”xii and chose to live the last thirty three years of his life in Provence (1957 1990), where he extolled that former part of the Roman Empire in his last book, Caesar’s Vast Ghost (1990). He knew the meaning of nostalgia (“f. Gr. νóστoς return home + ’áλγoς pain” [OED]) and its artistic implications, namely, the story of a man like Aeneas who is fato profugus (exiled by fate [Aen. 1.2]). The theme of a lost home resonates throughout the works of Durrell and Virgil. In the words of Brooks Otis, “[Aeneas] is a man without a true nostos, a man who is mainly kept from his goal by his own nostalgia and passion.”xiii
The poetics of exile has its own mise en scène. Scholars usually characterise the pastoral landscape as an idealisation replete with shepherds, swains, loci amoeni, and such topoi as Ernst Robert Curtius enumerates in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.xiv Virgil’s pastoral, however, tends towards darkness as its defining feature. His bucolic scene typically begins during the heat of noon and ends in the shadows of evening. As in the conclusion to Eclogue 10, emphasis falls on umbra (shade, shadow). Erwin Panofsky famously describes “Virgil’s ideal Arcady” as a “dissonance” between “human suffering and superhumanly perfect surroundings.” It is “resolved in that vespertinal mixture of sadness and tranquility […] With only slight exaggeration one might say that he ‘discovered’ the evening.”xv Otis concurs: “Virgilian sadness or melancholy represented a new note in poetry: it was also an excellent preparative for epic.”xvi
With one qualification, those statements also apply to Lawrence Durrell, man and writer. His “surroundings” are not “superhumanly perfect”. His pastoral is not easily defined. Its physical elements vary; water and foliage are usually present but not always. It is not a separate genre but free to appear anywhere and not confined to a specific locale. It can occur on an island, a seashore, a mountain, or elsewhere. Its time and season vary and are not restricted to noon or evening, spring or summer. It is a state of consciousness, one that engenders the freedom of the interior monologue. Shadows and darkness are usually its main emotive constituents.
Durrell likes to quote Latin. The short poem “In Cairo” (1948) integrates English and Latin, as these lines illustrate: “Home for most is what you can least bear. / Ego gigno lumen, I beget the light / But darkness is also of my nature” (CP 203). He highlights the Latin, “burgled” verbatim from an obscure alchemical text of the sixteenth century, Rosarium Philosophorum, and his next line is a translation of the Latin, unquoted and unattributed: “tenebrae autem naturae meae sunt.”xvii
Durrell has many uses for obscurity, one of which is to conceal plagiarism, but it is also a major theme of his writings. Indeed, his very “nature” owes much to “darkness” (tenebrae) and links him directly to Virgil and the frequency of tenebrae in the Aeneid.xviii Durrell’s counterpart to Virgilian umbra and tenebrae is penumbra, an unusual term denoting the gray periphery of a shadow. Virgil “‘discovered’ the evening,” as Panofsky rightly notes, but Durrell continues the tradition without acknowledging his Roman legacy. In his hands, dark pastoral comes to mean not only “dissonance” but also darkness in its most personal and gloomy sense.
2. Dido, Aeneas, and Durrell
“tune ille Aeneas, quem Dardanio Anchisae
alma Venus Phrygii genuit Simoentis ad undam?”
“Are you that Aeneas whom gracious Venus bore to Dardanian Anchises by the wave of Phrygian Simois?”
—Virgil, Aeneid 1.617-18
“Cher maître, excuse me […] Be assured. Your anonymity is safe with me and with my wife. Nobody shall ever know that Lawrence Durrell is with us.”
—Durrell, Sicilian Carousel (1977)
Dido’s question pertains to identity and paternity. Those issues could also be asked of Lawrence Durrell, who often questions himself.
Like the dualism of Arcady and Arcadia, there were at least two Durrells: the writer known to the world as “Lawrence Durrell” and the person born with the name, “Lawrence George Durrell”. The former was partly fictive, the latter real. When Durrell the writer talks about himself or writes about himself, we are dealing with “Lawrence Durrell”. When Durrell the man is considered, we are dealing with “Lawrence G. Durrell”. It is often difficult to separate the two Durrells, no doubt as the author wished. In his poem “Paris Journal” (1939; CP 68), he proclaims, “The absence of a definite self”, and in “Alexandria” (1946; 154), he adds “As for me I now move / Through many negatives to what I am.” This is confusing, keeping the “negatives” straight (literal and figurative, philosophical and photographic),xix and it’s impractical to insist on the distinction, but we should keep the ambiguity in mind. In brief, Lawrence Durrell avoids confronting his own identity.
On the other hand, Lawrence George Durrell had trouble with paternity in the literal and literary senses. In 1923, his father, Lawrence Samuel Durrell, sent him to England to get an education for the purpose of obtaining a degree from an Oxbridge college. But young Durrell left public school at fifteen and failed, perhaps “deliberately”, his entrance examinations.xx Then his father died and was buried in India. It’s a common story. Not unlike many young men, Durrell rebelled against his father’s wishes and was haunted by the trauma of an “absent father”, whom he had disappointed. This pattern of refusal and denial bears a strong resemblance to Durrell’s literary relationship with Virgil. For he disguises his debt and rarely mentions Virgil.
Anxiety runs deep in Durrell’s work; Richard Pine calls it the “overriding theme”.xxi In Sicilian Carousel, a personal account of a tour of Sicily, the condition is both stratagem and undercurrent. Durrell’s disclaimer at the beginning of the book makes clear that “all the characters in this book are imaginary”. The warning surely includes the author himself, who alludes to a suggestive title, The Man Who Never Was, and who feels compelled to travel incognito.xxii The Lawrence Durrell in this book is the fictive Durrell. He tells a story and portrays himself.
Aeneas begins his journey uncertain where the Fates will lead him (“incerti, quo fata ferant” [Aen. 3.7]). So Durrell’s account begins in fear: “All my journeys start with a kind of anxious pang of doubt — you feel suddenly an orphan” (SC 21). Then, in Syracuse, a French diplomat recognises Durrell but promises to keep his secret (61). Anonymity is concealment. When the tour guide talks about “the Aeneid with its famous cruise along [the Sicilian] coast”, Durrell says, “to my shame I have never read it” (177). Such modesty is preposterous, given the rigour of the British educational system. Durrell attended schools in London and Canterbury.xxiii The traditional curriculum would have included reading the Aeneid in Latin.xxiv
Why would Durrell deny the obvious? Perhaps to obscure a painful memory. Virgil’s description of Sicily in Book 3 provides an emotional account of the death of Aeneas’s father Anchises (Aen. 3.692-715). In a sense, Anchises “abandons” his son; Otis calls the death a form of desertion.xxv Durrell last saw his father in 1926. In 1928, his father suddenly died, and he was left half an “orphan”. But he never abandoned his father. Like Aeneas carrying Anchises out of burning Troy (Aen. 2.707-804), Durrell appears to struggle with the burden of a deceased father.
The Aeneas analogy originated early in Durrell’s life. In 1942, when he was in Egypt, Nancy Myers, his first wife, left him because of physical abuse and fled to Beirut with their daughter Penelope Berengaria, then two years old.xxvi Durrell pursued the pair and unsuccessfully attempted a reconciliation in November of 1943. Michael Haag believes that the two never met.xxvii Durrell then returned to Alexandria and composed a letter to Penelope but never sent it (fig.).xxviii Durrell and Myers were divorced in 1946.
The McPherson Library at the University of Victoria (BC) acquired the letter in 1966. The holograph has illuminations reminiscent of a medieval manuscript. These drawings are not idle doodlings. Durrell was an artist of considerable skill, who later exhibited Matisse like paintings under the pseudonym of “Oscar Epfs”. The letter was undated and addressed to “Tschup Tschick”. The nickname probably refers to Penelope, although Nancy is another possibility. Durrell’s pet name for Penelope was “Pinky” or a variant, as in the poem “To Ping-Kû, Asleep” (1942; CP 103-04). The letter’s childish tone, the infantile reduplication, the need to identify himself — all suggest Durrell is speaking to Penelope, a child barely cognisant of her own world, as he does in this poem addressed to her, “Invent a language where the terms / Are smiles”.
Virgil and Durrell are subjective writers. Otis identifies Virgil’s “subjective style” and analyses how “[he] is constantly conscious of himself inside his characters.”xxix Paul Alpers agrees and emphasises Virgil’s self representation” and “self reflexiveness” in Eclogues 4, 5, 6, and 10.xxx Pastoral poetry moves from the ideal to the actual. So the Eclogues have numerous allusions to Octavian’s policies and aspects of Virgil’s own personal relationships. The milieu reflects William Empson’s argument that “literature is a social process, and also an attempt to reconcile the conflicts of an individual in whom those of society will be mirrored.”xxxi While true in the main, that statement is not true of Durrell’s treatment of literature, for he reverses the process by idealising real life situations. His starting point is opposite. This is not escapism — creating “a far away land overlaid with the golden haze of unreality”, as Snell describes Virgil’s Arcadiaxxxii — rather a form of therapy. So Durrell confides in the first part of “Cities, Plains and People” (1946): “Until your pain become a literature” (CP 159).
Literature as pain concludes the first section of the poem. Beneath the title is a note, “Beirut 1943”, which may be the approximate date of the letter to Penelope. The letter shows his imagination at work and provides an insight into his personality. If Haag is correct, Durrell and Myers never met in Beirut, and father and daughter never spent a day together “at Baalbek”. The letter’s content and marginalia are largely fantasy. The content is imaginary and valedictory, the marginalia dreamlike and surrealistic. As a character in Sicilian Carousel says, “‘We have been brought up to believe that facts are not dreams—and of course they are’” (36).
The hotel scene at the top illustrates the central motif. The building and its archaic lettering recall Phoenician Beirut, north of Tyre, Dido’s original home (Aen. 1.340). A woman on a balcony waves with outstretched arms at a figure sailing away. The scene evokes Carthage. As Haag points out, the depiction suggests the great departure episode near the end of Book 4 of the Aeneid: Aeneas abandoning Dido.xxxiii
Durrell transforms Nancy Myers into another Dido. The physical similarities, though superficial, are intriguing. Both women are blondes, both regal and beautiful. Virgil’s queen stands in her watchtower, watches Aeneas depart, and tears her hair:
regina, e speculis ut primum albescere lucem
vidit et aequatis classem procedere velis,
litoraque et vacuos sensit sine remige portus,
terque quaterque manu pectus percussa decorum
flaventisque abscissa comas […]
Soon as the queen from her watchtower saw the light whiten and the fleet move on with even sails, and knew the shores and harbours were void of oarsmen, thrice and four times she struck her comely breast with her hand, and tearing her golden hair […]
Dido’s betrayal reverberates through time. In literature, Marlowe and Nashe wrote The Tragedie of Dido Queene of Carthage (1594). In music, there were operatic renditions, among them: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689) and Berlioz’s Les Troyens (1858). The ubiquity of Dido’s story provides a precedence for Durrell dramatising himself as another Aeneas. Whether or not Myers fits Virgil’s Dido is beside the point. She certainly does not reach Dido’s epic stature. What matters is how Durrell sees himself. He portrays her as Dido because he sees himself as another Aeneas. The comparison is double edged, however: Aeneas is both hero and betrayer. And both roles fit Durrell himself. Moreover, his drawing gives truth to Otis’s observation that Virgil’s “sadness or melancholy […] was also an excellent preparative for epic.” A chastened Durrell returned to Alexandria and eventually wrote his epic, The Alexandria Quartet (1958-60). On 22 August 1944, subsequent to the Beirut episode, Durrell wrote Henry Miller and said, “I have a wonderful idea for a novel in Alexandria” (DML 174).
“mecum inter salices lenta sub vite iaceret;
serta mihi Phyllis legeret, cantaret Amyntas.
hic gelidi fontes, hic mollia prata, Lycori,
hic nemus; hic ipso tecum consumerer aevo.”
“my darling would be lying at my side among the willows, and under the creeping vine above—Phyllis plucking me flowers for a garland, Amyntas singing me songs. Here are cold springs, Lycoris, here soft meadows, here woodland; here with you, only the passage of time would wear me away.”
—Virgil, Eclogue 10.40-43
A seminal passage of gemlike concision. As Coleman comments, Virgil’s description encapsulates the locus amoenus: trees, meadows, fountains, flowers, song. Gallus, Virgil’s speaker, emphasises its primary features by repeating hic four times. The repetitions move from the ideal to the real: the last demonstrative subjects the pastoral enclave to time and decay. Gallus also alludes to abundant umbrae, for Coleman notes that willows “provided too much shade and moisture for the grapes to ripen properly”.xxxiv Chiasmus intertwines the plucking of flowers and singing of songs (legeret, cantaret) into another “garland of verse.”xxxv But beauty and elegance are not enough. It is not enough, as Alpers argues, to identify an “idyllic landscape” in terms of these features, for they are a “selective emphasis determined by individual or cultural motives, of the central fiction that shepherds’ lives represent human lives.”xxxvi
Durrell’s contribution to the tradition was not a deliberate effort to revive pastoral, to make an appeal to contemporary tastes, rather it sprung from deeply personal needs. They were indeed “dark”. His tone changed over time, but the impetus remained strong. In 1939, a young man of twenty seven, he visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford upon Avon and wrote to Henry Miller about the experience. He rhapsodised about the “radiance” of the grounds and a “trim English garden where the house stood, with green lawns, and shining little trees”. There, sitting in that patch of pleasance, Durrell had a revelation about Shakespeare. He found “THE KEY TO EVERYTHING HE WROTE” (DML 126; original capitalised). In 1975, an elderly man of sixty three, he travelled to Sicily and chanced upon the “Fountain of Arethusa”, a fixture of pastoral literature. No longer strident and exuberant, Durrell left unsaid that Theocritus, Moschus, Virgil, and Milton had made the fountain famous. Nor did the fountain inspire any revelations. Instead, he described the “jet” of the spring as still “strong” and remarked that the water was now disturbed by “a Coke bottle and a newspaper” (SC 83, 85-86). The comment was only slightly jarring; the Durrell of pastoral tendencies was not frustrated by a little litter. The litter, in fact, places him squarely in what Alpers calls “modern pastoral”, a revision of Classical and Renaissance modes.xxxvii
Sicilian Carousel isDurrell’s fourth island book and “recounts” an organised tour of Sicily. The “Carousel” is a “little red bus” (SC 39) that circles the island, clockwise, from Catania to Taormina. The name is also a metaphor for a circle. Durrell’s last published poem is titled “Le cercle refermé” (1990). He tends to associates circles with dying. Sicilian Carousel concludes with a mock death or disappearance.
The book is Durrell’s definitive work on pastoral, as it should be, for Sicily was the home of Theocritus and the traditional birthplace of bucolic poetry. Virgil situates the second Eclogue on the island (Ecl. 2.21). Durrell’s book is supposedly a travel piece, but it’s mainly a piece of fiction that incorporates several pastoral conventions. The narrative doesn’t employ any shepherds, which Alpers considers requisite for Virgilian pastoral,xxxviii but Durrell maintains a steady dialogue with “Deeds”, a fellow tourist, who functions as the author’s conscience and sounding board. The friendly exchanges between the two companions resembles the “amoebaean contests” of Eclogues 3 and 7 and also serves to heighten the author’s responsiveness to the island. Durrell’s countryside has the conventional flora and fauna of the Eclogues: “the fastnesses of oak and beech” (68) correspond to “densas, umbrosa cacumina, fagos” (the thick beeches with their shady summits [Ecl. 2.3]); “the drone of bees and the sharp stridulations of the cicada” (53) echo “sole sub ardenti resonant arbusta cicadis” (the copses under the burning sun echo the shrill cicadas [Ecl. 2.13]). Through old letters Durrell communicates with the ghost of a beautiful woman, Martine, whose presence hovers like a Virgilian shade, and at the end of the story, a travelling companion, Beddoes, fakes his suicide. Martine and Beddoes are possibly examples of the trope: et in Arcadia ego. More importantly, Durrell’s dark ambience is Virgilian. He begins his Sicilian journey as the plane descends into an evening that “seemed to be rising from the ground like a faint grey smoke”; he ends it as dawn breaks over the Ionian Sea with a “strange watery moonlight” (26, 218).
Much of Durrell’s oeuvre lies between the “radiance” of Stratford upon Avon and the shadows of Sicily. The antinomies are not antagonistic. They coexist. Largely situated along the Mediterranean littoral, Durrell’s bucolic adaptations make him a true descendant of Virgil and his twilight preferences.
Latin umbra (shade, shadow, ghost), as Fiona Cox points out, resounds throughout Virgil and influences Dante’s Inferno and Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil (1945).xxxix Latinate penumbra has a similar resonance in Durrell; he uses the term most notably as “penumbra of shadow”. His first memoir, Prospero’s Cell, completed in 1944 when he was thirty-two, begins with a hymn near the coast of Corfu:
In the morning you wake to the taste of snow on the air, and climbing the companion ladder, suddenly enter the penumbra of shadow cast by the Albanian mountains. (11)
His last book, Caesar’s Vast Ghost, published shortly before he died in 1990, opens with a drive along the back roads of Provence:
Swerving downs those long dusty roads among the olive groves, down the shivering galleries of green leaf I came, diving from penumbra to penumbra of shadow, feeling that icy contrast of sunblaze and darkness under the ruffling planes, plunging like a river trout in rapids from one pool of shadows to the next, the shadows almost icy in comparison with the outer sunshine and hard metalled blue sky.xl
This psychic landscape, a pleasance in miniature, shivers and swelters, blazes and darkens. The confusion is intentional, not illogical. It is also characteristic of a mental state which balances opposing emotions. This state will be further discussed in section 5.
On occasion Virgil varies his diction to include Latin colloquialisms and Greek proper nouns. Coleman says these “must have been very piquant to contemporary readers”.xli Durrell’s diction has a similar “piquant” or odd flavour. The noun penumbra denotes “the partially shaded region around the shadow of an opaque body” (OED). The first recorded instance of the term is in 1604, when Kepler uses it in an astronomical context. This is not, however, the primary sense of Durrell’s usage. He often uses the term to mean “shadow” in the broadest sense — a nebulous condition suggestive of a state of mind. Leigh Fermor also uses penumbra in this context when describing his exhaustion after travelling in the Mani.xlii Thus, Durrell’s “penumbra of shadow” marks the beginning and the end of his travel literature. The repetition indicates a deliberate rounding of the genre. The usage is redundant — but effective — and not unlike Ezra Pound’s “cadaverous dead” in “Canto I”. Both poets exploit the sonority of Latin at the expense of good sense.
4. Hortus Conclusus
I think of Melissa once more: hortus conclusus, soror mea sponsor.
—Durrell, Justine (1957)
Unlike the rose garden of the Virgin Mary, the locus conclusus of chastity untrammeled and protected, the locus amoenus of the pastoral carries with it no symbolic overtones, no weight of significance.xliii
—Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, The Green Cabinet
Rosenmeyer’s statement is true of the classical tradition but not of Lawrence Durrell. Although Durrell’s idea of pleasance owes much to classical antecedents, his special sense of penumbra also characterises his approach to pastoral and its subset the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden. Durrell’s garden does have “symbolic” or psychological “overtones”.
When Darley, one of Durrell’s alter egos, thinks of his mistress Melissa as a hortus conclusus, he indulges in a lot of irony, the levels of which are uncertain. The confusion, however, is consistent with Durrell’s method. First, Darley’s memory is faulty.xliv The noun should be sponsa, not sponsor. Durrell had the opportunity to correct this mistake in the revised 1962 edition of The Alexandria Quartet — he did not.xlv The Latin verse is from the Vulgate version of The Song of Songs; it correctly reads, “hortus conclusus soror mea sponsa” (AV: “A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse”).xlvi Second, Melissa is a cabaret prostitute. She is neither an “enclosed garden” (in Rosenmeyer’s sense of being chaste and protected), a “sister”, nor a “spouse”. As Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch explain, “‘sister’” in Hebrew poetry “suggests intimacy”.xlvii Third, whether Durrell was aware of these possibilities is problematic. What isn’t doubtful is that incest is one of his persistent themes,xlviii and Melissa is quite possibly being co-opted, however inappropriately, into a complex pattern of incestuous behaviour. Durrell’s use of pastoral is often messy.
Messiness leads to obscurity. In Sicilian Carousel, Durrell acknowledges the Homeric origin of the “Greek garden” and quotes an unidentified translation of Alcinous’s garden that includes “vineyard”, “row of trees”, and “garden plots”(Od. 7.113ff.). Then he speculates: “In the culture which followed each plant and flower had its story, its link with the mythopœic inner nature of man” (70). The orderly layout of this garden is similar to Calypso’s (Od. 5.63ff.). As Norman Austin notes, her garden “is a carefully constructed ideal landscape set in concentric balance.”xlix This is not Durrell’s garden, ideal or real. His hortus conclusus, like his use of penumbra, relies on a lack of definition. Durrell’s idea of pleasance is basically disorderly, unruly, and rundown and often conveys a feeling of limitless desolation.
Examples of Durrell’s garden proliferate throughout his oeuvre. A typical description appears in Clea (1960), the last novel of The Alexandria Quartet:
“An old house […] its cracked and faded shutters tightly fastened […] The gardens desolate and untended. Only the little figures on the wall move their celluloid wings — scarecrows which guard against the Evil Eye. The silence of complete desuetude. But then the whole countryside of Egypt shares this melancholy feeling of having been abandoned, allowed to run to seed, to bake and crack and moulder under the brazen sun.”l
And another in Monsieur (1974), first novel of The Avignon Quintet:
“It is through this little garden with its kitchen herbs that one can reach the more extensive formal gardens of the chateau—for so long fallen into disrepair […] It is difficult to imagine how they must have looked in their heyday. Ever since I knew them they have remained overgrown and unweeded, full of the romantic melancholy of desuetude.”li
These are not literary exercises. They also describe Durrell’s own garden in Sommières, France. In 1975, Ian S. MacNiven, the author’s future biographer, visits the home in Provence. In his “search for the real Lawrence Durrell,” he draws the following parallel:
“Garden is not the right word: Enchanted Forest better describes the surroundings of Durrell’s Castle Perilous. Readers of Prospero’s Cell may recall that on Count D’s property “the walks are unkept and the trees unpruned,” and Durrell — Count Durrell — too has let nature run wild. Brambles ten feet tall and other secondary growth have taken over what was once a formal garden with paths, boxwood hedges, plots of palm trees, mimosas, ferns, and statuary.”lii
MacNiven doesn’t use “melancholy” and “desuetude”, common terms of Durrell’s garden topos, but he notes that Durrell “lives in perpetual twilight” and concludes, “I picture him in the gloomy house and tangled, bird infested garden.”
Durrell dwells on “melancholy” and “desuetude” and opens himself (or his persona) to the charge of sentimentality or a macabre sensibility. He anticipates the objection by calling his usage “romantic”, although gothic is more accurate. The real question, however, is why he dwells on these emotive terms and scenes. They clearly appeal to his love of the exotic and Latinate diction. They also have a particular context, and underlying them is the sense of abandonment without hope of relief. That is the force of the passage taken from Clea, where the narrator extends the “silence of complete desuetude” and the “melancholy feeling of having been abandoned” to encompass an entire Egyptian “countryside”.
In the Quartet, Durrell rarely describes Upper Egypt. He situates his imagined landscapes in the Delta, which, unlike the Nile Valley and its escarpments, has no prominent boundaries. Lower Egypt is flat, limitless, and monotonous. Long ago Herodotus recognised Egypt as the “gift of the river” and emphasised the sharp contrast between the Upper and Lower regions (Hdt. 2.5-8).
The Nile Valley and the Delta may have had a decisive effect on Durrell’s psychology and reinforced his Manichaean tendencies, the tension between light and darkness. Furthermore, as Otis says about Virgil, Durrell’s language is ultimately subjective. It inevitably leads to his statement about the “mythopœic inner nature of man”, even though we must grant him his own method of mythmaking, a form of which is his preference for abandoned gardens. Recall the various uses of abandon: Anchises abandons Aeneas, Aeneas abandons Dido, Durrell abandons Penelope, and Lawrence S. Durrell abandons his son Lawrence G. Durrell.
“O Meliboee, deus nobis haec otia fecit.”
“O Meliboeus, it is a god who gave us this peace.”
—Virgil, Eclogue 1.6
It is not peace we seek but meaning.
—Durrell, “The Reckoning” (1971)
Otium is a staple of Latin pastoral. Rosenmeyer calls it both “condition” and “ethos”, and it is usually glossed as “leisure” or “peace”. The opposite of labour, otium is a state of being at rest, as Rosenmeyer explains.liii In Virgil’s Eclogues, the shepherds enjoy this condition which enables leisure and calm reflection.
Otium, however, is not a staple of Durrell’s pastoral. Indeed, peace seems alien to his world, and he looks for a substitute, either through some kind of spirituality or equanimity, which is a balance of conflicting emotions. “The Reckoning” is not a pastoral lyric, but it provides a comment on a rare word in Durrell’s vocabulary — peace as peacefulness. Undoubtedly, the absence of peace prompts his statement—which sounds like sour grapes — and that condition exists from the beginning of his poetic career.
In 1890, when W. B. Yeats was a man of twenty five, he published “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, a pastoral lyric, which describes the poet building a cabin in a lush “bee loud glade” (l.4). The island retreat soothes and softens: “peace comes dropping slow” (l. 5), and bright light either “glimmer[s]” or “glow[s]” (l. 7).liv In 1931, Durrell, a brash youth of nineteen, published “Pioneer”, his detailed subversion of Yeats’s poem.lv There the young poet builds his house in an “arid” and rocky “wilderness” (ll. 1 2). In that mountain retreat, the tranquillity of Yeats’s “deep heart’s core” (l. 12) becomes “Only a living strife / Calling me back from this core of desolation” (ll. 12-13; CP 17). These two locales provide a stark contrast in pastoral psychology: Yeats’s “core” is peaceful, whereas Durrell’s is desolate.
If not otium, then ataraxía. The closest that Durrell gets to peace is the kind of calm associated with Epicurean tranquillity (ataraxía). The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) had his garden, and his school in Athens was called “the Garden”. Virgil studied under the Epicurean philosopher Siro.lvi Latin otium is defined positively, by direct reference to a certain condition, but Greek ataraxía is defined negatively, by indirect reference to what it is not (“ad. Gr. ἀτραξία impassiveness, f. ἀ privative [negative affix] + ταράςς-ειν to disturb” [OED]). It is the absence of pain and emotional disturbance. Like the meaning of ataraxía, Durrell’s sense of peace is difficult to define. It is easier to say what it is not than what it is. It is certainly not peacefulness, nor is it a “core of desolation”. It is something in between.
Durrell’s stay on Cyprus typifies his struggles. In 1953, Cyprus was British territory. Durrell went to the island in search of a quiet place to live and write; instead, he became enmeshed in political and emotional turmoil. Enosis, the movement to join the island with Greece, erupted into open conflict, and his position as Director of Information Services of the Cyprus (British) Government damaged his friendship with the poet George Seferis and other Greek intellectuals. The rebellion required that he carry a pistol; Greek terrorists bombed his garage. As events deteriorated, his second marriage to Yvette Cohen neared dissolution, and a third relationship with Claude Marie Vincendon Forde began in earnest. The political situation eventually forced him to leave the island in 1956. He wrote about some of those experiences in Bitter Lemons (1957), his most famous memoir. Even under these circumstances, he still wrote poetry and fiction: The Tree of Idleness and Other Poems (1955), White Eagles over Serbia (1957), an espionage novel, and Justine (1957), first novel of the Quartet. This extraordinary productivity suggests that unrest is sometimes an essential precondition for creativity. But irony and loneliness pursued him. Durrell bought a house and lived for a while in a village outside Kyrenia called Bellapaix (beautiful peace). But otium was impossible. The short poem “Bitter Lemons” (1955), serves as his coda to the island retreat on Cyprus:
In an island of bitter lemons
Where the moon’s cool fevers burn
From the dark globes of the fruit,
And the dry grass underfoot
Tortures memory and revises
Habits half a lifetime dead
Better leave the rest unsaid,
Beauty, darkness, vehemence
Let the old sea nurses keep
Their memorials of sleep
And the Greek sea’s curly head
Keep its calms like tears unshed
Keep its calms like tears unshed.
As in much of Durrell’s poetry, darkness competes with light, obscurity with comprehension, and what is “unsaid” with what is said. The antinomies are balanced, and the result is a moment of poetic ataraxía. The condition resembles the previously discussed beginning of Caesar’s Vast Ghost, where a “trout in rapids” jumps from light to darkness, “from one pool of shadows to the next”. Durrell’s trout is “in rapids” because, like the poet himself in “Bitter Lemons”, it swims in a watery turmoil and seems to seek some kind of balance.
“Bitter Lemons” is a great poem and deserves close analysis. The lyric concludes a book about political upheaval and broken friendships, but the poem itself is quiet and anonymous. No sounds of warfare in the background, no names divulged, no details given. It is not an example of Imagism and lacks the “precision” and “hitting power” Durrell saw in T. S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s poetry.lvii The poem’s power lies elsewhere and relies on a darkening of Virgilian pastoral: night instead of day, aridity instead of verdure, seascape instead of landscape, sorrow instead of melancholy, and loneliness instead of companionship.
Durrell situates his pastoral scene on unnamed Cyprus, the “island of bitter lemons”, and places an unidentified speaker on an unidentified headland overlooking the Mediterranean, misidentified as “the Greek sea”. The time is not the usual noontime of pastoral, when otium prevails, rather it is night with a luminous moon and eerie phenomena. We may ask how the “moon’s cool fevers” can “burn”, and we may wonder how lemons, which should be bright yellow in moonlight, can be “dark globes”.
Strange things happen under the influence of Durrell’s moon. His moon is uncanny. In Sicilian Carousel, a young, naked blonde takes a late night stroll in “white milky light” (173). In Balthazar, the moon is maleficent: “Each of us, like the moon, had a dark side — could turn the lying face of ‘unlove’ towards the person who most loved and needed us” (AlQ 297). The analogy is ambiguous and inaccurate. Durrell’s moon is supernatural and defies science, for earth and moon have synchronised rotations, and the “dark side” of the moon never turns to face the earth. “Unlove” is unusual and serves as a euphemism for hate. Why it has a “lying face” is unclear. Or why should moonlit grass “torture memory”?
We may also inquire about the identity of the “old sea nurses”. The Sirens lived by the sea, but they were not the nurturing type; more likely, the nymphs are the Nereids, who could subdue rough seas, but they were not wizened, if that’s what “old” means, nor were they known to “keep / Their memorials of sleep”. All these changes suggest that the speaker “revises” a great deal. Then there are the big abstractions — “Beauty, darkness, vehemence” — which hang disembodied in the air like Virgil’s “tristes umbrae” (Aen. 5.734), the gloomy shades of Tartarus. Although it is nighttime, the weird situation resembles, as Rosenmeyer remarks about pastoral, “the belief that supernatural beings are most likely to be encountered during the noon hour.”lviii
The ambiguity of “Bitter Lemons” is a subterfuge; it avoids directly confronting unpleasantness. And it is apotropaic; it wards off evil much as “the little figures” on the garden wall of the house in the Egyptian Delta “guard against the Evil Eye”. Virgil mentions it in Eclogue 3.103, and Durrell’s references to the superstition proliferate throughout his oeuvre. He usually describes the evil eye in terms of protective devices, blue or green objects, such as beads or amulets. These occurrences are not simply evidence of ethnographic curiosity, for Durrell was superstitious. In Justine, he describes the “blue imprints of juvenile hands” on the walls of a brothel as a “talisman” against the evil eye (AlQ 42), and the illustration on the dust jacket of the 1957 Faber edition consists of the imprint of a blue hand. Another form of apotropaic behaviour is to avoid talking about something for fear of “jinxing it”. Figuratively speaking, Durrell’s “Bitter Lemons” avoids eye contact; it averts its gaze and eschews direct associations. To unlock the code we must look into Durrell’s life.
“Beauty, darkness, vehemence” alludes to Yvette Cohen, Durrell’s second wife, whom he called Eve.lix At the end of his book on Rhodes, Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953), he recapitulates his friendships on the island and acknowledges “the dark vehement grace of E.” Yvette was indeed dark, passionate, and beautiful. Durrell dedicated Justine to her: “To EVE, these memorials of her native city.” Memorials are usually thought of as monuments to the dead, and the poem’s “memorials of sleep” has morbid connotations.
The music of “Bitter Lemons” lulls and calms. The rhymes are sweet, seductive, and repetitive: keep/sleep/keep/keep offset by dead/unsaid/head/unshed/unshed. The vowels swing from high front [i] to mid-front [ε] and come to final rest on the dead/unshed rhyme. The last two lines replicate the sound of waves and locate the situation at the seashore: “Keep its calms like tears unshed / Keep its calms like tears unshed.” The balance between “keep” and “unshed” suggests a similar equanimity in the poet himself, who stands poised on a headland above the immense deep, either Virgil’s “vastum maris aequor” (Aen. 2.780) or Horace’s “ingens aequor” (Carm. 1.7.32). But the calm is only momentary, for the “Greek sea’s curly head” will not keep its “calms” forever, and Durrell himself, as happens so often in his life and work, seems on the verge of a leap into a vast unknown.
6. Dark Pastoral
“omnia vel medium fiat mare. vivite silvae:
praeceps aërii specula de montis in undas
deferar; extremum hoc munus morientis habeto.
“Nay, let all become mid ocean! Farewell, ye woods! Headlong from some towering mountain peak I will throw myself into the waves; take this as my last dying gift!”
—Virgil, Eclogue 8.58-60
The sad little island of Lefkas (or Santa Maura) has little to interest the modern traveller at its northern end, where its position vis-à-vis the mainland suggests a vermiform appendix.
—Durrell, The Greek Islands (1978)
Three points need to be emphasised. First, Durrell’s version of Virgilian pastoral is “dark” because of what it conceals. He uses darkness as a cover or screen. Images and paradoxes such as “dark crystal”, “dark globes”, “dark side” of the moon, or “penumbra of shadow” are sometimes deliberate, always repetitive, and occasionally redundant. Repetition is a major aspect of his style. Second, his explanations are often contorted, ingenious, and unconvincing. His contortions reveal the real substance of his arguments. Third, he makes mistakes, either errors of fact or errors of omission. His mistakes are as important as his explanations, perhaps more so.
“The sad little island” is where Sappho died, according to tradition, and a “vermiform appendix” is little and uninteresting, until it ruptures and causes death. “Little things sometimes make big differences”, as Durrell says in his letter to Tschup Tschick.
Virgil’s distraught Damon alludes to Sappho’s leap off a cliff on Lefkas. Her suicide is the classical paradigm for Durrell’s obsession with suicide or self extinction. In The Greek Islands, he visits the island of Lefkas in the Ionian, which is a true “Greek sea”, apparently stands on the “White Cliffs”, and relates part of the legend of “the Sapphic jump”.lx He avoids mentioning, either deliberately or unconsciously, the reason for her suicide — her love of Phaon.
Durrell reprises numerous versions of this leap in his poetry and fiction. They usually have four elements in common: they appear at a critical point in the story; they have a pastoral or wilderness setting; they occur on some kind of a promontory; and they terminate with a plunge or voyage into darkness or the deep blue. The usage is deliberate. In Sicilian Carousel, Durrell spoofs the trope when Beddoes, a character with all the charm and attractiveness of a death’s head (41, 216), avoids the police by faking his suicide. He plans to “jump” into the caldera of Mount Etna (217). Three other examples follow.
In the poem “Matapan” (1943), Durrell recounts his wartime flight from Greece to Crete and to an unknown future in Egypt. Matapan is the southernmost projection of mainland Greece, a jumping off point into the Sea of Crete. His ship passes by the tip of the wild Mani peninsula and proceeds down a “corridor of darkness” (CP 116). In The Greek Islands, he recalls that journey: “Cape Matapan (ancient Taenaron) was the very last toe hold on the peninsula; after that the black bitumen of the night sea which took us to Cythera” (106). “Black bitumen” is as redundant and nonsensical as “white snow”. Bitumen is a form of petroleum and has many uses, one of which the Ancient Egyptians employed as an ingredient in mummification. Durrell “loathed” his stay in Egypt (DML 320), and it’s reasonable to assume he considered it an “Egyptian Death”, analogous to the “English Death” he makes famous in The Black Book (1938).
In the allegorical novel The Dark Labyrinth (1947), Durrell traps a group of British tourists in a labyrinth on Crete and subjects them to various fates. One of these characters is Campion, an artist who resembles Durrell himself. Campion is on a mission to paint the graves of British military on the island. His only escape from the labyrinth is to jump with his companion, Virginia Dale, from a ledge several hundred feet above the sea. They strip naked, jump together, and Campion “felt himself turning over and over as his body was poured down the ladder of blueness.”lxi Then Campion/Durrell literally disappears from the narrative. Virginia Dale survives the fall. An abbot reports that a novice sees “‘a woman falling out of the sky’” but no one else (261). Campion leaps and vanishes into “blueness”. Blue is Durrell’s favourite colour (so begins Prospero’s Cell: “Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins”), and, at his wake in 1990, he was laid out in a “blue jacket”.lxii Jumping into “blueness” suggests absorption into an infinite unknown.
White Eagles over Serbia (1957) is a thriller in the manner of John Buchan’s novels. During the early years of the Cold War, British Intelligence dispatches Methuen to Yugoslavia to aid a Royalist band called “The White Eagles”. The rebels are hiding in the “fastnesses” of the Balkan mountains. Methuen joins the band and becomes involved in transporting a treasure. At a mountain pass, Communist troops ambush the White Eagles. Methuen escapes down the wall of a canyon and watches the rebels tumble into the lake below: “It was strange to see how slowly objects seem to fall as they reached the level of the ledge upon which he stood, turning over and over and giving the impression of trying to unfold in space as they traveled towards the dark below.”lxiii Later he recalls the incident: “Once more in his mind’s eye he saw those toppling, turning figures spinning slowly down into the icy fastness of the great lake […] and ignominious death in the fastnesses of Serbia” (192-93).
These two passages are odd in form, content, and purpose. Fastness as “security from invasion, difficulty of access; safety, strength” is obsolete and another instance of Durrell’s odd diction. The OED’s last citation of this usage derives from Dryden’s 1697 translation of the Aeneid (s.v. “fastness,” 5). Aside from the dubious paradox of death being “ignominious” yet insuring “icy fastness”, both shameful and secure, the simulation of slow motion cinematography reveals an unusual preoccupation with falling and dying. These passages also, as well as the previous examples, contrast markedly with the intent to avoid confronting some obscure fear.
Why fixation? Why avoidance? These obvious questions lead to another classical paradigm — the Medusa. Durrell’s use of the myth is another key to his use of Virgilian pastoral.
In The Greek Islands, Durrell offers an extensive interpretation of the Medusa pediment in the Corfu Museum (31-35). He confronts the Gorgon, stands “face to face” with the monster — “the insane grin, the bulging eyes, the hissing ringlets of snake like hair, the spatulate tongue” — and struggles to explain the origin of the myth. His is a “free interpretation,” as he admits, but he doesn’t acknowledge that he again “revises” something to suit his own needs.
He commits two flagrant errors. Medusa was not “the mother of the Gorgons”, as he claims; she was one of three sisters known by that name. He is also wrong about her early history and gives a misleading version of the account in Hesiod’s Theogony: “In Hesiod’s poem, [Medusa] fell in love with the rippling blue hair of Poseidon and gave herself to him in the depths of the sea.” The paraphrase flows seductively, but Hesiod actually says “With her alone the dark haired one [Poseidon] lay down in a soft meadow among spring flowers.”lxiv Durrell has a fondness for the colour blue and watery immersion. “Blue hair” may approximate “dark haired”, but “depths of the sea” does not equal “soft meadow”. He doesn’t recount; he darkens.
Durrell studied Freudian theory and was surely aware of the psychoanalytic interpretation of Medusa’s severed head as a manifestation of the “castration complex”. But he alters the usual psychoanalytic interpretation. The snakes on her head are not Freud’s “multiplication of penis symbols”.lxv Instead, he interprets the Medusa as a representation of madness: “On the distorted face of the Gorgon we see something like an attack of acute schizophrenia. (She foundered in the ocean of the subconscious as symbolized by her love affair with Poseidon).” Durrell knew well that look of “acute schizophrenia”, for Yvette Cohen was diagnosed as schizophrenic in January of 1953. He also repeats the error about Poseidon’s affair with Medusa and introduces another element — the “subconscious.”
These alterations raise other questions. As Margaret Homans has shown in her discussion of Wuthering Heights, an author may repress some aspect of reality or “something else” that he or she finds threatening. Ultimately, that “something else” may be “inherently unnamable”.lxvi An “unnamable something” haunts Durrell’s writings. Does he repress and sublimate? Exactly what? Does he commit a “Freudian slip” and use Poseidon as a screen for himself and the Gorgon as one for Yvette Cohen? And if Yvette is Medusa, Durrell’s “mother of the Gorgons”, does that make their daughter Sappho Jane a Gorgon? We know this for certain — Sappho Jane was highly unstable. She had at least two nervous breakdowns and hanged herself in 1985 at the age of thirty three. Father and daughter had a troubled relationship, and Sappho sought psychiatric help.lxvii She objected to his mistreatment of women and identified too closely with her father’s works, where incest and suicide are prominent themes. In her journal she even accused him of “committing a kind of mental incest”.lxviii Since schizophrenia is potentially hereditary, Durrell may have thought of Sappho (unconsciously or not) as a “Gorgon”, in the sense that she inherited her mother’s mental illness and that he found her threatening.
Durrell deflects such questions by offering a bizarre interpretation of the Medusa myth — a failed religious experience causes Medusa’s “schizophrenia”. The snakes represent Yogic enlightenment gone awry: “The hissing hair symbolizes a short circuit, a discharge of electricity — ideas which have overwhelmed her mind.” Medusa’s head represents an attempt to “yoke […] two primordial forces,” which are undefined. On the decapitation, he says “Perseus, head turned away, performs a clumsy act of exorcism”; nevertheless, “the old fear of madness is still there, still rivets us; the glare of a lunatic still turns us to stone.” Durrell even manages to bring in the evil eye and apotropaic blue beads: “Can we see her [Medusa] then as something like our modern charms against the Evil Eye — the blue beads we find affixed to the dashboard of taxis or the prams of small children?” He concludes: “The old Gorgon reminds us of the […] dangers which must be faced in order to achieve full selfhood.” However ingenious, his explanation is pure lunacy and a good illustration of what he explains — avoidance, fixation, and exorcism as literature. Durrell had his demons. Richard Pine may have had this method in mind when he comments on Durrell reading his own poetry: “Apprehension is the keynote; schizophrenia the suggestion.”lxix
7. Farewell Arcady
ite domum saturae, venit Hesperus, ite capellae.
Get home, my full fed goats, get home—the Evening Star draws on.
—Virgil, Eclogue 10.77
Then the long wait by a strange watery moonlight until an oven lid started to open in the east and the “old shield bearer” stuck its nose over the silent sea […] I reflected how lucky I was to have spent so much of my life in the Mediterranean—to have so frequently seen these incomparable dawns, to have so often had sun and moon both in the sky together.
—Durrell, Sicilian Carousel
Coleman says that Virgil’s last words in Eclogue 10 are his “farewell to the genre”.lxx The poet’s departure is final. He leaves on a “despondent note”, Coleman suggests, yet he conveys satiety and quietly recedes into the umbrae of evening. Durrell, on the other hand, never abandons his various uses of the genre. His farewell is a final farewell from an unruly garden in Sommières, the “last goodbye” of “Le cercle refermé” (1990).
In 1977, he concludes his book on Sicily by welcoming another day of struggle. The sun as “old shield bearer” may be the God of Psalm 84:11 — the God of protection and conflict, “the Lord of hosts”. Relief comes with the concurrence of “sun and moon both in the sky together”. He is happiest or luckiest during moments of ambiguity, suspended opposition, when he is like a trout “diving from penumbra to penumbra of shadow”.
Durrell’s moments of peace occur fitfully. Virgil concludes his final Eclogue in the guise of a shepherd, withdraws peacefully into the evening, and goes on to other endeavours, as his legendary epitaph records: “cecini pascua rura duces” (I sang of pastures, fields, leaders).lxxi Virgil’s progression is linear (or so it seems), Durrell’s is circular. “Le cercle refermé” is the title of his last poem; it serves as his epitaph and appears at the end of his last book, Caesar’s Vast Ghost. The poem does not convey a sense of final fulfillment; it does not refer to literary accomplishments, rather to shadowy details of his own vita. It begins in Benares with “Boom of the sunset gun”, the holiest city of India and a place he probably never visited, refers to cremations and “Corpses floating skyward”, portrays himself as “Caressed by my heliocentric muse / With lunar leanings,” and ends (presumably) in Sommières, Provence:
Love babies nourished by the sigh,
With little thought of joy or pain,
Or the spicy Kodak of the hangman’s brain
A disenfranchised last goodbye,
The “love babies” could be his two daughters. The “hangman’s brain” may refer to suicide — Sappho Jane’s or thoughts of his own. Or it could refer to “The Hanged Man” in the Tarot and the subject of an early poem, “The Hanged Man” (1939). We can never be certain what Durrell intends.
“Disenfranchised” recalls a scene from Mountolive, the third novel of The Alexandria Quartet. Mountolive’s father has abandoned his family and lives as a Buddhist scholar in an Indian monastery. He dutifully sends to his wife in England copies of his “work”. In the preface to his translation of a “Pali text”, he writes:
“For those of us who stand upon the margins of the world, as yet unsolicited by any God, the only truth is that work itself is Love.” (AlQ 467)
As the son remarks, the statement is “odd”, without explaining why, for eloquence conceals something questionable: the rationalisation that work substitutes for love and that “Love” itself is an abstraction. The father’s books are really an offering, an apology to an abandoned wife and son. This is not unlike Durrell’s poem of farewell and his “disenfranchised last goodbye”. “Le cercle refermé” may be a sad apology from an absent and marginalised father: an apologia to one surviving daughter, Penelope Berengaria, to a deceased daughter, Sappho Jane, and, possibly, to his readers and admirers.
That apology, if it is one, is Virgilian in tone: concise, modest, devoted. Pius, if you will, pious or dutiful, as in “pius Aeneas” (Aen. 1.305), and imbued with the nebulousness of “sunt lacrimae rerum” (there are tears of things[Aen. 1.462]). This is not necessarily the Virgil of literary deeds, but more like the legendary Virgil, true or not, who on his deathbed requested that the manuscript of his unfinished Aeneid be burned. This is Hermann Broch’s Virgil. On his bier, Durrell wore a “slight smile”, his inevitable “blue jacket”, and Sappho Jane’s scarf “knotted about his neck”.lxxii “Above all, Virgil is European”,says George Steiner and further comments that Virgil is a major predecessor of Modernism and that Broch (1886-1951) is one of its major exponents.lxxiii Durrell belongs in this tradition.
Was Virgil’s artistic development linear? Was he simply a perfectionist and didn’t want anything less than a perfect Aeneid? He of course had the advantage of biographical impoverishment. Unlike Lawrence Durrell, he didn’t give over one hundred interviews and have two full scale biographies written about him — with a third underway.lxxiv Still, we know much but understand little. Which comes back to Virgil. Even if we must concur with Theodore Ziolkowski “that Broch knew little and cared less about the historical Virgil, using him merely as a figure upon which to impose his own views and concerns”,lxxv it’s pleasing to pretend, as Broch does, that Virgil was deeply troubled. He too had doubts about himself and the worth of his accomplishments.
No matter Broch’s views of Virgil and the projection of his personal philosophy on the Roman poet, themood and ambience of The Death of Virgil are Virgilian and consistent with Durrell’s vision of dark pastoral. The novel begins by entering a crepuscular world of Virgilian umbrae and never leaves until perhaps twenty-four hours later.lxxvi “Steel blue and light” (“Stahlblau und leicht”) are the first words of the novel. They describe the colour and serenity of the Adriatic but also characterise the half light of the approaching evening, where, we learn later, “the mirror of sky and the mirror of sea [are] merging to a single essence.”lxxvii Those same words — “steel-blue and light ”— recur near the conclusion.lxxviii Broch’s Virgil spends his last hours in perpetual twilight. The novel ends by circling back to the beginning (“the end was the beginning”)lxxix and so anticipates Durrell’s “le cercle refermé” and hislast book’s“penumbra of shadow”.Although Durrell would surely have felt uncomfortable with Broch’s final vision of the unity of all things, with its Christian overtones and composure, both writers have a common sensibility. Broch’s Virgil progresses through stages of understanding. At the end, he sees the “crystal of unity” at the heart of the cosmos, and then he sees that crystal become “just the darkest radiation”. His vision, as transformed through a Hindu “third eye”, becomes the experience of “the seeing blindness”.lxxx Durrell could agree with that. His “dark crystal” is similar, although much darker.
i Virgil: Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid I-VI, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, rev. G. P. Gould (Cambridge, MA 1999), p. 95. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations and translations of the Latin are, with minor adaptations, from the Loeb edition of Virgil’s works.
ii Lawrence Durrell, Collected Poems: 1931-1974, ed. James A. Brigham (London, 1980), p. 203. Hereafter cited as CP in text.
iii Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. , svv. “Arcadian” and “Arcady.”
iv Virgil: Eclogues, ed. Robert Coleman (Cambridge, 1977), pp. 207-09, 296; Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature, trans. Thomas G. Rosenmeyer (1953; New York, 1982), p. 283.
v The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years, ed. Jan M. Ziolkowski and Michael C. J. Putnam (New Haven, 2008), p. 193.
vi Brewster Chamberlin, A Chronology of the Life and Times of Lawrence Durrell: Homme de Lettres (Corfu, 2007), p. 18. I base all dates of Durrell’s life on Chamberlin’s Chronology.
vii Edmund Keeley, Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-47 (New York, 1999), pp. 121-22.
viii Peter Green, “Man of gifts,” review of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper, Times Literary Supplement, no. 5720 (November 16, 2012): 14.
ix Green, p. 15.
x Joanna Hodgkin, Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage: Nancy and Lawrence Durrell (London, 2012), p. 217.
xi For Tibet as myth, see The Durrell-Miller Letters: 1935-80, ed. Ian S. MacNiven (New York, 1988), pp. 51 52, 76. Subsequent references appear in text as DML. For Big Sur as paradise, see Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (New York, 1957), pp. 24-26.
xii The Big Supposer: Lawrence Durrell: A Dialogue with Marc Alyn, trans. Francine Barker (New York, 1974), p. 24.
xiii Brooks Otis, Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry (1964; Norman, OK, 1995), pp. 311-12.
xiv Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York, 1953), pp. 183-202.
xv Erwin Panofsky, “Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition,” in Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History (Garden City, NJ, 1955), p. 300.
xvi Otis, p. 128.
xvii Rosarium Philosophorum (Frankfurt, C. Jacob, 1550). Durrell’s secondary source was probably C. G. Jung’s Psychologie und Alchemie (Zürich, 1944). See Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York, 1953). The Latin appears on p. 76, n. 33. Re plagiarism, Durrell admits to stealing other people’s ideas: “I burgle ideas.” See Lawrence Durrell: Conversations, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll (Cranbury, NJ, 1998), p. 105.
xviii Word List III in Vergil’s “Aeneid”: Books I-VI, rev. ed., ed. Clyde Pharr (Lexington, MA, 1964), p. 106.
xix Is Durrell referring to “negative” as a concept in apophatic theology, where only negative statements can be made of God? Or is he referring to photography and using “negative” as a metaphor for the self? In Egypt, Durrell studied Neo-Platonism. Plotinus and Proclus, both mentioned in The Alexandria Quartet, advocated the via negativa. In London, Durrell and his first wife Nancy Myers had a studio called Witch Photos.
xx Big Supposer, p. 29. Ian S. MacNiven, Durrell’s authorised biographer, disputes this frequent assertion: “Quite possibly Durrell never attempted entrance examinations for Oxford or Cambridge.” See Ian S. MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London, 1998), p. 697, n. 71.
xxi Richard Pine, Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape, rev. ed. (Corfu, 2005), p. 28.
xxii Lawrence Durrell, Sicilian Carousel (New York, 1977), p. 17. Hereafter cited as SC in text. Ewen Montagu, The Man Who Never Was: World War II’s Boldest Counterintelligence Operation (New York, 1953).
xxiii St. Olave’s and St. Xavier’s Grammar School (1924-1926) and St. Edmund’s School (1926-1927).
xxiv For a discussion of the importance of Virgil in the British curriculum after the First World War, see Theodore Ziolkowski, Virgil and the Moderns (Princeton, 1993), p. 101.
xxv Otis, p. 264.
xxvi For Durrell’s physical abuse of his first wife, see my “Nancy and Larry,” review of Joanna Hodgkin’s Amateurs in Eden, in A Café in Space: The Anaïs Nin Literary Journal 10 (2013): 140-44.
xxvii Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (New Haven, 2004), p. 280: “But it seems that she refused to meet with him face to face.”
xxviii My transcription of the text: “Dear Tschup Tschick[:] Just a short letter to wish you every happiness. I spent all today with you at Baalbek: so it didn’t matter you not coming with me. Little things sometimes make big differences in our lives — when they have become stale and empty and no longer lives. My name is LARRY DURRELL[,] address Alexandria[,] British Information Office. One Rue Toussoum. Telephone 27347. Bless you. Good bye. L[.]”
xxix Otis, p. 49.
xxx Paul Alpers, The Singer of the “Eclogues”: A Study of Virgilian Pastoral (Berkeley, 1979), pp. 181, 221, 244-45.
xxxi William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935; New York, 1974), p. 19.
xxxii Snell, p. 282.
xxxiii I thank Michael Haag for showing me this letter and for mentioning the similarities to the Aeneid.
xxxiv Coleman, p. 286.
xxxv Oxford Latin Dictionary, ed. P. G. W. Glare (Oxford, 1982), s.v. “serta.”
xxxvi Paul Alpers, What Is Pastoral? (Chicago, 1996), p. 27.
xxxvii Ibid., p. 248.
xxxviii Ibid., p. 161.
xxxix Fiona Cox, “Envoi: the death of Virgil,” in The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, ed. Charles Martindale (Cambridge, 1997), p. 330.
xl Lawrence Durrell, Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence (New York, 1990), p. 1.
xli Coleman, p. 110.
xlii Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (New York, 1958), p. 299: “Lying in a bed again, vaguely shrouded like a corpse on the brink of resurrection, seemed an incomparable, almost a guilty luxury. The penumbra was pierced by a thin blade of afternoon light falling from the junction of the two shutters.”
xliii Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, The Green Cabinet: Theocritus and the European Pastoral Lyric (Berkeley, 1969), p. 187.
xliv I thank Michael Haag for pointing out this error.
xlv The phrase mea sponsor is ungrammatical. Is the mistake intentional? If so, Durrell imitates a grammatical error akin to Rimbaud’s famous declaration, “Je est un autre.” Durrell composed a poem of that same title in 1942. In his unpublished Note to the 1958 edition of Balthazar, he wrote, “My topic is an investigation of love; the bisexual psyche.” But in the published Note he wrote, “The central topic of the book is an investigation of modern love.” Mea sponsor suggests bisexuality: unorthodox grammar suggests unorthodox sexuality. Bisexuality in pastoral, as Coleman mentions, is “normal and natural” (p. 10). For the unpublished quotation, see Pine p. 90.
xlvi Biblia Sacra: Iuxta Vulgatam Versionem (Stuttgart, 1969): Canticum Canticorum 4:12.
xlvii The Song of Songs: A New Translation with an Introduction and Commentary, trans. Ariel Bloch and Chana Block(Berkeley, 1995), p. 175.
xlviii Candace Fertile, “The Meaning of Incest in the Fiction of Lawrence Durrell,” Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal (NS4 1995-96): 105.
xlix Norman Austin, Archery at the Dark of the Moon: Poetic Problems in Homer’s “Odyssey” (Berkeley, 1975), p. 149.
l Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea (1962; London, 1968), pp. 686-87. Hereafter cited as AlQ in text.
li Lawrence Durrell, The Avignon Quintet: Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastian, Quinx (London, 1992), p. 46.
lii Ian S. MacNiven, “Lawrence Durrell and the Nightingales of Sommieres [sic],” On Miracle Ground II: Second International Lawrence Durrell Conference Proceedings, April 24, 1982, ed. Lawrence W. Markert and Carol Peirce (Baltimore, 1984), pp. 235, 239.
liii Rosenmeyer, pp. 67-68.
liv W. B. Yeats, The Poems, rev., ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York, 1989), p. 39. For the first date of publication, see Major British Writers II,
[ed. of Yeats]
Reuben A. Brower (New York, 1959), p. 790.
lv “Pioneer” parodies “The Lake Isle of Innishfree” with respect to the latter’s imagery. Moreover, Durrell mocks Yeats’s experiments in magic and occultism. His subversive lines include: “Proof against occult art or wizardry” (l. 3), “Here I kept silence” (l. 7), and “No eloquent shadows” (l. 11).
lvi Coleman, p. 6; Virgilian Tradition, p. 365.
lvii Lawrence Durrell, A Key to Modern British Poetry (Norman, OK, 1952), p. 126.
lviii Rosenmeyer, p. 89.
lix I thank Michael Haag for pointing out this connection.
lx Lawrence Durrell, The Greek Islands (New York, 1978), p. 38.
lxi Lawrence Durrell, The Dark Labyrinth (New York, 1962), p. 215.
lxii MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell, p. 688.
lxiii Lawrence Durrell, White Eagles over Serbia (1957; Harmondsworth, UK, 1980), 170.
lxiv Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia, ed. and trans. Glenn W. Most (Cambridge, MA, 2006), p. 25.
lxv Sigmund Freud, “Medusa’s Head,” in Collected Papers, ed. James Strachey (London, 1953), 5:105.
lxvi Margaret Homans, “Repression and Sublimation of Nature in Wuthering Heights,” PMLA 93.1 (1978): 16.
lxvii Chamberlin, p. 89.
lxviii “Sappho Durrell: Journals and Letters,” Granta 37 (Autumn 1991): 70.
lxix Pine, p. 172.
lxx Coleman, p. 297.
lxxi Virgilian Tradition, p. 404. My translation.
lxxii MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell, p. 688.
lxxiii George Steiner, “Homer and Virgil and Broch,” review of Oxford Readings in Vergil’s “Aeneid,” ed. S. J. Harrison, in London Review of Books 12, no. 13 (July 12, 1990): 10-11.
lxxiv For interviews, see Ingersoll, p. 10. Major biographies include Gordon Bowker’s Through the Dark Labyrinth: A Biography of Lawrence Durrell, rev. (London, 1998), Ian S. MacNiven’s (n. 20), and Michael Haag’s (forthcoming).
lxxv Ziolkowski, Virgil and the Moderns, p. 220.
lxxvi Hannah Arendt, “The Achievement of Hermann Broch,” Kenyon Review 11.3 (Summer 1949): 481.
lxxvii Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil, trans. Jean Starr Untermeyer (1945; San Francisco, 1983), p. 477; Hermann Broch: Der Tod des Vergil, ed. Paul Michael Lützeler (Frankfurt am Main, 1976), p. 11.
lxxviii Ibid., pp. 11, 480; pp. 11, 453
lxxix Death of Virgil, p. 481.
lxxx Ibid., pp. 476-79.