Love’s Obstacles: Subleyras’s Diana and Endymion

Diana and Endymion. by Pierre Subleyras. 1740 Oil on Canvas.

When visiting a large museum like The Met or a gallery as immense as The National Gallery my habit is to wander though the collections and see what catches my eye.  During my recent visit to The National Gallery while I was in London, I kept circling back and spending time with Pierre Subleyras’s painting of Diana and Endymion.  The image reminded me of Ovid and his various descriptions of transformations in the Metamporhoses, especially as they relate to the theme of love.   There are many variations of the myth, but I suspect Subleyras had in mind the version in which Endymion is an Aeolian shephard who captures the attention of the goddess Diana. What makes the story particularly striking is that Diana is a virginal goddess but her attraction to Endymion  overrides her proclivity for solitude.  (It is even said in one myth that the couple bear fifty daughters.) Diana asks Jupiter to give Endymion eternal youth and he is also placed in a cave where Diana can visit him every night and admire him in his sleep which is her favorite way to view him.

I find it fascinating that Ovid doesn’t include this story as part of the Metamorphoses, but instead writes a few poignant and striking lines about Endymion in Heroides XVIII.  Ovid composes a letter from Leander, a young man who sneaks out of the house at night to swim the Hellespont so he can be with and make love to a young woman named Hero.  Hero, a devotee of Venus, lives in a tower and lights a lamp each night for Leander so he can find his way to her.  As Leander is reminiscing about his noctural swims, he invokes the image of Endymion and Diana (translation of Heroides XVIII.57-66 is my own):

No more delay, instead I threw off my clothes

along with my fear and I launch my pliant

arms through the liquid sea.  The moon, like a

dutiful companion along my path, was offering

her trembling light to me as I was gliding along.

And I, looking up at her, said, “May you,

oh shining goddess, support me and may the

rocks of Latmos rise up in your mind.  Endymion

does not allow you to be severe in your heart.  Turn

your face, I pray, to help me in my secret love. You, as

a goddess, glided down from heaven to seek a mortal

love.  May it be permitted for me to speak the truth!—-

The woman whom I pursue is herself a goddess.

As I am drawn back again and again to that peaceful look on Endymion’s face in the Subleyras painting, I can’t help but think that he must have been a soothing presence for Diana.  As I contemplate the painting in relation to both of these myths, their many parallels make themeselves evident; if Diana wouldn’t let a little thing like mortality stand in the way of love, then Leander can’t let geography or  the sea impede his way either.  If only Endymionis somnium dormire (to sleep the sleep of Endymion.)

For the extra curious, here is a link to the Latin text:


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The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The plot of The Juniper Tree is, at first, deceptively simple. Narrated in a matter-of-fact, emotionally detached tone, one would never guess the hardships and suffering that are yet to come in this story. Bella Winter escapes her cruel and harsh mother by moving in with a boyfriend who has a tendency to be verbally abusive towards her. Bella’s face is permanently scared in an car accident which her boyfriend, Stephen, causes. When their relationship finally dissolves, Bella moves on from Stephen but finds herself pregnant after a one night stand with a black man she never sees again.

But Bella is never bitter or harsh, she accepts her life and loves her daughter and even finds happiness by working in an antique shop. Bella’s daughter, Tommy, thrives on Bella’s love despite the fact that many people, including her own mother, are judgmental about her biracial daughter. Comyns’s depiction of what it is like for a single mother and her innocent daughter to suffer from racism in 20th century Britain is true to life and heartbreaking. I was captivated by Bella’s simple yet happy outlook as she doesn’t view her scar, her daughter or her occupation as obstacles to her contentment. But Comyns draws the reader into the tragedy that will eventually occur in brilliantly subtle ways.

When Bella meets Bernard and Gertrude Forbes, a wealthy couple who take Bella and Tommy under their wing, hints of tragedy start to appear. Although she spends weekends at the Forbes’s well-appointed home and garden and becomes a integral part of their family by helping them with domestic chores, Bella still retains her freedom and cherishes her antique shop and her own space. Bernard, in particular, seems patronizing towards Bella and views her as his pet project. His attempts to educate her about art, music and languages reminded me a bit of Ovid’s Pygmalion myth.

Tragedy strikes in the story when Bella, against her better judgment, gives up her freedom. She thinks she is making decisions to enhance her daughter’s education and future, but she knows that sacrificing her own, simple joys, is a bad decision. This book is equally as important and relevant in the 21st century as a commentary about women, social roles, and the balance that mothers and wives have to make between the comfort and safety of their families and their own individual needs. It’s something I struggle with personally every day.

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Duller than a Dull Hick: City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

The stereotypes of country dwellers being crass and uncouth and city dwellers being urbane and sophisticated is one that reaches all the way back to Ancient Rome.  In Carmen 22, Catullus describes his good friend Suffenus whom he admires for being venustus et dicax et urbanus (charming, well-spoken and sophisticated).  The Latin word urbanus, from which the English word urban is derived, literally means a person from the city who is sophisticated.  But Catullus sadly notes that Suffenus is an awful poet and when one reads his compositions he appears to be caprimulgus aut fossor (a goat herder or a ditch digger) and he is infaceto est infacetior rure (duller than a dull hick).  Rus, ruris becomes in English the word rural which is associated with someone who lives in the countryside and is decidedly unsophisticated.

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, a nineteenth century Russian author who wrote and published her works under a male pseudonym, uses the stereotype of city folk and country folk to satirize the landed gentry in the time period immediately following the emancipation of the serfs in her country.  Her main character, Erast Sergeyovich Ovcharov, is an urbane and worldly man who is used to living in Moscow and traveling to the most famous cities across Europe.  He is proud of his elegance and refinement and thinks that exposure to his good qualities will elevate the manners of his country neighbors.

Ovcharov’s country estate in Snetki has fallen into ruins and he has not come to any agreement with his serfs who have just been freed so he is forced to spend a summer among the country bumpkins.  Ovcharov is a humorous caricature of the Russian nobility who views himself as a perfect example of charm and wit for the poor country folk who do not regularly visit the city.  He is haughty, condescending and patronizing to his neighbors in the country and he writes political pamphlets that fully display his self-righteous personality.  He comments about the rural gentry women he encounters:

The old rural gentry-woman type has barely changed: moral and physical clumsiness.  On the other hand, the old despotism has disappeared, and the younger generation is spreading its wings.  It spreads them clumsily, crudely, gracelessly, but spread them it does.  It raises its own voice and acts, to some extent, according to its own will.  The second-rate shrinking violet of the past, oppressed by the parental right hand, is also being transformed into a second-rate dahlia.  Still it is a beautiful flower, bright and attractive in a flower bed.  Yes, it’s true: the younger generation of women in the countryside and provincial towns in freer than it was twenty years ago.  Now is the time to show that who deserves thanks for this freedom.

Ovcharov rents a bath house from his neighbor, Natasyha, who is a kind-hearted widow that has successfully managed her own farms and workers for many years.  Natasyha’s daughter, Olenka, is smart and witty and when she rejects Ovcharov’s advances the irony of the situation is hilarious.  It is Olenka, the seemingly country hick, that rejects the urbane, supposedly sophisticated, Ovcharov.  Olenka is smart enough to see Ovcharov for the ridiculous man he truly is.  The author’s wit is subtle yet affective in providing a glimpse into the lives of the Russian upper classes in the 19th century.


Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature

Seneca and Vergil on the Vanquished Trojan Women

Hector, Andromache and Astyanax. Sculpture by Benzoni, 1871. The Met Museum.

As I was looking through my well-worn copy of Seneca’s Troades this morning, my husband remarked in passing that Seneca seems to be my philological equivalent of comfort food.  Last week did happen to be a long and difficult one, but I was also thinking about Seneca in relation to Vergil as I am translating the Aeneid with an exceptionally talented group of students this semester.

Even though Vergil points out time and again that Aeneas suffers many hardships while trying to found a new homeland in Italy, his fate is still far better than the vanquished Trojans who are left behind in that burning city.  The women, in particular, who are divided up among the Greek warriors as plunder, are given special attention by Seneca in his play the Troades.

Of all the women standing on the beach of Troy, the one who has suffered the most, who is the most deserving of sympathy, is Andromache.  Her husband was slain when fighting Achilles in battle and although he died fighting as a hero, this is no consolation to Andromache.  She reminds the other Trojan women that she would have gladly followed her husband to the underworld if it were not for their infant son, Astyanax: (translation is my own)

Oh pathetic crowd of Trojan women,
why do you tear at your hair and strike
your wretched breasts and moisten your
faces with effusive tears? We have suffered
trivial things if we can endure them by
simply weeping. Ilium fell only just
now for you but the city died for me
a long time ago, when that savage man,
Achilles, seized my husband’s limbs with
his rapid chariot and, trembling, its
axel groaned with a heavy sound because
of Hector’s weight. It was at that very
moment—overwhelmed and overcome,
dazed and frozen by disaster, knocked out
of my senses—I was forced to endure
whatever happens. I would follow my husband
even now, escaping the Greeks, if this
child were not holding me back. It is this
child that subdues my spirit and prevents
me from dying. It is this child that
compels me to ask favors from the gods even
now and he has postponed my time of distress.
It is this child that has stolen from me
the greatest reward of my suffering,
that I had nothing to fear. Any chance at
happiness has been snatched away from me and
only dreadful things are still to come.
Fear is the most wretched experience when
one has nothing to hope for.

Andromache, I think, is one of the most pathetic and tragic characters in the Iliad and the scene in which she and her son bid Hector farewell is one of the most poignant in the entire epic.  She is equally worthy of sympathy in Seneca’s play and she puts the situation in perspective for the other Trojan women: suffering is individual and it is also relative.  It is Vergil, later in his epic, that gives her a new story of hope, a future  beyond Troy, with another man and another, entirely different, yet happy life.  Andromache becomes an additional example of ruins in motion that I wrote about for my Seagull essay. 

For the extra curious, here is a link to the Latin text:


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The Sum of These Infinitesimals: Some Concluding Thoughts about War and Peace

At the beginning of Book Three of War and Peace, Tolstoy writes about the laws of historical movement: “Only by taking an infinitesimally small unit for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.”  Throughout his many commentaries on history in War and Peace, the author rejects the idea that it was a single great man, like Napoleon or Alexander I, that caused the French invasion of Russia and the army’s resulting destruction.  The entire second epilogue, for instance,  is dedicated to Tolstoy’s thoughts on the study of history as he explores concepts like liberty, grandeur, power and religion and how they come to bear on the examination of past events; it is a shame that many don’t read this section and that it is not included in certain editions of the English translations.  As I reflect on the work as a whole, two of Tolstoy’s themes keep coming to mind: war and love.  He examines both of these subjects on a grand scale but it is equally important for him to focus his text on the lives of individuals, getting down to the level of the “infinitesimals.”

The male protagonists in War and Peace, Prince Andrei, Nicholas Rostov, and Pierre, go through  significant transformations in their thinking about warfare after they experience it firsthand.  Early in the story, Prince Andrei and Nicholas both, as I discussed in a previous post, display a great deal of bravado and desire to go to war to attain fame and honor.  Their horrific experiences on the battlefield, however, cause both men to lose their naïve and callow views of battle.  They come to the realization that individual glory is not important but that they are part of a much larger and important whole.  But it’s really Pierre, a pampered and privileged count, whose view of life and war change most dramatically because of his experiences of watching men fight and die.   Pierre doesn’t join the army as a soldier like Andrei or Nicholas, but his desire to experience the events of a battlefield  and his ensuing hardships as a result of his curiosity force him to have a dramatic existential shift in his worldviews.  When placed under situations of extreme duress, Pierre shows himself to be a good, decent man and even a hero.

The most surprising theme for me that I encountered in War and Peace is that of love; one encounters examples of many different types of love throughout Tolstoy’s epic—romantic love, erotic love, conjugal love, patriotic love, familial love and even love of one’s enemy.  Due to traumatic events they suffer while serving in the Russian army, Prince Andrei and Nicholas also come to the conclusion that human connections and love are more important than anything in life, including glory.  (Achilles would have been horrified by both of them.)  Nicholas, when he meets the woman that he will eventually marry has an epiphany; even though she is rather plain, it is her gracious and beautiful soul that attracts him.   Prince Andrei becomes, I think, a softened and much more likeable character when he is overcome with love for a woman.  I was glad to see that, in the end, this woman (I don’t want to give her name away) grows to make herself worthy of his love.

The beginning parts of War and Peace are difficult to read because of Pierre’s confused notions of love.  He awkwardly speaks to his fiancée the  moment they become engaged, “‘Je vous amie‘! he said, remembering what has to be said at such moments: but his words felt so weak that he felt ashamed of himself.”  It is not so much love Pierre feels but lust.  In the epilogue of War and Peace, Tolstoy presents us with a very different Pierre who has settled into a tranquil and happy domestic life during his second marriage.  Tolstoy’s epic ends on a positive note for his characters as far as love is concerned but his view of conjugal love is realistic, attainable by anyone.  These final scenes are captivating and unexpected in their depiction of a couple engaging in mundane, everyday, family activities; Tolstoy provides a realistic view of love in which mutual kindness, a deep love and unconditional acceptance are attained.

I have that empty, restless feeling one has when one finishes a truly great book.  I am still not quite sure what reading I will settle into next; nothing seems to have captured my attention since I have completed Tolstoy’s masterpiece.


Filed under Classics, Russian Literature