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The Burning Deck, Parts I & II, or, The Wisdom of the Ancients

Rhea offers Kronos the Omphalos stone wrapped in a cloth as a substitute for the newborn Zeus. Attic red figure terracotta pelikē (jar), 460–450 BCE, attributed to the Nausicaä Painter. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

[The following sequence apppeared in The New English Review in September 2023; it is reproduced here with only minor changes.]

The boy stood on the burning deck,

his back was to the mast.

He would not move an inch, he said,

till Oscar Wilde had passed.

But Oscar Wilde, that wily bird,

he rolled the boy a plum,

and as he stooped to pick it up

[ta-tum, ta-tum, ta-tum . . .]

—Anon., after Felicia, Mrs Hemans

Inscribed by an unknown hand on the wall of a public convenience in a Shaftesbury Avenue pub, where I found them many years ago, these lines are surely the best parody of Hemans’s much-parodied poem “Casabianca” (1826). Moreover, they offer striking metaphors: the deck = the world; the boy = us; “Oscar Wilde” = civilization/culture; the plum = art, music, poetry . . .

Felicia Hemans (1793–1835) anachronistically presents an important perception for us in her poem. The “deck,” everywhere only too obviously bursting into flames today, was already smoldering in the early nineteenth century. It had in fact been smoldering even in antiquity. The Anthropocene was well under way when the forests of Greece, Anatolia, and the Levant were hacked down to build warships in which men sailed to far-off places like Troy in order to murder, rape, and enslave their fellow human beings. The Corinthians developed the trireme—someone called it “the guided missile of the day”—as early as the seventh century BCE, Thucydides (1.12.4–13.2) shows. Even bigger ships—quadriremes and quinqueremes—came into use in the Hellenistic era. The Romans copied them, using a shipwrecked Carthaginian polyreme as a model.

Although regarded throughout the long history of Hemans’ poem as an epitome of British courage, the boy on the burning deck was actually the son of the captain of the French republican warship L’Orient, blown up in the 1798 Battle of the Nile by Horatio Nelson’s British Royal Navy. It took thousands of trees to make a ship like that—around 6,000 were used to build Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. England’s oak forests were already exhausted, and timber to build warships had by then to be obtained from the Baltic and North America. Decks were burning all over the place.

The Wisdom of the Ancients

Sometime around 1600, Francis Bacon, a young lawyer struggling for political patronage in the dog-eat- dog world of aristocraticTudor society, wrote a work he titled De sapientia veterum, explicating thirty-one Greco-Roman fables. Translated into English by Arthur Gorges, this was published in 1609 under the title The Wisdom of the Ancients.

“Upon deliberate consideration. my judgment is, that a concealed instruction and allegory was originally intended in many of the ancient fables,” Bacon writes—because if not, he thinks, they are simply absurd! Composed by unknown bards millennia ago to lampoon the injustices and absurdities of a world in which war and slavery were constant realities, thus enabling their listeners better to endure horrors they could not avoid, the fables are poetry, however, and Bacon admits: “I profess not to be a poet.” His contemporary Dr. William Harvey (he who discovered that blood circulates) agreed. Bacon, he said, “writes philosophy like a Lord Chancellor.” The opposite of a poet, Yeats supposed, is an opinionated man, and Solicitor General, Attorney General, and, finally, Lord Chancellor of England Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, Viscount St. Albans, was one of the most opinionated men in British history. He was thus not the right man for the present job, and his demystifying of the fables I find humdrum.

The myths themselves come down to us in multiply contradictory versions. I have condensed them into anachronizing blank verse sonnets, stealing only a few words here and there from the Bacon/Gorges text. Whether I have done any better in seeking hidden meaning in them than Bacon is not for me to say, “but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?” (Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”). To make a round number of myths, I’ve added one of my own, “Bacon, or, A Legend,” no. 32.

“Cassandra, or, Prediction” is the first fable in Bacon’s sequence—presumably because it was Cicero’s epigram on Cato the Younger, which he quotes in it, that prompted him to write De sapientia veterum in the first place. That position is counterintuitive, however, and I have put my version, “Cato and Cassandra, or, Talking Heads,” in twelfth place (in part 2) instead. “Ouranos [Bacon has the Latin “Cœlum,” but I prefer the Greek], or, Beginnings” more logically comes first.

As epigraphs to parts 2, 3, and 4, I employ limericks by the British poet Christopher Logue, CBE (1926–2011), which, like the Shaftesbury Avenue parody of Hemans’s “Casabianca,” seem to me latter-day equivalents of the hellzapoppin fantasies of the original Indo-European poets.[1] Logue’s unfinished epic War Music, composed for a BBC Radio program, modernizes parts of Homer’s Iliad, and although our approaches are quite different, his foreshadows my own to some extent: “Achilles speaks as if I found you on a vase. / So leave his stone-age values to the sky,” Logue’s Agamemnon admonishes the Greek warriors on the beach at Troy, where they have been summoned for a pep talk by “Ajax / Grim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein.”[2]

Part I

1. Ouranos, or, Beginnings

A dome of brass—Sky, Heaven, Ouranos,

the partner of Gaia, Earth, goddess of grass,

having done duty in their nuptial bed,

got from her a breed of sons, the Titans.

Earth being then—still is!—a world-class MILF,

their youngest whelp, Time—yes, little Kronos!

—gelding Heaven with the sickle of stars

from Leo’s mane, diddled her himself instead,

swallowing the unwanted progeny.

The adamantine instrument mislaid

in the cosmic mulch pile or potting shed,

when Zeus was born your Auntie Rhea saved him,

fooling Time with a neatly diapered rock.

Forever over, such was the strange start of things!

2. Pan, or, Nature

A shaggy, goat-footed flautist with horns

that reached up to heaven, human above,

half-beast below, Hubris was his mother

and the Destinies his sisters. Beaten

by Cupid at wrestling, he met his end,

a scholiast reports, in the reign

of Tiberius, when a voice from the shore

frighted passing shipfolk by saying so.

His wife was Echo, and their only child,

Iambē, or Banter, famous teller of tales,

was the paramour of Pentameter,

duke of Ellington, who promulgated

the top rule for poets on Parnassus:

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!”

3. Typhonia, or, A Rebel

Zeus birthed Pallas Athena from his brain,

and Mom, captivated by her armored

mien, seeking similarly to concoct

offspring without a tarse’s intervention,

got pregnant with the help of mudlark Gaia,

a python’s egg, and Time’s chronic semen,

bunning the oven with me, Typhonia,

a rebel girl, I’m born to game the game.

Ripping the cables from Zeus’s hands and feet,

I stashed them in my Hermès Welkin bag

(the rule of the Cognoscenti’s so neat!)

but that nasty wing-foot boy stole them back

and meanie Zeus dumped Mount Ætna on my head.

I’m down there yet—still cool, but good as dead!

4. The Cyclops, or, Ministers of Terror

Deafened by that hammering, blinded by

their conflagrations’ smoke, Zeus first consigned

the wheel-eyed wall builders to Tartarus,

or Hell. Then musing that they might as well

be put to understrap Health Care’s pious

work or contrive new thunderbolt matériel,

he had them slay for quackery some quack.

Even mousy Apollo had a crack!

You may suppose them miscreant ministers,

bad in their nature, whetted by disgrace

and diligence done in official spite

at “private nods” and orders of the boss.

Condemned at last to confront retaliation’s

light, they meet their sussed deserts one nighty night.

5. Narcissus, or, Self-Love

This stuck-up parvenu, contemptuous

of his fellows, comes with an adjective,

“narcissistic.” And with groupies—Echo

being the most faithful. Glimpsing himself

in a mirror, he fell madly in love,

so wild about his emergent icon

that just being there was a sensation

consecrated to self-admiration.

Loose cannon on any deck, Narcissus

rejects the huddled masses’ right to roam

to the beamish banks of “Here.” He’s Tory!

That was to be expected, no?

Will the Supremish Court of Erewhon

(“Home of the Okay”) still deny certiorari?)

6. The River Styx, or, Promises, Promises

The gods witness their oaths by the River Styx,

which meanders round the demon court of Dis.

For this form alone, none other but this,

is regarded as obligatory

and inviolable—cheaters are booted

from the pantheon of Olympus—

those risk the joys of Helicon’s table

who don’t swear as honestly as able.

Necessity, whose stand-in is the Styx,

a lethal stream that cannot be crossed back,

is bell, book, and candle to the mighty,

so moguls’ pledges are best ratified

by Stygian oaths engaged in on its banks,

whose breeching even bullshit artists can’t abide.

7. Perseus, or, War

Perseus was commanded by Athena

to behead the Gorgon Medusa, who

petrified the West, turning to stone all

who gazed on her. Her half-sisters the Greæ

sold her out, lending him their single tooth

and eye. Thus armed, he aimed at her image

in a mirror, severed her neck, and got

sharp-winged Pegasus from the gushing blood.

A hatchet man must demand from treason

an eye for information, and a tooth

to rumor, bite, and nibble at the truth.

Pegasus is fame, perish the reason!

Medusa’s head is history’s sigil,

the colophon to the stuff the victors scribble.

8. Endymion, or, Those Special Someones

“Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,

I see the lords of humankind pass by.”

—Oliver Goldsmith

Enamored of the shepherd Endymion,

the goddess Luna got it on with him

secretly (as always wise!), descending

to nigh[3] her nitwit sweetie in his sleep,

in a cozy condominium—complete

with swimming pool—in Erewhon. Post-coitum,

and his woolly quadrupeds multiplying,

the herding crowd were all green with envy!

The stellar few are fond of hoi polloi,

who greatly enjoy them in REM slumber.

A yokel’s fondest dream’s to be the buoy

of some superstar who’s got his number,

glad to be had—if not, in fact, eager.

Your land is their land, according to Pete Seeger.

Part II

Memnon leaves for the Trojan War. Black-figure vase, 550-525 BCE. Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels.

An avant-garde bard named McNamiter

Had a tool of enormous diameter;

But it wasn’t the size bought tears to her eyes.

’Twas the rhythm--dactylic hexameter![4]

—Christopher Logue (Count Palmiro Vicarion, pseud.)

9. The Giants’ Little Sister, or, Fame

The Giants, seeded in Gaia by the garum

spilled when Kronos gelded his father Sky

(whose groans outraged the ocean, lust springing

from the foam), assailed the immortal gods

with red-hot trash bins and flaming barbells,

but were repelled with thunderbolts and slain.

To commemorate the death of these bums,

Earth fêted their fetid little sister, Fame.

Fame’s offspring, an insolvent lot, increase,

rebellious, wanting change, now only checked

by flashing lights and noise, their sole recourse

inventing seditious lies and slanders,

branded “fake news,” to libel, cheat, and rob

those called upon to civilize their mob.

10. Actaeon and Pentheus, or, Voyeurs

Actaeon, it’s said, saw Diana bare,

and she made a stag of him, whereupon

his own gang of hounds ripped him to bites.

Pentheus peeped at Bacchus’s sacred rites

from a treetop, whence the maddened women

dragged him down. Thinking him an animal,

they tore him bodily apart. His head

impaled, his mother paraded it home.

Did Actaeon profane Diana by chance?

Not true, they’d gone hunting together, pals—

he’d just hoped to know her better! Pentheus?

The tale’s been bowdlerized .The facts are wrong.

He’d importuned a degendered party,

it seems, and “they” ripped off the poor chap’s . . .

11. Orpheus, or, Enlightenment

Delightful music calms the brutish breast,

it soften rocks and unbends the knotted

oak (not what Congreve mandates, you find

—but close). Orpheus pursues his bride to Hell

and wins her back with singing, but then quits,

loses her again, and sorry raves

to trees and rocks, annoying humankind,

who want him deconstructed, chopped to bits.

But what if Bacchus and those stonèd scolders

were the lusts and appetites, Orpheus.

Philosophy, his Eurydice maybe

its Stuff? Turned off by such detumescent

metaphors, the mob of maddened maenads,

like politicians and sausage makers, chose scraps.

12. Cato and Cassandra, or Talking Heads

Foretelling the Roman Republic’s

ruin, Cato Minor tempted cruel Fate

“as though he lived in Plato’s Republic

and not Romulus’s shit.”[5] Cassandra, too,

addressed the future. Some say serpents’ tongues

licked a sense of Troy’s fall into her ears.

Others, that it was a bribe, Apollo’s

randy tit for tat, on which he reneged

when she shrank from “doing” a god: predict

though she might, she’d no longer be believed!

Locrian Ajax had her when Troy collapsed,

his snickersnee whipping Apollo’s lyre—

for a bare bodkin may its quietus make

more ways than one—and doomscrolling’s no fun!

13. Proteus, or, Matter

Poseidon’s herdsman, Proteus knows secrets

of all kinds, but to learn them you must bind

him. Fettered, and seeking to free himself,

he shapeshifts to innumerable

forms and happenings. (Another Proteus

was a king in Egypt, and Helen’s host

when Paris took her phantom twin to Troy,

Hesiod says, but that’s different “matter.”)

Poseidon’s weapon’s the trident, symbol

of the big shebang—for he’s none other

than that sweetheart Satan, cast out by God

into the daily world that light reveals.

At noon, old Proteus counts his sea-calf herd;

then sleeps. So, then . . . Shut up and calculate!

14. Memnon, or, Presumption

Memnon, king of Ethiopia, Tithonus

and Aurora’s son, came from Africa

to aid Troy, his father’s city. Thirsting

for glory—only the best good enough

for him!— he fought Achilles one-on-one,

and thus, need it be said, died. Zeus sent birds

to grace his obsequies, and morning’s light

from his statue evoked a mournful hum.

Pausanias, who heard it, attests the noise

but in his day the statue was broken

in half—the myth says by the King of Kings,

Thingamajig. This sorry story tells

us little, beyond the usual end

of glory, for fame’s a pathetic gig.

15. Tithonus, or, Too Much!

The immortal gods despised old age, but

Tennyson gives to Tithonus these lines:

"The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,

And after many a summer dies the swan."

As plagiarist, I simply plead fair use—

for who could hope ever to write better!

Tithonus, seeking immortality,

forgets he will grow old, while his bride, Dawn,

remains forever young. “And all I was,

in ashes. Can thy love, / . . . make amends . . . ?” Yes!

Dawn does not reject him, Propertius says.[6]

Well, dear reader, how does that sound? Okay?

16. Hera’s Suitor, or, Honesty

Zeus as lover took many different

forms—in turn, a bull, eagle, swan, and a

shower of gold, but when he sought to get

it on with Hera, his predestined spouse,

transmogrified into a wet, weather-

beaten, affrighted, trembling, starveling

cuckoo bird: “a wise fable,” from, it’s said,

the “entrails of morality”—its guts.

The moral is that in love one should

avoid conceited shows, which, to succeed,

require like impressionability

in the courted, who, if of good account,

is not to be won by boastful displays,

but by conceding one’s most abject self.


[1] Christopher Logue, Count Palmiro Vicarion’s Book of Limericks (Paris: Olympia Press, 1956), nos. 43, 163, 181.

[2] Christopher Logue, War Music: An Account of Books 1–4 and 16–19 of Homer’s “Iliad” (1981; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997, 24, 11. Logue died before he could finishWar Music, his working title.

[3] I would note that while naai (stich, or sew) is slang for “fuck” in Afrikaans, the homophonic verb “nigh” here is intended simply to convey the poetic sense of “to approach, or come near to.”

[4] Of dactylic hexameter it may be said that it works well in Ancient Greek, Latin, Hungarian, and Lithuanian, but not in English. Still, some have tried it, notably Arthur Hugh Clough in his 1848 tour de force The Bothie of Toper-na-fuosich, from part 1 of which the following is a sample:

“Bid me not, grammar defying, repeat from grammar-defiers

Long constructions strange and plusquam-thucydidëan,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Crossing from this to that, with one leg here, one yonder,

So, less skilful, but equally bold, and wild as the torrent,

All through sentences six at a time, unsuspecting of syntax,”

which somewhat explains the lachrymosity of McNamiter’s SO!

[5] “ . . . loquitur enim tanquam Republica Platonis, non tanquam in fæce Romuli,” Cicero writes in a letter to a friend of the Stoic Marcus Porcius Cato (95–46 BCE), called Cato the Younger (Cato Minor in Latin).

[6] See Sextus Propertius, Elegies 2.18A: 5–22: “Aurora didn’t allow him to lie there lonely in the House of Dawn. . . . Climbing into her chariot she spoke of the gods’ injustice”


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