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The Burning Deck, Parts III and IV

Sword in hand, Ajax grabs hold of Kassandra, who clings to the Palladion. Attic red-figured hydria, early 5th century, BCE, by the Kleophrades Painter. Museo Nazionale Archeologico, Naples, no. 2422.

The Wisdom of the Ancients

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

My preamble to Parts I and II of “The Burning Deck” (New English Review, September 2023) notes its model, Sir Francis Bacon’s De sapientia veterum, a book seeking to explicate thirty-one Greco-Roman myths, translated into English by Arthur Gorges in under the title The Wisdom of the Ancients (1609). “Upon deliberate consideration. my judgment is, that a concealed instruction and allegory was originally intended in many of the ancient fables,” Bacon writes—if not, he opines, they are simply absurd! I have condensed the fables into anachronic sonnets, borrowing a few words here and there from the Bacon/Gorges text (in quotes where I’ve remembered). And to make a round number of myths, I’ve added one of my own, “Bacon, or, A Legend,” no. 32. Since they had multiple authors, these fables should not “be read first as a sequence, one voice running through many personalities” (Robert Lowell, Imitations); each stands or falls on its own. Limericks by the late British poet Christopher Logue serve as epigraphs.[1]

Part III

“There was a young sailor named Bates

Who did the fandango on skates.

He fell on his cutlass

Which rendered him nutless

And practically useless on dates.

— Christopher Logue (Count Palmiro Vicarion, pseud.)

17. Cupid, or, Ontology

Lacking a progenitor, Eros, of

the gods the eldest, apart from coeval

Chaos (from whom Love conceives all things),

was born of Nyx, an egg “laid in the dark,”

and has these attributes: eternal

infancy, blind, naked, and archery.

There’s a doppelganger, too—cute Cupid,

Aphrodite’s brat, the youngest deity.

Democritus, who . . . but let’s not go there!

“And, if it were possible to conceive

its modus and process, yet it could not

be known from its cause, . . . the cause of causes,

and itself without a cause,” Bacon says.

On such scruples “exquisite sympathies depend”??

18. Diomedes, or, Blasphemy

Diomedes stuck Aphrodite in the arm

the only combatant at Troy to wound

a god. Pallas Athena ordered it,

if Aphrodite were to fight, and his name

foretold this. Then as guest in Apulia

of King Daunus, he bringing on bad luck

caused by this impiety, the king slew him,

his men all turning swans, which chanted dirges

about their sad mischance. Well, blasphemy

was the felony at issue—the man

had pilfered the Palladion, Athena’s

gift, from Troy. But he’d already returned

the damned thing to Trojan Aeneas in Rome,

and swans’ lamentations I call over the top.

19. Dædalus, or, Hubris

Snugging the queen of Crete in a fake cow

to try the yard-long prick of Poseidon

’s bull, thus engendering the Minotaur,

half-Bos, half-Sapiens, Dædalus then built

the Labyrinth of Knossos for it

to inhabit and devour young girls and boys.

Crafts like his thrive among us today:

the spies’ “business of exquisite poisons,”

the traders in guns, and military

shit is everywhere condemned and shelters.

“This stuff will always be prohibited

but yet be accepted in our city,”

Tacitus despaired an aeon ago in Rome.

20. Erichthonius, or, Pretensions

Hephaestos seeking to screw Athena,

and she being unwilling, his semen

fell on Earth. The product of this union

was Erichthonius who, though fine-bodied

from the middle up, had legs like an eel.

In attempting gracefully to conceal

this defect, he invented the four-wheeled

chariot, which overran his mother.

When art violates nature, it seldom

attains the end sought, but rather specious

works that are arrogantly adopted,

shown off, and rejoiced in by their dupes—

witness most mechanical inventions,

although dreamt up with charitable intentions.

21. Deucalion, or, A Category Error

The population of the world wiped out,

the Bronze Age over, an oracle advised

Deucalion (that’s Noah) and his wife Pyrrha,

Afterthought’s child, to toss their mother’s bones

behind them—but the Flood having leveled

everything, her sarcophagus was lost.

Weeping, they flung rocks over their shoulders.

and new happy apes sprang up from these.

A phoenix cannot be reborn from ash

and parental units’ resurrection;

the error’s category—they’re trash!

Once having had a sentient connection,

“dem bones” could not then restore another

(provided Earth was actually their mother).

22. Nemesis, or, Fortuna

Nemesis, a goddess at Rhamnous—I’ve

been there!—where the shape-shifting Zeus screwed her,

was the daughter of Nyx and Poseidon.

Tartarus got a child by her in Hell.

Supplied with wings and adorned with a crown,

she bears a javelin in her right hand,

a mirror in her left, and rides a stag.

Her nickname was Implacable.

I’d say she was Fortuna, the empress

of the world, chastiser of aughtiness,

but though gram-positive and detected

in old Erratasthenes’ colander,

such old algorithms aren’t respected—

not being bingeworthy, like performing fleas.

23. Achelous, or, Cornucopias

“In the long run we are all dead.”—J. M. Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923)

The tale’s well-known: the River Achelous

becomes a bull to combat heroic

Hercules for the hand of Princess

Deianeira, daughter of Oeneus, god

of wine. Hercules snaps off a horn,

wins Achelous’s cornucopia and the girl.

Flash forward, then, to her handing Nessus’s

poisoned shirt to him; he puts it on.

Denver, Phoenix, and LA, all three

contracted with the Colorado river

for water. They got their cornucopias

but must pay the price. For Hercules dies

in agony, and his unwitting bride—

whose name means “man destroyer”—hangs herself.

24. Dionysus, or, Shiva

Semele bound Zeus by oath to grant

her an unknown request; lightning killed her

in its performance, but an infant shut

up in Zeus’s thigh was born. Called Dionysos—

in Rome, Bacchus—and nursed by Persephone,

queen of the underworld, the child grew up

to be the god of wine-making, insanity,

and acting. In India, he’s Shiva!

Lusts in the unconscious to perdition

play until the dikes of shame and fear

give way and we punch in the rampant bad.

“Zounds! I was never so bethump’d with words,

Since I first call’d my brother’s father Dad. . . .

Mad world! Mad gods! Crazy composition!”[2]

Part IV

There was a young fellow named Sweeney,

Whose girl was a terrible meanie.

The hatch of her snatch

Had a catch that would latch--

She could only be screwed by Houdini.

—Christopher Logue (pseud., Count Palmiro Vicarion)

25. Atalanta and Hippomenes, or, Holy Deadlock

Atalanta, a virgin Boeotian

huntress, embraced only those able

to beat her in a footrace—defeated,

you lose your head, but Hippomenes wins,

Aphrodite gives him three free bonus shots

(moral equivalent of Puccini’s

trinity of riddles in Turandot)

and it’s holy deadlock for the poor so-and-so,

a contest with nature in which “certain

golden apples” beat art, Bacon explains.

Three guesses as to how such challenges

work out, both now and in antique remains.

Don’t forget that failing earns you the chop.

In love the thing to know, of course, is never stop.

26. Prometheus, or, Man’s Fate

What a piece of work is Prometheus—“how

cunningly foresighted, qualified

in apprehension, and in action all-

indulgent,”[3] downloading fire from heaven

for human benefit—and, moreover,

perpetual youth, the title to which

a serpent stole, eternal renewal’s

recipe thus falling to the race of snakes.

Prometheus is “clearly and expressly”

Providence, Bacon says, lodged in “the frail

vessel of flesh to redeem mankind. So

we indulge ourselves no such liberties

as those, for fear of using strange fire.” Ah,

dust’s quintessence, O paragon of beasts!

27. Icarus and Scylla and Charybdis, or, Compromise

All hail mediocrity, the middle way!

And compromise extolled in politics

and morality (but not in science,

which mandates that we be fanatics).

Icarus failed at it, but by sailing

between the rock Scylla and Charybdis

Odysseus escaped the ambiguous “bane

and shipwreck of fine geniuses and arts.”

“A dry soul is best,” Heraclitus says.

Defect’s a reptile; excess, a bird,

the former grounded, the latter upward-

borne, the first clammy, the second heaven-

bent. In practicing to be an eagle

Icarus soared toward the sun. He died.

28. Sphinx, or, The Last Sphincter

Sphinx is called a monster by some. Not so,

and neither is she “Science,” as Bacon

so wordily contends, grinding his axe.

“Our words ‘Sphinx’ and ‘sphincter’ go together

back to old Greek sfingo (σφῐ́γγω), which means . . .

‘bind fast or tight.’” There are over sixty

sphincters in your body. Different sorts,

they function “to make sure that stuff . . . travels

to where it should, and in good time.” The Sphinx—

or “Strangler,” as the blunt ancients dubbed her—

is the final sphincter, guarding the gap

before the supposèd sea, the route

of the “bare seed” to which Saint Paul refers.[4]

29. Persephone, or, A Return Ticket

The Romans call Persephone Proserpine.

In Sicily, picking narcissi, she

was importuned by Hades, who bore her

off to Tartarus, where, plumb out of luck,

she became Hell’s bride, First Lady of Dis.

Half a year gone, she habitually spends

the other half with mother. Visitors

need a special aller-retour—a bit

of something like golden mistletoe—see

Frazer’s magnum opus, The Golden Bough

(London: Macmillan, 1890; repr.,

1980), 13 vols., passim. . . . Pluck

it and a fresh piece shoots up in its stead,

service included down among the dead.

30. Mētis, or, Time Spews

Although she shape-shifted to evade him

Zeus had his way with Mētis, impregnating

her. Gaia prophesied the son she bore

would rule heaven, so he swallowed her.

Prometheus (or perhaps Hephaestos)

wacked him with an axe just when her waters

broke, and Athena leapt, fully armored,

from his forehead (near the River Triton).

Later—or maybe before this happened—

Mētis taught Zeus how best to extricate his

brethren from Kronos’s paternal belly:

a drop of antimony made Time spew.

Sapiens supposes that everything that’s cool

emerges from their addled brains, the fool!

31. The Sirens, or, A Racket

Daughters of Achelous, unlucky river,

and Terpsichore (the muse), they lost their wings

contending with their mother’s family,

who snatched their feathers to make themselves crowns.

The Sirens settled on nearby islands,

where they tempted sailors with their racket,

then for fun, apparently, murdered them,

whitening the shore with the seamen’s bones,

a blatant warning! But the misfortune

of others does not deter poor human

beings from pleasure. The fittest recourse

is that of Orpheus, who with his singing

drowned out the wicked Sirens’ saucy noise.

Prima la musica, dopo le parole![5]

Let’s have the music first, and then the tale.

32. Bacon, or, A Legend

Birthed by Elizabeth, the Faerie Queen

Gloriana, or Belphoebe, he was younger

brother to the duke of Earl beheaded

for rebelling against their Virgin Mom.

A native of Utopia (near St. Albans

on the Thameslink line), he invented

science and wrote plays and poems, using

other names, among them “Shake-Speare,” Spenser,

Marlowe, Greene, and Jonson. Battling a Byrd

at Highgate in the Little Ice Age, he untwigged.

Bacon’s “lively hazel eye” is compared

to that of a viper. He sometimes hired

free-lance quills to feather his projections

—handy rascals. Perhaps “that Stratford man”?

“The world's a bubble,” his lordship lamented.

“Man’s life’s less than a span. He writes in dust.”


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

[2] Philip the Bastard in Shakespeare’s King John 2.1.778-79, 875; last line modified here to suit .

[3] So says Apollodorus, I think. It doesn’t seem to be Bacon—too poetic!

[4] “And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be but a bare seed [γυμνὸν κόκκον].”—1 Cor. 15:37. Quotations in this poem are from Peter Dreyer, “Sphinxology,” New English Review, November 2022. Bacon’s chapter XXVIII is titled “Sphinx, or Science.”

[5] Prima la musica e poi le parole, “First the music, then the words,” is the title of a one-act opera by Antonio Salieri, libretto by Giovanni Battistta Casti, quoted in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.


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