This morning I took a walk to Hampstead Heath in north London. There, I sat down on a bench and read some of John Keats’ poems. Keats lived at an address just off the heath between 1818-1820 before moving to Rome for the sake of his health. Sadly, the tuberculoses that necessitated his removal to the Eternal City claimed his life not long later.
Whenever I pass through Hampstead, I often feel an urge to read his poetry. Either Keats haunts the place, urging us not to forget him, or his memory is now part of Hampstead’s very fabric and can be sensed by people partial to his work in the same way lovers can sense the mood, beauty and thoughts of their beloved.
My bench was just off the nearest path. This gave me the confidence to read some of the poems out aloud to myself. For all my faults as a reader I found it a really enriching experience. It got me closer to the poem, closer – I shall dare to say – to Keats. Reading the poems out aloud made my heart ache, but my goodness I felt more alive afterwards.
The reason I am mentioning Keats here is that as I read him, I wondered what it would be like to read one of the Alexander historians aloud. Would that be similarly intense? I pulled up Arrian, and selected the opening paragraphs of Book Three.
‘Pulled up’: I was reading e-book versions of both Keats’ and Arrian’s works. A while ago I bought them and a number of favourite books for moments such as these. It was definitely money well spent.
Back to Arrian. I have to be honest, my heart did not ache to read him. Of course, it would have been foolish to expect it to. It would take a better writer than Arrian to compete with Keats’s airy intensity. What reading Arrian aloud did do, however, was help my imagination picture his words, remind me of obscure references and introduce new questions to look into. For example –
Arrian describes how Alexander arrived in Pelusium where his fleet, after ‘coasting along from Phoenicia, was already at anchor’. Coasting along from Phoenicia Reading these words out revealed a Greek ships sailing in formation to port. As I think about the imagine now I see a bright blue sky and deep blue sea. It is a very simple image but one that brings that little bit more life to the story.
Arrian refers to ‘Darius’ ignominious scramble for safety’. Here, I locked on to the idea of his ‘ignominious scramble’. What a dreadful way to describe the Persian Great King – and all the more dreadful for being true. Poor Darius.
A little further on Arrian mentions how Alexander ‘offered a special sacrifice to Apis’. As soon as I read this, I said to myself, ‘Alexander sacrificing to a foreign god? Are there any other examples of him doing that? I don’t recall so’. I hope I can find out whether he did. I knew that Alexander held other religions in high regard but I don’t recall him ever going so far as to offer to their gods.
Leaving Memphis, Alexander and his men sailed to somewhere called Canobus. I highlighted this name as it is a place I am completely unfamiliar with. As with Apis, I hope I can now find the time – even if just through a google search or look at Wikipedia – to find out more about this mysterious place.
I stopped reading at the point where Alexander’s ship came out of the Nile delta and stopped ‘at the spot where Alexandria, the city which bears his name, now stands’. What a rich collection of images that sentence contains – Alexander on his boat and the city in its many manifestations thereafter.
This post has been a little here and there but if the opportunity to read an ‘Alexander text’ aloud occurs again then I will definitely try to write a more organised post. In the mean time, whether it is poetry or prose that you like, why not see what you can get out of it when you read it aloud?