Friday, 9 April 2021

Posthumus, alas! Where is thy head?

    Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume,
Labuntur anni nec pietas moram
    rugis et instanti senectae
                                                adferet indomitaeque morti.                                     
                                                             Horace, Odes, II. xiv

 ‘Alas, Posthumus, O Posthumus, the fugitive years hasten away and mere piety can delay neither wrinkles nor the onset of old age and indomitable death.’*

I must admit it wasn’t Anglican piety that drew me to Ely Cathedral on New Year’s Day, 2010, but the need to take some photographs for a series of lectures on Cambridge architecture I’d been asked to give to the Cambridge Green (formerly Blue) Badge Guides. I wanted pictures to demonstrate the links between the Bishop’s Palace at Ely and the Gatehouse of Jesus College, and between the Wren Library at Trinity and the north transept of the cathedral. I wanted, too, to re-photograph the interior of the second finest cathedral in England on a day when the clear winter sunlight made flashlight unnecessary.


It was very cold in the cathedral, and even the formidable Gurney stoves in the aisles could barely offer local warmth. These great ribbed cylinders, each surmounted by a Queen Victoria-style crown, must be terrific gas-guzzlers, but they used to be coal-fired. I have a clear memory of being in the cathedral on a bleak and gloomy winter afternoon many years ago and seeing an aged verger pushing a trolley laden with buckets of anthracite from one Gurney to the next. It was like a moment from an M R James ghost story – ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’, perhaps, for which I suspect Ely was the setting. In the half-light, there was something sinister about the glow of the red-hot stoves. 


However long ago was that? I found myself murmuring a barely-remembered line of Horace: ‘Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume’. To my surprise, I could recall the exact date: 1st January 1975 - thirty five years ago to the very day. What’s more, I could remember exactly why I was there. I had been attending a course at Madingley Hall (my first) which ran from 28th December over the New Year until 2nd January. On the last afternoon, one of the students announced she was going to drive over to Ely Cathedral, which she had never visited before, and asked if anyone would like to join her. In those days I had no car and was only too happy for the chance to re-visit the first intact medieval cathedral I’d ever seen.


(Why say ‘intact’? Why ‘medieval’? Because I was born in Birmingham: so the first cathedral I ever entered was St Philip’s, a fine Georgian building, and the first medieval cathedral in which I set foot was the ruined shell of Coventry. Then, when I was six, we moved from the Midlands to the Fens, and Ely in those pre-Beeching days was just a short train journey from Wisbech.)


The Madingley course was on Shakespeare’s late plays. It was run by John Andrew and Leo Salingar, and one of the guest lecturers was Richard Luckett, then a junior fellow at St Catharine’s College but for many years afterwards the Pepys Librarian at Magdalene. He and I had been at the same school (St.John’s, Leatherhead) and in the same house. I reintroduced myself to him after his lecture and we kept in touch until we each had left Cambridge . Richard was a remarkable person,  one of those people one may not have  known well but whom one is grateful to have known at all.  

We were only a small group - not more than fifteen or so. Several of us were young teachers, but one student was the then recently retired Agnes Latham, shortly to publish her Arden Shakespeare As You Like ItFor me it was a memorable course in every way. I would not have spent the most rewarding years of my career teaching in Cambridge for the University’s Institute of Continuing Education, if I hadn’t spent those six days at Madingley. And I remember the exhilaration of the classes, held in the Hickson Room. Leo Salingar, the distinguished scholar of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, was developing his theory that Shakespeare’s profoundest insights were found in the comedies, not the tragedies. His book Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy  had just appeared in print and contained chapters elaborating the ideas he teased out with us on that course. 

He and John Andrew sparred cheerfully, Leo defending Cymbeline against John’s tongue-in-cheek charge that the play was almost unactable and all but unreadable. “Why should Shakespeare have sent poor Imogen all the way to Milford Haven, for goodness sake?” asked John. Leo, of course, had the answer. “Is there any scene in Shakespeare more absurd,” demanded John, “than the moment when the hapless Imogen wakes from her drugged sleep to discover a headless corpse beside her, which she promptly mistakes for her beloved Posthumus?” (It actually belongs to the treacherous Cloten.) “It doesn’t have to be absurd,” argued Leo: “act it and see.”


And we did. On New Year’s Eve, in the Saloon, we rehearsed and then acted scenes from the late plays. Anne, a drama teacher from Solihull, gave a performance as Imogen which won great applause, and no one laughed when she reached the lines:


O Posthumus, alas,

                        Where is thy head? Where’s that? (IV.ii.320-1)


People said Susan Fleetwood, playing Imogen that year for the RSC, could not have done better. My performance too was praised. I was the headless corpse.


Adrian Barlow



Illustrations: (i) Ely Cathedral, seen from the south east; (ii) Madingley Hall, home of the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge, Photos   © the author


*Translator’s notes: (i) I don’t believe in literal translation of poetry. Here I have picked up William Cowper’s echo of Horace in ‘The Poplar-Field’: ‘My fugitive years are all hasting away’. (ii) pietas of course means devotion to one’s friends, family, ancestors and country – as in ‘filial piety’ – rather than religious observance and behaviour.


Richard Luckett (1945-2020): summed up by The Times in its obituary of him (19.12. 20) as an ‘unworldly and whimsical Cambridge don, polymath and Pepys Librarian [….] One of the fabled dons of his time, Richard Luckett came to embody Magdalene College, Cambridge. His fund of recondite knowledge was a continual source of comedy and delight to all who knew him, but it also enabled him to enhance the fabric and collections of the college, its music, its reputation, and the scholarly endeavours of others in many disciplines.’



  1. Thank you for this and for the Ely piece, Adrian - excellent reading after a long morning walk and an afternoon of weeding.

    I was taught by Leo Salingar in 1966/1967, and wrote a couple of essays for him on Richard II and As You Like It. I can't remember what I said....

    In my scholarship exam the year before, I'd asserted that Cymbeline was perhaps the best of the last plays. I don't think so now - although I'm very fond of it still - and I'm not sure if I entirely believed it then, but I'd just read it and been overwhelmed. The version at the Globe back in 2001, when Mark Rylance played Cloten, Posthumus and a physician, worked well enough for me.

    Studying Finzi's setting of Feare no more the heate o' th' Sun with my teenage musicians is always a bit of a marvel. They can be stunned by it.

  2. Oops - of course I meant 'and the Marina Warner piece'.

    She is the granddaughter of the England and Middlesex cricket captain, Sir Pelham ['Plum'] Warner.

    I saw him once, at Lord’s in 1958 when a little, bald old man came onto the pitch during the tea interval as part of a ceremony for the opening of the new Warner Stand.

    I wanted the cricket to re-start, and was impatient that he was listening to other people’s speeches. If I’d known – he’d played with Grace and Ranji and Jessop and Rhodes and Trumper and Barnes and Hobbs.

    His father was born in 1805. I talked with his grand-daughter Marina at a British Academy event not so long ago. She might be able to write something about those processes of time and memory and decay.

    I told her that he’d once described a tour of France with his young wife – his honeymoon, I guess – when he’d estimated the lengths of the different cathedral naves, measuring them against a mental twenty-two yards and [I imagine] calculating if on the third day – appropriate to a Christian building – they would take spin.

    He wrote – not always scrupulously - about Test matches, the Empire and playing the game. She writes - not always lucidly - about the Virgin Mary, feminist iconography and monsters.

    She once wrote: ‘Creating simplicity often makes the heart leap; order has been restored, the crooked made straight. But order is understanding that things cannot be made simple, that complexity reigns and must be accepted.’

    He once wrote: ‘I am indeed fortunate to have lived to attempt to give some sort of history of an historic match [Gentlemen v Players] which began long before Test matches were dreamed of, and which I pray, and believe, will never die out.

    Tell the story linking the two ideas and you’ve told a lot of the history of England in the twentieth century.

    I hope you don't mind the after-tea thoughts...

  3. This piece evokes the excitement of learning. I find myself increasingly detached from my subject. It's good to be reminded of what kept me engaged with studying literature and teaching it (which was also studying) for so many years.

  4. Tom and Joe,
    I’m delighted to hear, Tom, that you were taught by Leo Salinger. I only met him during those six days in 1974-5 but I have never forgotten the enthusiasm that he communicated both for Shakespeare and for the privilege of teaching - to which, Joe, I should add your phrase, ’the excitement of learning’ . I still conduct a few study days each year and nearly always feel at the end that I have learned at least as as much from the students I have been teaching as they will have learned from me.