Beauty and horror
Giovanni Batista Marino’s poem on the Massacre of the Innocents – the Biblical incident recounted in Matthew 2:16-18, wherein King Herod orders the deaths of all male children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem – was published in 1632, seven years after the poet died. As Florike Egmond and Robert Zwijnenberg recount in their book Bodily Extremities, the poem’s ‘audacious combination of beauty and horror’ had an impact upon visual artists of the period, who sought to emulate ‘the contrast between the ugly and the beautiful, between pity and disgust’ and ‘a more general tension between content and form: between the horror of the episode and the beauty of its representation’.
La strage degli innocenti can be found in the Old Library in a 1675 English translation by ‘T.R.’, dedicated to Mary, Duchess of York. Later to become, as wife of James II and VII, Queen, Mary was originally from Italy, and the dedication takes its force from this:
This Present which I most humbly lay at Your Royal Highnesses Feet, could not be worthy Your Acceptance, were it not derived from that Garden of the Muses, Your own Country. It is a poem famous both for its Subject, (Strage degli Innocenti) and its Author, the Cavalier Marino, who if he appear not to Your Royal Highness in so beautiful and glorious a Dress as was Native to him, yet I hope Your Royal Highness will vouchsafe to look upon him in this English Habit[.]
T.R.’s The Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod retains the original’s ottava rima rhyme scheme (ABABABCC), as well as its slow pace: Herod does not appear in the body of the poem until nearly four hundred lines into the first of the four books, and the Massacre does not occur until the third. One might ask why the mass murder of children requires such a preamble, why it needs to be pre-emptively freighted with theological significance to this extent. But on reaching the third book one finds the question answered, as the poem gives so much gleeful detail about the variety of individual violent deaths suffered by the children, about the cruel rage of Herod and his soldiers and the quantities of blood spilled, and about the beauty and indeed the breasts of the mothers, that there is no longer much room for scene-setting or rumination.
Does a morally normal reader require such video-nasty gore and leering exploitation in order to be moved to pity by such a narrative? Is that really the element that would push an undecided reader over the edge into sympathy? To fuel an answer in the affirmative, one might tap into a book of Peter Hausted’s sermons. Published in 1636, it includes a sermon on the Massacre that is differently problematic from the poem: where Marino is arguably overkeen to stress how horrendous the slaughter was, Hausted explains how horrendous it wasn’t.
Much of the sermon is devoted to a pedantic parsing of Jeremiah’s prophecy as quoted in Matthew (‘In Rama was a voyce heard mourning and weeping, and great lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not bee comforted because they were not’): the priorities seem odd, but the explanation that this is not the literal Rachel alive again and weeping, because resurrection will be only to a happy state (people do tend to forget about Lazarus), suggests that some emotional delicacy has been coupled with the theological pickiness. But then Hausted speaks of Bethlehem being blessed for being able to give the gift of so many souls to Heaven, of the mothers being blessed as mothers of martyrs, and of the ‘courtesie’ done to the children by Herod’s soldiers: as the infants might have otherwise grown up to be ‘murtherers […] thieves […] riotous persons’ and generally run ‘a tedious and troublesome course in this life’, all has worked out well. Having dwelled briefly at the sermon's commencement upon the value of memento mori, Hausted apparently prefers by the end to forget that death, violent or otherwise, might have any negative connotations.
To horrify or to (horrifically) comfort: that both impulses are understandable makes them no less misguided. Imagining the unimaginable, consoling the inconsolable: these are legitimate goals for the pen and the pulpit, but there are other, independent, goals, among them the exploration of inconsolability, of unimaginability, and of the subtleties of human responses when faced with same. The College owns a painted depiction of the Massacre, pictured here, by an unknown artist, after Rubens’s 1636-38 painting. Mirroring and expanding upon Rubens’s scene, the painting shares with it, and with other depictions such as Guido Reni’s (about which Marino wrote), the presence in the sky of celestial figures interpretable as watchful angels or as the souls of the slaughtered children. Here is the aforementioned contrast and tension: earthly violence as against heavenly peace, Herod’s orders as against God’s order. That such balance is itself somewhat ordered and peaceful might say something about the artists’ analysis of the event; alternatively one can detect an acknowledgement of the inadequacy of either pole, of the tension’s insolubility. And one can think of other famous depictions: Rubens’s earlier effort, earthy, earthly; or Bruegel’s, the scene transposed to the contemporary, its sky empty but of birds.
This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 10 January 2018 by Adam Crothers, Special Collections Assistant.