A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF WESTERN CULTURE

 

by Michael Peverett

 

Section 3. 1790-1870

 

 

Contents

Note: Entries marked * are separate HTML pages. Click on the links to get to them (i.e. you can't get to them just by scrolling further down this page!).

 

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)   The Excursion and bereavement

Athwart *       greasespot on romantic pages

Elizabeth Hervey: The Mourtray Family (1800)    NEW

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)     NEW   philosophical prose

John Keats (1795-1821)      his purposeful Endymion

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)  *  notes on all the novels  

Byron: The Corsair (1814)    an exploitative process

Jane Austen: Emma (1816)      literature being about class

The History of Poland (1831)  anti-Semitism of a Literary man

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)   dynamic narratives

Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)      Carmen and others

Richard Ford: Gatherings from Spain (1846)    the Other in Europe 

J. L. Runeberg: Tales of Ensign Stål (1848, 1860)   model of a nation

Robert Browning (1812-1889)     Pauline, Strafford, Blougram, Ferishtah, Parleyings

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)    *  limitations of unexampled genius

Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855)    *    NEW

George Eliot: Silas Marner (1861)      NEW

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)    Armadale and a worthless novel

 

 

 


William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

 

Strange Fits of Passion (1799)

 

Upon the moon I fixed my eye,

All over the wide lea;

With quickening pace my horse drew nigh

Those paths so dear to me.

 

And now we reached the orchard plot;

And, as we climbed the hill,

The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot

Came near, and nearer still.

 

Wordsworth wrote the Lucy poems while in Germany.

 

The moon sets every day, but we don’t often see it do so. Canonical literature, so loquacious about sunsets, virtually ignores the existence of moonsets, except in this poem.

 

We usually notice the moon when it’s full, and the big (or apparently big) moonrise that occurs soon after sunset is often remarked on. But a moonset near the full would occur near dawn, the coldest part of the night when (at least in temperate climes) we tend to sleep on, and even if we’re out and about the spectacle is usually lost in the mist. The little white ghost of a waning moon is hardly ever noticed when it sets during the hours of daylight. The most impressive moonset I've seen was a lazy moon on a cold winter night which became yellower and bigger, and finally just after midnight a smoky red as it dropped into the west. So rarely have I noticed a moonset in my fifty years that it hadn't really occurred to me that the setting moon must often go through the same colour changes as the setting sun.

 

If the moon is going to set earlier in the evening, not too many hours after sunset, it must be a brand-new sliver of a moon, which is probably not what most readers envisage while they're reading this poem.

 

However, the hill makes a difference. After crossing the “wide lea” westwards, with the moon spreading its light, Wordsworth’s lover starts to ascend rather sharply, and “Lucy’s cot” is on a ridge. Thus the moon could seem to “set” when still comparatively high in the sky. Wordsworth had often noticed the sharpness of Lakeland’s high night-horizons, and e.g. famously written of how “the stars moved along the edges of the hills”.

 

My horse moved on; hoof after hoof

He raised, and never stopped:

When down behind the cottage roof,

At once, the bright moon dropped.

 

To realize the emotional charge of this, it’s worth going out on a suitable clear evening and making it happen. The roof should be quite close, perhaps less than a hundred meters away; it happens just as the lover arrives. The moon falls “at once” because it is the lover’s relatively rapid approach, not the moon’s own descent, that causes it to drop out of sight. In those nights without any streetlights, the instantaneous change in the light would have been dramatic. If you are suitably sensitized, it still can cause a shiver.   

 

 

The Excursion (1814)

 

The Excursion was not well received, and although Wordsworth continued to write prolifically for another thirty years, he would never again write a poem that was so plainly meant to epitomize the solid work of a poet now entering on the “years that bring the philosophic mind”. The first and last parts of the projected magnum opus that was to have been called The Recluse never emerged. Perhaps he was appalled by Coleridge’s eventual response to The Excursion, which consisted of nothing but an outline of what he, Coleridge, would have liked the poem to contain. The Recluse had been their dreamchild, but the two were now miles apart in their conceptions, and Coleridge’s uncompromisingly philosophical recipe looks like a splenetic outburst; he must have known Wordsworth would hate it.

 

Sooner or later you have to attempt The Excursion, though not until you’ve read The Prelude at least twice. But I don’t mean Book I of The Excursion, which incorporates an earlier poem, The Ruined Cottage, that ought to come near the top of anyone’s Wordsworth reading list.

 

The Ruined Cottage is a desperately sad narrative, an undramatic tragedy in the vein of Michael that charts the slow decline of a once-happy family through the ordinary reverses of poverty. After a brief and placid introduction the first blows are announced with such restraint that it is at first hard to understand them for what they are:

 

Not twenty years ago, but you I think

Can scarcely bear it now in mind, there came

Two blighting seasons when the fields were left

With half a harvest. It pleased Heaven to add

A worse affliction in the plague of war...  (I, 535-39)

 

It is Margaret, the wife, with whom the Wanderer sympathizes. The decline of her husband is described therefore with a certain moral distance in the Wanderer’s voice; what he is thinking about, and what we register painfully, is the effect of this decline on her:

 

A sad reverse it was for him who long

Had filled with plenty, and possessed in peace,

This lonely Cottage. At the door he stood,

And whistled many a snatch of merry tunes

That had no mirth in them; or with his knife

Carved uncouth figures on the heads of sticks –

Then, not less idly, sought, through every nook

In house or garden, any casual work

Of use or ornament; and with a strange,

Amusing, yet uneasy, novelty,

He mingled, where he might, the various tasks

Of summer, autumn, winter, and of spring.

But this endured not; his good humour soon

Became a weight in which no pleasure was:

And poverty brought on a petted mood

And a sore temper: day by day he drooped,

And he would leave his work – and to the town

Would turn without an errand his slack steps;

Or wander here and there among the fields.

One while he would speak lightly of his babes,

And with a cruel tongue: at other times

He tossed them with a false unnatural joy:

And ‘twas a rueful thing to see the looks

Of the poor innocent children...     (I, 566-89)

 

No wonder Wordsworth (who is the listener here) feels how “A heart-felt chillness crept along my veins...” (I, 619).

 

The rest of the story is structured around the intermittent visits of the Wanderer to Margaret, the time-gap between each one being actively menacing (as in Chekhov’s story The Trousseau). Margaret’s husband eventually disappears; he joins a band of troopers and is never heard of again. The elder child is apprenticed far away. Margaret becomes obsessed with the idea of her husband’s return; it seems to her that with this event her real life would resume. In the mean time everything is neglected. Her infant dies, and after nine years of lingering she too passes away.

 

So far we are united with the Wanderer and with Wordsworth in their grief. We may not feel so sure about the Wanderer’s consolatory conclusion. First he says:

 

Yet still

She loved this wretched spot, nor would for worlds

Have parted hence; and still that length of road,

And this rude bench, one torturing hope endeared,

Fast rooted at her heart. (I, 910-14)

 

Was this attachment to the spot a good thing, I wonder? Had it been less, might Margaret have been able to live again? In fact, with repeated readings, I have come to think that the Wanderer recognizes the force of these questions, but sees further than them – sees that people do get trapped in their own patterns, and usually can’t break away from loves that destroy them, but that we ought to accept and revere these loves anyway, because they are the real person – the Margaret – that we know. How Margaret stayed rooted to her wretched spot, was how, fearfully damaged, she could make beauty. To express what should be is also to refuse a communion with what is; preaching displaces listening.   

 

Then he speaks of what she had felt even in her worst distress, “The unbounded might of prayer”. But it seems the “unbounded might” extended only to consolation, not to redress – so how boundless is that?

 

And then, there is stillness now: “She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here.” The thought sparks an odd memory:

 

I well remember that those very plumes,

Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,

By mist and silent rain-drops silvered o’er,

As once I passed, into my heart conveyed

So still an image of tranquillity,

So calm and still, and looked so beautiful

Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,

That what we feel of sorrow and despair

From ruin and from change, and all the grief

That passing shows of Being leave behind,

Appeared an idle dream, that could maintain,

Nowhere, dominion o’er the enlightened spirit

Whose meditative sympathies repose

Upon the breast of Faith. I turned away,

And walked along my road in happiness. (I, 942-56)

 

Well for you! we might respond. “The passing shows of Being”... but isn’t that simply a way of saying everything that actually exists? If it now “appeared an idle dream”; well, one does become sleepy even after a terrible day. The talismanic “breast of Faith” seems to us to induce merely a counterfactual response to a disaster whose origin “pleased Heaven”. Reading The Excursion one constantly comes up against the stark disparity between what Wordsworth expects his readers to accept and the way we all now think.

 

In the 1814 Preface Wordsworth says hesitantly that “something of a dramatic form” is adopted. But “dramatic” gives a wrong idea of the pace of the poem. The four main speakers (the Wanderer, the poet, the Solitary and the Pastor) speak in effusions and apostrophes, like leaders of a Chorus. They are experienced men, indeed old men (the poet is the youngest). Though the Solitary introduces the possibility of conflict in Books II-III he too will gradually become a participant in the flow of contemplation that finally debouches (pleasingly, I think) into the family outing with the pastor’s wife and children that constitutes Book IX’s tranquil sea.

 

But when we first encounter the Solitary he jars on this consensual music.

 

“That poor man taken hence today,” replied

The Solitary, with a faint sarcastic smile

Which did not please me, “must be deemed, I fear,

Of the unblest...” (II, 593-96)

 

What he says here affects us, at first, not so much as a conflict of values as of manners; it makes short work of what we have just been listening to, the Wanderer’s effusion on the beauty of rural funerals. The Solitary, in more detail, proceeds to describe a far-from-idyllic rural community in which self-interest is conspicuously emphasized. In the midst of this narrative (and with a painfully incongruous relation to its context), the Solitary describes a revelatory scene above the mist (II, 830-81), something that Wordsworth had lingered on as early as in the Descriptive Sketches of 1793 (491ff. in the original version, 405ff. in the revision), and most famously in the scene on Snowdon at the beginning of the final book of The Prelude. These comparisons, however, draw attention to the particular features of the Solitary’s description; it is far from serene. Jumbled, confused and overwrought, it issues in a scalding anguish and a wish for death. The recollection of the scene makes him want to get drunk.

 

In Book III the sainted Wanderer (an “unmarked case” if ever there was one), coming upon an impressive scene of scattered rocks, is inspired to make his (not unexpected) apostrophe to Contemplation. The Solitary delivers his criticism: such exaltation is subjective. The same scene does not fill him with grateful outpourings, though it might have done so in the thoughtless days of happiness before the death of his wife and children. With a certain malicious enjoyment the Solitary unfavourably compares this Contemplation even with the concrete, though trivial, objects of the grubbing botanist and the chipping geologist. For him the place with the scattered rocks (which is certainly potent) generates only despondent thoughts of a wasted life and ill memories of his own bad decisions. Though the Solitary’s unhappy history and loss of faith clearly mark him, in the eyes of Wordsworth and his audience, as an unreliable commentator, his attack is directed squarely at the heart of The Excursion’s modus operandi, indeed at much of Wordsworth’s major poetry. Does nature merely reflect our own moods?

 

But the Solitary, like all the other major speakers in The Excursion, represents a portion of Wordsworth’s own thoughts. He directly voices some of Wordsworth’s recent experience of bereavement (see below); and his turmoiled, self-disgusted narrative undoubtedly reflects some painful soul-searching on the part of the poet. The Solitary in the contented years of his marriage, and earlier, had also been a contemplator of nature, as serious as Wordsworth. But his account of all this is now riddled with awkwardnesses of tone that persistently question the value of contemplative experience. For example, he says parenthetically:

 

            (Not as an intellectual game pursued

            With curious subtilty, from wish to cheat

            Irksome sensations; but by love of truth

            Urged on, or haply by intense delight

            In feeding thought, wherever thought could feed)  (III, 285-89)

 

In opposition to the surface sense, the negative words come thick and fast: game, curious, subtilty, cheat, Irksome. And what is not denied, the feeding, carries an implicit suggestion of self-indulgence.

 

When the Solitary reverts to his recent vision above the mists, he brings a yet heavier charge. This susceptibility to nature, he now asserts, leads not to illumination but to dazzlement (III, 716-722); he connects it with his own sorry story of a wild enthusiasm for the revolution in France, and of the increasingly desperate behaviour that he resorted to in the attempt to sustain it. Finally, his tale pursues another false path: in America he had tried to assume the role of a detached observer, but natural magnificence is found to be void of any value to someone who feels only condemnation of the raw human society that he witnesses. Far from coming to his aid, Contemplation merely skulks. It is reduced to an automatic but insignificant register of bird-song.     

 

In response, the Wanderer’s immediate references (at the start of Book IV) are to Faith, and also to Duty, that new touchstone that Wordsworth had proposed with such inspiring directness in the Ode to Duty (1805). Through slow circlings Book IV unfolds as a review of what Wordsworthian contemplation means. The Wanderer persuades us at some length that these contemplative engagements with the forms of Nature are true insights; his eventual (and less unbending) recipe for the Solitary’s despondency is to share in their exploration:

 

Then trust yourself abroad

To range her blooming bowers, and spacious fields,

Where on the labours of the happy throng

She smiles, including in her wide embrace

City, and town, and tower, - and sea with ships

Sprinkled; - be our Companion while we track

Her rivers populous with gliding life;

While, free as air, o’er printless sands we march,

Or pierce the gloom of her majestic woods;

Roaming, or resting under grateful shade

In peace and meditative cheerfulness;

Where living things, and things inanimate

Do speak, at Heaven’s command, to eye and ear,

And speak to social reason’s inner sense

With inarticulate language. (IV, 1193-1207)

 

This “inarticulate language” must, so we are urged, issue in “the joy of that pure principle of love”. And as for “Science” (alluding to the Solitary’s botanist and geologist),

 

            taught with patient interest to watch

The processes of things, and serve the cause

Of order and distinctness, not for this

Shall it forget that its most noble use,

Its most illustrious province, must be found

In furnishing clear guidance, a support

Not treacherous, to the mind’s excursive power.

– So build we up the Being that we are;

Thus deeply drinking-in the soul of things,

We shall be wise perforce... (IV, 1257-66)

 

When the Wanderer speaks of “Some acceptable lesson ... Of human suffering, or of human joy”, we may uneasily recall some of the questions raised by the ending of The Ruined Cottage. “Philanthropy” and “moral purposes” play a larger part in this intellectual structure than had been claimed in – say – Tintern Abbey (1798). The soul-searching review reflected in the Solitary’s narrative has led to a certain modification in Wordsworth’s thought; he now needs to call on Faith and Duty as expedients in order to save the appearances of the fundamental dogma that he cannot question, namely the value of his experience of nature. But now that the full significance of that title, The Excursion, is manifest, I don’t think we can call this a failure of insight. Wordsworth’s argument remains current. Something like this underlies what many people still consider the true, if inarticulate, purpose of those soul-journeys that we call “holidays”; they are not just about leisure. 

 

Wordsworth’s poetry is, more than most of our classical poetry, an open window. It points outwards, away from literature and towards some reorientation of our own lives (even if this only means a walk in the Lake District). This is one of the places (but there are many) at which it does so urgently: The Excursion is a serious call for those entering their middle years. I should perhaps add personally, that Wordsworth more than any other poet that I can think of seems to influence my own life in rather direct ways. In practice I take it for granted that an apprehension of nature is an undiluted communication with whatever it is that “really matters”, and my commonplace everyday decisions are influenced by this uninspected belief; as also such not-so-commonplace matters as my choice of companions and choice of life. It’s true, this is what I was going to do anyway; I don’t think to myself:

 

Hmm, now what would Wordsworth say about this?...

 

But “what I was going to do anyway” just demonstrates that I’m a follower; though the channels must be tortuous by which his vision trickled through grandparents and parents, rectors and teachers, into me. Much gets muddied in those unconscious descents from person to person; then a direct inflow from the source re-purifies it. Or does it stir it up and make it all the more muddy?

 

The “source”...  Oh, I see.  You mean Wordsworth.

 

No, I mean Nature, of course!

 

The Solitary puts his finger on one great problem with Wordsworthian contemplation; it is not transferable. If I happen to experience it, what value can that have for you? My experience is inarticulate and inexpressible. But what then justifies the centrality of contemplation in Wordsworth’s scheme? He has a difficulty that pulls him in two separate directions. For contemplation to have a credible social significance it has to be a common experience; and Wordsworth likes to portray several people sharing reactions to a single moment, as e.g. the sunset in Book IX of The Excursion (“While from the grassy mountain’s open side / We gazed, in silence hushed...”). But on the other hand, the convincingly transcendent value that Wordsworth attributes to the experience depends on its rarity. The touristic conception of an “excursion” (I mean in its more mundane sense) is in fact one way of resolving this conundrum. By getting out of our road we find a way of experiencing natural phenomena that are in themselves common but nevertheless do not seem commonplace. But the costs of mass tourism provide a troublingly ironic commentary on the pursuit of nature’s sensations, as Wordsworth himself was well aware and from which, in the sniffy spirit of those modern guidebooks that pour scorn on cheap resorts, he tried unpersuasively to distance himself.

 

 

*

 

Books III and IV are the most rewarding part of the Excursion, though some readers may feel repelled by the magnificent reproof of that subtitle, Despondency Corrected. Here we can witness how a determination to appraise his own raw experience, to sift it, leads him inexorably towards matters of motivation, behaviour, delusion and doubt; how things are instanced. I am finding it impossible to avoid the glamorous appeal of a crude generalization: in The Excursion  Romantic poetry is transformed, for better and worse, into Victorian poetry. In truth this is scarcely worth saying; it is more useful to say that (for perhaps the last time in his long career) Wordsworth is fully stretched by his material. The upshot is writing such as this:

 

                  high or low appeared no trace

Of motion, save the water that descended,

Diffused adown that barrier of steep rock,

And softly creeping, like a breath of air,

Such as is sometimes seen, and hardly seen,

To brush the still breast of a crystal lake.   (III, 68-73)

 

Within the soul a faculty abides,

That with interpositions, which would hide

And darken, so can deal that they become

Contingencies of pomp; and serve to exalt

Her native brightness. As the ample moon,

In the deep stillness of a summer even

Rising behind a thick and lofty grove,

Burns, like an unconsuming fire of light,

In the green trees;                           (IV, 1058-66)

 

 

Books V-VII are less demanding fare. They revolve around the churchyard in a neighbouring vale and they narrate, mostly in the words of the Pastor, the stories of villagers past and present. Books VIII and IX become interesting again, as Wordsworth dwells on the changes seen in his own time. Industry and incipient urbanism, the first steps in the ever-widening separation of humans from nature, are critical matters for him and for anyone who shares his vision, however muddily. His deepest insights are not those that he expresses openly but what is implicit in lines such as this:

 

                                                Hence that sum

            Of keels that rest within her crowded ports,

            Or ride at anchor in her sounds and bays;

                                                                                                (VIII, 136-38)

 

This is Wordsworth’s muted report of the alienation (it can sometimes be exhilaration) that a traveller feels when witnessing only a snapshot of a whole lot of human activity going on at once without seeing any of the beginnings or the ends.

 

I should like to quote these lines, too. They are about what we now call light pollution.

 

                                    When soothing darkness spreads

O’er hill and vale,” the Wanderer thus expressed

His recollections, “and the punctual stars,

            While all things else are gathering to their homes,

            Advance, and in the firmament of heaven

            Glitter – but undisturbing, undisturbed;

            As if their silent company were charged

            With peaceful admonitions for the heart

            Of all-beholding Man, earth’s thoughtful lord;

            Then, in full many a region, once like this

            The assured domain of calm simplicity

            And pensive quiet, an unnatural light

            Prepared for never-resting Labour’s eyes

            Breaks from a many-windowed fabric huge;

            And at the appointed hour a bell is heard,

            Of harsher import than the curfew-knoll

            That spake the Norman Conqueror’s stern behest –

            A local summons to unceasing toil!

            Disgorged are now the ministers of day;

            And, as they issue from the illumined pile,

            A fresh band meets them, at the crowded door –

            And in the courts – and where the rumbling stream,

            That turns the multitude of dizzy wheels,

            Glares, like a troubled spirit, in its bed

            Among the rocks below.

                                                                                    (VIII, 156-80)

 

The poetry acknowledges that this scene, too, is nature. But it is a shock, and its might is comfortless.

 

*

 

Biographically The Excursion coincides with a desperate period of Wordsworth’s life. He had married Mary Hutchinson in October 1802; she became pregnant immediately and over the next eight years Mary bore five children. The couple’s sex-life, to judge from Wordsworth’s passionate letters, was intensely satisfying. But in 1812 they suffered the loss of two children; the four-year-old Catherine, their fourth, in June  and the six-year-old Thomas, their third, in December. Mary plunged into a long depression through 1813 and though the marriage was strong there were no more children. These painful events were reflected, above all, in the Solitary’s story in Book III, though Wordsworth soon expunged some of the more nakedly autobiographical references. His relocation to Rydal Mount, his acceptance of the government post, and his labours on The Excursion were all attempts to break with the past and move on.

 

Very few other poems were written in 1812-14. The famous sonnet Surprised by joy was written after Catherine’s death. Some transport of nature has moved the poet who automatically turns to share it with his favourite daughter; forgetting for a split-second that she is dead. His sense of loss is quickened; he loses Catherine for a second time. This natural grief is described self-critically by the Solitary in The Excursion (III, 686-95), while in Laodamia (1814) Wordsworth presents the theme of the loved one’s devastating return from a much more distanced perspective. This is a fine poem but a severe one in its conclusions. What began as a line of thought that helped him to come to terms with his own grief would lead eventually towards the pitiless uprightness of the Sonnets upon the Punishment of Death (1839-1840).

 

The inscription, Written with a Slate Pencil on a Stone, on the Side of the Mountain of Black Comb, was composed in 1813. Black Comb is described here and in several other poems as a summit notable for its large views. The poem begins to tell us about a geographical surveyor who spent some time on this mountain, no doubt because of its value as a vantage-point. Once, while working on his maps, he has a visitation of nature in the form of a sudden darkness, which deposits him in

 

                                               total gloom,

In which he sate alone, with unclosed eyes,

Upon the blinded mountain’s silent top!

 

What contemplation there may be in this experience is left unvoiced. Though Wordsworth here as elsewhere draws inspiration from the rapid changes of weather in the hills, this time he chooses to emphasize the engulfing of mist, rather than its dispersal, as the critical event. The poem leaves a powerful question-mark hanging over its human scene of measurement and labour. It was an insight that Wordsworth confined to the safety of an “occasional” poem.

 

[It is true, as I discovered when I went to Black Combe, that such unobstructed views are not an unmitigated blessing. There is no higher ground within ten miles, and the great things are the looping “terraqueous” coastline, and the distant views of the Cumbrian massif, Wales, Man, Scotland, perhaps even Ireland. It should be amazing. But unless the air is particularly clear, this is all too far off. On a fine cloudless day with a haze reducing visibility to three or four miles, I stood on the flattish summit and saw no view at all!]

 

             

(2004)    


Elizabeth Hervey: The Mourtray Family (1800)

 

 

I only have the third colume (of four); its original owner was a certain Lord Torrington, but I got it in a charity shop. This vol begins with the family discovering the horrendous mess that young Henry has got himself into; he has fought a duel (without seconds) over a gaming debt, and fled leaving his opponent at death's door. Mr Mourtray and his daughter Emma are gravely distressed; the comic Mrs Mourtray is also distressed but insensible to the moral gravity of the situation, she is only concerned for her son's welfare. If you can read the blurry scan above, you'll enjoy the irrepressible Chowles adding fuel to everyone's distress. In Hervey's book this is just funny: compare it with the scene in Mansfield Park when Sir Thomas Bertram discovers the theatricals, and when Yates keeps on talking to him about the theatre while everyone else is desperate to change the subject; the painful topic is a much less serious matter in itself, but Austen makes us feel the scene as excruciating, because we are so much more deeply aware of the betrayal and shame.

 

The rest of the third vol focusses on Emma and her love for Miramont; by the end of it they are married, but I'm not sure if this is the end of their story or if there are still further twists to come; the meeting with Miramont's rival Lord Clannarmon is disquieting, and we wonder if Miramont has the moral stature that Austen has taught us to expect from the hero. The most exciting scene is when Emma, staying up late, notices a flickering light from Miramont's bedroom (they are both guests at a country house). This light can only mean fire, and Emma rouses the household, saves the gentleman's life, and is rewarded by his declaration of love, though not as yet by a proposal of marriage.       

 

But these comparisons with Austen are a little unjust. What Hervey already gives us is the typically captious eye of a spirited young heroine turned to good account as a means of presenting her world; for example, as a moral instrument trained on her mother and her mother's friends; and also on the envy and snobbery of those of her own friends who were more socially established but less sexually attractive. There is already a healthy structure here on which later novelists can build. 

 

Elizabeth (1748-1820) was only a young child when her mother remarried. Her stepfather was the fabulously rich William Beckford Sr, who owned twenty plantations worked by slaves in Jamaica, and she must have grown up in the opulent surroundings of Fonthill Splendens in Wiltshire. William Beckford Jr, author of Vathek, was her half-brother. In 1774 she married Col. Thomas Hervey, who promptly gambled away their joint fortunes, perhaps supplying a financial motive for Mrs Hervey's subsequent composition of half a dozen anonymously-published novels. So when the author has Mr Mourtray say about Henry, "Gaming, too, is, of all vices, that which takes the deepest root in the heart", she was writing from bitter experience.

 

(2010)  


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

 

Shelley's Literary and Philosophical Criticism ed. John Shawcross, 1909. The editor had no excessive admiration for Shelley's prose, but felt compelled to issue a selection that expurgated his political and atheistic work - the mature Shelley was not even very interested in politics, Shawcross claims. Here's something I just read in Saarikoski's Edge of Europe (a fantastic book, which I'll review as soon as I can get it together): "I went to Helsinki, spent three days there and met a lot of people, but none of them said anything memorable because all the people I met were intellectuals, and intellectuals always say what they mean without meaning what they say, and this makes it hard to have conversations with them." Shelley in his prose, the poems I'm not sure about, but what appeals in the prose is a willingness to stand by what he says. You think of Shelley as idealistic, but he's more dangerous than that. He says of Jesus Christ and of Rousseau (this is the Essay on Christianity) that they didn't really mean that one should literally give away all one's possessions or return to nature: "Nothing is more obviously false than that the remedy for the inequality among men consists in their return to the condition of savages and beasts". Most poets of a radical type would be tempted to assert these doctrines in their literal form - it would come over a lot sexier. But Shelley was political in his very bones; he was interested in the implementation of justice. So of the idealistic early church in the first generation after Jesus, "It was a circumstance of no moment that the first adherents of the system of Jesus Christ cast their property into a common stock. The same degree of community of property could have subsisted without this formality, which served only to extend a temptation of dishonesty to the treasurers..." This formality - that's where I hear the Shelley that takes my breath away. This could be misconstrued perhaps as timidly prudential or self-serving - not at all. Shelley believes in a distinct path to equality: the spread of knowledge brings individuals to moral maturity and results in a just society which results in equality. The final sentence of the Defence of Poetry is there not for the glory of poetry but to concentrate attention on effecting material change.

 

(2008)

 

John Keats (1795-1821)

 

 

 

Endymion (1817), written at speed and completed when the author was just 22, is a difficult poem to read. Keats himself observed (in his introduction) that there was something wrong with it; the Blackwoods reviewer agreed; and nothing is easier. But if, instead, we want to read it, we have to read hard.

 

                        No, I will once more raise

   My voice upon the mountain-heights; once more

   Make my horn parley from their foreheads hoar;

   Again my trooping hounds their tongues shall loll

   Around the breathèd boar... (I, 477-481)

 

Thus Endymion promises his sister, and one part of our attention is quickened, because what’s promised is the kind of stirring material from which narrative poems are usually made. That tolling of the word “Again”, however, is enough to warn us that these promises are vain. We have learnt that, in art if not always in life, “you can’t go back”.

 

                           the maid was very loth

   To answer; feeling well that breathèd words

   Would all be lost, unheard, and vain as swords

   Against the enchasèd crocodile, or leaps

   Of grasshoppers against the sun.     (I, 711-715)

 

I remember once writing a critique of this passage. I complained that “swords” leapt out of the page with excessive force, unsuitable as a comparison to the softness of “breathèd words”, and basically in conflict with what Keats is saying about how useless they are. However, there is a certain point to the contradiction. In Endymion the intention is to tell a story that passes rapidly beyond the tackle of swords and trooping hounds. We have to learn to give up their concreteness, and this is not made easier by Keats’ power of brief evocation; what he wants us to relinquish is (as not in Shelley) something that is well represented in the text itself, though always as images never as the material of the story. Indeed, there must be few poems so heavily loaded. 

 

The reader’s difficulties, I’m suggesting, arise from Keats’ commitment to a story that intrinsically turns its back on the solidest things; on ploughshares, trade, cottages and fishing-nets. (Crabbe’s Tales, and Scott’s The Antiquary, are nearly contemporary.)

 

Book I

 

1-62. Introduction - The significance of beauty, its connection with “poesy”, its powers of granting health, repose, a “cheering light” etc. And hence the author’s commitment to the story of Endymion. His timetable (the timetable he kept to).

 

[Everything Keats writes provokes admiration for his character. There is something down-to-earth, something authoritative and far from jejune in his cry, “Oh for ten years, that I may overwhelm / Myself in poesy...”. He knew what he was about; a “supreme of power” in nothing “more boisterous than a lover’s bended knee”; and the end of it, “that it should be a friend / To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man” (quotations from Sleep and Poetry). Endymion is an absolutely deliberate attempt to fulfil his program.]

 

63-106  A mighty forest; within it, a wide lawn; in the middle a marble altar; dawn. 

 

[Another expectation in narrative poetry; topography. Man’s usual actions on the earth involve wanderings in a horizontal plane; for Endymion it will be different. Notice the adjectives in the précis above. We are used to dismissing certain contemporary poems as “excessively adjectival”, but in Endymion the adjective (and the adverb) are constant features of the verse. They are how the couplets are plumped out to the right length, if you like. They are also essential, like the loaded images.

 

              And crimson-mouthèd shells with stubborn curls  (II, 880)

 

It’s an interesting exercise to take a passage of Endymion and cut out all its adjectives and adverbs; what remains is sharper in some respects, but it’s not only a certain comfortable smoothness that is lost; the meaning of the poem vanishes, too - Keats’ meaning, the thing he’s committed to.]

 

107-184   Arrival of the goodly company, preceded by a troop of little children. Damsels, sunburnt shepherds, a priest, a fair-wrought car containing Endymion, with heroic appearance:

 

                              beneath his breast, half bare,

 Was hung a silver bugle, and between

 His nervy knees there lay a boar-spear keen.

 

Yet he is pining.

 

185-406. The priest rallies the company to praise of Pan. The Hymn to Pan. Their sports, and their imaginative engagement in them. The elders discoursing on the afterlife. Endymion uninvolved, and almost swooning.

 

407-539   Peona leads Endymion away to a bower on an island. He sleeps, awakes and feels superficially better; makes the vain promises quoted above (trying, as all do at such times, to avoid the painful confrontation) - asks for music. Peona sings for a while, then questions him in earnest. “Brother, ‘tis vain to hide / That thou dost know of things mysterious, / Immortal, starry.” Endymion agrees that no normal passion could cause this listlessness: “Ambition is no sluggard”.

 

[We might feel inclined to disagree; it’s a commonplace that adolescence is a time of sullen listlessness, and we might want to conclude that Endymion is a poem that merely expresses hormones. But Keats transcends that, though his poem is the more original for beginning to admit what in earlier cultures was never mentioned.]

 

540-710  Endymion recounts his dream of the meeting with his unknown beloved. He happens on the sudden blooming of a magic bed of poppies. He ponders it; feels dizzy and falls asleep. In his dream he watches the night sky, a beautiful moon, “a bright something, sailing down apace”, who turns into a beautiful woman. She takes his hand - he seems to faint, yet remembers being borne skywards, then swooping downwards; he embraces her; they drop into a bower on an alp. He falls asleep in this bliss; and wakes among the poppies, and in despair.

 

710-842  Peona tries to rally his ambition; thinks his love a wasteful thing. Endymion is pricked into justification. Defends the idea of his happiness, a “fellowship with essence” - instances of a sympathetic touch, of what is “self-destroying” - at its height, love understood as an intermingling of souls. He will not “speak against this ardent listlessness”; suggests that there are benefits to others, and that it perhaps even animates the world itself.

 

843-992   Applies this to his own case. Describes further visitations, and the despairs between - the face in the well, the voice in the cave. Then (some of the magic having naturally worn off by the expression of it), asserts that he will lay the whole thing aside. Departs with Peona.

 

[Book I as a whole establishes the distance of the locus of Endymion from more concrete places. The story will not deal with the topography of Latmos; or with the society of the shepherds; or even with the social conversation of brother and sister. All this is prefatory. It’s the dream, which at first appears merely an episode, that suddenly inverts and becomes the basic locus of the poem. From now on we will be inside the dream, looking out. Our company will not be sunburnt shepherds. The concrete business of boar-spears and lolling hounds-tongues will not occupy us. Journeyings will be non-journeyings, fantastic and inexplicable, and mostly in a vertical plane (up or down) rather than horizontal.]

 

Book II. Lines 1-43. Keats dismisses heroic material in favour of the intimate stories of love - Troilus and Cressid, Juliet, Pastorella...

 

[Keats is not entirely in earnest here; he is smiling (“Though old Ulysses tortured from his slumbers / The glutted Cyclops, what care?”), and enjoying Romeo and Juliet is no sufficient preparation for reading Endymion, whose portrayal of a non-human love must be taken seriously. I think he enjoyed the opportunity to venture beyond the confines of Greek mythology - Keats was not committed to reviving the trappings of an antique religion, though perhaps to reviving what he thought the essence of it.]

 

43-218   Endymion has fallen into sorrow again, “wandering in uncertain ways”. He finds a rosebud which opens, revealing a butterfly. He follows it, eventually to a fountain near a cavern’s mouth. It becomes a nymph, who pities him and vanishes. He confesses the benefits of having earthly ambitions, yet he prefers to stay here (“Alone? No, no...” - madness is near). He prays to Cynthia (not at this stage known as his beloved), but at the thought of his lost love he is almost overcome, and would have been lost, but for a voice urging him to descend into the cavern.  

 

218-350  He descends into a complex underground labyrinth, finally passing a temple to Diana, and then to and fro until he sits down weary and, in the absence of new wonders, miserable thoughts of self return. He feels solitude and longs for the surface of the earth. He rebels and cries No. Then prays to Dian for relief from the “rapacious deep”. Silence returns, he is despondent and bows his head to the marble floor. But then flowers and leaves appear through the slab. He hastens on (or perhaps in).

 

[A section full of delights created by diction, e.g.

 

     A hundred waterfalls, whose voices come

     But as the murmuring surge. Chilly and numb

     His bosom grew, when first he, far away,

     Descried an orbèd diamond, set to fray

     Old darkness from his throne ...  (242-46)

 

     A homeward fever parches up my tongue -

     O let me slake it at the running springs!

     Upon my ear a noisy nothing rings -

     O let me once more hear the linnet’s note! (319-22)

 

The delights are not dramatic - one person standing still in darkness. It is more a matter of a potion, a compound of natural and fantastic material.]

 

351-587 He walks quietly, hearing distant music (brief aside on the painfulness of music to a lover) - sees “panting light”, and comes to verdure, sees Cupids slumbering, comes to a myrtle-walled chamber in which a youth is sleeping, watched by silent Cupids. He is welcomed by a Cupid lyrist, whispering. Is offered delicious food, and told of Adonis and his winter sleep, which is just about to end. Venus appears, in her silver car pulled by doves. Venus and Adonis embrace; Venus speaks hopeful words of Endymion; they disappear, and the earth closes, leaving him in “twilight lone”.  (Presumably where he was, by the underground temple of Diana, but this is not stated.)

 

588-853   He journeys on, underground. Briefly dreary, he then sees “mother Cybele”; she disappears, he finds himself at a sheer drop. He bows to Jupiter; an eagle appears, and wafts him down to a spicy area of little verdant caves - is landed there, in a jasmine bower, his senses “Ethereal for pleasure”. Despite this joy, he fears its end in solitude. Longs for his beloved and prays for sleep; immediately sleepy and throws himself in mossy bed where his beloved appears. They share anguished talk and passionate embraces. She leaves him asleep.

 

854-1023  Endymion awakes, more dove-like. Comes to a sounding grotto; briefly reviews past events; two springs blaze out; he follows them, hearing the laments of Alpheus and Arethusa; and prays for Diana to assuage their pains. He follows towards a cooler light, and finds himself under the sea.

 

[The  “melodies” of Alpheus and Arethusa are abruptly cut short, with an effect both mimetic (as of turning a corner) and controlled. Prior to that, Keats’ imagination, working on streams and embraces, has enlarged. At first, he says the near-obvious (“in amorous rillets down her shrinking form”) - but later, the voice becomes more strange, as a stream’s might be: “where, ‘mid exuberant green, I roam in pleasant darkness”; “Doff all sad fears, thou white deliciousness”; “And pour to death along some hungry sands”.]

 

Book III

 

1-192.  Keats pours scorn on current sovereigns, but “Are then regalities all gilded masks?” - No, there are a thousand real Powers - and in particular, the moon - her special powers of benediction to earthly things (“The sleeping kine, / Couched in thy brightness, dream of fields divine..”) Now (returning to the time of the story) she is lovesick and sighing - a stress of love-spangles on the waves - no, a moonbeam directed into the Ocean to find Endymion; who feels the charm, and waits for dawn before passing on. The ancient trophies on the sea-bed had struck him with a “cold, leaden awe” - but now refreshed, he speaks of his own childhood moon-addiction, not faded until his “strange love” came - but then he stops dead, seeing an old man.

 

[A beautiful sequence of re-immersion into the depths to which Book II had pushed us.]

 

193-309. Description of the static Glaucus - his sighting of Endymion. His joy - Enndymion’s hot aversion, followed by pity and sympathy. The old man’s dancing heart.

 

310-476. Glaucus begins his story. His solitary but happy youth by the sea, then the growth of “distempered longings” to more freely inhabit the sea; his metamorphosis into a water creature; his love for Scylla - he makes for Circe for relief; he swoons, awakens in a twilight bower where she seduces him; his “specious heaven”.

 

477-645  He discovers Circe’s wickedness, and prays for death. She mocks him, and curses him to a thousand years of pining. He wades into the ocean, finds Scylla dead. He becomes palsied, and a long time passes.

 

645-846  He helplessly witnesses a shipwreck, but from it recovers a scroll that prophesies his redemption, and a “youth elect”. Endymion and he join in using magic to restore a thousand dead lovers, including Scylla.

 

846-1032  They go to pay their piety to Neptune. Description of his palace, sea-gods and revels. Venus speaks comforting words to Endymion.  A hymn to Neptune, Venus and Eros, interrupted by the appearance of Oceanus and others. Endymion, “far strayèd from mortality”, swoons; hears the words of his love and wakes, beside a placid lake in a forest - presumably back in Latmos.

 

Book IV

 

1-29  A prayer to the “Muse of my native land” - cut short by the thought of “poets gone”.

 

30-361  Endymion encounters the Indian Maid, and instantly falls in love with her, inconstantly as he supposes, but fatalistically. She sings him a roundelay that describes her journey from India in the train of Bacchus. They give way to passion, interrupted by a voice (“Woe to that Endymion! Where is he?”). They wait for destruction, but Mercury appears, producing two black steeds. They fly into the air, Keats asking his “native Muse” if he is now truly inspired?

 

[In fact, this is a slapdash part of the poem, the roundelay looking especially improvised. Perhaps it can be accepted as a sort of fanciful masque (i.e. because the Maid has in fact no such history as the roundelay describes).]

 

362-512  They encounter Sleep, who is journeying to heaven’s gate to see Endymion’s marriage. The horses, and they, are overcome by slumber. Endymion dreams and sees Phoebe - wakes, and still sees Phoebe alongside the Maid (one fair, one dark). Torn between them, he denies his duplicity. (This must be the drift of “I have no daedale heart” - i.e. intricate, labyrinthine). The Maid wakes, he worries that she may “die from my heart-treachery” - yet he feels innocent, and confused. They fly off again - but at the sight of the moon, the Maid fades away from him, and her horse dives.

 

512-799   Endymion’s soul in anguish retreats into paradoxical quietude. (He thus misses a feathered multitude singing their way to Diana’s feast.) His steed lands on a hilltop and he finds the Maid. He renounces the cloudy phantasms of his other love, and fancies a simple life with the Maid. But she says she is forbidden. Both, lovelorn, wander into the green valleys (happening to sit under a tree that Endymion inscribed in childhood, but he doesn’t notice). (Keats, in passing, announces Hyperion - addressing Endymion, now “moonlight emperor”, as one who has aided him in his work.) The Maid secretly smiles.

 

800-1003. Peona appears. She welcomes him joyfully, for his companion and the “Good visions” they have seen in Latmos - why is he unhappy? Endymion asks Peona to care for the Maid; he will be a hermit, only Peona will visit him. All three are miserable. The two women move off, Endymion at the last moment requesting to meet them once more at evening, in the groves beside Dian’s temple. Endymion makes for the tryst in “deathful glee” - he laughs at nature, and (obscurely) at a “dusk religion”. They meet up - and the Maid becomes Cynthia. She and Endymion disappear - Peona goes home “in wonderment”.

 

*

 

It is natural to try and make sense of Endymion, i.e. to allegorize it. We might look for a “significance” in the appearance of Cybele, or Sleep; we might interpret Endymion’s rôle in the awakening of the undersea lovers as a way of meriting and hence winning his love; we might see Endymion’s futile attempt to imagine a mundane pastoral happiness with the Maid as meaning that the Imaginative vocation cannot be happily suppressed. The value of all this is limited, however, because at bottom it seeks to shrug off the profusion of the poem, to replace its confusing echoes and swoons with a plain narrative.  

 

Endymion begins and ends strongly, but its essential image - of haunted, unsatisfied, inner journeying is most deeply yielded to in Book II. The weakest section of the poem is the later part of Book III  and earlier part of Book IV; where Keats may be said to invite the allegorical reading by himself resorting to aspects of Spenserian practice that really have nothing to do with the positive and highly personal way in which Spenser influenced him.

 

 

 

 

(2002)

 

 

 


Byron: The Corsair (1814)

 

 

 

The exotic location of The Corsair is clearly important, as the location of Scott’s narrative poems is important. Byron, we are persuaded, knew the Mediterranean.

 

            Flash’d the dipt oars, and sparkling with the stroke,

            Around the waves’ phosphoric brightness broke;

            They gain the vessel – on the deck he stands. (I, XVII)

 

The author annotates: “By night, particularly in a warm latitude, every stroke of the oar, every motion of the boat or ship, is followed by a slight flash like sheet lightning from the water.”

 

[We don’t know much more about it now. The effect is due to the bioluminescence of certain protozoa, mainly flagellates. It is produced only when the water is disturbed. Its function, if there is one, has not been conclusively explained.]

 

When Scott wrote of Scotland, he immersed us in details of myth and tradition; in his prose he would also give us a distinct local speech. Being a kind of English, it was more or less comprehensible to those south of the border, but it was also revelatory; for here was a different culture in full operation. Byron had no such interests as Scott’s, and besides, his chosen locale would have meant foreign tongues. Byron’s Mediterranean was more like a psychological state; a heady feeling (at least in the Northern European mind) that comprised freedom and energy, open space, and escape - from prudence, from strait-laced moral codes, from families, even from self-interest and self-preservation.  Probably the lack of linguistic community, the sense of uninvolvement, is one of the constituent factors in why this familiar dream persists. (Corsair, like Capri, Ibiza, Sirocco, etc, would eventually become the name of a car.) The waves of the Mediterranean still whisper: miss the plane home. 

 

Byron’s poem intends to be a Mediterranean structure (that’s why Canto III begins with a Mediterranean scene pilfered from an earlier poem, whose irrelevance Byron takes care to highlight). Perhaps he succeeds, though there are elements of chivalry and lachrymosity that we recognize as Northern European. The story has something of the stiff gestures of Scott’s poor attempt at exoticism, The Talisman – think of the scene where Conrad appears before the Pacha, disguised as a pious Dervise. Yet a “scene” is just what this isn’t. Byron’s poem is best approached as a kind of process without beginning or end; a humming machine, details of whose operation can be glimpsed only by looking quickly aside; in short, as a modern poem. Because of the swirls and eddies of the undisciplined verse, The Corsair is a formidable and exciting plunge into uncharted territory.

 

In The Corsair a certain Mediterranean hardness (“Hoarse o’er her side the rusting cable rings”) is yoked to a sentimental and domestic liquidity. Hence such an image as “Whose scattered streams from granite basins burst” (I, VI). Another loaded word is “grate”, which expresses a tragic intransigence. “Till grates her keel upon the shallow sand” places the word, stirringly enough, within the corsair’s own line of business. But later it traps him: “Close to the glimmering grate he dragg’d his chain” (III, VII) and makes an ironic note in Conrad’s delusive rescue (“Slow turns the grating bolt and sullen key” III, VIII). 

 

The rescue will indeed ignite haste, a central feature of the poem’s processes:

 

            No words are uttered – at her sign, a door

            Reveals the secret passage to the shore;

            The city lies behind – they speed, they reach

            The glad waves dancing on the yellow beach; (III, XII)

 

            Far on the horizon’s verge appears a speck –

            A spot – a mast – a sail – an armed deck! (III, XV)

 

(In this characteristic rush of haste, we might notice that “glad” has appeared before, and with the same sense of surprise. The poem begins:

 

            ‘O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,

            Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free, (I, I))

           

These much-abbreviated successions, like drops of spindrift blown off a wave, describe an emanation of feeling. Feel (in the emotional sense) is one of the poem’s key words.

 

            And where the feebler faint – can only feel –

            Feel – to the rising bosom’s inmost core,

            Its hope awaken and its spirit soar?  (I, I)

 

            Scarce beat that bosom – where his image dwelt –

            So full – that feeling seem’d almost unfelt!  (I, XV)

 

            Within that meek fair form were feelings high,

            That deem’d not till they found their energy. (III, III)

 

Deem’d means “suspected the existence of”, as in II, IV: “They little deem of aught in peril’s shape”. Nevertheless, we more assume than read the general sense of the line. Byron allows himself a slight derangement of syntax which shows the rapidity, like the blur in a photo of someone running along a beach, snapped by someone else running alongside them. Or rather, it shows the suffering, which is what feeling in this poem amounts to. Only the inanimate waves are “glad”, like Byron’s exclamation marks, which record an inhuman joy at extremes of horror:

 

            His steps the chamber gain – his eyes behold

            All that his heart believed not – yet foretold! (III, XIX)

 

Hope and love are agonies broken up by death (“With nothing left to love – there’s nought to dread”). And suffering is not grammatical:

 

            By those, that deepest feel, are ill exprest

            the indistinctness of the suffering breast;  (III, XXII) 

 

I acknowledge being on unsafe ground here, since I’m reading a re-print of the first edition, complete with misprints.

 

            Ev’n insects sing for aught they seek to save  (I, XIII)

 

Perhaps this is a misprint for “sting” (the subject of the line is courage).

 

            Alas! this love – that hatred are the first –

            Oh! could’st thou prove thy truth, thou would’st not start,

            Nor fear the fire that lights an Eastern heart,

            ‘Tis now the beacon of thy safety – now

            It points within the port a Mainote prow:  (III, VIII)

 

The parentheses are sometimes used to link, sometimes to separate; both usages appear in the first line of this quote. In the second line, “thy” looks like it should be “my”. But it would be a shame to tidy up when this semantic wildness improves the poem, and is consonant with a larger wildness that  cannot be “improved” away (how does a fire point? By being a beacon that signals a ship).

 

            And of its cold protector, blacken round

            But shivered fragments on the barren ground! (III, XXIII)

 

This is mightily inverted – it means, if you care to spell it out, “And but (i.e. only) shivered fragments of its (i.e. the Lily’s) cold protector (i.e. Granite) blacken round on the barren ground.” This Lily and this Granite are components of Conrad’s heart, by the way – a larger wildness indeed.

 

            And must I say? albeit my heart rebel

            With all that woman feels, but should not tell –  (III, VIII)

 

Gulnare (the speaker) shifts her focus in mid-sentence. “Albeit” proposes a reason for not telling, but the flood of feeling sweeps all before it, including the syntax. A few lines later:

 

            Reply not – tell not now thy tale again,

            Thou lov’st another – and I love in vain;

            Though fond as mine her bosom, form more fair,

            I rush through peril which she would not dare.

            If that thy heart to hers were truly dear,

            Were I thine own – thou wert not lonely here –

            An outlaw’s spouse – and leave her lord to roam!

            What hath such gentle dame to do with home?  (III, VIII)

 

“If that thy heart to hers were truly dear...” – the point is sufficiently obvious to leave it unstated and to start over again with another hypothesis. In the last line “gentle” must mean “of the nobility” – Gulnare implies that only servants hang around at home. But the alternative sense of “gentle”, i.e. that Medora is meek and unfit for adventure, makes the sentence start pushing in the wrong direction.

 

Gulnare is probing at the crucial puzzle of The Corsair – Conrad’s infatuation doesn’t tally with the rest of his life. Medora is static – her strength, though eventually critical, is a strength to die.

 

            The long dark lashes fringed her lids of snow –

            And veil’d – thought shrinks from all that lurk’d below –

            Oh! o’er the eye death most exerts his might,

            And hurls the spirit from her throne of light!

            Sinks those blue orbs in that long last eclipse,  (III, XX)

 

Our own thought, naturally, does the opposite of shrink. We are invited to contemplate the soul-absence of those white, desiccated eyeballs (the word “eclipse” gives us a nudge). Medora’s eyes have occupied us before, as feeling and living organs.

 

            And then at length her tears in freedom gush’d,

            Big – bright – and fast, unknown to her they fell (I, XV)

 

Tears are a sign of her energy; but the blurry vision is a sign of her impotence.

 

            The tender blue of that large loving eye

            Grew frozen with its gaze on vacancy –

            Till – Oh, how far! it caught a glimpse of him –

            And then it flow’d – and phrenzied seem’d to swim

            Through those long, dark, and glistening lashes dew’d

            With drops of sadness oft to be renew’d. (I, XV)

 

In that same moment, so we suppose, Conrad looks back (I, XVII). Just as Medora doesn’t notice her own tears, she later wanders “heedless of the spray” (III, III). To be at home is to be blind, to long to see out and instead to shrink within shadows. Conrad, who “leaps into the wave, Strives through the surge” (III, XIX) tries to bring light in; the lamps have their own stubborn way; one of them “chequers o’er the shadowed floor” (III, XIX). He too will weep in due course, though only tricklingly, not dashingly as Medora does. Byron gives us an image of petrifaction, implying that Conrad’s life was always untenable:

 

            Each feeling pure – as falls the dropping dew

            Within the grot; like that had harden’d too; -  (III, XXIII)

 

And then Conrad absents himself, so that the poem leaves us, like Medora, with our gaze on vacancy. 

 

 

 

 

Note

 

While writing this piece I came across occasional, but recurrent statements to the effect that The Corsair is “a poem of incestuous love” – for example, in a recent BBC feature on Byron (2003). This was intriguing, since there was nothing at all about incest in the text. I have done no proper research, but I made enquiries via the Internet, and got nowhere. No-one had any relevant information, and my question was generally misunderstood and condemned (Byron forums are, it seems, afflicted by visitors who only want to talk about incest). There is moreover no doubt about incestuous themes in some of Byron’s other poems and dramas, but I was interested in The Corsair. I was thinking about the oddness of Conrad’s relationship with Medora, and it seemed to me that, if this was indeed supposed to be incestuous, it might shed light on the poem. But I still don’t know the basis for the incest claim.

 

Then I read somewhere that Lara, a later tale, was a “sequel” to The Corsair. I had never read it, so I believed this too. It certainly is a sequel in its form and style (heroic couplets), and also in its further development of many of the themes and “processes” mentioned above. But Lara makes no reference to the earlier tale, though (tantalizingly) anyone who reads it primed with the word “sequel” is on tenterhooks waiting for the revelation that its hero Lara is none other than the Conrad of the earlier poem. We do know that Lara has a murky past under hotter skies, and that his character as portrayed in Lara is indistinguishable from Conrad’s in The Corsair. But the revelation never comes, and in fact the whole point of Lara is that we spend all our time wondering about the hero’s story, and being built up for a revelation that is always just about to arrive but never does. The two tales, for all we can say to the contrary, are set centuries apart. If Lara is Conrad, then is Kaled Gulnare? The poem seems to reprove us for speculating, at the same time as it blatantly manipulates and toys with our mystification. Anyway Lara has nothing to say about the incest issue and if it invites speculation about the author’s life, which it probably intends to do, then homosexuality would seem the more likely matter.

 

So I am still hoping that some reader of this note will put me straight on this matter. But Lara does contain an answer to my query, of sorts. It more or less asserts that a reading of Byron’s tales cannot be “pure”, that one is more or less bound to get affected by the narcotic smoke of myth, rumour and circumstance that its author stirred up. In short, these poems “deliver” only when they are misread.

 

There’s something peculiarly unfair about poems that turn us into cheap gossips by portraying heroes whose main feature is their utter disdain for gossip. Only religious writings are normally as hard on their readers. These tales are seminal essays on celebrity but at the same time (indeed indistinguishably) concerned with forming an aspiration, on devotional lines. 

 

 

                                                                                      

 

(2003)


Jane Austen: Emma (1816)

 

Emma is an epic of class distinction, or what might be better named class definition. The class being defined is the upper-middle class gentry, not quite titled. The same class that Scott in Ivanhoe five years later would call the Franklins of Merry England.

 

Knightley, the novel's most skilful operator, is relaxed in his nuances. He behaves well to the lower orders, he does not imagine what is not the case. When he discusses class distinction he is talking about classes or sub-classes that are lower than his own: we don't hear Knightley on the nobility. He uses the terms "line" and "set", apparently interchangeably, to talk about the place that Harriet Smith inhabits: Mrs Goddard's. But his definitions are also nuanced by "situation" - Miss Bates is in a situation which is economically straitened. Though her line is comparatively high, she ought not to be made the butt of Emma's thoughtless wit. Knightley praises Robert Martin, though he does not pretend that the friendship is an equal one. The exact wording is: "He knows I have a thorough regard for him and all his family, and, I believe, considers me as one of his best friends." It is not this: "I have a thorough regard for him, he is one of my best friends." The phrase "and all his family" qualifies the thorough regard: it is not quite a personal affection, it is a regard for retainers. And the second half of the sentence is like an ethologist talking about a chimp. Emma is an imaginer, that is the source of her errors, but Knightley speaks up for sense. Yet he is not (his term for Harriet) artless, except that comically both he and Emma turn out to have their humanly artless sides too, when it comes to making love. 

 

*

 

Harriet is a little embarrassing: I mean, for Jane Austen. In a book that relishes its expansive accounts of discussions - its suppressions, the things not givenn to us, become significant. They include (in I, XVII) the painful interview between Emma and Harriet at Mrs Goddard's, in which the error over Mr Elton is revealed - this is reported, not word by word, but summarized into Harriet's tears and good behaviour. And when the same situation recurs with regard to Mr Knightley, another supposed admirer of Harriet who is to be revealed as an admirer of Emma, this time it is decided to operate by letter.

 

You remember how, after Emma's crashing remark and Miss Bates' painful response, the scene carries on as if it was blithely unaware of how our faces altered, of the shock and awkward silence that only we, apparently, have been conscious of. True, the scene gutters and fizzles, as if others beside ourselves might be feeling this tension, this awareness of something unpaid, but not a word is said about it. When Knightley berates Emma, it comes as a relief. 

 

 

We are not permitted to read Emma's letter (III, 14). And now, though this time we are really uncertain of the author's sanction, this tension reappears. It persists throughout the following chapter, in which Emma and Knightley hugely enjoy reading Frank Churchill's letter and indulging in discussing the finer discriminations of someone else's behaviour. This comfortable scene is also courtship between the pair, a foretaste of married bliss. Yet all the time we a little distracted by waiting for, what will also be presented only in summary, Harriet's reply (III, 16). Of the latter, we are told:

 

Harriet expressed herself very much, as might be supposed, without reproaches, or apparent sense of ill usage; and yet Emma fancied there was a something of resentment, a something bordering on it in her style...

 

The "very much" has an odd effect, as if we felt it leading up to "very much injured" or "very much gratified", but instead it's left hanging in the air. We can uneasily attach it to "without reproaches", though since this is an absolute position the effect of "very much" is to weaken it, to "mainly (but not altogether) without reproaches". Austen is, it seems, unwilling to put us through witnessing Emma's awkward delivery of difficult news; perhaps also, unwilling to contemplate Harriet's reaction in detail.

 

But in the crisis that led up to all this, she did allow us to hear a Harriet we might not have expected:

 

"I never should have presumed to think of it at first," said she, "but for you. You told me to observe him carefully, and let his behaviour be the rule of mine - and so I have. But now I seem to feel I may deserve him; and that if he does choose me, it will not be any thing so very wonderful."

 

Harriet commands this scene, and three times the word "she" (as in "said she") emphasizes that for a moment Harriet is stage-centre, no longer an appendage to Emma but the principal interlocutor. Surely it is hard to read this without being aware that at some level Harriet understands that Mr Knightley belongs to Emma, and takes a little revenge for the earlier episode with Mr Elton. Just for a moment she asserts herself against being "placed", however variously, by her social superiors.

 

*

 

The first scene of Emma is a wonder. The visitor, Mr Knightley, "a sensible man about seven or eight-and-thirty" appears, and at first this unassuming entry leaves us uncertain what kind of dramatic status the visitor has. Arriving as a messenger from London, the possibility is briefly present that he is precisely one of those utility characters who, rather than being important to the story in their own right, perform the miscellaneous dramatic duties of e.g. delivering messages. For a short time afterwards, we enjoy the always-fresh - because never long-lasting - pleasure of being allowed to observe someone who is a perfectly new character to us, though he is not at all a new acquaintance to the other persons present - though just how old and significant a friend he is to Emma and her father we are not yet fully aware. He takes, in fact, quite a modest line, is nothing like so dominant a force as we will come to know him.

 

"Not at all, sir. It is a beautiful, moonlight night; and so mild that I must draw back from your great fire."

 

These are his first quoted words. Weather, in Emma, is not a frequent topic, but it is always significant and superbly evoked: light snow in December, a July rainstorm. It's as if Austen already sees the whole book before her. Thus that light anticipation of Miss Bates on Box Hill, when Mr Woodhouse misconstrues Emma's teasing and says:

 

"I believe it is very true, my dear, indeed.. I am afraid I am sometimes very fanciful and troublesome."

 

Emma is quite innocent of this implication, yet that she can be so misconstrued subtly reveals a potential for sharpness which, hundreds of pages later, springs into actuality.

 

And how naturally this conversation leads up to Emma's "innocent" pleasure in match-making, to which her father adds fuel:

 

"Ah! my dear, I wish you would not make matches and foretel things, for whatever you say always comes to pass."

 

*

 

The second volume of Emma verges on idling. Frank Churchill, we too easily understand, is of no particular importance to Emma. The other main introduction of this volume is Mrs Elton, whom we are very glad to know, but a little of Mrs Elton goes a long way. No-one would wish this volume away, but it's remarkable how (thinking of those appraisals of Emma as "flawless" and  the "Parthenon of fiction") it is structured around an empty quarter.

 

(2009)

 


 

Anon. The History of Poland (1831)

 

 

 

This is a volume of “The Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Conducted by the Rev. Dionysius Lardner, LL.D etc, assisted by Eminent Literary and Scientific Men.”

 

I enjoy reading nineteenth-century historians. I have read most of Motley (The Dutch Republic and the United Netherlands) and thousands of pages of Lecky and Milman. This is not so good as those, but the author’s voice is one we are disposed to trust. In those days the historian made no secret of his beliefs, and judged accordingly. He is Protestant and enlightened, and so writes in a spirit of mordant condemnation about much of Poland’s history, especially the centuries of decline that made its demise as an independent nation seem (with hindsight, for now it was gone) inevitable. The other, apparently less partisan, value that has appealed to all historians since Thucydides is political savvy, the successful maintenance of power. Where religious difference is allowed for, the criterion of a supposedly common standard of morality is exercised. Thus, of the Catholic establishment yielding on an issue of clerical marriage: “This was a cowardly, we may add, a highly criminal subterfuge. Whether celibacy was right or wrong, they had sworn to enforce it.”  

 

But the reason for this note is the last six pages of the book: “to omit all mention of the Jews, a people more numerous here than in any other country of the same extent under heaven, and bearing so great a proportion to the whole population, would be unpardonable.”

 

What is surprising about these pages, which are written in just the same easy though uncompromising tone of voice as all the preceding, is their unemphatic outline of all the arguments that in due course would result in the Holocaust. There is no indication that the author thinks he is speaking out of turn; this material is uncontroversial, a reasonable inclusion in a work of general reference for English readers.

 

“... there can be no doubt that the hatred with which they were always regarded in Poland, as every where else, was to a certain extent deserved. By practising usury, and dealing in contraband commodities, - both forbidden by the ancient church of Poland, - by lending money on the most iniquitous terms to the heirs of the rich, they rendered themselves obnoxious to the people.”

 

“Nothing can more fully expose their exceptionable mode of dealing, than the fact, that by the Polish laws they have at all times been forbidden to keep wine shops, to sell brandy, or to traffic with the peasantry, lest they should not only impoverish, but corrupt that thoughtless class.”

 

(It is pointless to detail every objection I feel to the remarks I am quoting, but perhaps it is worth drawing attention to the form of the argument: “existence of discriminatory laws proves malevolence of those discriminated against” - the author admired the body of law as an expression of time-hallowed insights, and was not inhibited from drawing his logical conclusion. For us the premise is in need of modification.)

 

“The numerical increase of this people has long surprised the Poles; the ratio of that increase, compared with that of the Christians, being usually as two, or even three, to one.”

 

“.. the rapacious tyranny of the Jewish agents over the Cossacks of the Ukraine ... they appear to have been too formidable for punishment, at least by the state; but the Cossack chief massacred them wherever he found them. They were generally attached to the government which left them unmolested to the acquisition of wealth; but their feeling, when persecuted, was vindictive enough.”

 

(of a Jewish sect who are said to permit public profession of the dominant religion)  “The members of this sect are believed to be exceedingly numerous, and to fill important posts in the administration .... they assume so much mystery, that they have hitherto eluded the investigation of the police.” 

 

(of their litigiousness) “.. out of every ten cases brought before the courts, a Jew is said to be concerned in nine.”

 

“Almost all of the coin of the kingdom is in their hands...”

 

“There is no trade too vile, or even too dangerous, for a Polish Jew, if he can profit by it...”

 

(Examples of Jewish treachery, followed by two - clearly too well authenticated to be denied - of Jewish “patriotism”.)

 

“...the proportion they bear to the Christians is alarming. As they are not producers, but live on the produce raised by others, their existence in no state - at least in any considerable numbers - can be other than a national injury. That they have been a curse to Poland, is loudly proclaimed by all the native writers. Besides their usurious dealings and general unfairness, they are reproached with always contriving to fail when their children are full grown, and of previously consigning their property to them, to the prejudice of their creditors...”

 

What may justly be urged in defence of the eminent literary and scientific man is that he did not envisage circumstances in which the extermination of Jews would be possible. The thoughtless peasantry and spendthrift nobility of Poland were, in his eyes, no doubt impotent to execute such a commission.

 

[The “conductor” Dionysius Lardner LL.D was doubtless a relation of Nathl. Lardner D.D., buried in Bunhill Fields. I assume this to be the same Cabinet Cyclopaedia in which Scott’s The History of Scotland appeared (1829). According to Scott’s Advertisement the history of England was tackled by Sir James Mackintosh, and Ireland by Thomas Moore. It’s clear that Scott’s volume must have had his name on the title page, and presumably these other volumes did too. So I am not sure why the History of Poland appears to have no named author.]

 

Appendix (2004)

 

When I wrote the previous pages I assumed, in an unduly relaxed spirit, that I could count on all readers to share my disgust at anti-Semitism and to take the same kind of mildly-concerned interest in this minor note from a distant past. But, even in the few years since I wrote, there has been a perceptible upsurge in the expression of anti-Jewish attitudes. Recent international events have of course provided a fertile soil. For most of my lifetime it has been possible (however foolishly) to dismiss anti-Semitism as a horror of the past that was now maintained only by a few ignorant thugs. The Internet, however, with its uncanny capacity for highlighting the ugly preoccupations of fellow human beings, has generated a flood of literate, confident fascistic writing.  Anti-Semitic websites are disturbingly popular. I owe my knowledge of the following current news article from a US white supremacist webzine (National Vanguard), for example, to a much-published Polish formalist poet who wholly subscribes to its assumptions.

 

 

An intra-Jewish media dispute has led to the jailing of Lew Rywin (pictured), who co-produced Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List. Lew Rywin was also a figure in The Piano, another anti-Polish and anti-White pro-Zionist production whose director was Jewish child molestor Roman Polanski... 


The conviction highlights the ongoing legal, semi-legal and illegal operations of Jews in Eastern Europe, while also exposing the Spielberg "Holocaust" juggernaut which seeks to show Jews as blameless lambs at the mercy of White "anti-Semites." Gangsters have long been associated with Jewish "human rights" programs, not least the Lansky Syndicate's connections with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the USA.

The "victim" Adam Michnik remains unindicted despite having paid fellow Jew Rywin to bend the media policies of the emerging former Communist-occupied nation, which has historically stood as a major pillar and font of European civilization.

Michnik attached himself as a "crypto-Jew" to the anti-Communist Solidarity network in the 1980s, the Polish resistance which eventually defeated European Communism. Since liberation he has applied "neo-conservative" politics to undermine the gains of the Polish people and to distort the meaning and relevance of Solidarity. Interestingly, in paying off Rywin, the "anti-Communist" Michnik was seeking to influence the "post-Communist" heirs of the regime which repressed Solidarity.

Poles have long had disputes with Jews -- who have maintained what some observers call a psychotic hate for Poles. In the cultural sphere, one such hater was Jerzy Kosinski, who finally committed suicide after issuing "literary" fumings slandering the noble and heroic Polish people as mentally-retarded genocidal lunatics. In the USA "Polack" joins "redneck" as one of the few permissable ethnic slurs. The Polish-derived population is also one of the leading racially-conscious White communities in the United States.

 

 

I have abridged this and quote it only to emphasize the writer’s common ground with our literary gentleman of 1831; though the curiously disturbing way in which the style of the piece reads (in large part) just like The Economist, and not at all like an isolated mad prophet, is something well worth reflecting on.

 

It may not be so smugly easy, in the years to come, to maintain a critical distance from anti-Semitism. It may once again form the mainstream. To show that its dogmas are immemorial may be one step towards recognizing that its basis lies not in a reasonable analysis of current events but in poisonous folk-myth.

 

 

(2001, 2004)

 

 
Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

 

 

In the 1970s if you went to the shelves of a professional but not too literary British person you found novels in the Penguin Classics series. For instance Balzac, Zola, Turgenev and Tolstoy. (You also found Solzhenitsyn and probably Isaac Bashevis Singer.) There might be some Hardy and some Jane Austen, too, but the foreign-language novels, being translated into 1970s English, seemed more contemporary.

 

A few years later, these same persons “raved about” the French film Manon des Sources.

 

I mention this odd footnote of history (it’s in rather a Balzacian spirit, I think) because although the Penguin Classics list still exists, and is perhaps more numerous than ever, it has largely – and Balzac almost entirely – disappeared from the shelves of High Street bookshops. I suspect the main reason was the dramatically improved marketing of moderately substantial contemporary novels, which began in the 1980s and is indissolubly associated with the rise of Waterstones. Old Goriot and Lost Illusions didn’t have quite the razzmatazz, and besides everyone was growing younger, especially middle-aged professionals. Channel 4 had something to do with it, and probably Thatcherism too, in a back-handed kind of way.

 

As I worked my way through those translations of Balzac, I became aware that I never seemed to remember them afterwards, though I remembered that they had absorbed me. I read A Murky Business three times, and each time it was like reading a new book. A new and very wonderful book.      

 

I have a theory about this now. Balzac writes kinetically, by which I mean this: that the kind of book he is writing changes as it goes along. It therefore cancels its own past, so that if we get to the end and later go back to the beginning, it seems to be a different book. This is rather aridly put, but the point can be illustrated from The Abbé Birotteau (1832).

 

This is a comparatively brief work, about seventy pages. Perhaps for the reason outlined above, Balzac can be distinctively himself in works of any length, and there is no generic difference between works that we might, if it were a question of mere volume, differentiate as novels, contes and short stories.

 

One night in the year 1826, as autumn was setting in, the Abbé Birotteau, the chief character in this story, was overtaken by a shower as he was on his way back from the house where he had been spending the evening. So he hurried as quickly as the comfortable roundness of his figure permitted, across the deserted little square called the Close, which lies behind the east end of Saint-Gatien, in Tours.

 

You cannot call this misleading, since it sets the tone for the opening ten pages at least. We are led to collude with the abbé’s own complacency; he is his own world’s chief character, and if he is not precisely a hero he is at least comic and sympathetic. We always sympathize with a humble person’s pleasures; it reminds us of ourselves.

 

Birotteau thinks of his landlady as a benevolent machine, remembering his late friend Chapeloud’s remark: “‘That excellent woman has certainly a vocation for serving the clergy’”. Taken coldly, there is a good deal one might want to object to in that remark. But when you are reading a book you expect to have to accommodate a few unamiable points of view without too much quibbling. In Balzac’s work, however, the conventions we absorb often end up on the operating-table.

 

We hear about Mademoiselle Gamard as early as the third page; in fact, considering the mode in which the story is proceeding at this moment, we might almost say that “we know all about her”. Landladies, after all, supply a function; they are there and we don’t question them; they have the same invisibility as the servants in a country-house whodunnit by Agatha Christie, where they are never under suspicion and never turn out to be the murderer either. 

 

Birotteau’s own failure to identify Mademoiselle Gamard as a human being precipitates his crisis. The seriousness, indeed finality, of that crisis, becomes slowly clear to him. For us, it is a matter of continuous re-adjustment. We begin to realize that she is important, is a person, a highly threatening presence, a person whose power vastly outweighs the “chief character in this story”. But it takes nearly thirty pages before she is thoroughly the centre of our attention.

 

Troubert, his fellow-lodger, takes even longer to assume much eminence. The first sentence we read about him is: “The Abbé Troubert was still alive.” It’s the most diminishing way possible of introducing someone; Birotteau, we understand, has mentally killed him off. Troubert is so subsidiary to anything of importance that he sleeps even lower than Mademoiselle Gamard – for the lowest of all things is a priest who is under his landlady’s thumb. When, some forty pages later, Birotteau finally recognizes Troubert’s stature, he accidentally names him Chapeloud, the dead friend whom he had always regarded as the most significant person in the household (and his own forerunner). By the end Troubert has become Monseigneur Troubert, Bishop of Troyes, decisively the chief character, and the one on whom Balzac, pretending to philosophize, spends the last pages.

 

Birotteau is briefly glimpsed, even then, but he is a shell: “Over his eyes... illness cast a veil which simulated reflection.” We understand that he remains as empty-headed as ever, and almost partake in the Bishop’s response; he “cast a look of contempt and pity at his victim, then deigned to forget him, and passed on”. The forgetting is now a gift.

 

Balzac’s prose resists the genre that seems to go along with the characters.

 

“Leave Tours?” exclaimed the Abbé in indescribable dismay.

 

For him that was a kind of death. Did it not mean breaking all the fibres by which he had taken root in the world? Bachelors live by their habits, as their powers of response decay. When to this rigidity of mind, which makes them rather travel through life than live, is joined a weak nature, external things take an astonishing hold on them. So Birotteau had grown to be rather like a plant: to transplant him was to endanger his innocent flowering and fruit. Like a tree, which in order to live has to imbibe the juices from the same soil unceasingly and spread its hair-roots always in the same ground, Birotteau must never cease trotting to and fro in Saint-Gatien, must always tread the earth in the vicinity of the Mail where he was accustomed to take his walks, constantly traverse the streets through which he normally passed, and continue to visit the three drawing-rooms where every evening he played whist or backgammon.

 

“Ah! I didn’t think of that,” replied Monsieur de Bourbonne, considering the priest with pitying eyes.

 

M. de Bourbonne may be pitying, but Balzac’s analysis cannot afford pity. We now see that while the first pages of the story seemed to invite our compliance in a convention of admiring the clergy, accepting their role and their celibacy, the analysis leads to quite opposite conclusions. We also see that the image of those first pages is an image not of just one walk across the square but of the whole unending routine without which Birotteau’s life is inevitably smashed.

 

The paragraph of analysis looks hastily written; it probably was. If Birotteau’s life is compared to a plant’s, isn’t it rather odd to call him, at the same time, a “traveller” and to insist on his movements through the streets? As often in Balzac, such stupid mistakes are actually the deepest insights he has to make. Birotteau both as plant and traveller is seen refusing to live, refusing in particular to accept the necessity of change, with its strong possibility of tragedy, that is implied in sexual and familial life.

 

 

L’Envers de l’Histoire Contemporaine (1842-1847)

 

Mis-filed in the Mills and Boon shelf of the charity shop I came upon The Seamy Side of History, by one Honoré de Balzac, NEL Signet Classics, 1969, complete with a criminally misleading cover – how could I refuse? Admittedly, when I saw the words: “This abridged translation...”, I was tempted to pass, but reason prevailed. I told myself that if I didn’t read this now, I was never likely to run across it again.

 

It certainly is a very odd volume of the Human Comedy. The story concerns a Royalist and Catholic secret organization, of apparently vast wealth, who are dedicated to relieving the sufferings of poverty, especially among the wealthy who have fallen on hard times. It’s divided into two episodes. The first shows Balzac as a master of dry exposition: hardly anything happens, except that it quotes at length the legal papers recounting a complicated Royalist plot during the Empire; the people who were punished include the lady who now masterminds the secret organization – twenty years in the hulks. This episode uncritically celebrates an unworldly religiousness of the most conservative kind (what happened to Balzac’s hatred of celibacy?) The second episode recounts Godefroid’s meeting with an old man and his grandson whose self-appointed task (at which they are failing, being dupes of a plot to fleece them) is to keep his bed-ridden daughter, who has a debilitating mystery illness, in total ignorance of the squalid poverty to which they have been reduced. They live in a slum, but her room, which she never leaves, is kept full of fresh-cut flowers and costly furnishings. Godefroid (an initiate in the secret organization) naturally begins to assist them. An extraordinary Polish doctor undertakes to cure the woman, whom he instantly recognizes as suffering from an extraordinary national illness, invented by Balzac. At this point, the well-handled plot speeds up, becoming increasingly complicated and indeed farcical. It turns out that the woman’s father is the judge who had condemned the charitable lady to twenty years in the hulks. In the mean time the grandson robs the doctor, for the best of reasons. Things seem to be spiralling toward disaster but at the same time the welcome chink of money is beginning to be insistently heard in the background. Everyone ends up rich, healthy, happy and forgiven. I forgot to add that the judge is just at the point of completing a multi-volume account of modern law which Godefroid assumes will be a money-making sensation.

 

All of this is wildly absurd, yet Balzac gives no indication that he thinks it so. His narrative control, through so many drastic changes of pace and dynamic switches of tack, is supremely, casually, confident; I had to read on, with no picture at all of where this was all going. He has a heroine with no teeth who barks like a dog; surely this is refreshing. At the same time he has a mean-spirited landlady, Madame Vauthier, whom he portrays with composed realism. Remarkably little distinguishes this absurdity from such great books as The History of the Thirteen and Colonel Chabert.

 

Balzac had learnt from the philosophes; he is – but in what a sense! – encyclopaedic and scientific. Yet who can call him their child? – a monster! Balzac’s position was not consistent, it just didn’t add up (or down). It’s unstable. A good state for a novelist of genius – we are lucky he existed. But it would take Marx and Baudelaire to form Balzac’s intuitions into something that changed epochs, in ways that he would have equally detested.

 

Histoire de la Grandeur et de la Décadence de César Birotteau (1837)

 

Another curious feature of Balzac, who is one of my favourite authors, is that he has often disappointed me - in general, these disappointments have been irrational. Looking back over the years, I have been variously disappointed by Ursule Mirouët, Eugenie Grandet, Le Père Goriot (yes, a little).... I enjoyed Splendeurs et Misères de Courtesanes the first time, but couldn't get through it a second time. And now, César Birotteau. In this case the disappointment descended very late on, in the third and final section. This is the part of the book in which the hero, now bankrupt, is restored, partly by the efforts of his friends, to a place of honour - a second shock, which this time he does not survive.

 

La Marâtre (1848)

 

This was Balzac's last completed work and is generally considered the best of his plays, but it does nothing for me. Balzac was interested in the theatre because he thought he could make serious money from it. In the end the timing was bad, Paris was in the middle of a revolution, but the critics liked it. They do not seem to have noticed - or rather, they accepted - the theatrical conventions that now seem so ridiculous, the absurd contrivances of the plot and the grotesque use of asides.

 

Gertrude: Well, thank God you're not in love with him. I was really alarmed for a moment, because, my dear, he's a married man.

Pauline: [calmly] He's married? But why does he hide it then? [Aside.] Married! It would be infamous! I must ask him this very night. I will make the usual signal.

Gertrude: [aside] She doesn't show the slightest sign. Either Godard is mistaken or the child is as strong as I am. [Aloud.] What on earth's the matter with you, my angel?

Pauline: With me? Nothing at all.

Gertrude: [putting her hand on Pauline's arm] You're very hot. [Aside.] She certainly loves him. . . . But does he love her? Oh, this is hell.

 

To our minds every one of these asides could be profitably eliminated; none of them tells us anything that we couldn't make out for ourselves, were the scene only to be played unimpeded.    

 

And how on earth can Gertrude, scrutinizing her stepdaughter closely, observe that "she doesn't show the slightest sign" when we have just heard Pauline explode "it would be infamous" ? Or rather, how could the audience hear this without laughter?

 

 

 

(2003, 2004, 2008)

 


Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)

 

Mérimée is one of my compensations for not being able to read French well enough to manage Balzac or Proust. His most productive period came early and did not last very long; in 1834 he was appointed Inspector of Historic Monuments and thereafter his brilliant career as a hard-working public servant meant that the literary output became fitful. But when the stories did emerge, like Carmen (1845), they were as casual and wily as ever.

 

Chronique du temps de Charles IX (1829)

 

One of the first works to show how fertile Scott's influence would prove in Europe: the effect, as usual, very different from Scott and playing on a wholly different register of ironic subtleties. A wonderfully readable book.

 

Mateo Falcone (1829)

 

The "ravins" of the topographical opening paragraph return with changed effect at the end; Mateo tells his wife that Fortunato's body lies in the ravine. The comedy of "Si vous avez tué un homme" is also changed, into the harshness concealing tenderness of "Elle est bien longue, n'importe". In the key central scene, the soldier turns the child's inherited pride this way and that until he finds a way to get what he wants. This is a perfect short story - the challenge for later writers was to achieve that perfection without resorting to such soon-exhausted extremes as filicide.

 

La Partie de trictrac (1830)

 

One of the great gambling stories. Roger's moment of dishonesty proves to have appalling consequences that he is unable to avert or undo, though he tries to give half the money back. In fact it's the Dutchman's principles, as well as his own lack of them, that destroys them both.

 

Le Vase Etrusque (1830)

 

Auguste Saint-Clair, a man whose opinions are concealed, has influenced conceptions of his author. So too Stendhal's remark: I am not too sure of his heart, but I am of his talent.  

 

La Double Méprise (1833)

 

This is an extremely wily, sinuous, story in which the reader comes to share in Julie de Chaverny's illusions; they are shattered for both reader and heroine at the same time. There's no suggestion of anything exceptional about Julie, any really amiable qualities, but she is a victim. As a presentation of the male-dominated social structure under which she suffers, it is devastating. I thought while reading it that she might have communicated better with her husband, that the marriage had become fossilized at an early stage into patterns for which she must bear partial responsibility - I still think Mérimée intends that suggestion, in the scene where she so expertly rids herself of Chaverny by entering into dressmaking details with her maid. Yet the necessary level of communication between men and women is scarcely shown to be possible. Those women who thrive in this high society do so by restricting their needs to what can be satisfied within it - Mme. Lambert, etc. Julie's need for rescue does not come into this category.

 

The graduated presentation of Darcy is brilliant. In a short story, imagine the author opting to tell the sideline story of Darcy's rescued woman in Constantinople not once, but twice! When Darcy tells the story about himself more circumstantially, he strips off a lot of the idealistic colouring, yet (along with Julie) we interpret this as modesty, we think Darcy is understating his good nature, comically exaggerating his irritation. In fact he is, no doubt, still idealizing himself. Then there's the famous coach-scene, later used in defence of Flaubert's Mme. Bovary. And then the heroic image of Darcy collapses, in his words immediately following, in his post-coital pipesmoking scene at home, and later in his shallow message, the one in English. I use the word "shallow" from Julie's point of view. Yet it's clear that she has to a large extent deceived herself about Darcy; he has indeed lied, but as it were automatically (remember those oh so intimate "revelations" of the two things he has always wanted...), he has not engineered the situation.

 

Julie has believed - a belief she has created now, not long-nurtured, that their youthful companionship, based on a common fondness for ironic médisant, implied similar ideals. Now we see that it meant nothing of the kind, but should instead have acted as a warning of what Darcy, a man, was really like.

 

Julie's subsequent, so-sudden demise (a high fever, spitting blood) is absurd but it doesn't spoil the story. It is like a Euripidean deus ex machina, bringing down the curtain on a web of problems that have now become too intractable to pursue. It leaves us wondering how this not uncommon train of events would have worked itself out in reality, and why this could not be shown in fiction.

 

Les Âmes du Purgatoire (1834)

 

This is Mérimée's version of the Don Juan legend. He presents it, first of all, as a descent into libertinism under the guidance of the tempter, Don Garcia. The libertinism is made coldly unattractive.Then Don Juan is converted by a terrifying vision (just as he is about to complete the ruin of a nun for whose sister's death he is already responsible) and becomes austerely devout. The story mutates into a religious hagiography of a reclaimed sinner. In view of Mérimée's lifelong atheism, the apparently complete seriousness of this exercise is unnerving. The irony has gone missing, leaving in its place an ironic vacuum.

 

Carmen (1845)

 

Mérimée's fascination with Spain invites comparison with Richard Ford's. He was there in the second half of 1830, overlapping with Ford, but unlike Ford returned in 1840 and twice more in later years (after Carmen had been published).

 

Bizet's great opera was produced five years after Mérimée's death. Comparisons between the two are inevitable and fascinating. In the opera Carmen has no betrothed; in the story she has, and José kills him. This José becomes thoroughly immersed in his new and violent career as a robber and smuggler. All the same, we are expected to endorse some of José's highly critical view of the woman he murders. Carmen is an effective and unscrupulous criminal operator. The two works take quite different approaches to exploiting the glamourous appeal of Bohémiens/gitanos.

 

Mérimée's story is in four parts. In the first part the narrator, engaged in archaeological research in the wilds of Andalucia, falls in with the notorious contrebandier Don José and connives in his escape from justice; in the second, now in Córdoba, he runs across Carmen, who steals his watch, and then re-encounters José, now portrayed as a Carmen's grumpy partner; leaves Córdoba for a few months and returns to find José awaiting garrotting for his many crimes. In the third and major part, José supplies a death-cell narrative - this is the story corresponding to the opera - ending with Carmen's death and José giving himself up to the Cordoban authorities. The fourth part, with a kind of deliberate chilliness, makes no reference to the preceding material at all, but presents the narrator's (or author's?) researches into Romany culture and dubious speculations on Romany language. It's teasingly difficult to decide if this last section is still within the fictional frame or not. Its blank contrast with the sensations stirred by the preceding part is calculated and typically Mériméesque.   

 

(2007)

Richard Ford: Gatherings from Spain (1846)

 

In October 1830, Ford (then aged 34), travelled with his family to Spain, originally for his wife’s health. They returned to England in the spring of 1833. Rarely has a stay abroad been turned to better account. Ford spent much of his time in Spain travelling from end to end of the country. He produced over 500 accurate sketches of Spanish scenes (now of importance to historians); seven years after his return, he began to write the topographical Handbook for Travellers in Spain. It took five years to write, amounted to 1500 pages, and was celebrated as a triumph. But Ford’s editors saw that he had material which would please a wider audience. The Gatherings (some 350 pages) re-used some of the best passages from the Handbook, along with much new material, but the re-structuring was crucial. Neither autobiographical nor topographical, the Gatherings was a book that sought to capture the essence of a land by focussing on topics. I am turning over a few random pages here; the running-titles say “Asses of La Mancha”, “Olla Podrida”, “Iced Drinks”, “Guerrilleros”, “The Beard”, “Music in Ventas”...

 

Ford was a patriotic Protestant who regarded Spain as a desperately backward, underlyingly Oriental nation. (England and Spain were, however, allied in their recent opposition to France under Bonaparte, and while he was composing the Gatherings Spain was again being threatened from the north, this time by the sabre-rattlings of the Second Empire.) Ford was also besotted by Spain and it was the centre of all his creative imaginings. The result was at the time an object lesson in dealing intelligently with the struggle to extend one’s humanity beyond a narrow localism. It was also a theme on which he improvises with great enjoyment on almost every page, being incessantly witty about Spanish improvidence, often crushing the French (largely despicable, except for hair-dressing and cookery), and not uncommonly refreshing himself with a raid on the complacent and stupid of his own nation.  

 

Ford’s two seasons of riding through Spain were a gentleman’s life in microcosm. Never returning, he celebrated it and meditated on it ever after. Though he was in a foreign land and in unusual circumstances, his chapters on horses and servants are an immensely illuminating insight into the mundane preoccupations of his class; the things that, in novels, are usually not mentioned. Besides, Ford’s style is a search for the admirable; a never-ending moral adventure. This seems like a good place to get a sense of that style – it needs an extensive quote:

 

The cook should take with him a stewing-pan, and a pot or kettle for boiling water; he need not lumber himself with much batterie de cuisine; it is not much needed in the imperfect gastronomy of the Peninsula, where men eat like the beasts which perish; all sort of artillery is rather rare in Spanish kitchen or fortress; an hidalgo would as soon think of having a voltaic battery in his sitting-room as a copper one in his cuisine; most classes are equally satisfied with the Oriental earthenware ollas, pucheros, or pipkins, which are everywhere to be found, and have some peculiar sympathy with the Spanish cuisine, since a stew – be it even of cat – never eats so well when made in a metal vessel; the great thing is to bring the raw materials, – first catch your hare. Those who have meat and money will always get a neighbour to lend them a pot. A venta is a place where the rich are sent empty away, and where the poor hungry are not filled; the whole duty of the man-cook, therefore, is to be always thinking of his commissariat; he need not trouble himself about his master’s appetite, that will seldom fail,– nay, often be a misfortune; a good appetite is not a good per se, for it, even when the best, becomes a bore when there is nothing to eat; his capucho or mule hamper must be his travelling larder, cellar, and store-room; he will victual himself according to the route, and the distances from one great town to another, and will always take care to start with a good provision: indeed to attend to the commissariat is, it cannot be too often repeated, the whole duty of a man-cook in hungry Spain, where food has ever been the difficulty; a little foresight gives small trouble and ensures great comfort, while perils by sea and perils by land are doubled when the stomach is empty, whereas, as Sancho Panza wisely told his ass, all sorrows are alleviated by eating bread: todos los duelos, con pan son buenos, and the shrewd squire, who seldom is wrong, was right both in the matter of bread and the moral: the former is admirable. The central table-lands of Spain are perhaps the finest wheat-growing districts in the world; however rude and imperfect the cultivation – for the peasant does but scratch the earth, and seldom manures – the life-conferring sun comes to his assistance; the returns are prodigious, and the quality superexcellent; yet the growers, miserable in the midst of plenty, vegetate in cabins composed of baked mud, or in holes burrowed among the friable hillocks, in an utter ignorance of furniture, and absolute necessaries. The want of roads, canals, and means of transport prevents their exportation of produce, which from its bulk is difficult of carriage in a country where grain is removed for the most part on four-footed beasts of burden, after the oriental and patriarchal fashion of Jacob, when he sent to the granaries of Egypt. Accordingly, although there are neither sliding scales nor corn laws, and subsistence is cheap and abundant, the population decreases in number and increases in wretchedness; what boots it if corn be low-priced, if wages be still lower, as they then everywhere are, and must be?

 

It’s a style that makes heroic use of semi-colons, is ample and even allows repetitions, which however always contribute to the enlargement of the prospect.

 

The paragraph ends (as not uncommonly) in a very different place from where it began, yet plainly there are connections. His interest in the travelling gentleman’s well-being is in the in end inextricable from his interest in the well-being of a people where scarcity is everywhere.

 

One part of his interest lays in the lack of industrialization. In Spain Ford is constantly reminded of biblical, classical and Arab ways of life; this must have been commonplace and therefore unnoticeable before the Industrial Revolution, but now it quickens his imagination, which really enjoys what his judgment as sincerely laments.

 

The  chapter on sherry (XIV) is one of the best (where all are good) and is still informative. When we need a pause from information a switch-sentence comes along like this: “There is an excellent account of all the vines of Andalucia by Rojas Clemente. This able naturalist disgraced himself by being a base toady of the wretched minion Godoy...”  or an image like this (on the Capataz leading a tasting): “on whom wine has no more effect than on a glass”. One thing I don’t understand is that Ford gives the strength of fine sherry as 20-23% but today 20% is, I think, the upper limit not the lower. He despises sherries that are made to look pale by chemical means. He was also an early champion (I mean, among the British) of manzanilla, which he says the local inhabitants of Jerez much preferred to drink themselves as it was so much less inebriating (he does not seem to know of other finos). The only other Spanish wine he praises is Valdepeñas – now considered a modest table wine. Rioja and Penedés had always produced wine but it seems that their market identities really emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when they were the regions selected by French expertise who because of the Phylloxera plague could not grow grapes in France.

 

[The enormous Handbook is one of those volumes that one enjoys longing to possess. If you make the mistake of becoming serious about this, it ought to be the first (1845) edition; Ford, and then others, made destabilizing alterations to the later ones. In truth it is probably only a book for amazed dips, unless you plan to give up your whole life to a former existence.]  

 

 

(2006)  

 

  

 


J.L. Runeberg: Tales of Ensign Stål (1848, 1860)

 

The original title is Fänrik Ståls Sägner – Ensign Stål is the supposed originator rather than the hero. His voice is not often heard, but his shade hangs over the ballad-poems – a figure of undaunted resolve in age.  

 

Runeberg was born in 1804 and died in 1877. He was only a small child in 1808 when the Czar suddenly declared for Napoleon and, since Sweden was now his enemy, invaded Finland without warning. (Finland had for six hundred years been loosely united to Sweden). The Finns defended heroically but they  had been taken by surprise; the Swedish king was not helpful and the war ended in subjection to Russia. This war of 1808-1809 is the subject of Ensign Stål.

 

Both volumes were eagerly awaited, many of the poems having been published in advance. The subject of Finnish heroism against the oppressor spoke to a young audience who were ardently patriotic. They reacted as Runeberg claimed to have reacted to a neglected history-book:

 

Oh what a land, what men were these,

How resolute, how glorious!

An army that could starve and freeze

And yet remain victorious!

Onward and ever on I sped;

I could have kissed each page I read.

 

The hour of danger spurred this band

To bolder resolution.

What love didst thou inspire, O land,

Despite thy destitution, -

A love so strong, a love so sweet

From those thou gav’st but bark to eat!

 

Runeberg’s work nurtured a new, Scandinavian style of patriotism. “Our land is poor”, he says with pride, but

 

            We love the thunder of our streams,

            Our torrent’s headlong bound,

            Our gloomy forests’ mournful themes,

            Our starry nights, our summer’s beams...

 

Patriotism in most countries involves some recognition of the beauty of one’s land (“England’s green and pleasant land”), but in Sweden and Finland the beauty is more intensely experienced. It is omnipresent and has a certain uniformity: the largely poor, acidic soils, and the long winters see to that. There is no rank overgrowth, and birch by a wooden shack by a lake is an extremely sparse symbol that evokes everything.

 

Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877) was one of the founders of Finnish literature but he wrote in Swedish, which had become the standard language of the educated classes. Runeberg tells us that Otto von Fieandt could speak Finnish to his men, but that remark seems positioned as a further instance of von Fieandt’s likeable eccentricity; I think that is the only reference to the existence of a second language. Though his intensely patriotic vision meant nurturing in poem after poem a sense of the people as a whole community (traitors only to be excluded), it is ironic to reflect that many of the commoners he hymned would have been unable to understand his poems, or he theirs (e.g. the Kanteletar poems collected by Lönnrot). Runeberg, Lönnrot and Snellman (the class of 1822 at the University), were each in different ways preparing the ground for a Finnish nation, but it was a nation that was bound to suffer the consequences of a struggle between two languages.

 

Runeberg’s cycle of poems has a cumulative impact. The army became itself the image of a united nation seen in its best light; in The Aged Lode, for example, the veteran campaigner’s inner boyishness combines a simple faith, military zeal, humanity to the stricken of both sides, and playful humour. It’s the civvies (pastors, for example), who Runeberg sometimes suggests may be less than humane; cold self-seekers, uncommitted to the common cause. When the doctor sweeps his medicines from the table in Döbeln at Jutas, he becomes a man. 

 

Runeberg’s idea of a nation (symbolized by the army) is inclusive. He finds room for the dim-witted (Sven Duva), the vagabond (Number Fifteen Stolt), the camp-follower (Lotta Svärd), the renegade eccentric (Otto von Fieandt), for aged veterans and untried youths. Runeberg is inspiring his readers, teaching them what to think and how to feel, but the emphasis is usually on warmth and comedy, not on austerity. It is a martial ideal, but also a civilized one.

 

Thus, of the treachery that relinquished Sveaborg, Stål says:

 

Young man, you love the ring of verse,

Our past you love right well,

It may be sometime you’ll rehearse

This tale you’ve heard me tell.

Speak of his guilt, which none deny,

But hide his name, then, as do I.

 

Let not his kindred share the blame,

None else his guilt should own,

Or blush with sympathetic shame;

Its weight be his alone.

The traitor, nevermore has he

Son, father, kin or family.

 

The civilisation comes out in the total exoneration of kindred; the unsparing zeal in the separation of the scapegoat.

 

One should be ready to die for Finland. In The Cloud’s Brother this is presented with compelling seriousness, when the dead hero’s girl says:

 

Dear he was, when to my bosom folded,

Dearer than all else the world had given,

Doubly dear he now is in his glory,

Coldly clasped unto the cold earth’s bosom.

Sweeter far than life I found that love was,

Sweeter far than love to die as he did.

 

But this powerfully unsmiling poem of 1835, though Runeberg included it in Ensign Stål, is different in tone from the rest: its locale is much vaguer and more distant than the events of 1808, and this sanctions a ferocity that the author did not permit elsewhere.

 

Many another poem celebrates death in the cause of one’s country, but the starkness of The Cloud’s Brother is modified by a change of focus; for example, Munter makes comic capital of its subject (a man of few words), or The Girl of the Cottage laments that her non-returning lover ran away from battle and did not die as she had supposed.  

 

Ensign Stål is a cycle with other intent than accurately recounting the war of 1808-09. Runeberg slightly idealizes it; his war is terrible but not obscene. He also artfully mixes up the chronology so we see the war in fragments, returning again and again to Siikajavi, Oravais, and Virta Bridge. These vivid glimpses permit the controlled release of shaped symbols; a chronological view would have emphasized the disaster rather than the heroism (and complicate matters by forcing attention onto such matters as the Swedish king’s failure to provide timely support). The magnificent triumph celebrated in Döbeln at Jutas is held at arm’s length from the “bloody rout” of Oravais, which in fact followed only a few days later; the shadow of Oravais, here, would have imposed unwanted complexities. 

 

Runeberg’s desire to mould a nation leads to a number of scenes in which the army unites men of different ranks. He is wise enough to steal the power of class prejudice; to make us cheer when Von Konow is struck by his corporal, or when Von Essen’s stallion is raced without his permission for a patriotic wager. In The Ensign at the Fair the figure of the general is at first presented coldly, hinting at arrogance. We are shocked when he scatters the grenadier’s coins, and reconciled when he proclaims the grenadier his comrade and takes him into his carriage. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. Runeberg has tried to identify the general’s stiffness with a principled military pride, but the offer to make the man his pensioner leaves a taste in the mouth. Stål’s earlier words still ring:

 

“Strut and sparkle there! You once were one of us,” within I said;

“Not so proud but better garnished with the drops of blood you shed.”

 

Is it possible now, in peace, to truly resurrect the comradeship of war?

 

It is a proud freedom, though a freedom displayed in sacrifice, that animates the cycle. One of its most powerful images comes in Döbeln at Jutas. The poem begins comically with a cleric (between mouthfuls of roast beef) bemoaning Döbeln’s unregenerate state. Döbeln is laid up with fever, but the army is in sore straits without him. After the scene with the doctor, Döbeln rises to unite his troops again. We pass down the tattered ranks with him:

 

Such an old veteran was Number Seven,

A corporal in von Kothen’s regiment.

The single shoe he wore was badly riven,

His other bare foot left a bloody print...

 

Such are the soldiers with whom Döbeln wins his brilliant victory. Afterwards he stands on the deserted field at dusk, and makes his address to God:

 

Our duty’s done, my soldiers are victorious,

And that which now is left concerns but me.

I’m called freethinker, and I count it glorious;

Free-born I am, and so my thought is free....

 

You have restored my country, by no merit

Of mine, for every other hope was hid.

Do You, all-seeing, look into my spirit,

If gratitude be there for what you did.

The slave may court his god with genuflexion;

I cannot cringe and grovel for protection,

I seek no favor, ask for no reward.

I would but stand here happy in your presence,

With fervent heart but yielding no obeisance;

That prayer a free man’s soul may still afford.

 

You gave me courage, when our foes assembled,

To lead my men unswerving through the fight.

My body failed me and my sinews trembled;

Your strength upheld me in my own despite.

The army was beset from every angle,

But with my help today it broke the tangle,

The road to glory opened out anew.

But You it was who saved us and none other,

How shall I speak to You? My God, my brother,

Giver of victory, my thanks to You!

         

 

[Most of the poems – all the ones I’ve quoted – were impressively translated into English verse by the resourceful Charles Wharton Stork. Runeberg’s metrical schemes are varied and often demanding. Clement Burbank Shaw picked up the remainder; he did a reasonable job, but is driven to excessive inversion. The combined collection was published in Finland by Söderström & Co., 1952.]

 

 

 

 

(2004)

 

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

 

Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)

 

[first appeared in Intercapillary Space. The name in the title should perhaps be pronounced in the French manner, as Pauline apparently hails from the Alps and her sole intervention (a footnote) is in French. But I don't think I'll be trying this in public.]

 

Pauline is a fragmentary poem about the unnamed narrator's inability to commit himself to poetry. His conception of poetry is vastly ambitious, its blueprint an apotheosized Shelley. Perhaps the very ambition makes failure inevitable, or perhaps he is right to analyze traits of vacillating weakness, vanity, over-egocentrism, over-self-analysis, insincere religiosity, insufficient love for others, and the rest. But Browning wasn't yet interested in the miniature detail of character portraits; here is no concreteness of situation, hardly any human association, and a turmoil of inner development that looks like it could cycle round and round for ever. Pauline is best when the narrator's imagination is given free rein, fragmentarily and confusedly, but boiling with pent-up energy. 

 

                            I have no confidence,

So I will sing onfast as fancies come

Rudelythe verse being as the mood it paints.

 

The narrator's poetic is in an unstable relationship with the poem that contains him: it tries intermittently to suggest the kind of poem he cannot manage, maybe (secretly) to even be it. That opens up an experimental space that later triumphs would exclude.

 

*

 

The resulting imaginative visions are strange. Quite early in the poem the narrator imagines himself as

   

                 a young witch, whose blue eyes,

As she stood naked by the river springs,

Drew down a god

 

- a god who "sat in the sunshine / Upon my knees". It isn't obvious iconography, and nor is this conception of "A craving after knowledge":

 

                 for I beheld it in its dawn,

That sleepless harpy, with its budding wings,

And I considered whether I should yield

All hopes and fears, to live alone with it,

Finding a recompense in its wild eyes; ...

I cannot but be proud of my bright slave.

 

A harpy, according to my dictionary, is "a rapacious and filthy monster, part woman, part bird", but the narrator's vision seems to be partly infected by the earlier ones of the swan and the young god. Think here, too, of the words to Christ:

 

                       oft have I stood by thee

Have I been keeping lonely watch with thee,

In the damp night by weeping Olivet,

Or leaning on thy bosom, proudly less

Or dying with thee on the lonely cross

Or witnessing thy bursting from the tomb!

 

Not so much devotional as inchoately sexual, and with an impulse towards water that keeps recurring. The passage about Andromeda "as she awaits the snake on the wet beach" is also in this vein.

 

The most extended imaginative flight is, however, unpeopled. This is the "home for us, out of the world", that the narrator tries to imagine for himself and Pauline. His attempt proceeds fitfully, and that's the point, since it ends in frustration. Vibrant and rich in ideas as the narrator's imagination is, it refuses to stay still and it destroys its own attempt to envisage equilibrium, that is, a home. He begins at night, but that's a false start; he isn't able to cope with such low visual input. So he switches to day, and moves deeper and deeper inwards to a water-coursed wood: "Dive we downsafe..."  Eventually he invents/discovers "a small pool" and the pace slows, "still deeper in: / This is the very heart of the woods..":

 

                           the trees bend

O'er it as wild men watch a sleeping girl,

And thro'  their roots long creeping plants stretch out

Their twined hair, steeped and sparkling; farther on,

Tall rushes and thick flag-knots have combined

To narrow it; so, at length, a silver thread

It winds....

 

This heart of the woods could have been (as he indeed names it) a pond, altogether cut off from other waterways. But the restless imagination of the narrator is impelled to move on; he has conjured up a silver thread to keep the water sparkling, and now he cannot forebear to pursue it: he is done with "deeper in" and instead commits himself to "farther on". Excitement grows:

 

See, they part, like a ruined arch, the sky!

 

But now that the imagination is moving outwards, it becomes greedy for material, which is flung on in ever larger pieces, like feeding a bonfire:

 

    the muleteers, who whistle as they go

To the merry chime of their morning bells, and all

The little smoking cots, and fields, and banks,

 

This demand for wider vistas, these summary "all"s, cannot be maintained, and then the vision collapses:

 

I cannot be immortal, nor taste all, 

Oh God! where does this tendthese struggling aims!

 

In the end the poem confesses to the imperative of onward motion, which is indeed why it's impossible to model one's work on the completed achievements of the dead.

 

(2007)

 

*

 

Strafford

 

Being (temporarily, as I suppose) without an income, the thought crossed my mind that choosing to write about Strafford was an especially unhopeful way of earning wordly reward; a Victorian verse-play, one of the least admired of objects in that least practical class of objects, fine literature. In this somewhat senile state of mind (extended, of course, to a judgment on the whole of the brief history before you) I felt a certain private identification with the condemned Strafford and his never-to-be-realized vision of retiring into private life, "under a quince tree by a fish-pond side", his idea of seeing (from the aimlessly unparticular outside) how "the Senate goes on swimmingly". The young Browning was amazingly good at foreseeing the prospects of middle age.

 

But of course there are one or two fortunate people who can turn an honest penny from such pursuits as this. One of them is the excellent Browning scholar Clyde De L. Ryals, whose valuable chapter on Strafford in Becoming Browning (1983) is available to read here: http://www.ohiostatepress.org/Books/Complete%20PDFs/Ryals%20Becoming/05.pdf

(Perhaps all the other chapters are available likewise, but for some reason when I try to get at them it plays havoc with my laptop.)

 

This book was about Browning's early works. Professor Ryals had previously written another book about Browning's late poetry and has since written a well-received biography, so we await only the ripely magisterial meditation on the central and essential masterpieces, a book (I hope) such as was J.A.W Bennett's Chaucer at Oxford and at Cambridge. Merely to have read all Browning's poems is probably sufficient in itself to qualify as one of the world's leading Browning authorities. Ezra Pound boasted that he had read Sordello and couldn't see what the problem was, but after all that's only one poem.

 

This was Browning's first play and the one that is least like a closet drama; five acts and numerous speaking parts. It played for five nights in 1837, with Macready in the title role; it was critically rather well received, well attended, and it might perhaps have played for more, but the actor who played Pym had another engagement, and Macready (who thought the play needed drastic changes to make it act well) was content to let it drop.

 

I would love to see a performance of Strafford. No-one raises their eyebrows over a hundred performances of Elgar's Sea Pictures, so surely we could have one of Strafford. It would be a challenge to bring it off, however: a challenge such as ought to get a producer fired up.  

 

I suppose one difference from Elgar sixty years on is that Browning's play is sourly and bracingly unroyalist AND unpatriotic.

 

He is brilliant at portraying upper-class putdowns. Here is Charles, entering for the first time and finding the newly-returned Strafford with Pym:

 

(The KING enters. WENTWORTH lets fall PYM's hand.)

 

Cha. Arrived, my Lord? - This Gentleman, we know,

Was your old friend :

                           (To PYM.) The Scots shall be informed

What we determine for their happiness. (Exit PYM.)

You have made haste, my Lord.

 

Charles concisely manages to tell Pym to fuck off and to make sure he does so with the most hateful expression of god-like Monarchism ringing in his ears; politely acknowledging, at the same time, that Strafford does have a past, and yet leaving a little menacing chill hanging in the air as to what might happen were Strafford to forget that such friendships are very much a past matter. Yet Charles' several messages to both men are mere second nature, they cost him no effort. It is not he who is jealous of Strafford's loyalty - the jealousy comes all from the other side. He is actually too dense to accompany the habitual high tone with any real political awareness.    

 

As the scene continues Strafford tries fruitlessly to break down the social barrier between himself and the man he loves, but Charles never emits the right noises:

 

(Went.).. I am here, now - you mean to trust me, now -

All will go on so well!

Cha.                         Be sure I will -

I've heard that I should trust you : as you came

Even Carlisle was telling me . . .

Went.                                          No, - hear nothing -

Be told nothing about me! You're not told

Your right-hand serves you, or your children love you!

Cha. You love me . . . only rise !

 

As a matter of fact Charles does trust Strafford, so far as that goes, but that's not really what this conversation is about. Charles sees himself as a corporation, not as a man. He can only concede that Strafford loves him, no more. He cannot give anything but royal favours. The gew-gaw in this scene, the conferred earldom, is what bulks largest both for him and for his queen, who makes a memorably charmless entrance a few minutes later, just as Strafford takes his leave:

 

Cha. That man must love me!

Queen.                               Is it over then?

Why he looks yellower than ever! well,

At least we shall not hear eternally

Of his vast services: he's paid at last.

 

The court manner of speech is beautifully conveyed, and Browning's re-engineered Lucy Carlisle - saccharine in most respects - is happily not immune from it either. This flexible, unpoetic, socially adept dialogue is one of the many slightly surprising delights of Strafford - for whatever reason, it is not what we think of as Browningesque. (I suppose the basic reason is that Browning was conscious of a play appearing in public, and of a tie-in book that for the first time he was not publishing himself. These pressures disciplined him to produce something carefully unlike himself.)

 

Against its hateful court, shallow queen and miserable king stand the Faction. Hampden and Vane the Younger were then conceived as heroic images of  statesmen selflessly devoted to England (Hampden's statue dignified the new Palace of Westminster a few years after Strafford). Browning's play, though it honours these two splendid men - in particular the impulsive Vane - (of Hampden he mainly considers, perhaps, that he was said to be a man of few words) - , teaches us to shiver at the invocation of England. Chesterton complained that Strafford is insufficiently political, because Strafford's political philosophy is not made plain to us. Instead, Strafford's actions are motivated entirely by lover-like devotion to the king - a totally self-sacrificial devotion, though not at all a blind one, which compels Strafford to claim personal responsibility for all Charles' meanest and most stupid actions.    

 

But Chesterton's complaint is unreasonable to some degree, though it is understandable. So much history is demanded of the reader - this is another of the pleasures of Strafford - that we may be misled into thinking that the play is a virtually ungarnished and accurate historical account of Strafford's downfall. But that, while I think it would make a great drama in theory, is really an impossible project. Browning comes nowhere near it. To take some glaring examples, Strafford in the play hardly ever speaks of Laud without some coolness: historically, Laud was one of his closest friends. In Strafford, no-one mentions Catholicism: Pym, historically, was obsessed with, and chiefly motivated by, the belief that Strafford lay at the heart of a Catholic conspiracy. In Strafford, Pym and Hampden defend the process of Attainder from the outraged protests of Vane and others; historically they opposed it at first, as Forster discovered and Browning must have known. And who reading Strafford could possibly imagine that the odious court gossip Sir Henry Vane (Vane the Elder) would in a very short time be joining with his son in opposition to arbitrary power, which historically is just what did happen?

 

[It's a question whether Browning modifies the relative ages of the persons. The year is 1640 at the start of the play. Strafford was 47, Charles 40 (but he still acts childishly). Pym was 56, but I think in the play we tend to regard him as about the same age as Strafford (e.g. because of Pym's "That walked in youth with me").]

 

*

 

Still, Chesterton's remark is a good starting-point. Browning's play is interested in power-politics, in the political will, in the psychology of politics; it is comparatively (though by no means altogether) uninvolved in the rights and wrongs of the issues that divide the characters. In that respect there are a lot of points in common between Strafford and e.g. Trollope's entertaining Phineas novels of thirty years later.

 

*

 

Pym has his revenge on Charles in the fourth Act. He is a man who makes dramatically unexpected entrances, of which this is one. He comes to the king, alone, to ask a mild question: if the Attainder is approved by both houses, will the king sign it? If the answer is no, he will not even propose it to parliament. Charles, under pressure, does one of those unexpected things that are characteristic of the play's awareness: he of all people suddenly becomes both acute and humane:

 

                                           You think

Because you hate the Earl .  .  .  (turn not away -

We know you hate him) - no one else could love

Strafford .  .  . but he has saved me - many times -

Think what he has endured .  .  .  proud too .  .  .  you feel

What he endured! - And, do you know one strange,

One frightful thing? We all have used that man

As though he had been ours  .  .  . with not a source

Of happy thoughts except in us  .  .  . and yet

Strafford has children, and a home as well,

Just as if we had never been! .  .  .  Ah Sir,

You are moved - you - a solitary man

Wed to your cause - to England if you will!

 

It is true and wise: but how much pressure he is under! For still, humanity is only an instrument here. The noble speech has a political subtext: Charles in his mild, meditative remarks is exploring before Pym the concessionary possibility of dropping the human shield of Strafford and of taking responsibility for his own unpopular acts. Pym understands him perfectly. Politely accepting the king's reluctance he turns as if to go; but Pym is like the lawyer in Armadale, and he knows that the time to do all the really serious business is when the interview appears to be over. A meandering regret for the weary business of politics turns wanderingly into a hypothetical advice and suddenly focusses into a real threat:

 

I thought, Sire, could I find myself with you

After this Trial alone as man to man

I might say something warn you pray you save you

Mark me, King Charles, save you!

But God must do it. Yet I warn you, Sire

(With Strafford's faded eyes yet full on me)

As you would have no deeper question moved

—"How long the Many shall endure the One" .  .  . 

 

And with that Charles' resistance collapses. Pym momentarily takes Strafford's place at the king's elbow and, at a still deeper level (as Charles with his "we all have used that man" accuses) he becomes an arbitrary ruler himself. He is King Pym.

 

*

 

English drama, from Ane Satyre (OK, that is Scottish) onwards, had been preoccupied with a conflict between private affection and public business. In the earlier drama this took the form of the monarch's Favourites, as in Marlowe's Edward II or Shakespeare's Richard II. Arbitrary love is associated with arbitrary will - in fact it is not called love but something dirtier. In Strafford, the love is high-minded, and the message is transmuted, no longer pressed by the author as good government but recognized instead as merely inevitable: political momentum will find a way to override private affection. This time it isn't the king's love of Strafford that is the issue - what existence did that ever have? - , it is Pym's love of Strafford. Hampden provides the justification:

 

                                             England speaks

Louder than Strafford! Who are we, to play

The generous pardoner at her expense -

 

And Pym, at length impatient with fainter hearts, provides the psychological methodology:

 

Fien. I never thought it could have come to this!

Pym. (turning from ST. JOHN). But I have made myself familiar, Fiennes,

With that one thought have walked, and sat, and slept,

That thought before me! I have done such things,

Being the chosen man that should destroy

This Strafford! You have taken up that thought

To play with for a gentle stimulant

To give a dignity to idler life

By the dim prospect of this deed to come .  .  .

But ever with the softening, sure belief,

That all would come some strange way right at last!

 

Pym becomes increasingly terrifying as the play wears on. By the last scene he sounds deranged, a messianic chosen one who does not converse in any normal sense but only declaims his mission and only listens to his "England" for guidance. As Strafford prophetically tells him, varying Blake:

 

What? England that you love our land – become

A green and putrefying charnel...

 

*

 

Strafford must be allowed the privilege of having just made a heroic self-sacrifice of his own life (which was true - in reality he put it in a letter to Charles). Still, the accusation against Pym isn't fair. It is Charles' rule in defiance of Parliament that drives the country to war.

 

 

Fien. Had we made out some weightier charge .  .  .

Pym.                                                         You say

That these are petty charges! Can we come

to the real charge at all? There he is safe!

In tyranny's stronghold! Apostasy

Is not a crime Treachery not a crime!

The cheek burns, the blood tingles, when you name

Their names, but where's the power to take revenge

Upon them? We must make occasion serve:

The Oversight, pay for the Giant Sin

That mocks us!

 

Browning, I don't know why, doesn't choose to spell out the concrete evils attributable to Strafford that are comprehended by Pym's terms: Apostasy and Treachery. This permits a false interpretation of the action, in which Strafford is a victim who has always been old and sick, and has never really been guilty of anything except trying to forestall civil war.  

 

If this is a fault, it nevertheless places the reader in a curiously gripping position: that of never being able to weigh exactly what the characters are claiming. In most earlier drama, the audience is gifted knowledge beyond what is known to the characters - "dramatic irony" becomes possible. Browning flirts with it a little in the final act, when Strafford being visited by Hollis assumes that a way will be found to get him off, but we already know that Hollis must tell him to prepare to die. This is not typical, however. What is more typical is Browning dropping us into the midst of a political scene in which everyone is talking - not very coherently, and often not very sincerely - about matters on which we can form no independent judgment. We cannot even quite understand them. From this impressionistic babble an airy sublimity sometimes emerges, e.g. Strafford reflecting:

 

His path! Where's England's path? Diverging wide,

And not to join again the track my foot

Must follow whither? All that forlorn way

Among the tombs! 

 

Who can explain what Strafford means here by describing his track as "among the tombs"? Or later on in the speech, the supreme forsaken star? These must be senile intimations of his own fate.

 

In this intuitiveness, as in the bedrock of national history on which Browning builds - or flings together - these extravagantt vehemences, Strafford instantiates a sobering feature of his poetic career. In arriving at the mature and admirable "achievement" of his middle years, what is notable is how much he surrenders to get at it. Its successor, the extremely forgettable King Victor and King Charles, has quite a lot in common with Strafford, except that its story, as Browning quotes Voltaire, concerns "a terrible event without consequences", a pure - a mere - drama of the soul in costume. That's where he was headed. But Strafford remains to show that we could have witnessed a different kind of engagement with history. It leaves me with some regrets about that, and a feeling that Pym's words about "a gentle stimulant To give a dignity to idler life" linger as a rebuke incurred by that later career.      

 

    

 

*

 

Van Dyck's paintings are evidently an influence on Strafford. Its hero reflecting on "The man with the mild voice and mournful eyes" is alluding to Van Dyck's portraits of the king, "a face fit to paint the Saviour from" according to Bernini's (possibly apocryphal) remark.

 

 

I like to think that Browning's conception of Strafford as both confidently capable and consciously isolated is likewise influenced by, in particular, the Petworth portrait.

 

 

 

But Browning's conception of the English court resists the sombrely lyrical idealization of aristocracy in Van Dyck's paintings (as here, Queen Henrietta Maria):

 

 

*

 

Denzil Holles (Hollis in Strafford), the socially mobile Parliamentarian who was also Strafford's brother-in-law and Charles' childhood playmate, may also have been the author of this satire on Cromwell as Hercules Furens, inscribed on a west country hillside:

 

 

 

(2009)

 

*

 

Bishop Blougram’s Apology

 

Of course you are remarking all this time

How narrowly and grossly I view life,

Respect the creature-comforts, care to rule

The masses, and regard complacently

‘The cabin’, in our old phrase. Well, I do.

 

The bishop is fascinated (in what is finally a generous way) by his effect on the young man. Whom he doesn’t wholly understand, but he knows that “life” is a revered word. He enjoys the words “narrowly” and “grossly”; intended as criticisms of him, he smacks his lips over them. This is talk not lecturing, so his sentence leaves its moorings - he obviously does not mean, what he logically implies, “how narrowly and grossly I regard complacently...”

 

“in our old phrase” politely includes Gigadibs (he would feel, “implicates”).

 

“Care to rule” is an odd phrase, perhaps a false note, but it passes the crozier/crook under our nose.

 

***

 

Everyone who has done the canon knows a few things about Browning. They know that he is copiously good. Also, that he isn’t good like Shakespeare’s sonnets or Keats’ odes. (You can read Men and Women with exuberant pleasure, but you don’t bother to learn any of his lines by heart.) Finally, that apart from the copiously good there is also a more-than-copious not-so-good, mainly in the last twenty years of his career, and there’s no conceivable requirement to dip into it.

 

So finding yourself in company with a volume of late Browning is a very liberating experience, though it is death to stay there.

 

Ferishtah’s Fancies (1884), published when the author was 72, is in no way outstanding. The man who had produced a great collection (Men and Women) was as interested as ever in the shape of a collection, and this one is typically complex, the poems about the Persian philosopher (a pleasant image of the ageing author) interspersed with slight love-lyrics that play with the same themes. In the “Prologue” Browning supplies us with the image of spitted ortolans separated from each other by bread and sage-leaves.

 

Browning’s “poems” are, as Wilde acutely noted, a new kind of form that is close to prose. Much of it is barely more exciting than prose:

 

Wholly distrust thy knowledge, then, and trust

As wholly love allied to ignorance!

There lies thy truth and safety. Love is praise,

And praise is love! Refine the same, contrive

An intellectual tribute – ignorance

Appreciating ere approbative

Of knowledge that is infinite? With us

The small, who use the knowledge of our kind

Greater than we, more wisely ignorance

Restricts its apprehension, sees and knows

No more than brain accepts in faith of sight,

Takes first what comes first, only sure so far. 

 

It is, no doubt, rather frustrating that this is not “even” very limpid prose. The last sentence in this passage draws a parallel between the infinite knowledge of God and the merely “greater” knowledge of our more skilled peers, but the parallel is hardly laid out to the eye, and the curious expression “our kind greater than we” is a positive hindrance to understanding. Yet this casualness of exposition is important. It took me several readings of Shah Abbas to grasp exactly what the point of difference was between the two speakers – this is because the speakers are not lecturing, and some things are just implied in the tone. Towards the end of A Bean-stripe, a moving conciseness is achieved by the speakers’ digressiveness; the proposed discussion is in effect cancelled by the influx of solider things. From there I quote some examples of the poetry that lies lurking in the seams of the argument:

 

- Those Seven Thrones, Zurah’s beauty, weird Parwin!

 

Then let the stars thank me who apprehend

That such an one is white, such other blue!

But for my apprehension both were blank.

Cannot I close my eyes and bid my brain

Make whites and blues, conceive without stars’ help,

New qualities of colour? Were my sight

Lost or misleading, would yon red – I judge

A ruby’s benefaction – stand for aught

But green from vulgar glass? Myself appraise

Lustre and lustre; should I overlook

Fomalhaut and declare some fen-fire king,

Who shall correct me, lend me eyes he trusts

No more than I trust mine?

 

Yet I think the most memorable lines are after all quieter and close to prose.

 

Shelter, of some sort, no experienced chill

Warrants that I despair to find.

 

And there seems no reason why a valid art could not contain this high proportion of prose-interest to poetry-interest. Obviously, though, the arguments need to be grasped, so here are my brief summaries:

 

The Eagle: You should work for the world, and be a “helpful strength”.

The Melon-Seller: Do not bewail a fall from grace, but give thinks for your undeserved past happiness.

Shah Abbas: To be right-hearted, to be on the side of God and virtue, is more important than strict belief.

The Family: To pray is human. To submit to God’s will too easily may be less than human.

The Sun: In praising, we attribute a human aspect to the divine.

Mihrab Shah: The existence of pain is necessary for us to give thanks to God and love to each other.

A Camel-Driver: God does not punish like man may need to.

Two Camels: Enjoy the good things in life – it makes you more fit for work, and more aware of what joy is.

Cherries: Give praise for the smallest things, don’t despise them for the greater things you hardly understand.

Plot-Culture: God does not need to spy on the details of sensual love.

A Pillar at Sebzevar: Love is sure, knowledge is uncertain.

A Bean-Stripe; also, Apple-Eating: This is the most substantial poem in the collection; a discussion that begins with whether life is good or bad; it sinks all in man’s impotence and God’s omnipotence, and in the humbly optimistic faith of one who does not try to know too much.

 

Browning’s later career of course attracts the charge of facile optimism, as well as that damning facility for verse.  To do him justice, he is prepared to defend the optimism. I don’t know why we should be so unforgiving to this aspect of the late Victorian sages, when there is a clear line of descent to the scientific writers of today, whose universal optimism is a matter of no note.

 

[nb this sentence was written with a memory of Gregg Easterbrook’s remarkable A Moment on the Earth (1995) and Adam Philips’s Darwin’s Worms (1999), where the blurb’s statement that the author “unexpectedly finds much to celebrate” unwittingly emphasises just how expected, in another sense, it all is.]

 

Browning was a happy poet. Of Browning’s optimism we can say in reproof that he ignored – well, the Victorian slums, for instance. Yet he saved Elizabeth Barrett; through egocentrism and ignorance, it may be, but I don’t know that. I have to listen to his sanity, cheerfully selfish though it may have been. It is the selfish and rich who are intelligent.  Charity exacts a cost. If you love your neighbour, as Browning perhaps did not do (I mean in a practical way), do not suppose that you will write better, or even think better, as a result. On the contrary, to fight evil is to court the probable infection of evil. You must do it, if you’re going to do it, only because it’s right.

 

Did Browning, we may wonder, take drugs, or was it a natural high? Was it just his temperament? In the Prologue to the Parleyings with Certain People (1887), he puts it down to wine – this poem, which considers his own cheerfulness, pursues many of the same themes as A Bean-Stripe.

 

 

Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day (1887)

 

By the time of Men and Women (1855) Browning had developed the form of the dramatic monologue (DM) to a stage where it seems to us simply a natural form that we accept unquestioningly – and this was a monumental achievement.

 

The problem arose when he tried to think about what he was doing in an analytical way. He observed that the material of a DM was highly partial, usually chosen by the speaker to defend his own way of life. In The Ring and the Book (1868-69) he had the idea of composing a multiplicity of DMs that all addressed the same material. This would make clearer the partiality of each speaker; it would also supply a peculiarly rich presentation of the material itself, presented from many different viewpoints. But when we try to read the Ring and the Book we see that the experiment fails. Because each speaker is made to go over the same ground, s/he is inevitably compelled to rehearse long stretches of material that shed no interesting light on her/his character. Nor does the story itself gain greatly from this repetition; where slight contradictions appear, we are left not with a deeper insight but merely with doubt. 

 

The Parleyings, too, have the air of being composed in response to an over-schematic idea. The speaker is Browning, and the “people” (they are all men, by the way) are brought in to inspire his meditations on a number of interlinked themes. These, we might suppose, are the sort of thought-processes that precede the composition of DMs. But in the Parleyings, instead of progressing to writing the DMs, Browning versifies the notes. In principle, and occasionally in practice, this allows him to introduce frankly contemporary material – instead of composing a historical fiction, he can openly ponder the relevance of the past to his present. But this constitutes a loss of belief in poetry – what we value in the younger Browning is not his ideas, but his fiction.

 

 

(My prose – your poetry I dare not give,

purpling too much my mere grey argument)

 

he writes, as an aside, in Christopher Smart – and these are among the more memorable lines, because one tends to concede the rightness of Browning’s choice of colours. Yet the Parleyings deserve some attention.

 

Apollo and the Fates: A Prologue.  (The meter is similar to the Epilogue; galloping stanzas rhyming ababb where a is normally disyllabic.)  Apollo visits the Fates to plead for the life of Admetus. They scornfully point out that the life of man is mere misery; happiness only an illusion. Apollo persuades them to drink wine, man’s consolation, and they become temporarily merry, and applaud man’s potential and stubborn survival – “no defeat but a triumph”.  But then a mysterious “explosion at the earth’s centre” sobers them. Man is fated, they re-assert. But they grant Apollo’s plea for Admetus if anyone, for love’s sake, will offer to die for him. Apollo agrees, and sees his relatives contending for the honour. And sees Admetus refuse them – he’d rather die. The Fates laugh, interpreting this as a confirmation of their argument and a thwarting of Apollo’s plan. Our own response is more ambiguous, of course.

 

Bernard de Mandeville.  The central part of the poem is (I find) extremely obscurely expressed, but the basic argument is clear. A “parlous friend” asks for one plain demonstration that God is on the side of good. Browning argues by analogy; it’s impossible to comprehend the sun doing good, but thanks to Prometheus we have the little gift of fire and with it can do good ourselves. Not intellectual knowledge which fails before immensities, but our mere senses and our practical application, are enough to supply the faith that is wanted. [The poem’s drift became somewhat clearer once I looked up Mandeville, and learned that his idea was that in society individual evil such as pride and avarice led to the common good – for instance, by boosting the economy. It was an argument whose sources can be guessed at, for instance, in the medieval poem Wynnere and Wastoure – but after Mandeville it became dominant in economic thinking. Browning considers only the moral aspect, and seems to approve of it.]

 

Daniel Bartoli.  Largely devoted to the story of a woman who gives up a great Duke’s love so that he can retain his political power. Browning finds “saintship” in this worldly chronicle (not in a legendary) – he means the woman’s, though her life is not religious. He even finds something to please him in the duke, who tamely goes along with this (i.e. gives her up) – at least he too was once devoted to love, and though now a mere ghost of his past idealism, might rise again to that splendour.  

 

Christopher Smart.  Browning wonders why Smart produced only one inspired work (i.e. the Song to David). Browning seems to approve Smart’s humility in retiring to commonplace once the visionary experience had passed away, and contrasts him with those who seek “the end ere the beginning”. But the last section is confusing.

 

George Bubb Dodington. Concerned with statesmanship, and the politician’s habit of feathering his own nest. Browning decides (for the sake of argument) to accept this selfish motive as valid, but criticizes GBD for advising the statesman to adopt a sham zeal which will deceive no-one. Suggests that the statesman should go further and create in us a sense of awe by revealing his blatant lack of human conscience; behaviour which might persuade us, perhaps, that he is mystifyingly superhuman and thus merits our subservience. In George Bubb Dodington it’s quite clear that Browning doesn’t mean what he’s saying – this is an example of what (I think) is meant by Browning’s “casuistry”.

 

Francis Furini. FF was a painter-priest who painted nudes as well as religious subjects and who, according to legend, requested on his death-bed that his works be destroyed. But Browning refuses to credit this legend – assumes that Francis was a defender of the noble profession of art. Imagines him addressing the sceptical evolutionists and other speculators – putting forward the nobility of the body and man’s own desire for righteousness as signs of the innate goodness of the world. This “starting from what we know” links up with Christopher Smart and with Ferishtah’s optimism; it’s a fairly plain statement of what Browning himself had, it seems, come to think of as his “philosophy”.

 

Gerard de Lairesse. A fanciful and mythological writer, because he became blind? But Browning tries to achieve an insight into the world that is based only on sober sense and not on fancy. The centrepiece of the poem is a lengthy description of a day, from dawn to dusk, peopled by Lairesse-style imaginings – but Browning calls it “fooling”. Browning criticizes the “Greek” (perhaps Platonic) despair of the world – everything merely a shade. His joy in the actual.

 

Charles Avison. An organist of Newcastle, who composed a simple march. Browning considers music, an art whose expression of the soul exceeds any other, but which is necessarily transient, displaced by what follows it, so that the music of Avison’s time has no inspiring power for us moderns (e.g. of Browning’s time) who have Wagner and Brahms. And yet the fading is not inglorious. “Soon shall fade and fall / Myth after myth – the husk-like lies I call / New truth’s corolla-safeguard: Autumn comes, / So much the better!”

 

Fust and his Friends: An Epilogue  The friends, a conventional and benighted crew, come to Fust’s study – he is discovered, a “lost wretch” apparently sunk in despair. They conclude that he has made a pact with the devil. But Fust proudly demonstrates his astonishing invention – a printing press. Fust praises its power for spreading the truth, the faultless multiplication of a psalm. But asked why then he was found in such a woebegone attitude, he confesses his fear of how the press could be used to multiply falsehood. The friends agree – what if another Huss should make use of it? “I foresee such a man”, Fust agrees (i.e. Luther).  The basic connection with the Prologue is the concern (ultimately optimistic) with man’s potential for both good and evil. [Fust was also of interest to Jonathan Oldbuck – see The Antiquary, Ch XI. Scott has the astrologer Galeotti deliver a similar effusion on the ambiguous powers of the printing-press in Quentin Durward, Ch XIII.]

 

In writing up these notes (which I think ought to be useful, since few will trouble to read such a book) I have injured my vanity, both by admitting that some passages defeat me and also by revealing to a better reader – who I hope may enlighten me – where I’ve unwittingly missed the drift. It can be infuriatingly difficult to follow the argument. Often I am in doubt who is speaking, and whether they are expressing their own beliefs, or putting a case, or surmising or burlesquing someone else’s argument. Often the point at issue is bafflingly buried in the mass of common ground.

 

It’s easy to see why modernist poets who followed in Browning’s paths decided to drop the interconnecting links between “presentations” (such as a description of the dawn (Gerard de Lairesse) or a visit to a great house (Christopher Smart) or a bird picking at a thread (Charles Avison) and allowed the reader to do the work of inferring a connection between the materials. One can perhaps interpret the unresolvable pseudo-argument of Ashbery’s poetry as a reaction against these disjunct and imagistic “presentations”, in a certain way readmitting the “process” that we meet with in the Parleyings*.  Browning’s subjects are of such a kind that argument is in any case necessarily hazy and/or mercurial. It comes quite close itself to being pseudo-argument, except that there is a repetitious chiming of certain abstract words (such as will and beauty) which had a positive meaning for Browning because of his religion and his culture.

 

*Note. This has been noticed before, e.g. by Peter Porter.

 

(2001, 2002)


George Eliot: Silas Marner (1861)

 

Audio book, read (brilliantly) by Andrew Sachs, though you would probably not admit all his voices in the Rainbow as pure Warwickshire. That there is already simplification of humanity in the ever-neutral Mr Snell and the ever-combative Mr Dowlas is justification. The slight difficulty in the novelist's approach is when a justifiable simplification becomes picked up in the plot itself - as when the villagers, not unreasonably, suggest that so very timely a robbery as Dunsey's implies some preternatural power at work. The element of play in the fable is a way of seeing. Of seeing what, as Leslie Stephen remarked, a philanthropist or any other such public person would not see. The question arises again over Eppie's destiny. Of course we side hotly with the already settled relations of Silas, Eppie, Dolly and Aaron - why should their idyll be disturbed, these thrifty and wise working people? Because, as the novel has abundantly told us, they must remain ignorant, unblessed by the author's fluency in half-a-dozen languages, and because husbands like Ben Winthrop will go to the Rainbow, and why wouldn't his own son Aaron? And what worthwhile enlargement of Eppie's mind would the Casses supply, anyway. But wouldn't Eppie herself always think about this road not taken? These questions are not mean-spirited, they are what George Eliot's own sense, coolly imbibed throughout the course of the book, are bound to provoke. Perhaps it's because we know that she knows, that this happiest of all endings is poignantly accepted.

Though the central message of love and community shines clearly, the behaviour of the older characters (not Eppie or Aaron) remains vexed and complicated. I just talked about Silas' need-love: what that produces here is the lovely relationship of Silas and Eppie: what it could as easily produce is the dysfunctionalism of Nell and her grandfather in the Old Curiosity Shop. Godfrey's faults are underlined by the author of course, his comments in the offer-scene repulsive (e.g. about Eppie marrying a low labouring fellow), but still it seems to me that he is more aware than anyone else in the room about what's on offer and what's at stake - socially, materially, and more than materially. Nancy Lameter is admirable to us (when it's too late) for her easy forgiveness of what Godfrey supposed she would not forgive. And not only for that moment. Yet what to think of the author's insistent praise for her, when it has to do battle against our awareness of Nancy's capacity for being maddening: her severe and arbitrary notions of providence, her moral tyranny over an elder sister who has to dress like her and a husband who is not allowed to adopt children because Nancy thinks it isn't God's will, her attempt to persuade Eppie on the grounds of duty to the natural parent who has finally acknowledged her. You have to think that G.Eliot's admiring comparisons of Nancy's "wisdom" with worthies more informed than herself are intended as ironic and a part of the book's ongoing critique of ALL such creeds and customs at whatever level of society.

Because although Silas Marner is in some ways a safe conservative vision, for example idyllicising aspects of a rural life that are totally unlike what GE herself would find tolerable, it nevertheless does conduct a running-battle with religion and tradition. Structurally the first half of the book is fantastic but the book drops in intensity once the redeeming miracle of the child has come to Silas. On a first reading we are, just about, sustained through the quiet domestic pages with Eppie by anticipating well-meant disruption from Godrey, or ill-meant disruption from Dunsey. On a second reading these pleasing terrors are absent and the result is just a bit dull, in a nice way. The first thing that strikes you about GE is what unique gifts she brings to novel-writing - the promise, indeed the fact, of going deeper and further than any other British novelist of her century (or later?). Yet she never wrote a novel that doesn't frustrate me.

 

(1861)


 

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)

 

 

Armadale (1864-1866)

 

The first thing it came into my head to say about Armadale, I suddenly realized, would utterly deflate the book for someone who hadn’t read it; and this is certainly a book that ought to be read once – which can’t be said of all Collins’ books (see below). And it ought to be read without knowing too much in advance, because (as John Sutherland says in his introduction) manipulation of the reader’s tensions is a principal factor in what the book means.

 

 [I’m inclined to invite those who have read Armadale to guess what my first thought was.]

 

In fact I’d now venture it the most interesting of Collins’ books, placing it in front of The Woman in White and The Moonstone. By “now” I’m alluding to the continuously changing way in which nineteenth-century fiction refracts upon us. But one day I might delete these sentences.

 

This is getting intertextual, but then Armadale is a very intertextual book. Its most central character, Lydia Gwilt, is presented with extraordinary indirectness. She makes no (recognized) appearance at all until the third book, and then we come into contact with her at first through letters. Collins is most reluctant to show her to us in his third person narrative, which is nevertheless increasingly about her. Her very first appearance in the third person (which somewhat paradoxically appears to the reader as the “unmarked case” of presentation), is the climax of Book III Chapter IX:

 

As he (Allan) came within sight of her face, he stopped in ungovernable astonishment. The sudden revelation of her beauty, as she smiled and looked at him inquiringly, suspended the movement in his limbs and the words on his lips. A vague doubt beset him whether it was the governess, after all.

 

He roused himself; and, advancing a few paces, mentioned his name. ‘May I ask,’ he added, ‘if I have the pleasure–‘

 

The lady met him easily and gracefully half way.

 

‘Major Milroy’s governess,’ she said. ‘Miss Gwilt.’

 

This is some 260 pages into the novel. Thereafter Lydia Gwilt is “on stage” (i.e. there in the imagined present of the third person narrative) for only 19 pages or so until the final movement of the book at the sanatorium (615-67 in John Sutherland’s edition).  But a great deal of the interim is taken up with her letters and most importantly her diary, a document that Collins admits she has no plain motive for writing.

 

This highly-worked approach is critically important to the novel itself. In the first half of the book, which is tense with impending doom, evil (at least in the present) is off-stage and ever threatening to appear. In the later part of the book Lydia begins to assume centre-stage, but we see her mainly through her own record. The gigantic fatalism that obsesses Midwinter is replaced by (or transformed into) the self-communing of a complex woman whose own wickedness is something she greatly fears.

 

Even more elaborately, the story of Lydia’s past is eventually narrated by an obnoxious but condemnatory private detective, representative of official morality, to his weak-minded father (Bashwood), who interrupts with tout pardonner almost without bothering about tout comprendre. Contrary to Collins’ hints earlier in the book, Bashwood’s discoveries do not lead to Lydia’s downfall: they are all about how we react. Bashwood in fact keeps his secret, as Midwinter keeps his, and Lydia goes to her grave with a sort of relieved forgiveness that is also a forgetting, so far as the other characters are concerned. No-one in the book knows half as much about her as we do.

 

Midwinter, finally emerging as a writer, is troubling in his own right. Collins never lets us know why Midwinter (if there is a simple why) loses affection for his bride soon after his marriage. The hiatus is a potent one. It allows us to reflect that Midwinter’s behaviour matches Lydia’s past experience: she can command adulation effortlessly, but she is mistreated by her husbands and in some sense perhaps is never loved – not, for instance, in the way she loves Midwinter. It also allows us to reflect on our huge respect for Midwinter’s insights, distorted as they are: perhaps his unamiable behaviour makes the final comment on a tawdry and self-centred existence that doesn’t, he discovers, deserve to be loved. Maintaining an unstable equilibrium between those views is one of Armadale’s triumphs.  

 

 

 

(2006)

 

 

I Say ‘No’

 

A wretched book. I’d kept it lying around on my shelves because I was curious to see why, although I’d read it before, I couldn’t remember a single thing about it.

 

Curious how the stock of “The Victorian Novel” has fallen in my own mind - the minor novelists seem barely worth exhuming. And once I quite saw the Novel’s history as a rise into luscious nineteenth-century greatness, culminating in the crisis (itself great) of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake - with all later novelists just ill-mannered guests, persisting in a genre whose significant achievements all lay behind them. This view seems ridiculous now.

 

[This was a note from 2001. I now understand that I Say ‘No’ was written late in Collins’ life – I forget the date, but certainly in the 1880s, when chronic ill-health had long since reduced the author’s ambitions to eking out a living. Knowing this doesn’t make the book any better, but it does make voicing the condemnation seem rather pointless – it never set out to be much more than what it is. One of the hardest issues for a completely relativist view of artistic value is how to comprehend the belated efforts of a sick and exhausted professional. MP 2006]

 

 

 

(2001)

 

A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now

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