Showing posts from November, 2012

Apologizing for pleasure in Sidney's 'Apology for Poetry'

As one of its major strategies for defending poetry, Sidney's Apology describes poetry's capacity simultaneously to teach and to delight, to instruct effectively by appealing to pleasure.(1) According to the Apology, it is pleasure which creates poetry as superior to history and philosophy, for poetry's ability to delight moves readers to virtue, rather than subjecting them to tedious discussions or ambiguous examples. Even in the initial stages of civilization, it was the "sweet delights" (98) of poetry which prepared early peoples to exercise their minds for the reception of knowledge. But on the other side of the Apology's claim that poetry's delight enlivens its teaching lies the inference that the experience of delight must be justified by instruction. This inference becomes explicit in the Apology's limitation of its defense to a definition of poetry as "feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with ... delightful teaching&q…

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope - Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx

English painter. The second son of Yorkshire landed gentry, he was educated at Rugby and Christ Church, Oxford. In 1850 he studied in London with G. F. Watts, through whom he entered the artistic circle at Little Holland House, where he met D. G. Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.Stanhope's close friendship with Burne-Jones proved a more decisive influence on his work that, in the 1860s, consisted of dreamlike poetic and mythological subjects often set in quaint, enclosed spaces, as in I Have Trod the Winepress Alone (c. 1864; London, Tate).

Stanhope married in 1859 and moved to Sandroyd, a house near Cobham, Surrey, designed for him by Philip Webb in 1860, but because of severe asthma he wintered abroad from 1865 and in 1880 moved permanently to the Villa Nuti, Bellosguardo, near Florence. Deeply influenced by Italian art, he had his frames made in gilt gesso by Florentine craftsmen and was one of the first British artists to revive tempera painting, adopting it at least as early as…

Charlotte Bronte and Her Sisters

"If you think from this prelude that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment and poetry and reverie? Do you expect passion and stimulus and melodrama? Calm your expectations: reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto." 
"Shirley," Chap. 1.

Haworth, in Yorkshire, is a melancholy village in one of the dreariest provinces in England. Its low houses have that dumpy, sad, sullen look to be seen in the peasants of the region; and, massed about a little square-towered church on the top of a small hill, they give to this elevation the severe aspect of a fortress.

Patrick Bronté was thirty-three years of age when, in 1820, he was appointed rector at Haworth. He was an Irishman, tall, with regular features and something in his gla…

This Strange and Contradictory Poet

In his early poem “I stood tip-toe”, Keats describes an effect of sunlight passing through water:

Where swarms of minnows show their little heads,
Staying their wavy bodies ’gainst the streams,
To taste the luxury of sunny beams
Temper’d with coolness. How they ever wrestle
With their own sweet delight, and ever nestle
Their silver bellies on the pebbly sand.
If you but scantily hold out the hand,

That very instant not one will remain;

But turn your eye, and they are there again.

At first glance, this seems to be nothing more than a delicate piece of observation. We know from Keats’s letters (as Nicholas Roe points out in his new biography, John Keats: A New Life, Yale University Press, £25) that as a boy he loved to explore the natural world of the countryside near Edmonton: “How fond I used to be of Goldfinches, Tomtits, Minnows, Mice, Ticklebacks, Dace, Cock salmons and all the whole tribe of the Bushes and the Brooks,” he wrote to his sister.

But Keats the poet gave those childhood memories …

William Blake: London

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

George Frederic Watts: The Irish Famine

The painting shows a contemporary subject, a young Irish family evicted from their home during the 1840’s. The Irish Famine occurred when the potato crop failed several years in succession. This caused mass starvation, killing thousands of people. The couple huddles together for comfort amidst a desolate, barren landscape. The father looks out defiantly, fists clenched, showing his anger, while the figure to the right expresses despair. Watts only visited Ireland after the picture was painted, so used models for this painting. A radical painting for its time it belongs to a group of four Social Realist paintings, depicting his concern with increasing poverty, stimulated by reading newspaper and magazine reports at the time.


George Frederic always spelled his first name with a 'k' and I wonder why the rest of us don't. Probably he was named after Handel since both were born on February 23rd, though a few years apart. Watts's father was a piano maker — not a rich man&#…

The Stranger Who Resembles Us - On Camus

"Even my death will be contested. And yet what I desire most today is a quiet death, which would bring peace to those whom I love."

Albert Camus's prediction has been borne out—but not his hope. As France approaches next year's centennial of the French Algerian writer's birth, controversies have crackled over the meaning of his life and work. These battles, which have swept up intellectuals and politicians, have as much to do with France's troubled past—in particular its ties with its former colony Algeria—as they do with our own troubling present.

Camus was remarkable witness to his times. Like George Orwell, he was right about the plagues of the era—totalitarianism and Communism. Also like Orwell, Camus's lucid gaze, blunt honesty, and persistent humanity have made him as discomfiting and indispensable since his death in 1960 as he was during his short life.

Over the past couple of years, official efforts to commemorate Camus have faltered. In 2009, then-P…

John Fowles - Interview

On October 23, 1977, John Fowles was interviewed by Melvyn Bragg for the BBC Television show "The Lively Arts."  The following is a transcript.

MELVYN BRAGG: John Fowles is one of the handful of British authors treated with respect by the press and with delight by a wide public. Only a few writers of serious fiction sell tens of thousands of hardback books in this country. Fewer still sell hundreds of thousands in America. His new book is a novel called Daniel Martin. It is his fourth novel and that too, according to the publishers here and abroad, will scale the heights of bestsellerdom and also claim top billing on the serious review pages.

The Collector was John Fowles' first novel. It was made into a film in which Terence Stamp played the young man whose obsession for collecting butterflies was accompanied by an obsession to collect and make a captive of a young girl from Hampstead. Hampstead is the place John Fowles was living in at the time.

But the novel which made hi…

John Everett Millais: Swallow, Swallow, 1864

John Everett Millais’s Swallow! Swallow! is a remarkable and beautiful painting, made during a fascinating transitional period in the artist’s career when he found himself poised between the formative experience of Pre-Raphaelitism and the new artistic principles associated with Aestheticism.

Millais had a particular feeling for literature, and the works of Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson provided narratives for numerous paintings and drawings. In the mid-1850s he made a series of designs for the so-called Moxon Tennyson, an illustrated edition of Tennyson’s poetry to which various members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their associates contributed. This was a vital formative experience and one that taught him how to look for ways of expressing human predicaments in terms of mood, and to choose telling motifs which would indicate the state of mind of his protagonists. One of Millais’s greatest early paintings, and a work that represents the fulfilment of Pre-Raphaelitism in its …

The Great Charles Dickens Scandal

I have been stumping around the country talking about Dickens in this bicentenary year; afterwards, I invite questions from the audience, and at some point, someone – usually a woman – will ask me how I can possibly admire a man who treated his wife so atrociously.

Eating humble pie on behalf of my hero, I admit that, yes, Dickens fell out of love with his wife, Catherine; he became surly and critical towards her, then, after 20 years of marriage and 10 children, and without informing her in advance, had the marital bedroom divided in two, soon after demanding, on no particular grounds, a legal separation from her.

She left the house, and he never saw her again as long as he lived. He wrote a baffling statement about the situation, which was printed in the Times and elsewhere, and another letter for private circulation in which he described her as an incompetent mother and possibly afflicted with some mental disorder. I confess, again on behalf of Dickens, that this letter is a disgrace…

Jean Honore Fragonard: The Love Letter

After 1767, Fragonard's chief work was decorative panels commissioned by Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV, for her chateau at Louveciennes. Surprisingly enough, she rejected the panels as unsuitable. This painting was executed shortly before the series, and may have been shown to Madame du Barry as part of Fragonard's "pitch" to win the commission.

In any case, The Love Letter is characteristically muted, with an eroticism that is certainly present, but deeply hidden. What attracts the eye here are the glorious golden colors, and the coquettish attitude of the young lady, rather than body parts. The painting seems to glow with passion.

* * *

Embodying the freedom and curiosity of the French Enlightenment, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) developed an exuberant and fluid manner as a painter, draftsman, and printmaker. Prolific and inventive, he abandoned early on the conventional career path dictated by the hierarchical structure of the Royal Academy, working large…

Richard Steele: Twenty-four Hours in London

From The Rambler 454
 Sine me, vacivum tempus ne quod duim mihi Laboris. —Ter. Heaut. Act. i. Sc. 1. [“Give me leave to employ my spare time in some kind of labour.” - Terence, The Self-Tormentor]It is an inexpressible pleasure to know a little of the world, and be of no character or significancy in it. To be ever unconcerned, and ever looking on new objects with an endless curiosity, is a delight known only to those who are turned for speculation: nay, they who enjoy it must value things only as they are the objects of speculation, without drawing any worldly advantage to themselves from them, but just as they are what contribute to their amusement, or the improvement of the mind. I lay one night last week at Richmond; and being restless, not out of dissatisfaction, but a certain busy inclination one sometimes has, I rose at four in the morning, and took boat for London, with a resolution to rove by boat and coach for the next four-and-twenty hours, till the many different objects I…

Lionel Trilling and the critical imagination

Why Trilling Matters: it is a curiously defensive title for a book about a man who was a star in the much-acclaimed circle of “New York intellectuals,” who delivered the first of the Jefferson Lectures bestowed by the government for “distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities,” and whose major collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, has gone through half-a-dozen editions since it was first published in 1950 (most recently in 2008), totalling 70,000 copies in hard cover and more than 100,000 in paperback.1 Yet that defensive tone, unfortunately, is warranted. In spite of the availability of his work, Lionel Trilling today is almost unknown in academia, resurrected occasionally in an article or book, more often to be belittled or criticized than celebrated.

Adam Kirsch, seeking to restore Trilling to his rightful place in the literary and intellectual world, tells us that as an English major in the mid-1990s, he never read Trilling or even heard him discus…

Evelyn Waugh in his own Words

Mr Waugh, you were sixty in October; do you regard your life’s work as over?

Oh, I wish I could say so. You see, in any other profession, I’m reaching retirement age, but as you’ll find when you reach my age writers have to go on and on till they drop. Three score and ten used to be the proper span, now it may be four score and ten. These awful doctors keep one going years and years and years. I regard longevity with the utmost horror.

Do you think that an aged novelist suffers any particular impediments - in his work?

To compare small things with great, if you compare me with any of the well-known novelists like, say, Dickens, all their comic and inventive work was over long before they reached my age. It is a very, very rare thing to be able to go on.

In Vile Bodies, I think it is, you say ‘If the young knew and the old could’. Well now, where do you think you stand in respect of writing, about that?

I was once talking to a first-class lawn tennis player, who was middle-aged, and he …

Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy still resonates today

Tuesday, September 14 1762. In East Hoathly, a small Sussex village, Thomas Turner, the local shopkeeper, recorded the usual entry for the day in his diary. "At home all day and pretty busy. In the afternoon employed myself a-writing. In the even Mr Tipper read to me part of a - I know not what to call it but Tristram Shandy."

Turner was familiar with the staples of 18th-century reading, from sermons and Shakespeare to the matter of the monthly reviews. But his consternation at quite what it was that his friend had brought along that evening suggests something of the impact of the most fashionable book of the age: Laurence Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

As the first volumes of this comic, wayward narrative emerged in the early 1760s, many critics were none the wiser. It did not conform to the narrative conventions of the telling of a biographical "life", since it started at the unhappy point of conception and took pages for the main cha…

The Dialogue of the Mind with Itself - Matthew Arnold

WITH Matthew Arnold the dilemma of the modern artist in society becomes fully explicit. For Arnold's critical habit of mind led him to attempt to analyze and define in objective terms that sense of alienation which we have most often encountered in the work of Tennyson and Browning under the guise of a vaguely realized malaise. In directly confronting the motives for his antipathy to the Victorian age, Arnold was concerned not only to clarify his own relationship to that age, but also to reaffirm the traditional sovereignty of poetry as a civilizing agent. Thus, whereas Tennyson and Browning ultimately relied on private revelation derived from mystical or instinctual, and in either case irrational, sources, Arnold looked for inspiration to the great humanistic idea which asserts that man is the measure of all possibilities.

This is not, of course, to imply that Arnold found it any easier than Tennyson or Browning to come to terms with the age. If the Victorians distrusted the visio…