Friday, 30 November 2012

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

Sir Philip Sidney Portrait, 1576. Penshurst Place

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" (103). When separated from its moral function, poetry's pleasure renders it a "nurse of abuse," dangerously capable of eliciting the wrong sort of pleasure to infect its readers with "pestilent desires" (123). By exploring the "nurse of abuse" image, together with other highly gendered figures, this essay advances the following argument: to the explicit charges against which Sidney's Apology defends poetry--that it lies, it promotes immorality, it was banished from Plato's ideal republic, and that it serves no useful purpose--can be added an implicit charge, that the pleasures offered by poetry rendered it dangerously effeminizing.

A reading of Sidney's Apology as defending poetry against charges of effeminacy was perhaps first performed in a passing comment by Walter Ong, who suggested that the anxiety, common among Renaissance humanists, that "literature, and poetry in particular, was actually soft or effeminate" motivated Sidney's claim that the Amadis de Gaule moved men to courage.(2) More recently, M. J. Doherty's gendered reading of the Apology has also linked Sidney's poet and femininity. Interpreting the Apology's Lady Poesy in terms of the ancient figure of Sophia or Wisdom, Doherty's work represents Sidney's poet as appropriating a feminine self-knowledge which poses no threat, however, to his masculinity.(3) Fran Dolan's essay on the dichotomies between art and nature, on the other hand, locates Sidney's Apology within a tradition representing poetry as an erotic threat precisely because of a long-standing association between poetry's "pleasure and desire with the feminine." Dolan claims that, like Puttenham and Montaigne, Sidney uses a "gendered and eroticized" construction of poetry to "convey the vulnerability and impairment of the masculine poet."(4) While much remains to be done with the gendered metaphors and concepts in the Apology, these discussions of the inextricable entanglement of poetry in gender issues provide a radically new approach which promises to recover ideological operations working deeply within the early modern culture and its texts.

Any full-scale rereading of the Apology in terms of gender must first, however, take into account recent work representing a crisis in early modern gender ideology. Since Laqueur uncovered the one-sex model of early modern gender, scholars have newly understood that in this period, in a more literal sense than in modern times, gender was a question of performance--of costume, of gesture, of status--rather than of ontological being.(5) In her study of Gosson's Schoole of Abuse, a work dedicated to Sidney and convincingly claimed as a major impetus for his Apology, Laura Levine describes how this one-sex model created "an unmanageable anxiety that there is no such thing as a masculine self."(6) Thus, for Gosson and others, the spectacle of boys on stage in women's clothing embodied the culture's worst fantasy concerning the reversability of male gender, as adopting the costume and gestures of femininity, the boy actor became in some sense the part he played. Extending Levine's argument, Stephen Orgel discovers an early modern anxiety that heterosexual love can turn men not only into women, but "back into women," for "in the medical literature we all started as women, and the culture confirmed this by dressing all children in skirts until the age of seven or so."(7) Laqueur's performative version of masculinity further explains Orgel's perception of the essential femininity of early modern boys: in his dependence upon women who dominated him, a boy was not yet able to enact his masculinity. But these essays do not account for the source of this threat of infantilization. What within the nature of heterosexual love was understood to propel boys (or men) helplessly back to this degraded, effeminate state?

More here.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

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 1877 in Eve Tempted (exh. London, Grosvenor Gal. 1877; Manchester, C.A.G.). His later work, marked by strong, frieze-like compositions of Quattrocento-style figures painted in glowing colours, is exemplified in the 12 frescoed panels of ministrations of angels (1872–9; reworked 1880s) at Marlborough College Chapel, Wilts, painted at the suggestion of the architect G. F. Bodley, with whom he was also associated at the Anglican Church, Florence.

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 glance and his carriage which gave the impression of indomitable strength. His wife was small and delicate, but courageous; and she took up, without complaint, her abode at Haworth with her six children, the eldest seven years of age. A cruel malady was sapping her strength; she realized her condition and was resigned to death. Almost immediately after her arrival she was forced to take to her bed and she did not again leave her room in the course of the single year she lived.

A sister of Patrick Bronté, Miss Branwell, an energetic spinster full of prejudices, but good in spite of a certain harshness, assumed the responsibility of the five little girls and the little boy. She immediately took in hand the education of the little girls, and as, in her honest but limited mind, the chief object of life was sewing, she taught them to sew. Whenever he could, Patrick Bronté assigned lessons to his children and heard them recite, but the time was at hand when that method of instruction would soon become insufficient, and he began to wonder if it were not better to send the little girls to school.

It so happened that some clergymen had just founded in the neighborhood, at Cowan Bridge, a school to which ministers' daughters alone were admitted. This was exactly what Patrick Bronté wished, and he took his two eldest daughters to that providential school: Maria, who was eleven, and Elizabeth, who was ten. Two months later, he sent Charlotte and Emily, respectively eight and six. Bran-well, the little boy, and Anne, the youngest, remained at home.

It would seem that one should be happy at Cowan Bridge, it is so agreeably situated near a pretty stream on the edge of vast meadows; but the little Brontés found only sadness, boredom, and illness.

Maria made the best of it in silence. Like all the members of her family she was endowed with unlimited power of resignation, and never did a complaint escape her lips; but she had an incurable disease. To add to her sufferings she was a prey to the malevolence of one of the teachers, who suspected her wrongly of affecting a mournful air to gain the compassion of her comrades. Maria died ten months after her arrival at Cowan Bridge and Elizabeth a few weeks later. Both sisters had succumbed to tuberculosis.

In spite of these warnings, an epidemic of malaria had to strike forty pupils at Cowan Bridge before Patrick Bronté would consent to take his other two daughters from the school. Charlotte and Emily returned to Haworth towards the end of 1825. They, were two timid and studious little girls, happy only at home. Charlotte was the gayer and played and talked willingly when she felt at ease. Emily, almost never spoke, but she had so attentive and serious an air that it was difficult to forget her presence. They found at home their brother Branwell, already admired for a very precocious artistic sense, and Anne, who, in her gentleness and her gravity, must have reminded them of the sister Maria whom they had lost.

Miss Branwell resumed their education at the point where she had left it and the three little girls began again to sew. They also read much with their brother and all four passed long hours in discussing the world in general and, in particular, politics, about which they questioned their father at length. Wellington was Charlotte's great hero. She spoke of him with all the vehemence of love, and the three little faces raised to hers would watch her fixedly and open-mouthed. Her activities did not stop there, however, and she wrote novel after novel, most often alone, sometimes with the help of her brother. One day she made a list of her works, adding proudly at the end: "This makes twenty-two volumes." Each book contained from sixty to a hundred pages. It was in 1830; she was not yet fourteen.

At the beginning of the next year, Patrick Bronté confided Charlotte to the care of Miss Wooler, who directed Roe Head School, about twenty leagues from Haworth. Charlotte was happy there; Miss Wooler took an interest in her from the first. In that small, ungraceful girl she divined an exceptional force of character and a way of thinking which was neither of her age nor of her sex.

Meanwhile Charlotte was growing up. She was small without appearing short. Heavy brown hair framed her face. A large nose and an irregular mouth made her already hopelessly ugly, but there was something in the glance of those brown eyes which gave the impression of a deep spiritual force.

When she returned to Haworth after a year and a half at Roe Head, it was above all to busy herself with the education of her sisters. She made them study their lessons in the morning but in the afternoon all three had to sew, for the years might pass but Miss Branwell's theories did not alter. The rest of the time they took walks in the country through the meadows of purple heather or else read Scott's novels and the magazines which they received weeks late.

They, were very proud of Branwell, who seemed the best endowed of the whole family. He was well built and had a pleasing face in spite of hair which was inclined to be reddish. When he was eighteen there was a family council to decide upon his future. He talked and wrote well; he could also draw. His sisters urged him to choose an artistic career, for their ambition would have been to draw and paint if the genius had not been lacking. Not much insistence was necessary to make Branwell yield, for he was eager to have a reason to go to London. In July, 1835, he presented himself at the Royal Academy.

The same year Emily was sent to Roe Head School. Charlotte, who was nearly twenty, was now thinking about earning her living and also went to Roe Head, not as a pupil, but as a teacher. The profession did not please her but she had no choice; Patrick Bronté no longer earned enough to support his family. Anne remained at home. For the first part of the time Charlotte was happy. Her life was monotonous and she was not fitted for her work, but she forced herself, with a Puritanical joy, to do her duty against her will. Her constitution was weak and her disposition became more and more melancholy. This girl, so brave and so firm on every other occasion, was afraid in a dark room. At night she imagined that she heard voices. She was afraid of death, such cruel and such frequent images of which she had had at the rectory, of Haworth. She no longer had any confidence in life and she had only to form a plan to be immediately doubtful of its success. This Protestant girl would have been very much surprised and irritated if she had been told that she resembled a Catholic nun, a prey to the acedia of the cloister; but it was true. At Roe Head, however, she was less disturbed because she was more occupied than at Haworth.

More here.

By Julien Green, Winter 1929, Essay

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 an extra depth when he interpreted the movement of the minnows as a wrestling “with their own sweet delight”. That gloss makes the water both the minnows’ pleasurable element while, at the same time, something to be resisted or struggled against. It is a doubleness which retrospectively gives additional point to the word “wavy”. Initially one reads “wavy” as saying merely that the minnows’ bodies are undulating, because that is the motion fish use to stay “their . . . bodies ’gainst the stream”. But then, glancing back, one understands that the minnows’ bodies are also “wavy” in another sense. They are wavy, too, because they have an affinity with the waves in which the fish live. Resistance and assimilation are fused in a single word.

Critics have often fastened upon such passages as evidence for a vision of Keats as a thoroughly aestheticised figure. This is the Keats whose preoccupation was, above all, with beauty. The letter, both proud and mortified, that he wrote to Fanny Brawnewhen he was already mortally ill with con- sumption is often taken as an encapsulation of the whole life and work:

If I should die . . . I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.
The clew of beauty leads inescapably to certain lines of Keats’s poetry. It takes us to the opening lines of Endymion:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

And it takes us to the gnomic closing lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: 

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”— that is all 

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 

It also leads us to certain celebrated passages in Keats’s letters, in particular thosewhich touch on Keats’s ideas of poetic selflessness: for instance, when he famously imagines himself pecking among the gravel with the sparrows, or (most centrally) when he explains to his brothers his idea of the “negative capability” which he thinks is essential for any great literary achievement: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. It is an idea Keats summarises by saying: “This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” 

This image of Keats as an acolyte of beauty is very familiar to us, yet there are problems with it. In particular, the poems which are most often cited as exemplifying this aestheticised Keats—that is to say, the odes published in 1820 (principally “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, and “To Autumn”)—are, it would seem, not the kind of poetry Keats ultimately wished to write. If we take seriously what Keats says about “negative capability”—the great positive example of its possession being Shakespeare, and the great negative example of its lack being Coleridge—then this theory of literary selflessness seems to push Keats towards at least narrative poetry, if not even as far as poetic drama. But Keats’s dramatic works, Otho the Great and the fragmentary King Stephen, are usually passed over in awkward silence. 

More here.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

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.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

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's trade — and they lived in the poorer parts of St Marylebone in London where he was born in 1817.The boy set off on a long life in art when he was sent, aged ten, to work in the Soho studio of the sculptor, William Behnes. By sixteen he'd painted an accomplished portrait of his father. At eighteen he found the Royal Academy Schools had nothing to teach him. At twenty he exhibited there for the first time and around this time he also met Constantine Ionides, a Greek merchant, who became his first patron. At twenty-five he won first prize in a competition for works to adorn the Houses of Parliament, then newly re-built to replace the old Palace of Westminster which had burned down. The prize money paid for a four-year trip to Italy, where he got his third big break — he met and went to live with Lord and Lady Holland in their villa in Careggi in Tuscany. (Lord Holland was Secretary to the British Embassy in Florence; this, of course, was before the Risorgimento.)...

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-President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal that the writer's remains be moved to the Panthéon, the neo-Classical pile dedicated to France's "great men," was assailed by critics, outraged that the conservative president was trying to yoke his name to a writer who had spent his life on the political left. While Sarkozy believed that he needed Camus, concluded Camus's biographer Olivier Todd, "Camus has no need for Sarkozy."

More recently, ideological and political collisions have capsized plans for a grand centennial exhibition in Aix-en-Provence, home of the Camus archives. Two exhibit directors, Benjamin Stora, a historian of French Algeria, and Michel Onfray, a popular philosopher (and author of a controversial biography of Camus), were toppled by political foes. The result has been paralysis. Officials in Aix insist that an exhibit, though more modest given Paris's refusal to subsidize the event, will nevertheless be held. The title of Stora's torpedoed exhibit, "Albert Camus: The Stranger Who Resembles Us," has never seemed truer.

Few writers were more conflicted over personal and national identity than Camus. He was a pied-noir, the moniker given to immigrants who came to French Algeria during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of them came from elsewhere in Europe, becoming citizens of a nation, France, whose language they did not speak, whose history they did not know, and whose soil they did not set foot on.

Algeria was nevertheless considered part of France, even with several million Arabs and Berbers who were denied the rights of citizenship. By the 1950s, Camus resembled one of his mythic heroes, Prometheus, chained not to a rock but to the impasse of Algeria's resistance to a foreign occupation—a French occupation. He labored for a solution that would satisfy the imperatives of justice for both Arabs and pieds-noirs, risking his life in pursuit of an impossible peace.

Camus's efforts failed, and he fell silent—a public silence that began in 1956 and remained almost unbroken until his death, four years later. One of the two notable interruptions was the publication, in 1958, of Chroniques algériennes, the collection of Camus's articles on Algeria. (In May, Harvard University Press will publish Arthur Goldhammer's masterly translation.)

The second exception was Camus's controversial reply, in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, to an Algerian student who was hectoring him for his public silence. Camus reminded the student that he had long denounced the political and economic repression of Arabs and Berbers, but that he also condemned the use of blind violence by Algerian nationalists: "People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother." If that doesn't sound quite right, it is because the familiar quotation—"I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice"—was the invention of the French newspaper Le Monde, which sympathized with the cause of Algerian nationalists and cordially despised Camus. Le Monde published a correction three days later.

After the so-called second Algerian War, or "black decade" of the 1990s, which pitted the government against Islamic fundamentalists, leaving more than 100,000 civilians dead, several Algerian writers discovered Camus as one of their own. Secular, moderate, and French-speaking, these Algerians saw a parallel between their own embattled identity vis-à-vis Muslim fundamentalists and Camus's insistence on the Algerian identity of the pieds-noirs.

These Algerian writers are drawn to Camus first because of his Algerian roots but also because his writing evokes universal values. That is perhaps why his spirit has hovered over the Arab Spring. Yesterday it was Camus, today it is Bouazizi, a Tunisian intellectual recently affirmed, referring to the young man whose suicide ignited the liberation movement in Tunisia and much of the rest of North Africa. "He is perhaps no longer part of our world, but he is not silent. ... His cry is primal: He demands the right to dignity, to work. He demands the right to enjoy the rights all humans should enjoy." The words are redolent of language from The Rebel.

Camus wrote against the deadly sophistries of communism and its penchant for rationalizing mass murder and political repression, but his lucid analysis also applies to the autocratic states of North Africa, which had long emphasized order over democracy, the status quo over the uncertainties of change. We were asked to overlook the corruption and brutality, to excuse it in the same paternalistic terms—the people are not ready for democracy—that Arab leaders used even as they were being pushed out the door.

In The Rebel, Camus described revolt as the response of human beings who, pushed too far, reject "the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition." For young Egyptians under an octogenarian rais, propped up by a murderous police force and billions in American military aid, for young Tunisians under a kleptomaniac ruler whose family turned the nation into a warehouse to pillage, and for young Libyans under a lunatic whose rule rivaled Caligula's over Rome, the moment finally arrived, as Camus put it, that "the outrage be brought to an end."

More here.

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.

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 him an international literary celebrity was The Magus. It sold a staggering 4 million copies all over the world. He wrote it several times over a period of nine or ten years while he was in and around Hampstead in his 20s and 30s and it is a story of the trials and torments inflicted on a young schoolteacher on a Greek island in the 1950s. For reasons which were increasingly mysterious he's subjected to an immense series of ordeals and tricks and like all John Fowles' novels the metaphysics and the reflections are laid on as thickly as the dramatic plotting. Fowles is 51, he's married and with his wife he lives in a beautiful house in Lyme Regis overlooking the Cobb, which is where another of his novels, The French Lieutenant's Woman had some notable scenes. His garden reflects his passion for botany and his house is as large and roomy as his books.


You've said yourself, I believe, that novelists are formed very young indeed, whether they know it or not. Is it possible to be at all precise about the way you were formed as a novelist?


I meant that statement in general…what I feel about it would apply to any novelist. What interests me about novelists as a species is the obsessiveness of the activity, the fact that novelists have to go on writing. I think that probably must come from a sense of the irrecoverable. In every novelist's life there is some more acute sense of loss than with other people, and I suppose I must have felt that. I didn't realize it, I suppose, till the last ten or fifteen years. In fact you have to write novels to begin to understand this. There's a kind of backwardness in the novel…an attempt to get back to a lost world.


Given that that is shared, then what specifically in your case would you say about your childhood that led or would lead a future biographer to say: Oh, yes, already he was this, that or the other?


I was brought up at Leigh on Sea, which is a suburban town, part of Southend on Sea. I led the normal life of a suburban middle-class child, but the snag was that standing in the way of a smooth progression to a normal suburban middle-class adulthood was a love of nature. I can remember even as a small child that I always adored green things, I adored going out in the country. I was fortunate. I had an uncle who was a natural historian, and a cousin who was also a natural historian and those were the highlights of my first ten years, going out to look for butterflies or birdwatching, country walks. Then Hitler helped me greatly because we were evacuated to Devon and I had five years in a remote Devon village. That was a formative experience for me. I was a lonely child, but my friend was always nature, rather than being the company of other boys.


When you say you were lonely, do you find, did you think that that sort of solitude was enriching on the one hand, and on the other hand good training for the solitary life of a novelist?


I think solitude is a very, very good signal of the future novelist, an inability ...

Or loneliness, which? Solitude or loneliness because you can be lonely without being solitary ...?


Yes, you're quite right to make that distinction. I think a sense of personal loneliness, yes, is a better definition of it. I wasn't solitary in a sense, of course. I went to school and all the rest of it, but I think now that if I was shown a class of children and asked can you pick out the future novelists, I would look for the ones who are actually probably inarticulate. Above all, the ones who do not at any given present contraction of events show up well, the people who back down in an argument and who then walk away inventing a new scenario for the argument that has happened. It's important for a novelist to live in two worlds, and that I would say is really the major predisposing factor…an inability to live in reality, so you have to escape into unreal worlds. I would say this is true of all art as a matter of fact, but perhaps above all for the novelist.


This is you now in 1977. Do you remember feeling this when you were about 15 or 16?


No, not at all. ...

Monday, 26 November 2012

John Everett Millais: Swallow, Swallow, 1864

Swallow, SwallowJohn Everett Millais1864 

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 primary phase, is Mariana (Makins collection, fig.1), of 1851. The subject, from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, in its treatment of weary waiting on the part of one who is forced to be apart from her lover, anticipates the theme of Swallow! Swallow!.

Swallow! Swallow! takes its subject from Tennyson’s poem ‘The Princess’. Published in 1847, and containing memorable passages of lyric poetry gathered together into a medley, the verse tells the story of the betrothal of Princess Ida. Tennyson’s princess has modern ideas and sympathies, embracing causes such as the rights of women, universal education, and at the same time abjuring the institution of marriage. The opening of part IV of the poem describes a meeting between Ida and her suitor, along with his two companions. Set within the dialogue between them, which reveals the divergence of their views of how society should be ordered, are various poetic interpolations. One is the verse which opens with the line ‘Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean’. Then comes the inset poem that purports to be recalled from memory and is spoken in the first person by one of the male figures present, and which opening with the lines:

O Swallow, Swallow, flying, flying South,
Fly to her, and fall upon her gilded eaves,
And tell her, tell her, what I tell to thee.

More here.

The Great Charles Dickens Scandal

 Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens

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 disgraceful document.

I then note that nonetheless he gave her a house, a carriage and a substantial annual income of £600 to be continued as long as she lived, and that he encouraged their children to see her whenever they wanted to. I add that, despite his erratic and unkind behaviour, he didn't beat her or starve her; neither, as far as I or anyone else is aware, did he have any extramarital affairs before their separation. In other words, he behaved like many men who have fallen out of love with their wives, except that he was Charles Dickens and everything in his behaviour was proportionately magnified.

I rarely have the feeling that my questioner is satisfied by my reply; Dickens the domestic monster has become part of the intellectual landscape, along with some increasingly lurid speculations about his sex life. A hair-raising version of these is quoted by Michael Slater, at the beginning of his deliciously dry and compulsively readable new book: "Charles Dickens," wrote Victoria Coren in the Observer in 2005, "the man who committed what was in his lifetime considered incest with his wife's young sister. Poor Mrs Dickens was banished to a separate bedroom while her husband conducted many affairs, until finally he abandoned her and took their children with him. Nice guy." Apart from the banishment to a single bedroom, there is not a word of truth in any of this.

What happened, or as close to it as we will ever get, is laid out with characteristic meticulousness by Slater, the Dickens polymath whose Dickens and Women remains one of the most illuminating books on the infinitely complex personality of our greatest novelist. The Great Charles Dickens Scandal has the form of a detective story, carefully and with amused scepticism reprising all the evidence concerning the woman – not his sister-in-law – with whom he was involved until his death in 1870, Ellen Ternan. Dickens met the 17-year-old in January 1858; she was to take over a small part in his sensational production of The Frozen Deep, the Arctic melodrama Wilkie Collins had written for him. Dickens, it seems, instantly fell in love with Ternan. Meeting her sounded the death knell for his marriage; this is when he divided the marital bedroom in two.

After his separation from Catherine, and not, as far as we know, before, he pursued his relationship with Ternan, which (though again, there is no hard evidence) it seems safe to assume developed into a full affair. It was of the utmost importance to Dickens that no one should know of this relationship. He had a morbid dread of loosening the bond between himself and his readers, which he rightly saw as being "personally affectionate and like no other man's".

But it was more than that; it was the mainspring of his life, and he allowed nothing to imperil the relationship. He therefore set about, with all the vigour and ingenuity that was his to command, concealing the very existence of Ellen Ternan. Among his many precautionary measures, which included adopting aliases and inventing codes, he burnt all his papers, all his documents and every letter he had ever received. He knew that he was a symbolic figure for millions of people, and he was determined to protect them and himself from any uncomfortable facts.

More here

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Jean Honore Fragonard: The Love Letter

File:Jean Honore Fragonard The Love Letter.jpg

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 largely for private patrons. His work constitutes a further elaboration of the Rococo idiom established by Antoine Watteau and François Boucher, a manner perfectly suited to his subjects, which favored the playful, the erotic, and the joys of domesticity.

Born in the Provençal city of Grasse, Fragonard moved with his family to Paris in 1738. He spent some time in the busy studio of François Boucher before successfully competing for the Prix de Rome in 1752. He then pursued studies at the École Royale des Elèves Protégés in Paris, following the standard training for a history painter.

In 1756, Fragonard was sent to Italy as a pensioner of the crown; he remained at the French Academy in Rome until 1761. From the numerous black chalk copies he executed there, it is clear that he held masters of the Baroque in the highest esteem, copying works in Rome, Naples, and Venice. Many, such as Saint Celestine V Renouncing the Papacy (1987.239), were made with eventual publication as prints in mind. He also produced brilliant red chalk drawings of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli and painted small cabinet-size paintings for French private collectors living in Rome. The Stolen Kiss (56.100.1) was painted for the bailiff of Breteuil, French ambassador to the Order of Malta in Rome. As in the pastorals of his former master Boucher, Fragonard's rustic protagonists are envisioned with billowing silk clothing, engaged in amorous pursuits. ...

Richard Steele: Twenty-four Hours in London

Hogarth Beer Street.

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 must needs meet with should tire my imagination, and give me an inclination to a repose more profound than I was at that time capable of. I beg people’s pardon for an odd humour I am guilty of, and was often that day, which is saluting any person whom I like, whether I know him or not. This is a particularity would be tolerated in me, if they considered that the greatest pleasure I know I receive at my eyes, and that I am obliged to an agreeable person for coming abroad into my view, as another is for a visit of conversation at their own houses.

The hours of the day and night are taken up in the cities of London and Westminster, by people as different from each other as those who are born in different centuries. Men of six o’clock give way to those of nine, they of nine to the generation of twelve; and they of twelve disappear, and make room for the fashionable world, who have made two o’clock the noon of the day.

When we first put off from shore, we soon fell in with a fleet of gardeners, bound for the several market ports of London; and it was the most pleasing scene imaginable to see the cheerfulness with which those industrious people plied their way to a certain sale of their goods. The banks on each side are as well peopled, and beautified with as agreeable plantations, as any spot on the earth; but the Thames itself, loaded with the product of each shore, added very much to the landscape. It was very easy to observe by their sailing, and the countenances of the ruddy virgins, who were supercargoes, the parts of the town to which they were bound. There was an air in the purveyors for Covent-garden, who frequently converse with morning rakes, very unlike the seeming sobriety of those bound for Stocks-market.

Nothing remarkable happened in our voyage; but I landed with ten sail of apricot-boats, at Strand-bridge, after having put in at Nine-Elms, and taken in melons, consigned by Mr. Cuffe, of that place, to Sarah Sewell and Company, at their stall in Covent-garden. We arrived at Strand-bridge at six of the clock, and were unloading; when the hackney-coachmen of the foregoing night took their leave of each other at the Dark-House, to go to bed before the day was too far spent. Chimney-sweepers passed by us as we made up to the market, and some raillery happened between one of the fruit-wenches and those black men about the Devil and Eve, with allusion to their several professions. I could not believe any place more entertaining than Covent-garden; where I strolled from one fruit-shop to another, with crowds of agreeable young women around me, who were purchasing fruit for their respective families. It was almost eight of the clock before I could leave that variety of objects. I took coach and followed a young lady, who tripped into another just before me, attended by her maid. I saw immediately she was of the family of the Vainloves. There are a set of these, who, of all things, affect the play of Blind-man’s-buff, and leading men into love for they know not whom, who are fled they know not where. This sort of woman is usually a jaunty slattern; she hangs on her clothes, plays her head, varies her posture, and changes place incessantly, and all with an appearance of striving at the same time to hide herself, and yet give you to understand she is in humour to laugh at you.

You must have often seen the coachmen make signs with their fingers, as they drive by each other, to intimate how much they have got that day. They can carry on that language to give intelligence where they are driving. In an instant my coachman took the wink to pursue; and the lady’s driver gave the hint that he was going through Long-acre towards St. James’s; while he whipped up James-street, we drove for King-street, to save the pass at St. Martin’s-lane. The coachmen took care to meet, jostle, and threaten each other for way, and be entangled at the end of Newport-street and Long-acre. The fright, you must believe, brought down the lady’s coach-door, and obliged her, with her mask off, to inquire into the bustle—when she sees the man she would avoid. The tackle of the coach-window is so bad she cannot draw it up again, and she drives on sometimes wholly discovered, and sometimes half-escaped, according to the accident of carriages in her way. One of these ladies keeps her seat in a hackney-coach, as well as the best rider does on a managed horse. The laced shoe on her left foot, with a careless gesture, just appearing on the opposite cushion, held her both firm, and in a proper attitude to receive the next jolt.

As she was an excellent coach-woman, many were the glances at each other which we had for an hour and a half, in all parts of the town, by the skill of our drivers; till at last my lady was conveniently lost, with notice from her coachman to ours to make off, and he should hear where she went. This chase was now at an end: and the fellow who drove her came to us, and discovered that he was ordered to come again in an hour, for that she was a silk-worm. I was surprised with this phrase, but found it was a cant among the hackney fraternity for their best customers, women who ramble twice or thrice a week from shop to shop, to turn over all the goods in town without buying anything. The silk-worms are, it seems, indulged by the tradesmen; for, though they never buy, they are ever talking of new silks, laces, and ribbons, and serve the owners in getting them customers, as their common dunners do in making them pay. The day of people of fashion began now to break, and carts and hacks were mingled with equipages of show and vanity; when I resolved to walk it out of cheapness; but my unhappy curiosity is such, that I find it always my interest to take coach; for some odd adventure among beggars, ballad-singers, or the like, detains and throws me into expense. It happened so immediately: for at the corner of Warwick-street, as I was listening to a new ballad, a ragged rascal, a beggar who knew me, came up to me, and began to turn the eyes of the good company upon me, by telling me he was extremely poor, and should die in the street for want of drink, except I immediately would have the charity to give him sixpence to go into the next ale-house and save his life. He urged, with a melancholy face, that all his family had died of thirst. All the mob have humour, and two or three began to take the jest; by which Mr. Sturdy carried his point, and let me sneak off to a coach. As I drove along, it was a pleasing reflection to see the world so prettily checkered since I left Richmond, and the scene still filling with children of a new hour. This satisfaction increased as I moved towards the city; and gay signs, well-disposed streets, magnificent public structures, and wealthy shops adorned with contented faces, made the joy still rising till we came into the centre of the city, and centre of the world of trade, the Exchange of London. As other men in the crowds about me were pleased with their hopes and bargains, I found my account in observing them, in attention to their several interests. I, indeed, looked upon myself as the richest man that walked the Exchange that day; for my benevolence made me share the gains of every bargain that was made. It was not the least of my satisfaction in my survey, to go upstairs, and pass the shops of agreeable females; to observe so many pretty hands busy in the folding of ribbons, and the utmost eagerness of agreeable faces in the sale of patches, pins, and wires, on each side of the counters, was an amusement in which I could longer have indulged myself, had not the dear creatures called to me, to ask what I wanted, when I could not answer, only To look at you. I went to one of the windows which opened to the area below, where all the several voices lost their distinction, and rose up in a confused humming; which created in me a reflection that could not come into the mind of any but of one a little too studious; for I said to myself with a kind of pun in thought, What nonsense is all the hurry of this world to those who are above it? In these, or not much wiser thoughts, I had like to have lost my place at the chop-house, where every man, according to the natural bashfulness or sullenness of our nation, eats in a public room a mess of broth, or chop of meat, in dumb silence, as if they had no pretence to speak to each other on the foot of being men, except they were of each other’s acquaintance. ...

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 discussed in class. It was only later that he came to the critic on his own and read him for “pleasure.” He then discovered that Trilling does indeed matter—and matters all the more because literature itself, he regretfully observes, seems to matter so little. In 1991, Dana Gioia, later the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, wrote an essay “Can Poetry Matter?” complaining that poetry no longer mattered, that, unlike fiction­, it had become the specialized calling of a small and isolated group. Five years later, the novelist Jonathan Franzen made the same complaint about fiction, deploring the neglect of novels in favor of movies and the web. In 2004, a survey by the nea found that the reading of any kind of literature is in dramatic decline, especially, and most ominously, among the young.

Trilling matters, then, Kirsch insists, because literature matters—and literature as Trilling understood it. His novel, The Middle of the Journey, has been criticized for creating characters who are merely the spokesmen for ideas. The same charge has been levelled against his literary criticism, which is said to treat novels and poems as vehicles for ideas about society and politics rather than as aesthetic responses to personal experience. Kirsch counters this objection by elevating Trilling’s literary criticism to the “primary,” “autonomous” status of literature itself, reflecting the same aesthetic sensibility that the novelist or poet brings to experience—and reflecting, too, the ideas about society and politics that are implicit in the novels and poems themselves.

Kirsch is treading a fine line. He does not want to reduce Trilling to the role of social or, worse, political commentator. Yet he fully acknowledges the social and political import, even intent, of Trilling’s literary criticism: “More than any twentieth-century American intellectual, Trilling stood for the principle that society and politics cannot be fully understood without the literary imagination.” And the literary imagination, for Trilling, was preeminently a “moral imagination.” Moral imagination—not the moralistic dicta or pronouncements evoked in present-day debates about same-sex marriage, abortion, and the like. The true moral imagination transcends such dogmatic moralizing because it is imbued with “moral realism,” a realism that is “not the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes, and dangers of living the moral life.” ...

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 said that one’s skill increased year by year and one’s wish to win decreased. One just couldn’t take the extra trouble to get the ball though one knew how to do it, and that’s why no-one of middle age was any good at lawn tennis.

And do you think this applies to words, I mean looking for words or remembering experience?

I think my actual skill is no worse than it was, if anything perhaps slightly better; and there’s a rhyme you may or may not have heard :

Thank God that while the nerves decay
And muscles desiccate away,
The brain’s the hardiest part of men
And lasts till three score years and ten.

So that one’s mind goes on working, but that particular quality of being comic and being inventive isn’t really a function of brain, it’s a function of youth, you know. So that as an alternative really for an aged novelist, either he just becomes a professional writer using what skill he has acquired, and he can go on earning a living for a few more years by doing sort of commissioned historical books and that kind of thing and doing them quite honourably; or there may be a sudden change in which a new gush of power comes in - there have been occasions of that kind.

A new vein, yes. Well, looking back on your work -

Did you say I was vain?

No, I said ‘a new vein’, a new vein that one might discover in oneself.

I’m not the least vain. About thirty years ago old Belloc wrote to me when I was writing purely comic books and said ‘You ought to write tragedy’. Well, my hope is possibly in the next few years I might be able to start writing tragedy. But that’s just a pathetic hope. There’s nothing I want to do at all but inevitably to keep my family and myself alive; twenty years from now I shall - feeble hands will still be tracing out these things. One’s got a certain professional skill like an old workman who can still mend a broken tap, you know.

What about the history of yourself? You’re writing your -

I’m writing my biography. That’s - I’ve done the first volume, it will be out fairly soon - that’s quite easy so far as I’ve only got up to the age of 21. Yes, that’s the easier part - well, it’s easier for me because, you see, after 21 I’ve used almost all my more interesting experiences in one form or another in novels. But I’ve never written about my own youth so all that came fairly easily.

But looking back on your work, does it please you, what you’ve done, or does any particular work please you?

Every book has something I’m ashamed of that I wouldn’t now write, there are gaucheries and redundancies and things of that kind, and also every book I think, ‘Oh, I couldn’t write that now’, it’s got a sort of fresh spirit in it that’s dead in me, you know.

I mean, you do look at your books and read them again?


And shriek with laughter?

Yes, I must admit -

And rediscover things that are funny that you’ve forgotten?

I remember them pretty well, but I must say it causes me continual pleasure. Except for these awful moments when I come across the bad bits; the bad bits about the same number as the good, you know.

More here

Saturday, 24 November 2012

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 character to be born.

The figure of Parson Yorick, the double of its author, an Irish Church of England minister (whose popular collection of sermons would be published under this pseudonym), dies in volume one - his demise marked by a black page - only to reappear for the rest of the tale.

The author's preface appears in volume three, chapters are jumbled and missing, a dedication is hawked to the highest bidder, and at one point the reader is offered a blank page with the invitation to draw his or her own version of the sexually frustrated Widow Wadman: "as like your mistress as you can - as unlike your wife as conscience will let you".

The narrative appeared curiously fragmented by numerous digressions and stories. Punctuation ran riot, with a breathless use of dashes, asterisks and squiggly lines. It seemed both dizzyingly tied to the present moment, the narrator noting that he was living "364 times faster than I should write", and at the same time anachronistic in its nostalgia for the time of an earlier generation, the Shandy family household of 40 years before.

Horace Walpole was intrigued, deciding that its strategy involved "the whole narration always going backwards". "I can conceive of a man saying it would be droll to write a book in that manner," he continued, "but have no notion of his persevering in executing it." Samuel Johnson was dismissive. It was "not English, Sir". "Nothing odd will do for long," he later reflected. "Tristram Shandy did not last."

Sterne's difficulty in keeping the novelty going throughout the nine volumes and eight years of the novel's publication between 1759 and 1767 suggests that Johnson had a point. What he recognised was that the book was a creature of the market, vulnerable to literary fashion. With a neat classical epigraph from Horace - "All dare to write, who can or cannot read" - Johnson had noted in his journal The Adventurer in 1753 that "so widely is spread the itch of literary praise, that almost every man is an author, either in act or in purpose". Almost every woman too, for part of the crisis of this "epidemical conspiracy for the destruction of paper" was the rise of a generation of "Amazons of the pen".

Sterne's novel got under the skin of the public culture of its time. Its opening gambit, in which Mrs Shandy interrupts her husband as he religiously goes about his regular sexual duty on the first Sunday of the month with the euphemistic question "have you not forgot to wind up the clock?", reputedly changed relations between the sexes. As one pamphlet, The Clockmakers' Outcry, explained in 1760, no gentleman could wind his watch in public without a woman thinking he had designs on her, and the market for clocks was suffering. Many believed it, though the pamphlet may well have been written by Sterne himself, who knew the value of advertising.

Not only did the novel set numerous "writing mills a-going" in imitation, as one pamphlet had it, so many that its author had to authenticate with his signature all the copies of volumes five and six as they came off the press, it also reared its head in unexpected places. A racehorse was named after it, street ballads bawdily celebrated "playing Tristram Shandy, O!", financial tracts such as Thomas Mortimer's Every Man His Own Broker saw the stock market's susceptibility to rumour as a sign of the "reigning Shandean taste". Its author was feted in the best company, painted by Joshua Reynolds, and presented to the new king, George III.

Tristram Shandy's power to shock lay in its frank and comic acknowledgement of the libidinal energies that animated 18th-century life. In its exhortation to its readers, assembled "Sirs", "Worships" and especially "Madams", to "ride" the meaning of the narrative, Sterne called attention to the passional roots of the imagination, and to the "medicinal" nature of laughter, essential for the health of "the body politic as body natural". A scandalous line to take for a Yorkshire parson; decades later Sterne's writing was still seen by some as challenging the moral order of church and state.

But those who managed to read beyond the bawdy jokes and double meanings (which later anthologies such as The Beauties of Sterne quickly removed in favour of the more sentimental highlights), found something more: an acute satirical take on the "vices of the age" or, according to one comic pamphlet, a "political allegory" of its present, in which the nation had been plunged into a global war for empire, at great risk and cost to many, and huge commercial gain for a few.

If Tristram Shandy testifies to what we might now see as a culture fascinated by celebrity, it is also a critical response to those commercial forces that flow beyond the local trials of the book market to underpin economic adventurism and "curiosity" around the globe. What does it mean to be born into a world of risk and imaginative experiment, the novel seems to be asking, where the boundaries of the self and the body politic are suddenly remade? What are the human affections - the "trust" and "credit" - that bind people and their communities together, like readers and authors, in such a world? "Is a man to follow rules, or they to follow him?"

Sterne posed these questions in the form of an eccentric family saga, which is perhaps the nearest way of describing the story of Tristram Shandy. The son of a soldier who had died in Jamaica on an earlier campaign, Sterne had been used as a young child to the itinerant life of a military family, where the brutalities of 18th-century risk society were at their most intense. The child born into the pages of Tristram Shandy is surrounded by the anecdotal world view of a previous generation, above and below stairs, and in particular by the tales of the military veteran, uncle Toby, a patriot "of the old stamp" and bashful source of philanthropic feeling in the novel.

Military veterans populate 18th-century fiction, often overly keen to relate their stories, as poet Charles Hanbury Williams describes in "The Old General": "If you name one of Marlboro's 10 campaigns, / He tells you its whole history for your pains." If there is something representative about Toby, he is also a register of a contemporary sense of grievance, since the Seven Years' war brought many discharged soldiers on to the streets, allowed to display their wounds and beg in shoddy recompense for their sacrifice.

Toby's foil is his brother, the hapless patriarch Walter Shandy, a rationalist who attempts to control all elements of risk in his son's life, even the physical pressure exerted in childbirth that might crush his manhood. It is science and determinism - and the newly invented forceps - that will keep the threatening realm of chaos at bay.

Like many texts from its time, Tristram Shandy weighs the values of the past to make sense of its uncertain present. Like Sterne's contemporary, Adam Smith, the novel portrays the "good soldier" as a touchstone of the moral values of fellow-feeling and self-sacrifice. Like the shopkeeper Thomas Turner, Walter Shandy finds order and security in quantifying. But there is a new kind of irony in Sterne's novel too: the consciousness of what it means to live the "strange absurdity" of a world that exchanges people for things. An absurdity, in the words of Goldsmith's Citizen of the World, that had brought the warring nation to sacrifice "her best and bravest subjects for raw silk, hemp and tobacco... her hardy veterans and honest trades-men... for a box of snuff or a silk petticoat".

More here.

Friday, 23 November 2012

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 visions of the seer and the instincts of the primitive, they were hardly more sympathetic to Arnold's advocacy of culture as enlisting the whole nature of man in opposition to the Zeitgeist. To a much greater extent than holds true for either Tennyson or Browning, the poetry of Arnold bears testimony to its author's refusal to compromise with the spirit of his era. The protagonists [147/148] of his poems are invariably lonely and isolated figures, alien to their environment. Mycerinus, the Forsaken Merman, the Scholar-Gipsy, Empedocles, the author of 'Obermann' display an unmistakable family likeness, since all are, in fact, projections of their creator's own essential homelessness in the Victorian world.

"To a Gipsy Child by the Sea-Shore" may serve to illustrate Arnold's fondness for themes traceable to an obsession with the problem of estrangement. The gipsies reappear in both "Resignation" and "The Scholar-Gipsy," where also their deracinated condition epitomizes spiritual exile. The gipsy boy and his mother are described as reluctant to acknowledge even the most elementary of ties: "half averse/ From thine own mother's breast, that knows not thee." Between the poet and the child, on the other hand, a passing glance creates a bond of sympathy. Searching for an analogy to the impression of sadness thus conveyed, Arnold surmises whether the other's mood is not like

Some exile's, mindful how the past was glad?
Some angel's, in an alien planet born?

More remarkable than the young gipsy's mournfulness, however, is the stoicism with which it is borne, a stoicism suggestive of clear-eyed and unflinching disillusionment:

Is the calm thine of stoic souls, who weigh
Life well, and find it wanting, nor deplore;
But in disdainful silence turn away,
Stand mute, self-centred, stern, and dream no more?

In truth, the secret of the gipsy's dignity is in his aloofness to the circumstances of earthly existence; his is the satanic sorrow of the infernal visitant who cannot forget lost felicity:

Ah! not the nectarous poppy lovers use,
Not daily labour's dull, Lethæan spring,
Oblivion in lost angels can infuse
Of the soil'd glory, and the trailing wing.

The vicissitudes of worldly being may dull the edge of grief; [148/149] but a mood so noble in its origin, the poet suggests, can never be wholly displaced. Rather, there is tragic grandeur in so accepting an alien fate.

The grounds for Arnold's antagonism to his age emerge in a large number of poems originally published in the volumes of 1849 and 1852. From these it is apparent that the author was in closer touch with the society about him than either Tennyson or Browning, so that his criticism of contemporary manners and morals has an authority and immediacy lacking in either of his brother-poets. Put quite simply, Arnold felt that the temper of Victorian society was destructive of individual integrity and wholeness of being. Any serious-minded person, who in all sincerity desired to cultivate his own garden, was obliged at every turn to resist intrusive pressures hostile to the philosophic mind. The threat to self-possession embodied in the superficial values of modern life is repeatedly formulated in such poems as "The World's Triumphs," "A Question, The World and the Quietist," and "Horatian Echo." This conflict receives what is perhaps its classic expression in "The Buried Life," which appeals to the innermost recesses of being as the ultimate refuge against the frivolous solicitations of the external world. Because he lacks the courage of his own innate convictions, the average man looks around him and invites: "Of all the thousand nothings of the hour/ Their stupefying power." In a manner prophetic of much twentieth-century writing Arnold equates the social whirl where "light flows our war of mocking words" with a flight from self-consciousness. We are reminded

How frivolous a baby man would be —
By what distractions he would be possessd,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity —

But whether the social mask be worn instinctively to hide an inner vacuity or whether it be deliberately assumed to shield a central core of sensitivity, the penalty is the same: disintegration [149/180] of individuality, estrangement not only from one's kind, but from oneself as well:

I knew the mass of men conceal'd
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal'd
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick'd in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves. . ....