The secret of delight. J.R. Ackerley, We Think the World of You

J.R. Ackerley, We Think the World of You. NYRB Classics, 2000. First published 1960

I came close to disliking Frank, and therefore this novel in which he’s the selfish and biased first-person narrator. His dashingly handsome but clueless ex-sailor lover, Johnny, jailed for a year for his inefficient housebreaking, is as careless and dilatory with his correspondence as are his family with their conveying of messages between Frank and Johnny. His snobbery towards these ‘ordinary’ (read working-class) people becomes irksome: he confides in us his derision at their unhygienic lifestyle and inarticulate ways of talking and writing letters, especially their clichéd catchphrase that gives the novel its title. He’s like the pompously irascible and perpetually grumpy hack writer Ed Reardon in the Radio 4 comedy, and like him expects us, his readers – presumably he thinks we’re of the same literate, educated class as himself – to share his patronising disdain for such people.

Ackerley WTTWOY coverBut that’s not his only trait. He seems genuinely fond of Johnny’s good-hearted mother, Millie. They have a real ‘bond’, he feels – though it isn’t often evident in their scenes together, and is largely due to the unaccountable devotion to the feckless Johnny that Frank also feels.

His scorn is aimed largely at Millie’s idle, brutal fourth husband, Tom, and at Johnny’s slatternly, fertile wife Megan. Why does he so hate them? It’s clear to us, though not at first to Frank, that he’s as jealous of them because of their close relationship with Johnny as they are of him.

Frank is a professional man with a flat in the smart London area of Barnes; he has a river view, so he’s clearly well off. In fact he frequently lavishes his money on these people he so despises in a misguided attempt to buy the favours with Johnny that he so longs for. And that’s his problem: he doesn’t understand how contemptible this makes him in their eyes – and in those of his readers. He sometimes glimpses this harsh reality – that he uses money to help ‘bind’ Johnny to him: ‘Happiness had to be paid for.’ When Johnny is released and visits him, bringing with him his beautiful German shepherd bitch Evie, Frank watches from his balcony, willing him to look up expectantly –

…but he did not look up, and I recollected then that he never looked back at parting either; it was as though I existed for him only at the point of contact.

But Evie remembers the place Frank had shown her a taste of freedom and love; ‘She remembers.’

What redeems the novel is the love he learns to feel for Evie (the name is as symbolic as her role in the novel), whose unhappiness at being cooped up in the back yard of Millie and Tom’s grim house while Johnny is incarcerated touches his otherwise cold heart. He comes to acknowledge that by paying to help keep Johnny and his family, he’s shamelessly exploiting their poverty and powerlessness. He also comes to realise that his cash handouts are purely self-serving.

Frank finally sees, after that long-desired first prison visit with Johnny, that

Say what one might against these people, their foolish frames could not bear the weight of iniquity I had piled upon them; they were, in fact, perfectly ordinary people behaving in a perfectly ordinary way, and practically all the information about themselves and each other had been true, had been real, and not romance, or prevarication, or the senseless antics of some incomprehensible insect, which were the alternating lights in which, since it had not happened to suit me, I had preferred to regard it…Their problems…had been real problems, and the worlds they so frequently said they thought of each other apparently seemed less flimsy to them than they had appeared to me when I tried to sweep them all away. It was difficult to escape the conclusion, indeed, that, on the whole, I had been a tiresome and troublesome fellow who, for one reason or another, had acted in a manner so intemperate that he might truly be said to have lost his head…

The fastidious syntax and vocabulary of this extract is telling, for this apparently contrite, confession continues:

…but if this sober reflection had upon me any effect at all, it produced no feeling that could remotely be called repentance, but only a kind of listlessness as though some prop that had supported me hitherto had been withdrawn.

Not quite an epiphany after all, then. But when he explores Johnny’s true nature for the first time:

Beneath such a general smear of mild good nature, I asked myself, could any true values survive? Where everything mattered nothing mattered, and I recollected that it had passed through my mind while I spoke to him that if the eyes that looked into mine took me in at all, they seemed to take me for granted.

Even at this moment of apparent revelation there’s a powerful undercurrent of self-pity.

It’s the scenes with Evie that for me prevent the novel from becoming a tedious fictional autobiography of a selfish curmudgeon. I don’t see much of the ‘wonderfully funny’ or ‘hilarious’ moments that some reviewers perceived, but there’s a refreshing warmth in Frank’s evident love for this pretty dog, whose own jealousy ends up more destructive  than Johnny’s or his family’s. Here’s a typical scene: Frank has finally managed to spring Evie from the prison conditions in which Millie and Tom keep her in their stuffy, confined East End house, and has taken her out for her first ever extended free run outdoors (this was the visit Evie remembered in the extract above):

The daylight hours we spent mostly in the open air. Evie saw to that. And it was borne in upon me that, without perceiving it, I had grown old and dull, I had forgotten that life itself was an adventure. She corrected this. She held the key to what I had lost, the secret of delight.

The plainness of the language now has none of that mandarin fussiness noted in Frank’s near-revelation above. Here the lucidity and openness of the style indicates that this is Frank’s true epiphany, and it’s Evie who brings it about in a way no human is capable of:

[Delight] was a word I often used, but what did I know of the quality itself, I thought, as I watched her inextinguishable high spirits, her insatiable appetite, not for food, in which she seemed scarcely interested, but for fun, the way she welcomed life like a lover?…She was childish, she was charming, and to me it seemed both strange and touching that anyone should find the world so wonderful.

The many passages like this make the novel ultimately life-affirming.

 

 

 

TS Eliot on the Metaphysical poets

The first extract in bold below was the title of one of my first essays as an undergraduate: imagine, I’d never read the metaphysicals, and there I was, having to grapple with Eliot’s modernist, post-symbolist take on the subject. The second is a central topic in literary thinking about poetry. Here’s the extract from Eliot’s piece; he retrieves Donne and the rest from the dustbin they’d been confined to by Johnson and the Victorians, but in a backhanded way. Was he right?

From T. S. Eliot, review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Selected and edited, with an Essay, by Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: Clarendon Press. London; Milford) in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921.

…The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

John Donne:

John Donne: via Wikimedia Commons

We may express the difference by the following theory: The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more than Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Guinizelli, or Cino. In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden. Each of these men performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of others. The language went on and in some respects improved; the best verse of Collins, Gray, Johnson, and even Goldsmith satisfies some of our fastidious demands better than that of Donne or Marvell or King. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in the Country Churchyard (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in the Coy Mistress.

After this brief exposition of a theory–too brief, perhaps, to carry conviction–we may ask, what would have been the fate of the “metaphysical” had the current of poetry descended in a direct line from them, as it descended in a direct line to them? They would not, certainly, be classified as metaphysical. The possible interests of a poet are unlimited; the more intelligent he is the better; the more intelligent he is the more likely that he will have interests: our only condition is that he turn them into poetry, and not merely meditate on them poetically. A philosophical theory which has entered into poetry is established, for its truth or falsity in one sense ceases to matter, and its truth in another sense is proved. The poets in question have, like other poets, various faults. But they were, at best, engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. And this means both that they are more mature, and that they wear better, than later poets of certainly not less literary ability.

Wordsworth steals a boat

I’m still finding little time for my own reading as I work on the Romantics. So I thought I’d share here a piece I’ve adapted from something I’ve been preparing for my students to work on:

Wordsworth: The Prelude. The childhood boat-stealing scene

A central theme in Wordsworth’s epic blank verse ‘autobiography’ or history of the development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude, is that our identity and character are shaped by what he called “spots of time”. These significantly punctuate our lives, providing a “renovating virtue” by which “our minds / Are nourished and invisibly repaired.” They usually occur in the poem as an epiphany experienced arising from an incident or sight in the natural world.

One famous instance is the boat-stealing episode in Book I, ll. 372-441 from the 1805 edition (the first, 1799, and the third, 1850, are slightly different. Text from the Poetry Foundation

   One evening (surely I was led by her) [ie Nature]

I went alone into a Shepherd’s Boat,

A Skiff that to a Willow tree was tied

Within a rocky Cave, its usual home.                                   375

‘Twas by the shores of Patterdale, a Vale

Wherein I was a Stranger, thither come

A School-boy Traveller, at the Holidays.

Forth rambled from the Village Inn alone

No sooner had I sight of this small Skiff,               380

Discover’d thus by unexpected chance,

Than I unloos’d her tether and embark’d.

The moon was up, the Lake was shining clear

Among the hoary mountains; from the Shore

I push’d, and struck the oars and struck again      385

In cadence, and my little Boat mov’d on

Even like a Man who walks with stately step

Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure; not without the voice

Of mountain-echoes did my Boat move on,                       390

Leaving behind her still on either side

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light. A rocky Steep uprose

Above the Cavern of the Willow tree                                   395

And now, as suited one who proudly row’d

With his best skill, I fix’d a steady view

Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,

The bound of the horizon, for behind

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.                      400

She was an elfin Pinnace; lustily

I dipp’d my oars into the silent Lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat

Went heaving through the water, like a Swan;

When from behind that craggy Steep, till then      405

The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,

As if with voluntary power instinct,

Uprear’d its head. I struck, and struck again

And, growing still in stature, the huge Cliff

Rose up between me and the stars, and still,                  410

With measur’d motion, like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling hands I turn’d,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the Cavern of the Willow tree.

There, in her mooring-place, I left my Bark,                       415

And, through the meadows homeward went, with grave

And serious thoughts; and after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Work’d with a dim and undetermin’d sense

Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts        420

There was a darkness, call it solitude,

Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes

Of hourly objects, images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty Forms that do not live                      425

Like living men mov’d slowly through the mind

By day and were the trouble of my dreams.

 

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!

Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought!

That giv’st to forms and images a breath               430

And everlasting motion! not in vain,

By day or star-light thus from my first dawn

Of Childhood didst Thou intertwine for me

The passions that build up our human Soul,

Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man,        435

But with high objects, with enduring things,

With life and nature, purifying thus

The elements of feeling and of thought,

And sanctifying, by such discipline,

Both pain and fear, until we recognize                   440

A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

The location for this incident is usually identified as Black Crag, west of Ullswater in the English Lake District, Cumbria, which would have been seen behind the nearer ridge, Stybarrow Crag; the ‘huge cliff’ as Glenridding Dod; Mary R. Wedd suggests an alternative site near Blowick; the ‘huge cliff’ would be Place Fell (The Wordsworth Critic, 11 [1980]: 248). 

Stybarrow Crag

Watercolour of Stybarrow Crag by James Barrett (fl. 1785-1819), from the Wordsworth Trust online collection. Their blog at the same site is highly recommended: plenty of useful essays on Romanticism in general, and Wordsworth and his circle in particular.

Rudimentary analysis of this extract at this site.  This site has  an analysis of the extract and a handy pen drawing of the topography of the scene.

The BL site has an interesting illustrated piece on a text by T. H. Fielding and J. Walton, who spent two years in the Lake District making drawings and collecting information and ‘extracts from admired poets’ to produce their magnificent A Picturesque Tour of the English Lakes, Containing a Description of the Most Romantic Scenery of Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire…(London, 1821). The text and beautiful design and illustrations indicate that this was a book for dedicated tourists wanting to plan informed tours of the area. The book contains forty-eight hand-coloured aquatints made from the original drawings by Fielding and Walton. There are several references to Wordsworth and locations referred to in his poetry, including this boating scene.

 

 

Falls the shadow: Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. Faber: 1963.

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932, which made her 31 when her only novel was published, shortly before her suicide. According to Ted Hughes she began writing it in 1961.  As a consequence of the similarities between the story of her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, and her own, it’s tempting to see it as at least semi-autobiographical. Let’s avoid that temptation.

This novel has been so widely written about – it’s often featured on the syllabus of schools and universities, and is seen as a seminal work of feminist fiction – that I shan’t give a detailed plot summary. Instead I’ll pick out a few points that interested and pleased me.

Its opening lines have become a famous example of the intriguing ‘hook’:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions.

The candid, tortured first-person narrative voice is distinctively Esther’s – the seemingly casual ‘and’ tellingly links as grammatically equivalent two events of otherwise striking difference; the syntax shows that for the narrator they’re not. That reference to the execution of the couple convicted of spying for the Soviet Union on America’s nuclear capacity (a charge still contested by many) dates the narrative 1953. It also sets up one element of the novel: the tensions and bigotry in America at that time. (Later, one of Esther’s colleagues called Hilda displays a chillingly dismissive attitude towards this execution: ‘It’s awful such people should be alive,’ she says with casual disdain. ‘I’m so glad they’re going to die.’ Esther’s own views, characteristically, aren’t explicitly given, but it’s clear she finds such views symptomatic of her fellow Americans. She refers to Hilda as speaking here with the cavernous voice of a ‘dybbuk’ – a malicious mythological spirit.)

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar cover

My Faber paperback edition of the novel

That impersonal structure – ‘they electrocuted’ -shows her sense of detachment from the events, however; she doesn’t share the paranoia, it registers less strongly, as the structure of that opening sentence reveals, than her personal sense of dislocation. This is a compelling, often terrifying narrative of an intelligent, diligently academic young woman’s decline into a depression that almost destroys her.

That second quoted sentence sounds like the callow bravado of Holden Caulfield – and there’s more than a touch of his equally distraught sense of hopelessness and disorientation in this narrative. Some early critics dismissed it as ‘girlish’, perhaps (patronisingly) misreading that naïve style, laced at times with contemporary teen slang, and the gushing, breathless ingenuousness, especially in the early, pre-institutionalised section of the novel; here’s and example, chosen at random, from p. 48. Esther has been set up with a date with a Russian interpreter at the UN called Constantin:

I collected men with interesting names. I already knew a Socrates. He was tall and ugly and intellectual and the son of some big Greek movie producer in Hollywood, but also a Catholic, which ruined it for both of us.

But this faux-naïve style is essential for the establishment of Esther as a 19-year-old trying to locate her identity and place herself meaningfully in the heedless world she’s discovering for the first time. She flirts with all kinds of personae, even considering becoming a nun at one point.

Her other equally compelling dilemma is that of losing her virginity in a world where all the men she meets are insensitively arrogant, like Buddy, the harmless but vapid student from her home town whom she considers herself engaged to, or the Peruvian thug Marco, who tries to rape her. Esther isn’t so naïve; she pegs him from the start as ‘a woman-hater’, and steals his diamond ‘stickpin’. Esther still has spirit at this point. She can even see why some women might be attracted to such misogynistic predators:

Women-haters were like gods; invulnerable and chock-full of power. They descended, and then they disappeared. You could never catch one.

This might sound ‘girlish’, but it’s perceptive and, in a sense that still resonates today, realistic. Although it maybe shows an aspect of Esther’s dwindling self-esteem, it’s also redolent of her core values. The Marcos of this world, she realises, are the same ‘they’ who executed the Rosenbergs.

In the first part of the novel we witness the cause of Esther’s problem: she doesn’t know why she’s there in the city in the coveted role as intern at a women’s fashion magazine that has pretensions of literariness. Though she can’t quite articulate it in this part of the narrative, she hates the shallow pointlessness of the work she’s obliged to engage in and the people she works with. Her ambition to write serious literature is stifled so effectively by those around her, including her mother, so ambitious (like everyone else) to mould her daughter into the Stepford Wife form she considers desirable, to realise she’s missing the signs of Esther’s distress, that she simply switches off her consciousness, loses agency. Eventually she comes to feel she’s suffocating under a bell jar, like a scientist’s specimen, and attempts suicide.

Esther avoids the company of the ‘Pollyanna’ faction in the girls’ hostel she lives in during the novel’s first section; she longs to be a rebel like her friend Doreen. But she also realises that Doreen’s idea of a good time ends with her serving as a drink-sedated groupie for a sleazy DJ. All of her female contemporaries are happily speeding into spirit-destroying patriarchal dead ends. There seems no route open for someone with her gifts and sensibility.

The second section is harrowing, the language full of images of death, fear and disintegration. Here the narrative reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Esther is subjected to a terrifying ‘treatment’ of ECT by her first psychiatrist. Later she’s moved, thanks to her scholarship benefactress, to a more humane institution where a more enlightened woman doctor finds a way of leading Esther back into her true self. Along the way we’re given frightening glimpses into Esther’s abyss:

I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.

Esther’s truly is a descent into hell. Narrated not ‘girlishly’, but with a poet’s ear and eye, as that last quotation demonstrates with its numbed, rhythmic repetitions and deceptive simplicity of structure. The reiterations and grimly cumulative ‘and’ clauses and phrases show how dangerously alluring and ubiquitous the deadening abyss appears to a lost soul like Esther – it’s everywhere she looks. This passage is similar in its barely suppressed hysteria and atrophied bleakness of tone to the desolate insight articulated in Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, ‘Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow.’

 

 

 

 

Donkey, coroner, whale: 3 short squibs [Aside]

I’m still immersed in Romanticism, hence the last few posts on Byron and Shelley. Here, for a change on a grey wintry Sunday, as the shopping frenzy gets into full swing (sign seen on a shop door yesterday: ‘Black Friday Week’. Really) some scraps of doggerel from an old notebook I just came across. Sort of ‘found poetry’, I suppose. I think I first scribbled them down early this year.

You can see why I don’t often attempt poetry. Ah, well.

Donkey

A donkey trotted past. Stretched

Out on its back, fast asleep,

A dog. A mongrel.

 

Does a Coroner

have to be a doctor or a lawyer?

How many baby

Cases per day

Are doable?

 

Blind side

Can you see that light?

No.

Can you point to it?

No.

Just try.

There, you see?

 

Whales

were seen in a fjord

Off the Norwegian coast.

Humpbacks.

Herrings leapt in panic

Out of the water.

Illustration of a whale from the Edo period, 18th-19th century, in the Tokyo National Museum - public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Illustration of a whale from the Edo period, 18th-19th century, in the Tokyo National Museum – public domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Byron, Don Juan and Spenser

Lord Byron, Don Juan: CANTO THE SEVENTH

[Juan has been enslaved by the Turks, who are about to be attacked at Ismail (now Izmail, Ukraine; it’s changed hands many times since then) by their enemies, the Russians under Tsarina Catherine the Great – who will shortly become the latest in Juan’s long sequence of erotic conquests, to match those of the armies depicted in Cantos VII and VIII.]

 Stanza 2
And such as they are, such my present tale is,
A non-descript and ever-varying rhyme,
A versified Aurora Borealis,
Which flashes o’er a waste and icy clime.
When we know what all are, we must bewail us,
But ne’ertheless I hope it is no crime
To laugh at all things — for I wish to know
What, after all, are all things — but a show?

[The narrator continues with his default tone of detached and ironic despair at human folly and hypocrisy, assuming an air of something between ennui and resignation. He goes on to reserve the right to carry on attacking such hypocrites in life’s ‘show’, citing a list of previous critics of such vices in high places]

3
They accuse me — Me — the present writer of
The present poem — of — I know not what —
A tendency to under-rate and scoff
At human power and virtue, and all that;
And this they say in language rather rough.
Good God! I wonder what they would be at!
I say no more than hath been said in Danté’s
Verse, and by Solomon and by Cervantes;

6

Ecclesiastes said, “that all is vanity” —
Most modern preachers say the same, or show it
By their examples of true Christianity:
In short, all know, or very soon may know it;
And in this scene of all-confess’d inanity,
By saint, by sage, by preacher, and by poet,
Must I restrain me, through the fear of strife,
From holding up the nothingness of life?

8
“Fierce loves and faithless wars” — I am not sure
If this be the right reading — ‘t is no matter;
The fact’s about the same, I am secure;
I sing them both, and am about to batter
A town which did a famous siege endure,
And was beleaguer’d both by land and water
By Souvaroff, or Anglicè Suwarrow,
Who loved blood as an alderman loves marrow.

The quotation so disingenuously travestied is one of the best jokes in the poem. It’s a deliberate reversal (with an ingenious substitution of ‘faithless’ for ‘faithful’ in the original) of a famous line in the Introductory stanzas of Spenser’s epic romance, The Faerie Queene, published 1590, to which Byron is heavily indebted in DJ, and which he admired immensely:

Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser (text at Luminarium)

LO I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.

Byron memorial

Memorial to Byron in Messolonghi, where he died campaigning against the Turks for Greek independence. Image via Wikimedia Commons: By Fingalo – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Byron’s willed misquotation forces readers to reconsider Spenser’s traditional representation of wars as ‘fierce’ and love as ‘faithful’; it is, he implies, politically motivated wars (like the Russo-Turkish one here) that are ‘faithless’ – by which he suggests they are contrived for motives less than noble or intended for the defence or otherwise of the people on whose behalf it is waged. On the contrary, it’s the ordinary people who suffer or die as a consequence of wars (Turkish civilian losses were huge in this siege; Russian tactics fell little short of slaughter of the civilian population). The politicians and monarchs who started the wars benefit and remain amorally, contemptuously aloof. To challenge this traditional view (and Spenser’s) they would argue is treacherous and unpatriotic – even blasphemous. It also serves to heighten Byron’s conviction that DJ was a highly moral poem, and that the objections to its eroticism and outspokenness were misguided, and evidence of the very hypocrisy and lack of vision that his poem satirises. By subverting Spenser’s conventional stanza, Byron ‘moralises’ his epic with acerbic, daring panache.

By the way, note the way Spenser adopts the traditional-classic pose of apologising for the weakness of his ‘wit’, his lack of skill as a poet, and general unworthiness to write – hence the conventional opening appeal to the Muses for inspiration. Byron does no such thing — on the contrary. He usually shows little interest in belittling his own capacity as a poet; where he does, as in the opening stanzas above, it’s to make light of it as being preferable to write colloquially, pointedly and racily than to ‘poeticise’ like the vapid, pompous ‘Lakers’ and their like.

The litany of writers’ names he invokes establishes his purpose as a wit (in the Augustan sense of his heroes, Pope and Johnson), moralist and satirist (like Swift, not averse to coarseness or crudity in exposing and ridiculing the faults of hypocrites and fools), not an aesthete or introspective, philosophising recluse like Wordsworth, Coleridge or the detested Southey.

 

 

It may be profligate, but is it not life? Byron, Don Juan

Byron, Don Juan (1819-24): Annotated online text Here

Byron claims from the outset he’s writing an epic, but knows he’s generically more in line with burlesque, low Italian ottava rima dramas, juxtaposing cod-serious, highbrow and lofty thoughts with very low and colloquial idioms in scenes that are usually bawdy, violent or both. Despite his disingenuous claims at times, most of the poem is definitively not the ‘high art’ of countless European renditions of the famous story of the libertine’s rakish life and terrible hellish fate. Although Mozart is named (Canto IX.47) in passing, he shows little detailed knowledge of his opera – or of Gluck’s ballet or Molière’s play. Such popular fare suited B’s own tastes and temperament better.

He wrote: ‘…it may be bawdy – but is it not good English? it may be profligate – but is it not life, and is it not the thing? Could any man have written it – who has not lived in the world?’ (letter to his friend, Douglas Kinnaird, 1819).

Cantos 1 and 2 were the first to be published in 1819 (author and publisher’s identity were prudently omitted). He begins by describing Juan’s apparently virtuous, studious mother, Donna Inez, but artfully prepares us for the bathetic revelation that she’s adulterous and scheming – typical of the English ‘cant’ and hypocrisy the satire of the poem is targeting. So here he is, ironically feigning to consider marriages such as hers in which (as he knew from bitter experience) the partners are not entirely well suited:

Canto 1, Stanza 22

‘T is pity learnéd virgins ever wed
With persons of no sort of education,
Or gentlemen, who, though well born and bred,
Grow tired of scientific conversation:
I don’t choose to say much upon this head,
I’m a plain man, and in a single station,
But — Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck’d you all?

One of the most famously ingenious sequences of rhyme in the poem. Throughout the poem Byron slips away from ‘poetic’ style (though he’s capable of poeticising with the best of them) into this highly colloquial, often racy and outrageous voice and persona, with cynical, satirical views on almost every conventional attitude and belief of the time, usually, as here, affecting a tone of false modesty and ignorance, while exposing the underlying hypocrisy of his countrymen. Though it was technically true, as he claims here, that he was ‘single’ – he and his wife had separated when this was written, and he’d found it necessary to leave England – he creates an image of a narrator who’s similar to himself, but who has several traits he knew to be fictitious but plausible – he loved to play on his rakish, ‘mad, bad, dangerous’ reputation:

23

Don Jóse and his lady quarrell’d —  why,
Not any of the many could divine,
Though several thousand people chose to try,
‘T was surely no concern of theirs nor mine;
I loathe that low vice — curiosity;
But if there’s anything in which I shine,
‘T is in arranging all my friends’ affairs,
Not having of my own domestic cares…

38 [He’s speaking of Donna Inez, DJ’s mother]

Sagest of women, even of widows, she
Resolved that Juan should be quite a paragon,
And worthy of the noblest pedigree
(His sire was of Castile, his dam from Aragon):
Then for accomplishments of chivalry,
In case our lord the king should go to war again,
He learn’d the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,
And how to scale a fortress — or a nunnery.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress

Byron in Albanian dress, painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Bathos again in that contrasting final couplet with its bawdy conclusion. He almost invites the reader to anticipate where he’s going with the progress of each stanza, and loves dropping in little twists and surprises at the very end, usually, as here, to puncture the pomposity or phony loftiness that’s gone before]

Byron loves inserting playful, inventive commentary on the difficulties the poet-speaker claims to wrestle with in meeting the exigencies of the poetic form, which is much better suited to Italian, where it’s far easier to find true rhymes; also with the metre – all part of that pose of an enthusiastic gentleman amateur, trying but failing to produce fine style, but clearly relishing his prowess in getting himself into tricky poetic spots then extricating himself with a flash of genius, or wit, and usually both.

84

And if in the mean time her husband died,
But Heaven forbid that such a thought should cross
Her brain, though in a dream! (and then she sigh’d)
Never could she survive that common loss;
But just suppose that moment should betide,
I only say suppose it —  inter nos.
(This should be entre nous, for Julia thought
In French, but then the rhyme would go for naught.)

Juan and his mother’s friend Donna Julia have fallen passionately in love, but he’s only 16 and she’s older – and married. So he does the honourable thing and tries to forget her and think lofty, abstract thoughts of a Wordsworthian nature [he hated the ‘Lakers’ for their introspective etherealness], to dispel the carnal ones that beset him, and resist Julia’s thinly disguised coy seductiveness, and the stirrings in his own blood. These stanzas end with yet more wonderful examples of that end-couplet bathos and ingenious rhyme, as he palpably fails to banish lustful-romantic thoughts and promptings:

92

He thought about himself, and the whole earth
Of man the wonderful, and of the stars,
And how the deuce they ever could have birth;
And then he thought of earthquakes, and of wars,
How many miles the moon might have in girth,
Of air-balloons, and of the many bars
To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies; —
And then he thought of Donna Julia’s eyes.

93
In thoughts like these true wisdom may discern
Longings sublime, and aspirations high,
Which some are born with, but the most part learn
To plague themselves withal, they know not why:
‘T was strange that one so young should thus concern
His brain about the action of the sky;
If you think ‘t was philosophy that this did,
I can’t help thinking puberty assisted.

A haul of Trollopes – an aside

I don’t usually post these ‘look at these books I just bought’ pieces, but today I can’t resist.

A trip to town yesterday ended with a happy book haul at a charity shop.

Trollope book haul

I wonder what’s the significance of the colour-coded bands at the top of the spine? Different sequences or series of novels? I need to check.

I’ve only read one Trollope novel, and that was The Warden, many years ago. Here in this unprepossessing shop was a complete row of pristine OWC paperbacks of the Barsetshire and Palliser novels.

I toyed with the idea of buying just the first one or two in each series; but at the giveaway price being charged, decided to buy the lot.

It was for a good charitable cause.

All those good intentions not to buy more books…Hope I’m not turning in my dotage into John Major, the lacklustre ex-Prime Minister who named Trollope as one of his favourite authors.

Shelley again: Ode to the West Wind

Shelley, Ode to the West Wind. Text at the Poetry Foundation

Section V

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

 

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

 

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

 

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

 

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

 

Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (d. 1883), now in the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons, attribution By Amelia Curran

Written while Shelley was travelling in Italy with his wife Mary in 1819, this poem was published in 1820. It has been seen as an expression of his feelings of helplessness and anger at the news of the political and social turmoil home in England, and in particular the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819. The poem is also his message of life and hope for the future.

It’s written in the terza rima form (with added couplets after four triplets or 3-line stanzas) used by Dante in The Divine Comedy – a poem with which Shelley was familiar.

In the first four sections the speaker expresses his feelings of wonder and admiration at the power of the autumn wind, blowing clouds and leaves fiercely along. In the fifth he turns his thoughts to the future: he addresses the wind directly, praying that it will transform his lifeless, decaying spirit (his own poetic powers or ‘leaves’ are falling, as those on the trees are) and use him as its ‘lyre’ – rather as Coleridge and other Romantic poets had written: poets express a desire to be metaphorical Aeolian harps, musical instruments which are ‘played’ by the natural forces of the wind strumming through their strings to make them resonate. That is, they become, literally, inspired – filled with the life-giving breath, animus or breeze of Nature.

He goes one step further in addressing the wind in the second triplet: ‘Be thou me’.

His argument develops organically from this thought to the desire that the wind should ‘drive’ his ‘dead thoughts’ worldwide, disseminating them and causing them to ‘quicken’ into life, out of their silent, sterile, lifeless current state.

Therefore this poem itself becomes its own ‘incantation’, a magic charm or prayer of fertility, causing the dying embers of his imagination’s or spirit’s ‘hearth’ to be scattered universally, ‘sparking’ revolutionary change into the lives of humanity, especially, presumably, those in oppressed England.

The image develops: by doing this, his poetic ‘voice’ will be as a rousing trumpet call, like the last trumpet perhaps, except it won’t signal Judgement Day in the biblical sense, but rather a revolution in England, a political awakening, not just a personal one for him.

This poem will then be, he concludes, an invocation and a ‘prophecy’ of change for the better. Hence the note of optimism at the end; though winter is inevitably anticipated in this autumn gale, spring will surely follow – as political change will inevitably follow if the spirit of the wind heed his plea to be used as its prophetic, vatic voice – and as Nature restores life to the frozen land in spring after the long death of winter.

I quoted in my previous post from Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’, in which he wrote:

A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal [compare his image of sparks and embers in the poem] which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness…when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.

… Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of divinity on man. [just as the wind in this poem is urged to restore life into humanity through the poet’s voice, as surely as Nature restores life to the earth in spring]

In ‘Ode to the West Wind’, Shelley puts this theory into practice. In doing so he also enacts the famous closing words of his Defence: that poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ – that is, in poems like this, they are Nature’s instruments for effecting change. Unlike the despised Lake poets, radicals like Shelley reject the solitary, reclusive and reflective life they advocated and, largely, lived.

 

 

 

Shelley on poetry, reason and imagination

I’m still teaching the Romantics, and thus lack time for my own reading. I thought therefore I’d share something I found stimulating when working on Shelley. It’s taken from a fine website called Romanticism and Imagination, which focuses on Shelley and Coleridge and their differing views on poetry, imagination, reason, and related topics. The hyperlinks are from that site, and link either to passages from Coleridge – in particular his Biographia Literaria, in which he expounded, among other things, his views on these topics, or give explanatory notes in general terms. So here’s Shelley:

Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (d. 1883), now in the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons, attribution By Amelia Curran

‘According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination, , the former may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another, however produced; and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to colour them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.

Reason is the enumeration of quantities already known; Imagination is the perception of the value of those quantities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and Imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.

Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be “the expression of the Imagination:” and Poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre; which move it, by their motion, to ever-changing melody…

A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness…when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.

Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interluminations of life, and veiling them or in language or in form sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide– abide, because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of divinity on man.’