Sunday, May 31, 2009

English country games

No time for a proper post this weekend, but I did want to at least follow up Maggie's guest post on Thomas Hughes's charming Victorian boys' novel Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857) with details of one of the games played at fair time by people in young Master Tom's village:
We are easily pleased in the Vale. Now there is a rush of the crowd, and a tinkling bell is heard, and shouts of laughter; and Master Tom mounts on Benjy's shoulders, and beholds a jingling match in all its glory. The games are begun, and this is the opening of them. It is a quaint game, immensely amusing to look at; and as I don t know whether it is used in your counties, I had better describe it. A large roped ring is made, into which are introduced a dozen or so of big boys and young men who mean to play; these are carefully blinded and turned loose into the ring, and then a man is introduced not blindfolded, with a bell hung round his neck and his two hands tied behind him. Of course, every time he moves the bell must ring, as he has no hand to hold it, and so the dozen blindfolded men have to catch him. This they cannot always manage if he is a lively fellow, but half of them always rush into the arms of the other half, or drive their heads together, or tumble over; and then the crowd laughs vehemently, and invents nicknames for them on the spur of the moment, and they, if they be choleric, tear off the handkerchiefs which blind them, and not unfrequently pitch into one another, each thinking that the other must have run against him on purpose. It is great fun to look at a jingling match certainly.
Jingling sounds far less dangerous than the back-swording {pictured above} that Maggie described in her post, but it would nonetheless seem to offer plenty of those opportunities for violence that seem to have long been a part of the English sense of fun. I wonder if Ye Olde Ren Faire participants keep it alive?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Tom Brown vs. George Orwell

{While I'm away at Bookexpo, my friend Maggie Bandur, who makes her living writing for television and was last seen in these pages lamenting about my gift to her of all 1,600 pages of Clarissa, has been kind enough to offer the following post on Thomas Hughes's Victorian boys' improvement novel Tom Brown's Schooldays, the latter of which will be accompanying me to New York this weekend.. Enjoy!}

I was surprised when Levi saw my generous Christmas gift of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) as retaliation for his throwing down the leaden gauntlet of Clarissa last year. I had thought the beloved children’s classic might provide some insight into the national character of England – a country we both love. The book, in fact, begins with a Hardy-esque ode to the simple, honest, country life that was fast disappearing. Included is a description of the amusement of “back-swording” by “gamesters,” mentioned earlier here:
[T]heir object is simply to break one another’s heads: for the moment that blood runs an inch anywhere above the eyebrow, the old gamester to whom it belongs is beaten, and has to stop. A very slight blow with the sticks will fetch blood, so that it is by no means a punishing pastime.

If you say so. With these healthy pursuits on the wane, Hughes warns there must be
Something to put in the place of the back-swording and wrestling and racing; something to try the muscles of men’s bodies and the endurance of their hearts, and to make them rejoice in their strength.
Trying the muscles and the heart in the absence of hitting one another with sticks is the task appointed to Tom Brown’s alma mater Rugby. The school and its real life headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold {father of Matthew Arnold--ed.}, are dedicated to shaping honest, “manly” boys into the scions of Empire. Hughes sees good, solid fellows like Tom as the backbone of Great Britain. They are the ones who are good at cricket and football, who “[have] never hurt [themselves] by too much reading,” and have healthy high spirits--which seem to take the form of taunting Irish road workers.

Tom settles easily into the somewhat contradictory aspects of Rugby life. Honor and order are prized, yet prepubescent boys are left to police themselves – while drinking school-provided beer from the age of nine! Bullying is wrong, but snitching is anathema: our young Tom is held close to the fire by the cowardly Flashman for so long he passes out, but heaven forfend that he have so little staunchness he report something that most would consider a crime. The boys are raised to be good Christians--the godly Arthur implores Tom to stop using Latin crib notes from what was almost his deathbed--at the same time that the school runs on violence: fights, whippings, punishment if you sing your solo badly. The headmaster himself authorizes another student to administer a whupping:
Boys will quarrel, and when they quarrel will sometimes fight. Fighting with fists is the natural and English way for English boys to settle their quarrels. What substitute is there, or ever was these, amongst any nation under the sun? What would you like to see take its place?

A sharp contrast to Hughes’s book is offered by George Orwell's description of his early schooling at St. Cyprian’s in the essay "Such, Such Were the Joys." Although over half a century later, the school’s methods--and level of hygiene--were almost identical to those in Tom Brown’s schooldays. (The one difference is Orwell went to a “private” boarding school, as opposed to a “public” one, public schools allowing boys to leave the grounds to give them greater independence and more opportunities for baiting the Irish.) Orwell was acutely aware of the contradictions in his education:
The various codes which were presented to you at St. Cyprian’s--religious, moral, social and intellectual--contradicted one another if you worked out their implications. The essential conflict was between the tradition of the nineteenth-century asceticism and the actually existing luxury and snobbery of the pre-1914 age. On the one side were low church Bible Christianity, sex puritanism, insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for “braininess’, and worship of games, contempt for foreigners and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty, and, above all, the assumption that not only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit them than to have to work for them. Broadly, you were bidden to be at once a Christian and a social success, which is impossible. At the time, I did not perceive that the various ideals which were set before us cancelled out. I merely saw that they were all, or nearly all, unattainable, so far as I was concerned, since they all depended not only on what you did but on what your were.
(Oh, Eric Arthur Blair, would you be whingeing if you were only born in manly Berkshire?)

The incompatibility adults feel is no problem for children. Even if Orwell was miserable and didn’t accept things as cheerfully as Tom Brown, accept them he still did. Orwell bears no ill will when he is whipped for bedwetting:
I knew that bed-wetting was (a) wicked and (b) outside my control. The second fact I was personally aware of, and the first I did not question. It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you.
Not only are arbitrary beatings justified, Orwell doubts “whether classical education ever has been or can be successfully carried on without corporal punishment.”

Was this schizophrenic education the key to England’s success? A good, dutiful subaltern has to hold all the competing impulses that make his nation great inside his unquestioning breast. Rugby and its ilk created the Englishman who could believe simultaneously in fair play and world domination, who could be a jolly good fellow who objects when things aren’t quite cricket, but would fight to the last man to make sure the sun never set on the British empire. Was Tom Brown happy because he was achieving all Victorian England asked of him, and Orwell miserable because the rapidly approaching First World War was making all those values obsolete? Or, more likely, were the two boys’ starkly opposite experiences due to the difference in temperament between the popular and the lonely which transcends the ages?

Were there miserable, trapped boys at Rugby? To be fair to Hughes, Tom does befriend some odd ducks who would be nerds in any century, but even these boys are confident and fairly satisfied with themselves. If there were desperate boys at Rugby, the book doesn’t deal with them, and it’s unlikely Hughes or Brown would even notice if there were. Orwell heartbreakingly describes the great divide between adult and child:
[H]ere is one up against the very real difficulty of knowing what a child really feels and thinks. A child which appears reasonably happy may actually be suffering horrors which it cannot or will not reveal. It lives in a sort of alien under-water world which we can only penetrate by memory or divination. Our chief clue is the fact that we were once children ourselves, and many people appear to forget the atmosphere of their own childhood almost entirely.
Hughes isn’t cruel. He also admits the boy mind is different from the adult and makes allowances. Dr. Arnold, though a little casual about student-roasting, does manage to stay many steps ahead of his charges, and his plan to keep Tom on the straight and narrow by entrusting him with the protection of a weaker boy is a stroke of genius. (One wonders if Arnold would have bothered to engineer a beneficial friendship for young Master Orwell, or if his weak lungs and love of reading for pleasure made him a lost cause from the outset.)

Tom Brown’s Schooldays and "Such, Such Were the Joys" when taken together may or may not illuminate the British psyche; certainly America can give England a run for its money in the awkward union between our ascetic origins and a desire to be liked socially. But the two works taken together explore the full range of childhood experience: the golden age with the firm belief greater things are ahead and the time of misunderstood fears and helplessness. We also get to enjoy the memories of childhood with the knowledge it is possible to escape. Orwell is floored when he meets a student expelled for the mysterious, but terrible crime of self-abuse, who seems happy and successful outside the bosom of St. Cyprian’s. And won’t Tom be unpleasantly surprised when he learns this isn’t the end of Flashman? The pieces illuminate the potent cult of the boarding school, which still holds sway in English literature, as evidenced by Harry Potter. Certainly, the derivation of the derogatory term “fag” has become abundantly clear. Thus, I thought these would be books Levi would like to read, without causing him too much damage.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Talk amongst yourselves, or, Here's the newest issue of the Quarterly Conversation!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Just in time for me to duck out for a couple of days to BookExpo, the 16th issue of the Quarterly Conversation has just been published. This is my first issue as poetry editor, and there's plenty there to distract you while I'm gone.

I think you'll enjoy the writers I've brought into the fold for this issue: Patrick Kurp, who writes on an anthology compiled by Robert Pinsky; Michael Elliott, who covers Campbell McGrath's new book inspired by Lewis and Clark; Andrew Wessels, who writes about I've Been Reading Lately favorite Dan Beachy-Quick; and Ron Slate, who assesses Marie Étienne's King of a Hundred Horsemen. I'm in there, too, of course, reviewing a new collection of translations of Kazuko Shiraishi's recent poems.

And that's just the poetry section! There's also fiction reviews, a couple of impressive essays, and the editorial, "On the Proliferation of Posthumous Publications," which offers publishers who want to do right by posthumous works this priceless piece of advice:
The Original of Laura should be available as a little stack of notecards secured with a handy steel ring. The Pale King should come packaged in numerous filing cabinets and some twine. Bolaño’s remaining manuscripts should come in spiral binders bearing the musty smell of moldy paper.
After reading that, can you possibly resist clicking through?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

For Memorial Day, one of the simplest, most controlled poems of Walt Whitman, taken from his collection of Civil War poems, Drum Taps:
Dirge for Two Veterans

The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finish'd Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,
Down a new-made double grave.

Lo, the moon ascending,
Up from the east the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,
Immense and silent moon.

I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-key'd bugles,
All the channels of the city streets they're flooding,
As with voices and with tears.

I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring,
And every blow of the great convulsive drums,
Strikes me through and through.

For the son is brought with the father,
(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,
Two veterans son and father dropt together,
And the double grave awaits them.)

Now nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive,
And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin'd,
('Tis some mother's large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.)

O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!
O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.

The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.
Thanks to all who have served.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Coleridge the newspaperman

A couple of days ago I mentioned in passing an early foray by Samuel Taylor Coleridge into the world of periodicals, which was a newspaper, published every eight days (to avoid the tax on weeklies), called the Watchman. Written almost entirely by Coleridge, it was launched on March 1, 1796 and ran for only ten issues. In the course of those ten issues, however, Coleridge had managed to feature a wide range of writing, from samples of his poetry to satirical essays to somewhat scurrilous attacks on those he deemed to radical. As Adam Sisman wryly notes in The Friendship, "Small wonder that he received 'many abusive letters.'"

The Watchman did garner some praise, however: Sisman quotes a letter Coleridge sent to a friend detailing the "wonderful" reviews; in its rapturous phrasing we can catch glimpses of the oft-reported dazzle of Coleridge in conversation:
The Monthly has cataracted panegyric on my poems; the Critical has cascaded it; and the Analytical has dribbled it with very tolerable civility. The Monthly has at least done justice to my Religious Musings--They place it "on the very top of the scale of Sublimity"--!--!--!
I love the ebullience of those repeated exclamation points at the end. Sisman, however, can't help but point out that the Monthly Review, "also criticised his meteres, coined words, and double epithets." Sisman goes on to quote a letter Coleridge received that should surely bring a smile to the face of any poet-critic:
Sir! I detest your principles, your prose I think very so so--; but your poetry is so exquisitely beautiful, so gorgeously sublime, that I take in your Watchman solely on account of it.

By all reports, the Watchman was staid and normal compared to Coleridge's later venture into periodicals, The Friend: A Literary, Moral, and Political Weekly Paper, Excluding Personal and Party Politics and the Events of the Day, which he self-published for twenty-five issues in 1809. By that point, the feverish quality of Coleridge's mind had become far more pronounced, his odd combination of obsessive manias and endlessly branching ideas rendering his writing at best complicated, at worst impenetrable. Yet I find that Sisman's description of the magazine, in all its strangeness, makes it seem oddly compelling:
Even Coleridge's admirers were forced to admit that The Friend was often "very obscure." Not only was the subject-matter uncompromisingly difficult, the presentation was a further deterrent to the general reader, with multiple digressions reminiscent of the worst of his lectures. In defiance of journalistic principles, Coleridge ended one number in mid-sentence, completing it in the next. Despite being told that The Friend was "unreadable," he remained oblivious to advice or criticism. . . . Southey was . . . irritated when in the second number Coleridge used a footnote to deny the charges of deserting his wife and country made against him ten years earlier in The Beauties of the Anti-Jacobin. This was folly, since the charges against Coleridge and his friends had long been forgotten by all except perhaps those immediately concerned, and resurrecting them now could only do him damage. . . . After the first dozen numbers Coleridge yielded to pressure to lighten the content of The Friend, but the effect of this new policy was far from satisfactory. The new material was much more miscellaneous, and the result was incoherent. It became harder and harder to know what The Friend was for.
Am I crazy to imagine that receiving such an obviously personal oddity in the mail every week might be a strange treat?

I suppose I could put my money where my mouth is: it looks as if copies of that volume of Coleridge's Collected Works are readily available on the used-book market. But it doesn't really seem the same somehow--am I wrong to think that whatever crazy charm might be carried by a weekly dose of unfettered Coleridge appearing in the mailbox would likely be deadened by being bound between covers?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Lloyd . . . manufactured conversations and speeches wholly out of his brain," or, Choose your friends with care!

In a comment to yesterday's post, R. T. pointed out that
By all accounts, Coleridge seems to have been a person quite a few others ought to have avoided because of his singular (and what I would generously call his egocentric and less generously call his parasitic) personality.
He's right: though Coleridge could be a good friend, and his encouragement was crucial to Wordsworth in his early years, he could also be untrustworthy, unreliable, and cruel (especially where his long-suffering wife was concerned). And the opium didn't help: as Adam Sisman puts it in The Friendship,
Dependence on the drug exacerbated all the most deplorable aspects of his character: self-pity, evasiveness, secrecy, duplicity, indifference, passivity, apathy, paralysis, self-loathing and shame.

Troubling as he may have been, however, Coleridge wasn't the worst person in the Lake District poets' orbit--and thus in Sisman's book--not by a long shot. That crown has to go to Coleridge's friend and former pupil Charles Lloyd, whose gossiping, backstabbing, and double-dealing is so deliciously horrible in Sisman's account as to bring to mind Les Liasons Dangereuses.

To some extent, Coleridge's typical emotional obtuseness--which so often bordered on outright cruelty--was to blame for the initial break with Lloyd. In 1797 he published a handful of parodies of the poetry of his contemporaries, Lloyd among them, telling his publisher, "I think they may do good to our young Bards." But as Sisman points out,
Lloyd in particular was not the sort of person who found it easy to laugh at himself. . . . He was sensitive, with "an exquisiteness of feeling" that, as Lamb commented, "must border on derangement." . . . Lloyd demanded regular attention, and became petulant or even hostile if he did not get it.
Feeling rejected, Lloyd mounted a campaign of malicious gossip and disinformation:
He wrote a letter to Dorothy [Wordsworth] in which he labelled Coleridge "a villain," and cited a conversation between the two of them (in which he may have repeated comments about her made by Coleridge) as proof that she concurred; in tears, she broughr the letter over to [Coleridge's home at] Nether Stowey from [her home at] Alfoxden, but Coleridge laughed it off. Lloyd inviegled himself into the homes of Coleridge's friends Lamb and Southey, and worked to turn them against him. He read Lamb extracts from Coleridge's letters that referred to lamb in less than flattering terms. He repeated to Southey what Coleridge had told him in confidence about their quarrel in Bristol two years earlier, reopening the old wound. . . . Southey began to talk ominously of the need to defend his character. Stung by what he heard from Lloyd, Southey retaliated by telling him stories of Coleridge's past, from which Lloyd was able to make more mischief.
If you can't follow all that, it might help to consult with the nearest middle-school student or soap opera fan, who should be able to walk you through it. About the only way Lloyd's troublemaking could have been bettered would have been by sleeping with everyone involved as well . . . then drunkenly blogging about it all?

Amazingly, despite such an impressively villainous round of pot-stirring, Lloyd remained a part of the Wordsworth-Coleridge milieu for several more years. The final break only came about, amusingly enough, only because of Wordsworth's notorious sensitivity to criticism:
Someone reported Lloyd as having publicly expressed the opinion that Coleridge was "a greater poet, & possessed of more genius by nature," than Wordsworth. "Instantly," as Coleridge recalled more than eight years afterwards, Dorothy pronounced Lloyd "a VILLAIN." For the next few years the Wordsworths avoided the Lloyds wherever possible. "We are determined to cut them entirely," Dorothy wrote to Sara Hutchinson.
There are lines, after all, that a friend of a prickly poet must not cross . . .

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Coleridge was to prove a dangerous companion for the high-strung."

Though I pick up literary biographies because I'm interested in their subject, as I read them I often find myself more drawn to the glimpse they afford of the other writers in the subject's orbit--his friends, enemies, and/or collaborators, who together make up the literary life and conversation of an era. When that era is late Georgian and Regency England, the pleasures afforded by the peripheral figures are almost unparalleled: having set to reading about Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, or Coleridge, we find ourselves learning along the way about such writers as Leigh Hunt, Robert Southey, and William Hazlitt, all interesting in their own right.

In Adam Sisman's book on Wordsworth and Coleridge, the most striking peripheral figure--aside perhaps from Dorothy Wordsworth, who is nearly a primary subject in her own right--is unquestionably Charles Lamb. These days, Lamb is little known compared to the era's stars--I surprised a guide on a walking tour of London a few years ago by being familiar with him when we stopped at his memorial on Gilspur Street. He's best remembered for the Tales from Shakespeare (1807) that he wrote with his sister Mary, which served as my first encounter with Shakespeare many years ago; if he's known beyond that, it's for the tragic circumstances of his life, which saw him having to care for Mary after she stabbed their mother to death and attacked their father in a psychotic fit.

But Lamb's other work--primarily essays--does have its fans, including Peter Ackroyd (who wrote a novel about Charles and Mary a couple of years ago) and Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence, who for the past couple of years has been urging people to seek out Lamb, describing his essays as
seriously charming or charmingly serious, and written in some of the most freely associative prose you’ll ever enjoy.
Elsewhere, Kurp has written that Lamb,
like Sterne on most occasions, perfected a carefully calibrated tone of inspired silliness. He was a master of “almost.” His prose is almost self-indulgent, almost incoherent, but his internal gyroscope usually kept it in balance. Nothing requires more control than appearing out of control, with perfect grace, though Lamb mastered other voices.
That jibes with the impression one gets from Sisman's account, which quotes freely from Lamb's letters to Coleridge, whom he once described as
the only correspondent and I might add the only friend I have in the world. . . . I have never met with any one, who could or can compensate me for the loss of your society--I have no one to talk all these matters about to.
Lamb even unexpectedly calls to mind the genial strangeness of Robert Walser when he describes a period that he spent "very agreeably" in an asylum following a breakdown, after which, Sisman notes, he explained to Coleridge that, though he had "got somewhat rational now, and don't bite any one," he remembered those six weeks
with a gloomy kind of Envy. For while it lasted I had many many hours of pure happiness. Dream not Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of Fancy, till you have gone mad. All now seems to me vapid; comparatively so.
In those letters to Coleridge, he also demonstrates another facet of his talent that Patrick has noted, a facility as a critic, giving Coleridge the needed advice to
Cultivate simplicity . . . or rather, I should say, banish elaborateness; for simplicity springs spontaneous from the heart.
Patrick's testimony--and carefully chosen quotations--had already convinced me that Lamb was worth seeking out, but, as with so many worthy pursuits in life, that intention had fallen by the wayside; Sisman's account has reminded me to act on it, and I expect I'll have lines from Lamb to share in the coming months.

"A dedicated reader of Lamb," Patrick writes, "grows to love him as a friend." The list of writers about whom even a devoted reader can feel that way is short, cherished, and very personal, but I trust Patrick's opinion enough to harbor hopes that Lamb will be of its number by year's end.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Coleridge the Dreamer

I've mentioned before that I love footnotes? And dreams? Then let's just dive into a post about a wonderful footnote from Adam Sisman's The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge.

The footnoted scene occurs in 1796, when the young Coleridge was touring the countryside to drum up subscriptions for a new political and literary periodical, of which he was to be the editor (to the surprise and dismay of his friends, who doubted his reliability: "Of all men, Mr Coleridge was the least qualified to display periodical industry," laments his friend and publisher Joseph Cottle (which makes me picture Coleridge as one of those bloggers who gives up after half a dozen posts)). Having been invited to the house of a dissenting minister for an evening of friendly conversation, he made the mistake of smoking some opium beforehand,
which left him feeling so ill that on arriving at the minister's house pale and sweating profusely, he sank back on the sofa in a sort of swoon. At length "he awoke from insensibility" and looked around the room, blinking in the light of the candles that had been lit in the interim. One of the gentlemen present asked him if he had read a newspaper that day. "Sir," he replied, rubbing his eyes, "I am far from convinced that a Christian is permitted to read either newspapers or any other works of merely political and temporary interest." The ludicrous incongruity of this remark produced a general burst of laughter, and during the remainder of the evening those present joined in attempting to convince Coleridge "in the most friendly and yet most flattering expressions that the employment was neither fit for me, nor I fit for the employment."
To this scene, entertaining enough in itself, Sisman appends the following:
Hazlitt (who of course was not present) gives another account of what seems to have been the same occasion, in which Coleridge awoke on a sofa and then "launched into a three hours' description of the third heaven, of which he had had a dream."
Now, though I am one of those people who unquestionably takes pleasure in recounting his dreams, I do think I would have the good sense to stop well before I'd entered the third hour--though I suppose my friends are welcome to set me straight in the comments, if they see fit.

But, then again, I suppose I've never dreamed Kubla Khan, either, have I? Three hours of confusion and banality here and there in exchange for such a poem isn't that much to ask, no?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The fecklessness of young Wordsworth, or, Never trust a Romantic poet?

One of the most difficult tasks that faces a conscientious biographer is divining the intent behind his subject's actions. The messy, conflicted decisions with which we're all familiar from our own lives must at least to some extent be translated into a convincing narrative, the bare facts of a life given some sort of form and meaning. An honorable biographer will hedge where necessary--but delicacy and hesitation are not the stuff of biography, and ultimately judgment must be rendered, or the life under examination will remain amorphous at best.

Thus it's not hard to see why a biographer might occasionally offer a generous take on questionable episodes in his subject's life; when openly acknowledged, such generosity serves as a more effective form of hedging, reminding us that no matter the information we have available, we cannot fully claim to be the just judges that we would ask for our own lives--that, as Jean Renoir put it, "Everybody has their reasons."

That said, I think Adam Sisman takes that generosity a bit far in this passage about the young Wordsworth from The Friendship:
Wordsworth was preparing to return to England. By this time it must have been obvious that [his French paramour] Annette Vallon was pregnant; she would give birth to a daughter on 15 December. So why did Wordsworth leave France, just as he was about to become a father?
At this point, I can't help but imagine Jon Stewart reading this, his face set in a thoughtful, attentive look that slowly gives way to disbelief, bordering on scorn, as Sisman trots out each of the following possible reasons for Wordsworth's flight:
He was certainly short of money. He may have believed that the time was ripe to publish his poems. Maybe he felt that he must return home to secure his future, to establish himself in the Church or some other profession, so that he would be able to provide for Annette and his child. Possibly he intended to marry her once he was established; Annette's subsequent letters suggest that she expected him to do so. But she may have been deluding herself.
You think?
Sisman continues:
It would have been difficult for him to make a career in the Church, with a foreign, Catholic wife and a child born out of wedlock. Perhaps he made promises to Annette that he did not mean to keep. The frustrating truth is that there is not enough evidence on which to base anything more than guesses at Wordsworth's intentions.
That last statement, while, strictly speaking, true, reeks of weasel. We may not have enough evidence in this particular case, but we do have centuries and centuries of evidence of what relatively privileged young men are thinking when they disappear just before their girlfriends give birth to illegitimate children, and it's not, "Better hurry back and get my poems published!" Sure, it's possible that Wordsworth was more honorable than the typical feckless young man, but the fact that he ultimately let nearly ten years elapse before he again saw Annette, let alone their child, certainly suggests otherwise.

But that seems too sad--even angering--a note on which to end, so in closing I'll turn to a line that Dorothy Wordsworth wrote about her brother to a friend in 1791:
William has a great attachment to poetry, which is not the most likely thing to produce his advancement in the world.
An assessment with which all of us, poets and critics alike, can surely agree--but perhaps we can draw resolve to continue our chosen course from these lines from Emily Dickinson:
Reverse cannot befall
That fine Prosperity
Whose Sources are interior--
As soon--Adversity

A Diamond--overtake
In far--Bolivian Ground--
Misfortune hath no implement
Could mar it--if it found--
Are you listening, crazy finance guys who destroyed the world economy?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Burke and Fox, TR and Taft

Passing references to Wordsworth and Coleridge in Richard Holmes's Shelley: The Pursuit made me want to know more about the pair's long friendship and its eventual break--which, conveniently, is the subject of the reliable Adam Sisman's 2007 book The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge. I'm only a few chapters in, but thus far it seems likely to be as satisfying as Sisman's excellent book on Boswell.

The early chapters are largely devoted to the English reaction to the French Revolution, an eruption that caught the imagination of many thoughtful young Englishmen, including the two poets. I was particularly struck by a scene in which Sisman depicts the debates in Parliament over the legitimacy of France's new government, which finds longtime friends and allies Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke on opposite sides:
[W]hen an indignant Burke voiced his opposition to "all systems built on abstract rights" in the debate, Fox whispered his hope that though they disagreed, they might still remain friends. Burke spurned his appeal, declaring aloud that their friendship was at an end. Fox rose to reply, but was so hurt that he could not speak for some minutes, while tears trickled down his cheeks.
It is rare now, and--one assumes, with Trollope at least to back one up--was rare then, for political conflicts to reveal real, deep-seated emotion; carefully dissimulated reactions tend to be the order of the day. Fox's tears, however, reminded me immediately of another, more recent moment: the break between Theodore Roosevelt and his friend and successor William Howard Taft. I've written about it before as it's depicted in Patricia O'Toole's wonderful book about TR's post-presidential years, When Trumpets Call, but here's the gist:
Taft’s hurt feelings are palpable; in his laments about Roosevelt’s mistreatment of him, he frequently sounds like a jilted lover, or a kid who’s been beaten up by his long-admired older brother. In 1910 when Roosevelt first began speaking out against the work of Taft’s administration, “He is unhappy without the power he wielded as president. I have been made to feel it. His treatment of me has left scars that will never heal.” . . . Following a slashing anti-Roosevelt speech on the campaign trail, Taft was dicovered by a reporter alone, head in hands. “‘Roosevelt was my closest friend,’ he said. Then he wept.”
What's particularly remarkable about that excruciating scene is that it's hard to imagine TR even beginning to understand why Taft was upset; he seems to have been so utterly wrapped up in his own plans, so focused on his own importance, that he was almost entirely oblivious to the independent emotional existence of others. In my relatively limited, though growing, acquaintance with Burke, I get the impression that he was more open and human--but perhaps just as implacable a foe?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Your friend, Samuel Pepys

In my continuing quest to get anyone who stops at this blog to add the Daily Pepys diary to their RSS reader, I present this bit of bad-neighborliness from Pepys's diary for April 20, 1666:
Thence to Paul's Churchyarde, and there bespoke some new books, and so to my ruling woman's and there did see my work a doing, and so home and to my office a little, but was hindered of business I intended by being sent for to Mrs. Turner, who desired some discourse with me and lay her condition before me, which is bad and poor. Sir Thomas Harvey intends again to have lodgings in her house, which she prays me to prevent if I can, which I promised. Thence to talke generally of our neighbours. I find she tells me the faults of all of them, and their bad words of me and my wife, and indeed do discover more than I thought. So I told her, and so will practise that I will have nothing to do with any of them. She ended all with a promise of shells to my wife, very fine ones indeed, and seems to have great respect and honour for my wife. So home and to bed.
Ah, the perils of neighbors! The only thing worse is . . . family?

How could anyone resist such an intimate, gossipy, even goofy account of life as lived three hundred and fifty years ago? Make Pepys your daily companion; I promise you won't regret it.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Better reading than your 401(k) statement . . .

{Photo by wallyg. Used under a Creative Commons license.}

If you're in search of some historical context for Great Depression II and you've already re-read Studs Terkel's Hard Times, I'd recommend you turn to Edmund Wilson's The American Earthquake: A Chronicle of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the Dawn of the New Deal (1958). A substantial collection of Wilson's non-literary work from the 1920s and '30s, it includes occasional writings, journalistic pieces, profiles, and even a few short fiction sketches. Flip through it for a couple of hours and you'll come away with a clear sense of the moment that the ebbing roar of the '20s gave way to the hard realities of the '30s; like Terkel's book, it's well-suited to address the problem that Wilson noted in his 1958 preface, how hard it is
for persons who were born too late to have memories of the depression to believe that it really occurred, that between 1929 and 1933 the whole structure of American society seemd actually to be going to pieces.
Wilson never seems more like Cyril Connolly than in these pieces; for once he seems entirely of his historical moment, to which he brings his ironic yet sympathetic appreciation of oddity, his eye for telling detail, and his light but elegant prose.

To chronicle the last days of the twenties, he brings us descriptions like this one, from a note about the faltering Ziegfeld Follies:
Yet the Ziegfeld show itself remains the best thing of its kind in New York: Edna Leedom, the Amazonian but amiable 100 per cent American blond grinding out the wisecracks of her songs from between a wide set of white teeth, which have the same expensive glitter as her diamonds; James Barton, with his fixed ginny stare and his partially paralyzed fingers, passing through the grisly stages of his disquieting drunken act; the sumptuous Greta Nissen, in a preposterous oriental pantomime, in the course of which, as a female Bluebeard, with a complacent Scandinavian smile, she slowly decapitates her lovers and shoves their heads out the door with her foot.
He even, unexpectedly, ranges far from New York--his profile from a piece about attendees at a Hopi snake dance in New Mexico serves as a reminder of how much the American West has changed since the 1930s:
Bill Peck is a well-meaning fellow. He started to go to Yale, but was always having awful hangovers and not showing up at his classes, and on trains he would get into card games with people who won all his money. So his father, a wealthy drug manufacturer, sent him out West to a ranch. At the ranch, Bill read books about lost gold mines and the buried treasures of the Spanish; his allowance had by that time been cut down, and he decided to go out and search for them. He wears a pistol slung under his arm and an old hat slouched over his eyes, and he goes for long walks in the woods with a pickaxe over his shoulder. One day he came back all excited and said that he had got into a cave which was all frozen full of ice and that in the ice were two American soldiers in a perfect state of preservation. But when people went out with him to look for the cave, he couldn't find the way again, and he never succeeded in getting back there.
Meanwhile, the despair of the depths of the Depression comes through powerfully in "A Bad Day in Brooklyn," which recounts, in determinedly flat language, three failed suicide attempts made on one day in 1933, all driven by the dire employment situation.

A strange contrast, however, is offered by Wilson's visits to four campaign headquarters on Election Night of 1930: the forlorn offices of the Republicans and the Socialists, the jubilant home of the Democrats--presided over by the "forcible-feeble gentlemanly face" of FDR, and the office of Dan O'Brien, the Rexobo, or King of the Hoboes. The hoboes have not won anything that night, but neither have they lost anything; O'Brien,
like other political leaders, is perhaps a little vague as to how his aims are to be accomplished
--but overall he strikes a relatively optimistic note, unusual for the period:
So far as Dan is concerned, New York is not a bad place to live: it is the cultural center of the country and that makes it interesting. He knows that for many people it must be a lunatic asylum, but a hobo doesn't worry about that--you never heard of a hobo jumping out the window: they are the most optimistic people in the world.

For our present predicament, however, perhaps no piece in the book is more appropriate than "Sunshine Charley," a profile of the former president of the National City Bank, "who did not even consider it necessary to go through the barest formailities of covering up his frauds," and now finds himself on trial. See if any of this sounds disturbingly familiar:
He was the banker of bankers, the salesman of salesmen, the genius of the New Economic era. He was the man who had taken the National City Company, that subsidiary of the National City Bank--established, according to the practice of the New Economic Era, as an institution legally distinct but actually identical with the bank, for the purpose of marketing securities which the bank was prohibited from selling--and had transformed it in six years' time from a room with a stenographer, a boy and a clerk into an organization with a staff of fourteen hundred and branch offices all over the country, which sold a billion and a half dollars' worth of securities a year--the largest corporation in the country.
Elsewhere Wilson writes that
There are people who have never recovered from the fantastic ambition and imaginings engendered by the boom of the twenties.
--the sort of line that sends chills through me, seeming instantly applicable to so many people in business and government in our time.

The pessimist in me comes away from The American Earthquake fretting about the many lessons of the 1930s that we've obviously willfully forgotten; the optimist in me looks to the lasting institutions our grandparents built from the catastrophe--Social Security, unemployment, and Keynesian economics among them--and hopes that they'll help us get through this mess more quickly than we did the first time around.

Until then, we've always got Wilson's Lexicon of Prohibition {item four at that link} by which to finely delineate our successive degrees of alcohol-aided distraction. Take your Depression how you will; I choose to take mine while burning with a low blue flame.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The manly arts, or, James Bond's got nothing on this guy.

Being a short, bookish herbivore, I don't tend to think of myself as embodying many of the more stereotypical manly qualities. I'm far from the first person you'd pick to have at your side in a fight, and should the zombie apocalypse occur on my watch, I would likely be of little help in the more mechanical aspects of rebuilding society (though I suspect I could run a mean quartermaster's office if pressed); when reading one of Richard Stark's Parker novels, I never find myself thinking, "Oh, right--I could totally do that." While I know how to dance with a lady, and I can mix a mean martini, I'm hopeless with a gun, at least so far as hitting a pre-agreed target goes.

Most days, none of that bothers me. I'm fortunate enough to live in a society that allows me the quiet to read, the wherewithal to cook, and the safety not to worry about the rest of it. But then I come across something like this description of Thomas Cromwell, from Hilary Mantel's thus-far excellent new novel Wolf Hall (2009), and, well, can you blame me for feeling inadequate?
It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt---ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house, and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.
And that's not the half of it, at least so far as rumor would have it:
"Thomas Cromwell?" people say. "That is an ingenious man. Do you know he has the whole of the New Testament by heart?" He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is the very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair. He is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that's ensnared you for three generations, or talk you sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make. With animals, women, and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate. Nobody can out-talk him, if he wants to talk. Nobody can better keep their head, when markets are falling and weeping men are standing on the street tearing up letters of credit.
Sheesh. Faced with Cromwell, even Edmond Dantès would feel compelled to up his game.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go make a martini and do some push-ups. Like a million of them. While memorizing Ephesians.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Sentences inspire me, or, The quickest of posts

I'll have more to say about Hilary Mantel's new novel about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, Wolf Hall (2009) in the coming days, but right now I feel it's worth sharing the following couple of sentences. As you read, pretend they're poetry--listen to them:
He reads. Clerke and Sumner are dead. The cardinal should be told, the writer says. Having no other secure place, the Dean saw fit to shut them in the college cellars, the deep cold cellars intended for storing fish. Even in that silent place, secret, icy, the summer plague sought them out. They died in the dark and without a priest.
Each of those sentences moves along as if dancing on the verge of being truly metrical, its beats--"the Dean saw fit to shut"--falling just right; their consonance and assonance only adding to the achievement, those "deep cold cellars intended for storing fish". {Though now that I think of it, "designed" would fit far better than "intended," wouldn't it?}

Mantel, though never shedding the basic structure of what we generally accept as the prose of the realist novel, again and again in Wolf Hall raises her language to this sort of pitch; I'm 150 pages in, and it's hard to imagine that she could go so wrong from here as to keep this from being the crowning achievement of her career thus far.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Dickens's mysteries

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In a comment appended to my recent post on Poe and reviews, Amateur Reader directed me to a post at his own blog, Wuthering Expectations, in which he addressed Poe's two reviews of Dickens's Barnaby Rudge. It's worth your clicking over there and reading the whole post (as well as his whole series of posts on Poe, written after he read all 2,800 pages of the Library of America's two Poe volumes!), but here's his main point:
Poe uses his review to use the clues at hand to solve the mystery. Today, his magazine would receive a swarm of angry "Spoiler!" emails. I don't know if Poe's readers thought this was fair game or not. Anyway, Poe correctly identifies the murderer. He proceeds to explain exactly how the story will unfold and how the murderer will be revealed.

Here, Poe is wrong in every detail, sometimes hilariously wrong (the hilarious part is that his predictions are so confident). But he's correct in one sense--the story he describes would be a much better murder mystery. One thing Poe does in his second review, of the complete novel, is to discuss, in detail, and correctly, how the murder plot is botched.
Dickens botches the plot, Poe argues, when he gets distracted by the Gordon riots. While Poe acknowledges that the riots are well-handled, their surrounding drama forces the murder into the background, from where it will never really returns to center stage.

This tells me that Poe fundamentally misunderstood Dickens's intentions: Dickens was from his first published sketches always far more interested in character and incident than the mechanics of plot--and the more his overall interest in society and its changes grew, the more his plots, however inventive and entertaining they remained, became merely the vehicle by which he could explore those interests. Dickens would seem as unlikely as anyone who ever wrote to be able to achieve the "single effect" that Poe urged as the goal of the short story writer; he always contained multitudes, and he was at his best when giving them free play.

In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Dickens's final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Angus Wilson makes essentially that argument, with specific recourse to Barnaby Rudge:
If [Dickens] had died before finishing Barnaby Rudge . . . we might be asking, who killed Barnaby's father, or was his father really dead at all? These seem minor questions now beside that novel's extraordinary insight into the nature of violent revolution. And so with the murder of Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House or the mystery of Rigaud's hold over Mrs Clenham in Little Dorrit; it would be an absurdity to see those two great social novels in such narrow terms. These mysteries are the essence of Dickens's plots. These plots are indeed essential to the novels, but they are only the mechanism by which the great imaginative magic lantern works; the total significance of what Dickens shows us in his novels is a hundred times greater than his plots.

Of course The Mystery of Edwin Drood in particular benefits from being approached with that understanding: rather than being frustrated by its lack of answers, a reader can instead enjoy the many typically Dickensian pleasures it offers. In its scant 280 pages, Dickens introduces a host of memorable characters. Like the odious Mr. Sapsea, who occasionally
finds the contemplation of his own profundity becoming a little monotonous in spite of the vastness of he subject.
Or the cemetery-keeper Durdles, who is first seen being pelted with stones by a wild boy, which, he explains to Mr. Jasper, is an act of charity on his part:
"Own brother, sir," observes Durdles, turning himself about again, and as unexpectedly forgetting his offence as he had recalled or conceived it; "own brother to Peter the Wild Boy! But I gave him an object in life."

"At which he takes aim?" Mr. Jasper suggests.

"That's it, sir," returns Durdles, quite satisfied; "at which he takes aim. I took him in hand and gave him an object. What was he before? A destroyer. What work did he do? Nothing but destruction. What did he earn by it? Short terms in Cloisterham jail. Not a person, not a piece of property, not a winder, not a horse, nor a dog, nor a cat, nor a bird, nor a fowl, nor a pig, but what he stoned, for want of an enlightened object. I put that enlightened object before him, and now he can turn his honest halfpenny by the three penn'orth a week."
Durdles is one of Dickens's greatest creations, his boozy imperturbability supplying wonderful comedy, as in this later discussion with Jaspers over a shared bottle:
"This is good stuff, Mister Jarsper!"

"It is very good stuff, I hope. I bought it on purpose."

"They don't show, you see, the old uns don't, Mister Jarsper!"

"It would be a more confused world than it is, if they could."

"Well, it would lead towards a mixing of things," Durdles acquiesces: pausing on the remark, as if the idea of ghosts had not previously presented itself to him in a merely inconvenient light, domestically, or chronologically.
Then there's the lanky, sunburned climber-in-at-windows Mr. Tartar, who is "always afraid of inconveniencing a busy man, being an idle man," and who though he's inherited an estate, lives in a garret, for, as he explains,
[I]t would never do for a man who had been aboard ship from his boyhood to turn luxurious all at once. Besides, again: having been accustomed to a very short allowance of land all my life, I thought I'd feel my way to the command of a landed estate, by beginning in boxes.
Another of Drood's great pleasures is Dickens's depiction of the cathedral town of Cloisterham, its narrow lanes ranged about the old churchyard and shadowed by the cathedral. I visited the town of Rochester, on which Cloisterham is based, while I was reading the novel, and as I wandered its streets in the growing dusk, it was easy to imagine myself surrounded by the secrets and machinations of Dickens's characters. Like Drood itself, the town is well worth a visit for any Dickens fan.

Friday, May 01, 2009

J. G. Ballard (1930-2009), R. I. P.

When the news of J. G. Ballard's death came across the wires, I happened to have just finished reading Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966), and it was only natural to find myself comparing Harrison's novel to the two Ballard catastrophe novels I've read, The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1964).

The difference was stark: Harrison's novel, which presents 1999 Manhattan, teeming with people and scrapping for resources, is perfectly fine science fiction, its occasional striking image--like the rusting hulks of the Brooklyn Navy Yard re-imagined as secret freshwater lagoons--balancing its structural problems and didacticism. But that's all it is: a fairly straightforward working-out of the problems that might face a 35-million-strong Manhattan in a world of depleted resources. Harrison's New York remains recognizably our own world, populated by people we know living lives we easily understand. Their environment has changed, even turned on them, but they remain fundamentally the same.

Ballard's catastrophe novels argue that there is much more at stake: where Harrison is content to imagine the physical consequences of changes in our way of life, Ballard wants to explore how those changes affect the very core of our being, how the radical alteration of society can't help but generate a radical alteration in the self. I wrote about the pair of novels last year for the New York Moon, so I won't go into great detail here. I think a couple of passages from The Drought will suffice to give a sense of the strangeness with which Ballard invests his dystopias.

First, because Ballard's landscapes were always lavishly--if coldly--described, here's a depiction of the coast in this future where rain has forsaken us:
Under the empty winter sky the salt-dunes ran on for miles. Seldom varying more than a few feet from trough to crest, they shone damply in the cold air, the pools of brine disturbed by the inshore wind. Sometimes, in a distant foretaste of the spring to come, their crests would be touched with white streaks as a few crystals evaporated out into the sunlight, but by the early afternoon these began to deliquesce, and the grey flanks of the dunes would run with a pale light.

To the east and west the dunes stretcehd along the coast to the horizon, occasionally giving way to a small lake of stagnant brine or a lost creek cut off from the rest of its channel. To the south, in the direction of the sea, the dunes gradually became more shallow, extending into long salt flats. At high tide they were covered by a few inches of clear water, the narrowing causeways of firmer salt reaching out into the sea.

Nowhere was there a defined margin between the shore and sea, and the endless shallows formed the only dividing zone, land and water submerged in this grey liquid limbo.
The precision of that description is what impresses me most, the way that Ballard offers not just the view, but a sense of its changes through the day, as salt crystals evaporate and "pale light" touches the dunes; the dunes are fully realized in space and time, to the point that you can immediately imagine trudging over them in search--you immediately assume--of the sea.

So we are prepared for the figures who soon come over the rise--but nothing could prepare us for their unsettlingly odd appearance and actions:
At this moment, a shout crossed the air. A dozen men rose from behidn the bank surrounding the lagoon and with long paddles of whalebone began to shovel the wet salt into the breach. Sliding up to their waists in the grey slush, they worked furiously as the crystals drained backwards towards the sea. Their arms and chests were strung with strips of rag and rubber. They drove each other on with sharp cries and shouts, their backs bent as they ladled the salt up into the breach, trying to contain the water in the lagoon before the tide turned.

Watching them from the edge of the bank was a tall, thin-faced man wearing a sealskin cape over his left shoulder, his right hand on the shaft of his double-bladed paddle. His dark face, from which all flesh had been drained away, seemed to consist of a series of flint-like points, the sharp cheekbones and jaw almost piercing his hard skin.
It's a chilling scene, one into which the reader is plunged with almost no foreknowledge, no guidelines with which to interpret the people or their actions, and the effect is frighteningly dislocating. If Harrison's book is a warning of what might go wrong, Ballard's novels are closer to reminders that, when something eventually does go very wrong, no warning is going to be able to help us.

I finished those two novels last summer determined to read much more Ballard, and the many tributes to his work--far more able than mine--that appeared last week have only strengthened my resolve. I recommend the one by Simon Reynolds at Salon and Martin Amis's in the Guardian; the reviews of Ballard that Amis collected in his The War Against Cliche are also well worth seeking out.

In the meantime, U.S. publishers take note: there's a lot of Ballard that's out of print and ripe for republishing . . .