Tag Archives: literary ancestors

The generic governess tale, or “Agnes Grey” and its limits and gifts

Never having read anything by Anne Brontë before, I decided to hold off on the excitingly named The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and go for the more quietly named Agnes Grey.  My decision was affected partially by the thought that “wildfell” sounded like more “wuthering,” or “heights,” and misery, and romantic passion, and though I’ve since been informed that the tale of the tenant is not what I’m expecting (about that more another time), I stuck with my decision and started reading.

To say that I was pleasantly surprised is saying too much, but at the same time I wasn’t appalled; I was instead nonplussed.  I found Agnes Grey slight, short, and simple.  There were no overwhelming highs and lows of emotional resonance as in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  It was actually a competent and unsurprising tale of a vicar’s-daughter-turned-governess-eventually-makes-good (by the oldest–or second oldest–“trick” in the book, the first supposedly being prostitution, which of course can’t be mentioned in the same breath with churchy mid-19th century marriage).

And yet, the book has appeal, in spite of the fact that there is little or no let-up from the trials of teaching bad-mannered and spoiled upper-class children, no break to the virtuous sermonizings on Fate (herein known as “God’s will”) in which the heroine indulges at the least opportunity.  She is too good, like many a religiously inclined governess in similar novels, but for some reason, though a little missish from time to time, she is not boring.  Maybe it’s the repetitive instances of words in narrative and especially in dialogue which are either capitalized or italicized to indicate emphasis:  when they are those of others, they are those most often of outrageous remarks made to or near the heroine; even more, when they are hers, we sense a sort of youthful eye-rolling.  “Can you believe this?” she seems to be saying.  A technique like this, which we would censure as puerile in a contemporary author, thus becomes a bit appealing in this otherwise sometimes prosy young writer.

And this is the thing to remember about her:  though we learn by reading that she was exceedingly precocious, she had a youthful high spirit, and was not inexperienced in terms of what she was writing about.  She was a governess for six years herself, and her character of Agnes Grey thus owes something to her own experience.  It’s not too far to assume that there are aspects of wish fulfillment in Agnes’s eventual destiny and the book’s happy ending.  Yet this book should not lead anyone to underestimate the youngest Brontë, who was a poet and a novelist (under the pen name of “Acton Bell”) though she was dead at the age of twenty-nine of what Wikipedia calls pulmonary tuberculosis.  Her fame today, though it is derived from her entire body of work, is largely endebted to the book which shocked her contemporaries, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (and once again, more about that another time).  Still, the gentle, sweet tenor of Agnes Grey, wherein doing one’s duty and maintaining a hopeful demeanor in the face of all adversity brings eventual reward is a reward in itself as a reading experience–and the adversity is not of that ilk which tortures the reader’s sensibilities in the apparent belief that a catharsis can be forced.  As a steady diet, Agneses might be a bit tame, but then, there’s no danger of that:  there’s only one Agnes Grey.

13 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews

Fay Weldon’s “Watching Me, Watching You” and the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas”

Has anyone ever said to you “Everything happens for a reason”?  Or, perhaps, like Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, “There is no such thing as coincidence”?  We smile and nod, and pass by the cues to a better understanding of such notions of Jung’s synchronicity.  But today, while reading from two supposedly widely different texts on two different library websites, I ran “smack-dab”–as people from my part of the world say–into a lovely coincidence about meanings and situations which I’d like to share with you.  On one website, I was starting to read from the Nag Hammadi scriptures, the Gnostic scriptures which were suppressed from the canon of allowed Christian texts by clerics who called them “heretical.”  They have now surfaced again, and have been translated from the Greek and the Coptic into English, and have stirred my curiosity.  On the other website, I was finishing up a reading of Fay Weldon’s book of short stories called Watching Me, Watching You, which was named after one of the stories.  And then, it hit me:  the whole of Weldon’s book bore an intimate relation in its themes and structures to something quoted from one of the Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Thomas.  And here’s what it was:

“Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.  For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.”  Ever hear someone say to someone else “It’s as plain as the nose on your face”?  But then, in order to get a proper view of one’s own nose, one needs a reflective surface in front of one, and Fay Weldon’s short stories, with their scalpel-sharp ironies and desperate comic turns, are that reflective surface of what often goes on in front of us, but which we chose to ignore, or cannot master the trick of deciphering, simple as it might seem to others watching.  The book is dated in some respects, having been a collection of stories from the 7o’s and published as a whole in 1981, and yet the situations that make up the action in them still occur today, in actuality or in shadows of actions.  I would like here to give a brief summary or synopsis (not so brief, in the first instance) of each story, just to whet the readers’ appetites, and then without spoiling the adventure, go on to final comment.

1.  “Christmas Tree”–A writer gradually becoming successful for his counterculture writings allows his personal life to affect his career.  An old story, but told with refreshing clarity here.  As Weldon writes about her character, “Writers tend to undervalue those who praise them, or complain that praise is patronising; whilst at the same time feel aggrieved if they are not praised.  They never win the battle with themselves, which is why, perhaps, they go on writing.”  With this writer, his first wife left him taking with her their small daughter, when he cheated on her, starting him on a lifetime of going from woman to woman.  In this case, however, the womanizer finally becomes the victim of his habit, and is deceived and taken advantage of by a much younger woman who gets him to marry her because he believes she is “pure” and virginal.  As he says of her before he marries her:  “I’m glad she’s a waitress….I’m finally back where I belong.  Amongst real people, who do real things, and live simple, honest hard-working lives.”  When he finds himself amongst her whole family of small-time grifters, he is instead of being realistically downcast about it (as his art would suggest) ironically overjoyed.  “He had bound himself by accident to a monstrous family in a monstrous place and had discovered by accident what he felt to be the truth, long evident, long evaded.  It was that human nature was irredeemable….All aspirations and ambition had been burned away:  all wounds cauterised with so sudden and horrific a knife as to leave him properly cleansed and purified.”  This is a funny way to describe total failure and withdrawal from one’s own creative sphere, but thus it is, and we see it as he does not, for he is like the Christmas tree that his own family used to replant year after year, only now his “roots” have been “cauterized” as his new family does when they steal trees to sell off someone else’s land:  his roots have been boiled, and he seems not to mind his fate at all.

Breakages–In this very innovative story, a clerical wife is “haunted” by a ghost who gets even with her husband for his unfair treatment of her by breaking his things.  This only happens when he is in church preaching or is elsewhere occupied and she is alone, at least in the beginning of the story.  The bitter issue between them of whose fault it is that they have no children comes to a head, however, and then the husband too is confronted by the “ghost,” though he funnily enough persists in blaming the wife for the noises and moving furniture up in the attic, even while she is in the same room downstairs with him.  Against all the reader’s expectations as they are established by the story thus far, when the two characters finally get around to speaking to each other about their “guest,” even though they are still deluding themselves about some things, they are visited by a happy ending, which yet is not free of whimsical irony.  This is thus another story in which something is obvious, yet needs to be confronted before the apotheosis can take place.

Alopecia–The topic is “sisterhood” or the lack thereof, amongst a group of women, and the lovely reversal at the end that takes place when the least sisterly of the women is suddenly put in the same position as a woman known to them all whom she has maliciously gossiped about for years.  Once again, the quote from the Gnostic gospels rings true, because she has willfully ignored for years what has been right in front of her, which has been going on between the woman and her husband, blaming the wife for everything and seeming deliberately to cause hatred and suspicion to surround her.  The term “alopecia,” which is a kind of diseased hair loss, stands in as a subject-replacement for the actual “bald” cruelty of the other woman’s husband, who among other brutalities has made a habit of pulling her hair out by handfuls.  When the situation is reversed between the two women, the woman in the previously superior place derives the full benefit of a hateful kind of achieved wisdom, too late.

Man With No Eyes–This is another “ghost story,” featuring “the man with no eyes,” a sort of bugaboo from an Eastern culture, who seems to visit a family purporting to be a happy one in which the husband, however, is always demanding much, giving little, and constantly and apparently deliberately misjudging his wife.  He is another one not seeing what is before his eyes.  It seems likely that at this point the general drift of the stories of Weldon’s labelled (and sometimes marketed) as “ghost stories” must be obvious to my readers:  a number of her stories, though they all contain ironic reversals or heapings-on of fated happenings, are clearly not the cheap and simple ghost story per se (fun as that can be).  Several of them, however, were in the 70’s and 80’s published in magazines and volumes which purported to be ghost story-oriented.

Threnody–This is the most mysterious, in its way, of all the stories.  A female character who is seeing a therapist, another woman whose words we know only through those that the first character repeats aloud, changes her story repeatedly, ready to take anyone’s view of her as the true one.  She seems to have no sense of self, but one after the other, follows other people’s views of what she is “like.”  We as readers are frustrated in some ways in trying to get to know this character, because we cannot really be sure of what the truth is about what these other characters say and do to and with her.  Thus, this story is in a sense a sort of defeat of the Gospel of Thomas notion that it is possible to know what is in front of your face, because as another more famous Biblical quote says, we are seeing her “through a glass, darkly.”

Angel, All Innocence–Yet another young woman, an expectant mother this time, who becomes aware of “ghosts” in the attic, hears a tale of former tenants from the kindly village doctor who treats her and senses her husband’s casual emotional cruelty and indifference.  She makes a decision which is not logical at all in ordinary human terms, but which the ghost from the attic (whom she thinks she sees one day upon the stair) would understand completely.  She is the character par excellence among these in the book who, though “all innocence,” yet is worldly enough in spiritual terms of a good sort to know what to do to save herself and her child.

Spirit of the House–The predominance of the characters in this story do not see what is in front of them, an abusive nanny.  One character does, and must strive for justice.

Watching Me, Watching You–Cyclic wives and lovers, and a ghost who sleepily observes them all, as they take perspectives on each other, and history repeats itself.  One could even argue that it’s the accumulation of repetitions through history that has made the ghost so “knowing,” that this is in fact the spirit of all the tales in the book.

Geoffrey and the Eskimo Child–This is the bittersweet story of a man who for years is a sort of feminist’s ideal man, at least on the surface, a feminist himself, and a good socialist and humanist at the same time, who yet presents his wife with a final shocking conundrum and doesn’t help her to solve it.  The question is, why is the view occluded for her, his closest, and why is it likewise obscure to others on the outside?  One might almost suspect Weldon of attempting to suggest that such model behavior is too hard for any man (as opposed to the women whom she celebrates in her stories), did he not have a certain charm and resilience as a character, even though he may have just a bit of feet of clay.

Weekend–This is a final picture in the book of a condensation of a family’s whole way of life into how their lives are arranged for a single weekend (one of many, a pattern) in their country home.  No words are wasted; every single thing that happens means something, amounts to something, counts for something, to the characters living through it nearly as much as for the reader.  Though the two creative works are so very different, and the character of the mother in this work is gentle and constantly striving to please, very different from Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, yet the economy of the wording and the ferocious amount of energy that is released from it reminds me of that in the famous play by Edward Albee.

Fay Weldon, whom I have never read before but whose works I now intend to become more familiar with, was awarded the CBE in Britain, and is the author of the pilot for the famous PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs.  She has written many novels and scripts and plays and books of short stories, and given my acquaintance with her merely through this one work I’ve written on today, I think she would well repay serious attention.  It’s quite clear that though in this book the plight of women is one of her chief concerns, or at least was in 1981 when she published this work (and I can’t imagine such a devoted advocate changing her mind), she is well able to see more than just the contemporary injustice and look behind it for the historical one.  As well, her male characters are not straw men, easy to knock down, but believable even when culpable or villainous.  I hope to run across something else by her again soon, perhaps something a little more recent and topical.  For the meantime, I hope you haven’t been totally exhausted by this long post, and welcome any comments you may have to make.

 

4 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

Agony and a Painter’s Eye: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge”

Today’s post is about one of the most frequently taught poems of the early Victorian era, one which has perplexed many an undergraduate (including me, at the time) and even more seasoned readers, I think primarily because they are waiting for it to tell a story, or give an explanation, of however attenuated a kind.  And it does both of these things in its own way, except that its own way is not that of the usual lyric poem; rather, it is an encapsulation of a lyric moment caught by the “eye” of a painter who was also a poet.  This multi-talented individual was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists and writers.

The poem is “The Woodspurge,” a modest title in line with the mostly restrained and simple words used.  The overall effect, however, is anything but simple.  Here is the poem in its entirety, all four four-line stanzas, which have been quoted elsewhere on the Internet previously as well:

“The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,/Shaken out dead from tree and hill;/I had walked on at the wind’s will–/I sat now, for the wind was still./Between my knees my forehead was–/My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!/My hair was over in the grass,/My naked ears heard the day pass./My eyes, wide open, had the run/Of some ten weeds to fix upon;/Among those few, out of the sun,/The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one./From perfect grief there need not be/Wisdom or even memory;/One thing then learned remains to me–/The woodspurge has a cup of three.”

Now to embark upon an interpretation, which is of course only one among many possible, but which I believe has some points to recommend it, such as its close reliance upon the items found in the poem, without adding possibly spurious additional material.

The first stanza begins by stressing that even when the speaker is in motion, as when walking, he is passively affected in the main:  when the wind pushes him along, he walks; when the wind ceases, he sits.  The wind is said to be “shaken out dead,” and indeed he is deathlike and still, or at least motionless, when the wind dies down.

Though many people think that the arcania of rhetorical figuration is mainly limited to such figures as similes, metaphors, apostrophes, and other such figures more common to poetry, it is a fact that in this poem Rossetti uses both paralipsis and litotes (in the second and third stanzas respectively), which perhaps occur less often in poetic circumstances.  Here in the second stanza, the speaker “paints a picture” of himself with head hanging low, and says that his lips did not say “alas.”  Well, why should they?  We don’t know, but by saying that he did not say something he is in fact saying, the poet is using the figure of paralipsis, which is denying that one is making a statement while in fact making it.  He speaks of his naked ears, and here the word “naked” is like the word “dead” in the first stanza, in that it is a powerful and evocative word that stands out as unusual; there is a sense that he is unprotected; there is a sense of vulnerability.

In the third stanza, this same sense of vulnerability occurs when we are told that his eyes are “wide open,” and therefore exposed.  At first we think that they are not exposed to much, it is true, as his head is hanging between his knees, but this seems to be a case of much from little.  Using the figure of litotes, or understatement, he says that he can see “ten weeds,” which is surely not all he can see even given his restricted field of vision.  Weeds and grass grow thickly, after all.  This figure of understatement produces a sense of lowness (as does his crouch), and depression.  Among these weeds, he focuses on the woodspurge because is it different and isolated, as he the speaker too is isolated, even among natural things and nature, though in poetry these are very often seen as potentially sympathetic, even sometimes to the extreme of using the “pathetic fallacy,” in which a speaker’s or character’s emotions are said to be experienced by a natural force or being.  The woodspurge is “out of the sun” literally because it is overshadowed by the speaker’s limbs and head hanging; the speaker himself is “out” of a sort of shining grace, of happiness.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker brings up “perfect grief,” and suggests that there is no wisdom which comes from it or memory which can resolve it.  Though the reader may experience a sense of shock at this sudden introduction of intense emotion as a subject, yet there is something about it which shows fittingness as well.  Even though it “ups the ante” in a sudden way, it’s appropriate because we know that all this so far has been adding up to something, some climax.  The last two lines contain a living crystallization of a moment of pain and suffering, the sense of “perfect grief” as embodied in the totally a-historical symbol of the woodspurge.  That is, before Rossetti wrote his poem, there was no necessary connection between the tiny weed/flower and sorrow; since his poem, I doubt that anyone aware of the poem, either seeing the poem and/or seeing the woodspurge knowingly, could help but think of the emotional connection.

This poem “The Woodspurge” is an excellent introduction to the Pre-Raphaelite notion that a poem (or a painting) can be about a moment of intense emotion without a history in words of the cause (though of course many of the paintings were of characters from literature or myth).  As well, to anyone themselves subject to the feelings recorded in the poem, “The Woodspurge” itself is a woodspurge-in-words which can capture their own emotions, again without an actual historical rehearsing of the cause of the emotions.  Thus the vagueness of the “backstory,” as it’s called now, makes the poem itself more universal and accessible to more people.  The statement that “One thing then learned remains to me–/The woodspurge has a cup of three” betrays the lastingness of the grief and the simultaneous poverty and wealth of sorrow:  sorrow is full and overflowing, so full that the speaker cannot say more than he does, yet it leaves him empty of all but the final awareness of the association between his emotion and what he sees at the extreme moment of its intensity.

At the risk myself of having made much of a little thing, I have written this analysis of one of Rossetti’s most famous poems, maybe the most well-known, because it is so perfect of its kind.  I hope that you too will find it answers to your notion of a fine work of art, and will remember its beauty at any time when you feel that the world’s beauty has deserted you:  the woodspurge may be a simple flower, but it is a deceptively simple poem, and one which has much to offer to those who would notice.

3 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

A (very) early post for Halloween–Does Edgar Allan Poe’s long poem “The Raven” have an adequate “objective correlative”?

Well, everybody in the continental U.S. seems to feel that fall weather is here early this year, that instead of having a blissfully warm autumn in September, we are already into October weather, and in some parts of the western mountain chains, it’s already snowed.  So now I’m going to celebrate Halloween a little bit earlier than I usually do, and do a sort of partial Halloween post, for fun and edification, mine as well as yours.  And since it’s officially a Halloween post, I’m going to make some of your worst dreams come true and involve T. S. Eliot’s theory of the “objective correlative,” a concept which has made the rounds more often and sometimes more drunkenly than Mrs. Murphy’s sousing poodle (a dog of fame in some quarters, mainly amongst fellow spirits at the bars).

Before beginning the fun of Poe, therefore, let’s suffer through a little literary theory.  The concept of the “objective correlative,” according to Wikipedia, comes originally from Washington Allston and his 1840 Lectures on Art.  You can find his explanation on Wikipedia in brief.  The modernist poet T. S. Eliot popularized the concept, however, in an essay called “Hamlet and His Problems,” and so it’s more important for the nonce (and for us too) to look at his essay.  Here are some quotes, also gleaned secondhand from Wikipedia:  “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”  Eliot felt that Hamlet was an artistic flop because Hamlet’s “strong emotions ‘exceeded the facts’ of the play, which is to say they were not supported by an ‘objective correlative.’  He acknowledged that such a circumstance is ‘something every person of sensibility has known’; but felt that in trying to represent it dramatically, ‘Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him.'”

Now let’s turn to Poe’s poetical excursion into his usual macabre fare, “The Raven.”  I’m sure most of you are familiar with at least some of the poem’s setting and probably have been jounced and bounced around by the alliteration and rhyme scheme a couple of times at least in reading.  The poem has a lot of alliteration and rhyme, including internal line rhymes, and a repetitive structure and refrain, which depends upon variations of the “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore'” variety.  Just to refresh our memories, let’s look at how the poem starts out:

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,/While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,/As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door./'”‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–/Only this, and nothing more.”‘/Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,/And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor./Eagerly I wished the morrow;–vainly I had tried to borrow/From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost Lenore–/For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore–/Nameless here for evermore.”

This fearing and questioning and apprehensive meditation goes on for four more sing-song stanzas, and then the speaker decides that it’s actually something at the window, and so goes to open it.  Here’s what happens when he does:

“Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,/In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;/Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;/But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door–/Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–/Perched, and sat, and nothing more.”

Next, for seven or eight more stanzas, the human speaker persists in speculating about “the lost Lenore,” and whether he will see her again, and while his own soul answers “Nevermore,” he also persists in directing his loaded questions to the bird, who eerily answers, “Nevermore.”  Though the speaker is intelligent enough, and the circumstances possible enough, at least earlier in the poem, to consider that perhaps this is the only word the bird knows (“‘Doubtless,’ said I, ‘what it utters is its only stock and store….'”), he shows himself to be in tune with the bird’s apparent “predictions” to the extent that his questions are all shaped to fit this early form of “magic eight ball”:  for example, why doesn’t the speaker say something more cogent, like “Will I be alone for the rest of my life?” and thus “spike” the question to go his way?  Or, he could say, “Will I continue to be unhappy?”  Since the bird always replies “Nevermore,” the speaker could thus get a better prediction if he tried, but instead of this, he asks sad and negative questions which portray a depressive obsessive frame of mind.

Finally, the speaker becomes irate enough to tell the bird to leave, and of course the bird replies, “Nevermore.”  So far, the mysterious death of Lenore isn’t made enough of to function as an objective correlative, and just having a (possible pet, trained by somebody) raven peck at the window and fly in isn’t enough to act as an objective correlative either, by T. S. Eliot’s explanation of that phenomenon.  It’s not actually until the very last stanza (of the 1845 edition of the poem) that anything sufficiently supernatural or odd happens, which doesn’t rely on the human speaker’s rigging of the game by asking the “right” questions.  Here is that stanza:

“And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting/On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;/And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,/And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;/And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted–nevermore!”

This stanza is truly weird:  the bird, without the mention of its being fed, or given water, or stirring from its place, is still there, apparently not having died or decayed.  The same seems to be proposed or at least implied of the man, who can’t really be imagined to have broken his concentration by getting up to get a sandwich or a Scotch and soda, and then come back.  Yes, in the last stanza I think we find a wee bit of an objective correlative in Eliot’s terms in the set of circumstances being what they are, the man’s enslavement to the bird’s malevolent spell, the neverendingness of his torment.

Now see, we had fun, didn’t we?  At least I did, and I hope you did too.  If not, comfort yourself with the reflection that your “torment” of reading this post has not been “neverending” (and I hope you’re not sitting in a dark room staring meaningly at your pet mynah bird, as I can’t answer for the consequences)!

8 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

The Dismantling and Reassembling of an Author’s Reputation–Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Jane Austen Book Club”

Once again, I had decided to read a book I was somewhat skeptical about because of all the hype it had received, and also because when a book has been made into a movie (as I understand this one has been) one has also the dual task, if possible, of being responsible for a comparison of the two, and I haven’t seen the movie.  But to forge on ahead–this book is not at all what I expected from what I had heard.  I had expected a sort of latter day imitation of Jane Austen’s world, in which (from what I had heard) the characters reading Jane Austen would begin to enact their own interior dramas and have relationships like those in an Austen novel, and would have happy or at least deserved endings, and then (as happens these days) there would be a reader’s guide to glance through for things I might want to think about, and then the book would be over.  A “good read,” but nothing spectacular, no fireworks, just a calm, if poignant, reminder of “our Jane” and her achievements.  A good read, be it understood, in the same way that Austen is a “good read,” requiring one’s wits for the piercing turn of phrase and one’s contemporary awareness that even Jane had her limits, mainly those of no longer achieving a sort of sexual politics we can nowadays feel comfortable with.  After all, marriage is no longer the only game in town.

But this book refused to cooperate with attempts to dismiss it (and I’m not sure now why I was trying to be so lazy), at the same time as it didn’t seem that well done, I couldn’t think why.  Perhaps it was because I was expecting a holistic experience, a standard “fourth wall realism” novel, in which (to borrow the term “fourth wall realism” from theater arts) the audience is allowed to maintain its fiction that it is looking at reality.  It’s not that The Jane Austen Book Club had any strange events, particularly, or departed from what we know of earth as described by basic biological tenets:  it was rather that the structure of the book itself bore a strange resemblance to something that had been dismantled and left on the floor or table in a partial state of reassembly.

True, there were six main characters in the book club, each of whom had a story in which they predominantly figured, and a book each which they were responsible for discussing of the six major works of Jane Austen featured in their discussions.  And, there were subsidiary characters who impinged upon their awareness and the plot itself.  But the six chapters of the months of the year during which they met, and the extra seventh chapter, and all the additional material included with the novel itself was a little confusing (the book had not a few odd pages of added random information stuck in here and there, and a strange editorial “we” narrative voice, apparently not representing any of the named characters, who spoke up now and then).  More and more as the novel went on, it bore the character not of a “fourth wall realistic” novel, which was what I had been expecting from the hype, but of a shattered experience known rather to the postmodern novel, with its characteristic disorientation of the reader and the reader’s presuppositions.

In truth, though I was a little bored with the novel proper, I found the overall tribute to Jane Austen to be quite valid and valuable and interesting.  And I don’t say I was bored because it was postmodern in its structure, but because the characters, along with the subsidiary characters who impinged upon their lives, added no real “flow” to the book.  It was largely a novel in which each character was briefly sketched, given some lines to say, and made to move toward some other character in the book.  The most significant sentence in the entire book occurs near the end of the novel:  it says, in the mysterious editorial voice (none of the named characters), “We’d let Austen into our lives, and now we were all either married or dating.”  This is presumably the “sop to Cereberus” of an Austen-like result that is meant to conclude the “business” of the tribute in the somewhat scattered pieces of the story line.  The after-material is another case, however.

I found that I was easily more interested in the editorial job Fowler had done with the Austen legacy and its documents than I was with the novel itself.  At the end of the novel, there is a “Reader’s Guide” (a brief and highly significant quoted paragraph); a quick run-down of the plots of Austen called “The Novels” (apparently intended to supply acquaintance and encouragement for those who haven’t read Austen yet); a section called “The Response,” which I easily found the most intriguing, composed of reactions from Austen’s contemporaries and family members and followed by those of famous writers and critics since; and then the inevitable “Questions for Discussion” and an index of “Acknowledgements.”  Once I had made my way through this material, I “saw [the book] steadily and saw [it] whole,” and this allowed a reassembling in my own mind of what I think Fowler’s purpose must have been:  I think it was largely an educational one, and though I don’t think the quality of the novel stands up to the quality of the overall project, I am glad I read the book, and can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, though I have expressed various reservations.

My suggestion to readers is this:  if you are a new reader of Jane Austen, read at least one Austen of your choice before you read this book.  Asking other Austen readers for a recommendation as to which one can be a frustrating task, because it seems that each novel has its own cadre of readers.  Maybe looking at Fowler’s section entitled “The Novels” will help you choose.  After reading the Austen novel, then read Fowler’s novel from beginning to end, for the purpose of comparing how a latter-day admirer of Austen may write, though I don’t think the two are comparable in quality (Fowler’s effort, though perhaps more familiar in its structure to our contemporary scene, seems a little thin and slapdash by comparison with Austen, and in having made her novel referential, Fowler has invited the comparison).  Lastly, and perhaps side-by-side with reading other Austen novels, read the rest of the whole of Fowler’s fine attempt to interest readers in the author whom she so obviously admires, and especially read “The Response” section:  everyone, it seems, has an opinion of Austen, and some differ widely (or wildly).  My guess is that all-in-all, you will come away with a similar affection for Jane Austen, and a debt of gratitude to Karen Joy Fowler, for having put your feet on the Austen reading path to start out with.

8 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

How much does God weigh?–Emily Dickinson and her quizzical answer

Today is a hot, sunny, beautiful day of summer, when the sky and the ocean are both full of blue ecstasy, and that makes it just right for a little ditty of a post on the natural world, so that I can return to it as soon as possible and leave the air conditioning and the computer to their own devices (yes, I’m getting lazy in the summer heat, you guessed it).  So, I chose a short three-stanza poem by Emily Dickinson, who is the perfect poet when images from nature come into question, as so many in her huge corpus of short poems have images and a figurative lexicon drawn from nature and its seasonal languages, even when the subject is death, or the departure from the world of nature.  This poem (#632 of her poems), however, includes some of her homey domestic images as well, the images of a woman used to keeping house and dealing with household implements.  But the real “kicker” about this poem is the way it goes along so very, very simply only to hit us with a real conundrum of an image at the very end.  Here is how it goes:

“The Brain–is wider than the Sky–/For–put them side by side–/The one the other will contain/With ease–and You–beside–/

The Brain is deeper than the sea–/For–hold them–Blue to Blue–/The one the other will absorb–/As Sponges–Buckets–do–/

The Brain is just the weight of God–/For–heft them–Pound for Pound–/And they will differ–if they do–As Syllable from Sound–”

There is something a bit sly and even coy about the way she leads us into her   transcendent world, which while using simple everyday images, sensations, and experiences makes such astounding transitions to experiences beyond this world.  She starts easily enough, by observing that the brain can contain both the image of the sky and the experience of seeing it, as well as the self.  “Well, okay, Emily D.,” one is bound to say, “I think we can accept that for starters.”  Then, she passes on to another apparently limitless thing the senses encounter, which curiously enough is less big than the sky, when it seems that it might otherwise be more poetically ordinary to start with the smaller of the two items (the sea) and build up in the next stanza to the larger (the sky).  But then, we find that her quirkiness or perhaps odd sense of humor has assigned a color to the brain (she says of the brain and the sea “hold them–Blue to Blue–” which means to compare the two “blue” items).  This makes us forget for the moment our previous quibble about relative sizes of infinite or quite large things, and leaves us, bemused, to go on to the last stanza.

Here, in the last stanza, Dickinson is asking us to perform another and even more daunting task, really quite impossible even for the believer in God, and certainly more than impossible for the questioner or doubter.  Not that it’s been easy up until now:  so far, we’ve put the brain and the sky side by side, we’ve held the brain and the sea up to each other for comparison, at least mentally, and been asked to imagine the brain soaking up the sea as a sponge would a bucket of liquid.  Now, we are being asked to “heft” the brain and God, to judge whether or not she is just when she suggests that they are of a similar “weight” and “differ–if they do–” and here the problem comes in.  Now, we are no longer being asked to judge of something which can at least be visualized with a great deal of imagination:  now we have to guess what the difference might be, if there is any, between “syllable” and “sound.”  The one is presumably the visual or physical or mental notation of the second, which proposes a more sophisticated relationship than between the items in the other two stanzas.  If one reads the items in order and assumes that the brain is the “syllable” and God the “sound” (and there is really no assurance that this is the correct “formula,” except that “sound” seems slightly more mysterious, as God would probably be thought to be), then the first, the brain, records or notates the second, God, and the second is the fulfillment of the first.  But it’s a stretch.

Perhaps the useful thing to end this post with is the observation that Dickinson, in many if not all of her poems (and yes, I do want to assure you that my curiosity was once pronounced enough to take me through the whole volume), likes to play “riddle me this” with images and concepts.  She finds in so many instances that the natural world speaks to her of what is beyond it, yet retains its own quiddity and essence, partaking of the “great beyond” without being any less literal and precious as what it is on earth.  Even the experiences of imagining death use homey and everyday images and pictures drawn from the natural world, because death is the great riddle of our existence, yet is a part of the natural world as well, and Dickinson was well acquainted with its appearance in nature.  And now that I have paid my tribute both to one of the greatest American poets of all time and to the lovely and perplexing world of nature that inspired her, I’ll quit writing, and go off to be inspired by the summer day myself (for so at least one always hopes to be).  Goodday to all my readers, and here’s hoping that even if you aren’t in the middle of summer where you are, that you find something in the natural world to make you happy today.

4 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews

Radclyffe Hall’s “The Unlit Lamp”–Anatomy of a Failure

I am imagining to myself as I begin this post that it will probably be one of the shortest I will write or have written, because I can think of very little to say about this book.  I didn’t enjoy reading it, but read it as a follow-up investigation of a book called The End of the Novel of Love, which was reviewed in a very interesting, informative, and vital post by Caroline on her site.  The theme of this novel is the living through of frustration and angst caused by the failure to achieve freedom of chosen lifestyle, and because it is the living through that is illustrated copiously, I call it an anatomy of a failure.  Once again, as occasionally happens, I feel the need to compare this book to Andy Warhol’s eight-hour movie on sleep, which is simply a movie of a person sleeping.  This book has no really strong climaxes or surprises, it’s simply a book about a woman’s failure to leave her mother and home and achieve a fresh life of her own, either with a man who wants to support her career and marry her, or another woman, who also wants to do much the same.  Instead, Joan Ogden (the main character) is too weak and indecisive to insist that her hypochondriacal mother release her to a life of independence, and the book instead traces every step of her failure to achieve a free life, and the consequences.

As Zoë Fairbairns says in her 1980 introduction to the Dial Press edition of the book, “It pre-dates by four years The Well of Loneliness, the lesbian love story for which [Radclyffe Hall] is best known and which was banned as obscene in 1928, but it is much better written:  both novels suffer, in their accounts of women’s love for each other, from purple passages, moments of overstatement, pedantry and authorial intrusion; but The Unlit Lamp is more powerful because more controlled.  It is also remarkable as a first novel for its management of three main characters as well as a number of important minor ones, only a few of whom degenerate into mouthpieces and devices.”  Frankly, the novel is so bad that a few more “purple passages” might even have made it more interesting; the “moments of overstatement” are ones about which the reader senses the writer nearly pulling her hair out in frustration with her own characters because there’s nothing else to be done with them, they simply won’t move and breathe on the page with any independence from the main theme; the “pedantry” is all of a piece with the turgidity and constipation of the prose; and the “authorial intrusion” isn’t nearly as obnoxious as the fact that the same message is being given over and over again, without variety or change.  It’s like being beaten over the head with a stick until one is dull and senseless.  In order to make it through the book, one has to remind oneself that the book was a new and different thing for its time, and thus the value in terms of which one is reading is that of pure historical interest in a form, a solely cerebral function which leaves the emotional catharsis of the reader unsatisfied with the torture the character goes through from beginning to end.

I guess I’m saying that it takes a certain amount of masochism on the reader’s part to get through this book, at least the kind of masochism which recites the mantra in the back of the reader’s head:  “My education won’t be complete unless I finish this book; my education won’t be complete unless I finish this book…” etc.  The best of authors sometimes torture their characters to make a point to the reader, and not every book can be a sunlit fantasy world of birds, trees, dappled clouds, and flowers, nor am I asking it to be.  But this book is like an unpleasant grimace or rictus on the author’s face as it is fronting the reader, and I have only limited patience for staring at a gargoyle.

Finally, this book is not an art work which flows as freely as song, hitting high notes, low notes, and some in-between:  rather it is like a long-drawn-out screech without variety, or a prolonged unpleasant discordant chord which won’t go away.  By all means, read it if you’re curious about Radclyffe Hall’s works or her first novel, if you’re interested in what used to be called “Boston marriages” between two women, if you are a psychologist in need of a case study of repression, manipulation, and misery:  but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

10 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews

Tennyson, Swinburne, and the spirit of parody

In 1867 (and 1869), the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson published a poem attempting to reconcile pantheism with Christianity of the traditional “God the Father” variety.  The poem was entitled “The Higher Pantheism,” a title which itself indicates that plain pantheism was to Tennyson a “lower” sort of religious thing.  Due to the poem’s being already published elsewhere on the Internet, I am able to give you the whole of this contrarious and sometimes confused-seeming poem, and though it is long for my page, I will do so in order that you can see for yourself the “knots” Tennyson tied up his religious logic in to form a “basket” to hold his beliefs.  The Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria obviously had a duty to God and country which came above poetic quality, though his parody writer Swinburne (writing in 1880) had good things to say about the writing while finding the thought muddy (the version of Swinburne’s parody which is published online at the University of Toronto Press T-Space by Professor Ian Lancashire has notes about a letter of Swinburne’s containing some lines of the parody, though in order not to violate Professor Lancashire’s online copyright, I am reprinting Swinburne’s parody from an edition which occurs elsewhere on the Internet on free sites without the letter.  Those who are interested in reading the letter and comments can do so at T-Space ).  Here is Tennyson at his elevated and obfuscational best in “The Higher Pantheism”:

“The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains–/Are not these, O Soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?/Is not the Vision He, though He be not that which he seems?/Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?/Earth, these solid stars, this weight of body and limb,/Are they not sign and symbol of thy division from Him?/Dark is the world to thee; thyself art the reason why,/For is He not all but thou, that hast power to feel ‘I am I’?/Glory about thee, without thee; and thou fulfillest thy doom,/Making him broken gleams and a stifled splendor and gloom./Speak to him, Thou, for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet–/Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet./God is law, say the wise; O soul, and let us rejoice,/For if He thunder by law the thunder is yet His voice./Law is God, say some; no God at all, says the fool,/For all we have power to see is a straight staff bent in a pool;/And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see;/But if we could see and hear, this Vision–were it not he?”

Actually, the poem is rather fine in many respects, though its singsong quality can be an annoyance, and the tone is of one trying a bit too hard to make ends meet spiritually.  But his poetic successor Swinburne, who was also his occasional imitator (in metrical terms, though not in spirit) made much of Tennyson’s little weaknesses in “proving” God’s existence, and did so partly by tactical repetition of meter and rhyme in the same style of singsong, no mean feat for the average poetaster but probably quite easy for Swinburne, who had a gift of meter, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance on his side anyway, to name a few only of his poetical qualities.  Here’s his delightful parody of Tennyson, entitled “The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell”:

“One, who is not, we see; but one, whom we see not, is;/Surely this is not that; but that is assuredly this./What, and wherefore, and whence? for under is over and under;/If thunder could be without lightning, lightning could be without thunder./Doubt is faith in the main; but faith, on the whole, is doubt;/We cannot believe by proof; but could we believe without?/Why, and whither, and how? for barley and rye are not clover;/Neither are straight lines curves; yet over is under and over./Two and two may be four; but four and four are not eight;/Fate and God may be twain; but God is the same thing as fate./Ask a man what he thinks, and get from a man what he feels;/God, once caught in the fact, shows you a fair pair of heels./Body and spirit are twins; God only knows which is which;/The soul squats down in the flesh, like a tinker drunk in a ditch./More is the whole than a part; but half is more than  the whole;/Clearly, the soul is the body; but is not the body the soul?/One and two are not one; but one and nothing is two;/Truth can hardly be false, if falsehood cannot be true./Once the mastadon was; pterodactyls were common as cocks;/Then the mammoth was God; now is He a prize ox./Parallels all things are; yet many of these are askew;/You are certainly I; but certainly I am not you./Springs the rock from the plain, shoots the stream from the rock;/Cocks exist for the hen; but hens exist for the cock./God, whom we see not, is, and God, who is not, we see;/Fiddle, we know, is diddle; and diddle, we take it, is dee.”

Aside from enjoying the beard-tugging going on in the parody, one of the first things one notices is that the parody is about one-fourth again as long as the original poem.  Clearly, Swinburne was enjoying himself, and the very forthright and yet absurd ridiculing going on is part and parcel of his own vision.  For example, it’s not so much only an exaggeration of Tennyson to say “The soul squats down in the the flesh, like a tinker drunk in a ditch” as it is a combination of the two poets’ attitudes in their poems, Tennyson more or less an apologist for the “higher” view, that the body is a “sign and symbol” of the soul’s division from God, hence a sort of “dirtier” thing which must be excused or apologized for, Swinburne a celebratory poet of things earthly, who yet feels their transitory nature as an impetus to memorialize them in poetry.  And this, the exaggeration of what one can take away from another’s poetry added to one’s own ingenious inventions in a similar meter and rhyme, is the very spirit of parody.  One could perhaps say that the best way truly to understand a poet or writer is to attempt a substantial and stylistic parody–after all, one must get the gist of the thought and tempo in order to make fun of it:  one must know what both oneself and the other are about.

2 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

“Sentimentality is a failure of feeling,” says Wallace Stevens, and Robert Browning speaks of “Lyric Love, half angel and half bird”–the difference between lyricism and sentimentality

As Wallace Stevens, never sentimental and occasionally even one of the most coldly obfuscational of poets, warned us at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the sentimentality of the Victorian Era was on the wane, “Sentimentality is the failure of feeling.”  No one could doubt that there was intense truth in his poetry and very little false feeling, though just what the poetry is about has often perplexed and frustrated other poets, literary critics, and scholars alike.  And though Robert Browning was a poet of the Victorian Era, and had ups and downs of sentiment himself, that’s not the same as saying that he was sentimental.  The two are different things, sentiment and sentimentality.  As he apostrophized in “The Ring and the Book,” “O Lyric Love, half angel and half bird,/And all a wonder and a wild desire.”  In a sense, the two capitalized words in his long poem are interchangeable, “Lyric Love” and “Love of Lyric.”  Even as long ago as the time of Horace (65-8 B.C.E.), Horace was enthusiastic enough to say in one of his odes, “But if you name me among the lyric bards, I shall strike the stars with my exalted head.”  That image, though comic perhaps to the ironically inclined, is still not guilty of the bathos–false inflated sentiment, unlike the true feeling of pathos–which I have singled out for part of my post topic today.

All of this background fluster and flurry is part of my setting for a discussion of a poem or two by a woman poet (“female” or “feminine” poet are terms of opprobrium to sexist men and terms of reduction to women themselves, used to ducking the charge of being too “gushy” and “touchy-feely” in their poems).  The poet herself is Edna St. Vincent Millay, and she has been charged by some with being a minor poet and participating in the sin (especially to our cynical, hard-minded times) of sentimentality.  But I would like to insist instead that her love poetry is both hard-minded, occasionally quite biting and ironic, and full of genuine feeling.  Her point of view on the question of the charge is quite clear.  As she said in one of her lyrics, entitled “To Those Without Pity,” “Cruel of heart, lay down my song/Your reading eyes have done me wrong./Not for you was the pen bitten,/And the mind wrung, and the song written.”  Note that she calls it a “song,” a synonym in a particular context for the word “lyric.”  There must be something which sings and moves and encourages rhythm in a poem, whether it rhymes or not, whether or not it has meter, and her poetry has all of this.  And often, critics’ objections against what they call “sentimentality” or “bathos” is in actuality an objection to being caused to have feeling themselves, to be drawn to emotion by the skilled words of another.  Love poetry is especially susceptible to this charge, because love is the one subject upon which we all are vulnerable, whatever kind of love it is, the one weakness that few of us can defend against at some time or other of our lives, and the particular thing we like being challenged upon the least, whether someone would say we feel too much or not enough.  Let’s look at one of her shorter lyrics, called “Never May the Fruit Be Plucked”:

“Never, never may the fruit be plucked from the bough/And gathered into barrels./He that would eat of love must eat it where it hangs./Though the branches bend like reeds,/Though the ripe fruit splash in the grass or wrinkle on the tree,/He that would eat of love may bear away with him/Only what his belly can hold,/Nothing in the apron,/Nothing in the pockets./Never, never may the fruit be gathered from the bough/And harvested in barrels./The winter of love is a cellar of empty bins,/In an orchard soft with rot.”

That poem certainly contains a cynical enough view, and yet it is a love poem, and is full of image and feeling and sense and does not force the reader’s head down with overdone emotion.  The feeling communicated is sufficient to the subject itself.

Or this one, a rhyming and more “singing” poem this time, called “The Betrothal”:

“Oh, come, my lad, or go, my lad,/And love me if you like./I shall not hear the door shut/Nor the knocker strike./Oh, bring me gifts or beg me gifts,/And wed me if you will./I’d make a man a good wife,/Sensible and still./And why should I be cold, my lad,/And why should you repine,/Because I love a dark head/That never will be mine?/I might as well be easing you/As lie alone in bed/And waste the night in wanting/A cruel dark head./You might as well be calling yours/What never will be his,/And one of us be happy./There’s few enough as is./”

This poem has an especial effect which I really like, and it’s in the ungrammatical last line.  To be grammatically correct, the expression (referring to people in the plural) should read “There’re few enough as are.”  But by using a colloquial and idiomatic “sting” of a line as the last, which moreover rhymes, a more folkish wisdom emerges from the final portion, and seals off the entire experience of the foregoing lines with an almost gnomic feel.

Probably the most famous poem Millay ever wrote (which has been recorded musically and is reprinted on several sites) is the longer poem “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” which I don’t have space for here today, but which I strongly recommend as a marvelously lovely picture of mother love, full of emotion and caring and none of it false, of a length of about five printed pages, all of which will repay study and attention for their smooth flow and melodic development of the theme of how a child witnesses a parent’s love and concern without always knowing until it’s too late how much that care costs.  The fantasy element that is present from the beginning of the poem makes the life picture broad enough to cover a number of slightly different situations, all of them with the same emotional tenor, proving that certain conditions are worldwide, like impoverishment, generosity, worry, ingenuity, beauty, death, and even magic, of sorts.

Finally, Millay is a veteran composer of the sonnet form, and I would like to add one example of this to my discourse of today.  The sonnet is entitled “When I too long have looked upon your face”:

“When I too long have looked upon your face,/Wherein for me a brightness unobscured/Save by the mists of brightness has its place,/And terrible beauty not to be endured,/I turn away reluctant from your light,/And stand irresolute, a mind undone,/A silly, dazzled thing deprived of sight/From having looked too long upon the sun./Then is my daily life a narrow room/In which a little while, uncertainly,/Surrounded by impenetrable gloom,/Among familiar things grown strange to me/Making my way, I pause, and feel, and hark,/Till I become accustomed to the dark.”

Millay is more modern in many ways than Christina Rossetti, but the domestic and natural imagery, the sometimes fantastic elements as in “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” and her book of poetry for children which is equally important to adults (as with Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”) make her Rossetti’s true inheritor poetically speaking.  Try this experiment:  read a number of Millay’s poems, both the rhyming and the metered and the blank and free verse and then read this famous poem of Rossetti’s, and see, barring a slightly more stiff-upper-lipped emotional resonance in Millay, if you don’t find them very similar in their styles, perhaps their world views, even.  This poem of Rossetti’s is called simply, “Song”:

“When I am dead, my dearest,/Sing no sad songs for me;/Plant thou no roses at my head,/Nor shady cypress tree./Be the green grass above me/With showers and dewdrops wet;/And if thou wilt, remember,/And if thou wilt, forget./I shall not see the shadows,/I shall not feel the rain;/I shall not hear the nightingale/Sing on as if in pain./And dreaming through the twilight/That doth not rise nor set,/Haply I may remember,/And haply may forget.”

Points proven if only in brief, I hope.  In an era in which we have a proliferation of mass literature with plenty of bathos and sentimentality, and a literary fiction pulling hard in the other direction, even to the point of sometimes seeming too callous and unfeeling, perhaps, as Richard Gilbert has recently posted on his site in reference to Wordsworth, we need to return to the middle ground via reading good lyric poetry which, while enshrining feeling in a key and secure spot at its heart, yet fends off the “bad” sentiment or the weak line (the two are often one) by the depth of its reaching into the human experience.

4 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

Three different considerations of the difficulties and goals of one’s life work, one from Browning, two from Yeats….

Having written recently about the intersection of inspiration and technique in one’s art or craft, I come now to three related writings, all poems, about the commingled doings of inspiration, technique, difficulty, success, and of course everyone’s creative bugbear, failure.  Let’s begin with a story told in first person, one of Robert Browning’s famous dramatic monologues.  It’s called “Andrea del Sarto,” and has the subtitle “(called ‘The Faultless Painter’).”  It’s much too long to reproduce here, so I’ll have to content myself with repeating the gist of it and giving you the most important quoted section for my post.  It’s basically an imaginary monologue based upon the life of Andrea del Sarto, an actual painter, who was once a court favorite of King Francis I of France, but who was drawn away from court and from support of his aged parents by his infatuation for his wife Lucrezia, who was also his model, and who led him a dance.  The poem itself indicates that she grudgingly gave him attention, even to his work, which was supporting them, and instead spent her time with a largely spurious “cousin,” a usage which implies that she was cheating on del Sarto.

Browning’s monologue is one which is filled with certain regrets del Sarto supposedly has about having left court and lost his following to paint pictures of Lucrezia for the odd patron who comes along and falls in love with her beauty.  Of course, being in love with her himself to an uxurious degree, del Sarto constantly forgives her and speaks against his own ambitions.  Still, they do not go entirely unmentioned.  And when he comes to the subject of art, he not only gives himself a harsh consideration, but puts forth a “theory” of art, which shows that his work is also never far from his thoughts and that it is in fact the pull between his love and his art which is making him miserable.  This is how that part of the poem goes, with its famous lines about heaven and achievement of the utmost:

“There burns a truer light of God in [my rivals],/In their vexed beating stuff and stopped-up brain,/Heart, or whate’er else, than goes on to prompt/This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine./Their work drops groundward, but themselves, I know,/Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me,/Enter and take their place there sure enough,/Though they come back and cannot tell the world./My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here./The sudden blood of these men! at a word–/Praise them, it boils, or blame them, it boils too./I, painting from myself and to myself/Know what I do, am unmoved by men’s blame/Or their praise either.  Someone remarks/Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,/His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,/Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?/Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?/Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?  All is silver-gray/Placid and perfect with my art:  the worse!”

And so on and so forth, comparisons to both lesser and greater painters of his time continuing.  He criticizes his art, and sometimes to a hesitant and slight degree his model, Lucrezia, and says it’s “As if I saw alike my work and self/And all that I was born to be and do,/A twilight-piece.”  All of this relates to his own strange pull amongst ambition, and perfection of craft, and love, with his awareness that the nature of aspiration demands one must always have another level to ascend to, another goal, something that possibly cannot be reached.  His wife “rewards” his love for her in this manner willy-nilly, and it is as if he is a partially beaten man, wondering if his art will do the same thing.

Yeats, who has written many poems about art and artists and the life of the same has his own moments of expressing either a strange mixture of exhilaration and defeatism, or a calm acceptance of failure–the difference is, of course that the former is about his own work, the latter about that of another.  In the first poem, he documents his contrary and mixed emotions of infatuation and personal vexation with his job as director-manager of the Abbey Theatre.  It’s called “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”:

“The fascination of what’s difficult/Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent/Spontaneous joy and natural content/Out of my heart.  There’s something ails our colt/That must, as if it had not holy blood/Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,/Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt/As though it dragged road-metal.  My curse on plays/That have to be set up in fifty ways,/On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,/Theatre business, management of men./I swear before the dawn comes round again/I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.”

“Our colt” is of course the divine horse Pegasus, emblem of creative inspiration, yet Yeats shows quite clearly in this poem how he reacts to all the stops and starts and quandaries and problems of a practical nature that afflict those working in his theatre, with special reference to his own role and his temptation to “find the stable and pull out the bolt” and let the horse escape, probably more occasional than he lets on, since I suspect just writing this poem relieved some of the tension.

Finally (though of course there are so many aspects of the complicated questions having to do with inspiration and achievement that writers and artists will always have more to say), there is Yeats’s poem entitled “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.”  It is in this poem that I sometimes see the Yeats I like least, the Yeats who is not always at his hard-headed best, but who is a little sentimental, coyly daft, and perhaps a bit glib, with his famous mysticism thrown in and passing for a genuine vision, whereas in other poems it’s quite remarkable and eerily convincing.  At the end, I have to suppose that Yeats may have been aware that this poem is one of his own which is an encapsulated experience of what it is itself discussing, i.e., he may have known that this tribute was a partial failure of his own art, yet was perhaps unable to offer better:

“Now all the truth is out,/Be secret and take defeat/From any brazen throat,/For how can you compete,/Being honour bred, with one/Who, were it proved he lies,/Were neither shamed in his own/Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?/Bred to a harder thing/Than Triumph, turn away/And like a laughing string/Whereon mad fingers play/Amid a place of stone,/Be secret and exult,/Because of all things known/That is most difficult.”

On the other hand, if one looks for one of those many connecting highways and by-ways and intersections and coincidences so common in Yeats’s poems, one will notice the coincidence that he uses the work “difficult” in both poems.  It seems to suggest that possibly the “Triumph” spoken of is only actually a question of public personal acclaim, and that the work itself, whatever it may be, which his friend accomplished–or himself, Yeats was not above “dividing” himself into two and writing one to the other–was in fact a Triumph of a private sort, not a failure at all.  The familiar Yeatsian take on the “mad” person, one who is inspired by something not usual or not usually of this world, is thus included here as another emblem of the divine as it enters the humdrum world of human life, just as the horse Pegasus was seen as a ragged and whipped colt in the world of theatre politics and arrangements.  Take it as you will.  Yeats’s shoulders are creatively certainly broad enough to bear my previous charge, that he is sometimes a bit too whimsical.

Thus, to take it all in all, neither Andrea del Sarto with his wandering wife, nor the complaining theatre prime functionary, nor the “mad” talent in the third poem who is advised to let harsh words pass are any of them really expected (and perhaps are not inclined) to give up the fight and actually throw in the towel when it comes to artistic goals and aspirations.  Their trials are just the bumps one can expect to find along the road to art, should one be so “daft” as to make the artistic and creative one’s perpetual mental habitat.  So, if you are a person who for one reason or another likes to make ideas or things, or simply one who likes to mull over and meditate in print or otherwise on others’ creations, perhaps my post today will provide some fodder for your own private “Pegasus,” and keep him from kicking down the walls of his stable the next time you fight through your own creative struggles and torments.  Here’s to the high road of creative reward and difficulty alike, for my choice!  How about you?

4 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Full of literary ambitions!, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?