February 2009


73. Sara Coleridge, “Song”

He came unlook’d for, undesir’d,

A sun-rise in the northern sky:

More than the brightest dawn admir’d,

To shine and then for ever fly.

His love, conferr’d without a claim,

Perchance was like the fitful blaze,

Which lives to light a steadier flame,

And, while that strengthens, fast decays.

Glad fawn along the forest springing,

Gay birds that breeze-like stir the leaves,

Why hither haste, no message bringing

To solace one that deeply grieves?

Thou star that dost the skies adorn

So brightly heralding the day,

Bring one more welcome than the morn,

Or still in night’s dark prison stay.

It’s an old story. Girl meets boy. Boy sweeps her off her feet, then loses interest. Girl gains interest, becomes an invalid. Boy leaves. Spring comes. Girl grieves. Etc. This is either an incredibly depressing poem or else it’s not. Sure, the tropes are depressing enough, but we hardly feel like we’re listening to, say, Tennyson’s Mariana, that archetype of trapped Victorian womanhood, wishing she were dead in the moated grange. (I actually think that there’s a lot to like about Tennyson’s poem, but my curse is that I know Measure for Measure too well so it’s hard to forget that she’s there pining for stupid Angelo. Which is largely beside the point of the poem, and yet–those of us who live by the intertext must also occasionally die by it.)

In fact, there’s something to be said for the way this female speaker assesses her situation–this skepticism about spontaneous love (“conferr’d without a claim”–which did, admittedly, make me think at first of rape or at least fornication), the fairly clear-eyed simile to explain the mechanics by which male indifference leads to female obsessiveness. In fact, it’s rather similar to the way I recently described a failed relationship from last fall: his flaky activated my crazy.

So in some ways, this is very much a Victorian double poem–and one that would probably fruitfully read according to some of the ideas that Warwick Slinn puts forth in Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique–at least to the extent that it both expresses broken-heartedness and examines the discourses, tropes, and general cultural assumptions through which that broken-heartedness is constructed and experienced. On the other hand–and perhaps I’m overthinking the biographical part of this–there’s something about this sensibility that seems to come from an earlier time, that seems to be more suited to someone who was seeped in, say, the romanticist milieu.

Someone like, perhaps…Sara Coleridge! (Her dates are 1802-1852; Quiller-Couch lops two years off her already short life.) Sara Coleridge as in “the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge Sara Coleridge.” If you take a look at her Wikipedia page (above) you get a pretty good sense of the extent to which she must have been a kind of quintessential child of romanticism, though also, no doubt, very much a mid-Victorian. She’s remembered today less for her poetry then for the editing of her father’s last works, including the Biographia Literaria. A good place to start to learn more about her role in the posthumous construction of S. T. Coleridge is the anthology Nervous Reactions: Victorian Recollections of Romanticism, edited by Joel Faflak and Julia Wright. They take Sara Coleridge as representative of the Victorians’ grappling with the inheritance left by their romantic predecessors–and the section includes a contribution by the Graduate Center’s own Alan Vardy.

To come back to the poem itself. I suppose what I find really appealing about this at the moment is that it calls out a certain kind of Shelleyan (I’m using the term broadly, though possibly to express something different than the equally broad “Byronic”) masculinity that sweeps in with promises of celestial or psychological union and ideal beauty, then pretty much annihilates you (or tries to, or does so by accident) and then moves on, Alastor chasing his ideal love, and so on. (Yes, I’m being reductive, but I have actually thought at length about some of this.) It’s not angry and it’s not a renunciation–she still loves the guy, but that doesn’t make him less of an asshat–and it seems to avoid some of the more obvious tropes of the abandoned women of the Victorian realist novel. You wouldn’t mistake it for Augusta Webster or Amy Levy, but you also wouldn’t (I hope) mistake it for one of Christina Rossetti’s poems. Like many of the poems I’ve been blogging, it doesn’t change the world, but it does flash a light onto something in it–and that’s really all I’m looking for on a Monday night.

On a somewhat more personal note: I finished reading the eighth book in the Anne of Green Gables series last night, which means I’m now scanning my shelves for something else to ease my often difficult passage into dreamland. For about two and a halfy years, I pretty much only read Trollope before bed, though that stopped when I started working on my orals lists. Trollope was not on them, but Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, and Schreiner were, and my evening reading habits changed accordingly. Somewhat perversely, the first book I read after my orals were over was, in fact, The Prime Minister, but I think that may have been the last Victorian novel I’ve read, period, since then. This makes me feel weird. Unfortunately, it appears that the only novels I own that I haven’t read or at least made a concerted effort to try to read are Barnaby Rudge and Disraeli’s Sybil. This does not seem promising. I suppose I could always give Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy-Chain another go.

I’ve been poking myself to do blog entries, but  Anne’s been picking up the slack whilst I fret about a certain other conference (for which I’ve also been remiss at blogging–double shame on me!). So, just a quick, gratuitous post. The Guardian is covering this year’s Diagram prize for the year’s oddest book titles. This year’s shortlist:

  • Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy Dorothy L Cheney and Robert M Seyfarth (University of Chicago Press)
  • Curbside Consultation of the Colon by Brooks D Cash (SLACK Incorporated)
  • The Large Sieve and its Applications by Emmanuel Kowalski (Cambridge University Press)
  • Strip and Knit with Style by Mark Hordyszynski (C&T)
  • Techniques for Corrosion Monitoring by Lietai Yang (Woodhead)
  • The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais by Professor Philip M Parker (Icon Group International)

(Is it just because I’m Chinese that I don’t understand what’s so funny about “Techniques for Corrosion Monitoring”?)

So–what are your nominations for the oddest book titles written in or on the long 19th century? My fave is Peter Lund Simmonds’ Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances: Or, Hints for Enterprise in Neglected Fields (1862). Elaine Freedgood brought a copy into class, and pointed out that there’s an index entry on “Bile, economic use of.” It’s on Google Books, and the book adverts at the back are well worth perusing for other nominees.

#66. “Evening, and Maidens” by William Barnes

Now the shiades o’ the elems da stratch muore an muore,
Vrom the low-zinkèn zun in the west o’ the sky;
An’ the maîdens da stan out in clusters avore
The doors, var to chatty an’ zee vo’ke goo by.

An’ ther cuombs be a-zet in ther bunches o’ hiair
An’ ther curdles da hang roun’ ther necks lily-white,
An’ ther cheäks tha be ruosy, ther shoulder be biare,
Ther looks tha be merry, ther lims tha be light.

An’ the times have a-been—but tha cant be noo muore—
When I, too, had my jây under evemen’s dim sky,
When my Fanny did stan’ out wi’ others avore
Her door, var to chatty an’ zee vo’ke go by.

An’ up there, in the green, is her own honey-zuck,
That her brother trâin’d up roun’ her winder; an’ there
Is the ruose an’ the jessamy, where she did pluck
A flow’r var her buzom ar bud var her hiair.

An’ zoo smile, happy mâidens! var every fiace,
As the zummers da come an’ the years da roll by,
Wull soon sadden, ar goo vur awoy vrom the pliace
Ar else, lik’ my Fanny, wull wither an’ die.

But when you be a-lost vrom the parish, some muore
Wull come on in y’ur pliazen to bloom an’ to die;
And zoo zummer wull always have mâidens avore
Ther doors, var to chatty an’ ze vo’ke goo by.

Var da’ters ha’ marnen when mothers ha’ night,
An’ there’s beauty alive when the fiairest is dead;
As when oon sparklèn wiave da zink down vrom the light,
Another da come up an’ catch it instead.

Zoo smile on, happy mâidens! but I shall noo moure
Zee the mâid I da miss under evemen’s dim sky;
An’ my heart is a-touch’d to zee you out avore
The doors, var to chatty and zee vo’ke goo by.

So I’m really just posting this in order to drive Mia crazy when she tries to copy edit it. : )

…Okay, not really. It’s actually a kind of haunting poem when you get past the initial “what is this?” reaction to the dialect and diacritical marks–I had to transcribe the poem in Word just to get them all in. (There are still a couple that I couldn’t figure out how to make.) I’m not sure I’d be able to declaim it before a crowd of people, but I can at least get a sense of some of the music of the Dorset dialogue graphically represented here.

William Barnes (1801-1886), says Wikipedia, was both a poet and a philologist; the decision to write in the dialect of his native Dorsetshire was a conscious decision undertaken, at least in part (it seems), to demonstrate a more “pure” English language, free of the pernicious influences of Latin and Greek words. Barnes himself knew Latin, Greek, and modern languages, suggesting that a certain level of education is necessary to write as if you have none. (John Clare would be an instructive comparison here–someone who actually was an uneducated peasant poet rather than someone writing as if he were one. Not that I’m going all essentialist and authenticity on you, but you know what I mean.) Barnes gets seven poems in the OBVV, compared to two in the more contemporary Penguin Book of Victorian Verse–and the two in that collection are not in this one.

I’m intrigued by the claim on the Wiki page (which I’m going to assume comes from the book cited at the bottom, namely The Rebirth of England and the English by Andrew Philips, sadly available only in snippet view on GoogleBooks) that Barnes’s project of purging Latin and Greek roots from English in favor of a more robust Anglo-Saxon language had a class element to it–that is, it would be easier for someone without a classical education to understand what a photograph was if we called it a “sun-print” or that “botany” would be more intelligible as “wortlore.” It recalls for me William Godwin’s view in The Enquirer (1797) that it’s important to study etymology so that you can’t be made to look stupid by not knowing all the things that your own words could possibly mean. So I wonder if part of Barnes’s argument could be something like an attempt to bring the power of words back to the people.

The study of etymology of course doesn’t save the title chararcter of Godwin’s Caleb Williams, nor does it save Godwin when he publishes the Memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft. And I’m too much of a Derridean (yes, there, I said it) not to know all the different ways that words and signs can break from their context and come back to twist themselves around a misunderstanding and bite us in our discursive ass. But I do think that it occasionally makes for pretty poetry. The more I think about “Evening, and maidens,” the more I like it. The repetition of the line about standing outside of their “doors, var to chatty an’ zee vo’ke goo by” gives it a comforting lilt, even as the expression of loss remains poignant. It may not break new ground in themes in English poetry, but perhaps it doesn’t have to.

At the same time, what do we make of  a classically-educated poet’s decision to write in dialect–especially when that decision does seem to assume a spoken language superior to a written one yet approximated and kept alive through writing? This is hardly an issue specific to the Victorian period, but I’m surprised that it really has yet to be studied systematically within this context, given the recent attention to subjects like the Spasmodic school and Victorian meters.  I could very much see Victorian dialect poetry (or some better name for it) becoming the next big thing in the field, and if it does I hope that it’s not carried out just on a historical and material level but that it’s also used to think some of the theoretical implications of this kind of project–not in a specifically Derridean way necessarily, but perhaps as an extension or development of a book like Eric Griffiths’ The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry, one of my all-time favorite critical texts.

(and Ms. Mia, as well…)

Probably many of you have already seen Damien Hirst’s painting which is featured on Penguin’s special 150th anniversary edition of Origin. It’s called “Human Skull in Space.”

damienhirst-human-skull-in-space

Thing One: In composing my bio for Wagner’s Anthology, I was forced to sit and think about myself, and this is what I came up with: “Kiran Mascarenhas is a PhD student from the English department at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is interested in how the language of economics, of science and technology and of morality relates to discourses of gender, imperialism and neo-imperialism.”
I know what I am trying to say, but I’m not sure I’m saying it very well. What do you make of this bio? Does it raise questions in your mind?

Thing Two: After distilling my interests into a sentence or two, I have this new idea for Orals lists. So here are three possible lists
a) The construction and deconstruction of the Victorian middle class
b) The work of Gayatri Spivak
c) Post – human, fact, modern, thing, gender, colonial, ponement (differance)

I have no reason for posting this other than that it mentions Victorian underwear in passing and makes for a fun read  about the MLA. I stumbled upon it while looking for a picture of Andrew Ross in his mango Comme Des Garcons jacket (I am reading The Sokal Hoax).

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CE7DF153AF933A25751C0A967958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all

Would y’all be so kind as to take a look at my rudimentary orals lists and tell me if I’m barking up the wrong trees?

Next Page »