March 2009


The 2009 CUNY Victorian Conference, with program, and much more, at http://absintheandaphorisms.wordpress.com, put together by a certain WP monkeygrrl.

So, our article for tomorrow’s reading group meetingis Andrew Miller’s piece on unled lives in realist fiction. Me being myself–or, to quote Miller’s Kierkegaardian hook, me being nailed to myself–and it being April Fool’s Day in parts of the intertubes, the most beloved of holidays around the nerdosphere–I’ll draw your attention to an unfeatured AFD feature article on wikipedia–and make it relevant to the century we know and love.

The feature article that did make it is Boston’s Museum of Bad Art, which really does exist, and which I will put on my list of things to see before I die. After doing some digging around on discussion pages, I came upon one of the unlucky candidates that didn’t make it, the entry on raining animals. You can check out the discussion here.

Raining animals? Hallelujah! And there’s a whole list of days when animals were reported to have actually rained. Most of them have “citation needed” tags, but following one of the duly citationed ones led me to a book of questionable scholarly merit. I spent some time checking one fact on the London Times digital archive (bad OCR + tiny text + broadsheet = epic procrastination) and found this example.

raining-animals

April 24, 1871, bottom right corner of page 7.

I could probably find a more biblical example, but I’m too busy a-twittering and lusting over recently-obsolete netbooks.

146. “Love Not” by Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton (1808-77)

Love not, love not, ye hapless sons of clay!

Hope’s gayest wreaths are made of earthly flow’rs–

Things that are made to fade and fall away,

When they have blossom’d but a few short hours.

Love not, love not!

Love not, love not! The thing you love may die–

May perish from the gay and gladsome earth;

The silent stars, the blue and smiling sky,

Beam on its grave as once upon its birth.

Love not, love not!

Love not, love not! The thing you love may change,

The rosy lip may cease to smile on you;

The kindly beaming eye grow cold and strange;

The heart still warmly beat, yet not be true.

Love not, love not!

Love not, love not! O warning vainly said

In present years, as in the years gone by!

Love flings a halo round the dear one’s head,

Faultless, immortal–till they change or die!

Love not, love not!

(1850ish)

If you’ve heard of Caroline Norton (I hope you have), you probably know her not as a poet but as an early, though somewhat accidental, campaigner for the rights of married and divorced women throughout the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to the Wikipedia page (linked above), you might also want to check out this 2006 Guardian article for a sense of Norton’s historical importance. She has one of those stories–an abusive marriage, rumors of affairs with powerful men, the removal of her children by a vindictive husband–that never quite gets told in canonical Victorian fiction. I can think of a couple examples (one of the marriages in Thackeray’s The Newcomes, for instance) where this kind of thing is hinted at, but both the Wikipedia page and the Guardian article give a sense of the complicatedness of Norton’s life–and her legacy. The idea of a mother retaining custody of her children in the case of a divorce or separation is almost our default mode today; it’s hard to even conceptualize a time when a wife could simply not have access to her children.

And, of course, all of this was taking place in the 1830s; it wasn’t until 1882 (several years after Norton’s death) that the Married Women’s Property Act was passed. As the Guardian points out, the divorce case brought by Norton’s husband failed, but left Norton herself in a kind of “legal limbo”–she was, of course, still married to the jerk and remained so until he died in 1875. Which means among other things that she didn’t own the copyright to her own words. Nineteenth-century copyright law is one of my intermittent theoretical interests, and this implication of her case–the linguistic as well as the financial side–strikes me as being just as interesting (if not more so) than the custody thing, only because that’s relatively straightforward by comparison. But I don’t actually have the wherewithal or the expertise to go into this right now.

And I guess I have to confess that I find this to be one of the less compelling poems that I’ve blogged about so far. I chose it largely based on the fact that it speaks to a certain mood that I’m in right now, but I never really had that “aha!” moment when the doubleness of the poem became clear to me while I was typing it out. Even its reversals and ironies (the repetition of “love not,” the futility of the warning, the bitter twist of the word “halo” towards the end) strike me as being somewhat…oh, I don’t know…conventional? Not in a bad sense, really, but just, you know…there it is. It’s certainly teachable, but in a sort of dismal, unsurprising sense; for any real excitement, one would have to draw a bit more on Norton’s biography (as I’ve done above) than I’m completely comfortable with.

Regular readers, of course, know that the biography/interpretation thing is a perpetual conflict of mine that has regularly been played out in these posts. And none of this is to say that I’m sorry it’s here, in the OBVV. Perhaps more than many of the other poems I’ve looked at, it has the virtue of being sort of eminently “representative” of something or other more or less “Victorian”–and that occasionally means leaving less breathing room for the kinds of readings that I like to do here, readings that depend on there being enough of a dislocation or rupture with historical context and original “intention” and all of that to reintroduce an element of surprise and, as much as I hesitate to put it this way, resonance. (I’m thinking of an article by Wai-Chee Dimock that was published in PMLA sometime in the mid-90s and was then taken up by Jay Clayton as a frame for Charles Dickens in Cyberspace, one of the books that made me a Victorianist. I’m also of course borrowing the sentiment from Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” which I believe should be the Derrida you read if you don’t plan to read any other Derrida.) I’m finding that resonance in another one of Norton’s poems I came across this evening. It is not, alas, reprinted in the OBVV, but it speaks perhaps even more closely to my state of mind on this Monday evening.–and yes, Mia, this is sometimes all that I’m looking for–“I Do Not Love Thee”:

I do not love thee!—no! I do not love thee!
And yet when thou art absent I am sad;
And envy even the bright blue sky above thee,
Whose quiet stars may see thee and be glad.
I do not love thee!—yet, I know not why,
Whate’er thou dost seems still well done, to me:
And often in my solitude I sigh
That those I do love are not more like thee!
I do not love thee!—yet, when thou art gone,
I hate the sound (though those who speak be dear)
Which breaks the lingering echo of the tone
Thy voice of music leaves upon my ear.
I do not love thee!—yet thy speaking eyes,
With their deep, bright, and most expressive blue,
Between me and the midnight heaven arise,
Oftener than any eyes I ever knew.
I know I do not love thee! yet, alas!
Others will scarcely trust my candid heart;
And oft I catch them smiling as they pass,
Because they see me gazing where thou art.

I will now proceed to go check my email for the 9,000th time before I go to bed. Till next week, dearies.

In my neverending quest to feel like a bad person, I’ve compiled a list of Victorian novels that you either must lie about having read, sheepishly admit not having read, or proudly proclaim that nobody reads that anymore while making a mental note–or maybe you’re a better person than me, pre-orals, and have actually read all of these. Novels only, arranged early, middle, and late, in no particular order within each category. Novels only–these are quite enough reasons for me to feel inadequate. Did I miss anything, make any egregious typos?

Early and Pre-

D’Israeli, Benjamin. Sybil, or the Two Nations.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre; The Professor; Shirley; Villette.
Bronte, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; Agnes Grey.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice; Sense and Sensibility; Emma; Mansfield Park; Persuasion.
Scott, Walter. Ivanhoe; Waverley; The Heart of Midlothian.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair; Pendennis; Henry Esmond.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein.
Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. The Last Days of Pompeii; Eugene Aram.
Gore, Catherine. Cecil, or Adventures of a Coxcomb
De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an Opium-Eater. 

Mid

Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers; Oliver Twist; Christmas Carol; Tale of Two Cities; Hard Times; Dombey and Son; David Copperfield; Great Expectations; Little Dorrit; Bleak House; Our Mutual Friend; Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Eliot, George. Adam Bede; Mill on the Floss; Silas Marner; Felix Holt; Middlemarch; Daniel Deronda.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland; Through the Looking Glass.
Kingsley, Charles. Water-Babies.
Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown’s School Days.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford; Mary Barton; North and South; Ruth; Wives and Daughters.
Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White; The Moonstone; Armadale; No Name.
Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret.
Wood, Ellen. East Lynne.
Trollope, Anthony. Barchester TowersThe Way We Live NowPhineas FinnPhineas ReduxCan You Forgive Her?; The Eustace Diamonds.
Oliphant, Margaret. Miss Marjoribanks.
Meredith, George. The Ordeal of Richard Feverel; The Egoist; Diana of the Crossways. 

Late

James, Henry. Portrait of a Lady; Turn of the Screw; The Wings of the Dove.
Hardy, Thomas. Far from the Madding Crowd; The Mayor of Casterbridge; The Woodlanders; Tess of the D’Urbervilles; Jude the Obscure
Wilde, Oscar. Portrait of Dorian Gray.
Gissing, George. New Grub Street; The Odd Women.
Schreiner, Olive. Story of an African Farm.
Haggard, Rider. King Solomon’s Mines; She.
Kipling, Rudyard. Kim.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness.
Grand, Sarah. The Heavenly Twins.
Butler, Samuel. Erewhon, The Way of All Flesh.
Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backwards.
Morris, William. News from Nowhere.
Du Maurier, George. Trilby.
Le Fanu, Sheridan. Uncle Silas, In a Glass Darkly.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; other Holmes stuff.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula.
Wells, H. G. Tono-Bungay; War of the Worlds; The Time Machine.

123. “The Best” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61)

What’s the best thing in the world?

June-rose, by May-dew empearl’d’

Sweet south-wind, that means no rain;

Truth, not cruel to a friend;

Pleasure, not in haste to end;

Beauty, not self-deck’d and curl’d

Till its pride is over-plain;

Light, that never makes you wink;

Memory, that gives no pain;

Love, when, so, you’re loved again.

What’s the best thing in the world?

–Something out of it, I think.

(1855)

Unlike  many of the authors who have graced this digital feature, Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not need to be brought up from obscurity via Wikipedia; I will leave you with her overview page from the Victorian Web and be done with that part of things for now.

What I really want to talk about is this idea of value–“the best” or “the best thing in the world.” It’s loosely inspired by my ongoing exchange with Mia, where I’ll tell her that I’ve made a new Poem of the Week post and she’ll ask me when I’m going to talk about a poem that sucks or that I dislike. I tend to evade this question for a number of reasons. One of the most important is this: I don’t really have a stable category in my head for bad poetry, at least not when I’m coming at it intellectually in this way. (Yes, I’m considering these blog posts to be intellectual work. When’s summer again?) I mean, I know that there is “bad” poetry out there and that much of it was written in the nineteenth century. If you click on the “About” tab for this blog and then scroll down a bit, you’ll find an example thereof. In fact, McGonagall is considered to be one of the worst poets in the English language. But what do we mean by “worst”? Certainly, the versification leaves something to be desired, and the fact that we find ourselves giggling at a poem about a horrible disaster is not entirely fortuitous, to say the least. It is no “Wreck of the Deutschland.” (N.B. Neither of these poems appear in the OBVV. Hopkins is represented by “The Starlight Night,” and McGonagall, perhaps to Quiller-Couch’s credit, does not appear at all.)

McGonagall, of course, is perhaps not a fair example. He falls more or less into the “so bad it’s good” category–and we get some pleasure from that, at least. And this kind of “bad” poetry can often be interesting on a number of levels, too. I’m not sure I’m ready to commit my life to a study of McGonagall and other poets of the Spasmodic school, but I am sometimes fascinated by their poetics: I had a great time reading Sidney Dobell’s “Nature of Poetry” for my orals last year.

And I guess this is all part of what I do. Once I’ve gotten the poems that speak to me on an intensely personal level (say, Maud, or certain sections of Aurora Leigh), I’m basically left with the question of “is it interesting/useful”? Can it be opened up by close reading? Is it worth it at all? Do I learn anything? (I conceptualize this last question broadly and ask it somewhat reluctantly…it’s more complicated than I’m willing to go into right now.) Many of the poems I’ve looked at here have been, if not the most earthshattering specimens ever, at least worth a bit  more consideration, a thousand words and a handful of Google searches. And that’s not all bad, right? I do this because it makes me happy, and I’m not willing to give that up lightly; if anything, it’s a point of connection between me and our friend Arthur Quiller-Couch.

This is all an answer to a somewhat different question than the one Mia asked me, and it’s also one that’s veered off in a completely individualized direction. It can’t explain why we as a profession still read what we read, why some poets are valued more highly than others, and all the myriad accidents and causes that come together to manifest themselves as something so absurd as a literary canon. It all gets really contingent when you think about it, and my guess is that most of us would rather think in terms of disciplinary history and the vagaries of the publishing world and what some dude at Cambridge was reading before the First World War.

…but have you ever stopped to think of what a miracle a poem–even a bad one–is?

Somehow this is all suggested to me by this notion of “The Best.” At first glance, EBB’s “Best” seems to be a kind of anesthetized middle ground, a kind of cozy mediocrity. It’s old fashioned and kind of quaint, all culminating in a transcendent moment that verges into cliche. And that’s probably why it doesn’t make it to, say, the EBB section in The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse. (Interestingly, though, EBB is a much more substantial presence in the OBVV, with some sixteen poems. The Penguin gives her four, though–to be fair–the Sonnets from the Portuguese are included in their entirety.) It’s also not numbered among the “other poems” in the fairly recent Penguin edition of Aurora Leigh and Other Poems.

But I suppose what strikes me about this poem, what makes it more than quaint, is its very destabilizing of those broad categories that are supposed to be universal–truth, pleasure, beauty, light, memory, love–by dramatizing them in moments that can only be transitional at best, moments that pass away as soon as you notice that they are there. Benign passages that are dangerous because they can’t stay. Why is the “June-rose” the best thing in the world? Perhaps because it is untimely, because it still bears traces of a past evanescence. And all of this makes me think that there’s something far more agonizing about the fact that the best thing in the world is such because it is out of it….but as I’m rapidly transcending my 1000-word limit, I’ll leave that for you to contemplate.

A St. Patrick’s Day selection from the OBVV…(apologies for it being a bit longer than usual.)

106. “The Bells of Shandon” by Francis Mahony (1805 – 1866)


With deep affection,

And recollection,

I often think of

Those Shandon bells,

Whose sounds so wild would,

In the days of childhood,

Fling around my cradle

Their magic spells:

On this I ponder

Where’er I wander,

And thus grow fonder,

Sweet Cork, of thee;

With thy bells of Shandon,

That sound so grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the River Lee.

I’ve heard bells chiming

Full many a clime in,

Tolling sublime in

Cathedral shrine,

While at a glib rate

Brass tongues would vibrate—

But all their music

Spoke naught like thine;

For memory, dwelling

On each proud swelling

Of the belfry knelling

Its bold notes free,

Made the bells of Shandon

Sound far more grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the River Lee.

I’ve heard bells tolling

Old Adrian’s Mole in,

Their thunder rolling

From the Vatican,

And cymbals glorious

Swinging uproarious

In the gorgeous turrets

Of Notre Dame;

But thy sounds were sweeter

Than the dome of Peter

Flings o’er the Tiber,

Pealing solemnly—

O, the bells of Shandon

Sound far more grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the River Lee.

There’s a bell in Moscow,

While on tower and kiosk O

In Saint Sophia

The Turkman gets,

And loud in air

Calls men to prayer

From the tapering summits

Of tall minarets.

Such empty phantom

I freely grant them;

But there’s an anthem

More dear to me,—

’Tis the bells of Shandon,

That sound so grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the River Lee.

My Grandpa McCarthy used to say that there were two kinds of people in the world–those who are Irish and those who wish they were–and this poem seems to be written with a similar premise in mind. On the other hand, Margaret Oliphant, writing in the modestly-titled Literary History of England in the End of the Eighteenth and Beginning of the Nineteenth Century, describes Mahony (better known to the readers of Fraser’s and Bentley’s as Father Prout) as “one of that roving band of literary irregulars, hanging on about the Press, generally finding their highest latitude in a monthly magazine, with always some scrap of literature in hand, but more enjoyment of the floating atmosphere of literary life than of the work”–and she goes on to number him with “English writers of Irish birth,” though she ostensibly reproduces “The Bells of Shandon” as an example of characteristic Irish verse. Somehow, this seems to make the poem a fitting topic for St. Patrick’s Day, particularly since The Poem of the Week is coming to you live this evening from Midtown Manhattan.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve found myself increasingly impressed with a text’s versification through the process of typing it out–and it’s one of the reasons why I continue to do this, even when, as is the case with the above poem, I was able to find it online in more than one place. It’s a poem that almost begs to be sung, and I’m inclined to say that it’s a much more delicate realization of the sound of church bells than one generally finds in Victorian poetry; it makes the tetrameter of Tennyson’s “Ring out, wild bells” (section 106 of In Memoriam) seem a bit brutal by comparison. (Though I’ve always thought the brutality was something of Tennyson’s point….) But I think part of that comes from Mahony’s use of assonance rather than strict rhymes–something like wild would / childhood and Shandon / grand on. It allows vowel sounds to be diffused in a way that seems at once completely naturalistic and somehow still highly structured, as in a ballad format. (I don’t know if this is officially a ballad, so to speak. My prosodic education–ironically–is shaky at best. Feel free to correct me if I’m being dumb.) I do, however, find Moscow / kiosk O! to be somewhat indefensible.

What’s notable for me in terms of the subject matter is the subtle disarticulation in the third stanza of Irish and Catholic identities. Mahony himself was Catholic and was ordained as a priest. But his practice–such as it was–seems mostly to have been a performance for the periodical press, where he wrote as Father Prout and was, essentially, a foreign correspondent. (In the interest of fairness, however, I quote his entry in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, accessible from the Wikipedia page: “Although for thirty years Mahony did not exercise his priestly duties, he never wavered in his deep loyalty to the church, recited his Office daily, and received the last sacraments at the hands of his old friend, Abbé Rogerson, who left abundant testimony of his excellent dispositions.”)I can speculate on any number of reasons for why this disarticulation would be useful–some of them going all the way back to the Venerable Bede–but I feel like one shaky-knowledge limb per blog post should probably be my limit these days.

Bonus: the website for St. Anne’s Church in Cork, home of those Shandon Bells, credits the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse for keeping Mahony’s poem in the eye of the public…..

With that, I bid you all a happy St. Patrick’s Day. I’m off to find myself a glass of Guinness to raise to the memory of my Irish grandparents.

First off, The Poem of the Week apologizes for last week’s radio silence. Like many of us in the vicinity of the Graduate Center, we were caught up in the excitement of the English Student Association conference, which was brilliantly executed by the Long Nineteenth Century’s Mia Chen and Leila Walker, not to mention sundry other mid-semester tasks all bearing down in a single, snowy week.

This week finds your comrade in scansion experiencing a bout of insomnia rather inconveniently placed the night before a teaching day that lasts from 8am-noon. Having tried and failed to fall asleep for two hours–the reading of the penultimate chapters of Trollope’s Cousin Henry notwithstanding–the Poem of the Week has decided that if one can’t be happy and well-rested, one might as well be somewhat useful.

And so, without further ado, a loosely topical poem from Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-49), published posthumously in 1851.

86. Dream-Pedlary

If there were dreams to sell,

What would you buy?

Some cost a passing bell;

Some a light sigh,

That shakes from Life’s fresh crown

Only a rose-leaf down.

If there were dreams to sell,

Merry and sad to tell,

And the crier rang the bell,

What would you buy?

A cottage lone and still,

With bowers nigh,

Shadowy, my woes to still,

Until I die.

Such pearl from Life’s fresh crown

Fain would I shake me down.

Were dreams to have at will,

This would best heal my ill,

This would I buy.

So my first thought is, “hey, it’s like ‘Goblin Market‘ without all the fruit-sucking.” I am not, of course, certain that this is a helpful critical response, and this is no doubt why it’s a dubious proposition for me to be blogging right now anyway. Nevertheless. I assume my reaction has something to do with the idea of transactional language used in strange and striking ways–and also, I think, with how the metaphor of exchange is also somehow muted at the same time. This isn’t the vision, say, of Coleridge’s “The Pains of Sleep” where you have this horrible sense of outsized responsibility, of being held to account for things over which you have absolutely no control (or do you?). Yet, like Coleridge waking to his own screams (is that even possible? One of my friends swears it isn’t.) I somehow sense that same foreboding in this poem, perhaps because the first stanza especially makes it sound…if not exactly easy, at least so smooth, so much like a convenient, everyday transaction. (In a certain sense, of course, it is. Unless you’re me tonight.)

And what of this second stanza, this cottage to heal all ills? This, too, seems like a throwback to Romantic imagery, at least on the surface.* But something seems…off. It’s too much like a grave, with all that stillness and all those shadows. And the sentiment seems rather suspiciously certain that all of one’s woes come from being in the world and that they can be avoided in retreat. It may just be me–or it may be my love for the “Victorian double poem” as a heuristic advice, but that all seems a bit too easy to me. After all, we’re buying dreams, not auctioning off our woes.

…and, I see that I’ve been somewhat anticipated by Thomas Lovell Beddoes himself. Turns out that the stanzas above are not actually the whole of “Dream-Pedlary.” The whole thing can be found here on the Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society Homepage. Somehow, this makes me feel better. About Beddoes, that is. Not about Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Though I am finding his taste in poetry much more palatable than I thought I would, I confess that I’m also finding his lack of even the most minor trappings of scholarly apparatus to be somewhat maddening. I’m not even talking about fancy notes. I would content myself with first publication dates of the poems and, you know, perhaps a quick nod to let us know when we’re reading an excerpt from a larger poetic work. And someday when I’m not rocking out with the insomnia (and beginning to obsess over the fact that if I fell asleep right at this very moment, at my desk, with this window open, I would get at the most four hours of sleep, which is as many hours as I have to teach tomorrow, et cetera), I’ll ask myself why this bothers me so much.

For now, though, the obligatory biographical jaunt. Beddoes’ Wikipedia page is a bit thin, though I’m rather intrigued by the turn his medical studies took. For what it’s worth, Daniel Karlin’s biographical note in the Penguin Book mentions that he had to flee to Berlin in 1841 “because of his liberal political sympathies” and, as both sources note, he killed himself in 1849. The aforementioned Thomas Lovell Beddoes website–The Phantom Wooer–includes more biographical background and letters. You should probably also click on the video. Just saying.

I’m now going to hope that, having dispatched my weekly responsibilities towards the Long Nineteenth Century, I will be able to sleep the sleep of the just, or at least the exhausted.

*And, okay, I do apologize a bit for my lingerings in this sort of transitional space, for all these dalliances with figures who might be better classified as second or post-second generation Romantics, of whom Beddoes is definitely one. Though this poem does appear in the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse, too. Perhaps next week I’ll reach for something less periodically ambigous, like a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

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