August 2009

I’ve been thinking about prose style a bit more recently, probably because I figure it’s something which you should have thought about by the time you do your orals. Here’s a beautiful little clunker from Charlotte Yonge:

Among the advantages of the change was the having Felix always at hand; and though she really did not see him oftener in the course of the day than at St. Oswald’s Buildings, still the knowing him to be within reach gave great contentment to Cherry.
–from The Pillars of the Family

And what better way to celebrate than with Trollope’s Barchester Towers? (And Oliver Twist, too.)
It’s actually been a few weeks since I finished reading it, but I only got around just now to taking notes on it, and it’s frightening how much I forgot in that time. I’m terrible at taking notes, and generally rely on my imperfect memory with the internet as my supplément. It works, most of the time, but probably not such a good idea for the orals!
One of the things I forgot was how much one paragraph of John Sutherland’s introduction to the OUP edition influenced my decision to switch the theme of my Victorian fiction list to Past and Present. Here’s the nicely phrased passage in question:

The cathedral–as we take our leave of it–is still ruled over by Bishop and Mrs Proudie (who, as Trollope says, wears the invisible apron). But the Dean is now an arch-Conservative and becoming , as we hurry over the last few paragraphs, higher and dryer by the minute. And deans, as Trollope stresses… have immense independence. It is, finally, stalemate: new bishop versus reactionary dean, evangelical versus Tractarian, Whig versus Tory, Present versus Past. A typical Trollopian conclusion, that is, in which much is ventilated and nothing is concluded.

For Sutherland, this ambivalence is distinctly Trollopian; he contrasts it with Dickens’ complete lack of “any nostalgia for worn-out social machinery,” for example. The larger argument, though, that I’ve been thinking of is that Trollope’s ambivalent treatment of the past and its institutions is actually foundational to the Victorian worldview, including Dickens’, of course. Not an earth-shattering hypothesis by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s interesting to think of the different ways in which this ambivalence manifests itself. In Barchester Towers, Trollope does it through bitchy satire, poking fun at both present and past. Dickens could critique old “worn-out social machinery”–recall the dummy books he had installed at Gad’s Hill Place, The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: I Ignorance, II Superstition, III The Block, IV The Stake, V The Rack, VI Dirt, and VII Disease–in addition to more contemporary phenomena, such as the 1834 Poor Law Amendment condemned in Oliver Twist (1837-1838). This latter book, which I’ve finished reading more recently, tends to conform to the straightforward trope of the corrupt city of the present and the pristine country of the past. I’m thinking in particular of a set-piece apostrophe to the countryside:

Who can describe the pleasure and delight, the peace of mind and soft tranquillity, the sickly boy felt in the balmy air, and among the green hills and rich woods, of an inland village! Who can tell how scenes of peace and quietude sink into the minds of pain-worn dwellers in close and noisy places, and carry their own freshness, deep into their jaded hearts! Men who have lived in crowded, pent-up streets, through lives of toil, and who have never wished for change; men, to whom custom has indeed been second nature, and who have come almost to love each brick and stone that formed the narrow boundaries of their daily walks; even they, with the hand of death upon them, have been known to yearn at last for one short glimpse of Nature’s face; and, carried far from the scenes of their old pains and pleasures, have seemed to pass at once into a new state of being. Crawling forth, from day to day, to some green sunny spot, they have had such memories wakened up within them by the sight of sky, and hill and plain, and glistening water, that the foretaste of heaven itself has soothed their quick decline, and they have sunk into their tombs, as peacefully as the sun whose setting they watched from their lonely chamber window but a few hours before, faded from their dim and feeble sight! The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor of its thoughts and hopes. Their gentle influence may teach us how to weave fresh garlands for the graves of those we loved: may purify our thoughts, and bear down before it old enmity and hatred; but beneath all this, there lingers, in the least reflective mind, a vague and half-formed consciousness of having held such feelings long before, in some remote and distant time, which calls upon solemn thoughts of distant times to come, and bends down pride and worldliness beneath it.

But if countryside-as-Platonic-Ideal tends to valorize the past at the expense of the “crowded, pent-up streets” of the present, it’s not like the novel’s London looks much like the industrial cities in the Condition-of-England novels of the next decade; there seems to be a conscious evocation of eighteenth-century lowlife (the subtitle “A Parish-Boy’s Progress” pays homage to Hogarth). And it’s not like the pre-Poor-Law baby farm Oliver was raised in was vastly superior to the post-Poor-Law orphanage he’s then brought to.
In my last post, I speculated on parallels between present and past of both the macrocosmic society and the microcosmic individual. In both Barchester and Oliver, amid the bitchy and social satire (respectably), there are small glimpses of an open-ended melancholy far more textured than provincial nostalgia. This is Trollope’s Arabin:

He had, as it were, proclaimed himself to be indifferent to promotion, and those who chiefly admired his talents, and would mainly have exerted themselves to secure to them their deserved reward, had taken him at his work. And now, if the truth must out, he felt himself disappointed–disappointed not by them but by himself. The daydream of his youth was over, and at the age of forty he felt that he was not fit to work in the spirit of an apostle. He had mistaken himself, and learned his mistake when it was past remedy.

And this is Dickens’ Brownlow:

After musing for some minutes, the old gentleman walked, with the same meditative face, into a back ante-room opening from the yard; and there, retiring into a corner, called up before his mind’s eye a vast amphitheatre of faces over which a dusky curtain had hung for many years. “No,” said the old gentleman, shaking his head; “it must be imagination.”
He wandered over them again. He had called them into view, and it was not easy to replace the shroud that had so long concealed them. There were the faces of friends, and foes, and of many that had been almost strangers peering intrusively from the crowd; there were the faces of young and blooming girls that were now old women; there were faces that the grave had changed and closed upon, but which the mind, superior to its power, still dressed in their old freshness and beauty, calling back the lustre of the eyes, the brightness of the smile, the beaming of the soul through its mask of clay, and whispering of beauty beyond the tomb, changed but to be heightened, and taken from earth only to be set up as a light, to shed a soft and gentle glow upon the path to Heaven.
But the old gentleman could recall no one countenance of which Oliver’s features bore a trace. So, he heaved a sigh over the recollections he had awakened; and being, happily for himself, an absent old gentleman, buried them again in the pages of the musty book.

Maybe what’s important in thinking about past and present isn’t so much which is the winner, but the linking of retrospection (individual and social) with subjectivity (or national identity). (I’m thinking of Hegel, here, but I’m too tired to work it out in more detail right now.)
Oh yes, and note that things work out well after Arabin’s mid-life crisis and for the old bachelor Brownlow. I don’t think these Trollope and Dickens would be so kind to a female character who thought these things.

…maybe. I’m rereading Mill on the Floss for orals right now, and it’s a book that hits close to home in lots of ways, so close that I can’t bitch about it, which is pretty rare. Partly it’s due to literary identifications (does it reveal too much about me that on my first reading I identified with Maggie Tulliver, and her dad, to some extent, but this time I’m identifying more with Philip Wakem?). Maybe Anne will be able to help me out with some bitching.

In a recent post, I blockquoted a few temporality-related passages, the first of which was ethically oriented:

It is not pleasant to give up a rat-catching when you have set your mind on it. But if Tom had told his strongest feeling at that moment, he would have said, I’d do just the same again.” That was his usual mode of viewing his past actions; whereas Maggie was always wishing she had done something different. (Pt. 1 Ch. VI)

Now that I’m reading for it, I’m seeing the past’s problematic relationship to the present on a whole bunch of levels: on the historical level (it takes place just before the beginning of the Victorian era, and recalls far older rural traditions); on the individual level (constant reflections on childhood vs. adulthood, Maggie’s young adulthood vs. her childhood); on the economic level (obsessions with loans, debts, interest); on the natural level (the river); and, as the block quote suggests, the ethical level.

Reading the second half of the book, I was reminded of that old orientalist contrast between shame-based and guilt-based cultures, started by Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Basically, the idea is that shame societies socially undesirable behaviour is prohibited through the threat of shame in the eyes of others, while guilt societies prohibit them by instilling guilt within the individual, regardless of what others think or know. Benedict’s idea was that Japan was shame-based, and western culture guilt-based. According to wikipedia, her book, translated into Chinese, was popular in 2005 when Sino-Japanese relations soured, but from an orientalist western perspective, Eastern cultures in general are shame-based–in China, in reference to the concept of saving or losing face. I haven’t really been thinking about the shame/guilt contrast in relation to China and Victorian England, but Eliot’s book might not be a bad place to start, although there’s not even a link to China that I can scare up.

In my little explanation above, I contrasted the terms using the society/individual binary. If poor Maggie always wishing she’d done something different exemplifies the concept of guilt, her family, the Dodson sisters especially, operate almost exclusively through shame. It’s disgrace that they fear, repeatedly, whether it’s the result of financial ruin, or Maggie’s bond with Philip:

“Well,” said Tom, with cold scorn, “if your feelings are so much better than mine, let me see you show them in some other way than by conduct that’s likely to disgrace us all.” (“Wheat and Tares,” Ch. V)

Ouch. Maggie’s aunts’ obsession with the china and linens with “Elizabeth Dodson” auctioned off to strangers is a less painful example.

In this post, though, I’ll just point out that you can differentiate shame and guilt through their temporalities. Shame is primarily experienced as the fear of a future unpleasant condition or consequence; guilt, primarily the regret of a past unfortunate action or intention. Or, in grammatical terms: shame is like the perfect tense, i.e. the present condition as a result of a past completed action, while guilt is some past tense (e.g. the passé composé of French or the Greek aorist–an action completed in the past; the imperfect–a continuous, habitual, or repeated past action; or maybe, most appropriately, the historical present). The feeling of guilt–specific guilt, not some kind of generalized Catholic/catholic guilt–involves a painfully intimate experience of the past within the present. And I wonder if this experience is relevant to those other levels of past/present relations outlined above.

Hegel, on race, is weird:

A mild and passionless disposition, want of spirit, and a crouching submissiveness towards a Creole, and still more towards a European, are the chief characteristics of the native Americans; and it will be long before the Europeans succeed in producing any independence of feeling in them. The inferiority of these individuals in all respects, even in regard to size, is very manifest.

Nothing too surprising here, although he gives the juicy detail that the Jesuits had to ring a bell at midnight to “remind them even of their matrimonial duties.” Once black slaves enter the picture, though, gets more complicated:

The weakness of the American physique was a chief reason for bringing the negroes to America, to employ their labor in the work that had to be done in the New World; for the negroes are far more susceptible of European culture than the Indians, and an English traveller has adduced instances of negroes having become competent clergymen, medical men, etc. (a negro first discovered the use of Peruvian bark), while only a single native was known to him whose intellect was sufficiently developed to enable him to study, but who had died soon after beginning, through excessive brandy-drinking.

“Negroes” were the first model minorities, then? I really ought to have another look at Susan Buck-Morss’ “Hegel and Haiti” (in Critical Inquiry a few years ago).

(Yes, I realize this feature is rapidly becoming the “Poem of the Week or Whenever I End Up Getting Around to It.” But POTWOWIEUGATI is an unwieldy acronym.)

380. “Art” by James Thomson (1834-1882)

What precious thing are you making fast

In all these silken lines?

And where and to whom will it go at last?

Such subtle knots and twines!

I am tying up all my love in this,

With all its hopes and fears,

With all its anguish and all its bliss,

And its hours as heavy as years.

I am going to send it afar, afar,

To I know not where above;

To that sphere beyond the highest star

Where dwells the soul of my Love.

But in vain, in vain would I make it fast

With countless subtle twines;

For ever its fire breaks out at last,

And shrivels all the lines.


This poem keeps reminding me of the Conclusion to The Renaissance, where Pater talks about “that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves.” That’s not exactly what it *is* about, mind you, for the images are more three-dimensional than that; here we are not so much using those lines to trace out a flat representation (pace the Lady of Shalott) as we are engaged in creating a kind of package — but a package where the package is also what’s inside. If that makes any sense — basically, there isn’t a “box” here — the container is the content or at least part of it — the “precious thing” isn’t rattling around in a box, but is serving as a kind of (suspended??) core of the overall object.

Indeed, this is quite an effective rendering of writing as a material process. The “fast” at the end of the first line serves as an anchoring, that first knot that holds all the threads together to be braided. The second stanza in particular exemplifies a kind of braiding or tying, where lines 2-4 are expansions of what is being tied up after the tying has been announced.  (So it’s almost looping back around — exactly as if one was tying one’s lines in a big silken bow.)

But this is all what gets undone — and not just unwoven — in the fourth stanza: fast / lines / last / twines gives way to fast / twines / last / lines, which leaves the image of trailing threads, shriveled at the site where the fire burst through. The letter (as it were) doesn’t reach its destination not only because the delivery address was murky to begin with (stanza 3), but because it was transporting such volatile material, something too strong for the “subtle twines” of words. (Of course, the meter doesn’t get broken in the same way as the image does.)

I’m interested, too, with the way “love” functions in the poem. Most obviously, it becomes both the package and, in its capitalized form, the recipient of that package. There’s an interesting ambiguity that emerges in the personification, too, for it’s not just “love” that is repeated but “my love” — almost as if that “Love” isn’t personified at all but is rather a projection of the poem’s speaker — the small-l “love” is seeking its mothership. (Or something. Okay. Fine.) What I’m more interested in is the way that the first line of the second stanza functions performatively (or nearly so) — bringing forth the “love” so that it can be contained. Though so much of the poem is so engaged in material processes, this line (and the entire stanza) is a kind of irreducibly non-referential core — and I mean that on a number of levels. It’s a little bit like the poetic equivalent of blowing up a balloon — and noticing the mutual dependence of content and form. (See also the last stanza of Yeats’ “Among School Children” and then go reread the introduction to de Man’s Allegories of Reading.)

There’s something about the last stanza that makes me think of a mail bomb — but a mail bomb that, again, never quite explodes where you want it to. That’s probably the wrong connection to make (but oh, wasn’t it a great undergraduate moment when you made the missive/missile connection?) because of all the silken threads and subtle knots, but it is at least a potentially violent image. (There are, of course, reasons we have restrictions on what you can put in the mail.) It’s a violence against the poem itself, a rending of the image, and a reminder that words and meanings don’t often coincide. It’s also kind of strikingly ambivalent about the nature of art and poetry itself. Though we are sure that this precious thing does not  get all the way to “my Love” — how could it? — it does get somewhere, namely, to us. The last stanza implies that the force of the poem is spent in a single outbreak, but of course some residue remains in that we are here and we are reading — perhaps not in the precise way that the speaker intends.

Which brings me, finally, to the reason I chose to headline this post with a Bob Dylan reference. The song “Tangled Up In Blue” makes a couple similar moves, including the mixing of very physical, material language (“tangled up”) with something that doesn’t have the same material referent (“blue”). And in some ways it provides a counterpoint to Thomson’s ambivalence:

Then she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me

Written by an Italian poet

From the thirteenth century.

And every one of them words rang true

And glowed like burnin’ coal

Pourin’ off every page

Like it was written in my soul from me to you

Tangled up in blue.

Or maybe that’s just me. I mean, I’m no Christopher Ricks or anything. But there seems to be something having to do with writing to be untangled here as well.

To return to the plane of biography and half-assed textual scholarship. James Thomson was not a particularly happy man, if his Wikipedia page is to be believed; his most famous work is 1874’s City of Dreadful Night and it’s not exactly known as a great work of Victorian optimism. (As far as I know. This was one of those works that was on my orals list at some point and then kind of quietly slipped off. Now I kind of regret that.) Somewhat amusingly, though, the Thomson selected for the OBVV seems at least superficially sunny — this is probably the selection here with the most obvious dark side.

And even this is truncated. When I went looking for a date on this one, I found that there are actually two more sections to this poem.(GoogleBook here.) Part two is more of the same in its stanza form, envisioning one’s writing as a “carrier dove”–a bit more romantic than a pigeon, I guess, though arguably less efficient.  The third section puts the breaks on all of this — quite literally in terms of the stanza form (two lines instead of four, etc.) and also in its message; it begins: “Singing is sweet; but be sure of this / Lips only sing when they cannot kiss.” Burn! It’s an interesting refutation of poetry in verse — although for that reason, I’m not sure it’s totally in earnest. The ending couplet is pretty simplistic:  “Statues and pictures and verse may be grand / But they are not the Life for which they stand.” This is a bit finger-wag-y to say the least, but it’s possible that this poem was making an intervention into some contemporary aesthetic conversation (the rise of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, maybe?) where it made sense to highlight the inadequacy of artistic representation in this kind of moralizing way. There’s also a not-so-subtle discourse of heterosexual masculinity going on here — real men being too busy wooing the women, drinking the wine, and fighting the battles to do anything as dumb as art.

With that move, of course, Thomson is arguably castrating himself; at any rate, the first section of “Art” — the one excerpted in the OBVV — is vastly superior, in my opinion, to the other two, and at least in this case, Arthur Quiller-Couch knows what he’s doing as an editor. If, of course, one believes that the job of an anthologist is to make its contributors, most of whom are dead, appear in their best lights by lopping off parts of poems and presenting them as wholes with absolutely no scholarly apparatus. But that’s an issue best left to another day.

Fun if somewhat annoying fact: the home page for GoogleBooks lists “Poetry” as a subject link under “Fiction.” Shelley, had he not been cremated, would be turning in his grave about now.

Some past/present/future snippets:

It is not pleasant to give up a rat-catching when you have set your mind on it. But if Tom had told his strongest feeling at that moment, he would have said, I’d do just the same again.” That was his usual mode of viewing his past actions; whereas Maggie was always wishing she had done something different. (Pt. 1 Ch. VI)

While the possible troubles of Maggie’s future were occupying her father’s mind, she herself was tasting only the bitterness of the present. Childhood has no forebodings; but then, it is soothed by no memories of outlived sorrows. (Pt. 1 Ch. IX)

Since the centuries when St Ogg with his boat and the Virgin Mother at the prow had been seen on the wide water, so many memolries had been left behind, and had gradually vanished like the receding hill-tops! And the present time was like the level plain where men lose their belief in volcanoes and earthquakes, thinking to-morrow will be as yesterday, and the giant forces that used to shake the earth are for ever laid to sleep. (Pt. 1 Ch. XII)

There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our personality: we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our limbs. Very commonplace, even ugly, that furniture of our early home might look if it were put up to auction; an improved taste in upholstery scorns it; and is not the striving after something better and better in our surroundings, the grand characteristic that distinguishes man from the brute–or, to satisfy a scrupulous accuracy of definition, that distinguishes the British man from the foreign brute? But heaven knows where that striving might lead us, if our affections had not a trick of twining round those old inferior things–if the loves and sanctities of our life had no deep immovable roots in memory.