Google Books for Fun and Non-Profit

My latest candidate for dissertation title is “The Twilight of the Celestial Empire.” I wanted to capture the sense that the nineteenth century marks a decided decline in Western opinions of China and the Chinese, in contrast to early modern fantasies of Chinese wealth (think Columbus) and the eighteenth-century chinoiserie craze. I also wanted to give some Victorian flavoring with their favourite nickname for China. This got me thinking, though, just when was “Celestial Empire” used to describe China?

In the good old days, you’d be able to go to the OED, and stop, with a proviso that the OED proves nothing. The earliest quotation given by the OED is 1824-1829, by Walter Savage Landor. The latest is Henry James, 1878. What this means, I guess, is that my diss could equally be described as “The Rise of the Celestial Empire,” given that when it was used corresponds quite neatly with the period I’m covering. Or I could compromise and call it “The Age of the Celestial Empire.”

But we being where we are (the blogosphere, the internets, you know) and me being who I am (a nerd, a procrastinator, an addict) I had to do some further research. *sigh* I used three text repositories: Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, and Google Books. (I’m actually kind of glad I don’t have access at the moment to British Periodicals or 19th Century UK Periodicals.) EEBO was the easiest, since there weren’t any hits. ECCO was slightly harder, since there were about thirty hits, but the keyword in context only displays as a popup which takes a while to load, and all of the hits seemed to refer to heaven (you know, the Christian one) or something of the sort.

And so, Google Books. I’d trade net neutrality for decent metadata any day. Well, maybe not any day, but definitely today. It’s easy to do a date filter, but so many of the publication dates are meaningless. Periodicals are frequently dated from the time the series first appeared. I got a whole bunch of hits from 1799, since the “Religious Tract Society” didn’t bother dating their publications, but only stated that it was “instituted in 1799.”

Finally, after far too much checking when things were *actually* published, it seemed like the earliest I could find was 1819 reports of an embassy to China. This is of course (“of course” meaning of course wikipedia knows what I’m talking about rather than of course you know what I’m talking about) Lord Amherst’s 1816 voyage, in which he refused to kowtow to the Emperor, which resulted in quite a hullaballoo, apparently. So, a little further digging, and I’m pretty sure that the phrase enters the British lexicon based on this event. (“Celestial Empire” is Robert Morrison’s translation of “Teën Chaou.”)

It’s far more difficult to ascertain when “Celestial Empire” stopped being used frequently, since it’s difficult to distinguish between frequent and infrequent usage, and of course because GB metadata sucks. But I could point at Bertrand Russell’s (!) The Problem of China (1922), where he uses CE to describe old China in distinction to modern China:

China has an ancient civilization which is now undergoing a very rapid process of change. The traditional civilization of China had developed in almost complete independence of Europe, and had merits and demerits quite different from those of the West. It would be futile to attempt to strike a balance; whether our present culture is better or worse, on the whole, than that which seventeenth-century missionaries found in the Celestial Empire is a question as to which no prudent person would venture to pronounce. But it is easy to point to certain respects in which we are better than old China, and to other respects in which we are worse.


I’m not sure when this contrast starts being made, but I’m guessing that the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 has something to do with it.

So there you have it: the “Celestial Empire” (1816-1911).

There’s nothing like reading dreary novels to see if you just might write on them. I’m thinking I need a chapter on sensation novels and China, but problem is, I haven’t read any of the sensation novels that have China in them. So I’m starting with Charles Reade’s Hard Cash, serialized as Very Hard Cash (1863ish), which Google Books informs me is partly set in China. The first 150 pages were pretty tough going. I think Reade wins some kind of asshat award. Here’s a random helpful footnote:

Perhaps even this faint attempt at self-analysis was due to the influence of Dr. Whately [author of a Logic book the character’s reading to help her Oxonian brother]. For, by nature, young ladies of this age seldom turn the eye inward.

And, while all the manly men are sailing their ships and fighting pirates, there’s of course an annoying lady on deck, and some amazing (ahem) prose:

[B]eneath a purple heaven shone, sparkled, and laughed a blue sea, in whose waves the tropical sun seemed to have fused his beams; and beneath that fair, sinless, peaceful sky, wafted by a balmy breeze over those smiling, transparent, golden waves, a bloodthirsty Pirate bore down on them with a crew of human tigers; and a lady babble babble babble babble babble babble babbled in their quivering ears.

Oh, the joys of being a Victorianist!

I think I need to feel my way through the intro chapter of the actual diss before doing the prospectus. Here are some more odds and ends:

  • The longue durée: How does the Victorian relationship between China and England fit into the history of Anglo-Chinese relations starting from, say 1500 to now? One of the large motivations of my project has been the work of the so-called California School of Andre Gunder Frank, Pomeranz, and Roy Bin Wong. These economic historians argue that modernity is not the story of a European center spreading modernity to the periphery (nor the center’s exploitation of the periphery) but that before 1800 China and Europe were on par in terms of economic development. Frank argues that if anything, pre-1800, China ought to be considered the center and Europe the periphery.
    This is reflected in European representations of China from largely positive pre-1800 to largely negative post-1800. So, the Victorian period is particularly interesting as the time when the image of the inferior Chinese is being constructed, replacing earlier more positive constructions.
    So is China then demonized in Victorian literature? Not really, I’ve found. In fact, it doesn’t show up all that often, especially during the mid-Victorian period. Consider:

    • None of the major Victorian writers paid much attention to China. Contrast this with the eighteenth century, when you’ve got Leibnitz writing Novissima Sinica (1697), Defoe setting the sequel to Crusoe partly in China (1719), Voltaire’s play l’Orphelin de la Chinebased on a translated Chinese drama (1755), and Oliver Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World (1760), a series of fictional letters of a Chinese traveller in England. In the twentieth century, you’ve got Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, and the Tel Quel crew (Eric Hayot’s Chinese Dreams is about these). In the nineteenth century, you’ve got Charles Lamb’s “Old China,” but that’s earlier in the century, and that’s about it, at least as far as my research has gone so far.
    • From around 1810-1830, there was a spat of Chinese literature translated into English (when they were first able to translate Chinese). Then, not so much until the end of the century.
    • There’s lots going on in China in the middle of the nineteenth century: two Opium Wars, and the Taiping Rebellion, by far the largest war of the nineteenth century. And there’s the “Opening of China” after the first Opium War.
  • “From China to Peru,” from Dr. Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), it shows up quite a bit in Victorian lit. Interestingly, according to a quick Google Book Search digging, it only becomes a popular expression after 1820 or so, perhaps because the poem had been heavily anthologized. I assume that the good doctor chose China and Peru more or less arbitrarily, but in terms of global commerce, the Spanish galleon trade to China from Peru’s silver mine was immensely important. See what I mean about random bits of information that will work well in an intro chapter but not a prospectus? **sigh**
  • “Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay”: from Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall.” See, there’s totes poetry in my dissertation!

I wrote the previous about a week or two ago. I’m not thinking of any other odds and ends at the moment–perhaps it’s time to start the prospectus?

When I was doing the periodicals list for Anne, one of the things I kept on thinking about was how I’d love to have a look at these advertising wrappers that get left out when a periodical is bound for publication. Same thing with advertising wrappers for novels serialized (not as a part of a periodical). I came across this on Google Books, the first number of Our Mutual Friend, and it includes the advertiser.

So I admit that I’ve sort of been coasting on the series of posts I wrote in January, and once again I find myself in blog arrears. As an apology, I offer a smattering of my recent reading and scattered nineteenth-century-related thoughts:

At the risk of forever branding myself as a closet hipster, I confess that I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the song “A Horse is Not a Home” on Miike Snow’s debut album (the two Is in Miike are intentional) is a rewriting of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” [Ed. note: the e on the end of Childe is intentional ;)] This has been the obsession of several commutes this past week. I don’t have any particular fantastic analysis for why these two texts have become connected in my mind, except for the similar images they evoke and (arguably) a shared mood. I think maybe it has something to do with the chorus, disenchanting the same things that Browning was: “With a hole in my heart I was supposed to ride / In morning traffic / With a golden hand by your fortress side / But without magic.” Okay, these guys aren’t Browning. And they’re, um, Swedish. But I can respect a good pop song. You can decide for yourself. The song is here. The lyrics are here. “Childe Roland” is coming to the Dark Tower here.

I don’t remember exactly why I went to the NYU library last week, but I’ve ended up checking out a bunch of books, many of them pulled from the shelf in fits of semi-desperate inspiration. One of these was Andrew Miller’s The Burdens of Perfection. I realize that I’m late to the party on this one, but–wow. Good stuff. I hope that I can write a book like this someday. It was somewhat gratifying to see that Miller and I are coming from a similar view of 19th century history, a shared sense of the “epistemological disarray” of Victorian modernity and a need for thinking about receptivity to others. Miller also quotes Maurice and Newman, two figures who are virtually guaranteed to lead to an hour of fun on GoogleBooks and the entertainment of the idea of writing my second book on Victorian theology.

…which explains why I was probably the only person on the North Jersey Coast Local line yesterday kicking back with a copy of Newman’s “Christ Hidden From the World.” Here, Newman’s dwelling not on the works of Jesus as they are recorded in the gospels but on the obscurity in which Christ passed the first thirty years of his life, and it imagines Jesus in those years as being deemed unremarkable to those around him, particularly his close family and friends.  One of the recurring themes, in fact, is how difficult it is to tell the difference between someone who is merely outwardly good because of habit or calculation and someone who is truly holy, since many of the acts of holiness that exceed outward form are hidden from view. Holiness, Newman implies, must almost by definition be misunderstood by most people who are not holy — even though not everyone who is misunderstood is holy. Newman delivers a particularly strong smackdown to those who assume that they would have been numbered among the faithful in Jesus’ time:

We are very apt to wish we had been born in the days of Christ, and in this way we excuse our  misconduct, when conscience reproaches us. We say, that had we the advantage of being with Christ, we should have had stronger motives, stronger restraints against sin. I answer, that so far from our sinful habits being reformed by the presence of Christ, the chance is, that those same habits would have hindered us from recognizing Him. We should not have known He was present; and if He had told us who He was, we should not have believed him. Nay, had we seen His miracles (incredible as it may seem), even they would not have made any lasting impression on us. … I believe this literally would have been the case with most men.

Burn! There’s also a somewhat weirder passage where Newman goes into pretty specific detail about how the people physically closest to Christ would have been those who tortured and crucified him, though that’s less relevant to the above to what I’m still trying to do with “Karshish.” I’m sure, incidentally, that there’s a lot of Christian fiction out there that’s predicated on the idea that Newman presents here, of our  not being able to recognize Jesus if he was literally our next door neighbor — there was a skit that I used to perform in my evangelical youth group days that was based on this premise — but it certainly doesn’t seem like a major epistemological concern in these days when everyone has a Personal Jesus. (You had to know I was going to go there. I thought the Johnny Cash version would be particularly appropriate.)

Also did some detouring through Arnold this week, revisiting some of my old favorites: “The Buried Life” (which I sent to my lovely first-year writing students this weekend), “The Scholar-Gipsy,” and “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse.” I’m probably going to have to get Matt into my dissertation somehow. Maybe that will be the chapter I write when it’s a book. I’m very susceptible to some of Arnold’s complaints, even when I should know better. The following lines from “The Scholar-Gipsy” made their way into my notes for Wednesday:

For early didst thou leave the world, with powers

Fresh, undiverted to the world without;

Firm to their mark, not spent on other things;

Free from the sick fatigue, the languid doubt,

Which much to have tried, in much been baffled, brings.

O life unlike ours!

Who fluctuate idly without term or scope,

Of whom each strives, nor knows for what he strives,

And each half lives a hundred different lives;

Who wait like thee, but not, like thee, in hope.

It’s at least a tempting lament when one is looking forward to days of meetings and various bureaucratic strife.

Speaking of “The Buried Life,” I haven’t yet caught the MTV show of the same name. I’m sure I will at some point — many of the cardio machines at the gym I recently joined are connected to TVs, and I’ve already seen several meta-iterations of Jersey Shore and an intensely disturbing feature called “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” So, yeah, “The Buried Life” can’t be far behind.

Finally, I’ve also been enjoying Pater this week. I’ll leave you with a quote from his 1865 essay, “Coleridge,” which was reprinted in Appreciations.

The relative spirit, by its constant dwelling on the more fugitive conditions or circumstances of things, breaking through a thousand rough and brutal classifications, and giving elasticity to inflexible principles, begets an intellectual finesse of which the ethical result is a delicate and tender justice in the criticism of human life.

In other news, I started my Christina Rossetti bibliography today in hopes of spurring myself to finish up with Browning. Am annoyed by journals that still have obnoxiously slim archives online. Essays In Criticism, I’m looking at you.

(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.

Apologies for the radio silence of the past couple weeks. I assure you that I was not trying to pull a Sarah Palin; I was merely housesitting and didn’t feel like hauling the OBVV across Brooklyn with my laptop and the stack of other books that I didn’t manage to get around to reading. I’ve also been pretty mucked up in my dissertation chapter — I’ve pretty much just been rewriting the first twelve pages all month. But that’s a different post, maybe.

Those struggles are, however, obliquely related to something that I see happening in this week’s poem:

365. “The Last Wish” by Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton (1831-1892)

Since all that I can ever do for thee

Is to do nothing, this my prayer must be:

That thou mayst never guess nor ever see

The all-endured this nothing-done costs me.

(Just so we’re clear, this isn’t that Bulwer-Lytton — this dude is the son.)

I don’t think this poem needs a huge amount of explication, but I am really taking with this idea of doing nothing — or, as it comes in in that last line, the “nothing-done.” One of the things I’ve been struggling with conceptually in my dissertation is an argument I’m trying to make about suspension being a performative gesture, but of course what it does, much of the time, is, essentially, nothing — which potentially negates the whole “doing things with words” part of performativity. Nevertheless, there’s a residue in this nothing — and I can hear my undergrad adviser’s voice in my head saying “a no-thing that is not nothing, either” — this sense that “nothing” does take effort, that it rarely is simply void or interruption — or, for that matter, detachment or agnosticism. One of the things I’m trying to work through with Browning is how you can have a suspension of judgment that isn’t just a matter of rigorously marking the boundaries of the knowable and not going beyond them; I’m seeking a suspension that also maintains some kind of engagement, whether it’s an interest in the outcome or something more about the process and the working-through. Something more, well, performative, but a performative that “does nothing” in a kind of double sense. I would love to feel like Eve Sedgwick’s whole thing on the periperformative is helpful here — it may be in the same neighborhood (her metaphor), but I’m not sure where to put it yet.

And I’m well aware that at some level I’m probably giving this poem too much credit, that I’m writing more about Browning and my own life than “The Last Wish.” And it’s funny, too, because in the process of writing this post, I’ve begun to like this poem a lot less. I can almost feel the cliches swooping in — that whole “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” kind of thing — and something that’s not a cliche, some inchoate idea of political inaction, a suspension, say, of judgment or action that does more damage than any other alternative. And the fact that I’m writing in such tortured sentences suggests that I’m still writing around what I actually want to say.

And even more so. To call this “The Last Wish” is, I think, a bit self-indulgent, but that also may be, now that I think about it, the most transparently performative part of this, at least in its aspiration. But one does not place an end to things by drawing attention to one’s overweening efforts to end them — in what is, the more I look at it, a strikingly passive-aggressive bit of verse. (To a certain extent I think the same argument could be made about “Two in the Campagna” and probably a lot of love poetry in general. Second book?) This whole, “oh, don’t look at me, suffering for your sake” kind of thing. It pains me more than a little to say that because it’s also an experience close to my own heart and because it also engages a couple of topoi that I hold near and dear. (The other one is prayer.) And I think there’s probably a way to pull off what this poem is trying to accomplish without sounding like a whiny asshat, but for whatever reason, this isn’t doing it for me.

There are also at least two elephants in this interpretive room. One, if you clicked on the Wikipedia link to Earl Lytton, you no doubt read that poetry (which he published under the pseudonym “Owen Meredith”) is really only a minor claim to fame; his other accomplishments include presiding, as Viceroy of India, over the Great Famine of 1876-78. Or, as Mike Davis and others have recently argued, for helping cause it in the first place. (I admit that I’ve only read the first chapter of this book and that was some time ago — Mia and Kiran, can you shed light where light is needed?) That doesn’t “settle” anything one way or another when it comes to this particular text, but we’ve certainly pilloried our poets for lesser offenses (Oscar Wilde, anyone?). And forgiving political wrongdoings is always partially an aesthetic choice — in general, good poetry by bad people still gets read. It may also be hard to come up with a critical idiom for relatively minor literary work by people who are politically prominent. In some ways, I think this is probably one of the great mysteries of human nature, but it does, at least in this case, place a bit of an extra chill between the poem and me.

The other elephant is named “Textual Criticism” and has to do with the fact that I couldn’t really date this poem. I admit that I didn’t try all that hard and that my GoogleBooks-fu pales in comparison to Mia’s mad computer skills. But I’m usually able to find some trace of even minor poems. The “having a very similar name to your literar-ily famous father” and “writing under a pseudonym” parts didn’t help either, I’m sure. What I did find was a poem called “To A Woman,” which is kind of like this poem but also not:

Since all that I can ever do for thee

Is to do nothing, may’st thou never see,

Never divine, the all that nothing costeth me!

The first line and a half are the same in both versions, but without the interruption of prayer (which makes the utterance of the first one into something of a citation), this one feels a lot more direct. I’m suddenly inspired to go out and start a relationship just so I can use this as my parting shot in the breakup email. It’s either that or Tori Amos, right?

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