Periodization


I’m in my third and last library of the day, having arrived at NYPL at 2:00, gone to Mina Rees at 5:00, and tothe Bobst basement from 8:00 to now–I’m starting this at 12:30, and I better be finishing this soon, given the above.

I wanted to write down some of my thoughts for what I think will be my opening statements. I told Talia that I wanted to say something about modernity, something about Ben Anderson, something about how that connected all three lists. She probably stifled a yawn. I reread “Can the Subaltern Speak” for the poco list, and based on GCS’s smackdown of Foucault & Deleuze, and mixed with some Arendt I’ve never read, I’m playing with this rhetorical trope, “the banality of theory.” Or–“Theory always repeats itself, first as audacity, then as banality.” So I plan to begin by rehearsing all the banalities of the modern condition, specifically the modernity post-1800, that we all know.

The modern condition was based on the idea of progress, social and individual, technological and economic. The nineteenth century was the era of secularization, of professionalization, of the silent bourgeois revolution. The Crystal Palace consecrated modernity, especially in its consecration of commerce and capitalism as war continued by other means. Communities were imagined. The novel created modern subjectivity, discipline, and imaginary solutions to real contradictions. The country moved to the city, as a result of expropriation and “primitive accumulation,” and the city nostalgically longed for the country. Victorians turned their eyes outward, seeing themselves at the apex of civilization, charged with leading the rest of the world into modernity.

How, then, can we de-banalize modernity? One starting point is an additional chapter added to the second edition of Imagined Communities. The construction of nationalism through the newspapers and novels is a modern thing, and a banality. I had originally planned by starting here, making slight elaborations. First, Bennie’s understanding of the periodical press, not surprisingly, doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the nineteenth-century periodical press. Daily newspapers were limited to a relatively small elite. Weekly newspapers and especially journals had a much, much, much wider circulation, and the debates in the public spheres took place in these periodicals which were general and miscellaneous and not requiring newspaper stamps instead of news-based, and requiring newspaper stamps. As for novels, he is onto something where he compares the development of novels providing biographical and psychological histories to the development of nationalist histories. If we consider the “Condition of England” novels as instantiating Victorian fiction, which I do, there’s more nationalism. For my poco list, I was thinking about how this nationalism relates to the colonialism/postcolonialism model, and how a world-systems/globalization model might be somewhat incommensurable with it.

This is all in the first chapter. In the appended chapter, he notes how he underread a quotation from Renan that goes something like all true French citizens must learn to forget the Albigensian Crusade and the massacre of the Huguenots. What’s curious is that true French citizens would know what Renan was talking about–so that this diagnosis of historical amnesia is in fact another construction, another imagination of a national history that’s really only possible with modernity. I like this. Historical things that are supposedly traumatic are really just banal. Condemning the “enslavement” of white kids during the Industrial Revolution, calling attention to supposedly ignored issues in need of reform constituted nationhood in its own way. We get something like this with Wide Sargasso Sea and with Clear Light of Day. Antoinette Cosway points to the forgotten Bertha Mason–but isn’t diagnosing this amnesia adding further justification of Jane Eyre as an eminently English text? Doesn’t the whole idea of post-coloniality work all to well in favour of nationalism within the neocolonialist Global North? Isn’t the reason why a novel of the Partition of South Asia, Clear Light of Day, made palatable to a Western audience because the imagined trauma of partition provides a convenient origin myth? As for the periodicals list, I’m not seeing much forgetting as remembering (the labour involved in making things was certainly not forgotten), but what I’m finding interesting is the number of times people refer to it from the perspective of the future. Even in its anticipation, it has been constituted as a world-historical event. And world-historical in this case means not just Really Important but capable of being projected into the future. One article, I remember which periodical it was from, said something like it was unfortunate that the Crystal Palace would have to be removed from Hyde Park, but in a way it was fitting to give it more the air of fixed, historically locatable event.

It’s with historicity and temporality that I’m finding out something new (to me) about modernity. Anne asked me a two weeks why I chose these four texts–Foucault’s Order of Things, Fabian’s Time and the Other, Schivelbusch’s Railway Journey, and Milo’s Trahir le Temps–as my “Temporality Theory” books. I said at the time that it was a pretty arbitrary decision, which it was, but weeks later, a better answer would start with the fact that these are all books that are particularly relevant to nineteenth-century temporality–to temporality, historically, and not ontologically understood. Rereading the “Life, Labour, Language” chapter of Foucault was loads of fun, and I was thinking why it was that Victorianists were all up in the discipline and the history of sexuality and power and knowledge, but not so much into these 3 Ls. The one thing about the Order of Things is the episteme. I guess most people give up after the first chapter. Today I found out that Catherine Gallagher does make use of this chapter–particularly its emphasis on capital L “Life.” My reading of Gallagher was pretty superficial, but I got the sense that Foucault’s historical nuance was missing. Daniel Milo has an amazing chapter on Foucault’s metaphors in D and P, (ritual, ceremony, rites, spectacle for punishment; machine, technology for discipline) and that his “anachronistic” use of metaphors is a way of introducing discontinuity into history, which is what history is all about–at least history within the modern era. So, Foucault’s use of “Life” too points at a discontinuity–at the ultimate failure of representation and taxonomization that ended the Classical Era. The intricate ballet of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, of gazes, light sources, visibilities, invisibilities, surfaces is no longer possible in the Modern Eras search for the dark, hidden depths of truth. (C. Herbert points out in Culture and Anomie, I think, that the whole privileging of depth as metaphor was a nineteenth-century innovation.) On the poco list, I’ve learned that lots of people talk about the moment in Capital when Marx tells the reader when it’s time to leave the noisy sphere of exchange and go to “the hidden abodes of production,” where capital is made. Foucault says Marx fits in the nineteenth century like a fish in water. Take the fish out, it drowns. This call for unearthing “the hidden abodes of production,” in fact, is not by any stretch of the imagination a Marxian innovation, as the practice of factory tourism and periodical articles on factory production and the Great Exhibition itself can attest. Okay, so time-in-C19-modernity involves the search for some fundamentally unrepresentable origin or force that is the condition of possibility for the historical.

Is this not just some Aristotelian return of efficient and final cause? Where it differs, on the one hand, is that in Aristotelian teleology origin and telos are representable, knowable. Not so in the nineteenth century, maybe. But there’s more. With Fabian, we’ve got another kind of discontinuity, another kind of contradiction going on. Fabian’s main idea is about the “denial of coevalness,” where with such practices as the ethnographic present, anthropologists place their subjects outside history, outside contemporaneity, when in the fact they must have been involved in intersubjective time at some time if they were participant observers. The nineteenth century, of course, is when ethnography started to take its modern discursive shape. But I think the contradiction of allochronicity could be applied on a more microcosmic scale–to issues of gender and class, for example. It would be really interesting to do a rhetorical analysis of the novels based on this–I’m thinking in particular of those chapters in David Copperfield which are written in the present tense, the marriage with Dora, for example.

I’m going to collapse Schivelbusch and Milo together because this is getting really long and it’s getting really late. I’ve talked about Milo on this blog at some point before. I’ll quote myself quoting Milo:

His argument is that the century was a relatively recent, and literally revolutionary invention, a tool created in the wake of the French Revolution. He summarizes his findings as follows:

-the century certainly exists within historical writing;

-it is of recent invention (c. 1560);

-its diffusion was more recent (Le Goff speaks of the 18th century, I will date its true launch in 1800);

-it acts as a form of classification;

-it is a form of periodization with two characteristic principals: it has a unity, and this unity is in opposition with the unities of the centuries which surround it;

-it is a very particular periodization, which rests on an arithmetic prinicipal, hence artificial, hence outside of reality: the division of history into centuries is an a priori periodization;

-nevertheless, it was an important conquest in chronology (Le Goff);

-but that it is now necessary to destroy it in order to advance knowledge of the true historical era (la véritable durée historique). (Milo 28)

The century may be an arbitrary unit, but it’s condition of possibility is modernity. And if it involves some flattening out to create a single context out of a time quite longer than most people live, that kind of corresponds with the “panoramic” mode of vision Schivelbusch says the railroad forces. Don’t look at the quickly moving, close whirr of stuff, look at the seemingly motionless distance.

Bottom line: the modern condition involves a historical temporality, but it’s a history that’s more complicated than the banalities of progress.

Okay. Time to go eat and go home.

Last night, I had another look at Rita Felski’s 2000 PMLA on why academics don’t talk about the lower middle class. I looked it up because I had misremembered it being about the middlebrow, which it kind of is, I guess. As I’m going blind reading these periodicals, I’m realizing how significant the lower middle class demographic was, and how it’s kind of, but not really reflected in the books we study. (Other random class note: poetry is kind of more highbrow than fiction–I’m looking at you, Mr. Browning–but it’s also more populist–I’m finding quite a lot of working-class poets, and there are a bunch of memoirs too, but novels? haven’t encountered one yet.) I went into the periodicals project hoping that I’d get a sense of the different political orientation of the different mags, but now I’m thinking that class orientation is more important. I looked at two weeklies today, the London Journal and the Athenaeum. The latter’s five times more expensive than the former. (But it’s also twice as long–it’s not very accurate to say that Dickens was paid by the word, but you there’s some truth in saying that Victorians thought about text prices in cost per page–so a twenty-number beast like Pickwick or Little Dorrit would cost ten shillings less than a mere triple decker–what a bargain!) Anyway, everything that falls in between–maybe even just price-wise–goes for a lower middle class audience. Chambers’, Eliza Cook’s Journal, and Household Words all appealed to a lower middle class audience. Here’s where my definition gets circular: the working classes could afford these (might be a bit more than the penny mags like the LJ), but they’ve got a very educationy, moral improvement, useful knowledge feel to them. (yes i realize i’m sounding very educationed right now.) Which leads me back to Felski–her beef with most academic work on the working class is that the idea of lower middle class respectibility, social aspiration, cleanliness, is totally ignored. I’d say that it’s pretty invisible in current cultural representations as well–lower middle class is one of the few groups that it’s still okay to laugh at. The respectable upper working class in mid-Victorian England, though, was culturally central, and far from being reactionary, it was the most progressive class. Coming out of the class wars of the first half of the nineteenth century, education–moral and intellectual improvement–emerged as the solution to lower class immiseration. So, the famed Victorian faith in progress placed a fairly large emphasis on improving the minds and morals of the upper working class/emergent lower middle class.

Dude had some mad mutton chops

I chose that barbarism of a periodization for my periodicals list, because, while 1851 is definitely Mid-Victorian, there’s lots that happened in the Mid-Mid-Victorian Era that makes those years quite a different beast. For one thing, there was a sense that, after the Continental Revolutions of ’48 and the defeat of Chartism, England was entering a new phase of peace, stability, and prosperity. Tennyson was chosen as Poet Laureate, and then the Crystal Palace put a cap on everything. 1851 was a very good year if you weren’t among the millions and millions fucked over by British imperialism. And then, the Crimean War came in 1853, Sepoy Uprising in ’57, Second Opium War from ’56 to ’60: the national mood was quite different. But yet what both the Early Mid-Victorian Era and the Mid-Mid-Victorian Era shared (of the Late-Mid-Victorian Era I am lacking in expertise) was a sense of being in a transition state, escaped from the violence of the Napoleonic Wars, the threat of Revolution, and, not to be underestimated, the immoralities and debaucheries of the Regency, and moving towards… nobody was sure what. As Matthew Arnold put it in his inimitably cheerful manner (from “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” [1855, which we might consider Early-Mid-Mid-Victorian]), Victorians felt as if they were “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.”

Everything I said just now I believe I knew before reading Richard Altick [can I just call him Dick?], at least it doesn’t sound unfamiliar. What is new is thinking about the above periodization in terms of periodicals. During the thirties, there was an extraordinary struggle between those who wanted to disseminate, and those who wanted to repress, the circulation of news among the working class: hence the Newspaper Stamp Duty. The forces of repression won (as they always do, Thomas Hardy might say), in large part because working-class periodicals now focused on useful knowledge and education (or lurid fiction) instead of political issues. What if, in Althusserese, the ruling class could opt for the ISA over the RSA? And so, in the year of the Great Exhibition, the powers that be instituted a “Newspaper Stamp Committee,” investigating whether one might lift the so-called taxes on knowledge without upsetting existing relations of production. Lo and behold, in the Mid-Mid-Victorian period, the duties were lifted. And then, in the late 50s, there occured the “schilling monthly” phenomenon. I’m not paying much attention to this, because this is venturing into late Mid-Victorian period, but it looks like here we’ve got a further class subdivision: those who read Chambers’ or Household Words could sit at the kids’ table of the great monthlies, Blackwood’s and Fraser’s. And then in the 1890s, we get all sorts of crazy stuff like Tit-Bits and The Yellow Book and The Lady Cyclist and photogravures–everything gets too confusing and appealing!

I realize I said before I was going to make rationale pages for each list. This is probably the beginning of one, but I don’t feel like making the page right now. I have to be up in five hours, after all.

Recently, I tweeted:

Katie Couric: “Ppl want to know–what is White Culture?” GB: “I– I don’t know” http://bit.ly/4SY0g #dumberthanpalin

(The GB stands for Glenn Beck.) I’ve only recently been able to force myself to watch clips of Glenn Beck, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so viscerally nauseated from hearing someone speak. All the same–I don’t know what “white culture” is either.  And I can see myself throwing down the phrase in conversation/writing. I’d use in the sense Christian Lander, of stuffwhitepeoplelike.com uses it, as a critique of upper-middle-class privilege. E.g., White Culture places a high value on “saving the earth,” and thus forms social bonds through sharing tips on recycling and on how to “fly” to far away places in the world more often for less money.

While I was running today (another ritual prevalent within White Culture), I had the idea of tentatively renaming my po-co list “Globalization, Post-Colonialism, and ‘White Culture'” (it had been previously tentatively renamed “Globalized Subjects, Globalized Objects”). Here are some possible white cultures I’ve come up with in their relation to globalization:

  • OTOH, there’s the comfy globalization of the white liberal who values multiculturalism, believes “globalization” is inevitable, but in the long run will be beneficial to people both in the “First World” through access to different “cultures” and the “Third World” through economic “development.”
  • OTOH, there’s the racist “White Culture” Beck appeals to for which fundamentalism is the best answer to globalization. (Sadly, it might be.)
  • Overlapping with this group, though, are the white working classes, however broadly defined, who have lost out due to globalization.
  • And as for the anti-globalization crowd (or alter-globalization crowd), the crowd who has heard of the “post-colonial,” isn’t that another white culture? (A recentish article in the Guardian by some Oxbridge lecturer in postcolonial studies drew some incredulous comments regarding her field.)

Here’s four white cultures in varying degrees of opposition to each other. What if it’s possible to think of all four as the same “white culture,” though, like Tyler’s definition of culture as a “complex whole”? (Although George Stocking warned us not to take that definition too seriously.)  I’m not even going to attempt to speculate on how this might be, but I suspect that a historical perspective will be useful.

Or think of it this way: is the “culture” invoked by the “cultural turn” around 2000 the same as the “culture” of post-war cultural anthropology? “Culture” in the former instance is often invoked dialectically with economics in the former instance, as in, globalization works both by cultural and economic means in a mutually reinforcing relationship. “Culture” in the latter instance is invoked in contrast to western modern “society” and nation-states. It’s past 3 am, so all I’ll say is that it’s reminding me of Hardt and Negri’s contrast between our current Empire and the imperialisms of the modern era. Maybe I’d like H and N better if the book was called capital C Culture, as opposed to modern lowercase c cultures.

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.

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.

#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.

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