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Three issues I have tried to deal with here
Of methodology, genre and merit
For method – all things must begin with google
And so I google this Aurora Leigh
I find the dedication to John Kenyon
And google him in turn to find that he
Had written to the daughter of Sam Coleridge
Who replied thus: charming is this poem
But the poet has done grave injustice
To the classics that she scarce understands.
Thus Sara Coleridge echoes the father
Admonishing Aurora, “Silly Girls
Who plant their flowers in our philosophy
To make it fine, and only spoil the book!”
My next methodological step is
To read, unread, reread each flower, every
Philosophy. To read with sympathy
And then to read again, to search for men
And women, eyes and nose, highs and lows, rhymes
and prose, all those in Barrett Brownings words.
On then, to genre – Aurora Leigh is
A poem, novel, travel narrative
And autobiography complicated
By aspects of Elizabeth in two
Disparate protagonists. In this epic tapestry is woven lyric threads,
And at th’ abortive wedding in part four
There’s drama, as the wait is felt and told
By the voices of despised nobility.
Another avenue for assumed voices
Is found in the epistolary parts
That, like The Ring and Book, whose “evidence”
was written, for there were no open courts,
Aurora Leigh records, in layers of irony
Communications and their misreadings.

To novel, travelogue, and self-writing
We can add one more prose genre – criticism –
To which Aurora Leigh could well belong:
“A woman cannot do the thing she ought,
Which means whatever perfect thing she can,
In life, in art, in science, but she fears
To let the perfect action take her part
And rest there: she must prove what she can do
Before she does it” – an eternal truth
To which a presidential candidate
might testify. And so to the doing
Of poetry we see the addition
Of a saying, in the lines that bludgeon us
With meaning, and with what their meaning means.

Now to merit – shall we, as Arnold would do
Apply the touchstone method – mark this line
Addressed to Waldemar – “To love and lie!
Nay–go to the opera! your love’s curable.’”
IS this an echo or a separate note
In harmony with Shakespeare’s “men have died
from time to time, and worms have eaten them,
but not for love”? On to the next precept
Of subjective judgement. Could one have written
A proem or a povel like this one?
I think I demonstrate that I could not
My pentameter could hardly be verse.

On the canonizability of
Aurora Leigh – Mary Poovey would ask
Does this poem serve a desired or desirable
function? It serves three. It is a showcase.
It is herstory. It is pleasure. First as
showcase – what does it show? Victorians.
Xenophobic, necrophilic, also
Melancholic, anti Catholic, though the
Maenadic, hebraic, erotic side
Of Catholic Italy is contrasted
Favourably with an England “so
Clipped and rational, that if you seek
for any wilderness/You find, at best,
a park.” Other Victorianisms are
the dead mother (who is essential back
story for a writer – kill the mother,
and you have a lifetime of artistic fodder)
And the Woman Question – but more about that later
Note also fading aristocracy,
Foiled by a rising middle class. Each of
the main characters in Aurora Leigh
Is classed ambiguously – Where Ms. Leigh
Is always classed with lions, Marian
Is “stag” or “fawn”, links lower in the chain.
Aurora speaks aristocratically
When she says in disregard for food or rent,
“My soul is not a pauper; I can live
At least my soul’s life, without alms from men”
And yet elsewhere she speaks in bourgeoisie
She says to Romney that “Whoever says
To a loyal woman, ‘Love and work with me,’
Will get fair answers” Romney spirals down
In ironic fulfillment of his cause
To raze the remnants of feudal constructions
Be careful what you wish for, Romney Leigh
Marian, we hear, is quite unsuited
To housework – and in this she is indulged
By otherwise unsympathetic parents
And therein lies Marian’s odd privilege.
Physiognomically speaking, her low brow
Her neither brown nor whiteness and her hair
In Pre-raphaelite curls race her as “other”
To the quasi Saxonness of Aurora
Whose mother is Italian but blue eyed;
And for Aurora’s other attributes
Lady Maud threw down, when she was born
“ The undeniable lineal mouth and chin”

The xenophobic entail, then, is shown
To be ludicrous, and yet Aurora is
Not all England – she’s Romney’s Italy
Also, his little Chaldean who reads
His “meaning backward like [her] eastern books,
While he is from the west, dear.”

Moving on
To Herstory – like class and race, gender
And sexuality are troubled here,
As are attitudes to motherhood
and women’s art. Aurora speaks a good deal of writing
But writing is inextricable
From the gender question. On one hand,
Aurora sees herself as genderless
“As a palm tree, rather than an a lush
And overbearing vine.” The artist, thus
Is placed beyond gender, and classed above
Two sorts of mothers – Marian’s marylike sort
Note Marian’s name -derived from the virgin
And yet unisex. The other sort is
The mother whose children’s poor milky mouths
Are “Wiped […] of mother’s milk by mother’s blow
Before they are taught her cursing.” Here the charm
The lovely crap, the old mystique about
Maternal instinct and mother’s duty
Are deconstructed quite summarily
Now hear these lines, written so long before
Roe v. Wade: “I ripped my verses up,
And found no blood upon the rapier’s point:
The heart in them was just an embryo’s heart,
Which never yet had beat, that it should die:
Just gasps of make-believe galvanic life;
Mere tones, inorganised to any tune.”
When Romney speaks in Miltonic terms of
A womans’ role to cure, not cause headaches
Little does he sense he’ll be undone
Weakened, symbolically castrated by
Disability. And so as clothed
In her father’s doublet, careless of its fit,
Aurora grapples with the irony
Of doing busy work, embroidery,
That she may be useful, while inside
A lion, or a lioness – she’s not sure which
Is roaring across time to Judith Butler
About the discursive limits of sex,
this same Aurora speaks of pregnant thought
And says “poets (bear the word)”, which calls to mind
Bearing the Word by Homans, who equates
In troubling and essentialist ways, feminine art
With childbirth. This plays into the equation
Of the masculine with the intellectual
And the feminine with Mother Nature –
Aurora Leigh teems with life and nature.
In that, it falls into Romantic tropes
And scoffs Classics: “Five acts to make a play?
And why not fifteen? Why not ten? or seven?
What matter for the number of the leaves,
Supposing the tree lives and grows? exact
The literal unities of time and place,
When ’tis the essence of passion to ignore
Both time and place? Absurd. Keep up the fire
And leave the generous flames to shape themselves.”
Yet later Aurora critiques the poets who want to withdraw to the “daisies” –
she believes one should also observe
the swarthiest faces in the urban crowds:
She also critiques Byron and pope, excepting
Keats who is in touch with his feminine side
So much for childbearing and pain, now pleasure.
As A novel, ‘tis a marriage plot, a joy
For those of us who love Harlequin tales
And really, who does not? The narrative
Is formed into a ring, a wreath, a circle
By returning to the questions and inequities
Of the start. Mountains abound here and stairs
Aurora and Marian are higher dwellers
Joining the ranks of madwomen in attics,
Renaissance beloveds on pedestals
And Juliets on balconies; Romney
“Who has climbed a mountain-height and carried up
His own heart climbing, panting in his throat
With the toil of the ascent, takes breath at last,”
To be rejected. What, on god’s green earth
Do women want, asks Lacan. Leigh replies,
As Romney climbs a mountain once again
Without his sight. We do not know his face
Romney Leigh has never been described.
The objects are the women – and his gaze
Confers upon them stone wreaths and headaches.
Now blinded, he is still – as turned to stone
He has become the looked-upon, Edward
Rochester to Aurora’s Jane. When first
He popped the question, St John style, he said
To Aurora “If your sex is weak for art,
(And I who said so, did but honour you
By using truth in courtship) it is strong
For life and duty.” His proposal meets
The same fate as his brother’s from Jane Eyre
“You have a wife already whom you love,
Your social theory. Bless you both, I say.
For my part, I am scarcely meek enough
To be the handmaid of a lawful spouse.”
As blind and burnt out Rochester, Romney
Has lost the gaze that must objectify.
Leighton’s thought on this is echoed in
Aurora’s words on the panopticism
Of her old life: “Nay, the very dog
Would watch me from his sun-patch on the floor,
In alternation with the large black fly
Not yet in reach of snapping. So I lived.”
So, sightless, Romney comes to claim his bride
Disrupting the two mother family
With lengthy declarations of his sins
To which his love says, “Why, Ulysses’ dog
Knew him, and wagged his tail and died: but if
I had owned a dog, I too, before my Troy,
And if you brought him here, I warrant you
He’d look into my face, bark lustily,
And live on stoutly, as the creatures will
Whose spirits are not troubled by long loves.”
In other words, she’s changed – but note, at last,
She thinks she is Ulysses, Romney thinks
She’s his Penelope. So in some ways
Some things are left untidy but dear reader
like every good Harlequin book, this ends
with two chapters of climactic resolution
An extended declaration of their love,
And the standard linear full stop of a kiss.

It’s always the bicentennial or sesquicentennial of something, but this year’s is a biggie, as I’m sure all you long nineteenth centuryists are already sick to death of hearing–so happy 2012! (About the link–it seems totally in the spirit of Dickens to make a big capitalist hoopla over a meaningless anniversary, doesn’t it?)

Is one of my NYR’s to blog more frequently? I’m not sure yet, but I’m trying to write more in general, hoping that that will get me to write more on that little thing I’ve got to get done for those expensive three letters. So maybe you’ll be hearing more from me here? Or, more likely, here–I believe there are stages one must go through before while writing a dissertation, and one of them is to take up a hobby and spend ridiculous amounts of time on it. Mine’s running, so if you want to read about what a theoretically-minded pain slut would-be Boston Qualifier, check it out.

So, here I am, back to blogging. I actually darkened the door here not because of the new year, but because I remembered this post that I had begun, but never finished–way back in September.

Here’s what I had:


How I learned to stop bitching and love The Newcomes

For an embarrassingly long time, I’ve been reading The Newcomes, you know, one of the books W. M. Thackeray (has anybody read this Thackeray?) wrote that wasn’t Vanity Fair. It is, after all, rather long:

Not one brick, but two!

I’m reading it since it briefly mentions China 4 or 5 times in its more than 900 pages, and I need to decide whether it merits a footnote or maybe even a full paragraph in my dissertation. It’s been slow going. When I talk about it I say maybe there’s a reason why nobody reads any Thackeray except for Vanity Fair. I’m used to being completely unengrossed by Victorian novels for the first hundred pages, but WMT managed to make the pages refuse to turn all through the first volume. For the first three hundred pages or so, there’s really not anything like a plot, although that’s not stopped me from liking a novel (cf. Charlotte Mary Yonge), and it’s about a more or less happy family, but that’s not necessarily a turn-off either (again, cf. Miss Yonge). Around page 500 I thought I detected something like a plot. Now that I’m around page 300 of the second volume, I’m thinking that this is actually an enormously sad, hence great novel. In its way, it’s quite more tragical than Vanity Fair.


I had some passage in mind to illustrate the novel’s particular brand of world-weariness, something like this (“spoiler” alert):

Very likely this was the happiest period of Thomas Newcome’s life. No woman (save one perhaps fifty years ago) had ever seemed so fond of him as that little girl. What pride he had in her, and what care he took of her! If she was a little ailing, what anxiety and hurrying for doctors! What droll letters came from James Binnie, and how they laughed over them; with what respectful attention he acquainted Mrs. Mack with everything that took place; with what enthusiasm that Campaigner replied! Josey’s husband called a special blessing upon his head in the church at Musselburgh; and little Jo herself sent a tinful of Scotch bun to her darling sister, with a request from her husband that he might have a few shares in the famous Indian Company.

The Company was in a highly flourishing condition, as you may suppose, when one of its directors, who at the same time was one of the honestest men alive, thought it was his duty to live in the splendour in which we now behold him. Many wealthy City men did homage to him. His brother Hobson, though the Colonel had quarrelled with the chief of the firm, yet remained on amicable terms with Thomas Newcome, and shared and returned his banquets for a while. Charles Honeyman we may be sure was present at many of them, and smirked a blessing over the plenteous meal. The Colonel’s influence was such with Mr. Sherrick that he pleaded Charles’s cause with that gentleman, and actually brought to a successful termination that litle love-affair in which we have seen Miss Sherrick and Charles engaged. Mr. Sherrick was not disposed to part with much money during his lifetime–indeed he proved to Colonel Newcome that he was not so rich as the world supposed him. But by tyhe Colonel’s interest, the chaplaincy of bogglywallah was procured for the Rev. C. Honeyman, who now forms the delight of that flourishing station.

All this while we have said little about Clive, who in truth was somehow in the background in this flourishing Newcome group. To please the best father in the world; the kindest old friend who endowed his niece with the best part of his savings; to settle that question about marriage and have an end of it; Clive Newcome had taken a pretty and fond young girl, who respected and admired him beyond all men, and who heartily desired to make him happy. To do as much would not his father have stripped his coat from his back,–have put his head under Juggernaut’s chariot-wheel,–have sacrificed any ease, comfort, or pleasure for the youngster’s benefit? One great passion he had had and closed the account of it: a worldly ambitious girl–how foolishly worshipped and passionately beloved no matter–had played with him for years; had flung him away when a dissolute suitor with a great fortune and title had offered himself. Was he to whine and despair because a jilt had fooled him? He had too much pride and courage for any such submission; he would accept the lot in life which was offered to him, no undesirable one surely; he would fulfil the wish of his father’s heart, and cheer his kind declining years.

In Vanity Fair, life sucks because people are selfish and manipulative assholes or pathetic self-delusional fools. In The Newcomes, there’s no shortage of assholes, but there’s plenty of good-hearted people too. And even–especially when those good-hearted people get their way, everything ends up sucking all the same.

Ironicallyish, sometime in the many months since beginning the post, I encountered this quote from a contemporary review, via Nicholas Dames’ contribution to The Feeling of Reading, ed. Rachel Ablow:

The merit of the “Newcomes” cannot be judged by quotations. They are like the stones of the temple, whose beauty is in their proper places, as parts of a design. Characters are built up bit by bit, and many admirable traits depend for their effect upon the knowledge of their antecedents…

The passage I’ve chosen is fairly unremarkable on its own–but where Vanity Fair has plenty of eminently quotable zingers about the shittiness of the world in general, it’s these longer passages that put the particular world of the novel in hand into melancholy perspective that I find particularly satisfying.

I was reminded of this unfinished post now that I’m almost done Sylvia’s Lovers, advertised by OWC (and Wikipedia) as “the saddest story I ever wrote” by “Mrs. Gaskell” herself. How sad is it? Pretty damn sad. We’re talking Thomas Hardy territory here, and not just the train-wreckiness of the plot. We’ve got the working-class rural regionalisms, the aching nostalgia–although there’s not so much overcompensatory hyperintellectualism (don’t get me wrong, I heart overcompensatory hyperintellectualism–takes one to know one, innit.)

For some reason, the novel’s felt very cinematic to me (curiously enough, it seems there’s never been an adaptation). I’d love to see a long Kubrickesque travelling shot of this:

The infant was wailing and suffering with its teething, and the mother’s heart was so occupied in soothing and consoling her moaning child, that the dangerous quay-side and the bridge were passed almost before she was aware; nor did she notice the eager curiosity and respectful attention of those she met who recognized her even through the heavy veil which formed part of the draping mourning provided for her by Hester and Coulson, in the first unconscious days after her mother’s death.

Though public opinion as yet reserved its verdict upon Philip’s disappearance–warned possibly by Kinraid’s story against hasty decisions and judgments in such times as those of war and general disturbance–yet every one agreed that no more pitiful fate could have befallen Philip’s wife.

Marked out by her striking beauty as an object of admiring interest even in those days when she sate in girlhood’s smiling peace by her mother at the Market Cross–her father had lost his life in a popular cause, and ignominious as the manner of his death might be, he was looked upon as a martyr to his zeal in avenging the wrongs of his townsmen; Sylvia had married amongst them too, and her quiet daily life was well known to them; and now her husband had been carried off from her side just on the very day when she needed his comfort most.

I guess this post is my own foray into Victorian-style reviewing–long on quotation, short on commentary. There’s much more I could say and am thinking about–like how these passages work with Sianne Ngai’s discussion of tone as something distinct from what is actually represented in fiction, the play of perspective, un-close-reading, but hey, I’ve got a dissertation to write.

Without further ado, the new intro to the Little Dorrit section of Chapter 3.

In fact, that’s why I started out telling the story: I think I meant it as a fairly simple story about scale. Just to say how the right scale of doll for my older sister was the wrong scale for me, how I needed something chunkier. I needed, or thought I did, something with decent-scale, plastic, resiliently articulated parts that I could manipulate freely and safely (safely for it as well as me): this seemed to be the condition for my loving or identifying with the creature, even just not abandoning it. (Sedgwick, “Melanie Klein” 627-628)

I first read Little Dorrit in Eve Sedgwick’s Fall 2007 seminar on “Reading Relations.” Given all the attention paid in recent years to her notion of reparative reading, and Eve’s own attention to this scene in class, Arthur’s words to his mother soon after his return from China have a particular buoyancy for me:

“Is it possible, mother,” her son leaned forward to be the nearer to her while he whispered it, and laid his hand nervously upon her desk, “is it possible, mother, that he had unhappily wronged any one, and made no reparation?” (62, emphasis mine)

And, soon afterwards:

“In grasping at money and in driving hard bargains… some one may have been grievously deceived, injured, ruined. You were the moving power of all this machinery before my birth; your stronger spirit has been infused into all my father’s dealings, for more than two score years… If reparation can be made to any one, if restitution can be made to any one, let us know it and make it. Nay, mother, if within my means, let me make it. I have seen so little happiness come of money; it has brought within my knowledge so little peace to this house, or to any one belonging to it; that it is worth less to me than to another.” (63, first emphasis mine)

There has been no shortage of readings attuned to Arthur’s strange, vague sense of guilt, among them Wenying Xu’s argument with which I began this chapter, that his individual guilt is symptomatic of Britain’s national guilt concerning its participation in the Chinese opium trade. (We’ll need a big ole omnibus footnote here.) What if, though, we focus not on Arthur’s guilt, but on his desire to make reparation? What if, in other words, we consider Arthur not as a Foucauldian subject of power/knowledge, but a Sedgwickian reparative reader?

For Sedgwick, reparative practices originate from the Kleinian depressive position, the threshold of which is breached with “the simple, foundational, authentically very difficult understanding that good and bad tend to be inseparable at every level” (“Melanie” 637). Sedgwick’s reparative reader inhabits a world sometimes hostile, sometimes merely inhospitable, and, in recognition of the cloud firmly attached to every silver lining, undertakes a “movement toward what Foucault calls ‘care of the self,’ the often very fragile concern to provide the self with pleasure and nourishment in an environment that is perceived as not particularly offering them” (“Paranoid” 137). Noting the persistent gloom surrounding Sedgwick’s writing on reparative reading, Ellis Hanson quips in a recent article, “Just as paranoid reading can never be too paranoid, reparative reading can never be too depressed” (106).

Arthur certainly meets this criterion, having seen “so little happiness come of money,” imagining that others have not merely been wronged by his family’s business, but “grievously deceived, injured, ruined.” When he is coldly greeted by Flintwinch after his long absence, he says to himself, “How weak am I… that I could shed tears at this reception! I, who have never experienced anything else; who have never expected anything else” (48). Arthur, “lean[ing] forward to be the nearer to her while he whispered it, and la[ying] his hand nervously upon her desk,” demonstrates the fragility associated with the reparative situation.

Little Dorrit, I propose, can be read as a novel with a “reparative plot”; that is to say, it starts out from a position of psychic damage, and derives its most powerfully affective moments when the novel depicts the attempts made, in Sedgwick’s Kleinian words, “to assemble or ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole–though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any preexisting whole” (“Paranoid” 128, original emphasis). If the novel is most frequently thought of as an extensive treatment of the prison in its literal, social, and psychological manifestations, of characters hemmed in, constrained, rendered immobile, a reading attuned to the reparative plot is invested not so much in the moments of liberation experienced, or in the exposure of the truth of imprisonment underlying some condition of putative freedom, but in the novel’s construction of a large and varied world in which are assembled both good and bad objects, freedom and constraint.

But what has any of this to do with my dissertation’s larger concern, China?

I’ll admit, not much. However, this reparative plot also did not figure largely if at all in Dickens’ original conception of the novel.At this stage he had selected China as Arthur’s land of exile, and part of my argument is that because of this shift in the novel’s direction, the narrative places little emphasis on Arthur’s Chinese origins after the first few chapters.

What China does contribute to the world of Little Dorrit is a sense of scale. Like young Eve Kosofsky’s desire for a larger, chunkier doll, Arthur’s trajectory might also be thought of as a story about scale. In his case, though, the scale appropriate for him is the small-scale child-body of Amy Dorrit. Near the end of the novel, alone in his prison cell, after he finally discovers that Little Dorrit has been in love with him, he thinks to himself, “Looking back upon his own poor story, she was its vanishing point. Everything in its perspective led to her innocent figure. He had travelled thousands of miles towards it; previous hopes and doubts had worked themselves out before it; it was the centre of interest of his life” (766-767).

Scale extends in two directions here. On the one hand there is the narrowing of focus, the shrinking of dimensions that accompanies Clennam’s concentration of interest on Little Dorrit. One of the chief effects of contemplating objects on a miniature scale, Susan Stewart argues in On Longing, is the achievement of psychological interiority. The moments of affective intensity guiding the novel’s reparative plot depend upon the construction of multiple layers of interiority.

On the other hand, the “thousands of miles,” the many years of Clennam’s life spent in exile, function on a macrocosmic scale. China, with its immense population, may be metonymically linked to the bureaucratic workings of the Circumlocution Office, the genteel Society of Mrs. General, and the flows of capital associated with Merdle. These faceless, alienating, disorienting institutions dwarf the individual trapped within, in contrast to the highly individuated space of tiny interiors. However, this experience of spatial alienation accentuates the moments of containment and reorientation, increases the effect of psychological interiority. Britain’s expansion outward into what was in effect a globalized economy also led to an expansion inwards.

Not just space but time as well buttresses the affective structure of Little Dorrit. Throughout Dickens’ fiction, an aesthetics of arrested temporality marks some of Dickens’ most characteristically animated prose. Stopped time is also a feature of the miniature object–and, of course, of the Celestial Empire. I thus argue that China occupies an affectively ambivalent position in the novel: it would make sense to treat China with satirical contempt, on a par with the Circumlocution Office and haute bourgeois Society, but the target of that contempt, its refusal of growth and progress, its worship of small and constricted objects and female bodies, in fact play a key role in sustaining the novel’s reparative energies.

Do you count as ABD if you haven’t turned in your prospectus? Do you count as mentally ABD if you’re terrified of starting your prospectus? I’ve been wallowing, really wallowing, in the latter condition–I think I’ve begun to pull myself out of it, but alas, the prospectus is as yet unbegun in terms of words on page, or screen, or cloud, or what have you. Things are beginning to coalesce, but I still don’t feel ready to begin. Part of my problem is I’ve had a bunch of random ideas that I think will fit in well in the intro and/or epilogue, i.e., they’re non-Victorian and kind of anecdotey. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Susan Sontag’s short story “Project for a Trip to China”: It’s not really much of a story, so I hope you’ll forgive me for giving away the last line: “Perhaps I will write the book about my trip to China before I go.” The story consists of disconnected working notes towards her personal connection to China, its place in her imagination. Some dude in the NYRB called it “an embarrassing bit of Chinoiserie, however dismantled and self-consciously post-modern.” I actually don’t find it all that post-modern. Yes, there’s no narrative to speak of, except for writing about writing, but Sontag’s point doesn’t seem to be ironize the narrator’s orientalist tendencies–rather, it seems a sincere attempt understand those tendencies and their roots. The story’s apparently autobiographical: the narrator, like Sontag, was conceived, although not born in China. “Conception, pre-conception,” she writes (or maybe it’s the other way around.” I’m attracted to this story because in the Western tradition, China is perhaps the place most defined by preconceptions, self-consciously so, the most removed from Western “realities,” due to its distance, but also its self-isolation. There’s a parallel, I think, between the “opening of China” post Opium War #1 and the visits to China in the 70s by Nixon, Sontag, the Tel Quel crew.
  • Brian Massumi on affect: “The ability of affect to produce an economic effect more swiftly and surely than economics itself means that affect is itself a real condition, an intrinsic variable of the late-capitalist system, as infrastructural as a factory” (“The Autonomy of Affect” [link opens PDF]) What was the affective infrastructure of Victorian globalization? Is this affective infrastructure different from that of imperialism/colonialism? I think my close readings will go for the affective infrastructures of texts–what Sianne Ngai calls “tone” in her reading of The Confidence Man. Plus “structures of feeling” a la Raymond Williams.

More odds and ends to follow!

Attempting, once again, to restart the long-moribund Poem of the Week feature, though I imagine that the definition of  “week” is going to remain flexible.* You’ll note that this entry doesn’t have the usual linkage and fun with GoogleBooks and Wikipedia – I’m somewhat short of internet in my new apartment, so am trying this crazy method of writing offline instead. Among other things, this means I didn’t bother to look up the date of the poem. And this is all pretty much just stream of consciousness with the occasional nod towards close reading. (Even more than it was before.) If we hate this, we can figure out a way to do the other thing.

This week’s theme? Don’t just do something, sit there!**

296. Magna Est Veritas – Coventry Patmore

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,

Where, twice a day,

The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,

Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,

I sit me down.

For want of me the world’s course will not fail:

When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;

The truth is great, and shall prevail,

When none cares whether it prevails or not.

I was on an honest-to-God vacation last week, which included a couple of days at the San Francisco Zen Center (you wanna talk about “sit me down…”) and, more resonantly, several more in Santa Cruz, which is on a bay and includes the ocean crashing against high cliffs, though perhaps with more surfing culture than Patmore had in mind. Nevertheless, I was initially drawn to this poem because it seemed to resonate with my experience of Northern California.

And I’m attracted to this poem because, like so many of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s selections, it doesn’t entirely shy away from the commonplace and the cliché, while at the same time twisting it just enough to be interesting, to briefly undermine the typical. It doesn’t seem particularly earthshattering to me to that “tumultuous life” would be contrasted with “great repose,” though at the same time I wonder what’s doing the living and the reposing. That we are near cliffs and away from the town suggests that we are not witnessing a bustling port scene, but this is pretty thin as far as nature poetry goes. I mean, not that I think he’s trying to write a poetry of nature here. There’s just a certain extravagance there, as if he’s going out of his way to refuse the description.

Same thing with the following lines. Really, the tide goes in and out every day? Thanks, Victorian poetry! But there is something incredibly striking about the use of “purposeless, glad” to describe the ocean. At first glance, I took it as a welcome change from the fraught, churning, and highly overdetermined “Sea of faith” that we all associate with “Dover Beach.” (And there is something of the anti-“Dover Beach” here now that I think about it.) I don’t say that just because I enjoy poking Matthew Arnold every chance I get. We shouldn’t, I think, underestimate the effort that it took – takes – to see the natural world outside of a religious discourse. It’s not just a matter of having to deal with Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw” – sometimes it’s harder to let go of the narrative when you’re looking at something beautiful. (I participated in various forms of Christian camping for over a decade; I know that of which I speak.) On a closer examination, the “purposeless” also seems to gesture towards the Kantian sublime, reminding us that aesthetic judgments are supposed to be ends in themselves, or almost no ends at all, and that the vastness of the ocean itself overruns and smashes any use or purpose we might see in it. What I want to say about the “glad” is less formed right now. I was tempted just to pretend I forgot it, or that it was a way of tempering the purposelessness, but of course “glad” and “purposeless” aren’t opposites, and perhaps the image we’re supposed to have here is something more like “pure,” undirected joy – the sense that a lack of purpose (or, I would say here, a going beyond purpose) does not mean a lack of energy. It’s a hard thing to get my head around, but it suggests to me both a passage in Nietzsche about a boat without a helmsman (the “must” without the “should,” as a very dear friend and professor describes it) and what’s been presented to me recently as part of Zen practice – making your best effort without a grasping idea; aspiring without desire.

This is a lot to put on Coventry Patmore and on you, dear readers. Good thing that the poem invites us to sit down. (And there is something kind of wonderfully hypnotic about watching the waves, don’t you think?)

Are we meant to think that the act of sitting in such a place is enough to suspend our relationship with the world, at least temporarily? It’s always liberating to go on vacation and not check my email every seven seconds, to realize that I’m not as necessary to the world as it sometimes seems. (This is, of course, an easier feat to pull off after the semester’s over.) It’s liberating, but then again it can also be slightly depressing when you do get around to checking your email and it’s basically just 237 messages from the VICTORIA list, with some Friendster spam thrown in for good measure. Patmore rather ups the ante on us here, though perhaps the nod to the Analytic of the Sublime should have warned us that this was coming. We let a few letters go unanswered while we’re at the shore, and then all of the sudden we’ve slipped into a kind of deep time. Once again, there’s this return to the near-cliché—the eventual victory of truth—undermined by the last line. There’s a lot to be unpacked here, I think; at any rate, it’s not as simple as “the truth” being indifferent to particular individuals and time….the more I look at the last two lines, the more I’m inclined to read it as a specifically causal relationship—that is, the “truth” (whatever it is) will win because everyone will have stopped caring about the victory. (Initially I’d read it more as just a deep time kind of thing, that is, the truth endures beyond our human sense of time.) I wonder if this could also be read as an implicit encouragement to stop trying to push your truth to victory: just live, calm down, watch the waves. But I’m suspicious of that conclusion as well.

Over 1,100 words in (sorry, Mia!) and I haven’t yet talked about the prosody – this seems like a sin when it comes to Patmore who, as I’ve been finding out, is one of the leading lights of nineteenth-century versification. As I realized down in Philadelphia a few months ago, I don’t really have the chops for this kind of analysis. So, suffice it to say that no doubt the form of the poem is also significant and probably experimental. It might also be obvious to everyone else. Yes, this is a cop-out, but I’m sure your joy at the (possible) return of the Poem of the Week will outweigh my lack of scansion-tasticness.

*There’s a long history of this, actually. When Coleridge was putting out The Watchman, he did so every eight days to avoid the tax on weekly publications.

**Okay, so I saw that on a little sign in the San Francisco Zen Center gift shop last weekend.

I heart NVSA conferences – I always come away feeling very happy to be a Victorianist and feeling super-inspired about my own work, even when I’m not giving a paper. As may have been clear from my last post-mortem, I’m kind of a fan of going to conferences just to hang out. And, as I discovered this past weekend, I’m even  more a fan of hanging out at conferences when they don’t involve three hours on the train punctuated by an hour on the platform at Rahway. (I borrowed my partner’s car to get from his house to Princeton, marking perhaps the first time in my life where I’ve driven to an academic event.)

The train ride came later, of course, and much of the following notes had their origin on my Monday midday commute back to New York. As usual, it’s highly selective and very stream-of-consciousness for the most part, characterized as well by the fact that I wasn’t at the first day, missed a bit of the keynote panel on Saturday morning, and was clobbered by a sugar crash during the after-lunch panel. I probably should have skipped the Official Princeton University Chocolate Chip Cookie. But anyway. It being NVSA, all of the papers were generally awesome and interesting – and they don’t need me talking about them to make them so. And onward:

So, Fighting Victorians. More accurately, it was an examination of both fighting and the ways of not fighting, of the boundaries of fighting – when, for instance, it becomes violence. Discussions of the displacement of aggression onto the worlds of commerce and economics, but also – at least implicitly – into areas of the social and the religious. How we avoid wars, but then also avoid talking about wars once we’re in them. Jonathan Farina’s paper on “thrash talking” was largely about the ways that the Victorian novel talks about fighting (a kind of periperformative, in Eve Sedgwick’s sense?) without actually coming to blows. (It’s a fun exercise to think about all of the duel scenes and duel scenes manqués that you can recall from Victorian literature.) Also, fighting as a mode of knowing, a physicalized epistemology that comes to be replaced by an increasing valuation of knowledge at a distance. We saw Newman in two poses: the fighter, drawing inspiration from the image of Deborah in the book of Judges or Jesus driving the moneylenders out from the temple, criticizing the lukewarmness of his age (a common theme in many of other papers) and suggesting that faith needed both hope and fear to be what it is (Lawrence Poston). But we also had Newman as a poet of conciliation, using poetic form to soften what had previously been devastatingly controversial (his ideas on purgatory from Tract 90) – and becoming a bestseller in the process with the Dream of Gerontius (Rebecca Rainof). Not specifically about fighting but more relevant for my interests was the idea of Newman’s purgatory as suspension with progression – a suspension without suspense. You know you’re saved, as someone in the audience (I think it was probably Herbert Tucker) said, there’s no doubt that you’re saved. As I realized looking at the passage from the handout later, there’s also no suspense about whether you’re dead – it’s possible that one of the very consolatory things about this poem is that it uses the language of uncertainty about the signs of death to set up and emphasize the fact that the speaker is unquestionably dead – a way of bringing suspension back under control, as it were. Religion also came up specifically around the Mormon question, which raised for Britain the question of what actually constitutes a religion, specifically one formed within the horizon of common memory and seemingly founded on the literal reproduction of older religious models (Sebastian Lecourt). Later, there were vampires used to personify the effects of capital on the working class (Jessica Kuskey), severed hands as both incontrovertible signs of colonial violence and a disturbing reminder of how even the most unequivocal marker of identity could be detached from its context (Aviva Briefel).

I think there’s still more to be done on the difference between fighting and violence. While violence certainly came up in a number of papers, I think a “violent Victorians” conference would have been quite different, darker. There’s something more comfortable about fighting, in a way, since it suggests that something’s fighting back – perhaps more of a sense of containment than is allowed by the word “violence.” Not unrelated, I think, was the relative absence of women as textual producers, historical actors, or even literary characters. Apparently, women don’t fight – even though the cover of the conference program was a Gibson drawing of a married couple experiencing “their first quarrel.” This absence was remarked on at Sunday’s wrap-up. With the exception of a “bloodthirsty” passage from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Casa Guidi Windows (Richard Bonfiglio) and an anecdote about resistance among teenage girls to regimes of institutional violence in an Irish workhouse (Anna Clark, a discussion I came to late on Saturday morning), there really wasn’t a lot of talk about women – even women who get fought over. I’m sure some of this is luck of the draw with what the program committee got, but I was somewhat surprised not to see, say, a discussion of Tennyson’s Princess Ida or some of the more startling passages in Christina Rossetti, not to mention marital strife, domestic violence, abusive mothers, and so on. Makes me wonder if there’s something else going on. Also makes me wish I’d been in a place in the fall where I had enough time to come up with an abstract. Which is always the way, of course.

That’s all for now. I’m going to do a separate post later on about Alex Woloch’s paper on the keynote panel. It’s sort of an outlier here, but it does continue some of the discussions that were talking place at the “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel at MLA.

I was reading Kate Flint’s The Woman Reader yesterday, and she mentions that people who looked for the racy, immoral fiction that working-class periodicals supposedly abounded in were usually disappointed by their propriety. I agree. But here’s a picture that’s one of the few exceptions, a woodcut illustrating “Bertha Gray, The Parish Apprentice-Girl; or, Six Illustrations of Cruelty,” serialized in six parts in Reynold’s Miscellany of 1851.

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