Monday, 7th November, 2011

Earlier today, somebody asked me why Crabbe should still be read. It’s a fair question, mainly because on the whole he isn’t. There’s a secondary issue, I think, in that if someone is to read Crabbe, they’re likely to encounter the same poems, or the same anthologised sections of his work. Often these show a bias for things that don’t best represent him; they’re extracts of landscape description, aimed to place him within the context of Romantic poetry. The description of ‘The Winter Storm’ has been liberally extracted from ‘Letter I’ of The Borough by successive generations of editor, and whilst it’s an approachable section of Crabbe’s work, it gives no real sense of what the rest of that poem is about, or even like.

In answering the question posed, I found myself turning to something really quite unlikely as evidence of what makes Crabbe remarkable. ‘The Sisters’ is the eighth Book of 1819 poem Tales of the Hall. It’s an absolutely brilliant poem. It has all the plot and excitement of the nineteenth century novel and makes a strong case for the view that Crabbe should not be seen as ‘The Last Augustan’ but rather ‘The First Victorian.

There are obstacles, however, in approaching this work. It is a tale in rhyming couplet (as most of Crabbe’s works are) and for a general reader this is a form of writing that today is fairly unfashionable. It’s more than fashion, however. We shouldn’t overlook that it takes practise to read this sort of verse. If we’re unused to it, there is the trap that we fall into the pattern of the metre and – dedumdedumdedumdedumdedum – three pages on, we realise that we’ve not taken in anything of what has happened in it.

There’s also a problem in that this is but one story contained within a larger narrative about two brothers (George and Richard) and the opening of the poem briefly concerns them. Think The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales. However, as with those, this is a minor issue, and ‘The Sisters’ may be read as a stand-alone poem that is quite remarkable for the general reader. Adapted, it would make extraordinary Sunday night television: the story of two sisters and how they cope with financial ruin – one through perseverance and faith, the other driven mad by until she is under the delusion that she’s Lord Byron.

The poem tells the tale of Jane and Lucy; two sisters of contrasting temperament much in the manner of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. At the centre of the poem is the pair’s financial ruin.  It’s a poem relevant to us today, in part because it explores the dangers of trusting bankers. The sisters are encouraged to entrust their ‘funded source’ to a local financier to invest, only for his bank to fail leaving them with nothing. The poem explores the knock-on effect of the bank’s collapse, showing how it ends, in different ways, both sister’s engagements to their future husbands.

Another consequence of the bank’s collapse is that poverty, and the desertion of her lover, sends Jane into a kind of madness, brought on a ‘loss of all that ever hope possess’d’.[1] Hope is crucial in Crabbe’s worldview. The world might be a dreadful stormy place, but the one anchor the individual could have is the prospect that something better lays ahead that might be lived for. However, Jane’s belief has been based in ‘feeling’ rather than faith until this point – a love of Gothic novels and sensational literature has engendered this: ‘She loved to fancy, and she long’d to prove;’ (155) and for the early part of her life, the comforts she has enjoyed seem to confirm that she is following the right path. The two sisters are contrasted in their religious views, Lucy following the path of belief and Jane steered by religious dissenters to search for proof:

‘Jane borrow’d maxims from a doubting school,

And took for truth the test of ridicule;

Lucy saw no such virtue in a jest,

Truth was with her of ridicule a test.

(‘The Sisters’, 182-185)

 These contrasting positions do not save either sister from financial ruin – despite their beliefs they still both entrust their money in the banker – but do serve them differently once they have failed. Jane is driven madness because after their financial ruin she continues to search for feeling to confirm her faith, though now these feelings are ones of terror:

‘But there are hours when on that bosom steals

A rising terror, – then indeed she feels; –

Feels how she loved the promised good, and how

She feels the failure of the promise now.


The word ‘feel’ takes different meanings here, both of sensory perception in ‘indeed she feels’ and of being consciously aware of her situation that she ‘feels how she loved’. Ironically, ‘the failure’ of feeling comes in the latter sense and not as she perceives it from the former. Jane does not feel the promised good now, not because it is no longer promised, but because her ‘feeling’ that it can be felt is the error of judgement.

As with Matilda in the poem ‘The Voluntary Insane’, or Catherine Morland in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, it is hinted that Jane’s trust in feeling arises out of her reading of Gothic novels – but in ‘The Sisters’ Crabbe conflates the genre with the excitements of religious conversion: she ‘was pleased to see the beckoning hand, /And trust the magic of the Ratcliffe-wand’ (144-5). Ann Radcliffe’s novels shape her trust that proof is to be found in feeling:

The sisters read, and Jane with some delight,

The satires keen that fear or rage excite,

That men in power attack, and ladies high,

And give broad hints that we may know them by.

She was amused when sent to haunted rooms,

Or some dark passage where the spirit comes

Of one once murder’d! Then she laughing read,

And felt at once the folly and the dread:

As rustic girls to crafty gipsies fly,

And trust the liar though they fear the lie,


 The novel teaches her that folly might be ‘felt’, but when confronted with it in real life in the form of the banker, though she is suspicious that his charms of friendship might be false, as forced as his hot-house fruits (332-6) ­– a contemporary allusion to Satan’s temptation of forbidden fruit – her reading does not serve to warn her of this folly.

She has been taught the correct morals from these novels that would make her aware of the trap she falls into: ‘men in power attack’, that girls ‘trust the liar though they fear the lie’, but superseding all of this is the sense that she would feel the warning of it, as it might be felt by a person reading.

Her error comes that she mistakes the ordered structure of the novel for the disordered nature of life; believing in her reading too much, she feels it informs her faith:

In her religion—for her mind, though light,

Was not disposed our better views to slight—

Her favourite authors were a solemn kind,

Who fill with dark mysterious thoughts the mind;

And who with such conceits her fancy plied,

Became her friend, philosopher, and guide.


The last line here, quoting Pope’s Essay on Man,[2] places the supernatural thoughts Jane has taken from novels as her spiritual guide. This is not in place of the ‘better views’ of heaven, but uses them to inform her faith, in contrast to the position of her sister:

‘She mix’d not faith with fable, but she trod

Right onward, cautious in the ways of God;

Nor did she dare to launch on seas unknown,

In search of truths by some adventurers shown,

But her own compass used, and kept a course her own.


Lucy’s path is fixed on the ‘onward’ view of heaven, ‘cautious’ in her progress with a reservation about claiming to know. Jane’s superstitious novels and enthusiastic feeling are distractions from this straight course, and so when she does become lost, she is unable to steer herself back on course by them.

‘The Sisters’ presents a very stark view of Jane’s mental collapse, but should also be viewed as an important forerunner in the development of social realism. Though the poem explores the disordered mental state of an individual, it differs from works like ‘Sir Eustace Grey’ and ‘The Voluntary Insane’ in that the cause of the madness is predominantly not the individual’s fault. The effects of the banker’s unsound investment do not serve only to ruin a woman’s mind, but are seen to destroy an entire town; giving the poem a clear tone of social commentary akin to that of many novels of the nineteenth century. The gaudy wealth of the banker serves in part to demonstrate the same fault that Jane has: material possessions are a proof that things are going well, and investment has clear parallels to the Christian’s prospection on heaven:

‘A town was near, in which the buildings all

Were large, but one pre-eminently tall—

An huge high house. Without there was an air

Of lavish cost; no littleness was there;

But room for servants, horses, whiskies, gigs,

And walls for pines and peaches, grapes and figs;

Bright on the sloping glass the sun-beams shone,

And brought the summer of all climates on.


Crabbe, a keen botanist who favoured the mosses and lichens in the Suffolk marshes to more exotic plants, here creates a distrust of greenhouse horticulture. The Garden of Eden created by the banker is a false one; this is not really the climate for peaches and soft fruits, but an artificially affected one (as artificial as the safe investment market he depicts). The list of ‘lavish’ detail of the house, suggests wealth, but does not prove it has any foundation. It stands as a metaphor for Jane’s faith, but also creates a grim contrast to the scenes of the town left in ruin after the bank’s collapse. The two sisters, forced to take work in a school, are met with squalor:

With stains the idlers gather’d in their way,

The simple stains of mud, and mould, and clay,

And compound of the streets, of what we dare not say;

With hair uncomb’d, grimed face, and piteous look,

Each heavy student takes the odious book,

And on the lady casts a glance of fear,

Who draws the garment close as he comes near;


It is not explicit that the banker’s ruin has led to these scenes of poverty, but his early boasts ‘to that believing town’ (281) that he would build a canal and ‘they would owe their opulence to him’ (284) creates a note of social responsibility in the poem; a critique of the actions of wealthy.

It is back into reading that Jane’s mind escapes once she has gone mad, in an attempt to control her direction. Her delusion now is that she is a writer, the author of Scott’s Marmion and Byron’s Lara. Her madness has come about through her following the advice of another person, an act akin to the role of the reader, and so now she seeks to write, rather than read, to deliver herself to better prospects:

But most she thinks there will some good ensue

From something done, or what she is to do;

Long wrapt in silence, she will then assume

An air of business, and shake off her gloom;

Then cry exulting, “O! It must succeed,

There are ten thousand readers—all men read;

There are my writings,—you shall never spend

Your precious moments to so poor an end;


The appeal seems at first to simply be financial; that her writings might be sold to the ten thousand readers who will pay for them, but there is also the sense that writing would free her from the shame of her situation: ‘Surely a poet without shame avows’ as the act of writing is outward in its confession rather than inward (810). The act of the writer is one of control, of finding security in ‘works that cannot die’ (818) and so Jane puts herself ‘in the poet’s place’ (820). The realisation of the delusion is painful, as we see the strain that her illness places upon Lucy:

[…] Ah! Sister, do you grieve?

You weep; there’s something I have said amiss,

And vex’d my sister—What a world is this!

And how I wander!—Where has fancy run?

Is there no poem? Have I nothing done?


 Lucy’s reaction is unspoken; we see it only through Jane’s reaction to her grieving, and this delivers a melancholy realisation of the situation. Not only do we learn that Jane has not written and has not found a path out of her madness, but we also witness her making that discovery about herself. Her realisation comes back to proof; the fact that there is no poem. Crabbe writes with sympathy for the two sisters in the poem, whose situation perhaps echoes that of his wife’s sisters: Eleanor, who was considered to be mad, was looked after by Mary. In ‘The Sisters’ Crabbe moves us by Jane’s unspoken support; she grieves, but does not ever complain.

Yet the ending of the poem – an extraordinary moment in Crabbe’s verse – delivers some hope through this delusion and the act of writing. Terence Bareham suggests this passage is ‘the process by which composition and doctrine becomes confused in her mind’[3] yet in many ways it is the moment at which this confusion is reconciled. The real confusion for Jane has been in her youth, in putting too much heed by the Gothic novels she has read; she is much less ‘the victim of circumstance’[4] he suggests and more the moral sleeper upon whom circumstances have acted. In these final lines of the poem, Jane does begin to write, and Crabbe shifts the metre of the poem to reflect this. Bareham notes:

Crabbe is trying to pull off something extremely ambitious and difficult—the fusion of rhythm, ideas, language and sound into the meaning of the poetry. Behind it lies a strong sense of the dramatic.[5]

It is worth examining exactly what lies behind this passage however, because it is not simply brought about to create dramatic effect.

‘Jane, as these melancholy fits invade

The busy fancy, seeks the deepest shade;

She walks in ceaseless hurry, till her mind

Will short repose in verse and music find;

Then her own songs to some soft tunes she sings,

And laughs, and calls them melancholy things;

Not frenzy all; in some her erring Muse

Will sad, afflicting, tender strains infuse:

Sometimes on death she will her lines compose,

Or give her serious page of solemn prose;

And still those favourite plants her fancy please,

And give to care and anguish rest and ease.


‘ “Let me not have this gloomy view,

About my room, around my bed;

But morning roses, wet with dew,

To cool my burning brows instead.

As flow’rs that once in Eden grew,

Let them their fragrant spirits shed,

And every day the sweets renew,

Till I, a fading flower, am dead.


‘ “Oh! Let the herbs I loved to rear

Give to my sense their perfumed breath;

Let them be placed about my bier,

And grace the gloomy house of death.

I’ll have my grave beneath an hill,

Where only Lucy’s self shall know

Where runs the pure pellucid rill

Upon its gravelly bed below;

There violets on the borders blow,

And insects their soft light display,

Till as the morning sun-beams glow,

The cold phosphoric fires decay.


‘ “That is the grave to Lucy shown,

The soil a pure and silver sand,

The green cold moss above it grown,

Unpluck’d of all but maiden hand:

In virgin earth, till then unturn’d,

There let my maiden form be laid,

Nor let my changed clay be spurn’d,

Nor for new guest that bed be made.

(‘The Sisters’, 825-64)

 Strikingly this passage shifts from the iambic pentameter couplets common to the rest of Tales of the Hall, to mainly tetrameter octaves. Between lines 857-896, these follow the form ababcdcd; a form which is very similar to that used elsewhere by Crabbe to denote madness or dreaming, but with an important difference. The most striking feature of the form elsewhere is the couplet lines four and five, which creates a sense of disorder, of the rhyme being unable to progress beyond itself. Jane’s verse does not have this disorder; the rhyme-scheme moves from one idea to another without returning on itself. The effect of this is to create a sense of escape; finally through writing Jane in some way becomes free of circumstances.

In the form of these lines, Crabbe shows the process of her recovery. Her thinking, though melancholy, now moves on to the matter of salvation; she asks to be taken from ‘a world I hate’ to a ‘heaven of spotless love’ (889-94). Her language transfers into the future tense, asking to ‘be laid’ in the earth; her view now is directed ahead to the vision of heaven beyond. She is asking for salvation in the repetition of the word ‘let’, but does not seek any proof or feeling that this will occur; this is a marked difference from her position at the start of the poem. Crabbe does not indicate that this process is easy. The first of these stanzas takes the form: abababab which indicates Jane’s desire to find new prospects rather than the ‘gloomy view, / About my room, around my bed’. The physical location of this stanza suggests a kind of claustrophobia; her views are internal, trying to, but failing to see much further than her own bed.

In the second stanza she falters further; beginning with the ababcdcd form, she attempts to look beyond ‘the gloomy house of death’ to the hill where she might be buried, only in doing this she centres too much upon the earthly nature of her grave, on the violets and insects that grace it, and the ‘pellucid rill’ that all serve to prove how the grave will be a better place to be than her living state. She focuses on her ‘sense’, on the sensory nature of the landscape which is the distraction from the real purpose of the grave. Through doing this, the stanza extends beyond the hopeful ababcdcd form into a twelve-line stanza: ababcdcddede the lines between five and twelve replicating Crabbe’s form used to portray madness.

The verse here is not simply Crabbe creating the effect of Jane’s inner thoughts; it serves to invent for her a poetic voice. Her writing is more focused on landscape, and Jane is a Romantic in a way that Crabbe is not. The execution of this is unexpected, for we are faced with the poetic vision of a character, expressing her own verse but through Crabbe’s poetic convention. It is this that Bareham describes as ‘the dramatic’; the formation of a distinct speaking character to deliver the narrative. The form serves to show that Jane is not without hope, that through writing she has reengaged with the course toward salvation; it serves to demonstrate that though she appears mad her insistence that she is not mad is perhaps not entirely a delusion (789); yet it offers us no reassurances either. The failure of literature suggested in the poem is to offer a sense that we might know, or feel, the outcome of a character’s story. We are given no such sense from ‘The Sisters’; the poem does not return to the opening dialogue of George and Richard, nor to George’s account of her life. Neither Crabbe’s poem, nor Jane’s, offer us any conclusion about the girls’ fates; the lines merely end in the future tense of what Jane hopes will happen once she dies. As readers we expect a conclusion to the story, but whether Jane is mad or sane – whether she is saved – cannot be known. As L. J. Swingle points out, for readers:

a glimpse of pastoral life, a glimpse of any particular quantity – in Crabbe’s artistic terms, a glimpse of any “tale” – encourages a normally functioning, supposedly “properly functioning” mind to build up notions about the essential nature of things, to come away with the belief that something essential has been learned from experience. But in Crabbe’s world, if you’ve seen one tulip, you’ve only seen one tulip. One tale encourages formulation of one set of notions; another tale, another set.[6]

We read by a process of reasoning; attempting to make sense out of ‘all we see’ and seek out from the evidence in the poem some sense of the poet’s plan. What Swingle describes is the change of notions between poems in the same collection; but in these poems addressing madness, the poet’s magnification is drawn in far closer upon the tulip. We are attempting to reason a set of notions upon a person who themself is lost to reason. That Jane looks to heaven in the final stages of the poem indicates no more than that – we may assume no soteriological conclusion, no moral, no feeling about what occurs to her as a character – our focus is drawn in upon the constituent parts of the flower.

[1] ‘The Sisters’, TotH, viii, 727.

[2] ‘Thou wert my guide, philosopher and friend’ Essay on Man, iv, 390.

[3] Bareham, George Crabbe, (London: Vision, 1977), p. 215.

[4] Ibid., p. 186.

[5] Ibid., p. 215-6.

[6] L.J. Swingle, ‘Late Crabbe in Relation to the Augustans and Romantics: The Temporal Labyrinth of his tales in Verse, 1812’, in ELH, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Winter, 1975), p.591.

Friday, 7th October, 2011

In book II of The Odyssey, Zeus sets forth two eagles from a mountaintop. The birds fly for a while upon the will of the air currents, watched from beneath by the assembled party of suitors, but then

they turned on each other suddenly in a thick shudder
of wings, and swooped over the heads of all, with eyes glaring
and deadly, and tore each other by neck and cheek with their talons,
then sped away to the right across the houses and city.

The Odyssey, Richard Lattimore (trans.), II.151-4.

All eyes are on the birds, astonished by the spectacle: ‘their hearts half guessed things that indeed were to come to pass’ (trans. Walter Shewring, p.15). We are, of course, talking about a people that believe in augury – the ability to read the will of the Gods and to predict future events – by the flight patterns of birds.

Narratologically, it’s a very interesting moment in the story, which is why I turn to the Shewring translation to demonstrate this. At this point in the poem, we’re following the story of Telemachus. We’re yet to even meet Odysseus in the poem – all that is yet to come (though chronologically the majority of the story’s events have already happened, to be told later on in flashback). The bard has a peculiar vantage point in the poem; omnipresent, they are able to see both back through time, and forwards. The bard knows how the story will end, even though we, the listeners, perhaps do not.

As such, in terms of the narrative, the bard shares a similar position to that of the auger. Both can tell what is about to come, and this is what the Shewring translation makes clear: as much as the suitors do not want it confirmed to them, ‘their hearts half guessed things that indeed were to come to pass.’

It is that word ‘indeed’ that lays out the bard’s vantage point. Though in the ‘present’ point of his narrative the auger’s prediction of a ‘great wave of trouble’ (Shewring, p.16) is yet to occur, the word ‘indeed’ confirms the accuracy of these predictions, of the ‘half guessed things’ that the suitors dread might come. In so doing, the bard effectively confirms to accuracy of augury.

We tend not to give much heed to augury in our modern age. Aside from noticing the onset of seasonal change from the migration of birds – Vs of geese, the first summer’s swallows – it’s mainly in the superstitious counting of magpies that the belief echoes on. DEFRA pays attention to surveys of field birds in order to chart the effect that agriculture is having upon the countryside, and while we may predict some aspects of the future from this data, I am not sure it amounts to augury.

Nonetheless, we can learn a lot from what the birds are doing, mainly because they pay us little attention and get on with their own thing. The suitors’ undoing comes because Eurymachus does not pay heed to it, but attempts to shape the augury of the fighting eagles into a prediction to their advantage. But we cannot control what birds do. As God tells Job, man cannot shape the will of birds at all:

Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?
Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high?
She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place.
From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off.
Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she.

Job, 40:26-30

The point of augury is that birds – like fate – lay beyond our hands.

If all of this seems terribly distant, cast your mind back to last year when fate – the eruption of a volcano in Iceland – cleared the skies of aircraft over Britain. Remember how that felt. ‘But these are planes,’ you say, ‘we thought you were talking about birds.’

In 1937, Mervyn Peake, produced a startling poem which re-imagines Job’s eagle in the ‘to-day’ above a meadow. That he centres ‘The Metal Bird’ in ‘to-day’ is important, it’s a moment akin to Homer’s bard bridging the past to the future. In the poem, he calls it ‘Job’s eagle’ though of course the wording is ironic– what God is pointing out to Job is that he has no ownership of the eagle. The eagle follows her own path, finding out the slain, and in so doing may be thought to have more control over man, than man does over it.

It is important also that the ‘to-day’ of the poem is in April 1937, or rather, it is not surprising that Peake had these thoughts at that time. It is a poem of ‘half guessed things’ that ‘indeed’ will come to pass by the end of the decade. It is a poem written at a time when many writers were looking to the skies to conduct their own augury:

O hawk with naked eyes!
O bloody eagle circling the dark skies!
Our century has bred a newer beauty,
The metal bird from the cold factory.

‘The Metal Bird’ considers the birds of the past replaced by aircraft. Like the eagles fighting over the suitors’ heads they have a foreboding menace:

    Her shadow swarms the cold Welsh hill.
The hawk hangs like an unloos’d bomb
And fills the circular sky with doom.

As readers today, we have the bard’s vantage point; we know that these images will come to pass. But at this point Peake is simply looking up as an auger; reading the flight paths, feeling the menace. By the time the war began, Peake’s skies ‘now’ were filled with ministering deathly angels:

Now are gathering in the skies
Round the gates of Paradise
Those white angels who shall come
And gently bear her spirit home

Peake, from ‘Now are gathering in the skies’.

‘Oh, yes,’ says George Bowling bitterly in Orwell’s Coming up for Air, ‘I know you knew what was coming. But I didn’t. You can say I was a bloody fool not to expect it, and so I was. But it hadn’t even occurred to me.’

Peake was not alone in reading the metal birds of the 1930s. Coming up for Air published in June 1939, abounds with such premonitions:

suddenly a heavy shadow swept across me and gave me a bit of a start.
I looked over my shoulder. It was only a bombing plane which had flown between me and the sun. The place seemed to be creeping with them.


There is a dark comedy to that wording of ‘only a bombing plane’, and the novel, which contrasts the years of peace at the start of the century with those of fear in the late-30s, ends with cruel bathos as one of these planes drops a bomb upon the town ‘by mistake’. By June 1939, the augury can have been hard to ignore – more preparation than premonition.

W.H. Auden’s poem ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ written in January of that year opens with ‘the airports almost deserted’ aware that this is a brink, of sorts, between an old world and a new:

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

The aeroplane, the airport, marks that shift between the old and the new world. The metal bird with its ‘unloos’d bomb’, becomes an emblem for that shift between birds being outside of our control and – subtle distinction – outside our control and yet of our own making.

In building such planes we have taken ownership of our own fates, produced a new eagle that we can hardly control: ‘where the slain are, there is she.’

Orwell’s novel opens in the suburbs, the machine for living, and ends imagining their destruction – the bomb loos’d when a pilot on bombing practice accidentally touches the lever. In Auden’s poem, ‘Silence invaded the suburbs’ of Yeats’ mind.

In 1936, a young John Betjeman acted as augur of the metal birds himself in his poem on the ‘Death of King George V’. In this piece the shift between generations is less of a fierce earthquake than in Orwell’s novel.

The future will be one in which men don’t wear hats, and the past represented by the King’s ‘long dry’ stamp collection – but it is a poem of augury nonetheless:

Spirits of well-shot woodcock, partridge, snipe
Flutter and bear him up the Norfolk sky:
In that red house in a red mahogany book-case
The stamp collection waits with mounts long dry.

The big blue eyes are shut which saw wrong clothing
And favourite fields and coverts from a horse;
Old men in country houses hear clocks ticking
Over thick carpets with a deadened force;

Old men who never cheated, never doubted,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched out beyond the run-way
Where a young man lands hatless from the air.

As with Peake’s poem Betjeman points out the transposition of birds into planes, opening the first stanza with a surfeit of dead fowl. The plane is a private passenger flight, not one with an ‘unloos’d bomb’, but the signs of what is to come is all there, spelled out in the ‘new suburb stretched beyond the run-way’.

The birds are out of our hands, but to understand the future we must look to the skies.

Tuesday, 30th August, 2011

This summer’s reading has provided some unexpected bedfellows; books mainly read for a variety of university courses I’m teaching next semester, have brought up unlikely pairings – observations that are amusing me, but are unlikely ever to see the light of day either in class discussion or in print. There’s a massive knot of thought I want to pursue about Balzac and furniture, for instance, but which I fear might turn into a lifetime’s (somewhat unnecessary) work.

So, I’m going to use this blog for the moment to jot down some of these half-formed, rather straggly ideas, and in all probability never return to them. I don’t know if there’ll be anything here of interest to anyone else.

Crabbe, it is clear, was a pretty avid reader of Frances Burney, and there’s much to be made of the connections between tales such as ‘The Frank Courtship’, ‘Clelia’ and novels such as Evelina. Mr. Villars’s warnings of prudence at the start of the novel:

A youthful mind is seldom totally free from ambition; to curb that, is the first step to contentment, since to diminish expectation, is to increase enjoyment.

has that same sense of censorial behaviour that Crabbe both parodies (in the dangers of playing cards and ribbons) and yet, one feels, also heartily believes. For Crabbe, there’s a sense that one is an innocent until the age (off hand, I’d need to check for certainty) of twenty-two – that no great sin can be undertaken before that point, that one remains the blank slate until adulthood. In the case of Grimes, that’s a particularly interesting view, as we see the character’s youthful behaviour, but it seems likely that Crabbe still felt this was a formative stage, that his accountability would only come once he was an adult.

I find, with some degree of shame and inexperience, that I’m much fonder of children in literature than in life. There’s a strain of book-child that I’m fairly certain does not exist in the real world, but which I feel would ultimately improve the human race if it did. It’s the somewhat serious, somewhat sad child; the all-to-knowing child. Iris Murdoch paints them rather well, though I think my favourite of this kind appears in Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthbert – not Cuthbert himself who is depicted as sporting, and very much a typically boisterous kid, but a three-year-old who solemnly watches him play before bursting into tears, imbued with, and certain of, the knowledge that the older boy is to become a great holy man.

There is a sense of this in Balzac’s Cousin Bette with children able to control the hearts of men entering their old age. In Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, children function in a very different way, their unknowingness being a foil to the candour of adult and university life. Daphne at the start is innocent witness to events beyond her knowledge – an erect penis mistaken for a cigar case seems pronounced in this new age peopled more by innocents than psychoanalysts. But later in the novel, her own child becomes witness to an event – the death of an adult – that he is given no framework to understand. The death seems to paralyse Wilfred in a childlike state for the rest of his life, his mother still exerting Villars-like influence upon his ambitions when he is well into his 50s.

The event of the child discovering an old, dead lady is a stark motif – itself somewhat Murdochian (I’m thinking the old man recalling killing a dog in The Nice and the Good – the stark transition between innocence and knowledge), though for me recalling a line by Alan Bennett which throughout my own childhood I rather perversely kept close to my heart–– and which now, even more perversely, I don’t seem to be able to find to quote it correctly, but which runs something like:

A: Have you ever seen a dead body before?
B: Only once. At school.

Which weirdly brings me back to Crabbe and images of dead children – in ‘Grimes’; in ‘The Voluntary Insane’, and of course, in his own wardrobe.

Tuesday, 31st May, 2011

There are days in May when it is literally impossible for any person with health and leisure enough to walk into the country to believe in determinism, original sin, or the ultimate futility of all existence. There are days in autumn and winter when it is all but impossible not to think of these things.

Aldous Huxley, Proper Studies, p.239.

Monday, 15th November, 2010

The Walker: Wolfgang Tillmans

18 September 2010 – 12 December 2010

Yesterday, to the Walker to view the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition. It is Remembrance Sunday and, as I arrive, Orangemen have begun assembling on the steps to St George’s Hall to lay poppy wreaths at the cenotaph. Men in black suits, bowler hats and embroidered sashes across their shoulders – apparently engaged in their own separate, afternoon service.

The bowler hat, Tessimond’s emblem of the everyman, has become peculiarly their own. The reason why Orangemen wear bowler hats today, has shifted from the origins of the custom. They now wear the hat because they are Orangemen, a ritual shared only by fox hunters, equestrian sales-persons, cabaret stars, and nervous fancy-dressers undecided whether to say ‘Laurel’, ‘Oddjob’ or ‘that guy out of Clockwork Orange’ when they arrive.

The bowler has become particularised. This undermines its origins as the great millinery leveller of class; it now denotes sectarianism. Even the universality of remembrance can be made schismatic.

Initially the Tillmans exhibition offers no such divisions. The pieces are scattered amongst the gallery’s permanent collection responding to the works that are always on display. Rather than being grouped together in one room, this accordant approach seems to say ‘it’s all just the same – whether it’s a seventeenth century Dutch interior, or a fifteenth century altar piece – it’s all just things to look at.’

I like that.

What exhibitions like this have the power to do is to challenge the ways in which we look at historical works as well as inform the way we see the modern pieces. The Tillmans exhibition certainly does that; many of the pieces explore the physical material of the photograph – paper – which in the context of a room filled with images of Christ painted on rough bits of wood, has a pretty electric quality.

The main problem is that there is no freely available map to the exhibition, which in some ways creates a sense of Homeric wandering throughout these rooms, but ultimately is very annoying. There is an uncertain sense that you might have missed something that you went there to see. There is a guidebook available from the gift shop for £1.50 – which is a reasonable price – only this is where my issue with the exhibition began. I did not have £1.50.

Being able to locate the works in a free, public exhibition is not interpretation that should need to be paid for. It hampers accessibility. This should not be privately owned information.

The Walker is one of Britain’s most important national galleries. Not simply because of the staggering collection, but because of what the institution represents. In the 1980s, the militant council leader Derek Hatton threatened to sell off Liverpool’s collection. Thatcher’s response was to nationalise all of the city’s galleries and museums. In 2001, when the Labour government introduced free entry to the national collections, the city was suddenly blessed with seven freely accessible  cultural venues. This has had an unmeasurable effect on Liverpool; unwittingly Thatcher’s actions have led to the free distribution of education and cultural nourishment amongst all people of the city. This should be a fundamental human right. Liverpool should be a model for all other places to follow.

The £1.50 is therefore a small quibble when the rest of the exhibition is, by act of parliament, free. I found however that it highlighted a key issue about some of the works. In a room filled with eighteenth century society portraiture, Tillmans has hung a large chromogenic print – Faltenwurf (Morgen) II (2009). It is a beautiful, textural piece. Filling the frame is a chair, over the back of this hangs a slightly crumpled t-shirt, inside out, seams showing. On the seat of the chair is a pair of navy-blue tracksuit bottoms. The positioning of these items perhaps implicitly recalls Sarah Lucas’s sexually provocative sculpture Pauline Bunny (1997), though the setting in Tillmans’s photograph is perfectly naturalistic. There is no reason why this should not be straightforward documentary.

Hanging the piece in this room, as Tillmans’s commentary on the wall makes clear, draws parallels between the use of textiles in the photograph and in the eighteenth century portraits around it.

‘Faltenwurf’ is one of those peculiarly brilliant German words that sums up an idea that English fumbles into a sentence. I suppose, ‘drapery’ is close, but it is not that. The Faltenwurf of Joshua Reynolds, Joseph Wright of Derby and Thomas Gainsborough that surround this photograph, shows the class and status of the sitters. Wright is known to have borrowed clothing and jewellery from his clients to include in their portraits, though the general custom of the period – as particularly prevalent in the works of Reynolds – are for these fabrics to have no personal connection to the individual portrayed. They are simply props from the studio that reappear in portrait after portrait. Like the bowler hat, they are identifiers of a specific group rather than a specific individual. Rich folds of taffeta and silks, all in abundance, state plainly that these are figures with a great deal of cash.

It is fetishistism. The physical object is used as a vehicle for a larger idea and feeling. It simplifies the  vast and complicated human character into a series of physical commodities. In Tillmans’s Faltenwurf, this is taken to a greater level, by removing the sitter from the portrait completely. His work is no less a portrait than these others, but in common with the historical society paintings, the image of the sitter is a somewhat two-dimensional reduction. What do we take from Reynolds’s countless paintings of the daughters of Dukes? That the women are fair, and lovely, and wealthy, and young? Though doubtlessly they were, this seems a divisively simplistic rendering of all these personalities.

What do we assume of Tillmans’s absent sitter? The inside out t-shirt placed on the chair implies disrobing. The man who has worn these clothes is now not in them, and this gives an implicitly sexual air to the scene. The creases are not abundant folds, but suggest wear. They are the creases of a garment that has not been ironed since it was washed.

The clothes in the photograph do not suggest wealth. They are cheaply produced. They are practical, perhaps, but they are signifiers of mass-production; of sports shops with endless discount sales. This is sportswear, but it is not the sportswear worn by a professional athlete.

In the far left of the picture, from one of the tracksuit pockets, protrudes a red Biro pen. I found myself wondering about this object most in the picture. It is the cheapest available type of pen, but that it is red is curious. The pen-user has either made a specific choice to write in red, or they are precluded from choice. Conceivably, these are the clothes of a P.E. teacher – but I am not entirely convinced by this. The bottom right of the image has a door hinge. It is heavily painted over.

‘There is this disparity in class between my picture and these society portraits, if one can call them that’, Tillmans says in the text panel beside the picture. Reynolds’s folds are those of the landed gentry, Tillmans’s are those of the working class male. Yet it is more than that – Reynolds’s folds are dressed, Tillmans’s are undressed. Like Reynolds, Tillmans celebrates these objects, but he also sexualises them. There is something voyeuristic about the photograph. It is, in a sense, a celebration and eroticism of the sitter’s poverty. The sitters in Reynolds’s paintings hold the power through their dress, Tillmans’s sitter is nude of his.

Of course this is not unique to Tillmans. There is a strong theme through gay culture of glorifying the working-class male. At weekends City bankers go to clubs dressed as working class skinheads; countless men fetishise cheap sportswear and the attire of builders and road diggers. Masculinity, held up for obsessive glorification, is thought by many to be most potent in the man who has the poorest paid occupation.

Yet this image is as thinly drawn as the fair and lovely Duke’s daughter. In another room of the exhibition one wall is dominated by the huge black and white work, Empire (Punk) (2005). The piece is an enlarged fax of one of Tillmans’s early photographs. It is a fitting metaphor for the punk movement; the modern punk does not respond to the same pressures and conflicts of the first punks. They are a reproduction of the image, applying themselves to specific fetishised objects in the same way that the Orangeman wears the bowler hat.

On another wall of this room a small photograph of a market trader at his stall, Cameron (2007). Handsome, almost provocatively cruising the viewer, thumb by the broad beans, ‘Red Oak Lettuce £1’. Everything’s for sale.

This room is displayed with other works depicting people working; most strikingly is William Hamo Thornycroft’s life-size bronze The Mower (1894). It is a staggeringly homoerotic work. Shirtless, save for a leather strap, one thumb enticingly lowering the waist of his trousers, the sculpture is a bucolic fantasy of the farm labourer as a sexually potent symbol of health and happiness. He is not engaged in work but is relaxed in leisure. He enjoys the sun upon his muscular chest. He does not suffer from the physical deformities common to his class at this time, he seems unmarked by the long workless winter that has gone before – he does not, in fact, look poor at all.

In ‘The Village’ Crabbe writes of the artist’s portrayal of working class figures in this way:

From this chief cause these idle praises spring,
That themes so easy few forbear to sing;
For no deep thought the trifling subjects ask;
To sing of shepherds is an easy task:
The happy youth assumes the common strain,
A nymph his mistress, and himself a swain;
With no sad scenes he clouds his tuneful prayer,
But all, to look like her, is painted fair.
I grant indeed that fields and flocks have charms
For him that grazes or for him that farms;
But when amid such pleasing scenes I trace
The poor laborious natives of the place,
And see the mid-day sun, with fervid ray,
On their bare heads and dewy temples play;
While some, with feebler heads and fainter hearts,
Deplore their fortune, yet sustain their parts
Then shall I dare these real ills to hide
In tinsel trappings of poetic pride?

Crabbe was concerned with the fact that labourers were not the ‘happy youths’, ‘nymphs’ and ‘swains’ that poetry supposed them to be. Such works ignore the social injustices that shape these figures, and to some extent are complicit in their oppression.

Tillmans’s images continue this tradition of the pastoral fantasy, though in a post-industrial age the shepherd has been replaced by the scally. They are problematic subjects, made more so by the exhibition’s assumption that its visitors will have, and should have to have, £1.50 to spend on a guide.

Friday, 10th September, 2010

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been summarizing accounts of writers who claimed Crabbe as an influence. Joyce. Forster. Pound. Most recently I’ve been trying to track down any physical proof of V.S. Pritchett’s claim that Turgenev translated Crabbe into Russian. Turgenev certainly knew of, and liked, Crabbe’s poetry. The Suffolk clergyman had been celebrated in a series of essays by Turgenev’s friend Alexander Druzhinin, who held him up as a model for the Russian writers to emulate:

In order to curb the flood of false naturalness it is most useful to study the genius of the sensible naturalists, among whom Crabbe […] holds first place.

However, whether or not Turgenev actually translated him, I can find no evidence, and for the moment need to lay the matter to one side.

In a sense it’s a strange thing to be doing, rooting through people’s letters and libraries for evidence of having read one poet. Finding a reference doesn’t necessarily mean they liked him, it certainly doesn’t mean he influenced their work. But in some instances it’s clear; Dickens reworks an entire Crabbe poem into a short story. James Joyce is effusive in his praise. In other cases, George Eliot say, remembering reading him as a youth, you have to recognise that he was just another writer amongst many who may, or may not, have made a mark.

And then you come across something like this, and you wish more people did it, an open admission: future reader, don’t look at me, I know nothing of Crabbe:

And I can’t intend to funk it: I mean I will, if you will permit, be really serious and utter what I have gathered in my journey as to the sad and unillumined thing that is a life devoted to the humaner letters. I don’t know who you are. You may, I mean, be intending to devote yourselves to studious careers— to casting light on the love letters of Keats, the autobiography of Chaucer or the bibliography of Crabbe. In that case I have nothing to say to you: those are, what again the late Mr. James would have called, parages I know nothing of, for I have concerned myself in life solely with literature as a means of expression. So, if you are the future archivists, librarians or text emendators of the world I can be of no use to you. But I hope that some of you – indeed I hope still more that all of you – cherish within your hearts the ambition to hand on the sacred fire of imaginative writing.

“The Literary Life” a lecture given by Ford Madox Ford

Friday, 25th June, 2010


Here Begins Our Lasting Joy

There are few things that have ever brought me so much pleasure as The Beiderbecke Trilogy, written by Alan Plater who has died today aged 75.

The series are a curious beast; intelligent, warm, funny (though gently so, rarely displaying much effort in reaching for the jokes), political, plotted as if by slight-of-hand – in short, it is extraordinary, the most sophisticated kind of writing, and yet also an exercise in realizing a lost craftsmanship. This is the television of dry-stone-wallers, wicker-weavers and the cottage pew. In some respects it appears to be Last of the Summer Wine with a moral and social conscience – but that appearance is in itself deceptive. It is so very, very much more.

There is something that Stephen Poliakoff says about what he calls ‘slow television’; that rarely in the current day do producers allow a programme – a limited unit of time – to linger on any single visual scene. It’s easy to understand why this is the case, that in a tightly packed schedule, it seems obvious that every moment must be justified to funders by something happening. Silence, stillness – well, that just seems a waste – and yet it is an insult to imagine that audiences can only read the things that are being said, that they only respond to plot, and dialogue, and flashing lights, and speed. Bleak House at break-neck speed, Little Dorrit in little snatches – great, but it’s not the only way, and it reduces the viewer’s need to consider the events and the non-events on our screens.

Which is why Beiderbecke was brilliant. In 1986, Plater dared to devote several minutes of a television programme to establishing shots of the windows of a modern comprehensive school. Written down, that doesn’t sound much. These images, the sight of children walking inside cages of uniform glass – evocative of Hitchcock’s opening to North by North West (an allusion picked up on in the 1988 Beiderbecke Connection: “This usually reminds us of a film”) – say so much about Britain in the twentieth century, and yet they say nothing, they are merely accompanied by a soundtrack of Bix Beiderbecke’s “bullets shot from a bell.”

There are so many brilliantly judged moments; there is a shot in The Beiderbecke Connection which pans through windows as Trevor tucks ‘first-born’ into bed, taking in Jill leaving the house to eventually show the yellow van driving away in the distance, which parodies Orson Welles perfectly, but with all of the skill of the original. There is the slowest car chase imaginable that turns into some Busby Berkeley routine from above. Big Al quoting Henry VI, which is such an affirming moment of there being goodness in the world: “Here begins our lasting joy”.

The programmes are full of such allusions, my favourite being in the 1987 Beiderbecke Tapes where they encounter an American ex-serviceman who speaks only in Fitzgeraldean aphorisms. Sitting upon a bench in Edinburgh in the rain, he says of Jill and Trevor:

I believe those kids already found themselves a bit of action. Sweetly, and tenderly, and in the afternoon.

It’s a gorgeous line. I’ve not been able to track down whether it is a quotation from something, but suspect it was original to Plater who had the most tremendous ear for dialogue.  Either way it’s very, very good and deserves to be remembered. It all does. It’s really a most brilliant thing.

Wednesday, 5th May, 2010

The Rejected Member’s Wife

We shall see her no more
On the balcony,
Smiling, while hurt, at the roar
As of surging sea
From the stormy sturdy band
Who have doomed her lord’s cause,
Though she waves her little hand
As it were applause.

Here will be candidates yet,
And candidates’ wives,
Fervid with zeal to set
Their ideals on our lives:
Here will come market-men
On the market-days,
Here will clash now and then
More such party assays.

And the balcony will fill
When such times are renewed,
And the throng in the street will thrill
With to-day’s mettled mood;
But she will no more stand
In the sunshine there,
With that wave of her white-gloved hand,
And that chestnut hair.

Thomas Hardy, January 1906.

Friday, 9th April, 2010

A couple of months ago I went down to Broadcasting House to be interviewed by Brian Patten about the poet A.S.J. Tessimond. The recording of this programme, the first in the new series of Lost Voices, is broadcast this Sunday at 4:30 on Radio Four.

For several years now, Arthur Seymour John Tessimond (John to his friends) has been a presence in my life, as I’ve tried to assemble the few remaining pieces of information about him. The Lost Voices programme turns to him for this reason — it seems remarkable that a man who died not even fifty years ago might have disappeared so successfully into the ether.

In some ways remarkable; in others, perhaps, not so: “I am the unnoticed, the unnoticeable man”, he wrote, in one of his best-known poems, ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’. Best-known is a strange term to use in relation to Tessimond, but this is the great contradiction of his reputation — he is perhaps Britain’s best-loved unknown poet. His poems are widely anthologised, and frequently requested on Radio Four’s Poetry Please; his poem ‘Cats’ appeared for several years as a text on the National Curriculum; he has even had several mentions in the advice columns of the Daily Mail — though a figure less fitting with that newspaper’s ethos would be hard to find.

Despite this, he cannot really be said to be a household name.

In the opening moments of the 1961 Galton and Simpson film The Rebel, Tony Hancock, furnished with bowler hat and umbrella, boards a train, and looks about the compartment to take in seven other identically dressed figures. It is a scene almost identical to that described in Tessimond’s poem of 1947:

I am the unnoticed, the unnoticeable man:
The man who sat on your right in the morning train:
The man you looked through like a windowpane:
The man who was the colour of the carriage, the colour of the mounting
Morning pipe smoke.

The bowler hat in both film and poem serves as an emblem of uniformity. Like Magritte’s The Son of Man, like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, it gives a sense of ubiquity to the wearer; we assume the man in the bowler hat to be everyman. While Hancock’s man-in-the-bowler-hat seeks to break free and become an individual, Tessimond’s merely knows of the possibility of this freedom, now a passed moment.

Many of Tessimond’s poems adopt this voice — as Hubert Nicholson, his literary executor, pointed out:

He has a number of poems beginning “I am”, but they are not in the least egotistical. They are imaginative projections of himself into types, places, generalised Man, even God or Fate.

Tessimond is an everyman poet, and this perhaps accounts for much of his popularity. He is able to speak about the common experience in language that is accessible to most readers.

Yet there is something else at work here too, because for all its openness there is also something guarded — even private — in this public, published writing. In his poem ‘London’ he adopts this universal ‘I’ to describe the capital as ‘the city of two divided cities’ but this division seems to run to the heart of the man himself:

I am the reticent, the private city,
The city of lovers hiding wrapped in shadows,
The city of people sitting and talking quietly
Beyond shut doors and walls as thick as a century,
People who laugh too little and too loudly,
Whose tears fall inward, flowing back to the heart.

‘Reticent’. ‘Private’. These qualities seem pertinent in much of the poet’s work. He writes of rooms, and walls, and barriers, and locked boxes under floorboards. As here, in ‘Unlyric Love Song’:

A document kept at the back of a drawer,
A tin hidden under the floor,
Recalcitrant prides and hesitations:
To pile them carefully in a desperate oblation
And say to you ‘quickly! Turn them
Once over and burn them’.

We may not always see these barriers — his first collection The Walls of Glass (1934) keeps returning to the image of glass blocking our way — but like the scattered tribes after the fall of Babel, communication with our fellow man is stunted before we even speak:

Cut off in my communications; stammering; speaking
A dialect shared by you, but not you and you;
I, strangely undeft, bereft; I searching always
For my lost rib (clothed in laughter yet understanding)
To come round the corner of Wardour Street into the Square
Or to signal across the Park and share my bed;

This is from a poem titled ‘Any Man Speaks’, which uses the first person pronoun — seemingly as Nicholson suggests. The sense of separation — ‘cut off’ by ‘a dialect shared by you, but not you and you’ — is universal; we might all feel that same sense of isolation from those around us while ‘searching always’ to connect. Yet the experience is also very private, moving from the public street and park into the personal space of the bed. The specifics of the location — Wardour Street and Soho Square — and the ‘signal’ to the woman suggest this to be an encounter with a prostitute. Yet it is merely a suggestion: a coded, private ‘signal’ to the reader, only understood if we share the poet’s ‘dialect’ of place names. The poem itself is a ‘divided city’, both public and private; it is the key distinction between everyman and the ‘any man’ of the title. This experience is specific, rather than general.

What we know of Tessimond’s life shares a similar quality to this poem. Working on him, reading the letters he wrote and the letters written to him, it is sometimes striking how few secrets this man had, openly talking about paying for prostitutes to share his bed. We know that he never slept with these women — that for some reason he was not able to — but, as his close friend, Frances Richards records, “he was content just to look at her — something different to himself”. These encounters he described as falling in love, as if, in the poem ‘Any Man Speaks’, the chance encounter with the prostitute might be the meeting with his ‘lost rib’, the union that would make him whole again.

At the same time, there are many things we do not know because he kept them private. Richards wrote of how he “never discussed his childhood or youth […] as if it was blotted out of his life and memory”. It was however a spoken secret; he told his friends that he would not talk about this relationship. Frances Richards again:

I have always wondered what his mother was like, since he disliked her so much. I don’t know what she did to him or did not do, but he told me that the thought of her made him feel sick. He went into no details about that, nor ever mentioned his bank manager father.

It is a tantalising gap in our knowledge, but it is made so by the scrap of detail we are given: “the thought of her made him feel sick”. We know that Tessimond was a late baby — his mother was thirty-nine when he was born — and, though he told friends that he was an only child, the 1901 census records that there was a sister, Lilian C. Tessimond, who was fifteen when John was born.

Richards’ words: “what she did to him or did not do” is a Tessimond-like construction — the possible act or its opposite action achieve the same ends: witness in ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ how one might be “patient too long and [obey] too much”; or, in ‘London’: “People who laugh too little and too loudly”. The effect of nothing and the effect of too much of something combine; in Tessimond’s life he might simultaneously appear too private and too public. In his poem ‘The Children look at the Parents’, the children express anger at the parents who:

Shared money but not your secrets;
Will leave as your final legacy
A box double-locked by the spider
Packed with your unsolved problems.

And so it might seem with Tessimond himself — a double-locked box of secrets, but one that seems to invite us to unlock that box, as here in ‘The Lesser Artists’:

We speak to a few of you now, but to many later,
And more still after both you and we have gone,
And we, through you have left our devious traces:
Ciphers in caves or under a marked stone waiting
For a finder one day to decode, and show to his friends.

We have dealt too much in ciphers; sat in corners,
Out of the wind, talking in undertones
With private signs, drawing too close together,
Drawing the blind.

It is wrong to think that the secrets of this man’s life might be discovered by cracking some hidden cipher in his writing — that is not what poetry is for, nor should we want it to be — his poetry does not seek to be biographical and it should be right that what he chose to keep hidden should be kept hidden. However, what is clear is the sense of the private and public co-existing — and the things carefully chosen to be made known being a cipher also. In Frances Richards’ memoir she recalls, in her last meeting with the poet, how he began to detail an encounter with a girl to whom he had given all of his money:

Now, I did not want to listen to this — such a repetition of previous conversations — so, I turned it off…

It is not so much the repetition of girls that is striking — as Richards says:

When one says ‘Poor Tessimond’ we have to remember that he thought he was in love every six months and that was a real and true thing for him

— but the ‘repetition of previous conversations’ which catches us by surprise. The act of reporting the encounter makes it real, makes it into a love story — however unbelievable.

It is perhaps for this reason that what scraps we have of Tessimond’s life seem littered with deeply personal information: they are an attempt to give flesh to the self he feared was all too unnoticeable.

A.S.J. Tessimond remains a striking and original voice of twentieth century poetry, a figure both known and loved, and yet wholly unknown. To be unnoticed is not the same thing as to be unnoticeable; yet perhaps, when this excess of artful openness so perfectly counterbalances an excess of artful privacy, the end effect is similar — the state of being unnoticeable proceeding from, produced by, the status of being unnoticed.

Tuesday, 23rd March, 2010

The Last Augustan enters a brothel…

It is interesting to see how facts become facts. Darwin once said that mistakes in analysis were forgivable – other people could reinterpret the data later – but mistakes of fact were not; they might be perpetuated by anyone who ever came to read them.

I misquote Darwin there to prove my point. You must not go repeating it; it isn’t exactly what he said.

In 1968, Alethea Hayter wrote a really quite wonderful book called Opium and the Romantic Imagination. It is a study of the effects of the drug on various writers and their works and is a compelling and enlightening read. Faber has recently brought it back into print, and I’m glad of that, not least because amongst the poets she addresses is George Crabbe, and it’s the kind of book that might reach a general audience and send people off to discover him for themselves. It offers a way into a lot of writing that people might not usually approach because it’s often hard to get a handle on.

However, something else happens in the book, something that strikes me both as extraordinary, and dangerous, and yet probably more commonplace than we recognise.

In writing about Crabbe’s poem ‘The World of Dreams’, Hayter identifies one particular passage as referring to “some incident in his early days in London when [Crabbe] had been inveigled into a brothel, and had seen a bare-breasted prostitute in a filthy room.”

It’s an exciting detail that. Suddenly the life of this modest Suffolk clergyman, opium addict though he was, takes a turn in a direction we had not anticipated.

What’s perhaps most surprising is that no mention of this incident appears anywhere before Hayter’s book. I think it’s quite probable that the passage from the poem might refer to a dream of a prostitute – and there are various possible reasons for this – but crucially, before 1968 nobody had ever mentioned him seeing a bare-breasted prostitute in a filthy room.

What seems likely is that Hayter, in her extensive work on a great number of writers for the book, is simply confusing him for someone else.

It’s an error. It should be forgiven. It should not detract too much from a book that performs a valuable service.

However, where problems arise is what happens after. People read the book. People assume it to be correct. People write their own books and this mistake becomes repeated; appears to be a fact. One person saying something you have not heard before raises questions; if five people say it, you tend to assume some sort of basis for the thing.

A recent biography of Crabbe makes this error. Repeats it. Builds upon it. Assumes it to be unlikely that Crabbe visited a prostitute in his youth – suddenly the idea is out there that he “[became] entangled with a prostitute” aged sixty-two. Suddenly that is out in the world, and it is based on something someone got wrong for the first time in 1968.

Here is another example.

In a lot of criticism on Crabbe the argument arises over whether or not he was “the last Augustan” or “the last of the Augustans” – whether or not he is the final proponent of the Augustan tradition in poetry. For what it’s worth, I don’t think he is. I like to think of him as “the first Victorian”, but that’s by the by.

What is interesting is the phrase: “the last Augustan” – always in speech marks, always accepted as an accepted view. Where does it come from? Various writers from Thomas E. Kebbel in his Life of George Crabbe (1888) to F.R. Leavis in Revaluation (1936) have made connections between Crabbe’s writing and Augustan poetry, but who first began the debate on whether he was the last of the tradition?

The earliest direct usage appears to be Ian Gregor’s article ‘The last Augustan: some observations on the poetry of Crabbe’ in The Dublin Review (1955). Frank Whitehead in George Crabbe: A Reappraisal (London: Associated University Presses, 1995) suggests this to be the origin of the phrase, however, Walter E. Broman writing in 1953, two years before Gregor’s publication, mentions:

[…]the long-established assumption that Crabbe was a stodgy anachronism or merely “the last of the Augustans.”

‘Factors in Crabbe’s Eminence in the Early Nineteenth Century’ in Modern Philology, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Aug., 1953), p.44.

Despite the quotation marks, where Broman finds this assumption being “long-established” is not cited.

What seems most probable is that the phrase, though useful to the debate, originates in a misreading of something by T.S. Eliot. In the introduction to his edition of Johnson’s London and the Vanity of Human Wishes (Haslewood Books, 1930) Eliot notes of Johnson’s verse:

He has more in common in spirit with Crabbe than with any of his contemporaries; at the same time he is the last Augustan.

I’m not saying it’s a fact, but it appears that this is the first time the words “Crabbe” and “the last Augustan” appear as words on the same page. Even though Eliot by no means  was suggesting that Crabbe was such a thing, maybe a misreading of that  passage is how “the last Augustan” debate began.

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