Wednesday, 12th June, 2013

While working through Dawson Jackson’s papers last year I came upon a draft of, and correspondence relating to, a book which he published under an assumed name in 1949. As assumed names feature quite prominently in my research on Jackson’s close friend A.S.J. Tessimond, I made a note to look this book out. I managed to buy a copy (they are rare, though not unobtainable), but it is only now that I have got round to reading it.

The book – From This Foundation under his pseudonym ‘Thomas Brackley’ (London: Harvill, 1949) – is a long narrative description of an medium-sized English town. It has echoes of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier in its attempts to document the lives and living conditions of everyday people, but resonates also with Coming Up For Air, or William Golding’s The Pyramid, in the rapid sense of change affecting the lives of the town’s inhabitants. It is, as the author describes it in the opening chapter, ‘not a novel and has no plot or main character’ but, much like George Crabbe’s The Borough, each chapter relates the lives of a different group of inhabitants – and this within the broader framework of the seasonal shifts throughout a year.

As with most of Jackson’s writing, there is tremendous warmth here; it is a kind of sociology born out of love. Here, towards the end of the book, in a chapter that ostensibly is written to consider how the elderly are taken care of, is a wonderful (though not uncritical) portrait of a woman reaching the end of her life:

A moss of small objects grows over everything. Wraps, sewing baskets, small piles of books and letters, glasses of water, medicine tins. If anyone sets them in order they will grow back as they were again. It is the same inside the drawers. Mrs Forrester is a maker of mouse’s nests. No particular type of thing is kept in any particular drawer. Everything is kept in every drawer: clothes, valuable silver sugar castors, pills, shoes and hair-pins, and dozens of packs of patience cards. She never has a pack of cards, and when she needs one she goes out and buys; putting it away in a drawer. As this may be any drawer it is usually not found again. It is the same with stockings. Her daughter, when appealed to, brings coupons to buy her mother some, and finds twenty pairs, mostly in a bottom drawer never opened, and all quite whole, since the lady never much moves her feet. The forgetting is partly but not wholly due to age. In the old days sixty jugs were once found in the house, and none of them might be used for milk. She hoards instinctively to withstand the siege of life—and the relation between her and it is one of siege, for she never gives anything back. Occasionally her memory is retentive. She will remember and describe exactly where so-and-so’s photograph is, at the back of the third drawer down on the right in the old oak bureau, where she put it in her house before last. Drawers for her are permanent shelves in the universe, never moved or sorted, like the larder passages in a rodent’s burrow underground. They are part of her own inner life, which is her reality, and all she believes in, for she is just tolerant towards, amused, frightened and indignant at the rest.

This attention to detail is striking and typical of the book, but it is also the utter seriousness with which Jackson locates this woman’s obscure act, and deems it as worthy of consideration as any other. Hoarding as a way of understanding the self – of understanding the universe – is no less important than the sincerest philosophy.

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Thursday, 24th May, 2012

When I tell people that I work on Crabbe, one of the standard responses is a joke about crustaceans. It’s a fairly well-worn routine, one of the first examples being a vignette created in 1827 by Thomas Bewick. It depicts a crab’s claw and palette, presumably a response to Byron’s line that Crabbe was ‘nature’s sternest painter’:

But I’ve just come upon this from an issue of the Commonwealth in July 1880 – proof, perhaps, that the very obvious jokes never get old:

LITERARY young man at party: “Miss Jones, have you seen Crabbe’s Tales?” Young lady scornfully: “I was not aware that crabs had tails.” Literary young man covered with confusion: “I beg your pardon, ma’am, I should have said read Crabbe’s Tales?” Young lady, angrily scornful: “And I was not aware that red crabs had tails, either.” Exit young man.

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.

(743-6)

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,

(132-41)

 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.

(146-51)

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.

(167-71)

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.

(265-72)

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;

(698-704)

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;

(799-806)

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?

(812-6)

 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.

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.

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

Thursday, 13th May, 2010

“The Interdicted Space”: Dreaming and Madness in the Poetry of George Crabbe

mp3 of conference paper

EXTRACT 1
[…] a melancholy or half-mad person is somewhat in the same condition with him who, not being thoroughly awake, is doubtful whether his dream be not true or something real. The difference between dreaming and madness, (which is nothing material in the present case) seems to be only this; that the bodily organs […] of mad-men are shattered, or put out of their natural frame and order: in dreamers, there is a stupor which possesseth them. But the effects are the same […]

Zachary Mayne, Two Dissertations Concerning Sense, and the Imagination: With an Essay on Consciousness,
(London: J. Tonson, 1728), p.188.

EXTRACT 2
Come near,—I’ll softly speak the rest!—
Alas! ‘tis known to all the Crowd,
Her guilty Love was all confest;
And his, who so much Truth avow’d,
My faithless Friends.—In Pleasure proud
I sat, when these curs’d Tidings came;
Their Guilt, their Flight was told aloud,
And Envy smil’d to hear my Shame!

I call’d on Vengeance; at the Word
She came:—Can I the Deed forget?
I held the Sword, th’accursed Sword,
The Blood of his false Heart made wet;
And that fair Victim paid her Debt,
She pin’d, she died, she loath’d to live;—
I saw her dying—see her yet:
Fair fallen Thing! my Rage forgive!

‘Sir Eustace Grey’, 116-131.

EXTRACT 3
Those Cherubs still, my Life to bless,
Were left: Could I my Fears remove,
Sad fears that check’d each fond Caress,
And poison’d all parental Love;
Yet that, with jealous Feelings strove,
And would at last have won my Will,
Had I not, Wretch! Been doom’d to prove
Th’ Extremes of mortal Good and Ill.

In Youth! Health! Joy! In Beauty’s Pride!
They droop’d: as Flowers when blighted bow,
The dire Infection came:—They died,
And I was curs’d— as I am now——
Nay, frown not, angry Friend, — allow,
That I was deeply, sorely tried;
Hear then, and you must wonder how
I could such Storms and Strifes abide.

‘Sir Eustace Grey’, 132-146.

EXTRACT 4
Then I was cast from out my State;
Two Fiends of Darkness led my Way;
They wak’d me early, watch’d me late,
My dread by Night, my Plague by Day!
Oh! I was made their Sport, their Play,
Through many a stormy troubled Year,
And how they us’d their passive Prey;
Is sad to tell: but you shall hear.

‘Sir Eustace Grey’, 164-179.

EXTRACT 5
There are two senses, tho’ very nearly allied, in which the expression Darkness and Light are to be understood: Darkness signifying to us the dominion of ignorance and sin, and Light that of wisdom and virtue; and in a second though closely connected sense, the evil spirits, and above all the first and greatest of these are called the powers of darkness, and the Prince of these powers. While the heavenly company of angels and ministering spirits are the children of light.

National Library of Scotland, John Murray Archive, MS. 42099.

EXTRACT 6
A task very difficult, and if the presumption of the attempt may find pardon, it will not be refused to the failure of
the poet. It is said of our Shakespeare, respecting madness;

“In that circle none dare walk but he:”–

yet be it granted to one, who dares not pass the boundary fixed for common minds, at least to step near to the tremendous verge and form some idea of the terrors that are stalking in the interdicted space.

Preface, Poems, (1807)

EXTRACT 7
I returned late last night, and my reflections were as cheerful as such company could make them, and not, I am afraid, of the most humiliating kind; yet, for the first time these many nights, I was incommoded by dreams, such as would cure vanity for a time in any mind where they could gain admission. Some of Baxter’s mortifying spirits whispered very singular combinations. None, indeed, that actually did happen in the very worst of times, but still with a formidable resemblance.

George Crabbe, 21st July 1817, in Selected Letters and Journals of George Crabbe, p. 211.

Thursday, 11th February, 2010

Thus by himself compell’d to live each day,
To wait for certain hours the tide’s delay;
At the same time the same dull views to see,
The bounding marsh-bank and the blighted tree;
The water only, when the tides were high,
When low, the mud half-cover’d and half-dry;
The sun-burnt tar that blisters on the planks,
And bank-side stakes in their uneven ranks;
Heaps of entangled weeds that slowly float,
As the tide rolls by the impeded boat.

When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
Through the tall bounding mud-banks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide;
Where the small eels that left the deeper way
For the warm shore, within the shallows play;
Where gaping muscles, left upon the mud,
Slope their slow passage to the fallen flood;—
Here dull and hopeless he’d lie down and trace
How sidelong crabs had scrawl’d their crooked race
Or sadly listen to the tuneless cry
Of fishing gull or clanging golden-eye;
What time the sea-birds to the marsh would come,
And the loud bittern, from the bull-rush home,
Gave from the salt-ditch side the bellowing boom:
He nursed the feelings these dull scenes produce,
And loved to stop beside the opening sluice,
Where the small stream, confined in narrow bound,
Ran with a dull, unvaried, sadd’ning sound;
Where all, presented to the eye or ear,
Oppress’d the soul with misery, grief, and fear.

George Crabbe – ‘Letter XXII: Peter Grimes’ from The Borough, 171-204.

One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain:
No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But, choked with sedges, works its weedy way.
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries.
Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall;
And trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away, thy children leave the land.

Oliver Goldsmith – The Deserted Village, 41-50.

Thursday, 14th January, 2010

But She—who shrinks while meditating Flight
In the wide Way, whose Bounds delude her Sight,
Yet tir’d in her own Mazes still to roam
And cull poor Banquets for the Soul at home,
Would, ere she ventures, ponder on the Way,
Left Dangers yet unthought-of Flight betray;
Left her Icarian Wing, by Wits unplum’d,
Be robb’d of all the Honours she assum’d;
And Dullness swell; a black and dismal Sea
Gaping her Grave; while Censures madden me.

George Crabbe, from The Candidate

Thursday, 5th November, 2009

pearls

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. Were Crabbe to have written an imitation of Rasselas in accordance with his own late vision, he would have given us only Rasselas experiencing his negative glimpse of pastoral life but also a second hero experiencing an antithetical, positive glimpse of pastoral life; and he would then have allowed both to continue on their separate journeys, each confidently believing he understood Patoral-ness. Each man lives his own, single tale in life; thus he generates his own “essences” and dreams he has found or is now finding stability – until time’s whirligig snaps his head back. In Crabbe, then, we learn to fear not the loss of reason but the reasoning process itself, because it leads a Rasselas (and, behind him, a Johnson) to believe he can understand the Tulip-ness of things. Crabbe’s rewriting of Johnson would, therefore, alter the Johnsonian postulate, substituting: “Of all the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the belief we can reason our way out of some uncertainties.”

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.

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