Tuesday, September 10, 2019

bare flanks of sand. Beige sand.

Dilston Grove, Bermondsey

[Image source: https://www.ackroydandharvey.com/dilston-grove/  . Sarah Maguire's poem "The Grass Church at Dilston Grove" refers to this installation in a derelict London church (Ackroyd and Harvey, 2003).]

This week I'm on the road and (being short on mobile data), I'm using my occasional wifi opportunities to discover the poetry of Sarah Maguire (1957 - 2017). I read about her on a flower blog that I follow. So this is still an evolving post, but I'm publishing it now so I can use my own links.

It was SM's twin interests in plants and in translation from Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages that made me curious to learn more about her. I won't repeat her biography, which you can read on Wikipedia or in the Guardian obituary or in this memorial of Sarah Maguire by Clarissa Aykroyd:


SM's work on setting up the Poetry Translation Centre was so self-evidently valuable that it perhaps threatens to overshadow her own poetry but I liked the four poems that I've been able to track down online.  I'm putting the links below, along with an extract from each poem.


and the Thames so emptied of current
it shows bare flanks of sand. Beige sand. A beach.
The sudden vertigo of hardness when we're cupped
over the walls of the Embankment

examining the strange cream stones below,
driftwood, bottle-tops, crockery, one sodden boot.
And the slow mud opens its mouth.
Jets long departed, their con-trails fire

across the fierce blue skies, unfurling
into breath. The very last weather of a summer
spent impatient for change,
waiting for a sign, an alignment.

(from Clarissa Aykroyd's blog)


Stems bleed into water
loosening their sugars
into the dark,

clouding dank water
stood in zinc buckets
at the back of the shop.


Two soluble aspirins spore in this glass, their mycelia
fruiting the water, which I twist into milkiness.
The whole world seems to slide into the drain by my window.

It has rained and rained since you left, the streets black
and muscled with water. Out of pain and exhaustion you came
into my mouth, covering my tongue with your good and bitter milk.


My hand moves into darkness as I write, The adulterous woman
lost her nose and ears; the man was fined. I drain the glass.
I still want to return to that hotel room by the station

to hear all night the goods trains coming and leaving.


Difficult to extract from such a short poem, but I've missed out three lines as a concession to this rather ring-fenced oeuvre.

A sex poem, its graphic central image pulsing through the rest of the poem.  In that last line, for instance, apart from "coming and leaving" there is surely a submerged memory of the "milk train", proverbial in the UK for an early-morning train.* But whether you see that or not, "goods" echoes the "good" of line 6.

[* The milk trains, gradually replaced by road transport after the 1960s, were indeed early trains but these early journeys were mostly West-East, i.e. from the dairying districts towards the population centres of London and elsewhere. (The return journey with the empty wagons took place in the afternoon.)]

The man's pain has been transferred to the woman who's now downing painkillers but regret is clearly not the dominant emotion about those unsleeping nights at the station hotel. The poem doesn't cry over spilt milk, it's nearly a celebration.

I suppose you might criticize the poem as over-engineered but I feel it conveys that moment of distress or ecstasy when, even if we are not poets, there's a convergence of metaphors: everything represents something else.


A cast of slowing jumbos,
emptied of fuel, begins

the descent:
the long southern flight path

down into Heathrow.
When the huge wheels

from that cold,
aluminium belly,
will a petrified figure

plummet down
(this time)
into a carpark,

breath frozen midair,
the wrapt human form

on the landing gear
tossed three miles clear
from touchdown,

from migration?
The big silvered craft
run the gamut of light,

taking in evening
buoyant, journeyed:
pushed to the edge

of the city: now exposed,
with its parcel of lights,
its human freight

inching homewards
through dusk, mid-September
as fear

slips its cold roots
through the known.
The dull muddied Thames

is full of the equinox,
dragged by the moon
the dun waters

flush to the Barrier:


Around three-quarters of wheel-well stowaways fail to survive the flight.

A wheel-well stowaway on a Kenya Airways flight fell into a garden in Clapham in July 2019... Just the latest of many, especially descending into Heathrow over West London.


SM was probably thinking of
Mohammed Ayaz in 2001. His body fell into the Homebase car-park in Richmond.


A talk by Sarah Maguire:
'Singing about the dark times': Poetry and Conflict



I've managed to read some other Sarah Maguire poems for free. I downloaded the Kindle sampler of her final collection The Pomegranates of Kandahar (2007); it contains "The Grass Church at Dilston Grove" (see pic at head of post), "Cow Parsley, Bluebells" and "Vigil". And looking up The Invisible Mender (1997) on Google Books gave me "Travelling Northward", another train poem. Here's the beginning:


through the worst March snowstorm
anyone on this train has ever heard of --
Water Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut
is stopped, a quilt of ice --
only the restless and the homeless
risk the streets tonight.

This train, like any train
I've ever taken anywhere,
moves from metropolis to detritus,
its trajectory --
from dressed-stone, steel-clad, po-mo vaults,
heated, peopled, electronic,

to those laid-off warehouses,
their tall machines eviscerated,
left to breed a skin of verdigris
against the open, negligent air --
is voodoo economics stripped:
the counting houses, gilts and deals

are come to this,
a rusting chain-link fence
around an empty lot,
two huge cogs lying out of gear,
fabulously swollen with the snow.
The stilled train

creaks a little to itself, then leaves
New Haven....

At this time "voodoo economics" referred to "Reaganomics" or "supply-side economics"; the theory that little-taxed and little-regulated capitalism would bring prosperity to everyone else.

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Friday, September 06, 2019

The apprentice

[Illustration from Gammal  koppar (1965) by Per Henrik Rosenström. The caption says: The apprentice holds the bellows pole steady while the master himself inspects the coffee-pot that the lady is leaving to be retinned.* Drawing from the second half of the 19th century, artist unknown.]

Eres maestro de lo que has vivido,

artesano de lo que estás viviendo,

y aprendiz de lo que vivirás.

You are the master of your past,
the journeyman of your present
and the apprentice of your future.


The long comrade read aloud as follows:—‘Mark Gilbert. Age, nineteen. Bound to Thomas Curzon, hosier, Golden Fleece, Aldgate. Loves Curzon’s daughter. Cannot say that Curzon’s daughter loves him. Should think it probable. Curzon pulled his ears last Tuesday week.’

‘How!’ cried the captain, starting.

‘For looking at his daughter, please you,’ said the novice.

‘Write Curzon down, Denounced,’ said the captain. ‘Put a black cross against the name of Curzon.’

‘So please you,’ said the novice, ‘that’s not the worst—he calls his ‘prentice idle dog, and stops his beer unless he works to his liking. He gives Dutch cheese, too, eating Cheshire, sir, himself; and Sundays out, are only once a month.’

‘This,’ said Mr Tappertit gravely, ‘is a flagrant case. Put two black crosses to the name of Curzon.’

(Barnaby Rudge, Chapter 8)


Dickens portrays his Prentice Knights as an absurd piece of compensatory role-play whose hostility to all masters is childish and without justification. In reality there must have been many cruel masters and many apprentices who were grievously ill-treated.

Peter had heard there were in London then --
Still have they being! -- workhouse-clearing men,
Who undisturbed by feelings just or kind,
Would parish boys to needy tradesmen bind;
They in their want a trifling sum would take,
And toiling slaves of piteous orphans make

(George Crabbe, "Peter Grimes")

These workhouse-clearing men were abusing the apprentice system, but even regular apprenticeships were no picnic. In Sweden, says Per Henrik Rosenström, "Hard masters and bullying by the journeymen meant that the lad who got through an apprenticeship was fairly toughened up".

I am not sure if there were ever any apprentice fraternities, but there were certainly journeyman fraternities at one time or another, and -- more clearly in Europe than in Britain -- they were in some ways a forerunner of the trade unions of the industrial age, at least as far as mutual support and insurance were concerned.


* Until 1990 the inner surface of most copper cookware was coated with tin (jam pans and egg white whipping bowls are exceptions). Tin coating allowed food or liquids to be left in the pan after cooking without forming verdigris.  Retinning was required every three years or so. Manufacturers now use stainless steel coating, which is permanent.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Environmentalism and humanism

A year ago I was given Yuval Noah Harari's books Sapiens and Homo Deus (2016*), which I've just finished reading.


It is customary to portray the history of modernity as a struggle between science and religion. In theory, both science and religion are interested above all in the truth, and because each upholds a different truth, they are doomed to clash. In fact, neither science nor religion cares that much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.

Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth. They therefore make good bedfellows. The uncompromising quest for truth is a spiritual journey, which can seldom remain within the confines of either religious or scientific establishments.

It would accordingly be far more accurate to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion -- namely, humanism. Modern society believes in humanist dogmas, and uses science not in order to question these dogmas, but rather in order to implement them. ....

(Homo Deus, p. 231)


For Harari, a religion is the supplier of society's core values, moral imperatives and shared myths; it is what allows human societies to cooperate on a large scale. (Science itself supplies no values.) These religions needn't involve temples or God. In Harari's 20th century the wars of religion were between competing humanisms: liberal humanism versus socialist humanism (communism) or evolutionary humanism (nazism). Liberal humanism won, but its fundamental beliefs are contradicted by modern science, and the emerging religions will be techno-humanism or data religions.

The important new religions (in Harari's sense) now develop in Silicon Valley, i.e. at the apex of technological development. Harari sees no particular significance in e.g. Islamic fundamentalism or far right nationalism -- they are just regressive movements, doomed to failure. He doesn't link them to the threat of ecocide that he recognizes in the endless economic growth authorized by humanism.


Reading all this, I'm pondering environmentalism -- Is it a distinct religion, is it progressive or regressive in terms of technology, and is it humanistic?

Of course the argument that we should care for the planet is often expressed in humanistic terms: for example, Clean air and water should be fundamental human rights . Or, Wrecking the environment is a sorry legacy to pass on to our children and grandchildren.

Those are good points, but I feel that environmentalism is also and fundamentally not humanist. Many people (including Harari) are horrified by the mass mistreatment of livestock entailed by industrial farming: yet it's difficult to justify that horror in purely humanist terms. Ever since the RSPCA was founded in the early nineteenth century (and indeed for a century before that) we've felt that we ought to treat animals better. As science has improved our understanding of ourselves and other species, it has become harder to maintain a metaphysical distinction between humans and other animals. Animals, most people feel, deserve some rights too.

But environmentalism goes a little further than that. Its values also, and crucially, concern ecosystems: that is, natural biological communities. Most animals can only live a worthwhile existence within such ecosystems. The old-style zoos where you could pass gorillas in cages are no longer very pleasing to most people who care about nature. Gorillas, we understand, should have gorilla country.

It's a sticking-point, from the perspective of technological progress. Many of us lament the loss of human cultural diversity, the loss of the world's languages and pristine stone-age lifestyles, but there's a reasonable argument that this is sentimental. Few people now live stone-age lifestyles, but their grandchildren have smartphones and much longer life expectancy, they mostly do not want to go back to the lifestyle of their ancestors, so from a humanistic point of view the loss of human diversity isn't necesssarily or simply a bad thing. But other species are not so adaptable as we are. If they too have rights, those rights amount to a severe restriction on technological interference: in their habitats, it means minimal change.

The rights of other species also present a challenge to one of the enshrined humanistic ideals, democracy. Animals can't vote. So how can their interests be defended? By well-intentioned humans, maybe. But so far well-intentioned humans seem to be unable to halt the ever-accelerating destruction of natural habitats across the globe. Of course many of the world's nations don't even pretend to be democracies, but would it improve the chances for nature if they were? Under heightened environmental pressure themselves, voters may be perfectly prepared to let natural habitats go under the plough. If constantly improved human education can't be sustained (and education is itself under huge pressures) -- then must democracy be saved from itself? In practice this already happens: decisions that require specialist expertise aren't usually exposed to a public vote. (That, for example, is how SSSIs are designated.) But fundamental aspects of our lifestyle have environmental impact too (our cars, our flights, economic growth itself); those are certainly things that come within the purview of public votes. So what if we keep voting for them, even when it puts ourselves and other humans (never mind the animals and the ecosystems) under still harsher environmental pressure? Something has to give; but when, and what -- or who -- will it be?

[The Hebrew version of Homo Deus was published in 2015, but the English version appears to be cognizant of events up to mid-2016.]


Friday, August 30, 2019

comb harvest

Breeze mewed at the flagship excavated rocks
multiplied with the ache of clouds new cars
rolled swinging to have harvested this thought
sail tiling oak-leaved on the fretted stars
the face half closed as in a steepened sport
       a concentration locks
up mutinies distractions and the time
to shed a cornet of rude sunburnt bracts
unhallowed measurement and wretched facts
the windstill frothed inside the jugs of lime

Under the trees a silence rarely heard
a range of tufts inhabiting long air
insipid fibre frail to the eye
to hold such stillness only here and where
it lay remote on water and the sky
      reflected or recurred
was stillness resting in a vocal glass
cool as the realms that rise upon the tide
and turn to sweetness on its lower side
the repetition of bewitching grass 

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Thursday, August 29, 2019


Le Paysan (Peasant), 1890-92 oil painting by Paul Cézanne
[In the Hahnloser Collection, Winterthur. Oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm.]

For several centuries Renaissance aesthetics were to impose on French painters a new system of optics based on perspective. This method of pictorial expression gave an illusion of reality rather than an exact transcription of it, and was more of an intellectual than a sensory process. .... Perspective... suggested horizontal depth by means of straight lines converging towards a fixed point, but did not take into account that verticals and curved surfaces are distorted when viewed obliquely.  (p. 123)

Space in Cézanne's work excludes the notions of distance, emptiness or fullness, of metric measurement or depth....  ...for Cézanne, light is born of colour, just as form is also. ... No one has been able to rival Cézanne in combining chromatic values to render the quality of light and form. (p. 147)

The word 'realization' was often on his lips. For him, realization was a way of ensuring that objects distorted by his own sensations, and colours modified by their effect on one another, remained interdependent. It meant linking one form to another, one shade to the next, and giving stability to a form of architecture which had been deprived of its traditional means of support. But he required a method which would be at once sufficiently flexible and sufficiently strict to enable him to eliminate the discrepancies, discontinuity and diffractions of visual phenomena. He spared neither time nor effort to master this method and, when it escape him, he rebelled with great violence. 'I cannot tear them [the objects] away,' he cried one day, 'they cling so to the point at which I am looking that it seems to me they are going to bleed!'
   His contemporaries saw only rickety tables, distorted bottles, dislocated limbs, squinting countenances and a horrifying lack of proportion. We today can discern the delicate strand of logic whereby he unites the most violent disparities. The illusions created by the juxtaposition or mere proximity of two objects are well known. As any painter will confirm, the curves of a bottle are diminished when the bottle is placed next to a round dish.  Conversely, they swell out when the bottle is near a cubic box; and the more oblique the outer edge of the table, the more the bottle will seem to slant. A light surface seems larger than a dark one; consequently, the side of an object that is in the light will seem bigger if the opposite side is in the shade. That is why certain objects of Cézanne's lose their uprightness or their solidity, swell out in one part or shrink in another, and also why an apple is no longer spherical, a house no longer upright, a pine tree no longer vertical.

(pp. 149-150)

Arbres en V (Trees in a V), 1890-98 watercolour by Paul Cézanne. (Reproduced in monochrome.)
[In the collection of Princess Bassiano, Paris.]

I adore books but for that very reason the sight of books I'm not actually reading depresses me, so I'm always trying to reduce the number of books at home. And I've several times eyed this one, Frank Elgar's Cézanne*, picked up casually in the spring for ten minutes of cafe reading, but so far I've been unable to let it go. The book is mainly a biography: I wanted to find out more about Cézanne's friendship with Zola. I ended up reading it all quickly, thoroughly enjoyed it (I know very little about painting), and then meant to shake it off, but I find I've been lured into looking too closely at these paintings, and becoming moved, absorbed, addicted... It seems inevitable that I'll now re-read it much more slowly. This really wasn't on my agenda!

[* Published in French in 1968; English translation 1975 (translator not named). Frank Elgar was the pen-name of Roger Lesbats, 1899 - 1978, journalist and art critic. Paul Cézanne was born in Aix on 19 January 1839 (several years before his parents married), and died of diabetes, also in Aix, on 22 October 1906.]

La Femme à la cafetière (Woman with Coffee Pot), 1890-94 oil painting by Paul Cézanne

[In the Louvre, Paris. Oil on canvas, 130 x 97 cm. The model was his wife Hortense.]

Nature morte (Still-life), c. 1900 watercolour by Paul Cézanne.

[In the collection of Mr and Mrs Emery Reves. Watercolour, 48 x 62 cm.]

Portrait de Vallier (Portrait of Vallier), 1906 oil painting by Paul Cézanne.
[In the Leigh Block Collection, Chicago. Oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm. This was Cézanne's final portrait; Vallier was his gardener.]

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Saturday, August 24, 2019

nature, people

"A tree of hands": beech pollard in Epping Forest

[Image source: https://blog.rowleygallery.co.uk/two-days-in-epping-forest/ . One of many wonderfully crafted and wide-ranging posts by Chris Hamer.]

Just a short one to recommend The Willowherb Review, a new journal of writing on eco-literary themes by people of colour:


The title of course fed into my current obsession with willowherbs but the writing within soon attracted me for its own sake. (I'm rushing this out but I'll add some more if I get a moment from playing in the Bank Holiday sunshine.)

In the first number, Michael Malay's piece on eels in the Severn is wonderful, and I very much like his perceptions about the hostile architecture ("defensive architecture")  that's used to control both people and nature.

Here's an impressive essay by the same author that I discovered later:

Haines City, Florida, in Jennifer Neal's powerful memoir of her grandfather:

Today, every house window is covered in iron bars, but then, it was nothing but farmland, rich and dark like blackstrap molasses. He built a small house next to a large citrus grove where he immediately started working as a fruit picker, climbing trees to pull lemons, oranges and grapefruits from their prickled leaves until the oil from the rinds coloured his fingernails a permanent shade of yellow, and curled the flesh on his fingers into little brown ribbons. During the day, under the eye of a white foreman, his German shepherd, and the brutal Florida sun, my grandfather laboured long hours. His clothes stuck to his skin, and his limbs went numb from exhaustion. At night, he sat in a rusty aluminum tub in his backyard and watched the clouds transpose from shades of magenta, to violet, orange, and eventually black. 
Haines was no picnic, but compared to the Jim Crow hatefulness of his Georgia birthplace, this was liberation.

The second number is focussed on Epping Forest (playing into another current preoccupation of mine: much of Barnaby Rudge is set in Chigwell, just on the edge of the forest).

Beginning of the poem "if still forest (winter)" by Pratyusha:

making less of the body / worlding: the swallowing of green light

            the thin fog of a season’s turn / pungent fragrance in Epping, nineteen

                        translation as a means for survival / terrestrial seeking what-has-been

fleshy fibres separating skin / roots of blood-current

            veins / moss glimpsed through protective barriers, your thin skin

                        masquerading parchment / felled branch landing into a blueprint

new reckonings through the smell of birch / deodar-song or.

            brief loss, trying not to count / mapping leaves & dull brown

                        collateral damage we could never unsee / overhead, turned down

I appreciate the Alex La Guma allusion in the second line!

Pratyusha is also co-editor of another eco-literary managazine, amberflora:

In which, a rapid glance took me to some more exciting poetry, by Alycia Pirmohamed:

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Éireann Lorsung

Dickinson House visual
[Image source: http://ohbara.com/projects/portfolio/dickinson-house/  Dickinson House was a writer's residency that EL ran when she lived in Belgium.]

Out the window the snow begins as it has all week, off and on, and the four o'clock dimness sets in, but it is tolerable because of the snow and the little colored lights and the darkness of the neighboring house mirroring the lights from our windows, and in the distance I can hear the poets I love begin to talk about their lives (and other poets begin to scold them for talking about their lives) and their red shoes and their fear, and I wish the poets could come stay in this anonymous house far away, with all the people they love and the people they love, all the people I love and the ones they love, all of us here in the dim with the small lights and the houses next door empty of neighbors

From a poem by Éireann Lorsung. The poem has a very long title beginning When I say... If I gave the whole title you'd have forgotten about the extract I wished to highlight.

Here the poem plays a game about welcoming people in. It's not irrelevant that EL* did run a writer's residency for several years, so she really has had poets come to stay. And she's also a teacher, so I guess pretty comfortable with rooms full of people.

And yet in the poem this is complicated. As soon as the wish includes so many poets, and then widens out to embrace all the people they love and all the people she loves, well that welcome is getting bigger and bigger but it's also taking on fantastical and unreal proportions. It's a soap bubble that grows and grows and bursts.

And in the anonymous house, what then? A loneliness and emptiness, maybe. But it also seems tolerable, with the Christmas lights that someone arranged and the reflections of light in the darkened windows over the way: a resonance tranquillized by distance and time. After all it's rather nice that the neighbours have gone away. The fancied voices of beloved poets are also a reflection: the poets exist, but not in this place. So the passage expresses the consolations of solitude, it is a rich kind of emptiness, not the featureless type but the emptiness of something that can be imagined as full: an absence.

"in the distance I can hear the poets I love"  ... So for a second we imagine EL reading their poetry, but that's not clear, maybe they are only chatting -- "about their lives (and other poets begin to scold them for talking about their lives)". It isn't clear, and the unclarity is pointed. After all it's a small debate about good manners, if people should go on about their lives, and it's also a big debate about poetry, should poems be autobiographical.

The implication is that those two debates are connected with each other. And there's a difficult question emerging here, is loving poets central to why we want to read poetry (for we certainly do love our favourite poets), and if so is writing our own poem a persuasion to love us -- no, no, that sounds very bad, but .... Yet isn't love of a kind central to what art is for? How to express the worth of artistic endeavour if it isn't something to do with love?

I'm not talking about the rest of the poem but it certainly observes how love forms the architecture of our experience, the love of selected loved ones and of other people and all people and dead people, love and the absence of love. Love, and fear.

"and their red shoes and their fear". Hard to avoid the allusion to "The Red Shoes", Hans Christian Andersen's tale of compulsive restlessness, himself the most restless and fearful of travellers. But if it has an unacknowledged autobiographical element, it's also deeply anti-feminist in its fear of Karin's free spirit and her rebellion against staying small; in Andersen's own terms the red shoes probably means a career of prostitution or at least its moral equivalent. And yet (or rather, and so) it now strikes us as a potent feminist parable about the challenges of stepping forth as a woman with a public career, about being willing to be noticed, about the tribal judgments and attitudes that still haunt our world.


Weir, fishbed, river a straightened ellipsis after 1918

What red flowers were worked here in what hand
Wh at blue

We covered the stove with Delft tiles
We laid our bones across one another, to be found like that

from An archeology, a poem about inhabitation and migration, living and moving. Specifically Flanders during the 1940 occupation, but conceiving long vistas before and after. Conceiving rather than seeing: these lines are preoccupied with the unseen and with those frail signals to the future ("to be found") that so often don't get through or can't be interpreted.


Éireann Lorsung is another poet I've discovered via the anthology women: poetry: migration, ed. Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (2017). (At the time it was put together, EL was living in Belgium, though she's since moved back to the USA.)

Éireann Lorsung's web page introduction to herself and what she does:


Charlotte Bhaskar's review of EL's Her book (2013):


2016 interview with EL by Taeler Kallmerten on the excellent Newfound site. It touches on both the poems I've written about, among many other things.



*This represents my latest, not especially happy, attempt to find a better way of referring to the author under discussion (once I've supplied their full name, obviously).

When we talk about dead authorities, using the bare surname is inevitable, sanctioned by tradition, and raises no hackles (though maybe it should). I've written hundreds of posts about "Shakespeare", "Scott", "Dickens", etc.

But I strongly dislike referring to contemporary writers in that way.  Partly because it always gives me a jar to see myself referred to as "Peverett". I haven't been called that since I was at junior school! Why are you infantilizing me and what I do? OK, I might play the fool now and then, but I assure you I'm all growed up! And talking about poetry is one of the most grown-up things any of us do, I'm putting my whole heart into this, my whole long life experience... So don't treat it like a school assignment...  Those are the thoughts that flash through my mind, whenever I'm Peverett-ed.

But besides that, I feel that I'm apt to write and think less honestly about the writers and their work and my own response to it if I adopt a naming convention that I'd never use to their face. (And every so often these were people I actually knew.)

So then I tried using the writer's first name, and sometimes that approach has felt totally right (for example, when writing about Tim Allen, a poet of my own generation with whom I've often had exchanges over the years).

But it's rather a different matter when e.g the writer's a woman who's much younger than me, someone I don't know at all. In that context throwing around someone's first name seems distinctly matey if not creepy. I don't take any credit for sensitivity in registering that unease. On the contrary, I think the embarrassment betrays susceptibilities within myself and other het males of my generation that are the reverse of admirable. But whatever, there's many times when the first-name thing doesn't feel appropriate, and I'm just not doing it.

So that's why I'm now trying the approach of using initials. It isn't very elegant, and its virtues are mainly negative e.g.  it is neither stuffy nor chummy. It isn't what people do in academic essays, and that seems to me a very good and important thing: academic conventions have long been a hindrance to the integrity of expressing what we really think and know and feel. And I do think initials are quite honest in this respect: that they probably are the form I'd choose if I was repeatedly referring to the same writer in a missive to a friend, for example.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

August wood in Swindon

Epilobium montanum

Exciting things that happen when you go looking for willowherbs...

A couple of days ago I was walking along one of West Swindon's many pedestrian paths, heading for Lidl and thinking about willowherbs, as documented in a recent post. There were masses here, but I felt self-conscious, with all the other passers-by, so I decided to duck into the wood I was passing and see if I could find some willowherbs that I could look at closely without feeling like an eccentric. As you can see, I succeeded: Broad-leaved Willowherb, Epilobium montanum. I was just leaving when I realized there were some other plants here that were far less commonplace. Right next to the trading estate, I began to have the feeling I'd blundered into Jurassic Park.

Lithospermum officinale

The first was this one. I was struck by the shiny lilac beads on the plant: at first I supposed they were unopened buds, but then I realized these were the fruits.

Lithospermum officinale, nutlets

I didn't have time to check my books, so I put an image up on the Facebook Wild Flower group, and was told that this is Common Gromwell (Lithospermum officinale); the fruits (nutlets) will later turn white. The plants grow up to a metre tall: there were loads of them here. The leaf-veins are distinctive, being deeply incised on the upperside, and correspondingly raised on the underside.

Lithospermum officinale, upperside of leaf

Lithospermum officinale, underside of leaf

And I noticed another unfamiliar plant too, with divergent branches bearing strange burr-looking fruits.

Cynoglossum germanicum in fruit

Fruits of Cynoglossum germanicum

Once again I consulted the Facebook group, and it seems to be Green Hound's-tongue (Cynoglossum germanicum), a very rare plant and apparently not previously recorded in Wiltshire. I've submitted the record and it's currently awaiting adjudication.

On a re-visit today, I realized there are lots of them here. I counted 62 fruiting plants,  then 67 on a recount a few days later. And there are hundreds of "first year" plants in the leafing phase. (Cynoglossum germanicum is one of those biennials in which the "first year" is often, I suspect, repeated for several years in a row.)

A tangle of Cynoglossum germanicum

Cynoglossum germanicum, stem and leaves.

Tongue-shaped leaves, fresh green, rather sparsely hairy. Whereas the leaves of common Hound's-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) are grey-green and densely hairy. These ones felt smooth on the upper surface and softly bristly beneath.

Cynoglossum germanicum, leaf

Cynoglossum germanicum, fruiting plant surrounded by young plants

Cynoglossum germanicum, young plants

A strange place! The trees are not very old, about 50 years maybe. They're a mixture: Field Maple, Ash, Oak, Common Lime, Horse Chestnut, Wild Cherry, Cherry Plum, Crack Willow...

On a later visit I found a dozen Nettle-leaved Bellflower plants and a big clump of Balm. Other ground flora: Garlic Mustard, Stinging-nettle, Herb Bennet, Red Campion...

Cherry Plum: alternate toothed leaves and hairless green twigs.

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Friday, August 09, 2019

Charles Dickens: Barnaby Rudge (13 Feb - 27 Nov 1841)

Barnaby, his mother, and Grip

[Image source: https://nostalgiacentral.com/television/tv-by-decade/tv-shows-1960s/barnaby-rudge/ . From the 1960 BBC dramatization. Barnaby was played by John Wood, Mrs Rudge by Isabel Dean.]

It's been a few years since I last read a Dickens novel, and this reading has been a particular thrill for me, because Barnaby Rudge was perhaps the first Dickens book I absorbed in its entirety, when I was about seven: in the form of a comic-book. I haven't managed to track down any online images from that saddle-stitched publication, a battered item on a school dormitory bookshelf. I'm sure they were very inferior to Phiz and Cattermole's originals, but I would have enjoyed seeing them again.

[Even before that, I had read a very short Dombey and Son, but I think it can only have contained a few early episodes: I was enchanted by Captain Cuttle and horrified by Good Mrs Brown.]



So, it soon got whispered about, that Mr Chester was very unfortunate in his son, who had occasioned him great grief and sorrow. And the good people who heard this and told it again, marvelled the more at his equanimity and even temper, and said what an amiable nature that man must have, who, having undergone so much, could be so placid and so calm. And when Edward’s name was spoken, Society shook its head, and laid its finger on its lip, and sighed, and looked very grave; and those who had sons about his age, waxed wrathful and indignant, and hoped, for Virtue’s sake, that he was dead. And the world went on turning round, as usual, for five years, concerning which this Narrative is silent.

(end of Chapter 32)

One of the joys of finishing a classic novel (not something I manage very often) is reading what others have made of it. In this case there were some very good things on the internet.

And one of the best remains Edgar Allen Poe's fascinating early review: https://www.eapoe.org/works/criticsm/gm42dc01.htm
Poe playfully suggests that Dickens changed his mind after some of the numbers were already published: his book began as a murder mystery, but he then decided, with some awkwardness, to centre it on the Gordon Riots instead. (Poe admitted that Dickens had stated otherwise.) Forster may have read this when he came to give his own somewhat critical views on the structure of Barnaby Rudge in the Life of Dickens (see Vol I Chapter 14).

Some of the loose ends that Poe discovers may have other explanations. But he's right to ponder on the famous five year gap at the end of Chapter 32, because it's a very odd thing, as well as a very effective thing. Poe's mischievous suggestion is that Dickens was driven to it because he had thoughtlessly specified the date 1775 in his opening number and then, because of the change of plan, found he needed to advance the clock to 1780, the historical date of the Riots.

Poe's theory is wrong: the long-planned novel (in 1836 prospectively titled Gabriel Vardon, the Locksmith of London) was always going to be about the (historical) locksmith who refused to pick the lock of Newgate prison; Dickens named the topic as the "Riots of Eighty" in a letter to S. Laman Blanchard dated 9 February 1839; and after all, as early as Chapter 4 the theme of the riots is being prepared for when Sim Tappertit hints at "certain reckless fellows that he knew of" and "a certain Lion Heart ready to become their captain"; or consider the subtle comment in Chapter 10 about Barnaby "who, so that he thought himself employed on a grave and serious business, would go anywhere" -- foreshadowing how Hugh will draw him into the movement, and how fearlessly he'll serve it; and finally, the idea of a five year delay to Edward's and Emma's marriage had already been signalled in Chapter 15.

But still, Poe is quite right to notice that the time-gap is odd. Five years is quite a long time, especially for young marriageable heroines. If Dolly was coquetting around in 1775 (she's already chatting with her father about husbands, while her mother professes that her one desire is to see Dolly "comfortably settled") , there's a strangely static quality to her subsequent five years of reducing coachmakers etc to despair . We aren't, I think, told Dolly's age -- I suppose she might be 18 in 1775 and 23 in 1780. Well, that wouldn't raise any eyebrows. (Tappertit still calls her "the locksmith's child".) But Emma Haredale, we happen to know, is already 23 in 1775 (because she was one year old when her father was murdered; she is thus a year older than Barnaby, who was born the day after the murder) ... This would make her 28 in 1780 which, as Poe notes, places her -- in the social judgments of the time, which were applied even more mercilessly to fictional heroines than to women in real life -- , distinctly in old maid territory. Her lover Edward Chester, 27 in 1775, must be 32 in 1780. Barnaby,  in 1780, remains a man-child, (apparently without any interest in sex) -- so an actual age of 27 is perhaps acceptable, given his "darkened intellect".

Usually when stories include a time gap, it's to allow time for things to happen. In such cases we are told that in the mean time A has married, B has bloomed, C has died, D has become sourer than ever, E has turned to drink or given it up, F now has a young family... There's remarkably little of that kind of thing here, as Poe noticed. Dickens did require some sort of a time-gap, true. He couldn't very well have Edward Chester and Joe Willet rushing in as miraculous saviours when they had only just exiled themselves.  And Joe, at least, has changed in the mean time, not only by the loss of an arm. Haredale, Chester and Varden are perceptibly older, though without any change of personality. Simon and his fellows have served out their apprenticeships and are now journeymen (the Prentice Knights have become the United Bulldogs); Varden has joined the Royal East London Volunteers; Mr Chester has become Sir John Chester, MP; Dolly has been living at the Warren; Hugh has conceived a hatred of Haredale. It's quite a meagre harvest. Dickens' time-gap is not so much about allowing time for things to happen as about observing that nothing much has happened at all.

So as far as his narrative requirement goes, a time-gap of (say) two years would surely have done. And why did Dickens need to make the murder so remote in time: mightn't it just as well have taken place eighteen years ago (say) as twenty-two (or twenty-three, or twenty-four, as he uncertainly states on a couple of occasions)? Dickens' problem about Emma Haredale's age -- if you regard it as a problem -- is thus entirely and unnecessarily self-inflicted.

But I think it's possible to argue that Dickens had no wish to conceal Emma's age and subtly portrays her as a stronger and older woman in the second half of the novel. There's another factor too. Barnaby Rudge is of course against religious prejudice, but I suspect that Dickens wanted to persuade rather than affront. So he could get away with portraying a mixed-faith marriage like Edward's and Emma's, but only by making various concessions. It had to be placed in the background and presented in a sober spirit rather than an ecstatic one. Part of this toning-down process might be to make the eventually happy couple a little older than romantic couples usually are.

Anyway, back to the five-year gap. I can't entirely fathom it, but it seems that Dickens felt a strong poetic need to stretch out time: from the murder to 1775, and from 1775 to the Riots. It was part of a vision of England going along in much the same way for a very long time; suffering violent outbreaks (a double murder in 1753, or a week of rioting in the capital in 1780) but always regrouping into a tense stasis. At the very end of the book (via the mythically long-lived raven Grip) we are brought right up to 1841, with the suggestion that this pattern of stasis still subsists. (I'm taking these thoughts largely from Carolyn Williams' essay, referenced below.)

One thing I think is certain, the closing words of Chapter 32 always come as rather a shock, and yet the effect on the reader isn't one of disappointment, of something being snatched away from us, but of excitement and anticipation: 1780 is going to be a big year.

Perhaps the real function of the time-gap comes retrospectively: when the reader glances back from some nightmarish scene in front of the battered prison door or in the pool of burning spirit outside the vintner's and ponders, How the hell did we get to this? And since there's nothing in the last five years to inspect, we perforce look back to the apparent tranquillity of 1775 and find its shadow there. As if Dickens is saying: the proximate causes of a popular eruption are just distractions, its tap-root always goes this deep.



My grandmother's interests were more musical than literary, but Dickens wasn't the preserve of literary people. Once, in my teens (scanning the glass-fronted book-case of Galsworthy and Kipling -- the one she rarely seemed to pick a book from) it occurred to me to ask her why she had no Dickens. She had never cared for Dickens, she told me. Struggling to describe this aversion, she suggested that his books contained too many nasty children.

(Maybe I should explain that my grandmother was generally fond of children in her reading matter:  over the years we had spent many happy hours together with A.A. Milne, Ursula Moray Williams (Anders and Marta) and Arthur Ransome.)  

Literally, her assertion is wrong. Dickens' books aren't full of nasty children;  and Dickens would never dismiss a child as simply nasty. (My thoughts pause briefly on the demonic urchin Deputy in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but no, he's actually employed by Durdles to throw stones at him...) And yet that unsympathetic phrase "nasty children" seemed, I thought, to express something profound about Dickens' imaginative vision. Dicken's world teems with the dirty, the ragged, the unkempt, the ill-educated and noisy. Many of these figures are children and many more, from Quilp to Boffin, are strangely child-like. I could understand how, for someone like my grandmother, one might close a volume of Dickens with a distinct sense of the then-popular notice NOW WASH YOUR HANDS.

Barnaby is one of those childlike figures, of course: In fact he belongs to a subcategory that preoccupied Dickens in novels of this period, the mentally deranged: Smike in Nicholas Nickelby, Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. [Of course it's Nell's childlike grandfather who is more evidently deranged, but the child's mentality is catastrophically warped by her circumstances:  http://michaelpeverett.blogspot.com/2015/10/charles-dickens-old-curiosity-shop-1840.html .]

Of actual children, on the other hand, Barnaby Rudge has a remarkable scarcity, until its final pages. The characteristic location of the book is the inn: the Maypole, the Boot, the Black Lion. The Maypole, Dickens tells us, used to be a home. But now:

It was no longer a home; children were never born and bred there; the fireside had become mercenary—a something to be bought and sold—a very courtezan: let who would die, or sit beside, or leave it, it was still the same—it missed nobody, cared for nobody, had equal warmth and smiles for all. God help the man whose heart ever changes with the world, as an old mansion when it becomes an inn!

(Chapter 10)

We begin to see that Barnaby Rudge conjures a world in which the most cohesive of all social forces, young children and their mothers, are absent. And it's a world that idles -- like Sir John Chester's contented butterfly life --, a world without real objects, endlessly rehashing the distant past and fearfully but cosily speculating on a sequel it does nothing to bring about, like Solomon Daisy.

What we do have is the dissatisfaction of young men -- adolescents, we might call them, though they're all in their early twenties -- : Hugh, Simon Tappertit and Joe Willet.  All are characterized, in their very different ways, by a certain violent energy. Even Barnaby, the man-child, eventually breaks from his mother's control, and there's nothing she can do about it.

Dolly Varden plays a part in building up this sense of pent-up energies threatening to erupt. Of a similar age, but not at all a rebel or violent herself, she arouses testosterone-fuelled excitement in every young man who sees her: notably including Hugh, Simon and Joe.


Dickens is unusual among prolific novelists (in any language) because all his novels are masterpieces. In English, the nearest equivalent is Jane Austen, but there we are talking about six novels compared to fifteen. (Some might want to murmur Henry James at this point). I'm not at all sure how meaningful this observation is, but I want to emphasize that it isn't just a matter of opinion. One crude measure could be the flood of academic debate about each of Dickens' novels: compare it with the mere trickle attracted by, say, Scott's The Betrothed or Thackeray's The Virginians.

I've often argued that greatness or canonicity is a communal creation: the author plays a huge part, of course, but so does the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time, availability, popular appeal, being taught in schools, becoming part of the cultural currency of newspaper columns. The momentum towards a recognition of greatness increases as debate, acclaim and indeed disparagement accrete around a body of work; we want to hear what others are saying about it, we want to join in, and eventually this debate influences our perception of the world and its people, our values, social attitudes and public policy: it begins to be historically significant and unavoidable, regardless of our personal tastes. Hard to imagine us ever not needing to talk about the thirty-seven plays of Shakespeare; or the fifteen novels of Dickens.

Of course Dickens often wrote badly, both in his voluminous other work and within the novels themselves. But that's unimportant. What's important is that each novel has a definite identity, i.e. it doesn't just play variations on past triumphs, and each novel has its own meaning: it has something definite, new and significant to say.

[When I say it's definite, I mean definite to us. Part of the fascination of Dickens is that he seems to be averse to analysing and perhaps doesn't himself understand, what he's about. The opening paragraph of the Carolyn Williams essay referenced below puts it well:

Dickens was anything but stupid. But, as Rosemarie Bodenheimer argues in Knowing Dickens, his "revealing and concealing intelligence" is rarely explicit about exactly what he knows. His complex awareness "lurks somewhere," but it is difficult to pin down, and this "absence of analytical distance was probably central to [his creative] process" (2, 205). Yet we can only know Dickens when we understand that he always knows more than he states explicitly -- and more, perhaps, than he knows he knows. 

This lack of analytical self-awareness has something to do with Dickens' popular appeal: no reader of Dickens is repelled by the feeling that the author is far more educated or cleverer than her/himself and is full of fancy ideas. And it gives a profound integrity to his work: a bit like folk-tales. They exist rather than assert. You can't really argue with them, you can only (like my grandmother) opt not to read them.]

I'm mentioning this all-canonical aspect of Dickens's novels partly because you still sometimes hear Barnaby Rudge described as a minor or lesser novel (though not, I suspect, by academics). And actually, if I had to choose a single era when the seeds of Dickens's present and future reputation were decisively established, I think I'd venture the era of Master Humphrey's Clock, the weekly in which both The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge were serialized.

Serialization, I'm sure, lay at the heart of it. It was for Dickens what the public playhouse had been for Shakespeare: a brand-new popular arena that awaited its master. Scott, a few years earlier, had shown how the rapid publication of novels that were distinguished by popular appeal, excitement and constant reinvention could become a sequence of public events: a franchise. But Dickens took this further. Serialization made the writing of a novel into a public display: the novelist became a performance artist. In more recent times, it is not to novels that we must look for an analogy -- not in the west anyway -- but to novel media: the cinema and recorded music. The pioneers (Alfred Hitchcock, Billie Holliday...) have attracted, and will continue to attract, the accretion of debate in a way that Angus Wilson, for example, could never hope to do. The novel has become an old, established form, occasionally agitated by experimental gestures but essentially limited; we have a pretty good idea now what a novel can be and what it can't be. But Dickens' readers did not: the novel was still young.

It was Dickens' business to keep enlarging their conceptions with each new novel and, if possible, with each monthly number; or even -- in the era of Master Humphrey's Clock -- with each weekly number.  And that's just what he wanted to do and felt sure of doing: we can hear it in his language, the unbounded "confidence in my own powers", and in his self-description, the "Inimitable". We can also see the process at work. The hysteria over Little Nelly was something that went beyond any previous fiction, including his own -- regardless of what we think of it now, it was a signal instance of the enlargement mentioned above. Barnaby Rudge is another instance of "going beyond": by taking on history, and by doing it in his inimitable way and not in Scott's, he proposed a new way of inscribing history into the novel. (Compare, in early Shakespeare, how The Comedy of Errors consciously goes beyond all previous Plautine comedies, and Titus Andronicus consciously goes beyond all previous tragedies of blood....)

It's possible to see how it plays out on a smaller scale, too. Each weekly number consisted of only a couple of chapters. It meant that Dickens conceived his chapters not merely as progressing the story but as striking a series of blows in the cause of enlargement: each chapter should introduce something new, it should enlarge our conception of the work before us.

Take the sequence of Chapters 7 - 10.

Chapter 7 introduces us to Mrs Varden and Miggs and the unforgettable and quite wonderful double-acts that Varden is made to endure. ("'Such spirits as you was in too, mim, but half an hour ago!' cried Miggs. 'I never see such company!'"). The themes of male authority, energy and rebellion just took an unexpected turn: Varden is no longer the unmarked case, he is both a patriarchal authority being rebelled against, and himself a rebel against religion and the responsibilities of matrimony.

Chapter 8 follows Sim Tappertit out into the night and introduces the 'Prentice Knights at their cellar in Barbican. The enlargement now is of Simon - while still essentially a ridiculous boy (as Varden considers him) - into a Byronic chieftain, like the Corsair. Simon's rebel organization is presented as high farce, impossible to take seriously, until the chapter executes its brilliant reversal at the very end:

'Good night, noble captain,' whispered the blind man as he held it open for his passage out; 'Farewell, brave general. Bye, bye, illustrious commander. Good luck go with you for a -- conceited, bragging, empty-headed, duck-legged idiot.' 

That sudden flash of hatred tells us that Simon's fantasy games involve mixing with some really nasty elements and could easily run out of his control.

Chapter 9 introduces us to another part of Varden's establishment undreamt of by its master: the sanctity of Miss Miggs' chamber. Miggs in Chapter 7 had been hilarious, but (as is often the way with servants) we weren't really looking at her. Now we're confronted with the emptiness of her existence and with her obsessional nature; she's just as willing as Simon to stay up all night, but she lacks Simon's quality of harmlessness. By the end of this chapter, with Miggs acquiring a psychological hold on another member of the household, our idea of Gabriel's home has been thoroughly -- no, not transformed, but -- enlarged.  

With Chapter 10 the scene switches back to the Maypole. We supposed we had a good idea of the Maypole, but we're in for some surprises: this household, likewise, is about to be enlarged in our minds, both by its neglected state-room, the evidence of its former existence as a home; and by its teasing glimpse of Hugh, this "half-gypsy" servant (is that his status?) who says not a word but whom we can't stop wondering about. But the biggest introduction of this chapter, of course, is the visitor, whom Dickens treats unusually, withholding the usual moral signals for two or three pages while we try to figure him out for ourselves. This prepossessing gentleman, we begin to grasp, signifies something; he is not just a character. So the scope of the book enlarges again. Barnaby's enigmatic speeches to Mr Chester imply arrival at a deeper stratum. Mr Chester will be very active in the ensuing part of the novel (that is, up to the five year gap): he is on-stage in ten of the next 22 chapters and only just off-stage, or a palpable influence, in several of the others. (Whereas, in the second half of the novel, we see him in Chapters 40 and 43 but he's mainly just sitting back and watching the work go on...)


If I'd continued with that chapter-by-chapter commentary, Chapter 11 would have shown us the still-silent Hugh magnificently asleep on a bench, this "animal", as John Willet argues. How far the novel succeeds in distancing itself from Willet's cod-psychology is rather a question.

The effective mobilization of Hugh and other such sleeping forces avoids the normal channels of public discourse, which wouldn't have worked.

But when vague rumours got abroad, that in this Protestant association a secret power was mustering against the government for undefined and mighty purposes; when the air was filled with whispers of a confederacy among the Popish powers to degrade and enslave England, establish an inquisition in London, and turn the pens of Smithfield market into stakes and cauldrons; when terrors and alarms which no man understood were perpetually broached, both in and out of Parliament, by one enthusiast who did not understand himself, and bygone bugbears which had lain quietly in their graves for centuries, were raised again to haunt the ignorant and credulous; when all this was done, as it were, in the dark, and secret invitations to join the Great Protestant Association in defence of religion, life, and liberty, were dropped in the public ways, thrust under the house-doors, tossed in at windows, and pressed into the hands of those who trod the streets by night; when they glared from every wall, and shone on every post and pillar, so that stocks and stones appeared infected with the common fear, urging all men to join together blindfold in resistance of they knew not what, they knew not why;—then the mania spread indeed, and the body, still increasing every day, grew forty thousand strong.

(Chapter 37)

The build-up to the riots is brilliantly handled. The new settings are introduced to us by the Scott method of drawing a newcomer into them. Thus Hugh's successive encounters with Gashford, Dennis, the Boot, Simon...  Dickens constantly deploys the image of an individual engulfed by a crowd: the lonely Haredale hemmed in at the River Stairs, Barnaby being whirled into the Gordon demonstration, Varden being strong-armed towards Newgate.

The next phase, from Gashford's and Dennis' point of view, is about transforming these crowds into "business". The crowd swells and disperses, buildings begin to be sacked, the word "fire" begins to be heard.

When Dickens set out to write about the Gordon Riots, he set himself the challenging task of bringing to life and making sense of a large action featuring masses of people and many simultaneous actions.  One interesting precursor was Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, which in its portrayal of the whole of London in crisis is often remarkably like Barnaby Rudge, but is not very fully novelistic. For a real novel on such themes the only predecessor was Scott. [I'm uneasily aware of, but haven't read, Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris, translated into English in 1833, and Ainsworth's novels, beginning with Rookwood, published in 1834. The latter's Old St Pauls: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire was being serialized at exactly the same time as Barnaby Rudge.]

Scott's large actions are usually recounted in only a couple of pages. Even so, Scott often handles action clumsily. Sometimes Dickens has the same clumsiness, as in the desperate scrabble to avoid anticlimax at the end of that gigantic suspended sentence during the destruction of the Warren (I'm only quoting the final part):

......  : all this taking place taking place -- not among pitying looks and friendly murmurs of compassion, but brutal shouts and exultations, which seemed to make the very rats who stood by the old house too long, creatures with some claim upon the pity and regard of those its roof had sheltered: -- combined to form a scene never to be forgotten by those who saw it and were not actors in the work, so long as life endured. 

(Chapter 55)

And Dickens does sound rather like Scott when he remarks parenthetically on what "often" happens during national convulsions:

On that same night -- events so crowd upon each other in convulsed and distracted times, that more than the stirring incidents of a whole life often become compressed into the compass of four-and-twenty hours -- on that same night, Mr Haredale....etc

(Chapter 61)

Nor is the comparison wholly in his favour. Both authors switch in and out of historical mode during their narratives (A Legend of Montrose supplies some good examples of Scott's practice). But Dickens is far less easy with the historical mode than Scott, and the wrench of switching to and from history is greater. Despite the painstaking accuracy of his historical passages in Barnaby Rudge -- pains such as Scott never took -- there is something constrained about their solemn generalizations, heavy judgments and absence of humour. It is not exactly insincere, but it doesn't sound like Dickens speaking from the heart. Scott plays fast and loose with history, but he absorbed it so profoundly that you can't draw a clear line between Scott the historian and Scott the novelist, they are congruent with each other.

For these and other reasons, there's something not totally satisfactory about the social panorama of these two hundred pages -- compared with the social panorama of Bleak House, for instance. But still, they are very extraordinary pages.

The door sank down again: it settled deeper in the cinders—tottered—yielded—was down!
As they shouted again, they fell back, for a moment, and left a clear space about the fire that lay between them and the jail entry. Hugh leapt upon the blazing heap, and scattering a train of sparks into the air, and making the dark lobby glitter with those that hung upon his dress, dashed into the jail.
The hangman followed. And then so many rushed upon their track, that the fire got trodden down and thinly strewn about the street; but there was no need of it now, for, inside and out, the prison was in flames.

(end of Chapter 64)

In these nameless crowds the usual loquacious and intensely individual Dickens characters are silenced. Dickens works with a different team here. The text proliferates with London locations. The priest, the vintner, the scout, the two sons of the condemned man -- and the "worthies" in the foreground -- Hugh, Dennis, Gashford -- are in many ways un-Dickensian. Hugh is a great creation but he's manifested through actions rather than words: no reader remembers his words, which are not many and are very plain. In such glimpses as this entry to Newgate he is simply a hero, a superhuman. He throws the stone at Haredale, and we hear of him "striking at the soldiers", but on the whole he is notably lacking in deceit, hypocrisy, or malignity. Such personal motives as Hugh has, other than a desire for drink, sleep, riot, and Dolly's kisses, arise mostly from loyal attachment: not just to his dog but to Chester, Barnaby, John Willet (whom he protects from injury), his crony Dennis, and even Tappertit (though he can't help laughing at this). We expect him at some point to expose the condescending Simon for the pitiful absurdity he is, or to turn furiously on the cool Sir John who uses him as a tool, or to resent Dolly's coldness. But none of these hypothetical plot-developments occur: Hugh apparently doesn't experience resentment. "But it's done, and you're here, and it will soon be all over with you and me; and I'd as soon die as live, or live as die. Why should I trouble myself to have revenge on you?" So even the traitor Dennis is treated rather temperately by this ferocious giant, this horseman of the apocalypse.

...one man who wielded an axe in his right hand, and bestrode a brewer’s horse of great size and strength, caparisoned with fetters taken out of Newgate, which clanked and jingled as he went...

That's Hugh outside the vintner's, on Holborn Hill; the last and most phantasmagoric of the four destructive set-pieces around which Dickens structures his account of the Riots (i.e. The Maypole, The Warren, Newgate and here). These rhetorical exclamation-marks are often quoted, though for me the most effective moments are more concise: Varden smashing the red-brick dwelling-house with the yellow roof; Gashford on the roof looking for redness in the sky; Willet jeering at the three cronies as they set off to walk into London;  the venison pasty in Dennis' hat; The Boot surprised, and the scout creeping round the ditches all night; Haredale being asked to leave the hotel at Charing Cross; the chain across the road at Poultry, and the firing; Barnaby sinking the horse's furniture in a pool of stagnant water; Dennis' new buckles and farmer's gloves.

But to re-unite all these scraps into wholeness we need to contemplate the transformed space that Dickens realizes in these pages. The rioters pass the days in makeshift shacks in the Green Lanes, at the Boot, in Fleet Market or the hut near Finchley. Wretched as these encampments are, they breathe an air of both freedom and power. The mob can coalesce out of nothing, they own the streets and have the city as their playground. London's built environment, in contrast, becomes a dystopic labyrinth of sites for desecration and destruction, claustrophobia and captivity.

It's perhaps easiest to see when it finally is over, when Edward fells Gashford, and "cheerful light, and beaming faces came pouring in" (Chapter 71), and when everyone heads without delay for the Black Lion in Clerkenwell. In that moment, Dickensian normality resumes. The houses, and even the inns, have once more become homes.

Dennis the Hangman

[Image source: https://archivetvmusings.blog/2017/08/24/barnaby-rudge-bbc-1960-production-stills/#jp-carousel-64720 . From the 1960 BBC dramatization. Dennis was played by Esmond Knight.]

John Forster's chapter on  BR  (Life of Dickens, I.14) has been highly influential. [And see also the subsequent two chapters on Dickens' trip to Scotland during the composition of BR.] - It's all on Gutenberg.

G.K. Chesterton's brief introduction to BR is typically thought-provoking. His emphasis is on BR's deployment, in the absence of comic intention, of the picturesque (including the grotesque). - Also on Gutenberg.

James R. Kincaid, "Barnaby Rudge: Laughter and Structure", from his 1971 book Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter.


Brilliant essay showing how laughter in BR edges us into being complicit in the repressions that produce the riots, and how often the comedy reaches a pitch of discomfort that stops the laughter on our lips (especially acute, I thought, on Miss Miggs and Simon Tappertit).

Peter Ackroyd: "London's burning".


Chatty article with some illuminating information, for example about Dickens' own troubles with his father at the time of writing BR.

Carolyn Williams, "Stupidity and Stupefaction: 'Barnaby Rudge' and the Mute Figure of Melodrama", Dickens Studies Annual, 2015


Another excellent essay, discussing that five-year gap along with much else: Williams sees it as illustrating the incessant undercover historical process that issues in the Riots. She connects Barnaby's (and Grip's) non-intentional speech with the mute figures of melodrama, notes the instrumentality of stupidity in historical process, and the appropriateness of stupefaction in response (referencing Keston Sutherland's 2011 book Stupefaction: A Radical Anatomy of Phantoms).

Jason Finch (Åbo Akademi), "The Limits of London in Barnaby Rudge" (not sure of the date, but recent).


Intriguing brief essay about the topography of BR, calling attention to its repeated journeyings between central London and Chigwell, and its obsession with the limits of the great city. (Which also play a crucial role in The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapter XV.)

Blog post by Gerry on re-reading BR:


Informative and fun. For example, I learnt that the 22-year-old William Blake was swept up by the mob and was in the forefront of the assault on Newgate.

My post about Sir Walter Scott's presence / absence in Barnaby Rudge:


The mob set forth
[Image source: https://archivetvmusings.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/br-2-1-copy.jpg . From the 1960 BBC dramatization. Barnaby: John Wood. Hugh: Neil McCarthy.]


Dickens had kept two ravens himself, so he had some first hand knowledge. Neither lived very long, and I imagine he wasn't particularly good at looking after them. They are demanding, attention-seeking birds; they mustn't be caged and aren't recommended for casual pet-owners (in the US you need a special permit).

In Barnaby Rudge, Dickens accurately describes the raven's propensity to peck and claw people, also its loud mimicry of non-vocal noises (drawing corks, in Grip's case). One owner on YouTube describes living with a raven as like living with a narcissist or sociopath. The birds give the impression of having their own agenda, knowing more than they let on, and taking a somewhat caustic view of human behaviour: just like Grip.

Ravens usually live 10-15 years but can live up to 30 years in captivity... respectable, but not the stupendous age suggested by Dickens.

Ravens can "talk"; and in a deep human voice, which is very impressive. But they apparently can't acquire a broad vocabulary like budgerigars or mynah birds. (No raven on YouTube has more than a couple of phrases, it seems.) When they talk, they reproduce a specific human voice. Dickens never suggests that Grip speaks in Barnaby's voice, nor do his phrases ("I'm a devil!" "Polly put the kettle on") particularly suggest Barnaby. Dickens is perhaps suggesting that Grip, like Dickens' own ravens, had a history before he came to his current owner. The only vocabulary he learns during the novel's action ("No Popery") would have been declaimed by many voices. His adoption of that contentious slogan suggests general devilry, as well as satire.

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