Thursday, November 27, 2014

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Strange Fits of Passion (1799)

Upon the moon I fixed my eye,
All over the wide lea;
With quickening pace my horse drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.

And now we reached the orchard plot;
And, as we climbed the hill,
The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot
Came near, and nearer still.

Wordsworth wrote the Lucy poems while in Germany.

The moon sets every day, but we don’t often see it do so. Canonical literature, so loquacious about sunsets, virtually ignores the existence of moonsets, except in this poem.

We usually notice the moon when it’s full, and the big (or apparently big) moonrise that occurs soon after sunset is often remarked on. But a moonset near the full would occur near dawn, the coldest part of the night when (at least in temperate climes) we tend to sleep on, and even if we’re out and about the spectacle is usually lost in the mist. The little white ghost of a waning moon is hardly ever noticed when it sets during the hours of daylight. The most impressive moonset I've seen was a lazy moon on a cold winter night which became yellower and bigger, and finally just after midnight a smoky red as it dropped into the west. So rarely have I noticed a moonset in my fifty years that it hadn't really occurred to me that the setting moon must often go through the same colour changes as the setting sun.

If the moon is going to set earlier in the evening, not too many hours after sunset, it must be a brand-new sliver of a moon, which is probably not what most readers envisage while they're reading this poem.

However, the hill makes a difference. After crossing the “wide lea” westwards, with the moon spreading its light, Wordsworth’s lover starts to ascend rather sharply, and “Lucy’s cot” is on a ridge. Thus the moon could seem to “set” when still comparatively high in the sky. Wordsworth had often noticed the sharpness of Lakeland’s high night-horizons, and e.g. famously written of how “the stars moved along the edges of the hills”.

My horse moved on; hoof after hoof
He raised, and never stopped:
When down behind the cottage roof,
At once, the bright moon dropped.

To realize the emotional charge of this, it’s worth going out on a suitable clear evening and making it happen. The roof should be quite close, perhaps less than a hundred meters away; it happens just as the lover arrives. The moon falls “at once” because it is the lover’s relatively rapid approach, not the moon’s own descent, that causes it to drop out of sight. In those nights without any streetlights, the instantaneous change in the light would have been dramatic. If you are suitably sensitized, it still can cause a shiver.   

The Excursion (1814)

The Excursion was not well received, and although Wordsworth continued to write prolifically for another thirty years, he would never again write a poem that was so plainly meant to epitomize the solid work of a poet now entering on the “years that bring the philosophic mind”. The first and last parts of the projected magnum opus that was to have been called The Recluse never emerged. Perhaps he was appalled by Coleridge’s eventual response to The Excursion, which consisted of nothing but an outline of what he, Coleridge, would have liked the poem to contain. The Recluse had been their dreamchild, but the two were now miles apart in their conceptions, and Coleridge’s uncompromisingly philosophical recipe looks like a splenetic outburst; he must have known Wordsworth would hate it.

Sooner or later you have to attempt The Excursion, though not until you’ve read The Prelude at least twice. But I don’t mean Book I of The Excursion, which incorporates an earlier poem, The Ruined Cottage, that ought to come near the top of anyone’s Wordsworth reading list.

The Ruined Cottage is a desperately sad narrative, an undramatic tragedy in the vein of Michael that charts the slow decline of a once-happy family through the ordinary reverses of poverty. After a brief and placid introduction the first blows are announced with such restraint that it is at first hard to understand them for what they are:

Not twenty years ago, but you I think
Can scarcely bear it now in mind, there came
Two blighting seasons when the fields were left
With half a harvest. It pleased Heaven to add
A worse affliction in the plague of war...  (I, 535-39)

It is Margaret, the wife, with whom the Wanderer sympathizes. The decline of her husband is described therefore with a certain moral distance in the Wanderer’s voice; what he is thinking about, and what we register painfully, is the effect of this decline on her:

A sad reverse it was for him who long
Had filled with plenty, and possessed in peace,
This lonely Cottage. At the door he stood,
And whistled many a snatch of merry tunes
That had no mirth in them; or with his knife
Carved uncouth figures on the heads of sticks –
Then, not less idly, sought, through every nook
In house or garden, any casual work
Of use or ornament; and with a strange,
Amusing, yet uneasy, novelty,
He mingled, where he might, the various tasks
Of summer, autumn, winter, and of spring.
But this endured not; his good humour soon
Became a weight in which no pleasure was:
And poverty brought on a petted mood
And a sore temper: day by day he drooped,
And he would leave his work – and to the town
Would turn without an errand his slack steps;
Or wander here and there among the fields.
One while he would speak lightly of his babes,
And with a cruel tongue: at other times
He tossed them with a false unnatural joy:
And ‘twas a rueful thing to see the looks
Of the poor innocent children...     (I, 566-89)

No wonder Wordsworth (who is the listener here) feels how “A heart-felt chillness crept along my veins...” (I, 619).

The rest of the story is structured around the intermittent visits of the Wanderer to Margaret, the time-gap between each one being actively menacing (as in Chekhov’s story The Trousseau). Margaret’s husband eventually disappears; he joins a band of troopers and is never heard of again. The elder child is apprenticed far away. Margaret becomes obsessed with the idea of her husband’s return; it seems to her that with this event her real life would resume. In the mean time everything is neglected. Her infant dies, and after nine years of lingering she too passes away.

So far we are united with the Wanderer and with Wordsworth in their grief. We may not feel so sure about the Wanderer’s consolatory conclusion. First he says:

Yet still
She loved this wretched spot, nor would for worlds
Have parted hence; and still that length of road,
And this rude bench, one torturing hope endeared,
Fast rooted at her heart. (I, 910-14)

Was this attachment to the spot a good thing, I wonder? Had it been less, might Margaret have been able to live again? In fact, with repeated readings, I have come to think that the Wanderer recognizes the force of these questions, but sees further than them – sees that people do get trapped in their own patterns, and usually can’t break away from loves that destroy them, but that we ought to accept and revere these loves anyway, because they are the real person – the Margaret – that we know. How Margaret stayed rooted to her wretched spot, was how, fearfully damaged, she could make beauty. To express what should be is also to refuse a communion with what is; preaching displaces listening.   

Then he speaks of what she had felt even in her worst distress, “The unbounded might of prayer”. But it seems the “unbounded might” extended only to consolation, not to redress – so how boundless is that?

And then, there is stillness now: “She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here.” The thought sparks an odd memory:

I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silvered o’er,
As once I passed, into my heart conveyed
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
That what we feel of sorrow and despair
From ruin and from change, and all the grief
That passing shows of Being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream, that could maintain,
Nowhere, dominion o’er the enlightened spirit
Whose meditative sympathies repose
Upon the breast of Faith. I turned away,
And walked along my road in happiness. (I, 942-56)

Well for you! we might respond. “The passing shows of Being”... but isn’t that simply a way of saying everything that actually exists? If it now “appeared an idle dream”; well, one does become sleepy even after a terrible day. The talismanic “breast of Faith” seems to us to induce merely a counterfactual response to a disaster whose origin “pleased Heaven”. Reading The Excursion one constantly comes up against the stark disparity between what Wordsworth expects his readers to accept and the way we all now think.

In the 1814 Preface Wordsworth says hesitantly that “something of a dramatic form” is adopted. But “dramatic” gives a wrong idea of the pace of the poem. The four main speakers (the Wanderer, the poet, the Solitary and the Pastor) speak in effusions and apostrophes, like leaders of a Chorus. They are experienced men, indeed old men (the poet is the youngest). Though the Solitary introduces the possibility of conflict in Books II-III he too will gradually become a participant in the flow of contemplation that finally debouches (pleasingly, I think) into the family outing with the pastor’s wife and children that constitutes Book IX’s tranquil sea.

But when we first encounter the Solitary he jars on this consensual music.

“That poor man taken hence today,” replied
The Solitary, with a faint sarcastic smile
Which did not please me, “must be deemed, I fear,
Of the unblest...” (II, 593-96)

What he says here affects us, at first, not so much as a conflict of values as of manners; it makes short work of what we have just been listening to, the Wanderer’s effusion on the beauty of rural funerals. The Solitary, in more detail, proceeds to describe a far-from-idyllic rural community in which self-interest is conspicuously emphasized. In the midst of this narrative (and with a painfully incongruous relation to its context), the Solitary describes a revelatory scene above the mist (II, 830-81), something that Wordsworth had lingered on as early as in the Descriptive Sketches of 1793 (491ff. in the original version, 405ff. in the revision), and most famously in the scene on Snowdon at the beginning of the final book of The Prelude. These comparisons, however, draw attention to the particular features of the Solitary’s description; it is far from serene. Jumbled, confused and overwrought, it issues in a scalding anguish and a wish for death. The recollection of the scene makes him want to get drunk.

In Book III the sainted Wanderer (an “unmarked case” if ever there was one), coming upon an impressive scene of scattered rocks, is inspired to make his (not unexpected) apostrophe to Contemplation. The Solitary delivers his criticism: such exaltation is subjective. The same scene does not fill him with grateful outpourings, though it might have done so in the thoughtless days of happiness before the death of his wife and children. With a certain malicious enjoyment the Solitary unfavourably compares this Contemplation even with the concrete, though trivial, objects of the grubbing botanist and the chipping geologist. For him the place with the scattered rocks (which is certainly potent) generates only despondent thoughts of a wasted life and ill memories of his own bad decisions. Though the Solitary’s unhappy history and loss of faith clearly mark him, in the eyes of Wordsworth and his audience, as an unreliable commentator, his attack is directed squarely at the heart of The Excursion’s modus operandi, indeed at much of Wordsworth’s major poetry. Does nature merely reflect our own moods?

But the Solitary, like all the other major speakers in The Excursion, represents a portion of Wordsworth’s own thoughts. He directly voices some of Wordsworth’s recent experience of bereavement (see below); and his turmoiled, self-disgusted narrative undoubtedly reflects some painful soul-searching on the part of the poet. The Solitary in the contented years of his marriage, and earlier, had also been a contemplator of nature, as serious as Wordsworth. But his account of all this is now riddled with awkwardnesses of tone that persistently question the value of contemplative experience. For example, he says parenthetically:

            (Not as an intellectual game pursued
            With curious subtilty, from wish to cheat
            Irksome sensations; but by love of truth
            Urged on, or haply by intense delight
            In feeding thought, wherever thought could feed)  (III, 285-89)

In opposition to the surface sense, the negative words come thick and fast: game, curious, subtilty, cheat, Irksome. And what is not denied, the feeding, carries an implicit suggestion of self-indulgence.

When the Solitary reverts to his recent vision above the mists, he brings a yet heavier charge. This susceptibility to nature, he now asserts, leads not to illumination but to dazzlement (III, 716-722); he connects it with his own sorry story of a wild enthusiasm for the revolution in France, and of the increasingly desperate behaviour that he resorted to in the attempt to sustain it. Finally, his tale pursues another false path: in America he had tried to assume the role of a detached observer, but natural magnificence is found to be void of any value to someone who feels only condemnation of the raw human society that he witnesses. Far from coming to his aid, Contemplation merely skulks. It is reduced to an automatic but insignificant register of bird-song.     

In response, the Wanderer’s immediate references (at the start of Book IV) are to Faith, and also to Duty, that new touchstone that Wordsworth had proposed with such inspiring directness in the Ode to Duty (1805). Through slow circlings Book IV unfolds as a review of what Wordsworthian contemplation means. The Wanderer persuades us at some length that these contemplative engagements with the forms of Nature are true insights; his eventual (and less unbending) recipe for the Solitary’s despondency is to share in their exploration:

Then trust yourself abroad
To range her blooming bowers, and spacious fields,
Where on the labours of the happy throng
She smiles, including in her wide embrace
City, and town, and tower, - and sea with ships
Sprinkled; - be our Companion while we track
Her rivers populous with gliding life;
While, free as air, o’er printless sands we march,
Or pierce the gloom of her majestic woods;
Roaming, or resting under grateful shade
In peace and meditative cheerfulness;
Where living things, and things inanimate
Do speak, at Heaven’s command, to eye and ear,
And speak to social reason’s inner sense
With inarticulate language. (IV, 1193-1207)

This “inarticulate language” must, so we are urged, issue in “the joy of that pure principle of love”. And as for “Science” (alluding to the Solitary’s botanist and geologist),

            taught with patient interest to watch
The processes of things, and serve the cause
Of order and distinctness, not for this
Shall it forget that its most noble use,
Its most illustrious province, must be found
In furnishing clear guidance, a support
Not treacherous, to the mind’s excursive power.
– So build we up the Being that we are;
Thus deeply drinking-in the soul of things,
We shall be wise perforce... (IV, 1257-66)

When the Wanderer speaks of “Some acceptable lesson ... Of human suffering, or of human joy”, we may uneasily recall some of the questions raised by the ending of The Ruined Cottage. “Philanthropy” and “moral purposes” play a larger part in this intellectual structure than had been claimed in – say – Tintern Abbey (1798). The soul-searching review reflected in the Solitary’s narrative has led to a certain modification in Wordsworth’s thought; he now needs to call on Faith and Duty as expedients in order to save the appearances of the fundamental dogma that he cannot question, namely the value of his experience of nature. But now that the full significance of that title, The Excursion, is manifest, I don’t think we can call this a failure of insight. Wordsworth’s argument remains current. Something like this underlies what many people still consider the true, if inarticulate, purpose of those soul-journeys that we call “holidays”; they are not just about leisure. 

Wordsworth’s poetry is, more than most of our classical poetry, an open window. It points outwards, away from literature and towards some reorientation of our own lives (even if this only means a walk in the Lake District). This is one of the places (but there are many) at which it does so urgently: The Excursion is a serious call for those entering their middle years. I should perhaps add personally, that Wordsworth more than any other poet that I can think of seems to influence my own life in rather direct ways. In practice I take it for granted that an apprehension of nature is an undiluted communication with whatever it is that “really matters”, and my commonplace everyday decisions are influenced by this uninspected belief; as also such not-so-commonplace matters as my choice of companions and choice of life. It’s true, this is what I was going to do anyway; I don’t think to myself:

Hmm, now what would Wordsworth say about this?...

But “what I was going to do anyway” just demonstrates that I’m a follower; though the channels must be tortuous by which his vision trickled through grandparents and parents, rectors and teachers, into me. Much gets muddied in those unconscious descents from person to person; then a direct inflow from the source re-purifies it. Or does it stir it up and make it all the more muddy?

The “source”...  Oh, I see.  You mean Wordsworth.

No, I mean Nature, of course!

The Solitary puts his finger on one great problem with Wordsworthian contemplation; it is not transferable. If I happen to experience it, what value can that have for you? My experience is inarticulate and inexpressible. But what then justifies the centrality of contemplation in Wordsworth’s scheme? He has a difficulty that pulls him in two separate directions. For contemplation to have a credible social significance it has to be a common experience; and Wordsworth likes to portray several people sharing reactions to a single moment, as e.g. the sunset in Book IX of The Excursion (“While from the grassy mountain’s open side / We gazed, in silence hushed...”). But on the other hand, the convincingly transcendent value that Wordsworth attributes to the experience depends on its rarity. The touristic conception of an “excursion” (I mean in its more mundane sense) is in fact one way of resolving this conundrum. By getting out of our road we find a way of experiencing natural phenomena that are in themselves common but nevertheless do not seem commonplace. But the costs of mass tourism provide a troublingly ironic commentary on the pursuit of nature’s sensations, as Wordsworth himself was well aware and from which, in the sniffy spirit of those modern guidebooks that pour scorn on cheap resorts, he tried unpersuasively to distance himself.


Books III and IV are the most rewarding part of the Excursion, though some readers may feel repelled by the magnificent reproof of that subtitle, Despondency Corrected. Here we can witness how a determination to appraise his own raw experience, to sift it, leads him inexorably towards matters of motivation, behaviour, delusion and doubt; how things are instanced. I am finding it impossible to avoid the glamorous appeal of a crude generalization: in The Excursion  Romantic poetry is transformed, for better and worse, into Victorian poetry. In truth this is scarcely worth saying; it is more useful to say that (for perhaps the last time in his long career) Wordsworth is fully stretched by his material. The upshot is writing such as this:

                  high or low appeared no trace
Of motion, save the water that descended,
Diffused adown that barrier of steep rock,
And softly creeping, like a breath of air,
Such as is sometimes seen, and hardly seen,
To brush the still breast of a crystal lake.   (III, 68-73)

Within the soul a faculty abides,
That with interpositions, which would hide
And darken, so can deal that they become
Contingencies of pomp; and serve to exalt
Her native brightness. As the ample moon,
In the deep stillness of a summer even
Rising behind a thick and lofty grove,
Burns, like an unconsuming fire of light,
In the green trees;                           (IV, 1058-66)

Books V-VII are less demanding fare. They revolve around the churchyard in a neighbouring vale and they narrate, mostly in the words of the Pastor, the stories of villagers past and present. Books VIII and IX become interesting again, as Wordsworth dwells on the changes seen in his own time. Industry and incipient urbanism, the first steps in the ever-widening separation of humans from nature, are critical matters for him and for anyone who shares his vision, however muddily. His deepest insights are not those that he expresses openly but what is implicit in lines such as this:

                                                Hence that sum
            Of keels that rest within her crowded ports,
            Or ride at anchor in her sounds and bays;
                                                                                                (VIII, 136-38)

This is Wordsworth’s muted report of the alienation (it can sometimes be exhilaration) that a traveller feels when witnessing only a snapshot of a whole lot of human activity going on at once without seeing any of the beginnings or the ends.

I should like to quote these lines, too. They are about what we now call light pollution.

                                    When soothing darkness spreads
            O’er hill and vale,” the Wanderer thus expressed
            His recollections, “and the punctual stars,
            While all things else are gathering to their homes,
            Advance, and in the firmament of heaven
            Glitter – but undisturbing, undisturbed;
            As if their silent company were charged
            With peaceful admonitions for the heart
            Of all-beholding Man, earth’s thoughtful lord;
            Then, in full many a region, once like this
            The assured domain of calm simplicity
            And pensive quiet, an unnatural light
            Prepared for never-resting Labour’s eyes
            Breaks from a many-windowed fabric huge;
            And at the appointed hour a bell is heard,
            Of harsher import than the curfew-knoll
            That spake the Norman Conqueror’s stern behest –
            A local summons to unceasing toil!
            Disgorged are now the ministers of day;
            And, as they issue from the illumined pile,
            A fresh band meets them, at the crowded door –
            And in the courts – and where the rumbling stream,
            That turns the multitude of dizzy wheels,
            Glares, like a troubled spirit, in its bed
            Among the rocks below.
                                                                                    (VIII, 156-80)

The poetry acknowledges that this scene, too, is nature. But it is a shock, and its might is comfortless.


Biographically The Excursion coincides with a desperate period of Wordsworth’s life. He had married Mary Hutchinson in October 1802; she became pregnant immediately and over the next eight years Mary bore five children. The couple’s sex-life, to judge from Wordsworth’s passionate letters, was intensely satisfying. But in 1812 they suffered the loss of two children; the four-year-old Catherine, their fourth, in June  and the six-year-old Thomas, their third, in December. Mary plunged into a long depression through 1813 and though the marriage was strong there were no more children. These painful events were reflected, above all, in the Solitary’s story in Book III, though Wordsworth soon expunged some of the more nakedly autobiographical references. His relocation to Rydal Mount, his acceptance of the government post, and his labours on The Excursion were all attempts to break with the past and move on.

Very few other poems were written in 1812-14. The famous sonnet Surprised by joy was written after Catherine’s death. Some transport of nature has moved the poet who automatically turns to share it with his favourite daughter; forgetting for a split-second that she is dead. His sense of loss is quickened; he loses Catherine for a second time. This natural grief is described self-critically by the Solitary in The Excursion (III, 686-95), while in Laodamia (1814) Wordsworth presents the theme of the loved one’s devastating return from a much more distanced perspective. This is a fine poem but a severe one in its conclusions. What began as a line of thought that helped him to come to terms with his own grief would lead eventually towards the pitiless uprightness of the Sonnets upon the Punishment of Death (1839-1840).

The inscription, Written with a Slate Pencil on a Stone, on the Side of the Mountain of Black Comb, was composed in 1813. Black Comb is described here and in several other poems as a summit notable for its large views. The poem begins to tell us about a geographical surveyor who spent some time on this mountain, no doubt because of its value as a vantage-point. Once, while working on his maps, he has a visitation of nature in the form of a sudden darkness, which deposits him in

                                               total gloom,
In which he sate alone, with unclosed eyes,
Upon the blinded mountain’s silent top!

What contemplation there may be in this experience is left unvoiced. Though Wordsworth here as elsewhere draws inspiration from the rapid changes of weather in the hills, this time he chooses to emphasize the engulfing of mist, rather than its dispersal, as the critical event. The poem leaves a powerful question-mark hanging over its human scene of measurement and labour. It was an insight that Wordsworth confined to the safety of an “occasional” poem.

[It is true, as I discovered when I went to Black Combe, that such unobstructed views are not an unmitigated blessing. There is no higher ground within ten miles, and the great things are the looping “terraqueous” coastline, and the distant views of the Cumbrian massif, Wales, Man, Scotland, perhaps even Ireland. It should be amazing. But unless the air is particularly clear, this is all too far off. On a fine cloudless day with a haze reducing visibility to three or four miles, I stood on the flattish summit and saw no view at all!]



Sunday, November 23, 2014

happy christmas

Abies nordmanniana

Christmas trees for sale in Asda. Someone had torn off a branchlet, which I eagerly salvaged.

When I was a child the Christmas tree both in Sweden and England was invariably Norway Spruce (Picea abies) and what people of my generation will fondly remember is pricking their fingers on the sharp needles, the difficulty of preventing the heavier baubles from slipping off the rather thin glossy foliage, and later sweeping up all those needles, which tend to fall off in the dessicated air of modern houses. Of course the Norway Spruce is also a much-loved component of the Nordic forest.

Anyway, the luxury Xmas tree of today, as seen here, is Caucasian Fir (Abies nordmanniana, sometimes called Nordmann Fir); the needles are stouter, pleasant to handle, and usually don't fall off. The labels say that you can plant the tree out when Christmas is over. I'm a bit sceptical about that, since most silver firs dislike town air, but apparently on basic soils it does better than Norway Spruce.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones (1749)

Tom (Albert Finney) and Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman) in the 1963 film of Tom Jones

Tom Jones (1749) was the most admired of eighteenth-century novels, at least by the English novelists of the nineteenth-century "great tradition", and it is still admired today (for example, by Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography). Yet it has not always proved easy to write about. This piece picks up from one of the classic essays, by William Empson in 1958 (it's on JStor).

In what I'm going to say there are spoilers from the outset, and I seriously urge you not to look at this if you're just embarking on a reading of Tom Jones. To prevent accidental contamination, there now follows a short advertising break!



On that afternoon [in May 2014] Germany generated 74 percent of its electric needs from renewable sources. (Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books)

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Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Coxwold-Gilling Gap

The view towards Kilburn White Horse. The Hambleton Hills in the distance, and the Howardians at our back.

This was on a walk from Kilburn to Byland Abbey on 9th August.

The Coxwold-Gilling Gap is a rift valley formed at the end of the Cretaceous period. The land fell 500-1000ft between the two parallel faults where the Hambleton and Howardian escarpments now face each other, about a mile and a quarter apart.
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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Hester Lynch Piozzi: Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson (1786)

Hester Lynch Piozzi in 1785-86, by an unknown Italian artist

[Image source: National Portrait Gallery]


1709  Samuel Johnson born
1735  Marries Elizabeth (Tetty) Jervis
1740/41 Hester Lynch Salusbury born
1746-55 Johnson’s Dictionary
1749   The Vanity of Human Wishes
1750-60 The Rambler, The Adventurer, The Idler
1752  Tetty Johnson dies
1759  Johnson’s mother dies. Rasselas
1763  Johnson meets James Boswell
1763  Hester marries Henry Thrale.
1765  Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare.
         Johnson meets the Thrales. A year later, he moves in with them.
1775  Journey to the Western Islands
1777-81 Lives of the Poets
1781  Henry Thrale dies
1783  Hester moves to Bath. Last meeting with Johnson (April).
1784  Hester marries Gabriel Piozzi (July). Death of Johnson (December).
1785  Hester writes Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson in Italy (Summer).
          Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.
1786  Anecdotes published.
1791  Boswell’s Life of Johnson
1809  Gabriel Piozzi dies
1821  Hester Piozzi dies

The main points arising from this chronology are as follows. Johnson was in his mid-fifties when he met the two young friends who did so much for him and who would become his chief biographers (Boswell and Hester Thrale disliked each other, by the way). His wife had died more than a decade earlier. The literary achievements that had established him were in the past; he was semi-retired. In another sense, his life may be said to have begun again. During the remaining twenty years of his life he lodged most of the time with the Thrales, in fact for most of each week throughout their marriage. Hester was usually pregnant; the Thrales had twelve children. Henry Thrale’s death, the burden of supporting an increasingly difficult Johnson, and his disapproval of the liaison with Piozzi, brought all this to an end. Hester’s life, in turn, began again. She was about 24 when she first met Johnson, and about 42 when they last saw each other.

She revered Johnson; he was always her friend; and she had nursed him through serious depressions. Still, her book is quite candid; there was something monstrous about him. At first his presence in the house (she calls it her confinement) was “terrifying”, towards the end “irksome”. Boswell tries to canonize him, portraying his prejudiced, bullying and often unintelligent conversation as if it was a dialogue in heaven.

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Alexander Pope (1688-1744):An Essay on Man

Alexander Pope in 1716, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller

[Image source: Philip Mould Historical Portraits, which describes how portraits of Pope concealed his bowed and crippled appearance.]

An Essay on Man in Four Epistles

[The epistles were published separately in 1733-34. Apparently written in 1730-31, but perhaps Pope deliberately gave them a Horatian three years to mature.]

The madness of superfluous health, says Pope in one of the chiding moments in the Essay on Man. There are rather too many chiding moments. The balance feels wrong. One did chide in such expository poems, Hesiod had done it, so had Lucretius, but Pope's lessons have not a sufficiently copious enthusiasm to excuse his lofty reproofs.  Go, wiser thou... Go wondrous creature... Fools! (he proceeds) thou fools ... Blind to truth... Cease then... - and much more in the same vein. This is not so much about enlightening the insanely healthy questioners as about telling them to shut their noise: Whatever is, is RIGHT. His paean to Order involves too much ordering people about.

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

John Gay: The Birth of the Squire (1720)

"Gay has all the gifts of a great poet except the highest intensity of passion and imagination", I read in one of those multi-volume paperback surveys of EngLit that were so popular thirty years ago. The writer (Charles Peake) seems to be inadvertently recalling Matthew Arnold on Chaucer, and indeed it's Chaucer who is bound to come to mind - not so much Chaucer's manner as, what is yet more unusual, some kinship in the vistas opened up by the poetry - when we read such lines as the following:

Beagles and spaniels round his cradle stand,
Kiss his moist lip and gently lick his hand;
He joys to hear the shrill horn's ecchoing sounds,
And learns to lisp the names of all the hounds.
With frothy ale to make his cup o-'er-flow,
Barley shall in paternal acres grow:
The bee shall sip the fragrant dew from the flow'rs,
To give metheglin for his morning hours;
For him the clustring hop shall climb the poles,
And his own orchard sparkle in his bowles.

This is early in the poem, when Gay is still, just about, doing what his subtitle claims: imitating the Pollio of Virgil (i.e. the fourth Eclogue). Hence the sentence beginning "With frothy ale" runs parallel with Virgil's prophecy of a golden age. Nor can the beauty of such a harvest be denied. [*see Note 2] Surely Pope learnt from here the prophetic music beginning "Another age shall see the golden Ear", that would end the Epistle to Burlington? Yet Pope's  "His father's acres who enjoys in peace" is as it were ironized in advance by Gay's vision, written ten years earlier, of a golden age requiring heroic capacities for all-day drinking on the part of its chief consumer. 

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Albert Camus: L'Étranger (1942)

Le Livre De Poche edition, jacket design by Lucien Fontanarosa 

[Image source: Alexis Orloff,]

A book that (as The Outsider, in Stuart Gilbert's translation) was on all our male youthful minds and bookshelves in the 1970s. In other words a classic Peng-gie Modern Classic, along with Gormenghast, The Glass Bead Game, etc.

(I think I studied it for French A-Level, along with Racine's Britannicus , Voltaire's Candide and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.)

 L'Étranger being so short and easy to read, is a good study-text for schools; you can still find out all about it in Shmoop and places like that. And it still gets plenty of discussion, though I've a feeling its moment has passed, that the urgency of the issues Camus intended to raise is less clear-cut than it was, and that on the other hand time has only tended to reinforce the issue of the book's quite primitive attitudes to women and to colonized "natives". In particular our awareness of and contacts with the Arab world have been completely overhauled since 9/11; westerners can no longer regard the Arab world as something separate. But as recently as 1980, when The Cure released an admired single called "Killing an Arab" (based on  L'Étranger), I was probably typical of British 21-year-olds in having only the smallest sense that this could possibly offend someone. I don't necessarily claim that modern sensitivities in the west are all 100% positive or well-directed, but I do think they mostly are and they've certainly changed how we think and feel, especially in the study. (Meanwhile in the real world, it remains unclear when the number of Arabs being killed by Westerners is going to stop accelerating.)

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Alain-René Le Sage (1668-1747): Gil Blas de Santillane

.... I therefore went in search of Doctor Sangrado, and brought him to the house. He was a tall, meagre, pale man, who had kept the shears of Clotho employed during forty years at least. This learned physician had a very solemn appearance, weighed his discourse, and gave an emphasis to his expressions: his reasoning was geometrical, and his opinions extremely singular.

After having observed the symptoms of my master’s disease, he said to him with a very physical air: “The business here is to supply the defect of perspiration, which is obstructed: others, in my place, would doubtless prescribe saline draughts, diuretics, diaphoretics, and such medicines as abound with mercury and sulphur; but cathartics and sudorifics are pernicious drugs, and all the preparations of chymistry are only calculated to do mischief: for my own part I practice a method more simple, and more sure. Pray, what is your ordinary diet?” – “My usual food,” replied the canon, “is broth and juicy meat.” –“Broth and juicy meat!” cried the doctor, surprised, “truly, I do not wonder to find you sick: such delicious victuals are poisoned pleasures and snares, which luxury spreads for mankind in order to ruin them the more effectually. You must renounce all palateable food: the most salutary is that which is most insipid: for as the blood is insipid, it requires such victuals as partake the most of its own nature. And do you drink wine?” added he. “Yes,” said the licentiate, “wine diluted.” –“O! diluted as much as you please,” replied the physician, “what an irregularity is here! what a frightful regimen! you ought to have been dead long ago. How old are you, pray?” –“I am going in my sixty-ninth year,” replied the canon. “Right,” said the physician, “an early old age is always the fruit of intemperance. If you had drunk nothing else than pure water all your life, and had been satisfied with simple nourishment, such as boiled apples, for example, you would not now be tormented with the gout, and all your limbs would perform their functions with ease. I do not despair, however, of setting you to rights again, provided you be wholly resigned to my directions.”

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

William Congreve: The Way of the World (1700)

William Congreve, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller

William Congreve (1670-1729) threw over his career as a dramatist at the age of thirty. The Epilogue to The Way of the World ends:

So poets oft, do in one piece expose
Whole belles assemblées of cocquets and beaux.

It was not so true of other poets as it was of him. The Way of the World soars above the details of its ingenious plot-line and even the real passion of its lovers - it creates an edifice of wit that none could match, and you feel this came easily to him, easily enough to cast aside after a disappointment.  

What single model, indeed, could deserve the honour of inspiring such a flight as Lady Wishfort's ever-more-salacious propriety?

But as I am a person, Sir Rowland, you must not attribute my yielding to any sinister appetite, or indigestion of widow-hood; nor impute my complacency to any lethargy of continence– I hope you do not think me prone to any iteration of nuptials––
Wait. Far be it from me––
Lady. If you do, I protest I must recede– or think that I have made a prostitution of decorums, but in the vehemence of compassion, and to save the life of a person of so much importance––
Wait. I esteem it so––
Lady. Or else you wrong my condescension––
Wait. I do not, I do not––
Lady. Indeed you do.
Wait. I do not, fair shrine of virtue.
Lady. If you think the least scruple of carnality was an ingredient––

The scene can only end by being interrupted. What coarse stuff "Malapropisms" must seem to be, after this.



John Dryden (1631 - 1700)

John Dryden (portrait by John Michael Wright, c. 1668)
[This recently identified painting was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 2009 (Image from ArtFund)]

Scattered notes written in 2001 and 2004...

Dryden’s Poems

January 2001. For the last four months or so I’ve been reading Dryden. It began with an accidental dip into the Auden/Pearson anthology of English poetry - a book my father acquired from a brief dalliance with Heron Books, a sort of classic book club. He passed it on to me when I began university twenty-five years ago. I’ve always used it, and it survived the purge of my library in 1996 - by choice not accident; I wanted to keep the canon by me.

So, I dipped in Volume III, my least-loved period in English verse. Then I wanted to read Absalom and Achitophel in full, so I went to Waterstone’s. There was no Dryden at all - I was astonished, and then of course hooked on the quest. A second-hand bookshop in Bath supplied further inadequate selections, eagerly devoured. Then came the Arthos selection, found in St Leonards on Sea; like all in the Signet series, generous and attractive. Finally the Oxford Poems, borrowed from Frome library, and - ordered from bookshop - the cheap Wordsworth volume - £2.99, and as complete as any.

[This curious hiatus of Drydens didn’t last; there are now, it seems, a mass of Selected Drydens in the shops (2002).]

Dryden is a poet who can’t quite be made to fit into a single volume. But after many years I can more or less claim that I have read another “complete” English poet, to add to Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Milton and Keats; but that was all a long time ago. It means more now; there’s less time. And I have really immersed: I feel like saying (as biographers do) “Dryden has been a good companion”. Indeed, I don’t want it to end. I have an eighteenth-century volume of Plutarch with an introductory Life by Dryden; his prose too is a fine thing – though somehow a bewilderingly different thing.

None of the books mentioned is really complete because there’s no Aeneid - though I have since discovered that this has an unexpectedly vigorous life on the Internet, since it’s invariably the translation used by those benefactors who have made Virgil available on their websites. I was at first misled into thinking that the bulky Oxford volume was complete but it’s a selection, pointedly excluding The Hind and the Panther. I appreciate the polemical gesture, but don’t really condone it; a poet’s original work, however unsatisfactory, must always supply a fuller idea of the writer than translations. And whether Hazlitt is right to say this, it is certainly a higly defensible claim, that  “it has more genius, vehemence, and strength of description that any other of Dryden’s works, not excepting the Absolom and Achitophel. It also contains the finest examples of varied and sounding versification...” You need The Hind and the Panther to sign off Dryden.  

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

another note on Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights - Naturalism

Penguin English Library jacket (1970s style) - turning a detail of Branwell's bad picture into an iconic image

[Branwell's painting of 1833-34, commonly referred to as the Gun portrait, showed himself and his three sisters. Emily was 15 or 16 at the time. Arthur Bell Nichols thought the portrait so poor (or so unworthy of his late wife Charlotte) that he destroyed it, retaining only the bit showing Emily, who had definitely come out the best. Nevertheless, her portrait is markedly improved by the cracks (which, for instance, make her nose look interestingly snub instead of characterlessly straight), but what above all transforms the effect is  the Penguin jacket-designer's crop.  This, by eliminating the back of Emily's head, conceals the Victorian sloping shoulder-line and the languid hair, and creates a much more forceful image. This woman, we're convinced, already has Wuthering Heights in her sights.]

This note is about David Daiches' 1965 Introduction to the Penguin English Library edition of Wuthering Heights.

And first some trivia.


1.  Professor Daiches was an interesting man - read his 2005 obituary in The Scotsman:

His surname (Jewish/Yiddish rather than Scottish) is pronounced  "day chiz"  or "die chiz". That's probably how you pronounced it already, but it's good to know..!


2.  Daiches (referring to an article by Thomas Moser, in which Heathcliff is identified with the Id) says:

This view involves an admission that the latter part of the book - Heathcliff's revenge and its final abandonment, the growth of love between the younger Catherine and a now-civilized Hareton - is inferior and indeed novelettish, the grafting on to the real novel of a conventional moral pattern ... etc etc. 

OED novelette, n. :

1. A story of moderate length having the characteristics of a novel. Now: a short, light, romantic, or sentimental novel (freq. depreciative).

These days the unusual word "novelette" is apparently still used in the world of writing competitions to refer to a fiction longer than a short story but shorter than a novella, i.e. 7,500 - 18,000 words, approximately.

But from the 1850s up until the late 1960s the principal meaning of "novelette" was derogatory. It referred to a class of books that were typified by sentimentality, triviality, and trite morality. They might be chauvinistically dismissed as reading material for young ladies or uneducated persons.  The novelette might be regarded as namby-pamby.  A typical example is A.A. Milne's send-up "The Seaside Novelette".

I suspect most "penny-novelettes" were pretty much the direct forebears of what my own generation called "Mills and Boon romances".

(On the other hand the word novelette could also be used to mean trashy genre fiction, e.g. a "pornographic novelette").

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

in the business park

I once wrote a post in which I extolled the botanical virtues of my local scruffy industrial estate. And maybe the message of today's post should be, Don't neglect the business park!

The business park environment can be characterized by ample, but highly manicured, green space; many trees and shrubs, often exotic, for reasons of privacy and low maintenance; often some freshwater features (artificial ponds); extensive tarmacked and paved areas. Sometimes the business park may include a "nature reserve" (there's one in mine) but that's a separate topic. In this post I am talking about the business park proper.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Metambesen - Robert Kelly etc

[This note, about a new US poetry PDF site, has now been moved to Intercapillary Space:


Random bonus Metambesen quote:

Refusing to define it. What comes against these other magics. That I do is
enough. From this center I react, train crawling north still above ground,
fog and rain trails, umbrella hat and rain-jacket soaked through. Rain from
the ground up.   (Tamas Panitz)

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer - Leyendas

The striking portrait of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer painted by his brother, Valeriano Domínguez Bécquer. An iconic image formerly used on 100-peseta notes.

This was my holiday reading, bought at a beachside bookstall on the Playa del Cura in Torrevieja (Alicante). My book contained only seven of the twenty-eight legends; I imagine from the attractively minimal apparatus that it was a booklet supplied free with some newspaper or other.

Leyendas (1860-65) is a well-known book in Spain, and a regular on the school curriculum; Becquer's stories have also been adapted for children.  It is a collection of romantic tales in the tradition of Hoffmann and Heine. Most of the stories feature the supernatural. Another implication of the title is that the author doesn't consider any of the stories to be true. This creates a fertile arena for literary artistry; in effect, these are early exercise in the use of an unreliable narrator, because the author's commitment to the material is always uncertain. The artistry co-exists happily with a healthy simplicity for the most part, but sometimes the ironies become more restive. Bécquer is also, of course, an important poet, his poems speaking with a kind of direct freshness that was then new in Spanish literature.

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scraps of a journey

Glebionis segetum in farmland

Corn Marigold (Glebionis segetum), a native of the E. Mediterranean, long since spread to arable land in the rest of Europe and historically once a serious weed;  apparently there are medieval Scottish laws about the farmer's duty to eradicate it.

I found this group a few days ago in farmland near Abbeville (Normandy) and, since they were reasonably far away from any dwelling, I supposed they might be - not native, of course, but - at least a "natural" occurrence of a genuine weed going about its weedy business. It's often difficult to be sure, because these pretty flowers are now often included in wild-flower-meadow seed-mixes and deliberately introduced into urban planting schemes; doubtless the origin of the stray plants I see in Swindon. Meanwhile, Corn Marigold had become quite local in its former arable haunts; some people link this to the modern practice of liming soil to lower its acidity.

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Monday, September 22, 2014


Dec ontufestamingge en lespid guarnic sospedacho al anche gruzura, anfitron es jeguiles dy Ana; bes cantua suprin, de fallem cin ye tojos infetjiles, arrohagarys luministry i harrabad carcules yn circla. Vano erminsty deo ur munkea frayly, dysw Quyrys yun iyer constaba.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

lazy journalism

I realize because I've done it that a lot of journalism is lazy, that's to say just researched at the desk by googling things. And this behaviour with its sometimes interesting but never verifiable findings is typical of the modern writer's lifestyle.

I think that's why every so often I write about nature. Even though much of what I say is still second-order information sourced from books or the internet, still the fact is that I did see the plants with my own eyes, and here's the photo to prove it.

Something was real. And it was that real contact that I wanted to report; but even then it isn't easy. To describe the real moment. So quite often I fall back on related material that I've read somewhere else. And I just hope that what I'm writing manages to convey some little breath of that true moment about which, so often,  I feel so tongue-tied.


What is a forest?  For me the idea contains reassuring elements of darkness and infinitude, that is, uncountableness.

Levin, of course, reproves his brother-in-law's vagueness. No, a forest isn't really infinite. A merchant always counts the trees before he buys.


I supposed I had no brothers. And indeed I don't. But when I listened to my first vocal overdub I was surprised by the effect it had on me. It sounded like I had brothers. We were singing a country song and we sounded like crooning cowboys.


Monday, August 04, 2014

Sir Walter Scott: Tales of a Grandfather, Marmion, etc.

[Original frontispiece of Tales of a Grandfather, Second Series as published by Cadell in 1829 (actually Nov 1828). From the Walter Scott Image Collection, Edinburgh University Library.]

A LONGER NOTE ON Tales of a Grandfather (1827-31) and The History of Scotland (1829)

Tales of a Grandfather is a history of Scotland up to 1745 - at least this is the bit that people usually talk about, and it equates to the first three series; there was a fourth series (1831) on French history, and an abandoned MS of a 5th series, continuing the French history. The abandonment may have been related to Master Littlejohn's death at ten years old.  He was the grandchild addressed in these volumes, though Scott didn't except in the early pages make much concession to infantile capacities. He does however dwell on memorable tales (even if legendary) and he steers clear of analysis. Until quite recently this was a widely-read book in Scotland; it makes a bizarre appearance in the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s Tomorrow Belongs to Me (1975) – Harvey (born in 1935) made a virtue of being older than other rock stars and of having access to forgotten things. The History of Scotland  (for the Cabinet Cyclopaedia) covers a briefer period, ending in 1603. This is harder to come by, but it makes better reading than the first series of TOAG, which covers the same ground. Both however are good books, if this kind of historical material interests you; in other words, wars, power-struggles, heroic and villainous deeds; not much about social or cultural matters.

On the assumption that even scholars are likely to leave these volumes unread, I’ll mention some passages that deserve attention. (TOAG is, however, currently in print as four paperback volumes with new titles.)

TOAG Chapter XXXIV (the first of the second series), is titled “Progress of Civilisation in Society”. It’s on such a theme that one gains from the clarity enforced on a writer who addresses a child. This is what most of Scott’s contemporaries thought, if they thought at all, but rarely had occasion to say: for example, about the origin and function of property, money, trade, social class and education. It’s interesting that Scott mentions peoples who did not know about boiling water (natives of New South Wales) or even making a fire (presumably the Tasmanians, at that time still in existence).

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