Sunday, July 20, 2014

more pains have been taken to obviate the objections

In many of his poems, essays and lectures, Geoffrey Hill has let his readers or listeners know that he is haunted by the likelihood of “appearing a fool.” “To undertake any assessment of the meaning of value is to risk appearing a fool. To pronounce upon human values may expose one as an ethical charlatan,” he says in the second paragraph of his Rhetorics of Value. Aware of perfection, he feels himself falling short. He is obliged to let people know about it too – why – when he could have said nothing – he could have gone on with the essay and left those sentences out? Why obligation? Coetzee is dissatisfied when he senses a blank gap between the other arguments about Richardson's Clarissa but he is writing at the expense of strangers.

Richardson himself saw that the nine volumes of Clarissa had failed because people didn't comprehend every aspect of his mind, though he was praised and enriched, “and contemporary readers traveled to the Upper Flask, the tavern Clarissa and Lovelace stopped at in Hampstead” and the other author who had satirised him, Henry Fielding (who wrote his first novel because he was unhappy with Pamela), was rapturing in a letter, “Let the Overflowings of a Heart which you have filled brimfull speak for me” (October 15, 1748), still he was going to write his postscript to answer his failure.

The more pains have been taken to obviate the objections arising from the notion of Poetical Justice, as the doctrine built upon it had obtained general credit among us; and as it must be confessed to have the appearance of humanity and good-nature for its supports. And yet the writer of the History of Clarissa is humbly of opinion, that he might have been excused referring to them for the vindication of his Catastrophe, even by those who are advocates for the contrary opinion; since the notion of Poetical Justice, founded on the modern rules, has hardly ever been more strictly observed in works of this nature, than in the present performance.

Dissatisfaction is a fuelling force, so Ruskin believes when he tells his students in The Elements of Drawing to start by shading a tiny strip of paper; they should need nothing more than this to show them how bad they are. “By getting a piece of gray shaded ribbon, and comparing it with your drawing, you may arrive, in early stages of your work, at a wholesome dissatisfaction with it.”

Widen your band little by little as you get more skillful, so as to give the gradation more lateral space, and accustom yourself at the same time to look for gradated spaces in Nature. The sky is the largest and the most beautiful; watch it at twilight, after the sun is down, and try to consider each pane of glass in the window you look through as a piece of paper colored blue, or gray, or purple, as it happens to be, and observe how quietly and continuously the gradation extends over the space in the window, of one or two feet square. Observe the shades on the outside and inside of a common white cup or bowl, which make it look round and hollow; and then on folds of white drapery; and thus gradually you will be led to observe the more subtle transitions of the light as it increases or declines on flat surfaces. At last, when your eye gets keen and true, you will see gradation on everything in Nature.

By this formula, dissatisfaction is not a key to knowledge, it is the key to the state of humility that will keep you calm and quiet so that knowledge can come in, but what if the dissatisfaction doesn't stop, I wonder. It is not a car, it is not a bus, it doesn't have a route on a timetable with a start and stop point; and what if it burns on and burns on like a coal seam – then Ruskin is – deciding that the fuel will burn anyway, so cook something while you're there.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

garlands ye have

Bathgate wants to be understood as well, but he is not like them – in what way? he expects comprehension as well as wanting it -- he is not like the artist that Ruskin describes when he writes about Lord Lindsay's Christian Art in 1847: “we are critically aware of all our deficiencies, too cognizant of of all that is greatest to pass willingly and humbly through the stages that rise to it, and oppressed in every honest effort by the bitter sense of inferiority.” Hill, after quoting Shakespeare at the podium in 2012 or 2013, stops and wishes, out loud, that he had a modicum of talent. On another afternoon he imagines dead writers judging him whenever he gets sloppy. “We are now aroused suddenly in the light of an intolerable day,” says Ruskin, “our limbs fall under the sunstroke – we are walled in by the great buildings of elder times, and their fierce reverberations fall upon us without pause.”

Bathgate feels the dead benevolently in The Clematis, he accepts the poetic language that they have passed to him, “garlands ye have,” “methinks thou dost,” “thee to show thy;” and he believes in the concord that concludes so many poems and books (until the history of writing in the English language could be described as a row of open clasps being spied and fastened – or the struggle for an ultimate representation of Leopardi's translated word, appropriate), the passage of summing-up and unity that Samuel Richardson's books will carry on for pages and pages, the dramatic climax of Pamela occurring just over half way through the story, the rest of the book dedicated to the rapprochement of the characters and the establishment of rules, followed by more issue in which lessons from the narrative are explained efficiently, so that the reader knows what they were expected to have deduced; everything has been concluded now, even their deductions, a state that Hill's later poems avoid, the last line of The Triumph of Love suggesting that nothing has changed except the vital and tiny presence of a solitary comma, which could be understood in different ways.

Richardson's own books have been understood in different ways, in spite of him, with the critics ignoring his notes whenever they feel like it and trekking implacably to their own conclusions. “Clarissa is read as a novel about violability and violation, about the rights of the self to self-determination. I will be approaching Clarissa from a different angle ...” (J.M. Coetzee, Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, from Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986 – 1999, referring to a specific area of critical consensus that was current during the 1980s ...)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

the 'world' in general understanding

I was going to write something about Bertram Stevens and singing next but Miguel of St Orberose brings up a point in the comments – I reword it into a question like this -- Is it wrong-headed to compare old poets, who are adhering to the aesthetics of their times, to new poets? I was wondering similarly while I was writing the last post but the word I used when I was talking to myself was fair. Was it fair? Strange fairness when one party had died and the other one would never know; this was fairness being acted out for the living and the present people, who would maybe feel it transmitted into themselves through the medium of correct and balanced feelings or emotional sniffer dogs implanted early and reinforced.

Incoherence, though; I was approaching Bathgate through the word incoherence, which had come into my head when I was re-reading that old interview with Geoffrey Hill.

Incoherence (I considered) is eternally available to everyone and the year 1889, which was the publication of The Clematis* would not have forbidden incoherence, the 1800s being so hectic in the Anglosphere and Ruskin breaking down, even at the end of Praeterita when he is pointing out the quiet and peacefulness; still he is not quiet and peaceful but must worry back over what he has written: “… totally above men of the 'world' in general understanding, courtesy, and moral sense. Men of the outer world, I mean, of course ...” -- joking a little but still craving in general to be understood both at the atomic level of a single word and in the overarching meaning, which he complained nobody got, and instead they pulled quotes out of his books and showed them around, saying they were beautiful. I do not want to be beautiful, he wrote. I want to be meaningful. But Oscar Wilde defended him after his death by writing

Who cares whether Mr. Ruskin’s views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and majestic prose of his, so fervid and so fiery coloured in its noble eloquence, so rich in its symphonic music, so sure and certain, at its best in subtle choice of word and epithet, is at least as great a work of art as any of those sunsets that bleach or rot on their corrupted canvases in England’s gallery ...

The dirt world would not understand him either and his ditch did not work.

This is Hill's habit too, in lectures and poems, this way of picking back over a word he has used, this restless irritation, stung by words as if they are insects he has sat on, he goes, he has to scratch, but he has to sit down in the grass again too, he sits, he gets bitten, he quotes the OED, he sits down again and has to get up again. He will never be able to settle comfortably on a word and rest there like a man on a soft cushion. The dead are misunderstood as well, he worries. They are ignored. Very much like words in that respect. People assume their compliance without asking.

Somebody should make a list of writers whose clarifying nitpicks are also a style, eg

Robert Burton?

* I've just ("just" is at ten forty-five, the morning after I made this post) read a review of Bathgate's Clematis book, Far South Fancies, in an edition of The Literary World (July 19, 1890). The reviewer's opinion in a nutshell: "So far as the human element in them [the poems] is concerned, they are of little value [...] But Mr Bathgate has an eye for scenery."

Thursday, July 10, 2014

this by others is descried

The first line of Hill's first published book (unless I've got this wrong) was, “Against the burly air I strode,” Genesis (1959), going on into more combat: “tough pig-headed salmon,” “triggered claw,” “fierce and unregenerate clay” “to ravage and redeem the world,” an atmosphere of struggle that almost does not exist in this Anthology of Australian Verse edited by Bertram Stevens, where the tone is usually the one in Michael's Personality, the authors easily acquiescing to their own ideas and language easily acquiescing to the authors.

Fair crown of stars of purest ray,
 Hung aloft on Mapau tree,
What floral beauties ye display,
 Stars of snowy purity.

(from The Clematis, by Alexander Bathgate)

Bathgate was a New Zealander. Stevens has decided to include poets from New Zealand for reasons that he doesn't explain. Proximity and small population seems to have connected them in his mind. “Australia was first settled by the British a little more than a century ago, so that we are still a young community. The present population, including that of New Zealand, is a little under five millions.” The Clematis exists in opposition to the spirit of Hill, who says, “I do feel that everything that I write is a kind of battle won—or lost—against silence and incoherence. And I think there is something naturally incoherent in me, just as I think there is probably something, at some level, anarchic, because the kind of obsessive concern I have with order in the early work is one that somebody has who feels all the time how endangered order is, and what a potential threat to order he is” (from an interview with the Paris Review.)

But Bathgate feels close to his opinion of the clematis flower, not incoherent or battling, he uses words for beauty, “fair,” “purest,” “snowy purity,” “stars,” without contradicting himself; the only opposition in the poem comes from the darkness of the mapau tree versus the brightness of the petals, “'mid sombre leaves.” Then he tells you that the deep colour of the tree is an asset for the little flower because it describes strength.

His strength, thy beauty, both unite
And form a picture to delight.

Next Bathgate reveals that he has been thinking of another union all along, and the perceptible union of the flower and the tree was a visible sign indicating the existence of other compatibilities, ones that can only be intuited; the minor troubles the clematis has faced (“weak stem“) were all temporary and solvable; each indicator of disunity was a false flag.

Fair flower, methinks thou dost afford
 Emblem of a perfect wife,
Whose work is hidden from the world,
 Till, perchance, her husband's life
Is by her influence beautified,
And this by others is descried.

What Bathgate sees is ultimately coherence and the poem moves into that coherence, it is coherent in its language, it does not contradict its own author, there is not “something naturally incoherent in me,” and order is not endangered – order exists in nature. It is there in the trees. “'It is not nature's way to be distraught.” (Hill, Expostulations on the Volcano (2012)) On the other hand “Words | Render us callous the fuller they ring” (ditto). Bathgate assumes that his words are full.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

ever racked with ailments fresh

Michael agrees with Butler. “To choose what I must be is mine.” In other words, he will decide to maintain himself post-corpse by performing correctly “the deeds which we have done in the body.” He suggests obstacles to the easy achievement of those deeds, citing “this feeble frame, | For ever racked with ailments fresh” but in the next stanza he reveals that those problems have been introduced so that they can be argued into smaller importance. “This is not I.” (“I” at some points in the poem is neither the physical body nor the personality – since the personality can be estranged from it – but I think this is the fault of semantics rather than metaphysics.)

Geoffrey Hill, in his Tanner lectures, has another point of view, different but likewise rooted in a Christianised culture: “the nature that is most intimately mine” (which I believe corresponds to Michael's notion of “personality”) is necessarily penetrated and corrupt; it is not so free of its physical existence.

My language is in me and is me; even as I, inescapably, am a minuscule part of the general semantics of the nation; and as the nature of the State has involved itself in the nature that is most intimately mine.

If it is “intimately mine” then the simple solution that Michael proposes in his poem – when you discard the body in death you are discarding everything that isn't you – is being questioned. But it depends. How intimate is Hill's intimately? How intimate do you want it to be? To get rid of that question you could say, “Not as intimate as that.”

If Michael, static in the afterlife, has discovered that he was right, then is he reading Hill's oeuvre -- which has been in a condition of struggle from the first line of the first poem in his first published book -- and muttering, “Geoff, Geoff, what a waste of time”?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

as sheep were placed where there ought to be sheep

The evidence that both Michael and Powys present, for the survival of “personality,” is the same evidence, which is intransigence, or else desire, and also both: my personality is “vital” and “loving,” it belongs to me, and therefore it “must last” or else the universe is fundamentally wrong. As if extinction is the moral flaw of existence, or as though death is a burglar who can be told that it is wrong to steal, or as if the afterlife can be bullied or reasoned with, or have its arm twisted.

Michael associates fairness with the existence of a God. Powys doesn't. God exists in the posthumous Powys books but he behaves like another human character with moods and depressions, not like the ineffable Christian god; he is closer to a Greek or Roman god.

The character from Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian believes that the character of the post-death personality will depend on the activity of the body prior to its death.

"For ever! -- we are not -- we cannot be lost for ever," said Butler, looking upward; "death is to us change, not consummation; and the commencement of a new existence, corresponding in character to the deeds which we have done in the body."

Butler doesn't doubt that he knows the nature of the being that will pass judgment on that correspondence. This is the same voice that approves of the Highland Clearances in H.H. Dixon's Field and Fern (1865) by calling them “wholesome and right, as sheep were placed where there ought to be sheep, and men where there ought to be men.” It is the tone of the person who knows how winning is done.

Winning, for Butler and for Dixon, is is accomplished through the rhythmic and symmetrical sense of form that the translator of my Buddenbrooks calls “a triumph of style” when he recognises it in Thomas Mann.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

make me new or strange

I was thinking about that last post when I opened An Anthology of Australian Verse (1906, ed. Bertram Stevens), and read until I came to James Lionel Michael's poem Personality (1858), which begins and ends with the same stanza:

A change! no, surely, not a change,
 The change must be before we die;
Death may confer a wider range,
 From pole to pole, from sea to sky,
It cannot make me new or strange
 To mine own Personality!

Ten years later he had a chance to find out whether he was right or not when they discovered him floating in the Clarence River near Grafton. He is responding to a fragment of a line from The Heart of Midlothian, "Death is to us change, not consummation,” which he quotes for a preface. The rest of the poem is an elaboration on, but not a development of, the same theme. “This vital spark — this loving soul, | Must last for ever and for ever.” What struck me was the close overlap between the last four lines of that stanza, the beliefs of Therese Weichbrodt, and the ideas of John Cowper Powys in his posthumous novellas, where the characters have a “wider range” conferred on them, and in which death can't estrange anybody from his or her personality except in unique circumstances, eg, the supernatural destruction of the universe.

It's possible that Tony Buddenbrooks would be a heroic character in a Powys novel, and the quality in her that Powys would valorise – her adherence to her own personality – is the one that Mann describes when he wants to reinforce the idea that she is ignorant.

Her strongly developed family sense was instinctively hostile to conceptions of free will and self-development; it inclined her rather to recognise and accept her own characteristics wholesale, with fatalistic indifference and toleration. She had, unconsciously, the feeling that any trait of hers, no matter of what kind, was family tradition and therefore worthy of respect.

The challenge for her in a Powys book would be to keep that stubborn dumbness and separate herself from her family (cf. Porius, Wolf Solent) – but the heavily moored ignorance – would be respected – would be defended – if it kept her in a condition that the author could describe as “herself” -- because intelligence in a Powys book is not more important than that unique triangulation of the will.

(Note: the struggle of the title character, in Porius, to carry out the extroverted actions that seem necessary because he was born into a position of responsible authority, as well as the long, deep, lonely introversions that he needs or else he will lose "himself.")