Wednesday, May 26, 2010

If this were Milton...

...there would be epic simile where that rock is:

She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan--
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct
Upreared its head. I struck, and struck again,
And, growing still in stature, the huge cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still
With measured motion, like a living thing
Strode after me.

-Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805), I.401-412

In other words, that "when" in line 405 would function differently, so as to elaborate something about how swans are when they are doing so and so. And we'd have no dash (or semicolon, in the 1850 version), but instead that wonderful Miltonic enjambment that can introduce thirty lines or so (sometimes more with a sublimely equivocal "or") extending the comparison. What's important, though, is that Wordsworth--quite perversely, really, as with everything in the epic, lyric preface to a poem that is The Prelude--indeed gives us all we would need for that Miltonic simile. All the complex qualifications by heaping up imagery are there. It's like he's gutted the Miltonic form, partly by shooting it through with continual touches of actual or anti-metaphoric action ("I struck and struck again"), and partly (or mostly) because all these aspects apply to the rock. That's what's so striking about "like a living thing": the ghost of the simile insists on some level that we should still be talking about the boat being like a swan when steals its way over water with measured motion, say, or when, from behind a craggy steep it glides, mounting the air, sailing smoothly aloft... And--in the final twist--Wordsworth is indeed doing this, since the measured motion is of course only the movement of his own rowing. But meanwhile the "living thing," has seemed both too obvious and too strange--or too strange precisely because, applied to the swan, it would have been too obvious. In other words, we shuttle between two metaphoric possibilities, one concrete and the other abstract: the first is due to the new tenor (the mountain), the other was called up not by the other tenor (boat) but by its huge and mighty form or gutted vehicle which should have been there (like an unbesotted, unspotted spot of time, like the impersonal form of time itself, like a "when"). And shuttling between them, moving through the concrete simile to the ghost of the other simile and its thwarted epic openness, is what causes the "living thing" to apply only strangely to the cliff. This is classic Wordsworth: what seems easy, even cheesy at first is actually doing a huge amount of work. More than that, it is allowing you to sink into the bits you naturally think are deeper: I doubt no one who reads this famous passage has any problem with "strode," however much they may balk at the commonplace "like a swan" and the almost banal (or at least horribly vague) "like a living thing." And I'm sure while reading it, they hit that inversion hard, and give themselves over to its wonderful lengthened "o"-sound, which lets them draw out the action of the cliff and give it that dark vitality. But these prosodic effects, which we might be quicker to accept as significant, are only substantial because of that subtle, almost hidden work those dismissed similes are doing. In fact, the passage is only read thoroughly and heard fully when, carried along by the rhythm and the first simile working together, we resist that temptation to pause and linger that the dash gives us at the beginning, and steal right over it, just as those who revel in the "strode" have to resist the temptation the spondee produces--for it turns out this was no mere inversion after all, but stress following stress--to move on after "me."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The mole

One of my favorite little bits of coiled, almost crushed verse (we speak of crushed ice, why not have two options for the poetry dispenser?) from Coleridge's lesser-read later writings: "The Mole." Coleridge extracted it from his cryptic little 1811 piece, "On the First Poem in Donne's Book" (which refers to "The Flea") to use in his Friend in 1818, to describe mechanical (that is,"crass and sensual") materialists, or, as he puts it, "the advocates of the Nihil nisi ab extra":

--They shrink in, as Moles
(Nature's mute monks, live mandrakes of the ground)
Creep back from Light--then listen for its sound;--
See but to dread, and dread they know not why--
The natural alien of their negative eye.

The compactness of this little fragment and the poems immediately written before and after it are often attributed precisely to Coleridge's unfashionable fascination and admiration for Donne (this is in the age of Johnson's "Life of Cowley"): in short the seem to people like a bit of metaphysical poetry in the Romantic age (and who better to write it than the Englishman most thoroughly steeped in metaphysics?). But I don't really think this bears much relationship to Donne, actually (and for the record, Shelley is much more "metaphysical" to me than Coleridge): the sort of compactness of this verse is not like Donne's at all, really, since that comes mostly--I'll hazard--from argument. In other words, in Donne, we have intensely compressed and suprising figures like this, but their effect is secured by what they do to the (also very compressed) argumentative structure of the poem--namely, punctuate it, interrupt it, twist it. They're like time bombs for the reader in the unfolding of the case being made. Coleridge's are--almost like Dickenson's, but less opaque and disturbing in a sort of immediate sense--internally intense: they take you away from the poem completely, into the metaphor or metonymy. They are time bombs for the reader, sticking in your head, incorporated but not digested (much like Wordsworth's poetry, but more intellectual). Thus what is like Donne, is Coleridge's play with the line, and the pitting of the line--and the parts of the line--against the poem as a whole. This however is put to a different end than Donne: it gives him the space needed for a fathomless metonymy or metaphor, not an argumentative turn or suprise. It also will restore some movement or speed to the poem, as one is forced on from line to line by the pounding beats that fit the polysyllables so well (too well--that is, they do it formally, not rhythmically). While this sometimes is indeed like Donne when these rhytmic units are smaller than the line and involve more rhetorical than metric effects, or when the two sharply reinforce each other ("mute monks" sounds very Donne-like), it is overall, if anything, an amazing Miltonic sort of effect (Milton's amazing ability to fill out the line with two or three words has this effect of Coleridge's shortening), and it chiefly produces that sort of forgetting necessary for the delayed intellectual effect that is so wonderful. Now, "The Moles" is a good example of this, but the most sublime (it is one of the most amazing things Coleridge ever wrote) is the first stanza in one of those poem composed almost immediately after (in 1811, that is: besides the following, they include "Limbo," and, "A Suicide's Argument"). I'll leave you with this, which was titled by Coleridge's son (Coleridge gave it no title) "Ne Plus Ultra":

Sole Positive of Night!
Antipathist of Light!
Fate's only essence! primal scorpion rod--
The one permitted opposite of God!--
Condensed blackness and abysmal storm
Compacted to one sceptre
Arms the Grasp enorm--
The Interceptor--

Sunday, May 16, 2010


A good article from a couple days ago that tries to reclaim the word social from Facebook. It reads, however, like someone asking us to go back to Web 2.0 (and thus the Google websearch is idealized as open, when it arguably isn't). While I myself miss Web 1.0 (that wonderful, stupid, experimental time where we had so many web pages like Homer Simpson's), this means we've probably actually really entered the age of Web 3.0, and are now realizing what it is: when all information on the web has effectively and perversely become socialized by corporations, so that it becomes something other than information--a product recommendation. Promising, though, is that we are now wondering whether the word social is being used any substantive sense by these corporations. It certianly jars with experience: if Facebook is the attempt to resolve the public/private paradox in the use of the increasingly corporatized web, it certainly doesn't seem intuitive, since its vision of what counts as interaction is so unbelievably narrow (narrower, it seems, even than networking).

Friday, May 14, 2010

Literature aloud

For some reason I've been absolutely addicted to audiobooks lately. It started with Tristram Shandy, which I was rereading but realized I didn't quite have the time to go all the way through again. Then I stumbled upon Peter Barker's unbeleviably excellent recording. It is ridiculously inexpensive ($7!!!), since it is in the (still excellent) "Great Literary Classics" series made by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, but that's not only why you should check it out. I generally am suspicious of the full-on dramatization in the reading of literary texts, or the playing up of characters at the expense of something like a narrative voice (I don't speak here of actual dramatizations, which are quite amazing alternatives to TV or Film adaptations--I'll recommend a couple below). Except in some very special cases--namely, the indescribably wonderful readings of Harry Potter by the inimitable Stephen Fry, and what is (to me) simply the most hilariously absurd satire ever written, Wigfield, by Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and Paul Dinello--because I am a literary critic, I want the tonelessness of the page (or, rather, its multiple tonalities) somewhat available to me at all times, and that is the first thing to go when this sort of thing happens. But if there is any one text that repays this sort of work, it is Tristram, since the text itself is already cut up so much into so many voices that it becomes almost impossible to read silently straight through. In short, much is actually lost in the silence, and Barker brings it all (and more) back. It feels like a different book, in all the best ways--and is all the more hilarious. All the other recordings of Shandy, as well, don't even compare with this one (though looking at them all, you can see Sterne has had a better audio fate than other authors).

I have been looking for the best Austen recording lately, but I'm still not satisfied with what is out there. I will venture to say the "Great Literary Classics" Emma by Richard Baker isn't bad, Anne Flosnik's is somewhat better, while the Juliet Stevenson's Emma is the best. Fascinatingly, Jeremy Northam who played Knightly in the popular Paltrow movie adaptation, reads a version which is actually really, really good--though abridged (blech!). I will say Flo Gibson's Pride and Prejudice is a little too quick for me--you don't get the unbelievable balance (or telling imbalance) of Austen's prose when you go that quick.

But all that is prose. It's quite a different thing to listen to poetry--and not just in a live reading, but in a recorded version. For, strangely, the temptation is even greater here to work up these wonderful lines into something like drama, which makes them fall so very flat for me: take, for example, Ian McKellen's Ancient Mariner, which--sad to say, since he has of course one of the most amazing voices around--is so overdone (unlike, however, McKellen's wonderfully quick, sprightly rendition of Robert Fagle's quirky Odyssey). The BBC's recent adaptation of Wordsworth's "Two-Part" Prelude which--with its interesting sound effects and music--is a bit more effective, but again dulls the poetry. Anton Lesser's Milton (the most recent BBC recording of Paradise Lost, as well as Regained and many of the other poems for Naxos) so ov-er-em-pha-sizes-every syl-able that all rhythm is murdered--though he occasionally produces some unbelievably sublime moments. But, just to be clear, it isn't dramatization as such that is really the problem: the dramatizations of Austen by the BBC are really wonderful, and so is the recent Maltese Falcon with Tom Wilkinson--which is really, really, really good. And of course Shakespeare is meant to be heard on a stage--not on the page. But with certain bits of poetry, or perhaps certain forms of poetry, a certain space opens up in between drama and silent reading which is problematic--and in which, at least for me, it is better to err by moving away from drama.

This all said, it will be no suprise that I was again suprised to find myself getting quite addicted to Ralph Cosham's absolutely excellent recording of Paradise Lost. It is of course just another aspect of my Milton-mania over the last few weeks (not just because of--again I'll mention them, they are that good--John Rogers' lectures which I have been enjoying, but also because some bits in my research have taken me back to Milton [Paradise Regained might have some part in my diss], whom I haven't read in a few years). But the recordings are so good because they hit exactly the sort of open tone or antitone I think is excellent. His reserved, controlled approach--perhaps too reserved for prose--is actually extremely well suited to capturing Milton's prosodic pyrotechnics, and I really recommend this version over every other one: what's so essential--though there is a lot of literature on this (Robert Pinsky, to take the most recognized example, writes well on the demands of reading aloud and promotes it tirelessly)--is that the rhythms of verse produce the drama first and foremost, and Cosham nails this. Also exellent are any of Derek Jacobi's recordings.

I should add as a footnote to all this that it is an extremely tough thing to read any book aloud with any amount of talent--as anyone who has been in a literature class, and listened to our plain, shy, amateur attempts to just sound out the thing to get a grip on it knows. This is especially the case with poetry, which sounds so flat so easily... Nearly every reading from the Naxos Great Poets series is excellent.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I am rereading Frances Ferguson's excellent early work, Wordsworth: Language as Counter-Spirit (1977). I remember the following statement well, though, not only because it is the first, most concise articulation of a position that will run through the rest of Ferguson's work, but also because I have always thought it the most sensible and most demanding of any possible position. In other words, I have--when push comes to shove--always come back and stuck to the approach it outlines:

The recent re-examination of literary language which has flourished increasingly in criticism is an attempt to articulate the implication of the statement that all literature is necessary linguistic. Yet this very preoccupation with language, which heuristically substitutes an interest in linguistic process for an interest in literary content (mythic, thematic, psychological), can itself become a rehearsal of pat answers and artificially persistent mysteries when "language" is taken as an absolute. The paradox that language is both the most familiar and the ultimately unknown element in any individual's experience seems overwhelming until we recognize once again that literary texts not only postpone but also mock whatever éblouissement the paradox inspires. Thus, this study anchors itself in texts--not because the text has iconic absoluteness but because the text is there to be read, and the reading itself can alone demonstrate the legitimacy of speaking as though any literary work reveals a consciousness of language and a simultaneous consciousness of its erosion of a mythically exalted status for language.
-Wordsworth: Language as Counter-Spirit, 2-3.

Remember this was said in 1977, at the height of what would be called, outside literature departments, "the linguistic turn." In other words it underscores what some people outside the discipline--as Tim Morton nicely puts it in a nice recent interview (and indeed Ferguson is talking about structuralism)--don't seem to understand in their (justified) backlash against postmodern excess (which it is misleading to heap on literature departments): language in some absolute sense was and is never, seriously, that big of a deal for most literary critics. Dealing mostly with words, sentences, meters, styles, plots, forms, genres, and other concrete things (over which we have an unparalleled, yet teachable mastery), what we know of languge is something abstract--not absolute. Absolutized, literary critics would never know what to do with it! How could we? The only people who did do this--those around de Man and some of the other star figures of yesteryear--were and are (and they merit this, though the suspicion is not always for the right reason) suspect throughout the discipline precisely for being so vague, and often treating the texts we read as props for something larger--and, let's just be frank, much less interesting. But Ferguson's suspicion towards the exaltation or absolutization of "language" is not the only thing or the main thing that I have found so useful here: the last sentence is in fact perhaps the most important, and is what makes the position both more positive and indeed most demanding, as I said above. What characterizes reading critically is this speaking "as though," which requires engagement with or a test of the text to be read--and not in any way that would (Wimsatt-like) absolutize this latter beyond the bounds of the test. What's more, to think of reading in this way is actually (like Ferguson does: the author of Solitude and the Sublime and Pornography, the Theory is certainly not anti-theory at all) to believe in and promote theorizing--not to reject it--for this is one way the "as though" can be refined (the "something larger" can be helpful and, depending on how it is developed, further concretize the often ambiguous operations involved in reading, though it is not really related to reading in the sense developed here--and indeed de Man can be extremely helpful). I might recall also a comment of one of my professors with which Ferguson's seems to resonate (and which I more and more agree with), even though he is looking backward at precisely the time she is writing this: as readers of literature, we never really were theorists but readers who hoped, who believed in, the possibility of theory--who were (and still are) in favor of having some theory.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Empson on Smart

I'm not particularly fond of William Empson--especially the early work, which many people not overfond of him (fewer than you might think) are willing to admit isn't as good as the looser, wilder, later stuff--but at certain times his eye, his ear, his strident way of characterizing what is going on in a poem is indispensable, even if misguided. He produces "strong readings" of the minutest details--if I can say that, the oxymoron not shading too much into paradox. Take Empson too seriously--as seriously as he takes himself (he is, after all, patron saint of ambiguity, never irony--and there's something useful and refreshing about that too)--and you won't be able to get his particular emphasis on a word out of your head for years: people are still unable to escape Empson's influence in their approach to Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, even if they dismiss his tenuous jab at history via the "bare ruin'd choirs" in Seven Types of Ambiguity--it's his immense control of the mind-blowingly complex intersection between phrasing (even just the grammar), metaphor (not the leaves, but the time is the vehicle to be extended!), and form (not to mention the famous, sublime numerical puzzle of the sequence some, none, few) in the three lines prior ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold") that makes Empson's sort of daring on the following line possible and probable. But then, if you take him skeptically, realize that specific phrasings are elements over which we interpreters indeed have the most control, and place him beside other readings, knowing that his chief skill is in grasping the many possible active alternatives that a poet could have taken but didn't--if you realize all this, he becomes extremely enlightening, thus reduced in scope and definitiveness, though not in wit, insight, and concision (see the absolutely unbelievable "like dancing in heavy skirts," below). The problem is only that Empson in particular--but the poet more generally as he or she confronts a critic--has a way of bullying you into thinking that you never really have known much about the small-scale inner workings of language, but have only moved at some higher, less concrete level in your deepest scrutiny and exactest attention. Thus, we get statements like this one:

The mode of action of a double plot is the sort of thing critics are liable to neglect; it does not depend on being noticed for its operation, so is neither an easy nor an obviously useful thing to notice. [...] It is an easy-going device, often used simply to fill out a play, and has an obvious effect in the Elizabethans of making you feel the play deals with life as a whole, with any one who comes into the street the scene so often represents; this may be why criticism has not taken it seriously when it deserved to be.
-Some Versions of Pastoral, 27

The claim, really, is that there are two types of notice--and perhaps more essentially, two types of neglect. But even the most formalist sort of critic--the one who looks so often for the functional upshot of this sort of thing, how it adds to the whole--doesn't employ any different sort of gaze than the uncritical (in the descriptive sense) gaze, and doesn't have any sort of neglect that is qualitatively different than the uncritical neglect. We just look at things or don't look at things for different reasons. This doesn't mean we notice or fail to notice different things. To say otherwise is not only to commit a logical injustice, but also to be more like Richards--always supposed to be so much less sophisticated than Empson--than Richards himself: he, at least had the good sense to confer upon such perspectivized poems an objective psychological existence. And many who uncritcally (here in the perjorative sense, the sense in which it means something descriptively different) love these strong-minute readings of Empson, these "quaint opinions wide," indeed are willing to say otherwise with their hero. In short, most good statements about literature in general precisely involve the sort of neglect or semi-notice that Empson says the critic always misses, too busy murdering to dissect (here in more way than one: what's faulted is--just to be clear--a lack of attention that does not, Empson assumes, allow any subsequent notice, when his gaze will, when not noticing, at least admit the feature in question). What's not noticed here, indeed, is that criticism precisely tries to talk about this "dim and undetermined sense," and moves from it--and much more often than the non-critical, I'll add--to its statements. In short, as usual, it's a straw man here: the non-critic or the uncritic or even the poet simply is using the same gaze, and has the same dim appreciation--which is no less able to be worked up into notice--of the double plot. But why this is particularly offensive--why it would just have to be otherwise, with a difference in kind--I'll never quite understand: indeed, there are different kinds of experience involved in creation or enjoyment as opposed to analysis, but experience is something different than attention, and it is criticism that allows us to actually reinforce the connection between the two, rather than crudely assert and reassert their identity.

Nevertheless, you want Empson to say these sorts of things, as they foster his deep sense of the internal workings of the poem, and spur him on to stronger and stronger readings. It's just that you have to brush these "bland words" away--along with the tired general sentiment to which it gives voice.

So with that said, I have no qualms of just quoting another--this time brilliant--bit from Some Versions of Pastoral, where Empson is, if not right, then attuned to something really excellent about Christopher Smart's (amazing, as with all of Smart's works) Song to David in his chapter on (or about, or around) Marvell and what he calls "the Orpheus idea, that by delight in Nature when terrible man gains strength to control it":

This grand theme too has a root in magic; it is an important version of the idea of the man powerful because he has included everything in himself, is still strong, one would think, among the mountain climbers and often the scientists, and deserves a few examples here. I call it the idea of the Hymn to David though being hidden behind the religious one it is nowhere overtly stated, except perhaps in the line

Praise above all, for praise prevails.

David is a case of Orpheus-like behavior because his music restrained the madness of Saul.

His furious foes no more maligned
When he such melody divined,
     And sense and soul detained;

By divining--intuiting--the harmony behind the universe he "makes it divine," rather as to discover a law of nature is to "give nature laws," and this restrains the madman who embodies the unruled forces o nature from killing him. The main argument of the verses describing nature (or nature as described by David) is that the violence of Nature is an expression of her adoration of God, and therefore that the man of prayer who also adores God delights in it and can control it.

Strong the gier eagle on his sail
Strong against tide, th' enormous whale
     Emerges, as he goes.

But stronger still, in earth or air
Or in the sea, the man of prayer
     And far beneath the tide.

The feeling is chiefly carried by the sound; long Latin words are packed into the short lines against a short one-syllable rhyming word full of consonants; it is like dancing in heavy skirts; he juggles with the whole cumbrous complexity of the world.
-Some Versions of Pastoral, 120-1.