A Reader’s Diary, 27 August 2014

A footnote in one book led me to buy another, an obscure seventeenth century publication known as The Overburian Characters. Most of us know Elizabethan and Jacobean literature for its poetry and plays, not for its prose. Why that should be is hard to say, as so many of the poets and playwrights wrote stories, sermons, essays and, in this case, ‘characters’ too and were as well known for them in their day as they are for their other works in ours.

Sir Thomas Overbury was a friend of Ben Jonson’s, one of ‘the tribe of Ben’ as they were known, and turned to him and other writers for contributions to a collection of short prose pieces to eke out a volume designed mainly to showcase a poem of his own called A Wife. The book came out in 1614, by which time Overbury himself was dead, as the text of the title page makes clear: ‘A WIFE now The Widdow of Sir Thomas Overburye, being a most exquisite and singular poem of the choice of a wife, whereunto are added many witty Characters and conceited Newes, written by himself and other learned gentlemen his friends.’

A ‘character’ like the epigrams and satires that were popular at the time, was based on a classical model, but soon acquired its own English form, described by one of the contributors in a very short piece entitled What a character is. The anonymous author, none of the contributions except the poem being ascribed to a particular contributor, passes quickly from its Greek and Egyptian origins to what it had become in England: ‘To square out a Character by our English level, it is a picture (real or personal) quaintly drawn in various colours, all of them heightened by one shadowing. It is a quick and soft touch of many strings, all shutting up in one musical close. It is wit’s descant on any plain song.’ If there were nothing else in the book worth reading, that lovely example of seventeenth century English prose would be enough on its own.

But there is much else worth reading, both for its own sake and for the tantalising pleasure of knowing that what you are reading might have been written by Jonson or Dekker or Webster. The true character of a dunce, for example, begins its descant, as most of them do, with a witty exposition of its subject: ‘He hath a soul drowned in a lump of flesh, or is a piece of earth that Prometheus put not half his proportion of fire into.’ Several variations on the theme follow, making clear that the dunce in question is not just any old dunce but another writer: ‘One of the most unprofitable of God’s creatures being as he is, a thing put clean besides his right use, made fit for the cart and the flail, and by mischance intangled amongst books and papers.’ Little by little, the description becomes more personal, so that you imagine it cannot have been hard for a reader of the day to guess who might be meant: ‘You shall note him oft (besides his dull eye, and lowting head, and a certain clammy benumbed pace) by a fair displayed beard, a night cap and a gown, whose very wrinkles proclaim him the true genius of formality.’ Sentence by sentence, the writer’s scorn for whichever of his colleagues he has in mind turns increasingly to disgust: ‘As unwelcome to any true conceit, as sluttish morsels or willowish potions to a nice stomach, which whiles he empties himself of, it sticks in his teeth, nor can he be delivered without sweat and sighs and hems and coughs, enough to shake his grandam’s teeth out of her head.’ Is that something Jonson might have written? Is it more like Webster? We shall never know, nor will we know the identity of the dunce. But what a treasure this is of pictures, real or personal, quaintly drawn in various colours, each shutting up in a musical close, like this: ‘In a word, rip him quite asunder and examine every shred of him, you shall find him to be just nothing, but the subject of nothing: the object of contempt; yet such as he is you must take him, for there is no hope he should ever become better.’

The book for the July meeting of my book club was Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The overblown praise quoted on the cover (‘Dazzling’, ‘A box of delights’, ‘Triumphant’) filled me with foreboding, which was to begin with only partially realised. The first three hundred pages, in which incidents are replayed in various ‘what if’ scenarios, were intriguing. For the next three hundred, the increasingly predictable ‘what ifs’ were replaced by a more and more frustrating ‘so what?’ What exactly are you trying to say, I wanted to ask, and have still not found a satisfactory answer. What do the ‘what ifs’ tell me about the events, large and small, general and specific, social and personal, of the twentieth century? Or any other century? And anyway, why write about the kind of well-to-do family whose encounters with the lower orders begin and end for some of them with their servants and for others turn out to be mistakes, when this territory has been explored so many times before, starting brilliantly with E.M.Forster and continuing in a downward spiral ever since?

The answer, as any publisher will tell you, is, ‘Downton Abbey, stupid!’

sir thomas overbury 01  kate atkinson 01

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An alchemist of the modern age

The distinctive qualities on which Montaigne’s reputation as an essayist is founded are his conversational voice, his discursive style, his use of both classical reference and personal anecdote to support his arguments and, without which none of these would be of lasting value, his wisdom. The qualities of his close contemporary Sir Francis Bacon (born some thirty years later) are quite different, except for the last, which makes it all the more to be regretted, especially by the English, that his reputation has been overshadowed by the Frenchman’s.

The principal characteristics of Bacon’s essays are their brevity, their wit, their logical form, their incisive intelligence and their wisdom. Whereas, when we read Montaigne, we feel ourselves in the company of an intelligent, well-read man, whose every digression is as full of interest as his principal argument, and what we enjoy in each essay has at least as much to do with the pleasure we take in his company as with the nature of his argument, with Bacon it is precisely the opposite.

Bacon’s essays, the longest of which covers less than six pages, the shortest barely one, are anything but leisurely. His short essays are like extended epigrams, his long ones like abbreviated lectures. ‘I do now publish my essays,’ he wrote in his dedication to the Duke of Buckingham, ‘which, of all my other works, have been most current, for that as it seems they come home to men’s business and bosoms.’ Montaigne, on the other hand, wrote in his that ‘I have dedicated this book to the private benefit of my friends and kinsmen so that, having lost me (as they must do soon) they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humours.’

If the Frenchman’s model was the confessional (‘I myself am the subject of my book’), the Englishman’s was the sermon. In all respects but their brevity, Bacon’s essays bear a striking resemblance to the sermons of his age. He begins with a text and goes on, like John Donne in his sermons, to unpick the argument.

Of Revenge: ‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.’

Of Marriage and Single Life: ‘He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.’

Of Love: ‘The stage is more beholding to love than the life of man. For, as to the stage, love is ever matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies, but in life it doth much mischief, sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury.’

In his essay Of Friendship, he takes as his text an unattributed quotation, ‘Whatsoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god’, with which he proceeds to take issue. Yes, there is something of the savage beast in a dislike of society, but there is nothing divine in preferring solitude to the company of other men, except in those rare individuals who live as hermits in order to be closer to God. In any case, he says, what we mean by solitude is often misunderstood. ‘A crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.’ The only true solitude is not to be alone but to be without friends. ‘Whosoever is unfit for friendship, he taketh it of the beast and not from humanity.’

In this, one of his longer essays, he goes on to identify three ‘fruits’ of friendship. The first is ‘the ease and discharge of the fullness and swellings of the heart’. Many diseases, he says, are caused by ‘stoppages and suffocations’ for which there are various cures, ‘but no receipt openeth the heart but a true friend, to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession’. (From which form of words, perhaps, is derived today’s ‘civil marriage’.)

He devotes a page or so to illustrating how important this is by the difficulty that kings have in achieving it. Prevented by their position from mixing freely with their subjects, but needing friends as much as anyone, if not more, ‘they raise some persons to be, as it were, companions and almost equals to themselves’. This leads him inevitably to instances of betrayal, such as that of Caesar by Brutus, and to the fear of it that prevents great men from putting their trust in anyone. ‘Those that want friends to open themselves unto,’ he says, ‘are cannibals of their own hearts.’ This leads him to observe that having a friend to confide in has two contrary effects. ‘For there is no man that imparteth his joys to his friend, but he joyeth the more, and no man that imparteth his griefs to his friend, but he grieveth the less.’

‘The second fruit of friendship,’ he says, ‘is healthful and sovereign for the understanding, as the first is for the affections.’ He identifies two means by which this occurs. The first requires the friend to do nothing but listen, because ‘whosoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up in the communicating and discoursing with another’. The second requires the friend to offer advice and to do so without fear or favour. ‘For there is no such flatterer as is a man’s self, and there is no such remedy against flattery of a man’s self as the liberty of a friend.’

The last fruit of friendship, he says, ‘is like the pomegranate, full of many kernels’. In other words, your friends can do things for you that you cannot do yourself. ‘A man hath a body, and that body is confined to a place; but where friendship is, all offices of life are as it were granted to him.’ In a phrase rarely used by Montaigne, he reaches his conclusion: ‘To enumerate these things were endless; I have given the rule, where a man cannot fitly play his own part; if he have not a friend, he may quit the stage.’

Bacon’s fifty-nine short essays deal with subjects as varied as truth, death, atheism, travel, ambition, usury, gardens, anger and fame. As literary artefacts they combine elements of both the poems and the sermons of John Donne in that fusion of words and ideas that we now call metaphysical, but which might then have been called a kind of literary alchemy. Bacon was a scientist after all, as well as a writer.

He might not have written the plays of William Shakespeare, but he did turn out to have been a speech writer for Franklin D.Roosevelt. ‘The only thing you have to fear is fear itself’ was a line memorably delivered by the American president during the Great Depression, but written more than three hundred years earlier by the English essayist, Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount St Albans, alchemist of the modern age.

sir francis bacon 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 27 August.

My next essay on 3 September will be on British values and English literature.

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A Reader’s Diary, 13 August 2014

Bell from a Distant Temple, a novel by my favourite neglected author, Ronald Fraser, is set in eighth century China. The Flying Draper (about a draper who masters the art of levitation and takes it to extreme lengths) and Rose Anstey (about a beautiful woman who appears out of nowhere, lacking a past, and rather like Goldilocks makes herself at home with three older men) are set mainly in twentieth century London. Surprising Results (about British ex-pats and a beautiful woman of loose morals) is set in the south of France.

Fraser’s discontent with materialism, not uncommon at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, finds expression in different ways in each of the four novels and gives them their distinctive quality. Sometimes, as in The Flying Draper, the power of mind over matter is what drives the plot, sometimes it is simply an undercurrent. Nothing that is physically impossible happens in Rose Anstey or Surprising Results (except perhaps the almost miraculous slimming of the overweight French woman that turns her into a beautiful nymph-like creature) but both are nonetheless imbued with a sense of other-worldliness, the mystery that surrounds Rose in the former, the idyllic location in the latter. At any moment, you expect a metamorphosis to occur.

Tu Ku, the central character in Bell from a Distant Temple, is based on Tu Fu, a poet of the T’ang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 906 AD. A few of the other characters are made up, but most are people who actually existed. One of the fictitious characters is the narrator, Tu Ku’s servant, nicknamed ‘The Mirror’ or ‘Master Self-effacement’ by Tu Ku. Another is The Priest of Luan, with whom the servant forms a close bond. In his introduction, Fraser writes that the Priest is a Taoist, ‘not one of those whom widening superstition credited with little but wonder-working powers and the secret of concocting an elixir, but a true follower of the Master Lao Tzu and one who had become an initiate in the mysteries that are surely common to all systems of esoteric knowledge, including esoteric Christianity’.

Fraser wrote more than twenty novels of which The Flying Draper in 1924 was the first and Bell from a Distant Temple in 1954 among the last. Albert Codling, the levitating Londoner, was still alive and well thirty years later in eighth century China, after a variety of incarnations in other times and other places, still firm in his belief that, as Hamlet puts it, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

Herbert Read, an almost exact contemporary of Fraser and, like him though for different reasons, services to literature as opposed to diplomatic service, given a knighthood, is remembered mainly for his books about art, but he was also a poet and the author of one novel, The Green Child. It was published by Heinemann in 1935, Penguin published it in 1969 but have since discontinued it. On the back cover of my Penguin edition it is described as ‘a brilliantly sustained piece of political and philosophical fantasy’.

The novel is in three parts, of which the first and third are written in the third person and the second in the first. Olivero, an Englishman who for the last thirty years has been head of state in a South American republic which he helped to found, fakes his own assassination so that he can return to England and solve a mystery which began in his childhood when a mysterious green child turned up in the village, was adopted by a widow called Mrs Hardie and later married to a man called Kneeshaw. When he returns, he finds that a stream he remembers playing in when he was a boy is now flowing in the other direction. He meets the Green Child again and with her follows it to its source.

‘She walked swiftly through the water on to the silvery sand. She was sinking, and as she sank she turned towards Olivero. Her face was transfigured, radiant as an angel’s. She stretched out an arm towards Olivero. With a cry of happiness, as if a secret joy had been revealed to him, he raced forward and hand in hand they sank below the surface of the pool.’

In Part 2, Olivero tells his own story, from the day he left the village to the day, thirty years later, when he returned to it. The philosophical fantasy of Part 1, to which the author returns in Part 3, is now replaced by political fantasy, as Olivero describes in some detail the founding of the republic, the constitution he writes for it and his experience as head of state. It is, in effect, a Platonic monologue on the subject of the ideal state and is longer than the other two parts put together.

Part 3 takes up the story where Part 1 left off.

‘The water had no sooner closed over them than it seemed to be sucked away from their bodies, to curve upwards at their feet, to arch over their heads, until it formed a perfect spheroid. They were standing within an immense bubble, against which the water pressed in vain, the sandy particles quivering rapidly against its glassy inner wall.’

When the bubble bursts, they find themselves ‘in a large grotto, filled with an aqueous light, blue in the darker reaches, pale green towards the apparent outlet’.

Olivero is accepted into the world of the Green Child and after a period of adjustment, when ‘fully disintoxicated of all his earthly sentiments’ begins his journey through the stages of life, working first as a food-gatherer, then as a spinner and weaver, then as a crystal polisher. Having achieved perfection in that art, he joins one of the groups of philosophers who spend their days walking, talking and thinking. Finally, he passes from being the leader of his group to the final stage of solitary contemplation, followed by a peaceful death.

‘The beating of his heart was like the jumping of a flame in an empty lamp. Summoning his last vital effort, he stifled for all time that anxious agitation.’

The voice is different, as are the narrative technique and the symbolism which runs through it, but one thing that Sir Herbert had in common with Sir Ronald was a belief that art should be more than a realistic representation of everyday life. It was a strand in the literature of the first few decades of the twentieth century that has been lost and forgotten, novels that were experimental, not in language and form, like Joyce or Woolf, but in their subject matter and its treatment. David Garnett and T.F.Powys were two more for whom real life was never real enough. All these writers took liberties with reality in the way that artists were doing at the same time. The stories of T.F.Powys have more in common with the paintings of Stanley Spencer than with the work of his literary contemporaries. All these writers, well read and well thought of in their day, languish now in a literary backwater, known at best for just one or two books, Garnett for Lady Into Fox, Powys for Mr Weston’s Good Wine. The Green Child has recently been published in a new edition by Capuchin Classics. They should turn their attention now to Sir Ronald Fraser.

ronald fraser 01

My next piece, on 20 August, will be about the Essays of Sir Francis Bacon.

My next Reader’s Diary will appear on 27 August.

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Beyond melancholy

In Act V of The White Devil by John Webster, Flamineo is visited by the ghost of the recently murdered Duke of Bracciano. Unlike Macbeth, he is not in the least disturbed by the apparition but tries to engage it in conversation. Instead of answering his questions, the ghost holds up a skull in one hand and throws earth on him with the other. Flamineo is unimpressed. ‘This is beyond melancholy,’ he says when the ghost withdraws.

It is a throw-away line by one of Webster’s archetypal villains, for whom the word amoral, since it did not then exist, had to be invented. Of all the devils in The White Devil, Flamineo is the most cynical and self-aware. When, in Act V, he tells Vittoria, his sister, that he is about to murder her, he dismisses her pleas for mercy and justifies the act on the grounds that he made a promise to Bracciano and intends to keep it, first by killing her, then by killing himself.

‘Pray thee, good woman, do not trouble me
With this vain worldly business. Say your prayers.
I made a vow to my deceasèd lord,
Neither yourself, nor I should outlive him
The numbering of four hours.’

In any case, he says, if a great lord isn’t safe in his own court, what hope is there for them? To which she replies, ‘This is your melancholy and despair.’

Only once in any of Shakespeare’s plays do we see something ugly showing through the façade of melancholy, when, in Twelfth Night, Orsino’s jealousy leads him to threaten Caesario with violence.
‘Come, boy, with me; my thoughts are ripe in mischief:
I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,
To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.’

The line between comedy and tragedy is, as everyone knows, finely drawn. In Shakespeare’s comedies we catch an occasional glimpse of tragedy. In Webster’s tragedies the opposite happens. Flamineo in The White Devil and Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi take us close enough to the line for us to see beyond it. It is not that Webster gives the devil all the best tunes, just that in these two he shows us, not the devil, but flawed humanity, shows us in fact ourselves.

There is something of Hamlet in Flamineo, as if the rottenness in the state of Denmark has gone so far that everyone is infected, himself included. He has no illusions and makes no apology. His self-awareness is theatrical, he can never resist the temptation of going for the laugh, like Sir Thomas More, who thanked the hangman for helping him up to the scaffold and told him he would shift for himself going down. His death speech, for which he waits until everyone else is dead so that he has the audience’s full attention, is pure theatre. The maid dies, his sister dies, then he sits up, as he did from his simulated death a few minutes before, and re-introduces himself with the line:

‘I recover like a spent taper, for a flash,
And instantly go out.’

The final couplet of his speech demands applause.

‘Let no harsh flattering bells resound my knell
Strike, thunder, and strike loud to my farewell.’

Having already established his humanity and earned, if grudgingly, our sympathy, he is entitled to make the most of his ending. Tied to a pillar in the palace but still refusing to show any remorse, he laughs at his captors and gets the better of them in the exchange that follows.

‘Dost laugh?’
‘Wouldst have me die, as I was born, in whining?’
‘Recommend yourself to heaven.’
‘No, I will carry mine own commendations thither.’

Then, when asked what he is thinking, he reverts to the strain of melancholy, at which the audience cannot fail to be moved.

‘Nothing; of nothing. Leave thy idle questions,
I am i’th’ way to study a long silence,
To prate were idle; I remember nothing.
There’s nothing of so infinite vexation
As man’s own thoughts.’

There are many things in The White Devil, lines, incidents, theatrical effects, that are reminiscent of Shakespeare, which is hardly surprising since Webster’s career was beginning just as Shakespeare’s was ending. The White Devil and The Tempest both had their first performance in 1612. But more interestingly, he sometimes seems to prefigure later developments, often much later. What he calls tragedies are to us more like black comedies or even theatre of the absurd. The constant interplay of prose and verse gives them a quality quite different from Shakespeare’s, suggesting that Webster was aiming at a new kind of drama, challenging the conventional Elizabethan boundaries. Shakespeare started it, of course, but Webster took it further, effectively rubbing out the line between comedy and tragedy altogether.

Shakespeare’s plays had a political dimension that Webster’s lack. The dukes and cardinals that Webster presents are not there to teach us lessons about good government, but are metaphorical representations of the elemental forces which drive humanity. Good and evil are evenly balanced in Shakespeare’s world, though it sometimes takes a Prospero to keep them so. No such balance exists in Webster’s world. Webster owes more to Marlowe than he does to Shakespeare. Marlowe was at home with anarchy in a way that Shakespeare never was. There is no redemption for Faust, only eternal torment, such as we see in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Instead of a Shakespearean (and Elgarian) hope for the future at the end of the last act, all Marlowe gives us is the flames of hell.

It is the same with Webster who, at the end of The White Devil, has one of his villains taking pride in his villainy –

‘I do glory yet
That I can call this act my own. For my part,
The rack, the gallows, and the torturing wheel
Shall be but sound sleeps to me. Here’s my rest:
I limned this night-piece, and it was my best.’

– and the son of one of the other villains delivering a final couplet which, in the light of everything we have seen, is not terribly convincing –

‘Let guilty men remember their black deeds
Do lean on crutches, made of slender reeds.’

The literary history of melancholy, as opposed to the medical history, drifts from one side to the other of the tragi-comic demarcation line, from self-pity to self-knowledge, from amused detachment to outright cynicism, from Orsino and Jacques to Hamlet and Iago, from Stephen Dedalus to Vladimir and Estragon. The melancholy character is the one who stands outside the action, disowning his own part in it, like Hamlet. A convenient alter ego for the omnisicient and ambivalent narrator, leading the reader by the elbow as Virgil leads Dante.

melancholy 01

My next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 13 August.

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Once A Mariner

A few years ago, I wrote a poem called Once A Mariner. Now it’s been made into a song by singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert.



Once a mariner hauled his boat
Onto the golden sand
Turned his back on the reckless sea
With a wave of his hand.

Found a woman to be his wife
Pretty as she could be
Bought some land and built her a house
With its back to the sea.

Looked after her as good men should
As good as he could be
Lay with no one but her at night
With his back to the sea.

But every day he heard the wail
Of wind-beleaguered waves
And every night he heard the sigh
Of sailors in their graves.

And every night the moon-dark waves
Lapped at his land-locked bed
And every day the seagulls came
Screaming to wake the dead.

Once a mariner hauled his boat
Back to the faithless sea
Leaving his wife at home in bed
Lonely as she could be.

Next week’s post, on 6 August, will be called Beyond melancholy.

Then it will be my Reader’s Diary for 13 August.

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Until recently, like most people, all I knew of Longfellow was Hiawatha. I knew the tune anyway. A conversation with a friend who admitted to a liking for the now unfashionable poet convinced me that it was time to fill another gap in my reading. After all, there was on my bookshelves a rather handsome edition of his poems, inscribed ‘To Rowland [my father] from Dorothy [my mother] with wishes for a Happy Christmas and a very Happy New Year, Dec 1936’, unopened since I inherited it.

I turned, not to The Song of Hiawatha, though I intend to read that soon, but to a poem called Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, which caught my attention because of its long lines that read more like prose than verse. ‘This is the forest primeval,’ it begins. ‘The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, stand like Druids…’ But to demonstrate the poetic-prosaic-verse-epic qualities of Longfellow’s long, irregular line, it will be better to quote some of them in full.

In the Acadian land, on the shores of the Basin of Minas,
Distant, secluded, still, the little village of Grand-Pré
Lay in the fruitful valley. Vast meadows stretched to the eastward,
Giving the village its name, and pasture to flocks without number.

Life had long been astir in the village, and clamorous labour
Knocked with its hundred hands at the golden gates of the morning.

Then as the wind seized the gleeds and the burning thatch, and, uplifting,
Whirled them aloft through the air, at once from a hundred housetops
Started the sheeted smoke with flashes of flame intermingled.

The musical quality of Longfellow’s line in this and other poems like it is immediately felt but hard to define. In the absence of metre and rhyme, the cumulative effect of stressed syllables is what gives the line rhythm and shape. To that is added the effect of alliteration, most obviously in the second pair of lines with its ‘hundred hands’ and ‘golden gates’ or the last three with their ‘hundred housetops’ and ‘flashes of flame’, but also in patterns of sound that are less obvious but no less effective: ‘vast meadows stretched to the eastward’, for example.

Evangeline is a long poem, though less than half the length of Hiawatha, one of several in which Longfellow turns history into legend. His narrative poems set out to chronicle America in the way that Virgil chronicled Rome, Holinshed England, Dante Florence. (Longfellow made his own translation of Dante.) In Evangeline, the burning of a village by the British, the villagers’ long journey west and, in particular, Evangeline’s lifelong search for Gabriel, to whom she is betrothed, become elements in a national epic.

Thus dwelt together in love these simple Acadian farmers, -
Dwelt in the love of God and of man. Alike were they free from
Fear, that reigns with the tyrant, and envy, the vice of republics.

Another poem that uses the same long line is The Courtship of Miles Standish, in its day one of Longfellow’s most famous poems. Historians, irritated perhaps by the success of a poem that purported to be historical but was mainly made up, considered it at best ‘a pleasant little fairy tale’. The tale is set in Plymouth, so named by the Plymouth Brethren who sailed from England on the Mayflower, and concerns the rivalry between two of them, Miles Standish and John Alden, for the hand of the beautiful Priscilla. As in Evangeline, Longfellow’s story has little to do with the particulars of history and everything to do with the universals of human nature, especially as they contribute to the values that underpin the founding of America and the creation of its national myth.

Longfellow makes frequent use, in this poem and others, of a poetic device that links his epic to Homer’s, the extended simile.

He spoke, and such a murmur rose, as on a lofty shore
The waves make when the south wind comes, and tumbles them before
Against a rock, grown near the strand, which diversely beset
Is never free, but here and there with varied uproars beat.

That was Homer in the Iliad, as translated by Chapman. This is Longfellow.

Anger was still in his heart, but at times the remorse and contrition
Which in all noble natures succeed the passionate outbreak,
Came like a rising tide, that encounters the rush of a river,
Staying its current awhile, but making it bitter and brackish.

Whether or not Longfellow’s imitation of Homer was part of a deliberate effort to give his poem an epic quality, he understood how the Homeric simile could be used to convey subtle and complex meanings. He does not go so far as to adopt the Homeric epithet, as in ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ or ‘wine dark sea’, but the epithets he uses are Homeric in all but their repetition. John Alden is ‘the fair-haired, taciturn stripling’ just once and once is enough to tell us all we need to know.

After these two narrative poems, I turned to The New England Tragedies, two verse dramas. Giles Corey of the Salem Farms reads like an early version of The Crucible. But Longfellow’s drama is the work of a poet, not a playwright, meant to be read, not acted, like Tennyson’s Becket or Byron’s Manfred. Written in short scenes, the story we know so well from Arthur Miller’s play is told simply and effectively. The scenes in which Mary Walcot feigns demonic possession in front of the investigating magistrate and minister are like sketches compared to Miller’s, but sketches that Miller must surely have known when he wrote his play.

Mary (starting up): Look there! Look there!
I see a little bird, a yellow bird,
Perched on her finger; and it pecks at me.
Ah, it will tear my eyes out!
Martha: I see nothing.
Hathorne: ’Tis the Familiar Spirit that attends her.
Mary: Now it has flown away. It sits up there
Upon the rafters. It is gone; is vanished.

In Miller’s play, more theatrically, the scene becomes a conversation between Abigail and a bird.

Abigail: Why do you come, yellow bird?
Proctor: Where’s a bird? I see no bird!
Abigail: My face? My face?
Proctor: Mr Hale –
Danforth: Be quiet!
Proctor: Do you see a bird?
Danforth: Be quiet!
Abigail. But God made my face; you cannot want to tear my face. Envy is a deadly sin, Mary.

There is even, in another verse drama, The Divine Tragedy, a passage that seems to prefigure lines by T.S.Eliot.

The things that have been and shall be no more,
The things that are, and that hereafter shall be
The things that might have been, and yet were not,
The fading twilight of great joys departed,
The daybreak of great truths as yet unrisen,
The intuition and the expectation
Of something, which, when come, is not the same…

It is impossible that a poet so widely read in his lifetime and for a generation or two after should not have left behind a legacy in the work of other writers. He was a poetic craftsman who wrote to be read, a poet and a story-teller, a public poet, a national poet. It is not just that Longfellow has gone out of fashion but that the idea of poetry as an expression of national feeling and of the poet as someone who gives a voice to other people, not just to himself, has lost the currency it once had. That may or may not be a good thing, but it is not a reason to neglect a poet whose work is full of surprises and, apart from anything else, a very good read.


The next post will be Once A Mariner, a poem set to music by Gwyneth Herbert.

That will be followed on 6 August by Beyond melancholy, a commentary on Webster’s ‘The White Devil’.

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A Reader’s Diary, 16 July 2014


Upon a semi-cirque of turf-clad ground,
The hidden nook discovered to our view
A mass of rock, resembling, as it lay
Right at the foot of that moist precipice,
A stranded ship, with keel upturned, that rests
Fearless of winds and waves.


The mound rose in the middle; a bare heap
Of finest sand, like that unverdured heap
Found at the bottom of an hour-glass run out.
At its head stood the cross of withered sticks;
The dry, peeled bark still fraying from it;
Its transverse limb tied up with rope, and
Forlornly adroop in the silent air.


Long lines of cliff breaking have left a chasm;
And in the chasm are foam and yellow sands;
Beyond, red roofs about a narrow wharf
In cluster; then a moulder’d church; and higher
A long street climbs to one tall-tower’d mill;
And high in heaven behind it a gray down
With Danish barrows; and a hazelwood,
By autumn nutters haunted, flourishes
Green in a cuplike hollow of the down.

Reading some short stories by Herman Melville and struck by something in his prose that seemed to give it a special resonance, I stopped and read again and realised that it was blank verse. Not the blank verse of Shakespeare, but of Melville’s contemporaries, the Romantic poets who wrote in verse about the things that Melville wrote about in prose. One of the three passages above is from Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, one from Wordsworth’s The Excursion and one is a passage from Melville’s short story, The Encantadas, divided into lines of verse, lines into which it falls quite naturally.

What this reveals is not only the inherent poetry in Melville’s prose, but something inherently prosaic in the iambic pentameter. It is a metre that imitates the natural speech rhythm of the English language and can be modulated up or down as the writer chooses. All three passages could have been set out in continuous prose, which is in fact how they should be read, the narrative line – the narrator’s voice – being as important in Wordsworth (1) and Tennyson (3) as they are in Melville (2).

Before I came to The Encantadas, I read Bartleby, a very different kind of story, one that, as others have observed, could have been written by Gogol, a first person narrative in which the narrator, ‘a rather elderly man’, a member of the legal profession, describes but is unable to explain the strange behaviour of one of his clerks or ‘scriveners’. It has also been compared to Conrad’s Secret Sharer and, although Bartleby is not a sea-faring story, Melville and Conrad both spent time at sea and drew on that experience in their later careers as writers. The Encantadas is made up of ten ‘sketches’, each of which is essentially a seaman’s yarn recounting his own experiences and stories that other seamen tell about the ‘Enchanted Isles’, otherwise known as the Galapagos Islands.

Bartleby is a kind of yarn too and, although the narrative style is very different (no hint of blank verse, just plain prose), there is something in the character of Bartleby, his single-mindedness, his solitariness, his impassiveness, which Melville brings out too in his description of the three Galapagos Island tortoises that are caught and left on deck in Sketch Second – Two Sides to a Tortoise.

As I lay in my hammock that night, overhead I heard the slow weary draggings of the three ponderous strangers along the encumbered deck. Their stupidity or their resolution was so great, that they never went aside for any impediment. One ceased his movements altogether just before the mid-watch. At sunrise I found him butted like a battering-ram against the immovable foot of the foremast, and still striving, tooth and nail, to force the impossible passage.

The alliteration in the last sentence is striking but, that aside, what we should notice is Melville’s obsession with obsession. Whether it’s Captain Ahab, Bartleby, Claggart or a tortoise, what Melville sees but can never explain other than as a fact of life, the fate to which our own nature condemns us, is blind obsession. The rest of his description of the tortoise’s futile struggle against an immovable obstacle makes it plain that he is not really writing about tortoises but about humanity.

That these tortoises are the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them. I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path. Their crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straight-forwardness in a belittered world.

Melville’s prose is never far from poetry, whether it’s blank verse, alliteration or just phrases like ‘that strange infatuation of hopeless toil’. In their stupidity and their resolution there is nothing much to choose between a tortoise and a man.

galapagos tortoise 1

The next post, on 23 July, will be about Longfellow.

That will be followed on 30 July by another Reader’s Diary.

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