Sunday, December 2, 2012

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Thomas Gray's "Elegy written in a Country Churchyard" forms a fitting conclusion to our survey of British literature. It's both the ending of one era and the beginning of another: a final stop to the epoch of the pastoral romance, and yet a harbinger of the Romantic era to come. It was actually first published in 1751, in the very midst of the Eighteenth Century, but somehow it seems that the era in which it was born is also the era whose passing it mourns:


The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds.

It should also be noted that it isn't formally speaking, an elegy at all, not in the usual poetic sense -- it is more a mournful pastoral, an elegiac farewell to an England whose essential rural character is changing, and will not return.  Lastly, the poem evokes a kind of death for poetry itself, in the form of the unnamed poet, his reputation obscured, whose bones also dwell in this place:

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.

There is irony here, no doubt -- the poet seems to be describing his own grave -- and indeed the cemetery at Stoke Poges -- which originally inspired the poem -- was the site of Gray's own interment in July of 1771. Twenty-seven years later, two young poets, their minds cast in a very similar frame, with very similar sentiments about the essential nature of rural England, would take up this theme again, and poetry would never be the same.

And, to any of you who will be in my section of ENGL 206 next semester: I'll see you on that other side!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Proper Function of Fiction: Rasselas


What is the proper function of literature? Should it be merely to amuse, or also to instruct? Is literature written about bad people or evil deeds "bad" for you? To these and many other such questions, the eminent Dr. Samuel Johnson had answers, and although we may disagree with them today, they continue to have an enormous influence on our ideas about literature, especially when it comes to the role of fiction in education. No high school English class would be what it is had his notions about the social value of fictional texts not been so widely accepted.

Dr. Johnson belittled much of the fiction of his day, holding that, if you took away all their hermits, shipwrecks, and battle scenes, they would fade away to nothing. The word "novel" was not yet in popular use; such tales were known as "romances" (cf. the French "roman," meaning novel) and were -- much as had been Shakespeare's plays a century and a half earlier -- seen as a relatively lowbrow variety of entertainment. It was thought then, as it is thought by many now, that the predominance of fanciful and improbable incidents -- last-minute rescues, reunions with long-lost loved ones, and victories by gallant Davids against all varieties of Goliaths -- were flaws. Fiction should begin, it seems, by being more like reality -- not necessarily in mimicking it directly, but in tincturing the unusual or exotic with the tonic of the everyday, felt experience of people, including less-dramatic or even disappointing events. The novelist, rather than inventing nonexistent things, should select those people and incidents from among the possibilities of life which could most engage and enlighten:
The chief advantage which fiction has over real life is, that their authors are at liberty, tho' not to invent, yet to select objects, and to cull from the mass of mankind, those individuals upon which the attention ought most to be employ'd; as a diamond, though it cannot be made, may be polished by art, and placed in such a situation, as to display that lustre which before was buried among common stones.
He admitted, of course, that in real life, it is quite often the case that good people are defeated, and the evil thrive -- but to him, such incidents should simply not be depicted. Of course, when the learned Doctor himself came to write fiction, nine years (1759) after he wrote his essay on what fiction ought to be, he discovered that it was perhaps more difficult to do than to describe what should be done.

Rasselas has an exotic setting -- Abyssinia -- and other picturesque features which it's hard to defend as educational or realistic; Johnson must have felt that, in order to attract readers to his exemplary story, such window-trimming was a forgivable necessity. And then, taking up a tale of personal development through all its logical phases, he of course discovered something else: that producing a satisfying story, with a rainbow-shaped narrative 'arc' and a pleasing ending, is none too easily accomplished. However much we may admire Rasselas, book or man, it can't help but be disappointing to find, as the final chapter, a "Conclusion, in which nothing is concluded." Taking up the audience's frustration, many other writers penned continuations or sequels to the novel. And, however much the ending may have disappointed readers, the book was enormously popular, and remained so for well over a century. Its gradual decline from the shelf of classics seems to correspond with a shift away from the idea that literature ought to be primarily didactic, offering lessons more than diversions. And yet, today, it still seems capable of providing both.

So what do you think of this story? Does it do what fiction should do? What should fiction do? And is what fiction does do 'good' for you? Perhaps this recent op-ed piece in the New York Times about the 2014 standard that 70% of high school texts must be nonfiction will get you thinking ...

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Madness of King George

Americans haven't always been very keen on Kings -- having gone through a war to be rid of them -- but in the twentieth century, monarchs -- particularly British ones -- have made quite a comeback, both in fictional and filmic versions, and in popular culture.  We've been especially fond of the Tudors, both Elizabeth I (whom we love) and Henry VIII (whom we love to hate); in films and TV shows as various as Shakespeare in Love, The Tudors, and Elizabeth, we have reveled in their regalia. Later monarchs have not always fared as well -- Queen Victoria in particular, whose name has become a by-word for severe constrictions of all kinds -- and until this film, George III, the very monarch we revolted against, has been at the bottom of the historical pile. And yet, somehow, here he is redeemed, becoming, by way of an unflinching portrayal of his illness, a character with whom we empathize enormously, and who at the end, simply by standing and waving his hand, becomes a kind of hero for us.  How was this done?

It started in 1991 with a stage-play, "The Madness of George III," by Alan Bennett. The play's director,  Nicholas Hynter, and its star, Nigel Hawthorne, both returned for the 1994 film.  While it's based on the actual history of the King's mental illness, it also takes in the larger issues that so often arise when a monarch struts upon the stage, as when the freshly-deposed Richard II calls for a mirror to see his own face, and find whence from it his majesty has gone:
Give me that glass, and therein will I read
 No deeper wrinkles yet? Hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine
And made no deeper wounds? O flatt'ring glass,
Like to my followers in prosperity, 
Thou dost beguile me! Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face
That like the sun did make beholders wink?
Alas, it is not a rival, but himself that threatens to depose George III, and therein hangs this tale. The king's removal from court and from Queen Charlotte, his confinement in a chair, and his long torments are partly fictionalized, but the agony he feels, in Nigel Hawthorne's memorable performance, is real.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dr. Johnson


Dr. Samuel Johnson was blessed that particular alloy of irritability and genius which, though often imitated, remains extraordinarily rare. He began life as a poor man, so poor indeed that during his brief time as a student at Pembroke College, Oxford, he could not afford new shoes to replace the tattered and nearly useless ones he possessed. A kindly fellow, aware of this difficulty, quietly left a new pair by Johnson's door, but he refused to wear them. When his money ran out entirely, he left Pembroke rather than accept the charity of others. The rest of his storied life would scarce fit in these pages, but his success as a periodical writer, and his great work, the Dictionary, are too well-known to require rehearsal. Suffice it to say that he became in his lifetime -- and remains today -- a sort of icon of learning and its good effects upon the mass of humanity.

But what sort of man was Johnson? He was brusque, opinionated, and so rude on occasion that some latter-day diagnosticians believe he suffered from Tourette's Syndrome. He did not so much speak as blurt, and many of his exclamations have joined the list of immortal quotes: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a Scoundrel," "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," and "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of Life," to name but a few. 

In the Blackadder episode, "Ink and Incapability,the learned Doctor is portrayed by Robbie Coltrane, with every bit of bluster one might expect from such a man. Dr. Johnson's rising irritation as Blackadder peppers him with portmanteau words -- "interphrastrically," "pericombobulations," and "extramuralisation" -- is priceless. And yet it may surprise many to learn that Johnson's own accent was anything but the posh pretentiousness of Coltrane's memorable performance; he had, in fact, a very thick and distinctive Staffordshire accent; according to Jeffrey Meyers' Samuel Johnson: The Struggle, he said "shuperior" for superior, "woonse" for once, and "poonsh" for "punch."

I hadn't realized this myself, until on listening to the audiobook version of my novel PYG -- in which the learned Doctor meets the Learned Pig (this is based on contemporary accounts) -- that I heard Simon Callow's marvellous personation of Johnson's voice, which perfectly and richly evokes both the accent and the man.

So have a browse at his Dictionary, and some of his remarks on men and letters as transcribed by his longtime sidekick and eventual biographer, James Boswell, and leave a few words here in comment or reply.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Robinson Crusoe


When The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, was published in 1719, it was received by many as a factual account. And there was good reason to do so; many sailors who had been castaways had written narratives, and in an era when not all the globe had yet been charted, there was still plenty of room for unknown "desert isles" (the phrase means deserted isles -- no sand is present or implied!).

But it turned out that the book was the work of Daniel Defoe, whose other great claim to fame was a similar portmanteau of fact and fiction, A Journal of the Plague Year. In both texts, Defoe used actual journals, reminiscences, and newspaper articles as his sources, mimicking the language, tone, and apparatus of his sources, tossing in numbers and dates and longitudes and latitudes to set the seal of truth upon his sly fictions. The story of Alexander Selkirk, who really had been stranded on a remote island for four years, provided the thread in this case. And, as Defoe's latter-day follower Edgar Allan Poe once wrote in a review, "how wonderful has been the result!"

There have been many sequels and variations of Crusoe -- Defoe himself wrote the first, and who can forget such classics as Swiss Family Robinson, Gilligan's Island, or the (soon to be a major motion picture) Life of Pi?  The best of the latter-day meta-Crusoes, I feel, in South African novelist J.M. Coetzee's Foe, which re-imagines Crusoe's island after a young woman, Susan Barton, is washed ashore, and pursues "Foe" in search of his story.

But in a way, Crusoe is the ultimate ancestor of every narrative that lives on the fine line between fiction and factuality, every novel that takes and troubles the notion of a "true story" as its frame. Baron M√ľnchasen is one notable descendant, along with Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and Poe's own Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nanctucket.  Contemporary examples might include Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, Steven Millhuaser's Edwin Mullhouse, or even my own novel Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig.  All fiction, these books gently remind us, is nothing but lies -- and all fiction is true.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sweetest Shakespeare ...


The one work of English verse which endures without the help -- if that is what it is -- of educators and culture mavens, and the long list of people who like to prescribe certain works as 'good for you,' is Shakespeare's little book of sonnets.  Had he never written a play, they would still be remembered.  From their first publication to the present, they have been in people's hands, hearts, and mouths, and I would be willing to wager there are few English speakers alive today, in any corner of the globe, who do not know -- perhaps without realizing it -- a line or two of one of them. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Let me not to the marriage of true minds / admit impediments ... Summer's lease hath all too short a date... And the list goes on.

Shakespeare's sonnets were greatly admired even before they were published; as with the informal verses of many other poets of the day, they were circulated in manuscript.  It might be something like the present day, when the poetry or prose of a writer circulates online, via their blogs or those of their friends, before being picked up by a publisher to be "officially" brought out to the public.  It's not even clear whether Shakespeare himself authorized their publication, although the case is better for the sonnets than for the plays. It was, like the early days of the Internet, a wild time for publication, with piracy and bootleg editions rampant.

On a formal level, it is important to distinguish the "Shakespearian" sonnet from its "Petrarchan" precursor (in fact created by Giacomo da Lentini). Both are entirely in iambic pentameter; the  Petrarchan form was made up of an "octave" (two quatrains of four lines) rhyming abba/abba, followed by a closing sestet (cde/cde). The octave was supposed to describe some sort of quandry or problem, which the sestet would, to some degree, answer. It was Spenser, in English, who changed the division of the lines from the octet and sestet to three quatrains and a two-line envoi -- here the three quatrains could develop three takes on a single theme or a series, to which the envoi did not need to offer a clear answer.  And it was this far more elegant division that Shakespeare took up, following it in every one of his sonnets.

The order of the sonnets is uncertain -- neither published version had Shakespeare's explicit sanction -- but there are two broad sequences that readers then and now have discerned: the first are largely addressed to a male friend or lover, urging himself to outwit the passage of time and preserve his beauty by having offspring; the second series seem addressed to a harsh if not cruel "dark lady," a woman who has scorned the poet's attentions.

But these poems only live because we, every time we read them, make them new -- finding meanings suited to our time and place -- and thus our own understandings matter just as much as all of the above. So pick a sonnet -- any sonnet -- and describe what it means to you, and to whom (an envoi is a letter, or an ambassador) you would send it.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Skelton in the Closet

The English poet John Skelton is often given the title "Poet Laureate" -- an honorific only previously bestowed upon Chaucer, long before the title became a tedious government sinecure. He is easily one of the most under-appreciated poets in English, and yet for his breathing of life into what had been, before his career, a moribund realm of English poetry, it's my personal belief that he ought to be recognized as one of the greatest of all poets in all the history of those storied islse.

Skelton was known for his signature two-foot lines, sometimes jokingly referred to as "Skeltonics" -- and deservedly so.  It remains a native rhythm of the language, and there are many more recent poets -- rapper Chuck D among them -- whose rhythms trace a similar line.  Compare for instance this stanza from "Vppon a deedmans hed":
Your ugly token
My mind hath broken.
For I have discussed
We are but dust,
And die we must,
From worldly lust.
To this from Public Enemy's Swindler's Lust:
Back it up
Vultures of culture
A dollar a rhyme
but we barely get a dime
Uh huh check it out!
If you don't own the master
Then the master own you
Who you trust
from Swindler's Lust?
From the back of the bus
Neither one of us
Control the fate of our soul
In Swindler's Lust …
The shortened beat of these lines -- and it's curious to note that "lust" is a rhyme-word in both -- makes for an ideal satirical meter.