Friday, November 28, 2014

Ode to a Sofa

There are stranger tales in the annals of poetry, but not many. William Cowper, prodded by his friend Lady Cowper to take up the challenge of writing an ode to her sofa, composed the first lines of what would become "The Task," a four-part mock-epic poem of nearly six thousand lines. Composed in Miltonic blank verse, it takes its gently satirical cue from that much more serious matter:

I sing the Sofa. I, who lately sang
Truth, Hope, and Charity, and touched with awe
The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand,

Escaped with pain from that advent'rous flight,

Now seek repose upon a humbler theme


Such a thing might have been, or at least seemed, a piffle -- but despite this opening, Cowper soon turns his verse to more solemn themes: the bounty of nature, the pleasures of the contemplative life, and the true nature of faith. Indeed, as the then-eminent critic Goldwin Smith put it,  "As Paradise Lost is to militant Puritanism, so is The Task to the religious movement of its author's time."

The Scots poet Robert Burns was said to have always carried a copy in his pocket; Jane Austen was another fan, and quoted or paraphrased on many occasions in her novels. In many ways, as with Gray's Elegy (our next reading), The Task foreshadows the Romantic movement; in the graveyards and ruins of human endeavor, moss creeps upon the stone, trees bend and shadow, and sweet birds sing, evoking a vision of nature as somehow beyond or even superior to all the supposedly enlightened, civilized world.

Monday, November 17, 2014

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.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

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 ...

Sunday, November 9, 2014

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. Feel free to blurt!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

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.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pandemonium

In order "to justify the ways of God to Man," the poet John Milton had to find a way to breathe fresh life and drama into a story known to every school-child: that of the fall of Lucifer, the creation, and the Garden of Eden. And the first step, like that taken by the former angels in their fall from Heaven, was a doozy. His Satan, in fact, chews up the scenery so magnificently that he becomes, in effect, the main character of the poem. And, since he and his devils alone are possessed of both flaws and passion, they easily exceed in interest the dull Archangels, distant and taciturn God, and irritatingly naive Adam.  Book I of the poem gives us Satan and his minions in all their magnificent 'fall foliage' of flame: Moloch, Astoreth, Tammuz, Dagon, Rimmon, and Belial. As with most devils, they originated as Pagan gods, and Milton tells their history aptly, sending readers again and again to their atlas of the Ancient World. Dartmouth College offers an annotated online text which you can read here -- and which has the convenience of direct links to footnotes and external resources that will guide you without (hopefully) interrupting the flow.  Book I ends with the erection of the great palace of Pandemonium (literally, "all demons"), depicted above by the English painter John Martin.  Those who have played Diablo II or III will find themselves right at home!

Milton's craft as a poet is undeniable, and Paradise Lost contains some of the most vivid poetic imagery in the English language.  His announced goal may still be elusive -- but surely he soars "with no middle flight" -- choose some lines or a scene from Book I, and comment on them here.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

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.