Thursday, July 28, 2016

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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Rasselas and the Uses of Fiction

What is the proper function of literature? Should it be merely to amuse, or also to instruct? Is literature written about bad people and their 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.
Johnson 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, July 17, 2016

Moll Flanders

Moll Flanders -- the very name evokes a saucy world of eighteenth-century crime, fraud, and ribaldry. "Moll," a clip of the given name "Molly," has as early as the sixteenth century become a slang term for a criminal woman, most commonly the wife of some criminal man. Way back in Shakespeare's day, the infamous Mary Frith, a.k.a. "Moll Cutpurse, had become the subject of a play by Middleton and Decker, The Roaring Girl. To "roar" was to be a scuffler and a petty thief -- but on the stage, what was petty became grand; in many ways the play was the ancestor of every 'robber with a heart of gold' story ever told. Mary Firth, by all accounts, loved being turned into a legend, even attending some of the play's performances.

Fast forward two centuries to Defoe's era. All kinds of personal narratives were becoming popular (Defoe's Crusoe mimicked another sort, the "lost on a desert island" one). The narratives of criminals had been, before this time, more often of the "gallows confession" sort, but as with Moll Cutpurse, it was clear that crooks who "got away" with it, so long as they didn't kill anyone, could be attractive figures to the public mind. As with Middleton and Decker, Defoe supposedly based his tale in part on a "real" Moll, a woman with the trade name "Molly King" (Elizabeth Adkins) whom he supposedly met at Newgate Prison.

What's remarkable about Moll Flanders is how precise an account it offers of the difficulties faced by a woman without a husband or a family to take her in. Moll must count every £, s, and d. (that's pounds, shillings, and pence), and her fortunes rise and fall as she learns how to deceive, to rob, and to fence stolen goods. More often than not, the backstabbing nature of the criminal world comes back to bite her, and the difficulties of any sort of sustained financial independence become clear. Moll eventually gives up her life of crime to live one of penitence -- but of course, we all know which of the two lives makes for the more interesting reading!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

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 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 Münchasen 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.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Tempest

Shakepeare's The Tempest was, and remains, one of his most popular plays. Its elements of spectacle -- the spirit Ariel with his magical powers, the "demon" Caliban, and a fairy feast -- combined with the revenge plot and the role of Prospero as almost the director of the play, have offered something for everyone. It's also, thanks to the sense that Prospero stands in for Shakespeare himself, and that the play ends with Prospero's farewell to magic (and thus, Shakespeare's farewell to the stage), adds an element of poignancy.

All these factors have also made the play attractive to filmmakers; beginning in 1911 with a silent version produced by Edwin Thanhauser, it's been through any number of "straight" adaptations, as well as some significant variants: the 1956 sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet," a 1982 version set on an island in a swamp in the Southern US, the 1991 film "Prospero's Books" with Sir John Gielgud, and a 2010 version which replaces the male Prospero with a female "Prospera," played by Helen Mirren.

For all its fancy, the play's scenario is a compact one -- indeed it's one of few of Shakespeare's plays to uphold the Classical "unities" of drama -- those of action, time, and place -- as it is all set upon a single island, in (more or less) a single day, and follows a single action (that of revenge, though as is usual with Shakespeare, it's a long, drawn-out one.  Throughout, Prospero is the great magical sage; his daughter Miranda obedient and meek; and Caliban (at right, above), their grudging servant. Indeed, Caliban, as the lone indigenous inhabitant of the isle, subjugated by his European colonizers, has inspired many critical postcolonial readings of the play, prominent among them Aimé Césaire's "Une Tempête." It's often performed in festivals, particularly those with an outdoor setting; a few years ago, Christopher Plummer delivered a much-admired performance as Prospero at the Stratford Festival.

You should see, as well as read this play -- pick any version near at hand -- and then give your thoughts below:

Sunday, July 10, 2016


"The play's the thing," remarks Hamlet, as he lays his trap for his deceiving uncle Claudius -- and, in the case of Hamlet, it is the thing of all things, the play of all plays, one of the most enduring and frequently performed of all time. Since its first appearance on the stage in 1601, it has been performed tens of thousands of times, made into more than 200 film versions, and translated into almost every modern language on Earth. And yet, despite its enormous popularity, it remains one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays. Ostensibly a revenge tragedy, its most important revenge is a bust; though filled with action, it's also packed with words, words, words, so many indeed that it's rarely performed without some trimming (Kenneth Branagh's film version, shown above, used every line -- and was more than four hours long!). And, as if all that weren't enough, it's filled with uncertain readings, gaps (lacunæ), and redundancies, many due in part to the three "bootleg" edition published without Shakespeare's authorization. Was that too too sullied flesh -- or too too solid flesh? The world will never know for certain.

That said, it's a magnificent monster of a play, a tour-de-force for any actor or director. Many of the performance issues center on Hamlet himself: although the play sates that he's a college student (as is his erstwhile friend Laertes), and yet also that he is thirty years of age; the first actor to portray him, Richard Burbage, was 34 at the time. In 1996 when he made his film version, Kenneth Branagh was 36, but Hamlet has been played by actors of every age, as well as by actresses -- most famously, Sarah Bernhardt, who first played the Danish prince in 1899, when she was 55.

But here before us, we have not any of these, but only the text itself. Hamlet, of course, is packed with memorable lines; it's full-on Shakespeare, with every rhetorical twist and turn as bold as a thrust with a rapier. Hamlet's soliloquys are perhaps the best-known, but the banter with the grave-digger, and the chat with Yorick's skull, is probably the single most iconic scene. It's hard to read Hamlet now, even for the first time, without having a sense of somehow already having encountered it. My recommendation would be to see the Branagh film, in all its audacity -- or else perhaps an audiobook version (there's a fairly good free one available from LibriVox). Or simply read it, aloud, to yourself, at least in parts -- think of the play's text as no more than a recipe; in order to truly taste it one must make the dish.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Measure for Measure

Can a mere playwright -- God though he seems upon the stage -- write a play in which everything about plays can be freshly tested, intertwined, and 'measured'? Might there be a comedy without a marriage, a history without history, a tragedy without a death? Measure for Measure (1603) is Shakespeare's answer to all these questions, and his most taut and hazardous experiment, one in which the license of the stage itself -- for the Globe was in the suburbs, the 'liberties' of London -- is called into question.

Here, even more so than in As You Like It, we have a plethora of motifs -- the disguised Duke, the untested ruler, the faithful retainer, the bawds and tapsters (and judges and magistrates) of every other play he ever wrote, all bundled into one. The issue at the center of it all is justice, and its application -- and it's not just Angelo who will be sorely tested. And, with Isabella, Shakespeare gives us his the most compelling and eloquent of all his female characters, one who, though initially reluctantly, will so challenge Angelo's justice that she wins all hearts, including -- unwittingly -- his.

'Judge not, that ye be not judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you againe" -- in this abjuration seems to lie the title and the whole matter of the play. And indeed, the language is that of the King James Bible, s first published in 1611, just six years or so after the play (though the phrasing of the line is nearly the same as Tyndale's translation of 1526, and Shakespeare would doubtless have been familiar with it from his youth).