‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Saturday, 21 January 2017


I've been looking at this picture trying to work out why I don't like it (it's Peter Paul Rubens's The Death of Decius Mus in Battle, 1618, and you can click to embiggen it). The most obvious answer to that question would be: because it's a mess. There are messy artworks I like a good deal, but Rubens's is not the kind of visual mess I like. It's not a Jackson Pollock kind of mess, for instance. I appreciate that the mess is not accidental; that this is a deliberate late-mannerist stylistic choice. Still. It may be that there's something both detachable and rotatable about the central figure—those two horses and their sliding-from-the-saddle riders, plus the standing warrior in between. The rest of the battlefield is arranged in a clear horizontal logic, sloping down slightly from left to right, but with an unambiguous which-way-is-up vector. That central blob could be turned pretty much into any new orientation and it would make just as much sense. The puzzle, for me, is that Rubens's subject here, battle, is messy, so I can't claim that his messy, crumbling composition is inappropriate. Still, I don't like it.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Dante and Clive: Live

Over the last few days I've been re-reading some Dante, in part because I've been kicking around the idea that Tennyson wrote his Maud on Dantean lines (you can read the post that resulted from that kickage here). Since my Italian is molto molto rudimentale, that has meant pulling up the online Divina Commedia, opening my English translations, and picking my way awkwardly through. Those translations happen (through no very carefully planned-out strategy) to be: the Dorothy L Sayers version of the whole poem, Robin Kirkpatrick's more recent and not-at-all-bad Penguin Inferno, and Clive James's 2014 rendering.

Pausing only to note what a great title "Penguin Inferno" would be for a major motion picture, I'll go on to:

I've always liked reading Clive James's prose. His writing provokes in me a mixture of delight and professional envy at his technical chops—writing good comic prose is really hard to do, and James writes truly excellent comic prose. His poetry has always seemed to me a lesser achievement, although writing poetry is clearly something that matters to him immensely. Still, I've read a lot of it (the poetry I mean), and acknowledging that comedy isn't the function of most of his verse, I have found some things to admire in some of it. So when his Dante translation came out in paperback a few months ago, I treated myself and bought the book.

I can't say I've been able to read the whole thing, straight through, which, I think, is what the book would like me to do. Not for want of trying, either. But I've had some long stretches with it. So far I'm struck mostly by a kind of mismatch between the stated aims, in the nifty preface, and the actual verse. I feel boorish saying so, actually, since the preface makes very plain that the whole, huge enterprise of Englishing, or Australianing, the Divine Comedy is all bound up with James's wife, an academic Dante specialist, and a woman James is very open about having repeatedly wronged. The two are separated now, and James is dying, which makes him offering-up this undertaking to her rather moving. And what he says about the difficulty of rendering the original is persuasive. He recalls his wife, from their courtship days, taking through some of the many patterns in Dante's writing:
One of the first moments she picked out of the text to show me what the master versifier could do was when Francesca tells Dante what drove her and Paolo over the brink and into the pit of sin. In English it would go something like:
We read that day for delight
About Lancelot, how love bound him.
She read it in Italian.
Noi leggevam quel giorno per delitto
Di Lancelotto, come l’amor lo strinse.
After the sound “-letto” end the first line, the placing of “-lotto” at the start of the second line gives it the power of a rhyme, only more so. How does that happen? You have to look within.
This is a simple but wonderfully telling point. James goes on to note how often English translations, by straining for the rhymes at the end of their lines (rhyme being so much harder in English than in Italian) butcher the echt Dantean tone. 'Dante isn’t thinking of rhyme,’ James says, ‘which is too easy in Italian to be thought a technical challenge: in fact for an Italian poet it’s not rhyming that’s hard.’ He adds:
Dante’s overt rhyme scheme is only the initial framework by which the verse structure moves forward. Within the terzina, there is all this other intense interaction going on. Dante is the greatest exemplar in literary history of the principle advanced by Vernon Watkins, and much approved by Philip Larkin, that good poetry doesn’t just rhyme at the end of the lines, it rhymes all along the line.
I like the thought of this last sentiment very much; and it sets us up to look for this internalised dynamic in James's actual verse. But to turn to the actual poetry is ... look, see, here're the opening lines of the Inferno:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
And here's Clive:
At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
Merely to think of it renews the fear—
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse. As you shall hear,
It lead to good things too, eventually.
Those first three lines, including that choppy, wholly monosyllablic opening line 'at the mid point of the path through life I found' (that's an almost robotic stretch of English) read like somebody stumbling instead of somebody getting into their stride. I query the merit in starting a broadly iambic verse epic with two trochees (AT the MID point) followed by a hurrying-to-catch-up anapest (ofthe PATH), starting to settle with two iambs before interrupting the patter with another trochee (LOST in). By the time the reader gets into the swing of things by lines 4, 5 and 6 she can hardly look back on the opening without feeling its awkwardness. Add to that the inversion in lines 7-8, a tic that jars in what is otherwise a confident contemporaneity of vocabulary and syntax: what's wrong with 'so bad, that death would be worse by only a degree'? Apart from the rhyme, of course. And the rhyme is not very deftly handled here. I don't mean the replacement of the terza rima with quatrains: that's a legitimate tactical decision made by the poet. I'm talking about the greetings-card tweeness of rhyming 'degree' with 'eventualee'. Fiddlededee.

I would also say that going back to the Dorothy L Sayers version has re-impressed me with how solid an achievement that old warhorse is. I note this in the understanding that Sayer's Dante is not very highly regarded, although maybe I'm wrong about that. The worst one can say of it is that it is unashamed of archaism: 'thee' and 'thou' are awkwardly sore-thumb English renderings of the perfectly ordinary Italian tu, and sometimes Sayers indulges in old-school idioms and inversions of idiomatic syntax in ways that must have been distracting even in the 1950s and which are actively wincing nowadays.
Breathe in me [Apollo], breathe, and from my bosom drive
Music like thine, when thou didst long ago
The limbs of Marsyas from their scabbard rive. [Sayers, Divine Comedy 3: Paradise, 1:19-21]
That aside, her verse is mostly very effective. Here's the famous opening of Paradiso 2:
O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,
desiderosi d’ascoltar, seguiti
dietro al mio legno che cantando varca,

tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
non vi mettete in pelago, ché forse,
perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.

L’acqua ch’io prendo già mai non si corse;
Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l’Orse.
And here's what Sayers makes of it (her Paradise was completed and edited by Barbara Reynolds after her death, but the impression given in the preface is that the lion's share of the finished work is still Sayers's):
O you that follow in light cockle shells,
For the song's sake, as my ship sails before,
Carving her course and singing as she sails

Turn back and seek the safety of the shore;
Tempt not the deep, lest, losing unawares
Me and yourselves, you come to port no more.

Oceans as yet undared my vessel dares;
Apollo steers, Minerva lends the breeze,
And the nine Muses point me to the Bears.
The only wrong-step here (and, really, I'm being supercritical in saying so) is that 'light' as a modifier of 'cockle-shells' is a touch ambiguous between flimsiness and illumination—are these sailors following in frail cockle-shells or sailing their cockle shells to follow the light?—a consideration that has more weight than it might otherwise given how important actual and spiritual light is for Dante's paradise. Otherwise it's perfectly decent verse; even somewhat better that decent. The way she plays with the internal near-rhyme of 'shells' and 'sails' in that first terzo (not to mention the 'cockle'/'carving'/'course' alliteration) reproduces some of the musical inscape James notes in the introduction to his edition I quote above. And here's James's version of those lines, from that very edition:
You sailors in your little boats that trail
My singing ship because so keen to hear,
By now it might be time for you to sail
Back till you see your shoreline reappear,
For here the sea is deep, and if you lose
My leading light just once, then steering clear
Might bring bewilderment. So you must choose—
Be warned, this sea was never sailed before.
Minerva breathes, Apollo steers, the nine
Muses will navigate me by the store
Of stars.
That's just ... off, I think. Prolix (ten and a half lines to do nine lines' work), with wrongfooting enjambments and odd phrasing. There's the weirdness of a sailor navigating by a 'store' of stars. Who talks like that? Apart, that is, from poets desperate for a rhyme with 'before'? And why lose the specific detail of Dante's named constellations Ursa Major and Minor? Beyond that: 'you are trailing my singing ship because so keen to hear' is really not very idiomatic English (to hear what?), 'By now it might be time for you to sail/Back' is slack and chatty, and crunches pointlessly over its enjambment; 'steering clear' is inappropriately ambiguous between 'setting a clear path into ocean open' and 'avoiding something', and 'Minerva breathes', whilst sticking close to Minerva spira, doesn't convey that what Minerva is breathing is the breeze that fills the sail, and leaves us with the shadowy sense of Minerva sitting belowdecks somewhere, wheezing. Plus 'the nine/Muses' throws out the prosody so sharply it's almost like the verse twists its ankle at that point.

Another example, again from the Paradiso, since that's the part I've been reading the most, lately. In Canto 14, Dante rises above the sphere of the sun into the sphere of Mars. The canto's opening simile, quite famous, is also quite tricky to put clearly into English:
Dal centro al cerchio, e sì dal cerchio al centro
movesi l’acqua in un ritondo vaso,
secondo ch’è percosso fuori o dentro:

ne la mia mente fé sùbito caso
questo ch’io dico, sì come si tacque
la glorïosa vita di Tommaso,

per la similitudine che nacque
del suo parlare e di quel di Beatrice,
a cui sì cominciar, dopo lui, piacque: [Paradiso, 14:1-9]
Sayers/Reynolds go with:
Water in a round bowl makes ripples glide
Centre to rim, or back from rim to centre,
As from within 'tis jarred, or from outside.

This image dropped into my mind instanter
When Thomas' glorious life had said his say;
Like an apt simile it seemed to enter

In likeness of the verbal interplay
'Twixt Beatrice and him; for she, as suited,
Her pleasure, thus took up her cue straightway:
A bit clumsy, that 'instanter' (for the rhyme), and rather creaky with the 'tis' and 'twixt' and the wrenching of what would work much more effectively as 'it seemed to enter like an apt simile'. But it gets the image across. James:
The water moves from rim to centre when
A round container is struck from without.
The water moves, when it is struck again—
But from within—the other way about,
Centre to rim. This proof from science fell
Into my mind the instant that the soul,
So glorious, of Thomas, ceased to tell
His story, because Beatrice took the role
Of speaker, and was pleased to follow thus:
That's just a muddle. 'But from within—the other way about' is worthy of The Stuffed Owl, and its just hard to get a sense from this of who's banging which bowl and why. I don't want to give the impression I'm doing whatever the opposite of cherry-picking is, so one last instance. On to Mars:
Ben m’accors’ io ch’io era più levato,
per l’affocato riso de la stella,
che mi parea più roggio che l’usato.

Con tutto ’l core e con quella favella
ch’è una in tutti, a Dio feci olocausto,
qual conveniesi a la grazia novella.

E non er’ anco del mio petto essausto
l’ardor del sacrificio, ch’io conobbi
esso litare stato accetto e fausto;

ché con tanto lucore e tanto robbi
m’apparvero splendor dentro a due raggi,
ch’io dissi: «O Elïòs che sì li addobbi!». [Paradiso 14, 85-96]
That I'd been lifted up I saw by this:
The warm smile of the star, whose burning ball
Seemed ruddier to me than his custom is.

With my whole heart, and in that tongue which all
Men share, I made burnt-offering to the Lord,
Such as to this new grace was suitable,

And ere the sacrificial fire had soared
Forth of my breast, I knew my prayer had sped
Accepted and found favourable accord;

For such bright splendours, and so ruby-red
Within two rays appeared, "O Eloi,"
I cried, "that giv'st them thus the accolade!"
So that last word is not much of a rhyme, and there's a stiffness here and there in this version. James: 'I saw myself moved'
Up to a plane exalted even more,
Of whose high ranking I was given proof
By Mars. More rose-coloured than before
It now seemed. With my heart not held aloof,
But fully yielded, I employed the tongue--
Befitting all the loving care and grace
That lit the favours I was now among--
Of one and all when making, in that place,
The burning sacrifice to God, and still
It burned my breast though I knew it was
Accepted, and propitious. For the spill
Of splendour was so shimmering because
Of two beams, and so roseate, I said,
"Divine Sun, that so glorifies this!" As ...
I'll stop there. Fourteen lines for twelve lines' work; some padding ('not held aloof/But fully yielded' doubles up its point not because Dante does, but because James needs an -oof rhyme). Rose-coloured works in Italian (and French) for pinky-red, but not in English, where roses (as Lewis Carroll knew) might just as easily be white; and 'more rose-coloured than before/It now seemed' is a pointless and therefore distracting inversion of the natural word order. 'The spill/Of splendour was so shimmering because/Of two beams ...' starts well, but pisses it all away in its last four words: that clunking 'because'! That what-are-we-doing-woodwork-now? double beam!

The most damning thing about this Jamesian Dante is that, unlike his smooth onflowing prose, it really doesn't lend itself to long bouts of reading. It clogs and turns about and stalls, or at least that's how I have found it.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Divina Co-"Maud"-ia

This is how Tennyson's beautifully strange 'monodrama' Maud (1855) opens:
I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood,
Its lips in the field above are dabbled with blood-red heath,
The red-ribb’d ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,
And Echo there, whatever is ask’d her, answers “Death.”

For there in the ghastly pit long since a body was found,
His who had given me life—O father! O God! was it well?—
Mangled, and flatten’d, and crush’d, and dinted into the ground:
There yet lies the rock that fell with him when he fell.
The unnamed narrator (nobody in this poem is named, with the sole exception of the woman with whom the narrator falls in love, the titular Maud)—the narrator has been rendered distraught to the point of near-insanity by the suicide of his father, who killed himself because 'a vast speculation had fail’d'. A financial speculation, that is. The poem's speaker rails at the evils of 1850s Britain in a Thomas Carlyle manner, frets that he has inherited the black blood of his father ('What! am I raging alone as my father raged in his mood?/Must I too creep to the hollow and dash myself down and die?') and ponders 'the singular beauty of Maud', a girl he played with when they were both children and who now lives in the great hall. Maud's father has done well out of the financial speculations that ruined the narrator's father, and although the narrator resolves to withdraw himself from the world he ends up falling in love with the now seventeen-year-old beauty.

Maud is in three parts. In Part 1, by far the longest of the poem, the narrator falls in love with Maud, and she with him The course of true love unsmoothly-running, Maud's brother (the proxy for Maud's lupine father, who is off in London making more money) disapproves of the match. He thinks Maud should marry a local aristocrat, disdainfully called 'the babe-faced lord' by the poem's narrator. The brother's refusal of permission leads to him being called 'the Sultan' by the two young lovers. An elegant party is planned at the hall where Maud can dance with the babe-faced-lord, but the narrator is not worried: Maud has promised to sneak out at dawn and meet him for a love tryst, and Part 1 ends in the hall's flower garden as the narrator excitedly-anxiously awaits her coming:
Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,
Come hither, the dances are done,
In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls,
Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls,
To the flowers, and be their sun.

There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, “She is near, she is near;”
And the white rose weeps, “She is late;”
The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear;”
And the lily whispers, “I wait.”

She is coming, my own, my sweet,
Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat, Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead;
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red. [Maud, 1:902-23]
That understated echo of the blood-coloured foliage at the poem's opening strikes an appropriately ominous note. In Part 2, the speaker is suddenly in France, where he has fled to escape prosecution. Backstory: Maud's brother and the babe-faced-lord surprised Maud with the narrator in the garden, and the brother rebuked and struck him. They immediately fought a duel (a detail which has always bothered me: shouldn't it take longer to arrange a duel?) in which the narrator killed the brother. In Brittany he learns that, Ophelia-like, Maud has herself died of grief, which news is too much for him. He himself loses his wits. Part 2 ends in an insane asylum, where he believes himself dead, but buried too shallowly:
Dead, long dead,
Long dead!
And my heart is a handful of dust,
And the wheels go over my head,
And my bones are shaken with pain,
For into a shallow grave they are thrust,
Only a yard beneath the street,
And the hoofs of the horses beat, beat,
The hoofs of the horses beat,
Beat into my scalp and my brain, [Maud 2:239-48]
The brief Part 3 is the one over which critics most vocally disagree. The speaker has now, according to Tennyson, recovered his wits: 'sane but shattered'.
Thro’ cells of madness, haunts of horror and fear,
That I come to be grateful at last for a little thing:
My mood is changed, for it fell at a time of year
When the face of night is fair on the dewy downs,
And the shining daffodil dies, and the Charioteer
And starry Gemini hang like glorious crowns
Over Orion’s grave low down in the west,
That like a silent lightning under the stars
She seem’d to divide in a dream from a band of the blest,
And spoke of a hope for the world in the coming wars— [Maud, 3:344-53]
The Crimean War, that is: to which the narrator goes in the hope of a glorious and redemptive death. Not sane behaviour in my book; others have disagreed.

There's a lot to say about all this, but I want to register one idea in particular, something which occurred to me for the first time this week. In a nutshell: was Dante in Tennyson's mind when he wrote Maud? He certainly read and loved Dante; his 'Ulysses' is based on Inferno 26, and The Vision of Sin (1842) ends with a sort of panegyric to Dante himself.

Go back to Maud's opening stanza, quoted above. It kicks the poem off with a dark wood, beyond which is a ghastly pit, in which everything spoken returns as 'Death', and which drips with a silent horror of blood. Sound familiar? Maud's narrator finds himself in the middle of this selva oscura, contemplating the way nature violates itself ('the whole little wood where I sit is a world of plunder and prey' he says). In the Commedia, Dante finds his way out of the wood blocked by a savage a wolf, and Virgil tells him he must find another way,
ché questa bestia, per la qual tu gride,
non lascia altrui passar per la sua via,
ma tanto lo 'mpedisce che l'uccide;

e ha natura sì malvagia e ria,
che mai non empie la bramosa voglia,
e dopo 'l pasto ha più fame che pria. [Inferno, 1:94-99]
'This beast, that makes you cry out in fear, allows no-one to pass, and instead attacks and destroys them; and has a nature so malign and ruthless that no amount of feeding can glut its greedy will and rather, after eating, is even hungrier than before.' In Tennyson's poem, Maud's father is the 'a gray old wolf and a lean' [Maud, 1:471]; and he, through his son, represents the implacable opposition to the narrator's love for Maud.

Since the narrator can't go on to a happy life with Maud he instead goes down, into the same pit that claimed his father, through cells of madness and haunts of horror and fear. Just like Dante. The key difference, of course, is that Dante is an external observer of the madness, horror and fear of others, where Maud's narrator not only re-presents but himself is the madness, horror and fear. But that's of a part with the project as Tennyson conceived it ('the peculiarity of this poem is that different phases of passion in one person take the place of different characters' is how he put it).

It would take quite a lot of labour to develop this notion, that Maud is a deliberate reworking of the Divina Commedia: more than I have time for at the moment. But the idea throws up some interesting implications. It would mean, for instance, that all the febrile love-lyric-ing of Part 1 is actually part of the narrator's Hell, which makes a kind of sense to me (Paolo and Francesca, and so on). It would mean that the up-reaching mountain of Purgatory becomes inverted into a shallow grave, and that Heaven means not just a restoration of sanity (the madness having been purged) but the narrator being elevated to the 'Heaven of Mars' (Paradiso cantos 14-16), where the souls of the warriors of God are picked out as rubies in the empyrion, and Mars is 'redder than usual, a bright and splendid ruby light': 'la stella, che mi parea più roggio che l’usato ... ché con tanto lucore e tanto robbi/m’apparvero splendor' [Paradiso 14:86-94]. By this point in the Paradiso Dante is being guided not by Vergil but Beatrice herself; just as Tennyson's narrator is being guided through the starfield by the spirit of Maud, who has 'divided from a band of the blest, ... and pointed to Mars,/As he glow’d like a ruddy shield on the Lion’s breast.' Here's Waterhouse's painting of Tennyson's Beatrice-y heroine:

That lass's hair is più roggio che l’usato in representations of Maud, I think. It works, mind you.

In all this, Tennyson is, I think, as much working with Dante-filtered-by-English-Romanticism as he is going back to the echt Florentine. In this interesting essay on the influence of Dante on 19th- and 20th-century poetry, John Bayley thinks that
in our poetry, Shelley is the prime case. Keble observed that the intensity of the Paradiso is produced by a harmony of abstractions – light, motion and music – and Steve Ellis points out that this is precisely the Shelleyan formula in his long poems, notably in the last act of Prometheus Unbound.
It's also very precisely the formula Tennyson follows in Maud. We tend to think of Byron as a bigger influence on Tennyson than Shelley, I suppose; but of course Byron was also a deep-dyed Dantean:
Both in ‘Epipsychidion’ and in the unfinished Triumph of Life Shelley uses the elements of Dante’s poetry to create poetry of a wholly different kind. Shelley couldn’t abide anything in the nature of an orderly and regulated hierarchy, whether of crimes or virtues; his wife recorded, moreover, that he ‘shrunk instinctively from portraying human passion, with its mixture of good and evil, of disappointment and disquiet’. But no other English poet has made more inspired use of the music and the feel of Dante’s verse, transubstantiating its often homely precision and clarity into an equal precision of dream-like beauty and melancholy. Byron’s interest was much more local, centring on the incestuous figures and the guilty lovers. Guilt meant nothing to Shelley, but to the Scotch Calvinist latent in Byron it meant a great deal, and in his translation of the Paolo and Francesca episode, the part of the poem which especially engrossed him, as it was to engross in more sentimental fashion the later Victorian poets, he emphasises the curse upon the lovers and the way in which they are compelled to fulfil their ‘evil fortunes’.
One last point: Bayley astutely (I think) notes:
The tragedy implicit in the Commedia is of course the political one, the betrayal of an imperial ideal, the greed and wickedness of those who in life have blindly betrayed it, or sought in vain to uphold it, and whom now in his great afterscheme Dante makes articulate and perceiving. For Browning, too, 13th-century Italy provided, as Ellis says, the suitable setting to study a soul whose divisions are a microcosm of a wider political polarisation and non-fulfilment.
This also explains, I would say, why Maud makes its connections between the doomed love of the narrator and Maud herself on the one hand, and the hellscape of Britain's broken socio-political world, where 'a Mammonite mother kills her babe for a burial fee,/And Timour-Mammon grins on a pile of children’s bones.'

Friday, 13 January 2017

Plunging Stained-Glass Ship

Amazing piece of glassy art, this: Burne Jones's "The Viking Ship" (1883).

Monday, 9 January 2017


Christopher R. W. Nevinson, 'From a Paris Plane' (1917). More Nevinson, including more plane sketches, here.

Samuel Johnson, science-fictioneer

Samuel Johnson's 1757 review of Soame Jenyns’s Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil is a masterpiece of the form. Considering the entire ‘universal system’, Jenyns says, ‘there is no more pain in it than what is necessary to the production of happiness.’ Johnson replies, with a lovely understatement, that perhaps ‘the degree of evil might have been less without any impediment to the good.’ When Jenyns wonders in passing whether there may be, in the larger scale of things, creatures higher than we who might treat us as we treat the lower animals, Johnson develops this idea with a sharpness worthy of Phil Dick:
I cannot resist the temptation of contemplating this analogy, which, I think, he might have carried further, very much to the advantage of his argument. He might have shown, that these "hunters, whose game is man," have many sports analogous to our own. As we drown whelps and kittens, they amuse themselves, now and then, with sinking a ship, and stand round the fields of Blenheim, or the walls of Prague, as we encircle a cockpit. As we shoot a bird flying, they take a man in the midst of his business or pleasure, and knock him down with an apoplexy. Some of them, perhaps, are virtuosi, and delight in the operations of an asthma, as a human philosopher in the effects of the air-pump. To swell a man with a tympany is as good sport as to blow a frog. Many a merry bout have these frolick beings at the vicissitudes of an ague, and good sport it is to see a man tumble with an epilepsy, and revive and tumble again, and all this he knows not why. As they are wiser and more powerful than we, they have more exquisite diversions; for we have no way of procuring any sport so brisk and so lasting, as the paroxysms of the gout and stone, which, undoubtedly, must make high mirth, especially if the play be a little diversified with the blunders and puzzles of the blind and deaf. We know not how far their sphere of observation may extend. Perhaps, now and then, a merry being may place himself in such a situation, as to enjoy, at once, all the varieties of an epidemical disease, or amuse his leisure with the tossings and contortions of every possible pain, exhibited together.
Finally, the zinger: 'Many of the books which now crowd the world, may be justly suspected to be written for the sake of some invisible order of beings, for surely they are of no use to any of the corporeal inhabitants of the world.'

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Herbert George Wells

One thing I'll be doing in 2017 is starting a new blog (another one! I know!) to log, and reflect upon, my reading of the whole of H G Wells's oeuvre. I need to get properly on top of Wells for a Thing I may or may not be doing (I'm sorry to be evasive, but no contract has as yet been signed, so I can't say more), and I do find blogging a useful way of keeping track of my thoughts. That just leaves the name: what should I call it?

The Wells at the Blog's End
Herblog George Wells
Blogging the Wells Dry
All's Wells That Blogs Wells
The Food of the Blogs and How It Came to Earth
The Bloggic Argonauts
"The HTML Machine"
"No One Would Have Believed, In The First Years Of The Twenty-First Century, That Wellsian Affairs Were Being Watched Keenly and Closely by Intelligences Bloggier Than Man’s And Yet As Mortal As His Own"

Bit of a mouthful, that last one.