‘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.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Joseph Cottle 1: "Poems" (1795)

Cottle was Coleridge's friend and publisher; but also a poet in his own right. I've been reading his 1795 collection of Poems, off and on, to get a sense of what he was about. And I don't mean only to snark; some of his lines are quite good. But some are not. Today's examples are from his long poem in heroic couplets 'John the Baptist':


'The God of Abraham tun'd his mental ear'. No. I can't visualise a 'mental ear' either.


What's a 'latchet'? No matter. Have you ever wondered how it is birds are able to fly? If you guessed: invisible hands, holding them up from underneath then congratulations, you win our star prize!


'Plumy tribes' is particularly wincing.

Scattered Thoughts on Animal Ethics and 'Divinanimality'



Earlier this year I read certain books on 'animal ethics' and 'divinanimality' for review, and blogged my progress through them. I meant to post a round-up of links to those individual posts at the time, but didn't get around to it. So here, better late than never, are the posts:

First, I read Cynthia Willett's monograph Interspecies Ethics (2014) at some length.

Second, I read Andrew Linzey's edited collection of essays that sets out to prove The Link Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence (2014)

Thirdly I read Stephen D Moore (ed), Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology (2014). One of the contributors, Eric Daryl Meyer, responded (courteously) in the comments to my not-very-positive review, and pointed out a few things I missed. Accordingly I read Professor Meyer's essay at greater length, here. Discussion continued in the comments.

Sticking with 'Divinanimality', I found little of substance in Erika Murphy's essay: 'Devouring the Human: Digestion of a Corporeal Soteriology'.


Monday, 29 December 2014

My Secret Fear of the Theatre

I went to a number of plays this year, an observation remarkable only in the context of how rarely I go to the theatre. In part this reflects the restrictions and exigencies of having small children (although, that said, two of our theatre ‘outings’ in 2014 were with the kids in mind: Emile and the Detectives and the Slava Snowsnow, both at the South Bank). Partly it is a bias, or prejudice, by which, my sensibilities having been shaped by cinema and (especially) TV, I prefer my acted drama in screen form. I sometimes joke with my friend Dan Rebellato, Professor of Theatre at Royal Holloway University of London no less, and a man who feels his day incomplete if he doesn’t see three separate avant garde theatrical performances at three different dramatic spaces—that I find his love for the living stage incomprehensible. And he jokes in return that my obsession with science fiction strikes him exactly the same way. But where the joke is, I suspect, close to the truth for him, I’m not really baffled by his love for the Stage. On those rare occasions where I do see a play, and a story is told in the sweat and breath of present actors, I am always struck by the power of the occasion. In fact, it is probably that very power that disinclines me from going to see more live plays. It’s like William Empson says, in his Essays on Renaissance Literature:
It was quite frequent on the sands for one of the kids to bellow because Punch was too hard to take, and this unfortunate would be carried away by its nurse; but the elder children, when I was one, proud that they could take it, would laugh on till the final hanging of Punch as their Victorian parents had done at the same age. I have been secretly afraid of the theatre ever since, but I feel I know what it is about.
Both my undergraduate degree and the subject of my PhD were English Literature/Classics, and in both cases the Classics side was heavily inclined toward the theatrical: my UG dissertation was ‘colour terms in Euripides’ (exciting, no?) and my PhD looked at Robert Browning and (mostly) Aeschylus and Euripides. The thing about the Athenian stage is that it was a holy ritual as well as being the performance of a diverting narrative; and the heart of the holy ritual is fear—a timor divini either elevating or a debilitating, depending on the individual. People gather together and recite their resonant rote-learned lines in church, and in the theatre, and in both venues they do so to ward something off. It’s the thing being warded that scares me, I suspect; though I wouldn’t go so far as Empson in claiming quite so vehemently to know what it is about. The intervening screen (televisual, or cinematic) filters out much of this ancient numinous potency. Indeed, many of our screen texts are dimly aware of this fact, and respond by ramping up the volume. To capture the merest glimmer of the awful wonder of Lear’s pentuplet ‘never’ thousands must die on screen, disaster and catastrophe must be hyperbolically bodied forth in global disaster, city-obliterating explosions and the like. It’s a losing game, of course, and the more cinema increases the intensity the less we feel it. This, incidentally, is an occasion for relief rather than anything else; if we really felt the force of the deaths in Star Wars or The Avengers we'd be catatonic by the end of the performance.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Ruskin

I wonder exactly when the shift in the public perception of Ruskin occurred, from seeing him as a great sage and inspiration (as Gandhi, for example, saw him) to seeing him as a Victorian weirdo unable to contemplate his wife's pubic hair without freaking out—to, in short, seeing him as risible and dismissable? Of course, whilst our attention is wholly on our own sense of superiority to Ruskin's oddball sexual hang-ups, we are able to ignore the fact that he posed some of the most profound and relevant questions (today, if anything, more relevant than they have ever been) worth asking about the logic of Capitalism. This fact may not be a co-incidence. Sesame and Lilies 3, for instance:
Which of us, in brief word, is to do the hard and dirty work for the rest, and for what pay? Who is to do the pleasant and clean work, and for what pay? Who is do no work, and for what pay? And there are curious moral and religious questions connected with these. How far is it lawful to suck a portion of the soul out of a great many persons, in order to put the abstracted psychical quantities together and make one very beautiful or ideal soul? If we had to deal with mere blood instead of spirit, (and the thing might literally be done--as it has been done with infants before now)--so that it were possible, by taking a certain quantity of blood from the arms of a given number of the mob, and putting it all into one person, to make a more azure-blooded gentleman of him, the thing would of course be managed; but secretly, I should conceive. But now, because it is brain and soul that we abstract, not visible blood, it can be done quite openly, and we live, we gentlemen, on delicatest prey, after the manner of weasels; that is to say, we keep a certain number of clowns digging and ditching, and generally stupefied, in order that we, being fed gratis, may have all the thinking and feeling to ourselves.

Did you ever send your Wife to Camberwell?


Well? Did you?

[This is from the title page to the Victorian farce Duck Hunting, first performed at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 1862.]

Friday, 19 December 2014

Early Experiments with Electricity


File under: WHY IN GOD'S NAME DID THEY PERSEVERE WITH THESE EXPERIMENTS??
It was in the year 1746 that those celebrated experiments were made by Muschenbroek, Cuneus, and Kleist. ... one of the party who was holding the bottle attempted to disengage the wire communicating with the prime conductor of a powerful machine; the consequence was, that he received a shock, which ... his fright magnified and exaggerated in an amusing manner. In describing the effect produced on himself by taking the shock from a thin glass bowl, Muschenbroek stated in a letter to Réaumer, that "he felt himself struck in his arms, shoulders, and breast, so that he lost his breath, and was two days before he recovered from the effects of the blow and the terror," adding, "he would not take a second shock for the kingdom of France." M. Allamand, on taking a shock, declared "that he lost the use of his breath for some minutes, and then felt so intense a pain along his right arm, that he feared permanent injury from it." Winkler stated that the first time he underwent the experiment, "he suffered great convulsions through his body; that it put his blood into agitation; that he feared an ardent fever, and was obliged to have recourse to cooling medicines." The lady of this professor took the shock twice, and was rendered so weak by it, that she could hardly walk. The third time it gave her bleeding at the nose.
From Henry Minchin Noad, Lectures on Electricity (1844).

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Richard Dadd, Frontispiece to The Kentish Coronal (1841)


This is pre-insanity Dadd, and apparently one of the works that established his reputation as an artist. Not sure about that, myself; but it's nice to see the county in which I grew to adulthood recorded. The 'Invicta' motto, and the white horse on its back legs, is still on all Kent County Council buildings and paraphernalia to this day. As for the volume itself:


Monday, 15 December 2014

Peter Blake, Four Wood Engravings for "Under Milk Wood" (1999)







Walter Savage Landor, 'Britannia' (1858)

OK, I said the last one was the last; but this is only one line long, and I rather like the implicit imperial vainglory in it (since Landor himself was a lifelong Republican). It's 'Number 368' of the Dry Sticks, Fagoted, and it reads:
Ubicunque pontus est ibi Britannia est.

Wheresoever is the sea, there is Britain.
It was, it seems, a phrase often quoted by British writers in the second half of the 19th-century, to stress our imperial reach and manifest destiny (check it out; scroll down past the first hit, which is Landor's original). What's really interesting about this is that Landor is riffing (as it were) off another famous Republican poet and Latinist, John Milton. In a letter of 15 August 1666, to Peter Heimbach, Milton wrote: 'Ubicunque est bene, Patria est': 'wheresoever one is happy, that is one's homeland'. A rather different sentiment, I'd say!

Right: definitely enough Landorian Latin, now. Onwards!

Water Savage Landor, Ad Suthei (1858)

The third, and last (for a while) of these: since I need to crack on with some real work. So, another poem from Dry Sticks, Fagoted, these hendecesyllabics are addressed to Landor's close friend, Robert Southey. They are translated into rather halting eleven-syllable lines (harder to get the proper hendecesyllabic effect in English than you might think, it turns out). As with the previous post, it's tricky to know how to replicate in English the effect of repeating the same word in a different inflection, in the last line.

To Southey

Heu patrum optime, quanta perdidisti
Vitae commoda, filio vocato
Illuc unde homini nefas redire!
At scis qui vocatesse redditurum
Detersis lacrimis in omne seclum.
Si tanta abstulit auferetque paucis,
Paucis, quod superbat tibi, reliquit ...
Sublime ingenium, probos amicos,
Et domum unanimam haud dolore solo.
Fles natum pater, atque fles acerbé:
Mox tecum reputes, pius tenerque
Quanto fleret acerbius parentem
Et solatia quae forent ademti!
Non ut parcius hunc minusve amanter
Tandem respicias rogo aut probarem,
Sed suave alloquium venustaque ora,
Quae natura dabat, sinas perisse
Et quodcumque dare assolet juventae,
Impertita licet minore cura.
Tu, quodcunque erat unico his in annis,
Doctrinae bona sanctitudinemque
Morum, qua melius probentur esse
Jam ducas utinam, petoque, Suthei!
Famae pars ea magna sunt paternae,
Perennique perenniora fama.

Alas, strength of our Fathers: how much is lost,
Of their upright way of living for that man
on whom men’s evil rebounds—the poet-son!
But be aware who speaks of reclamation,
who has wiped away each generation’s tears.
Since he took away much from those with little
only little remains to give—surpassing you…
of your sublime character, upright friendship,
your well-ordered, never sad or lonely home.
You grieve, son to father, and grieve bitterly:
pressing innocence, kindness and tenderness,
yet how much harsher for the weeping parent
who would have been deprived of suchlike comfort!
Not through any lessening or lack of love
that could at last look, or ever ask to test,
but from these eloquent and graceful mouths
that nature gave, that you never relinquished
and whatever the saying is to give youth,
having fitly communicated small cares.
you alone gave us, through such uncertain years,
the virtue and the sanctity of well-learnt
manners, making us more upright and honest:
lead us now in that, I beseech you, Southey!
May you share the great fame of your parents’—
Perennial fame that lasts forever.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Walter Savage Landor, 'Dolendus' (1858)


Another piece of Landorian Latin from Dry Sticks Fagoted. I had several goes at this: it's a little tricky to get right. 'Dolendus' is the gerund of 'deleo', which means both 'physical pain, hurt, suffering' and 'mental pain, grief, lamenting' [update: my mistake. Phil, in the comments, is right: this is the Gerundive, not the Gerund--'to be lamented', 'lamentable']. 'Dolentur', in the first line, means 'with pain or sorrow, painfully', and the repetition of terminology is hard to recapture in English. The sense, broadly, is: 'Unhappiness itself is when a man unhappily says ['dixerit' is third-person singular perfect active subjunctive of dīcō, 'I say', and the subjunctive is famously tricky to put across in English] he had once been a friend, now he is unworthy of that name.'

Dolendus ille qui dolenter dixerit
Erat olim amicus, esse nunc indignus est.

The saddest thing is that man who'll sadly say
He who'd been a friend once is unworthy today.

Suffering itself: the man who will sadly say
He was my friend once, but he is not so today.

Grievousness itself is he who'll say in grief
His passing time as my true friend: it was too brief.

Or maybe without the clunking rhyme:

The most painful thing: he who's pained to say:
He had been my friend once; now he's unworthy.
Still not there. Hmm.

Water Savage Landor, 'Amicus Meus, Strenuus Miles, Vulneratus' (1855)



AMICUS MEUS, STRENUUS MILES, VULNERATUS.

Perfusa quanto sanguine Hyems tepet
Britannico de fonte! Virilium
Semper fuisti victimarum
Prodiga, Taurica Chersonese!

Quis vulneratum deferet auribus
Nuper relictae celsum animi virum?
Pallebit ut conjux sub Haemo
Vipereo moritura morsu.

Spes insusurret credula credulae
Jam jam reversurum edomito Scythii,
Jam jamque sanandum; salutem
Contulerit popularis aura.

Equus sed idem non revehet domum,
Discerptus ille est sulphureo globo,
Restabat ante atque inter hostes
Solus eques, medius suorum.

Plerosque mortis perpetuus sopor
Pressit : quibusdem cara parentium,
Quibusdam et ipsis cariora,
Nomina contremuere labro.

Sublimiore, O Anglia, anhelitu
Nunquam attigisti culmina gloriae,
Nec fortiores militfirunt
Sub ducibus magis imperitis.


'To a Friend of Mine, A Hard-Fighting Soldier, Wounded'

So much gushing blood, enough to warm Winter,
flows from British fountains! It was always men
who were your sacrificial victims,
and in great numbers, Tauric Chersonese!

Who will carry such wounding news to her ears
tell the new widow of her hero-husband?
She will pale, like the wife under Haemus,
Bitten by a viper and certain to die.

Hope whispers credible credulity:
Right now he's coming, leaving conquered Scythia!
And right now: restored to health; delivered!
Or so the general rumour tells the story.

But his own horse can't carry him back home now,
Ripped to shreds by a sulphurous cannonball;
He stood, enemies before and beside,
The only cavalryman left alive there.

The rest taken by death's perpetual sleep.
As it pressed them some called for their dear parents,
And some for others dearer than themselves,
Whose names trembled on their dying lips.

Such heights, o England, strenuously achieved
Were never before reached: such peaks of glory;
Never have such brave soldiers
Served under officers so incompetent.


--------
Note. The friend was Major David Paynter. The Athenaeum in 1899 noted the circumstances of this poem: 'Major (afterwards General) David Paynter, H. A , was in command of 1-A Battery at Inkerman, when his horse was shot under him. Landor's Latin verses on this incident were published in the Athenaeum, January 6th, 1855.' The verses were afterwards collected in Dry Sticks, Fagoted by Walter Savage Landor (1858)

So, yes: this is a Crimean War poem. The 'Tauric Chersonese' is the peninsular of Tauris, as in Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris: modern-day Crimea. In Euripides' play, Iphigenia's opening monologue reveals her duties as the priestess of the goddess: 'There is a law here. A law that says that if a Greek man sets foot on this land, he will be sacrificed to the goddess. My duty is to purify him and to prepare him for the slaughter. The rest of the work—work that can not be talked about—is done inside. Inside the temple.' [George Theodoridis' translation]. Hence the reference to male sacrifices, in the first stanza. Similarly, 'Scythia' is the poetic-Latin for 'Russia'. Other references are equally classical: Mount Haemus is a Balkan peak, whose name means 'bloody'. The identity of the woman, snake-bitten and dying, is probably Eurydice, who was bitten by a viper and passed into the underworld from where Orpheus later rescued her. Ovid's Metamorphosis 10:77 has Orpheus grieving for his loss on 'windswept Haemus'. The point, presumably, is that Orpheus eventually got his woman back; and so too did Landor's friend emerge from the valley of death. Still: not even Tennyson's 'Charge of the Light Brigade' was so direct in calling the idiocy of the generals as Landor is, in the last line here.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Elena Ferrante

A rather more positive vision of the role of literary critics than is usual:
I appreciated James Wood’s review very much. The critical attention that he dedicated to my books not only helped them find readers but in a way it also helped me to read them. Writers, because they write, are condemned never to be readers of their own stories. What happens to the reader when he reads a story for the first time is effectively what the narrator experiences while he writes. The memory of first putting a story into words will always prevent writers from reading their work as an ordinary reader would. Critics like Wood not only help readers to read but especially, perhaps, help the author as well. Their function also becomes fundamental in helping faraway literary worlds to migrate.
From this interview with The New York Times.

Walcott: Puns as Praise



No opera, no gilded columns, no wine-dark seats,
no Penelope scouring the stalls with delicate glasses,
no practiced ecstasy from the tireless tenor, no sweets
and wine at no interval, no altos, no basses
and violins sobbing as one; no opera house,
no museum, no actual theatre, no civic center
—and what else? Only the huge doors of clouds
with the setting disc through which we leave and enter,
only the deafening parks with their jumping crowds,
and the thudding speakers. Only the Government
Buildings down by the wharf, and another cruise ship
big as the capital, all blue glass and cement.
No masterpieces in huge frames to worship,
on such banalities has life been spent
in brightness, and yet there are the days
when every street corner rounds itself into
a sunlit surprise, a painting or a phrase,
canoes drawn up by the market, the harbour’s blue
the barracks. So much to do still, all of it praise.


The 'setting disc through which we leave and enter', I suppose, is a Wordsworthian sun ('a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused,/Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns' and so on); and one of the questions this poem poses us is whether there's a deeper, we might say spiritual, significance in the principle of punning by which it structures itself. I don't just mean stuff like 'wine-dark seats', fine and groany though that pun is. I mean the visual punnning whereby the architecture of clouds and the architecture of opera houses are somehow juxtaposable, art and nature become versions of one another. It's the same gag as Joyce (ordinary life punningly recapitulates Homer), but that's not a problem; sometimes the oldest puns are the best; and like Joyce Walcott understands that puns' doubleness has depth that resonates in important ways, where plain one-to-one significance doesn't. I have no problem with puns, you'll be unsurprised to discover. And there's genuine splendour in the poem's last nine words. Now, that's a place to get to. Now there's a way to approach life!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Some More Thoughts on Harry Potter; or 'Kings in Disguise'



Gearing up to lecture on Harry Potter tomorrow, and pondering the sheer scale of its popular success. Really, it's only the more astonishing now that it is starting to wane and we can look back upon the phenomenon with a more objective eye. What was it about these novels that made them so huge? 'Because they're relatable,' says my fourteen-year-old daughter and she has a point: kids at school read stories about kids at a school (except, a better, more wonderful school where kids learn magic) and connect with them. But actually I wonder if there's something more particular going on here.

When I last pondered these novels, after re-reading the whole lot earlier this year, I thought there was an unresolved contradiction in Rowling's attitude to 'pure blood' as a value and source of power:
On the one hand, there's the sustained critique of those Voldermortians (Voldermorticians?) and Malfoyers who believe that being 'pure blood' makes a person superior to mudbloods and muggles. Rowling makes the point repeatedly that they're idiots for thinking this; and quite right too. Plus you have Dumbledore's commendable and repeated insistence that a person is defined not by their birth but their actions. A bloodline is not some magic passport to special-ness or power. On the other hand is the fact that Potter's early life has been protected from being Death Ate by, precisely, his blood; or more precisely his mother's blood. And his aunt's. And Voldemort is undone by the same magic substance. ‘He took your blood and rebuilt his living body with it!' explains Dead-Dumbledore; 'your blood in his veins, Harry, Lily’s protection inside both of you!’ [Deathly Hallows, 568]. So it turns out a bloodline is a magic passport to special-ness or power after all. It just has to be the right bloodline! Which, when we come to think of it, is precisely what the pure blood brigade have always claimed.
I still think this is a problem, only now I think I'd frame it slightly differently. It's going to sound oblique (and in order to explain it I'm going to quote C K Chesterton at length, which may simply put you off), but bear with me. So: I think that, amongst other things, Rowling is trying to do a Dickensian something with her YA fantasy, not just formally but in terms of an agenda of social justice: girls are as clever as boys; racial purity is a noisome and destructive lie; fairness, decency, friendship and love are as important on the social as the personal level. I'd even be prepared to believe that Rowling is self-consciously 'doing' Dickens: big novels, bursting with characters and incident and so on. But actually I think that Rowling doesn't have the heart of Dickens. I think she has the heart of Scott. And to explain what I mean, here comes the long passage from Chesterton's 1906 Dickens book. It's one of my favourite pieces of critical prose, actually, with respect to Dickens but also, really, tout court; so I'm not going to apologise for the length.
Of all these nineteenth-century writers there is none, in the noblest sense, more democratic than Walter Scott. As this may be disputed, and as it is relevant, I will expand the remark. There are two rooted spiritual realities out of which grow all kinds of democratic conception or sentiment of human equality. There are two things in which all men are manifestly and unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever or equally muscular or equally fat, as the sages of the modern reaction (with piercing insight) perceive. But this is a spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And this, again, is an equally sublime spiritual certainty, that all men are comic. No special and private sorrow can be so dreadful as the fact of having to die. And no freak or deformity can be so funny as the mere fact of having two legs. Every man is important if he loses his life; and every man is funny if he loses his hat, and has to run after it. And the universal test everywhere of whether a thing is popular, of the people, is whether it employs vigorously these extremes of the tragic and the comic. Shelley, for instance, was an aristocrat, if ever there was one in this world. He was a Republican, but he was not a democrat: in his poetry there is every perfect quality except this pungent and popular stab. For the tragic and the comic you must go, say, to Burns, a poor man. And all over the world, the folk literature, the popular literature, is the same. It consists of very dignified sorrow and very undignified fun. Its sad tales are of broken hearts; its happy tales are of broken heads.

These, I say, are two roots of democratic reality. But they have in more civilised literature, a more civilised embodiment of form. In literature such as that of the nineteenth century the two elements appear somewhat thus. Tragedy becomes a profound sense of human dignity. The other and jollier element becomes a delighted sense of human variety. The first supports equality by saying that all men are equally sublime. The second supports equality by observing that all men are equally interesting.

In this democratic aspect of the interest and variety of all men, there is, of course, no democrat so great as Dickens. But in the other matter, in the idea of the dignity of all men, I repeat that there is no democrat so great as Scott. This fact, which is the moral and enduring magnificence of Scott, has been astonishingly overlooked. His rich and dramatic effects are gained in almost every case by some grotesque or beggarly figure rising into a human pride and rhetoric. The common man, in the sense of the paltry man, becomes the common man in the sense of the universal man. He declares his humanity. For the meanest of all the modernities has been the notion that the heroic is an oddity or variation, and that the things that unite us are merely flat or foul. The common things are terrible and startling, death, for instance, and first love: the things that are common are the things that are not commonplace. Into such high and central passions the comic Scott character will suddenly rise. Remember the firm and almost stately answer of the preposterous Nicol Jarvie when Helen Macgregor seeks to browbeat him into condoning lawlessness and breaking his bourgeois decency. That speech is a great monument of the middle class. Molière made M. Jourdain talk prose; but Scott made him talk poetry. Think of the rising and rousing voice of the dull and gluttonous Athelstane when he answers and overwhelms De Bracy. Think of the proud appeal of the old beggar in the Antiquary when he rebukes the duellists. Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise.

In all this Scott, though a Royalist and a Tory, had in the strangest way, the heart of the Revolution. For instance, he regarded rhetoric, the art of the orator, as the immediate weapon of the oppressed. All his poor men make grand speeches, as they did in the Jacobin Club, which Scott would have so much detested. And it is odd to reflect that he was, as an author, giving free speech to fictitious rebels while he was, as a stupid politician, denying it to real ones. But the point for us here is this that all this popular sympathy of his rests on the graver basis, on the dark dignity of man. "Can you find no way?" asks Sir Arthur Wardour of the beggar when they are cut off by the tide. "I'll give you a farm . . . I'll make you rich." . . . "Our riches will soon be equal," says the beggar, and looks out across the advancing sea.

Now, I have dwelt on this strong point of Scott because it is the best illustration of the one weak point of Dickens. Dickens had little or none of this sense of the concealed sublimity of every separate man. Dickens's sense of democracy was entirely of the other kind; it rested on the other of the two supports of which I have spoken. It rested on the sense that all men were wildly interesting and wildly varied. When a Dickens character becomes excited he becomes more and more himself. He does not, like the Scott beggar, turn more and more into man. As he rises he grows more and more into a gargoyle or grotesque. He does not, like the fine speaker in Scott, grow more classical as he grows more passionate, more universal as he grows more intense.
The response the beggar gives Sir Arthur Wardour (from The Antiquary, of course) is so brilliant and powerful, Chesterton is absolutely right to pick it out. Sends chills up my spine. But the properly salient passage here is this one: 'Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise.'

This, I think, is the ground of the strange 'relatability' of these globally popular novels: not class, or race, or gender, or school experience or anything like that; and neither because of any quasi-Dickensian textual campaigning against social injustice, creditable though that aspect of the novel-series is. It's that Rowling says to her child readers, repeatedly and eloquently: you are kings in disguise. You possess magical validity and force. And her child-readers grok it, because kids understand the Scottian insight better than adults do. Maybe that's because they are closer to the time when all human beings share perfect, imperial elevation and power, when the whole of creation bends its efforts to placating and maintaining them -- when we are babies, of course. Or maybe it is a more Chestertonian 'old religious conception', the same numinous if unconscious awareness that Wordsworth ascribes to childhood in the Immortality Ode. At any rate, it goes some way to explaining (I think) why Harry has to be the central character, rather than Hermione. Hermione is too obviously special: too clever, too multi-talented and self-disciplined and grounded and so on. Potter is the chosen one not despite but because he is so ordinary; because (the novels are saying) mere common ordinariness, like yours, like mine, is the absolute ground of magical royalty. We are all kings in disguise.

And the stamps at the top of this post? They're there because I like them, and because they insinuate an actual monarch into their top right hand corner. But they do bring out one related point: the equally popular, equally enduring Narnia books say the same things, for (where Lewis was concerned) equally Chestertonian reasons. Lewis's ordinary English children are kings and queens of Narnia, not because Lewis thought representative parliamentary democracy delinquent and wicked, but because his faith told him that we are all of us, the entire demos, kings and queens of Narnia.