‘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, 30 January 2016

William Mason, The English Garden (1772), 184-215



Of Nature's various scenes the Painter culls
That for his fav'rite theme, where the fair whole
Is broken into ample parts, and bold;
Where to the eye three well-mark'd distances
Spread their peculiar colouring. Vivid green,
Warm brown, and black opake the fore-ground bears
Conspicuous; sober olive coldly marks
The second distance; thence the third declines
In softer blue, or, less'ning still, is lost
In faintest purple. When thy taste is call'd
To deck a scene where Nature's self presents
All these distinct gradations, then rejoice
As does the Painter, and like him apply
Thy colours; plant thou on each separate part
Its proper foliage. Chief, for there thy skill
Has its chief scope, enrich with all the hues
That flowers, that shrubs, that trees can yield, the sides
Of that fair path, from whence our sight is led
Gradual to view the whole. Where'er thou wind'st
That path, take heed between the scene and eye,
To vary and to mix thy chosen greens.
Here for a while with cedar or with larch,
That from the ground spread their close texture, hide
The view entire. Then o'er some lowly tuft,
Where rose and woodbine bloom, permits its charms
To burst upon the sight; now through a copse
Of beech, that rear their smooth and stately trunks,
Admit it partially, and half exclude,
And half reveal its graces: in this path
How long soe'er the wanderer roves, each step
Shall wake fresh beauties; each short point present
A different picture, new, and yet the same.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Anna Letitia Barbauld (ed), The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson (1804)

Hmm. Can we really trust a publisher who CAN'T EVEN SPELL HIS OWN NAME CORRECTLY IN HIS OWN BOOKS?


"It Is Intensely Sad" would be a pretty good title for a study of Larkin's verse, actually.



Larkin's 'Money' (1973) ends:
I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
But wait a minute Phil: you don't actually mean 'it is intensely sad'. You mean 'I am intensely sad.' That's really not the same thing, Phil. That's really not that same thing at all. The street, the church, the whole provincial town is doing just fine, thank you, and has no responsibility for you mournfulness, standing at the French windows there. Ah, but that's you and your poetry in a nutshell, Phil, isn't it?

Friday, 22 January 2016

Childe Harold's Songs 4: 'The castled crag of Drachenfels'



Byron picked up Childe Harold for a third fit, four years after the first two were published. This time, though, his hero has changed. Previously characterised by a kind of exhausted existential anomie, the Part 3 Harry is more tender-hearted and has, it seems, fallen in love. He travels across Belgium, surveys the field at Waterloo (where of course, the previous year, the epochal battle had been fought) and is moved by the loss of life. Then he passes along the Rhine for a while, and so on up into the Alps. Indeed, Childe Harold 3 is divided into two phases: a 'horizontal' phase when Harold-Byron moves across Europe, musing on the pitiable nature of mortal humanity; and then a 'vertical' phase when he climbs up into the mountains to commune with the sublimity of his own ego and the majesty of the landscape.
But these recede. Above me are the Alps,
The palaces of Nature, whose vast walls
Have pinnacled in clouds their snowy scalps,
And throned Eternity in icy halls
Of cold sublimity, where forms and falls
The avalanche—the thunderbolt of snow!
All that expands the spirit, yet appals,
Gathers around these summits, as to show
How Earth may pierce to Heaven, yet leave vain man below. [3:62]
The 'these' that recede in the first line of this stanza are the fertile fields and cities of lowland Germany, together with their population, 'a race of faces happy as the scene'; by the last line of this stanza these people have become vain mankind. That's the hockey-stick shape of the whole.

The canto's one lyric is, as it were, the hinge point of the horizontal-vertical shift. It starts with the vertically precipitous 'castled crag of Drachenfels', on the banks of the Rhine, then descends to the 'bosom' of the lowlands, water and meadow, 'strewed' with trees and cornfields and white cities. Down here the poet thinks of his absent lover, and sends her a flower, even though he knows it will have withered and died by the time it reaches her.
The castled crag of Drachenfels
Frowns o'er the wide and winding Rhine.
Whose breast of waters broadly swells
Between the banks which bear the vine,
And hills all rich with blossomed trees,
And fields which promise corn and wine,
And scattered cities crowning these,
Whose far white walls along them shine,
Have strewed a scene, which I should see
With double joy wert THOU with me!

And peasant girls, with deep blue eyes,
And hands which offer early flowers,
Walk smiling o'er this paradise;
Above, the frequent feudal towers
Through green leaves lift their walls of grey,
And many a rock which steeply lours,
And noble arch in proud decay,
Look o'er this vale of vintage bowers:
But one thing want these banks of Rhine,—
Thy gentle hand to clasp in mine!

I send the lilies given to me;
Though long before thy hand they touch,
I know that they must withered be,
But yet reject them not as such;
For I have cherished them as dear,
Because they yet may meet thine eye,
And guide thy soul to mine e'en here,
When thou behold'st them drooping nigh,
And know'st them gathered by the Rhine,
And offered from my heart to thine!

The river nobly foams and flows,
The charm of this enchanted ground,
And all its thousand turns disclose
Some fresher beauty varying round;
The haughtiest breast its wish might bound
Through life to dwell delighted here;
Nor could on earth a spot be found
To Nature and to me so dear,
Could thy dear eyes in following mine
Still sweeten more these banks of Rhine!
If the first stanza of this short poem descends from the peak of the castle crag down to the ground; and the second stanza launches back up again: 'Above' where the feudal towers, emblematic of a vertical social hierarchy, 'lift their walls of grey' through green leaves; where rock 'steeply lours' and ruins look down. Deleuzeguattari might talk of tall trees and rhizomes, but Byron's imagination goes somewhere in between the two: flowers.



So one way of reading this would be to take it at face value: the man is missing his woman, and sends her a flower—a lily, representative of the purity of his love—to remind her of him. The poem's rhyme-trick is to pair its setting, 'Rhine', with alternately 'thine' and 'mine', as if the river can somehow mediate the separated lovers. Mind you, Byron goes out of his way to stress how the blooms will be 'withered' and 'drooping' by the time they reach his woman. It's hard not to think there's some deliberate gesture here to Shakespeare's 'Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds' (Sonnet 94, of course). Shakespeare's point is that the summer's flower is summerishly sweet unless 'that flower with base infection meet'. Is that what this lyric encodes? A La Ronde-style sense that Byron is passing on an infectious something from the blue-eyed Rhine peasant girls to his, presumably, higher-born English lover? What might all this foamy flow mean, this thousand-fold repeated motion that spends itself upon the 'haughty breast'? Should we be worried that we notice a 'spot' afterwards?

Here's Byron's own note on Drachenfels' castle

Childe Harold's Songs 3: 'Tambourgi, Tambourgi!'



Part 2 of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812) is the Greece and Albania section. It's better than Part 1, and not just because of its subject matter. I say so even though I am personally more interested in Greece than in Spain, and for reasons similar to Byron (possibly the only point at which I could be described as in any way Byronic), to do with the shaping power of a education in the Classics. But that's not it: the verse itself better here, more fluent and reflective and muscular throughout. Perhaps obeying some invisible law of balance, the one inset lyric of this section is rather worse than the inset lyrics in the other sections. It comes after some vivid Spenserian stanzas lamenting Greece's occupation by the Turks; a sideswipe at Lord Elgin for pinching the Parthenon Marbles; and then Harold sailing on up to Albania. He pities Greece, but he admires Albania; and the canto's lyric is a stomping little piece addressed to a 'Tambourgi', Turkish for Drummer:
Tambourgi! Tambourgi! thy larum afar
Gives hope to the valiant, and promise of war;
All the sons of the mountains arise at the note,
Chimariot, Illyrian, and dark Suliote!

Oh! who is more brave than a dark Suliote,
To his snowy camese and his shaggy capote?
To the wolf and the vulture he leaves his wild flock,
And descends to the plain like the stream from the rock.

Shall the sons of Chimari, who never forgive
The fault of a friend, bid an enemy live?
Let those guns so unerring such vengeance forego?
What mark is so fair as the breast of a foe?

Macedonia sends forth her invincible race;
For a time they abandon the cave and the chase:
But those scarves of blood-red shall be redder, before
The sabre is sheathed and the battle is o'er.

Then the pirates of Parga that dwell by the waves,
And teach the pale Franks what it is to be slaves,
Shall leave on the beach the long galley and oar,
And track to his covert the captive on shore.

I ask not the pleasure that riches supply,
My sabre shall win what the feeble must buy:
Shall win the young bride with her long flowing hair,
And many a maid from her mother shall tear.

I love the fair face of the maid in her youth;
Her caresses shall lull me, her music shall soothe:
Let her bring from her chamber the many-toned lyre,
And sing us a song on the fall of her sire.

Remember the moment when Previsa fell,
The shrieks of the conquered, the conqueror's yell;
The roofs that we fired, and the plunder we shared,
The wealthy we slaughtered, the lovely we spared.

I talk not of mercy, I talk not of fear;
He neither must know who would serve the Vizier;
Since the days of our prophet, the crescent ne'er saw
A chief ever glorious like Ali Pasha.

Dark Muchtar his son to the Danube is sped,
Let the yellow-haired Giaours view his horsetail with dread;
When his Delhis come dashing in blood o'er the banks,
How few shall escape from the Muscovite ranks!

Selictar! unsheath then our chief's scimitar:
Tambourgi! thy larum gives promise of war.
Ye mountains that see us descend to the shore,
Shall view us as victors, or view us no more!
It's a strange poem, this, and you couldn't really say it works. This may have something to do with its uncertain balance between 'the Byronic voice' on the one hand, and the poet ventriloquising a markedly un-Byronic persona on the other. That is to say, this is a poem that exists oddly on the borderline between the familiar Byronic poem and something formally newer and more experimental, an early kind of dramatic monologue. 'I love the fair face of the maid in her youth' is a standard-enough Byronic sentiment; but, sexual predator though he was, Byron's poetic mode is not elsewhere this nakedly aggressive:
My sabre shall win what the feeble must buy:
Shall win the young bride with her long flowing hair,
And many a maid from her mother shall tear.
That's not the usual Byronic smack. There is, surely, clearly blue water between Byronic 'wickedness' and the actual savagery of Albanian ruler Ali Pasha, who was a byword for rapacious cruelty long before his death. Ali's Wikipedia page dedicates a whole section to his atrocities. Byron's contemporaries agreed:
His craving for additional power was insatiable ... Inflexible in his hatred, his love of revenge was the vice which at last, in conjunction with his avarice, caused the downfall of Ali. ... Ali had been guilty of an incestuous intercourse with Zobeide, the wife of Veli. Having previously administered to her a soporific potion, he stole to her bed, and consummated his crime. The unfortunate wife of Veli remained ignorant of the fact till she became pregnant, when her suspicions were excited by the dark hints of her female attendants, whom Ali had threatened with death if they disclosed his infamous conduct. In her despair she sent to desire an interview with the author of her misery. His only reply was an avowal of his criminality. With much difficulty he put a stop to her tears and lamentations, and prevailed on her to promise silence respecting the atrocious deed; a deed which he soon after rendered more atrocious, by the murder of the unborn babe. Nor did Ali stop here. To remove all witnesses of his guilt, he ordered the women who were privy to it to be thrown into the lake by his black mutes. [Richard A. Davenport, The life of Ali Pasha of Tepebni, Vizier of Epirus (1837), 359]
That's just one of a whole litany of Ali Pasha's nastiness recorded by Davenport in a book whose title-page (epigraph: 'there is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger') makes slightly wrongfooting reading for the fan of C S Lewis's Narnia books:


Aslan indeed! Davenport's theme is that Ali's ‘utter contempt of truth and honour and his reckless shedding of blood afford a melancholy proof of the evils which result from the possession of unlimited authority and the absence of moral or religious restraints’. By adopting the voice of an enthusiastic Albanian warrior in Ali's army, calling on the Drummer to rouse up everybody's spirits for some slaughter and rapine, Byron runs the risk of revealing how close his more characteristic quasi-in-propria-persona works sound to this Ali-style extremity.

I don't want to make heavy weather of this. 'Tambourgi, Tambourgi!' is, on one level, a standard, even a constitutive example of Orientalism 101. But larding the verse with so many exotic-sounding 'foreign' words doesn't glamorise, or more to the point doesn't distance the poem as much as you might think. 'Tambourgi' sounds very outlandish; but etymologically it is linked to such homely English words for 'drum' as tabor and tambour, all in turn derived via the French tambour ‎(“drum”) from Arabic طُنْبُور ‎ṭunbūr. 'Ilyrian' is familiar from Shakespeare; and if we take the poem to be straightforwardly Islamophobic we may be surprised to discover that the Suliotes ('Oh! who is more brave than a dark Suliote?') were a Christian people. 'Camese' and 'capote' are French, not Turkish or Arabic, words. And so on: it is a poem as much concerned with the passage back into Europe ('Dark Muchtar his son to the Danube is sped') as it is with the imaginative projection further east into an Orientalised sexualised violence.

The bottom line is the tabor-banging insistence of this Tambourgi-metre; all those galloping anapests, that on-running prosodic fluency. It's about, and conceivably it tacitly critiques, the notion that people can get so caught up in the drumbeat urgency of the moment they commit atrocity. And the line 'Selictar! unsheath then our chief's scimitar' is either a horrid lapse into uneuphonious sibilance, or else an onomatopoeic mimicking of the sound a blade makes as it is whisked out of its scabbard. Hard to say, really.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Childe Harold's Songs 2: 'Inez'



Following on. In the first part of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Harold arrives in Portugal and travels on into Spain. The poem is set after the Convention of Cintra (which treaty Byron considers a shameful accommodation: 'Britannia sickens, Cintra, at thy name'), and quite a lot of this portion of the poem is about the battles, the glory and the loss of life of the then-ongoing Peninsular War. Actually, there's a weird flipabout of mood in the first Canto here, perhaps designed to reflect the cycloptropic personality the poem is establishing. Or perhaps just muddle. So, after expressing disdain for the slavish and cowardly Portuguese ('the Lusian slave, the lowest of the low' 33), Byron crosses the border into Spain. Once there he engages in some lively martial exhortation:
Awake, ye sons of Spain! awake! advance
Lo! Chivalry, your ancient goddess, cries,
But wields not, as of old, her thirsty lance,
Nor shakes her crimson plumage in the skies:
Now on the smoke of blazing bolts she flies,
And speaks in thunder through yon engine's roar!
In every peal she calls—'Awake! arise!'
Say, is her voice more feeble than of yore,
When her war-song was heard on Andalusia's shore? [37]
It goes on like this for a while: war is glory and chivalry and the bulwark separating honest manly resistance from tyranny and the cowering servility. Then there's an account of the battle of Talavera (July 1809), where 'Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies/The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!' [41]. But then, on a sixpence the mood of the poem swings about: from praising war as about glory and chivalry the narrator now takes a cynically Falstaffian line:
There shall they rot—Ambition's honoured fools!
Yes, Honour decks the turf that wraps their clay!
Vain Sophistry! in these behold the tools,
The broken tools, that tyrants cast away
By myriads, when they dare to pave their way
With human hearts—to what?—a dream alone. [42]
A couple more stanzas like this follow. Barely giving his reader time to respond 'but weren't you just saying...?' Byron then turns from Violence ('Enough of Battle's minions!' 44) to Sex ('And young-eyed Lewdness walks her midnight rounds' 46) as Harold comes to seductive Seville. There's a brief excursus on how Spanish females do not shrink from fighting in the war, always keeping in view that doing so in no way diminishes their fundamental hotness and desirability: 'Yet are Spain's maids no race of Amazons,/But formed for all the witching arts of love' [57]. There's a statement of erotic-aesthetic preference:
              how much
Hath Phoebus wooed in vain to spoil her cheek
Which glows yet smoother from his amorous clutch!
Who round the North for paler dames would seek?
How poor their forms appear? how languid, wan, and weak! [189]
Byron prefers darker women to paler, fair enough. Then he specifically urges his own poem to, as it were, heat itself up:
Match me, ye climes! which poets love to laud;
Match me, ye harems! of the land where now
I strike my strain, far distant, to applaud
Beauties that even a cynic must avow!
Match me those houris, whom ye scarce allow
To taste the gale lest Love should ride the wind,
With Spain's dark-glancing daughters—deign to know,
There your wise Prophet's paradise we find,
His black-eyed maids of Heaven, angelically kind. [59]
There's some Seville-based tourist moments: a colourful Sunday, a matador. But the real theme of the poem has been intimated: Spanish women are hot, like the climate, and the poem seeks to emulate that hotness. Which brings us to Harold's second lyric, addressed 'To Inez':
Nay, smile not at my sullen brow,
Alas! I cannot smile again:
Yet Heaven avert that ever thou
Shouldst weep, and haply weep in vain.

And dost thou ask what secret woe
I bear, corroding joy and youth?
And wilt thou vainly seek to know
A pang even thou must fail to soothe?

It is not love, it is not hate,
Nor low Ambition's honours lost,
That bids me loathe my present state,
And fly from all I prized the most:

It is that weariness which springs
From all I meet, or hear, or see:
To me no pleasure Beauty brings;
Thine eyes have scarce a charm for me.

It is that settled, ceaseless gloom
The fabled Hebrew wanderer bore,
That will not look beyond the tomb,
But cannot hope for rest before.

What exile from himself can flee?
To zones, though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where'er I be,
The blight of life—the demon Thought.

Yet others rapt in pleasure seem,
And taste of all that I forsake:
Oh! may they still of transport dream,
And ne'er, at least like me, awake!

Through many a clime 'tis mine to go,
With many a retrospection curst;
And all my solace is to know,
Whate'er betides, I've known the worst.

What is that worst? Nay, do not ask—
In pity from the search forbear:
Smile on—nor venture to unmask
Man's heart, and view the hell that's there.
The first thing to say about this poem is that it functions as seduction not despite but because of its denials of desire, its classic-Byronic 'see how moody and sad and isolated I am' vibe. Telling beautiful Inez that her charms have no effect upon him is a version of that creepily standard pick-up artist approach; though I suppose we have to assume that when you're as handsome and well-dressed and famous as Byron, sidling up to a woman with your demon-haunted cynic exterior act on full, and suddenly flourishing, like a conjurer, the wounded heart within is almost bound to get you laid. Not guaranteed to work for the rest of us, mind. In other words I'm saying the poem is not actually about what it purports to be about, which is true of a great deal of the best poetry when you come to think of it.

Maybe this instrumental (as it were) reading of the poem looks like I'm trying to diminish it. Not so! I like the counterintuitive way its works as a love poem by repudiating love. I like the way it seems to encode the addressee's very name in its opening words (To Inez/Nay, smile...). Given that, after eight stanzas of moody complaining, Inez is 'smiling' in line 35, we can take it that she's enjoying the originality of his approach (it's especially nice that the smile comes after the speaker's most over-inflated piece of self-dramatisation, when he aligns himself with Edgar at his lowest point in Lear, 'the worst is not/So long as we can say This is the worst'). Perhaps the specifically Spanish context here takes of the edge off. 'My sullen brows' strikes an odd, rather poseur-ish note in English; but the Spanish ceño hosco is an unobjectionable usage. 'It is not love, it is not hate' perhaps conveys depressed anomie; but the phrase in its Latin version (non amore, non odio) is a standard Legalism for impartiality; one that Dante's Monarchia uses to describe Divine Justice. And there are various clues in the poem that the despair may not be as all-encompassing as he pretends. What is it that makes him 'fly from all I prized the most'? It is, he tells us, 'that weariness which springs/From all': but here the tension between the downbeat 'weariness' and the up-leaping 'springs' suggests that the Childe's mainspring is wound rather tighter than he's letting on.

One line in particular strikes an intriguing self-contradictory note.
What exile from himself can flee?
To zones, though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where'er I be,
The blight of life—the demon Thought.
There's a pretty obvious confusion here, isn't there, between exile and escape. The latter is where a person runs off to avoid a pursuer. The former is when a person is expelled from their homeland. To be banished requires a banisher, but the one thing you can pretty sure about where a banisher is concerned is that s/he will not then pursue you, Fury-like. They want rid of you; hence the banishing. The line 'What exile from himself can flee?' deliberately confuses the two states, and then doubles-down on the contradiction by filling both roles with Harry himself. The person who has exiled Harold from his homeland is Harold, and the person who is pursuing Harold from his homeland is Harold. But of course, this is what Arnold pinpoints in his 1853 preface as the quintessentially Romantic turn: 'the calm, the cheerfulness, the disinterested objectivity have disappeared: the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced; modern problems have presented themselves ; we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust.' And a Harold. What Arnold missed, though, or at least didn't dilate upon, was how seductive this mode of self-tormenting doubleness could be, for the right woman, at the right time, in the right place.

Childe Harold's Songs 1: 'Adieu, adieu! my native shore'



The first of a short series of posts looking at Harold's songs: that is to say, the songs inset in Byron's first great popular success, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-18), his 'I awoke one morning and found myself famous' poem. The narrative through-line of the whole thing is not complex: in onrolling Spenserian stanzas we follow the travels of Harold, a version of Byron himself, through a Europe scarred by the Napoleonic wars. Our hero has dissipated himself and scandalised England with his rakish behaviour, and so he leaves for the Continent, starting in Canto 1 (1812) with the Iberian peninsular. But before we get to Spain, we get the poem's first lyric insertion, 'Adieu, adieu! my native shore':
Adieu, adieu! my native shore
Fades o'er the waters blue;
The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar,
And shrieks the wild sea-mew.
Yon sun that sets upon the sea
We follow in his flight;
Farewell awhile to him and thee,
My Native Land—Good Night!

A few short hours, and he will rise
To give the morrow birth;
And I shall hail the main and skies,
But not my mother earth.
Deserted is my own good hall,
Its hearth is desolate;
Wild weeds are gathering on the wall,
My dog howls at the gate.

'Come hither, hither, my little page:
Why dost thou weep and wail?
Or dost thou dread the billow's rage,
Or tremble at the gale?
But dash the tear-drop from thine eye,
Our ship is swift and strong;
Our fleetest falcon scarce can fly
More merrily along.'

'Let winds be shrill, let waves roll high,
I fear not wave nor wind;
Yet marvel not, Sir Childe, that I
Am sorrowful in mind;
For I have from my father gone,
A mother whom I love,
And have no friend, save these alone,
But thee—and One above.

'My father blessed me fervently,
Yet did not much complain;
But sorely will my mother sigh
Till I come back again.'—
'Enough, enough, my little lad!
Such tears become thine eye;
If I thy guileless bosom had,
Mine own would not be dry.

'Come hither, hither, my staunch yeoman,
Why dost thou look so pale?
Or dost thou dread a French foeman,
Or shiver at the gale?'—
'Deem'st thou I tremble for my life?
Sir Childe, I'm not so weak;
But thinking on an absent wife
Will blanch a faithful cheek.

'My spouse and boys dwell near thy hall,
Along the bordering lake;
And when they on their father call,
What answer shall she make?'—
'Enough, enough, my yeoman good,
Thy grief let none gainsay;
But I, who am of lighter mood,
Will laugh to flee away.'

For who would trust the seeming sighs
Of wife or paramour?
Fresh feeres will dry the bright blue eyes
We late saw streaming o'er. For pleasures past I do not grieve,
Nor perils gathering near;
My greatest grief is that I leave
No thing that claims a tear.

And now I'm in the world alone,
Upon the wide, wide sea;
But why should I for others groan,
When none will sigh for me?
Perchance my dog will whine in vain
Till fed by stranger hands;
But long ere I come back again
He'd tear me where he stands.

With thee, my bark, I'll swiftly go
Athwart the foaming brine;
Nor care what land thou bear'st me to,
So not again to mine.
Welcome, welcome, ye dark blue waves!
And when you fail my sight,
Welcome, ye deserts, and ye caves!
My Native Land—Good Night!
This is a poem about, to deploy a modern idiom, 'The Feels'. More specifically it is about two different sorts of elegaic melancholy, set artfully in juxtaposition. On the one hand is the Childe's page, who is weeping and wailing because he's missing his Mum and Dad, and is 'thinking on an absent wife':
'My spouse and boys dwell near thy hall,
Along the bordering lake;
And when they on their father call,
What answer shall she make?'
This is a clear enough reason to be sad. The Childe himself, though, is experiencing the same sadness (he explicitly says that, if he were a little more guileless, he'd be weeping along with the lad) for diametrically opposite reasons: he is leaving nobody behind because nobody in his native land loves him. What makes this more complicated and interesting than mere emo self-pity—what makes it, that is, more classically Byronic—is the way the poem simultaneously laments and celebrates the existential vertigo of this state of affairs. Sure it's sad. But it's cool, too.
And now I'm in the world alone,
Upon the wide, wide sea;
But why should I for others groan,
When none will sigh for me?
Perchance my dog will whine in vain
Till fed by stranger hands;
But long ere I come back again
He'd tear me where he stands.
The dog is supposed to make us think of Odysseus's dog Argos, who joyfully recognised his master even though the wandering Greek had been away two decades and returned in a divinely-appointed disguise. The Childe's hound will not be so faithful. Incidentally, the only non-monosyllabic words in that stanza are the three that relate either to people other than the speaker ('others', 'stranger') or else to the possibility of otherness ('Perchance'); the whole of the rest of the stanza is paced out in words as monosyllabically singular and solitary as the Childe.

I suppose a poem like this works, or doesn't, on the level of affective reaction. I mean it twangs your heartstrings, or else it doesn't. Evidently many people have experienced the former reaction, and the vibe of this lyric, projected across the whole of Childe Harold, contributed largely to its success. For myself, if this poem happens to leave my eyes dry, that may be because I prefer my Byronic moody-magnificent existential drama leavened with a little comedy, as in Don Juan. But then it may be that there's just something about this poem. The poeticisms ('Athwart the foaming brine' and so on) strike me as jarring rather than embellishing moments, and there's ... something ... not a good something ... about the assonance. Look at the stanzas that top and tail the whole, where the Native Land—Good Night!' lines, capitalised and exclamation-marked to emphasize its pathos, is repeated.
Adieu, adieu! my native shore
Fades o'er the waters blue;
The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar,
And shrieks the wild sea-mew.
Yon sun that sets upon the sea
We follow in his flight;
Farewell awhile to him and thee,
My Native Land—Good Night!
I'm not sure what to do with that opening 'Adieu, adieu!' If we English readers pronounce it as 'adyeur' it comes dangerously close to half-rhyme tangling with the line-ending 'shore' and so tripping the poem up before it's even got started ('adyeur my native shyeur', as Inspector Clouseau might say). But if we read it as 'adyoo' then it picks up the 'blue' at the end of line 2 to similar effect. Maybe I'm being too picky. Or maybe I'm missing the point. Perhaps this slightly nebulous word, queasily uncertain of pronounciation in its alienated textual environment, is exactly what Byron is going for. It's a poem about leaving one place and going somewhere very different, although not very particular ('deserts' and 'caves' are mentioned, but that's it). To start such a poem with a French connective of direction, à Dieu, 'towards' God, chimes ironically with this broader logic, since one thing our Childe is not doing, for all that his travels are styled a 'pilgrimage', is moving towards holiness and divinity.

If I wanted to expand this discussion, I'd probably pick up the thread from Paul Elledge's influential essay 'Chasms in Connections: Byron Ending (in) Childe Harold's Pilgrimage 1 and 2', [ELH 62:1 (1995), 121-148 ], which identifies a recurring thematic of termination and bereavement at play in the first two parts of Byron's work:
Two years and twelve days after departing England for his continental tour, Lord Byron landed at Sheerness on 14 July 1811 bearing the manuscript about to rocket him into international fame. It tracks the months of recurrent dislocation intrinsic to a pilgrimage that enacted the chronic discontinuity of the poet's affinitive history. Just over one-hundred lines into the new poem, a valedictory lyric by the voyaging pilgrim sings a simulated indifference to his desertion of family and friends, and foresees as his destination the desolated terrain to which in fact its author returned. This essay explores Byron's response to the devastation he in disembarking met, principally as textualized in stanzas added to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage 1 and 2 in August and October 1811. But these supplements, partially driven by the deaths of the friends they covertly honor—John Wingfield in 1 and John Edleston in 2—also materialize the poet's apprehensions about reengaging a readership after his recklessly undiscriminating English Bards and Scotch Reviewers had jarred and piqued the British literary establishment in 1809. The stanzas in question encrypt anxieties aroused by gaps in Byron's personal landscape and inflamed by the imminence of a gap between poet and manuscript—by the rift created with his abandonment of the Childe to an uncertain audience. My subject, broadly, is Byron ending: suffering, evading, disguising, denying, performing, and surviving terminations; ending relationships, poems, relationships with poems and their audiences; designing structures to accommodate and facilitate the dissociative imperative that determines so much of his verse as it disabled so many of his connections. More particularly, I look at the complementary coincidence of fateful human with necessary authorial separation in Byron's elaborated conclusions to his cantos, whereby he converts a psychic deficiency into a textual strength that ministers to the anxieties it inscribes. Among these, ruptures not of his making actuate a Pilgrimage discourse that nevertheless exploits them in the vexatious task of textual termination.
But ain't nobody got time for that. On to the next lyric.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Blake's Jerusalem



There's been some discussion over the last few weeks about whether England, as distinct from 'Britan', needs its own national anthem. 'Jerusalem' has, of course, been proposed. Not everyone thinks it's a good idea. Over on The Spectator blog Kate Maltby insists that 'there’s nothing patriotic about William Blake’s Jerusalem'. As to that assertion, I think it depends upon what patria one has in mind. I agree there's nothing public-school, white-posh-English patriotic about the poem; but it seems to me an intensely patriotic text, addressed to a version of England too little acknowledged. I should concede that my judgement is not wholly objective, here, since this work is one of the very few in the whole corpus of poetry to send actual shivers up the nape of my neck when I read it. Would it make a good English anthem? I think so. Still, my real beef with that Spectator article concerns this statement:
The truth about Jerusalem is that it isn’t a patriotic poem at all. Parry’s music gives the hymn an upbeat tempo – especially with the booming orchestration by Edward Elgar – but William Blake’s original words are as laced with resentful irony as Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony. Famously, Blake asks four questions in succession, and the answer to each is a resounding no. Christ’s feet never trod in England; the Lamb of God didn’t gambol – preposterous as the image is – around the Cotswolds; the Holy Spirit wasn’t regularly spotted in London fog; and most directly of all, there was no sense of Jerusalem in the dark Satanic mills of the Industrial Age.
This is not right, I think. The answer to these four questions, in the logic of the poem, is not "no". The answer is "not yet". If you can't see that that makes all the difference, then you really haven't understood the poem at all.


Martin Wittforth

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Narcissus pseudonarcissus



'Daffodils'. One of the most desperately famous poems of English Romanticism, this; which (having students discuss it in relation to the passage from Dorothy Wordworth's journal that acted as specific prompt to William's versifying) turns it into one of Romanticism's most teachable moments. The female provenance occluded; the male poet taking all the credit and so on. Maybe not outright plagiary, but something close to that. As far as William's poem is concerned, you may or may not know that the breed of daffodil native to Westmoreland at that time was the narcissus pseudonarcissus, sometimes called the Lent Lily: it has (see image above) a much whiter crown of flowers than the all-yellow daffodil familiar nowadays. Not sure knowing that adds much to our appreciation of the poem, except perhaps for making the comparison of flowers and stars a little less of a stretch:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Here, by way of comparison, is the journal entry by Dorothy that, two years after the walk it records, William read and adapted into his poem:
Thursday 15th [April, 1802]. It was a threatening misty morning—but mild. We set off after dinner from Eusemere. Mrs Clarkson went a short way with us but turned back. The wind was furious and we thought we must have returned. We first rested in the large Boat-house, then under a furze Bush opposite Mr Clarkson's. Saw the plough going in the field. The wind seized our breath the Lake was rough. There was a Boat by itself floating in the middle of the Bay below Water Millock. We rested again in the Water Millock Lane. The hawthorns are black and green, the birches here and there greenish but there is yet more of purple to be seen on the Twigs. We got over into a field to avoid some cows—people working, a few primroses by the roadside, woodsorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, and that starry yellow flower which Mrs C. calls pile wort. When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway. We rested again and again. The Bays were stormy, and we heard the waves at different distances and in the middle of the water like the sea. Rain came on—we were wet when we reached Luffs but we called in. Luckily all was chearless and gloomy so we faced the storm—we must have been wet if we had waited—put on dry clothes at Dobson's. I was very kindly treated by a young woman, the Landlady looked sour but it is her way. She gave us a goodish supper. Excellent ham and potatoes. We paid 7/- when we came away. William was sitting by a bright fire when I came downstairs. He soon made his way to the Library piled up in a corner of the window. He brought out a volume of Enfield's Speaker, another miscellany, and an odd volume of Congreve's plays. We had a glass of warm rum and water. We enjoyed ourselves and wished for Mary. It rained and blew when we went to bed. N.B. Deer in Gowbarrow park like skeletons. [Mary Moorman, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth: The Alfoxden Journal 1798, The Grasmere Journals 1800-1803 (New York: Oxford UP, 1971), 109-110]
William's poem is a very vertical, abrupt piece: he's up like a cloud, he's down beneath the trees and in the dirt with the flowers; he's back up with the stars, he's down on his couch. Where Dorothy describes the process of gradually coming across more and more of the daffodils ('When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side ... as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road.'), William sees his blooms altogether and 'all at once'. Much abrupt. Mucho abrupto. Conversely, where William cuts sharply from encountering the daffodils to being, suddenly, far removed from them, on his couch in pensive mood, Dorothy spools the walk out with lots of vivid detail, and then reels it back in again. For Dorothy not only are the daffodils part of a rich variety of other blooms ('primroses, woodsorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, pile wort'), but the daffodils themselves do more than just dance: some lay their heads down as if sleeping, some laugh, some reel and dance, some glance. For William there are only daffodils, a nether-sky of daffodils in oppressive monotonous profusion, and all they do is dance: 'dancing [6] ... never-ending [9] ... dance [12] ... danced [13] ... dances [24]'. I think by numbering the daffodils, as he does in line 6, Wordsworth in a small way adds to this sense of slightly manic monotony.

But the main difference between the two accounts is that Dorothy's is so naturally embedded in a human context where William's is so alienated from precisely that. In Dorothy's version she and William go walking, with (for a time) Mrs Clarkson, and along the way they recall Mrs Coleridge, and are kindly treated by a women in the inn and sourly by the landlady. And it's not just a personal context. This is a landscape being worked: the ploughman is turning over the April soil; when the Wordsworths hop over a wall to escape some cows they meet 'people working'. This landscape, described with such vivid particularity, and with such an fine sense of pace and flow, is a lived-in landscape, various and well-textured. Nor is it idealised: the rougher weather makes the Wordsworths frère et soeur wet and unhappy; and we realise it won't make the lives of the workmen and ploughmen any more pleasant. The deer at the end are skeleton thin because they're the ones who have survived—just—the starvation of winter and made it into the start of Spring. By contrast William has excised not only Dorothy but everybody else as well from his account: it's all I, I, I; it's 'A' poet; it's the bliss of solitude. It's the psychosubjective claustrophobia of the Egotistical Sublime. It's Mr Narcissus admiring his own reflection in the narcissus pseudonarcissi.

We could say that Dorothy's account is 'more novelistic' and Wordsworth's pared down poem more 'lyrical'. But that hardly seems right. True there are many novel-like details in Dorothy's account ('Excellent ham and potatoes') but, as Coleridge, and Wordsworth himself, several times say, prose is no true antithesis of poetry. And the fact is, there is immense lyrical subtlety and effectiveness in Dorothy's account, and not only in the way she starts, more or less, with iambic pentameters:
It was a threat'ning misty morn—but mild.
We set off after dinner from Eusemere.
Ms Clarkson went a short way with us but
Turned back. The wind was furious and we thought
and then again, a little later
The Bays were stormy, and we heard the waves
At diff'rent distances and in the midst
Of the water like the sea the rain came on
and so on. There's also the way, throughout, her precisely observed prose keeps trembling on the edge of reverting to verse:
The hawthorns here are black and green,
The birches there are greenish
But there is more of purple seen
On the Twigs ...
and so on. It is a poetry of variety, as Wordsworth's is a poetry of monotony. More, as verse this little lyric is not WW's best: in what universe is 'Ten thousand saw I at a glance' a better line of poetry than 'I saw ten thousand at a glance'? And 'What wealth the show to me had brought' is a frankly contorted line. So I suppose the question becomes: why has this poem become so very, very famous (and Dorothy's lovely prose not)?

Friday, 8 January 2016

Christine Ferguson's 'Reading With the Occultists'



A wonderful article from Christine Ferguson in the most recent Journal of Victorian Studies on 'Arthur Machen, A. E. Waite, and the Ecstasies of Popular Fiction'. The whole thing is well worth reading: here's the opening.
In his 1897 article ‘Pickwickiana’, the Dickensian aficionado Percy Fitzgerald tells a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the ecstatic potential of popular fiction when released into the public sphere. Sometime in the late 1830s, it seems, a wealthy London patron decided to bestow a Braille copy of key scenes from Pickwick on a blind beggar that he passed on the street every day. His beneficiary’s previous pitch had been to recite biblical passages in a serious, monotone voice, but it didn’t draw much trade; as Fitzgerald notes, ‘nobody was improved by the lecture. They merely wonder at the phenomenon and go on their way’. The Braille Pickwick, however, was to change the beggar’s fortunes dramatically:
When [the patron] arrived on the morning fixed for the first attempt he found his friend at his post with almost a crowd gathered round him, in convulsions of laughter. The ‘poor blind’ was reading, or feeling out, old Mr Weller’s ejectment of the red-nosed man. The hat was overflowing with coppers and even silver […] ‘Pickwick’ was a magnificent success, and the blind man was never without a crowd round him of some fifteen to fifty persons! […] [T]he other blind readers found the demand for the sacred text vanishing; and people would actually interrupt them to inquire the way to the ‘Pickwick man’. Eventually, the police began to interfere, and required him to ‘move on’.
Picture the scene: a blind seer channels words through his fingers using a still new, seemingly magical, reading technique; a secular text replaces and supersedes the appeal of religious scripture; and disengaged urban walkers temporarily come together in a gleeful, ribald union that threatens the orderly flow of the city’s thoroughfares. In these coordinates, the anecdote suggests how the Victorian encounter with popular fiction could fuel a form of joyous communion no longer accessible, if it ever was, through sacred texts. This potential forms the basis of a fascinating mode of late Victorian popular fiction criticism, one that has been completely omitted from established historiographies of the critical sub-discipline’s emergence and development. Centred around Pickwick and on other, less canonical and more ephemeral, types of popular periodical romance, what I will here describe as occultic popular fiction criticism had its origins in the late Victorian occult revival, specifically in the writing of two of its central participants: Welsh writer Arthur Machen and his lifelong friend, the English mystic, occult historian, and self-described bibliomaniac Arthur Edward Waite. This occluded episode in the history of popular fiction studies is worth reclaiming, not simply out of antiquarian interest or an unreflexive attachment to recovery work, but also for its value in challenging the anxiety thesis, the hermeneutic paradigm that has dominated Victorian popular fiction studies since the early nineties and still shows few signs of abating despite recent neo-formalist and material culture turns.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Wordsworth's "Excursion": the Ruins of Book One



If I go on with many more of these WW-posts, I may need to herd them off into a blog of their own. At any rate, here's a second excursus on The Excursionfollowing on from the first excursus, which is here.

In the first book of The Excursion, the poet travels to a ruined cottage (up top, there: 'a roofless Hut; four naked walls/That stared upon each other!' in amongst the trees [30-1]) to meet his old friend, the Wanderer. This latter, a man of humble birth, had been a pedlar, and by careful husbandry of his earnings now has enough money not to need to work. Instead he indulges his passion for, in effect, excursing: wandering around the countryside. About half the 1000-line first book is given over to a description of the Wanderer's life and character. The remainder tells the story of the ruined cottage where the two meet.

It's a simple though not a cheering tale, first drafted by Wordsworth in the late 1790s and very often reworked and rewritten, and published in a final version (in 1814) here. It starts by describing the humble-idyllic pastoral existence of Margaret (our heroine) and her husband Robert:
She was a Woman of a steady mind,
Tender and deep in her excess of love;
Not speaking much, pleased rather with the joy
Of her own thoughts: by some especial care
Her temper had been framed, as if to make
A Being, who by adding love to peace
Might live on earth a life of happiness.
Her wedded Partner lacked not on his side
The humble worth that satisfied her heart:
Frugal, affectionate, sober, and withal
Keenly industrious. ...
          .... So their days were spent
In peace and comfort; and a pretty boy
Was their best hope, next to the God in heaven. [Excursion 1:553-74]
Things go wrong, though. Two successive harvests fail, and (as we would nowadays put it) the economy collapses. The husband falls sick, and by the time he has regained his health all their savings are spent. They have a second child, which adds to the strain. Then there is a war, which drains the land of men. Given that the poem specifies this all as happening twenty years previously, and that the first draft of 'The Ruined Cottage' was written in the 1790s, this might be the American War; although for the readers of the 1814 first publication it presumably made them think of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. But it's important to Wordsworth's moral drama that the couple have not, in themselves, done anything wrong. Indeed, that neither of them 'do' anything wrong is bound-up in this episode's subtle problematic, which is that neither of them really 'do' anything. They suffer, passively, and that has its effect on their inner lives. The husband becomes emotionally cyclotropic, and the poem includes what is (surely) the first description of manic-depression in literature.
He mingled, where he might, the various tasks
Of summer, autumn, winter, and of spring.
But this endured not; his good humour soon
Became a weight in which no pleasure was:
And poverty brought on a petted mood
And a sore temper: day by day he drooped,
And he would leave his work--and to the town
Would turn without an errand his slack steps;
Or wander here and there among the fields.
One while he would speak lightly of his babes,
And with a cruel tongue: at other times
He tossed them with a false unnatural joy:
And 'twas a rueful thing to see the looks
Of the poor innocent children. 'Every smile,'
Said Margaret to me, here beneath these trees,
'Made my heart bleed.' [Excursion 1: 616-31]
His 'wandering' (a faint echo of the modus vivendi of the Wanderer himself, who is telling this tale) literalises his vacillating mood, and no good will come of it. And there's genuine diagnostic acuity in grasping that mania, as a sufferer of manic-depression experiences it, is not pleasure as such, but on the contrary a weight in which no pleasure is, a mode of running-on (to strike the keynote again), of 'humour'. And the reference to the bleeding heart, though a believable idiom for an uneducated countrywoman, is actually (of course) a Shakespearian tag, and one fitting to this circumstance: a goddess addresses a mortal man with whom she is in love:
'What should I do, seeing thee so indeed,
That tremble at the imagination?
The thought of it doth make my faint heart bleed,
And fear doth teach it divination:
I prophesy thy death, my living sorrow, [Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis 667-71]
What's notable about this understated piece of intertextuality is how low-key it is: Wordsworth is applying the mute to his Mythic-Underpinning-of-Everyday-Life jazz horn, and applying it so effectively that you hardly notice it. Clearly, though, this situation will not end well.

But before we get to the tragic denouement, Wordsworth gives us a (deliberately) wrongfooting two-part interlude. First, the narrator temporarily forgets the whole story:
He spake with somewhat of a solemn tone:
But, when he ended, there was in his face
Such easy cheerfulness, a look so mild,
That for a little time it stole away
All recollection; and that simple tale
Passed from my mind like a forgotten sound. [Excursion 1: 645-49]
This is very strange. Perhaps the effect is to stress how unremarkable and therefore unmemorable Margaret's tale is, in the sense of being quotidian and unexceptional; or perhaps the point is to stress how overwhelmingly upbeat and positive the Wanderer is, despite the mournful quality of the story he is telling, so much so that it makes the narrator forget the sorrow. The two men talk about 'trivial things', for a while, although this conversation is 'soon tasteless' to our narrator. And then, having abruptly entirely forgotten about Margaret, the narrator as abruptly suddenly remembers her as one of the central, if vicarious, experiences of his life:
            In my own despite,
I thought of that poor Woman as of one
Whom I had known and loved. He had rehearsed
Her homely tale with such familiar power,
With such an active countenance, an eye
So busy, that the things of which he spake
Seemed present; and, attention now relaxed,
A heart-felt chillness crept along my veins. [Excursion 1: 645-49]
But if the narrator had exercised such 'familiar power' in his telling, then why did the narrator forget it, even if temporarily? Why does remembering it (a woman he now claims to have known and loved even though he has never met her) come 'in his own despite'? He begs the Wanderer to continue her tale, and in reply Wordsworth gives us one of the occasional quasi-sonnets that punctuate the Excursion:
"It were a wantonness, and would demand
Severe reproof, if we were men whose hearts
Could hold vain dalliance with the misery
Even of the dead; contented thence to draw
A momentary pleasure, never marked
By reason, barren of all future good.
But we have known that there is often found
In mournful thoughts, and always might be found,
A power to virtue friendly; were't not so,
I am a dreamer among men, indeed
An idle dreamer! 'Tis a common tale,
An ordinary sorrow of man's life,
A tale of silent suffering, hardly clothed
In bodily form.' [Excursion 1: 665-78]
'But', he adds, in-effect completing the final line, 'I will proceed.' Not for the first time in The Excursion, this verse-paragraph of blank verse mimics a rhymed, or half-rhymed, sonnet ('hearts'/'marked'; 'found'/'found'; 'so'/'clothed' and the final rhyme 'indeed'/'proceed'). I start to wonder if sonnet-sized chunks of verse weren't, by this stage in WW's career, his natural pulse or rhythm of poetic thought. This one has a slightly unusual form, though: there is a turn, although in inverted one: a sestet followed by an octave (not an unprecedented model for a sonnet, as it happens). The first half rebukes the sort of person who could draw idle pleasure from the 'misery/even of the dead'; the second, after 'But ...' stressing that the pleasure is not idle because it serves a moral purpose (it is 'a power friendly to virtue'). And so the Wanderer continues. He spent some years 'in a country far remote'; on his return he discovered that Margaret's husband has abandoned her to join the army. Rather than have his wife and children become camp followers, he sneaks away, leaving her some coins wrapped in a piece of paper. Margaret is caved-in by this development and sinks into (again: I find myself reaching for the anachronistic diagnosis) depression. Her older child has been apprenticed to a distant farmer; but she still has to care for her infant, which care she neglects.
I journeyed back this way,
When, in the warmth of midsummer, the wheat
Was yellow; and the soft and bladed grass,
Springing afresh, had o'er the hay-field spread
Its tender verdure. At the door arrived,
I found that she was absent. In the shade,
Where now we sit, I waited her return.
Her cottage, then a cheerful object, wore
Its customary look,—only, it seemed,
The honeysuckle, crowding round the porch,
Hung down in heavier tufts; and that bright weed,
The yellow stone-crop, suffered to take root
Along the window's edge, profusely grew,
Blinding the lower panes. I turned aside,
And strolled into her garden. It appeared
To lag behind the season, and had lost
Its pride of neatness. Daisy-flowers and thrift
Had broken their trim border-lines, and straggled
O'er paths they used to deck: carnations, once
Prized for surpassing beauty, and no less
For the peculiar pains they had required,
Declined their languid heads, wanting support.
The cumbrous bind-weed, with its wreaths and bells,
Had twined about her two small rows of peas,
And dragged them to the earth.

                                  Ere this an hour
Was wasted.—Back I turned my restless steps;
A stranger passed; and, guessing whom I sought,
He said that she was used to ramble far.—
The sun was sinking in the west; and now
I sate with sad impatience. From within
Her solitary infant cried aloud;
Then, like a blast that dies away self-stilled,
The voice was silent. From the bench I rose;
But neither could divert nor soothe my thoughts.
The spot, though fair, was very desolate—
The longer I remained, more desolate:
And, looking round me, now I first observed
The corner stones, on either side the porch,
With dull red stains discoloured, and stuck o'er
With tufts and hairs of wool, as if the sheep,
That fed upon the Common, thither came
Familiarly, and found a couching-place
Even at her threshold. [Excursion 1: 746-86]
Excuse the lengthy quotation, but it makes several key points. The main one is the way Wordsworth tropes Margaret's psychological and emotional decline in terms of the neglect of the physical fabric of her living space: the garden unweeded, the house unrepaired. We are on our way to the image at the top, the cottage itself ruined and roofless. But the most astonishing moment in this long description are these few lines from the middle:
The sun was sinking in the west; and now
I sate with sad impatience. From within
Her solitary infant cried aloud;
Then, like a blast that dies away self-stilled,
The voice was silent. [Excursion 1: 774-78]
Imagine this: you have a friend, a young mother, who lives alone (since her husband abandoned her) in a remote cottage. Her child is very young; WW doesn't say how young, but 'infant' surely means pre-speech. You visit her. She is not in. A passing stranger tells you that she often 'rambles far'. You know that your friend has suffered chronic depressive episodes since her partner left. You don't know how long she has been away. You don't know when, or if, she'll be back. You hear her infant crying inside the locked cottage. What do you do?

If your answer is: nothing, then congratulations, you share the attitude of the Wanderer. If your answer is: something, anything, for crying out loud, then you have the consolation of being one with the vast majority of society. Remember: you don't know if, never mind when, this infant's psychologically crippled mother will return. Yes, the domicile is locked: but it's a humble DIY-built cottage, not Fort Knox. Indeed, the Wanderer's mournful-superior tut-tutting at the place's dilapidation is only liable to infuriate us more, since one of the things he is doing is surveying how easy it would be to break in.

I'm suggesting that doing something to attend the distressed infant would function as a moral imperative for most people: break the lock, unloose a window, run to a neighbour's to see if there's another key, something. That the Wanderer does nothing, and indeed considers doing nothing an act of positive charity (since he is not abandoning his friend, but rather waiting out the tedious time until she returns) is, when you come to think of it, gobsmacking. There is more here than a shift in social mores over two centuries, and no sane person would think of arguing that the rights of property and trespass take precedence over the duty of care to an infant in distress. And if I consider for a moment, I think the aspect to this little vignette that really gets to me is the way the wailing infant stops crying like a blast that dies away. I'm sure lots of parents will recall the experience of your first child, and putting them to bed in their cot, and then lying awake in your own room listening to them. The anxiety of: 'oh, no they're crying, they keep on crying!' is only surpassed when the tot finally falls asleep, and you think to yourself 'oh no they've stopped crying! Are they alright have they stopped breathing?' And that's when you drag yourself from bed and go check on them.

My thoughts on this episode have been brought into focus by my recent reading of Adam Potkay's excellent Wordsworth's Ethics (John Hopkins University Press 2012). One thing Potkay brings out very clearly is how Stoic, or neo-Stoic, Wordsworth's view of man and nature and society really was. In turn it leads us to a place where we have to see this strange little interlude not as a glitch in the moral fabric of The Excursion, but as an emblem of its larger argument. Potkay notes that
'Independence' and 'independent' play substantial and positive roles in Wordsworth's poetic lexicon, especially as his ethics come to accord more fully with Stoicism. 'Dependent', by contrast, and 'dependency' (singular or plural) is used only of humanity's relationship with 'godhead: 'Man, instinct [imbued]/With godhead' acknowledges 'dependency sublime' (Prelude 8:640); 'our sublime dependencies' (Excursion 5:240). The phrase implies that dependency on anything less than a God of which we instinctively feel ourselves to be a part is not sublime but servile ... Dependence on particular others—others who, like us, suffer and die—is eschewed in Wordsworth's poetry. [Potkay, 150]
There's something core to Wordsworth's ethical design in this. The chapter on The Prelude in Nancy Yousef's Isolated Cases: The Anxieties of Autonomy in Enlightenment Philosophy and Romantic Literature (Cornell 2004) argues convincingly of the extent to which Wordsworth's poetic autobiography downplays his actual childhood dependencies, on his parents (who are barely mentioned), his friends (bit-part players) or the communities of village, school and university that shaped him. Instead Wordsworth wants to present himself as ethically and psychologically autochthonic, a creature who has grown as naturally as a plant, from the 'fair seed time' of his childhood. Potkay engages with Yousef's argument, downplaying the more obvious explanations for this 'concealment' of dependencies (Wordsworth's dislike of social dependency on principle, his 'cryptomisanthropy', 'however real,' Potkay concedes, 'these facets of Wordsworth's personality might be') in favour of a reading that rather flatters the plan of the Prelude. It has, he thinks,:
to do with the heuristic goal of making his readers imagine, counterintuitively, what moral independence might feel like, an independence compromised only by 'dependency sublime' and one's interdependence with energies less personalized, and more comprehensive, than mother and father, brother and sister.
Or, it seems, adult and helpless infant. Because, really, this starts to look monstrous: if the flipside to existential and moral independence is a refusal to interfere with the bonds defined as 'natural' by Wordsworth's procrustean sense, that that 'indepedence' is tantamount to sociopathy. In a letter to John Wilson, Wordsworth laid out his belief that 'a great poet' ought 'to rectify men's feelings, to give them new compositions of feeling, to render their feelings more sane, pure and permanent, in short, more consonant with nature, that is, to eternal nature, and the great moving spirit of things' [quoted in Potkay, 151]. This is the crux of the matter: in Wordsworth's view, which is to say in the view of The Excursion, the mother has a 'natural', decreed-by-Nature and the Power behind Nature, duty of care for her infant and it is tragic when her melancholia gets in the way of her practising it. But the Wanderer has no duty of care for an infant not his own. And that's insane.

What happens is that eventually Margaret does come back, unlocks the door and lets the Wanderer in. She explains that she spends her time now wandering about the fields, hoping for news of her absent husband, but knowing really that 'what I seek I cannot find':
And so I waste my time: for I am changed;
And to myself,' said she, 'have done much wrong
And to this helpless infant. I have slept
Weeping, and weeping have I waked; my tears
Have flowed as if my body were not such
As others are; and I could never die. [Excursion 1:805-11]
Later we are told her child has died, although we are not given the specifics. Neglect seems likely, by what is implied here. Margaret herself lives on 'released/From her maternal cares', and earns a meagre living spinning hemp. She lasts nine years in total after the departure of her husband ('if he lived,/She knew not that he lived; if he were dead,/She knew not he was dead') lingering 'in unquiet widowhood;/A Wife and Widow'. Then she dies. The narrator is saddened by this tale, but not the teller. With something of a flourish, as if revealing a clever narrative twist, he wraps-up thuswise:
          Why then should we read
The forms of things with an unworthy eye?
She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here.
I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silvered o'er,
As once I passed, into my heart conveyed
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
That what we feel of sorrow and despair
From ruin and from change, and all the grief
That passing shows of Being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream, that could maintain,
Nowhere, dominion o'er the enlightened spirit
Whose meditative sympathies repose
Upon the breast of Faith. I turned away,
And walked along my road in happiness. [Excursion, 1:979-95]
This is the crucial moment: the moment, we could say, in which The Excursion is asking us to go with it, or else to accept that we cannot buy-into its ethical-aesthetic programme. What redeems all the misery and drawn-out suffering, not to mention the neo-Stoic moral arm's-length remoteness from human neediness, is this: a moment of pure and natural beauty.



It matters that this image is from an untended garden, since its weediness moves it closer to unspoiled Nature. And it matters that it is beautiful, because this beauty is an exact correlative, for Wordsworth, of the image's ethical strength. It is a spot-of-time, something for which The Prelude would have prepared us, had Wordsworth ever published his whole Recluse, Prelude-and-all. Nor can I deny the beauty, not only of the thing described, but of the way Wordsworth describes it. To read the measured, dignified, precise blank verse
                    those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silvered o'er,
As once I passed, into my heart conveyed
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
is to be reminded of that apothegm by Vernon Watkins that even when poetry doesn't rhyme at the ends of the line (and especially when it does) the best poetry always rhymes all the way along the line. Here that's realised by Wordsworth's extraordinarily skilful pacing and repetition of the il sound: silvered in one line picking up (wait for it) still and tranquillity two lines on, echoed by a straightforward repetition in the line after 'so calm and still' brought to a conclusion with 'filled my mind'. The labial pulsing of this il, il, il is exquisite, and draws down the very peacefulness the passage seeks to praise by evoking.

On the other hand: is this really enough? Does a single beautiful glimpse of mist-silvered tall grass renovate and redeem nearly decade's psychological agony, bereavement and material degradation? I'm tempted to say: only if it's somebody else's psychological agony, bereavement and material degradation we're talking about. I'm tempted to say: any ethical programme founded upon such an attitude is bound to be ruinous. Wordsworth would not be pleased by my saying so, I suppose.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were N-word"



The BBC Christmas-2015 dramatisation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939) proved both a popular and a critical hit. It's still on iPlayer, though I don't know for how long.  I enjoyed it, too; although by substituting high production values, fine locations and quality acting for the grey soup of Christie's prose it makes 'sophisticated entertainment' out of some really not very sophisticated source-material in a way that's a little distorting. But anyway, it has prompted me to titivate and repost something I originally wrote for another now-defunct and deleted blog, on Christie's novel.




To do so, however, I think we must go back to Christie's original title: Ten Little Niggers (1939). And that means I have to start with an apology for the use of the n-word, here elsewhere throughout this post. I appreciate it is an offensive term, nowadays. More, and just to be clear, it was offensive back then too: Dodd, Mead and Company published the book in November 1939 as Ten Little Niggers, but reissued it only two months later as And Then There Were None because of the original's racist tone. It has been published and adapted as Ten Little Indians and Ten Little Soldier Boys (though also, I have to say, sometimes republished under its original offensive title, right up to the 1970s), and naturally the option is available to me to discuss the text under one or other of these euphemistic names. But the offensiveness of using the original title needs to be balanced against the greater need not to airbrush away the immanent low-level racism of the culture out of which these novels were created. To render the racism of the past invisible is to empower the racism of today by inoculating it against history.

Black characters crop up rarely in Christie (there are none in Ten Little Niggers, for instance, despite its title). But 'foreigners' are one of the key types of otherness by which her cosy-catastrophic narrative twostep of death (Order Lost) and detection (New Order Regained) is orchestrated. The other type, perhaps surprisingly, is 'middle aged men of the professional classes'. I can't remember where I first read about Christie's dislike of doctors, the textual consequence of which is that if you are reading a Christie whodunnit and one of the characters is a doctor (especially a surgeon or consultant) nine times out of ten he (of course the doctor will be a he) is the murderer. Other 'professionals', especially lawyers and judges, are also broadly distrusted by Christie. Nor do these two stereotypes fit together into an uncommon combination of dislike: the trope of mistrusting, disliking and, indeed, actively blaming the monied racial 'other' because he is unlike oneself and has lots of money gears only too easily up to some of the worst inhumanity of the twentieth century. The ten characters in Ten Little Niggers are all invited or induced to Nigger Island by the murderer, who cloaks him/herself under the ignotus-y pseudonym 'U.N.Owen' ('or by a slight stretch of fancy -- UNKNOWN! [72]'). The flash young Captain Lombard, for instance, is offered quite a lot of money, but although he goes he has his suspicions:
What exactly was up, he wondered? That little Jew had been damned mysterious ... A hundred guineas when he was literally down to his last square meal! He had fancied, though, that the little Jew had not been deceived—that was the damnable part about Jews, you couldn't deceive them about money—they knew! [16]
1939, ladies and gentlemen.

This is glancing enough, but not untypical. Elsewhere in pre-War Christie, Jews are vermin (‘he was king of the rats … his face gleamed white and sharp in the moonlight. There was the least hint of a curve to the thin nose. His father had been a Polish Jew’ The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928) or repulsive toad-like moneylenders—as in The Secret of Chimneys (1925) whose villain Isaacstein has ‘a fat yellow face and black eyes as impenetrable as those of a cobra’ as well as a ‘generous curve to [his] big nose’. He represents ‘Hebraic people. Yellow-faced financiers’ and is dismissively referred to as ‘Ikey Hermanstein’, ‘Nosystein’ and ‘Fat Ikey’ by the novel’s gentile dramatis personae. T S Eliot and Wagner make references of this stripe in their art, and critics fulminate or wring their hands. Christie does it and people nod indulgently, mumble that she is 'of her time' and pass over it in silence. Or they actively scrub it out of the books, via surreptitious Bowdlerisation and re-naming. This might be because people think they take Christie's art 'less seriously' than Eliot or Wagner; but I don't think her work is less serious. It's less complex, and less resonant, but its main theme—death—is exactly as serious, and she has enjoyed far greater cultural penetration and reach than either of the other two. Ten Little Niggers is, according to some list, the sixth-best-selling books of all time, after all.

Indeed this, I think, is part of what is interesting about 'the whodunnit' as a form, a distinctively twentieth-century mode of art and indeed one of only a handful of modes invented by that troubled century (along with cinema, TV and pop music; strictly we could add 'video games' to that list, but I think it's clear that the 21st-century is the time of that mode's true florescence). Puzzle-mystery stories had been popular in the nineteenth-century, of course, but the emphasis there had been on the puzzle; it is a striking thing to read the complete run of Sherlock Holmes stories and appreciate how rarely Conan Doyle presented his detective with a dead body—much more often the mystery will something stolen, somebody blackmailed or kidnapped, or a painted canine. But the default premise of the classic 20th-century crime novel is death, one or many; and that shift of emphasis is interesting.

One of the things that is new about the C20th-century whodunnit is precisely the way it handles death. Previously (excuse me if I talk a little over-generally) art encountered death as tragedy, either for the individual or (in Wagner) for the world, something to be apprehended with sorrow or defiance; or else art represented death as a portal, a transcendental supercession of mortality into (usually) a glorious spiritual state. These are both meaningful ways of relating to mortality, of course; but the Golden Age whodunit proposes a different one: it says not just that death is a puzzle—which is fair enough, I suppose—but that death is a soluble puzzle. That's the radical bit, I think.

Martin Heidegger talks about humans embodying a 'being-towards-death', a dimension of our Dasein that, uniquely for us, can project itself forward against its own finitude. Now, Heidegger was for a time a member of the Nazi party, so we can intuit his attitude towards racial otherness. But putting that on one side for a moment. He elaborates 'being-towards-death' in his big book, Sein und Zeit, ('Being and Time' 1927) a text I'm tempted to characterise as 'boring-towards-death'. To cut a long boring short, here's Simon Critchley’s deft summary:
There are four rather formal criteria in Heidegger's conception of being-towards-death: it is non-relational, certain, indefinite and not to be outstripped. Firstly, death is non-relational in the sense in standing before death one has cut off all relations to others. Death cannot be experienced through the deaths of others, but only through my relation to my death ... Secondly, it is certain that we are going to die. Although one might evade or run away from the fact, no one doubts that life comes to an end in death. Thirdly, death is indefinite in the sense that although death is certain, we do not know when it going to happen ... Fourthly, to say that death is not to be outstripped (unüberholbar) simply means that death is pretty damned important. There's no way of trumping it and it outstrips all the possibilities that my power of free projection possesses.
The puzzle-whodunit dramatizes the first three of these modes of being-towards-death, fairly straightforwardly, but where it gets interesting is the fourth. I suppose that on one level, even (perhaps) a banal level, it is central to the form that the veil of mystery is always stripped away by these books' conclusions. You may object that this only happens in a trivial sense, but I'd suggest both that the structure of these sorts of novels constellates a plotted trivium against a metaphorical profundity. More, I'd go further and suggest that, regardless of what a large number of 'serious' novelists suggest, this is the right way round, actually.

I'll dilate upon this point for a moment, before coming back to Christie's novel. Crime stories still have huge reader appeal, but the puzzle-whodunit has (broadly) gone out of fashion. Instead we have a great many novels that attempt to put the profundity up front. There is now a different sort of generalised anxiety about the ‘death’ around which the genre is structured, a desire to ‘take it seriously’, in contemporary crime fiction. Now personally speaking I’m drawn to the Golden Age whodunits because they often are superbly ingenious, and I prize ingenuity; but I suppose it's true to say that contemporary crime stories have lost interest in ingenuity for its own sake. In such titles as I have read from the franchises of Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen books, or the Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, or from watching The Killing or The Bridge, the mystery itself is rather watery, and the emphasis is shifted over to the creation of atmosphere, location, a particular city (Rome, Edinburgh) and a distinctive central character—or in the many historical whodunits, from Lindsay Duncan to Ellis Peters, a kind of historical infodumping. Or to direct our attention in another direction and our eye falls on the vasty stretches of ‘gritty’ crime novels, police procedurals, serial killer yarns, ‘psychological’ tales and so on. Here ingenuity seems simply to be out of place, perhaps because these novels pretend to verisimilitude, and ‘we’ don’t really believe the world to be a place of ingenious schemes and plots. Murder, says the consensus today, is brutal and, in an existential sense, simple. But it seems to me that, in fact, that death is not existentially simple. On the contrary, it is prodigiously puzzling, a mystery hidden in plain view—we all know we will die, after all, although that knowledge is not a simple thing. And furthermore it strikes me that there are things a notionally trivial mode of art, like the whodunit, can say about this puzzle—about its opacity, or more particularly about the disconnect between surface glamour and the resistance-to-interpretation of the depths—that more notionally ‘complex’ forms cannot.

One way of responding to Ten Little Niggers is to test it for plausibility and coherence. But this is not the best way, because of course the plot is implausible and incoherent; it makes no more pretense as far as this is concerned than do Samuel Beckett's plays.

The scene is laid on an island off the coast of Devon, to which eight people arrive, each having received a personal invitation framed in so tempting a way that none demurred. The house in which they are all staying has a butler and cook—so that’s ten people on the island in total; and on their first evening they assemble to hear a gramophone recording of their invisible host. The recording accuses each of them of some horrible sin or crime or another; and thereafter, one by one, the dramatis personae are murdered. With each death, another one of a set of ten china figurines is smashed; and the nursery rhyme from which the books takes its name is acted out in grisly manner. The clever thing here is the way it invites the reader to guess the murderer, only to remove the reader's suspect from consideration by having him or her killed off; and to do so over and over again. It is, really, a very gripping way of doing things.

Plausibility, did you say? Well, surely the murderer could not be certain that all ten victims would accept the invitation to the island, or that they would play along; it's not likely that the whole filigree elaborate scheme of 'the murderer' would run along its grooves as smoothly as the book has it doing. That the victims wouldn't simply swim away (the weather isn't always bad, and the mainland is clearly visible from the island), or build a boat. That they wouldn't all just lock themselves in their rooms until rescue came. But to think like this is to miss the point. The artifice of the scheme, worked through in the narrative, is a feature, not a bug. Arguably it is a key feature. From a metaphorical point of view, whodunits like these are in effect saying: death is complex, ingenious, unexpected and above all artificial. And although perhaps it sounds counterintuitive, I wonder if this doesn’t actually encode a greater existential veracity than the ‘realist’ mode. Think of your own mortality. Of course in one sense it is the very opposite of ‘an unexpected thing’; we all know we must die. But in another sense it is necessarily radically unexpected: we can never anticipate it, because we shall not live through it. It is something incommensurate with our living being-in-the-world. Its complexity derives, I think, from this.

But there is also this question of the solubility of mortality. It is something, in a deep sense, insoluble; and perhaps the logic of the ingeniously difficult mystery is a better way of apprehending that than notions that death is, in any sense, straightforward. Or to be a little more specific: obviously these sorts of books do offer a ‘solution’; but unlike the death of Othello, or of Prince André in War and Peace these ‘solutions’ are radically unsatisfying. They address the epiphenomena of the victim’s death without touching in any sense upon the deeper questions—and this, I’m arguing, is more existentially honest than the conventional tragic mode. The artificiality of the Golden Age whodunit set-up refracts Heidegger's perspective: any notional ‘realism’ about death must be existentially mendacious, because death is not ‘real’ in the sense that the events of my life are real (having breakfast, dropping the kids at school, going to work and so on). Death is not a part of life, not lived-through, only ever lived-towards. It is an artifice, not in the sense that it has an artificer; or more precisely only in the sense that its artificer is us ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves. And Ten Little Niggers makes great play with its egregious artificiality. A character notes that ‘it’s only in books people carry revolvers around as a matter of course’ [146] precisely to set-up the discovery that one character is carrying around a revolver around as a matter of course. To quote General Macarthur: “the whole thing is preposterous—preposterous!”’ [64]. Of course it is, and designedly so.

This is not to absolve Ten Little Niggers of its horrible title, or Christie's work generally of its ubiquitous though low-level racism. On the contrary; it is to highlight the way that this novel—not to labour the point, but a book published in 1939—is precisely about an ingenious though sadistic plot to isolate a number of clever, mostly affluent but fundamentally wicked people on an island, and dispose of them. The late 30s and early 40s had no shortage of crazy schemes to solve the (let me just crack open the scare quotes) 'Jewish problem' by bunging them all on an island somewhere. Paul De Man wrote an essay on "The Jews in Contemporary Literature" (published, notoriously, in Le Soir early in 1941) in which Jews are described as possessing precisely the calculating, remorseless qualities of the murderer in Christie's novel ('Their cerebralness, their capacity to assimilate doctrines while maintaining a cold detachment from them ...'). De Man actively advocates isolating them all on an island: 'one can thus see that solution to the Jewish problem that would lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not have, for the literary life of the West, regrettable consequences. It would lose, in all, some personalities of mediocre worth.'

The 'solution' to Ten Little Niggers is a final one. In that respect the euphemistic re-titling is correct, 'and then there were none'. Some film versions of the book fudge this issue, leaving a couple of survivors. Christie is more ruthless, and the BBC is to be commended for sticking to this in their 2015 adaptation—all die. All must die. We could put it, appropriating a contemporary's words, that her position is that reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking 'bad people' undesirable. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.

More particularly, in Ten Little Niggers, as in some other of her titles, Christie knowingly pushes the 'puzzle whodunit' form to an extreme. Usually, of course, a whodunit will entail one murder, a gaggle of suspects—a dozen, say—one of whom is shown to be guilty. But in Christie's most remarkable books everyone is guilty (Orient Express, Ten Little Niggers), or the Law itself is guilty, both in the sense that the representative of the law is the murderer (Ten Little Niggers, Hercule Poirot's Christmas, Mousetrap, Curtain) and in the broader sense that justice is the same indiscriminate, mortal process as murder. Her more conventional whodunits pale into feebleness beside this splendidly, Lutheran conceit—that we are all guilty, that the law exists to punish us all.

Regular whodunits are stagey, right down to the assemble-in-the-library-please denouement. But Ten Little Niggers takes this aspect to stagier-than-thou lengths. The murderer addresses the assembled group via a pre-recorded gramophone record; but this is described in the novel in terms of a capitalised Voice (‘into that silence came The Voice. Without warning, inhuman, penetrating ...’ 56). The starkly typified characters—retired Judge, religious spinster, flash young man and so on—in this bright-lit artificial environment, as the storm rages outside, Lear-like (or Peter-Brook-Staging-King-Lear-like): there is a sense of unaccommodated man facing down his mortality, although when Christie reaches (uncharacteristically) for the Vatic it doesn’t really convince (all the following ellipses are hers: ‘Aeons passed ... worlds spun and whirled ... Time was motionless ... It stood still: it passed through a thousand ages ...’ [277])

The last two left alive are Vera and Philip Lombard. Vera has the gun, and Philip jumps her for it. ‘He sprang. Quick as a panther—as any other feline creature ... Automatically Vera pressed the trigger ... Lombard’s body stayed poised in mid-spring, then crashed heavily to the ground’ [281]. In another setting, the Wile E. Coyote touch of ‘Lombard’s body stayed poised in mid-spring’ would be simply risible. Here, in this pared-down Beckettian landscape, it feels oddly right.

What does all this have to do with the question of racism, with which this post opened? The obvious answer to this is that Christie's novels, as unusually pure examples of the puzzle-whodunit form, necessarily trade in stereotypical characters; and that therefore the Weltanschauung they construct must be stereotypical too. This is because a puzzle whodunit needs to put its pieces in play, for the reader to solve the puzzle; and that a too rich or detailed individuation of those pieces would interfere with the crispness of the larger pattern. Reading Christie's whodunits puts me in mind of what Nabokov said in Speak Memory about his favourite hobby, constructing chess problems:
It is a beautiful, complex and sterile art related to the ordinary form of the game only insofar as, say, the properties of a sphere are made use of both by a juggler in weaving a new act and by a tennis player in winning a tournament. Most chess players, in fact, amateurs and masters alike, are only mildly interested in these highly specialized, fanciful, stylish riddles, and though appreciative of a catchy problem would be utterly baffled if asked to compose one.
Mutatis mutandi, as the mutant Latin goes, this applies wonderfully to the relationship between Christie's puzzles and actual crime; the relationship between Christie's 'death' and actual death. There is a sterility to what she does, it is true; but an invigorating rather than enervating one.

I'm tempting to suggest that the real theme of Ten Little Niggers is not death, so much as the way we are trapped by death, the way it permits us no get-out. Like the monolithic, mind-straitjacket called racism, death closes down our possibilities, and fills us with fear and irrational suspicion. Plus, it has to be said, a weird, gallows hilarity. In the novel, all the occupants of the island have a mortal sin on their conscience. In the case of Philip Lombard, this is that when an army once officer he abandoned a company of native soldiers, making off with their supplies and so ensuring their death. Vera Claythorne and Emily Brent discuss his case. ‘He admits to having abandoned twenty men to their deaths,’ notes the latter. ‘They were only natives!’ retorts Vera. Emily’s response to this (that ‘black or white, they were our brothers’) provokes laughter in Vera: ‘our black brothers—our black brothers! Oh, I’m going to laugh. I’m hysterical. I’m not myself ...’ [122] What is it that Christie finds funny here, I wonder: that 'we' might consider black people 'brothers'? The grounds of the comparison are the gravest, and the most profound: that black people, Jews and white people all share the predicament that they are thinking, feeling beings who will die. This grim brother- and sisterhood unites us all, after all; and it is this, most fundamentally, that makes a mockery of racism.