Posts Tagged ‘W.H. Auden’

Prospero’s island: not monarchy, but despotism

Monday, June 16th, 2014
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piotrbookPhilosopher Piotr Nowak was already installed at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen by the time I arrived for my stay as a fellow in 2008 – alas, an all-too-brief a sojourn! I had just returned from six weeks of research in Poland, and he was the only Polish fellow at IWM below the rank of rector.  He was hunkered on the floor below mine in the lavish white suites that we called offices, overlooking the canal. So Piotr and I visited and chatted between floors, or at the communal lunches provided for the fellows.

At the time, he was working on something about Hannah Arendt‘s notion of radical evil, and recommended some reading on that subject. He also introduced me to the works of Leszek Kołakowski.  The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote of Piotr: “His writings usually contain a challenge: so many mysterious voids of ignorance still lurk in the familiar sphere of our acquired knowledge; and also extend an invitation: so many virgin lands, omitted on our overcrowded map of knowledge, are still waiting to be explored …”

So naturally, I was interested to read that he had just written a book in English on an unexpected subject, The Ancients and Shakespeare on Time, published by the intriguing Value Inquiry Book Series. He ponders a range of questions. What kind of place is Prospero’s island? I remember one Stanford professor – was it David Riggs? – who suggested Shakespeare’s inspiration was another verdant island – Ireland, with its strong tradition of household bards and music. Or perhaps the New World, a place that had a near-mythical status in Jacobean England.

Piotr’s Central European perspective is evident in the darker version of the island he offers on Prospero’s domain (he translated from the Polish himself):

It’s climate is warm and humid, which favours decay and decomposition. However, this is not of primary importance. The first thing that comes to mind in this respect is that it is a place where anything can be done to a fellow human being, including killing, inducing insanity, sentencing to forced labour, as well as arranging relationships and dissolving them. This can hardly be called monarchy – it is rather a sphere of arbitrary absolutism.

nowak

He, too, contains islands.

On Prospero’s island, even the laws of physics work back to front. A supposed God, Prospero plays with nature – he creates and destroys as he pleases, as well as strikes with lightning and uproots pines or cedar trees. He affects other people’s perception of the reality which he himself shapes according to his will. “Poor souls, they perished,” Miranda worries, bewailing the shipwrecked. “Not a hair perished,” we soon learn from Ariel. It is only Prospero who knows the truth. What is more important and terrifying, however, is that the magician wields power over the dead, whom he can resurrect at will, though we never learn what he does with them later on – perhaps he even kills them again. Finally, he gathers both his old and new adversaries. If Prospero encourages revolt among the latter, it is only for one purpose: so that they could witness in the nearest future the consequences of political freedom that was granted to the working classes. Two drunkards and one monster, liberated from all authority, fall victim to their own unbridled passions and bad habits. … However, he does not kill them, bcause he has already grasped that all power and knowledge, if it wants to be what it is, must have its limits. This is the moment we learn about the remarkable wisdom of Prospero. …

At the same time, he becomes aware that his wisdom cannot be inherited. … The young do not wish to remember other people’s stories, because they want to create their own – there is nothing strange or surprising about it. Meanwhile, old age – which mercilessly threatens everyone, accompanied by an invariable softening in the head – takes Prospero’s imperiousness by storm. He gradually moves into the shadow and is inclined to write down the story of his youth. Thus, he prepares a book-long interview, asking for applause, which he finally receives. But then he freezes into a monument. For some time, the young light candles for him and bring him flowers. Later, however, they simply forget.

In his memory…

Sounds like he is remembering a particular production of The Tempest – I don’t remember anything like the final scene he describes in any production I have seen. I also didn’t remember this lovely excerpt he includes from W.H. Auden‘s “The Sea and the Mirror”:

If age, which is certainly
Just as wicked as youth, look any wiser,
It is only that youth is still able to believe
It will get away with anything, while age
Knows only too well that it has got away with nothing.

The book is dedicated to the memory of the man he encouraged me to meet at IWM, one reason among several to be grateful to Piotr: the institute’s rector and one of Poland’s leading scholars,  Krzysztof Michalski.

Geoffrey Hill on “the poem as selfie”

Monday, June 2nd, 2014
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Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: "It terrifies me."

Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: “It terrifies me.”

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Geoffrey Hill, who turns 82 this month, is on a roll. His first Collected Poems of 1985 was less than a fifth of the length of Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 – that’s an unusual degree of late-life productivity. ”It is a bumper harvest later and richer than anybody dared hope for,” writes Daniel Johnson over at Standpoint. Hill is now the Oxford Professor of Poetry; his lectures are available as podcasts. Johnson is the founding editor of Standpoint and former literary editor at The Times.His excellent article, “Geoffrey Hill and the Poetry of Ideas,” is a must-read for any user of the English language … or any language.

A few excerpts:

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._National_Memorial_Stone_of_Hope_at_Dusk

“Monumentality and bidding.” He passed the test.

As I entered, the Professor of Poetry was reciting: not verses, but extracts from Lincoln‘s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King‘s “I have a dream” speech. He went on to explain that his theme was “Monumentality and Bidding” — terms of art taken from one of his heroes of prosody, Gerard Manley Hopkins — and that his argument was that enduring, not to say great, poetry and prose must combine these two qualities. Monumentality speaks for itself, but by “bidding” Hopkins meant speaking directly to the reader and keeping his attention, “making it everywhere an act of intercourse” — “social intercourse”, Hill interjected with a wry smile. … The great speeches of Lincoln and King, a sonnet by Hopkins, the music of Purcell: each was analysed minutely, with frequent reference to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was all of a piece and, in its endearingly idiosyncratic way, “Hillian”.

***

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Not a “selfie” kind of guy.

In his March Oxford lecture, he scandalises the audience by questioning the most revered of the war poets: “To say that [Wilfred] Owen wrote two of the great poems of the 20th century, in ‘Sensibility’ and ‘Spring Offensive’, but that some of his poetry, even some of the most loved, is a bit sloppy . . . well, if one had a career to lose it would lose one one’s career, I suppose.” If language is, as he believes, the last repository of meaning, “it is essential to apply the most rigorous technical demands to these sanctified objects of public worship.”

This leads Hill to the gravamen of his charge against much of the poetry of today: “It is public knowledge that the newest generation of poets is encouraged to think of poems as Facebook or Twitter texts — or now, I suppose, much more recently, as selfies.” The mention of such an improbable neologism from such a source elicited an embarrassed titter from the audience, as if Hill had caught his academic peers indulging a secret vice. “The poem as selfie is the aesthetic criterion of contemporary verse,” he continued. “And, as you know, in my malign way I want to put myself in opposition to this view. That is to say, the poem should not be a spasmodic issue from the adolescent or even the octogenarian psyche, requiring no further form or validation.” Hill came back to the theme in his vindication of Hopkins, whose sonnets did not, he expostulated, deserve the condescension of posterity: “I do not think that they are Hopkins’s selfies.”

The underlying reason for Hill’s rejection of poetry as pure self-expression is that he sees such narcissism as beneath the dignity of his calling. He preaches, rather, what he has practised ever since his youth: a poetry of ideas. It is this determination to place ideas at the heart of his work that sets him apart from even his most celebrated contemporaries. Disputing Auden‘s claim that “art is a product of history, not a cause”, he argues that the true poem is “alienated from its existence as historical event”. To capture the realm in which it exists over and above history, he proposes the notion of “alienated majesty”, the invisible repository of ideas, values and faith. “Alienated majesty signifies a reality, however, even if not an actuality.”

***

brokenFor Hill, we who are privileged to dwell in the land of Shakespeare and Milton are in danger of squandering our most precious inheritance: our literature, and especially our poetry, which is the enduring source of our national identity. “The writing and criticism in depth of poetry is an essential, even a vital practice,” he told the Oxford audience. “We are in our public life desperately in need of the energy of intelligence created by these pursuits.” Only poetry and its rigorous criticism can discern “how the uncommon work moves within the common dimension of language”. Politics is no less dependent on language than poetry, but it is a great deal less attuned to the uncommon work. Poets, if they could only raise their sights from their navel-gazing, could and should be the unacknowledged legislators of our hearts.

***

For Hill, a poem must be “at once spontaneous and exacting” and “simultaneously wild and strict.” He said, “This is a quality which somehow must be brought back into English poetry this century, or English poetry will die.”

 

Read the whole thing here. It’s worth it.

Lovable Auden and his hidden furies

Saturday, March 1st, 2014
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mendelson2A young provincial teenager attended a fancy London literary party in the 1950s. His English teacher has abandoned him among the roomful of bigshots as she went to hobnob among the literati. “I was gauche and inept and had no idea what to do with myself,” he recalled.  Then one of the older guests befriended and advised him. “Everyone here is just as nervous as you are, but they are bluffing, and you must learn to bluff too.”

The older guest was W.H. Auden, and the act was one of many kindnesses performed by the poet, as recounted in “The Secret Auden” by Edward Mendelson (below right) in the current New York Review of Books here.  Apparently, Auden had a habit of slipping away from the great and the famous at gatherings, and seeking out the least important person in the room.

He also had a habit of funding the education of postwar orphans, and shaking the trees to keep Dorothy Day‘s homeless shelter from closing.  This was not the way many saw him, or the way he portrayed himself as “rigid and uncaring.” His motives were many, but one was certainly a profound self-knowledge.

earlyaudenmendelsonWrites Mendelson: “On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.”

Or, as his protégée Joseph Brodsky said, “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.” Maybe he got it from Wystan.

I didn’t know about this, either: Wystan, The Life, Love and Death of a Poet premiered last year at Oxford:

David Mason and the quest for “necessary poems”

Monday, February 24th, 2014
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david

Colorado’s poet laureate

A zillion or two zillion years ago, I reviewed a volume of essays by poet David Mason for the San Francisco Chronicle – but I haven’t read a single essay of his since then (though I have read some of his poetry, which I’ll save for a separate post). Then – bam! – this Hudson Review essay on “Levels of Ambition,” reviewing the new edition of W.H. Auden‘s For the Time Being, as well as collections by Franz Wright, William Logan, Debora Greger, David Lehman, and Stephanos Papadopoulos. It’s a pleasurable read with a refreshing p.o.v.

He begins:

“The more I read, the more it seems a complete investment of one’s entire being is a necessity for greatness in the arts. Even to speak of greatness in our time invites derision. Who needs greatness when you can have tenure? Yet we’ve all seen it, haven’t we? Not in our contemporaries, the blur of smaller talents, but in the dead. Generalizations never stand up to scrutiny, but I will risk a few. Most contemporary poets I read seem too concerned with avoiding ridicule, trying to be the smartest kid in the workshop, rather than plumbing what Eliot called “the inexplicable mystery of sound”—bodying forth a whole charged expression of living. Much of our poetry seems denatured, flat. Intelligence abounds, cleverness is everywhere, but vitality is hard to find.

“One experiment I frequently conduct is to open a contemporary journal and read only the first lines of poems. Usually the exercise proves soporific in the extreme. No novelist worth his salt would assume he deserved to be read without grabbing the reader by the throat, yet our poets are so often complacent, too comfortable in the expectation that someone will read them, even if only assigned to do so in a classroom. A low-affect sort of lineated prose has swept the field. The answer is not a return to received forms—any form is valid if used by a real poet. The answer, I propose, is to write with more than technique, more than intelligence, more than heart, more than music. The answer is to write necessary poems.

timebeing“Greatness, exhibit A: The poetry of W. H. Auden compels reading—at least for me. He could not do everything. He was not a great dramatist, not a creator of characters beyond certain allegorical bounds. But he could write unforgettable lyrics and charge massive intellectual structures with vital thinking and feeling. Even his more antipoetic sentences arise apparently from a fully developed human being. He could step into the public squares of politics and religion without losing the sense of a private, suffering person. And he left more wonderful lines behind than just about anybody this side of the Bard. It is very good to have a new edition of Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, as a reminder of both ambition and accomplishment.”

foolishness

Holy foolishness

I’m less impressed with some of the other poets he praises, at least from the snippets he cites, but then, starting his essay with Auden sets a high bar. That said, I love it when he recalls the spat between Wright and Logan (Wright had threatened to sock Logan for a bad review), and, after listing both poets strengths and shortcomings, asks:  “What would happen if Wright could borrow some of Logan’s coldness and Logan could crack open a bottle of Wright’s holy foolishness? Grafting the two of them to some new root would make a remarkable poet, even a great one.”

Read the whole thing here.

 

Happy 182nd birthday, Lewis Carroll! And here are his tips for your next email…

Monday, January 27th, 2014
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Where he lived: Tom Quad at Christ Church college, Oxford (Photo: Toby Ord)

It’s Lewis Carroll‘s birthday!  I’ve become more fond of the Oxford author since I’ve become terribly fond of his haunts – I have regularly stayed across the street from Christ Church college at Oxford, where he lived forever. It’s grand.

LewisCarrollSelfPhoto

Very early selfie

Christ Church college has produced thirteen prime ministers. More importantly, it produced W.H. Auden, and is the academic setting for Evelyn Waugh‘s Brideshead Revisited.  So Charles Dodgson, too, attended the famous college, and continued his association with it till his death.

But here’s another thing he should be remembered for, besides Alice in Wonderland, and besides mathematics, besides even the photographs. He wrote and received nearly a hundred thousand letters – 98,721, to be precise. He was so good at it that he gave advice on letter writing, in a missive titled “Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing.” You can read the whole thing here.  It includes some handy advice on stamp cases, as if you ever thought of possessing such a thing.

How to begin a letter? First, check the address.  Then he advises, “Next, Address and Stamp the Envelope. ‘What! Before writing the Letter?’ Most certainly. And I’ll tell you what will happen if you don’t. You will go on writing till the last moment, and just in the middle of the last sentence, you will become aware that ‘time’s up!’ Then comes the hurried wind-up—the wildly-scrawled signature—the hastily-fastened envelope, which comes open in the post—the address, a mere hieroglyphic—the horrible discovery that you’ve forgotten to replenish your Stamp-Case—the frantic appeal, to every one in the house, to lend you a Stamp—the headlong rush to the Post Office, arriving, hot and gasping, just after the box has closed—and finally, a week afterwards, the return of the Letter, from the Dead-Letter Office, marked ‘address illegible’!” Well, that’s more than eight or nine words right there. And what’s with all the caps?

He also has some more practical modern advice, for those of us dedicated to electronic correspondence. To wit:

Your friend is much more likely to enjoy your wit, after his own anxiety for information has been satisfied. Start with “Aunt Maude is dead,” and then work in your jokes after that.

“When once you have said your say, full and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal.”  

“If it should ever occur to you to write jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious: a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences.” 

And try not to have the last word, he advises.  Even when your opponent is smugly satisfied that he has stunned you into shamed silence.  It’s not worth it.

Steve Leveen at the Huffington Post writes more about it here.

Weekend roundup: John Lennon, W.H. Auden, Geoffrey Hill, Danilo Kiš, and Dana Gioia

Sunday, December 8th, 2013
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Yoko Ono: Passages for Light

Yoko and me in 2009 (Photo: Toni Gauthier)

Today is the somber anniversary of John Lennon‘s assassination in 1980. In tribute, my sister, an indefatigable Beatles fan, posted my photo with his widow Yoko Ono on my Facebook page. I’ll do the same for the Book Haven – at left.

Meanwhile, a few articles culled from the weekend:

In The Telegraph today here, Alexander McCall Smith, author of What W.H. Auden Can Do for You (I know, I know…a utilitarian approach to the poet) picks out his five favorite W.H. Auden poems.  He has excellent taste. In fact, it coincides largely with my own.

mccall-smith-auden“In Praise of Limestone” and “Lullaby,” two personal favorites, are on his list. He calls the latter “one of the finest love poems in the English language.” I couldn’t agree more. As for the latter, “Who would have thought that there was so much to say about limestone and its merits?” Actually, I find his endorsement of limestone somewhat ambiguous. See what you think in the video below. In any case, I love the lines “The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,/Having nothing to hide.”  Joseph Brodsky shuffled over this line with one of his odd smiles, where the ends of his mouth went up while the center stayed down in a sort of suppressed chuckle.  ”Tautological,” as I recall he said.

geoffrey-hillGeoffrey Hill isn’t a difficult poet, he is “one nut to crack among many,” according to Jeremy Noel-Tod, reviewing the poet’s latest volume, Broken Hierarchies, over here at The Sunday Times, if you can crack the paywall.  I can’t.

kisThis isn’t a new article, but one I finally got ’round to reading, to my profit: Adam Thirlwell considers the staggering neglect of Danilo Kiš, one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, which is “morally and aesthetically, a scandal. It’s also, I think, some kind of literary koan or mystery. The optimist might try to analyse the possible pragmatic reasons for his obscurity – such as that comical bird perching on the final letter of his name; or his reckless savagery towards every ideology, menacing both the Right and the Left; or his political bad luck, to die shortly before the wars in Yugoslavia made the lands of his birth briefly famous, albeit for the wrong reasons. But none of these seems adequate. Or this optimist might then urbanely lament Kiš’s own lack of urbanity, his legendary irritable boredom with the world of social appearances.” One redress is Mark Thompson‘s inventive and erudite new biography-of-sorts, Birth Certificate.  Read about it at the Times Literary Supplement here.

DanaGioiaDana Gioia has always been upfront about his roots: “I think that being proud of your religion, your culture, and your ethnicity is the beginning of revival for Catholic artistic culture. As an individual, I refuse to be ashamed of my faith, my culture, or my family background.” Even more so now:  he’s written about the decline of Catholic culture in an essay entitled “The Catholic Writer Today.”  The article (here) was trapped behind a paywall several weeks ago, but has been officially liberated, and so was picked up this weekend by Andrew Sullivan today here, and has also been picked up here and here and here and here.  Dana has never shied away from controversy – his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” is still a gold standard for controversy, generating a record avalanche of mail after it was published in The Atlantic Monthly.  Looks like he’s about to do it again.

 

Cracking the books with Wystan

Thursday, September 5th, 2013
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auden-syllabus2

“What is this tattered sheet of paper?” you may ask.  It is reproof.  For somewhere in my garage, I have my very own copy of this syllabus, issued by W.H. Auden to his semester class on “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” when he taught at my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, way back in 1941-42.  I asked for it a decade or two ago, and would have been the first to put it online had I not misplaced it.  Now it’s all over the internet – I knew the game was up when The Atlantic put it on tumblr a year ago.  In any case, it has influenced my life in strange ways.  For example, it’s the reason why Shakespeare‘s Henry V, Part 2, is the only work of literature on my Droid, besides the King James Bible.  I still have some catching up to do to finish the list.

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Cherce.

“What I find fascinating about the syllabus is how much it reflects Auden’s own overlapping interests in literature across genres – drama, lyric poetry, fiction – philosophy, and music,” Lisa Goldfarb, Associate Professor and Associate Dean at NYU’s Gallatin School, told the New York Daily News earlier this year. “He also includes so many of the figures he wrote about in his own prose and those to whom he refers in his poetry: especially “The Tempest” of Shakespeare; Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Melville, Rilke, as well as the opera libretti on the syllabus.

“By including such texts across disciplines – classical and moderliterature, philosophy, music,anthropology, criticism – Auden seems to have aimed to educate his students deeply and broadly.He probably would have enjoyed working with students on the texts he so dearly loved.”

Now it’s over at Flavorwire, along with the course instructions and syllabi for David Foster WallaceKatie Roiphe, Lynda Barry, Lily Hoang, Susan Howe, Zadie Smith, Donald Barthelme.  Check them out here.

But for me?  I’ll still take Wystan’s list.  It’s cherce.

(P.S.  I have a hidden motive for posting this syllabus. Now I can’t lose it.)

Poet Anne Stevenson: “We are losing contact with language…”

Friday, May 24th, 2013
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wales

Her 17th century cottage near Llanbedr, during my 2009 visit.

Anne Stevenson turned 80 in January – and the occasion whizzed past without my noticing it.  So it was a pleasure to be reminded of my neglect by the Times Literary Supplement this week, in an article by Thea Lenarduzzi  I was also unaware of Anne’s newest “probably my last” collection, Astonishment. I wrote about Anne a dozen years ago, here, and have had the pleasure of visiting her at both her residences, in Durham, and more recently staying in Wales, where she lives with husband Peter Lucas in a 17th century cottage near Llanbedr.

“One has to maintain a distance, an air pocket between the poet and the poem—a pocket of objectivity. The poem isn’t an expression of what you could say better in ordinary language, or in theoretical language,” she told me in 2000.

“I do believe that writing poetry is not something everybody needs to indulge in. Encouraging more and more people to express themselves and, above all, to publish poems or put them on the internet, does tend to thin the blood—of literature, I mean. People forget how to read. They forget that you need to develop a strong degree of attention to read intelligently the poetry of, say, Auden or Yeats, or even Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop. You need to be sensitive to all the sounds, rhythms, echoes, et cetera, that constitute a poem to know what’s going on in it. If nothing is going on except the promulgation of some one-dimensional idea or personal experience, if the so-called poem is nothing but a cut-up piece of not-very-interesting prose, then it isn’t poetry at all. It’s not asking anything of the reader, except perhaps fellow-feeling or sympathy.”

Anne Stevenson

“A pocket of objectivity”

Not surprisingly, she is still a woman of strong opinions.  From the TLS piece:

More overtly underwhelmed by the possibilities of mixed media was Stevenson. “There’s an awful lot of poetry about”, she said, emphasizing one word in particular. “And with 9,000 teachers of Creative Writing in US Colleges, turning out ten protégés each . . . you’re bound to bring the standard down”. With characteristically wry humour she questioned that age-old obsession with “doing something ‘new’” (“it’s terribly hard to do anything new, you know”), which operates at the expense of more self-probing verse (not to be confused with the “Words about words about words to pamper the ego / Of some theoretical bore”); and “Do It Yourself Poetry” built in ignorance of proper craftsmanship (with no sense of rhythm, form, heritage ). “We are losing contact with language . . . . I wouldn’t even begin to talk about the visual arts, ‘Conceptual Art…’” (that carefully placed emphasis again, a glint in her eye, and a laugh: “I am eighty, you know!”).

“I’ll just throw all of that in”, Stevenson quipped before bringing the evening to a close with a reading of her most recent poem, “An Old Poet’s View from the Departure Platform”, its final stanza running thus:

“I gaze over miles and miles of cut up prose, / Uncomfortable troubles, sad lives. / They smother in sand the fire that is one with the rose. / The seed, not the flower survives.”

Oh, and this will keep me in my place: she says ““Blog is the ugliest word I ever heard …”  Read the whole thing here.

Shocking! Auden on Austen. (And why is Darcy such a jerk, anyway?)

Sunday, January 20th, 2013
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“…everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together…”

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

 

Shocked, shocked I tell you.

That’s W.H. Auden writing about Jane Austen, the poet one small consonant away from sharing her surname.  The poem is his 1937 “Letter to Lord Byron.”

In this weekend’s Independent, John Walsh explores the eternal question:  “Why is Mr. Darcy such an asshole?”  Actually, I’d never thought of it quite that way before, but Walsh points out that the character who is seen as noble and heroic acts like a complete jerk for the most of the novel:

“Has a supposedly romantic hero ever seemed less agreeable, less attractive or less charming? At a dance, he tells Bingley, in everyone’s hearing, that it would be a punishment for him to dance with any of the ladies present. What, Bingham asks, about Lizzie Bennet? Darcy regards our lively, clever, witty heroine and says, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

This is not ‘pride’. It’s rudeness, bad manners, the words of (let us not mince words here) a stuck-up fool. We know he is ‘well-bred’ – can breeding make one so socially maladroit? He is hopeless at conversation. He is rude to Miss Bingley. He is awkwardly icy with Lizzie. Even when he finally proposes to her, he’s unforgiveably rude about her mother’s vulgarity, her own ‘inferiority’ and how degrading it would be for him to marry her. He admits, without apology, trying to derail the romance between Lizzie’s sister Jane and Bingley. The reader may be forgiven for wondering when any recognisably heroic virtues will appear.”

On the shelf…

Yet, in the second half of the book: “He’s discovered at his mansion, Pemberley, being charming, attentive and kind. We hear about his man-of-action heroics in persuading Wickham to marry Lydia. What has brought about this transformation?”  May I suggest that Lizzie is a mere 20 years old, and Darcy 28?  Who is not a jerk at such ages?  Who does not have scores of memories of behaving poorly at such an age?

Walsh theorizes instead that Darcy reconsiders Lizzie after he three-mile walk through the mud to visit her sister who has taken ill at Bingley’s home.  According to Andrew Davies, who adapted the book for the BBC, “She happens to bump into Mr Darcy just as he’s coming out of the house, and he finds that he responds very well to her looks. So I wrote in a stage direction: ‘Darcy is surprised to find that he has an instant erection’. I felt obliged to add, ‘I don’t mean we need to focus on his trousers, just that it’s what should be going through the actor’s mind’. Darcy’s obviously turned on by this heart-throbbing, muddy, warm girl.”

Well, that’s one interpretation. May I suggest a less obvious one in our modern times?  Lizzie, up to that point in the novel, has appeared to Mr. Darcy as little more than a smart-ass who excels at pertness.  In this incident, she displays loyalty, tenacity, and character – and it evokes the same in response.  Not as sexy, admittedly, but a more enduring reaction.

Worthy.

Walsh explores Jane Austen’s brief Christmas romance with the charming Tom Lefroy in 1795.  “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together,” she teased her sister in a letter.  The gentleman’s family was alarmed, and whisked him back to the bar (no, not that kind of a bar – the legal profession).  He was expected to become a barrister and pull the family’s economic sled, otherwise others might have to get off their duffs and work.

Austen did not rebound from the Christmas romance quickly.

But Walsh doesn’t say what happens next.  Austen’s romantic hero was worthy of her: he became as MP for the constituency of Dublin University, Privy Councillor of Ireland, and eventually Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.  When Austen died in 1817, he traveled from Ireland to England to pay his respects.  A “Tom Lefroy” even bought at auction one of the early rejection letters she received for her novel, already a valuable record of poor literary judgment.

At the end of his life, he admitted to having loved Austen. His nephew wrote: ” My late venerable uncle … said in so many words that he was in love with her, although he qualified his confession by saying it was a boyish love. As this occurred in a friendly & private conversation, I feel some doubt whether I ought to make it public.” Probably a wise move.  Lafroy’s eldest daughter, born June 24, 1802, was named  Jane Christmas Lefroy.

About the time of Lefroy’s visit, Jane was penning the novel that would become Pride and Prejudice.  Some speculate that Lefroy is the model for Darcy.  Others claim that the author herself is the reserved Mr. Darcy, and that Lefroy is the teasing, lively Lizzie.  I’ll make a third suggestion.  Lefroy is the model for the lively, amiable Bingley, who appears casual in his affections even when he is deeply engaged.  And perhaps Jane saw herself in Lizzie’s sister, also named Jane, whose quiet love persisted long after the romance was over.

Postscript: Jane Austen’s best marriage proposals are the ones that end up in a fistfight. In fact, the successful proposals happen offstage or through paraphrase, anyway. This one is much better on the page than onscreen, but still…

Postscript on 1/28:  And we got some nice pick-up on this from our old friend Andrew Sullivan over at the Daily Beast.  His piece, “The Cost of Love,”  is here. What fun!

Tolkien, Auden, and an evening of mushrooms and Elvish

Friday, December 21st, 2012
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Fond of Elvish…

Lovely piece in the New Yorker about J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings, and just in time for the current hubbub about Peter Jackson‘s adaptation of The Hobbit, the movie.  I’ve never understood the Tolkien craze – I took an unsuccessful stab at The Hobbit as a teenager, and indulged in a weekend binge of the movies a few years back just to get the hang of it – but Erin Overbey goes some way to explaining the devotion to me:

We love to think about the dorky minutiae: how Hobbits invented the art of smoking pipe-weed, why trolls speak with Cockney accents, whether Middle-Earth is spherical. These elements aren’t distractions; they’re the magical details that elevate Tolkien’s books. People may come to Tolkien for the Milton-esque struggle between good and evil, but they stay for the fresh mushrooms and the Elvish.

Apparently, so did W.H. Auden, one of Tolkien’s early champions and defenders.  In 1926, he heard Tolkien reading from Beowulf so beautiful that he decided on the spot that Anglo-Saxon was worth pursuing – it shows in Auden’s poetry.  He also became a close friend of the Oxford professor.  Thirty years later, he wrote in the New York Times about The Return of the King, the third installment of the Lord of the Rings cycle:

I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte. In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light “escapist” reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.

Perhaps the most memorable bit of Overbey’s piece is her description of Auden’s invitation to speak at a Brooklyn Tolkien Society in the 1960s.  He looked, according to a witness, remarkably like “a Tolkienish wizard surrounded by a crowd of young and eager Hobbits.”  Overbey writes:

So was he.

He began by talking about his personal relationship with Tolkien and the major influence his former professor had had on his life. Tolkien, he said, had originally fallen in love with the Finnish language, which has affinities with Elvish, because it has “fifteen or sixteen cases.” (“Fifteen!” one of the young attendees exclaimed.) Auden went on to tell the group how Tolkien had often admitted that he really had no idea where The Lord of the Rings was going when he first started the trilogy. In fact, Auden said, he wasn’t even sure how the pivotal character of Strider would develop as the narrative grew. Auden also let his rapt audience in on Tolkien’s fascination with “the whole Northern thing.” For Tolkien, Auden said, north is “a sacred direction.”

The nerdy group of lawyers, students, businessmen and military men snacked on unspiked eggnog and non-alcoholic cider – and also on fresh mushrooms, a preferred Hobbit dish.  “The discussion spanned a variety of Tolkien-related topics: the correct method of writing in Elvish, the best way to assemble an accurate cosmological model of Middle-Earth.”

Read the whole New Yorker piece here – or Auden’s New York Times piece here.  Or watch the trailer for the movie below.  I might even make it to a theater before the New Year chimes in.
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