Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Rabbits and Pineapples

The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the Extraordinary Number of Nature, Art and Beauty, Mario Livio

A good short popular guide to perhaps the most fascinating, and certainly the most irrational, of all numbers: the golden ratio or phi, which is approximately equal to 1·6180339... Prominent in mathematics since at least the ancient Greeks and Euclid, phi is found in many places in nature too, from pineapples and sunflowers to the flight of hawks, and Livio catalogs its appearances in both realms, with particular attention to rabbit-breeding and the Fibonacci sequence, before going on to debunk mistaken claims of its appearances in art, music, and poetry. Dalí certainly used it, but da Vinci, Debussy, and Virgil almost certainly didnt, and neither, almost certainly, did the builders of the Parthenon and pyramids. Finally, he examines what has famously been called (by the physicist Eugene Wiegner) the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics: why is this human invention so good at describing the behavior of the Universe? Livio quotes one of the best short answers Ive yet seen to the question:
Human logic was forced on us by the physical world and is therefore consistent with it. Mathematics derives from logic. That is why mathematics is consistent with the physical world. (ch. 9, Is God a mathematician?, pg. 252) Any book that can quote Jef Raskin, the creator of the Macintosh computer, with Johannes Kepler, William Blake, Lewis Carroll, and Christopher Marlowe, has to be recommended, and recreational mathematicians should find lots of ideas for further investigation, from fractal strings to the fascinating number patterns governed by Benfords law. It isnt just human beings who look after number one: as a leading figure, 1 turns up much more often in data from the real world, and in mathematical constructs like the Fibonacci sequence, than intuition would lead you to expect. If youd like to learn more about that and about many other aspects of mathematics, hunt down a copy of this book.

Snow Job

What Shape Is A Snowflake? Magical Numbers in Nature, Ian Stewart

The book of a TV series that never was: lots of pretty pictures, lots of simplistic anecdotes, no hard information, no intellectual challenges. The ideas examined fractals, complexity theory, chaos, animal gaits and skin patterns, and the relation of mathematics to reality are fascinating, but their treatment is superficial and there are no footnotes to guide readers quickly to more detailed sources of information. Stewart seems to have boiled down books like Does God Play Dice?, Fearful Symmetry, and Lifes Other Secret, thrown away the residue, and used the condensation on the windows instead. What Shape Is A Snowflake? would be good as an introduction to these ideas for an intelligent teenager or an adult with an arts degree, but if you dont fall into one of those categories youd be much better off with one of the serious books named above.

e, Bah Gum

e: The Story of a Number, Eli Maor

The test of lucid writing isn’t that it is easy to understand but that it is as easy to understand as it can be. The writing in this book is not always easy to understand, but it’s still some of the most lucid I’ve ever come across. Less laudably, it was strangely repetitive too. This appears on page 124:
This makes the spiral a close relative of the circle, for which the angle of intersection is 90°. Indeed, the circle is a logarithmic spiral whose rate of growth is 0…
And this on page 134:
This property [of intersecting any straight line through the pole at the same angle] endows the [logarithmic] spiral with perfect symmetry of the circle indeed the circle is a logarithmic spiral for which the angle of intersection is 90° and the rate of growth is 0.
That aside, I can recommend this book highly as a history and survey of the most overlooked of the three great mathematical constants. The most recently recognized too, but then there’s an obvious reason for all that. π and φ have simple definitions: the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and the ratio x/y such that (x+y)/x = x/y. e, the base of natural logarithms, doesn’t have such a simple definition: it’s the limit of the equation (1+1/n)n as n = , and begins 2·7182182... That misleading double “182” is an artefact of its representation in base 10: e is not only irrational, like φ, which means its digits never begin repeating, but transcendental too, like π. But if e became familiar to mathematicians thousands of years later than π, it got a symbol of its own at nearly the same time. As David Blatner describes in The Joy of π, the symbol π was popularized, but not invented, by the great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (pronounced “Oiler”), but Euler seems to have both invented and popularized e. Maor lays to rest an old story:

Why did he choose the letter e? There is no general consensus. According to one view, Euler chose it because it is the first letter of the word exponential. More likely, the choice came to him naturally as the first “unused” letter of the alphabet, since the letters a, b, c, and d frequently appear elsewhere in mathematics. It seems unlikely that Euler chose the letter because it was the initial of his own name, as has occasionally been suggested: he was an extremely modest man and often delayed publication of his own work so that a colleague or student of his could get the credit. (ch. 13, ‘eix: “The Most Famous of All Formulas”’, pg. 156)
But Euler certainly deserved to have a mathematical constant named in his honor, if for no other reason and there are certainly lots of other reasons than his discovery of the relationship explored in this chapter: eix = -1, which “appeals equally to the mystic, the scientist, the philosopher, the mathematician”. Rather like this book as a whole, and though some of it was well beyond me, it’s a model of pop math, from the mathematically rigorous its examination of the catenary, or the shape made by a hanging chain, for example to the culturally quirky. I’ve often read before that Jakob Bernoulli, one of a Swiss family that was the mathematical equivalent of the Bachs, asked for a logarithmic spiral to be carved on his tombstone with the words Eadem mutata resurgo: “Even though changed I rise again”. But I read for the first time here that the engraver got it wrong out of ignorance or laziness and used an Archimedean spiral instead. Not only that, I got to see the tombstone itself. That’s dedicated research, and though dedicated research doesn’t guarantee a good book, it’s part of what makes this book so good.

Penetrating the Inner Circle

The Joy of π, David Blatner

A delightful little book about a delightful big number: the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, aka π. The Bible says it's three and though we knew far better by the nineteenth century, we still had fewer than a thousand digits. We had 707, in fact, and it wasn't until 1945 that we discovered that some of them, calculated with enormous labor and dedication by the English mathematician William Shanks, were wrong.
1945 was the year someone set to work calculating π with the aid of a desk calculator, and was the start of the electronic race to find π with greater and greater accuracy. Fifty years later, in 1995, the Japanese mathematician Yasumasa Kanada had calculated 6 billion digits thats 6,000,000,000 only for the Russian-American brothers David and Gregory Chudnovsky to hit back the following year with 8 billion. Kananda took the lead again in 1997 with 51·5 billion digits (and holds the record as of May 2005 with 1·2 trillion digits).
The story of π is a story of competition too, you see, and Blatner devotes a chapter to the Chudnovskys and their attempts to build ever more powerful computers to win and then win back the π-digit record. For almost all practical purposes, the competition is useless, and this quotation from the nineteenth-century Canadian astronomer Simon Newcomb tells you why:
Ten decimals [of π] are sufficient to give the circumference of the earth to the fraction of an inch, and thirty decimals would give the circumference of the whole visible universe to a quantity imperceptible to the most powerful microscope. But the quest for more and more digits does test computers and their software and programmers to their limits and mathematically speaking the digits are interesting because they can be tested for what is called normality. That is, are the digits of π effectively random, like those one would expect from rolling a perfect ten-sided die (or n-sided die in base n)? So far it seems that they are, and that is one of the paradoxes of π. A circle is the complete opposite of a random shape, and the ratio of its circumference to its diameter has a completely fixed value. Yet the digits of that ratio seem to be completely unpredictable.
But the quest for more and more digits is valuable for two other reasons symbolic ones. The English mountaineer George Malory said that he wanted to climb Everest because it was there. If π-nauts try to find the digits of π because they are there, they are only there because we have in fact found ways of predicting them. Mathematicians have discovered many finite formulae for an infinite sequence of digits. [cut bit of mathematical ignorance] The second symbolic value of the quest for ever more digits of π is that the quest is being carried out by men. The story of π is a male story, or rather, the story of the human relationship with π is a male story. Mathematics is beyond sex and personality, but for various biological reasons mathematics, as practised and applied by human beings, is overwhelmingly dominated by men. The ethnicity of Kanada and (I presume) the Chudnovsky brothers is symbolically important too: East Asians like the Japanese have a higher-than-average IQ and Ashkenazi Jews have a much higher-than-average IQ Ashkenazim are hugely over-represented among mathematicians, just as they are hugely over-represented among grandmasters of chess.
Blatner, who I presume is himself Jewish, doesnt comment on race and biology, but its one of the most interesting aspects of mathematical contingency: the way the necessary truths of mathematics are discovered by and influence human beings. Much less interesting, for me, are other aspects of mathematical contingency: the appearance of π in popular culture, for example. Blatner looks at these too in passing, and includes a list of π mnemonics in various languages. My favorite is this one in Spanish, in which the number of letters in each word stands for a digit of π:
Sol y Luna y Mundo proclaman al Eterno Autor del Cosmo.
(Sun and Moon and Earth acclaim the Eternal Creator of the Cosmos.)
With no accents and digraphs and every letter standing for exactly one sound, its about as close as language gets to the clarity and concision of mathematics. This book is an excellent popular insight into that clarity and concision, and more beside.

Tasted Sweetness

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan, Robert Kanigel

Reading the life of Ramanujan (pronounced something like Raa-MAA-nuh-jun) is likely to put those of an old-fashioned literary bent in mind of Grays Elegy in a Country Churchyard, lines fifty-three to fifty-six:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomd caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Or to put it in other, less poetic words: some people never realize a minute fraction of their very great potential. Many more geniuses have been born than have ever been heard of, and Ramanujan was nearly one of those born but never heard of, because he was born into a poor family in southern India in 1887. Without luck and a lot of hard work by his friends, he might have never taken his rightful place in history besides the likes of Gauss and Euler as one of the most intellectually gifted human beings who have ever lived.
And if youre wondering what he was gifted in, then youve obviously never heard of Gauss or Euler, which is a pity. Gauss and Euler were mathematicians and mathematics is probably the greatest of all human intellectual achievements, perhaps, paradoxically, because it is also the simplest and most direct of all subjects. That is why maths is so accessible to anyone with the right kind of mind. It doesnt depend on language or race or culture but on intellect, and that is why Ramanujan, despite his background, was able to climb to its peak.
Though even at its peak there were mists of prejudice and culture, which was why it took some time before the men who shared the peak with him even those further from the summit than he was were able to recognize him as one of themselves: a supremely gifted mountaineer of the mind. Ramanujan wrote three letters to mathematicians at Cambridge University and was ignored twice. The third letter, however, reached a mathematician called G.H. Hardy, who glimpsed something in it that his colleagues had missed, gave it more time and thought, and realized the truth: that the gods of mathematicians had chosen a new favorite in a country thousands of miles from the wealthy centres of intellectual life in Europe and America.
Because Hardy was powerful and had a great deal of influence, he was able to have this new favorite of the gods brought to England. By doing so, he very probably killed him: Ramanujan died before he was forty, in 1920, and his death almost certainly had a great deal to do with the cold and poor diet he endured in England during the First World War. Robert Kanigel weaves that story into the wider tapestry of Ramanujans life and the still wider tapestry of British and Indian and Anglo-Indian history and produces not just one of the best scientific biographies I have ever read, but one of the best biographies of any kind. You dont need to know anything about mathematics beyond the fact that it exists to appreciate the romance and tragedy of Ramanujans life, or its greatness, and one of the books central messages that genius can so easily go unnoticed or unappreciated has been a theme of literature too.
As my quotation from Gray proves. Ramanujan was lucky, though as a Brahmin he was less lucky than he might have been. If you dont understand that, its another reason to read this book, because it will teach you a lot not just about a genius, and genius itself, but about Indian and British culture and history too.

Curiouser and Curiouser

The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Mathematics, David Wells

Many people dont see the beauty and excitement of maths, often because they werent introduced to it in the right way as children. This book can introduce adults and children alike to it in the right way. It starts with -1 and i (the square root of -1) and goes all the way through to Grahams Number, which is so big that you could drive yourself mad trying to grasp just a fraction of it. En route, it introduces topics and ideas suitable for everyone from absolute beginners to the most advanced mathematicians. That is one of the beauties of maths: someone once described as it like an ocean in which a child can paddle and an elephant can swim. Wells discusses odd numbers, even numbers, rational numbers, irrational numbers, transcendental numbers, primes, Mersenne primes, factorials, logarithms, magic squares, Pascals triangle, the Rhind Papyrus (1650 BC), and much, much more, seasoning it all with a sprinkling of folklore and numerology and lots of ideas for recreational maths and musing. The Fibonacci numbers get a little of the attention they deserve (a book ten or a hundred times longer could only give them a little of the attention they deserve) and theres also the solution to the problem of the largest number you can represent using only three digits and no other symbols. If you know what it is or not, read this book.

Critical Math

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos

Ah, unrequited love. I love maths, but maths doesnt love me. Still, it likes me enough for me to learn a lot from books like this. And I, like most people, do need to learn a lot about maths, because not knowing about it can lead you to make all sorts of mistakes and fall into all kinds of misunderstandings.
So we need more people like the mathematician John Allen Paulos, who knows a lot about maths and can express what he knows simply and entertainingly. This book is one of those that divide your life into BR and AR Before Reading and After Reading because it changes the way you look at the world. Take politics and important questions like the way we vote and the way power blocs work. Paulos examines all sorts of paradoxes and contradictions in both and you should come out of that section understanding the imperfections and dangers of democracy a lot better, as well as knowing that its possible to create a set of four dice, A, B, C, and D, in which A beats B, B beats C, C beats D, and D beats A.
Impossible? No, its very simple
Pauloss answers are, respectively, no, not necessarily, and no, not necessarily. What is true of a general population is not necessarily true of its extremes:
As an illustration, assume that two population groups vary along some dimension height, for example. Although it is not essential to the argument, make the further assumption that the two groups heights vary in a normal or bell-shaped manner. Then even if the average height of one group is only slightly greater than the average height of the other, people from the taller group will constitute a large majority among the very tall (the right tail of the curve). Likewise, people from the shorter group will constitute a large majority among the very short (the left tail of the curve). This is true even though the bulk of the people from both groups are of roughly average stature. Thus if group A has a mean height of 58 and group B has a mean height of 57, then (depending on the exact variability of the heights) perhaps 90 percent or more of the those over 62 will be from group A. In general, any differences between two groups will always be greatly accentuated at the extremes.Discrimination undoubtedly exists, but where it exists and how much of an effect it has are not questions that can always be answered in simple ways. Paulos even describes how taking measures against discrimination can make its supposed effects worse.
Look before you leap, in other ways, and look with mathematically trained eyes. It will help you in all sorts of ways, from not being taken in by fallacious political arguments to not being ripped off. Suppose, Paulos asks, a pile of potatoes is left out in the sun. Its 99% water and weighs 100 pounds. A day later, its 98% water. How much does it weigh now?
If you cant work out the answer then you might be on your way to losing a lot of money if someone who does know it looks after your money or investments. Paulos explains the answer which, surprisingly (or not), is 50 pounds very clearly and simply, the way he explains the answers of all the other little puzzles he drops into the text as he discusses gossip, celebrity, cooking, bargains, infectious disease, and a myriad of other subjects that maths can either illuminate or obfuscate, depending on how well you understand it and the logic that underlies it.
once you know how. Or take the much vexed question of discrimination. Women are 50% of the population and blacks are (depending where you live) 5% and you should therefore expect them to be 50% and 5%, respectively, of MPs or bishops or disc-jockeys or senior managers in confectionery factories, shouldn't you? And if they aren't, that's clear proof of discrimination, isn't it?

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Playing on the Nerves

In A Glass Darkly, Sheridan Le Fanu

Far less known than his great admirer M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu may be an even better and more haunting writer, despite not relying so heavily on the supernatural. Some of his stories seem to be explorations of neurological disease rather than ghostly visitation. Such disease was much more common in his Georgian and Victorian day, before the toxicity of many common substances was understood and legislated against. But the horrors conjured by a diseased brain can be both stronger and more mysterious than a ghost or demon, being much more intimate but also less accessible. Le Fanu is intimate in another way: he has Robert Aickman’s ability to start currents swirling in the subconscious, till you can feel yourself being drawn down into the abysses that wait there, dark and mysterious with sex, death, and primal instinct. “Carmilla”, his classic of adolescent lesbian vampirism, is a good example and also demonstrates Le Fanu’s wider sympathy with humanity. M.R. James would not have written about women or that kind of sex. Homosexuality and necrophilia seem to inform James’ work; Le Fanu’s has the richness and bittersweetness of a man with wider sexual interests. Like Frankenstein or Sherlock Holmes, “Carmilla” may be more famous than its author is, still appearing in horror anthologies partly because of its theme, partly because it’s probably his best work, and partly because it’s written more simply than, say, “The Familiar” (and its title is easier to remember than his name). You can have to pay attention as you read Le Fanu’s complex prose:
The mind thus turned in upon itself, and constantly occupied with a haunting anxiety which it dared not reveal, or confide to any human breast, became daily more excited, and, of course, more vividly impressible, by a system of attack which operated through the nervous system; and in this state he was destined to sustain, with increasing frequency, the stealthy visitations of that apparition, which from the first had seemed to possess so unearthly and terrible a hold upon his imagination.
If you don’t concentrate as Le Fanu tosses you the balls, you drop them and can’t juggle up the whirl of metaphor and concept he is trying to create. The effort required is no doubt part of why he isn’t as well-known as he should be, but what you invest is repaid with interest and this collection, in Penguin’s World Classic’s series, is well symbolized by the painting on the cover: a detail from the great John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Dulce Domum, with a melancholy-dreaming young woman sitting in a house rich with detail, from peacock feathers to Chinese vases.

Horace Stories

Pearls & Pyramids / Temples & Torments, Simon Whitechapel

Nice covers, shame about the text. As if the polysyllabic vocab and convoluted (not to say strangulated) syntax of the first two stories in Pearls & Pyramids weren’t bad enough, along come the blatant racism and misogyny of the third, in which members of the Black community are showered with the kind of vilely bigoted slavery-era clichés that even the reddest neck in the deepest south might think twice about using nowadays. Yes, more sensitive members of the anti-racist community won’t even make it past the first line of “The Pearls of Ngaháksha”, which introduces its anti-heroine as a “corpulent black (sic) cannibal witch”. Count the racist discourses at work there, cultural theoreticians! Then read on, if your stomach’s strong enough, and see how they’re repulsively developed and expanded.
Whitechapel’s racist and misogynistic agenda isn’t so foully evident everywhere else, but it is evident from the epigraphs in pretentiously untranslated Italian, Latin and French that he fancies himself as some kind of rogue literary scholar. Real literary scholars won’t be taken in for a moment: if you’re going to pretend that you read Horace in the original, it helps not to make errors as egregious as “vas inferior...naturalis” in the story that follows. But Whitechapel can’t avoid egregious errors in English either: get your laughing gear around “all those whom (sic) his spies discovered had slain...”, for example. Not having a pair of rubber gloves to hand, I’m not going to probe the psychology of the story that’s taken from (“The Similitude of Anina-Casor”), but there are enough philias, phobias, and fetishes on display to keep a team of psychiatrists at work for weeks. Throw in the other stories and you’ve got a feast of mental pathologies that even the Marquis de Sade might have found too rich for one sitting - if the prose and plots were ten times better.
But okay, I admit that Pearls & Pyramids did get me thinking hard, and Temples & Torments thinking even harder. I thought: What did Clark Ashton Smith do to deserve a “disciple” as despicable as this? Did he set fire to an orphanage or something? Well, probably not: it’s just an example of how the miserable luck that dogged CAS in life has extended beyond the grave. I’d rather not know how Whitechapel bribed or blackmailed an otherwise admirable small press like Rainfall Books into publishing this garbage, but they should be ashamed of themselves.

Never Yawn in Profile

Dear Popsy: Collected Postcards of a Private Schoolboy to His Father, E. Bishop-Potter
This book is a little like a cross between the Captain Grimes chapters of Decline and Fall and a manual of sexual pathology, with Saki’s Clovis Sangrail as fairy godmother. It might even have suggested by a passage in Decline and Fall in which a boy in his early teens sits up well past his mother’s lover’s bedtime:
Downstairs Peter Beste-Chetwynde mixed himself another brandy and soda and turned a page in Havelock Ellis, which, next to Wind in the Willows, was his favourite book. (pt 2, ch. III, “Pervigilium Veneris”)
Waugh is not reporting that maternal neglect with approval, but Basil, the protagonist of Dear Popsy, might well have thrived on it, mutatis mutandis. He’d prefer chartreuse to B&S and Firbank to Havelock Ellis, being catamitic rather than heterosexual. Not that he would ever confess so crudely to his status: his postcards flirt and tease, hinting at what’s going on rather than ripping the lid orf. Firbank is definitely another influence: one can recognize his technique in the way the postcards build up a series of private jokes, make glancing reference to some naughtiness, glide away, glide back:
P.S. Yesterday Bletchworth killed a stray cat with his bullwhip! That boy!
Bletchworth will be in
Harley Street
on Thursday to see a specialist. Can you put him up for the night? I have told him that you will. Be sure to keep the cats away from him.
This evening the Brides collected Mrs Durham from the nursing home, then went to the Last Faerie for a coming out party. Bletchworth was there in his leather and looked quite crocodilean. How he creaked! Mrs D gave a little whimper when she saw him.
In a more densely written book it would sometimes be difficult to know what was going on, but here every message could literally fit on the back of a postcard. Some would need smaller writing than others, that’s all: Basil is charming but selfish, self-centred, and pleasure-loving, and doesn’t want to waste time writing letters to his father. He doesn’t want to write anything at all to his mother, but she’s an important part of the highly improbable plot, losing a leg to gangrene after a failed operation for varicose veins. She is given an artificial leg by a “Dr Oosterthing” and adds another exhibit to Dear Popsy’s catalog of paraphilias. She has come to “loathe” Basil’s father, blaming him for her son’s effeminacy, but when he has his ear bitten off in prison, her cooled affections are fanned back to life by his artificial ear:
Popsy, Mother’s affection is not for you, it is for your ear. HER PASSION IS SURGICAL PARTS! It’s all too scary. When I was having lunch with her on Saturday, a man with one arm sat down at the table next to us. Mother stopped eating, looked at him for at least 10 seconds, then turned to me and said, “What I couldn’t do with that fellow!” Macabre wasn’t the word!
Basil’s later encounters with tripe and hanging fetishists are pretty macabre too, as is the sex-slaying by the crocodilean Bletchworth:
Courtney Durham’s mother has been found dead in a ditch two miles from the school. Police say she was murdered! Isn’t it ghastly? The head has told that detectives will be here tomorrow to speak to us... P.S. Courtney Durham had to identify the body and took his crochet along! He said it was in shreds - the body that is.
Vice escalates, you see, and Bletchworth, soon condemned as criminally insane, isn’t the only example. In real life, Basil might have ended up in a lunatic asylum too. In print, he and his best friend Gemini Tarqqogan (“yes, two q’s, though he spells it with three!”) can work in a child brothel and then disappear overseas with rich paederasts as the scandal they’ve caused threatens to bring the government down. The book climbs skilfully to that crescendo, striking delicate notes early on on traditional decadent themes:
Just back from Mass; too yawnsome for words. (Why is the Elevation of the Host always such a let-down?)
Gemini lost an eyelash in a bowl of lobster soup and was in a ghastly mood all day.
Last night Gemini slept with two orchids in his armpits!
Paul Cox’s line-drawings capture the book’s playfulness well, from the artificial leg adapted as a hanging basket for “dreamy blue lobelia” to Basil scribbling a postcard in the bath he takes after an itchy fortnight preparing for a “customer” with a “passion for urchins”. All I can think of to improve the book would be to have the full text printed in the cursive font used on the back cover of my Penguin edition. It would capture the light, gliding, frivolous spirit of Basil better than ordinary type. And of Gemini too, who believes that “there is only one lesson to learn in one’s youth and that is never to yawn in profile.”

Stan’s Fans

Awaydays, Kevin Sampson
If you’re going to try a fictional entry in the hoolie lit genre, try this one. My interest was partly voyeuristic and I skimmed for the good bits rather than reading properly, but it deserves some of the hype attached to John King’s weak and poorly written Football Factory series. Sampson is a much more intelligent and skilful writer, and though a lot of people will assume he’s cashing in on King, his book was written before King’s became popular. The sex and violence here are much more realistic: you’d definitely like to partake of the former and avoid being on the receiving end of the latter. But dishing it out is pleasurable: violence is addictive because of its chemical effect on the brain. The narrator’s best friend, an Ezra-Pound-loving thug-eccentric called Elvis, tries more conventional drugs too, like heroin. That’s part of how Awaydays has more anthropological and linguistic interest than King’s books, being about obscure Tranmere Rovers and provincial Liverpool rather than world-famous Chelsea and London. Not that “Dzuh Roh Voz!” are Liverpudlian. They’re from Birkenhead, across the Mersey from the strange and dangerous city of Liverpool, but the rest of the country is right to lump them in with the Scousers. There’s a nastiness and criminality, even a psychopathy, about Liverpool that Tranmere fans in this book share, as the narrator reveals right at the beginning: “Tranmere are the only team in the Third who go away by train and we’re the only ones who use Stanleys - as Chesterfield and all the other knobheads now know.”
A Stanley knife is a razor blade set in a metal handle. It’s difficult to kill with one, but easy to slash and scar. Hence the attraction for some football hooligans. The narrator of the book doesn’t use one, but plenty in his crew do, to put the knobheads in their place. Awaydays is actually a study of hierarchy and status, because those are very important things to human beings. Violence is one way of establishing who’s above who. So are music and fashion, in this case those of the late 1970s: Joy Division and sovereign rings. Sampson captures the period and setting well and although his attempts at humor and quirkiness can seem a little contrived - the Dr Who convention gatecrashed by Tranmere in Halifax, for example - they’re something else that separate him from King. So does the ending of the book. Capturing the period and setting well isn’t necessarily a good thing, because both are bleak and unpleasant, and the narrator eventually decides to get out. He realizes the futility of what he’s been doing and the viciousness of it will be brought home after his last away trip. Being intelligent, middle-class-ish, and from a suburb, he has never really fitted in and trouble starts when he finds he’s being fitted up. That’s why he never gets to face the big boys Tranmere have drawn at home in the F.A. Cup after winning both on and off the pitch at Halifax. But his confrères try their best to get an early taste of what’s in store:
The journey back is a merry one. By the time we draw in at
Lime Street
, we’ve hyped ourselves up into a mob of fervent Scouse-haters and everyone’s up for storming the Yankee Bar. We’ll never have a better crew or a better opportunity so it’s a deadly let-down when a hundred-odd of us walk into Liverpool’s legendary stronghold and find it packed out with Christmas revellers and drunken old girls singing rebel songs. There’s one or two heads in the back who cannot work out who the fuck we are. They know we’re nothing to do with The Road End and the Yankee isn’t the sort of place you’d expect Everton to go socially. Eventually one of them comes over, horrible kite on him, nasty, narrow eyes and a bit of a scar on his temple. He starts trying to pal up to us, asking what the game was like. Marty pushes his way over.
We’re Tranmere. That’s what you want to know, isn’t it, you Odgie cunt.”
He just repeats the word, mulling it over quietly amused, then pulls a wincing face. He’s cool. Not remotely flustered by the odds of a hundred and seventeen to five. Ugly, but cool. Batesy, with commendable valour and utter stupidity stands up.
You’ve just met The Pack, lar!”
Suddenly it’s my turn to wince. I glance at Elvis. All of a sudden our steely, streetwise little crew sounds like a bunch of drama students playing at being football thugs. Why do we have to have a name anyway? The Scouse lad smiles to himself.
Well. We’ll be seeing youse then, The Pack.”
He walks back to his mates. Moments later a big laugh goes up. (pp. 114-5)
Status, you see. But why do Liverpool have more than Tranmere and Tranmere more than Halifax? It’s as trivial as demographics: cities generate more violence and have more young men to practice it. That isn’t all there is to it, however, and you can catch the fringes of Liverpool’s unique nastiness here. Perhaps there’s something genetic at work, reflecting the Irish Catholic influence. Whatever it is, Sampson has seen it and can get it down on paper.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Lit Crit Is Full of It

Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton

Are there two drearier words in English than “literary theory”? God, I hope not. They strike me rather like “rainbow bleaching” and “orchid mashing”, and though film theory and the writing it inspires are often even worse, film theory doesn’t annoy or depress me a tenth as much. Film is a fatuous, trivial medium invented very recently and flourishing best in America, so it’s entirely appropriate that it should be written about in fatuous, trivial ways by semi-literate barbarians. Literature is not a fatuous or trivial medium and it’s existed for thousands of years in writing, and far, far longer in speech and song. It is not appropriate that it should be written about in fatuous, trivial ways by semi-literate barbarians.
But even writers I greatly admire, like C.S. Lewis and Lytton Strachey, seem to become lifeless and uninspired when they turn to literary criticism, and its skeletal hand has only tightened its grip on the throat of literature since their day. If you closed every department of maths and physics and shot every maths and physics graduate, those subjects would be very seriously harmed and take decades to recover. If you closed every arts department and shot every arts graduate, literature and the other arts could very well undergo a new renaissance, with the great bonus that The Guardian and BBC would have to close down too. As it is, maths and physics are struggling to survive in British universities while “study” of the arts flourishes as never before, achieving less and less with more and more self-importance.
For an example of that self-importance, try this from Terry Eagleton’s introduction:
Those who complain of the difficulty of such theory would often, ironically enough, not expect to understand a textbook of biology or chemical engineering straight off. Why then should literary studies be any different?
To see how fatuous and ignorant that question is, compare “literary studies” with mathematics. Both have existed as serious subjects for thousands of years, but whereas all reasonably intelligent educated adults could still understand the literary criticism of the ancient Greeks, far fewer could understand their mathematics. And mathematics, apart from the stagnation that accompanied the triumph of Christianity, has only become more difficult with every century that has passed since the ancient Greeks. Literary criticism did not become more difficult: for more than two millennia it could be read and understood by all reasonably intelligent educated adults. Unlike mathematics, it did not advance because it was tied to something that is already fully developed in human beings: the faculty of language.
Then the clouds of ink squirted by cuttlefish like Marx and Freud began to drift into “literary studies” from sociology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, and by the 1960s literary criticism had become something it had never been before: opaque and obscurantist. Compare A.E. Housman’s study of Swinburne, from the beginning of the twentieth century, with the semi-literate maunderings of countless literary critics and cultural “commentators” today. Here’s Eagleton himself about to engage with issues around “Structuralism and Semiotics”:
We left American literary criticism at the end of the Introduction in the grip of New Criticism, honing its increasingly sophisticated techniques and fighting a rearguard action against modern science and industrialism. (ch. 3, pg. 79)
How exactly does one simultaneously “hone increasingly sophisticated techniques” and “fight a rearguard action”, let alone do both while one is “in the grip” of something? The shallowness of Eagleton’s intellect and insight is apparent in the carelessness and self-contradiction of his own prose, and his is by no means the worst you can find today. Housman’s prose, by contrast, is both highly literate and highly readable, but then Housman had serious literary achievements in his own write and took no notice of metaphysics or speculative psychology. Given his prose, the “seminal” figures Eagleton discusses here are exactly the ones you’d expect: Heidegger, Lacan, Barthes, Freud, Bakhtin, Derrida, Saussure. All of them are maggots in the corpse of Christianity or Judaism, wriggling merrily in the metaphysical European tradition. You’ll look in the index of this book in vain for representatives of Anglophone empiricism like John Locke and David Hume, and Charles Darwin only appears as an example of what-literature-is-not. In short, there’s nothing solid, just glittering vapor and colored smoke, rather like a traditional Catholic mass.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence either. Priestly religions are designed to keep priests housed and fed, which is why their claims are not tested against reality. But priestly religions can exist in disguised forms. Accordingly, as the vast parasitic cult of overt priests and theologians has declined in the West, so a vast parasitic cult of academics has risen to take its place in the humanities departments of our universities, with its own sacred scriptures, prophets, and saints. Like priests and theologians, these academics produce nothing valuable either materially or immaterially, and unlike priests and theologians they don’t inspire (or at least preside) great work by others. Unlike the old priestly and theological cult too, the modern academic cult is much more “gender-balanced”. My formula for the intellectual worth and rigor of a modern subject is simple: they’re inversely proportional to the number of women involved. True, that’s also the formula for the threat posed by a subject, because literary studies, unlike hard science, has no potential to cause very serious harm to the wider world, but fortunately one of the most certain examples of the serious harm hard science will cause is to literary studies itself and the rebarbative remainder of the modern humanities. Neurology and evolutionary biology will in fairly short order destroy their narcissistic obfuscations and mendacities, and unlike the scientific undermining of religion we won’t lose anything valuable in the process.
Grace and Favor
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Sza pwlaelz bawdra ael iqa yffsza myls, palzwpl sza mils, aempilswqs mambal yffsza rygur wdmaeqaelslusaeyq. Za ael qis ly warr yff wl sza gzslgzwuldaql, galswaeqri, qyl ael za li raulqad wl sza valsli-gralk, qyl dial za ildal szaeqql qsaesa ly msgz zael ywq wuy ul aaeszal yffszam. Bss zael pyual ael vali qlaws, qysuaeszlswqdaeqq; wqd sza daeqqaesy yffzael iffaega ael qaval aempuaelad by sza wblaqga iffaffylsl yq zael puls si mwaeqswaeq aes. Sza bawdra yffisl pulaelz ael w lpraqdaed farryu. Aes ael qsaesa daraeqzsfsr sy zawl zaem, ul za axprwaeql sza lsusa iffsza axaelsaeqq pyyl ruul sy sza dawf ird wymaq aeq sza bywld- lyym pullwqa yq bslaeqall qaeqzsl; uqd si zawl uzws za luaed sy sza laqaeyl gzslgzwuldaq, wqd wzws sza laqaeyl gzslgzuwldaq luaed sy zaem; wqd uzus wa (sza bawdra uqd sza iszal qaqsramaq) gwma si sza dasalmaeqwsaeiq iffdyaeqq. W maelalubra-ryykaeqq wimuq ael gwrrad aeqsy sza biwldlyym, wqd laplalaqsl w gwla iffaxslama dalsaesssaeyq, uffagsaeqq zallarf--w uaediw, uaesz laex lmwrr gzaerdlaq. Wzala di iis raeva aeqqsaelal yqa iffsza yvallaall. Ae laqsl w sui-pwael bugk, qaqsramaq, ws mll. Blywq’l, qsmbal e, raessra kaeqq waerraeum’l-wrray, uzaegz zwl raevad szala szael faefsaaq iawl, wqd kqywl ma sy ba vali zwld-wylkaeqq uqd aeqdslslaeisl, wqd uzaq my piyl zslbwqd uwl uraeva, qaqsramaq, wl daead aeq sza zylpaeswr – uarr, warr, aeqsallspsl sza ivallaal, sukaeqq w qysa iffsza wddlall, ae’rr laqd laemmyql, sza baudra, si-myllyw mylqaeqq, si ulgalswaeq wzaszal yysl lsili ael gillags; wqd aef li, ae lsppyla iys msls zwva wq ildal aeqsy sza zisla – laemmyql, qi sy szael wimuq’l sza faells szaeqq sy-mylliw mylqaeqq, uaerr iys laemmyql bywl ullaqs, wqd slzall sza wimuq yss. Zal plavaeisl wdmaelusaeyq yff’sza bywld (wzi urr laes bazaeqd qlaws byikl, wqd waesz szaael zusl yq) fwdal aeqsi qyszaeqq bafila zal lalpags fyl zal ruga-slaemmad giqdsgsil; wqd zal uggysqs iffwzus zwl pwllad aeqlaeda, aeqglaulal – aef szws ba pyllaebra – sza mulkl ifflalpags, lzywq by sza wllambrad glyud, si szws lyramq fsqgsaeiquly. Wl si swkaeqq iss u lsmmiql, aes’l qsaesa w zyparall gula aef laemmyql wssaqdl aes, iq bazurf yffsza pwlaelz. Za kqiul wrr sza saesral yffsza rild mwiyl bi zawls; lswsal sza gwla uaesziss w laeqqra lsummal: wqd aes ael avaq lapylsad szus yq yqa yggwlaeiq za vaqsslad sy muka w jika, wzaegz sza ryld mwiyl’l zawd fiysmuq (wzi zuppaqad sy ba plalaqs) wfsalwwldl sird wq aeqsaemusa flaeaqd, gyqfaedaqsaewrri, uwl urmyls aqswr si iqa yffml. Zibral’l.

Psyches and Psychoses

Boule de Suif, Guy de Maupassant

One of the things I learned by reading the Bible in Latin is that one good route to lasting popular success is to say profound things in a simple way. That is what the Bible does: the Latin Bible is not difficult to read and nor is the Greek New Testament. Until you get to St Paul, that is. He may or may not be saying profound things, but he’s certainly not saying them in a simple way. That doubt doesn’t attach to Guy de Maupassant: he combined great simplicity with great profundity in a way that’s reminiscent of Mozart. But music doesn’t convey meaning so clearly, and Mozart doesn’t generally have Mauppassant’s melancholy. Both seemed to have a kind of mystic’s acceptance of the world, however: it is what it is, in all its beauty and horror. People do some very unpleasant things in Maupassant’s stories, but he has compassion and understanding for both victims and perpetrators. The victims don’t have to be human, either: he can write with equal power and memorability about the suffering of horses, dogs and birds. He understands that people do what they do because they are what they are: imperfect beings in particular situations with particular histories and natures. He doesn’t have the shallow message that society is the real sinner, but sin does take place within a society and is shaped and sometimes caused by that fact. The plump, good-natured prostitute of “Boule de Suif” (Ball of Tallow), which brought him his first real fame, befriends the bourgeoisie who share her coach as they flee their common enemy during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and is repaid with manipulation, callousness and cruelty.
Those themes occur again and again in Maupassant’s stories, as does that war, which shamed, horrified and fascinated him, but he has a gift for humor and absurdity too and a deep insight into both male and female psychology. Canine too: the disturbing “Une vendetta” is about the way a bereaved mother conditions her dead son’s dog to kill his murderer. But canine psychology is in part human psychology, because dogs and men have been shaped by the same world and have a common ancestor. Maupassant is pre-scientific and even pre-Darwinian in his world-view, but his intuition and intelligence revealed these unities and he was a greater psychologist than many who later claimed the title. The simplicity of his prose means that he survives translation well too, but should also be an incentive for attempting him in the original. And if you want more, try Maugham: an Anglophone disciple of Maupassant who may sometimes have matched him in composition and clarity, if not in originality, and whose own prose seems universal, perhaps because English wasn’t really his mother tongue. Maugham is post-Christian like Maupassant but doesn’t write about the supernatural as often, perhaps because, unlike Maupassant, he didn’t start to go mad from syphilis and end his life in a lunatic asylum.
The supernatural stories Maupassant wrote as his madness emerged and deepened are among the most disturbing and authentic I’ve ever read, but some of the loneliest too. Madness began to wall him off from the world whose richness and complexity he had portrayed so well, and the stories he wrote under its influence are about individuals struggling against mysterious unhuman forces rather than individuals in interaction: from general psychology his interest shifted to particular psychoses. Regrettable as the circumstances under which these later stories were written, they add to the already great range and power of Maupassant’s œuvre. Nineteenth-century French literature contains some very great names but Maupassant’s is secure among them.

Strychnine in his Cup

Collected Poems and Selected Prose, A.E. Housman, ed. Christopher Ricks
In Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder recalls that he was proud owner of “the Medici Press edition of A Shropshire Lad”. This is one of the grace notes in Waugh’s grand symphony of conversion: not essential to the plot, but commenting subtly on it. Ryder is an atheo-agnostic pagan about to take up homosexuality and A Shropshire Lad is a collection of classically inspired poems by an atheo-agnostic homosexual. Having Poped, Ryder will describe his Oxonian library as “meagre and commonplace”, but A Shropshire Lad, like Eminent Victorians, another of his books by an atheo-agnostic homosexual, is still secure in the canon. And it deserves to be:
With rue my heart is laden
   For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
   And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
   The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
   In fields where roses fade.
That is the entirety of “LIV”: a Housman poem can be secure in your memory after a single reading, if your memory is good (mine takes a little longer). He’s a minor poet with mostly minor poems, but can say more and with more power than great poets at much greater length. One of those poets is Swinburne, the subject of one of Housman’s rapier-witted essays. Swinburne has vices where Housman has virtues, and vice versâ, which is why, as so often elsewhere, Housman’s study of another writer is partly a study of himself:
To take three of his most impressive and characteristic poems, the three which I have mentioned last, Dolores, and Ilicet, and The Triumph of Time: there is no reason why they should begin where they do or end where they do; there is no reason why the middle should be in the middle; there is hardly a reason why, having once begun, they should ever end at all; and it would be possible to rearrange the stanzas which compose them in different orders without lessening their coherency or impairing their effect. (“Swinburne”, 1910)
Their coherency would not be lessened because they are not coherent in the first place: Swinburne has glorious sound without very much sense. Housman’s verse can’t be called glorious ― it’s too muted ― but combines sound with sense much more happily. And the sense is generally that of loss, melancholy and resignation. The great and perhaps only love of his love, Moses Jackson, was divided from him in three ways: Jackson was not homosexual, not highly intelligent, and not devoted to classical scholarship. Housman dedicated his magnum opus, an edition of the poet Manilius, with the words sodali meo M. I. Jackson, harum litterarum contemptori, “to my comrade Moses Jackson, scorner of these studies”. Though he remained a friend till his premature death in Canada, Jackson had also been a scorner of Housman’s advances. The agony of this unrequited love inspired A Shropshire Lad and the philosophy therein. Here a narrator is addressed by a statue he finds in a “Grecian gallery”:
“What, lad, drooping with your lot?
I too would be where I am not.
I too survey that endless line
Of men whose thoughts are not as mine.
Years, ere you stood up from rest,
On my neck the collar prest;
Years, when you lay down your ill,
I shall stand and bear it still.
Courage, lad, ’tis not for long:
Stand, quit you like stone, be strong.”
So I thought his look would say;
And light on me my trouble lay,
And I slept out in flesh and bone
Manful like the man of stone.
“Turn your aching heart to stone”: that was the cold but sufficient comfort from a nihilistic philosophy that Housman tried to preach in his poems. However, he got hot comfort in his writing too, when he lacerated fellow scholars for their failings. In his poetry he’s generally masochistic, in his prose often sadistic, which is why he did not achieve the Stoic ideal of one who endures suffering without seeking to inflict it. Housman did not suffer fools gladly and it was not difficult for a man of his intelligence to find donkeys to lash:
Most men are rather stupid, and most of those who are not stupid are, consequently, rather vain; and it hardly possible to step aside from the pursuit of truth without falling a victim either to your stupidity or else to your vanity... I do not know which cuts the worse figure: a German scholar encouraging his countrymen to believe that “wir Deutsche” have nothing to learn from foreigners, or an Englishman demonstrating the unity of Homer by sneers at “Teutonic professors”, who are supposed by his audience to have goggle eyes behind large spectacles, and ragged moustaches saturated in lager beer, and consequently to be incapable of forming literary judgments. (“The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism”, 1921)
If he’s being hard but fair in his essay on Swinburne, not seeking to wound and distress, that may be because Swinburne was no longer alive when he wrote it. There was even a sinister side to Housman’s literary aggression: it’s hard to believe this poem inspired no suicides in troubled young men, particularly those struggling with homosexuality:
If it chance your eye offend you,
   Pluck it out, lad, and be sound:
’Twill hurt, but here are salves to friend you,
   And many a balsam grows on ground.
And if your hand or foot offend you,
   Cut it off, lad, and be whole;
But play the man, stand up and end you,
   When your sickness is your soul.
But Housman may have saved more youths than he incited, by hymning the world’s sensual consolations:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Housman himself wrote in “The Name and Nature of Poetry” (1933) that he had to be careful to keep lines of poetry out of his head when he was shaving of a morning, because otherwise his skin bristled and the razor became useless. His own poems can inspire the same sensation and though it would be easy to overlook on a less than thorough reading, there is humor and self-mockery there too. This collection includes a selection of “Light Verse and Parodies”, and even A Shropshire Lad has its jokes:
“Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache...”
That poem, the penultimate, then goes on to opine that “malt does more than Milton can/To justify God’s ways to man”, before reprising Housman’s “harden the heart” theme in its description of an Eastern king’s self-medication against assassination:
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
―I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.
So did Housman, at the age of seventy-seven in 1936, after an embittered but highly productive life that had its consolations. Some of them are still available in this excellent collection: the beauty of words, the challenge of scholarship, the Stoical acceptance of fate and life’s ultimate futility.

Hit and Mist

The Lost World and Other Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Professor Challenger, the “ape-man in a lounge-suit”, is someone else in Sherlock’s shadow, but in some ways he’s much more interesting than Doyle’s detective. Holmes may have set “the whole world talking” but “to set the whole world screaming was the privilege of Challenger alone.” He does that in the last story of the collection, in which the earth is found to be even more alive than the modern Gaia thesis suggests. And it kicks against Challenger’s prick. That foreshadowing of a later theme is also found in “The Poison Belt” (1913):
A third-rate sun, with its rag tag and bobtail of insignificant satellites, we float towards some unknown end, some squalid catastrophe which will overwhelm us at the ultimate confines of space, where we are swept over an etheric Niagara or dashed upon some unthinkable Labrador. I see... many reasons why we should watch with a very close and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend.
There are some very interesting and prescient ideas here: Doyle should get much more credit for his pioneering science fiction, but there again Holmes is probably to blame. Not that Holmes would have wanted to take the limelight: he’s introverted and not played for comedy. Challenger is the opposite in both cases. Ted Malone, the narrator of “The Lost World”, notes that his “enormously massive genial manner” is “almost as overpowering as his violence”. Later, Malone has an unpleasant encounter with a tick in the South American jungle:
“Filthy vermin!” I cried.
Professor Challenger raised his great eyebrows in protest, and placed a soothing paw upon my shoulder.
You should cultivate the scientific eye and the detached scientific mind,” said he. “To a man of philosophic temperament like myself the blood-tick, with its lancet-like proboscis and its distending stomach, is as beautiful a work of Nature as the peacock or, for that matter, the aurora borealis. It pains me to hear you speak of it in so unappreciative a fashion. No doubt, with due diligence, we can secure some other specimen.”
There can be no doubt of that,” said Summerlee, grimly, “for one has just disappeared behind your shirt-collar.”
Challenger sprang into the air bellowing like a bull, and tore frantically at his coat and shirt to get them off.
Each of the four main characters in “The Lost World” has a distinct personality, as though Doyle is trying to embody the Greek humors: there’s the choleric Challenger; the phlegmatic Summerlee, Challenger’s sardonic scientific rival; the sanguine Lord Roxton, a big-game huntsman who accompanies the expedition for sport; and the melancholic Irishman Ted Malone, the journalist who narrates the story. It makes for entertaining reading, as I’ve found every time I’ve come back to the story. And my re-readings must be in double figures now. Doyle’s racial descriptions will provoke sniffs of disapproval in many modern readers, but they’re something else that may be prescient and they aren’t confined to “villainous half-breeds” and the “huge negro Zambo, who is as faithful as a dog”. He also describes the Irish as distinct within the white European super-race.
Doyle’s prescience seems to have failed in the longest story of the collection, which, in its way, is another joke at Professor Challenger’s expense. Having made the character popular before the First World War, Doyle shoe-horned him into “The Land of Mist” in 1927 as part of his propaganda for spiritualism. I’ve never re-read this story, which has more historical and biographical importance than literary. Doyle lost a son and brother during the War and the wishful thinking that inspired his support of spiritualism is evident throughout. He even makes Challenger turn on his head for the purposes of the book’s propaganda. This is Challenger in “The Poison Belt” in 1913:
“No, Summerlee, I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here ― here” ― and he beat his great head with his huge, hairy fist ― “there is something which uses matter, but is not of it ― something which might destroy death, but which death can never destroy.”
But in “The Land of Mist”, fourteen years later, it’s necessary for Challenger to oppose spiritualism and be brought round against his will. He espouses materialistic nihilism as Malone and his daughter Enid, both reporters, are about to attend a spiritualist meeting. Malone reluctantly accepts it as an intellectual proposition:
“But my instincts are against!” cried Enid. “No, no, never can I believe it.” She threw her arms round the great bull neck. “Don’t tell me, Daddy, that you with all your complex brain and wonderful self are a thing with no more life hereafter than a broken clock!”
Four buckets of water and a bagful of salts,” said Challenger as he smilingly detached his daughter’s grip. “That’s your daddy, my lass, and you may as well reconcile your mind to it.”
Enid doesn’t and in the end Challenger admits he was wrong. The effort Doyle put into the story was wasted: it’s only a historical curiosity nowadays and seems likely to remain so. To see why the other stories, some much shorter, are much more valuable, simply pick up a copy of the collection in the excellent Wordsworth series.

Vive l’Espièglerie

The Monk, Matthew Lewis
Is this book dazzlingly good? No, it’s coruscatingly good, as though shafts of lightning were splitting a midnight sky over a landscape of mingled grotesquery and beauty. It’s hard to believe that Lewis was only nineteen when he wrote The Monk, which is richly inventive, deeply perceptive, and highly entertaining. Scandalously lubricious too: it seems likely that Lewis wouldn’t have got away with it if he hadn’t been guying Spanish Catholicism in this tale of a highly talented abbot brought to lust, crime and final doom by a mixture of overweening pride, worldly inexperience, and demonic temptation. Fortunately perhaps, its bloody twists and turns don’t carry true conviction, partly because Lewis seems barely to believe in the supernatural, let alone in Christianity, and partly because The Monk reads like a converted play rather than a true novel. The older literary form, to which Lewis turned frequently later in his short career, was still informing the newer and the characters seem to be performing on a stage rather than living in a fully imagined world. There are “scenes” in grottos and bedrooms, with exits and entrances, and the moonlight or sounds that accompany them could easily be realized as stage effects. The poetry that punctuates the text, declaimed now by a gypsy fortune-teller, now by an aristocrat’s page, is theatrical too, and even if the plot weren’t so fantastic, The Monk would not purge with pity and terror as true tragedy should. Lewis would have laughed at the suggestion: it’s a jeu d’esprit written to entertain first the author himself, then whatever readers happened to come his way. A lot did when it was first published and a lot have done so ever since, even in the expurgated second edition Lewis produced when the scandal caused by the first threatened his career as an MP. If you want to enter the Gothic, step this way.

Mind the Gap

Lytton Strachey: A Biography, Michael Holroyd
The great problem with biographies of writers is that it’s likely that the biographer will write less well than the biographee. The better the latter, the likelier this is and more the former’s flaws will stand out by contrast. Strachey was very good indeed, so Holroyd’s flaws stand out a lot. Some are venal, but some aren’t excusable in a supposed littérateur. He proves once again that an interest in literature does not necessarily go with an interest in language. In fact, one could almost imagine at times that they’re mutually exclusive. Michael Holroyd was born in 1935 and attended Eton, where one would suppose he received an excellent education. From passages like this, it appears that one would suppose wrong:
On leaving Cambridge, Lytton’s rooms were rather violently redecorated in apple-green and taken over by his younger brother, James. (Part II, Sec. 6, “Post-Graduate”, Sub-Sec. 2, “The Limbo of Unintimacy”)
Participles are suspended like that throughout the book, or at least throughout those parts of the book I’ve managed to examine. It’s 1,144 pages long in my Penguin edition, after all, and that’s another glaring contrast with Strachey. If brevity is the soul of wit, Strachey both wrote and lived wittily, and one feels rather as though Holyroyd is setting an electron microscope to work on a soufflé. Strachey wrote in his introduction to Eminent Victorians, where he captured four very active and sometimes very long lives in just under 100,000 words, that to “preserve a becoming brevity ― a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant ― that, surely, is the first duty of the biographer.”
If so, then Holroyd not merely neglects his first duty but tramples on it in hobnailed boots, then steamrollers the remains. There are some excellent anecdotes and some good writing, but it’s characteristic that the two often do not come directly from Holyroyd himself:
“Now and then,” recalled [Lady Ottoline] Morrell, “Lytton Strachey exquisitely stepped out with his brother James and his sister Marjorie, in a delicate and courtly minuet of his own making, his thin long legs and arms gracefully keeping perfect time to Mozart ― the vision of this exquisite dance always haunts me with its half-serious, half-mocking, yet beautiful quality.” (Part II, Sec. 11, “The Lacket”, Sub-Sec. 4, “Business as Usual”)
On one occasion the two of them [Lady Ottoline and Nijinsky] were sitting together in a tiny inner room when Lytton entered the house [at
Bedford Square
]. As he advanced towards the drawing-room he overheard Ottoline’s husky voice, with its infinitely modulated intonations, utter the words, “Quand vous dansez, vous n’êtes pas un homme ― vous êtes une idée. C’est ça, n’est ce pas, qui est l’Art?... Vous avez lu Platon, sans doubte?” ― The reply was a grunt. (“The Lacket”, Sub. Sec. 2, “Scenes from Post-Edwardian England”)
Yes, Holroyd offers his readers all they ever might have wanted to know about Lytton Strachey, but many of them, like me, will not have the patience to dig through the slagheaps of dross to find all the nuggets concealed herein. That is the image suggested by the book; the relationship of author and subject suggests another. The gap between their literary talent isn’t the only jarring thing: Strachey was very close to being a genius, studying both literature and mathematics at university, and Holroyd’s much weaker mind flutters around his rather like a moth beating on a powerful bulb, ever attracted, ever unable to reach the core of that dazzling brilliance.

Strafing Strachey

Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey
I once had to take two long train journeys every weekday, traveling to and returning from my place of work. One day I took and finished a P.G. Wodehouse novel. The next day I accidentally took the novel again and, having nothing else to read, started it again. And finished it again. It proved just as enjoyable second time round, because although the story was completely familiar, I could re-savor the prose and the inconsequential but intricate plot.
Not many authors can sustain an immediate re-reading like that. Wodehouse is one; Evelyn Waugh is another; and Lytton Strachey is a third. Eminent Victorians is a book I can re-read immediately, or rather the essay on “Cardinal Manning” is. I think it’s some of the best writing in modern English: 36,000 words of immaculate prose, coruscating wit, and magisterially distilled erudition. For at least two centuries it’s been easy to laugh at the Church of England, but sharper darts than Strachey’s have never found out her fallibilities more surely. His mockery of the Church of Rome, while also highly entertaining, seems to me less effective, perhaps in part because it is less affectionate, less en famille, and more inspired by hatred and rancor. But then, as Strachey notes himself, the Church of Rome has always been an altogether more formidable foe.

The other essays, on Dr Arnold, Florence Nightingale, and General Gordon, are also highly readable and entertaining, but there are signs, particularly in the last, of the carelessness and solecism that mar Strachey’s biography of Queen Victoria. Although there are undoubted treats to be had, he never repeats the sustained perfection of “Cardinal Manning” in any of his other writing, while Elizabeth and Essex, whose first line announces that “The English Reformation was not merely a religious event; it was also a social one”, starts as it means to go on: very dully. Has ever wittier written weaker? But if Strachey disappoints so often and so strongly, that is a measure of the greatness he achieved in Eminent Victorians.

Swinburne: A.E. Housman's essay of 1910


A.E. Housman

(First published in 1910)

The publication, in 1866, of the late Mr Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads may fairly be called the most conspicuous event in the literary history of the reign of Queen Victoria. We now see that it was not so important an event as it once appeared: its results were not permanent, nor even of long duration; but it was the most moving novelty that the world of letters had seen for many a day or is likely to see for many another. At a time when Victorian verse was at its very tamest, when the two most widely read of recent poems were Enoch Arden and Hiawatha, this trumpet of insurrection excited in young and ardent minds an emotion comparable to what Wordsworth and Coleridge had felt when they witnessed the beginning of the French Revolution. Mr Thomas Hardy has told me that in those days, when he was a young man of six-and-twenty living in London, there was a whole army of young men like himself, not mutually acquainted, who nevertheless, as they met in the streets, could recognise one another as spiritual brethren by a certain outward sign. This sign was an oblong projection at the breast-pocket of the coat. To the gross world of London, enslaved by commerce, respectability, and middle-age, it might have been anything; but the sons of fire who had similar oblongs protruding from their own breast-pockets knew what it was: it was Moxton’s first edition of Poems and Ballads, worn where it should be worn, just over the heart.
When Mr Swinburne died, April 1909, at the age of 72, he might as well have been dead for a quarter of a century. For a quarter of a century and more he had written nothing that mattered. There were not many to buy his books, and fewer still to read them; the poetasters, except the very poorest, had ceased to try to imitate him; the literary world was much interested in other things, good, bad and indifferent, but little interested in the poetry of Mr Swinburne. He still commanded the lip-service of the journalists, who would describe him as our only great living poet; but this they said, not because they believed it was true, but because they hoped, by so saying, to inflict mental anguish on Mr William Watson or Mr Stephen Phillips.
Swinburne in fact was one of those not very numerous poets whom their contemporaries have treated with justice. The different attention which he received at different periods very fairly corresponded to differences, at those periods, in the quality of his writing. He was neither steadily overrated, like Byron, nor steadily underrated, like Shelley, nor, like Wordsworth, derided while he wrote well and celebrated when he wrote well no longer: he received the day’s wages for the day’s work. His first book fell dead, as it deserved; his first good book, Atalanta in Calydon, earned him celebrity; his best book, Poems and Ballads, was his most famous and influential book; and the decline of his powers, slow in Songs before Sunrise and Bothwell and Erectheus, accelerated in his later writings, was followed, not immediately, but after an interval sufficient to give him the chance of recovery, by a corresponding decline, first slow and then rapid, in public interest and esteem.
There can be no doubt that the enthusiasm provoked by Poems and Ballads, like the loud and transient outcry which frightened its first publisher into withdrawing it from circulation, was due in great measure to adventitious circumstances and to a feature of the book which is now seen to be merely accidental. The poems were largely and even chiefly concerned with a thing which one set of people call love, and another set of people call immorality, each set declaring that the other name is quite wrong, so that people belonging to neither set do not exactly know what to call it; but perhaps one may avoid extremes by calling it Aphrodite. Now in the general life of mankind Aphrodite is quite able to take care of herself; but in literature, at any rate in the literature of that Anglo-Saxon race to which we have the high privilege and heavy responsibility of belonging, she wages an unequal contest with another great divinity, who is called purity by her friends and hypocrisy by her enemies, and whom, again to avoid extremes, one may perhaps call Mrs Grundy. In the year 1866 the vicissitudes of their secular conflict had brought Mrs Grundy to the top: she appeared to be sitting on Aphrodite as firmly as the Babylonian woman on her seven mountains in the Book of Revelations; and Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads were a powerful and timely demonstration in favour of the under dog – if indeed I may apply such a term to either of the fair antagonists. Here was a subject which most poets had ceased to talk about, and here was a poet talking about it at the very top of a very sonorous voice: the stone which the builders rejected was become the head of the corner. And although the enthusiasm which this intervention evoked in one camp, like the scandal which it occasioned in the other, was excessive – for Aphrodite has the knack of causing both her friends and her enemies to lose their heads and to make more fuss about her than she is worth – still the stroke was both effective and salutary, and entitles Swinburne to a secure though modest place among the liberators of mankind. The reasonable licence which English literature enjoys, and which it so seldom abuses, is the result of a gradual emancipation which began with Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads.
Those to whom this work appealed by its subject and contents, as distinct from its form, were of two classes: there were the simple adherents of Aphrodite, and there were those grave men, correct in behaviour and earnest in thought, who regard the relations of the sexes as the most serious and important element in human life. It was the irony of the situation that Swinburne himself belonged to neither class. He was not a libertine, and he was not an earnest thinker about life; he was merely a writer in search of a subject, and a tinder-box that any spark would set on fire. When he had written his book upon this subject, he had done with it, and it hardly appears again in the twenty volumes of his later verse: he was ready for a new subject. In Songs before Sunrise, his next volume, his attitude towards Aphrodite was austere, and the finest poem in the book is the Prelude in which he takes his leave of her. Poems and Ballads were the effervescence with which a quick and shallow nature responded to a certain influence arising partly from the Greek and Latin classics, partly from medieval legend, partly from the French literature of the nineteenth century. That effervescence subsided, and around a new subject, Liberty, a new influence, chiefly Mazzini’s, provoked a new effervescence, not nearly so sparkling. The fact is that, whatever may be the comparative merits of the two deities, Liberty is by no means so interesting as Aphrodite, and by no means so good a subject for poetry. There is a lack of detail about Liberty, and she has indeed no positive quality at all. Liberty consists in the absence of obstructions; it is merely a preliminary to activities whose character it does not determine; and to write poems about Liberty is very much as if one should write an Ode to Elbow-room or a panegyric on space of three dimensions. And in truth poets never do write poems about Liberty, they only pretend to do so: they substitute images.
Thy face is as a sword smiting in sunder
  Shadows and chains and dreams and iron things;
The sea is dumb before thy face, the thunder
  Silent, the skies are narrower than thy wings.
Then, when they feel that the reader is starving for something more tangible, they generally begin to talk of Athens, which, as it happens, was a slave-state; and in the last resort they fall back on denunciation of tyranny, an abominable institution, no doubt, but at any rate less featureless than Liberty, and a godsend to people who have to pretend to write about her.
But even tyranny is an exhaustible subject, and seven thousand verses exhaust it; and Swinburne, since he could not be still, was forced to be eloquent about other things. He appointed himself to laureateship of the sea; he cultivated a devotion to babies and young children; finally, under stress of famine and in desperation at the dearth of themes, he fled to what Johnson calls the last refuge of a scoundrel, and wrote patriotic poems in imitation of Campbell. And, in addition to all this, he composed a great number of verses about the verses of other poets.
Not one of these subjects was well chosen. The sea is a natural object; and Swinburne had no eye for nature and no talent for describing it. Children and babies are not appropriately celebrated in verse so ornate and so verbose as Swinburne’s. As for his patriotic poetry, it may be unfair to call it insincere, but certainly it has no air of sincerity: it is the sort of patriotic poetry one would expect from a man who had written volumes in honour of other nations before he wrote a line in honour of his own.
In truth there was only one theme which Swinburne thoroughly loved and understood; and that was literature. Here was the true centre of his interests, and the source of his genuine and spontaneous emotions. But literature, unfortunately, is neither a fruitful nor even an appropriate subject for poetry. Swinburne himself was uneasily aware of this; and consequently, when he heard it said that his work was grounded not upon life but upon books, it made him angry, and he began to splutter as follows: ‘The half-brained creature to whom books are other than living things may see with the eyes of a bat and draw with the fingers of a mole his dullard’s distinction between books and life: those who live the fuller life of a higher animal than he, know that books are to poets as much a part of that life as pictures are to painters or as music is to musicians, dead matter though they may be to the spiritually still-born children of dirt and dullness who find it possible and natural to live while dead in heart and brain.’ Well, of course, it is a sad thing to be a spiritually still-born child of dirt and dullness, and it is peculiarly depressing to be dead in heart and brain when one has only half a brain to be dead in; but it is no use bemoaning one’s condition, and we must pass on to consider the parallel which Swinburne draws.
Books, he says, are to poets as much part of life as pictures are to painters. Just so: they are to poets that part of life which is not fitted to become the subject of their art. Painters do not paint pictures of paintings, and similarly poets had better not write poems on poems. And Swinburne did worse than take books for his subject: he dragged this subject into the midst of all other subjects, and covered earth and sky and man with the dust of the library. He cannot watch a sunset at sea without beginning to think of Beaumont and Fletcher. He walks along a country road at Midsummer, and it sets him talking about Chaucer, because Chaucer may possibly have done the same thing. He writes an ode for the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his own school, Eton, in which he contrives to drag in Shakespeare (who was educated at Harrow) but mentions only one Etonian. And who do you think that one Etonian is? Shelley, whom Eton did not quite succeed in tormenting out of his mind: Shelley, who except for his father’s influence and intervention, would twice have been expelled: Shelley, whose atheism was traced, by an Eton headmaster, to the difficulty which he had in reconciling the existence of God with the existence of Eton. In short, Swinburne was perpetually talking shop: the bookish spirit in which he looked on nature and mankind, with his head full of his own trade, is essentially the same as the spirit in which The Tailor and Cutter annually criticises the portraits in the Royal Academy, interested, not in the artist, nor in the subject, but in the cut of the subject’s clothes.
I have been speaking of the themes of his lyrical poetry, because it is only as a lyrist that Swinburne is important. The themes of his dramatic and narrative works were not ill chosen, and the unsatisfactoriness of those poems was not due to their subject but to Swinburne’s lack of talent for narrative and the drama. His plays have a certain empty dignity, but he was not a dramatist nor even, like Browning, a psychologist: his characters are talking masks. In his only considerable narrative poem, Tristram of Lyonesse, the prologue, which in essence is lyric, is worth all the rest of the book put together; just as Atalanta in Calydon is raised far above his other dramas by the brilliant beauty of its very undramatic lyrics. It is of his lyrical poetry I am speaking when I say that after the first series of Poems and Ballads he was chiefly occupied with bad subjects or with subjects not suited to his genius.
But it has long been a commonplace that the strong side of Swinburne’s poetry was not its matter but its manner; and though the matter of Poems and Ballads had much to do with the celebrity of the book, it is to its diction and versification that it will mainly owe its place in literature. Of these it is very difficult to speak adequately and justly; to keep the balance between admiration for their extraordinary merit and originality, and due recognition of the fact that they belong essentially to the second order, not the first.
If a man does not hear the melody of Swinburne’s verse, he must be deaf; he would not hear the melody of any verse. But if, as many do, he thinks its melody is the best, he must have a gross ear. The man who now calls Swinburne the most musical of poets would, if he had been born one hundred and fifty years earlier, have said the same of Pope. To the ears of his contemporaries Pope’s verse was perfection: the inferiority of Milton’s and Shakespeare’s was not a thing to be disputed about but to be explained and excused. The melody of Pope and Swinburne have this in common, and owed their acceptation to this, that they address themselves frankly and almost exclusively to what may be called the external ear. This, in different ways and by different methods, they fill and delight: it is a pleasure to hear them, a pleasure to read them aloud. But there, in that very fact, you can tell that their music is only of the second order. To read aloud poets whose music is of the first, poets so much unlike one another as Milton and Blake, is not a pleasure but an embarrassment, because no reader can hope to do them justice. Their melody is addressed to the inner chambers of the sense of hearing, to the junction between the ear and the brain; and you should either hire an angel from heaven to read them to you, or let them read themselves in silence. None understood their superiority better than Swinburne himself, the finest of whose critical qualities was his capacity to recognise excellence unlike his own. His devotees might call him the most melodious of English poets, but he thought that the most melodious lines in English were the first five lines of Lycidas; he acknowledged in the Border Ballads a strain of music which no later poetry could reproduce; and he recognised that the best versification of modern times is to be found in the irregular and simple-seeming measures of the Ancient Mariner.
Among Swinburne’s technical achievements the most conspicuous, if not the greatest, was his development of anapaestic verse. It was he who first made the anapaest fit for serious poetry. Before his time it had been used with some success for the lightest purposes, but when used for purposes other than the lightest it had seldom been managed with skill. At its best it had a simple and rather shallow music.
The blackbird has fled to another retreat
Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat,
And the scene where his melody charmed me before
Resounds with his sweet-sounding ditty no more.
But it was notably unsure of foot, and seldom went without stumbling for much more than four lines at a time: it was for ever collapsing into such meanness as this:
There is mercy in every place,
  And mercy, encouraging thought!
Gives even affliction a grace
  And reconciles man to his lot.
Yet this is almost the very stanza which Swinburne dignified and strengthened till it yielded a combination of speed and magnificence which nothing in English had possessed before.
Out of Dindymus heavily laden
  Her lions draw bound and unfed
A mother, a mortal, a maiden,
  A queen over death and the dead.
She is cold, and her habit is lowly,
  Her temple of branches and sods;
Most fruitful and virginal, holy,
  A mother of gods.
She hath wasted with fire thine high places
  She hath hidden and marred and made sad
The fair limbs of the Loves, the fair faces
  Of gods that were goodly and glad.
She slays, and her hands are not bloody;
  She moves as a moon in the wane,
White-robed, and thy raiment is ruddy,
  Our Lady of Pain.
Other stanzas he invented for it, to display its capacities.
In the darkening and whitening
            Abysses adored,
          With dayspring and lightning
            For lamp and for sword,
God thunders in heaven, and his angels are red with the wrath of the Lord.
There lived a singer in France of old
By the tideless dolorous midland sea.
In a land of sand and ruin and gold
There shone one woman, and none but she.
And finding life for her love’s sake fail,
Being fain to see her, he bade set sail,
Touched land, and saw her as life grew cold,
And praised God, seeing; and so died he.
True, the anapaestic rhythm, even when invested by a master with these alluring splendours, is not, in English, the best vehicle for poetry. Better poetry has been written in iambics and trochaics than will ever be written in anapaests; but still it is an unparalleled achievement, at so late a period of the literature, to have added this new and resonant string to the lyre.
In the second place, not only did he create new metres but he recreated old; and in particular he resuscitated the heroic couplet. It might have been thought, after all the practitioners through whose hands this measure had passed, that nothing remained for it but decent burial. The valley was full of bones; and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and lo, they were very dry. The form which the couplet had taken in the seventeenth century it retained to the nineteenth, and the innovations or reactions of Leigh Hunt and Keats were not improvements. Upon these dry bones Swinburne brought up new flesh and breathed into them a new spirit. In the hands of the last considerable poet who had used it, the metre still went to the tune of Pope and Dryden:
Night wanes – the vapours round the mountains curl’d,
Melt into morn, and Light awakes the world.
Man has another day to swell the past,
And lead him near to little, but his last;
But mighty Nature bounds as from her birth,
The sun is in the heavens, and life on earth;
Flowers in the valley, splendour in the beam,
Health on the gale, and freshness in the stream.
Immortal man! behold her glories shine,
And cry, exulting inly, “They are thine!”
Gaze on, while yet thy gladden’d eye may see,
A morrow comes when they are not for thee;
And grieve what may above thy senseless bier,
Nor earth nor sky will yield a single tear;
Nor cloud shall gather more, nor leaf shall fall,
Nor gale breathe forth one sigh for thee, for all;
But creeping things shall revel in their spoil,
And fit thy clay to fertilise the soil.
These lines are much above Byron’s average; they say something worth saying, and they say it capably and with emotion; but their structure is still formal, and their vocabulary a trifle poor. Now take Swinburne:
Thee too the years shall cover; thou shalt be
As the rose born of one same blood with thee,
As a song sung, as a word said, and fall
Flower-wise, and be not any more at all,
Nor any memory of thee anywhere;
For never Muse has bound above thine hair
The high Pierian flower whose graft outgrows
All summer kinship of the mortal rose
And colour of deciduous days, nor shed
Reflex and flush of heaven about thine head,
Nor reddened brows made pale by floral grief
With splendid shadow from that lordlier leaf.
It is hardly recognisable as the same metre. You are free to like it less: it is less brisk and forthright, but its fulness and richness and variety are qualities of which one would never have supposed the couplet to be capable.
In the third place he possessed an altogether unexampled command of rhyme, the chief enrichment of modern verse. The English language is comparatively poor in rhymes, and most English poets, when they have to rhyme more than two or three words together, betray their embarrassment. They betray it, for instance, when they write sonnets after the strict Petrarchian rule: the poetical inferiority of most English sonnets, if compared with what their own authors have achieved in other forms of verse, is largely though not entirely the result of this difficulty. Milton is embarrassed by it; Wordsworth, though probably the best of our sonneteers, is pitiably embarrassed, and driven to end the noblest of his sonnets with a wretched tag about ‘titles manifold’; Rossetti, our most determined workman in this line, dissimulates his embarrassment by inventing, for the purpose of sonnet-writing, a jargon in which every word is so unnatural that the words which form the rhymes are no more unnatural than the rest and so give rise to no special wonder. To Swinburne the sonnet was child’s play: the task of providing four rhymes was not hard enough, and he wrote long poems in which each stanza required eight or ten rhymes, and wrote them so that he never seemed to be saying anything for the rhyme’s sake. His pre-eminence was most remarkable in the mastery of feminine rhymes, as we call them, rhymes of two syllables. Before Swinburne, few English poets had used them much, few without doing themselves an injury. They would start swimmingly enough:
How delicious is the winning
Of a kiss at love’s beginning,
When two mutual hearts are sighing
For the knots there’s no untying.
But unless they make up their mind to desert the scheme it would generally entice them to use words they would rather not have used:
Yet remember, ’midst your wooing,
Love has bliss, but love has ruing,
Other smiles may make you fickle,
Tears for other charms may trickle.
The word trickle, in that verse, is not preferred to the word flow because of its intrinsic merit, but for quite another reason. Swinburne’s language, no doubt, is often wanting in clearness and aptness, but that defect is never caused by any difficulty in finding feminine rhymes: they come at call as readily as any other. I will mention one significant detail. The ordinary versifier, if he employs feminine rhymes, makes great use of words ending with ing: they are the largest class of these rhymes, and they form his mainstay. Swinburne, so plentiful and ready to hand were his stores, almost disdains this expedient: in all the four hundred and forty lines of Dolores, for example, he only twice resorts to it.
The ornament of verse especially associated with the name of Swinburne is alliteration. This of course was no invention of his. Not to speak of the old poetry extinguished by Chaucer and his rhymes, whose very base was alliteration, this artifice had been used, and even used to excess, by many earlier poets than Swinburne. The greatest of our poets did not largely avail themselves of its aid: in Milton, for instance, its appearance is sporadic and sometimes even, one would say, unintentional: we are arrested and surprised at encountering now and then such lines as these:
Fairer than feigned of old or fabled since
Of fairy damsels met in forest wide
By Knights of Logres or of Lyones,
Lancelot, or Pelleas, or Pellenore.
The first English poet to employ alliteration methodically and scientifically was Gray, and after Gray it was most systematically practised by Tennyson: in Gray it is perhaps less effective than one might expect, and in Tennyson, though effective, it is rather too prominent and ubiquitous. Swinburne, in much of his writing, employed the artifice so profusely, so wastefully, and indeed so ignorantly, that in the end he brought it into disrepute and sent it out of fashion. The proper function of alliteration is to add speed and force to the motion of verse. How it should be applied, if it is to compass these ends, is a matter on which I might say a good deal; but that belongs rather to a paper on the artifice of versification than to a paper on Swinburne. From Swinburne I will take one example, and I might take hundreds, of how it should not be applied.
         Many a long blithe wave
Buoyed their blithe bark between the bare bald rocks
Deep, steep, and still, save for the swift free flocks…
but that is enough. Those verses make on the ear and mind two immediate impressions: they are cumbrous and they are artificial; and if they are analysed it will be found that their unskilful artifice is the chief cause of their cumbrousness. They are the work of a craftsman who has forgotten his trade; who has lost sight of the end proposed, and who actually defeats the end by mechanically hammering away at the means. This is mere bungling; but in the celebrated stanzas about the lilies and languors of virtue and the raptures and roses of vice, though the artifice is rather crude and obvious, the effect is nevertheless attained: the verse, though it pays a price for them, does gain force and rapidity. In his best time he used alliteration, never indeed with perfect art, but still with some rectitude of instinct: this he lost in his later years, as he lost almost everything else. He had deafened himself with his own noise, till his verse became downright unpleasant to ears which were still open. His growing obtuseness of perception showed itself most clearly in his employment of trochaic rhythms. This metre he had never written so skilfully as iambics or anapaests, and in the end he may be said to have written it worse than anyone had ever written it before. The parody of Laura Matilda in the Rejected Addresses is not exactly good verse; but it is better verse than Swinburne’s poem on Grace Darling.
If you turn from his versification to his diction, the case is much the same, though it cannot be examined in the same detail. The first impression produced by his style, as it was in 1866, is one of great and even overpowering richness. He seemed to have ransacked all the treasuries of the language and melted down the whole plunder into a new and gorgeous amalgam. In the poems of his later life his style was threadbare. It had not become austere: it was as voluble and diffuse as ever, but it had ceased to be rich and various. The torrent streamed on, but it streamed from an impoverished vocabulary, and consisted of a dwindled stock of words repeated again and again. A few favourite epithets were conferred on all manner of different things, instead of different and truly descriptive epithets. If he admired something very much he would not wait to find a word indicative of its quality, but he would call it ‘god-like’; upon which one of his critics observed that, in view of Mr Swinburne’s theological opinions, to call a thing god-like must be very much the same as calling it devilish good. If an epithet struck him as pretty in itself he would work it to death by associating it with objects to which it had no special appropriateness; and it would be interesting to draw up a list of the various unlike things which he has called ‘sun-bright’ or ‘flower-soft’ or ‘deep as the sea’. This is a fashion of speaking which attains its legitimate culmination in the conversational style of the British workman, who thinks that no noun should be without its adjective, and that one adjective is suitable to every noun.
But even in the days of its early freshness and abundance his diction has the fault that amidst all its magnificence it did not ring quite true: it would not sustain comparison even with the best contemporary poetry, the best of Tennyson’s and Matthew Arnold’s, no, nor the best of Coventry Patmore’s and Christina Rossetti’s. Speaking broadly, it was a diction of the same cast as Pope’s. The differences between the two are evident and striking; but their differences are less essential than their resemblance in this point – that they both run in a groove. They impose upon all thought and feeling a set mode of speech: they are mannerisms, and consequently they are imitable. Pope’s diction was long imitated successfully; Swinburne’s was imitated successfully, but not long, because those who were clever enough to imitate it were also clever enough to see it was not well worth imitating.
In fact, what Swinburne wrote, and what Pope and Dryden wrote, was not, in the strictest sense of the word, poetry. It was often capital stuff, and to the taste of their contemporaries it was better than the best poetry. But time went on, and the power of its spell was found to wane; its appeal was not to the core of the human mind and the unalterable element in its constitution. I suppose that most people, while admitting that Swinburne’s poetry is less poetical than Milton’s or even than Tennyson’s, would maintain that on the other hand it is much more poetical than Pope’s or even Dryden’s. Well, I think so too; but I cannot feel sure that I am right in thinking so. The atmosphere of taste in which Swinburne’s poetry grew up is not yet altogether dispersed: we ourselves grew up in it, and we have not all grown out of it. But if permanency is any test of merit, then we must remark that the poetry inaugurated by Dryden was supreme for a century and a half, while the influence of Swinburne spent itself within five and twenty years. It began in 1865, it reached its height before 1880, by 1890 there was not much left of it. Here of course it must be borne in mind that Pope and Dryden had two strings to their bow and Swinburne had only one. If Pope’s and Dryden’s verse were not poetry at all, they still would be very great men of letters and representatives of their age. Their sense, their wit, their knowledge of life and men, and their eminence in those merits which poetry shares with prose, would still preserve for their verse a high place in literature. But if Swinburne’s verse had not poetical merit, it would have no merit at all.
Poetry, which in itself is simply a tone of the voice, a particular way of saying things, is mainly concerned with three great provinces. First, with human affection, and those emotions which we assign to the heart: no one could say that Swinburne succeeded or excelled in this province. The next province is the world of thought; the contemplation of life and the universe: in this province Swinburne’s ideas and reflections are not indeed identical with those of Mrs Hemans, but they belong to the same intellectual order as hers: unwound from their cocoon of words they are either superficial or second-hand. Last, there is the province of external nature as perceived by our senses; and on this I must dwell for a little, because there is one department of external nature which Swinburne is supposed to have made his own: the sea.
The sea, to be sure, is a large department; and that is how it succeeded in attracting Swinburne’s attention; for he seldom noticed any object of external nature unless it was very large, very brilliant, or very violently coloured. But the sea as an object of poetry is somewhat barren. Those poets who have a true eye for nature and a sure pen for describing it, spend few words describing the sea; and their few words describe it better than Swinburne’s thousands. It is historically certain that he had seen the sea, but if it were not, it could not with certainty have been inferred from his descriptions: they might have been written by a man who had never been outside Warwickshire. Descriptions of nature equally accurate, though not equally eloquent, have actually been composed by persons blind from their birth, merely by combining anew the words and phrases which they have had read to them from books. When Swinburne writes thus –
And the night was alive and anhungered of life as a tiger from toils cast free:
And a rapture of rage made joyous the spirit and strength of the soul of the sea.
All the weight of the wind bore down on it, freighted with death for fraught:
And the keen waves kindled and quickened as things transfigured or things distraught.
And madness fell on them laughing and leaping; and madness came on the wind:
And the might and the light and the darkness of storm were as storm in the heart of Ind.
Such glory, such terror, such passion, as lighten and harrow the far fierce East,
Rang, shone, spake, shuddered around us: the night was an altar with death for priest –
it would be cruel to set against such a passage a single line of Tennyson’s or a single epithet of Shakespeare’s: I take instead a snatch of verse whose author few of you know and most of you never heard of:
Hurry me, Nymphs, O, hurry me
Far above the grovelling sea,
Which, with blind weakness and bass roar
Casting his white age on the shore,
Wallows along that slimy floor;
With his wide-spread webbèd hands
Seeking to climb the level sands,
But rejected still to rave
Alive in his uncovered grave.
Admirers of the sea may call that a lampoon or a caricature, but they cannot deny that it is life-like: the man who wrote it had seen the sea, and the man who reads it sees the sea again.
If even so bare and simple an object as the sea was too elusive and delicate for Swinburne’s observation and description, you would not expect him to have much success with anything so various and manifold as the surface of the earth. And I am downright aghast at the dullness of perception and lack of self-knowledge and self-criticism which permitted him to deposit his prodigious quantity of descriptive writing in the field of English literature. That field is rich beyond example in descriptions of nature from the hands of unequalled masters, for in the rendering of nature English poetry has outdone all poetry: and here, after five centuries, comes Swinburne covering the grass with his cartload of words and filling the air with the noise of the shooting of rubbish. It is a clear morning towards the end of winter: snow has fallen in the night, and still lies on the branches of the trees under brilliant sunshine. Tennyson would have surveyed the scene with his trained eye, made search among his treasury of choice words, sorted and sifted and condensed them, till he had framed three lines of verse, to be introduced one day in a narrative or a simile, and there to flash upon the reader’s eye the very picture of a snowy and sunshiny morning. Keats or Shakespeare would have walked between the trees thinking of whatever came uppermost and letting their senses commune with their souls; and there the morning would have transmuted itself into half a line or so which, occurring in some chance passage of their poetry, would have set the reader walking between the same trees again. Swinburne picks up the sausage-machine into which he crammed anything and everything; round goes the handle, and out at the other end comes this noise:
Ere frost-flower and snow-blossom faded and fell, and the splendour of winter had passed out of sight,
The ways of the woodlands were fairer and stranger than dreams that fulfil us in sleep with delight;
The breath of the mouths of the winds had hardened on tree-tops and branches that glittered and swayed
Such wonders and glories of blossomlike snow or of frost that outlightens all flowers till it fade
That the sea was not lovelier than here was the land, nor the night than the day, nor the day than the night,
Nor the winter sublimer with storm than the spring: such mirth had the madness and might in thee made,
March, master of winds, bright minstrel and marshal of storms that enkindle the season they smite.
That is not all, it clatters on for fifty lines or so; but that is enough and too much. It shows what nature was to Swinburne: just something to write verse about, a material for making a particular kind of sausage.
This inattention or insensibility betrays itself very plainly in his imagery, which is at once profuse and meagre. It is profuse, for he constantly uses metaphors and similes where they are not wanted and do not help the thought; and yet it is meagre, for the same metaphors and similes are constantly repeated. They are derived from the few natural objects which he had noticed: the sea, the stars, sunset, fire, and flowers, generally of a red colour, such as the rose and the poppy. However, the worse that can be said of them is that they are monotonous, perfunctory, and ineffective. But much worse can be said of another kind of simile, which grows common in his later writings. When a poet says that hatred is hot as fire or chastity white as snow, we can only object that we have often heard this before and that, considered as ornament, it is rather trite and cheap. But when he inverts his comparison and says that fire is hot as hatred and snow white as chastity, he is a fool for his pains. The heat of fire and the whiteness of snow are so much more sharply perceived than those qualities of hatred and chastity which have heat and whiteness for courtesy titles, that these similes actually blurr [sic] the image and dilute the force of what is said. But with such similes Swinburne’s later works abound: similes to him were part of the convention of poetry, and he mechanically used them when they no longer served, and even when they frustrated, the only purpose which can justify their introduction. In fact he came to write like an automaton, without so much as knowing the meaning of what he said. Here are four lines from the Tale of Balen:
A table of clear gold thereby
Stood stately, fair as morning’s eye,
– the beauty of a table is not more clearly apprehended when compared to the beauty of morning’s eye: that is the perfunctory simile, poor and useless; but let that pass, and proceed –
With four strong silver pillars, high
  And firm as faith and hope may be.
These four pillars are the four legs of the table: they were possibly five feet in height, probably less, certainly not much more; and they were high as hope may be. Now therefore we know the maximum height of hope: five feet and few odd inches.
It is not then for mastery nor even for competent handling of any of the three great provinces of poetry that Swinburne will be known to posterity. And not only so, but he was deficient in some of the qualities which go to constitute excellence on the formal side of poetry: he had little power of construction and little power of condensation. His nearest approach to a good short poem is the Garden of Proserpina, and that contains 96 lines, though it is true that they are short ones: Ilicet has about 150, The Triumph of Time nearly 400, Dolores more than 400. Of course in this defect Swinburne does not stand alone among eminent poets: he stands with Chaucer and Spencer, whose shorter pieces give hardly a hint of their true powers and excellences. But the defect was a worse misfortune to him than to them, because in the main they were narrative poets, and he was a lyrist. Gray writing to Mason on January 13, 1758, has these words: ‘Extreme conciseness of expression, yet pure, perspicuous and musical, is one of the grand beauties of lyric poetry. This I have always aimed at, and never could attain.’ Much less did Swinburne ever attain, what he never even recognised as a mark to aim at, this grand beauty of lyric poetry. Again, the virtue of construction and orderly evolution is almost absent from his lyrics. To take three of his most impressive and characteristic poems, the three which I have mentioned last, Dolores, and Ilicet, and The Triumph of Time: there is no reason why they should begin where they do or end where they do; there is no reason why the middle should be in the middle; there is hardly a reason why, having once begun, they should ever end at all; and it would be possible to rearrange the stanzas which compose them in different orders without lessening their coherency or impairing their effect. Almost the only piece which satisfies in this respect is the last good poem he ever wrote, the elegy on the death of Baudelaire, which indeed, if it has not all the fresh and luxuriant beauty of his earlier writing, may yet be reckoned his very best poem, in virtue of its dignity, and its unusual and uncharacteristic merit of structure and design.
It is therefore by two things mainly, his verse and his language, in the vigour and magnificence which at his best period they possessed, that Swinburne must stand or fall; and by those two things he will not fall but stand. I have said that neither is of the first order; but there is no need that they should be: to things so novel and original it suffices that they should be good; you cannot demand that they should be the best. Henry the Seventh’s chapel is not the most beautiful part of Westminster Abbey; but it is beautiful, and the fabric is more enriched by the addition of that purer style of the choir and transepts. Who is the greatest poet of the nineteenth century it is difficult, gloriously difficult, to say; assuredly not Swinburne; but its two most original poets are Wordsworth, who began the age, and Swinburne, who ended it. And when Swinburne died last year, thirty years later than he would have died if the gods had loved him, and my memory took me back to the heart of that movement in literature which he created and survived, I thought that Wordsworth had pronounced his finest epitaph in the sonnet on the extinction of the Venetian Republic:
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the shade
Of that which once was great is passed away.