For reasons that I am unable to articulate, I stopped painting a couple of months ago. I wish I could explain why, but I don't even understand it myself. Suffice to say that after 35 years for continually working as an artist, I ran out of steam, faith, and inspiration. It has been a significantly depressing and stressful process. In order to deal with it I started writing about life and art. And, of course, reading is always an essential concomitant of writing. Most of my fiction reading for the past twenty years or so has been 19th century and early 20th century work, but I recently started reading contemporary fiction again. After years of reading mostly older fiction, it is quite interesting to read newer books for a while.
The first book I picked up was one that I had read twice before - Robert Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Since it was published in the 1970s, this book has become a kind of modern classic, I think in large because it expressed the immense crisis in the Western psyche that was occurring in the lead up to the 70s. Though it doesn't specifically address these issues in any kind of systematic ways, Motorcycle Maintenance was written against the backdrop of the breakdown of traditional rationality, the linguistic turn in philosophy, the abandonment of so-called meta-theories, and rise of contemporary philosophical pragmatism. I read this book in the 1980s, in the 90s, and now again. Thought parts of it seem dated, an inevitability with any philosophical/fictionary work, it holds up well overall and it is an enjoyable read. Persig really illustrates the way that approaches to rationality were breaking down in someone's everyday consciousness. And of course, because he deals in detail with the question of "quality," a question always central to me as an artists, I find it fascinating.
The next novel I read was David Foster Wallace's last (and posthumously published) book The Pale King. I must admit that, though it is on my list, I have never read Infinite Jest, and I cannot comment on Wallace's work in general. But The Pale King is, I am fairly certain, one of the most boring books I have ever read. Though Wallace's prose style is fluid and interesting in itself to a degree, I just don't know how anyone (particularly an editor) ever thought this could be an interesting book. It is ostensibly a 600 page book about people who work for the IRS, and is precisely as boring as that sounds. It is profoundly difficult to imagine how Wallace could ever have gotten this book published if he hadn't been dead or famous or both. What made the book seem both more tragic and ridiculous is the way the publisher put a little 'guide for reading groups' in the back of the book. In this section you will find sophomoric questions meant to stimulate discussion for reading groups such as "Discuss the different ways in which the characters in The Pale King search for, and perhaps find, happiness." Since corporate publishers have no sense of humour and are notoriously irony-impaired, I am fairly sure these high school-like questions are not meant as a joke. And if they are meant seriously they are absurd, insulting, and belittle not only this book but I suspect Wallace's entire literary project.
Then I read a book I have been meaning to read for years; Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. This is one of those books that people often put on lists of so-called 'post-modern' novels, like Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being, or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. It is a book in which the narrator is always present and continually addresses the reader, a technique that some people find gimmicky and aggravating. It is essentially a story of a guy who tries to purchase Italo Calvino's latest novel but due to a printing mistake he gets the wrong book, and an incomplete one as well. He goes back and receives the wrong book again, and then the whole novel becomes a story of the reader encountering a series of fragments of different novels that he can never complete. Through the book, the reader is drawn closer to a mysterious and enigmatic woman whom, depending on how you read it, he marries. Calvino is always an entertaining writer and the fragments that he writes are all, in themselves, very compelling. Because Calvino seems like a natural story-teller, you find yourself, like the reader in the novel, wishing you could finish most of the fragments. It is well worth the read for both entertainment value as well as being an interesting literary experiment.
For my next book I went back to North America and read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Foer. The only thing I knew about Foer before I picked up this book was what I had seen in the movie version of his first book Everything is Illuminated. Apparently this book has also been made into a film, and upon reading it I can see why - it is pure Hollywood. This book deeply offends my sensibilities, not because it is poorly written, but because it is gratuitously sentimental. The book revolves around a young boy essentially trying to come to terms with the death of this father in the Twin Towers. This subject matter, in itself, is dangerously evocative and could be made sentimental even by the best, most circumspect author. But in Foer's hands every page drips with saccharin-like sentiment; and it is not just sentiment, but it boarders on melodrama. What I find particularly offensive about it, is that with all this sentimentality the whole book becomes a kind of trickery, like advertising that uses babies or puppies. To me Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a little bit like literary cheating because Foer has taken 9/11, which is a subject that is already very explosive and emotion laden, and then he has infused it with a story of a young boy who has lost his father and is close to a mental breakdown; and he has done all of this without offering any kind of distance or counterpoint whatsoever. It has the makings of the kind of Hollywood film that I most despise, one that intends to pull at the heartstrings (both patriotic and familial) with the aim of selling tickets and little more.
After reading that book I went back to Italy and read Umberto Eco's Novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. This is a story of a mad who has had a stroke and attempts to rebuild a vision of his life by looking through all the books, magazines, and comics in his childhood home. Eco is a very good prose writer (at least his translator makes him so) and I always enjoy his work. Part if the theme here is the issue of the narrator's childhood in fascist Italy where even the comic books and children's' songs were promoting fascist ideology. If you have an interest in comics and other popular culture from the 30s to the 50s, this book is excellent. But most readers will simply miss most of Eco's references and fail to connect with the narrator. I found this book among my father's things and, though I don't know if he ever had a chance to read it, I am sure the subject matter would have been of great interest to him. I liked it but found some of the long descriptions of various comic books and other popular culture artifacts got a bit tedious after a while.
I am not sure if any of these books will be helpful in my own writing which is very much geared toward sorting about where my conceptual and artistic life will go from here but so far it has been interesting. When you have lost your inspiration, at least the inspiration of others can be stimulating.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Sunday, August 24, 2014
I recently read another 19th century novel in my life-long, completely unreasonable, endeavor to read all the novels of the first half of the century. There is something interesting, I suppose, about having an unattainable goal. This novel was The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth. The Absentee was written in the first decade of the 1800s and was first published in Edgeworth’s Tales of Fashionable Life in 1809. Though she is little known today outside of those with a particular interest in 19th century literature, Edgeworth wrote around 15 novels throughout her career, as well as interesting educational and political works.
Maria Edgeworth was a remarkable woman from a remarkable family. Maria’s father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, was a brilliant inventor who worked with some of the great scientific minds of the era including James Watt and Erasmus Darwin. Maria was sister in law to the famous physician Dr. Thomas Beddoes, and her brothers included engineer William Edgeworth and Michael Pakenham Edgeworth the botanist. One of her nephews became a well-known economist, Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, and one of her nieces married the astronomer Thomas Romney Robinson. All in all, not bad family credentials.
One of the difficulties in reading or studying Maria Edgeworth’s work is the fact that her father was actively involved in most of her literary efforts and it is therefore difficult to tell where his work ends and hers begins. And since this authorial problem is more or less intractable, as far as I can tell, when you look at Maria’s entire oeuvre you have to assume to some degree that many of the ideas expressed there are joint efforts.
Edgeworth was, arguably, the most successful woman writer in England up until that time, and her works are indicative of the transition from pre-modern to modern novels. Though she wrote a number of stories before the 19th century began, her first novel was published in the year 1800 and she is therefore, in a sense, the first important British woman novelist of the century. When you read Edgeworth’s works you can distinctly see the modern novel evolving. Maria’s predecessors in Briton, like Oliver Goldsmith, Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Defoe, for example, were inheritors of traditional story-telling, and as such their novels are often narratives – that is to say a story distinctly told by a narrator. Large parts of most early novels are told directly through narration; the writer describes events and actions, sometimes over long periods, and then breaks in with dramatic scenes. Through the efforts of novelists like Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson, this tradition began to change and dramatic scenes began to play a bigger role. Over time, more of the novel’s actions were understood through the interactions between the characters. One of the problems with novels that were predominantly narration is the tendency for them to become didactic or moral tales. On the other hand, dramatic novels allow the reader to decide for herself what the characters are thinking or what actions might be good or bad. Now, Maria Edgeworth’s novel exist squarely between these two traditions, she used dramatic scenes very effectively but still fell back on and relied on narration a great deal. It was in the generation after Edgeworth, with writers like Jane Austin, that we really see the full formation of the modern novel.
Edgeworth’s novel The Absentee is an excellent example of this problem. The dramatic scenes are very effective and quite modern, but Edgeworth regresses into narration for long periods of the story’s action and during these periods she overstates the clear political motivation of her story.
The Absentee is essentially about a family of the Irish landed gentry that has left their homeland to take up fashionable residence in the English capital. As absentee landlords they have put their estates in the hands of an unscrupulous agent whose greed has left the estates and their tenants in decline and poverty. As a result of being so distant from the source of their income, the family has become unaware of how neglected their properties have become, and they have overspent, and gone heavily into debt. Through the efforts of their son who is also inheriting a large estate and title, they see the error of their ways and eventually return to their lands and commit once again to be responsible landlords working in the interest of their own property, the lives of their tenants, as well as for the nation of Ireland. Through this moral/political tale Edgeworth weaves a love story between the son and a cousin, and the story climaxes in typical 19th century fashion when it is discovered that the cousin is not, in fact, a blood relation and is heir to her own great fortune, thus leaving the path free for the lovers to wed.
The historical ground of this story was a subject with which Edgeworth had personal knowledge. Maria was born in England and for the first sixteen years of her life, her father was an absentee landlord from their family estates in Edgeworthtown in County Longford. Around the time that Maria finished with her formal education, her father took his large family back to Ireland and, with the help of Maria, who was a very capable and resourceful young woman, he returned the estates to prosperity, improving the estate-house, reclaiming marsh land with the aid his own moveable railroad (one of the very first functioning railways ever built), and returning the arable land to appropriate usage. Besides being an ingenious inventor, Richard Edgeworth was also a very liberally minded man who, for the era in which he lived, went to great lengths to improve the lives of his tenants, improving their homes and supporting the education of their children. Richard Edgeworth was also an avid supporter of religious freedom, gaining a great deal of loyalty from his various catholic tenants who were still suffering under the yolk of English prosecution. And though it was still be over a hundred years until Ireland gained its independence from England, Edgeworth took an active part in the first steps toward the struggle for Irish freedom.
Again, it is unclear the extent to which the political/social message of Maria Edgeworth’s novel was the result of her own work or the result of her father’s support and, some might say, interference in the literary process. Either way, at times The Absentee is sometimes heavy-handed with overt statements about the evils of absenteeism, such as when Lord Colambre, the liberal and inquisitive son of the story, observes upon his visit to the family estates “what I have just seen is the picture only of that to which an Irish estate and Irish tenantry may be degraded in the absence of those whose duty and interest it is to reside in Ireland, to uphold justice by example and authority; but who, neglecting this duty, commit power to bad hands and bad hearts – abandon their tenantry to oppression and their property to ruin.”
This didacticism by no means ruined the novel for me, and when I read Maria Edgeworth I am continually amazed that while Jane Austin is nearly a household name, the name Edgeworth languishes even among highly literate, novel-reading people. It is, in part, the political messaging of Edgeworth’s novels that has subjected them to relative obscurity. Besides the fact that modern readers have, across the board, eschewed any form of overt didacticism in ‘literature,’ they are not generally fond of too much political messaging in the books they read. It is by no means surprising that writers like Austin and the Bronte sisters continue to be so popular while writers like Edgeworth, Gaskell, Martineau, Eliot, and others languish. Even with the contemporary feminist effort to reestablish the work and reputations of women writers, the vast majority of readers continue to gravitate toward writers who are overtly romantic and commercial in the most tedious sense that those words convey. However, though Edgeworth’s novels are not as ‘modern-sounding’ as Austin’s, they are expertly written, intensely interesting, and not without their own Romantic charm.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
During my father’s last year of life we discussed many things. Of course, art and literature were always high on the list of our favorite topics, and we returned again and again to the issues of paintings and books. Roy (my father) was perhaps the most widely read person I ever knew. He read every genre of fiction and non-fiction and relished in every kind of literature. Among Roy’s favourite authors was, not surprisingly, Charles Dickens. I believe that he felt a kinship to Dickens because of that writer’s early experiences of English poverty and his honest portrayal of working-class characters. Roy was particularly fond of David Copperfield because he identified with the autobiographical story in which Copperfield was gradually raised out of poverty to relative comfort but never lost his sense of identity and his connection to ‘regular’ people.
The one Dickens novel that Roy could never seem to get on with was Pickwick Papers. This was Dickens first novel and though it is still masterful in many ways, it certainly lacks some of the polish of his most renowned works. Many modern readers don’t realize that Dickens’ major novels, from Pickwick Papers onward, appeared first in the form of serials, chapters being regularly published in a magazine. The serial form of the novel has advantages and disadvantages for the author. On the one hand, the author of a serial novel is able to adapt his or her story and characters as s/he goes according to feedback received from readers. On the other hand, the author is unable to go back to an earlier chapter and change events or characters in order to create a better story. Thus for most serial authors in the 18th and 19th centuries, planning was essential, one had to have the basic story worked out ahead of time so that there was no chance of writing yourself into a corner, so to speak. It is fairly clear when you read Pickwick Papers and compare it to one of Dickens’ later and more effective novels, he didn’t work out a complex storyline in advance. Instead, Pickwick Papers reads a bit like Don Quixote, a series of events connected by character but not by a plot per se. And Pickwick Papers also lacks the kind of unifying theme and remarkable humor that a great novel like Don Quixote has. However, the prose of Dickens’ first novel cannot, generally speaking, be faulted. Even in his twenties, Dickens had already perfected his skills as a constructor of effective syntax and flowing prose. And one can, in Pickwick Papers, already observe the skill of characterization that would become the hallmark of Dickens novels. However, in terms of plot and depth of character interest, Pickwick Papers is a youthful work when we compare it to Dickens’ later novels. I am sure like many artists, in his later years Dickens probably looked back on his early work and was struck by how many things he could have done differently and more effectively.
But despite these kinds of criticisms (and they are by no means controversial), Pickwick Papers is still an enjoyable read, and even though it was Dickens’ first major work, it still stands above many of his contemporaries in its light-hearted, humorous style and endearing humanity of its characterizations. If you take a list of Dickens contemporaries who are still widely read and well-known like Austin, Gaskell, Eliot, Ainsworth, the Bronte sisters, Thackeray, etc, Dickens stands out as unique because of his cast of colorful characters and the humorous ways in which they seem to come alive.
Before Roy passed away we spoke of Pickwick Papers while I was reading to him from David Copperfield. He regretted never having read Dickens’ first novel and I idly promised him that I would read it at some point. Having now fulfilled that promise, I think I know why Roy was never able to get through Pickwick Papers. I believe now that it was the rather stuffy, formal, slightly righteous attitude of the primary character that put Roy off. Many of Dickens’ title characters or primary characters, from Nicholas Nickleby to Barnaby Rudge to Pip in Great Expectations, are working-class or, at the very least, flawed and human in their nature. Samuel Pickwick, on the other hand is a wealthy and rather stuffy character who also lacks the dynamic narrative nature of most of Dickens’ other main characters. Pickwick is more of a caricature than a character and it was, I think, this aspect of the novel that prevented my father from reading and enjoying the novel.
But to be honest, my dad had something of a chip on his shoulder about being working-class and he despised the middle and upper-classes of British society. Though I understand my father’s feelings in this regard, I was not raised in England and was not forced to endure derision from people who thought that they were, simply by luck of birth, superior to me. Due to my own politics and experience, I still find many of the sensibilities of the English middle and upper-classes nauseating and offensive, but it was never a personal thing for me like it was for my dad. So I think I know where Roy was coming from when he failed to enjoy Pickwick Papers, but I could look past Samuel Pickwick’s formality in a way that he probably couldn’t.
Because it was his first novel, Pickwick Papers will always enjoy a unique status in the Dickens oeuvre. And it is obviously an important 19th century work of English literature. More importantly, the flaws of the novel only really come to light when you compare it to Dickens’ later novels. Regardless of the literary issues (or in my father’s case personal issues) I encourage people to take some time to read it, for it still offers hours of enjoyment.
Saturday, June 29, 2013
After my reading of Sidney Colvin’s book on Keats, I took up Amy Lowell’s book and read it with great interest and pleasure. And despite the fact that it is over eleven-hundred pages in two volumes, it seldom flagged and was always interesting. Amy Lowell was, of course, a poet in her own right and was a cousin of the poet James Russell Lowell. The wealth of the Lowell family gave Amy exceptional opportunities in research because she was able to purchase a great deal of Keats material that other researchers would have had a difficult time obtaining. However, her efforts in compiling the Keats story were not all successful. Unfortunately, a great deal of Keats material, including a number of important letters, were in the hands of the great American photographer Fred Holland Day and, for reasons that remains obscure to me, he would not share all of these materials with Lowell.
However, despite any challenges that Amy Lowell may have faced in her bibliographic work, her massive two-volume book on Keats is still a magnificent monument of work and, arguably, her greatest legacy.
The story of the life of Keats is a strange and terribly sad one. Despite the numerous close and loyal friendships that John Keats enjoyed during his tragically short life, I always think of him as a loner. I am not certain what has given me this impression, but if I ever imagine a lonely Romantic poet ruminating on the beauty of the world (a beauty that is miraculously found despite the pain all around us), while standing in a sunny spot of greenery or meandering with a mazy motion along a river’s quiet path, it is Keats who appears in my mind’s eye. I suppose it is the nature of his poetry that fosters this notion for me. Or perhaps, and conceptually much more likely, it is what I bring to his particular style that paints this picture in my head. Either way, the moments in his poetry that usually stand out during my reading are those that speak to my sense of loneliness.
The thing that gave me a particularly poignant moment of reflection on the issue of loneliness was something that Lowell quotes from Keats’ early poem written to his bother George. The lines are these –
At times, ‘tis true, I’ve felt relief from pain
When some bright thought has darted through my brain:
Through all that day I’ve felt a greater pleasure
Than if I’d brought to light a hidden treasure.
As to my sonnets, though none else should heed them,
I feel delighted, still, that you should read them.
Most critics would probably say that these are by no means among Keats’ best lines of poetry. They are, indeed, very sentimental and, for the tastes of many, somewhat simplistic (what Blackwood’s Magazine would have probably said that these lines were too much in the Cockney school of poetry). But regardless of the poetic “quality” of the quote, there is, it seems to be, something deeply lonely about these lines. Keats tells us that “at times” he has felt relief from pain; as though these are only happy moments snatched from an otherwise difficult and lonely life. And he cherishes these moments, as he tells us, like they are hidden treasures. Then, giving us another picture of a lonely artist working in isolation, he tells us that no one heeds his sonnets; but he is glad to at least have his brother with whom to share his work.
I think this passage is particularly poignant to me because of the close working relationship I had with my father. My dad and I practiced art together for nearly thirty-five years and through many years of my doing my artwork he was the only one who really understood what I was doing and what it meant to me. So I really know what Keats means when he writes about the delight that he experiences in the knowledge that he can share his Sonnets with George. But, of course, now that I have lost my father I feel a pang of loneliness where Keats felt a moment of delight. (Later, he would know this loneliness again when George Keats moved to America) But I also appreciate those times that are like a “relief from pain” when I have a moment of appreciative memorial affection for my dad with whom I was able to share so many years of remarkable closeness. Unfortunately these moments are all too brief because they are overwhelmed by the darker melancholy that comes with the realization that I can never regain the delight of sharing my work with my father.
Anyway, putting aside those rather maudlin thoughts, let’s return to my overly Byronic vision of John Keats. The Byronic Hero is a lonely, melancholic individual who is cynical, dark, and isolated from his or her fellow humans. But, despite the image that always seems to rise in my mind, Keats was not really Byronic in this sense at all. On the contrary, Keats was widely known to be affable, warm-hearted, and decidedly un-cynical. But, perhaps more importantly, Keats had many genuine friends. Amy Lowell tells us this – “Taken as a whole, Keats’s life was painful. The bereavements of his earlier, and the griefs of his later, life must have made it so. But we should never forget that in these few years of his growing poetic talent he was supremely happy, as happy as his passionate temperament allowed him to be.”(Lowell Vol.1 – 49) Keats, then, was not a gloomy, Byronic Hero, but a happy, and passionate visionary whose poetry grew out of something other than a brooding spirit. Lowell goes on to tell us another important thing about Keats, and that is that “he had a genius for friendship.” (ibid.) And this is important, because thought Keats may have lonely, he was not a loner. People were attracted to Keats because he had a “saving and joyous sense of humour, and a fund of animal spirits.” (ibid) Despite my own impressions, Keats was a social man who enjoyed the company of others.
But, of course, given the historical impressions of Romanticism and Modernism, this vision of broodiness is a simple mistake to make because it is easy, I think, as an artist (particularly a Romantic one) to fall into a spiral of self-absorption. This tendency is not necessarily a result of selfishness but can be simply the result of intense self-exploration. Those familiar with literary history will recall the remarkable essays of Michel de Montaigne. This 16th century French writer and statesman practically invented the modern notion of the occasional essay. Though few of his contemporaries understood the importance of what Montaigne was doing we know in retrospect that he was helping to create a modern notion of art. Montaigne famously claimed that “I am the subject of my book,” and it was precisely this notion of self-exploration in art that made him so modern. In an idea that was quite ahead of its time, Montaigne thought that he could use his inner-life and his own experience as a primary way of understanding the human condition. This idea became, of course, a central motivation for the so-called Romantic authors who, in the absence of a more traditional religious framework, turned their artistic eyes inward to the most human landscape they could know – their own.
On the other hand, one may well argue that one of the primary motives of all of poetry is the fear of being alone. Think of Odysseus’ powerful thirst to return to Ithica, or Rama’s search to bring home his beloved Sita. Despite our image of the lone Romantic Poets, it seems clear that much of our poetic spirit is motivated by a fear of loneliness. Such an idea reminds me of the Ubi Sunt passage of the Anglo Saxon poem “The Wanderer.”
Often (or always) I had alone
to speak of my trouble
each morning before dawn.
There is none now living
to whom I dare
of my innermost thoughts.
Or perhaps the passage from Coleridge’s Fourth Part of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner –
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
Now, bringing this back to Keats, one gets the impression upon reading his life story that while he used his inner life as a source of philosophy and poetry, he also dreaded the loneliness that is, perhaps, integral to the life of the artist. But as you read the events of his life you realize that, though we are all in sense alone, Keats was blessed with great friendships. We need only think of the painter Joseph Severn, the young painter who agreed to accompany the dying poet to Italy in his final days in the vain hope that the change of climate would stem the disease. Severn has sometimes been criticized for having a clear idea of how sick Keats really was and for going with him to Italy for his own selfish reasons of furthering his own career in painting. But when you read his journal of the final weeks of Keats’ life you realize the sacrifices he made and the lengths to which he went to comfort and care for his dying friend.
The slow decline and death of young Keats through the body-ravishing disease of tuberculosis is a very difficult thing to read about. Anyone who has nursed a dying loved-one has a sense of how devastating and debilitating this process can be on both the ailing and the one who nurses him. It was not that long ago that I was called upon to fulfill this role of nursemaid to my father and it pained me beyond anything I can ever describe to have to see him slowly slip from this life. But as I read of Keats’ final months I was deeply impressed by the devotion of those who cared for him. He was obviously a man who inspired great love and loyalty from those who came to know him. Keats was, by most people’s standards, a very great poet and his work stands as a great legacy of a man who died before the age of twenty-five. But Keats was certainly no lonely, Byronic hero. He was a passionate, loving, humorous man who inspired great respect and a tender sense of affection from those who knew him.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
After my reading of Sidney Colvin’s book on Keats, I took up Amy Lowell’s book and have begun to read it. Amy Lowell was, of course, a poet in her own right and was a cousin of the poet James Russell Lowell. The wealth of the Lowell family gave Amy exceptional opportunities in research because she was able to purchase a great deal of Keats material that other researchers would have had a difficult time obtaining. However, her efforts in compiling the Keats story were not all successful. Unfortunately, a great deal of Keats material, including a number of important letters, were in the hands of the great American photographer Fred Holland Day and, for reasons that remains obscure to me, he would not share all of these materials with Lowell.
However, despite any challenges that Amy Lowell may have faced in her bibliographic work, her massive two-volume book on Keats is still a magnificent monument of work and, arguably, her greatest legacy.
Having said that, I should also say that one of the things that Amy Lowell’s book does is raise that thorny question (the one that has always bothered me and surely bothers any self-conscious artist), the question of quality. I began, from an early age, as a visual artist, keeping a daily sketchbook and drawing regularly from life. I attended by first life-drawing class when I was thirteen. When one first starts out on the journey of visual art one is primarily concerned with achieving the technical competence to simply draw a ‘realistic’ image. In our modern time, this realistic competence, once achieved becomes quickly tedious for many artists as the notion of art has increasingly involved conceptual issues. But as one expands the horizons of one’s aesthetic interests, the question of quality becomes ever more problematic. This philosophical problem become profoundly complex (and often seemingly intractable) when one takes an interest in other arts. And arguably no other art form is more problematical in terms of quality than that of poetry.
I began reading poetry at a fairly early age because both my parents had an interest in the art form. My father was born and raised only a few yards from Bunhill Fields where William Blake was buried and his father was a profound admirer of the radical poet. My mother was raised in the fifties in the US and took an early interest in the Beat poets. My interest in poetry expanded significantly in high-school when I took a specialty English class that was geared specifically to the production of a small literary journal once a semester. However, the more I learned about poetry, the more I found the whole problem of quality problematic. I thought about it and thought about it until it nearly drove me mad (like the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and even as I aged and became more knowledgeable about the subject I could never really clear my mind. Graduate school certainly didn’t help. If anything, it just made it more complicated. I gradually came to the conclusion that poetry (like all arts) was the ability to say that which otherwise couldn’t be said, and the art of criticism was even more vague and problematic.
Now, getting back to the biography of Keats by Amy Lowell. Unlike me, Lowell has not difficulty at all throwing her aesthetic judgments around like chuck-farthings. But even though she is not at all shy about her aesthetic judgments, I don’t believe that she is any closer to a defensible answer about what is good and what is not in the art of poetry than I have ever been. In fact, she is spectacularly sloppy and hopelessly subjective in her ability as a critic.
Throughout her biography, Lowell continually chides Keats for his poetic failures. (A rather bold endeavor no doubt!) However, Lowell’s criticisms are vague and take as their starting point some unstated and abstract standard of poetic diction to which only she seems to be privy. Lowell makes a distinction between youthful verse and authentic poetry, but her distinction is never made clear, it just sort of hang in the air like some inalienable assumption. “Poor Keats!” Lowell has the gall to observe. “Poetry is not written at a table sitting opposite another man who is cramming for an examination. The best that can be done under such circumstances is verse, and there is an abundance of mere verse in the Third Book [of Endymion].” (1:402) It would be nice if Ms. Lowell would demonstrate somewhere what constitutes the difference between authentic poetry and “mere verse,” and I would love for her to make it clear why poetry cannot be written while sitting at a table while someone sits on the other side cramming for an examination.
At one point Ms. Lowell makes things a little more clear for us when she criticizes one of Keats’ sonnets (Leaving some Friends at an Early Hour). Lowell tells us that the sonnet is “so strained and jejune, so overladen [sic] with weak ornament, so smothered beneath clap-trap prettiness, that I should unhesitatingly place it as written in the Spring, at the time when Keats first met Hunt.” (1:212) I am not sure what constitutes a strained and jejune poem but I would certainly like to know. Lowell highlights one line for her particularly powerful distain. That line reads “For what a height my spirit is contending!” Lowell seems to be significantly offended by this line that tells us that “this boarding-school-miss kind of nonsense is not to be tolerated.” (ibid.)And then she laments that “it is a pity that some one was not there to say ‘My dear fellow, tear that stuff up at once. It is rubbish.” (Ibid.) Wow, I suppose that Ms. Lowell regrets that she had not been the one to sit at Keats’ shoulder and tell him which lines were good and which were mere rubbish. The result, if we are to follow Lowell, is that Keats would have been a significantly better poet than he turned out to be. With this brilliant, encyclopedic knowledge of quality in the fine art of poetry, one can’t help but wonder why Keats is continues to be nearly a household name while Lowell’s books are unread and out of print.
Now, given the criticism that Lowell levels at this sonnet (and this line in particular), one might consider a few lines of her poetry.
When you, my Dear, are away, away,
How wearily goes the creeping day.
A year drags after morning, and night
Starts another year of candle light.
O Pausing Sun and Lingering Moon!
O Pausing Sun and Lingering Moon!
Grant me, I beg you, this boon.
Are we to believe that this is genuine poetry or “mere verse?” I am not sure. But either way, it seems to me that if any lines of poetry bring to mind verses which can be said to be “boarding-school-miss kind of nonsense,” it is surely these. To use more of Lowell’s language, I would think that many poetry lovers would consider the lines sappy and overly sentimental. And from a purely technical point of view it looks as though she has added the second “away” on the first line purely to ensure the consistency of the meter.
But perhaps this is an unfair criticism of Ms. Lowell. Certainly if one hesitates to construct a theory of quality in art, and is cognizant of the degree to which the ever fickle and changing question of fads and fashions go into the value given to authors and artist, then one surely must assume to a certain degree that Lowell’s works are not given the attention which, say, those of Keats are precisely because they have not captured that misty and ephemeral attention of a powerful reading public. However, this question leads us to a digression that is probably not appropriate at this moment.
Suffice to say that one of the great problems of holding to a fixed and notion of quality in art is that your own work might (and probably will) be subjected to the very standard which you advocate. And the result may be less appealing than you might hope.
Amy Lowell, a woman that was well known for her frankness, is not atypical in her readiness to pontificate on aesthetic questions. Writers and literary theorists have always been eager to give their opinions on the work of others. However, for many years now (since the emergence of what people commonly call the ‘post-modern’ age) people have found it more and more problematic to simply make sweeping aesthetic judgments which are very often rationally unsupportable and based upon some vague, usually unstated, assumptions that more often than not are based upon an inherent elitism or hidden political agenda.
However, even though Lowell’s book is now over eight-five years old, I still find it shocking the casual ways in which she throws out unsubstantiated aesthetic judgments on a poet of the fame of Keats.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
An interesting footnote in the life of John Keats occurred when he arrived in Italy on his forced, health-motivated, exile. Keats was dying from Consumption and in the fall of 1820, accompanied by his friend and painter Joseph Severn, he departed England on a ship called the “Maria Crowther” on the way to Naples. ‘Maria Crowther’ was by no means a luxurious passenger vessel, but was a merchant brigantine with a small number of berths for travelers. After an exhausting thirty-four day journey, they arrived in Naples and were immediately put into quarantine. Such quarantine was standard practice at the time and though the ten days of isolation on the ship, with the tantalizing view of the Italian coast so close at hand, would be hot and difficult, it was not unexpected.
When the ship weighed anchor in the Naples Harbor a British Navy lieutenant and six seamen from an English Man-o-war rowed over to the ‘Maria Crowther’ to inquire after the ship’s statue. However, for reasons that seem to be a mystery, the junior officer and his small group of seamen made the mistake of boarding the ship, making them subject to the rule of quarantine, and so they were stuck on the ship for the ten days. Because some naval captains were meticulous about details, it might, with some intense research, be possible to actually find out who these seven soldiers were but as far as I know now they are simply seven anonymous men who lived out their humble lives and probably all passed away well over a hundred years ago.
But the story of these men having to unexpectedly spend ten days about a merchant vessel strikes me as a compelling story. I can’t help wonder if the lieutenant got in trouble for his error. Did he spend those ten days brooding and fretting about his mistake? If he did, it seems so strange to think that all this worrying, along with the young man’s life has now vanished into the universal ether. I wonder if any of these seamen talked to Keats or one of the other three or four passengers. What would they have made of Keats and Severn, two middle-class artists in a foreign land?
Of course, we will never know the answers to these questions because they are lost in time. But they are certainly the kind of facts that fire the imagination. It is the kind of by-road of literary history that strikes me as fertile ground of human fancy.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
I have just read Sidney Colvin’s biography of John Keats and it was a highly interesting book with much to recommend it. Colvin himself was an interesting character that is remembered in part because of his close friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson. (He was also a close friend of E.V. Lucas who is one of my favorite writers). I have had this book for a number of years but never got around to reading it, and I am glad that I finally did because, as sad as the Keats story is, it is worth returning to often because it reminds us of how cruel the world can be to even the most talented among us (in fact, I should say particularly to the most talented among us).
I find it interesting to read older biographies of 19th century writers, in part because I love the aura of old books, but also because the writers of such books were often close enough to their subjects in time that they were able to speak to people who actually personally knew the authors about which they were writing. Thus, even though Colvin’s book was originally published in 1887, he was able to talk to at least two people who had personal recall of John Keats who had died more than sixty years previous. Of course, there is a down side to the older biographies and that is that most of these books were written by people who were educated and lived squarely in the upper-class (or at least upper-middle-class) of the establishment. The works of many of the 19th century writers were replete with radical aesthetic and political ideas but men like Colvin would have a great deal of trouble coming to grips with these notions. This is particularly true when we consider the question of Percy Shelley whose radical politics are now widely known. I recently read a remarkable book entitled William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s by Saree Makdisi. This is a pretty new book and it demonstrates the depth of insight that can be brought to bare on the politics of the Romantic poets by a brilliant and sophisticated contemporary thinker.
On the other hand, though I would consider myself a political radical, I am also a Romantic in spirit and thought and I don’t mind a thorough infusion of Romantic ideology in my stories about the great poets and artists of the 19th century.
And, of course, Keats is certainly a fitting subject for Romantic ideology because, whatever it really means to be a representative of “Romanticism” (if that, indeed, means anything), at the very least the life of John Keats seems to fit all or our common stereotypes of such a notion. If nothing else, Keats is interesting because he seems to express a touching multitude of personal traits which make him, if not strictly a “Romantic,” thoroughly human in the very best sense. Above all, I would say that few individuals have possessed such a passion for knowledge as Keats. But, of course, Keats’ search was not the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Rather, like Montaigne’s great experiment, Keats was engaged in an exploration of the human soul. “Then to my human heart I turn at once . .” Keats wrote in his Sonnet Why Did I laugh Tonight, and to his heart he continually turned, as though it would reveal those secrets which our reason must, by its very nature, leave untouched. In other words, Keats was, like so many great poets, a genuine metaphysician; an explorer of the truths of the human heart at its best and at its worst. Melancholy, indolence, passion, joy, love; all these are landmarks on the map of the heart and Keats was an explorer on this landscape.
The most aggravating, and arguably the most interesting, from the historical perspective, part of the Keats story is the rather despicable way he was treated by the critics of his time. The most famous attacks on the young poet came from the Scottish Tory journal Blackwood’s Magazine. William Blackwood had hired two combative young writers, John Wilson and John Lockhart, to undertake most of his gutter journalism and to that end they printed blistering and usually personal attacks on political and cultural figures of their time. Their attacks on Keats were based largely on his membership in the so-called “Cockney” school of poetry associated with the leadership of Leigh Hunt. The nature of these criticisms were based, so the Blackwood’s writers claimed, on the use of ‘common’ and overly familiar language among the ‘Cockney’ poets. The idea was that poets like Hunt, Keats, and others, degraded poetry by failing to engage in properly noble diction and phraseology. However, for what was supposed to be an aesthetic criticism, the attacks from Blackwood’s were usually rabidly personal. Blackwood’s attacks on Keats’ Endymion volume of poetry have become legendary for base and disgusting language. But even when Blackwood’s addressed Keats’ last (Lamia) volume of poetry, when they had significantly softened their view, the nature of the critiques was still shockingly personal. “We should just as soon think of being wroth with vermin,” Blackwood’s wrote, “as we should of having any feeling at all about any of these [the ‘Cockney’ poets] people.” This was pretty heavy derision, particularly considering that Keats’ skill as a poet should have been fairly clear to anyone.
Of course the truth is that what the writers from the Tory Journal Blackwood’s really objected to was not Keats’ familiar language or base, everyday sentiments, but the very idea of working-class or politically radical individuals who had no pretentions to gentility having the gall to pursuing a poetic career in the first place. To borrow a concept from George Orwell, the objections to Keats’ poetry were really political ones which were then given an aesthetic disguise. We should recall that by the time Keats’ Lamia volume was published, Blackwood’s had already largely accepted the elevated stature of Wordsworth, whose entire poetic project had been based upon the use of everyday language to express poetic ideas. Furthermore, William Cowper, who was widely revered, had published some his very best work thirty years previously and one of the great charms of Cowper’s work is its remarkable familiarity of language. (Let’s not forget that Cowper’s greatest work The Task had been inspired by something as prosaic as a sofa). Another irony of the various attacks that Keats was forced to suffer was that, in aesthetic terms, he was arguably the most conservative poet of his era. Regardless of any beauty to be found in Keats’ poetry, he was, compared with his famous peers like Byron and Shelley, formal and old-fashioned in his approach, as his use of the so-called ‘heroic-couplet’ and Spenserian stanzas demonstrates. In fact in formal terms Keats is arguably closer to Thomas Campbell, or even Samuel Rogers who is now little know but was a sort of poetic grandfather of the Romantic era, than he was to many of his peers.
Of course, discussion of the subtleties of Keats’ diction compared with other 19th century poets has become an increasingly difficult project for modern readers. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries many people were deeply steeped in poetic language and they were as familiar with many passages of poetry as we today might be with, say, dialogue from a popular situation-comedy or block-buster movie. If, therefore, we read discussions in a 19th century book such as Colvin’s about what stands out in Keats’ poetry they can seem overly particular and even unrealistic because the language used by various poets is already unfamiliar to us. For example, Colvin tells us that “Keats in Endymion [his most famous and ambitious poem] has not reached nor come near reaching . . . mastery” over effective rhyming. And to bolster this claim Colvin quotes form the opening of the Third Book of "Endymion."
There are who lord it o’re their fellow men
With most prevailing tinsel; who unpen
Their baaing vanities, to browse away
The comfortable green and juicy hay
From human pastures; or, O torturing fact!
Who, through an idiot blink, will see unpack’d
Fire-branded foxes to sear up and singe
Our gold and ripe-ear’d hopes. With not one tinge
Of sanctuary splendour, not a sight
Able to face an owl’s, they still are dight
By the blear-ey’d nations in empurled vests,
And crowns and turbans.
Now, with all due respect to Sidney Colvin, this passage strikes me as artful and certainly not out of place with other poets who, during the era, garnered a great deal of respect. Granted, a number of the words (such as ‘unpen’ and ‘dight’ are a little out of the ordinary) but it is still and expertly executed passage. Compare it with, for example, a passage from Alexander Pope’s Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady. Now remember, during Keats’ time Pope’s memory was held in something like a divine status by many.
What beck’ning ghost, along the moon-light shade
Invites my steps, and points to yonder glade?
‘Tis she! – but why that bleeding bosom gor’d,
Why dimly gleams the visionary sword?
Oh ever beauteous, ever friendly! Tell,
Is it, in heav’n, a crime to love too well.
To bear too tender, or too firm a heart,
To act a lover’s or a Roman’s part?
Now, I think for most readers today the Keats passage would seem not only more interesting but considerably more skillful given its obvious complexity. By comparison, the Pope passage seems trite and even simplistic. Of course, this is only one possible comparison among countless ones that one could choose, and perhaps it is an unfair one to make. However, as someone who has read a great deal of 18th and 19th century poetry, I find the critiques of Keats by his contemporaries (and even those by Colvin) difficult to fathom. To be honest, I cannot say for certain that my confusion is not, at least in part, a result of living in a very different era with very different standards of wording and diction. However, I suspect that I have read enough to fairly believe that the expertise and art of poets like Shelley and Keats was simply overlooked by many of their contemporaries because of class and political issues.
But if there is any doubt that even a very sympathetic critic like Sidney Colvin was still, in part, infected by the same kind of class virus that ran through the veins of the writers at Blackwood’s Magazine, let’s look at one of the more painful moments of his criticism of the poet. About half way through his lengthy book on Keats, a book that is as close to a panegyric as such a text can be and still hold the reader’s interest, Colvin criticizes Keats’ great poem Endymion this way –
“Other faults that more gravely mar the poem are not technical but spiritual: intimate failures of taste and feeling due partly to mere rawness and inexperience, partly to excessive intensity and susceptibility of temperament, partly to second-rateness [sic] of social training and association.” It is difficult not to interpret these words of Colvin’s as implying that Keats’ poem is marred by the fact that he was not sufficiently imbued with middle or upper-class values and connections. What else could “second-rateness of social training and association mean” in this context?
So it goes. Both Keats and Colvin lived in a particularly class-ridden society and though we are not subject to the same degree of pressure and judgment as they were, ours is far from a classless society. And I don’t think it is a controversial claim to say that if one looked at a wide selection of contemporary art and literary criticism one would find a small but notable fraction of criticisms that are little more than thinly veiled class-based critiques.
Anyway, despite the drawbacks in the book, Colvin’s Keats is an interesting and worthwhile read. What it does best is remind the reader that as a person Keats, like so many artists that one comes to admire, was a broad expression of all that it means to be human. He was both strong and weak, a pugilist and a lover of beauty, and a seeker of knowledge about the human condition.