Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog

Thursday, June 1, 2017


The index now features hypertext connections. Simply click on any title below to read it.

Though this listing serves, I think, a clear purpose, not every posting falls easily into the categories. One essay might equally be placed under literary theory or medieval texts while another might fit under memoir, politics, or travel. Translations with comment might be either criticism or translation. Poke around a bit.

The categories are:

1. speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays

2. literary theory

3. Greek texts (and a couple of Latin)

4. medieval texts

5. other criticism
A. 16th-19th century
B. 20th century to the present
C. Asian texts
D. songs
E. Notes on Recent Reading
F. Rereading the Classics
G. Every Reader's Poets

6. translation

7. poetry

8. politics

9. memoirs

10. travel

1. Speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays
Agnostic Credo and Vita (October 2015)
Axiology and Subjectivity (October 2014)
Annual Report (August 2014)
Beards (December 2013)
Biking (November 2009)
Biking as a Spiritual Discipline (April 2017)
Cell Phones (June 2017)
Cookbooks (April 2014)
Dead Reckoning (February 2011)
Deer (December 2012)
Documents of the first Surreal Cabaret (March 2012)
Documents of the second Surreal Cabaret (June 2012)
Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret (October 2013)
Documents of the fourth Surreal Cabaret (July 2014)
Documents of the fifth Surreal Cabaret (February 2015)
Drugs and Religion (June 2016)
Dust: a meditative riff (November 2009)
Food for the Gods (December 2011)
Hippie (April 2011)
Immortality (July 2012)
Iowa Communards (December 2011)
A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities (May 2011)
The Mannerly Hedonist (February 2013)
Notes and Inserts (June 2016)
Polka (November 2012)
On Pronunciation and Pedantry (September 2015)
In Praise of Bias (November 2014)
Still Biking (November 2012)
A Structural View of Certain Oracles (August 2015)
Supermarkets (October 2010)
Taking Off (November 2009)
Worn Tools (June 2013)

2. Literary theory
Afloat on the Ocean of Words (April 2016)
Allusion (March 2015)
Art and the Marketplace (April 2010)
The Familiar Note in Poetry (January 2017)
The Formation of a Christian Rhetoric (April 2011)
How and Why to Signify (July 2011)
Idea of Comedy (January 2012)
The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (May 2010)
Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde (March 2010)
Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (August 2010)
On the Proper Ends of Literary Study [James Seaton] (July 2014)
Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature (October 2010)
The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature (June 2016)
Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World (December 2009)
Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man (December 2015)
The Question of Literary Value (August 2014)
Riddles and Poetry (March 2015)
The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature (April 2010)
Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde (October 2013)
Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (September 2016)
Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry (November 2009)
Thoughts on Mythology (March 2013)
Transformation of Convention (August 2013)
What is Poetry? (February 2012)
Winged Words: Notes on the Oral Performance of Poetry (May 2010)

3. Greek texts (and two Latin)
Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn (August 2010)
The Birth of Erato: Lyric, Vision, and the Spread of Writing (January 2010)
Dionysos and the Pirates (February 2012)
Ekphrasis in Apollonius: Jason's Cloak (May 2017)
Gorgias (February 2010)
Hermes and the Art of Poetry (March 2013)
Longinus' Sublime (May 2012)
Notes on Pan (June 2014)
Oedipus and the Meaning of Polysemy (July 2011)
Poetry's Long Memory [Horace] (July 2016)
Professors Kick the Willy Bobo [on Athenaeus] (December 2009)
The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus (February 2011)
The Role of Wine in Nonnus' Dionysiaca (February 2016)
Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece (December 2009)
Seneca the Elder (March 2010)
A Skeptic's Faith [Sextus Empiricus] (January 2015)
Two Passages from Marcus Aurelius (June 2011)
The Web of Myth in the Hymn to Heracles (June 2012)

4. Medieval texts
The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love (July 2012)
The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric (December 2012)
Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience (February 2013)
Bernart and the Music of Ideas (September 2016)
The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph (January 2011)
Chaucer’s Version of the Golden Age (June 2011)
A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance (September 2011)
Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose (August 2012)
Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics (August 2011)
The Early English Carol (June 2010)
Geoffrey of Vinsauf (April 2010)
Figures of Love in Lydgate's Temple of Glas (January 2014)
Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century Lyrics (February 2011)
Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf (January 2011)
An Introduction to the Troubadours (January 2010)
Mechthild von Magdeburg (July 2010)
A New Look at Jaufré: Amor de Lonh as Criticism (December 2010)
Odin and Poetry (December 2015)
Openings in the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
The Pearl-Poet’s Use of Link-Rhymes (November 2011)
Phonetics and Semantics in the Last Line of Beowulf (March 2011)
Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon (October 2011)
The Prima Etade of Literary Ambition [Petrarch] (March 2011
Transformation of Convention in Early Minnesang (April 2011)
Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood (October 2014)
William IX (September 2010)
Who is Piers Ploughman? (June 2013)

5. Other criticism

A. 16th-19th century
Ambivalence in Thomson's The Castle of Indolence (March 2012)
Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics (November 2013)
A Decadent's Dilemmas [Dowson] (March 2015)
Does Crabbe Look Forward or Back? (February 2016)
Dolce's Aretino (September 2015)
The Double Plot of Salem Chapel (December 2016)
Gascoigne's "Notes of Instruction" (September 2013)
Godwin's Theatre of Calamity (September 2015)
Herrick the Divine (August 2014)
Keats' "Thing of Beauty" (November 2016)
Marius the Epicurean as a Modern (April 2015)
Moby Dick and the Density of the Aesthetic Text (January 2016)
"Monk" Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste (July 2015)
A Note on Dryden and "Dramatick Poesy" (September 2012)
A Note on Radcliffe's The Italian (October 2012)
Pierce Penniless (May 2013)
The Play of Convention in Shakespeare's Sonnet 153 (April 2017)
The Problem with Swinburne (June 2015)
Rimbaud's Use of Montage (October 2016)
Shelley”s “Ode to the West Wind” as Structuralist Charm (May 2011)
Sir Thomas North's The Moral Philosophy of Doni (September 2013)
The Skeptico-Semiotico-Mystic: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (June 2015)

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (February 2015)
A Structural View of Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (June 2017)
The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought (October 2010)
Thematic Continuity and Development in the Poetry of Christopher Smart: the Jubilate Agno and the Minor Poems (November 2010)
Travelers [Marco Polo, Twain, Robert Byron](April 2012)
Trollope's Appeal (December 2012)
Two Notes on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (July 2014)
The Use of Nostalgia in Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (August 2015)

B. 20th century to the present
Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts (June 2013)
Apologia for a Fondness for Pound (November 2012)
Are Uncle Tom's Children Bound by History? (April 2014)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 2017)
Comics (February 2010)
Conrad's Shadow-Line (June 2014)
The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes (January 2010)
Dada in America (April 2012)
Eisenstein's Strike and the Problem of Realism (April 2013)
Epiphanies in Dubliners (May 2016)
False Translations (August 2016)
The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art (April 2015)
A Few Films (November 2016)
A Few Proletarian Writers (March 2012)
Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels (November 2011)
Flyin’ with the Muses: Kirpal Gordon’s Eros in Sanskrit (May 2011)
Hell's House (November 2013)
Kerouac’s Weakness and Strength (January 2011)
Kurt Seligmann's Moderate Surrealism (November 2016)
Kurt Seligmann's Riddlesome Symbols (March 2017)
The Last Poets (March 2016)
The Legacy of the Beats (March 2014)
The Lyricism of the Ugly: Celine's Mort à Crédit (December 2014)
The Man with the Golden Arm and a Friend with Six Seeds (January 2014)
Onitsha Market Literature (February 2015)
Pig and Possum Teach Poetry (May 2014)
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (September 2011)
The Power of Picasso's Sculpture (November 2015)
Saki's Novels (April 2015)
Sartre's "Black Orpheus (February 2017)
Some Poetry Reviews (December 2012)
Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell's Facade (July 2013)
Two Graffiti (May 2011)
A Very Funny Fellow [Lev] (May 2012)

C. Asian texts
Friendship and Romance in Ming Stories (February 2014)
Han Shan (December 2010)
Journey to the North (December 2013)
Liezi (October 2012)
Lu Xun (October 2010)
Monkey Rides Again (January 2013)
Notes on Liu Xie (August 2011)
Tang Stories (April 2016)
Theme and Tone In Kokoro (September 2016)
A Tibetan Novel (March 2017)
The Trials of Lady Ochikubo (April 2014)

D. songs
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches (May 2017)
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs (July 2015)
"Lady Maisry" (November 2013)
"Moon Goin' Down" [Charley Patton] (May 2013)
The Paraklausithyron Blues (May 2016)
"The Red Rooster" [Willie Dixon] (March 2014)
Robert Johnson and the Devil (September 2012)
Skip James' Blues Imagery (May 2015)
“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning (December 2012)
"The Three Ravens" (August 2013)
Trinidadian Smut (April 2016)
Truckin' (November 2014)
“Walkin’ Blues” [Son House] (December 2011)

E. Notes on Recent Reading
Notes on Recent Reading [Melville, Greene, and Whalen] (September 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 2 [Crane, The Crowning of Louis, Thornlyre] (October 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lynn’s Tao-te-ching] (November 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 4 [Sarah Scott, de La Fayette, Wharton] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 5 [The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 6 [Jewett, Addison, Crabbe] (February 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 7 [Nabokov, Austen, Grettis Saga] (April 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 8 [Bakhtin, Lewis, Brown] (May 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 9 [Plutarch, Tacitus, Williams](June 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden](July 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert] (August 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen](September 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi] (November 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 14 [Algren, Hauptmann, Rolle] (January 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 15 [Hemingway, Orwell, Gaskell]{February 2013}
Notes on Recent Reading 16 [Howells, Ford, Mann] (April 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 17 [McCarthy, Chang, Snorri](July 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus](October 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 19 [Powers, Zhang Ji, Vietnamese folk song] (February 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 20 [Rowe, Stevenson, Issa] (May 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 21 [Fussell, Mahfouz, Watts] (August 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura] (October 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane] (January 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 24 [Fielding; Izumo , Shōraku, and Senryū; Plath] (June 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 25 [Baskervill, Gissing, Capote] (July 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 26 [Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau] (November 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 27 [Forster, Sackville-West, Capote] (January 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 28 [Verne, Waley, Hurston] (March 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 29 [Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam] (October 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 30 [Bradford, Scott, Marquand] (April 2017)

F. Rereading the Classics
Rereading the Classics [Burton] (November 2011)
Rereading the Classics [Gogol] (August 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith] (December 2016)
Rereading the Classics [Kleist] (February 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Montaigne] (December 2013)
Rereading the Classics [Rabelais] (December 2011)

G. Every Reader's Poets
Every Reader's Blake (May 2017)
Every Reader's Herrick (December 2015)
Every Reader's Hopkins (May 2016)
Every Reader's Milton (January 2017)
Every Reader's Pope (May 2015)
Every Reader's Shelley (November 2014)
Every Reader's Skelton (March 2016)
Every Reader's Wyatt (December 2014)
Every Reader's Yeats (January 2015)

6. Translation
Alkaios' Happy Hour (January 2017)
Becher's "Someone Stands Up" (October 2012)
Christian and Dedicatory Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (March 2010)
Emmy Hennings (February 2010)
Emmy Hennings Poems (More from Die Letzte Freude) (November 2010)
Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck (January 2010)
Four Quatrains by Wang Wei (January 2013)
Hans Arp (April 2010)
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos (February 2012)
Horace I.21 (July 2016)
Hugo Ball (July 2010)
Hymn to Aphrodite (August 2010)
Hymn to Heracles the Lion-Hearted (June 2012)
Hymn to the Night [Novalis](March 2012)
Hymn to the Night II [Novalis] (July 2012)
Hymn to Pan (May 2014)
Leonidas of Tarentum (May 2010)
A Mixed Bag of German Translations (August 2014)
Rimbaud's "The Lice-Pickers" (March 2014)
Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas (February 2017)
Some Anonymous Middle High German Lyrics (August 2011)
Three Horatian Odes (November 2012)
Translations of William IX (September 2010)
Wordsworth Speaks German (July 2011)
Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei (June 2011)

7. Poetry
African poems (August 2010)
Domestic Incidents from the Life of the Lama Swine Toil (June 2017)
How to Be a Poet (June 2010)
The Liturgies of the Lama Swine Toil (September 2012)
Mexican poems (September 2010)
Poems from New Mexico (July 2010)
Poems from Turkey (June 2010)
Produce poems (May 2010)
The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily (August 2012)
Some Sonnets (April 2010)
Three Poems from Peru (August 2011)
Two Lyrics on Death from Central America (January 2012)

8. Politics
Black Lives Matter (August 2016)
Economic Democracy (July 2013)
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (June 2012)
Hard Rain Still Fallin’ (September 2010)
How to Get Serious about Fighting Crime (January 2010)
Local Politics (May 2015)
In Memory of a Generation's People's Heroes (October 2015)
Occupy Wall Street (November 2011)
The Role of Higher Education (November 2010)
The Socialist Martin Luther King (February 2016)
The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution (December 2016)
Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement (September 2013)
Utopia (November 2015)
Voluntary Poverty (October 2011)
Why I am a Socialist (March 2010)

9. Memoirs
Baby Boomer Reads the Beats (April 2012)
A Brief Literary Life (September 2012)
A Garland of Greek Professors (December 2010)
A Glimpse of Robert Bly (August 2012)
Grandparents (December 2009)
High School (August 2014)
Hip Poets of Seventies San Francisco (January 2011)
How I Was Hired to Teach in Nigeria (May 2011)
IWW (April 2011)
March in Cicero (December 2009)
A Memorable Roomer (June 2014)
My Most Politically Active Year (February 2011)
Nova Academy (March 2011)
Pestering Allen [Ginsberg] (March 2012)
Poetry on the Loose (September 2011)
A Scholar's Debut (October 2012)
Sherman Paul (August 2016)
Suburbanite in the City (November 2010)
Tim West (March 2013)
VISTA Trains Me (June 2011)

10. Travel
Arrival in Nigeria (August 2015)
Acadiana [Lafayette, Louisiana] (May 2010)
An Armenian Family in Bordeaux (December 2014)
Carnival [Portugal] (May 2012)
Cookie Man [Morocco] (October 2011)
Creel (October 2010)
Dame Fortuna in Portugal (May 2012)
Dinner with Mrs. Pea [Thailand] (April 2013)
Election Day in Chichicastenango (January 2012)
An Evening in Urubamba (July 2011)
Festival in Ogwa [Nigeria](January 2011)
On the Ganges' Shore (August 2013)
The Guru of Guinness (July 2016)
Haarlem (July 2010)
Hitchhiking in Algeria (September 2010)
Hitchhiking in France (January 2014)
Hungarian Food (December 2010)
Introduction to Tourist Snapshots (June 2010)
Jemaa el Fna (December 2010)
Knee-deep in History [Vietnam, Cambodia] (February 2014)
Najibe’s Stories (September 2011)
Nigerian Names and Vehicle Slogans (March 2011)
A Palm Wine Shack [Nigeria] (December 2011)
Portraits from a Floating World: Anonymous (October 2016)
Portraits from a Floating World: Najibe and Sandro (February 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Gahlia and Jack (June 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Leslie Spector and Pa’ahssyzy (August 2010)
A Problem on the Border [Algeria] (June 2011)
A Reading in Kathmandu (November 2009)
Sacred Space as Sideshow [Prague] (February 2010)
St. Joseph’s Day at the Laguna Pueblo (April 2011)
A Stroll around Lake Bled (May 2013)
Strong Stuff [Marrakech] (October 2012)
Tetouan (November 2010)
The Theory of Souvenirs (April 2012)
A Trip to India (January 2016)
Two Parades [India and Peru] (August 2011)
The Valley of Beautiful Women [Eger, Hungary] (March 2010)
Vignettes of Sunny Nigeria (March 2011)
A Waterfall near Marrakech (February 2011)

A Structural View of Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel

Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel has much to recommend it: a compelling plot that reserves its most dramatic turn for the end, figurative rhetoric that can mount and build like banks of clouds, and layers of irony highlighted by the constant choric commentary and wit of the mordant observations of The Pilgrim’s Scrip and Adrian’s sybaritic musings. Further, these thematic and stylistic qualities appear in a novel structured according to an elaborate design of bipolar oppositions which may be read as a great formal pattern unfolding in time rather like a fugue. This structure, implied by the references to “Magian” or Manichaean conflict, governs the entire work.

It is far from clear just what the ordeal of the title might be. The word is used repeatedly with different implications throughout the text. It sometimes means Richard’s upbringing under his father’s notorious System, which would seem an appropriate focus, but in other passages it signifies simply his initiation into love (or adulthood more generally). Toward the conclusion the word is used (and capitalized) to refer to Richard’s confession of his infidelity to Lucy. Then, too, the reader thinks of his self-imposed ordeals of separation from her and his acceptance of the duel, an “ordeal” in almost the old technical sense of a sort of trial with God as judge. Over all, of course, hovers the legitimate sense of life as a whole constituting an ordeal. Over this most fundamental subject matter, in effect a story of Everyman in spite of Sir Austin’s singular notions (for Everyman is more peculiar than he may think), Meredith spins an elaborate interwoven texture in which warp is as significant as woof.

This ironic ambiguity which critics take to be distinctly modern characterizes the entire novel. The book reads like a comedy throughout yet ends in pathos if not tragedy. Richard, the “Hero,” is often decidedly unheroic. Sir Austin, the philosopher, is far less philosophic than he thinks. On the other hand Austin Wentworth, who appears only now and then, is the sensible Austin, though he can do little to aid the others. Adrian, who is in truth only as much the “Wise Youth” as Richard is the “Hero” or Sir Austin the Philosopher, is in fact shallow and detached, passing his time in self-amusement spouting trifling witticisms each laden with further layers of irony. Lucy Desborough, nearly the only character other than Austin Wentworth to be presented in an altogether positive light, benefits from the lingering idealized convention of the irresistible love-object, a woman altogether virtuous, modest, and lovely. Still, she has her counterpart in Mrs. Berry who plays Emilia to her Desdemona. If Sir Austin is the man betrayed by trying to live too wholly in his brain, Hippias does little but complain of the burden of his body. For every type there is a countertype, for every assertion, its equally valid contradiction.

The thematic pattern of the book is scrupulously dialectic. The opposition between science and philosophy on the one hand and human nature and common sense on the other is sustained throughout at a high state of tension. The author’s own experience of a faithless wife and his authorship of a volume titled The Pilgrim’s Scrip are two among many correspondences that would support the notion that Sir Austin in some sense represents the author. Yet he is regularly depicted as no less deluded, egotistical, and misguided for all his high principles. His “System” is the error that sets the plot in motion.

Likewise, the epicurean wisecracks and arch rhetorical turns which constitute Adrian’s every speech seem at least as close to Meredith’s own convictions as Wilde’s were to his, but Adrian is characterized as shallow and incapable of either deep thought or feeling. In this way most every line that might seem an assertion of the author is no sooner uttered than the ground is cut from under it. The book is a series of mistaken or partial propositions, a catalogue of humors and of error.

Clear as the point may be in the work as a whole, it is more precisely demonstrated in close reading. Though one might almost open to the book at random for evidence, I will cite only two passages, chosen very nearly at random.

Chapter 29 begins with what Meredith terms a “necessary” prelude to Richard’s move toward decisive action. “Let it be some apology for the damage caused by the careering hero, and a consolation to the quiet wretches dragged along with him at his chariot-wheels, that he is generally the last to know when he has made an actual start.” Whereas one might expect a hero to be fully conscious and deliberate, to Meredith he is blundering as blindly as everyone else. Though much of the novel implies the impotence of science in the face of human nature and mere chance, he employs the language of the science of his day: “He may be compared to one to whom, in an electric circle, it is given to carry the battery.” The fact that the séance-like gatherings called electric circles or circuits since the eighteenth century, then popularized by Mesmer, would today be called pseudo-science only strengthens the point. According to Meredith, power is “all Fortune’s,” and humans can only caper comically and helplessly, the victims of ineluctable fate. The Pilgrim’s Scrip reinforces this idea, saying that to be “intent upon his own business” is “with men to be valued equal to that force which in water makes a stream.”

This brief paragraph first evokes the traditional concept of a hero, then denies it by suggesting Richard’s lack of control over the consequences of his actions, describing him as no more the agent of his own life than is an electric current or the onward push of a river. There is of course a strong convention of heroes from Achilles to the Existential “man of action” who are ultimately unable to alter their fate, but whose nobility consists of their persistence, as they go down to defeat with courage, looking at reality without illusion. Richard on the contrary vainly imagines that he is captain of his destiny. Yet, as critically flawed as Meredith’s hero may be in his vanity and selfishness, most readers would sympathize with his romance across class boundaries. If to be a force of nature like that of electricity or flowing water is to be a hero, is not everyone likewise heroic? So in this opening paragraph, one can trace the hero made non-hero and back again multiple times, resulting in a rich ambiguity, a tense contradiction that flickers from one valid evaluation to its opposite, equally valid.

The same paradoxical alternation of judgments is illustrated by Lady Blandish’s attitude toward Wordsworth in Chapter 26. She is discussing literature in a letter to Sir Austin after having, with some misgivings, assisted him in his plan to separate Lucy from Richard. Having said that she is repelled by Gibbon’s cynicism and impiety, she continues, “How different it is with Wordsworth!” Though this line might seem to introduce an enthusiastic endorsement, she follows immediately with, “And yet I cannot escape the thought that he is always solemnly thinking of himself.” Seeking to regain balance, perhaps, this line is succeeded by the defensive ejaculation, “but I do reverence him!” A few lines later he has become “a donkey,” though (we remain on a tightrope with the pole extending equally to the right and left) “a very superior donkey” whose most impressive quality is “stubbornness” as he is incapable of “sublimity. “I love Wordsworth best,” the paragraph concludes, “and yet Byron has the greater power over me. How is that?”

This entire complex system is then itself ironized. To Sir Austin her confusion is explained, not by her humanity, but by her sex. “Women are cowards, and succumb to Irony and Passion, rather than yield their hearts [as he presumably believes he and Wordsworth do] to Excellence and Nature’s Inspiration.”

Many students, and not a few of their professors as well, cherish the notion that one may apprehend truths about lived experience through reading literature, but the fact is that writers are not experts in philosophy, psychology, or science. Their skill is in writing. But, if they cannot prescribe answers, they can precisely and passionately, point to the questions most important to our species. They can then create the most affecting symphonies out of these very mysteries and ambivalences. A claim to solve the great issues that engage us all is in fact a confession of arrogance and reductionism. The great writers leave us always in suspense.

Domestic Incidents from the Life of the Lama Swine Toil

The lama felt dyspeptic after eating a large plate of pakoras while distractedly talking of the loftiest matters. His devotee said, “How can your belly be other than calm, o great enlightened one?” And the lama replied, “If you would be so kind, go out and get me some Tums.”

Lama Swine Toil was very fond of miniature golf. He found that each course made a marvelous metaphor for the course of human lives. He never tired of passing between the turning windmill arms, over the puddle, and finally, into the clown’s mouth.

The lama was beginning a crossword puzzle. “Hmmm,” he said, “a five letter word meaning wisdom. But that is the meaning of every word.” He left the puzzle blank and joyed in its empty perfection.

The lama adored Jello, not with pears or walnuts or even carrot shreds, but clear with luminous artificial color. He would enter the diner, order a serving, and stare into its depths as though it were his crystal ball. Sometimes he would be lost in transports and the waitress would have to bring him around. “This guy,” she said, “the worst part is, he doesn’t understand tipping.”

Cell Phones

I suppose whether I like it or not it is generational, but I can't understand people's attachment to their cell phones. When I'm in the supermarket it seems like everyone else has a phone to the ear while poking through the kale. I feel as though I must be the most insignificant person on earth since apparently everyone else has important business to transact at every moment of the day. Everyman has attained the status of a broker at the beach wearing a Bluetooth with his Speedo.

But that is not necessarily so. Perhaps all these connected shoppers are receiving orders. Perhaps they must buy stewed tomatoes and they are forever uncertain they have remembered the correct brand. It may be that the overlords on the other end of the phone conversation don't trust their minions to keep their errands straight unless they are being constantly monitored and instructed.

They have the furtive look of addicts, like cigarette smokers outside an office building, and, like other addicts, they are never satisfied. If for any reason the connection is broken, through a failure in the system or in the individual device, anxiety amounting to panic ensues.

I did acquire a smart phone, though years later than everyone else. It has proven very slow to share its secrets with me. I know about a half of per cent of its nature, probably less. It is like an acquaintance for some reason reluctant to tell me his surname. The device has looked on me with its minute camera and judged that I am unready to be initiated into the mysteries. It is willing to allow me a telephone call or two, but further intimacy is forbidden.

It clearly has a secret life of which I know nothing. I can understand its lack of interest in me, but in what might it be interested instead? Crunching numbers derived from international weather reports? Hatching nefarious plans with Russian hackers? A long distance electronic affair with a garage door opener in Dubuque? I haven't the slightest idea.

If, as John Scotus Erigena said, God is what we do not know, perhaps this little device is divine. So how would devotees worship such a deity? Clearly Apple is a jealous god demanding constant attention. But all followers fall short. No one can be gazing at the device twenty-four hours a day, but the pious approach as closely as possible to that ideal. Soon there may be communities of contemplatives who spend all their waking hours gazing at the little screens. Hoping to be themselves digitalized and in that way immortal, the poor limited humans do their best to appease the all-powerful microcircuits.

The blasphemous might object that humans in fact invented the iPhone, but of course precisely the same is true of Jupiter and Jehovah. And in the realm of the imagination where these conceptual deities contend, the contemporary Apple must be identical to the apple that wrought such havoc in the Garden of Eden. We are surely the same Adam and Eve ready for any attractive deception that catches our eyes.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Ekphrasis in Apollonius: Jason's Cloak

Jason, the hero of Apollonius of Rhodes’ Hellenistic epic the Argonautica, may surprise the first-time reader with his failures of resolve and fits of depression. He is repeatedly described as améchanos, which in his case means he simply does not know what to do. This apparently unheroic attribute is thrown into high relief by the fact that the same word was used of Achilles and Hector in the Iliad with a diametrically opposed meaning, something like “irresistible” or “undefeatable.” [1] Just as the Marvel comic superheroes of the sixties appealed to their audience by being more vulnerable than the old-style Superman and Batman, this new sort of compromised protagonist seemed appropriate in the belated Alexandrian world. Yet the poet never abandons the grand old encyclopedic reach of epic, and there are moments when Apollonius strives to present an orderly symbolic pattern that ambitiously aims at representing everything.

Perhaps the most dramatic compressed example of such an image is Jason’s marvelous cloak. Jason pauses at Lemnos on his way to capture the Golden Fleece. Invited to an audience with the local queen Hypsipyle (and unaware that the island’s women have slaughtered all the males), Jason dons his grandest cloak, a magnificent garment covered with embroidered scenes described in an ekphrasis of nearly fifty lines. [2] The seven scenes ornamenting the garment, which outshone the rising sun (725) include a variety of mythological scenes. Such a work of art resembles the symbolic ambitions of a coat of arms or a Baroque title page and tends toward encyclopedic images like mandalas, magic diagrams, or a bank of stained glass windows in a Gothic cathedral. Parallels include the Shield of Achilles in the Iliad (or the pseudo-Hesiodic “Shield of Heracles”), the similarly shining cloak the incognito Odysseus wore, or, in a different medium, the song of Orpheus that follows in Apollonius.

Critics have read the cloak as an overture-like anticipation of the themes of the epic, but epic itself seeks to be all-inclusive, so its themes tend to epitomize all themes. The ekphrasis is neatly tied to the specifics of the poem in its end, but its center is surely an attempt to symbolically capture the most significant terms of human reality as though in a miraculously wide-angle lens.

The first scene, of the Cyclopes forging Zeus thunderbolts, provides an image of technical expertise heightened by its setting in the divine realm. Just as the Argonautica itself is a work of art, the production of metal, clearly an astonishing transformation to early peoples witnessed by the role of gods like Hephaistos and Egyptian Ptah, the Germanic Wayland, the Yoruba Ogun, and others. [3] The poet thus associates his own art with this heavenly production.

The marvel of the cloak is represented by its luminescence, a characteristic on prominent display in this representation of the spurting flames and shining lights of the god’s thunderbolts. The brilliance of the work parallels the dazzling images of poetry and reinforces the identity of humans as art-producing, symbol-making creatures. The human connection becomes more explicit with the following image, the construction of Thebes by the sons of Antiope, Amphion and Zethus, who lived as humans in spite of their divine parentage. [4] The garment, a tour de force of embroidery, serves as an example of the development of the technical skills, including art and poetry, that distinguish human beings. These initial scenes portray technical skill in the service of the divine, serving the ends of fate, one might say.

The next panel of the cloak portrays Aphrodite with the shield of Ares, neatly combining the strongest instinctual passions of sex and violence, eros and aggression. In an ingeniously clever image, the lovely goddess’ tunic is said to have slipped below her breast and, the poet reports, her body was reflected in the shield. (746) Thus the primary psychic preoccupations of our species (and, to a large extent, the rest of the animal kingdom) are reflected in a single compressed code, adding these elemental drives to the construction of culture implied in the first two pictures.

The violent portion of this complementary pair is then foregrounded in the picture of the defeat of the herdsmen sons of Elektryon by their relatives, the Taphian raiders. This incident, like most mythic episodes, only a single term in a lengthy and interwoven series of events extending backward and forward in time, emphasizes the role of brute force in the world. The scene is also linked to the present narrative through Elektryon’s descent from Perseus whose myth parallels that of Theseus in many details.

The following image again emphasizes the complementarity of love and aggression in a representation of Pelops’ winning of Hippodamia through his victory in a chariot race with Oenomaus, her father, who had killed the eighteen earlier suitors who had proved slower. Without tracing the many links backward and forward to Tantalus, Perseus, Agamemnon, and others, it is sufficient here to note the preeminence of eros and Todestrieb.

A new element enters with the sixth image, that of Apollo shooting at Tityos as he attempts to abduct Leto. Here is the inverse of the dutiful Titans of the first image, as the giant impiously seeks to dispossess Apollo of his love object. Once more, love and aggression are impossibly intertwined, the complementary dynamos that motivate action, yet here it is Tityos’ impiety, his deviation from the Olympian script, that causes Apollo to act.

The final image refastens the chain of pictures to the current tale. Phrixos is yet another babe threatened by a hostile maternal figure. While his double falls to his death, Phrixos is protected by an established city on the margin of the known world. His sons in fact join the crew of the Argo after being rescued. His fleece is the object of the quest.

The whole series, then, defines humanity as artists and technologists, motivated by powerful forces of love and death, suspended between divine and human realms, constantly threatened by untamable forces, making a way forward in life like the hero Jason who is undertaking an all-nut-impossible task. The generic images of human passions are clearly linked to the main plot line in a myriad of ways. Yet the plot of the Argonautica, the endlessly branching related myths, and the images, and the stories depicted on Jason’s cloak, all these do not provide conclusions as much as they suggest bipolar oppositions that organize the tensions and problems of human experience.

1. See Iliad, XIII, 726 and XVI, 29. The Homeric heroes do, of course, have their moments of confusion, hesitation and despondence. The difference is a matter of degree.

2. I, 721-767.

3. These include the the Vedic Tvastarpre-Islamic Qaynan, the Sumerian Gibil, the Hungarian Hadúr, the Finnish Ilmarinen, the Gallo-Roman Gobannos, the Slavic Svarog, and the Celtic Creidhne, Goibniu, and Gofannon.

4. Of these two, the first is associated with art, poetry, and music, and the second with hunting and livestock raising, though both are described as participating in the building of Thebes’ walls and both are sufficiently human to die.

5. See Daniel Odgen’s Perseus for a catalogue of similarities.

Every Reader’s Blake

This is the seventh of a series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) non-scholarly readers to the work of important poets. In this series I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.

Though every poet is one of a kind, William Blake is more dramatically singular than most. Though he owed little debt to the literary fashions of his day and enjoyed scant readership during his lifetime, Blake developed a mystical style of writing and graphic art that has become immensely influential. His grand prophetic books can be bewildering. Anecdotes from him and his contemporaries indicate that he kept people guessing even in his own time.

Perhaps the most convenient entry to Blake’s work is through his political convictions. Though hardly a systematic or pragmatic activist, Blake was possessed with prophetic rage like that of ancients like Amos when he evaluated the contemporary scene. In 1802 Blake drove off a drunken soldier from his garden in Felpham. The trespasser then accused him of high treason, claiming that he had cursed the king and declared all soldiers to be slaves. As it happens, British democracy had advanced just far enough that a jury of twelve acquitted the poet. Blake’s lyric from the preface to Milton: A Poem beginning “And did those feet in ancient times” denounces the manufacturers’ “dark Satanic mills” and looks forward to a new Jerusalem in “England’s green and pleasant land.” The verse, set to music at the time of WWI, has become one of the country’s most popular patriotic songs, particularly popular at Labour Party events.

In the brief four stanzas of “London” Blake raises some of the most significant social questions of the era of the Industrial Revolution.


I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

The use of the word “charter’d” in the first stanza, though its precise meaning is not altogether certain, clearly criticizes capitalist private property which has parceled out resources which properly belong to all. The fundamental source of oppression is thus identified at the outset. The ruling class has assigned rights and privileges over both land and water, producing inequity, alienation, and pain, evident in the “marks of woe” evident in the citizens’ faces. I have often reflected on this line when boarding a New York City subway late at night. I fancy the stricken urban faces have not changed in two hundred years. Though the ultimate aim of the ruling class is wealth, for Blake the most oppressive chains are “mind-forg'd,” internalized habits of thought that render the slave compliant.

The third stanza identifies two of his principal complaints: the rapacious exploitation of workers, in particular such lowly workers as the chimney sweeps, whose suffering cries are ignored by established religion. The churches, their own walls blackening with pollution, ignore their own teachings as they ignore the complaints of the humblest among them, the very people with whom Christ would have stood. Likewise soldiers, willing to die for their country, are merely cannon fodder to the indifferent ruling class, sheltered behind palace walls far from any battlefield.

To Blake the most horrifying aspect of the social order must be the perversion of love. The woe he feels “most,” exciting his most heart-felt protest, arises with the transformation of love itself into a commodity. With the Industrial Revolution favoring the cultivation of wool for sale rather than food for consumption and the enclosure laws that facilitated the change, many rural families found themselves in urban areas with no means of support, leading to a dramatic increase in prostitution. Apart from Blake’s implication of venereal disease (“blights with plagues”), to him a husband who would purchase sex can hardly be a true lover, and thus his marriage is also a funeral. Blake considered the very institution of marriage to be fatally linked to power relations and restraint of the divine energy of desire, though he himself was an apparently monogamous and happily married man whose wife took an active role in his creative endeavors. Alexander Gilchrist described coming to call and finding Blake and his wife naked in a small summer house reading Paradise Lost aloud. “Come in,” cried Blake, “It’s only Adam and Eve, you know.”

He claimed to have visionary experiences beginning when God looked in his window when he was only four. Angels and prophets appeared to him in the sky or in trees, and he eventually developed a highly personal and complex mythology. Apparently to him, as to some other mystics, a deep gaze into anything may reveal the divine. The world provided an endless field every object in which is an aspect of god in myriad disguises.

In what is perhaps his most well-known poem, “The Tyger,” Blake insists that the imagery of Christ as a lamb represents only one side of god. For him, as for Hindus, every benevolent deity has a malevolent or frightening figure to balance. Ultimate Reality is beyond good and evil and must contain both. In Blake’s theory of contraries, there can be no privilege to the more agreeable vision; it is inevitably accompanied by its terrifying transformation.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

The deeper implication of the poem is the ultimate identity of opposites, the explosion of dualism in what is called in one tradition Advaitism. If, as the hymn of another tradition says “In Christ there is no east and west, in him no north and south,” then there is likewise no temporal/divine, mind/body, life/death, or other dualities. The enlightened view is monistic.

The very title of his “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” suggests the identity or interdependence of opposites. In it the devil expounds the “error” that body and soul are distinct. Yet it is also a devil whom he witnesses writing the profound words: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,/ is an immense World of Delight, clos’d by your senses five?” and the following are among what he calls “the proverbs of Hell.”

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

The cut worm forgives the plough.

Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion.

The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.

The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.

The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.

The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

One thought fills immensity.

Exuberance is Beauty.

Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.

He sounds like a Zen master when he advises “Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.”

The reader to whom such sayings make Blake a didactic poet, will, at the same time, find him avoiding reductive themes, often through the use of paradox and ambiguity. In “The Sick Rose” the rose’s virtue and the worm’s malignity seem clear at first glance, but to many the poem’s implications remain elusive.

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Rather than prescribe a single reading of this brief poem, I shall indicate some of the directions which a reading might take. The likeliest initial interpretation would see the rose as a lovely and wholly admirable thing whose love, his “bed of crimson joy” is destroyed by a monster, malicious invisible flying worm. This approach is not only consistent with general poetic usages of rose (beautiful, desirable) and worm (associated with death and decay) but also might well be supported with parallel passages from other Blakean texts.

On the other hand, it is the rose that is described at the outset as “sick,” while the worm has “love,” albeit a dark and secret variety. Might it be that the worm is as wholesome as a medicinal leech and that the “crimson joy,” sensational as it sounds, might arise from a bed of dysfunction? Some have read the final lines “And his dark secret love/ Does thy life destroy” to mean, not that the worm destroys the rose, but rather that the worm’s love is destroyed by the rose’s life. The fact is that, while Bromion’s assault on Oothoon in Visions of the Daughters of Albion is analogous to the worm’s on the rose, in the Book of Thel the title character is told “Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies, How great thy use, how great thy blessing.” Her reluctance seems there to be a sign of inhibition and limitation.

The illustration Blake made for “The Sick Rose” also complicates the interpretation. What can the viewer make of the fact that the artist depicts no storm at all, but a clear and sunny day? While the upper flowers seem to be wilting, the one associated with the worm is healthy-looking. Do these details suggest that the persona of the poem has an inaccurate subjective view?

Such underdetermined signification, far from indicating the author’s confusion, is characteristic of the aesthetic text. The role of the paradoxical and mysterious is foregrounded in William Blake, whose visionary insights often challenged and contradicted received ideas. A poet who celebrated the joy of the creation, he no less embraced the tumultuous and stressful, aiming to place his ultimate focus beyond good and evil. A prescient critic of the already failing feudal system and of the nascent capitalism replacing it, of the institutional church which seemed to him to veer sharply from Christ’s teaching, he was perhaps most profoundly a critic of everyday perception. Another line in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” notes "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." Human senses may block perception as well as permit it. Blake was ambitious enough to construct in his art, both verbal and visual, new objects for mental contemplation designed to extend human vision and to bring others in the direction of enlightenment.

Blind Willie Johnson Preaches

Gospel is Old English for good news, and the predominant message of much gospel music is indeed joy at an unquestioned salvation. The worshipper delights in every breath, since the future ultimately holds a sure deliverance. This theme and the ecstatic mood it may produce are prominent in the recordings of Blind Willie Johnson. Johnson’s bottleneck slide guitar work and growly intense vocals owe much to the blues, but many of his songs are nonetheless celebratory and optimistic. His vision includes, however, the suffering Christ no less than the risen Lord, and he offers the inspiration of Jesus’ model to believers who may have much to endure in their own lives. Sometimes, Johnson’s songs, whether traditional or original, reach further yet, to suggest an ultimate reality beyond joy and suffering, no less certain for being bound in mystery.

While the blues are largely concerned with pain, loneliness, and frustration, Johnson sings of his “joy and gladness in “Praise God I’m Satisfied.” Death is welcomed in the almost rollicking easy tones of “Bye And Bye I'm Goin' To See The King”: “And I don't mind dying, I'm a child of God.” A variety of ingenious figures of speech reinforce the point. In “It's Nobody's Fault But Mine” Christ appears as a benevolent bail bondsman, freeing the captive soul. “God don’t never change” offers the delightful image of the singer so consumed in divine worship that he can direct even a mountain to “skip around like a lamb.” The magical efficacy of Christ’s blood is affirmed in “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole.” [1] Sin and damnation play very little role in Johnson’s ministry, though in “If It Had Not Been For Jesus” the singer notes that Christ ”washed my black heart white” without further details.

Among the other songs with similar emphasis are “Let your light shine on me” with its claim that luminous “angels in heaven, done write my name,” “Trouble Will Soon Be Over,” “He’s my Bosom Friend,” “Sweeter as the Years Go By,” “Go With Me To That Land,” and “Church I'm Fully Saved Today.”

Pain and suffering, however, receive their due. The very heart of the Christian myth with its deity mysteriously combining divine and human natures emphasizes Jesus’ passion on the cross, the strongest available image of anguished torture. The believer’s own difficulties are given meaning while at the same time appearing less than his Lord’s. One may safely assume that Johnson’s African-American listeners had sufficient troubles of their own to identify readily with Christ.

Most profound of Johnson’s songs on this theme is doubtless “Dark was the night.” Johnson takes his opening line from a pre-existing hymn, then follows with a series of equally powerful images. I am reminded of Crashaw by “his sweat like drops of blood ran down.” These drops are mysteriously present in the Garden to which the sinner is directed. Ultimately the song teaches the imitation of Christ: “Learn of him the cross to bear.” “Jesus Make Up my Dying Bed” is an imaginative tour de force in which Christ is the singer’s spouse and the suffering of worshipper and worshipped are conflated.
Contemporary afflictions appear: the Titanic disaster in “God Moves On The Water” and WWI and Spanish flu in “Jesus Is Coming Soon.” Probably the most powerful metaphor for suffering, one appearing multiple times in both sacred and secular lyrics is the separation from God as loss of a loving parent in “Mother's Children Have A Hard Time” and “Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying.”

Thus Johnson’s lyrics, like the Psalms, chart the high and low of experience. There is a numinous glow, however, about Johnson’s religious vision, a sheen of mystery imponderable until the Apocalypse which has little to do with good and evil or pain and pleasure. I think, for instance, of the gloriously minimal miracle of “The Rain Don't Fall On Me,” the understated imagery of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning,” and the open-mouthed wonder of “The Soul Of A Man.” The culmination of this nearly occult aspect of the poet’s religious experience is surely the haunting “John the Revelator” which invokes the most spectacularly mystifying book of the Bible repeatedly as though its very mention is a magic charm. The song is made of this hypnotic iteration along with a few enigmatic symbols (“Judea’s Lion”) and an account of a theophany to Moses. This song is anticipated by the mention in “I'm Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge” of the “dragon hurled down by the preacher” with its specific scriptural reference.

Though a musical artist is hardly a theologian, gospel singers have always been inspired and motivated not only by their faith, but also by the approaches that have proven successful in appealing to an audience whose critical judgment is not suspended even in church. Willie Johnson’s oeuvre emphasizes the joy and confidence of salvation, with a darker shadow acknowledging suffering, then ornamented with a bit of mystery and magic. His message reached not only the streets and storefront churches, but into Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and new versions of his songs by Reverend Gary Davis, folk revival figures like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Fairport Convention, and Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as rockers like Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Play of Convention in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 153

Sonnet 153 (1609 Quarto version)

CVpid laid by his brand and fell a ſleepe,
A maide of Dyans this aduantage found,
And his loue-kindling fire did quickly ſteepe
In a could vallie-fountaine of that ground:
Which borrowd from this holie fire of loue,
A dateleſſe liuely heat ſtill to indure,
And grew a ſeething bath which yet men proue,
Againſt ſtrang malladies a ſoueraigne cure:
But at my miſtres eie loues brand new fired ,
The boy for triall needes would touch my breſt,
I ſick withal the helpe of bath deſired,
And thether hied a ſad diſtemperd gueſt.
But found no cure,the bath for my helpe lies,
Where Cupid got new fire; my miſtres eye.

For the last two hundred years the reading of poetry has been progressively impoverished by the Romantic denigration of convention. Today poetry tends to be prosaic and colloquial and few readers apart from academics have the competence to appreciate the intertextuality of earlier works. The fact is that convention, far from stultifying and reducing expression, allows more semiotic density. Far from simply reproducing models, the skilled writer, while sometimes using convention as shorthand for content previously expressed, more frequently reverses expectations, twists them, enlarges or constructs them, alters their tone, or, in a myriad other ways, builds upon what had been already written to construct something entirely new. The use of convention enables the author to reach higher levels of subtlety in thematics and, at the same time, to increase the formal pleasures of structural variation. Such structural play can only be called academic only if the same is said of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The Cupid sonnets that conclude Shakespeare’s collection are a case in point. Often written off as conventional, routine, perhaps not even from the master’s hand, “outliers” at any rate, they betray upon close examination an almost musical play of ideas and contraries superimposed over the melody of the words.

One may take as a starting point the Greek Anthology lyric (IX, 627) attributed to Marianus Scholasticus. [1] This is the text of Paton’s accurate if uninspired translation.

Here under the plane trees tired Love lay softly sleeping, having entrusted his torch to the Nymphs. Said the Nymphs among themselves, “Why not do it at once? Would that together with this we could put out the fire in men’s hearts.” But it was the torch that set fire to the water, and henceforth the Love-Nymphs pour forth here hot water for men to bathe in.

Surely this piece itself is a spun sugar confection for those who thought they had heard all possible changes rung on similar elements. Ignoring the considerable prior history of its meter, words, and figures, what does the poem suggest? Surely the first implication is the persistence of desire; Eros’ torch cannot be doused. Secondarily, the aetiological implication of the origin of warm bathing associates love with an ameliorating factor, something that makes life more civilized, more livable. And why were the nymphs hostile to love prior to their becoming “love-Nymphs” (“nymphs of Eros”)? What is expressed in mythological terms as their association with Artemis appears as well in philological data in the word nymph’s links with words indicating “veiled,” and thus (in contradistinction to Muslim practice) young and marriageable. In psychological terms one might associate this resistance to love with the woman’s selectivity and cautious reserve, as opposed to the men’s fire in the heart. [2] Similar notions conceived by men include the troubadour’s lady’s “daunger” or the animals of Thurber’s “Courtship Through the Ages.”

These far from original principles provide the conventional thematics for these final two sonnets which have struck many readers as superfluous or intrusive. The fact is, though, that they could plead sufficient formal precedent as well: the pattern of concluding a sonnet sequence with irregularities, often a few Anacreontic or fescinnine pieces and then a longer poem was set in Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion, Samuel Daniel’s Delia, Lodge’s Sonnets to Phillis, and other collections.

Yet each of the poem’s terms Shakespeare has adapted either from the Anthology or from a later use of the story is markedly altered in Sonnet 153. Rather than repeating clichés, the poet is enriching, enlarging, criticizing, or overturning them in a captivating rapid-fire lyric that plays with reader expectations until the concluding couplet when, as at the end of the tragedies, all returns to normal once again.

While in the epigram Eros intentionally hands off his torch to a nymph for safe-keeping, the sonnet has her taking it without his knowledge. This departure is reinforced later when the sonnet describes what can only be the origin of his love in the circumstance of the nymph first relighting the torch, then, as a test, touching his breast, rendering him instantly but arbitrarily love-sick. [3] Having fallen victim to Eros through chance, he can gain no respite in an ordinary bath but only with the favorable looks of his beloved. Though helplessness before love’s onslaught is an ancient topos, it is here more evident in the more modern poem.

More significant is the sonnet’s drift to double entendre. Though the associations are only latent in the Greek poem, [4] the reader who has noted considerable risqué play in the earlier sonnets will not overlook the correspondence of torch and “vallie-fountaine” with genitals. Indeed, attempting to douse the hot phallus in the moisture not only fails to put out the fire, it heats the water into a “seething bath” due to the “holie fire of love.” [4] The brand is relighted at the eye of the beloved though it had never seemed to be put out, and the lover’s heart is set aflame anew, paradoxically to seek solace or cure only in that same mistress’ eye. “Eye” itself was used to suggest the female sex as in Benedick’s lines from Much Ado About Nothing: “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be/ buried in thy eyes.” [5]. Whereas the Greek epigram had perhaps slightly ruefully described the ineradicable power of desire, the English sonnet introduces the whole complex of self-consciousness about sexuality with its euphemistic concealment causing sniggering foregrounding.

Shakespeare has, in fact, deployed not only the terms of inherited Classical myth, but has added parallel but quite different obscene and courtly love conventions, thus thickening the plot considerably. By doing so he has not vitiated but has enriched his meaning; he has not lost but rather has gained precision and individuality. The fact that at least three basic sets of language, metaphor, affect are inextricably interlaced in Sonnet 153, while formally a tour de force, a dazzling finale for the volume, results not in confusion or interference. Instead the reader infers a love experience in which each set of expectations bears partial truth. At a given moment one or another may be dominant, while at other times all three may weave routes about each other in a precise and beautiful dance of words.

Used adeptly, convention serves as a means of increasing the semiotic density of a passage. Shakespeare chose to use one of the most convention-bound forms, the sequence of love sonnets, to express the complexities of his persona’s experience of love, and, at the culmination of his magnificent and subtle sequence, he simultaneously evokes a variety of erotic paradigms through allusions to a host of earlier poems. It is through such devices as rhetorical figures such as allusion that literature is uniquely capable of expressing such tensions, contradictions, and out-and-out paradoxes.

1. The Anthology is, of course, a very late collection, and Marianus one of the latest of its authors. His poem was based on a lengthy previous tradition we cannot here engage. The role of convention in the Anthology itself is suggested by the fact that this poem appears in a series of lyrics using the image of bathing. For other prior uses of the theme see James Hutton’s "Analogues of Shakespeare's Sonnets 153-154: Contributions to the History of a Theme" (Modern Philology, XXXVIII [May 1941], 385-403).

2. The fire of love is a universal trope of great antiquity. Among its forms are the medieval mystical Incendia Amoris and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

3. Compare the love potion in Tristan and Iseult.

4. These associations do have Classical antecedents. See, for instance Martial, Epigrammaton 3.93.27, in which a torch represents a penis and the female genitals are explicitly named.

5. Compare A Midsummer Night’s Dream “But I might see Cupid’s fiery shaft/ Quenched in the chaste beams of the watery moon.” (II, i) To some readers the bath refers to treatments for syphilis, implying recognition of darker aspects of love-making.

6. V, ii.