Wednesday, November 29, 2006

‘In Xanadu did Bin Laden, / A stately pleasure dome decree’

The effect of too much (and too easily accessed) information on practical criticism.

I was preparing a class on some Coleridge poems, for a set of first year students/victims.

I'd fairly quickly located the exciting hypertexted ‘Kubla Khan’ at

and after not very much browsing in that ‘three dimensional’ rendering of the poem and its sources, I came across Samuel Purchas’s account of Aloadine, the Old Man of the Mountain:

I leapt from there to read the on-line OED’s entries on the related words ‘hashish’ and ‘assassin’, and then scramble off to the Wikipedia to read more about the drug:

and there, with gathering interest, I also read all about Hassan-i-Sabah and the assassins:

~ the Wikipedia is most alive as a resource when the heading for an entry indicates that its neutrality is disputed (as this material is) and so I buzz through it all and the related talk page:

Coleridge’s poem is now small in my rear view mirror, as I speed away. Pursuing the Old Man of the Mountain, from link to link, by now has opened up a continuum from Marco Polo to present day Shiite against Sunni violence: the tangent I have gone off on is so interesting that the poem just has to be about that - so in the end, the poem is going to be read with more violence than it has ever been read before: the poet as the drugged assassin, insane with desire to get back to the paradise he had been allowed to glimpse, and ready to go off:

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

I declaim my new version of the poem (‘And mid this tumult Osama heard from far’) to a class stupefied by my bad taste and glaring desire to provoke. Sweetly reasonable, they fend me off, and the poem as expressive of Coleridge’s suppressed desire to stick a dagger deep in Wordsworth manages not to happen (to my retrospective relief).

We move on to ‘The Aeolian Harp’, and have to troop off to a wireless zone so as to listen to one:

The students, relaxing now they are out of the room where they were sequestered with this mad interpreter, seem to think that it would be an OK noise if you were on drugs. This at least seems relevant.

Just think, we used to have to look at the poem on the page.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

More fleeting things

Another busy week, with some first year teaching again outside my usual Renaissance repertoire. Wordsworth this time, 'The Leech-Gatherer', which I coupled with Lewis Carroll's ineffable parody, 'I met an aged, aged man', which ever so delicately turns Wordsworth's tale into an encounter between two raving lunatics. The deadly accuracy with which Carroll locates Wordsworth's failure to tip the poor old chap a shilling amused me, though my class seemed to feel that I was being uncharitable about Wordsworth's failure to be charitable. I didn't force the point, though the complacency of Wordsworth's reference to the homeless leech-gatherer housing 'with God's good help' 'by choice or chance' is a bit provoking.

Anyway, all the students are to find two poems on the same theme from different centuries, and compare them. This alarming demand has distressed one or two of the less confident, who want to be pointed in the right direction.

One way or other, I found myself on LION looking for poems about bubbles, the kind of thing I would recommend, to the consternation of those students who like poems to have big subjects, ideally World War One. Quarles the emblematist seems to be the champion bubble poet of early modern England. His efforts are, of course, predictably moralistic, and so I was pleased to find this lyric by Robert Herrick, previously unknown to me among the vast tracts of the Hesperides:

'The Bubble: a Song'

To my revenge, and to her desp'rate fears,

Fly thou made Bubble of my sighs, and tears

In the wild air - when thou hast roll'd about,

And (like a blasting Planet) found her out,

Stoop, mount, pass by to take her eye, then glare

Like to a dreadful Comet in the Air:

Next, when thou dost perceive her fixed sight,

For thy revenge to be most opposite,

Then like a Globe, or Ball of Wild-fire, fly,

And break thy self in shivers on her eye.

It's a bit like his 'Tear sent from Staines, to his Mistress', but more pleasingly malicious. My photograph is of Timmo adding lift to a monster bubble created with his bubble wand one summer evening. You know all about it when one of these pops and fills your eye with detergent.

The following web page describes the science of bubbles, and offers (groan) a 'bubbliography' (OK, I admit it, I wish I'd thought of it). From that bubbliography, I do recommend the Nasa link on water films in zero gravity: if you ever wondered if the ISS was worth the billions, doubt no more.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

(Non-) Awakenings, 1646

One of my students is writing a third year dissertation on sleep in Shakespeare: not dreams, just images of plain sleep. I've a feeling that a critical piece by David Roberts on this very subject may be hard to shake off.

But I've duly gone through a couple of early modern home doctors, talking about sleep (Humphrey Brooke, 1650, and Tobias Venner, 1637). Pretty much as one would expect - a lot of spurious advice, and that very English mania about the digestion (start off lying on your left, then turn onto your right, as that sequence aids 'decoction'; never on your back or you invite 'the Nightmare', and only under advice lie on your stomach). I suppose that we can draw some fine points about the type of conclusions audience members might have drawn had they seen Innogen or Bully Bottom lying flat on their backs.

But what turns up as well are the pamphlets and broadsides about 'wonderful sleepers': those who slipped into (I suppose) an encephalitic coma and who could not be roused by nose-tweakings, pinches, and dashings with water. The pamphlet illustrated has a healthy middle-aged woman going to bed in the daytime, falling and staying asleep, and finally dying without ever waking up again. The last paragraph gives some sense of the desperate haste of the compiling author to finish his copy, and not be drawn into too prolonged an investigation - for even as he writes, news of a second sleeper has come in (just when he'd got the job nearly done too!):

Whilst we were endeavouring to satisfie our thoughts on this melancholy contemplation, Newes is brought, that a man lies fast on sleep in the same manner in Gravell-Lane, I was desired to go and see him, to the end, that having taken a perfect observation of him, my Pen, my more readiness might follow the instructions of my eye: His name is as I am informed John Underwood; His age is about forty, or something upwards; And he sleeps so soundly, that they who have seen him tell me that you may heare him into the next roome. We heare that he hathe already slept out the full space of nine daies and nights: It seemes he is of a clear complexion, for his breast being uncovered, that the beholders might be the better satisfied, it is reported that the bitings of the Fleas upon his Necke and Brest, do looke like to many Strawberries strowed upon Creame. It is true in the Metaphysicks, that the outward sences being overcome by sleep, the Soule (incapable of sloth) doth actuate at that time more pure and lively. The people in the Suburbs have gained some little understanding of it, and therefore they come every day in crouds unto him, expecting when he awakeneth, to heare some wonderful intelligence.

I like (I recognise!) the way the author couldn't in fact be bothered to go along himself, but offers instead a secondhand report of the small crowd gathering at the sleeper's bedside in the expectation that he will have some remarkable vision to recount when or if he wakes. They'd all been reading too many broadside ballads in the vein of Saint Bernard's Vision. In the absence of L-dopa, not very much anyone could do - though they could at least have tried to get rid of the fleas.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Strange and foreign forms, 1807

A busy week for me, but teaching prompted me to look at texts I’d never read before – Nahum Tate’s absurd version of Richard II briefly entertained me (what a silly project for a proponent of James II that was!). I also spent some time reading the poems of Charlotte Smith. The Elegiac Sonnets are, in Hugh Kenner’s term, counterfeit. But I liked ‘Beachy Head’, and as it is some time since I did a posting about geology in literature, I shall mount that hobbyhorse.

Smith begins her poem imagining the formation of the Channel, and later speculates about the fossil bivalves and ammonites she sees in the chalk. Her first line is to entertain the old notion that they are just freaks of nature. But that explanation doesn’t satisfy her, and she speculates (as in the opening of her poem) about real geological processes, of the chalk being formed under water, and uplifted to form her local landscape, the South Downs:

And still, observing objects more minute, 372
Wondering remark the strange and foreign forms
Of sea-shells; with the pale calcareous soil
Mingled, and seeming of resembling substance.
Tho' surely the blue Ocean (from the heights
Where the downs westward trend, but dimly seen)
Here never roll'd its surge. Does Nature then
Mimic, in wanton mood, fantastic shapes
Of bivalves, and inwreathed volutes, that cling 380
To the dark sea-rock of the wat'ry world?
Or did this range of chalky mountains, once
Form a vast bason, where the Ocean waves
Swell'd fathomless? What time these fossil shells,
Buoy'd on their native element, were thrown
Among the imbedding calx: when the huge hill
Its giant bulk heaved, and in strange ferment
Grew up a guardian barrier, 'twixt the sea
And the green level of the sylvan weald.

More interestingly, in a subsequent passage Smith is apparently reacting to large fossil bones being found, and she wonders if these might be the remains of elephants brought into England by the Romans: 'Some lone antiquary' she says

perhaps may trace,

Or fancy he can trace, the oblong square
Where the mail'd legions, under Claudius, rear'd
The rampire, or excavated fossé delved;
What time the huge unwieldy Elephant
Auxiliary reluctant, hither led,
From Afric's forest glooms and tawny sands,
First felt the Northern blast, and his vast frame
Sunk useless; whence in after ages found,
The wondering hinds, on those enormous bones
Gaz'd; and in giants dwelling on the hills
Believed and marvell'd---

There had been, and would be, worse guesses. The intriguing aspect of this is that her poem is published in 1807, while Gideon Mantell did not start finding local dinosaur bones until 1820, in the quarry at Cuckfield, North of Lewes. Perhaps Charlotte Smith was no longer thinking of local fossil finds, but has heard about Baron Georges Cuvier, who was already publishing on extinct mammalian fauna – though his study was not in English till quite a bit later. Cuvier himself would assert that Mantell’s iguanodon teeth belonged to an extinct rhinoceros. But bones from dinosaurs are not unheard of in the chalk, and Smith does seem to be writing with local reference. Mantell’s early collection was of marine fossils from that formation, so maybe his efforts to collect fossil bones owed something to what was being talked about locally.

This anticipation in poetry of the historically recorded moment of discovery reminds me of Shelley scooping Dean Buckland in Prometheus Unbound IV, 309 ff – writing in 1819, while Buckland would not name the first dinosaur till 1824 (Megalosaurus):

the might
Of earth-convulsing behemoth, which once
Were monarch beasts, and on the slimy shores,
And weed-overgrown continents of earth,
Increased and multiplied like summer worms

On an abandoned corpse, till the blue globe

Wrapped deluge round it like a cloak, and they
Yelled, gasped, and were abolished; or some God
Whose throne was in a comet, passed, and cried,
'Be not!' And like my words they were no more.

Shelley’s prescience outdoes Charlotte Smith’s, for he brilliantly surmises the extinction of the monarch beasts as a consequence of a passing comet, an idea that would wait for Luis and Walter Alvarez in 1980.

My photograph is of Tim not enjoying being at Beachy Head a year or so ago.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Child Art, 1914

The eleventh of the eleventh, and Remembrance Sunday tomorrow, prompts me to post this drawing by my maternal grandfather, Harry Handforth, in 1914.

It was probably done at Apperknowle school (near Sheffield) some time around the outbreak of the war. He would have been 10 at the time, and one surmises that the children were given paper and the chance to express their feelings. This image of defiance was clearly thought to have been a great success, and it got taken home and was pinned up for years in the family cottage in Summmerlee, before finding its way into a book for safe-keeping.

Grandad left school at 12 to work on a farm, and would take cart-loads of turnips over to Sheffield to sell. Later, he worked down a coal mine called the Mackerel Colliery because its workings were so wet. He was a foundryman throughout World War 2, making tanks and repairing 17-pounder guns (some of those brought in still smeared with the blood of their former gun-crews).

My mother does not think that they had enough money at home for the drawing to have been done there (making such a luxury as sheets of drawing paper unlikely). My grandfather's mother had died when he was seven, seven weeks after the birth of her fourth child. All four children were taken in by their grandmother, who was 72, but who lived to see all the children married, and herself a great-grandmother.

There cannot be much surviving child art from World War One. Grandad got it all in - Nelson, jutting chin, a bulldog guarding the flag, sabre, pistol and bandolier. It might be a copy from a newspaper image, but Grandad was a good draughtsman, and used a fine copperplate script when he wrote. He was an awesome - and yet surprisingly tolerant - figure to me in my childhood, immoderately proud of my academic success. He died in 1993, just before the birth of his great-grandchild Tim, but the kind of patriarch that you made sure knew that the family was going to extend again.

Friday, November 10, 2006

My kind of scene.

I’ve been asked to declare myself. As ever, I wrap myself in the cloak of literature (maybe a little less tightly), and offer by way of reply John Berryman’s 4th Dream Song:

Filling her compact & delicious body

with chicken paprika, she glanced at me


Fainting with interest, I hungered back

and only the fact of her husband & four other people

kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying

“You are the hottest one for years of night

Henry’s dazed eyes

have enjoyed, Brilliance.” I advanced upon

(despairing) my spumoni. – Sir Bones: is stuffed,

de world, wif feeding girls.

- Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes

downcast … The slob beside her ... feasts … What wonders is

she sitting on, over there?

The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.

Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.

- Mr. Bones: there is.

Laying it on thick

I’ve been reading the Miscellany Poems (1691) of Thomas Heyrick. In themselves, quite interesting, but surpassed in artistry by his prefatory material dedicating the collection to Katherine, Countess of Rutland. Being a clergyman obviously gives you a certain edge when it comes to the art of flattery (all that practice, after all), and Heyrick laid it on shamelessly:

“When I first intended to Dedicate these Poems to Your Name, beside the Thoughts of their Unworthiness, I was chiefly deterr'd by the Consideration of these Two Things, the Greatness of Your Quality and the Perspicuity of your Judgment: But then I was a little Encourag'd again, when I reflected, that the Meanest Creature was not debarr'd making Address to the Highest of Beings, but was rather commanded it …”

Isn’t that excellent in its kind? The cleric reflects that we are commanded to pray to God, and so (he humbly insinuates) this gives him an excuse for addressing her. There’s more, much more:

"… I confess even there what belongs to Me is full of Weakness; but it could be no otherwise, since in Subjects so Sublime, as Your Self, the most Towring Flights must of necessity flag, Things too High above Us not admitting a Definition; and as in Beauteous Faces there is something, We cannot Name, that exceeds the Pencil's Art, so in Excellent Personages there are Vertues, of which Common Souls have no Notion; but they Soar above the Description of the Loftiest Fancy … And doubtless though Poetry is usually suspected of Flattery, yet any One, who considers the Charms of Your Beauty, the Sharpness of Your Wit, the Depth of Your Judgment, the Candour of Your Temper, and Nobility of your Birth, will acknowledge, that You are plac'd above the reach of it; that, which would be Flattery to another, not measuring the least Part of Your Perfections."

In case her attention flagged when the poems themselves started, Heyrick followed up with another effusion, this time a rhapsody in verse:

‘To the Right Honourable Katherine Countess of Rutland.’

the bold Artist, that of You would speak,
Should Patterns from Celestial Natures take;
And stamp his Soul in an Angelick Mold;
Er'e he Your Vertues should attempt to' unfold …

… He that, how Good, of Great You are, would show,
Had need the Depth of Heavenly wisdom know:
For all we deal with here doth flag too low.
Angels the Mighty work should undertake …

… Had but the Early Centuries, that could find
The Vertues and the Graces Woman-kind,
Seen the Fair Draughts of Your Celestial Mind:
New Sexes to their Deities they 'had given,
Nor left one Single God to rule in Heaven.

This imagining of a heaven filled with Goddesses all modeled on her seems to leave reference to Olympus behind, and half-indicate that he is ready to worship her in place of God. As he has been doing: that he’s a clergyman just adds to the value of it all. Then he gets started on her children.

I’ve since been browsing on the MLA database, and really, there doesn’t seem to be enough scholarship on what was, for the early modern author, a most important form of writing. Among the potentially interesting pieces are Andrew McCrae on ‘The Poetics of Sycophancy: Ben Jonson and the Caroline Court’ and Frank Whigham on ‘The Rhetoric of Elizabethan Suitor’s Letters’, but there seems to be a large gap in relation to the master himself, John Donne, and no obvious single study. But it is the kind of thing that early criticism did remark upon: I recall Dr Johnson weighing up whether Dryden or Aphra Behn was the better butterer.

Maybe there have been conferences (and what fun they would have been, if everyone rose to the subject in an orgy of co-laudation). My picture is of course Van Dyck doing the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham as Venus and Adonis.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Itch of Learning

I ought to be forging ahead marking essays (thirty-odd first year students falling over themselves in an effort to sound like Emeritus Professors of Literature while discussing any two of Milton’s sonnets). Instead, I have been reading every Renaissance flea poem on the LION database. If someone has to do it, then why shouldn't that someone be me? As I pottered, the project shaped up into another of my visionary critical studies. Primo Levi would be my guide (because of his essay, ‘The Leap of the Flea’: “only a few decades ago [the flea was] part of European civilization and folklore”). But then I remembered Steven Connor's disquisitions on flies

and decided that fleas were clearly just too large a project to take on.

I'd been reading Thomas Heyrick’s Miscellany Poems of 1691, when I found that it includes, rather bafflingly, the following extravagance by one Joshua Barnes:

'On a Flea presented to a Lady, whose Breast it had bitten, in a Golden Wire, Extempore 1679.'

Here, Madam, take this Humble Slave,
Once vile, but, since your blood is in him, Brave!
I saw him surfeit on your Lovely Breast;
And snatch'd the Traitor from that precious Feast.
For his Attempt sure He by me had died;
But the respect I bore your Blood deny'd.
The Gods forbid, fair Madam, that by me
Your Blood be shed although in this poor Flea!---
'Twas Sacrilege in him those Drops to draw;
But now that Treasure in his skin doth lie,
It consecrates his Life and strikes an awe;
That no bold Nail dare make the Traitor die.
Nay if a Quaff of Nectar once could make
Mankind Immortal, as the Poets feign,
This Flea can never die for that Drop’s sake,
Which he hath suck'd, sweet Madam, from your Vein;
At least no human Power his life can spill,
(Which lies in your pure blood, that can't decay:)
But You, whose Property's to save and kill,
As you did lend that Blood, may take't away.
Then lo! ---this Royal Slave in chains of Gold,
Here I submit most humbly to your doom:
Either let Mercy him your Prisoner hold,
Or let your Ivory Nail prepare his Tomb!
Oh! could he speak, I'm sure the Wretch would crave
A Prisoner's life, to be confin'd with You:
Nay he could be content to meet his Grave;
If by your Hand death might to him accrue.
Go, happy Flea! for now to One you go,
Gives Bliss, if She's your Friend, and Glory, if your Foe.

I guess that spotting a flea springing from a lady friend was just one of those things that might happen - William Cavendish, a man not unfamiliar with a variety of bed companions, regards fleas as something that ‘females are moste given to’. Maybe such an incident was one of those mildly embarrassing moments of common frailty which it was polite to laugh off, like wind or a gurgling stomach. So Barnes’s poem makes gallant fun of it all, in a vein of comic exaggeration. If the Donne poem is in the background, it stays there, and any memory of its naughtiness served to render Barnes’s poem harmless fun (in the knowledge that the topic could have been exploited so much more insidiously).

I thought I’d done quite well to include in the notes to my Donne edition the other flea poem attributed to Donne (it begins ‘Madam, that flea which crept between your breast /I envied…’) and John Davies of Hereford’s try at this sub-Ovidian genre. But I missed William Drummond (who did two), this by Barnes, and many more references.

But that’s computer databases for you. I suspect that LION, and what it can do, is by now a bigger influence on what we study and write than, say, Stephen Greenblatt. Or maybe that's just me betraying my foibles.

The picture is Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s rather charming ‘The Searcher for Fleas’, of about 1730. The artist did two flea pictures, but Georges de la Tour’s take on the theme is the most famous. It’s on the Web Gallery of Art, whose estimable compiler takes a wild interpretative swing at it: “No authentic De La Tour depicts such an obviously banal theme without a deeper meaning. The only symbol in the picture is the solitary candle burning on the chair, and it is surely not too speculative to suggest that the picture might represent the pregnant Virgin, isolated by Joseph when he discovers that she is with child, the candle thus symbolizing the forthcoming Christ as the Light of the World.”

Which reminds me to get back to my year one essays.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Such admirable art...

I was looking at John Dowland's First Book of Songes, and noticed that it concludes with 'an invention by the sayd Author for two to playe upon one Lute'. So I hied me to the in-house greenwood, etc, and was disappointed to find that my purported 'Complete Lute Music' of Dowland (vinyl LP's that already feel quite thrillingly ancient, almost Elizabethan themselves) do not include this rather jolly stunt - and frankly, my dears, the delicate young men who twangle their way through the five discs look as though the close proximities required by the two-men-on-a-single-lute business might have been just too overwhelming to contemplate.

But too the rescue comes the internet, with, amazingly, a whole collection of free mp3's of Dowland duos, including the 'Lord Chamberlain's galliard', the piece in question.

So here's the link:

and here's the full page of their other toys, fancies, dumps, almains (and the rest):

(***Now, I hope repaired: 7th November)

What you don't get is any assurance that Kenji Sano and Jinke Nosa performed the galliard together on the single instrument. There are no giggles or brief breaks for self disentanglement. Maybe there's a film on YouTube one could use to verify. The galliard was very much a dance for male display, I think Dowland maybe did divert it a little here towards male intimacy. But I assume male players, rather we might imagine that if your plucking was up to it, you might have canoodled pleasantly in this manner with Lady Mary Wroth, bassus to her cantus (though the arch lute she totes in her famous portrait perhaps allowed plenty of space for chaste distance anyway).

Thomas Coryate, footing it towards Venice, heard another remarkable performance in the Tuileries Garden:
"At the end of this garden is an exceeding fine Eccho. For I heard a certain Frenchman who sung very melodiously with curious quavers, sing with such admirable art, that upon the resounding of the Eccho there seemed three to sound together" (Coryates Crudities, 1611, p. 27). The only example I know off-hand of a song with an echo is the wonderful 'In a dark shady grove/Our charms we prepare/Too dreadful a practice/For the open air' chorus in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. But I am ignorant, and there must have been hundreds. But music sung to a literal echo?

One of our first year students happened to play me 'Greensleeves' on her psaltery last week. It is not often you can use a sentence like that (and it's hard to write without getting the giggles). On College premises too. No, literally. Things are looking up.