The moment & the museum

Fun to find Stuart’s post on Hydragenic just now, part of which is below:

If I frame and capture something without conscious plagiarism, it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s been done before. The uniqueness is in the moment and the relationship.

I’d argue that distinctiveness and consistency are more desirable. Cumulative weight adds gravity, complexity and resonance. All leaves are singular, but a tree gives them purpose.

Stuart distinguishes between the artist’s act (intent and the moment’s art) and the result (objective “art”). In my post last night (Music on paper), I distinguish between Homer (as he’s been defined since the 60’s) and the modern writer. But I think we arrive at the same place: plagiarism and copyright rules try to protect artists at the expense of art and culture.

Music on paper

If Homer was really a poet’s guild reciting and refining a couple of great tales over centuries — a notion popularized in the 1960’s, and a notion that I’ve latched onto — then are we writing anything that way today?

Copyright laws and plagiarism rules keep us from improving on our forebears’ work. Yet nothing comes from nothing. Or nothing much.

Survey courses, maybe all of literary criticism, are attempts to hear a chorus instead of a simple series of solos. So instead of Homer, we hear Cleanth Brooks, Claude Levi-Strauss, etc. We hear music on paper.

Reading two or three novels at once is my single stand against this dark side of intellectual property law. When my simple mind conflates the characters and plots, and even the tones and themes, I feel like one of Zeus’ eagles sent to soar over the assembly.

Brooding

And certainly poetry is not the inculcation of morals, or the direction of politics; and no more is it religion or an equivalent of religion, except by some monstrous abuse of words . . . . On the other hand, poetry as certainly has something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what.

– T. S. Eliot, from his preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood

T. S. Eliot was a poet, but he was also a man, and I imagine and care about and defend the man, and do so without defending his religion or his politics or even his poetics, because of his poetry.

Eliot wouldn’t have liked that – I mean, the care I profess for him through his poetry. He could make no connection to himself through his published poems. If he could have in a given case, the poem in question would hardly have been worth publishing. That is (and to state the contraposition), Eliot’s successful poem entirely replaced the feeling that gave rise to it. The feeling was private, anyway, and is of no interest to anyone but the poet.

Particularly in Eliot’s case, however, the opposite was true. It seems as if everyone were interested in what Eliot was thinking and feeling when he wrote his poetry. Everyone, it seems, except Eliot. Although he thought highly of parts of The Waste Land, for instance, he said for him it was “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”1 He thought highly of his poem only in the context of the tradition it entered. There was nothing of him left in the poem to connect with as its creator.

Tradition alone is objective, Eliot thought, so poetry is tradition’s alone. To “surrender to the tradition,” as Frank Kermode explains it, Eliot was required to lose whatever emotional fillip first caused him to pick up his pen. Eliot approved of Gottfried Benn’s description of the poet’s process:

When the words are finally arranged in the right way – or in what he comes to accept as the best arrangement he can find – [the poet] may experience a moment of exhaustion, of appeasement, of absolution, and of something very near annihilation, which is in itself indescribable. And then he can say to the poem: “Go away! Find a place for yourself in a book – and don’t expect me to take any further interest in you.”2

Eliot’s poems left him to make their way in the world, or at least in the world of tradition, which for Eliot was the same thing.

T. S. Eliot

Tradition fed Eliot’s aesthetics and made room for his poems, but tradition also gave Eliot a sense of himself as both a public and private man. Try to ignore the public Eliot, and the private Eliot will meet you at his door with ironic, mirthless laughter. Eliot insisted on his masks, and not just because he was a playwright. Masks make men – public men, anyway, and public men take the pressure off and even defend the private men they correlate to. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” then, is not just part of Eliot’s rather uncomplicated poetics. Just as a poem’s impersonality comes “at the expense of its correlation with the suffering of its author” (Kermode’s explanation)3, so the health of a man’s public persona comes at the price one pays to protect his private self.

Eliot’s tradition wasn’t merely a literary tradition. The tradition that permits greater means of understanding and evaluating Eliot’s poetry involves arts, letters, education, religion, and politics. He was driven to Roman Catholicism in part because of its catholicity. He was driven to conservative and imperialist politics in part because of what his poems required of him. Kermode explains that there was in Eliot “an element of mysticism also, and a scholastic sense of the complexities of time and eternity” that informed his religion and politics.4 Tradition is not just literature but also tradition’s public sphere and the public men and women who walk around it. No tradition, no poetry, and worse: no public man.

° ° °

Though Eliot’s politics fail even as a guardian over an artistic tradition5, I’m drawn to his notion of poetry as “something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what.” Eliot hated the idea of a society of sequestered religious, literary, and political specialists, a problem that has steadily grown worse since he wrote about it:

And just as those who should be the intellectuals regard theology as a special study, like numismatics or heraldry, with which they need not concern themselves, and theologians observe the same indifference to literature and art, as special studies which do not concern them, so our political classes regard both fields as territories of which they have no reason to be ashamed of remaining in complete ignorance.6

The sequestration of politics, religion, and art, he believed, is endangering the planet’s physical health:

For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: I would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet. And without sentimentalizing the life of the savage, we might practice the humility to observe, in some of the societies upon which we look down as primitive or backward, the operation of a social-religious-artistic complex which we should emulate upon a higher plane.7

Yes.

I brood a lot, as I guess my occasional screeds suggest. I’m no politician, theologian, or literary scholar. But as a lawyer I worked with politicians, as a church worker I had an interest in theology, and as an English teacher I’ve kept my hand in literature. Over the past number of years I find that my blog has divided itself among political, religious, and literary posts. Nothing could have pleased me more than finally finding some common ground among my three interests, as I reported recently in an update to an old post, “Our Sardonic Lord.”

I viscerally feel the lack of Eliot’s so-called “social-religious-artistic complex” if only because I feel torn among something like these three callings while something inside tells me I should hear them as one.

I am afraid to move: there is little left of a public sphere. “When the wicked rise, men hide themselves” (Proverbs 28:28). I like to hide; besides, I’m certainly no more talented than the next man. But the calling itself, whether it ever involves anything like action, is primarily a call to brood – to pray.

My heroes, too, are often brooders. I frequently picture three of them, and all of their actions or inactions I trace to their brooding. I have a primary brooder in each field – literary, political, and religious. It’s a good thing for me Eliot isn’t my literary brooder since he believed that he left nothing of himself in his poems.

Instead, my mind finds comfort in Robert Lax, the promising poet who left America in the 1960’s to become a hermit in Patmos until just before his death in 2000. I see him writing one, maybe two words, thinking about them for an hour or so, and then going down to the shore. Thomas Merton on his friend Lax:

. . . a mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate.8

My political brooder is Lincoln. I’ve read loads of Lincoln books, but the scene that sticks closest to me is the one Stephen B. Oates, in his Sandburg-like biography With Malice Toward None, engenders:

In 1853, Lincoln was riding circuit when reports came of new Congressional skirmishing over slavery in the territories. It appeared that Senator Stephen A. Douglas was trying to organize a Nebraska territory out in the American heartland, but free-soil and proslavery forces were wrangling bitterly over the status of slavery there. Lincoln followed the course of Douglas’s territorial bill as it was reported in the Congressional Globe, and he became melancholy again. Friends who saw him sitting alone in rural courthouses thought him more withdrawn than ever. Once when they went to bed in a rude hostelry, they left him sitting in front of the fireplace staring intently at the flames. The next morning he was still there, studying the ashes and charred logs . . . . [ellipse original]9

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill the following year pushed Lincoln to act. “In a single blow, the bill had obliterated the Missouri Compromise line and in Lincoln’s view had profoundly altered the entire course of the Republic so far as slavery was concerned.”10 But rightly or wrongly, I trace back every action Lincoln took after Kansas-Nebraska to that all-nighter in front of the fireplace.

My religious brooder is the Sprit itself:

. . . the earth was wild and waste,
darkness over the face of Ocean,
rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—11

Some translations have the Spirit in action – “moving” – and others have it brooding – “hovering.” But Fox captures for me the possibility of both, the “rushing-spirit . . . hovering.” Fox also captures best what for me is the next-most pivotal verse in scripture, the verse after which Israel, as slaves and without a public life, would slowly begin to emerge from Egypt:

God hearkened to their moaning,
God called-to-mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Yaakov,
God saw the Children of Israel,
God knew.12

 

  1. Kermode, Frank. Introduction. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1975. Print. At 17.
  2. Id. at 17-18.
  3. Id. at 17
  4. Id. at 19
  5. He fears “an irresponsible democracy” as much as “a pagan theory of the State.” Holding Italy up as a positive example in 1939, he writes that the operation of such a pagan theory “does not necessarily mean a wholly pagan society.” He rejects democracy as potential home for a vibrant literature “unless democracy is to mean something very different from anything actual” (The Idea of a Christian Society).  Picking up the spirit of his book title – mine might be The Idea of a Liberal Democracy – I might respond that American democracy means something very different from anything actual.

     

    Eliot fears modern democracy because the community is solely a servant of the individual; he fears totalitarian states because the individual is solely a servant of the state (see his essay “Religion and Literature”). I fear both, too. The liberal notion of equality and its consequent majority rule held in check by reason and nature has been given a bad name by our tendency toward a Jacobin notion of unlimited majority rule that leads in time to one or the other extremes Eliot fears. Lockean liberalism requires God because it requires men and women with equal rights – none of them a god over his fellows. Locke’s equality leaves each man his property and, as a necessary consequence, makes room for his talents, artistic and otherwise. To showcase those talents it contemplates a vibrant public life; indeed, Madison’s overarching purpose for a separation of powers and a bicameral legislature was to model public discourse to the young nation.

    Like a number of Catholic writers, Eliot seems receptive to the notion of natural law. He writes about mankind’s relation to nature and God as if he were pining for a return of Locke’s philosophy. In Christian Society, he points out an imbalance in the hierarchy among God, humanity, and nature:

    . . . a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and that the consequence is an inevitable doom. For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: I would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet. . . . We have been accustomed to regard “progress” as always integral; and have yet to learn that it is only by an effort and a discipline, greater than society has yet seen the need of imposing upon itself, that material knowledge and power is gained without loss of spiritual knowledge and power. (We must) struggle to recover the sense of relation to nature and to God, (and) the recognition that even the most primitive feelings should be part of our heritage . . .

    Locke’s natural law, of course, is mostly part of a tradition stretching back to Aquinas’s natural law, and from there back to ancient Israel and Athens. It has far more tradition associated with it than does the more modern doctrine of the divine right of kings. I like to think Eliot would have liked Locke had he read him.

  6. Eliot, T. S. “The Idea of a Christian Society.” 1939. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1975. 285-91. Print.
  7. Id.
  8. Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948. Print.
  9. Oates, Stephen B. With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print. At 107.
  10. Id. at 108.
  11. Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy ; a New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes. New York: Schocken, 1995. Print. Genesis 1:2-3
  12. Id. Exodus 2:24 – 25.

Poetics

1:0  Fillip

1:1  A poet finds his fillip in a poem’s flushed lips. She eats him, and he starts to work, carving psalms, like Jonah, in her taut, wet maw.

1:2  Poems’ lips are everywhere: in halls, on walls, at balls.  A poet who hears the lips a lot or who sees the lips part is a sort of sot.

1:3  A poem: part lips, part ways.

1:4  A painter’s subject can distract him from his first idea, Bonnard warned.  But poetry is distraction from the poet’s fillip, his first idea.

1:5  Poets in their ecstasy don’t channel poems.  Instead, poems in their lassitude channel-surf poets.

1:6  Poets think of parted lips, splayed legs.  But the urge to write, the fillip, is really for the propagation of poetry.  Poems understand this.

1:7  A poem is domestic, farouche. There’s nothing wild about a poem, even one through Whitman or Thomas.  Dickinson, a savage, understood this.

1:8  I recall dramatic poems at college, like Browning’s & Eliot’s, but most were psych majors. (Never English; one dorm poem sniggered at my poetics paper.)

2:0  Silence

2:1  Poems part their lips, but they aren’t hookers. Many live chaste. In fact, the best poems aren’t spoken or written, & so it will always be.

2:2  Some poems are silent from the womb, some their recalcitrant poets silence, while others have gone ineffable for the kingdom’s sake.

2:3  Even a poem, if she holds her peace, is counted wise.

3:0  Shadow

3:1  A poem is apophatic, farouche.  The paper’s the poem.

3:2  The poet sculpts paper until the paper’s poetry.  A stodge of verse breaks down at his feet.

3:3  As a lawyer, I once deposed a guy at CIA headquarters. Afterwards, agents scissored the classified words from my notes. All I kept was the poetry.

3:4  The poem’s shadow is the poem.  And what’s the poem.

.Instituto Pasteur, Lisboa, Portugal

“Instituto Pasteur, Lisboa, Portugal” by Biblioteca de Arte-Fundacao Caoluste Gulbenkian. Used by permission. “Trill” are my Twitters. Tweet suites from @slowreads.

Slow crux

This past month, in the process of changing my blog’s look and adjusting its focus, I uncovered a lot of essays on slow reading. An essay by Dave Bonta, another by Teju Cole, one by Fiona Robyn, and lots by me. I decided to put the best of them in one place.

I’ve done something like that before. Three essays I grouped two site renovations ago amounted to an introduction to slow reading. The ten essays I selected this month take on the subject from more angles and more writers’ perspectives.

Sorting through these old posts made me wonder why I had never asked John Miedema, a Canadian blogger and the author of Slow Reading, for an essay. John and I live just outside our respective nations’ capitals, and he represents to me a kind of slow reads completion, his yin (which, after all, literally means “north slope”) to my yang. We met online five years ago tomorrow when both of our sites landed on the same MetaFilter page celebrating the Slow Movement.

Today he said yes. “Slow reading” was his blog’s first post, and he feels it still summarizes his views on the subject. The post exemplifies John’s usual depth and succinctness, and I’m grateful he let me republish it here as part of the core.

Slow reading has its social, creative, educational, oral, literary, spiritual, poetic, and sensual aspects, and I hope the core posts open some eyes and ears. Links to the posts appear in the left margin’s slide-out side panel under “The specials.”

Marginal

On Space. Architects are Taoists. As proof, juxtapose the following quotes:

Solid-void theory . . . holds that the volumetric spaces shaped or implied by the placement of solid objects are as important as, or more important than, the objects themselves.

— Matthew Frederick, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (thing #5)

Thirty spokes are united around the hub to make a wheel,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the carriage depends.
Clay is molded to form a utensil,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the utensil depends.
Doors and windows are cut out to make a room,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the room depends.
Therefore turn being into advantage, and turn non-being into utility.

— Lao Tzu, Tao-te ching, chapter 11 (translated by Wing-Tsit Chan)

Chan, Lao Tzu’s translator in the philosophically and historically rigorous The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te-ching), states in a comment that “this chapter alone should dispel any idea that Taoism is negativistic, for non-being — the hole in the hub, the hollowness of a utensil, the empty space in the room — is here conceived not as nothingness but as something useful and advantageous. . . . It was because of the Taoist insistence on the positive value of non-being that empty space has been utilized as a constructive factor in Chinese landscape painting. In this greatest art of China, space is used to combine the various elements into an organic whole and to provide a setting in which the onlooker’s imagination may work. By the same token, much is left unsaid in Chinese poetry, for the reader must lay a creative role to bring the poetic idea into full realization.”

It seems to me that Lao Tzu is using non-being in these three examples in a physical sense as a way to predispose his reader to a more abstract understanding of non-being. But I guess the little I know about the Buddhist idea of Emptiness, which came a bit later to China, predisposes me to think that the Taoist notion of non-being is surprisingly utilitarian. Of course, the Tao-te ching can come across like Machiavelli’s The Prince sometimes with its seemingly cynical advice to rulers. But I do like how Lao Tzu’s notion of non-being works in architecture, painting, poetry, and spoons.

Marginal

On Philosophy in fiction. Roland Barthes puts it this way (as only he could have):

There are those who want a text (an art, a painting) without a shadow, without the “dominant ideology”; but this is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text (see the myth of the Woman without a Shadow). The text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro. [Emphasis original]

The Pleasure of the Text, page 32.

Marginal

On Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom. Having dropped out of Little Dorrit after the first trimester, I am determined to see Bleak House through. I’ve been listening to a delightful audio recording. I woke up on an elliptical machine from a protracted daydream yesterday, though, and found that I had almost entirely lost the thread.

So I just visited CliffsNotes’s web site, where I read this:

In the Snagsbys and their maid Guster, Dickens again shows his penchant for oddity, caricature, and the grotesque. Like other Victorian novelists, Dickens gives far more attention to such minor characters than is demanded by the plot. Such generosity in creation was more acceptable to Dickens’ readers than to today’s. The Victorian age, recall, was less hurried than ours and, in any event, it took more delight in reading. [From the summary of chapter 12.]

First I nodded in agreement at this reminder, which cannot be overstated. Then I was more impressed: I took in the breath units baked into that last sentence. Those commas, those interruptors and phrases! They all slowed down the sentence, making it a perfect vehicle for its content.

Then I “recalled” something more: I was reading CliffsNotes. As an English teacher, I’ve taken persistent and largely ineffectual steps to discourage students from going to this site. How ironic, how audacious for CliffsNotes to preach to us about slow reading!

Then, after my indignation subsided, more: I, my students’ company commander, who has been boldly overseeing the field in the general cultural retreat, was reading CliffsNotes.

And how was I reading CliffsNotes? (If you’re familiar with Bleak House, you may recognize the Rev. Mr. Chadband’s rhetorical approach, which I instinctively model. The Reverend may put his listeners to sleep, but he really knows how to break down a text.)

And how (rejoining myself, already in progress, if  “progress” is the right word) was I reading CliffsNotes? As an aid to a long and fairly unfocused text. As a means of adopting an unhurried text to my hurried lifestyle. As a means of bridging the centuries. As a way of taking in the entire, sprawling battlefield in my fight to read this text.

Perhaps Roland Barthes would have agreed that I was having my boredom and eating it, too. I like to think so.

This series of realizations happened in a few seconds, but it has made me reconsider my fusillades against online summaries. And for the first time, I wonder if CliffsNotes and its ilk might help my students in conjunction with, and not in place of, a long text.

This is more than fame

[Photo of Dixon]During his three years in a poor but beautiful part of Wales where he would learn the Welsh language as perhaps the single thing he had time to enjoy outside of his theological studies he was assigned to undertake as part of his training to become a Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins began writing poetry again. He had burnt all of his poetry seven years earlier when he had joined the Jesuits.

Hopkins’s rector at St. Beuno’s in Wales, Father Jones, who had a better feel for Hopkins’s true gifting than any of his superiors to date – Jesuit superiors as well as his superiors at Oxford, where he had converted to Catholicism around age twenty – saw how moved Hopkins had become reading in The Times about the foundering of the North German steamer Deutschland off the English coast and suggested that someone at the theologate write an ode celebrating the lives of the five Catholic nuns who drowned in the disaster.  Hopkins volunteered.  The papers were still adding to the public’s knowledge of what happened when Hopkins began writing his ode.

Hopkins sent The Wreck of the Deutschland to The Month, a Jesuit magazine, which took a few months to reject it.  During The Month’s consideration, the pump primed by the Deutschland, Hopkins had written a few sonnets and a curtal sonnet, including three of his most famous poems: “God’s Grandeur,” “Pied Beauty,” and “The Windhover,” the last of which Hopkins always considered his finest poem.  These sonnets contained his sprung rhythm, which was his new system of meter that counted only the stressed syllables in a given line, and the cyngnedd – consonantal chiming – that he had picked up from the Welsh.  He took no steps to publish any of these sonnets.

For the first couple of years after becoming a priest at the end of his stay in Wales, Hopkins was sent to various assignments for short periods, and he rarely had the time or the inclination to write poetry.  Before leaving Wales, though, he had sent some of his work, including the Deutschland, to his good friend Robert Bridges, a doctor who, in his old age, would become England’s poet laureate.

Bridges hated the Deutschland and offered Hopkins little encouragement about it or about another ode about another shipwreck, The Loss of the Eurydice, which Hopkins had written in ways that incorporated some of the criticism that Bridges had offered about the Deutschland.  Still, Bridges was a poetic lifeline for Hopkins: he was an old Oxford friend and a good poet, and the two of them enjoyed their correspondence particularly about English verse, past and present. And Hopkins, for his part, was never less than candid with Bridges about the merits and faults of the latter’s poetry.  Bridges, a more conventional poet, was busy getting published.

Discouraged about his poems’ receptions, Hopkins, then thirty-three years old, remembered an obscure Anglican priest, Richard Watson Dixon (photographed above), a master at the Highgate School while Hopkins was attending it before he matriculated to Oxford.  Dixon had left a book of his own poems with one of the other masters when he left Highgate, and the title caught Hopkins’s eye.  And then, in 1878, about thirteen years after the fact, Hopkins decided to write him.

After introducing himself to Dixon, Hopkins told him how he had taken the book with him to Oxford and became “so fond of it that I made it, so far as that could be, a part of my own mind.”  He also had found another book by Dixon, and treasured that, too.  When Hopkins became a Jesuit, “I knew I could have no books of my own and was unlikely to meet with your works in the libraries I should have access to, [so] I copied out St. Paul, St. John, Love’s Consolation, and others from both volumes and keep them by me.”

“How many beautiful works ‘have been almost unknown and then have gained fame at last,’ he surmises, though no doubt ‘many more must have been lost sight of altogether.’”  Paul Mariani quotes Hopkins in his 2008 biography Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life (202), which I’m about halfway through reading. Mariani continues:

“You cannot but know that I must be deeply moved,” Dixon responded.  “Nay shaken to the very centre, by such a letter as that which you have sent me: for which I thank you from my inmost heart. . . . I can in truth hardly realize that what I have written, which has been generally, almost universally, neglected, should have been so much valued and treasured.  This is more than fame: and I may truly say that when I read your Letter, and whenever I take it out of my pocket to look at it, I feel that I prefer to have been so known & prized by one, than to have had the ordinary appreciation of many.”

A lively correspondence blossomed, benefiting both men.  Six letters into the correspondence, Hopkins forwarded Dixon his two odes at Dixon’s request. Mariani writes,“A week later, a stunned Dixon replies, having read Hopkins’s poems with more ‘delight, astonishment, & admiration’ than he can easily say. ‘They are among the most extraordinary I ever read & amazingly original,’ he gasps, and they must – must – be published” (220).

According to Wikipedia:

Canon Dixon’s first two volumes of verse, Christ’s Company and Historical Odes, were published in 1861 and 1863 respectively; but it was not until 1883 that he attracted conspicuous notice with Mano, an historical poem in terza rima, which was enthusiastically praised by Mr. [Algernon Charles] Swinburne.  This success he followed up by three privately printed volumes, Odes and Eclogues (1884), Lyrical Poems (1886), and The Story of Eudocia (1888).

Dixon’s poems were during the last fifteen years of his life recognized as scholarly and refined exercises, touched with both dignity and a certain severe beauty, but he never attained any general popularity as a poet, the appeal of his poetry being directly to the scholar.

To me, this is the enterprise we enjoy as bloggers and microbloggers.  Not fame, but a knowing: to be someone for another to write for, and in turn to have someone to write for.  I feel so much gratitude for you, my readers, and particularly (naturally) for the one whom, at any given point in my writing, “I have been so known & prized by.”

An update: This morning, while reading the novelist and poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s preface to The Last Poems of Richard Watson Dixon, which volume was published in 1905, I discovered a reference to Hopkins.  In her preface, Coleridge listed a number of well-known poets who had praised the unsung Dixon: Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris among them.  Then this:

There was one who gave more than praise.  A young Oxford student of brilliantly original power loved the poems of Richard Watson Dixon with such devotion that, when he entered the ranks of the Jesuits and was forbidden to take any books with him, he copied out almost all those in his possession.  Such minds as these do not labor in vain; others trust in them, follow their lead.

The world was still pregnant with Hopkins’s fame almost twenty years after his death, and Coleridge did not bother to name him in her preface.  She apparently had had access to Dixon’s papers, though, since she seems to have had access to the letter from Hopkins that had meant so much to Dixon.  I wonder if she read Hopkins’s odes that he had sent to Dixon or if her assessment of Hopkins as possessed of “brilliantly original power” was simply borrowed from Dixon.

But I love how her “more than praise” echoes Dixon’s “more than fame.”  Hopkins’s dedication to Dixon’s poetry was more than praise, and his letter thanking Dixon was more than fame.

The editor of The Last Poems of Richard Watson Dixon was Robert Bridges, who later started his late friend Hopkins down the road to fame by editing The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, published in 1918 by Oxford University Press.  It would take twelve years for that 750-copy, first edition of Hopkins’s poems to sell out.

I wonder how Bridges viewed Coleridge’s reference to his old friend in her preface.

Posted

Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom

Before I started teaching, I never thought that a high school English teacher is, or should be, a reading teacher. But literary criticism really is reading instruction, and we English teachers distill literary criticism into decoctions for our students to drink with challenging texts. That’s why I’m so thankful for the New Critics, despite my qualms: Cleanth Brooks and Red Warren tried out and refined their theories in their college classrooms. Looking back on it, I think some of my best English professors saw themselves as something like remedial reading teachers.

Roland Barthes’s small, rewarding book The Pleasure of the Text, which I’m slowly working through, points out, I think, the chief reason reading must be taught, even in AP-level English courses and in college:

Now paradoxically (so strong is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored), this second, applied reading (in the real sense of the word “application”) is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text. Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen in the discourse: what “happens,” what “goes away” . . . occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover — in order to read today’s writers — the leisure of bygone readings: to be aristocratic readers. [Pages 12 – 13, emphasis original]

Have Barthes’s “aristocratic readers” died off with Fielding’s and Sterne’s readers? The comparison between the best of modern fiction with (what I take to be) eighteenth-century novels suggests that reading instructors may find help from the Age of Enlightenment.

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