Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Review: The Dunciad Variorum by Alexander Pope

Strap yourselves in dear reader - this one’s a beast.

Not with less glory mighty Dulness crown’d,
Shall take thro’ Grubstreet her triumphant round,
And Her Parnassus glancing o’er at once,
Behold a hundred sons, and each one a Dunce.

Me included, I suppose.

It could be said that The Dunciad is the third in the Scriblerus Trilogy; which also include the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus and Peri Bathous - but then, a lot could be said about The Dunciad.

For a start, how do you know when you’ve read it? There’s the original anonymous Dunciad, the Dunciad Variorum and the later four volume Dunciad in which the King of the Dunces is no longer Tibbald but Colley Cibber. I expect the confusion is part of the point. Pope was very calculating in what he released to the public and how. In this case, he released the first Dunciad so he could gather attacks and responses in which to include in the Dunciad Variorum. 

It was that version I decided to read, and was instantly presented with a problem. Notes. Chuck Zerby in The Devil’s Details: A History of the Footnote (which I really need to review on here at some point) estimated that the 358 lines of poetry is swallowed by roughly 7,000 lines of notes. It is near impossible to sit and read the poem, so swamped in various other kinds of textual analysis. Which again, is probably the point.

Many of the notes are included by the fictional Martinus Scriblerus, meaning that this is another satire on bad learning. In this case, it’s particularly the fledgling art of textual analysis that is under fire - and more particular of all, it’s a certain Lewis Theobald. Called Tibbald in the poem, he had tried his hand at most forms of writing with moderate success until he tried his hand at Shakespeare scholarship Shakespeare Restored, in which he highlighted, commented and fixed the many problems with Pope’s own (rather slapdash) edition of the national playwright. So Scriblerus’ swamping the poem with petty and pedantic notes are Pope’s comment on the petty and pedantic nature of Theobald (and scholars like him).

Pope also uses the chance to kick the people he doesn’t like - and to just keep sticking that boot in. It’s vicious.

Beginning with an advertisement and a letter to the publisher, the kicks start quickly. 
   ‘The first objection I have heard made to the Poem is, that the persons are too obscure for Satyre.’ That’s nasty, and it’s a theme developed throughout this letter, Pope claims that he is doing the Dunces are service in attacking them ‘it is only in this monument that they must expect to survive’ - a prediction mostly proved correct by time. He says another objection may be that it may be unsporting that he, as a rich man, attacks ones who are poor. His response is that these writers might not be so poor had they written better. Finally he says that he is not being cruel because of their obscurity or poverty, but for their Folly and Dulness. Besides, Pope says, they were mean to him first.

  The next part are a collection of testimonials. At first these are from established and well regarded people who praise both Pope and his works, then they are from the Dunces praising Pope in other works, and then quote of the Dunces condemning Pope for the same things they formerly praised him for (such as his smooth lines). It would take a more careful read and (heaven forfend) more notes to properly get the ins and outs - but the gist is that the Dunces don’t really know what constitutes as good or not.

Then finally, after some Homeric ‘arguments’, we get to the poem. It’s easy to forget there’s a poem in this poem.

And this is where I got stuck for two days.

It’s a poem. Written in Pope’s favoured heroic couplets, the first part describes the Goddess Dulness, whose great champion Elkanah Settle (fantastically named not-Dickens character, playwright and Dunstable native who nearly had a Wetherspoons named after him until they remembered Gary Cooper went to school there and named it after him instead) had died. She has to emerge from her cave of poverty and poetry and descend on “th’ imperial seat of fools”(London) to find a new king. She settles on Tibbald because of his “motley Images” and “Mob of Metaphors”.

To be fair to the poem, it does sound grand and elevated, that were you not to listen to the words, it would seem a mighty deity and her champion were being described but on closer inspection it is pure piss-take. Pope varies his rhythms with some lovely alliteration such as the Dulness being “Laborious, heavy, busy, bold and blind’. 

The second section, which is the best, is the Olympic style competitions and parades to celebrate the new coronation. There’s a race in which two booksellers Curll (who we’ve dealt with here before) and Lintot chase a poet to catch his works, which are literally shitting out of him. Although Lintot ignores ‘the brown dishonours of his face’ it is Curll who catches him. 

Curll then engages in a literal pissing contest with another bookseller, Chetham. The latter bookseller's stream “flies in his own face” whereas Curll’s arcs in a great ‘smoaking’ ‘burning’ arc - a lovely venereal disease reference there. Then there’s the tickling race, where the authors tickle and flatter potential investors. Then there’s a game for the critics where they have to prove the loudness of their asinine braying over good works - Richard Blackmore wins that.

Next comes the most famous bit, the part where gazette (read newspaper) writers dive into the Fleet ditch, London’s most notorious open sewer that “rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames”. (The Dr Johnson Reading Circle habitually eat pizza in a place built over the still flowing, though less repulsive, Fleet). John Dennis in ‘naked Majesty’ dives in but goes missing. Smedly dives in and also disappears. Welsted dives in, arms a-flailing and seems to win until with a thunder-crack Smedly reappears ‘in majesty of mud’ with a story of how he swam down to Hell itself. He wins the prize of being Dulness’s priest.

Finally, Richard Blackmore and Orator Henley have a bore-off, and everyone falls asleep.

The third section is probably the densest. Tibbald, in his boredom inspired sleep, drifts to the underworld where he is chosen as the Messiah of Dulness by previous incumbent, Elkanah Settle. Here he sees visions of how Dulness has increased in the world. He is shown the burning of Alexandra’s Library, the invasions of Goths and Vandals and the Mongols over the Great Wall of China. 

Then he is shown visions of the future, where the new Mount Parnassus will be established in Grub Street. He is shown future Dunces like Theo Cibber before looking at the present. In this time, scholars are creating useless books ‘never to be read’ and tubthumping preachers like Henley preach nonsense. He views current theatre owners like Colley Cibber (King in a future version) and Jonathan Rich, who create nonsense where ‘whales sport in woods and dolphins in the skies’ and the human race hatch from one egg.

Finally he is shown the future apocalypse of Dulness where ‘universal darkness covers all’. From which Tibbald wakes with joy and the poem is over.

But the Dunciad isn’t.

There are still the Errata, where Pope corrects his mistakes in petty ways. For example, in the poem he derides Ned Ward for owning a pub in the City but corrects his error - the pub is actually just outside the City. 

Then he includes an earlier introduction, just as belittling as the first.

Then he includes an indexed list of all the publications that have attacked Pope - a collection Pope owned and read, so he could get his revenge on such people.

Then a version of Caxton’s introduction to Virgil (why?), then some stuff in Latin I can’t read, then a nearly twenty year old article where the author complains that Pope’s pastorals aren’t rustic or dumb enough.

Next come comparisons between insults made of (recognised great poet) Dryden and the same insults made of Pope - so that Pope looks like the next Dryden. 

And finally comes an official list of Pope’s works and a signed affidavit that Pope wrote the Dunciad.

And I haven’t even gone into the footnotes yet.

The notes are a joke in themselves, but also frequently explain the jokes in the poem itself. They also contain their own put downs and jokes. For example, Dennis is described as having public schemes that have been ‘kept private’ - AKA, not good enough to use. Tibbald is described as being the author of many works, and even more letters praising those works. Even poor Eusden, the poet Laureate is described as having works that rarely offend “but by their length and multitude.”

If anyone took a jackhammer to crack a nut, it was Alexander Pope.

Of course, Norman Inkpen in his Shit Jokes - A Study of Scatological Humour’ has a lot to say about this poem. Pope revels in the bodily fluids, he also seems to revel in the people he hates. From his folder of targets, to the sheer weight of insult and cruelty he throws at his Dunces, he is clearly inspired by them. 

The Dunciad is obviously unfair to its targets. Included for ridicule are people like Daniel Defoe and Eliza Haywood who developed the novel, people like Ned Ward who captured the voice of the age, even critics like Dennis and poor Tibbald (or Lewis Theobald to give him his real name) , who pioneered modern techniques of criticism and close reading. In many ways, Pope is on the wrong side of history. What he calls Dulness, we call modernity and what he calls Chaos, we call relativism, and a more nuanced way of analysing. Despite this, Pope manages argue from that wrong side with more savage brio and panache than many have ever been able to on the right side. What would he say of today?..

See Dan Brown hide clues that shine bright as day
 And EL James dissolve in Shades of Grey
Spawn of dark world where vampires glitter
Celebrity bards dive in the shitter.

If anyone wants to read more about the Dunciad, there’s a brilliant, insightful and far shorter article by John Mullen where he describes the poem as ‘a bestiary for Pope’s enemies’.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Review/Trip: Hogarth's Peregrinations (and my own)

On Friday the 26th of May 1732, the thirty-four year old Hogarth went to the pub with four friends. They had such a good night out that they decided to carry it on, going on a five day romp around Kent. When they returned they compiled a little document to remember it by.

On Sunday, the 27th of May 2018, the thirty-two year old me went on a three day romp with three friends around Devon. I took with me the little document of Hogarth’s and also created one of my own.

The original manuscript was twenty pages long, written by Ebenezer Forrest, illustrated by Hogarth and Samuel Scott. His brother-in-law, John Thornhill provided a map of the journey and William Tothill presents the accounts.

Being an impromptu jolly, the boys only stopped to collect their cash and clothes before jumping on a boat from Billingsgate where they drank some more and Hogarth posted a caricature of a porter on the wall. Then, at 1AM they took a boat to Gravesend. They had breakfast and walked to Rochester, stopping for a paltry three beers. 

Having drunk and walked, they decided to have a rather large meal consisting of, "A Dish of Soles & Flounders with Crab Sauce, a Calves heart Stuff'd And Roasted ye Liver Fry'd and the other appurtenances Minc'd, a Leg of Mutton Roasted, and Some Green pease, all Very Good and well Dress'd, with Good Small beer and excellent Port.” 

The next few days were filled with sightseeing, drawing (with Hogarth acquiring crowds to watch him) and quite a few play fights. These fights often involve sticks and dung - one of which started when Hogarth had a shit on a grave and the others, thinking this wasn’t respectful, spanked him with nettles.

Samuel Scott was probably the most prickly - after hiding from a rain shower in a slimy bush, he was not happy to have to clean his coat and panicked to find he’d nearly lost his wife’s handkerchief.

The odd grump aside, the friends piled back to London and into The Bedford Arms in Covent Garden “in the same Good Humour wee left it to Set out in this Very Pleasant Expedition.” The five remained friends ever after, Forrest keeping the book and occasionally pulling it out and reminiscing together. 

A little later, when Hogarth and other members had died, William Gostling borrowed the original copy of the peregrinations and turned it into (fairly shaky) Hudibrastic verse. To be fair, it doesn’t add much to the original prose account.

The copy I had included these and all the illustrations, which are a great part of the whole thing. Included at the end, was a picture by Hogarth of ‘no-body’ a man all head an no body, clutching tools and booze. Here it is…

As for my peregrination - four of us traveled to the small town of Crediton, birthplace of St Boniface where we stayed with one of our friend’s parents. On that first day we had a few gentle pints and explored the town. Crediton had been Devon’s chief town before Exeter overcame it and so contains an 800 year old cathedral that was later de-cathedral-ised. A big, musty building, it contained the tomb of Sir John de Sully. He was a knight with the most amazing career ever. Dying at the age of 106 in 1387, he had fought at Bannockburn and went into the 100 years war, including Crecy, Poiters and, at the age of 79 still fought alongside the Black Prince in Rheims. 

The next day was the main one. We travelled to Barnstable and from there, traveled to Exeter along the Tarka Line and drank 12 pints from 12 pubs. Our trip also included outside shits, little moments of grumpiness, lots of singing (mainly Pogues), some darts, some pool and all sorts of hi-jinks.

I also turned the event into a poem - and I may slip that poem in this article at some point.

Alas, none of us were Hogarth, but photos were taken and memories had. We also returned to London, tired but (oddly) not hungover, having had a lovely peregrination of our own.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Review: No Surrender by Constance Maud

There was a documentary on the suffragettes on the BBC a few days ago and with it being 100 years from the granting of (limited) women’s suffrage, it seemed appropriate to break out of the eighteenth century a moment and post this. ‘No Surrender’ is one of very few novels written by a participant of the movement.

I was worried at first - the initial chapter is set in a fictional Lancashire town with a group of characters talking in a stagey Lancashire dialogue. I’m not a fan of complaining northerners at the best of times, but the twenty pages of ‘oop gan em on t’mill’ felt interminable. Luckily, the action moves down south.

Although it is a polemical work, it also managed to be comic at times and harrowing at others. I watched the 2015 film ‘Suffragette’ immediately after finishing the book and although ‘No Surrender’ and that film shared a sense of women joining as part of a cause, this book highlighted a sense of joy and playfulness. Constance Maud was chiefly a novelist of farce, and this plays best in scenes where suffragettes sit in a church in suffragette colours and freak out a group of cabinet ministers, or when they crash a posh dinner party.

It was fascinating hearing the arguments of the suffragettes and the anti-suffragettes. It was also interesting to learn about the suffragists, who were the less radical wing of the ‘votes-for-women’ brigade. It was clear that those against the votes were worried about women as an unknown quality - and that the women thought the vote would be the key to solving all women’s oppression. From a period, just over a hundred years later, when women have received the vote but not solved the inequality - there’s both a hope and sadness that comes from the desires of the women in their cause together.

The earlier scenes in prison were unpleasant, and the later ones more unpleasant still, yet the fire of purpose and the community of fellow sufferers raises those horrible scenes. Yes, the women are humiliated, strapped down and fed Bovril through their nose - but the last chapter, where the women march past together, makes it seem that they endure for a reason.

Those dreams are not fully realised a hundred years later, but I think Constance Maud would look at the world with a much needed jolt of positivity.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Richard Holmes' 'Age of Wonder' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

One of the emerging traditions for the Dr Johnson Reading Circle is a yearly popular science book. We’ve looked at Roy Porter’s Enlightenment and Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men, this time it was Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder.

It details a 71 year period, from Joseph Banks’ journey with Cook on the Endeavour to the deconstruction of a forty-foot telescope in 1840. This, Holmes argues, is the age of wonder, a period of discovery where the impulses of poets combined with those of scientists. The book is a ‘relay-race’ of biographies, paying particular attention to Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davey and the Herschels. 

These longer biographies are interspersed with smaller ones of African Explorer, Mungo Park and a particularly entertaining chapter on balloonists. This chapter was funnier then most comic fiction, and made me laugh out-loud. Balloonists were showboating types, more showmen than scientists, dressed smartly and rising in gaudy orbs to the appreciation of huge crowds. The first airborne channel crossing ended ignominiously with the the two rival/allies landing in France wearing nothing but a life jacket and chamois gloves - having jettisoned the rest of their clothes to get over French cliffs. 

Daredevil balloonists aside, the book dealt with three main people. The first being Joseph Banks, the rich, enterprising botanist whose openness and flexibility let him integrate in Tahiti better than most of the other crew. Having returned from the Pacific, he tried to get a few other expeditions under way but when they failed, he settled down with his plants and became the president of the Royal Society. Using his charm, nurturing ability and skill in spotting talent, he prodded British science into the industrial revolution.

One of these talents was a Hanoverian amateur astronomer called William Herschel. This musician and space-nut had some strange notions that space was not a dome but a near infinite void in which the light of the stars takes time to reach the Earth - he also believed in aliens on the moon. Using telescopes of his own design, he discovered the new planet later known as Uranus. His sister Caroline, as well as being his dedicated assistant, was also a skilled astronomer, discovering numerous nebulae and a number of comets. 

Humphrey Davey is the subject of the third main biography. Probably the best example of what Holmes calls ‘romantic science’, not only was he a wide ranging scientist but he was also a keen (if slightly leaden) poet. Despite being a genius discoverer of gases and solver of problems (such as the safety lamp) he didn’t endear himself greatly to the readers with his desire for fame and harsh treatment of his assistant, Faraday.

Although the group loved the vigorous writing of the book, there were two issues that came up.

The first was one of structure. Having read The Lunar Men, a truly masterful wrangling of group biography, The Age of Wonder’s structure of turn taking was less focused. Where some were happy to roll with the book, others wanted something tighter. 

The second issue was one of romantic science. There were questions about how the scientists of the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century science was different to earlier science. I also wonder whether it could be said that science (to scientists at least) has ever lost its romance.

Issues aside, this was yet another book which introduced us to another fascinating group of people (with another strange web of connections) and also thrilled, tickled and entertained us.

As usual, ideas in the book was batted back and forth across the room, jokes shared and other books recommend. Also as usual, the chat was carried onto pizza and wine before drifting into the night.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Review: ‘The Fictions of Romantick Chivalry’ by Eithne Henson

‘The Fictions of Romantick Chivalry’ is one of those books I expect few to have read but containing ideas that I think are definitely worth trying to ‘get out there’ in my own little way. This book is a little special to me, having been bought at the bookshop in the front room of Breadmarket Street, Sammy Johnson’s birthplace and the room Michael Johnson had his bookshop.

This book took me a remarkably long time to read, which is not fair because it is a well-written and thought-out discussion combining two of my favourite things; Samuel Johnson and over-the-top stories about knights, castles, enchantments and such. The main conceit of the book is that Samuel Johnson was far more influenced by silly stories of quests then we (or even he) realised.

It’s important to note that the long running peninsular-type romances like Orlando Inamorato/Furioso, Amadis du Gaul or Bevis of Southampton were looked down as daft, childish books full of fancy and invention but lacking in any real meat - not too dissimilar to a book-snobs view of an airport thriller. While books like The Faerie Queen and Don Quixote were regarded as slightly more literary versions of the same thing (say a Silence of the Lambs to the newest Dean Koontz), general eighteenth century prejudice was snooty to the whole genre.

Johnson was already a little more forgiving than many of his peers, declaring this sort of work to be the kind of thing to really grab a young or neophyte reader with their variety and fun (and annoying Hester Thrale by not accepting that any other kind of book might be attractive for children). He declared in a number of Rambler essays that such works were made to grow out of. Indeed, he declared that such books, as well as the often fantastical Shakespeare were works of a younger, more infantile age and suited only for young children.

This, however, did not stop Johnson knocking back the odd ‘romantick’ work when he could, or from frequently using allusions and ideas in his speech and writing - to the extent that Eithne Henson argues they radically shaped his world view.

There are a great many of these ‘romantick’ writers quoted within the dictionary - many of them slightly misquoted, showing that they were from Johnson’s memory. Because the meanings of a word are displayed in Johnson’s dictionary by chronology rather than most-common meaning, it shows how many seemingly innocuous words originally have a chivalric meaning. For example, I was not aware that an avenue was originally a military term for the weak lines of attack factored into a fortress or castle. 

Henson says that  Johnson uses these words in other works like The Rambler or Rasselas, with half an eye on the deeply buried etymological metaphors in them - meaning that some rather plain looking sentences actually contain vibrant metaphorical meanings, many of them linking to the dangers of the chivalric landscape or the arts of war/chivalry. 

Another argument she gives towards this reading are the many references in his work to features of a ‘romantick’ landscape. His discussion of fame or morality are often riddled with images of dank dungeons, caves, mountains or the many allurements of enchantment - one of the most feared being the overwrought imagination that can lead to despair. The frequency of these images show how much his imagination was engaged by them and how much he saw himself and the travails of his life as that of a knight errant on his journey. Sometimes viewing himself as a comically inappropriate ‘Cervantean’ knight and other times as a proper one - it is interesting that his view of Quixote is one of the earliest sympathetic readings that exist.

Johnson also showed the influence of this fiction on him in the way he treats Shakespeare. He is consistently drawn to the stranger, least ordered narratives and although he regarded Shakey as uncouth and messy, it is that variety and forward movement that he most appreciates and responds to. (She also talks about how, ‘Johnson’s imagination responds to Shakespeare, as to all literature, with a far greater intensity than is normal.’ Something I would like to return to another time.)

Finally, Johnson’s ‘romantick’ spirit is revealed when he gets the chance to live it a little in his trip to Scotland. His own book ‘Journey to the Western Isles’, has in itself a more romantic title in the use of the word ‘journey’ then ‘trip’ or ‘tour’ and the desire to see a little of the faded feudal life and tough landscape are a big attraction in getting him there. He delights in the ruins and crags, and his own conception of himself as a grizzled sixty-year old writer who still can battle the elements. He also has an (occasionally embarrassing) habit of trying to convince Scottish Lairds in comfy, modern homes to move back into their castles to make the dream more real. As Henson says, ‘Johnson’s delight in exaggerated role playing is evident.’ Though, to be fair, Johnson also likes acting as a kangaroo.
There is a push-pull in the book between his ‘romantick’ inclinations and his Augustan solidity. His fondness for the Jacobite cause is described as ‘a romantic allegiance that reason and prudence modify.’ This seems a good description of Johnson’s views throughout, he may by nature be inclined to the fanciful but his reason kept him mostly in check.

I very much enjoyed this book, even though I didn’t gobble it up quite as easily as I expected. The writing is clear, the ideas well argued and the conclusions add another nice little layer on the notions I have of Samuel Johnson, a man who grows ever more complex.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Book Haul Video

Those who follow this blog (now may realise that I have a tendency to make youtube videos. Although I make videos about books, I am not really a proper part of the ‘booktube’ community. Alas, I am not young, pretty or perky enough to be a standard booktuber, nor am I a fan of YA (Young Adult) fiction with vague titles and badly photoshopped covers.

Most peculiar are the videos called ‘Book Hauls’. These are videos where people go through the books they have bought recently and show them off. I can’t understand whether the point of them is to boast about the money someone is willing to pay for books or boasting about their taste. 

So, what do we do with something we don’t understand?

We take the piss.

Welcome to Booktuber Lodger, a happy, cheerful soul with various buried issues and a best friend who is a pink scholarly bunny. 


Monday, 14 May 2018

Not so much body snatching - as body shuffling.

Due to some technical thing that is probably my fault, the automatic payments on did not go through. My bank have stated adamantly that no transaction was attempted whereas google domains stated adamantly that they tried twice and were blocked.

As a result of that (and the fact that the admin for this was done through one of my lesser-viewed emails) I defaulted the payment, despite the fact the bank still promised that Google hadn't charged it. Google then offered me the price of restoring the domain name at the cheap price of £89, plus £10 for the yearly renewal fee.

Forget that! 

I went to a rival domain company who had for sale already, for ten years at £90. 'Quids in', thought I, 'the same price as the restoration for a decade of hosting'. Then it turned out, they tried to sell me something they didn't own - Google still did. They took the money and offered me 'credit' for a new name.

After 5 hours wrangling with bank, Google and domain site - the solution has arrived....


Long may the next ten years be fruitful for it and for me.