Wednesday 28 November 2018

Some Great Christopher Smart Things...

If anyone were to get their only eighteenth century knowledge solely from this blog (though I doubt that could ever be the case), Christopher Smart is the man who wrote ‘The Midwife’ and ‘Jubilate Agno’. While it’s fair to say that these are my two favourite parts of his work, the first for its brash brio and humour, the second for its heartbreaking attempt to systematise and understand a life that had hit a dead end - he did write many other things that are easy (perhaps easier) to enjoy. Here are some of them.

The Pig
This is a fun little poem in which a man delights a theatre with his impression of a pig. Another man declare he can do a better pig impression and comes the next night and performs his own pig impression. People boo this second impression and the man, with a flourish reveals he in fact has a pig under his coat and that the booed porcine impersonation was actually genuine. 

The purpose of the poem is to shame people in considering how accurate public criticism really is. However, I am more reminded of Boswell’s story of mooing like a cow and being heavily applauded for it. It’s a silly poem, but short and fun.

Hymns for the Amusement of Children
The last book Smart ever wrote whilst living at the King’s Bench prison for debt. A book of hymns may seem a slightly turgid read but these are light, slightly fluffy and dripping in a gentle melancholy. The poetry is simple and clear without Smart’s preferred barnstorming games. There’s the weariness of a life drawing to an end, coupled with the hope and positivity of Smart’s post-madhouse life. It’s probably one of the only hymnbooks I’m ever going to read.

The Monsieur Timbertoe debacle
A one-legged French clog dancer performed at one of the ‘Mother Midnight’ shows but was booed off for being French, and it being the Seven Years War. Smart then published an explanation that he was not a French, clog-dancer but a French-clog dancer… and had actually lost his leg against the French. Calling him Monsieur Timbertoe just seemed sort of funny to Smart, as it does to me. Samuel Foote, the one legged impressionist later jokingly named himself Captain Timbertoe.

On my Wife’s Birthday
I like a lot of his romantic poetry. Smart was not an attractive man; he was short, tended to fat and he described his eyes as ‘amorous’, they love looking at each other. Despite these handicaps, he seems to have been rather lucky with women and his good wit, liberal purse and funny/cute poetry probably had something to do with it.

This is a very sweet poem written for Anna Maria Carnan, his soon-to-be-estranged wife. Most of the poem contains fairly generic classical allusions, comparing his wife to Diana, nymphs, Venus and such but each stanza ends with the repeated phrases of ‘Nancy, who was born for me’ - it’s the simple things that are the most affecting. 

The Author Apologises to a Lady for his Being a Little Man
Another romantic poem, but this one is funnier. The first two lines describe the ‘contumelious fair’ who scorns the ‘mishapen dwarf’ who is Smart. Smart then explains that women of class don’t need tall, strapping men; that masculinity is not measured like apples by the pound and even if it is - a person of taste goes for size of intellect. What’s more, says Smart, a bosom is meant to be pressed, not crushed, and only his little dwarf hands can do that. It’s a good topic fr a silly poem, a sort of ‘revenge of the nerds’ and more fun because his argument comes across as more desperate than anything else.

Hymn to the Supreme Being
Although this sounds like one of his Seatonian prestige poems, it’s actually very personal. Having had his third big fever (and about to fall into the behaviours which have him sent to St Luke’s madhouse) he praises God and reflects on the experience of being ill.

Smart manages to convey the worry of his illness, the panic of his wife and the confused fear of his young children. Most clearly he conveys his own fear of dying. He quickly tells the story of Biblical King Hezekiah, who was God saves from his life-threatening illness because of his history of goodness. Smart sends his own memory back, comparing it to the raven on Noah’s Ark who came back empty-beaked. He finds his own life to be wasted on ‘follies’ but trust in the hope of Jesus and the prayers of his family.

He describes the healing process extremely concretely, the feeling of strength entering back into his limbs, his feet too feeble to carry his weight and his eyes too weak to see daylight. As he gets stronger he dedicates his life to God, letting out a hymn of gratitude and wishing his new piety to be deep rooted.

As well as a moving poem of sickness and gratitude, it gains added poignancy through the fact that his re-dedication to God, particularly his incessant praying were what had him taken away from his family and locked away for seven years. His gratitude ended up putting him through a tougher trial than his folly.

A Song to David

This is the poem he published having emerged from his time in the madhouse. He saw it as his comeback, his most finely-wrought lyric of praise and the glorious result of his years of pain and loneliness. His contemporaries saw it as proof his madness had not ended. Later the poem was regarded as the finest thing he ever wrote, to most Victorian critics it was the only fine thing he ever wrote.

It is pretty marvellous. Starting slower but gaining in momentum and speed until it reaches a crashing crescendo with the words, ‘DETERMINED, DARED and DONE’. A moment of victory for God’s plan for the world but also Smart’s for his poem.

Along the way we have delicate images of light dancing from fishes scales, cool rain falling on limes, nectarines with a strong tint, gems praising God by glowing deep underground and - most oddly - a mermaid suckling her child.

As the poem builds momentum it repeats a word, moving it from the first line in a stanza to the second, to the third and fourth. As it builds up the repetition clusters closer together, appearing in every line but at different points of the sentence until it repeats on the first of every line, striking like a cymbal.

It’s an impressive poem which carries me along as I read it, starting in my head but finding the words have to spill out my mouth - it’s just too fun to not say aloud.

On a Bed of Guernsey Lilies

This is my favourite Smart work that is neither ‘Midwife’ or ‘Jubilate Agno’ and I mentioned its last lines before.

It was written after he had been freed from the madhouse and after he’d probably realised that its taint would overcome his career and reputation. It’s a lonely poem but also one with a message of thankfulness and hope.

It’s written in two, ten-line stanzas. The first celebrates the Guernsey Lilly, which is a late blooming flower. It doesn’t muck around talking about Flora, or comparing them to beauties with coy Latin names but instead compares the joy they bring to visitors on a rainy day. As a sociable man locked away for seven years and then being shunned by many of his friends, it is that simple pleasure of some company that comes to mind when he sees a flower blooming in late November. He also remarks how their colour shines out all the more brightly when no other plants are blooming too.

The second stanza abstracts this. Smart is reminded that as a flower can bloom late in the year, so hope can anchor itself in wintery conditions. It contains one of my favourite lines, ‘we never are deserted, quite.’ Hope and sunshine and good company are almost gone from Smart’s world but not quite and he can seize each moment to bring him through each day thankful for the joys he does have. It’s a lovely poem and a lovely sentiment.

I am reliably informed that Smart’s translations of the psalms are some of his best work and the day I wish to read versified Bible bits, I’ll give my opinion. I am currently reading some analyses of Smart’s poetry from the 60s and will be talking about them in the future.

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Review: Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey

I’m not sure what it was that made me pick ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ up but I very nearly put it down again. I found the voice of Thomas de Quincey to be so instantly unlikeable that  I only continued at first out of morbid curiosity.

The two big problems with De Quincey seem to have been his own huge insecurity and the fact that he was a Romantic without any semblance of genius - the two are pretty linked. 

The insecurity came out in his insistence in reminding the reader of his scholarliness. We are told early on that he was cleverer than his teachers and that lead him to want to run away from a school that wasn’t challenging him intellectually. We are painted a picture of his ‘scholar’s cottage’ where the maid is so impressed with his learning she thinks he knows every language and where he boasts of nearly eight thousand books, ‘the only thing I was richer in than my neighbours’. It is heavily implied that his richness in books reflects his richness in mind. He also feels the need to shove in poetry, Latin and Greek into his text, rarely for any useful reason except to show that he can.

The second problem is that he was a friend of the Lamb, Coleridge and housemate of the Wordsworths. He described his writing as to ‘rather think aloud, follow my own humours, then much to consider who is listening to me.’ This seems to be the Romantic way of doing things and (for me) creates some great stuff and a whole load of crap. De Quincey doesn’t have the strength of character or the will to successfully follow this method and I think this shows in the constant asides to the reader to explain or excuse what he is doing, especially in his later rewrite. I think his insecurity is made larger by his understanding that for all his supposed learning, he can’t do as Wordsworth does.

Why did I not put it down then?

There was a lovely moment, not too far in, when De Quincey takes one last look at his bedroom in Manchester before running away from school. The stillness, quiet and bittersweet nature of this moment drew me in. It was beautifully observed and described and I was ready to run with him. When this was followed up with the difficulty of the suitcase full of books, I knew I’d read the book to the end for other moments like this.

There were a few more. I liked his wanderings around Wales, his strange existence rattling around a huge empty house with nothing to eat but crumbs from the owner’s breakfast, his chaste relationship with a streetwalker. All of this was simple, fairly well told and effective. It wasn’t very much about opium though.

Indeed, I found the book gave into its worst nature when the opium entered. Starting with a slam against other writers on opium, then a description of how it wasn’t like drunkenness, then one of how it ordered the brain and helped him wield his massive cranial instrument - he reminded me of all the up-their-own-arse druggies I have met. He was just like the greasy student in the room next door at university who claimed drugs were keys to his higher self but mainly sat around watching wrestling and playing call of duty. I bet he was insufferable to know.

His talk about the bad side of opium consisted mainly in talking about the pain of withdrawal and the way they made his dreams vivid and frightening. While I was interested in his notions of crocodiles who wanted to snog him, most of the dream bit seemed something of a boast too - a boast that his dreams and nightmares were far more interesting than yours. Incidentally, the sequel to this book ‘Suspira de Profundis’ starts with a boast at how such vivid dreams are a sign of a mind far elevated above the normal humdrum mind - prick. The other night I dreamt about human-penguin hybrids, manguins, and that was without taking opiates.

Essentially this book brings out everything I find most distasteful in Romantic poets and drug addicts, which were often the same thing.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Review: The House of Hanover by Leon Garfield

I was very excited when I discovered that Leon Garfield had written a non-fiction book about the eighteenth century and rushed out to get a copy. It’s not a long book, readable in an evening and it is very…strange.

In some ways it’s structured as a short story. The narrator is taking a trip around the National Portrait Gallery, paying particular attention to the ‘House of Hanover’ corridor and recording his thoughts and feelings as he goes down it. Occasionally he discusses his thoughts with a slightly smarmy gallery attendant who challenges him. The structure makes it seem like an introduction to eighteenth century art and literature, an ‘appetiser’ as it claims, but the reflection and strong opinions of Garfield expressed in the book make it seem like it’s for someone of reasonable knowledge and strong opinions themselves.

Who is this book for and what is it doing exactly?

It’s an interesting idea, using the gallery as a framing device. Even before the eighteenth century, Britain was looked down upon for their culture of ‘phiz-mongers’ and the National Portrait Gallery is an oddity in world galleries, less a gallery of art and more of a national storybook. It provides a different and visual way into the time period but in portraying a national story, the book feels far older than its forty years. With the strong opinions, preference for myths of ‘great men’ over kaleidoscopic lives of little people, it feels like some kind of schoolbook from the 1920s or 30s. Not that the book is imperialistic, Garfield describes the Victorian/Empire galleries as a “bloody inferno of world power” and skips it entirely but the confidence to make such a sweeping generalisation doesn’t feel like it belongs in a modern book.

Best to start at the beginning though, which is the advice the character of the attendent gives to the narrator. For this reason the book starts with iconographic paintings of medieval kings, sweeps through the Tudor courts, lingers a little longer among the Stuarts before emerging into the Hanoverian era. This is so those pesky Georgians don’t feel quaint and remote in their curly wigs but instead feel more vibrant and ‘real’ than the people before them. The journey of the gallery puts them in place.

He then goes down the gallery, describing pictures (even though we have plates), giving tit-bits and stories about the people depicted in them and making huge sweeping value judgements about them also.

Defoe and Hogarth are good, they both used art to open the eyes of people to contemporary life and care about presenting poor subjects. Gay is also good, ridiculing the nonsense of Italian Opera, skewering the criminality of the rich but also giving nobility to the poorer classes.

Pope is bad, he writes prose that rhymes (“If it’s neat, it rhymes, and you’ve heard it before, it’s Pope”). Swift is a weird mix, in hating people in generality but loving them in particular, he’s a bad heart alleviated by a good brain - until the brain deteriorated. 

Johnson is utterly good but Boswell is slimy and bad, fit more to be barrister than anything else. Boswell did manage, however to create something good, the biography, because he had such good material to work with. Joshua Reynolds is bad, even with a face as Johnson’s, he fails to catch any real personality with his portraits, Hogarth should have done it.

Sterne is bad because he made a novel that can only be self-referential. It is also too divisive, good art should unite. Richardson is also bad, a sell out with no real talent who got lucky. His rival, Fielding, is very, very good and ‘Tom Jones’ is a light to all ages.

Gibbon is haunted by the parrallels in Rome’s fall and Britain’s progression. Horry Walpole had a good mind, could recognise the dark gothic heart of people but frittered his intelligence away in fancy and Handel is the ultimate good. His music changes souls and he was good enough to give it to charity.

These aren’t my opinions, they’re Garfields. There’s a little more justification in the full book, but not much. He despairs of the decline of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth, he wonders whether art and literature make any difference at all, he sorts all the portraits on the wall into goodies and baddies - why?

I don’t know. I’ve thought and thought and thought and have decided that this book is essentially Garfield’s GrubStLodger. This is the space where he could talk about what he was interested in and the judgements he makes thereof, a book like this would never be published nowadays (unless it was a celebrity) but it might make a good blog.

Ultimately, Garfield represents the eighteenth-century as an arrogant, over-confident time, with huge pride in its new science and literature blinding it to the squalor that surrounded it and the barbarity of empire to come. Within this he sees sparks of humanity and kindness; artists giving painting and song to the Foundling Hospital, the warm voices of Defoe, Hogarth, Johnson and Fielding, the pleasure of Garrick’s performances and the novels of Jane Austen. Whatever culture is, or what it is for (and there’s no time to answer in such a short book) it might be enough that it has given pleasure and can continue to give pleasure from then into the future. 

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Review: The Elixir of Life by William Harrison Ainsworth

I picked this book up after reading Dickens and it is painfully clear how poor a writer Harrison Ainsworth is in comparison. Where Dickens can’t help describing things in surprising ways, Ainsworth is painfully bogged down by cliché, especially when he tries to make the writing soar.

A few pages in and this doesn’t matter. What Ainsworth does have is a delight in drama and story. After three pages, we have already had a man half-killed for trying to remove severed heads from London Bridge and a miracle recovery. By the sixth page, the man has discovered that the alchemist who made him better is his grandfather, by the eighth the alchemist has created the elixir of life and by the ninth he has had a sudden heart attack and his grandson has stolen the elixir of life rather than heal his Grandfather, taken it and stepped out into an eternal life… What Ainsworth lacks in skill at words, he makes up for in skill of action.

The writing is so by-the-numbers, an alchemical chamber is simply described by what it has in it and the people speak to themselves in a peculiar stagey dialect that no-one would ever use but this is because they are the simple tools needed to convey the happening in the story, which never lets up.

The dialogue is particularly awful. I’d noticed, but not hated the clunky nature of it in other Ainsworth books but here it really sticks out. The shady characters speak in a pinfull inwented speach vat grates on the eyes. I might have liked the character of Ginger, the dognapper with a couple of Charleys in his pockets, if he hadn’t been so painful to read. (I also thought it weird that in this, of all books, there was an attempt at a message against the law’s indifference to dognapping).

The book has a weird structure. There’s the prologue with the young man, Auriol, his alchemist grandfather and his drinking of the elixir. The next part is about Auriol’s secrets being found out and exploited by ruffians, details his falling in love with Ebba Thorneycroft and his bargain with a mysterious man in a black cloak who demands a woman Auriol loves every ten years. Then there was an interlude set thirty years earlier where the man in the cloak discovers his powers and makes his deal with Auriol. Then the next part, involves a group of people going to rescue Ebba and being trapped in a fiendish house of death before the end of the book when Auriol wakes up and discovers he’s been mad and has dreamed the last three-hundred years.

I didn’t understand why Auriol made a deal with the man in black after he’d been alive for two-hundred years already. My assumption was that the elixir’s downside is that the person would live forever but have no financial luck and the man in black promised to take this downside away for the price of a soul every ten years - but I had no confirmation. 

We never find out what happens to the intrepid rescuers trapped in the house of death, nor the fate of Ebba Thorneycroft and the other women. I was not convinced as a reader that the whole story had been a result of Auriol’s madness, the details of his imagined future were too accurate to not have taken place.

That’s not to mention the chapter in the barber’s that takes four pages describing a barber’s shop to only lead to a character gaining a new master called Loftus, which doesn’t really go anywhere because a few chapters later he is working for the man in black. That’s not to mention the mysterious figure in a mask who helps the rescuers whose identity is revealed in the following deft piece of exposition; “Is it you, Gerard Paston, the brother of Clara, my second victim?” We hadn’t even heard of Gerard or Clara before this moment.

All this moaning is not to say I didn’t love the book - I did. Any book where a man turns a key in a lock, pushes the door and the whole thing falls down is one I want to read. Any book with a bizarre trap with self-imprisoning chairs that give immobilising electric shocks and then huge helmets come from the ceiling to suffocate the sitters, is one worth reading. There was also a moment in the book where an immortal character complained that he’d been drowning for three days because it took that long to untie the stone from him. I loved the book, but it feels threadbare.

Essentially, it feels unfinished, and perhaps it was, although I can’t find any authoritative source to say so. The Dickens I was reading before this was ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, which has had people writing endings for it since Dickens died half-way through. This similarly feels like half a book, ending on the cliff-hanger of Auriol ‘waking up’ and it would be enormous fun to Drood it up, try and work out the relationships and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. If I had the time, I’d do it myself.