Wednesday 26 December 2018

Review: Mr Foote's Other Leg by Ian Kelly

Although I looked at this book in my write-up of the Dr Johnson Reading Circle, I thought I had enough I wanted to say about my own personal reaction to it - so this is it.

Having come across Samuel Foote in the periphery of other works from and about the Eighteenth Century, I immediately snapped up and read this book as soon as it came out. I remember enjoying it and can recall many of the anecdotes and details. The only review I left said,  ‘Compelling and funny, if not completely convincing.’ I’m not completely sure what I wasn’t convinced by.

This is a book written by an actor and it shows, the description of the theatre’s workings and the evocation of performance are brilliantly done. Ian Kelly manages to overcome the problem that Foote’s comedy only really works with an audience is ‘in the joke’ (as a contemporary would have been and a twenty-first century person certainly isn’t) and he does this without making glib comparisons to specific modern references. There’s no painful, toe-curling references to his caricatures being like ‘Little Britain’ or ‘Spitting Image’ - not even when Foote’s using puppets. Though he does compare Foote’s curtain speeches to something like stand-up comedy, he only does enough to give the reader an impression of what Foote was to his audience and it isn’t cheap or facile.

The story of his early life in University instantly gave me an idea of the ‘type’ of person Foote was. Whether he was using his Barber to sell his essays to other students, getting cows to ring the warning bells or lugging a heavy dictionary to pretend to look up the difficult words of a sesquipedalian professor - he seems a playful and arrogant sort of person. Sent down before he could gain a degree, he found himself in a debtor’s jail where he received a letter from his mother asking for money because she was herself in one. 

Not that there wasn’t money in his family, there was a lot but it was all tied up in a Chancery legal battle that lasted more than one generation and was one of the influences on Jarndyce v Jarndyce. When one of his uncles murdered another (possibly in a botched attempt to commit him to a private asylum) Foote gained his first small fortune in telling the story from a nephew’s perspective.

Haunting the Bedford Coffee house, getting lots of laughs and punctuating many jokes with ‘hey hey, what’, he trained in acting with Garrick under Macklin. They developed a more natural style, with Macklin redefining the role of Shylock and Garrick redefining pretty much everyone else. Foote was a more difficult fit, he had wit and charm but didn’t work in Shakespeare (especially as Othello) and seemed a bit restrained in more modern comedy. His role was to compere the evening at the theatre and to introduce and excuse the plays, this comedy styling was developed into his ‘diversions’ which became independent little shows known as ‘tea-parties’. This then allowed him to develop his stage persona, find roles that fit and to begin writing them himself.

He also hobbed and nobbed, particularly with the reckless Delaval family and the Duke of York. In an effort to make them laugh he tried to ride a powerful horse, fell and shattered his left leg. The description of the injury and the discussion of the proceeding amputation are both grisly and fascinating and one of the most interesting parts of the book. I think what I may have found not totally convincing in my first read was Ian Kelly’s thoughts on how this affected him. Using some of John Hunter’s notes, Foote is described as having problems with his nerves following the fall probably from the concussion and possible blood clots. These problems involved mini-strokes and (possibly) an increased inhibition, in a man who was uninhibited to begin with. It’s how much this inhibition can be attributed to the accident that I was unsure about.

Granted a summer license at the Haymarket following the accident (probably by way of apology by the Duke of York), Foote was in a position to print money, especially if he paid himself writing and acting fees as well. He made many jokes of his new wooden leg, claiming that he now was only ‘half as wooden’ an actor as Garrick - they had a friendship full of rivalry.

Launching a play at the bigamous Elizabeth Chudleigh, he found himself being accused of sodomy. As a ‘one legged bugger’ he said he wouldn’t stand for it. This is the second sticking point of the book, it spends the entire time shuffling (hopping?) around the nature of Foote’s sexuality. Although he was acquitted, the accusation by his footman Sangster, included details of furnishings and such that could make his accusation of attempted rape quite true. Foote’s persona had played with ideas of mixed sexuality and gender and although he had a wife (unconsummated) and a possibly fallacious mistress, he had been known to visit haunts known to be Molly Houses. I personally think Ian Kelly misses some of the nuances of Molly culture here, where such places were home to homosexuals and bisexuals, but also transexual, cross-dressing, role-play and other forms of kink. Foote could have been involved in any, all or non of these things.

I was pleased to see Christopher Smart pop up in this book a few times. Smart developed a show based on his ‘Mary Midnight’ character from his Midwife magazine. It was a little like one of Foote’s ‘tea-parties’, a riotous cabaret under the control of Smart in the persona of an old woman. Foote performed sometimes as Smart’s niece and even subbed in for Smart as Mary when Smart was ill. Ian Kelly uses this to further push the notion of Foote as gay, as Smart was accused of being a Molly himself (again I would suggest this conflates ‘gay’ and ‘Molly’ a little too much). He also says that Kit Smart lived as a woman for a bit, which when I read his source (Mounsey) really boiled down to a very weak supposition that he might have used his Mary Midnight costume as a disguise to avoid creditors. Foote took the crossdressing into one of his most successful roles, as Mrs Cole the Methodist bawd. He also used the name ‘Lady Pentweazle’ in one of his plays, a reference to Smart’s ‘Ebenezer Pentweazle’ and also refers to himself as Captain Timbertoe, a reference to his wooden leg but also Monsieur Timbertoe, a dancer with two wooden legs form the Mary Midnight revues. Despite Smart having all this influence on Foote, he isn’t given a little paragraph in the cast list at the end, which I was disappointed by. Later, talking to him about this at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle, he confessed that the cast list at the end was the publisher’s idea and that although he’d written many paragraphs on many people, it was they who chose who made the cut.

Despite a few misgivings throughout the book, I was informed and entertained throughout. Samuel Johnson said that he wished someone would write a diligent life of Samuel Foote and I think his wish has probably now been satisfied.

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Mr Foote's Other Leg at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

Samuel Foote is one of the most famous people few people have ever heard of, and the Dr Johnson Reading Circle enjoyed the opportunity to find out more about him. Foote was a celebrity, an actor, a writer, a comedian and impersonator, a man famous for his own fame. He was a man who fulfilled the classic celebrity route of a struggle to fame, a period of untouchability and then a sudden fall precipitated by his own actions.

This was also one of those special occasions when we had the author with us to discuss the book. Ian Kelly is both biographer and actor, giving green-room stories behind the book’s publication as well as sharing in the general discussion.

For example, the publisher originally asked to cut a large chunk at the beginning which discusses the fratricide in Foote’s family. Kelly uses court records and reportage to retell the murder of one of Foote’s uncles by another in its whole entirety, which takes the attention away from Samuel himself. It stayed because it was a good bit, an interesting story in itself and indicative of the way Foote would live his life. Rather than be ashamed of this dark incident with his near relatives, he wrote a book about it, which earned enough to release him from debtor’s jail. This created a dark sparkle of notoriety which opened doors. From then on, his career was always to skirt the lines of fame and disreputability, walking this tightrope carefully, whether with his initial two legs or his later one.

It’s obvious in person that Ian Kelly is an actor:, he talks like one and moves like one but he also writes like one. There’s a real confidence when it comes to description of the stage, the theatre and the community within it. He is also very successful at describing performance. One of the difficulties in talking about Samuel Foote is that he created many characters and plays that relied on impersonation and topical allusion, both elements that might be known or understood by a modern reader but can’t be felt. Without reaching for a glib or fatuous simile to a modern performance (there’s no comparing him to Rory Bremner, for instance) he manages to evoke what it was that audiences enjoyed so much about Foote without trying to explain it.

The book managed to tease the modernity of Foote as a subject and the similarities between London’s small social network and the modern social network, without making it explicit. There was a lot of talk around the circle of ways in which Foote was a relevant and interesting figure today, not only as a celebrity but in the areas of sexuality and disability.

As a result of a prank, Foote fell off a horse and shattering his left leg, which had to be amputated. Typical of his courage (and in keeping with the persona he had cultivated) he immediately started making jokes about saving on shoe leather and such. As a well-documented case of amputation, he would prove a fascinating case study for historians of disability. One of the interesting elements to this part of the story was how much he had to adapt. Even the stages of the time, heavily tilted (or raked) so the audience could see, were a physical challenge for him. Although this may have lead to different blocking of scenes, even in the theatre he owned, the physical structure of the building was not changed to make things easier. It was he who had to adapt.

Another area where Foote may be an interesting case study is one of sexuality. It would seem that Foote dallied in Molly culture, played a number of drag roles in his career and purposefully blurred the lines of sexuality in keeping with his love of danger. As Kelly said during the evening, ‘I think he would want us puzzled.’

At the height of his career, Foote wrote a play against Elizabeth Chudleigh and the publicity for his play and the spats in newspapers between them pushed her trial for bigamy into being played out in a larger court. Shortly afterwards one of his own footmen went to Bow Street and accused him on trying to commit ‘indecent acts’. Foote’s initial response was to announce, ‘buggery, I won’t stand for it’. The accuser, actually called Sangster, became known as ‘Roger the Footman’.

This leads to a great set piece in the book where Foote walks on stage following the allegations and is applauded by the London crowd who are behind him. A few hundred years later the event was replicated when John Gielgud walked on stage having been accused of cottaging. This is the Foote that we’d like to be left with, a man with the courage to face a possibly fierce audience and to be accepted. He was pronounced innocent and many people thought the accusation to be Chudleigh’s revenge.

But that’s not all… lurking in the files of Dr Hunter is a description of Foote’s mental state following his amputation and a worry that the concussion he suffered from the fall off the horse, together with the trauma of losing a leg, may have unbalanced him in more than the obvious manner. Also, the Christie’s catalogue of Foote’s possessions include a number of items that were mentioned in Sangster’s testimony that he would have had no knowledge of in any normal way. Kelly made it very clear that he wanted the reader to decide whether this darker part of Foote’s life was true or not but he also arranged the evidence in such a way that makes it a very real possibility that Sangster wasn’t lying.

Whichever it was, the stress of the accusation and the trial weakened Foote’s already compromised health (which had started to keep him off the stage) and he died in Dover on the way to France. He was buried quietly at night in Westminster Abbey, but the records of where his body lies are now lost, a quiet end to a noisy life.

As the evening drew near an end, a pot of marzipan feet (foots?) was passed around and everyone munched happily, particularly Ian Kelly who declared marzipan to be one of his favourites. We had time for a little stage gossip, learning that Kelly hadn’t meant to play George III in his stage adaptation of the play but in so doing he had, he said, ‘given myself some really good lines.’ We also learned that the Theatre Royal in Haymarket (which had originally only been given that title for Foote to use in his lifetime) is an awkward theatre, too large for intimate plays but too small for big performances. Finally, we learnt that there are moves towards a TV series about Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s servant and that Ian Kelly is involved. 

We reflected on how the small world of the eighteenth century can be a bit like visiting friends, and seeing familiar and new faces around the circle it seemed true that there is something about getting to know people like Samuel Johnson or Samuel Foote that can bring people together now.  

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Review: 'The Poetry of Christopher Smart' by Moira Dearnley

This is last book about Christopher Smart I shall read in some time because I can’t find any others I haven’t read. ‘The Poetry of Christopher Smart’ by Moira Dearnley came out in 1968, the year after Callan’s collection of his poems and the Sherbo biography and shows a certain amount of confidence as a result. 

Unlike the slimmer, more focussed ‘Christopher Smart as a poet of his time’, this book seeks to look at all of Smart’s poetical works rather than focusing primarily on ‘A Song to David’. It’s a monster and a beast which I didn’t really plan to read so soon after my last Smart outing but I read the first few pages and was hooked.

The reason for this was that I really enjoyed Moira Dearnley’s style (if not always her opinions). Blaydes was elegant, to the point and much easier to read than modern essays on Smart’s poetry I have read but Dearnley was opinionated, funny and more engaged with (her own view) of his personality as well as his poetry.

It’s fair to say that she seemed to find him quite frustrating. I particularly enjoyed the section near the beginning, ‘Smart the poet’ where she dealt with Smart, Foot, Rowe and their group of friends borrowing each other’s pseudonyms. She finds it especially galling that they ‘found it hilarious’ there were two ‘Ebenezer Pentweazles’ or ‘Mary Midnights’ declaring that;
“The psychological motives for sharing a name are beyond me, but could be weird enough I suppose.” I mainly found it funny because I can instantly see the fun in sharing pseudonyms and identities, friends roleplaying as each other and surprising the originator of a character with the new works of that character. Eighteenth century comedy relies a lot on masks and disguises (just look at Fantomina) and it seems a clear bit of fun but irritated her greatly.
She’s very interesting about the notion of gratitude in Smart’s work. Much of what he wrote was taken up with gratitude in some way, whether it was to thank a patron or praise God. She finds the flattery and grovelling of his dedications and eulogies to be excessive, conjectures that Smart built much of his personality around the notions of patron/artist and even brought that to his religion.
“His humility before God is inseparable from his servility before sublimated human beings.” 
Dearnley sees this servility to be core to Smart and his work, but a servility which is in conflict with an egocentricity that, in ‘A Song to David’ paints the picture of a trinity of great poets; “God, King David and Christopher Smart”. No punches are pulled in this assessment and while I am not completely on-board with it, I feel that it’s an interesting angle to take.

Dearnley also has some intriguing ideas about Smart having a sort of self-loathing or self-denial. His love poetry frequently laughs at himself (see ‘The Author Apologises to a Lady for his Being a Little Man’) but sometimes even paints himself in a babyish light. Taken with his love of other identities, his expressions of living a worthless life in ‘A Song to the Supreme being’ and there certainly seems to be an uneasiness in Smart’s conception of himself. This angle makes particular light of the strange and beautiful line in ‘Jubilate Agno’;
“For in my nature I quested for beauty, but God, God hath sent me to sea for pearls.” Smart, not being able to find that beauty in himself has been sent by God to find it in the large, lonely ocean.

As much as Smart irritates Dearnley, a book like this could not be written without love. His faults are as much a cause of the beauties in his work as his merits. What sets Smart apart from other writers of his age, is how he manages to combine the strictures of eighteenth century poetry and thinking with a personality and a voice. Added to this his boldness of word choice, a clarity in building up concrete images into vast catalogues and a vulnerability and joy - and he’s a writer that often delights. The most common epithet given to him before his incarceration was ‘ingenious’, as a contemporary critic said;
“Greatly irregular or irregularly great. His errors are those of a bold and daring spirit, which bravely hazards what a vulgar mind could never suggest.”

Dearnley is also convinced that Smart was indeed ‘mad’ in some way. She suggests the vast highs and lows in his poetry are indicative of some kind of rapid cycling bi-polar disorder, and that his ‘madness’ can be seen in his poetry. She looks at his hymns and psalms, themselves very standard eighteenth century poetry at first glance - and finds raging prejudices and disordered ideas.

When looking at ‘Jubilate Agno’ she starts with the presumption that it is a very mad work indeed. Although many of the ideas an images aren’t mad, the ‘complex, unique word patterns’ act to overcomplicate simple ideas in illogical ways. She particularly looks at the section where Smart characterises languages as animals, using a series of puns. Greek becomes a cat, Latin (with its word ending ‘mus’) becomes a mouse and English becomes a bull (able, dependable, reliable) and a dog (can-is). Her point is that Smart is so overcome with the sounds of the words, the swapping between languages in a ‘mercurial shift’ that he loses connection with the words and the things they mean. As Dearnley sees it, Smart’s madness is expressed in his slippery language, where sound overcomes meaning. At one point she says that, ‘the question of seriousness or levity is unimportant’ maintaining that even if the language juggling is for fun, it becomes in itself a madness.

This is where I disagree with the book. I feel that the levity of the piece is very important indeed. Even if ‘Jubilate Agno’ started off as an honest experiment in Hebrew antiphonal poetry, it became a game, a time filler and a calendar. For a playful, sociable man often left alone (as it was regarded that being left under-stimulated by company would knit his mind together) he had a huge reservoir of play to expend. I think that an author who doesn’t recognise the joy of adopting silly identities and playing as ‘Mary Midnight’ or ‘Ebenezer Petweazle’ will also miss the joy of laying with all the ‘bull’ sounds that can be found in English. Although I think Smart probably did have a form of breakdown, I don’t think a for-the-top-drawer, exercise in mental gymnastics and playful association such as ‘Jubilate Agno’ is really evidence of madness so much as boredom.

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Review: 'Christopher Smart as a Poet of his Time' by Sophia Blaydes

The late sixties seem to have been a good time to have been a Christopher Smart fan. In 1967, Norman Callan created the most complete selection of his works until the Oxford editions, mainly by Katina Williamson in the 80s and 90s. That same year Arthur Sherbo released his biography ‘Scholar of the University’, which cleared up many of the mysteries of his early life and his time in Mr Potter’s madhouse. The year before, Sophia Blaydes published ‘Christopher Smart as a poet of his time’ and I had the pleasure of reading it.

The book is quite a slim one and focuses principally on Smart’s religious poetry and ‘A Song to David’ in particular. It argues that both eighteenth and nineteenth century criticism misinterpreted the Song, gives reasons why this was, argues that its roots lie in his earlier poetry and presents an in-depth analysis of the poem. As such, it presents the Song as the culmination of Smart’s poetry, but as a result of artistic growth and development formed in his confinement.

The Song was not well received on initial publication, while it was reviewed by the larger periodicals, it was seen as having very good moments but to ultimately be a sign of a deranged and damaged mind. The Critical Review called it ‘a fine piece of ruins’. It was not included in later editions of Smart’s poetry and was mostly brushed under the rug of something unfortunate and embarrassing.

The nineteenth century took a different view. With Robert Browning declaring is as ‘straight from the soul’ and Dante Gabriel Rossetti calling it ‘the only accomplished poem of the last century.’ This huge praise was at the cost of his other work, with critics seeing the Song as an almost miraculous blaze of poetry and imagination only possible due to Smart’s madness.

Blayde’s argument in the book is that the Song is no way mad, or indeed any kind of aberration from eighteenth century poetic technique and Smart’s work had shown clear progression to the creation of the Song - and she argues it well.

First, she argues that Smart’s incarceration for madness, especially an ‘enthusiastic’ religious form of madness, was enough to damn the poem to his contemporaries. This is especially the case because the Song deals with the subject of praise to God and Smart was supposedly locked away for incessant praying. The critics at the time were expecting and looking for something madly religious in the poem and so they found it. This story of incarceration worked in exactly the opposite way for the nineteenth century critics, they looked for some of insane inspiration and found that instead. The truth, as she states it, is something both more prosaic and more inspiring.

She finds examples of Smart’s handling of catalogues and lists in his Seatonian poems and describes the Song’s use of such catalogues to be a clear example of his development of a technique which allowed him to accumulate lots of specific details (like the nectarine’s strong tint) into a larger picture. This cataloguing is also the key to ‘Jubilate Agno’ and various ideas in that are polished for the Song.

Her reading of ‘Jubilate Agno’ is particularly interesting. She sees it as a large, ambitious but ultimately failed work of art but saw its failure as the inspiration to Smart to make something more compact, more melodious and more accessible. This revised, tightened and improved vision being the Song itself.

While the early Seatonian poems are in Miltonic blank verse, the Song is a lyric. She uses Smart’s ‘Song to the Supreme Being’, the very personal poem he wrote after recovering from an illness, to show how Smart was liberated by the lyric form and used it to create the joy and musicality lacking in the stodgier, earlier efforts.

Blaydes also relates how Smart’s ideas are not particularly unusual or deviant to the eighteenth century. Despite his reputation for madness, he has a very contemporary love of reason and rationality. However, he departs from the Newtonian, Lockeian view of the material world and tends towards Berkeley’s ideas of immaterialism, especially the notion that our sense impressions come from God - which leads to Smart’s own notions of nature and the world praising God through the act of being perceived by him. Similarly, Smart describes the cosmos, then nature, then the gems underground following the Great Chain of Being - a notion that all life can be ordered from the simplest items of creation through to God.

What’s more, his poetical ideas stem from classical notions of poetry. Smart is very fond of the Horatian fondness for unusual words choices and uses, adapting it to his own theory of his word choice punching ‘impressions’ of ideas into people’s minds the way type punches letters onto paper. In her deeper analysis of the Song (which is beautifully done with a parallel text of the poem to follow along) she shows the clear structure of the poem, with its development of themes and sub-themes and its organisation along the numbers 3 and 7.

As for the weirder stuff…she blames the Masons for that and moves on.

The big take-away from this book for me was the overriding sense that the Song is a carefully and sanely constructed work, whose greatness comes not from mad or divine inspiration but from the hard work and development his period of incarceration gave him. That’s why the truth (of this is it) is more prosaic and more inspirational, Smart took his being locked away from the world and used it to develop an artistic vision. 

I also appreciated how Blaydes found Smart to be rarely mad and concluded that if he ever was, it was only for short moments - a view very much disputed by next week’s Smart scholar Moria Dearnley.

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.