52 William Blake – His genius was unique

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Though both Goldsmith and Grey are well worth reading, they are not in the league of the other great poet of the 18th century, William Blake. His genius was unique. The intensity of his emotions is overpowering, but at the same time he subjects whatever he writes of to his shaping intelligence – even though it is not always analytical.

Some of his poetry, I should note, is incomprehensible, and not worth trying to understand either. This is when he moves into esoteric religious fervor, involving intense questioning of a deity he created for himself. A brief example of what he could produce in this mood is worth looking at, though there is no point in trying to analyse it

Earth was not: nor globes of attraction
The will of the Immortal expanded
Or contracted his all flexible senses.
Death was not, but eternal life sprung

The sound of a trumpet the heavens
Awoke & vast clouds of blood roll’d
Round the dim rocks of Urizen, so nam’d
That solitary one in Immensity

Blake was at his best when he wrote simply. Had he written nothing else, the Songs of Innocence and Experience would have secured him a place in the canon, with their vivid explorations of the nature of the vicious but wonderful world in which we live, and his subtle understanding of the problems of human interaction.

London is perhaps the most succinct social critique we find in all poetry

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
 Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse. Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 6; Pt 4 – Taken at the flood

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acts-of-faithWorse was to come. It turned out that the Leninist, far from feeling helpless and frightened and coming to Tom for that reason, was under the impression that Tom required his advice on how to deal with the crisis. Tom was sorely tempted to tell him there was no crisis at all, except the one that affected those Marxists who were or should have been under arrest for having created all the trouble. Yet then he thought of Dick, and he forbore, reflecting to himself that the Leninist’s aggressive attitude was just another example of the jackals falling upon the injured lion towards whom they had been sycophantic before. Sighing deeply, he allowed the Leninist to go on. To his horror he found that the Leninist was now not only trying to dictate to him a solution that required welcoming to his bosom those incorrigible Tamils who had refused to take the oath of allegiance; he was also suggesting scarcely veiled threats against Tom’s life if he did not comply. Tom was not sure whether the Leninist meant the threats to emanate from himself or from some amorphous entity such as Harry was devoted to, but it was all certainly extremely annoying. If he had not been the host at breakfast, for Tom the most sacred of meals, he might almost have thrown the blighter out or rather, dressed just as he was, into the jail he so richly deserved.

It was indeed only the arrival of Luke that saved the Leninist; or, if we are to take a broader view of the whole business, that saved Tom rather. Luke had been startled enough by the newspaper items about the march Harry was planning, and about what seemed Dick’s involvement in it. Soon after that shock, he had been rung up by one of his contacts in the Press who told him that Gerry had arranged what seemed to be an elaborate press conference for that very morning at the Presidential dwelling. Luke was convinced that something fishy was up. He would not have put it past Tom to have reversed direction completely, whether under pressure from Gerry or not, and to be about to announce his conversion, backed by all sorts of old organisations, to the philosophies preached by Harry. Even if the explanation were quite different, Luke felt that it was imperative to find out at once what was happening. He decided, though in fact he himself had never been invited to breakfast with Tom, to take advantage of the general assumption that Tom kept open house at that time, and to present himself there to be in at whatever was in train. Continue reading

51 Oliver Goldsmith and Edward Grey

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After the wit and detached descriptions of the Augustans, English poetry moved towards a more emotional stage. This, as we have seen, became the manifesto as it were of the Romantics, with Wordsworth’s famous dictum, that poetry was about the overflow of emotion – though, as he put it, recollected in tranquility.

But before that active engagement with personal feelings, there were two very different types of emotion that came to the fore in the poetry of the 18th century. The first might be described as sentimental, and found its best known expression in two poems celebrating a sense of loss.

I refer to Grey’s Elegy written in a country churchyard and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village. I had thought initially to discuss only one of these, but I see no reason not to talk about both, for both are widely anthologized, and were the staple of school literature syllabuses in the days when English literature was taught systematically.

I find Goldsmith the more interesting of the two, for he deals both with memorable characters and with a social phenomenon, namely the abandonment of the countryside as the economic system changed. He wrote in the middle of the 19th century, before the Industrial Revolution had taken full possession of England, but even in those early days rural communities based on agriculture were losing both their importance and their interest.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:

Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;

A breath can make them, as a breath has made;

But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,

When once destroyed, can never be supplied…..

But times are altered; trade’s unfeeling train

Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;

Along the lawn, where scattered hamlets rose,

Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose;

The greater impact of the poem comes however through its descriptions of individuals, or rather types that were also dying out, most notably the Schoolmaster

Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way,

With blossomed furze unprofitably gay,

There, in his noisy mansion, skill’d to rule,

The village master taught his little school;

A man severe he was, and stern to view,

I knew him well, and every truant knew;

Well had the boding tremblers learned to trace

The day’s disasters in his morning face;

Full well they laughed, with counterfeited glee,

At all his jokes, for many a joke had he:

Full well the busy whisper circling round,

Conveyed the dismal tidings when he frowned;

Yet he was kind, or if severe in aught,

The love he bore to learning was in fault;

The village all declared how much he knew;

‘Twas certain he could write, and cypher too;

Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,

And ev’n the story ran that he could gauge.

In arguing too, the parson owned his skill,

For even tho’ vanquished, he could argue still;

While words of learned length and thundering sound,

Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around;

And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew,

That one small head could carry all he knew.

And also the village parson

Near yonder copse, where once the garden smiled,

And still where many a garden-flower grows wild;

There, where a few torn shrubs the place disclose,

The village preacher’s modest mansion rose.

A man he was, to all the country dear,

And passing rich with forty pounds a year;

Remote from towns he ran his godly race,

Nor e’er had changed, nor wished to change his place;

Unpractised he to fawn, or seek for power,

By doctrines fashioned to the varying hour;

Far other aims his heart had learned to prize,

More skilled to raise the wretched than to rise.

His house was known to all the vagrant train,

He chid their wanderings but relieved their pain;

The long-remembered beggar was his guest,

Whose beard descending swept his aged breast;

The ruined spendthrift, now no longer proud,

Claim’d kindred there, and had his claims allowed;

The broken soldier, kindly bade to stay,

Sate by his fire, and talked the night away;

Wept o’er his wounds, or, tales of sorrow done,

Shouldered his crutch, and shewed how fields were won.

Pleased with his guests, the good man learned to glow,

And quite forgot their vices in their woe;

Careless their merits, or their faults to scan,

His pity gave ere charity began. Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 6; Pt 3 – Taken at the flood

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acts-of-faithGerry too was up and about fairly early this morning. This was the day on which she had planned to set fire to her money. She normally came down much later than Tom but today, while he was still fussing about on the telephone upstairs, she went into the little room under the stairs and undid all the bundles of notes and strewed them around freely so that they would burn more quickly. Then she removed all the bottles of brandy, except one, a very large one of the best quality, which she needed to start the conflagration. Tom was down by this time, strutting about on the verandah, so she went to the telephone and rang up all the newspapers and the television networks, and told them that if they sent their reporters round in precisely forty five minutes they would get a story well worth having. Then she rang through to the gate with orders that the Press was to be let in immediately upon arrival.

As she was returning to the little room under the stairs she noticed out of the corner of her eye that Tom had sat down to breakfast with a rather seductive looking female who was leaning close up to him. Although never jealous, usually she took good care that the proprieties were observed, but today such things did not seem to matter. She knew that Dick would be arriving soon enough, and in any case her last glimpse of her money was more important. She took in a pot of coffee with her, carrying the tray in herself. Having locked the door behind her, she poured out a massive measure of brandy, to have a few last moments of peace and plenitude before everything went up in flames, in the room where she had spent so many happy hours. It was not only that she was saying goodbye to a large segment of her past. Though she was not quite sure what would happen, she felt on the threshold of a momentous new era in her life and, though she would never admit it even to herself, she regretted the past security her little room represented. Continue reading

50 Alexander Pope – the epitome of the Augustan Age

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Pope’s writings were the epitome of what the Augustan Age is meant to represent, elegance and wit and learning worn lightly. Yet Pope seemed in himself to come from a very different world, for he was physically deformed and his upbringing seemed at odds with the world of inherited privilege which he celebrated. But that tension may have been what contributed to a strikingly independent outlook, and an acidity that perhaps contributed significantly to the brilliance of his writing.

The subtlety with which he wielded his pen sometimes makes Dryden’s satire seem more like a blunderbuss. Pope’s rapier wit can be seen at its best in the portrait of Sporus, though the use of the catamite the Emperor Nero married was not something the object of the satire, Lord Hervey, would have taken lightly –

Let Sporus tremble — “What? that thing of silk, [305]
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass’s milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?”
Yet let me flap this Bug with gilded wings,
This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings; [310]
Whose Buzz the Witty and the Fair annoys,
Yet Wit ne’er tastes, and Beauty ne’er enjoys,
So well-bred Spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the Game they dare not bite.
Eternal Smiles his Emptiness betray, [315]
As shallow streams run dimpling all the way.
Whether in florid Impotence he speaks,
And, as the Prompter breathes, the Puppet squeaks;
Or at the Ear of Eve, familiar Toad,
Half Froth, half Venom, spits himself abroad, [320]
In Puns, or Politicks, or Tales, or Lyes,
Or Spite, or Smut, or Rymes, or Blasphemies.
His Wit all see-saw between that and this,
Now high, now low, now Master up, now Miss,
And he himself one vile Antithesis. [325]
Amphibious Thing! that acting either Part,
The trifling Head, or the corrupted Heart!
Fop at the Toilet, Flatt’rer at the Board,
Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord.
Eve‘s Tempter thus the Rabbins have exprest, [330]
A Cherub’s face, a Reptile all the rest;
Beauty that shocks you, Parts that none will trust,
Wit that can creep, and Pride that licks the dust. Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 6; Pt 2 – Taken at the flood

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acts-of-faithDoc advised her to wait for Harry who was due to speak next and who, though a radical too, would at least not be irritating; while Happy promised that when he spoke in the afternoon he would advance quite a different point of view. Snow White however was to enjoy neither of these experiences. Just before they were due to recommence there came through from Ceylon the horrifying news that made them decide to adjourn the conference for a day. As it turned out, the conference was to be adjourned for ever, and the fates of several of the delegates strikingly affected; but before we explore how, we ought to return to Colombo to find out what it was exactly that happened.

*

The Leninist had been feeling bored. He had also been feeling insignificant. Safe though he was with Veronica he could not help thinking that life was passing him by. A man with as famous a past as his was should surely have done more to make his mark upon the sands of time. In the long hours during which he was left to his own devices, he had found himself regretting that he had not been energetic enough, that he had allowed the first fine careless rapture of his youth, when he had dodged in and out of dangerous places clad only in the thinnest of disguises, to be overlaid by placidity and the creature comforts of middle age.

By the time Veronica left for Singapore, he had determined what he would do to assert once more his dedication to his cause. The rest of that day he had spent pottering around the house, inconsequentially as it seemed, but in reality with set purpose, getting together everything he wanted. Fortunately he had been trained in self-help and several sciences in the distant days of his idealistic youth, when each little cell had to be self-sufficient both to multiply and to efface itself if danger threatened. Long after the servants had gone to bed, he sat up late into the night, making thorough preparations for his bold and resolute stance on the morrow. Continue reading

49 John Dryden – the first of the Augustan poets

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From the Metaphysicals we move on to the Augustans, so named because their approach to literature was seen as similar to that of writers at the time Augustus Caesar established the Roman Empire. His great sidekick Maecenas – or rather, one of his great sidekicks, the other being the military man Agrippa – was in charge of propaganda, and ran a stable of poets who celebrated the new imperial dispensation. These included the former Republican Horace, but by far the most famous of them was Vergil, whose Aeneid makes its eponymous hero very similar to Augustus. Later generations found Aeneas dull rather than heroic, in contrast to the Achilles of the great Greek epic, the Iliad, but Vergil I suppose was one of those who found eminently satisfying the peace Augustus brought after 100 years of turmoil in Rome. So pius Aeneas, as he termed him, was to be celebrated instead of more active figures.

John Dryden, the first of the Augustan poets, in fact translated the Aenied, which was considered one of his most significant achievements, though now that translation seems stodgy. He is remembered more now for his political satires, which included devastating criticisms of leading politicians of the day. His portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury, likened to Achitopel of Bibilican fame, is perhaps the best. I will highlight passages that convey sharp criticism in a brilliantly economic use of rhymed couplets  –

    Of these the false Achitophel was first:

A name to all succeeding ages curst.

For close designs, and crooked counsels fit;

Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit:

Restless, unfixt in principles and place;

In pow’r unpleas’d, impatient of disgrace.

A fiery soul, which working out its way,

Fretted the pigmy-body to decay:

And o’er inform’d the tenement of clay.

A daring pilot in extremity;

Pleas’d with the danger, when the waves went high

He sought the storms; but for a calm unfit,

Would steer too nigh the sands, to boast his wit.

Great wits are sure to madness near alli’d;

And thin partitions do their bounds divide:

Else, why should he, with wealth and honour blest,

Refuse his age the needful hours of rest?

Punish a body which he could not please;

Bankrupt of life, yet prodigal of ease?

And all to leave, what with his toil he won

To that unfeather’d, two-legg’d thing, a son:

Got, while his soul did huddled notions try;

And born a shapeless lump, like anarchy.

In friendship false, implacable in hate:

Resolv’d to ruin or to rule the state.

To compass this, the triple bond he broke;

The pillars of the public safety shook:

And fitted Israel for a foreign yoke.

Then, seiz’d with fear, yet still affecting fame,

Usurp’d a patriot’s all-atoning name.

So easy still it proves in factious times,

With public zeal to cancel private crimes:

How safe is treason, and how sacred ill,

Where none can sin against the people’s will:

Where crowds can wink; and no offence be known,

Since in another’s guilt they find their own.

The man’s recklessness is succinctly placed before us, and also the stratagem, common in politicians, of asserting patriotism that will cover a number of sins. Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 6; Pt 1 – Taken at the flood

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acts-of-faithWe will begin our narrative of this momentous day in Singapore, not only because the sun rises earlier there than in Colombo, but also because it is time we introduced some more characters. It is not that they are of any very great importance, but they do have a part of some consequence to play at this particular point in the story. In any case, we have not yet met any politicians opposed to the government, and this is a situation that must be remedied if we are to understand the cry for separatism that is held to have provoked the riots with which we began.

There were altogether seven members of parliament belonging to the Tamil party that had as its rallying ground the demand for a separate state for the Tamils. They were no longer members of parliament by the time they arrived in Singapore, for they had refused to take the oath that Tom had prescribed for members of parliament and arrack renters and insurance brokers and other such practitioners of occupations that should have been the sacred preserve of the Sinhalese. Nevertheless, having fled to India together at the very beginning of the riots, and having stated forcefully there the case for their oppressed brethren in Ceylon, there was no question but that they were, in international eyes at any rate, the most respected members of their community, and those best entitled to put its case before CARP.

Since there were seven of them, they were known as the Seven Dwarfs, both collectively and individually. Chief amongst them, on ground of seniority at any rate, were Sneezy and Sleepy. They were thus called because they both usually looked confused and not altogether there, but it was well known that in one case at least, though no one was ever quite sure which one it was, this phlegmatic exterior masked a mind as sharp as a razor. Then there was Bashful, who hailed from what was considered an inferior caste, although he came from the North, and Dopey who came from the East, although his caste was quite respectable; neither of these was considered of any importance whatsoever, not even by themselves. Grumpy on the other hand had thought himself important from the moment he got into parliament, and by dint of his conviction on this issue had got the majority of the party to come round to this view. He was young and energetic and was considered a strong proponent of violence, whether provoked or not, as a result of which his house had been burned down on several occasions by the security forces. This had made him even more grumpy than before, and he was liable to burst into torrents of incoherent expletives at the drop of a hat, or of any thing, which he promptly assumed was a hand grenade. Continue reading

48 John Milton – arguably the greatest of English poets

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Despite what seems to a modern audience the old fashioned nature of both his subject matter and his language, Milton is still arguably the greatest of English poets. My own predilection is for Tennyson but, as he himself put it, he never found a subject worthy of his immense poetic talents. Milton on the contrary had Paradise Lost.

It is on that work that his fame essentially rests, though I suspect there are few now apart from scholars of English Literature who have read it through. And even these are less common, because many universities now no longer insist on knowledge of a canon of great works. Certainly it would take a great deal of enthusiasm to read through Paradise Lost for pleasure. I suspect I would not do so myself now, so I am lucky that in my distant schoolboy days I was determined to get through it.

This turned out to be a pleasure. The sonorous lines roll on like a wave, starting from the resounding introduction

Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of EDEN, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse…..

……………………………………………I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ AONIAN Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert th’ Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

There are splendid set pieces, such as the description of Abdiel who did not give in to the temptations of Satan

So spake the Seraph Abdiel, faithful found
Among the faithless, faithful only he Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 5; Pt 3 – Confidential

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acts-of-faithLast but not least in the course of this chapter and this evening, both of which are important primarily as forerunners of the exciting events that will follow fast upon them, we come to Tom. We have seen little of him recently which is not surprising for he has had little to do. This has now begun to irk him. After the stunning successes of his principal ministers on television, with their more and more histrionic accounts of what really happened during the riots, he feels himself superseded, the more so because both the international press and national gossip have not refrained from pointing out the vast discrepancies and disparities between his performance and theirs. Furthermore when he permitted John, partly as a response to all this in an attempt to divert interest to more immediate matters, to unveil a new economic package, he has been overwhelmed by the intensity of the response, which has even begun to take on a dangerous political tone. He realises now that the tremendous respect he inspired for so long, when no one dared to criticize anything he did or said, sprang only from his air of authority; now that that has been once dissipated, blame and resentment and querying and intrigue have begun to fall upon him like a miasma.

Most alarming of all is the fact that Gerry too has taken to behaving extraordinarily, and exercising her in any case erratic independent initiative in areas about which she understands nothing, and in which she could do incalculable damage. It is not that she has not behaved extraordinarily before. This she had always done, in the days before he became President, whenever his party had been voted out of power. It was partly to prevent recurrences of her peculiarities that he had, after finally achieving power himself, turned himself into a President, and an Executive one at that, and one who would prove perpetual to boot. It is, he sighs to himself resignedly, a proof of the vanity of human wishes that, even with all these arrangements, Gerry has begun to behave peculiarly once more. Man disposes and God disposes, he reflects, reverting as he tends to do at times of crisis to the faith of his less distant forefathers; clearly she is once again convinced that he is vulnerable, which is why she slips far more often than she used to do into the secret room where she takes a drop of brandy now and then whenever she feels unusually nervous.

That alone would not have mattered. What is particularly upsetting now is that she has begun to meddle in politics too, thus making it clear for the first time that she does not have enough faith in him to see the crisis through to a successful conclusion. That she sees Dick in secret is bad enough; but when it has to do with politics, when his own younger brother Dick whom he has always had to protect now appears at the head of political interest groups which he has to take seriously, when everyone believes that the force behind these organizations is his own wife, then Tom feels fundamentally threatened, not only in his role as President, but also in his very being as a Man. For once Tom feels that the fact that he is a Perpetual Executive is of less consequence than that he allowed himself, at his wife’s behest, to be sterilized. It profits a man nothing, he ponders bitterly, to gain even the whole world if he has lost that which can never be regained; and it is even worse when it looks as though he might lose the whole world too, or at least when it seems as though his nearest and dearest does not think him capable of retaining it. With his many years of experience in politics, Tom knows that everything is a question of confidence. If it is believed that even one’s own wife has no faith in one, for whatever reason, then one might as well be prepared to give up. Continue reading

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