A live toad every morning

Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Inflating Agatha

Watching a Miss Marple on cable I note the almost invariable habit of modern TV of inflating the social status of the participants.  It's A Pocketful of Rye, and the house has been switched to something just short of Blenheim rather than Yewtree Lodge, the upper-middle-class household with three, rather than thirty, servants.  Aggie almost never touched on the aristocracy - didn't know it, didn't bother with it. But a chance to show off how the other half, or 1%, lives cannot be passed up.  The Downton Abbey effect.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Penny on Blake's London

Found an old copy of Penny's lecture notes.  It would be a pity if all that was lost: so


Poet and Audience IV

Blake's "London":

Manuscript versions
I wander thro each dirty street
Near where the dirty Thames does flow
And see in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe
 In every cry of every man
In every voice of every child
In every voice, in every ban
The german forged links I hear.
 But most the chimney sweepers cry
Blackens o’er the churches walls
And the hapless soldier's sign
Runs in blood down palace walls.
(MS 1)
But most the midnight harlot's curse
From every dismal street I hear
Weaves around the marriage hearse
And blasts the newborn infants tear
. (NS 2)
But most thro wintry streets I hear
How the midnight harlots curse
Blasts the new born infant's tear
And smites with plagues the marriage hearse

From the Prelude (l805) Book VII, ll. 592 - 622.
O Friend! one feeling was there which belonged
To this great city, by exclusive right;
How often, in the overflowing streets,
Have I gone forwards with the crowd, and said
Unto myself, The face of everyone
That passes by me is a mystery!'
Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed,
By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,
Until the shapes before my eyes became       ,.
A second-sight procession such as glides
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams;
And all the ballast of familiar life,
The present, and the past; hope, fear; all stays
All laws of acting, thinking, speaking man
Went from me, neither knowing me, nor known.
And once, far-travelled in such mood, beyond
The reach of common indications lost
Amid the moving pageant, 'twas my chance
Abruptly to be smitten with the view
Of a blind Beggar who, with upright face,
Stood, propped against a wall, upon his chest
Wearing a written paper, to explain
The story of the man, and who he was.
My mind did at this spectacle turn round
As with the might of waters, and it seemed
To me that in this label was a type,
Or emblem, of the utmost that we know
Both of ourselves and of the universe;
And on the shape of the unmoving man,
His fixed face and sightless eyes, I looked,
As if admonished from another world.

- 1 -
The time is 1789.
The condition is revolution.
The place is France.

... 'twas a time when Europe was rejoiced,
France standing on the top of golden hours,
and human nature seeming born again.
The Prelude (1805) VI, 11. 352 ff.
 Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!
The Prelude (1805) X, ll. 690 ff.
The poet is Wordsworth.
Nobody ever thinks of Wordsworth as young. The image that comes down to us is of an austere man, a grey eminence, an eminent Victorian.
He is thought of as a writer of dull poetry, as a poet who recollected emotion in tranquillity, and whose poems are more tranquillity than emotion.  A poet of lakes and streams and mountains; a poet of Nature; something of a mystic, strange, boring and not worth the effort.
Nothing could be further from the truth.

And then there's Blake.
His reputation is a bit more complicated. He has come down to us as a writer of poems for children but also as a difficult, cabbalistic, prophetic poet.
He is thought of as half cracked, subject to visions and divine visitations, something of a religious crank, a mystic; strange, inaccessible and hardly worth the effort.
But listen:

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.
 Nought can deform the Human Race
Like to the Armour's iron brace.
 The Soldier armed with Sword and Gun,
Palsied strikes the Summer's Sun ...
 The Whore and Gambler by the State
Licensed, build that Nation's fate.
 The Harlot's cry, from street to street
Shall weave Old England's winding sheet.
 Every night and every morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Some are Born to sweet delight:
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
Auguries of Innocence

That is not the voice of a religious maniac; it is the voice of a radical, a social critic, a reformer.

Blake was a poetic revolutionary, and a revolutionary poet. And so was Wordsworth. Their concern was not personal and private, it was with men and society. Not lakes and mountains and mysticism.
They were concerned in the most energetic and daring way possible, with people. Their passion was to bring about a society, a world, into which everybody could be born to sweet delight.

And they saw poetry as the instrument for change.
It's hard, from the distance of 190 years, to imagine the effect which the French Revolution had on the people who lived through it. In l789, Wordsworth was nineteen, Blake was thirty-two, both of them were ardent supporters of the revolution; both saw in it the promise of a new dawn,

And human nature seeming born again.

Given what happened to that revolution, it didn't take either of them long to realize that a political revolution doesn't ensure a social transformation and doesn't promise that human nature will be born again, finer, richer and more feeling.

They quickly became guarded about the political process, but they never gave up the vision_ They continued to believe that life on earth could and should be delightful, and delightful for everybody; they believed that life's fulfilment and social justice went hand in hand.

But when they looked around them, at the real lives of most people, what they saw was endless night.

And they went onto the attack:
Is it a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduc'd to misery
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

That's Blake again, and it's the voice of outrage, of outrage against a society so inhumane that it could, all unthinkingly, pat itself on the back for keeping charity children alive in orphanages when in fact they were kept alive in the most niggardly fashion, half-starved, stinted, stunted.

There had been no voice like this in English poetry before Blake and Wordsworth. This is a new voice', expressing a new concern.

This social concern marks the vigorous response of two intelligent, humane men who were disturbed by what was happening to people caught up in the whole process of the industrial revolution, urbanization and modernization.

At the end of the eighteenth century the whole of England, almost, was on the move. People were being forced to leave the land and were flocking to cities .

A traditional culture, and a traditional social fabric, had been destroyed.

And there were untold numbers of victims.   And the suffering was as much mental and psychological as it was physical.

That modern urban life can be desensitizing and dehumanizing is a fact so well known to us that we take it for granted. But in the 1790's this condition was new; and Blake and Wordsworth were quick to observe it.

They attempted to alert other people to what was happening:
... a multitude of causes unknown to former times are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind and ... to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident …
That's Wordsworth, and what he's saying remains as true today as it was at the end of the eighteenth century. Dull jobs and a dull life can blunt the mind, but they never sap anyone's innate craving for vitality, stimulation and excitement. The less satisfying the life one leads, the more desperate that craving becomes, and the harder to satisfy.

Wordsworth goes on to say:
To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven in·to neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid ... Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse. When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation I am almost ashamed to [speak] of the feeble effort with which I have endeavoured to counteract it ...
Wordsworth and Blake saw the world change in their lifetime: they saw a traditional rural culture destroyed and replaced by a modern industrial one.

And they knew that a changed world demanded a new kind of literature.

They were the first modern writers.

I think that the way in which England's literary culture changed in response to changes in the society, might be demonstrated by looking at Pope and his attitudes to poetry; because Pope was the last of the great poets who wrote for a traditional, given audience.

Pope is like Wordsworth and Blake in one way. Like all great poets, he recognized that poetry is the expression of creative vitality in the poet, and the Source or impulse for creative vitality in the people who read it. For Pope, literature was central to an informed and enjoyable humanity. And his audience would have agreed.

But Pope's preferred audience was tiny. He wrote for an intimate audience - for a very small group of people who shared his recognitions about the place and value of poetry in the lives of its readers.

And Pope knew very well that what he stood for as a poet was under threat.

He recognized - none better - that life's enjoyment can be blunted and dulled by habit, prejudice and mindlessness.

He knew that people can be lulled by boredom into insensitivity; and that if people don't give vent to their energies, those energies can quickly become jaded.

Pope was very well aware of the forces which can impair and stultify. And he used his poetry to remind his readers that clear thinking, incisiveness, deep feeling and sensitivity are creative attributes. Without them, life is dull, boring and impoverished.

But when he thought about people, Pope divided them into sheep and goats.

His sheep were the people who recognized and affirmed the values which his poetry embodies. His sheep were the small, select, educated, traditional audience for poetry. And Pope was content. with it. He never sought a readership wider than that traditional audience.

Pope didn't write for the goats. His goats were his Dunces, all the dullards whom he saw as undermining the life he believed in. But Pope's goats were, in fact, reading his poetry. And that is why, in a poem like The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,  he represents himself as the symbol of a minority culture, under constant challenge from outside. Clearly, he saw himself as battling to reassert the values of intelligence and wit which he thought
were in danger of being lost.

Pope died in 1744, and in the forty years or so that followed, his battle was pretty thoroughly lost.

In the minds of the later eighteenth century audience, and in the minds of the poets who wrote for it, poetry carne to seem nothing more than a cultivated taste, a gentlemanly attribute. All that remained of Pope's position was the seemingly unquestioned belief that poetry was a good thing. But good for whom, and good for what, no-one was quite sure about.

And the poems that were written in that period are pretty universally awful.

So when Blake and Wordsworth happened along in the 1780's and 1790's, they came upon a pretty debased literary scene. And characteristically, they went on the attack.

They were both set against the prevailing notion that poetry is an exclusive and gentlemanly art. Wordsworth was particularly cutting about this. He writes of men who speak of
What they do not understand, who talk of Poetry as a matter of amusement and idle pleasure, who will converse with us gravely about a taste for Poetry, as they express it, as if it were a thing as indifferent as a taste for Rope-dancing, or Frontignac, or Sherry.

Now that sort of vitriol can only come from a man who has a much better defined sense of what he expects from literature, than did the men whom he was criticizing.

And what really set Wordsworth off was that smug and complacent notion that poets must be part of a minority culture, that they must address an elite and privileged audience.

By the end of the century, the people who still did read poetry - in other words, the traditional audience - were, by and large, indifferent to it. By then, though, there was a whole, vast, potential new audience to be tapped.

Literacy was on the increase; it was no longer true that only the privileged could read and write. There was a new class of readers emerging - people who were literate but not highly educated, who wanted to read, who wanted the stimulus and engagement that reading can provide.

 Blake and Wordsworth saw no reason why poetry couldn't be made relevant to the lives of these people. In fact, they firmly believed that it should be made relevant to common life, and concern itself with whatever concerned people.

They were convinced that poetry shouldn't be an exclusive art.

Wordsworth, again;
. .. the human mind is capable of excitement without the application of gross and violent stimulants, and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this... To endeavour to produce or enlarge  this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a writer can be engaged; but this is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes are now acting ... to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind ...

For Wordsworth and for Blake, literature could foster and increase the discriminating powers of the mind - and not just the minds of the privileged, but anyone's mind.
They were, unlike Pope and in the very best sense of the word, democrats.
Now Pope had tried to stem what he saw as an encroaching tide of dullness, but he blamed the Dunces for the social mediocrity which horrified him.

 It horrified Blake and Wordsworth, too, but coming later in the century they had a chance to see more clearly than Pope had, what was really going on in England.

They knew that mediocrity and dullness were not the issue of people at all, but of radical social change that dislocated communities, uprooted people, and alienated them. They could see that this process of change was beyond the power of any individual to cause, or to control. And they focused on its costs, they attempted to define what was being lost and to recreate it.

They tried to help people to come to terms with the conditions of their society; to understand what was going on, and to ameliorate the lives of people caught in the dehumanizing, desensitizing, stultifying conditions of modern life. That recognition of how impersonal and depersonalizing life had become is one that Blake and Wordsworth explored again and again in their poems.
And their thinking about the issues was so intelligent, so deeply-considered, so complex and humane, that they produced some of the very finest poems in the language.

Blake’s "London" is a very well-known poem, and justly so; but I want to talk about at least some of it in detail, because only the closest attention can bring out how poetry like this works, and what it achieves.

It's on p. 223 of the Norton Anthology.
Do you notice how intensely dramatic a poem it is?
Everything that is seen and heard, all the details of London life, are evoked as a flood of vivid impression. They strike us just as - and at the same moment as-they strike the voice of the poem, the wanderer.
And his his response to London colours ours. It shapes and directs our feeling.
The poetry enacts his response (dramatizes it) and it provokes a like response
in us.

The poetry, then, achieves a complex dramatic effect, and the means by which Blake has managed it are fascinating. This is the language of poetry working at full stretch, with everything working together utterly fused. And this is so even from the very first lines.

1. Setting the scene - oldest part of London etc.
2. First stressed word: wander.
Aimless, without direction or purpose.
3. Rhythm. The lines drag. Intensifies the suggestion of dislocation, alienation.
But rhythm also conveys a savage irony.
4. This irony revolves around that repeated word 'chartered'.
People usually read that as 'charted' - mapped out, laid down, regulated. Certainly there's a pun built into the word, and the sound does suggest the pun_
There is a tension between the wandering and the regulated, mapped and known streets.
But the word itself means something else.
During the middle ages, London became an autonomous, self-governing city.
A series of royal charters granted Londoners the right to trade, the right to collect their own revenues, and the right to elect a local council of government.
These charters in effect, ensured the citizens' freedom and the city's prosperity.
But here, in these lines, the word 'charter' is having a different effect.

1. Repetition - slows down the rhythm, clogs it.
2.         'Chartered Thames'. The charter restrains the natural energy of the river's flow.
(Mention 'does flow'. Sluggish)
3. Adjectives. "Imposed" on the nouns.
So in these lines, the charter comes to seem like an imposition.
It is a constriction, a deadweight which impedes energy and vitality instead of ensuring it.
And with both the streets and the river yoked to the charter, nothing in the city is exempt from its tyranny.
The poetry gives vivid expression to the paradox between what the city is meant to be, and what it is.
The wanderer, disturbed by that paradox, drifts aimlessly.
He finds nothing to alleviate his sense of imposition:
And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe
This is not passive noticing. There's deliberation in that verb, mark.
The wandering is aimless, but the wanderer's intelligence is fully engaged. It's even deliberately exercised.
And that recognition comes from the difference between the verb and the nouns. The nouns, even, are deeply ambiguous.
1. Involuntary self-revelation.
2. Deep scarring.
Scars are imposed from the outside.
But marks of weakness.
Internal, not external.
Stigmata, sign.

So the wanderer's marking is active. He remarks and enumerates everything he sees.
What he sees adds up to this: that weakness and woe are the essential qualities of the people of London, and no-one is exempt.
Wanderer's mood is exacerbated. But in that mood he has had an insight.
And the rest of the poem goes on to sustain, explore and to realize that insight.
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.

1. Stanza represents seeming individuality of a crowded market place.
hucksters crying their wares babies screaming
- people talking
- public announcements
2. But the language is very generalized
- men, voices, fear, bans
3. All caught up in insistent repetition of "every"
4. All add up to a single equation.
The essential condition of life in the city is so abiding that no-one is exempt. All the evidence of sight and sound accumulates into the grim and forceful definiteness of the last line:

The mind-forged manacles I hear.
You know, poets very rarely make use of alliteration. Most repeated sounds in English are coincidental - people choose the words they want, and if the words happen to start with the same sound - start with the same sound - the effect is quite likely adventitious. Mostly, even, if poets seem to be using alliteration, what they do with it isn't necessarily very effectual.
Dimply damsel, sweetly smiling, 
All caressing, none beguiling 
Bud of beauty, fairly blowing
Every chum to nature owing ...
[misprint; charm]

But Blake really does use it, and to amazing effect. Those mind-forged manacles: the words have to be forced out from between compressed lips, and that's the first thing that gives the line its intensity.
Other ways in which it is intense:
aural intensity. The chink of the manacles subsume all the other diverse sounds of the city
density of suggestion.  This density comes about because the language is so unexpected. It yokes something really tangible and weighted (manacles) to something abstract (mind) in a vigorous image of creation - hammering out, beating.
And this is what it suggests:
The people of the city are manacled, unable to break loose.
They are shackled by human law: whatever they suffer is the product of human thought and human activity. In part, the shackles are imposed by inheritance _ other minds have forged those manacles.
The constraints are, partly, external and arbitrary.
But not wholly.

The manacles are also self-imposed. They are forged in the mind of each individual.
All of them, simply because they continue to operate in this society, concede to the manacles and perpetuate them.
fuld once that is seen, those babies become symbols. They scream at the noise and bustle of the city; but their cry of fear comes to seem a spontaneous reaction to the conditions of their inheritance.
And in the stanza, fear is the dominant emotion, because it is the only one specified.
This is a negative vision, and a terrible one.
And the rest of the poem authenticates and justifies the vision. How it does so, I'll leave it to you to explore.
It's a wonderful poem, this. It faces a reality which is hard to apprehend; - more difficult to face squarely - and almost impossible to think about with detachment.
Detachment usually brings disengagement with it - either false emphasis, or oversimplification, or simply lack of feeling. It's almost impossible to be dispassionate and compassionate at the same time. It's almost impossible to
feel passionately and to think deeply, all at once.
But that is what this poem does. Here, the speaker's imagination is fully engaged and fully comprehending.
And what the speaker achieves for himself, the poem does for us.
But the poem is also enormously difficult. It puts incredible demands on the people who read it.

You must have noticed how spare, and how sparing, the language of ·the poem is. No detail is lingered over, and no one image is elaborated. The language does not get its force through elaboration: it gets it through intensification of feeling and suggestion.
This is heightened language. And that's the characteristic language of all fine poetry, where the poet's imagination seizes on ways of shaping the language to make it richer, more intense and more suggestive than it ever is in the world of everyday. Poets have ways of intensifying our focus, and making us more alert to what the language conveys.

All poetry does this. What is distinctive about Blake (and Wordsworth too) is that to read them demands a great effort of concentrated attention. You really have to think when you read them: to think about the ways in which the words go together, to think about what is being said, and what is being implied.
Especially about what is being implied. Blake and Wordsworth rely much more heavily on implication than any poet before them. This is one of the things that makes them modern poets. They don't write poetry in a discursive mode.
They don't rely on the language of statement: they use the language of poetry to set up implications far more complex, and far more suggestive, than what is actually said. So does Sylvia Plath. So does Wallace Stevens. Both the poets set for detailed study this year, worked in the mode established by Blake and
Here's just a tiny example from Blake's "London".
What happens in this poem, is that the wanderer's observation gets refined into vision and insight. And it works because the mode of the poetry becomes symbolic.
How the chimney sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appalls
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

Literally, as he passes the palace, the wanderer hears one of the red-coated guards sighing.
That sign becomes a symbol of the soldier's lot and the soldier's fate. How does it happen?
Well, fundamentally, it's because of the presence of that word 'hapless'.
Soldiers are hapless: they can't help themselves.
Why not?
Well, for two reasons. They're not spelled out, but they are suggested by the word.
These soldiers have been impressed into the service against their will, or they've joined up because it's the only job offering to them. Hence the sigh, which seems like the soldier's lament for his own condition.
And their job is to defend the palace against their own people: against the mob, against revolution.
So when the wander hears the sigh, his imagination seizes upon it as the sigh of a doomed man, doomed to bleed to death against the walls of an institution which he must defend against his will, and against his interest.
The wanderer's own mind has moved into a way of thinking which is intensely symbolic; and this intense, symbolic poetry dramatizes the movement of his mind.
And that is also true of the Wordsworth passage on the handout. I've given it to you because it has fascinating affinities with Blake's poem. It's about the same city, London. It catches the same mood of alienation. It dramatizes the same terrible feeling of rootless detachment; it is aware of the same paradox between what the city was meant to be, and what it has become.
Read passage.

This looks like discursive poetry. It isn't. It is intensely dramatic, and intensely symbolic.
The passage is much more explicit than Blake's poem, but the language is in exactly the same mode. It represents a mind working under the pressure of experience, and transforming what it sees, into symbol.
That mind, like the mind of the wanderer, transforms sight into insight. Seeing into vision. Commonplace sights into symbols.
And here is the paradox of Blake and Wordsworth. Everyone of their poems works like this. The only way to understand their poetry is to think about every single word, to think out for oneself, what is being said. They wrote poetry which places terrific demands on the reader's attention and intellect.

And yet, they were trying to write poetry that everyone could understand.
"A poet" said Wordsworth "is a man speaking to men." (In modern language, a person speaking to people.)
He and Blake thought of themselves as addressing a universal audience; an audience that included everyone.
As far as they were concerned, the only qualifications needed to be a member of that audience were those that could be expected of any human being at all. The only proviso was a knowledge of English.
But of course, Blake and Wordsworth knew that their universal audience was only an ideal. That was their notional audience. By thinking of themselves as people speaking to everyone, they suddenly, at one fell swoop, expanded the range and the concerns of poetry. No longer did they write poems just on well-established themes; or poems which operated within recognized conventions. They wrote poems on anything at all - on anything that concerned them. In particular, they wrote poems of public concern, because the real issues facing real people is what concerned them most.
Nowadays, we take it for granted that the subject matter of poetry is limitless . But it was Blake and Wordsworth who did that for us.
Their contemporaries didn't understand what they were doing. Because, of course, the actual audience for poetry didn't expand at one fell swoop.
In fact, hardly anyone at all even read Blake. He was the world's worst seller. And none of his readers had a clue as to what he was on about in his poetry. What this meant, in the end, is that Blake effectively had an audience of one - himself. Over time, he gave up trying to find an audience that would understand and appreciate what he had to say. It's very sad, when you consider the value of a poem like "London". His later poetry is different: he wrote it for himself; he knew what he was saying and he didn't bother to make it plain for anyone else. It is poetry written without an audience in mind, fiendishly difficult to read, and often obscure.

Wordsworth was a little better off. He at least had a friend. It's the friend addressed in that passage I read. A poet named Coleridge, who understood fully that Wordsworth was changing the nature and function of poetry.

And there was also a market for Wordsworth's poems. They were read by the traditional audience, the audience whose notions about poetry as a gentlemanly pursuit Wordsworth himself so much despised. He tried very hard to change those notions. He wrote extensive notes to his poems, trying to show people how they should be read. He wrote endless prefaces and essays, trying to get people just to think about the value of poetry as something more than a mark of taste.

I don't think that Blake ever realized how difficult his poetry must have seemed to his contemporaries, who were quite unprepared for poems so dense in meaning or so radical in concern.

But Wordsworth knew that vividly. He knew that he was changing the traditional contract between poet and audience. He was giving them a new kind of poetry; and he knew that he had to alert them to the change .

But even he was over-genuine. Both he and Blake had endless faith in human possibility. They had an unshakeable conviction of what Wordsworth called "certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind." They believed that people want to know themselves; want to understand their condition; want to enjoy sweet delight, and recognize it when they see it.

They believed that people - everybody - can feel deeply, and think hard.
So do I.

They believed that what they had to say was so important that people would work hard to get at their meaning and to understand it.
And, of course, that's not necessarily true. What they had to say is important. Their poetry can enlarge one's apprehension and amplify one's understanding of people, of society - of oneself.

Wordsworth and Blake had fantastic zeal about poetry. They took it for granted that people could get pleasure, gratification and enjoyment out of having their minds stretched.
It was all right for them. They knew that the hard work involved in reading their poetry would be amply rewarded.

But, naturally, their contemporaries weren't going to take that on faith.
When poetry was seen as a matter of amusement and idle pleasure, not many people were going to make the effort.

It's a paradox. They wanted a universal audience, and they found hardly anyone to understand them. They spoke for everyone; thought they could speak to everyone. And they wrote some of the most difficult poetry in the language.
It's no wonder that they were so ill-understood. It's no wonder that, even now, their reputation is so misleading.
Well, in these lectures you've heard about various kinds of audience for poetry. There's the traditional audience, a class-based audience which effectively vanished about the time of Pope. There are various different historical audiences which different poets have tried to cater for. There are real audiences; and there are notional audiences - the ones that Blake and Wordsworth would have liked to have read their poetry. There are good audiences, like the Elizabethans, who allowed the poets writing for them enough scope that they could do whatever they liked. There are bad audiences, vapid audiences like the one Wordsworth tried to bestir out of its nerveless lack of energy.
But I'd like to leave you with another way of thinking about the audience for poetry.
I suggested that Blake's later poetry suffered for want of an audience; that Blake gave up trying to communicate.
But then, he never had a real audience.
The difference is that when he was younger, he thought his poems would sell. He was trying, in a poem like "London", to communicate.
I said before that he had a notional audience, which wasn't exclusive and class-based, but was inclusive and universal. But he also had another notion about that audience, that it would recognize the relevance of what he had to say - its relevance to themselves. Recognizing the relevance, according to Blake, was the guarantee that his audience would exercise their minds, grapple with the demands his poems do place on his readers.

So there is an implied audience for Blake's early poems. The nature of that audience can be inferred from the poems themselves. It's an audience that delights in difficulty. It is prepared to confront the difficulty. It doesn't get fazed when things get hard. It is prepared to bring its own experience to bear on the poetry, because that is what the poetry demands.
It doesn't expect the poet to do all the work.
In the words of the United States Marine Corps, immortalized by the unlamented Watergate hero Charles Colson:
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
And after all, in the end, Blake and Wordsworth did change poetry. They changed the way it was written, and the way people think about it.
They were the first modern poets, writing at the very dawn of the world which we know.
Writing about that world.

And they still have things to teach us. It's there available to anyone who is prepared to delight in difficulty to join Wordsworth's and Blake's implied audience.

Friday, April 10, 2015


I note that in

Monday, November 30, 2009

I wrote

More in sorrow than in anger, and more in hysterical giggling than either

One point that none of the commentators seem to have noted is that Turnbull is going to come out of this pissed. And he, unlike other ex-Lib leaders, has almost no residual loyalty to the party, and every reason to take to it with a flensing knife. So there's no reason to believe that once rolled he won't stay in parliament and cause trouble, or switch parties and campaign for labor, or write a book that will make the Latham Diaries look like Pollyanna - whatever will most contribute to bringing down the party in sorrow to the grave, really. There's no point in assuming that anybody will be able to unify the party, because Turnbull's still going to be in it, and he's not unifiable. There's no point in assuming that the party is going to be able to win an election, or not get monstered, because parties that have ex-leaders stumping the electorate denouncing them rarely do well. There's no point in assuming that Hockey is going to get a honeymoon, because he's going to get king-hit by Turnbull.

OK, this one is falsifiable: Turnbull might decide to walk away and forget about it, and even forgive - it's what he did over the republic, after all. Wait and see.

Falsifiable, and falsified: Malcolm copped it sweet, sat it out, and is now once again in reach of the pinnacle. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015


I would have made Snufkin Dr. Manhattan, though, and Sniff would make a much better Rorschach.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Travesty Island

Went to the NFT production of Treasure Island.  A misbegotten abortion. They changed half the parts to females, on grounds of fairness, which meant that any kind of verisimilitude or background was utterly lost.  It could have worked if they'd made it into something different but of a comparable value, but the changes were infantile - characterisation at a level where one supernumerary couldn't say a sentence without including the word pie, Billy Bunter on a pirate ship. Stevenson gets no respect; they wouldn't do that to Proust - and how many female parts has Hamlet?  Two? The only changes that are called for in Treasure Island is to insert the relevant Fable;

AFTER the 32nd chapter of TREASURE ISLAND, two of the puppets strolled out to have a pipe before business should begin again, and met in an open place not far from the story.
“Good-morning, Cap’n,” said the first, with a man-o’-war salute, and a beaming countenance.
“Ah, Silver!” grunted the other. “You’re in a bad way, Silver.”
“Now, Cap’n Smollett,” remonstrated Silver, “dooty is dooty, as I knows, and none better; but we’re off dooty now; and I can’t see no call to keep up the morality business.”
“You’re a damned rogue, my man,” said the Captain.
“Come, come, Cap’n, be just,” returned the other. “There’s no call to be angry with me in earnest. I’m on’y a chara’ter in a sea story. I don’t really exist.”
“Well, I don’t really exist either,” says the Captain, “which seems to meet that.”
“I wouldn’t set no limits to what a virtuous chara’ter might consider argument,” responded Silver. “But I’m the villain of this tale, I am; and speaking as one sea-faring man to another, what I want to know is, what’s the odds?”
“Were you never taught your catechism?” said the Captain. “Don’t you know there’s such a thing as an Author?”
“Such a thing as a Author?” returned John, derisively. “And who better’n me? And the p’int is, if the Author made you, he made Long John, and he made Hands, and Pew, and George Merry - not that George is up to much, for he’s little more’n a name; and he made Flint, what there is of him; and he made this here mutiny, you keep such a work about; and he had Tom Redruth shot; and - well, if that’s a Author, give me Pew!”
“Don’t you believe in a future state?” said Smollett. “Do you think there’s nothing but the present story-paper?”
“I don’t rightly know for that,” said Silver; “and I don’t see what it’s got to do with it, anyway. What I know is this: if there is sich a thing as a Author, I’m his favourite chara’ter. He does me fathoms better’n he does you - fathoms, he does. And he likes doing me. He keeps me on deck mostly all the time, crutch and all; and he leaves you measling in the hold, where nobody can’t see you, nor wants to, and you may lay to that! If there is a Author, by thunder, but he’s on my side, and you may lay to it!”
“I see he’s giving you a long rope,” said the Captain. “But that can’t change a man’s convictions. I know the Author respects me; I feel it in my bones; when you and I had that talk at the blockhouse door, who do you think he was for, my man?”
“And don’t he respect me?” cried Silver. “Ah, you should ’a’ heard me putting down my mutiny, George Merry and Morgan and that lot, no longer ago’n last chapter; you’d heard something then! You’d ’a’ seen what the Author thinks o’ me! But come now, do you consider yourself a virtuous chara’ter clean through?”
“God forbid!” said Captain Smollett, solemnly. “I am a man that tries to do his duty, and makes a mess of it as often as not. I’m not a very popular man at home, Silver, I’m afraid!” and the Captain sighed.
“Ah,” says Silver. “Then how about this sequel of yours? Are you to be Cap’n Smollett just the same as ever, and not very popular at home, says you? And if so, why, it’s TREASURE ISLAND over again, by thunder; and I’ll be Long John, and Pew’ll be Pew, and we’ll have another mutiny, as like as not. Or are you to be somebody else? And if so, why, what the better are you? and what the worse am I?”
“Why, look here, my man,” returned the Captain, “I can’t understand how this story comes about at all, can I? I can’t see how you and I, who don’t exist, should get to speaking here, and smoke our pipes for all the world like reality? Very well, then, who am I to pipe up with my opinions? I know the Author’s on the side of good; he tells me so, it runs out of his pen as he writes. Well, that’s all I need to know; I’ll take my chance upon the rest.”
“It’s a fact he seemed to be against George Merry,” Silver admitted, musingly. “But George is little more’n a name at the best of it,” he added, brightening. “And to get into soundings for once. What is this good? I made a mutiny, and I been a gentleman o’ fortune; well, but by all stories, you ain’t no such saint. I’m a man that keeps company very easy; even by your own account, you ain’t, and to my certain knowledge you’re a devil to haze. Which is which? Which is good, and which bad? Ah, you tell me that! Here we are in stays, and you may lay to it!”
“We’re none of us perfect,” replied the Captain. “That’s a fact of religion, my man. All I can say is, I try to do my duty; and if you try to do yours, I can’t compliment you on your success.”
“And so you was the judge, was you?” said Silver, derisively.
“I would be both judge and hangman for you, my man, and never turn a hair,” returned the Captain. “But I get beyond that: it mayn’t be sound theology, but it’s common sense, that what is good is useful too - or there and thereabout, for I don’t set up to be a thinker. Now, where would a story go to if there were no virtuous characters?”
“If you go to that,” replied Silver, “where would a story begin, if there wasn’t no villains?”
“Well, that’s pretty much my thought,” said Captain Smollett. “The Author has to get a story; that’s what he wants; and to get a story, and to have a man like the doctor (say) given a proper chance, he has to put in men like you and Hands. But he’s on the right side; and you mind your eye ! You’re not through this story yet; there’s trouble coming for you.”
“What’ll you bet?” asked John.
“Much I care if there ain’t,” returned the Captain. “I’m glad enough to be Alexander Smollett, bad as he is; and I thank my stars upon my knees that I’m not Silver. But there’s the ink-bottle opening. To quarters!”
And indeed the Author was just then beginning to write the words:

OK, this is getting ridiculous

Google News brings up an article titled

Murdoch media apparently want to scuttle Turnbull leadership bid

All very well, except that it's apparently from the Sierra Leone Times Saturday 28th February, 2015. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

All Provided

Stephen mentioned to me the other day that they'd just been on a cruise, complementary drinks: I knew I'd seen something on that - just found it.....
Bottle Party
'Boozers are being offered the bender of a lifetime: an alcoholiday in the sun. The special attraction is twelve hours' drinking a day, FREE! Tourists will pay £45 for the trip to the island of Majorca, and for their money they will get unlimited supplies of liquor at a three-star hotel. Tours manager Colin Woolf said: "Our 'clients will be able to drink until they fall down. "
Daily Mirror
Hotel Borrachera
Playa de Palma
38th July 1977
DEAR AUNTIE THING, Alice, tall woman, big yellow teeth,
Well, here we are at the, oops, there's a blotty, hallo Blotty!
Who's a pretty Blotty then? at the, you know, and we are all having a wonderful O God Almighty these bloody Spanish pens! THESE BLOODY SPANISH PENS! THESE STINKING BLOODY LONG-HAIRED GREASY SPANISH WOG CHEAP LOUSY ROTTEN 
Expen the scusil. Thrown pen over balcony, whee goes pen, hope it sticks in Spanish head, ha-ha, serve them right throwing Norman out of EI Wizzo Niteclub just because Norman sick on bongo, no business having bongo where people can be sick on it anyhow, how they expect Norman do Knees Up Mother Thing with six bottles of vi no sloshing about in him?
Norman lucky didn't get run over, all mad drivers, also hate dogs, don't realise thing running out of EI Wizzo on all fours is man doing brilliant impression of airedale, Norman now got tyre marks all over his nice El Wizzo tablecloth.

And what police doing banging on hotel door in small hours, anyone think it crime to borrow tablecloth, no business grabb­ing Norman either, man got perfect right to be on top of own wardrobe, paid for room didn't he? Only reasonable Norman lash out with Genuine Old Master showing Majorca at sunset. Man was desperate. As I informed magistrate, 'We did not splash three quid on priceless antique work of art just to have rotten fascist pig stick greasy head through it. ' 
Norman back now, got lice. Also had to share cell overnight with violent criminal, quantity surveyor from Wimbledon stay­ing at posh place in Palma on fourteen-day gin excursion, went mad when barman tried to close bar, bit barman's ear off. Disgusting putting my Norman in with him, Norman never ate anyone in his life.
Glad I brought up food. OhGod. 
Here I am, Auntie, back again! Where was I, oh yes, glad I mentioned food, food quite good, really, except too much paella, trouble with paella is you get shrimps in hair when face falls in it after third bottle, steak days are best except when they overcook it and you bruise your cheek. 
Went to see full bight last Monday where is my cigarette and sat in the sun with these gourds Norman bought where you have to squirt the wine into I KNOW I PUT MY BLOODY CIGARETTE DOWN SOMEWHERE where you have to squirt the wine into your mouth, only after the first couple of gourds Norman squirted it into ear of woman sitting' next to him, woman scream blue murders, Norman leap up, woman's husband leap up, sock Norman in his O JESUS AUNTIE PILLOW IS ON FIRE PILLOW IS BURNING, AUNTIE, AUNTIE, I MEAN NORMAN, NORMAN, PILLOW IS ON FIRE NORMAN. 
Back now, Auntie, it nearly dark, whole place smelling of foam. Not my fault, threw burning pillow off balcony, woman on balcony below leaning out drying hair in breeze, pillow land on head, hair flare up like chip-pan, woman shriek, people upstairs smell burning, call fire-brigade, fire-brigade come, no hydrant so attach pump to swimming pool supply, drain swimming-pool dry and find two English couples lying on bottom surrounded by bottles, police doctor say they dead two days. Funny thing, Norman wondered why conger line shorter than usual at El Wizzo last two nights.
Meanwhile man downstairs put wife's head out with fire-extinguisher, woman now not only burned bald but face all wrinkled up from chemicals and suntan fallen off, woman look like old golf ball. Husband ran upstairs, kicked in door, punched Norman in face, Norman fell off loo, now asleep in bath, so everything a bit calmer now.
Poor Norman, got black eye now to go with cauliflower ear received at bullfight after husband of woman with wine in ear sock Norman in his. Terrible blow, after that Norman see four bullfighters sticking four swords into four bulls every time he look.
Everybody know only two bulls and two bullfighters, clear as nose on thing. Two noses.
Anyway, Auntie, after bullfight met very nice English couple lying underneath charabanc, grocer from Birkenhead and lovely wife Arthur. All went out for dinner together, and Arthur danced in soup. 
Arranged to meet on beach next day, and great fun burying Norman, falling down in sea, throwing ice cream at boring Swede families, etcetera, until it was time for lunch. Invited couple back to our hotel for five or six bottles. Only when half­way through second course and Arthur asleep on butter dish that Birkenhead grocer suddenly start counting.
'What is it?' I ask him.
'What is two and one?  he reply. We think for a bit.
'Three,' I say finally.
'Thought so,' he comment. 'We never dug up Norman.' Rush back to beach, dragging Arthur by foot, Arthur's arms flailing about knocking things off tables as we cross dining-room, bloody lucky most diners asleep under tables, but one or two Germans, French, etcetera start kicking up fuss when chicken legs start falling in laps, screaming, shouting, terrible thing about foreigners, can't hold their drink. 
Hallo Mummie, Auntie, fat old cow, fancy giving us a wooden toast rack for a wedding present NO I DON'T BLEEDING FORGET EVEN IF IT IS TWELVE YEARS YOU FLY-BLOWN OLD RATBAG, feel a lot better now, nice bog bittle inside me, good idea having spiders walking all over the wallpaper, keep the flies off, especially green spiders, hallo green spiders wherever you are, I hope your troubles are few, all my good wishes go with you tonight, I was a spider, too, hee-hee-hee-hee-hee, O TOOTH ALMIGHTY I HAVE BROKEN A GOD ON THE BEDSIDE TABLE 
hallo norman
Norman did not want me to wake him up Auntie he has hit me with the bidet HOW DID YOU GET THE BIDET OFF THE WALL AUNTIE, NORMAN, BELOVED, HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO why are my slippers floating past? 
You know what it is, Auntie, don't you, you know what it is all right, you know what it is with these bloody people, they're just a load of filthy anti-British bigots, that's what it is!
Hoping this finds you as it as it as it thing,
Your loving niece,

Alan Coren, The Lady From Stalingrad Mansions (a book of his Punch pieces)

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