MARY SHELLEY’S “FRANKENSTEIN”: THE CREATION MYTH DEVELOPED BY CULTURAL MARXISM.

“The Creature”

Between the eighties and nineties I was not much involved with academic life. When I returned to teach Open University students a course on “Approaches to Literature” I was surprised to discover that a novel I had thought to be on the periphery of literary focus had become a central part of the curriculum.

Earlier, I had taken for granted, that Frankenstein was an example, certainly a good example, of the gothic form. This form, in my unmodish innocence, unaware how the genre of the gothic had been reclaimed as significant, I regarded as suspect because I thought of gothic as tending towards sensationalism which failed to get inside situations as, say, Jane Austen’s realism did. It worked, that is, on the level of external sensation, or excitement, of the reader, rather than leading the reader into psychological penetration of what was being presented. So while Frankenstein may have been an interesting example of the literature of the time, reflecting the ideas of the time, it did not have inherent strength as a great work of literature, limited as it was by its genre. Such was my old-fashioned view.

So you can guess my surprise when on returning to academe I discovered the same devalued Frankenstein as being given a central role as a classic. Why the sudden elevation? In these intervening years the feminist revolution hit literary studies. So….. you might ask? What has the gothic of this novel, not focused on an exploited female, but centred on male creator and male creature to do with feminism? At first that might seem a difficult question to answer. True, poor Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s betrothed, suffers grievously and then on the wedding night is slaughtered. But she is simply a casualty of the central opposition, too vestigial a character in the novel, for that to be the feminist justification. No, the answer comes in a word that the feminist revolution brought in to the understanding of literature; a word linked to the whole development of critical theory. The word is otherness.

“Otherness” came to prominence in sociology as a word expressing not just difference between one group and and another but a constructed difference based on the hierarchical model of power. So, in terms of feminism, “otherness” was a role prescribed for the female, or ” constructed” in society by the patriarchal male to regulate the position and decide the functions of the female. Those in power, the privileged, assumed normalcy. Outside of that, were those that were treated as other. Feminism meant opposing this regulation, this devalued otherness in favour of equality; an opposition which involved not just fighting against outward political and economic limitation-male franchise, male dominance in the work place- but also the inward limitation of assigned stereotypical forms of behaviour (such as the female being associated with roles of domesticity, nurturing, housework, etc).

In this way, the movement is from the external obvious oppression to internal cultural oppression. Identity politics comes to be developed: “the personal is political” became a popular feminist slogan.

Well and good, you say- and we all may sympathise now with that idea of feminism- but how does that relate to Frankenstein with its male protagonists. The answer takes us a little further beyond immediate feminism. Other identities are similarly constructed according to the hierarchy, deemed to privilege the white male. As well as the feminist, there is also the race narrative, reacting against racism, including the colonial and post- colonial positioning of other races in relation to the dominant tribe. Then we come to gays, and then trans and gender identities, and disabled and whatever other group that can be construed as victimised within a narrative of otherness.

Once you look at Frankenstein this way you can see the fit. The Creature is constructed. The Creature is then condemned for who and what he is. He seeks recognition: he is spurned, rejected, abandoned by his creator. Not only that, but because he appears different, although he harbours feelings of longing for sympathy and endorsement, he is rejected and condemned by society. When he learns about society (educated by default though a hole in the wall) he finds that this kind of rejection has been inherent within human society. A rage builds up within and when rejected he acts violently. This confirms his evil inferiority of nature in the understanding of his creator. The two are involved in a destructive cycle of destruction and violence.

Hence the importance of Frankenstein. That is why it has become such an established classic for our time. For it is archetypal, the modern myth outlining and predicting the fallout of the post- revolutionary struggle towards equality. Published in 1818, it foreshadows Marx, the struggle of the exploited workers and all the other struggles-the feminist, gays, the fight against patriarchy, against the traditional structure of the family, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Mermaids etc- which might come under the umbrella of cultural Marxism. Now these severally may be causes for which you have some sympathy but in Frankenstein you have a work that represents in essence the whole process for these various identities. The Creature constructed to live and yet be different, rejected and denied the right to be the creature he might seek to be. The logic of cultural Marxism finds in Frankenstein the iconic myth of power relations. So when feminism ultimately required the revaluation of the curriculum it is not surprising that the significance of Frankenstein came to be re-assessed.

Shelley brought up by feminist May Wollstonecraft, and by William Godwin who heralded the perfectability of man through equality, a great supporter of the French Revolution with her husband Percy Bysshe, also a Godwinite, was fascinated by “Paradise Lost”. But it was a Paradise Lost less based on Genesis than on a reading of Milton’s work similar to that of William Blake(also a radical supporter of the French Revolution), a reading that sees not God but Satan as the hero, as Blake puts it “Milton was of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. In Paradise Lost. God the hierarchic Authoritarian Father, the Law -maker, punished and condemned Satan to Hell. Satan, so condemned, seeks a kind of heroic revenge, inspiring Man to oppose God.

What this understanding of the myth fails to record is the moral significance of the need for redemption. For Frankenstein is potentially noble but allows himself, through his obsession, to go against the good; the Creature is not only rejected and therefore deserving of our sympathy, especially because he shows finer feelings, but in his bitter revenge and uncontrolled rage becomes evil. They are not representative of two opposing sides, one good, one wrong. Both require redemption submitting themselves to God, and then through mutual understanding and forgiveness. But Frankenstein in his obsessive male pride has forgotten God. The Creature is only a human construct, uninspired by God. What is missing in this modern myth, what is missing in cultural Marxism, is the understanding of an Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who writes in his great work The Gulag Archipelago 1973 : “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between political parties either- but right through every human heart.”

FILMING THE ALPS IN WORDS: FRANKENSTEIN

FROM PICTURESQUE TO SUBLIME: MARY SHELLEY

Mont Blanc

The next day we pursued our journey upon mules; and as we ascended still higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character; and as we ascended still higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character. Ruined castles hanging on precipices of piny mountains; the impetuous Arves, and cottages every here and there peeping forth from among the trees, formed a scene of singular beauty. But it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitation of another race of beings.

We passed the bridge of Pelissier, where the ravine, which the river forms, opened before us, and we began to ascend the mountain that overhangs it. Soon after we entered the valley of the Chamounix. The valley is more wonderful and sublime, but not so beautiful and picturesque as that of the Servox, through which he had just passed. The high and shining mountains were its immediate boundaries; but we saw no more ruined castles and fertile fields. Immense glaciers approached the road; we heard the rumbling thunder of the falling avalanche, and marked the smoke of its passage. Mont Blanc, the supreme and magnificent Mont Blanc, raised itself from the surrounding aiguilles , and its tremendous dome overlooked the valley.

Mary Shelley Frankenstein Vol.2 Ch. 1

Valley of the Chamounix

Mary Shelley’s novel was probably the most famous and certainly most significant of the Gothic genre of novels which came to the fore in the pre-Romantic period and especially in the decade of the 1790’s. Jane Austen read them with enthusiasm but when she started to write fiction, that same decade, her approach was supremely realistic working upon the ordinary world of everyday experience. Her first novel, Northanger Abbey satirises the popular cult of the Gothic and especially the novels of Mrs Ann Radcliffe.

Gothic novels were designed to lead the reader into an unfamiliar world of the weird and the terrifying. Their settings aim to chill and frighten: hence their ancient haunted castles, isolated mansions or ruins, graveyards, remote mountain lanscapes, where the helpless, isolated heroine-or occasional hero- will be exposed to extremes of threat.

The above passage from Shelley is remarkable, given the genre, for its specificity. These are named , identifiable places in the Alps, though in their otherness from the norm, they form a suitable setting (“as belonging to another earth, the habitation of another race of beings”) for the confrontation between Frankenstein and his creature.

We notice in the description that we are taken beyond the picturesque with white cottages peeping out among the forests and the castles and “fertile fields” all features of the picturesque and ordinarily beautiful to something tremendous, of extra dimension: in other words the sublime – “it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps”. This is where wild nature expresses its inhuman otherness, it commands a feeling of awe beyond what might be familiarised as picturesque.

During the Romantic era the sublime took on a new emphasis. It was heralded by a work of aesthetics by Edmund Burke Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). According to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Simon Blackburn 1996) Burke’s work “marked a very early Romantic turn away from the 18th -century aesthetic of clarity and order, in favour of the imaginative power of the unbounded and infinite, and the unstated and unknown.”

The great Romantic poets sought out the mountains, as earlier poets had embarked on a Grand Tour. Wordsworth brought up in the Lake District ,anyway, explored also the Scottish Highlands, Snowdonia and the Alps. Famously, he wrote about the experience of crossing the Alps in Book 6 of “The Prelude”. Coleridge described the valley of the Chamouni in “Hymn Before Sunrise”. These two poems inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley, second generation Romantic, to another take on Alpine landscape, with his “Mont Blanc”. And relating to the description above in Frankenstein Percy and his young wife in 1814 together put together a journal of their travels in the area. The work was then edited by Mary, prefaced by Percy and published in November 1817 as History of a Six Week Tour .

The story of the novel developed from a later tour in 1817 when the Shelleys returned to the area living with Byron in his lodge near Geneva. The group, including Byron’s friend and physician Polidori, talking late into the night devised a ghost-writing competition they would all engage in. Percy’s tale did not develop , Byron began one on a vampire which Polidori later developed and published The Vampyre: A Tale . Mary’s mind was at first blank but then she crossed ideas of setting- the Alps and Republican Geneva- with her husband’s fascination with the new science of electricity and galvanism which provoked ideas about the creation of living beings. What starts as a great enterprise, the noble scientific idealism of Frankenstein, involves unhallowed desecration of the remains of corpses and he becomes increasingly obsessive and secretive. The resulting creation is a disaster. Frankenstein shrinks away in disgust at the ghastliness of the creature, rejecting and abandoning it. However the creature is not so readily dismissed and there follows a cycle of rejection and destruction from which neither can escape. So, along with its traditional gothic sensationalism and frightening violence, the work transcends the limitations of the genre developing a great cluster of ideas on idealism , the limits of scientific endeavour, the potential of science to be destructive rather than ameliorative of the human condition, the concept of the noble savage (from Rousseau) and the corruption in man and in society and social conditioning, the rejection of otherness and the operation of the mentality of revenge based on rejection. Thus the non-realism of the gothic is transcended to become a work of mythic portent in which the original Genesis story of creation (Milton’s Paradise Lost is frequently invoked) is re-adapted with the god of creation failing to re-connect with the creature who fails and who is other, causing a breakdown in the possibility of creative relations being established.

But I’ve rather exceeded my brief which was simply to tell how for the Romantics the sublime took on a new significance which drew them to mountains and the feeling of awe they induced. Once started one never quite knows where a blog might end up!

“HIM WHO FIRST DESCRIBED WHAT PICTURESQUE BEAUTY WAS”: JANE AUSTEN AND WILLIAM GILPIN (2)

Marianne’s sensitivity to the beauty of the landscape (see post “Jane Austen and the Picturesque”) shows her feeling for the picturesque, a pre-Romantic era concept, that developed in popularity through the eighteenth century. That it is a fashionable tendency is due largely to the work of William Gilpin(1724-1804). Gilpin distinguishes picturesque beauty from natural beauty : between those which “please the eye in the natural state, and those which please from some quality, capable of being illustrated in painting.” (Essay on Picturesque Beauty). Jane Austen was once, according to her brother Henry, in his Biographical Notice to the first edition of Persuasion , “enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque”. So her early feelings are probably reflected in the enthusiasm of the young Marianne but, her similar distrust of jargon and her suspicion of affectation, would lead naturally to the kind of satirical approach of Edward. Here for instance is the kind of judgement Gilpin would make which Edward clearly has in mind:
At Fair-Mile hill, a very extensive view opened before us, but nothing can make it pleasing, as it is bounded by a hard edge. A distance should melt into the sky, or terminate in a soft and varied mountain line.” Observations on the Western Parts of England” London (1798).

Gilpin’s work, however, prepared the ground for the kind of appreciation the Romantic poets, like Wordsworth and the Lake poets, and Sir Walter Scott, would develop. Between 1782 and 1809 he wrote six books of Observations on various parts of the United Kingdom, including the Wye Valley, the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland. Such places were becoming popular tourist sites. During the French wars following the French Revolution the Grand Tour of Europe was becoming less possible and Gilpin’s work undoubtedly developed the early attractions of holidaying in parts of the country which never before would have been found attractive. So in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet is to go first with the Gardiners to the Lake District on holiday (before it has to be shortened and they limit themselves to Derbyshire) and in the early “Love and Friendship” one of the characters speaks of going a tour of the Scottish Highlands as a result of reading Gilpin’s Observations of 1789.(I’m grateful to Ros Ballaster for details from her Notes as editor of 2014 edition of Sense and Sensibility Penguin Classics)

In her first novel Northanger Abbey Jane Austen also combines sympathetic focus with satire of the modishness of picturesque terminology. She describes the young naive Catherine developing her education in listening to the discussion Tilney and his sister while out for a walk around Beechen Cliff,

that noble hill, whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath……..

The Tilneys were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decide on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste. Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing-nothing of taste:- and she listened to them with an attention that brought little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her. The little she did understand however appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear sky was no longer proof of a fine day.

Having confessed her ignorance Henry Tilney was very ready to educate her:

a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in every thing admired by him and her attention was so earnest, that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances-side-screens and perspectives-lights and shades- and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar, that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath, as unworthy to make part of a landscape.”

Jane Austen was not the only one to satirise the work of Gilpin. William Combe brought out in “The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque” a verse narrative which was illustrated by the outstanding English caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson. Included are stanzas, like the following, presenting the ridiculed target drawing a landscape while seeking to make the picture adequately picturesque:

"  I've a right-( who dares deny it)
To place a group of asses by it.
Aye, this will do, and now I'm thinking
That self-same pond where Grizzle's drinking,
If hither brought 'twould better seem
And, truth, I'll turn it to a stream.
I'll make this flat a shaggy ridge
And o'er the water throw a bridge
I'll do as other sketchers do
Put anything into the view
And any object recollect,
To add a grace and give effect.

According to Wikipedia, the writer of the Dr. Syntax verses William Combe was a “micellaneous writer” whose “early life was that of an adventurer and his later was passed chiefly within the “rules” of the King’s Bench Prison.” So popular was his first series on Dr Syntax (1809) that two others were written. The illustrator was Thomas Rowlandson well known as a brilliant satirical painter and caricaturist and Dr Syntax is recognised to be our first cartoon character.

Yet despite his excesses the Rev William Gilpin should be remembered with respect. He was one of those doughty Anglican priests who, while ever faithful to their duties, found time for an extraordinary range of achievements. After graduating from Oxford in 1748 Gilpin worked as a teacher, becoming headmaster of Cheam School for Boys in 1755. There he was a very enlightened schoolmaster for the time, refusing to use corporal punishment and instead issuing fines for misbehaviour. He encouraged the boys in sporting activities, as well as interesting them in running school shops and looking after the school gardens. In 1777 he became vicar at Boldre in the New Forest area where he remained until his death in 1804. During his summer vacations he would carry out his tours with observations and drawings which were then published. Three essays on the Picturesque followed which along with the Observations created an enthusiasm for the subject. As well as his art works he published books of sermons and biographies of great figures in the English Church- Hugh Latimer, Wycliffe and Thomas Cranmer. All in all , he was a man who added much to the ongoing cultural and spiritual life of the nation.

WHILST BROWSING: A NOTE ON DOSTOEVSKY’S DEMONS

“In the nineteenth century Russia under the influence of their progressive parents, a generation of educated young people was convinced of the illegitimacy of the Tsarist regime. Dostoevsky’s “Demons” (1871) is a vivid chronicle of the tragic and farcical process by which progressive liberals discredited traditional institutions and unleashed a wave of revolutionary terror. Not only tsarism but any form of government came to be seen as repressive. As one of Dostoevsky’s characters put it “I got entangled with my data…… shifting from unlimited freedom I concluded with unlimited despotism”.

From John Gray “The Woke have No Vision for the Future” Unherd.

Unherd is one of my favourite websites. It was set up to “push back against herd mentality with new and bold thinking and provide a platform for otherwise unheard, ideas, people and places”. This week there was an essay by the author John Gray quoted above which, within its argument, makes reference to Dostoevsky’s novel “The Demons” ( which when I read it a long time ago was translated “The Possessed”) in connection with recent troubles in the U.S following the George Floyd killing. The argument is complex and I shall not attempt to summarise it here though if interested I would recommend you to look at it on the site. However the discussion of Dostoevsky drew my attention. He is a writer whose big four novels I absorbed in late adolescence but to which I have seldom returned since. Reading Gray’s essay adducing “The Demons” to understand the state of our post-liberal world makes me want to read that novel again.

ON THE PICTURESQUE: JANE AUSTEN

From Sense and Sensibility

Edward returned to them with fresh admiration of the surrounding country; in his walk to the village, he had seen many parts of the valley to advantage; and the village itself, in a much higher situation than the cottage, afforded a general view of the whole, which had exceedingly pleased him. This was a subject which ensured Marianne’s attention, and she was beginning to describe her own admiration of these scenes, and to question him more minutely on the objects that had particularly struck him when Edward interrupted her by saying, “You must not enquire too far , Marianne- remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth , which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought to be only indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country- the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug-with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility- and I dare say it is a picturesque one too because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush-wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque.

I am afraid it is but too true,” said Marianne; “but why should you boast of it?”

I suspect,” said Elinor, “that to avoid one kind of affectation, Edward here falls into another. Because he believes many people pretend to more admiration than they feel, and is disgusted with such pretensions, he affects greater indifference and less discrimination in viewing them himself than he possesses. He is fastidious, and will have an affectation of his own.

It is very true ” says Marianne, “that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense of meaning”

I am convinced ” said Edward,” that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined,tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farmhouse than a watch-tower-and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with compassion at his sister. Elinor only laughed.

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility Vol. 1 xv111

One of the delights of reading Jane Austen is coming across conversations like this-lively and clever bringing out character in its relation to the topic at hand as well as the thematic development of the novel. He points to the terminology he uses as opposed to that which he should use if pre-disposed to the picturesque (“bold” rather than “steep” for hills, and instead of”distant objects out of sight” what “ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere”) in a way that demonstrates amusingly that Edward knows a lot about the picturesque while disclaiming such knowledge. In doing so we appreciate the wit of clever judgement.

Elinor, with rational perceptiveness, recognises the discrepancy between what Edward is claiming and how he is doing it and she sees it as a way of avoiding “one kind of affectation” by “falling into another”. Such a claim points to the relevance for us of the way argument in general is conducted. It is not simply about an old aesthetic topic now irrelevant ( though in fact this argument continues to resonate for a population of scenery admirers where we are always engaged with the question as to what particularly raises or lessens our admiration for such a particular scene) it is about the way people argue. Marianne, with sensitive intelligence, recognises the general tendency to adopt particular terms or stereotypical notions disallowing nuance. So she often stays quiet rather than using language which is “worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning”.

Edward then furthers the debate by developing the argument he has earlier made based on an admiration combining beauty and utility (which word of course points to the philosophy Bentham was at that point developing and which will have a major effect on the nineteenth century and beyond in utilitarianism) with a more specific criticism of the picturesque: “I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles” using contrasting illustrations-“I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing.”

The theme of the novel, indicated by the title, balances sense with sensibility. Marianne is the character who represents “sensibility” which emphasises fine feeling. In a recent blog on the development of the word “romantic” we saw how its emphasis became associated not so much with the old romances as with suitable settings and attraction to these. The word developed strong subjective connection of how it looks to how I feel about its appearance. This prepared for a development of “picturesque” ideas distinguishing what looks good (“romantic”) at the expense of more objective ideas of value. To Edward the “cottage” is a ruin,its justification as a building is lost. Picturesque values might emphasise the cottage’s graceful appropriateness for overall effect of a view. And such internalised effects were thoroughly investigated, as Edward mockingly shows in his use of the vocabulary.

The argument concludes unresolved. Elinor keeps her balanced appreciation of the two sides of the argument by laughing. Marianne is too inclined towards a romanticism upholding the feelings to understand a counter point of view. With her primacy of the feelings commands her reason.

We can see in the movement from the rational minded Edward to the romantic Marianne the balancing centre of the Elinor who laughs- her laugh representing the wit and wisdom of the artist who could appreciate both points of view.

It is a wisdom of which we are sorely in need to this day. During Lockdown, after three months there is increasing sense of imbalance and lack of proportion. A widely respected professional novelist, mainly of children’s books, tweeted a witty ironic comment -not unworthy of Jane Austen- on a proposed definition of women, which was met with outrage. No considered argument -that I saw publicised- was used to answer the implied criticism. The author was simply traduced for not being on the side of approved opinion.

Oh, for the sense of balance a Jane Austen’s laugh might bring!

POPPIES

I love the time of year-mid May- when poppies first appear in our garden. I remember them so often as I passed them in fields scattered among the wheat on the road between North Berwick and Edinburgh. Here is a poem on poppies.

Poppies

You are not
simple indiscretions at a summer fete
shunned by suburban florists

You are
gregarious rebels
anarchists in Nature's hierarchy.

Inveterate guerillas against camouflage
You open reckless, bloody wounds
among fields of smug corn.

You will always be
a conflagration of heartache
reeking of drowsy Keats
emblem both of Remembrance and Oblivion.

My pets, my feral poppies.

Christopher Morgan “Poppies” from “Stalking the A4″Edgeways The Brynmill Press 2009

The poem so wittily presents the contrasts and contradictions the flower represents. Offset against the decorous tidiness of the show flowers of the fete and against the fields of “smug corn” are the suggestions of the wild untameability of the flower against all our instincts to regulate and order nicely. How wonderfully right is that word “conflagration” ( the long four syllables containing the word “flag” which occasions the outburst of various feelings and associations the flower can set off as it spreads here and there in the fields).

Pets, of course, are not by definition feral but by our love of the flowers we seek to contain, while recognising we cannot contain their wild unpredictable manifestation of life.

But ignore me just go back to the poem and draw from its profuse richness!

For readers unaware of the allusion to Keats it comes from the second stanza of “To Autumn” where Keats is seeking to personify Autumn by representing the range of harvest activities.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on ahalf-reap’d furrow sound asleep

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cider-press, with a patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

 

 

LOOKING AT THE WORD “ROMANTIC”(1)

You all know the word “romantic” and it arouses all kinds of expectations. It is that kind of word. But where did it come from and how did it develop? It is an interesting story.

In the last blog while I used the word ” Romantic” I was very conscious how complex a word it is. After all the title “Making the Novel Romantic” would have encouraged many readers to imagine I was referring to Mills and Boon type fiction when I was really thinking, not about romance or passion at all, but the influence of romanticism on the Bronte sisters.

The word “romance, ” of course, is the connecting link. It developed from “romaunt” -a verse romance from Old French, as with “Romaunt of the Rose ” translated by Chaucer. But the connections of the word were ancient , going back to Rome and the development of verse in various “provincial” languages of the Roman Empire.

The word “romantic” suddenly appeared in the mid-seventeenth century in English. Since then, it has become a word which mixes ideas of aesthetic appreciation, of associations with romance or passion, of critical attitudes towards the word by rational thinkers and of the exaltation of certain qualities of feeling and imagination. Quite an assortment! Also, as we shall see, it has a complex history of cross-fertilisation with other European tongues, particularly French and German, both of which languages borrowed the word, developed it further and then returned it to English.

I went through much of my life, carrying this legacy of various meanings, without ever endeavouring to sort them out. Then I came across an old book, in a second hand bookshop, by Logan Pearsall Smith, a name I had heard mentioned with a high degree of respect by some critics I admired. This work Words and Idioms, published in 1925 included a chapter on the word “Romantic”, its history and development along with associated words, all of which developed their meanings dramatically, such as “originality”, “imagination”, “genius”, “creativity”. The chapter provided me a real education by showing how the understanding of the development of a new word -or cluster of words- helps us understand key movements of thought.

I would like to share some of Pearsall Smith’s explorations with you. If this wakens your interest I would strongly recommend you to try to get the book to read the chapter in full.

The word “romantic” was first used from the mid-seventeenth century indicating a spirit of critical detachment.:

Its appearance …is an indication of a change in human thought, and marks the moment when that change had become obvious enough to need a term to express it. Romantic simply meant like the old romances for which they were needing a name -that they were being critical of them, and had begun to view them with a certain detachment…. The special characteristic of all these romances, for which a name was now needed, was their falseness and unreality, all that was imaginary and impossible in them, all that was contrary to the more rational view of life which was beginning to dominate men’s minds. The growth of this conception of “order” and “nature”, this “dawn of reason”, as an eighteenth century writer called it, threw into relief certain groups of irrational elements which were opposed to it. The phenomena of religious fanaticism was branded “enthusiasm” and the fictions and imaginations of the old romances were labelled by the word “romantic”. The meaning of “false” “fictitious”, “imaginary”, implied by romantic was applied both to the supernatural elements in the medieval romances, their giants, magicians and enchanted castles; and also to the false, impossible, high-flown sentiments of the later romances; those “wild romantic tales” as a seventeeth century writer described them , “wherein they strain love and honour to that ridiculous height it becomes burlesque.”

It is noticeable also, that running concurrently with this deprecating tone towards the “romantic” there was also a devaluation of the word “imagination”. Imagination, of course, was to be exalted during the Romantic era by Blake and Coleridge as the supreme power of creativity. But to Hobbes the essential element in a poetry was Reason. “Judgement begets the strength and structure and Fancy begets the ornaments of a poem.” The imagination came to be regarded as la folle de logis, in Descartes’ phrase , or, in Dryden’s words as “a wild lawless faculty, that like a high ranging spaniel, must have clogs tied to it lest it outrun judgement”,”. (An Essay of Dramatic Poesie)

How then do we move from the denigration implied by the word “romantic”(and its associate “imagination”) to its exaltation leading us to Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Keats and on to what we looked at last time with Charlotte Bronte’s letter.

There grew in the eighteenth century along with the philosohical and rational distrust of imagination, the aesthetic attraction of the romantic setting. “Romantic” here meant “redolent or suggestive of romance; appealing to the imagination or feelings” (O.E.D).

“The word romantic then, from the general meaning of “like the old romances”, came to be used as a descriptive term for the scenes which they describe, old casles, mountains and forests, pastoral plains, waste and solitary places. In the earlier instances of the adjective the literary reference is more or less explicit; but by the eighteenth century it had come to express more generally the newly awakened, but as yet half-conscious, love for wild nature, for mountains and moors, for the “woods, Rivers, or Sea-shores” which Shaftesbury mentions as sought by those “who are deep in a this romantic way” ( Shaftesbury Moralists 1709) .

Dr Johnson the commanding literary figure of the mid-eighteenth century, the generation before the first Romantics, displays both meanings:

Dr. Johnson almost invariably uses the word [ie. “romantic”] with its depreciatory meaning ( “romantic and superfluous”,” ridiculous and romantic” ” romantic absurdities or incredible fictions” etc) was so influenced by the prevalent fashion as to try his unwieldy hand at a landscape of this kind.

When night overshadows a romantick scene, all is stillness, silence and quiet” (The Adventurer No. 108 . 1753.

When the French borrowed the word they at first translated it as romanasque or pittoresque. However, when Rousseau used it directly it as romantique, it was included in the Dictionary of the French Academy in 1798 being defined as Il se dit ordinairement des lieux, des paysages qui rapellent a l’imagination les descriptions des poemes et des romans.(Please excuse my French translation: “it usually refers to the places,the landscapes,scenery which appeal to the imagination in the descriptions of poems and stories” )

Pearsall Smith shows how the French definition underlines the subjective and also literary nature of the word. “In the first place romantic is like interesting,, charming, exciting one of those modern words which desribe, not so much the objective qualities of things, as our response to them, the feelings they arouse in the susceptible spectator. Secondly, it is nature seen through the medium of literature…..It is curious also to note the appearance and popularity of the word picturesque at the same time as romantique for just as romantique means Nature seen through a literary medium , so picturesque was used to descibe words that were like pictures and were seen through the medium of another art, that of painting. Painting and literature had been from ancient times judged and criticized by their relation to Nature; but his curious reversal of the process the projection of art into Nature through the coloured glass of art, and from a consciously literary point of view , is an element that must not be neglected”.

The entry into French then emphasised the subjective quality of the word. Equally interesting and perhaps more far-reaching developments took place when “romantic” was transported to Germany , as with France, in the late seventeenth century. Romantisch appears in a translation of Thomson’s Seasons. Romantic literature and poetry, the literature and poetry of the Middle Ages, were , in contrast with those of classical times, called romantisch ; and from this comparison and contrast the German philosophers and critics evolved that great bugbear of modern criticism, the famous opposition between classical and romantic”.

This was accentuated by the aesthetic differences between Goethe and Schiller but developed into a strenuous cultural dispute furthered by its entry into France from Germany during the revolutionary period. The result was

The romantic poets first in Germany , then in France, were the poets who, scorning and rejecting the models of the past and the received rules of composition prided themselves on their freedom from law, and on their own artistic spontaneity.”

So was developed the association of Romanticism with a scornful attitude to the application of the accepted conventions of art and a spirit of rebelliousness and individualism in his attitude to his art and his role in society.

To summarise on the various meanings we have found for”romantic” and to suggest very briefly their present relevance: on the popular level the connection of “romantic” with “romance means the word retains its association with the sentiment of love. The critical implication associated with “romances” ,however, is retained with the use of the word “romanticising”, always, I think, implying unrealism. The development of the idea of a romantic setting continues, as does the strong subjective attachment to such a setting. “Romantic” as a battle-cry in opposition to classical is less marked-though we are perhaps more conscious of it marking the change betwee the more formal classical music of the eighteenth century and the romanticism of a figure like Beethoven, after the French Revolution. However, the idea of the artist as a challenger and rebel, individualistic and scorning convention might be seen continuing in the twentieth century in the career of poet like Dylan Thomas and indeed it could be said to be the life-style to which the controversial rock star aspires. But perhaps that suggests the idea in its decadence!

(Topic to be continued)

MAKING THE NOVEL ROMANTIC

From Charlotte Bronte responding to G. H. Lewes (respected Victorian critic to become George Eliot’s partner) who had recommended her to read Jane Austen.

I got the book (ie. Pride and Prejudice) and studied it. What did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced garden with neat borders and delicate flowers-but no glance of vivid physiognomy-no open country- no fresh air-no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT

The great medieval English poem was discussed on Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” with guests, including Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate and recent translator of the work . (Check the BBC Radio 4 website if you wish to listen to the programme) The development of the strands of English into the language we know, is something thinking people can take too easily for granted. How did the language of the Angles and Saxons become one of the world’s greatest literatures? It is a matter of wonder that Sir Gawain in the English of the western Midlands, Langland’s “Piers Plowman,” also in the alliterative verse tradition inherited from Old English, in an English slightly more accessible than Gawain to “southren” readers or listeners and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” in the very different vernacular of London and Essex, are all roughly contemporary achievements of the late fourteenth century.

I append a passage from the first few pages of the poem and I add the same passage from Armitage’s translation. If I may add some advice to first time readers of medieval verse. Do not be put off by the unfamiliar language. Try to read yourself into it, seeking to pronounce the words. You will find meanings will suggest themselves to you but don’t worry if they don’t. The main thing is to get into the feel of the verse. The translation will then help to clarify the meaning but don’t make it a crutch you cannot do without. Eventually you will come to love it in the original. This is how it has worked with me with Chaucer( now a poet I love) and Langland whose work I am still seeking to familiarise myself with. With so much to read is it worth doing? you may ask. Well quite as much as it is learning to read in any other language and with the additional incentive that this, if you are a native English speaker, is your language to be proud of.

Of this poem John Spiers has concluded in his Medieval English Poetry Faber 1971, “Sir Gawain is a superb work of art-a formly rooted, muliple-branched, gnarled but symmetrical northern oak”

Here is a verse paragraph early on on the Court of King Arthur:

“This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse

With mony luflych lorde, ledes of the best,

Reckenly of the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,

With rych revel oryght and rechles merthes.

Ther tournayed tulkes by tymes ful mony,

Justed ful jolile thise gentyle knightes,

Sythen kayred to the court, caroles to make.

For there the fest was ilyche ful fiften dayes,

With alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse:

Such glaum ande gle glorious to here,

Dere dyn upon day, daunsyng on nyghtes;

Al was hap upon heghe in halles and chambres

With lordes and ladiees, as levest him thoght.

With al the wele of the worlde they woned ther samen

The most kyd knyghtes under Krystes selven

And the lovelokkest that ever lif haden,

And he the comlokset kyng that the court haldes.

For al was this fayre folk in her first age on sille,

The hapnest under heven,

Kyng hygest mon of wylle;

Hit were now gret nye to neven

So hardy a here on hille

And here is Simon Armitage’s translation of the same verse paragraph:

“It was Christmas at Camelot-King Arthur’s court,

where the great and good of the land had gathered,

all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table

quite properly carousing and revelling in pleasure.

Time after time, in tournaments of joust,

they had lunged at each other with levelled lances

then returned to the castle to carry on their carolling,

for the feasting lasted a full fortnight and one day,

with more food and drink than a fellow could dream of.

the hubbub of their humour was heavenly to hear:

pleasant dialogue by day and dancing after dusk,

so the house and its hall were lit with happiness

and lords and ladies were luminous with joy.

Such a coming together of the gracious and the glad:

the most chivalrous and courteous knights known in Christendom;

the most wonderful women to have walked in this world;

the handsomest king to be crowned at court.

Fine folk with their futures before them, there in that hall.

Their highly honoured king

was happiest of all:

no nobler knights had come

within a castle wall.

Simon Armitage (tr.) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Faber 2008

Happy reading!

SPIRIT OF PLACE

On the morning of a fine June day, my first bonny nursling, and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock, was born.

We were busy with the hay in a far away field, when the girl that usually brought our breakfasts came running an hour too soon, across the meadow and up the lane, calling me as she ran.

“Oh, such a grand bairn!” she panted out. The finest lad that ever breathed! But the doctor says missis must go; he says she’s been in consumption these many months. I heard him tell Mr Hindley-and now she has nothing to keep her, and she’ll be dead before winter. You must come home directly. You’re to nurse it Nelly- to feed it with sugar and milk, and take care of it, day and night-I wish I were you, because it will be all yours when there is no missis!”

“But is she very ill?” I asked, flinging down my rake, and tying my bonnet.

“I guess she is; yet she looks bravely, “replied the girl, “and she talks as if she thought of living to see it grow a man. She’s out of her head for joy, it’s such a beauty! If I were her I’m certain I should not die. I should get better at the bare sight of it, in spite of Kenneth. I was fairly mad at him. Dame Archer brought the cherub down to master, in the house, and his face just began to light up, then the old croaker steps forward, and, says he:- “Earnshaw it’s a blessing your wife has been spared to leave you this son. When she came, I felt convinced we shouldn’t keep her long; and now, I must tell you, the wintere will probably finish her. Don’t take on, and fret about it too much, it can’t be helped. And besides you should have known better than to choose such a rush of a lass.

Wuthering Heights Vol 1 Ch.8

D. H. Lawrence uses the phrase “spirit of place” to point to the writer’s gift of rendering the essence of his particular setting. I love this particular passage of Emily Bronte’s great novel because it gives an immediate insight into a society and way of life on the Yorkshire moors around her chosen setting of Wuthering Heights. It also gives a sense of the rich power of the language of the book reflecting the community life of the folk which I shall seek to underline with a comparison of her language with Jane Austen’s.

The narrator is Nelly, a live-in servant whose main employment at this stage of the novel is indoors but who is clearly employed to help as needed with the ongoing life of the farm . Note the rhythm of the opening sentence with its balance of the words “first” and “last” : ” my first bonny nursling and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock” suggests her pride in the association with the family with their long history, her delight in the birth of the new heir and her sorrow at his being the last. The prose renders the excitement of the breathless servant girl pouring out her joy at the the beauty of the new born and the energy of Nelly’s response “Flinging down my rake and tying my bonnet”. But vigour is an element sadly lacking in the condition of the mother. The doctor’s testimony of the mother’s inadequacy brings us to the specifics of place: “the winter will probably finish her……you should have known better than to choose such a rush of a lass”. The doctor’s brutal realism (rejected as he is by the phrase “old croaker” of the young servant girl) on the physical limitations of the not local wife acts in the passage as a kind of counterpoise to the apparent vigour of the “grand bairn” and the energy of the young Nelly ready to take on her first “nursling”. You do not survive in this kind of place without rude vigour and strength. The breakfast girl’s implicit joy in the beauty of the boy, the pride in the survival of the Earnshaw “stock” is of the celebration of the physical qualities of strength and endurance that make possible survival over generations in a harsh landscape.

In the rhythm of speech we note the strong physical words of common life that stand out : “bonny”, “ancient,” ” stock,” “bairn,” “flinging,””bravely” “beauty,” blessing,” “croaker” “spared””fret” “rush of a lass”. This is language unlike that of Jane Austen. Compare the start of Sense and Sensibility :

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance”.

The language here belongs to a different class of gentility -“family, ” long settled” (as against “ancient stock”), “residence”, “respectable” “general good opinion”; gentility which is securely settled, not struggling for survival. We notice the preponderance of longer more Latinate, anglo-Norman vocabulary. The short blunt physicality of the language of Wuthering Heights is absent. It is a contrasting England with a quite different spirit of place.

It is worth noting how the Wuthering Heights passage continues. The doctor’s prophecy is accurate. Yet the wife shows the kind of spirit that shows us why the Yorkshireman was drawn to her. When Nelly approached “She spoke merrily” and in the face of death “that gay heart never failed her”. The language, the merriness and gaiety, reflects a resilience of spirit that can take her so far but not further. It is a resilience of spirit lacking in her husband Hindley. Earlier Nelly had noted “I was very sad for Hindley’s sake; he had room in his heart for only two idols-his wife and himself- he doted on both, and adored one, and I couldn’t conceive how he would bear the loss”. The effect indeed is catastrophic for himself and for his family:

“For himself he grew desperate; his sorrow was of that kind that will not lament; he neither wept nor prayed-he cursed and defied-execrated God and man, and gave himself up to reckless dissipation”.

Again we note the powerful rhythm of reinforcing doubles ( “wept nor prayed”, “cursed and defied” “God and man ” with the force of “execrated”).

Hindley with all his physical strength and his unruly character has none of his wife’s spiritual resilience”. He lacks the moral force to complement his physical powers. His “idol” gone his only recourse is defiant recklessness bringing ruin.