Wednesday, 18 November 2020

A Singing Lesson: A.C. Swinburne

Prompted partly by Thomas Hardy’s fine elegy ‘A Singer Asleep’, I’ve been seriously delving into Swinburne’s poetry for the first time.  Trained as I was in what was possibly the last Leavisite English department in the country (Bristol), I’m not a natural Swinburne reader, being still by instinct committed to those modernist poetic values – concretion, trenchancy, wit, irony, ambiguity – that Swinburne so flagrantly falls foul of. 

But none the less, for all the wearing prolixity, the sameness of imagery and predictable intoxications of rhythm, there is something compelling about the Swinburne poetic world: the powerful appeal back to a Sapphic tradition of Greek lyricism, the obsessive exploration of non-standard modes of sexuality, the vigorous republicanism, the fine evocations of cliffs and seascapes throughout the verse.  I like Harold Bloom’s description of him as ‘a Shelleyan intellectual skeptic whose polemic against Christianity is compelling’, and can see more clearly now why Hardy felt himself part of a radical poetic tradition to which Swinburne also belonged.

I don’t recall much activity over here for the centenary of Swinburne’s death in 2009 (perhaps there was more in the USA), but given his close early connections with Morris and Burne-Jones the Morris Society could and should be making more of him and his work.  As I’ve noted before in this blog Morris-as-poet is something of a blindspot for the Society, so I wonder whether, in the post-Covid epoch that is hopefully now getting close, it might run a sustained seminar on Victorian poetry culminating, say, in a symposium on Isobel Armstrong’s superb magnum opus on this topic which will be thirty years old in 2023. 

The Society certainly has to hand the talented personnel who could make this project happen, as with Journal Reviews editor Rosie Miles, whose splendid study of Victorian Poetry in Context was published just a few years back.  Till such a seminar gets under way, I shall continue immersing myself in such claustrophobic but curiously energising masterpieces as the ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, ‘Anactoria’ and ‘On the Cliffs’.


Saturday, 31 October 2020

The Eagleton Era

In his television programme on ‘Terry Eagleton at Oxford’, made at some point after Eagleton’s accession to the Thomas Warton Chair of English Literature in 1992, John Sutherland remarks of his subject that ‘the last thirty years will, I think, be known as his era’.  This is a provocative and suggestive statement, even if not quite on the scale of Michel Foucault announcing that the twentieth century would one day be described as ‘Deleuzian’.  But does it stack up?  Can we plausibly think of an ‘Eagleton era’ in English literary criticism and theory?

Many problems of definition at once pose themselves.  What is an ‘era’ in any field, particularly when a personal name is attached to the concept?  How might its beginning, range and end be specified?  What counts as relevant empirical evidence for such a speculative hypothesis?  How, in particular, does one detect (or construct) the point where, in Hegelian terms, quantity gives way to quality, so that Terry Eagleton is not just an increasingly influential critic and theorist among others but suddenly becomes – for John Sutherland at least – the name of an era in that cultural domain?

What might the relevant markers be here?  The spectacular intellectual and commercial success of Eagleton’s 1983 volume Literary Theory would be one telling moment, as, indirectly, might the death of Raymond Williams in 1988.  So too would be the Thomas Warton Chair itself, for there was always an intense cultural frisson, in both Left and traditionalist circles, about the ‘Marxist at Oxford’ idea.  Eagleton’s own phenomenal publishing record is a sine qua non of the whole process, and his emergence as general editor of the Blackwells ‘Re-Reading Literature’ series from 1985 onwards is also an important landmark.  I first came across Terry on radio, as he expounded Pierre Macherey on a Radio 4 broadcast in 1978, so media and conference appearances are important here too.  As also is the building of a cadre of combative postgraduates, as in the ‘Oxford English Limited’ group of 1980-92, many of whom later went into academic teaching themselves.

Whether Sutherland’s notion of an ‘Eagleton era’ finally holds up, I’m not yet sure.  But it is a powerful heuristic notion, which can prompt us towards some new sociology of literary-critical influence and celebrity.  Someone should surely explore this hypothesis at book length.



Friday, 16 October 2020

The Oxford School of Fantasy

Oxford University is now vigorously promoting the notion of an ‘Oxford School of Fantasy’.  If you go to the webpage of its Faculty of English Language and Literature, you will find a section devoted to the genre of fantasy – hyper-popular at the moment after the television version of George Martin’s Game of Thrones.  We there learn that ‘Oxford is a natural home to fantasy literature with those who have worked or studied here having written so many famous and influential texts’; and a list of names follows which includes Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman.

Well, yes, perhaps; but there is one rather blindingly obvious gap in that list, coming right between its first and second names.   For William Morris in the 1890s gave us a whole series of spectacular fantasy texts, from The Wood beyond the World onwards, which – quite apart from their own substantial merits - had a major impact on both Tolkien and Lewis in the early twentieth century.  Historians of the genre have regularly seen Morris as a, or perhaps even the, major figure in its invention.  Lin Carter terms Morris ‘the man who invented fantasy’ and describes The Wood beyond the World as ‘the first great fantasy novel ever written: the first of them all’.  Morris’s The Well at the World’s End, which his family affectionately nicknamed ‘The Interminable’, is certainly the major achievement in the genre before Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. 

So the Oxford English Faculty should urgently update its webpages to include Morris’s fantasy works.  For Morris not only studied at Oxford, but, as I argued in William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895, the city remained central to his cultural and political imagination thereafter.


Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Surgery for Utopia

The Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis once had a plan to boldly reorganise George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda.  Not thinking much of the Derondian and Jewish dimensions of the book, he proposed to junk them all and instead rebuild it around its central female character Gwendolen Harleth (to whom Deronda becomes a kind of spiritual mentor during her disastrous marriage to Grandcourt).  Leavis even, apparently, took this drastic proposal to a publisher and planned to bring out a new, slimmed-down novel called, precisely, Gwendolen Harleth.

That dramatic editorial project comes to mind when a colleague writes to me, in disconsolate mode, to announce that when he’s recommended News from Nowhere to his friends they ‘simply failed to see the revolutionary wood for the utopian trees: they never got as far as ‘How the Change Came’ or the upriver journey, because they were turned off by the opening horse-and-cart journey’.  At which point, some Leavisian surgery on Morris’s utopia might surely be in order to give it renewed currency in our own time.

Suppose we produced an edition of News from Nowhere which started with ‘How the Change Came’, which is certainly far and away the most politically complex and narratively gripping portion of the book in its account of a revolutionary civil war – and only then went back to William Guest’s dream-like arrival in the Hammersmith Guest House.  The more socially expository discussions between Guest and old Hammond could still take place later in the British Museum, but the history and politics of Nowhere’s violent coming into being would have been shunted back to the very beginning of the text.  I think that this could be plausibly done, and, since I am retiring from Lancaster University on this very day, I might now have ‘world enough and time’ to have a stab at the necessary editorial work.

This would also be an occasion, as I suggested some years ago (see my post for 16 November 2014), to remove all those self-belittling adjectives – quaint, dainty, pretty, little, and so on – which Morris so unfortunately wove into the verbal texture of his utopia.  With revolution and civil war breaking out on the text’s very first page, and those ubiquitous self-diminishing epithets gone, a leaner, meaner, more muscular News from Nowhere would surely emerge.



Saturday, 19 September 2020

J.W. Mackail: Imagist

One of the minor thematic strands of this blog has been to develop a case that Morris’s official biographer J. W Mackail is a figure who demands some – perhaps not a great deal, but at least some – literary attention in his own right.  So I am glad to come across this mention of him in George Sampson’s Concise Cambridge History of English Literature (1943), one of those admirable old-fashioned histories of the subject that nobody writes any more: ‘John William Mackail has to his credit excellent biographies of William Morris (1899) and George Wyndham (1925) as well as some equally excellent critical essays, including the delightful and illuminating Latin Literature (1895), The Springs of Helicon (1909), Lectures on Poetry (1911), and Studies of English Poets (1926); but his fame is perhaps most firmly established by his translations, especially Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1890).  Mackail’s classical scholarship is of the exquisite kind’. 

Used in critical parlance today, the adjective ‘exquisite’ would no doubt damn with faint praise; we want our classical scholarship to be robust rather than lapidary, Dionysian rather than Apollonian, in Nietzsche’s terms.  But for Sampson himself, it is presumably wholeheartedly positive.  And that he is right to thus use the word of Mackail is shown by the curious literary-historical fact that the Select Epigrams was a significant book for the Imagist poets of the early twentieth century.  Turning as they did to far-flung literary sources which would help them renew what they saw as the abstract verbiage of the late-Victorian poetic tradition, they found Mackail’s versions of the Greek epigram as relevant to them as that other exotic miniature form, the Japanese haiku.  So Morris’s culturally conservative biographer paradoxically plays at least some small role in enabling one of the avantgarde literary movements of the twentieth century.


Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Leaving Labour

Well, I have now cancelled my monthly subscription and left the Labour Party, something that I’ve had it in mind to do since Keir Starmer made his move against the Corbynite leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey back in June.  His stance on both the tearing down of Bristol’s Edward Colston statue and on recent Channel migrants has been unimpressive too.  That real push towards socialism which was Corbynism has been defeated, as much by sustained internal disruption by the Labour right-wing – the Owen Smith leadership challenge and so on – as by external electoral rejection.  I feel faintly like Morris when he abandoned the Socialist League in 1890, though for him it was the anarchist left rather than the traditional Labourite right which had taken over the party.

Where next, then, politically speaking?  I’m certainly not as confident as I was in the late 1990s, when I served as a Green Party city councillor, that the Greens are the right destination for someone of my views.  Back then, they definitely felt like a radical, if still rather inchoate alternative to Tony Blair and New Labour, though I even then knew that they didn’t sufficiently grasp the working-class issues that most concerned me (they seemed constitutionally incapable of using the term ‘capitalism’ as part of their political and economic analysis, for example).  These days I’m not sure what the complexion of the Green Party is – I shall have to do some investigating, locally and nationally.

There are other agencies out there doing absolutely crucial work, of course – Extinction Rebellion, the Black Lives Matter movement, and so on.  But I’m enough of a left-wing traditionalist to feel that the notion of a political party, challenging capitalism in some sort of totalising way across all fronts, remains crucial.  So the notion of leftwing intellectual work, in a non-attached mode, though attractive, won’t ultimately do either, and neither will the smallscale Leninist or Trotskyist parties that still exist (though they do good work in particular campaigns).  Morris’s great slogan ‘make socialists’ remains paramount, but what is the organisational form for doing that at the present time?  With retirement from my university coming up fast, I will at least soon have time to look around and think this issue through.  I'd rather not have to fall back on something like the Hammersmith Socialist Society of Morris’s last years.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Microplastics in the Thames

Some twenty-odd years ago, in my most intense Green-activist phase, I published a piece in the William Morris Society Newsletter (which back then was a much less glossy effort than it is today) about levels of radioactivity in the river Thames.  In that article I drew on research from a well-known Green Party scientist of the time, Christopher Busby, which made a chilling case about radioactive pollution in the river from atomic research facilities along its banks: Aldermarston, Harwell, Amersham. 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; for today it is the issue of microplastic pollution in the Thames which imposes itself upon us.  94,000 microplastics per second flow down the river in some of its stretches, a figure which is a good deal higher than for such European equivalents as the Danube or the Rhine.  These include glitter, microbeads from cosmetics, and plastic fragments broken down from larger items, often food packaging.  Bits of plastic are found in the stomachs of crabs living in the Thames, including fibres or microplastics from sanitary pads, balloons, elastic bands and carrier bags.  Careless disposal of Covid-related plastic, such as masks and gloves, may now make matters still worse. 

We know how much the river Thames mattered to Morris himself: salmon have returned to it at the beginning of News from Nowhere, and it contributes both a narrative thread and some of the most idyllic scenes to that utopia.  So if the William Morris Society wants to do some active campaigning, which given its status as a charity cannot be narrowly party-political, the environmental condition of the river which flows right outside the front door of its headquarters at Kelmscott House will always be a good starting point.