Sunday, 24 March 2013

Narrative and Violence

Advances in longevity mean that we’re going to see literary critics and theorists working and writing into their eighties in ways that would once have been unthinkable (F.R. Leavis’s productivity at that age being a rare earlier exception). So though, in our videoconference between Lancaster and Yale the other day, it was sad to see Geoffrey Hartman so afflicted by Parkinson’s disease as he spoke to us, one had to admire the determination with which, none the less, he clearly wants to remain visible and active in intellectual debate. May we be as brave when our time comes!

Hartman began as a critic and theorist of Romanticism, but operates on a broader canvas these days. He left Germany at the age of ten in 1939 as a Kindertransport refugee, and has recently set up a centre for Judaic studies at Yale, so Hartman the Romanticist looks like an interlude in a wider experience of and meditation on the violence of the twentieth century – which includes Stalin and Mao as well as Fascism, Hiroshima and Dresden as well as Nanking. In the quest for a literary form adequate to such horrors, ‘passion-narrative’ was a generic term he wanted to extend beyond its original religious meaning. But that traditional term may not be so neutral after all, since in his next breath Hartman was telling us that the ‘modernist event’ (Hayden White’s phrase) had ‘injured story-telling’ and that ‘older modes of fictional treatment are more resilient than avantgarde artists acknowledge’. So we get rapidly pulled back towards an aesthetics of redemption and reparation – precisely those contemplative values (the work of art as a consolingly harmonious totality, even if its contents are horrible) which the avantgarde felt were contemptibly inadequate to the bloodbath of the Great War in the early twentieth century.

We as Morrisians, if we are not to be just Victorian historicists, need to think hard about issues around political violence too; and I deeply admire Hartman’s attempt to do that (rather than endlessly go on explicating Wordsworth), even if I can’t follow him in his brusque dismissal of modernism and the avantgarde. For we can surely say of Geoffrey Hartman in his early eighties, as of the Chinamen at the end of Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli’, that as he stares on the tragic scene of the twentieth century, his eyes, his ancient glittering eyes, are gay.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Merging with Europe

‘In him the British tradition merged with the European’, writes Jack Lindsay in his Morris biography (p.381); and this is an important emphasis, given how often we hear that Morris’s work is somehow peculiarly or quintessentially ‘English’. Lindsay is talking about social theory here and stressing Morris’s break beyond Raymond Williams’s local ‘culture and society’ tradition (Coleridge-Carlyle-Ruskin) to Marxism in the 1880s. But we should, I think, be looking for evidence of his European intellectual interests earlier than this, and in other fields too.

In August 1869, for example, Morris wrote to Philip Webb from Bad Ems in Germany announcing that he was reading Carlyle’s translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and in mid-1871 Jane Morris offered a more extended Goethe commentary, also in a letter to Webb: ‘I have nearly finished “Elective Affinities”. I think with all due respect to Goethe it is a most unsatisfactory book. What! Is nothing real? Must everything that is delightful change and leave nothing behind. I can’t believe it; one begins by liking his characters very much, then they change, and one can no longer look upon them as real people’ (Letters, p.44). A couple of years later, in 1873, ‘she had told Webb that she was reading Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann’ (Lindsay, p.198). It is surely highly likely that she discussed both these works with her husband too.

‘Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe’, as Carlyle famously admonished his parochial contemporaries; and it certainly appears that the Morris family heeded his advice. So I’m inclined to think that Ellen’s most important river journey in News from Nowhere is not that on the Thames with William Guest, but rather that ‘on the Rhine two years ago’ (ch.XXX), where I imagine she was practising her German and reading Goethe, Heine, Freiligrath and others in the original.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Morris's Favourite Phrases: 2

In an earlier post on this blog I totted up a list of Morris’s recurrent phrases as noted by family members, friends and biographers (17 January 2009). In a comment to that post Linda noted that ‘What is the next job to be?’ was Morris’s ‘refrain’, according to his daughter May (Introductions, vol II, p.400); and since then I’ve come across a few additional ones myself. In her book on Morris’s poetry, J.M.S. Tompkins cites Mackail as saying that Morris ‘used, again and again ... the words of Christ to his disciples: “He that endures to the end shall be saved”’ (p.254); and in his 1975 biography, Jack Lindsay remarks that ‘”We of the middle-class” were words often upon his lips’ (p.133). We should also note that Morris himself knew exactly how irritating recurrent phrases could be, as with the relentless ‘You like that, do you?’ of the Old Grumbler in News from Nowhere.

More recently, I think I’ve spotted yet another Morrisian locution. In her biography Fiona MacCarthy writes that he ‘liked to describe a peach as “pinch-ripe”’ (p.7); and in May Morris’s letters to John Quinn she at one point remarks that after a long and draining day she is ‘what my Father would have called “bed-ripe”’ (26 March 1912). Are these the faint archaeological traces of another favourite Morris formulation, then? Could we even extend its usage, so that the England of 1950 in News from Nowhere is presumably ‘revolution-ripe’, or Birdalone in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, as she quivers with desire, might be described as ‘sex-ripe’? I suspect that the list of Morrisian turns of phrase will continue slowly to grow, though we may have to become more ingenious, or just more lucky, as to how we happen across them.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Morris and his Glasses

A visit to the city of Carlisle has many pleasures: strolling along the banks of the river Eden, admiring the stained glass and the blue ‘starred’ ceiling in the cathedral, spending much more than you’d ever intended in the stunningly good secondhand bookshop in Castle Street, and enjoying the fine architecture of the historic quarter between cathedral and castle. These were all bonuses, however, since my main motive in finally visiting Carlisle today was to pop in to the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery to see the 1875 right-profile pencil drawing of Morris by George Howard, made on one Morris’s sojourns at Castle Howard, near Brampton. Its claim to fame is that it is the only image we have of him which shows him with his spectacles on.

The Howard drawing is surrounded by the Tullie’s Pre-Raphaelite collection, which is a matter of interesting oddments (such as an unfinished version of Rossetti’s Found from 1854 or Arthur Hughes’s tiny ink-on-paper La Belle Dame Sans Merci of 1862) rather than major holdings. But Morris in 1875 was no longer in any straightforward sense a Pre-Raphaelite. He had made the two Iceland trips, reorganised the Firm, was working on Sigurd the Volsung, and would soon become treasurer of the Eastern Question Association and founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. So as I peered close up at the Howard drawing was it fanciful to detect a new, middle-aged determination and steeliness behind those spectacles? Was I responding to what was genuinely in the aesthetic object before me, or projecting what, historically, I know is to come and what, politically, I want to come?