Saturday 25 July 2015

Favourite Worst Lines

At the beginning of Aldous Huxley’s utopia Island (1965), the hero Will Farnaby lies washed up and injured on the beach at Pala after his yachting accident. Random thoughts race through his mind and, by some freak association, ‘Will remembered suddenly his favourite worst line of poetry. “Who prop, thou ask’st, in these bad days my mind?”’. The line comes from Matthew Arnold’s sonnet on Shakespeare – Arnold being, as it happens, Huxley’s great-uncle.

My favourite worst line from William Morris’s poetry comes from ‘The God of the Poor’ and is very different indeed from Arnold’s cluttered and thickly consonantal line. The squire in that poem, disguised as a poor man, has to make his way to the evil lord MaltĂȘte in order to entrap him, and as he does so Morris gives us the immortally bad first line of this couplet:

‘Now passed the squire through this and that,
Till he came to where Sir MaltĂȘte sat’.

Has there ever been a line of poetry as vapidly empty of content, as carelessly and mechanically knocked out in order to rhyme feebly with its successor? It seems indeed to be a favourite bad line with Morris himself, since he uses a variant of it just eighty lines later: ‘John-a-Wood in his doorway sat,/Turning over this and that’.

You may well have your own favourite worst line from Morris’s prose or verse, in which case please post it on the 'Comments' link below and share it.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Tears in Literature

At the end of his fine book on the modernist painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, Marxist critic Fredric Jameson claims that ‘on the closing page of The Revenge for Love, before our astonished eyes, there hangs and gleams forever the realest tear in all literature’. One could hardly imagine a more flamboyant literary-critical claim, and I don’t know how on earth would one test out the ‘realness’ of that Wyndham Lewis tear against other famous literary tears: Cordelia’s at the end of King Lear, say, or Lucky’s in Waiting for Godot (although tears in drama are perhaps a special case, since actors actually have to produce them).

On the other hand, tears can be an object of reproach rather than acclaim for an author, as with David de Laura’s memorable critique of Matthew Arnold’s poetry: ‘Even his best performances borrow too heavily from a sort of Romantic thesaurus of language and image: adjectives like sweet, dear, and fair soften the texture; stage properties like night, dark, gloom, forlorn, cold, grave and graves, moon and moonlight are wheeled on and off by the score; “tears” (used sixty-eight times) flow too freely; poems are awash in images of the river and sea of life’.

Could we tot up sixty-eight instances of tears copiously flowing in Morris’s works? And how, in general, do we feel about weeping in his oeuvre: is it the sign of intensely felt and imagined situations, as with Jameson on Wyndham Lewis, or just an irritating mannerism, as for De Laura on Arnold? Two memorable moments where one might start such a discussion come at once to mind: the collective crying of the medieval villagers during John Ball’s speech at the cross in A Dream of John Ball, and, in the private realm, the tears which the wife weeps in Pilgrims of Hope: ‘For the slow tears fell from her eyelids as in her sleep she wept’. In the latter case, Morris introduces the striking notion of unconscious crying (during marital breakdown): tears that you don’t even realise you’ve shed. Whether these are as spectacularly ‘real’ as the Wyndham Lewis tear I do not know, but they certainly feel poignant enough to me.