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.


Makiko Minow said...

Interesting post! Virginia Woolf's literary career begins with tears - those which Helen Ambrose sheds into the river Thames in the opening pages of Woolf's first novel 'The Voyage Out'(1915) - and a full analysis of the function of tears across her work would probably be very illuminating (another example would be the tears with which Betty Flanders blurs the letter she is writing early on in 'Jacob's Room').

Tony Pinkney said...

Yes, some brisk googling shows that tears are a more pervasive theme in literary studies than I'd realised, particularly in the early modern period. See, for instance, Marjory Lange's 'Telling Tears in the English Renaissance' (1996). I guess it's all to do with the increased emphasis on affect in recent criticism, but you probably know more about it than I do, so any further illumination would be very welcome.

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