Monday, 3 July 2017

Gestures in Literature



In what has over the years become my favourite Roland Barthes book, his theoretical autobiography Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975), the great French critic notes his fondness for a phrase from Charles Baudelaire: ‘la vérité emphatique du geste dans les grandes circonstances de la vie’ (p.121).  It is a formulation that might make us tot up some of the most memorable gestures across Morris’s literary works, from Guenevere’s ‘passionate twisting’ in the early poetry onwards.

I’m particularly taken by Ellen’s unusual gesture as she stands on a bank of the upper Thames in News from Nowhere, ‘one hand laid on her bosom, the other arm stretched downward and clenched in its earnestness’ (ch.XXIX); for that clenched fist is a powerful statement of how much reforming political passion there may still be at work in Morris’s apparently settled utopia.

But the most spectacular gesture – or rather, series of gestures – in all Morris must surely be that enacted by Ralph in The Well at the World’s End, which thoroughly lives up to what Barthes terms an ‘excès de pose’: ‘he drew himself up, and his brows were knit a little ... He half drew the sword from the scabbard, and sent it back rattling ... he upreared his head and looked around him on this and that one of the warriors of the aliens, and he sniffed the air into his nostrils as he stood alone amongst them, and set his foot down hard on the floor of the King’s hall, and his armour rattled upon him’ (Bk 4, ch.9).  'Excès de pose' indeed: I shall have to try this myself next time I attend a William Morris Society AGM.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Grenfell Tower Inferno



As I have had occasion to note in this blog before, towers turn up in both Morris’s early poetry and late romances: the former offers us ‘The Tune of the Seven Towers’ and ‘The Little Tower’, while the latter contains, for instance, the evil Baron of the Seven Towers who oppresses the citizens of Whatham in the unfinished ‘Kilian of the Closes’.  However, towers do not crop up in his utopia News from Nowhere, which is a notably ‘horizontal’ work compared to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the book that inspired it (albeit by intense dissent).  William Guest sees a good deal of Nowhere from a boat on the river Thames, and you can’t get much more horizontal than that; while Julian West, in Bellamy’s volume, is very early on sitting high up on Dr Leete’s belvedere taking an aerial survey of the new Boston.


So if there are fires in Morris’s utopia, as I suppose there may be from time to time, just as there are other mishaps, they will not be of the alarmingly ‘vertical’ nature of the Grenfell Tower fire that we have just witnessed in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  The literary concept that keeps being trotted out by the mainstream media for this appalling event is ‘tragedy’, but this notion, as Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton have shown, brings a whole ideology along with it: of fatalism, of inevitability, even of nobility in suffering. ‘Tragedy’ in this context is a deeply passive and depoliticising concept; it thus fits in well enough with what I believe to be the media and authorities’ early efforts to downplay the number of dead in this event, which will surely exceed one hundred.


For the Grenfell Tower inferno is political through and through; Labour MP David Lammy is absolutely right to say that this is ‘corporate manslaughter’ and that there must be resulting arrests and prison sentences.  The avoidable deaths of so many poor people in the richest borough of one of the richest cities on earth, after the whole sickening history of ignored warnings, cheap and dangerous building materials (the cladding), and failures to update planning and safety laws, is a vivid index of the neoliberal England of austerity, inequality and deregulation which both Tory and New Labour governments have bequeathed to us.  ‘Another emblem there!’, if we may borrow that memorable phrase from W.B. Yeats’s ‘Wild Swans at Coole’ – just as Theresa May’s aloof and sanitised visit to the disaster scene is an emblem of her crippled psyche in contrast to the human warmth which Jeremy Corbyn was able to communicate during his.  No doubts there, then, about who the real British Prime Minister should now be.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Gestures in Life



In an earlier entry in this blog I gave some thought to the issue of gestures in utopia (15 April 2010); but of course William Morris himself had many memorable gestures of his own, and his physical presence is vividly recorded in memoirs by contemporaries: Morris plucking single hairs out of his bread in exasperation, or rhythmically rocking backwards and forwards as he spoke in the Kelmscott Coach House, and so on.


 But Val Prinsep in 1857 recorded a Morrisian gesture that I don’t remember being mentioned in the standard biographies.  As the young Morris read out his poems in a sing-song chant to friends in Oxford, ‘all the time, he was jiggling about nervously with his watch chain ... the poet at the table reading and ever fidgetting with his watch chain’.  And Edward Burne-Jones confirms this recurrent behaviour; for No. 3 in the sequence of his satirical Topsy Cartoons ‘represents Topsy in his usual action with his watch chain’ (Memorials, pp.162, 165).


It is a curious image we get here, then, as the man whose utopia so beautifully asserts the benefits of doing things slowly, comes across as a figure almost akin to Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit who compulsively consults his watch and mutters ‘I’m late, I’m late!’

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Poems for Jeremy Corbyn



One of the tasks which Morris’s political commitments and writing enjoin upon us is to work out what an effective socialist poetry for our own time would look like.  Morris himself offers a range of possibilities from ‘All for the Cause’ and ‘Socialists at Play’ to the developed narrative of ‘The Pilgrims of Hope’ – none of which can be very easily taken over as direct models 130 years later.  However, Merryn Williams’s welcome collection of Poems for Jeremy Corbyn (Shoestring Press, 2016) does provide an opportunity to assess what works and what doesn’t in this field; and the current general election campaign, which is going to be a major test of Corbyn and Corbynism, is a good moment to think about this.


‘What works’ is, however, itself a notion which needs unpacking, since there are, surely, various levels of effectivity for political poetry – different genres of it which will be attempting different kinds of thing.  Thus there is a mode of what I’m inclined to term ‘political doggerel’, of energetic versifying which make its necessary political points – often satiric and comic, but sometimes tragic – in locally effective ways which have no particular aesthetic depth or merit.  Such, in this collection, are the various satires of rightwing Labour MPs or the Tory press, and, in bleaker mode, some of the poems about refugees or the suicide of a benefits claimant.  But at moments even the satiric mode can become more accomplished and expansive, as with Nicholas Murray’s ‘J.C.’

Then there are more searching modes of political poetry, also well represented in this slim volume.  How does one praise a leftwing leader without lapsing into pious hagiography?  Diane Coffey’s ‘The Socialist’ is perhaps just a tad too worthy in its salute to Corbyn,  Merryn Williams’s own ‘Poem for Jeremy Corbyn’ is in contrast more muted and indirect, and Paul Groves’s ‘At the Marquis of Granby’ effectively gives us an encounter with Corbyn which also factors thoughtfully  into itself this issue of stance towards the leader.  Or how does one situate pressing current struggles in longer historical perspectives?  Some of the poems here locate us simply, though effectively enough, in the past, as with Alan Brownjohn’s ‘A Scream in 1890’, which takes us back to the working-class experiences of Morris’s own lifetime.   Closer to our own time, Simon Curtis’s ‘In the Scillies’ is a fine reflection on the Labour politics of the Wilson government, though, as it also acknowledges, it does get a little too caught up in ‘elegaic tropes’, in what we have come to call ‘leftwing melancholy’. 

Finally, how does one express hope without ignoring the grim realities of the contemporary world situation?  Mark Haworth-Booth’s ‘The Anthropocene’ is a strong evocation of the ecological dimension of the current crisis, but so exhaustive is its grim synopsis that it perhaps evaporates rather than stimulates hope, while, on the other side of the argument as it were, the explicit evocations of hope in this collection – ‘hope of a nation lay in only one man’s fight’, ‘but really it’s all/about hope’, and so on – strike me more as willed affirmations than as convincingly embodied in the verse.  So it is clearly the case that Merryn Williams has made a most admirable gathering of Corbyn-inspired verse, which gives us much both to enjoy and to argue about.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Balder Dead at Dover



Morris didn’t think much of Matthew Arnold, as I’ve tried to show in my William Morris in Oxford (pp.122-6), but the one work of Arnold’s to which he might have warmed is the narrative poem 'Balder Dead', which deals with the Norse mythological material that meant so much to Morris himself.  ‘So on the floor lay Balder dead’, Arnold’s poem begins; for Odin’s favourite son has been pierced through the breast by a stick of mistletoe thrown by the blind God Hoder, who has been tricked into doing so by ‘Lok the Accuser’ – Balder being magically invulnerable to all conventional weapons.  Even today, Arnold’s Norse epic makes a compelling read.


But can it be used as a guide to Arnold’s poetry more generally, as a Key to All Mythologies which might produce an overall Norse, or you might even say Morrisian, reading of Arnold.  Well, perhaps; I’m encouraged in this interpretive project by the curious appearance of that ‘fallen Runic stone’ in ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’.  Could we come up with Runic readings of other major Arnold poems?

Let’s try ‘Dover Beach’, arguably Arnold’s finest poem, certainly a definitive Victorian lyric, giving eloquent expression through its seascape-meditation to the mid-century crisis of religious faith.  But may there not, in fact, be a Norse archetype behind this poem’s dignified classical allusions to Sophocles and Thucydides?  ‘Come to the window, sweet is the night air!’ says the poet; but this could just as well be the voice of Hoder speaking to Frea in ‘his mother’s house,/Fensaler, whose lit windows look to sea’, and just a few lines later Hoder will indeed be tramping ‘back along the beach to Asgard’.  The Sea of Faith gloomily withdraws, we might suggest, because Hoder has just unwittingly killed Balder, brightest of all the Gods; and the ‘darkling plain … Where ignorant armies clash by night’, with which ‘Dover Beach’ so memorably concludes, may also be an apocalyptic vision of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, which so eerily haunts ‘Balder Dead’ throughout. 

So part of the emotional depth of Arnold’s great lyric may be due to the resonances of Norse mythological material underlying its surface realism of detail.  If such a hermeneutic could be plausibly extended to other texts, then we might end up with a Matthew Arnold that even that self-declared ‘Man of the North’, William Morris, could be happy with.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

What to do with Long Poems?



Professor John Carey’s lectures on modernism were certainly one of the highlights of my days as a postgraduate student at Oxford University.  The dry, sardonic wit of his delivery (which also came over very well on television arts programmes), and his exposure of the deeply inhumane attitudes of some major modernist writers, were both intensely memorable – even if there none the less remains much to be said about the cultural and political importance of modernism.


So I am glad to see that, in retirement and now in his early eighties, John Carey remains academically productive (as well as keeping bees in the Cotswolds) and has just brought out an abridged version of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which comes in at about one third of its full length.  Reviews on social media are predictably divided: some see it as a welcome introduction, which may helpfully lead readers on to the full poem, while others denounce it as a symptom of our culturally dumbed-down times, when even the classics have to be turned into sound-bites. I myself take the dialectical view that both opinions, for and against, are true.


But this slimline Paradise Lost raises the question of what we should do with Morris’s long poems, of how we might get them back into some sort of circulation.  Most recent anthologies of Morris’s poetry have concentrated on the shorter, early works and merely given very brief snippets from the lengthier ones.  So does Carey’s Milton project suggest a way forward for us here?  Could Morris’s prodigious poetic feats – The Life and Death of Jason or The Earthly Paradise itself – be edited down to a half or a third of their current length, and then published with interlinking editorial commentary that would fill in the resulting narrative gaps, as Carey has done for Milton?   Is there a Morrisian editor out there bold enough to take this on, and, more important still, would there be a publisher daring enough to give it a go?