Sunday, 28 February 2010

Anne Boleyn as My Last Duchess

Not the sort of thing I could gather enough evidence to make a proper academic-journal argument; but I still think Browning had Landor's 1824 Imaginary Conversation ‘Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’ at least partly in mind when he wrote 'My Last Duchess'. Landor portrays Henry as peevishly and irrationally insistent on the subject on Anne’s supposed adultery, where his Boleyn, weakened by a recent miscarriage, is rendered with genuine pathos.
ANNE: The withered leaf catches the sun sometimes, little as it can profit by it; and I have heard stories of the breeze in other climates that sets in when daylight is about to close, and how constant it is, and how refreshing. My heart, indeed, is now sustained strangely; it became the more sensibly so from that time forward, when power and grandeur and all things terrestrial were sunk from sight. Every act of kindness in those about me gives me satisfaction and pleasure, such as I did not feel formerly. I was worse before God chastened me; yet I was never an ingrate. What pains I have taken to find out the village-girls who placed their posies in my chamber ere I arose in the morning! How gladly would I have recompensed the forester who lit up a brake on my birthnight, which else had warmed him half the winter!
There's something of this (from the insane-jealous husband's p.o.v., of course) in Browning:
...................................................Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess's cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much," or Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of you. She had
A heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace--all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least.

Saturday, 27 February 2010


A minute casts an hour's shadow.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Wrathiads: Epic and Anger

This monograph proposes to read epic primarily as a mode of the articulation and exploration of anger. Theories of the epic have long recognised that anger is an important component of epic, of course; that the Iliad is a poem about ‘the wrath of Achilles’ for example. But this study will make and sustain a number of radical new theses:

• That epic is primarily about anger; about rage itself; which is to say, about both the expression of and the containment and repression of rage and the literary manifestations of rage. That epic poems are, before they are anything else, ‘wrathiads’.

• That epic anger is a uniquely paradoxical quantity, simultaneously admirable and contemnable. For Homer, Achilles is both the greatest warrior the world has ever seen and a creature driven to inhuman violence and barbarity by the enormity of his anger. In Milton, anger is both one of the seven deadly sins embodied by Satan and one of the attributes of God Himself (‘the Wrath of God’). This double quantity destabilises the epic text in radical ways.

• Yet anger has been almost entirely overlooked in literary and cultural studies, because anger itself cannot be invoked without a cognate repression of anger. Anger – the central theme of epic – becomes ‘that which must be repressed’. It is certainly puzzling that, given the obvious prominence of anger in epic poetry, there has been so little criticism that deals exclusively with it. It is doubly puzzling that, in the arena of psychoanalytic criticism and theory, there has been so very little work done on anger. It is, after all, a key and fundamental human emotion. But in the absence of a thoroughly worked-through theoretical discourse of ‘anger’, this monograph will also function as one of the first serious attempts to construct a psychoanalytic theory of this emotion in a literary context.

Chapter 1. Introduction. A survey of the relatively sparse body of psychoanalytical writing on ‘anger’ that elaborates a notion of anger as simultaneously 'about' breaking boundaries and also as that-which-is-already-repressed; as an emotion which cannot figure in literary context as a single thing, but which is always doubled. Unlike other emotions, anger is radically and indeed infuriatingly folded in upon itself.

Chapter 2. Iliad. Working out from Seth Schien, Jenny Strauss Clay and Watkins, who have demonstrated that of the two main words used for ‘anger’ in the Iliad, one (meenis) is used only of the gods, and describes an undying implacable wrath that is awesome and terrible, where the other (cholos) refers to a more human, ordinary, passing anger. Many people in the Iliad experience cholos, but the only mortal to experience meenis is Achilles himself. From here the argument draws out a number of considerations to do with the status of Achilles and his wrath, the appropriateness of anger to a war situation, the proximity or otherwise of anger to other ‘negative’ emotions such as hate, pride, envy and so on. Not only is Achilles in the Iliad wholly conditioned by his radically split emotional investment in anger, but the poem as a whole can be read as thoroughly interpenetrated with wrath – from the environment of the Trojan war and the divine realm, to formal features such as epithets, lists, epic similes and ekphrasis. As at one and the same time burstings-out and as points of repressions, these embody the main theme of the epic.

Chapter 3. Aeneid. Aeneas is presented, certainly in the first six books of the Aeneid, as the embodiment of the Roman virtues, of pietas – a word meaning ‘piety’, ‘duty’, ‘goodness’, ‘respect for authority and for the values of the home’. His self control is a crucial part of this characterisation, and in an important scene in book 2 he forgoes his wrath at Helen, holding back from killing her because his mother, Venus, tells him to. But in the second half of the epic Aeneas loses control, giving way to a series of violent and wrathful actions on the battlefield. Critics have long puzzled over the status of this later Aeneas, whether this represents Vergil’s secret critique of Augustan values. This chapter advances a different argument; that anger is characterised in the first six books as a female quantity – the anger of Juno is the motor for the whole book – and as this is carried through into the second six books we witness a gradual feminisation of Vergil’s hero. The gender implications of ‘anger’ are the main focus for the chapter.

Chapter 3. Paradise Lost. It is presumably only its very obviousness that has obscured from generations of Milton critics that Paradise Lost is centrally about anger. Nonetheless, whilst critics have sometimes talked about the ways Milton has characterised the obvious anger of Satan, none have yet noted how completely wrath permeates this poem. Books 1 and 2 describe Satan’s anger at God, and his plans to vent his anger on humanity; but they also describe in a direct, material way, the Wrath of God – Satan, in Hell, is literally inhabiting the Wrath of God. This is what God’s Wrath looks like. Here we have Milton’s dilemma, because whilst Wrath is one of the Seven Deadly Sins it is also one of the defining characteristics of God – something simultaneously very bad and very good. This dilemma shapes the whole poem, and Milton’s muscular attempts to bring the twin aspects of wrath – through his reading of his epic antecedents -- together determine many of the famous cruxes and problems in the work.

Chapter 4. Browning. To start with Daniel Karlin's reconfiguration of the poem in Browning’s Hatreds (1996) away from seeing him as primarily a poet about love by drawing out how powerfully he was drawn to characters who ‘hated’. This chapter will draw on this work by stressing the ubiquity of ‘anger’ in Browning’s poetry, and how his specifically epic project, The Ring and the Book, becomes dominated by the angriest character in it, the Satanic (in the Miltonic sense) Count Guido.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Rain poem

Rainfall softer than chenille;
Hailstones glass and lazuli.

Spawning strands of water eel
Through beautifully inconstant skies.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Silk handkerchiefs

According to Alex Abramavich: 'One day, midway through a course on The Waste Land, someone (possibly me) asked about the "silk handkerchiefs" – "testimony of summer nights" – floating in Eliot’s Thames. Those handkerchiefs had probably been used as prophylactics, my old thesis adviser Stanley Sultan said.'

I can't believe so. Which is to say, I can imagine somebody using a silk handkerchief as a prophylactic (though it's not going to be a very reliable one); but I can't imagine anyone being so profligate as to chuck one in the river after using it. Silk is very expensive. Silk can easily be washed. This interpretation is, I'd say, bogus.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Orbit poem

The motorcycle headlamp of the moon,
The mica-in-tarmac of the stars,
The onward nightly rush of life --
Sweeping smoothly round the roundabout
And round again, taking all the time
To choose which exit road to take
Along death's dark dual-carriageway.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Gunn's Moly

A little snippet of Thom Gunn talking about his poem from this site: 'It's a dramatic monologue and it's not spoken by myself. It's spoken by one of Odysseus's sailors in a time of -- well you might say of enormous stress because he's just been transformed into some animal, and he doesn't yet know what it is.' Here's the poem.
Nightmare of beasthood, snorting, how to wake.
I woke. What beasthood skin she made me take?

Leathery toad that ruts for days on end,
Or cringing dribbling dog, man’s servile friend,

Or cat that prettily pounces on its meat,
Tortures it hours, then does not care to eat:

Parrot, moth, shark, wolf, crocodile, ass, flea.
What germs, what jostling mobs there were in me.

These seem like bristles, and the hide is tough.
No claw or web here: each foot ends in hoof.

Into what bulk has method disappeared?
Like ham, streaked. I am gross—grey, gross, flap-eared.

The pale-lashed eyes my only human feature.
My teeth tear, tear. I am the snouted creature

That bites through anything, root, wire, or can.
If I was not afraid I’d eat a man.

Oh a man’s flesh already is in mine.
Hand and foot poised for risk. Buried in swine.

I root and root, you think that it is greed,
It is, but I seek out a plant I need.

Direct me gods, whose changes are all holy,
To where it flickers deep in grass, the moly:

Cool flesh of magic in each leaf and shoot,
From milky flower to the black forked root.

From this fat dungeon I could rise to skin
And human title, putting pig within.

I push my big grey wet snout through the green,
Dreaming the flower I have never seen.
Not spoken by Gunn's 'self'; and yet it seems to go out of its way to namecheck the underground slang of west coast toking ('skin') and gay sex 'dog'; 'ass'; 'root'; 'can'. If this isn't a poem about the strange, exciting bestial state of 'taking it in the can', I don't know what it's about. Or, on the top rather than bottom end, 'putting "pig" within, I push my big grey wet snout through' ... indeed.

My colleague Roy Booth showed this poem to a university applicant, asked him what he made of it. His reply: 'is it about moles?'

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Cloud cover

Low cloud-cover, froth-coloured. Three industrial chimneys are the base for three tapering tablelegs of white, such that it looks as if the whole sky has been filled with the white smoke of industry.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Wounded Cavalier by William Shakespeare Burton (1855)

Presumably the Dying Cavalier by William Shakespeare Burton: his pallor is of an almost surreal sort. But then there's something formally quite experimental, or unsettling, about this ... on the one hand it flaunts its photorealism:
To paint his most famous work, Burton was said to have dug a hole in the ground to stand in, so that he could paint the grass and ferns at eye level. The work shows a scene from the English Civil War: a Cavalier courier has been ambushed and wounded, and is comforted by a Puritan maiden. Her jealous suitor, carrying a large Bible, looks on.
On the other, the broken sword blade, weirdly inset into the treetrunk, and apparently (in a mannerist way) also inset into the Bible, cuts directly across the image and makes it hard to read the image in a 'naturalist' way.

Friday, 19 February 2010


Garry Kasparov reviews Diego Rasskin-Gutman’s Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind (MIT Press) in the New York Review of Books:
In what Rasskin-Gutman explains as Moravec’s Paradox, in chess, as in so many things, what computers are good at is where humans are weak, and vice versa.
In what sense is this a paradox? Is it ‘paradoxical’ that (for instance) fish are good at swimming, where humans are better at walking? This isn't just me nitpicking. It strikes me as a small example of a much larger problem in philosophical thinking. Step 1, you say: 'computers are like human minds' (or vice versa). This is just something you're saying -- it's fair enough, maybe interesting, maybe it's heuristic in terms of metaphysical problem-solving, or poetic, or whatever, but it is just something you're saying. But then comes step 2. You say: 'but computers are so different to human minds in so many ways!' This is also fair enough, but juxtaposing your two statements says something about your habits of statementing; it doesn't uncover some rich paradox in the fabric of reality.

Thursday, 18 February 2010


Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium. Hmm; if you were looking for a title for a Stevie Wonder compilation album, would you light upon the 'aquarium' for your concept? Surely aquaria are amongst the things blind people can get the least specific enjoyment from?

Wednesday, 17 February 2010


It's Hokusai's 'Carp Leaping Up Cascade', and it's turn of the 18th/19th century. But doesn't it look like a fish snared in Saturn's rings? What a beautiful, potent image!

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The New Malthus

My view of the future used to be a straightforward pessimism that went something like this; our lives are market-determined. Supply and demand means that if the supply of something exceeds supply its price goes down, where if demand exceeds supply the price goes up. So far, so Economics 101. Now, there are, broadly speaking, three important quantities in the world; people, energy, raw materials. The supply of the latter two is diminishing and will continue to diminish; therefore raw materials and energy have been getting, and will continue to get, more expensive. On the other hand, human beings continue to breed, so the supply of people is increasing. Therefore the price of people (what we earn in wages) will continue to fall. In other words, the future—and 2028 is soon enough for this to be felt—will be more expensive to live in, although we, speaking generally, will have less money to pay for it. There’s a horrible, sub-Malthusian feel of inevitability about this. Practically speaking I feel there must be a way out of it, though such ways don't automatically come to mind.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Man weeping, early morning

A glass tadpole on his cheek:
nobody wants to see that.

The upscrape-downscrape
through white scum-and-suds

uncovers a strip of pink, as
the windowcleaner squeaks his T-blade

to make transparency more transparent.
Best way to void the teardrop:

lose it in a sinkful of clear beads
and drips, water that bulges, swells

as hands move through it, cupping upward
hiding the face a moment, then passing by.

Sunday, 14 February 2010


‘Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return’ is all very well. But there’s dust and there’s dust. Maybe we’re talking sand and ashes; but maybe we’re talking cocaine and gunpowder.

Saturday, 13 February 2010


Frank Kermode, in The Sense of an Ending, notes: ‘it seems to be a condition attaching to the exercise of thinking about the future that one should assume one’s own time to stand in an extraordinary relation to it … we think of our own crisis as pre-eminent, more worrying, more interesting than other crises.’ His point, of course, is that it isn’t so.
It seems doubtful that our crisis, or relation with the past, is one of the important differences between us and our predecessors, Many of them felt as we do. IKf the evidence looks good to us, so it did to them. Perhaps if we have a terrible privilege it is merely that we are alive and are going to die.
This seems so completely reasonable and right it’s hard to see how we might disagree with it. Yet there’s a part of me that wants to challenge it. Kermode’s terrible privilege is more than the blank fact of our existence; surely it also includes the much sharper fact of the nowness of our existence. This is what makes the earache I currently suffer much more significant than the entirety of the pains of Prometheus on his crag, because Prometheus’s pains are over and done with, and past pain howsoever enormous does not have the purchase of present pain.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Love poem (stanzas adapted from the Emare)

In that other corner was drought.
Both were Iseult-Tristram bright
A seemly pair it seemed.
His flower was love, and proud;
As full of stones as doubt
Thick with love.

Two jewels: topaz and ruby
To pass and yes and out at sea

In that other corner was drought.
These stones are heaped about,
A seemly pair at sea.
Her belt slowly unbuckling;
Solid flesh in its stomacher
Thick with love.

Two jewels: topaz and ruby
To pass and yes and out at sea

Thursday, 11 February 2010


James Sheridan Knowles's The Hunchback (1830): a creaky but rather splendid melodrama (I'm reading it because the scholars assure me it's one of the sources for the plotting in Our Mutual Friend). In Act IV sc. i I discover this: beautiful young Helen teases her cousin Modus for being in love with a certain woman at university. He repudiates this (because, secretly, he's in love with Helen):
I loved no woman while I was at college--
Save one, and her I fancied ere I went there.
Is this the earliest recorded use of 'fancied' in this romantic context, I wonder?

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


This is interesting:
When China reinstituted private property beyond household goods around 1979, there were fewer than 1000 lawyers in the whole country. The very limited private enterprises initially allowed there required training a fairly large group of people who defined what property rights meant in a system where "law" meant very little beyond "what the prosecutor said." Spence's big book was my starting point for reading about the period. Hu Yaoband was a central figure in the subsequent conflicts, an easy way to keep track of things is to look at who attacked him.
The notion that 'the law' exists primarily to protect the vested interests of property is hardly a new one, of course; but it's striking how hard to shift the notion that 'the law' is 'about' violent crime and murder (the more dramatic, and therefore dramatised, versions of it). But what interests me here is the thought that, mostly, violent crime is a fairly straightforward legal business, at least when compared with proeprty crime; and that this latter is because 'violence' exists in the world in a way 'property', really, doesn't.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010


Interested, although slightly nonplussed, by Michael Saler's ‘By the Salton Sea’ [TLS Jan 29 2010] and its take on SF. Reviewing William Vollmann’s Imperial and Kevin Starr’s Imperial Dreams. Saler argues that California is the topographical locus for key contemporary science fiction:
The genre that best captures California today is science fiction (and not just because Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is currently playing Terminator to the Californian dream). It is no accident that so many exemplary science fiction writers are associated with California, including Robert Heinlein, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K Dick and Ray Bradbury. Kim Stanley Robinson said that he started reading and writing science fiction after witnessing the agricultural areas of Southern California where he was raised being changed ‘absolutely’ within a decade. For him the genre simply ‘described what I experienced’. … Vollman links Imperial County, which adjoins Mexico, to one of Bradbury’s novels: ‘recently I reread Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and realized that the Martians … speak and behave in eerily familiar ornate fashion—why, of course! They’re Mexicans! We conquered California from them, expelling their laws and ways; California, Imperial California, is our Mars, but the Martians are coming back! [4]
I know it's a personal crochet, and I know I live here (and am, therefore, biased), but isn't the landscape of SF that portion of southern England between about Reading and Central London? Of course it is.

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Rabbit and the Moon

I read Kim Moore's lovely short poem ‘The Rabbit and the Moon’ in a recent TLS (29th Jan 2010):
Let me tell you the story of a high, lonely place
where sight and sound carry
with the pylon
that gives its shadow to the hill, and the farm
many fields away, and the long straight road.
Bold to evoke a pylon, that artefact of the discredited non-Audenesque 1930s school of poetry—but so evocatively done, too: not the pylon itself, but the shadow it generously gives away, and the bright sunshine (or moonshine) that is implied in the image. The scene set very neatly.
A bird calls kehaar, kehaar to the moon
and trains are falling, falling into the night.
The black rabbit waits outside the caravan
and come morning, the booted feet of gulls
‘Falling’ for the sound of trains in the night is very good; and if booted is a little too hobnailed to describe gulls’-feet, I very much like the way the birdcall, with its Arabic air, is the name (Kehaar) of the seagull in Watership Down. The poem wants us to think of that famous rabbit tale, and to situate its plangently, deftly evoked English hill, and pylon-shadow, in that resonant world.
will be telling us to leave, but if we stay,
the dogs will lie like rugs at our feet.
Somewhere there are other rabbits, and a river
to sail away on. Somewhere there’s a boat.
Is there, though? The clues disposed through the stanzas (‘tell a story’, ‘gull’, ‘lie’) point to the principle of fictiveness at the heart of this poem, as of all poetry. A caravan is like a boat, but not very. The rabbit is actually black—there aren’t any black rabbits wild in Britain—it only looks that way in the night. The moon is a high and lonely place, but no sound carries there.

Sunday, 7 February 2010


The popular representation of angels, with those genetically-engineered giant white features bunched in monstrous pigeonwings at their backs, is quite at odds with what we know of flying mammals (wings sheathed in leather; fingers grown long as umbrella spines; heads furred with velvet). Our imagination recoils, and we are compelled to conclude that angels are nonmammalian. Ruled by a god who is not even of the same species! How strange the universe is! How stranger the capacity of human affections to transfer away from their own DNA.

Saturday, 6 February 2010


The human fetish for absolute precision is the same, in many respects, as the scientist’s yearning to chill an object to absolute zero. The thing that prevents it—time—is the one absolutely necessary thing that gets in the way, as the air we breathe prevents us from seeing objects in the far distance absolutely clearly. Not that time is a medium, of course, whatever this analogy suggests. We do not ‘swim in time as a carp swims in water’. Not in the least. Indeed, one thumbnail definition of time might well be: time is that which prevents everything from being at absolute zero. Savingly so.

Friday, 5 February 2010


I wonder if it isn't the finished-ness of history that appeals to us .... I mean, for instance, grounding the appeal of historical fiction. There are perils and discomforts in (for example) the English Civil War, or WWII, but we know how they end, or more to the point we know that they end. The problem with fiction set now, or in the future, is that it lacks this comfortable closure. I say problem. I mean, of course, appeal ...

Thursday, 4 February 2010


There are some very powerful and deftly made poems in Rich's The Dream of a Common Language. But there's something I'm not sure about, a whiff of the woman-as-victim-martyr about the first, 'Power', about Marie Curie, who 'suffered from radiation sickness/her body bombarded for years by the element/she had purified'; and which ends like this:
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power.
It's not that its bad poetry (the repeated 'denying/her wounds', with its clever portmanteau of two opposed Christ-related echoes); it's that it is emotionally dodgy, and ontologically mendacious. Our wounds do not make us strong.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Holst's Planets

I have a theory as to what this suite of music is actually about. Which is to say, in addition to it being about planets, in their mythic-astrological and (I'd argue) astronomical-actual senses, it is about fucking, in its various moods and modes. Mars, the Bringer of War, is a banging-away, aggressive kind of fucking; Venus (the gooddess of love, of course) about gentle, peaceful, tender lovemaking. Mercury is sprightly randy-adolescent shagging; Jollity-Jupiter is mature fucking; Saturn, 'the Bringer of Old Age', about more stately, less frequent but as deeply felt coitus. Uranus, the Magician, explores a melodramatic death-approaching final-fuck vibe. And the loveliest of all, tonally and melodiously reminiscent of Venus, is Neptune, the Mystic: a sort of suprabodily fuck of extraordinary tenderness and intensity.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010


I lay me down as a stone; I raise me up as a loaf.

Monday, 1 February 2010


The most terrifying, or heartbreaking, phrase in human speech: 'oh, you get used to it ...'