Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christopher Cannon's: The Grounds of English Literature

This is an extraordinary book.

Its excellence operates on two levels: there is a general argument about literature, literary history, and the way texts are read and valued, which is of interest to anyone who wants to think about those things and detailed readings of a group of Early Middle English texts which illustrate and support that argument and which are original and thought provoking about those texts. Anything that tempts me to reread Ancrene Wisse has to be extraordinary.

The texts Cannon reads so well may be too obscure to attract many readers, but that’s a pity because the detailed readings support the general argument and the general argument shouldn’t be lost because you could probably fit all the people who’ve willingly reread Laȝamon’s Brut on a bus and take them to Arely Regis for the day.

Put into modern terms, and shifting from Cannon’s interest in ‘Literature’ to my interest in ‘Poetry’, ‘Poetry’ exists as an idea which is greater than the total sum of all the texts identified as ‘poems’. Texts gain in value by drawing on the excess meaning the term ‘Poetry’ has. The authority of ‘Poetry’ as an idea is not undermined or even dented by the fact that there is no satisfactory definition of ‘Poetry’, or that arguments about what Poetry does are rarely if ever supported by specific examples, or that no poem does all the things Poetry is supposed to be able to do.

The same is true of the term ‘poem’. Sir Phillip Sidney knew Poesy, what we’d call fictive literature, could be easily divided into Verse and Prose. The distinction was obvious. It wasn’t obvious in the centuries before Chaucer of which he probably knew very little. Today the baffling range of texts published as ‘poems’ means such a distinction is once again no longer tenable. A poem is simply any text recognised as a poem by those with the authority and power to do so.

But because there is an aggregate of ‘poemness’, something most people would recognise as ‘having the characteristics of a poem’ even if the liminal cases are problematic, calling something a poem draws on the excess of value the term has. A ‘poem’ is an indefinable but special type of text, with a long history and a great deal of residual cultural capital which relies on a vaguely misunderstood past, rather than any present reality.  In itself ‘poem’ is drawing on the greater bank which is ‘Poetry’. (whether Literature stands above Poetry or below it in this ‘economic’ model is an interesting question.)

I wake up. I open my eyes. The world is still there. You are not.

Fifteen common words carrying a commonplace thought. Chopped into lines:

I wake up.
I open my eyes.
The world is still there
You are not.

posted to Instagram and tagged as poetry, it claims the ‘status of poem’, and if enough people ‘like’ it, the writer can claim the title of ‘poet’. Poet is another word with excess value carrying a great deal of residual cultural capital that has nothing to do with the pragmatic role of writers of texts but which can be drawn on if you want to strut.  

These two points: Poetry is an idea which exceeds the sum total of all poems ever written, but which cannot be adequately defined and ‘Poem’ is the name given to a text as the result of a learnt reading practice which recognise a text as a poem and associates it with ‘Poetry’, have implications for both the way critics and readers approach the reception of texts and how writers go about producing them.

Most, I suspect, would rather ignore the implications because they cut the ground away from so many unexamined assumptions. Or at least can force a confrontation with those assumptions. It becomes difficult to operate as critics if we start to try and take each text on its own terms because that's not the way we became 'competent readers'. But unless we do that, claims to value original or unique texts ring hollow. What passes for ‘experimental’ in modern poetry is really the repetition of characteristics that are currently recognised by those in the know as 'experimental'.  

Claiming something is ‘ground breaking’ is an easy, thoughtless critical commonplace for blurbs: proving how or why something is groundbreaking is a very different matter.

As a modern example: Thomas Dilworth, in his work on David Jones, is emphatic that although written in prose In Parenthesis is poetry. (He makes this claim in Reading David Jones and then more recently in his biography of Jones.)

The question that goes begging in the claim is what is gained by shoe horning that remarkable text into any category? If you claim the text is poetry, then you’re also saying that the learnt reading practice you developed to read ‘poems’ can be applied here. But in saying A is like B, you’re inevitably distorting A, and while you can now focus on the things that are common and familiar, you’re tending to lose sight of what makes A not B.

What shoe horning the text does is reveal the way we read. We assimilate to the familiar and in doing so reduce the threat the genuinely strange provides to our comfortable assumptions.  And Cannon’s suggestion, if I’m not wrong, is that the solidifying of this process can be seen in the period between the Conquest and the development of ‘Romance’ as a recognisable category in the 13th Century.

In that strange period dubbed ‘Early Middle English’ it’s possible to argue these reading processes were not at work.  The text types are so different that there is no ‘aggregate’ that allows them to be lumped together as ‘Literature’ and draw on the added value that term could give them. You cannot read ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ with the same expectations you’d read Laȝamon’s Brut. The two texts are preserved in the same manuscript. One is written out in continual lines, the other  recognisable as ‘poetry’ in its lay out.  Today they are both called ‘poems’ but if they are both ‘poems’ they are so different that the term is already so stretched as to seem useless.

Cannon argues that this is not a failure of the texts, rather, each text has to be taken on its own terms, and in doing that readers and critics become aware of how we don’t usually read in this way and how claims that the original and the unique are valued are implicitly false. 

And so that’s the general point, probably slightly distorted.  Enthusiastic discussion of specific argument to follow.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Charles Hamilton Sorely. A footnote poet of the First World War

Charles Hamilton Sorely. 1895-1915

So poor so manifestly incomplete
And your bright promise, withered long and sped
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet.
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.
                                    (Such, Such is death).

Sorely is a footnote poet for the saddest of reasons. He was killed in 1915 during the Battle of Loos. He was 20 years old. A book of poems, Marlborough and other Poems (1916), and a collection of his letters (1919), were published posthumously, both seen through the press by his parents. The letters are prefaced by a ‘biographical chapter’ written by his mother.

In Goodbye To All That,  Robert Graves names Sorely as one of the three poets of importance who were killed in the First World War, the other two being Rosenberg and Owen. It’s a throwaway line rather than a considered judgement, but Graves’ enthusiasm was personal. In a letter to Edward Marsh (dated 24th February 1917) he wrote:

‘I’ve just discovered a brilliant young poet called Sorely whose poems have just appeared in the Cambridge press Marlborough and other Poems and who was killed near Loos on October 13th as a temporary Captain in the 7th Suffolk regiment. It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a dead man as I have found myself doing but he seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age and having spent the same years at Marlborough as I spent at Charterhouse. He got a classical scholarship at University college Oxford, the same year I was up, and I half remember meeting him’.

Sorely has not fared as well as other ‘Great War Poets’: Rosenberg, Owen and Edward Thomas (not mentioned by Graves who either didn't know or wasn't interested) are all currently available in the kind of scholarly edition that has 'Established Reputation’ flashing above it. Suggesting that Yeats was right about Wilfrid Owen can bring the thought police to your door.

Sorely was the subject of a biography by Jean Moorcroft Wilson (1985), who also edited a new edition of his letters (leaving out Mrs. Sorely’s biographical chapter) (1990), and his collected poems(1985). Although there are scattered poems on line, and the original version of the letters is available to download as a free pdf,  Wilson's books are hard to find, and currently there’s only a thin glossy pamphlet type book of Sorely’s poems available, which looks like it has been badly scanned.  You can find second hand copy of Marlborough and other Poems…..which I did….1917 reprint of the 1916 edition which adds a short piece of prose, ‘Behind the lines’ and an additional poem, ‘There is such change in all those fields’.  The 1917 version is prefaced with an anonymous poem which is a response to the verse letter ‘I have not brought my Odyssey’.  

Rather than argue the toss about the poems, the biography and Marlborough and other Poems raise interesting questions about literary reputations.

Biographies begin with their end in sight. The early years are narrated to explain the achievements and the character of the adult subject. Graves’ biographers read back from the end of his long life to make much of his mother and his (miserable) years at Charterhouse in order to trace, retrospectively, the origins and development of perceived traits in the adult’s personality.

But Sorely’s biography is painfully thin; just over two hundred pages, or ten pages per year. In the absence of the next fifty or so years: the writer’s career, the arguments, scandals, achievements, relationships, there are no criteria against which to select what is important, no way of knowing if, for example, his relationship with his landlady in Schwerin, was indicative of things to come. (‘Relationship’ here with no sexual connotations.)  or if, after the war, he would have continued to write.  

So instead of biography we have chronicle. Events are narrated. People are introduced. Even that milestone in the poet’s career, the first collection, is not part of the biography. The literary biographer’s habit of discussing the schoolboy’s ideas on literature is revealed to be as shallow and predictable as the schoolboy’s ideas. 

Ironically, this makes Sorely into a representational figure: he stands for all the literate, affable young men who went from school to the Western Front and died there. His character shines through his letters. Graves would later say that Sorely died before he became disillusioned. But the letters suggest that Sorely had no illusions about the war before he joined the army. He liked Germany and the Germans when he stayed there as a student. He had no faith in the righteousness of the Allied Cause and was unimpressed by what he saw as Rupert Brooke’s patriotic posturing.

His parents had suggested he publish, and he declined. He had sent poems home from the front, but acknowledged they were unfinished. His most famous poem, ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’ was found in his kit after he was killed and it reads like something in draft. These are the poems of an intelligent, well read, literate young man, but there’s no way of knowing if he would have improved them had he prepared them for publication. Written in conditions that would silence most people, by someone who knew his death, if not inevitable, was probable, it feels awkward to assess them as consciously finished works of art.

If you do compare Marlborough and other Poems, with Graves’ first book, Over the Brazier, also published in 1916, two things seem obvious. They did have a great deal in common. Both writers had admired Masefield and it shows. Both books contain poems written while their authors were still schoolboys. Both play the trope of longing for home. Both respond to the war in ways that are different to the more well-known poems of Owen and Sassoon. 

The big difference is that Sorely’s book contains some memorable poems. What Graves’ reputation would be if he had died when he was reported dead in 1916 is mere speculation. But it’s difficult to believe anyone would have bothered to remember him. Over the Brazier gains its significance because of the poems that followed. It shows the beginnings of features that became characteristics of Graves’ later verse.

Sorely’s school poems lack Graves’ enthusiastic chummy diction and late 19th century aesthetic posturing. Unlike Graves he enjoyed school. He had also been reading Hardy and Hardy is good for poets of all ages. His evocation of landscape is far more specific and local than Graves’.  England for Sorely was the Downs. He has more in common with Ivor Gurney in this respect, whose Severn And Somme was published in 1917. For both of them, England is not a vague idea but a specific place.

If you placed those three books together, Severn and Somme, Marlborough and other Poems, Over the Brazier, as individual books regardless of their writer’s subsequent reputations, they probably belong in that order. Gurney’s diction and syntax are more interesting than either of the others, and his poems feel less like literary exercises.

Graves as critic was often wayward. In the letter I quoted, he links Sorely’s poems to ‘Rupert’s method’. But in his poems he tended towards a better, what he might have called 'poetic' judgement.  In the same month he wrote that letter to Marsh he wrote ‘Sorely’s Weather’.

It’s only twenty lines, so the whole thing:

When outside the icy rain       
  Comes leaping helter-skelter,
Shall I tie my restive brain      
  Snugly under shelter?           
Shall I make a gentle song               
  Here in my firelit study,       
When outside the winds blow strong 
  And the lanes are muddy?    
With old wine and drowsy meats       
  Am I to fill my belly?                    
Shall I glutton here with Keats?         
  Shall I drink with Shelley?   
Tobacco’s pleasant, firelight’s good:  
  Poetry makes both better.     
Clay is wet and so is mud,              
  Winter rains are wetter.        
Yet rest there, Shelley, on the sill,      
  For though the winds come frorely, 
I’m away to the rain-blown hill          

  And the ghost of Sorley.