Category Archives: Essays

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The Lost Forms of the English Language

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Readers of Shakespeare and Early Modern versions of the Bible (e.g. Douay-Rheims/King James) are doubtless aware that English as it is spoken today is considerably ‘defective’ (in the grammatical sense) compared to the way it was spoken and written several centuries ago. The second-person pronoun, you, is the most obvious example, having lost all of its forms except for that of the plural object. This situation causes a perplexity when one tries to translate other languages into English: how to render differences in the second-person pronouns of other languages when English has only the one form?

In the interest of recovering those lost forms, whether for translation purposes or everyday use(!), I provide here a much simplified set of basic instructions for forming second- and third-person pronouns and their associated verb endings:

2nd Person Singular Subject: Thou (Thou art running.)
2nd Person Singular Object: Thee (I hit thee.)
2nd Person Plural Subject: Ye (Ye are applauding.)
2nd Person Plural Object: You (I dismiss you.)

Verb Endings
2nd Person Singular: -t/st (Thou shalt not lie. Thou hast the cup.)
3rd Person Singular: -th (He/She/It hath value.)

Possessive Forms
2nd Person Singular: Thy (I see thy cat.)
2nd Person Singular before vowel sounds, or as a pronoun: Thine (I see thine eyes. The cup is thine)
(1st person my/mine is formed likewise: my cat, mine eyes, the cup is mine).

The English second person pronoun became defective in part due to social convention. The plural form (Ye/You) was also used as the formal mode of address when speaking to individuals. In time, two things happened: (1) people were increasingly keen to demonstrate that they treated everyone very respectfully, so the formal mode of address was used in ever-less-formal settings; and, (2) people began to expect to be addressed formally, so the formal mode of address was used in order to avoid giving offence. George Fox wrote that some Quakers–who generally adhered to grammatical convention–were accosted in the street when they failed to address individuals with the formal, plural pronoun. Despite that, some Quaker communities continue to use Thy/Thou; and, in regions such as Yorkshire and Durham, the second person Thou/Thy is also still in use.

There are some fine resources online for a more detailed account of Middle and Early Modern English grammar. But, as far as print resources go, I recommend Fisiak’s A Short Grammar of Middle English (1968), which provides the grammatical background for the forms above (pp. 86-87).

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Posted by on 11 October 2020 in Essays


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Pedagogy and Arthuriana: A Roundtable

In her article, “Teaching Arthuriana: A Moderated Discussion on ‘Arthurnet'” (Arthuriana 5, no. 1 (Spring, 1995): 79-82), Miriam Youngerman Miller recounts the highlights of a discussion on pedagogical approaches held via the Arthurnet internet e-mail distribution group. It seems like a good time to look at the ways in which Arthurnet has been a positive influence on pedagogy given its recent (and timely) resurrection over the Easter 2015 holiday, after its temporary dissolution in the winter of 2014.

Miller and ther other Arthurnetters were responding to Miller’s proposal to supplement and update the Arthurian volumes of the MLA Approaches to Teaching World Literature series, edited by Maureen Fries and Jeanie Watson (Approaches to Teaching the Arthurian Tradition (New York: MLA, 1992)), and by Miller and Jane Chance (Approaches to Teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New York: MLA, 1986)). In her original discussion prompt, Miller suggested five topics for Arthurnetters to address, recounted below in full:

“1. Considering the possibility/desirability of forming a canon of modern Arthurian works.
2. Generating a list of recent secondary works recommended as background for Arthurian studies.
3. Discussing current critical methodologies and assessing their value for the classroom.
4. Incorporating Arthurian material in all artistic media into the syllabus.
5. Teaching Arthurian works in non-traditional contexts.”

Before addressing the individual approaches detailed in Miller’s article, I should observe that all five of these topics could be useful for generating discussion in a graduate course or, potentially, in an upper-division undergraduate course. Certainly a course syllabus could be informed by thought on these topics, but the topics themselves could be useful in the right classroom environment.

The first topic saw Arthurnetters proving “very reluctant to make discriminations on a qualitative basis among Arthurian works” (79). Certainly by the mid-90s the trend of avoiding explicit canonical formation was already in place (by and large, this continues today), although (necessarily) in the absence of explicit canon formation, implicit canons are still being formed, the which is more problematic for its inconspicuousness. A few Arthurnetters did offer suggestions as to what kind of works might be considered canonical, but these distinctions are along genre lines rather than based on qualitative judgements (with a few exceptions as in the case of Alan Lupack’s praise of William Morris’ Defence of Guenevere, and John Withrington’s evaluation of Mists of Avalon as ‘a very poor book’). These genre distinctions run from the broad to the specific: either including a single character or motif; or including all of the characters and settings typical to Arthuriana.

Several lists of secondary works were compiled by Arthurnetters for use in the classroom, along with some of the texts that can run alongside those works. Kevin Harty’s Cinema Arthuriana (New York: Garland, 1991) stuck out in particular because it covers many of the major Arthurian films of the 20th century, as did Culture and the King: The Social Implications of the Arthurian Legend (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994), which is of particular relevance to my own research area. Certainly this is an area in which the article falls a little bit behind (much has been done in the past two decades), but these works can still provide a good jumping-off point for constructing a secondary reading list of Arthurian texts.

If much has changed in the publication of secondary sources, contemporary critical theory is an area where little has changed in the past twenty years. Miller writes that “the theoretical stance which currently most engages Arthurianists is feminist criticism,” and this is more or less true today. Unfortunately, the strong leaning in the 1990s towards this one critical apparatus has had a dampening effect on the deployment of other critical lenses–disappointing given that feminist critical theory, although useful and beneficial as a theoretical approach, is not the only useful theory or even the most useful critical apparatus at all times and in all places. A wealth of feminist critical literature abounds, but of other approaches the Arthurnetters of 1995 said but little.

For non-literary media in the classroom, film (predictably) generated the most interest, although an updated approach would consider other aspects of the digital humanities, especially video games. Then, as now, Rohmer’s Perceval and Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac were difficult to obtain, but featured prominently on recommendations. The more-accessible favourites of twenty years ago are still around today: Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Today, we would certainly consider the two Merlin television productions–the Hallmark featurette and the five series BBC television programme. But other media was mentioned as well: visual art (modern and pre-Raphaelite) is a non-literary media with a vast Arthurian heritage, and yet it was and remains poorly served by the academy. This is clearly an area in which more can and should be done.

The high point of the article was a suggestion advanced by Pauline J. Alama of “teaching Arthurian legend with other works of mythologized history, including Scott’s Ivanhoe, Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, Hugo’s Les Miserables, Stone’s JFK, and the Broadway play 1776.” This strikes me as a very innovative way of thinking about Arthuriana which takes into account its cross-era and cross-genre existence, and is something I will strongly consider if I am ever given the opportunity to create an Arthurian course of my own.

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Posted by on 6 April 2015 in Essays


Teaching Poetry and Its Emotional Effects

In her chapter on “Teaching Poetry” in Teaching Literature, Elaine Showalter offers a number of variety of methods and approaches to teaching poetry in the literature classroom, asserting that, “Teaching poetry offers the literature instructor some of the most fundamental, immediate, active, even physical ways to engage students in learning” (62). After providing a brief background on twentieth-century approaches to academic poetics (including a rather bleak assessment of the effects of New Criticism), Showalter then moves on to discussing a variety of helpful approaches to poetry instruction.

As a part of a WSU Composition Programme curriculum initiative in the summer of 2014, I (along with several other GTAs) worked with a panel, consisting of the Director of Composition and senior composition instructors, to develop new, instructor-specific approaches to teaching composition. Although I was unfamiliar with Showalter’s book at the time, I nevertheless ended up employing some of the methods and approaches she discusses.

Showalter is correct when she observes that using a Poetics approach can be difficult for students “because it comes with a specialized technical language” (65). That said, I believe that some degree of instruction in poetics is necessary. Even with the limited amount of poetry that I use in my composition curriculum, I have encountered student confusion like that mentioned by Jonathan Arac, where ignorance of poetics makes poetry “seem like arbitrary magic rather than a codified technology of verbal power” (65). Presented with a bewildering (not to say infinite) array of potential poetical forms, students may (and will) justly ask, “What is a poem, then?” Marjorie Perloff’s response–that poetry “foregrounds language, in its complexity… and, especially, relatedness” is a good one, but still runs the risk of being rather too abstract for the average undergraduate to grasp readily (65).

Here, I would defer to the advice of Scholes as both practical and successful, to wit: “encourage students to start with the poets and poems who are most directly meaningful to them” (64). The key word being ‘start’, for Showalter observes that this should be a jumping-off point “to more complex forms and historically-distant works” (64). I have found that this approach has been particularly useful in my own instruction. Each semester, I provide students with a list of fifteen ‘approved’ poems from which they may choose any one, although they must read them all. For the accesibility of an undergraduate, non-English major audience, they range from the beginning of the Romantic period up to the modern day, including canonically familiar works (Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”) and less well-known (but still academically interesting) pieces (St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts”). All of these works are hortatory at some level, and each appeals to some sense of strong emotion on the part of the reader.

I have found that students often have an immediate reaction to even the most abstract poetry, although they lack the poetical vocabulary necessary to describe the causes of their response. Even students who ‘hate poetry’ typically gravitate towards the calls to action of Millay, Wilfred Owen, or Langston Hughes, and asking them to describe their reactions is an excellent way to get into discussion of formal poetics: “‘Flow’? You seem to be describing ‘rhythm’, ‘tempo’, and ‘meter’–let’s talk about that.” In my experience, it is not that students lack anything to say, or are afraid to speak about poetry–rather, the case seems to be that they are afraid of not being able to talk about the poetical causes of why they feel the way they do. And so, using familiar poetry and their own emotional responses as a way of opening up poetics is both empowering and educational: something for which most students are profoundly grateful, as it opens the door to appreciating (personally) and discussing (communally) more complex works.

That said, using emotionally-engaging poetry is not without its complexities, as Showalter rightly observes when she mentions the poetry of Sylvia Plath. The focus upon suicidal thoughts, tendendies, and acts in The Bell Jar can be disturbing for students who might not expect ‘poetry’–a land of whimsy and romance, in their minds–to plumb the depths of despair, or other darker emotions yet. There are countless works of poetry that explore the capacity of human beings to imagine, engage with, summon, and deploy emotions and sensibilities which, in our own particular culture and moment, might be provocative or even abhorrent. Awareness of this can teach us a great deal about the work and about our the systems which incline us to respond as we do.

This is not to say that educators should shrink from the task. As such works demonstrate a vital part of the human experience, the liberal education afforded by University study can and should expose to students works of importance and merit, even when those works are disturbing, disruptive, or challenging. Indeed, it is usually the most disturbing and disruptive works which are the most enlightening, and the discussions of which are most intellectually generative. Certainly students in America might find Kipling’s “Ulster” to be an approachable (if somewhat opaque) work, but in Ireland in the 1980s, it would have had quite a different reception; and, at the time of its publication, still another. The poem’s controversial nature is something which adds to its importance as an object of study. It is in the conflicts and the provocations that what matters to the reader and society is briefly exposed and opened to enquiry.

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Posted by on 8 March 2015 in Essays


C. S. Lewis and the Allegory of Love in The Faerie Queene

In Book III of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the knightly figure of Britomart may be read as an allegorical representation of Chastity, read as an embodied concept born out of what C. S. Lewis characterised as “the fusion of two kinds, the medieval allegory and the more recent romantic epic of the Italians.” As a virgin, Britomart falls in love with the image of Artegal, a knight whom she has never met. Thereafter, Britomart travels the world, seeking for her as-yet unmet love. Each knight she encounters is defeated with the aid of her enchanted spear until, at the last, she is herself vanquished by a knight who turns out to be Artegal himself. Britomart’s initially unrequited faithfulness to the object of her affection seems at first to place her squarely within the trope of Petrarchan Love; later, as that love seems about to be realised through her encounter with Artegal, a development along the lines of courtly love might seem appropriate in what is ostensibly the setting of a romance. However, Britomart’s representation defies that move for, as Lewis observes when he characterises the third book of The Faerie Queene as embodying “the final defeat of courtly love by the romantic conception of marriage.”

Britomart’s marriage to Artegal is what initially ends her quest: the conclusion of her search is the conclusion of the virgin’s wait for the consummation afforded by, but not virtuously fulfilled until, marriage. In this reading, the knights whom Britomart defeats in combat represent not merely challenges to her knightly prowess (the surface-level reading), but also challenges to the virtue of chastity:

For she was full of amiable grace,
And manly terrour mixed therewithall,
That as the one stird vp affections bace,
So th’other did mens rash desires apall,
And hold them backe, that would in errour fall ;
As he, that hath espide a vermeill Rose,
To which sharpe thornes and breres the way forstall,
Dare not for dread his hardy hand expose,
But wishing it far off, his idle wish doth lose.

Here, as A. C. Hamilton’s gloss notes, Britomart “arouses love in others,” which seems to be the traditional mode of chastity in the trope of courtly love. After all, it is the continued deferment which increases desire until the bulwark of chaste virtue is overcome. But Britomart is never overcome until she encounters her future husband, who—in defeating her—ultimately reaffirms both masculine superiority over the feminine and also the rightwise relationship aspiration of the chaste to marriage, be it either a marriage to one’s sole, earthly lover, or to Jesus Christ, the eternal, spiritual bridegroom.

But this reading still avoids the complexities afforded by passages like those quoted above, where Britomart is described as mixing “amiable grace” with “manly terrour”. Does this “manly virtue” further masculinise Britomart, already masculinised through her knightly habit and action? If something is lost to femininity—some masculine quality being necessary for knightly prowess and unbending chastity—then so also lost is any gendered expectation of chastity, situating it somewhere between the masculine and the feminine: Britomart’s prowess in battle and her “manly terrour” both demonstrate that an individual possessed of these masculine traits cannot only essay upon chastity but serve to represent its untrammelled deployment.

Britomart waits for her enemy and when it appears, the Masks of Cupid are shown in what Lewis describes as “an unforgettable picture not of lust but of love… in all its heartbreaking glitter, its sterility, its suffocating monotony,” raising the question: “what is this but a picture of the deep human suffering which underlies such loves?” This is the moment which, for Lewis, represents the payoff for Chastity and Romantic Marriage over the Courtly Love which has gone before: “When Britomart rescues Amoret from this place of death she is ending some five centuries of human experience, predominantly painful. Painful indeed, for in this reading courtly love comes disguised as:

Unquiet Care, and fond Vnthriftihead,
Lewd Losse of Time, and Sorrow seeming dead,
Inconstant Chaunge, and false Disloyaltie,
Consuming Riotise, and guilty Dread
Of heauenly vengeance, faint Infirmitie,
Vile Pouertie, and lastly Death with infamie.

Lewis reads the rescue of Amoret as the ransoming of love “begotten by heaven… wrongly separate from marriage by the ideals of courtly gallantry, and at last restored to it by Chastity—as Spenser conceives chastity”—that is, “whilst Britomart represents Chastitty attained… Amoret, in isolation, represents the romantic passion which Chastity must so unite.” It is the ravages and masks of these courtly gallantries and passions which are presented as the Masks of Cupid in the twelfth canto of Book III—unpleasant and dreadful; escapable only through the dauntless efforts of chastity: Britomart need not suffer at the hand of Chaunge or Disloyaltie, for the nature of chastity is to hide from these things, whereas the courtly love of the past would embrace and welcome them as Love’s emblems—not evils at all, but her badges of gallantry.

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Posted by on 13 February 2014 in Essays


Female Power in the Figure of Grendel’s Mother

The appearance of Grendel’s mother in Beowulf is described, at first, in terms which seem to underplay her strength when compared to the masculine capabilities of her son. However, a close reading of the poem shows evidence that Grendel’s mother is more dangerous to the men of Heorot than Grendel himself was. Such a reading seeks to destabilise the ready leap that assume feminine weakness from a surface-level acceptance of the text’s comments on feminine strength.

After her introduction, the narrator describes Grendel’s mother’s assault as being “less only by as much as an amazon warrior’s strength is less than an armed man’s when the hefted sword… razes the sturdy boar-ridge off a helmet” (Heaney ll. 1284-1287). This reading seems to imply that, to the observer, there is no visible difference in the ferocity of the onslaught (for the result is the same), only in the image of the attacker. Though the arm that wields the analogous blade may be feminine instead of masculine, the ridge is razed nevertheless.

Admittedly, some circumstances in the assault complicate this reading: Grendel’s mother is seized with “mortal terror the moment she was found” (ll. 1293). This is in stark contrast to Grendel, whose dominion in Heorot exists in fearless despite of the men who would resist him: “So Grendel ruled in defiance of right, one against all […] He took over Heorot, haunted the glittering hall after dark” (ll. 144, 166-167). The differences in their attacks uncover the comparative tension between the masculine and feminine assaults, for although Grendel’s first attack is a hit-and-run raid just as his mother’s is, there seems to be an immediate difference in scope (Grendel carries off thirty men; his mother, but one). Looking beyond this first impression of simple numerical supremacy, Grendel’s mother is described as having chosen a target of incomparable value: “She had pounced and taken one of the retainers… To Hrothgar, this man was the most beloved of the friends he trusted between the two seas” (ll. 1294-1297). In addition, “She had snatched their trophy, Grendel’s bloodied hand,” at a stroke unravelling the visual evidence of Grendel’s defeat, thus rendering Beowulf incapable of physically establishing his triumph over her son (ll. 1302-1303).

In the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, Grendel’s mother is strong enough that “the shining blade refused to bite” (ll. 1523-1524). His strength alone is insufficient as well; it takes “a sword in her armoury” to deal the final blow, and to return the evidence of Grendel’s defeat—his head—to the vanquisher, Beowulf. Finally, then, it is only through the weapons of the monstrous female that she can be defeated.

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Posted by on 28 January 2014 in Essays


Feminine and Divine Physicality in the Vita of Christina of Markyate

In the anonymous account of her life, Christina of Markyate is represented as having a direct connexion to the divine that affords her knowledge of the future and influence over events. However, despite this special relationship with Christ, the descriptions of Christina’s capabilities repeatedly focus on her feminine weakness and inability, and shift the centre of volition to others—either male contemporaries or God. For this, two explanations seem probable: the first is simply a culture which presumes an inequity in abilities between the sexes and replicates this inequity in its descriptions; and the second is an intention to give the glory for actions to God, and not to the vessel through whom the divine will is expressed.

When King Stephen prepares to send Geoffrey, Abbot of St. Albans, to meet with the pope for the intention of obtaining pontifical sanction for his coronation, both Geoffrey and Christina are filled with concern (71). Attending to the matter in her prayers, Christina sees Geoffrey encased in a wall, accompanied by a voice which promises his exclusion from the king’s mission (72). Though Christina’s prayer is what presumably sets up the following events, she must still rely upon the “divine promise” of the interpreted dream, and, significantly, the efforts of Thomas, who travels to court and argues for Geoffrey’s exemption (even though the text is careful to point out that Thomas “was well aware of [Christina’s] hidden powers,” thus calling attention to them). Yet it seems that the decision rests with the king: a fact which the text is somewhat (perhaps deliberately) unclear about: Christina seems to give the undergarments to the King as a ‘divine gift’ in thanks, despite having been commanded to give them to the poor.

When Stephen again resolves to send Geoffrey to Rome, Christina again turns to prayer, this time seeing the abbot encircled in her arms. Here, her femininity is explicitly described as rendering her incapable of acting alone: “she feared that, since a man is stronger than a woman, he would in one way or another be able to extricate himself” (76). To protect him, therefore, Christina must obtain the help of Christ (the human male embodiment of the divine), who presses his fingers, hands, and arms against her own, that he may lend his divine power in aid of her mortal power. The vision is realised when the mission is called off—again, presumably, by the king.

In both examples, Christina’s ‘power’ comes in the form of exhorting another (in this case, God) to do the act. Christina herself lacks the temporal power of her male counterparts, resulting in a separation between she who exhorts and the men who do.

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Posted by on 21 January 2014 in Essays


Chastity in Ælfric’s Agnes, Agatha, and Lucy

Ælfric’s versions of the lives of female saints Agnes, Agatha, and Lucy, and his version of the biblical story of Judith, all focus on sexuality as the centre of feminine spiritual purity. The repetition of this theme seems to indicate that Ælfric’s society had concerns about female sexuality; and, from this it is reasonable to suppose that these concerns were driven by widespread, real-life examples of failed chastity. After all, if everyone behaved chastely, there would be no need to argue so strenuously for the virtue of chaste living.

Yet chastity in and of itself, though laudable, is not Ælfric’s sole focus. When St. Agnes is taken to the harlots’ house, she is indeed protected by a shining angel of God (ll. 148-149). But this protection is not due to her chastity alone; rather, it is the result of her chastity expressed as devotional purpose: fidelity to her bridegroom, Christ, as she expressed when she says, “Ic hæbbe oðerne lufiend […] He gesette his tacn on minum nebbe / þæt ic nænne oðerne ofer hine ne lufige” (ll. 27, 34-35). The protection afforded to Agnes proceeds not only from her chastity, which is itself a virtue, but also from the object of her chastity: Christ.

The story of St. Agatha reverses the narrative order of temptation and protestation, but the concept of chastity as devotion is still present: when Quintianus questions her, she replies, “Ic eom godes þinen / and mycel æðelborennys bið þæt man be cristes ðeow” (ll. 45-46). Here, chastity is a worshipful act of voluntary servitude to God, the which may not be expressed towards any man. Similarly, St. Lucy also refers to herself as a servant (“Ic eom þæs ælmihtigan þinen”), who will have no other bridegroom, in fulfilment of a divine vision expressing, “þe þu gearcodest criste on þinum clænan mægð-hade / wynsume wununge” (ll. 73, 32-33). She, too, is threatened with rape in the harlots’ den, but God intervenes and prevents her being carried away (ll. 81-82, 97-99). Once again, it is chastity-as-devotion which Ælfric presents to his readers.

On closer inspection, Ælfric’s purpose seems to be two-fold: though sexual purity and inviolability initially appears to be the proximate cause of virtuous suffering, it is only presented so when that purity comes about as a result of Christian devotion—a conclusion supported by the anti-Christian, pagan contrast afforded by the male villains in each of the three tales. It is his impurity and impiety which is the reverse of the virtuous example presented in the three female saints: virtuous not because of their chastity, but through it.

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Posted by on 14 January 2014 in Essays


Imagination and the Pursuit of Happiness

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

In Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, Imlac delivers of himself a speech on the topic of imagination and its effects upon individuals. Though Rasselas is a work of fiction, Imlac’s speech singles out works of fiction as a significant factor in inciting unreason and even madness:

To indulge the power of fiction, and send imagination out upon the wing, is often the sport of those who delight too much in silent speculation… The mind dances from scene to scene, unites all pleasures in all combinations, and riots in delights which nature and fortune, with all their bounty cannot bestow. […] Then fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or anguish (123).

Yet despite this, Imlac’s speech does not undermine Johnson’s work, fiction though it may be. In Rasselas, Johnson creates an fiction which is, by Imlac’s standards, an anti-fiction. Rather than giving readers an impression of manifold happiness attainable through many means, Rasselas is instead a fiction which presents a more reasonble view of the world, meant to divest people of “airy notions… beyond the limits of sober probability” (123).

Frontispiece (2nd Ed.)

Frontispiece (2nd Ed.)

The earnest agreement of Rasselas, Nekayah, and Pekuah demonstrates that Imlac’s treatment of this topic is no facetious persiflage. Pekuah and Nekayah had imagined their situations in some wise reversed, with the princess fancying herself a shepherdess and the servant imagining herself a princess. This inversion hearkens back to the moment when Imlac finally must “crush the hope of inexperience,” when he tells Rasselas that “we are convinced that happiness is never to be found, and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for himself” (75). Pekuah and Nekayah each suppose the other happy, based upon their outward behaviour, and consequently, motivated by their own internal discontent, they both imagine themselves as the other. Rasselas is no different: “all appeared to him equally happy,” despite that he feels “restless and uneasy… unsatisfied with the pleasures which I seem most to court” (75). Indeed, Rasselas goes on to say that he is “only loud and merry” as a means of convincing others that he is not sad, but happy, himself (75).

But as Imlac points out, this is the case for “every man”, each of whom employ a ‘counterfeit gaiety’ in the same mode as the prince, with the consequence that the outward behaviour observed by Rasselas may be no more genuine than the outward behaviour of Rasselas himself (75). This belief is, itself, the central fiction upon which other fictions seem to rest. For, by indulging in this “pleasing delusion,” Rasselas, Nekayah, and Pekuah come to believe that happiness does exist in other modes of being. Consequently, they begin to imagine themselves in those modes of being, even though the reality is that such positions are no more completely happy than their own.

1771 Map of Abyssinia

1771 Map of Abyssinia

Unlike the imagination–the “visionary schemes” which, when first formed, are known “to be absurd”–the “pleasing delusion” of the contentment of others is something which is taken as a truth almost from the beginning (124, 75). It is for this reason that it can serve as the central untruth on which other untruths must rest for, at not point along the way, do those who possess the belief doubt its veracity (unless it be called into disrepute by such a one as Imlac). Hence, Rasselas argues that a belief in the happiness of others is the means by which other fictions may enter in; fictions of which, “in time we lose sight of their folly” (124).

Works Cited
Johnson, Samuel. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Edited by Jessica Richard. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Editions, 2008.


Posted by on 30 October 2013 in Essays


Pope and the Critics in The Dunciad

The Dunciad

The Dunciad

In Book IV of Pope’s The Dunciad, Pope addresses the critics who fixate upon minor issues in poetry and literature, and who use those issues as a means of approaching knowledge of the whole work. Following on the Master Class in editions in which we participated several weeks ago, this seems particularly poignant. After all, an edition is necessarily focused upon issues of the smallest scale: the spelling of shirt or skirt, for example, can change not only the sense (or non-sense) of a sentence, but can paint an entirely different picture of the mood of the setting (i.e. whether Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lifted her shirt or her skirt to the Turkish ladies, there is a difference in what is implied by each).

Pope’s censure of the work of the critics is based upon the smallness of focus, and hence, extrapolating from that, a smallness of vision:

‘T is true, on words is still our whole debate,
Disputes of me or te, of aut or at,
To sound or sink in cano, O or A,
Or give up Cicero to C or K.
The critic eye, that microscope of wit,
Sees hairs and pores, examines bit by bit.
How parts relate to parts, or they to whole,
The Body’s harmony, the beaming Soul,
Are things which Kuster, Burman, Wasse shall see;
When man’s whole frame is obvious to a flea. (ll. 219-222, 233-237)

Pope’s argument here is that the whole work–or, perhaps more importantly, the spirit of the whole work–is more significant than the sum of its various parts. Pope’s own critical approach seems to support this: his edition of Shakespeare was not very good, and came in for a great deal of criticism from literary peers like Lewis Theobald (who was, instead of Cibber, lampooned as the dunce-king in the first editions of The Dunciad). Pope certainly defended his work; he thought his retouching of Shakespeare’s lines was justified, though he may have found the bad readings and textual errors somewhat more difficult to explain away.

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

This is not to suggest that the above passage is motivated wholly by Pope’s seemingly boundless capacity for vidictiveness, but rather to show that Pope’s own approach to poetry–broad-brush, and based upon an impression of’the spirit of the wor’–is one entirely at odds with the small-scale exactness to detail which the German critics Kuster, Burman, and Wasse might have demanded. For Pope, the fixation upon detail risked a flea-like view of the world: an inability to see what one was actually dealing with. In The Dunciad, the implication is that the German critics will never see “The Body’s harmony” or “the beaming soul”, because a flea cannot see the wholeness of man. Rather, the insect navigates the trees and forests of hair upon flesh, never realising that it dwells upon a creature of sublime and seemingly unparalleled invention.

Pope’s flea metaphor is an apt one, and the use of the humorously barbed ‘microscrope of wit’ serves a similar sharp function. The exactness or the correctness of the critics is never at issue; Pope does not deny that they are “right” about what they argue. But what he does affirm is that the argument itself is wrong: it is the wrong argument about literature in general. Far better that we should argue about the meaning of the whole, rather than about the meaning of a word. For in arguing about the minor issues, we lose sight of what is actually at stake: soul and harmony.

But in so arguing, Pope himself has lost sight of an important reality: that all great works are works of individual constructions, and that those constructions are comprised themselves of words, punctuation, and syntax. So it is quite possible that a single word could very much affect the meaning of the whole, as in the case of the example above taken from the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. After all, if individual words were not significant, then any arrangement of words could suffice, and Shakespeare would be no different than a collection of nouns and verbs chosen, at random, from a dictionary. And, of course, it seems impossible that Pope would disagree–and perhaps he would not. But the extremity of The Dunciad is precisely what obscures any sort of moderation that he might argue for. If his dunces are wholly and impossibly obtuse, the implied lessons taken from them seem equaly extreme in the absence of their vocalisation.

Of course, this critique of Pope may be rich sauce coming from one of his accused, who approach the works of the great poets and think,

Turn what they will to verse, their toil is vain,
Critics like me shall make it prose again. (ll. 213-214)

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Posted by on 8 October 2013 in Essays


Uncritical in Adrianople: A Letter to the Abbé

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

In her letters written to Abbé Antonio Schinella Conti, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu demonstrates an open-minded interest in the religious beliefs of cultures located far from England, such as those of the Turks and the Arnouts. However, when she observes or remarks upon cultures which have practising groups that exist not only in the Orient but also in England (such as Jews, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians), Lady Montagu employs language which is somewhat less eulogistic. This difference in attitude may well betray a positive ‘novelty bias’. Despite her laudable eagerness objectively to describe what is new, and her attempts to be open to those new experiences which she relates in her correspondence, this attitude is not universal to all of Lady Montagu’s approaches to cultures outside of her own. Consequently, we should exercise caution when we approach her letters, lest we draw a too general conclusion about open-minded inclusivity from her specific attitudes towards the orient, and overlook certain other of her conceits which would undermine that position.

In relating her conversations with effendi Achmet-Beg, Lady Montagu relates how she “explained to him the difference between the religion of England and Rome,’ and the pleasure which the effendi had at her description of “Christians that did not worship images, or adore the Virgin Mary” (105). If she employed similar language in her explanation to the effendi, then this use of question-begging descriptions of Catholicism (do Catholics actually worship images?) could have served to confer her own biases and reinforce those already present in a region which had experienced a long and occasionally deeply fraught relationship with Roman Christendom–and this is to say nothing of her “ridicule of transubstantiation”. As the letter proceeds (especially in the passages on the potential ease of promulgating deism (106)), it tries to encourage a reading which says, ‘see how much we have in common!’. Yet it would be well to remember that what Montagu and effendi Achmet-Beg have in common is an anti-Catholic bias which is based not wholly upon facts of belief but rather upon a textually unmentioned shared history of antagonism with Catholicism, whether during the crusades and the centuries following, or during the reign of the Tudors and the civil strife which followed. As much as Montagu and Achmet-Beg share certain core beliefs, they also share a common enemy.



When Lady Montagu moves on to her description of the Quran, she describes it in highly positive terms which contradict opinions that she asserts are in wide circulation, “so far from the nonsense we charge it with,” she avers that the Quran is “the purest morality delivered in the very best language” (106). And Lady Montagu is not alone–for she reassures the Abbé, “I have since heard impartial Christians speak of it in the same manner.” Where, then, have the incorrect opinions come from? Why, from “Greek priests, who would not fail to falsify it with the extremity of malice… they differ so little from the Romish Church” (106-107). This accusation is particularly serious: attributing malice but without any evidence to support it, it seems to betray the depth of Lady Montagu’s antipathy to Catholicism and Orthodoxy even as that declaration is made in support of a religion far more different from her own than either Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

Lady Montagu then moves on from Muslims and Christians to the Arnauts, who faithfully observe the public precepts of both religions, attending both the mosque and the Church. Relating that the Arnauts claim that they adopt this principle because of their inability to discern which belief is the true path, Lady Montagu comments that she cannot recall any other “race of mankind, who have so modest an opinion of their own capacity” (107). Here, Lady Montagu refrains from passing much judgement, though there is a sense of tongue-in-cheek amusement at the “excuse” which the Arnauts give for their indecisiveness.

The Selimiye Camii

The Selimiye Camii

That all of these statements are made in a letter to a Catholic abbot–and a famous abbot, at that–is a fact thrown into stark relief when Lady Montagu notes that she will not “ask your pardon for the liberty I have taken in speaking of the Roman [Catholic Church],” observing that the Abbé does “equally condemn the quackery of all churches, as much as you revere the sacred truths in which we both agree” (107). Only here is there a mention of the agreement between herself and that other branch of Christendom–the one to which her reader belongs. And yet, this attempt to temper her criticism seems somewhat hollow, for she has not critiqued her own Protestant beliefs. Indeed, when Christians (in general, of which Protestants are a part) are seen to have misjudged the Quran, it is the Greek Priests who get all the blame.

None of this is as much as to say that Lady Montagu is deliberately setting about writing an anti-Catholic polemic. Indeed, her choice of addressee makes it clear that this is not the case. However, the observations above should be sufficient to give us pause when we read over Lady Montagu’s assessments of other religions, both the eulogistic and the dyslogistic alike. Certainly, her negative views were shaped by her particular moment and the long history which Britain had experienced–so, then, were her positive views similarly shaped and molded by the same socio-cultural background. If we are unwilling to uncritically swallow Lady Montagu’s criticisms of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, we should be just as unwilling to uncritically accept her positive views about the Orient in general and the religions she observes there in particular.

Works Cited
Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. The Turkish Embassy Letters. Edited by Teresa Heffernan and Daniel O’Quinn. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2012.

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Posted by on 17 September 2013 in Essays