LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.


Jacobean Sodomy

SIR: ‘That Night at Farnham’ (LRB, 18 August) remarks, speaking of James I: ‘The king and the labouring man both seem to have made the same extraordinary psychological separation between sodomy and what they themselves felt and did.’ Sodomy has been defined, not long before, as ‘sexual relations between man and man (or man and beast)’, and we are told that it was ‘officially’ regarded as so unnatural that it shocked even the Devil, who was therefore not its patron. I think that the solution of this puzzle is obvious, though to explain how the confusion became so general might take a bit of psychology, or politics.

Anal penetration was what shocked even the Devil, and many homosexuals can satisfy one another without it. Consider the ‘labourer’ (so-called) who was shocked and indignant at being accused of sodomy with his apprentice, who slept in the same bed, for want of another no doubt. If each of them was masturbating himself it would seem rude not to ‘give a hand’ to the other, a process undoubtedly not so unnatural as to shock the Devil. Of course there are stages between that and the accursed thing, but it is hard to get evidence about them. As to Shakespeare saying ‘to my purpose nothing’, he was always careful to avoid possible legal trouble, and seems at that age to have been rather prone to boast of success with the girls, and might well feel it would be bad taste to express hope for success with an earl. The phrase is comical rather than sanctimonious. In general, a theatre with boys acting as girls must be expected to extract fun from the charms of boys; this was regarded as innocent, so long as it was remote from anal penetration.

I agree, however, that so widespread a confusion was not likely to survive against the intention of a Tudor or Stuart government, or even without its active support. The trick seems rather a healthy one. Young people are to grow up believing that there is one really dreadful thing about love between men, but if you keep right away from that it is good, as we are told by Christ and Plato. The penalty for the dreadful thing is death, but it never has to be inflicted in London, whatever the JPs in Somerset may get up to. One must expect so appalling a thing to be rare. In this way a decent moral tone may be preserved, without running into a great deal of public indecency, let alone the reprisals from important people which might be expected.

It was a civilised arrangement, and ought not to be regarded with blank astonishment, merely emphasized by an appeal to ‘psychology’, which presumes that they were all mad.

William Empson

Three feet on the ground

SIR: Marilyn Butler, in her review of William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision (LRB, 7 July), raises a question which is clearly, for her, of some importance: the fact that she feels that Jonathan Wordsworth ‘omit[s] … counter-evidence’ in the interest of proving that Wordsworth was ‘out of politics and into visions before his best poems are written’. The kind of ‘counter-evidence’ which Marilyn Butler has in mind is, it seems, exemplified by a passage which she quotes from an addition to the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads written by Wordsworth in 1802. 1802 is one of the years in which, according to Jonathan Wordsworth in a passage from The Borders of Vision quoted earlier in the review, while ‘great poetry of the imagination’ was produced, ‘true fellow-feeling is very rare’ – yet here is Wordsworth, in the addition to the Preface, talking about the poet ‘wishing to bring his feelings nearer to those of the persons whose feelings he describes’, even allowing himself to ‘confound and identify his own feelings with theirs’, and so on.

It should, however, be pointed out that there was frequently a discrepancy between Wordsworth’s theory and his practice. As Coleridge noted in the Biographia: ‘were there excluded from Mr Wordsworth’s compositions all that a literal adherence to the theory of his preface would exclude, two thirds at least of the marked beauties of his poetry would be erased.’ Indeed Jonathan Wordsworth gives an example of this discrepancy a few lines further on in the Borders of Vision extract quoted above: the fact that although Book VIII of The Prelude has the title ‘Love of Nature Leading to Love of Mankind’, the book ‘turns out not to be about people at all’. In other words, however much Wordsworth may have wanted to make important connections between his own internal imaginative experiences and the kind of fellow-feeling which is described in this extract from the Preface, he did not succeed (at this period at least) in doing so in the poetry itself – and it is the poetry, rather than the theory, of which Jonathan Wordsworth is writing here. Indeed, as Wordsworth himself was to put it many years later: ‘I never cared a straw about the theory – and the Preface was written at the request of Mr Coleridge out of sheer good nature …’

Harriet Jump
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

SIR: While I have broad sympathy with Dr Butler’s desire to reclaim Wordsworth’s texts from the monopoly of American ‘mandarin critics’, with their emphasis on transcendentalism and élitism, it seems to me confusing to end up associating Mr Wordsworth’s book with the approach she is rejecting because he is interested in the same kind of poetry. I am equally suspicious of her own contrary attempt completely to neglect Wordsworth’s major philosophical preoccupations, on which that approach has been based, and of the implication that the only fruitful way to avoid it is to concentrate on a restricted alternative canon.

Dr Butler posits a democratically-available all-British Wordsworth, recoverable by focusing critical consideration on the humanitarian side, its social and political context, rather than on the ambitiously philosophical and visionary poetry of the creative imagination. She gives the impression that to consider this ‘imaginative’ poetry in depth is impoverishingly ‘professional’, almost irresponsible in a teacher, and that to do so constitutes falling for some transatlantic trend. And yet, however regrettable readers may or may not find the fact, Wordsworth’s poetry from 1797 to 1805 does show an undeniable preoccupation with universal systems and the nature and functioning of the creative imagination – a preoccupation, as Mr Wordsworth stresses, largely attributable to Coleridge’s influence.

Dr Butler’s attempt to highlight a continuing radicalism takes no account of the different ways Wordsworth looks at the same subjects over the period in question. The Lucy poems or the 1802 lyrics reveal a detachment from the poet’s own experience, not just that of others. The developing composition of The Prelude or a poem like ‘The Leech Gatherer’ shows the active workings of a mind to realise a representative human outlook, and so to achieve a sense of social responsibility opposed to solipsistic self-indulgence.

Wordsworth’s ‘imaginative’ poetry characteristically strives illogically to integrate the intellectual cogency of Coleridge’s transcendental systems with his own inalienable instinct for the adequacy of naturalist experience. Mr Wordsworth’s book gives full consideration to Coleridge’s central influence, but without adopting the idealist world-view from which American critics – Coleridge’s critical heirs, from Geoffrey Hartman to Charles Sherry – have often viewed Wordsworth’s ‘imaginative’ poetry as a fascinating failure. He has started from the conviction (surely not contested by Dr Butler?) that Wordsworth’s greatest poetry of the imagination is successful – as poetry – and that its valued effects have little to do with settling its philosophical premisses. In so doing, he has re-opened the essential development of ‘Wordsworthianness’ to concentrate on the poetry rather than any partisan specialism, philosophical or political. After all, what Dr Butler characterises as the ‘clash’ between Mr Wordsworth’s empiricism and ‘the vogue for global generalisation’ was very much that of the poet himself – after he met Coleridge.

Keith Hanley
University of Lancaster

Browning Versions

SIR: Because you allow excellent reviewers space to develop their ideas, your journal challenges and delights us: but the crucial thing is to have an idea, and to be hard-headed and detailed with it. I approve the space you gave to your amiable Browning reviewer (LRB, 4 August). But where were her ideas? And detailed comments? May I mention one example? To imply, with no demonstration, as your reviewer does, that Ian Jack and Margaret Smith’s Oxford edition is better than the Ohio-Baylor variorum edition of Robert Browning’s poetry is very odd. Browning cared about artistic minutiae: ‘I attach importance to the mere stops.’ B.W.A. Massey, E.K. Brown and others show that pointing, hyphenation, capitalisation and even spelling mattered to him as devices of art and portraiture. The Oxford edition (so far only of Pauline and Paracelsus) is wayward and incomplete in recording his alterations in these minutiae. Further, as notes in Jack and Smith are brief, and set at the bottom of pages of Browning’s texts, very little is discussed by the editors for its real complexity or ambiguity. The Ohio-Baylor variorum, in contrast, records all of Browning’s changes in these artistic minutiae from edition to edition in the texts published during his lifetime; and its notes do discuss ambiguities and complexities. Just how accurate the Oxford Browning editors have been, I do not know. But they have two errors in the entry for my own and William Irvine’s The Book, the Ring, and the Poet: a Biography of Robert Browning (part of the title is omitted, and the London edition is given as ‘1974’ for 1975), and other errors in their ‘References and Abbreviations’. One of the editors, Ian Jack, in the Oxford volume of Browning’s Poetical Works 1833-1864, rewrites line 334 of ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, by changing ‘pity’ to ‘piety’ (to make the line more ‘Victorian’? or simply redundant?) though one finds ‘pity’ in Robert Browning’s texts of 1855, 1863, 1865, 1868, 1888 and 1889 of this line. Is it not time to be severe on Oxford’s recent practices with Browning?

Park Honan
Department of English Language and Literature, University of Birmingham

Barbara Everett writes: Park Honan’s idea of an idea is not mine. I was writing on Browning, and I mentioned recent editions – not just of Browning but of other poets – only to call attention to them. Textual criticism has its place, and the merits of the new Oxford Browning will no doubt be assessed in the academic journals. Mr Honan is wrong to say that I implied that the new Oxford edition is superior to the Ohio (he may be swayed by the fact that he is on the Ohio Editorial Board). I did, however, say that, among recent biographies of Browning, the best seemed to me to be Donald Thomas’s: the implication here being (I suppose) that the best is therefore not that by William Irvine and Park Honan.

Cambridge English

SIR: Noël Annan’s letter on the long glories of Cambridge English (Letters, 4 August) is much to be welcomed, especially when it touches on the unsung achievements of T.R. Henn and Basil Willey. Many of the critical views of F.R. Leavis were highly conventional in their time and place, and nothing like as peculiar to himself as he latterly encouraged his classes and (in his published writings) the world to believe. In his early writings, indeed, he openly avowed his debts to his colleagues.

As to making academic English radically interdisciplinary, there is a radical objection that has not so far been mentioned. I mean that all interdisciplinary studies tend to be conservatively authoritarian in their educational effects, since they inevitably encourage, and even require, that students should accept the findings of others in an uncritical spirit. That is why intellectual conservatism is an unavoidable effect of highly interdisciplinary curricula, though usually an unintended effect. Almost no student, and very few scholars, can find time to test the processes by which other subjects arrive at their conclusions. The study of a single subject, by contrast, allows the radical student to question what he is told – to tell his teacher that he is wrong, and why he is wrong. The conservative effects of the interdisciplinary are something its advocates in the Old Left often seem reluctant to consider: a truth to be demonstrated by putting the argument to them, and watching them evade it.

George Watson
St John’s College, Cambridge

Speaking well

SIR: It is depressing to see a Professor of English, in his damnation-by-association of Cyril Connolly (LRB, 18 August), trotting out the hoary old myth, sanctified by Dr Leavis, of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘famous excoriation of Bloomsbury’. Lawrence’s outburst was written, in 1915, after an evening spent with Frieda, David Garnett and Francis Birrell, during which he couldn’t, or didn’t, get a word in edgeways; his ‘excoriation’ was of ‘these young people’ and their talk: ‘never, never a good thing said.’ The reason this was such a good thing to say, writes Professor Ricks, is ‘that it aligns speaking well with speaking well of others.’ ‘In that world a very special thrill attached to speaking ill of one’s friends.’ Although it is Lawrence who is here speaking ill of his friends, Professor Ricks leads us to infer ‘that world’ to be Bloomsbury; and to reinforce his insinuation cites ‘the malicious rage which … Virginia Woolf vented … upon Cyril Connolly’.

One of the objects in publishing a writer’s private letters and diaries in extenso is to enable readers to form a more balanced view of his/her character and personality; one of the dangers is that it enables professors of English etc to pad out their reviews and prejudices by using the indexes to find instant quotes. The Connollys were not friends of Virginia Woolf’s (a fact which could be deduced by further recourse to the indexes to her letters and diaries), thus the unkind if apt description of them confided to her diary and to her sister on encountering them in Elizabeth Bowen’s remote Irish mansion does nothing to support Professor Ricks’s bizarre conception of how members of ‘that world’ achieved their special thrills.

Anne Olivier Bell

Van Gogh’s Shoes

SIR: Frank Kermode’s American graduate students (LRB, 7 July) are no doubt excellent, but his quoted example of their apparently impromptu brilliance sounds second-hand. In La Vérité en Peinture, Derrida had already compared the commentaries of Heidegger and Meyer Schapiro on Van Gogh’s shoes, and countered Schapiro’s critique.

Ellman Crasnow

Oriental Cities

SIR: Jonathan Steinberg (LRB, 21 July) says he is paraphrasing Croce in calling Naples and Palermo oriental cities without a European quarter. It must be forty years or so since I heard this quip (then limited to Naples) ascribed to Disraeli. I should be surprised if Croce had originated it, deeply conscious as he was of his city’s place in the history of European thought. But can anyone point to its source?

John Rosselli

From Plato to Nato

SIR: This is going over an old battleground, but Christopher Norris is wrong (LRB, 7 July) in asserting that those who are hostile to Widdowson’s Re-Reading English conceive of English as some earnest force for ‘creative and cultural good’. If English is an academic subject – as History and Art History clearly are – then it is an academic subject, with all the limitations and the strengths which that term implies.

Tom Paulin
University of Virginia, Charlottesville

No Nonsense

SIR: I found Oliver Sacks’s article (LRB, 19 May) most interesting. Several years ago, I shared a flat with a student working towards attaining her diploma in social work. As part of her course she had been posted to a nearby assessment centre. During holiday periods the children were mostly allowed out on recreational visits to various places along the South Coast. However, one girl – twelve to thirteen years old – was always excluded from such ‘treats’ as other members of the assessment centre found her behaviour to be unpredictable, and at times quite violent. On one occasion, as a rare treat, she was allowed out for the afternoon under the supervision of the social worker. I suggested she should come back to the flat for a ‘grown-up’ evening meal, by candlelight, linen tablecloth, red wine heavily diluted with Perrier water, napkins … the full works which she would have received in the best of restaurants. I did not have a television at the time, which disappointed the girl somewhat, but I did possess a fairly good collection of ‘progressive/psychedelic’ records. She picked out the most ‘disturbing’: Frank Zappa’s We’re only in it for the money, Captain Beefheart’s Strictly Personal and Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom. I looked at the social worker questioningly. The reply was to the effect that I had made an open offer, so was bound to keep my promise.

As I put on the first LP – the Frank Zappa – I asked her what had determined her choice. Her reply – I have forgotten the exact words – was to the effect that they sounded like good fun and rather silly. So, compliant host, never breaking a promise, especially to an individual who was still wary of people who promised anything at all, I set the Zappa LP on the turntable, expecting a freak-out at any moment, especially when it came to the concluding lyrics of ‘What’s the ugliest part of your body?’:

Some say it’s your nose
Some say it’s your toes
But I say it’s your mind.

The young lady found this highly humorous rather than disturbing, believing Zappa’s lyrics to be directed at the governors of the assessment centre.

Many people – perhaps most people – find ‘illogical’ discourse or behaviour to be frightening. This is to impose a self-centred, nefarious dictatorship of ‘belief in the one-and-only God of Reason’. I later learned that the young lady had been transferred to a different establishment, and was the subject of adoption proceedings. Evidently she had been placed in a comprehensive school, where she was showing an extraordinary facility in the composition of ‘nonsense-poetry’. For her, I wonder, was it all merely self-centred indulgence in surreal silliness – or the discovery of how language can be manipulated to convey feelings of happiness and fear, as opposed to something to be used as a book of rules and regulations from which governors, wardens and guardians quoted whenever she transgressed?

Grahame White


SIR: For ‘solar topee’ (LRB, 4 August) read ‘sola topee’ – a matter of some pith if of little moment.

Colin Haycraft
London NW1