Out of Egypt
SIR: I was delighted to read Ahdaf Soueif’s fine piece on Wagih Ghali (LRB, 3 July), though the story she has to tell is a sad one. Beer in the Snooker Club is the best book ever written about Egypt (better even than my grandfather’s Goha le simple) and it is a crying shame that it should be out of print.
SIR: As a friend of Waguih Ghali’s in his last year, I am glad that Ahdaf Soueif has revealed him as the ‘Didi’ of Diana Athill’s After a Funeral, and has focused attention on his – I think it would not be too much to say – Stendhalian novel Beer in the Snooker Club. Let us hope that this will at least lead eventually to this marvellous book’s reappearance, perhaps with a more suitable title. It is, however, most unfortunate that Ms Soueif uses her review to attack Ms Athill and her book. Waguih had attempted suicide on more than one occasion before he met Diana Athill, the first time as a schoolboy. To suggest that she might have contributed to his fatal misery is grotesquely unfair. I have the happiest memories of him in her company. Her book revived those memories and made me feel altogether better for and about Waguih, whom I last saw brain-damaged and struggling, I do not know whether against life or death, on his hospital bed.
In her review Ms Soueif says that Waguih found the Germans uncongenial. This was true, but there were several exceptions, notably Peter in Düssel-dorf who, according to Ms Athill, ‘had a large library which contained all the books Didi loved best’ and whose death from cancer profoundly affected Waguih. It would be very good to know who this Peter was. Ms Soueif mentions the Times articles which followed Waguih’s visit to Israel after the 1967 war. I recall also a BBC radio talk reprinted in the Listener, in which Waguih recounted the dilemma of the Arab Jews in Israel, with whom – as a Coptic Egyptian – he must have felt some affinity.
SIR: How nice to see some Japanese in LRB (Letters, 19 June), and how nice to see LRB making such a cock-up of it. Did you read it before you published it? If so, one is intrigued to know why you published part of a review article explaining the recent Hough-Hawkes tiff to a Japanese audience as if it were a letter to the Editor, and why you felt obliged to decapitate the first sentence. Was it just to elicit a response such as this, or do you consider Japanese just amusing? Either way it is nothing but an embarrassment to us all, and I am at a loss to explain away such inscrutable behaviour to my Japanese colleagues.
Downing College, Cambridge
SIR: I was surprised to find in the LRB’s Letters columns something which is not a letter at all but a contribution to another organ: a comment on the recent exchange between Graham Hough and Terence Hawkes in the LRB, lifted from the long-established monthly journal Eigo Seinen (literally, ‘English Studies’). This journal’s English-language name is The Rising Generation – rather quaint, one may think, but at any rate not the Rising Sun, which is your attribution or invention.
The Hough/Hawkes exchange, incidentally, gave me useful material for a seminar I held earlier this year with members of the British Studies Faculty at Tokyo University on ‘British Literary Manners’, among whom was the contributor to Eigo Seinen whose work you published as a letter. I hope someone at the LRB has had the manners to tell him what has happened; or indeed to have asked his permission in the first place.
Low Tharston, Norfolk
I am sorry to have embarrassed Professor Bowring. The text in question was sent to us, and it seemed to us to represent – in its own way, in the manner of a kind of collage or art object – a contribution to the correspondence which it was evidently describing. We thought it would do no harm to anyone, and might even lift a few spirits, if we carried it on the Letters page. To do so was, in a sense – a sense we might have known that Anthony Thwaite would not be the first to see – a joke. But we also thought that you did not need to know Japanese to find the document instructive.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: It is difficult to address the specific points raised by Craig Raine’s letter (Letters, 3 July) without engaging with his theoretical assumptions. He assumes that the aesthetic, the political and the theological are completely distinct and ought to be kept in separate compartments by literary critics. I can sympathise up to a point with the impulse behind his position. The category of ‘the aesthetic’ is a historically recent one, not a timeless absolute, but in the past there have been somewhat comparable oppositions between rhetoric and poetics, between the discourses of the active and of the contemplative life. Writers and critics have a right to a space in which they are not subject to immediate political pressures. But Craig Raine’s theoretical rigidity dissolves all sense of tension between literary culture and the wider world. On a larger political scale, I believe this position to be short-sighted; more specifically, it leads to an impoverished notion of cultural history, dooming Milton’s works to be replaced on the shelves in the desiccatedly self-contained categories of Poetry, Political Prose and Theology. Raine’s distinctions, maintained at the cost of ignoring the last quarter-century’s debates over the relationship between writing and politics, are sharp but not necessarily subtle.
Let me take up the example of Milton’s republicanism in relation to his prosody. Craig Raine seems prepared to concede that the note on heroic verse was a coded republican statement, but to believe that Milton’s political ‘intent’ is totally irrelevant to the poem’s ‘actual status’ as a work of art. Blank verse, he argues, is politically neutral. Yes, in itself metre, like any other signifier, is arbitrary, its full meanings determined by context rather than innate value. But that is an argument for investigating contexts, not for ignoring them. For initial purposes of analysis it is possible to isolate metre, like other stylistic elements: but none of these elements is an ornament stuck irrelevantly onto a poem’s content, the meaning emerges from the interaction of metre and content. If a poet is cunning enough, rhyme can work overtime and longer. Traditional histories of English prosody wholly in terms of phonetics and aesthetics are sterile: a history of rhyme in relation to political ideology would be immensely illuminating. Antony Easthope’s pioneering Poetry as Discourse is marred precisely by his omission of the specifically political dimension. On the other hand, Derek Attridge’s meticulous study of Renaissance prosody in Well-Weighed Syllables reveals the difficulty of providing a purely internal, linguistic, explanation of metrical changes. There were doubtless internal linguistic causes for the displacement of Classical quantitative prosody by rhymed accentual verse in later antiquity: but Renaissance Humanists tended to see the change as a manifestation of a social debasement and intellectual coarsening of Classical culture under the influence of corrupt social and ecclesiastical hierarchies. The Renaissance revival of Classical metres was undoubtedly to some extent a response to phonetic changes: but it was also motivated by extrinsic factors, whether by social èlitism or by a critically republican perspective on Medieval customs. Debates about metrical form in Italy from Dante to Machiavelli and Càstiglione raised larger questions about writing in the vernacular and the social register; Craig Raine asserts that Italian poets theorised about rhyme ‘without reference to their political situation or its improvement’, but I prefer Milton as an authority on Renaissance Italian criticism. In England, Samuel Daniel might urge the defence of rhyme on the grounds that it was an ‘indifferent thing’, politically and culturally neutral: but that term was borrowed from Anglican defences of church ritual against Puritan ‘formalists’, and Daniel warned Campion that the zeal for reform and perfection, the rejection of custom, even in such an apparently minor area, could have dangerous political consequences. Denham’s ‘Cooper’s Hill’, which assumed a hegemonic status in 17th and 18th-century culture, connects the heroic couplet with the balance of the ancient constitution, and warns, on the eve of the Civil War, that the Puritans will destroy that harmony. Milton’s note presents men like Daniel and Denham as ‘carried away by custom’ in constitutional as well as poetic terms.
It is true that he indulges in polemical exaggeration: there were linguistic difficulties in a full revival of Classical prosody, as his own experiments had shown; and, as Raine points out, he did sometimes use rhyme. But he always did so with a strong ideological awareness. Joseph Wittreich and other critics have pointed out how the disruption of anticipated rhyme-schemes in ‘Lycidas’, a poem unusual in the 1638 memorial volume for avoiding the pentameter couplet, helps to articulate the poem’s political criticism of Laudianism. His adoption of the outmoded sonnet form for his Parliamentarian poetry of the 1640s and 1650s was part of the period’s revival of Elizabethan cultural forms in conscious counterpoise to Stuart innovations. The rhymes in Samson Agonistes come to symbolise the bondage (linked, in a complex chain of images, with the ideas of dènouement and redemption in the play) from which Samson escapes in his final suicidally iconoclastic gesture. The concluding sonnet communicates a resolution which is also a desolation. Nicholas Jose has shown in Ideas of the Restoration in English Literature 1660-1671 how systematically Milton inverts the aristocratic and monarchical assumptions of Restoration rhymed heroic plays: Milton’s glance back to ‘our best English tragedies’ in his 1674 note, published after Samson, is a hit at the contemporary stage. (Incidentally, Craig Raine seems to assume that E.M.W. Tillyard’s reading of Elizabethan drama still stands, but his views have not gone unquestioned in recent years.) Milton’s attempt to ‘recover’ a lost liberty runs parallel to the boast of the Commonwealth to have ‘restored’ its lost political liberties. In the latter case, the ‘restoration’ was a ‘revolution’ more in the modern than the older sense of the word, given that it involved the abolition of the monarchy; in the prosodic case, too, while Milton may have been thinking of Old or Middle English alliterative verse, his own blank verse style was really a distinct innovation. His whole epic project involves an outdoing as well as imitation of Classical models, communicating the excitement of a return to origins so radical that it is also a totally new beginning. A full semantic history of the relations in the period between literary and political senses of the words ‘reformation’, ‘restoration’, ‘revolution’ and ‘imitation’ remains to be written. It is on this level of formal transmutations, rather than on that of direct topical allusions, that the poem seems to me to incorporate most fully the spirit of the Good Old Cause.
Milton’s versification certainly continued to arouse political comment. The ‘Whig’ patriotic poets of the 18th century were attacked by Johnson and Goldsmith for the over-liberality of their blank verse. As Marvell’s prefatory poem to Paradise Lost hints, Dryden’s attempt to ‘tag’ the epic with rhyme was also an attempt to domesticate it into the ‘mode’ of polite, non-‘enthusiastic’ conversation. I am glad that David Hopkins has been able to show complexities in Dryden’s political stance (Letters, 3 July), but I still believe that Milton’s abrasiveness presented him with a challenge, as Blake recognised: ‘Dryden in Rhyme cries, “Milton only planned”.’ Echoing the 1668 note in the preface to Jerusalem, Blake indicated that his rejection of the ‘bondage’ of Miltonic blank verse was an integral part of his overall project of pushing Milton’s incomplete radicalism further. If Shelley, in ‘Prometheus Unbound’, represents freedom from bondage by a modulation of Miltonic blank verse into masque-type rhymed lyrics, he is simultaneously inverting the assumptions of the Renaissance masque. Like Milton, Blake and Shelley can be read in ‘purely aesthetic’ terms only by blithely ignoring the stated aims of their entire careers.
I would not want to make an idol of Milton as a totally consistent and admirable radical poet, or to deny that there are tensions and contradictions in Paradise Lost: the republican poet representing the kingdom of heaven faced all kinds of problems, as did the firmly patriarchal and anti-feminist writer who had countenanced the execution of the father-king. After the New Critical denial that poetry is political has been confronted, there are questions to be asked beyond whether he was a republican or a monarchist. But Raine’s objections to a republican reading seem to centre on a doubt about whether any political reading is valid, so I shall try to answer some of his specific points, referring him for fuller answers to Stevie Davies’s excellent Images of Kingship in ‘Paradise Lost’. It is true that, like Augustus, Satan insinuates himself into power while paying lip-service to constitutional forms, but the throne on which he already sits exalted at the start of Book Two, before the vote has been taken, is a classic instance of the kind of theatricality and stage-managing which Renaissance republicans attributed to monarchy. Craig Raine finds my analysis circular. All interpretation ultimately involves circular arguments, but my own view is that a consideration of authorial intention and of historical context can help to concentrate that circularity and make it productive; I am less confident than he is of having privileged access to an ‘actual status’ of the poem in total isolation from the poet’s political ‘intent’. Milton’s contrast between the political imagery surrounding God and Satan does take on greater force in a context of republican thought: his God is at once more remote and more open to straightforward argument than Satan. The recurrent complaint against Him by critics has been precisely that He is more ‘ludicrous’ than ‘charismatic’. He is introduced to us in the process of giving a detailed rational justification of His motives: I do think that He might have been given more immediate imaginative impact, not by adding monarchical paraphernalia, but by subtracting the analytic passages, making God a figure more of mysterious imperial will than of rational law: but that would have been inconsistent with Milton’s politics. Milton’s theological critique of anthropomorphism is certainly relevant, but he pushed this critique to heterodox conclusions which were directly linked with his political critique of church and state rituals that reinforced such idolatry. He could accept the need for an abstract monarchical element in the state but not that it should be embodied in one individual: it was precisely at that point that the prelapsarian order differed from secular political orders.
It is striking that the commonplaces of 17th-century republicanism should seem so absurd to modern English arbiters of taste. Twentieth-century thinkers as diverse as Walter Benjamin and Conor Cruise O’Brien have worried that democracy might in the end perish because totalitarianism can draw on a greater imaginative allure. But since the triumph of the Empire in the latter part of the 19th century, the monarchy has contrived simultaneously to provide a public spectacle which has numbed critical political analysis, and to be regarded as a ‘thing indifferent’ – above politics, much as the New Criticism considered poetry to be. Our monarchy is certainly a complex phenomenon, sometimes moderating darker political forces. But I fully agree with Tom Paulin that our society needs to recover non-monarchist cultural traditions, to imagine alternatives. Poetry and cultural history cannot solve our political and economic problems: but we should at least resist the assumption that politics and economics are hermetically sealed areas to which the questions asked by poets are completely irrelevant. The humanities at all levels of education are currently on the defensive: declaring their irrelevance to politics is no way to befriend them.
Magdalen College, Oxford
SIR: Frank Kermode’s letter (Letters, 3 July) is no more a reply to mine than his review was a review of my book, Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement. The first half of the book works its way through to a detailed study of the composition of The Waste Land, including the Pound-Eliot collaboration. The second half moves towards an analysis of how the Pisan Cantos works as a poem, and how it differs from other Cantos. These are what I called in my previous letter ‘central illustrative readings’, and Kermode has avoided discussion of either. On reflection, I recognise that I ought not to be surprised by that. All his writings show a man skilled in many aspects of literary criticism, but uncertain and sometimes evasive when brought up close to a poetic text – something which I think my discussion of his reading of Yeats’s Gregory Ode demonstrates.
His letter offers a small example of the characteristic I dislike in much of his writing, and which, if it can’t fairly be called dishonest, is certainly an insufficient scrupulousness in the manner of argument. He writes ‘[Stead] fusses about my saying that he has been “teaching” The Waste Land for a quarter of a century when I should have confined myself to saying he was offering public explanations as to how one should read it only 22 years ago.’ The word ‘fusses’ and the word ‘only’, and the sentence as a whole, contrive to give the impression that I am quibbling over a matter of three years out of 25. But that was not the issue at all. In his review Kermode quoted my saying that The Waste Lane can’t be taught, and added the parenthetical nudge and wink ‘(though Professor Stead has been teaching it for a quarter of a century)’. In replying, I pointed out that this was untrue – that there were only two years in which I ever included it in a course of mine – so Kermode now shifts his ground, implies that ‘teaching it’ meant having written about it, and makes it look as if the difference between us is merely whether 22 or 25 years have passed since the publication of The New Poetic. I don’t mind if readers disagree with my book – I expect that. But if can be shown anywhere to have made its points in the way Kermode is content to make his, I will be ashamed to have written it.
University of Auckland, New Zealand
A production error caused a line to disappear from Blair Worden’s review of the prose works of Fulke Greville in the last issue. The passage in question should have read: ‘More distinctive is their response to the assaults on civil and religious freedom in the Europe of the Massacre of St Bartholomew (which Sidney witnessed in Paris), of the Duke of Alva and of Mary Queen of Scots. In essence, it is the response found in the theories of contract and resistance developed by Sidney’s friends and allies abroad … ’ A sub-editorial error turned Alders-gate into Aldgate in Richard Altick’s article in the previous issue. A parenthesis should have read: ‘London’s actual Grub Street was renamed Milton Street in 1830, and its site is now lost beneath the Barbican Centre, between the Moorgate and Aldersgate stations of the Underground.’
Editors, ‘London Review’