SIR: Hugh Lloyd-Jones suggests that Oxford has succeeded better than Cambridge in combining critical scholarship with literary interpretation (LRB, 5 February). I was at Oxford in the Fifties and the Rector of my college, Exeter, was E.A. Barber, who brought out an edition of Propertius. When asked what he thought of Propertius as literature, Barber replied: ‘I have no idea. I didn’t bother with the guff side of it.’
SIR: As a lover of Housman’s poetry from my schooldays, I read with great interest Professor Lloyd-Jones’s review of Professor Brink’s Historical Reflections, particularly the reference to the ‘familiar story’ about the poem Diffugere nives. On the occasion that I was present, it is not the case, as Professor Brink appears to have heard, that after reading his translation and adding the comment about the most beautiful poem in ancient literature, Housman ‘rushed out of the room’. So far from doing so (and it is difficult to imagine Housman rushing anywhere), he reverted, after the briefest pause, to his normal dry and austere manner of speaking, and completed his lecture as though nothing unusual had happened. It is of course possible that Housman gave the same lecture on some earlier or later occasion (I attended the series in the academic year 1925-1926) and that he was indeed overcome by the emotion that patently transformed his voice and personality while he was reading his own version: but somehow, unless there is independent evidence of his abandoning the lecture, I would have thought it unlikely.
SIR: Barbara Everett’s reading of the Dedication to Shakespeare’s sonnets (LRB, 18 December 1986) will not stand up. The Dedication may be condensed, without affecting this part of the argument, to its basic form, ‘To the only begetter Mr WH all happiness wisheth TT.’ This is not the most natural English word-order: nevertheless, read as English, the sentence has a clear syntactical meaning. It cannot mean any equivalent of ‘Mr WH and TT wish all happiness to the only begetter’: there is no English route to this.
To reach the desired meaning, Barbara Everett invokes Latin, but this is no help, because the sentence does not follow any Latin pattern or contain any Latin trope that could let it be interpreted her way. The two inscriptions she cites are not parallel or, so far as I can see, relevant in any way. All the same, there may indeed be a Latin inscriptional influence, since the words in their rather strange English order would run well in Latin provided that ‘Mr WH’ was in the dative to suit the traditional interpretation, not the nominative as her theory requires. The rhetorical purpose of the Latinate word-order may be to put the dedicatee’s name prominently at the beginning and the dedicator’s modestly at the end, a common arrangement in Latin dedications. It is to be noticed also that, on the traditional reading, Thorpe does not dedicate the book to Mr WH, but merely offers him good wishes: not such an outrageous liberty as Barbara Everett suggests, if one at all.
United Oxford and Cambridge Club, London SW1
SIR: Most arguments about writers are really arguments about the critical presuppositions of readers. I’m afraid I don’t believe in what A.N. Wilson briskly calls ‘the surface meanings’ of a poem. A poem is a construct whose surface is its meaning. The word ‘woman,’ for instance, is linguistically – or as Wilson would say ‘on the page’ – a derivative of ‘man’: which is why some feminists appear to be trying to change the language. Shakespeare, too, altered his age’s language immeasurably. One small instance, perhaps not entirely successful, is Sonnet 20 (‘thou, the Master Mistris of my passion’), which so fascinates Wilson, and which appears to address a love-poem to a hermaphrodite – that ancient Renaissance conceit of perfect love. Whatever we think of the poem, the hermaphrodite was unlikely to have been met at the court of Elizabeth: if s/he had, we should probably have heard about her/him from other sources. The same may be said of the two people whom Wilson rather startlingly calls ‘as large as life’ in Sonnet 144. The ‘life’ here is first the life of a language. The Sonnet opens, ‘Two loves I have of comfort and dispaire’ – loves, not people; and though we may interpret ‘comfort and dispaire’ as we wish, they are, like ‘loves’, feelings, not people. Shakespeare does not say that he ‘loves “a man right fair” and a “woman coloured ill”: he calls one love ‘my female evill’, and the other love ‘my better angel’, expanding to ‘The better angel is a man right faire;/The worser spirit a woman collour’d il’ – having already compared the ‘loves’ to ‘two spirits’. Words matter; and Elizabethans thought spirits mattered too. In these two sonnets, 20 and 144, Shakespeare was using the resources of the language to say what in his Comedies he expressed through the convention of disguise: that men and women love one another (or, if one wishes, women love women, and men, men) for something that is beyond gender and that isn’t mere sex. Donne said the same through the Neoplatonic device of ‘love-ecstacy’: ‘wee see by this it was not sexe.’
Since the ‘recent scholarly work’ on Thorpe cited by Wilson is presumably an article by Mrs A.N. Wilson, it can only be proper to assume that Wilson is as partial to Mrs Wilson as I am arguing that Shakespeare was to Mrs Shakespeare. As to the Dedication, G.F.C. Plowden is perhaps not aware that its words not only ‘may be condensed’ in the way he proposes, but have been so condensed for well over a century: his sense of the Dedication is entirely traditional. But the effect of this paraphrase is to produce what used to be known as the ‘Problem’, ‘Enigma’ or ‘Mystery’ of the Sonnets – optimistically set aside by John Kerrigan in his edition by demoting the Dedication, and by G.F.C. Plowden by his failure to require a meaning from his paraphrase. This Dedication is, by any standards, a very strange piece of writing. The question whether or not we use the word ‘dedicate’ for what Thorpe does to Mr W.H. is immaterial; either way, in Plowden’s version Mr W.H. becomes the ‘begetter’ of the Sonnets. Scholars and critics have struggled to make meaning out of this, almost invariably by distorting the sense of that simple word ‘beget’. I prefer to hold to its meaning of ‘procreate, create’. If Shakespeare is the ‘begetter’ he is therefore the dedicatee, in which case he did not publish the Sonnets – a conclusion which may be found sympathetic on other human grounds too.
Somerville College, Oxford
SIR: Perhaps you will permit me three brief observations on Barbara Everett’s article and the ensuing correspondence. First, I believe it is wrong to assume Thomas Thorpe in any way involved in writing the Dedication of the Sonnets, for one simple reason: his initials are not centred as is the rest. He carefully places himself well to the right, well below, and in a different fount. By this means he dissociates himself from the authorship of the text. Second, I thank Barbara Everett for her observation on the ‘monumental’ full-stops in the Dedication and their function as separators of words. The presence of such separators in a mason’s engraving is to get over the lack of room for making large enough word spaces: a practice which, as she observes, also develops some artistic merit. What had not occurred to me until I read the article was that this is a jeweller’s habit too, when engraving legends in confined areas on precious metals. Could the author be sending a jewel with the Sonnets? And if so, does he tell us what kind of a jewel it is, as he must surely do unless both parties are privy to the conceit?
There seemed to me to be three clues: one which has always bothered commentators – the impossibility of the syntax; then the presence of 28 full-stops, which seems to negate the punctilious function of any of them; and lastly the not unreasonable relationship (in Elizabethan terms) of 28 words to the days of the lunar cycle, at the end of which the 28 day is followed by the first again. Using these clues, if we re-arrange the Dedication by starting at the only other possible place, I believe we cure the syntax and expose a jewel, viz:
OUR. EVER-LIVING. POET. WISHETH. THE. WELL-WISHING. ADVENTURER. IN. SETTING. FORTH. TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER. OF. THESE. INSUING. SONNETS. Mr. W. H. ALL. HAPPINESSE. AND. THAT. ETERNITIE. PROMISED. BY. OUR. EVER-LIVING. POET.
Seen thus the jewel is a ring, the very symbol of eternity.
Finally, a small point of detail. What the American lady is reported actually to have asked Fats Waller was ‘Mr Waller, what is swing?’, to which he replied: ‘Lady, if you got to ask, you ain’t got it.’
‘The Birth of Merlin’
SIR: I wish to issue a $5000 ‘challenge’ in the field of Shakespeare studies. The specific subject is the authorship of The Birth of Merlin, one of the plays of the Shakespeare apocrypha. As detailed in my book, William Shakespeare and ‘The Birth of Merlin’ (New York, Philosophical Library, 1985), I maintain that the authorship attribution from 17th-century sources is correct, and that The Birth of Merlin is a collaboration between William Shakespeare and William Rowley. Anyone who disagrees with this hypothesis, and who believes that he or she can provide a superior solution to the authorship question, is invited to put that belief to the test. My proposal is simple: I and anyone who accepts this challenge will each ‘wager’ $5000 and submit our competing hypotheses for judgment by an impartial authority to be mutually agreed upon. The competing hypotheses will be judged as to which provides the superior solution to the authorship question; the hypothesis that is judged more plausible, more historically sound, more in accord with the existing evidence, will win, and the winner will receive the entire $10,000.
The point of this proposal is fairly obvious: I believe that in the case of The Birth of Merlin we have a partially-Shakespearean play which has been overlooked by consensus opinion. This proposal is an attempt to bring this worthwhile and valuable play to wider attention, and to expedite the process of its recognition as a legitimate part of the Shakespeare canon. I have no doubt that an objective evaluation of the evidence will yield a verdict in favour of the original attribution to Shakespeare and Rowley.
Inquiries can be directed to me at the address below; details and specific arrangements are open to negotiation. This ‘challenge’ will expire in three years, and be null and void after 31 January 1990.
13695 SW Burlwood Street, Beaverton, Oregon 97005
SIR: I respect the feelings which animate David Craig’s objections (Letters, 19 February) to the countenance I give to T.C. Smout’s view of the Highland Clearances in his Century of the Scottish People. I have many friends, Gaels and Lowlanders, who share his outrage, and so do I, when I contemplate certain aspects and incidents of the process. In John Clare’s Northamptonshire the transformation of the countryside brought great misery to communities and individuals, but in Gaelic Scotland this was compounded by severe threat to a wholly distinctive culture. If the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland were not barbarians, they were certainly colonisers. When Sorley Maclean and other fine Gaelic poets of our day refer to the Clearances as an unforgivable wrong, they speak, so far as I am concerned, truth. I would not have time for any work of art which attempted to soften the picture.
But historians have a different job. They have to consider world-wide tendencies and draw comparisons. They have also to take note of differences within cultures, where all groups do not behave in the same way. I think Dr Craig should look again at Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution and Age of Capital. He could also turn to Eric Richards’s History of the Highland Clearances (1982), the work of an Australian who is bound to see them in wide geographical perspective. ‘The changes experienced in the Scottish Highland were in no sense unique,’ Richards writes. ‘The modern world economy is full of parallels.’ He finds such parallels in the Philippines and in Mexico. He also notes the irony that ‘some of the colonising sheep farmers in Australia were émigré Scottish Highlanders set adrift by the Clearances,’ who dispossessed Aborigines in turn. Jack Bumsted, a Canadian, showed in his The People’s Clearances that around 1800 there were Highlanders who wanted to emigrate and landlords anxious to prevent them.
The more extreme versions of the Clearances story imply that they were uniquely horrible and that no true Gael would have left of his own accord. I don’t think this distortion helps the present-day Highlands at all. The Gaelic language is now threatened with extinction by modernisation, Americanisation and, of course, Anglicisation. Action to sustain the tongue in which Sorley Maclean has written the magnificent verse which Seamus Heaney recently celebrated in the London Review is more to the point than rehearsing old horrors. As Convener of the Scottish Poetry Library, I do what I can to help.
SIR: I have only just seen the correspondence in your columns concerning the social distribution of British casualties in the 1914-18 war. Since the appearance of my book, The Great War and the British People, occasioned this exchange of views, perhaps you will permit me to add a few words on the meaning of the term ‘Lost Generation’? The argument I advanced in my book was that the higher up in the social scale a man was, the greater his chances of becoming a casualty in the Great War. This was for three reasons. First, enlistment rates were higher among the middle and upper classes than among working-class men. Secondly, more working-class men failed to pass the medical tests for military service, or passed them as fit only for home duty. Their physical disabilities probably saved the lives of thousands of such men. Thirdly, casualities suffered by the educated and propertied classes were proportionately greater than those suffered by the working class for two simple reasons: 1. the officer corps was recruited until late in the war from the sons of the middle and upper classes; and 2. casualty rates among officers were substantially greater than those of the men they led, and in particular, casualty rates among junior officers (not isolated from staff officers in the aggregate statistics) were higher than those of non-commissioned officers and men in the ranks. These considerations led me to the conclusion that the more privileged paid a disporportionately higher price for the war than did the less privileged.
This should not, however, obscure the fundamental fact that the true ‘Lost Generation’ was that of the nation as a whole. For every officer killed, 20 men of lower ranks fell during the war. And since individual families did not experience war losses in proportional terms, we must not lose sight of the fact that British war losses – like the British Army and the British nation – were made up of a majority of working-class people.
For this reason, I prefer to refer to the ‘Lost Generation’ as a legend rather than a myth. There was a real phenomenon behind the elegiac refrains and the repeated talk of social élites sacrificed during the war. The memorial records of public schools and universities yield appallingly high statistics for one part of the ‘Lost Generation’. For instance, 31 per cent of undergraduates who matriculated at Cambridge in 1913 were killed during the war. But we must make a careful distinction between this statistical fact and the uses to which it was regularly put in the inter-war years and after. To take but one of dozens of examples: on occasion, Baldwin sought to explain away his limited political successes in the 1920s and 1930s by reference to the absence of men of talent who would have been available for public service had there been no war. Of course, there is no way to prove or disprove this assertion: it is merely one illustration of the way in which the consequences of the war were conscripted in later years to serve many political purposes. Baldwin helped further a legend, not a myth.
This is as true in cultural matters as it is in the political sphere. I have trouble in accepting the view that the absence of Owen, Sorley and Péguy, to take only a few names among many, was a more important feature of post 1918 cultural history than the presence of Eliot, Pound and Pasternak. Indeed, as Paul Fussell has shown, the war ironically enriched the cultural life of subsequent generations by occasioning a new kind of writing, which he calls modern memory. The consequences of the war were, as one might expect, complex and contradictory. It does no service to history to explain British decline in this century in terms of the war losses of one part of the population.
Institute for Advanced Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
SIR: Many readers of Wayland Kennet’s review of Paul Mercer’s ‘Peace’ of the Dead (LRB, 8 January) must have wondered if the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) organisation to which he refers is the same one they have known about for the past six years, and possibly supported or joined. His description of END as a ‘semi-independent’ ‘sub-campaign’ of CND is (at best) simple ignorance. Although the two organisations fully support each other’s aims and have always worked closely together, END has since its inception been entirely independent of CND. As for his obscure claim that END ‘came to grief when it collided with the absence of human rights in Eastern Europe’, what can Lord Kennet mean? END has always recognised that there can be no peace without human rights, and that human rights will always be at risk in a militarised, bloc-divided Europe. We have always engaged in a dialogue with a very broad range of groups and individuals in Eastern Europe, from Charter 77 and Solidarnosc to the new independent Polish movement, ‘Freedom and Peace’.
Lord Kennet fails to mention that Mercer’s account of END ends in 1984. Perhaps they are both unaware of the unprecedented recent developments in co-operation between the non-aligned Western peace movements and, in Central and East Europe, civil rights and independent peace groups. If he had bothered to check his facts with us, we would gladly have corrected his mistakes and brought him up to date, as we could have suggested at least one likely source for the sponsorship – which Mercer would not divulge – behind Policy Research Publications, the publisher of ‘Peace’ of the Dead. PRP shares the address and telephone number of the Coalition for Peace through Security, a wealthy pro-nuclear-weapons pressure group which has conducted a smear campaign against the peace movement since 1981. Our request for a review copy of ‘Peace’ of the Dead was refused: nevertheless, END Journal will run a review in its next – April/May – issue.
Joint Deputy Editor, END Journal, London N4
Getting on the reader’s wick
SIR: There are only three million of us New Zealanders. So our writers presumably wish their communications to reach a wider audience than their home country. But why do they persist in writing English which requires you to supply a glossary to enable it to be understood by your readers? Anyone appreciates new words which introduce a new idea, or a new way of looking at an old idea, or a new organisation of ideas, but why use incomprehensible Maori for existing English words? For example, C.K. Stead, in his excellent review of The Matriarch, quotes an extract in which the word whanau occurs twice without explanation (LRB, 18 December 1986). I challenge any reader not born, schooled and universitied among Maoris as I was to explain that by ‘the whanau’ Ihimaera is saying ‘the social group’. He has obscured the meaning of a moving and important passage; and Stead himself repeatedly dims the force of his interesting argument by the use of Maori instead of English. Are we New Zealand writers, European and Maori, trying to prove superiority over the Pom who can’t understand Maori? Or are we obscurely expressing our guilty conscience about the Maori land taken over in past years? Certainly our linguistic affectation is hiding the merit of what we have to say and getting on the wick of our readers.
Is Paisley a bigot?
SIR: After confusing the issue by wrongly implying that ‘rationalist’ social scientists who oppose and are disgusted by Ian Paisley fancy that religious belief can be dismissed as unreasonable, Charles Townshend (LRB, 22 January) wonders, in effect, what a bigot really is, in decisive contradistinction from one who believes with ‘firm religious conviction’. If Professor Townshend needs as much help as he may with this question, he will find a pretty good answer to be going on with in the sixth edition of the the Concise Oxford Dictionary, where a bigot is defined as an ‘obstinate or intolerant adherent of some creed or view’; the word dates from the 16th century in English, according to the COD, and is from the French; the origin is unknown. Thus Paisley is not just exceptionally sincere, and the stronger and the worthier for it, not just to be admired for his post-Yeatsian passion and conviction, not just a brilliant populist (which Townshend also gets wrong, glancingly) – he is a bigot. He is one of a large number of bigots, only a very small proportion of whom are well-known in history because almost all of them are content to have people like Paisley lead them in battle, real or rhetorical, and take the heat while they cheer them on, year after anguished year, and sharpen their knives. In the Republic of South Africa, as I hope Townshend will not attempt to deny, the Bothas and every other person whose beliefs and values they represent are extremely dangerous bigots. In my country, George Wallace of Alabama, who has just retired from politics is, or rather was, a bigot. It is very much to be wished that Paisley will, and fast, undergo the same kind of development, moral or intellectual, as Wallace, who became notorious throughout the world in the Sixties for his unremitting hostility to justice and civil rights for blacks, but has since moderated his views and policies so much that for several years he has been highly admired by many blacks, in the South and elsewhere; and that Paisley need not be, like Wallace, the object of an assassination attempt that left him painfully crippled in order to experience such a transformation.
In Israel there are among the bigots of the Jewish theocracy Rabbi Meir Kahane, another American, originally, and his growing group of mostly native-born anti-Arab bigots. They and rather many other Jews feel supremely justified in the punishments practised or proposed towards Muslims, including those who are full legal citizens of Israel, because of what they and their relations suffered under Hitler, the most zealous and accomplished single bigot of our time, and under millions of other bigots in many different parts of Europe, certainly not only Germany, some of them also members of their local Nazi Parties and some of them freelances who saw their opportunity.
Calvin, Paisley’s great inspiration, was a model bigot, infallible and inflexible, and so were the Popes who preached the Crusades against the Infidel. The present Pope is a big bigot, at least with respect to homosexuality, abortion and contraception, by means of which he has already caused prodigious suffering throughout most of the oikoumene, and a smaller bigot with respect to mere heresy – ‘firm religious conviction’ that he doesn’t like. But give him time: as he goes from strength to strength, he may be able to cause more than frustration to vast numbers of loathsome heretics as well.
It is the purpose of Townshend’s perplexedly partial vindication of Paisley that I wonder at. Is it a contribution to the beginning of a campaign to reverse Paisley’s image, especially, of course, among British voters, and to make him respected, however grudgingly and if only for staying the course and having plenty of ‘firm religious conviction’? It wouldn’t be the first time that a practical political settlement had such a beginning; it wouldn’t be even the hundred-thousandth time. Indeed, if only the White House authors of the Irangate scandal had had the leisure for it, that elegant little piece of statesmanship might very well have had its first delicate flowering at least two years ago, when we Americans should have begun to hear, from one source and then another, that the Ayatollahs of Iran weren’t really bad guys after all, and certainly not bigots, certainly not ‘obstinate’ or ‘intolerant’. Sure, they might be pretty damned sincere in their beliefs. But the beliefs were deeply religious and much to be respected as such, even if we couldn’t understand them very well. And we could still do some business with those people. And we’d better, on their terms.
Beverly Hills, California
SIR: I am about to complete a critical biography of the novelist William Gerhardie. I will be grateful to receive any information concerning him, however brief, and am particularly anxious to trace his prewar contacts. Photographs, letters and documents will, of course, be carefully returned. I would also like to hear from anybody who remembers Russia, in particular St Petersburg, before and during the Revolution.
10 Hertford Street, Campbridge CB4 3AG