What a preposterous piece by John Bayley on Wordsworth and Coleridge (LRB, 7 December)! This was meant to be a review of two books on Coleridge and one on Wordsworth. It hardly mentioned the last of these, but the discussion of Coleridge was filled with and disfigured by hostility towards Wordsworth. Sometimes this was frankly potty: as in the proposal that Wordsworth’s diction is in some way out of date because the Lake District road system has changed. But how misplaced the attempt to make Wordsworth a writer of ‘will’ and Coleridge a writer of spontaneity and openness. Of course this kind of contrast can be achieved (as it could be for most writers) by comparing Coleridge’s private journal entries with Wordsworth’s published work: but which is more ‘willed’ and ‘beside the point’, Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused’ or Coleridge’s ‘Spirits … of plastic power, that interfus’d/ Roll thro’ the grosser and material mass/ In organising surge’? Where is the ‘honesty’ in this bombast from ‘Religious Musings’? Which poet has recorded the ‘real discovery of romantic experience’ (attributed by Professor Bayley to Coleridge), ‘that it’s all in the mind’? And what a giant weight of prejudice against Wordsworth Professor Bayley must have to be able to suggest that Wordsworth cannot treat the moon as a thing of ‘immediacy and absurdity’. I am sure he has read ‘Strange fits of passion … ’ scores of times.
Some of the issues here have been raised by Norman Fruman recently in the TLS, but Professor Bayley is altogether a pre-Frumanian: Wordsworth’s possible (but by no means ‘almost certain’) indebtedness to Coleridge for the phrase ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ is slyly brought in – but not Coleridge’s equally possible borrowing of the notion from Schiller. What makes the anti-Wordsworthians so uptight? No other writer has attracted so many pages from critics elaborately explaining how he is ridiculous, obsolete, personally horrid etc. So why not leave him to die a deserved death? It really does seem like a back-handed compliment to his greatness.
University College London
Siding with Rushdie
Maqbool Aziz (Letters, 23 November) already believes that I am invincibly smug and complacent in the rightness of my defence of Salman Rushdie. So I fear that I may only seem to taunt and madden him afresh if I say that I take comfort and confirmation from his attack upon me. Yet it seems that I would have satisfied him, as far as points of fact go, if I had written of a demonstration outside the United States Information Centre in Islamabad instead of, as I thoughtlessly did, the United States Embassy in Karachi. (The unpardonable slips, I find, afflict one more when they are secondary or tertiary to the purpose of the argument. I am sure that Mr Aziz is smiting himself on the backside even now for locating Islamabad ‘1100 miles to the south’ of Karachi, which would put it deep into the Indian Ocean. He has my sympathy.) His remaining points of fact are really matters of interpretation – I would not describe Z.A. Bhutto’s cabinet as socialist, and the former senior member of it cited by Mr Aziz was actually a member for a matter of weeks. I know that jamaat means party but the repetition seemed to me more clarifying than the omission. And so on. If this is to be the extent of his objection, in other words, I believe I can meet it. Hence my feeling of confirmation. Yet there is a definite hostility beneath the quibbling, which finds no outlet in argument. I offered a fairly lengthy defence of Rushdie’s right to publish. Mr Aziz does not choose to say what he thinks about this, or about the murder-with-bounty threat levelled in the name of Islam. Does he want us to guess his opinion? And would he want us to do so on the evidence of his triumphant, pedantic, inaccurate letter?
Losing the war
Robert Dallek’s review of A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan’s book about Vietnam (LRB, 23 November), was depressing, and not just because of the subject-matter. He quotes a galumphing piece of nonsense from Henry Kissinger (‘Psychologists and sociologists may explain some day what it is about that distant monochromatic land …’) and goes on to say that Sheehan’s book ‘reminds us of all those painful illusions’ that ‘held official America fast for so long’. He explains that ‘given American anxieties in the Fifties and Sixties’, hopes of reforming the Vietnamese state were ‘at least understandable and even forgivable’. But ‘it is more difficult to explain and forgive the many “bright shining” lies, the wilful falsehoods employed by the four Administrations from Eisenhower to Nixon.’ In other words, the fact that hundreds of thousands of South-East Asians lost their lives is of less importance in the overall scheme of things than the fact that the Government of the USA told some lies to its own people. (There was no point in lying to the Vietnamese. As someone said at the time, the secret bombing of Cambodia sure wasn’t a secret to the Cambodians.) This is all absolutely characteristic of the way in which the Vietnam War continues to be regarded by American historians as primarily an event in American history. It’s imperial history – sometimes critical imperial history, but still history full of assumptions about the marginality of the war’s real victims. If the consequences of this failure were purely historiographical, it would matter less, but the American failure to come to terms with the scale of the wrongs done during the Vietnam War is still exacting a cost. Witness the grotesque spectacle of the US’s continuing to back Pol Pot’s stooges in the UN, and vetoing a mission to investigate the possibility of sending humanitarian aid to Cambodia.
When a reviewer describes a sentence as ‘baffling’ one expects to see it quoted accurately. In Arguing with the past I wrote: ‘Engaging with the difference of the past in our present makes us aware of the trajectory of our arrival and of the insouciance of the past – their neglectfulness of our prized positions and our assumptions.’ Rosemary Ashton (LRB, 23 November) changes ‘the past’ to ‘our past’, thus destroying the point of the sentence, which is that the past is not ours only: it is multiple and its inhabitants were heedless of our present concerns. Much literary analysis still assumes that works are to be praised for their ‘almost modern awareness’. I argue that the ‘relevance’ of past works to our needs often lies in their challenging unlikeness to our present assumptions.
Girton College, Cambridge
Margaret, daughter of Alf
When a baffled Freud asked, ‘what do women want?’ it’s a pity that no one suggested that some of them, like men, want to be prime minister. Mr Abse is in the right arena, but on the wrong track. Psychoanalysis did not stop with Freud, and Grantham isn’t Vienna. Why search for a metaphorical relationship with an absent breast when you mean that Mrs Thatcher had a mother with whom she could not identify – and a father with whom she could? ‘Margaret, daughter of Beatrice’ is precisely what she isn’t. The problem for us is that her father was the kind of unimaginative mean-spirited man who denied badly-dressed ‘peasants’ entry to a church. This punitive Methodism is an aspect of her background that has been neglected. As Mary-Kay Wilmers points out (LRB, 26 October), Mrs Thatcher found the dream escape route from housewifedom for women of her generation – marrying a millionaire: she then went on to achieve the male fantasy of becoming prime minister. As Alf was only Mayor of Grantham, she triumphed over her father to an extent that would have made Freud breathless with joy and guilt.
Rickword’s Further Words
David Craig (Letters, 7 December) makes a fair but not overwhelming point about Edgell Rickword. The lines ‘To the wife of a non-interventionist statesman’ are worth reading, and have a significant place in Rickword’s oeuvre. They have not – in my view – the singular life of the best of the earlier poems: I would go so far as to say that they bear marks of the contracting perceptions of Rickword’s later years. Whether all this justifies Hobday’s judgment, and mine, that Rickword’s poetry ‘virtually ceased in 1931’ is open to a free vote, as far as I am concerned.