- History: The Home Movie by Craig Raine
Penguin, 335 pp, £9.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 14 024240 6
‘There is hardly a stanza in the long poem which is not vivid, hardly one which is not more or less odd, and the reader feels ... as if he had been riding on the rims over an endless timber bridge.’ As I read Craig Raine’s new poem (a novel, an epic, a film, says the ebullient blurb) something stirred in the depths of memory, and I found myself thinking of Theophila, a very long poem published by Edward Benlowes in 1652. Theophila is written in three-line stanzas, a pentameter, a tetrameter and an alexandrine, all on a single rhyme. The judgment on Theophila quoted above comes from The Oxford History of English Literature, which rightly regards Benlowes as representing the giddy limit in 17th-century attempts to write ‘heroic’ poetry in the high metaphysical manner. And this must surely seem an unpromising way to tackle extended argument or narrative. Benlowes was a devotee of the far-fetched conceit, in the by now degenerate tradition of Donne, perhaps with some input from the smoother baroque concettismo of Marino and his followers. (On the evidence of some of his delightful earlier poems I had privately awarded Craig Raine an honorary position in the company of the marinisti.) Marino produced narrative in this style, but in more fluent stanzas, and without proceeding to the metaphorical extremes of the English. Though often eloquent, Benlowes is neither fluent nor moderate, and clearly it formed no part of his plan to make it easy for his readers to know exactly what he was on about.
Later poets with stories to tell normally preferred to use pentameter couplets or blank verse, which allowed the narrative or the argument to be followed with less effort, and did not encourage wild flights of baroque wit. Milton, a contemporary of Benlowes and an admirer of Spenser, not only freed his narrative of ‘the modern bondage of rhyming’, but after a youthful fling more or less gave up conceited poetry. It would not do for real epic.
However, if you hold that lucidity and what the philosopher W.B. Gallie called ‘followability’ aren’t everything, that they may be sacrificed in a good cause, then admirable precedents are not wanting. Conceits can be combined with stories at acceptable cost to the stories. A narrative line can be more or less sustained through complex verse-forms and under repeated pressure from centrifugal interests. Think of The Faerie Queene, with its awkward nine-line stanza and its heavy concluding alexandrine: in this unlikely form Spenser undertook a huge narrative poem combining a great many stories, only more or less germane to one another and required to bear a considerable weight of philosophical and historical allegory. How well he succeeded is a point that has always been disputed. ‘Every stanza,’ wrote Spenser’s 18th-century editor John Hughes, ‘made as it were a distinct paragraph, grows tiresome by continual repetition and frequently breaks the sense, when it ought to be carried on without interruption.’ Others contrast Spenser’s heavy pace and patches of opacity with the more athletic movement of Ariosto. C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, thought the whole poem moved along pretty briskly. Other critics, without necessarily denying either view, waste their lives, though they may also secure tenure, in trying to explain just what is really going on in Spenser’s poem.
Vol. 16 No. 20 · 20 October 1994
From William Scammell
I read Frank Kermode’s review of Craig Raine’s History: The Home Movie (LRB, 22 September), and his excursion into Aristotle, with some amazement. The professor appears not to know the difference between metaphor and simile. The majority of what he calls ‘conceits’ in history are similes – a vastly different kettle of fish from, say, ‘His delights/Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above/The element they lived in’, which starts up the burners with a simile and then soars off into imaginative space. Memorable recent metaphors would include Salman Rushdie’s jars of chutney and their leaking flavours, and Ted Hughes’s demon materialising into a tractor. Aristotle would have cheered. Similes, on the other hand, are within reach of us all, even if we’re not so good at them as Craig Raine.
Vol. 16 No. 21 · 10 November 1994
From Frank Kermode
William Scammell (Letters, 20 October) lets us know that he too was taught in the Fourth Form that you can easily tell the difference between a simile and a metaphor: one always starts with ‘as’ or ‘like’ and the other doesn’t. But since he allows us to think he is acquainted with Aristotle, who was so interested in these modes of indicating resemblance that he went on about them at some length in both the Rhetoric and the Poetics, he should know that the matter is not so simple. Aristotle would not be happy with the position that all Raine’s conceits were similes. That is the sort of simplification he laboured all that time ago to avoid. I am not so sure that he wouldn’t have had to classify Scammell’s chosen example, ‘His delights were dolphin-like,’ as a simile; it ‘soars off into imaginative space’ in order to explain why Antony’s delights could properly be said to resemble dolphins. Of course (for us, at any rate, though Aristotle might have marked it down for being diffuse) this doesn’t make it less splendid than it would be if we called it metaphor; it is still not ‘within reach of us all’.
What about Raine’s ‘nervous moth of light’, which has no ‘as’ or ‘like’ but could be expanded to include one or the other? What, to take a more famous conceit, about Donne’s compasses, which have an ‘as’? Both are conceits, exploiting modes of resemblance which cannot be classified by schoolroom rules; they essentially depend on their farfetchedness, a quality to be found in some similes and some metaphors. We are surprised by the registration of a resemblance we could not have foreseen, and the ability to discover and communicate such resemblances is what impressed Aristotle. The idea that metaphors are necessarily grander than similes with their telltale ‘likes’ is a mistake. To speak of the leg of a table is to use metaphor; for, as Aristotle observed, ‘metaphor consists in giving a thing a name that belongs to something else.’ But this is a tricky subject, treated in many difficult books besides Aristotle’s, and Mr Scammell is fortunate in having so simple a method of dealing with it.
Vol. 16 No. 24 · 22 December 1994
From William Scammell
Calling me a Fourth Former, and wondering whether I know my Aristotle from my elbow, is not going to help Frank Kermode’s problems in sorting out metaphor from simile, nor mine with his misattributions (Letters, 10 November). I didn’t say that Raine never uses metaphor. I didn’t say that metaphor is easy to define or analyse, nor did I say that there are no problematic or borderline cases.
What I said was that most of the ‘conceits’ Kermode praised in History: The Home Movie, and called up Aristotle in lustral approbation of, were actually similes, not metaphors. I also said, and still think, that in most cases, in most texts, there is a clear and obvious difference between the two. Kermode’s example of the ‘nervous moth of light’ is a good case in point. Where’s the classificatory difficulty? It’s a metaphor. ‘Fixed, like houseflies/feeding on filth’, the Raine lines that led Kermode on to Aristotle and ‘17th-century concettisti’, is a simile. An elaborated one, to be sure, but still different in kind, surely, from ‘morning’s minion’, or ‘Young beauties force your love, and that’s a rape’ (Donne, ‘Elegy 9, The Autumnal’), or ‘From under a freighter/I watched a man sawing a woman in half’ (Muldoon, ‘Duffy’s Circus’).
Some are masters of metaphor, some aren’t. Shakespeare is, famously, dense with it (as per Aristotle, with whom Kermode seems to think I disagree). Peter Redgrove, to take a more recent example, runneth over with the stuff. John Ashbery buzzes the window in it. Craig Raine, on the other hand, is dense with simile, as all commentators and reviewers have noted, some with annoyance.
I’ve not looked up the Areopagite to see if I can call him in aid but it seems to me that, contrary to Kermode’s assertion, metaphor is ‘necessarily grander than simile’. It’s harder to do (well), easier to fall flat on your face (few will pick a quarrel with a ‘like’ because it’s so tentative and elastic). Metaphor is harder because it’s more complex, more bold, more intense, more creationist, more God Almighty to say (and convince the reader that) ‘A is B’ than ‘A is (in some manner) like B.’ Metaphor incarnates, makes something new. Simile leaves things as they were, no matter how wonderful the bridges it ‘farfetchedly’ calls up to get the troops from one word to the next.
Of course ‘resemblance’ is, in some sense, common to both; but there all resemblance ends. T.S. Eliot’s fog that ‘rubs its back upon the window-panes’ would not have the resonance it does if propounded as a simile, nor would the ‘pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas’, and nor would ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet.’ Compare and contrast with the simile (strange, wonderful, even mesmeric) in the opening lines of ‘Prufrock’: ‘When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table’. The fog is swallowed up in the cat, the ‘I’ in the crab’s scuttle, the nay-saying not-Hamlet in his opposite. The evening and the comatose patient, on the other hand, remain separate (though linked) entities.
Dare I propose the dinosaur word ‘organic’ to hint at what lives and moves inside successful metaphor? It works, when it works, because it is felt and seen to be natural, proper, fitting, constitutive, alive; not a prosthesis or a flying buttress but a working limb, a load-bearing wall.
Vol. 17 No. 2 · 26 January 1995
From Gordon Guthrie
William Scammell’s letter about metaphor and simile came to a somewhat sticky end (Letters, 22 December 1994). The metaphor ‘is not … a flying buttress but a … load-bearing wall’ makes little sense in light of the fact that flying buttresses are load-bearing walls.
Build a building without a trussed roof and the weight of the roof will tend to push the walls out. (Stand a book open like a roof on two others like walls.) Masonry, or to be precise mortar, is very weak in tension, it is imperative to keep it in compression. The quick way to do that, in this instance, is to thicken the walls. You can have somewhat thinner ones if you place heavy weights (say, statues, pinnacles or hunks of rock) along the top of the join between the roof and the walls. You can even scoop out part of the walls to allow big windows, provided you leave some wide bits to push in on the walls (solid buttresses to give them their proper name). However, solid buttresses don’t subtend as great a solid angle to the sky as simple windows. In order to extend the period in which light can enter the building, say, a cathedral, which you are constructing, you can cut out bits of the solid buttress, or build a simple pillar with a half arch on top to push in on the wall where the roof joins it. Unfortunately the half arch pushes the pillar out and over. Hmm, well then, add some weight where the half arch rests on the pillar (a statue? a pinnacle? a hunk of rock?) and/or give the flying buttress a flying buttress of its own, a little smaller, and a little shorter and so on.
Gothic architecture is not ‘gothic’ in any recognisable non-architectural sense of the word. It is not about fripperies, spookiness or decorative detail for the sake of it. It is ludicrously functional, medieval Pompidou Centre functional. You can dispense with these forms if you have roofing trusses (repeat the three-book experiment with a short piece of string pinned to the covers of roof book so that it can’t open) or other methods of keeping the walls in tension (pre-stressed concrete, for example). Whatever you do, you ought to be discouraged from removing the ‘prosthetic’, ‘unnatural’, ‘improper’ pinnacles, statues and flying buttresses from any Gothic buildings in your possession, unless demolition is your intent.