Claude Rawson

Claude Rawson is a professor of English at the University of Warwick. His books include Henry Fielding and the Augustan Ideal under Stress and Gulliver and the Gentle Reader. He is editor of the Modern Language Review.

Stewed, roasted, baked or boiled

Claude Rawson, 6 August 1992

The Intelligencer was a periodical mainly but not exclusively of Irish interest. It ran to 19 more or less weekly numbers between May and December 1728, with a longish interruption in the summer, and a single further number in May 1729. It was written by Jonathan Swift and his friend Thomas Sheridan, a clergyman, schoolteacher and man of letters, and grandfather of the playwright. It includes at least two of Swift’s important works, his critique of the Beggar’s Opera in No 3, and a reprint of the ‘Short View of the State of Ireland’ in No 15, perhaps the single most eloquent of his Irish writings, and close in time and subject-matter to A Modest Proposal, a more famous work (though not for its eloquence, or not in the same sense).

Agamemnon, Smith and Thomson

Claude Rawson, 9 April 1992

At the end of Book Two of the Iliad, in the famous catalogue of the Greek and Trojan forces, the Carians, allies of Troy, led by their chief Nastes, are referred to as barbarophonoi, literally ‘of barbarian (i.e. non-Greek) speech’. Since barbaros (an onomatopoeic term suggesting babble, which does not occur in Homer) meant ‘one who does not speak Greek’, Homer’s compound word – the only occurrence in the Iliad of any derivative of barbaros – is pleonastic, or perhaps overemphatic or fussy (according to G.S. Kirk’s Commentary, it is also ‘surprising’, because the land of the Carians was inhabited by Mycenaean Greeks toward the end of the Bronze Age’). Not speaking Greek might signify other forms of outlandishness, including primitive habits and wild or uncivilised behaviour, and the subsequent history of the term ‘barbarian’ in various languages has been ethnocentric in a sense which tended to link civilised status with possession of the approved dominant language (first Greek, then Latin, followed by the various world-languages of later imperial hegemonies). ‘Barbarian’ and ‘barbarous’ are now typically used to suggest the savage or uncivilised without any strong consciousness of a linguistic factor, but the history of modern encounters with ‘primitive’ peoples, from 16th-century Amerindians to the various subject races of more recent colonial perspectives, shows that the barbarian has continued to be conceived as speaking a non-speech or ‘jabber’. And those who, like Montaigne, adopted the traditional ‘anti-colonialist’ or relativist counter-argument that the barbarians were less barbaric than their conquerors were fond of suggesting, in a table-turning appeal to etymology, that Amerindian languages resembled, or might have been related to, Greek.’

John Homer’s Odyssey

Claude Rawson, 9 January 1992

Edward Thompson’s Customs in Common is described as a ‘companion volume’ to his The Making of the English Working Class, and rises to the occasion. It has the wide range of reference, the densely-textured documentation, a special quality of charged impressionism (sometimes tendentious, more often honourably concerned with generous perspectives and panoramic insight), the embattled moral fervour, which established the earlier book as a classic of historical scholarship and indeed of English letters. It has some occasional irritants, an overheated self-concern, a raw sense of personal slight, a dogged self-indulgence which, as at pp. 302-303, will make a bad joke, apologise for it in a note, thank a reader of the manuscript for pointing it out, keep it in for the sake of the reader’s comment, and tell you he’s doing all this and why. These are a small price to pay.

Samuel Johnson goes abroad

Claude Rawson, 29 August 1991

‘In all my dealings with the Moors, I have always discover’d in them an ill-natur’d cowardise, which makes them insupportably insolent, if you shew them the least respect, and easily reduced to reasonable terms, when you treat them with a high hand,’ The words read like something from Said’s Orientalism, the sentiments of a Balfour or Cromer, as parroted by a barrackroom sage or vainglorious subaltern, without the bland solvent of self-righteous statesmanship. In fact, they’re from Samuel Johnson’s first book, A Voyage to Abyssinia (1735), an excellent and little-noticed edition of which, by Joel Gold, appeared in 1985. They come at the conclusion of a distressing episode in which an ‘old Mahometan troublemaker, ‘the master of our camels’, is caught stealing some tent cords. When the travellers seek to retrieve them, he and the other drivers offer resistance and are subdued by ‘our soldiers’. ‘None receiv’d any hurt,’ except the original culprit: ‘He was knock’d down by one of our soldiers, who had cut his throat, but that the fathers prevented it, he then restor’d the cords, and was more tractable ever after.’

Old Literature and its Enemies

Claude Rawson, 25 April 1991

In Alvin Kernan’s book The Death of Literature there is an account of the Lady Chatterley trial. It sports a pointless and omni-directed superciliousness so relentlessly predictable that if, for example, Rebecca West is cited making a perfectly tenable statement you can rely on being told that she was displaying ‘qualities that must have once made H.G. Wells wonder what he had gotten into’.

A Spot of Firm Government: Claude Rawson

Terry Eagleton, 23 August 2001

It is remarkable how many literary studies of so-called barbarians have appeared over the past couple of decades. Representations of Gypsies, cannibals, Aboriginals, wolfboys, noble savages:...

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W.B. Carnochan, 23 February 1995

Item: in 1684, there appeared John Oldham’s posthumous Remains in Verse and Prose, with a prefatory elegy by John Dryden, ‘Farewell, too little and too lately known’....

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Now that the main ideas at large in the 18th century have been elaborately described, students of the period have been resorting to more oblique procedures. In 1968, in The Counterfeiters, Hugh...

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Christopher Ricks, 3 May 1984

The life of Swift by Irvin Ehrenpreis is a great act of consonance. But one reviewer has deprecated the fact that Ehrenpreis does not write with Swift’s genius. So the first thing to say is...

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