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Jonathan Bate

Jonathan Bate is a research fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

Cry Treedom

Jonathan Bate, 4 November 1993

It must be cause for at least mild celebration that the United States now has a Vice-President who can use the word ‘Cartesian’ in place of one who could not spell the word ‘potato’. In a chapter called ‘Dysfunctional Civilisation’ in his book Earth in the Balance, Al Gore writes that ‘the Cartesian approach to the human story allows us to believe that we are separate from the earth, entitled to view it as nothing more than an inanimate collection of resources that we can exploit how we like; and this fundamental misperception has led us to our current crisis.’ For Gore, Descartes’s influence has been both cause and symptom of a separation between the mind and nature which has served as Western man’s licence for his ravaging of the environment. An array of Greens from ecofeminists to holistic New Agers share Gore’s hostility to what is seen as the arrogance of the Enlightenment, arguing that we are all now paying a price for it in the form of global warming, acid rain and so forth. Over a century ago, John Ruskin was arguing that Cartesian (‘modern’) thought had destroyed man’s reverence and wonder in the face of the external world, and that the death of God-in-nature would eventually bring the end of nature. Gore’s book is squarely in this tradition: it is an appeal for spiritual regeneration as much as a manifesto for environmentally-sensitive policies.

Saint Terence

Jonathan Bate, 23 May 1991

In 1978 Terry Eagleton wrote an essay on John Bayley in the New Left Review. It is a ritual excoriation of that most tactful of ‘liberal humanist’ critics, punctuated with predictable sneers about ‘a view of life from the Oxford senior common room window’ and how Bayley’s criticism prizes a liberal disorder that depends on a conservative order ‘within which the gentleman may wear his art and opinions lightly’. But it opens with great generosity, even warmth. I begin with its opening passage, having changed a word here and there, in order to suggest that Oxford has its continuities:

Silly Willy

Jonathan Bate, 25 April 1991

To write well about William Blake you need to be enthusiastic, aphoristic and contrary. It also helps to be slightly mad. You need to begin your book with a paragraph like this:

Spivsville

Jonathan Bate, 27 July 1989

In Book Two of Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations the hero meets two strangers in the ruins of an abbey. One of them claims that the monasteries represented the only authentic communities England has ever known. In modern times, ‘there is no community in England; there is aggregation, but aggregation under circumstances which make it rather a dissociating than an uniting principle.’ This dissociating aggregation is at its most intense in great cities, where ‘men are brought together by the desire of gain. They are not in a state of co-operation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes; and for all the rest they are careless of neighbours.’ Those who make fortunes in the great City do so in a state of even greater isolation than their 19th-century predecessors: the so-called communications revolution has had the curious result that they communicate not with other human beings but with green screens, fax machines and modems.

Shakespeare and the Literary Police

Jonathan Bate, 29 September 1988

Henry Crabb Robinson had a busy evening on 27 January 1818: having attended William Hazlitt’s lecture on Shakespeare and Milton at the Surrey Institution, he hurried over the river to the London Philosophical Society to hear the first lecture in a new course by Coleridge. He was gratified to find there ‘a large and respectable audience – generally of very superior looking persons’. There was considerable activity on the London literary scene that month, for at an institution in Lincoln’s Inn Fields John Thelwall was lecturing to a much less respectable audience on Shakespeare and Dr Johnson.’

Players, please

Jonathan Bate, 6 December 1984

The Great War was the war of the great war poets. Was ‘the war to end all wars’ also the war to end all war poetry? The best part of Jon Stallworthy’s introduction to his Oxford Book of War Poetry is a discussion of the chivalric ideal in the British public school classes of the 19th century. ‘Honour the charge’ makes the cavalrymen of the Light Brigade into Arthurian heroes; ‘Noble Six Hundred’ places them in the tradition of the three hundred Spartans commemorated in Simonides’ epigram on Thermopylae. For Sir Henry Newbolt there is no difference between the words of the school cricket captain with ‘Ten to make and the match to win’ and those of the schoolboy rallying the ranks when ‘the Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead.’ At the beginning of the First World War young men were honoured to ‘Play up! play up!’ The Great War poets derive some part of their power and bitterness from the gulf between this idealised chivalric vision and the actuality of the hell they inhabit in the trenches. The poems strive to dislodge the ideal from the mind of the reader; the force of contrast is crucial to their effect. Flanders field was the very opposite of those fields across which the cavalry rode. Yet it was still a field. Many First World War poems – like many passages of the best prose arising out of the war – owe their poignancy to the fact that immediately behind the static lines there were fields with skylarks overhead that reincarnated rural England. The juxtaposition of Somme and Severn is at the heart of Ivor Gurney’s work (which is under-represented in Stallworthy’s anthology). Edward Thomas’s poems (which are very sensitively represented) rarely engage directly with the war: they approach it through the England that will be missed by the departing soldier, denuded by the absence of the departed.’

Letter

Fundamentals

15 August 1991

The argument of Romantic Ecology was that it might now be useful to read Wordsworth with the grain, as Victorians like Ruskin read him, instead of against it, as the most influential critics of the 1980s read him. John Barrell’s review (LRB, 15 August), which had a lightness and a wit that one does not associate with the prose of his books, was a splendid rebuttal of this contention, in that...
Letter

Distaste for Leavis

11 October 1990

I am sorry that David Craig and Robert Watson were not amused by the comparison of Dr and Mrs Leavis to the Piranha Twins. Rereading some Leavis recently, I was struck above all by its humourlessness. Johnson, Hazlitt and Empson are the greatest English critics of their respective centuries not least because they are the funniest.
Letter
Jenny Graham (Letters, 20 April) dismisses as an improbable surmise the identification by Nicholas Roe in his book Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years of the figure of Joseph Priestley in James Gillray’s 1795 caricature Copenhagen House, on the grounds that Priestley left England for America in 1794. Ms Graham should be informed that Gillray did not care about such details. The figure...

Ted Hughes in His Cage

Mark Ford, 17 March 2016

So much in the life and work of Ted Hughes was weird and transgressive that even now, 18 years after his death, it is hard to assess his actions and literary achievement.

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The Yellow Shakespeare

Michael Dobson, 10 May 2007

In a glass case in the garret of a house just off Fleet Street, a historic publishing contract has just gone on display.* It only takes up one piece of paper, rather smaller than a sheet of A4,...

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Clare’s anti-pastoral

Tom Paulin, 19 February 2004

In 1865, a year after John Clare’s death in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Frederick Martin, a former amanuensis of Thomas Carlyle, published the first biography of the...

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Shakespeare

Michael Dobson, 16 July 1998

‘Soul of the age!’ exclaimed Ben Jonson in the prefatory pages of the First Folio (1616), ‘The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!’ His climactic description was...

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A Kind of Scandal

A.D. Nuttall, 19 August 1993

Ovid was Shakespeare’s favourite poet. The fact is central to his genius, crucial to the understanding of his work. Shakespeare himself remains visible to posterity; Ovid is now, through...

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Constable’s Plenty

John Barrell, 15 August 1991

The catalogue of the Constable exhibition which opened at the Tate in June is probably the glossiest, the heaviest, the most unwieldy volume ever to accompany an exhibition of the work of a...

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Hazlitteering

John Bayley, 22 March 1990

Hazlitt has a modern feel about him. Among the poets of his age, dying young or turning, like Wordsworth, into pillars of the establishment, he represents a kind of muddling through, an honesty...

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