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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 21 · 7 November 1991

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Sonia Orwell

In his finely judged review of Michael Shelden’s Orwell (LRB, 24 October), Frank Kermode writes that Orwell’s widow Sonia ‘is represented, perhaps not altogether fairly, as tiresomely selfish and irresponsible’. Shelden’s treatment of Sonia, although it may give a superficial impression of being even-handed, is in several ways very unfair indeed. Shelden insinuates that one of Sonia’s motives in accepting Orwell’s second proposal of marriage was mercenary greed. I knew her only slightly then, but got to know her very well soon after and am certain that this is laughably wide of the mark. Nobody was ever less of a gold-digger: indeed, I believe she was the most generous person I have ever known.

She loved to entertain her friends but allowed herself few luxuries. (Shelden, with a report in the Star newspaper as his only source, makes much of a lavish engagement ring bought by Sonia with the dying Orwell’s hard-earned money: this ring was, in fact, small and unassuming, almost like a ring in a cracker.) The money she later received from Orwell’s Estate (a much more modest fortune than is often assumed) was spent largely on helping people in whose talent she believed. One of these was a friend we shared: Jean Rhys. Sonia’s phenomenal kindness to her began before Jean became relatively well-known and lasted till Jean’s death. Sonia would take the greatest trouble to discover exactly what Jean really wanted (clothes, a holiday, cash, whatever) and would then show the finest delicacy and most sensitive imagination in seeing that she got it. On one occasion I found out by chance that Sonia had pretended to Jean that I was the donor of some especially munificent treat. So much for Sonia’s selfishness.

As for irresponsibility: Sonia took her duties as Orwell’s Literary Executor with extreme seriousness and fought bravely to carry out what she believed to be his wishes. Indeed, the complications involved in the management of such an Estate can be said to have clouded the rest of her life. A Literary Executor’s job is seldom an easy one, but it becomes nightmarishly difficult when a writer has left unambiguous instructions that there should be no biography and then achieves the enormous celebrity that came to Orwell after his death. She may have made some mistakes, and some people may have found her intransigence tiresome, but it was always prompted by loyalty to Orwell’s memory and in this important respect I believe that she triumphantly justified his faith in her.

Francis Wyndham
London W11

Browning and Modernism

In his review of the first two volumes of our edition of Browning (LRB, 10 October), Donald Davie objects to our description of Sordello as a poem ‘written in heroic couplets’. The description is undoubtedly inadequate. But intentionally so: our point (as the context makes clear) is that Sordello eludes all but a minimalist categorisation in terms of genre. Hence by ‘heroic couplet’ we intended no more than the standard definition in which ‘heroic’ refers simply to lines in iambic pentameter (canonically the heroic measure of English poetry, as the Alexandrine is of French) and ‘couplet’ means no more than that they rhyme in pairs. This leaves open the question of the uses to which poets have put the form. On one reading of literary history, there has been an ongoing conflict between two influential models, Pope’s closed couplets and Donne’s enjambed couplets, and on this reading, Dryden is less unequivocably aligned with Pope than Davie seems to allow: in fact, Earl Wasserman has argued persuasively that Dryden’s example gave the Romantics a precedent for their own shift away from the closed couplet. Davie might wish to argue instead for the distinctiveness and superiority of Neoclassical practice, but it is not helpful to pre-empt the argument by redefining the terms.

How rhyme is realised is the nub of Davie’s second point. He disputes our claim that Browning asks us to pronounce ‘Africa’ and ‘Adela’ as ‘Africay’ and ‘Adelay’ respectively. Again what is at issue here is Davie’s map of literary history – in this case, his desire to claim Browning for Modernism and the triumph of the spoken. Twentieth-century practice, it is true, often subverts closure by weakening rhyme to half-rhyme (Davie himself, for instance, rhymes ‘coppice’ with ‘randomness’, ‘state’ with ‘favourite’). But in Romantic and Victorian poetry the exaggeration of rhyme is more frequent, whether grotesquely, as in Byron’s ‘intellectual … hen pecked you all’, or solemnly, as in Hopkins’s ‘boon he on … communion’. Davie actually notes that ‘Browning’s rhymes exultantly draw attention to themselves’ in ‘Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis’. So why not ‘say … Africay’? In fact, although Browning recognises and defends the possibility of half or eye rhyme (‘sword … word’), he uses it very seldom, especially in the final position. The contents of our Volume II provide only three candidates: the two that Davie cites and, from ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, ‘mice … promise’. And in the latter case there is a very clear indication on the proof-copy that Browning wanted a full rhyme, however incongruous it might sound. It is, we believe, significant that Davie’s two examples both involve the same sound pair, ‘ay … a’: the frequency with which this pair recurs in 19th-century poetry (Shelley, as our edition notes, has ‘day … gondola’, Byron ‘Africa … day’) suggests that when unstressed final ‘a’ occurs in a metrical stress position, it is treated as if it were Latin long ‘a’, which in the 19th century would have been pronounced ‘ay’. Hence, to take another example from Browning, ‘say’ can stand as rhyme to ‘fabula’ (‘The Statue and the Bust’). Like ‘Africa’ and ‘Adela’, ‘fabula’ concludes the poem; but another example, from ‘Waring’ (1842), rhymes ‘Taurica’ with ‘alway’ in the middle of the poem, suggesting that Davie is also wrong in associating Browning’s use of such problematic rhymes solely with formal closure.

Davie’s argument becomes explicit when he turns to the relation between Browning and Pound and disputes our (and Pound’s) estimate of Sordello. He seems to see two lines of influence from Browning to Pound: one malign – the obfuscations of parataxis spreading like an infection from Sordello to the Cantos – the other benevolent – the ‘foregrounding of artifice’ which Pound inherits from poems like ‘Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis’. But this is to miss what Sordello and ‘Sibrandus’ have in common, a quality foregrounded by Henry James’s description (quoted by Pound in Confucius to Cummings) of Browning’s way of reading his own verse: ‘He particularised, if ever a man did, was heterogenous and profane, composed of bits and patches that betrayed some creaking of the joints … It came almost to harshness; but the result was that what he read showed extraordinary life.’ Such ‘life’ reflects what Pound called Browning’s ‘curiosity’, his inveterate concern with the concrete and immediate, and in his early draft of Canto I, it is Sordello Pound selects as his example:

say I take your whole hag of tricks,

Let in your quirks and tweeks, and say the thing’s an art-form,

Your Sordello, and that the modern world.

Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thought in[?]

The significance of ‘rag-bag’ emerges from a passage in which Pound’s character Poggio remarks: ‘I myself a rag-bag, a mass of sights and citations, but I will not beat down life for the sake of a model’ (Pavannes and Divagations, 1960). ‘Curiosity’ makes the poet ‘heterogenous’, his poem a ‘rag-bag’, and fills both of them with ‘life’; and Sordello, when Pound came to attempt a long poem, was clearly of more use than briefer examples, since the procrastination of closure in a long poem allows a fuller image of the abundance and continuity of existence.

John Woolford, Daniel Karlin
King’s College London,

Good Old English

What a strange thing was Richard North’s supposed review (LRB, 10 October) of the Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature! Imagine my surprise after only three paragraphs or so to find its subject had stopped being the Godden/Lapidge horde of Medievalists and their thoughts on West Saxon writing and had become instead me and my efforts to remove Anglo-Saxon from its too-long-held and very damaging position of privilege at Oxford.

Can I look forward to receiving some of North’s fee for having, after all, provided him with so many words? Not even a few readies, though, would compensate for his travesty of the case against the hegemony of West Saxon writing in Oxford’s creaking syllabus. He says he’s read my Oxford Magazine piece, so why does he make out that the struggle is between ‘trendiness’ or ‘sound-bite culture’, on the one hand, and the ‘rigour’ of Medieval studies, on the other, when it is very clearly stated to be between a possibly rigorous syllabus and one that is currently so choked with material, not least of all compulsory Anglo-Saxon, that nothing much is done rigorously at all. I’m campaigning for more rigour, not less, and for far more time to be devoted to some of the many rigorous alternatives to Anglo-Saxon, including more work on linguistic heritages – whether Classical or Italian or French or whatever – traditions that are, in fact, much more dominant presences in English literature than the intermittent Germanic one. The Oxford Anglo-Saxonists are keen protectors of their own particular site, but they have little or no interest in plugging the generality of undergraduates into, for instance, the Latin traditions that North rightly praises the old Angle-landers for promoting in their educational programmes. I do have such an interest, and I think Oxford English should.

In many ways, of course, North’s non-review was not surprising at all. The Cambridge Companion’s favourite modern Germanophiles were duly trotted out: W.H. Auden, who thought the only thing worthwhile about the Oxford English School was philology and Anglo-Saxon, G.M. Hopkins, though with Hopkins’s keen interest in Old Welsh carefully not mentioned – perhaps because that’s not insisted on at Oxford. Nor was I much surprised to find little or no reference to the essays in the Companion that might be awkward for the customary Anglo-Saxon apologia. North does not mention Roberta Frank’s extremely sharp essay on Anglo-Saxon writing’s attempt to provide itself with mythic roots in a fictionalised Germanic-heroic past, but then such a demonstration makes all those old philologists who thought English male heroism stemmed from authentic and true representations in Beowolf and elsewhere look a bit silly. Malcolm Godden’s illustrations of the Anglo-Saxon writers’ obsession with the Book of Genesis and with proofs of the origin of their species in that Biblical beginning book help to show up all the old and usual claims that English literature begins, and that the study of it should begin, with Anglo-Saxon literature as just more of our customary human origins-craving. To be sure, Goddens stops short of such a reflection. But North’s anodyne little gloss on Godden’s stuff (‘fresh insights … people recently converted from paganism … Old Testament’) is not calculated to set anyone thinking. Perhaps, again, that’s why he stopped there.

I’m sorry Dr North is so panic-stricken lest the removal of compulsion from Anglo-Saxon will kill it. This is a blague. Promoting it is not only a kind of blackmailing of people like me, and those of my pupils who’d rather it weren’t mandatory: it is also quite at odds with North’s own evidence. Isn’t it peculiar, one might think, that ‘the main engines of research are powered abroad,’ especially in US universities not known for insisting anybody do Anglo-Saxon? And, conversely, how odd that the Oxford English Faculty, which has caused so much misery by making everyone trudge the Anglo-Saxon way since the School was founded, should have been able to muster only one contributor, editor Godden himself, to this ‘valuable’ and – I would agree – essential introduction to the subject.

Valentine Cunningham
Corpus Christi College, Oxford

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