Lordly Accents

Claude Rawson

  • Acts of Implication by Irvin Ehrenpreis
    California, 158 pp, £9.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 520 04047 3

In Fielding’s Journey from this World to the Next the author comes upon Shakespeare in Elysium, standing between the actors Betterton and Booth, who are disputing about the exact emphasis of a line from Othello. Shakespeare is very lofty about it all: ‘it is so long since I wrote the line, I have forgot my meaning,’ but if any of their conjectures is right, ‘it doth me very little honour.’ He is then asked about ‘some other ambiguous passages in his works’ and, as is proper for an author talking to critics, deals even more haughtily with those who ‘gird themselves at discovering obscure beauties in an author’: ‘The greatest and most pregnant beauties are ever the plainest and most evidently striking; and when two meanings of a passage can in the least ballance our judgments which to prefer, I hold it a matter of unquestionable certainty that neither of them is worth a farthing.’

Two features of this are interesting. First is the assumption that authors express plain meanings, and that ‘ambiguous passages’ are faulty as such. The statement is doubtless more reductive than the real Shakespeare, or Fielding himself, would have thought appropriate to the full facts, but it highlights an emphasis we no longer take for granted. We nowadays assume that poetry is ‘ambiguous’, that this is a source of its value, and even that the ability to generate multiple suggestions is what distinguishes literary from practical discourse. For at least a century before the polysemic text was found germinating in the gaudy rubble of the deconstruction site, poets had been telling us that explicitness destroys three-quarters of a poem’s ‘jouissance’, that a poet who explains or interprets his poem ‘limits its suggestibility’, that poems are ‘ambiguous or uncertain’ because emotions are. When Stevens (or Yeats or Eliot) said ‘poets do not like to explain,’ it was because poems have and should have many ‘meanings’ and not, as in Fielding’s parable, because they should have only one. And if having many meanings means having none, so that poems do not mean but are, that would have seemed equally nonsensical to Fielding.

The second point in the parable is the lordly treatment of those who think otherwise. They are not, as in Mallarmé or Valéry or Yeats, the true poets and creators, but wretched hacks and pedants. The Shakespeare of Fielding’s invention is so contemptuous of their disputes that he finds the loftiest put-down of all: ‘I have forgot my meaning.’ He would rather give up his line than listen to any more of their wrangling. Shakespeare’s behaviour here is Fielding’s lordliness by proxy, an unremarked but not unprecedented trick in the rhetorical armoury of Augustan satirists. When Swift sent Gulliver on a visit to the afterworld of Glubbdubdrib, one of the sights was that of Homer and Aristotle among their innumerable mob of commentators, both of them ‘perfect Strangers to the rest of the Company’. There are people one does not know, just as there are things beneath one’s notice. As Pope said in ‘An Essay on Criticism’, combining both senses of not knowing, ‘not to know some Trifles, is a Praise.’

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