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.’

It is, then, a feature of certain hauteurs to imply that things are plainer than nit-picking little minds make out, and at the same time to hint at insights and values which only the chosen few will be able to share or even decode. The irony of the Augustan masters was a sign-system of privileged implication, operating beneath a deceptive surface. The two passages I have cited are not discussed in Ehrenpreis’s book, but they are germane to it. In an earlier book of essays, Literary Meaning and Augustan Values, Ehrenpreis was concerned to correct certain excesses of recent criticism by reminding us that Augustan literature is a literature which addresses readers by way of ‘meaning’. But he believes that his insistence was taken as suggesting that this was ‘all the poem had to offer’, so he now wants to show that ‘explicit meaning’ is as capable of ‘implication’ as any flower of the doctrine that ‘a poem should not mean but be.’ This is what Fielding’s Shakespeare did not go on explicitly to say, and, as Ehrenpreis notes, Augustan authors complicate his argument by often pretending to be merely simple and lucid. But the type of ‘implication’ with which he is especially concerned is one which Fielding’s parable exemplifies, and which differs greatly from what is normally associated with modern notions of poetic suggestiveness. In a provocative opening chapter, Ehrenpreis notes the frequency with which 18th-century writers harp on the idea of innuendo or covert meaning, coyly denying and cheekily flaunting the fact that their discourse is ironic, using irony in their very protestations of plain statement. ‘Clarity and explicitness were not the only virtues to which Pope aspired.’ And when Swift, or writers in the Craftsman, needled the reader with hints of a concealed element of personal attack, ‘the appeal to clarity’ became ‘a method of teasing the reader into thinking dangerously’.

Linked to this theme is one which involves attitudes to rank, and the styles called forth by such attitudes. His four authors, Dryden, Swift, Pope and Jane Austen (representing the broadest chronological stretch of the tradition sometimes called Augustan), ‘share an acquiescent view of the social order and a distrust of courtiers and courtly aristocrats’, and the book is concerned with the styles which express and control such contrary tendencies. In Pope especially, Ehrenpreis enumerates with acumen the formal manifestations, the devices and strategies which tend in various ways to establish ‘two realms of implication in his satires – one, conventionally didactic; the other, boldly subversive’. ‘Subversiveness’ is too stark a term, perhaps, for the play of crackling resentments, the virtuosities of insolence, which give Pope’s essentially loyal traditionalist eloquence its peculiar energy. The word smacks a little of that easy revisionism with which critics sometimes attribute to authors characteristics deemed admirable in the critic’s own intellectual climate. If Pope is ‘subversive’, what word shall we use for Swift? Ehrenpreis’s summarising formulation seems unsatisfactory, but not his detailed exposition. He is particularly strong and specific in his account of Pope’s ‘habit of setting up the moral and social values traditionally belonging to the country house as vastly superior to those traditionally assigned to a royal court’. Not, as Ehrenpreis freely points out, a new idea, but brought vividly to life with the brevity and sureness with which he discussed some years ago the social assumptions of a chapter of Tom Jones.

Pope wrote in a famous couplet:

And who unknown defame me, let them be
Scriblers or Peers, alike are Mob to me.

The lines are more than a pointed scrambling of high and low ranks, like the juxtaposition of ‘Pimps, Poets, Wits, Lord Fanny’s, Lady Mary’s’, and I think they indicate more than ‘Pope’s special tendency ... to cast into doubt the proper association of rank with merit, virtue, or even good manners’. They are a matter of putting lords down in lordly language, though in the name of high moral standards which would themselves be expected to prohibit contemptuous uppishness. Swift and Fielding pushed the paradox even further, exposing the uppishness itself in uppish language, dismissing it as ‘low’, a pedantry of manners characteristic of and worthy of social inferiors. We see them do it in their essays and letters, and not merely through the mouths of fictional narrators. But it happens with additional and revealing piquancy when Swift expresses himself through the mouth of spokesmen like the Examiner and especially the Drapier, whose commercial values and social rank are ostentatiously less than lordly.

It is these two figures who are the subject of Ehrenpreis’s chapter on Swift. And it is surprising that he should hardly pause over the fact that the Drapier, though much given to recognising and protesting his own low condition as a mean, illiterate shopkeeper, has an even more pronounced habit of despising the notorious financier William Wood in the lordliest manner as an obscure nobody: ‘one Mr WOOD, a mean ordinary Man, a Hard-Ware Dealer’, ‘one William Wood, now or late of London, Hard-ware-man’, and so on. These, as I once pointed out elsewhere, are exactly the accents with which, a few years later, Lord Hervey referred to the at least equally well-known or notorious Beggar’s Opera: ‘One Gay, a poet, had written a ballad opera.’

Here it is not simply that Swift, like Pope, speaks in tones of lofty grandeur. It is that he does so in the very act of impersonating a shopkeeper. Not a ‘snobbish’ shopkeeper either (if the anachronistic usage may be permitted), nor, as we have seen, one who seeks to disguise his own humble origins. There is a gap between the Drapier’s voice and his impersonator, not necessarily because Swift would not have admitted to humble origins, but because he would hardly have made such an unctuous display of them as he sometimes foists on the Drapier, and a further gap is between the Drapier’s lowlinesses and his hauteurs. But the striking gap is between the righteous moral denunciation which lies at the centre of the case against Wood, and the surface of social contempt through which the moral denunciation is expressed. This is something which transcends the ‘contradictions’ in Swift’s feelings on all matters concerning rank, which Ehrenpreis records very accurately: the mixture of respect and resentment, of regard for high birth and withering contempt for many lords, of loathing for upstarts and some upstart cravings of his own. It is true that in a period when an aristocratic temper still set the pattern for speech and social manner, we are likely to find elements of lordly idiom in notably unlordly speakers: not only in imperious personalities deeply attached to old standards of ‘politeness’, but in Grub Street authors whose origins or allegiances showed no sign of such an attachment. This fact may contribute its mite of ‘realism’ to the Drapier’s uppishnesses, but it doesn’t explain their explosive force, which is not that of the mercantile dummy set up by Swift’s rudimentary fiction, but that of the animating voice behind it.

This force has all the air of deriving from a disappointed aspiration, an aspiration not primarily personal (to do with individual pretension to or cravings for rank) but cultural (to do with the society’s ability to live up to a noble ideal). The burden of these angry hauteurs is the pained perception, shared also by Pope and Fielding, that moral nobility and nobility of social rank were not congruent. The bare fact was too obvious to cause surprise. But the gap was nevertheless deeply disillusioning to authors whose model of the good life was an aristocratic one in a way which did not derive from a social rank which they themselves (for the most part) lacked, but from an ideal extending to all areas of mind, morality and manners: an ideal which bestowed on the word ‘noble’ its moral as well as its social sense and ultimately aspired to a perfect order in which the noble in one sense were noble in the other, what Fielding and others sometimes spoke of as ‘the great and good’. The lordly accents of Augustan satirists who make no pretence of being lords proceed from an attachment to a standard which remains live even as reality violates it at every turn. They accepted the aristocratic model as essentially valid, despising lords not because the model was lacking but because the lords were. Thus peers, like scribblers, became mob to Pope if, and only if, their moral nobility didn’t match the title. Scribblers who had moral nobility were not scribblers but poets, a status which Pope is not slow, as Ehrenpreis knows, to call noble. But the important thing is not that the moral nobility is better than the social, though of course it is: it is that the social nobility and its idiom and pretensions are adopted as the appropriate badge for it.

This should not be sentimentalised. Swift and Pope despised the pride of social rank, but they were not altogether without hankerings or affectations that way. Their hauteurs have a fervour not unlike those of Yeats, and very different from the cool, confident lordliness of a Chesterfield: a fervour which may derive from a commitment to aristocratic values, shot through with an anxiety of not belonging. The Yeats of those great poems which evoke the ceremonious country-house civilisation which he associated with the century of Swift and Burke was also the Yeats who made silly attempts to prove a noble lineage for himself. His claims to be descended from ‘the real Butlers’ of the noble Ormonde line sound very much like those of Swift’s patron Harley, who claimed a connection with the de Veres and Mortimers. Swift thought Harley overvalued such things even though, as Ehrenpreis notes, Swift didn’t disclose and perhaps didn’t know that the claim was unfounded: but there is evidence that in a smaller way both Swift and Pope would have welcomed a grander lineage for themselves. The signs of this perhaps melted more readily into a context in which aristocratic assumptions were more widely taken for granted than in Yeats’s time. Yeats had in a sense to re-create a lordly ethos where this was no longer dominant, and to do so largely by force of individual aspiration and fantasy.

Like Yeats, Swift had oscillating feelings about the ‘common people’, amusingly epitomised in his emending of ‘the Rabble’ to ‘my faithful Friends the Common People’ in the 1735 revised edition of the fifth Drapier’s Letter. And he had something of Yeats’s habit of valuing the highest and the lowest ranks at the expense of the money-minded middle to which the Drapier, ambiguously, both does and does not belong. Swift was indeed mythologised by Yeats into a Yeatsian hero. He may have invented part of the likeness, but one learns much about Swift through Yeats’s many vivid evocations of him. Pope, on the other hand, Yeats disliked, but it is remarkable that the arrogant decasyllabic sweep of some of Yeats’s most imperious grandee poems is much closer to the later style of Pope than to anything in his beloved Swift, and it is not far-fetched to surmise that Yeats’s feelings about Pope contained something of the antipathy of unadmitted resemblance.

Ehrenpreis is strongest on Pope. With Swift, on whom he is one of the small handful of very good critics now writing, this book is less happy. The exclusive concentration on the Examiner and the Drapier’s Letters has the slightly magisterial self-consciousness of the expert bestowing his attention on the lesser works of an author he knows too well. These writings are important, but they are not Swift’s most important or most characteristic works, even in relation to Ehrenpreis’s chosen theme. Ehrenpreis is good on the blend of ‘impersonation’ and ‘irony’ in the two quasi-authorial speakers, but the role of the Drapier especially was one which didn’t sit easily on Swift – perhaps because the figure of a tradesman was the least likely to arouse his genuine unforced respect. This is itself matter for the argument of the book, but the fact is not really faced, and Ehrenpreis writes below his usual perceptiveness when he presents the Drapier’s awkward overemphasis on his ignorance or social meanness as a Socratic naiveté and a mastery of tone on Swift’s part.

His two other authors, Dryden and Austen, are less typically suited to his twin themes: the interplay of overt statement and covert meaning, and the combination of acquiescence in the social order with a ‘distrust of courtiers’. The chapter on Dryden is devoted to plays, where authorial attitudes are less easy to infer because there is no authorial speaker, although there is in fact discussion of the relation of some characters’ statements to authorial views and their ‘covert’ meaning in the contemporary political context. But the strongest things in this chapter have to do with the relationship of the plays to Classical and chivalric epic, and with the role of sexual passion as a force which habitually engineers the ‘reversals’ in the plays’ action. There are interesting discussions of sexual preoccupations in the other authors, especially Pope and Austen, but the attempt to merge these with the main arguments is not entirely successful.

Jane Austen is the only one of the four authors whose ‘distrust of courtiers’ is based on membership of an intermediate social group with a solidarity of its own. The three earlier authors are on the edge of a courtly culture, maintaining their relationship to it through personal gifts of art and intellect, and without a secure and definable milieu independent of that culture. The social comedy of Jane Austen takes us outside the world in which Ehrenpreis is most at home, and is not fully assimilated in what is nevertheless a rich and energetic book.