Heroes

Pat Rogers

  • Hume and the Heroic Portrait: Studies in 18th-Century Imagery by Edgar Wind, edited by Jaynie Anderson
    Oxford, 139 pp, £29.50, May 1986, ISBN 0 19 817371 7
  • Augustan Studies: Essays in honour of Irvin Ehrenpreis edited by Douglas Lane Patey and Timothy Keegan
    University of Delaware Press, 270 pp, £24.50, May 1986, ISBN 0 87413 272 X
  • The 18th Century: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1700-1789 by James Sambrook
    Longman, 290 pp, £15.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 582 49306 4

Sated with hermeneutics, weary of metacriticism? No head for the heights of abstraction – vertigo hits you as soon as you set foot on the gossamer constructions of current art theory? You get ringing in your ears when you read Norman Bryson, and fear you have caught Ménière’s disease off the page? Do not despair. There is a remedy. The second posthumous volume of Edgar Wind’s essays outdoes even its sumptuous predecessor in intellectual glitter and academic burnishing. Only 120 large pages of text, but they come with 124 plates; in the ratio of historical weight to linear extent they must constitute the densest object in the universe of books. If a more searching scholarly examination of mainstream European ideas has been published in this country during the 1980s, then I have missed it.

Although Wind was chiefly known as a Renaissance specialist, it was his longish essay ‘Humanitätsidee und heroisiertes Porträt des 18. Jahrhunderts’ which helped to make his name just before he came to the Warburg Institute in 1933. At the centre of this essay, and of the new volume, is the figure of Joshua Reynolds: again, if one does not immediately connect Wind with Reynolds, it should be pointed out that in the relevant entry in the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, Wind supplies more items than any other secondary authority. Some of these items are fairly slight, but even a short note on Blake and Reynolds, dating from 1957, makes a sharp and persuasive impact. One brief study, entitled ‘ “Borrowed Attitudes” in Reynolds and Hogarth’ (1938), is already a classic, though certain details can be challenged. Its central assertions remain suggestive and fecund: ‘Reynolds’s imagination lost some of its freedom and self-assurance when it ascended from the intermediate to the grand style. As long as he was translating the sublime into the fashionable, he was inventive and sure of his ground: when he reversed the process and attempted to raise the fashionable into the sublime, he became less certain of his powers and therefore more servile in his copying.’

Among the remaining essays, there is a pair which hinge on West and Copley, both of which bring out the crucial importance of West’s picture of the death of Wolfe. We knew well enough that this was a watershed in art history, but Wind shows us why, in much greater detail and in a richer historical context. James Thornhill’s comparatively little-known versions of ‘modern’ life are tellingly invoked. Then there is an amazingly learned search for the sources of David’s Oath of the Horatii. The trail leads through Gluck, Garrick, the ballet-master Noverre, Lavoisier, Beaumarchais and (less of a displaced person now, than when Wind was writing in 1941) Salieri. It is nard to imagine a reader with any developed interest in Enlightenment culture who would not find this study at once fascinating and illuminating. Once more, time has brought a few scholarly revenges, and in this case, on somewhat technical grounds, Anita Brookner has questioned Wind’s theory of balletic influence. But the appeal of the essay lies not so much in its precise destination as in the vistas opened out along the route.

Unquestionably, the major contribution to our understanding is to be found in Wind’s essay on the heroic portrait. The substance of this lies in its anatomy of 18th-century portraiture under various heads: portraits of children, of young girls, of men of learning, of military and professional men, of actors and of women. None of these could be termed a neglected area, yet Wind constantly illuminates well-worn issues. He re-animates the tired exercise of comparing and contrasting Reynolds and Gainsborough with a series of flashing insights into particular works: in Reynolds’s portrait of Beattie ‘the pompous treatment contrasted strangely with the slightness of the subject.’ But in Allan Ramsay’s picture of Hume ‘the monumental character of the man strongly emerges from a painting which does not claim to make his achievement visible in symbolic form.’ In Gainsborough’s view of Dr Schomberg, ‘his expression is not that of a man shown in action at an exceptional, perhaps the most important, moment in his life: rather he conveys a sense of normality, something a man can achieve and maintain in his everyday existence.’ (Reynolds, by contrast, shows General Heathfield at a crucial juncture in his professional career, heroically striking the appropriate attitude.) Wind is especially good on Reynolds in playful or parodic mood; he sees that ‘not for one moment does [he] assume that in depicting a woman as Hebe or Juno he is investing her with some rightful sign of divinity.’ Equally, his discussion of the familiar contest between tragic and comic muses makes fuller sense of the celebrated picture of Garrick, caught on the horns of an agreeably pressing dilemma.

It will be apparent from the quotations that the team of translators who worked on this essay has managed to produce a style that is not only good English in its own right but also consonant with Wind’s own use of this language. The only doubtful feature is the title – evidently Wind’s own choice – which draws attention to the thinnest aspect of the study. To simplify the argument only a little, Wind contends that Reynolds can be aligned with the heroic, noble, Roman, grand-style figure of Samuel Johnson: a believer, albeit a troubled one. Hume, on the other hand, underwrites the art of Gainsborough – in his naturalness, distrust of the grandiose, bent towards particularity and rejection of authority. This is not argued through with great rigour: Hume is cited in a rather promiscuous fashion, from essays, histories and dialogue as much as from the major philosophic texts. Moreover, Wind’s use of the term ‘sceptical’ makes for a certain haziness of effect: the suspicion of generalising which Hume evinces – and which, by extension, Gainsborough displays in non-heroic representations of his sitters – is surely more accurately seen as nominalism, or even simply as empiricism. Scepticism is a different concept, and could only be imputed if one looked closely at Hume’s more technical reasoning.

This is an oddity of nomenclature, and does not matter much, for Wind works by amassing information rather than by ratiocinative intricacy. He lacks Pevsner’s wit, he does not have the sweep of Gombrich’s mind, he is without the charm and finesse with which David Piper writes: yet his criticism of Reynolds in this volume reaches to a deeper level of penetration than any of them achieved on the artist. Why this should be is a teasing question. I am inclined to think that the answer may be banal, not to say dull. We learn most, perhaps, from those commentators who unveil concrete links and echoes in the utterances of the past. A formal analysis, however subtle, confirms what we have half-intuited anyway: but a thorough historical study brings to light features we simply did not perceive at any level. It is much the same with musicology: stimulating as it may be to read Hans Keller, his analysis of a Haydn quartet puts names and dockets on relationships we might hope to apprehend by our own cruder mechanisms. On the other hand, a richly fraught historical survey gives us new ears to piece out the meaning of the music. Whatever the truth of this, the huge distinction of Wind’s brand of art history survives all the wranglings of theory. He scarcely attends to painterly qualities as such – imagine a student of Cézanne who should ignore the colouring or brushwork – and he does not itemise aspects of composition with any great enthusiasm. He simply explores the messages of the paint, overt and covert, and nobody has ever done it so well in this area of English art.

To the unprofessional reader, your average commemorative volume is about as challenging and intellectually risqué as Susanna’s secret. There’s a practically audible rattle of filing-cabinets and a whiff of stale tippex. Augustan Studies makes one of the rare exceptions, largely because the man whom it honours was large and various enough to ensure distinguished contributors and substantive topics; nobody’s in here just because he was a long-time acolyte or even that pleasant guy in the next office. The book was planned as a festschrift, but on its way to the press its mission has been re-defined as a commemorative offering, following Ehrenpreis’s sad death in an accident in July 1985.

The full range of scholarly interests which Ehrenpreis developed over his 65 years may not be apparent from the essays in this book: you have to go instead to the handlist of his publications printed at the end. These show him at work, in reviews at least, on Lowell, Auden, Plath, Heaney, Ashbery and many more. He made his name as a specialist on Swift, where his monumental biography, completed in 1983, has told us more than any previous source about the man, his works and the age, to draw on a subtitle Victorian in its confident amplitude. His most lasting book may yet prove to be Literary Meaning and Augustan Values (1974), containing essays on matters such as the literary persona, all very near the centre of critical gravity for the last two decades. The commemorative volume wins its coherence by devoting itself to Ehrenpreis’s ‘period’ – that is, 17th and 18th-century writing. The British cohort is impressive among the list of contributors: almost all have an Oxford base, and that is appropriate in view of Ehrenpreis’s links with the university. It also means we have several of the best academic critics now at work disporting themselves, some a bit off-limits, and all exhibiting qualities of sense and sensibility the commemoratee would have relished.

There is, for instance, Roger Lonsdale, presenting with due flourish a work by the painter and art theorist Jonathan Richardson the elder, and illuminating Richardson’s own little-known life (down to a new birth-year) as well as the career of his young friend Pope. Lonsdale never writes without managing to teach one something, a critical secret which the rest of us would like to be let in on. It happens that here he seems to own, more Oxoniensi, a book we can’t lay hands on even in the Bodleian – but that is not the case elsewhere. Christopher Ricks extracts much of his dazzling account of Clarendon’s History from the OED, which is on pretty open access. Anybody can look up ‘ingeminate, v.’ – but who else would dare to leap over a terrible pun (‘artificial ingemination’) to the ‘wit and weight’ of Clarendon’s style? As always, there is a deep responsiveness beneath the word-play: a sort of comic business goes on, to make light of a painfully affective and yearning sense of what literature does for us.

Strong and characteristic essays by Emrys Jones and Rachel Trickett draw clear critical lines around, respectively, Dryden as translator of Lucretius, and a Stiltrennung between descriptive modes in 18th-century prose and verse. Apt to the commemorative theme is a rather gentle, musing discussion by Mary Lascelles of ‘Some Patterns in Epitaph and Elegy’. Miss Lascelles argues that epitaphs inhabited a kind of communal realm where free borrowing was possible without acknowledgment. She instances a quotation from Johnson in the epitaph for a vicar choral at Lichfield Cathedral. The general point may well be sound, but the specific example could be misleading. This epitaph was written, in fact, by Anna Seward, to the love of her life John Saville, and she told a friend: ‘The last line is Dr Johnson’s. My imagination refused to supply me with one equally applicable, therefore it was adopted.’ Not quite the same as the ‘coincidence and indebtedness’ Miss Lascelles describes as ‘to be expected where countless people ... respond to a common prompting’.

Most of the other contributors are Americans, and they too provide substantial fare. G.A. Starr is provocatively wide-ranging on ‘sentimental de-education’ (some nice turns: ‘The sentimental hero ... learns nothing and forgets nothing’); whilst Leopold Damrosch makes a wise appraisal of Rasselas – for Johnson, ‘art is a kind of delusion, a substitute for reality and often an illicit improvement upon it.’ Ralph Cohen follows the transgeneric fortunes and misfortunes of George Barnwell, and Maximillian Novak pursues sincerity and authenticity in Defoe. He sees Bishop Hoadly as a catalyst here, but doesn’t note one irony: Hoadly may have ‘shared more than a few ideas with Defoe’, but he is thought to have been the author of a newspaper attack on Crusoe, as a book which has had ‘that uncommon Run upon the Town ... for no other Reason but that it is a most palpable Lye, from Beginning to End.’ David Wykes copes well enough with ‘she-tragedy’ until his last paragraph, when he mentions ‘Bellini’s Roberto Devereux’. Hard on Donizetti, but I suppose all counts look grey in the dark doings of romantic opera.

The longest and most significant item is an essay by Margaret Anne Doody connecting Gulliver’s Travels and Virgil’s Georgics. This covers a variety of animal and vegetable themes; the links which it proposes range from the bones and skulls dug up in Brobdignag (from the end of the first Georgic) to Houyhnhnm horse-breeding (from the early part of the third). Some connections are traced through the mediation of translators, notably Dryden; others are pointed up graphically by plates from Ogilby’s Virgil, that durable recourse of iconographic folk-memory. Other convergences exist on a subtler level of intertextual dialogue, and Doody’s tact ensures that looser parallels are not dragged into implausible intimacy – rather, their resemblance is left as a suggestive outline. It is a merit of this outstanding essay that it leaves plenty of room for development and debate.

Amazingly, this is true also of James Sambrook’s new book, whose title presages the boring marginality of ‘contextual’ study. To make a background textbook a living thing, and indeed a work animated by the vigour and gusto of the age it describes, calls for powers most of us lack (experto credite). Sambrook begins from science and makes a better fist of Newtonianism than most literary scholars; he rather downplays medicine and the origins of psychiatry, but is very strong on the impact of harder physical and biological findings. Religion is right in there, up-front, to deny J.C.D. Clark’s claim that historical studies evade the biggest issue. Sambrook moves through philosophy, politics and history, aesthetics and the visual arts – a good section on sculpture for once. There is nothing on music, which was admittedly not central to aesthetic theory in the period: still, it’s sad to have the land without music restored to life by this agency. Sambrook can be tart: he calls poor Samuel Humphreys ‘a writer inexplicably overlooked by Pope when he came to write the Dunciad.’ Maybe, though Esther is not the worst libretto Handel had to set, and Humphreys made the workmanlike translation of the Abbé Pluche’s Spectacle de la Nature: a key text for the age, and heavily quarried by Sambrook’s own pet author, James Thomson.

This is a book which could only have been written by an experienced professional, one who has been round the course many times and knows which parts of the circuit require special care. Sambrook is excellent on landscape gardening, one of his specialities, but equally lively on travel and discovery. He lets the eloquence of history invade his page, as with the wonderful passage early in Burke’s speech on conciliation with America, which evokes the restless journeys of the New England whaling fleet. At the end, the author suggests that Captain Cook epitomises the energy and achievement of the century: a good choice, as in varying degrees are 12 other candidates for representative status. I’d marginally prefer Warren Hastings: here India is present only as the base of corrupt nabobs, and Hastings as the subject (presumably justified) of impeachment. In fact, the Anglo-Indian dimension was important through the period, and the men who ruled India, literally or in practice, from Clive to Wellesley, played a crucial role in more than domestic matters. Incidentally, Sambrook’s candidates are all male. I don’t see why Mrs Thrale couldn’t be seen to epitomise an age whose values underwent steady feminisation: many thoughts and deeds labelled effeminate at the start of the century were orthodox by its close.

After such commendations it is not agreeable to end on a carping note, and all right, the LRB is not the place for laborious pedantry. But both the last two books are a little tarnished by carelessness in matters of detail. Augustan Studies is pleasant to look at, but must have been computer-set on a keyboard which takes umbrage at the sight of an accent. So we have distractingly headless forms such as ‘Les Reveries du promeneur solitaire’ or ‘Le Jour se Lève’ (a film Ehrenpreis intriguingly reviewed). Sambrook is wonky on French genders and concords (‘une mensonge grossier’, ‘Nouvelle considérations’), and he gives Halley’s ode prefixed to Newton’s Principia a strained but wrong sense by printing proprius for propius. It may not matter much that books are misdated here and there, that George Lyttelton’s name is spelt indifferently right or wrong, or that Lawrence Gowing becomes ‘Gowring’. But a student sent by the bibliography in quest of ‘Whittkower’ might not end up at Wittkower’s door; Marjorie Hope Nicolson is three times hidden as ‘Nicholson’; the enquirer after Bolingbroke will be sidetracked on to the work of ‘Krammick’, and on Burke to ‘C.B. Cove’ (for Cone).

Such slips do not affect the considerable virtues of Sambrook’s text, and anyway we all make mistakes. But it is a pity that a book so surefooted in its dealings with everything from the Grecian to the Gothic, from Palmyra to Pompeii, and from Cheyne to Chambers, should fall down on littlethings. Maybe a future McLuhan will rue not so much the demise of the book as the disappearance of the galley-proof, a landmark of entropy in some theory of cultural catastrophe.