Vol. 16 No. 12 · 23 June 1994
Margaret Anne Doody (LRB, 9 June) jeers that much water has flowed under the bridges of lit crit since I last took a look at it. But she herself is still upstream of a bridge I built in 1952, when I answered the question she poses: Is ‘resonant conciseness’ (in poetry) exactly the same as ‘strength’? I will repeat the answer that I gave then, documenting it then as I can’t, and shouldn’t need to, now: ‘strength’ in relation to poetry means more exactly ‘resonant conciseness’ than it means anything else. In other words, the semi-technical sense that the 17th and 18th centuries gave to ‘strength’ is the only one that we can self-respectingly call on, if as critics we’re still to use the term at all. Doody, on the other hand, equates ‘strong’ with ‘manly’, and takes ‘manly’ to exclude ‘tender’, thus coming up with the would-be conclusive put-down: ‘One could be resonant and concise about tender feelings, but this would be suspect in the Davie system.’ I have no system; and if I had I wouldn’t be so daft as to rule out tenderness from the poetry that I admire and have tried to emulate. Doody takes a semi-technical term, and makes it wholly untechnical. She does the same elsewhere with ‘cant’, which she takes as having to do with doctrine whereas this too is a semi-technical term: ‘language whose meaning has evaporated from continued repetition’ (Chambers). In both cases, as throughout her piece, she refuses to recognise poetry for what it is – a construct in language.
Who has ever denied that Cowper’s Olney hymns are poignantly tender? Answer: those who hear them as mawkish. In my account of Cowper, though no one would guess it from Doody’s review, I was largely concerned to argue that tender is what these poems are, and mawkish they are not. They are also (as I think I show) strong, resonantly concise – the one feature, far from excluding the other, reinforces it. It is only in Doody’s system – not in her experience, which she nowhere appeals to – that the two are incompatible.
Vol. 16 No. 13 · 7 July 1994
In her review of Donald Davie’s The 18th-Century Hymn in England (LRB, 9 June) Margaret Doody notes ‘some puzzling weaknesses’ in Davie’s discussion of the hymn-writers’ presentation of the Crucifixion, and in particular of Isaac Watts’s lines: ‘His dying crimson, like a robe, / Spreads o’er his body on the tree’ (from ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’). However, neither Davie nor Doody appears to realise that Biblical references lie behind the lines. Doody objects to Davie’s calling the image of the Cross as a tree an antique, conceptualising trope, and would see rather a contemporary allusion to Tyburn tree or gallows: so some in the 18th century might have done, but they would more certainly have had a familiarity with Scriptural descriptions of the Cross as a tree: ‘Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree’ (Acts 5.30; cf. Acts 10.39, 13.29; Galatians 3.13; I Peter 2.24).
More significantly, Doody does not challenge Davie’s mistaken view that speaking of Christ’s blood as a crimson robe derives from ‘the idealising and yet sensuously saturated art of the Counter-Reformation’. The image is actually from Isaiah 63.1-3 in which, as the Authorised Version’s headnote says, ‘Christ sheweth who he is’, and Verse Two in particular: ‘Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat?’ Christ replies that he will tread the people in his anger ‘and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.’ The notion is frequent in Christian verse – Fortunatus’ ‘Vexilla Regis’ speaks of a tree adorned with regal purple (‘Arbor … Ornata regis purpura’), and in English poetry it is found before Watts from the waedum (‘garments’) of blood and gold in the Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood to George Herbert’s ‘The Sacrifice’ (‘Then with a scarlet robe they me aray;/Which shews my bloud to be the onely way’).
The failure by both Davie and Doody to grasp the significance of an image found in English poetry from Anglo-Saxon times to the 18th century suggests that, culturally, the distance between those two periods is as nothing compared to that between the 18th century and the present.
Worcester College, Oxford
Vol. 16 No. 14 · 21 July 1994
Edward Wilson (Letters, 7 July) describes as ‘mistaken’ my view that Isaac Watts’s speaking of Christ’s blood as a crimson robe derives from ‘the idealising and yet sensuously saturated art of the Counter-Reformation’. On the contrary, he says, ‘the image is actually from Isaiah 63.1-3’ in the Authorised Version. But ‘derived from’ is not the same as ‘originates with’. And in any case the person in Isaiah whom Wilson calls ‘Christ’, asked why his garments are red, replies that he will wrathfully tread his people ‘and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.’ Watts, who certainly knew the Scriptures as well as Wilson does, explicitly excludes this far from Christlike blood-bespattered figure when he writes ‘His dying crimson, like a robe’. For him in his poem the blood is that of the crucified victim, not of any victims that he may be thought to have slaughtered. What Wilson calls ‘the image’ in fact (‘actually’) comprises two images, mutually incompatible. Similarly, though less flagrantly, the lines quoted by Wilson from George Herbert’s ‘The Sacrifice’ refer to the robe (Matthew colours it scarlet, in Mark it is purple) which the mocking soldiers put upon Christ, only to strip it from him before he went to crucifixion (whereas in Watts the real or figurative robe is worn on the Cross). Again, ‘the image’ turns out to be two distinct images, though Herbert to be sure tries to conflate them. Red, scarlet, crimson, purple – the words may be interchangeable in some contexts, but not in poetry. Purple, the imperial colour as in ‘Vexilla Regis’, points to an aspect of Christ that Watts will make much of elsewhere, which here by using ‘crimson’ he excludes. Wilson, accusing me and Margaret Doody of looking no further back than to the 18th century, is right insofar as we have learned to be warier than he is of using words like ‘actually’.
Vol. 16 No. 15 · 4 August 1994
Donald Davie’s reply (Letters, 23 June) to my observations on his unawareness of Biblical allusion betrays an ignorance of Christian hermeneutic tradition. The typological identification of the man from Edom with red garments from Bozrah (Isaiah 63) as Christ is not mine, as Davie asserts (‘whom Wilson calls “Christ” ’), but goes back to the Church Fathers, and persisted not only through the Middle Ages but into Reformation tradition as well – my letter noted it in the Authorised Version’s headnote (‘Christ showeth who he is’). Though Davie personally might find this figure ‘far form Christ-like’ he might fruitfully ponder its occurrence in Lancelot Andrewes’s Easterday sermon on this very text in 1623: ‘it can be none but Christ,’ says Andrewes, who gives the blood a double reference: ‘His owne, His enemie’s blood: One sanguis agni, the blood of the lambe slaine: the other sanguis Draconis, the blood of the dragon, the red-dragon trode upon. One of His Passion, three dayes since: the other of his victorie, as to day.’ As for the scarlet and purple robes of Matthew and Mark, they are the figural fulfilment of both Isaiah 63 and Canticles 5.10. Red, comments Andrewes, ‘was His colour at His Passion. They put Him in purple: then it was His weed in derision’; quoting Isaiah 1.18 (on our sins as scarlet) Andrewes says that ‘crimsin, of as deep die as any purple’ is ‘the true tincture of our sinnes … for, Edom is redd … So was it meet for crimsin sinners to have a crimsin Saviour.’
All this was once a commonly understood inheritance. John Norris’s ‘Pindarique Ode’ on Isaiah 63 (A Collection of Miscellanies, 1687; nine editions by 1740) has Christ say: ‘The blood gush’d out in streams, and checquer’d o’re / My garments with its deepest gore.’ Indeed, not all in the 20th century are uninformed in these allusions: David Jones’s Passiontide fragment. The Fatigue (1965), has the lines: ‘and look: the red-dyed skydrape /from over Bosra way’.
To ‘derive’, as Davie does, Isaac Watts’s crimson robe from a Polish Jesuit is bizarre in the light of such an ancient and common tradition, both Catholic and Protestant. Davie’s stance puts me in mind of a scene from Sheridan’s The Critic, III.1, in which, within a play, a Beefeater utters the line ‘“Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee” ’; those watching comment as follows:
SNEER: Haven’t I heard that line before?
PUFF: No, I fancy not – Where pray?
DANGLE: Yes, I think there is something like it in Othello.
PUFF: Gad! now you put me in mind on’t, I believe there is – but that’s of no consequence – all that can be said is, that two people happened to hit on the same thought – and Shakespeare made use of it first, that’s all.
Davie would say the line derived from the Beefeater; I would say it actually comes from Shakespeare.
Worcester College, Oxford
Vol. 16 No. 16 · 18 August 1994
Edward Wilson (Letters, 4 August) thinks it ‘bizarre’ that I should ‘derive … Isaac Watts’s crimson robe from a Polish Jesuit’. Let it pass that I didn’t quite do that. The point is that my invocation of Matthias Casimire Sarbiewski (1596-1640) isn’t a quirky bright idea of my own. Sarbiewski’s neo-Latin Horatian poems, published in 1625 and 1628, were Englished by G. Hils in 1646, and in that form have been edited by Maren-Sofie Rostvig and reprinted in Los Angeles in 1953. Apart from Watts there are English versions of Casimire by Cowley, by Henry Vaughan in 1651, by John Hughes in 1720 and by the Baptist hymn-writer Anne Steele (1717-78). Another translator of Casimire was the one poet whom Edward Wilson quotes against me, John Norris of Bemerton (1657-1711). Does this induce Wilson to think my ascription to Casimire of a decisive influence on Watts seem less ‘bizarre’? I fear not, even though in his Reliquiae Juveniles (1734) Watts begins his ‘To Dorio. The first Lyrick Hour’ by saying: ‘There’s a Line or two that seem to carry in them I know not what Softness and Beauty in the beginning of the Ode of Casimire, where he describes his first Attempts on the Harp, and his commencing a Lyrick Poet.’ All this documentation, and more, I had to my hand when I wrote The 18th-Century Hymn in England, where I intimated as much, hoping thereby to avoid any parade of pedantry. But I was wrong: the review by Margaret Doody, and subsequently the letters from Wilson, show that literary scholarship is now so competitive and industrialised that if you don’t put your professional credentials on the table, it will be supposed you don’t have them. If Wilson wants to check on me (which I doubt), I direct him to John Hoyles’s shamefully neglected book of 1971, The Waning of the Renaissance 1640-1740. (The date just squeaks in under the wire strung to preserve the common conviction that the intellectual world began again in or about 1968.)
LRB readers have had to put up with the citation of Wilson’s authorities against mine, prompting the suspicion that we’re arguing not with but past each other – which is true. I am concerned with English poetry, and with Watts as a poet; Wilson and Doody are concerned with things they think more important, to which Watts and his poems are at best mere illustrations, more commonly just debating-points.
Wilson now says that I am ignorant of ‘Christian hermeneutic tradition’. So I am; though I know that there is such a tradition. So far as I have looked into it, it is sterile, it has nothing to say to me as a suffering person at the end of the 20th century. The verses which Wilson persists in pressing upon me from Isaiah 63, provoked from Lancelot Andrewes in 1623 (Wilson obligingly quotes it) a gloss or explication for which the kindest word is ‘quaint’. Watts, on the other hand, in a poem (not the famous hymn) which explicitly glosses the same verses while shearing away their barbaric, ancient Israelite connotations, presents me with a figure whose blood I can (figuratively, to be sure) drink when I am at the communion-rail, as I could not, however figuratively, drink the blood of ‘the man from Edom with red garments from Bozrah’. When Watts claimed to ‘christianise’ the Scriptures, he meant what he said: his was a modernising so radical that it left the Christian hermeneutical tradition in tatters that only antiquarians like Edward Wilson try to piece together. Whose blood does Wilson drink when he comes to the communion-rail (if he does)? It is an impertinent question, but inescapable. T.S. Eliot in 1926, applauding Lancelot Andrewes, declared Donne inferior to him in that ‘Donne has, on the one hand, much more in common with the Jesuits, and, on the other hand, much more in common with the Calvinists, than has Andrewes.’ Just so; two generations after Andrewes, Isaac Watts became just what Eliot in dismay foresaw: a person who, like Donne, sympathised with Jesuit and Calvinist alike, as mainstream Anglicans could not. We have only to look at our hymn-books to see that Watts’s modernisation carried the day. It is our good fortune, and yet no accident either, that Watts was also an elegant and scrupulous poet.