Ferdinand Mount

  • Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears by Thomas Dixon
    Oxford, 438 pp, £25.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 967605 7

To weep or not to weep: that has always been a question, repeatedly posing itself, and never answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Crying is such a two-faced thing: on the one hand, we think of it as uncontrollable, like a flinch; we burst into tears, we are racked by sobs. But we know that crying can be wilful too, a deliberate demonstration to the world of how we feel, or how we would like others to think we feel. On such occasions we have a choice and we know we have one.

Tears were, on the whole, rather approved of in our house. My father liked to say: ‘I have no time for a man who cannot weep’ (he may have been quoting Churchill). At bedtime, tears would gather in his blue-bloodshot eyes as he read his favourite poems to us. John Dowland’s ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’ was a favourite. Another was Christina Rossetti’s ‘When I am dead, my dearest, sing no sad songs for me’. Both injunctions not to cry made us cry too, as such injunctions do, the admonishment of the dying Socrates to his support team being an early example.

At the same time, the anti-blub code in force at school and the fear of ridicule kept my lips from trembling too visibly in public. Private sensibility and public stoicism coexisted, uneasily perhaps, but taken for granted. Literature taught us that the choice to cry or not to cry could be a noble one: ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now’; ‘Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail or knock the breast.’ Samson’s father, like Mark Antony, assumes that his audience could choose to mourn their dead hero either by weeping or not weeping, and that he can offer cogent reasons to move them one way or the other. In that sense, ‘a tear is an intellectual thing,’ as Blake puts it in ‘The Grey Monk’.

For the same reason, the history of weeping is a slippery enterprise. At the end of his immensely readable and often puckish exploration, Thomas Dixon sighs, with reason, that ‘it is impossible to pin tears down.’ Dixon directs the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. Keats might have thought this rather like a Department for Unweaving the Rainbow. Dixon is no dry-eyed Dryasdust. He confesses that he himself is liable to weep at operas and soap operas, at the triumphs and disasters of Wimbledon and the Olympics. He points out nicely that Andy Murray followed Kipling’s injunction to ‘treat those two impostors just the same’, which is inscribed over the entrance to the Centre Court, by weeping both when he lost and when he won. I share Dixon’s weak – or is it strong? – tear ducts. As he reminds us of the great tear-jerkers of English culture – Sydney Carton’s imagined speech from the scaffold, Nurse Cavell’s last words, Celia Johnson’s return to her husband in Brief Encounter – the allusions alone were enough to start my eyes pricking.

Now and then Dixon may be a fraction too jocular for some tastes. Effusions tend to be described as ‘damp’, ‘aqueous’ or ‘briny’. There is also a good deal of repetition. We are reminded four times of Blake’s maxim, almost as often of Robert Burton’s admittedly splendid description of tears as ‘excrementitious humours of the third concoction’. But Dixon’s instinct for connections and comparisons is unfailingly sharp and illuminating. He ranges effortlessly from Margery Kempe (b. 1373) to Marjorie Proops (d. 1996). We may be vaguely aware of the way fashions in emotional display have changed over the centuries and of how they vary too across nations, classes and cultures, but to see the violent swings set out for us, and in such a rich mulch of reference, is to gain a livelier sense of how mutable and malleable we are. I would like to have seen Dixon explore the linkages, barely touched on here, between tears and laughter, and anger too. I also regret that the book refers only fleetingly to the classical heritage of crying and not-crying, particularly because the recurrent revivals of Stoicism have such a bearing on the ups and downs of English weeping.

In fact, a comprehensive lachrymatics might begin with the tears of Odysseus. How often and how easily he weeps: on the shores of Calypso’s island when he thinks of home, then when he sees his drunken shipmate Elpenor in Hades, also in Hades when his dead mother tells him that back in Ithaca Penelope’s eyes are never free from tears, there too when he meets Agamemnon and they swap unhappy memories and the tears roll down their cheeks. Homeric tears, like Homeric anger, seem natural and unforced.

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