Category Archives: Literature

Eliot, Kipling and Intertextuality

Those familiar with T S Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’ will know that many of its lines echo earlier writers. For example,

But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring

recalls Marvell’s

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near

Indeed, Eliot helpfully provides notes to the poem identifying his sources, and he writes in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ that:

. . . the most individual parts of his (the poet’s) work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.

This is a special case of what Julia Kristeva, drawing on the work of the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, has termed intertextuality, to refer to the ways in which all utterances form part of a ‘chain of speech communication’. Bakhtin himself used the term heteroglossia to describe the way in which the language we all use is made up of voices and texts associated with different contexts and different social groups. Bakhtin also introduced the notion of double-voicing, in which language is recycled and used in new contexts. ‘The Waste Land’ illustrates this explicitly in the section entitled ‘A Game of Chess’, where the dialogue includes this example of speech in a London pub:

If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.

The scene ends with the landlord calling time, but the speech ends with a nod to Ophelia’s speech in Act IV, Scene v of ‘Hamet’:

Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that, in recently reading the first volume of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography ‘An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist’, I came across these lines from Kipling’s ‘The Long Trail’:

There’s a whisper down the field where the year has shot her yield,
And the ricks stand grey to the sun,
Singing: ‘Over then, come over, for the bee has quit the clover,
And your English summer’s done.

Readers of Eliot might find it has a familiar ring. Remember the opening of ‘Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat’?

There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
Saying “Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can’t start.

Similar metre and syntax. It can hardly be a coincidence.


Filed under Language, Literature

Life Ends at 67

I’ve just finished reading Anthony Trollope’s novel ‘The Fixed Period’. Published in 1882, it’s set in the former British colony of Britannula in 1980. Its president is John Neverbend, who has persuaded his parliament to enact a law requiring all citizens to retire from life at the age of 67, and enter a college where they would be executed during the following year. It was all to be performed with the utmost dignity, and everyone would be allowed a comfortable final year. The first to be, in the wording of the law,  ‘deposited’ in the college is Neverbend’s very good friend Gabriel Crasweller. He was once a strong supporter of the plan, but his enthusiasm, perhaps understandably, has diminished now that his time has come. The whole thing is thwarted with the arrival of the Royal Navy vessel ‘John Bright’, whose captain is under orders to reclaim the republic for Britain and to install a governor. Neverbend is taken away to Britain, and he writes his account while on the voyage;

There are some similarities with Trollope’s other novels. He has his usual fun with names. As well as Neverbend himself, a cricket team visiting from Britain includes Sir Kennington Oval, Lord Marleybone and Sir Lords Longstop, and the commander of HMS ‘John Bright’ is Captain Battleax. There is a love interest involving Neverbend’s son and the condemned man’s daughter, complicated by a question of an inheritance. Apart from that, it’s quite unlike his other novels, and it is that that has prompted this post. There are no clergymen seeking advancement in quiet cathedral cities and no political intrigue of the kind found in the Palliser novels. It’s disturbing in Neverbend’s unquestioning assumption that euthanasia is a good thing, but comical in its treatment of the subject. The tone is sometimes that of Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ (kill babies to feed the poor) and sometimes that of the Grossmiths’ ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ (the humourless Mr Pooter). It’s an easy read, and I recommend it. It’s available free from Kindle, or you can read it on Gutenberg.

For more on dystopian novels, including this one, before Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, see here. For more on ‘The Fixed Period’ and on its relevance to Trollope’s life, see David Lodge’s 2012 Guardian article.


Filed under Literature

The Perils of Quotation

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!

These are the words that are to appear under the portrait of Jane Austen on the UK’s £10 note. A great sentiment, you might think, very apt in these days when television, mobile phones, tablets, laptops, games are ruining the young and they don’t even know how to read, and if they do they only read rubbish, when I was their age I’d already read the complete works of Shakespeare in three languages and knew the whole of Paradise Lost by heart, and . . .  Well, you know how it goes.

Now, here’s the thing. Jane Austen didn’t say ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!’ As William Germano reminds us here, they’re the words she put into the mouth of Caroline Bingley, when she’s trying to impress Mr Darcy. This is perfectly clear when the speech is read in context:

Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, ‘How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.’

No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement . . .

These are not the words of a devoted reader of fine literature. Rather, they are the words of a parvenue, a poser, a wannabe, but most of those with the notes in their wallets won’t know that. As a professor of English literature, Germano may well appreciate the picture drawn of ‘Caroline Bingley’s insincere praise of reading’, and see that ‘behind her character’s vacuousness is Austen’s own sincerity—cool, ironic, and more complex than one might expect for a writer as inexhaustibly popular as she.’ But if they are read, as they no doubt will be, as Jane Austen’s own words, rather than as part of her cynical portrayal of a shallow and scheming woman, their use in this way will fail to do her justice. Those who chose them for our tenner no doubt did so with the best of intentions. It’s just a pity they didn’t bother to read the passage from which they’re taken.


Filed under Literature, Politics

By Paths Coincident


Those of us who take an interest in the way language works are sometimes in danger of neglecting what it can do. In an attempt to redress any such imbalance, this post examines the way in which one of the masters of English exploits its possibilities.A sinister mate

Until my old school-friend Roy Blackman brought it to my notice, I hadn’t been aware of Thomas Hardy’s poem on the ‘Titanic’ (text below). Roy has created a series of paintings inspired by the poem, and, with his permission, I am pleased to be able show a few of these evocative works here.

Hardy’s poem is so intricately made that it would take a longer post to bring out all its subtleties. I’ll mention just a few. For a start, the title, in combining the Latin ‘convergence’ with the Germanic ‘twain’, foreshadows the bringing together of the two contrasts which are the subjec of the poem: the work of nature in the iceberg and the work of man in the ship.

IMG_0005The poem’s unusual form complements  the exceptional nature of the ‘Titanic’ disaster. In each stanza,  the first two lines have three feet, and the third six feet. Each stanza has one terminal masculine rhyme, repeated only once, where the rhymes meant, opulent and indifferent in the third stanza are echoed by bent, coincident and event in the tenth. Given those threes and sixes, we might have expected a poem of twelve stanzas, but, in giving it eleven, Hardy seems to depict a gap between our expectations and reality that reflects a similar gap on the part of the passengers and crew of the ‘Titanic’.

By paths coincident(1)Verbal clashes, such as that in the title, are apparent throughout the poem. In the last line of the first stanza the mundane ‘that planned her’ contrasts with the dislocated word order and rarefied vocabulary of ‘stilly couches she’. Similar contrasts follow in the next stanza: ‘steel chambers’ and ‘pyres’, ‘salamandrine’ and ‘fires’, ‘cold currents’ and ‘thrid’, ‘tidal’ and ‘lyres’.  ‘Thrid’ is a variant spelling of ‘thread’, having the extended meaning, in the OED’s definition, of ‘to pass through, make a hole through, penetrate, pierce’.

In the third stanza, Hardy contrasts the former opulence of the ‘Titanic’ with its present state on the sea bed. Its mirrors, which once reflected the images of the rich are now covered in sea-worms. The jewels that once embellished its fashionable passengers are now alliteratively ‘bleared and black and blind’.

IMG_0004Alliteration occurs again in the fifth stanza, where the fish ‘gaze at the gilded gear’, wondering what place all ‘this vaingloriousness’ has in the depths of the ocean. Hardy attempts an explanation in the following stanza, attributing everything to ‘the Immanent Will’ which,  whatever it is, has prepared ‘a sinister mate’. The word ‘mate’ is well chosen, describing, as it does, an assistant officer on a ship, but also denoting ‘shipmates’ (colleagues on a ship) and a sexual partner. The seventh stanza ends with the words ‘for the time far and dissociate’. The iceberg and the ship were made in places and ways that could hardly have been more different. ‘Alien they seemed to be’, but Hardy borrows the word ‘welding’ from the shipbuilding process to describe ‘their later history’.

IMG_0007Roy has called his collection ‘By Paths Coincident’, the second line of the tenth stanza. Once again, the juxtapostion of the Germanic and ordinary ‘paths’ and the unusual and Latinate ‘coincident’ reminds the reader of the cataclysmic union of two opposites. There is an added layer of meaning in the way in which the combination  ‘by’ and paths’ suggests ‘bypaths’, which formerly had a sinister overtone (for example, By what by-paths, and indirect crookt waies, I met this crowne’,  Henry IV, Pt. 2)). Finally, ‘coincident’ suggests ‘coincidence’, made ironically effective here because a coincidence is often either trivial or a ‘happy’ coincidence. Hardy also used coincidence to great effect in his novels.

IMG_0002In the final stanza, ‘the Spinner of the Years’ utters ‘Now!’ as if playing some hideous game. ”The Spinner of the Years’ seems to be that same ‘President of the Immortals’ who, at the end of ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ ‘had ended his sport with Tess.’ As an earlier poet had one of his characers say:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

That was a recurrent theme in Hardy’swork, and one which he skilfully handles here. Roy’s paintings are a fitting accompaniment.


The Convergence of the Twain

By Thomas Hardy

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)


In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity,

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.


Steel chambers, late the pyres

Of her salamandrine fires,

Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.


Over the mirrors meant

To glass the opulent

The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.


Jewels in joy designed

To ravish the sensuous mind

Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.


Dim moon-eyed fishes near

Gaze at the gilded gear

And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” …


Well: while was fashioning

This creature of cleaving wing,

The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything


Prepared a sinister mate

For her — so gaily great —

A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.


And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.


Alien they seemed to be;

No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of their later history,


Or sign that they were bent

By paths coincident

On being anon twin halves of one august event,


Till the Spinner of the Years

Said “Now!” And each one hears,

And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.



Filed under Literature

How We Spoke Then

In a previous post, I discussed Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’. I’m now re-reading his ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy. It was first published in the 1950s, so it is perhaps unsurprising how dated many of the words and expressions his characters have become. It is set in the era of RAF-speak, satirised in the Monty Python banter sketch:

Top-hole. Bally Jerry, pranged his kite right in the how’s-your-father; hairy blighter, dicky-birded, feathered back on his sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harpers and caught his can in the Bertie.

They include, with, for those below a certain age, approximate translations:

blighter – an unpleasant person, a bastard, but can be used in a neutral sense as well
tight – drunk, pissed (also mean)
the balloon going up – things going wrong, all hell breaking loose, sewage hitting the air conditioning
a lot of rot – nonsense, rubbish, a load of crap
– flirty
– catch on, understand
flap – a
state of worry or excitement, particularly in a military sense
goner someone who is dead or someone or something in some other way lost
decent kind, accommodating, pleasant, opposite of beastly
beastly – of behaviour or speech unbecoming polite society, oppsite of decent
the blower telephone
a bit thick– too much of some kind of unacceptable behaviour
topping – great

I was surprised to find that two, the balloon going up and a lot of rot, have citations in the OED as late as 2004. Of the rest, none is later than 1961 (although not all entries have been subject to the OED’s latest revisions). On the other hand, the contemporary Corpus of Web-Based Global English has 22 records for the balloon goes up, and 115 for blighter.


Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language, Literature, Syntax, Vocabulary

The Warden of Wadham

Maurice Bowra was the Warden of Wadham College, Oxford from 1938 to 1970. I once saw him in the pub nearest to Wadham, The King’s Arms. I was going to say simply that I once saw him in the King’s Arms, but that would be, in a way, to out-Bowra Bowra.

Bowra was a distinguished classical scholar, but he is also remembered for his ambiguous sexuality and a handful of witty quotations, some of which derive from it. Here’s a selection:

  • I am a man more dined against than dining.
  • Buggery was invented to fill that awkward hour between evensong and cocktails.
  • With one or two exceptions, colleges expect their players of games to be reasonably literate.
  • Splendid couple—slept with both of them (on hearing of the engagement of two of his friends).
  • Buggers can’t be choosers (explaining his engagement, later called off, to a plain girl).
  • I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford I, at least, am known by my face (on covering his head, rather than his middle, when a punt-load of ladies mistakenly entered the stretch of the River Cherwell reserved for male naturists, known as Parson’s Pleasure).


Filed under Literature

Gradus Ad Parnassum

Latin is in equal measure an amazing and an exasperating language, and Virgil is one of its most amazing and exasperating writers. My gob was well and truly smacked when I came across this passage, lines 725-29 of Book II of the ‘Aeneid’:

ferimur per opaca locorum,
et me, quem dudum non ulla iniecta movebant
tela neque aduerso glomerati examine Grai,
nunc omnes terrent aurae, sonus excitat omnis
suspensum et pariter comitique onerique timentem.

David West’s translation in Penguin Classics gives:

. . . we moved along, keeping to the shadows. This was the man who had been unmoved by all the missiles of the Greeks and had long faced their serried ranks without a tremor, but now every breath of wind frightened me and I started at every sound, so anxious was I, so afraid both for the man I carried and for the child at my side.

That’s a great piece of translation, which both captures the sense of the Latin and puts it into credible English. What it doesn’t do, and what no translation can do, is reveal the complexity of the original.

The first line is a simple enough clause. In a literal translation, ferimur = ‘we are borne along’ and per opaca locorum = ‘through (the) dark (of) places’. The next four lines are a coordinate clause. The object is me, that is the hero Aeneas. This being Latin, we have to trawl through the clause until we find the verb and the subject. We find two verbs in fact, the plural terrent and the singular excitat, as well as their subjects omnes < > aurae and sonus < > omnis, both either side of the verb, in the fourth line. So, we have the bare bones of the clause:

All breezes omnes aurae) frighten (terrent) me, every sound (sonus omnis) startles (excitat) me.

But there’s more. Me is modified by the relative clause introduced by quem. The me that is frightened and startled is the me who for long (dudum) not any hurled weapon (ulla iniecta < > tela) nor the assembled Greeks (glomerati < > Grai) in a hostile swarm (aduerso < > examine) would unruffle (movebant). Me (Aeneas) is further modified in the last line by the adjective suspensum and the present participle timentem, both in the accusative because they modify the object me. So, Aeneas is ‘anxious and at the same time fearing for my companion (his son) and my burden (his father being carried on his back).’

On top of all that, Virgil had to ensure that his lines fitted the metrical requirements of the Latin hexameter. Oh, and tell a story about the founding of Rome. And flatter the emperor Augustus. Oh, yeah, and use the gods to raise the philosophical question of free will. And no word processor, just papyrus or wax tablets.


Filed under Latin, Literature

Decline and Waugh

I’ve just finished re-reading Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’. It concerns the private lives of a group of privileged English people between the two wars living in London and in country houses. It tells the story of the breakdown of a marriage and of the husband’s subsequent fate on an expedition to South America. It’s a comfortable world of coteries, night clubs and dressing for dinner, which Waugh effortlessly tears apart.

The book captures the ethos of the time, and many of its assumptions seem alien to us now. But some, at least, of the characters are universal, particularly the tactless brother-in-law, Reggie St Cloud, who meets the husband, Tony Last, to discuss the divorce terms. He begins with the kind of understatement for which the British are well known:

‘This whole business of Brenda is very unfortunate,’ said Reggie St Cloud.

The views of the wronged husband on the matter are laconically expressed with:

Tony agreed.

When Tony says

‘No, I just couldn’t feel the same about her again’

Reggie, an archaeologist, crassly replies:

‘Well, why feel the same? One has to change as one gets older. Why, ten years ago I couldn’t be interested in anything later than the Sumerian age and I assure you that now I find even the Christian era full of significance.’

The book deftly satirises the way in which evidence was then produced for a divorce. It is Tony who has been betrayed, yet he nobly volunteers to be ‘the guilty party’. The normal procedure, described here in some detail, even though it goes wrong, was for the defendant (that is, the party being sued for divorce) to arrange to be caught in a compromising situation. This was achieved by the husband going to a hotel in Brighton (well, it seems always to have been Brighton) with a compliant, and no doubt well paid, lady with whom he was caught in bed by the hotel staff, also, no doubt, well paid, when they came to serve breakfast in the room. The entire escapade was monitored by private detectives (yes, well paid) ostensibly hired by the plaintiff (that is, the supposedly injured wife). In some cases, the court no doubt heard the words, favoured, I believe, by the now defunct Sunday newspaper ‘The News of the World’, ‘They then proceeded upstairs, m’lud, where intimacy took place.’

A final comment, not on the novel, but on this particular edition (Penguin, 2000, edited by Robert Murray Davis). It is perhaps a sign of the times, or of my advancing years, that, to take just three footnotes to the first chapter, the editor thinks that those likely to read it need to be told that the slump was the 1930s depression, or that Bond Street is in central London or that demobilized means discharged from the army.

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Filed under Literature