Friday, July 28, 2017

Some Thoughts on Academe

I'm not quite finished Dracula, but I find the later parts of the novel-- where it becomes much more an adventure story than a horror story-- quite tedious. So I've put it aside and I've been reading a book of criticism on the poetry of Christina Rossetti.

Christina Rossetti is my favourite female poet. I especially like poetry that is smooth and polished, and Rossetti's poems are so smooth and polished that they positively gleam. I like all her most famous poems (anthology pieces nearly always deserve their fame), but an example of a lesser-known Rossetti work that appeals to me is her sonnet on John Henry Newman. (Remember Rossetti was an Anglo-Catholic.)

O weary Champion of the Cross, lie still:
Sleep thou at length the all-embracing sleep:
Long was thy sowing day, rest now and reap:
Thy fast was long, feast now thy spirit's fill.
Yea, take thy fill of love, because thy will
Chose love not in the shallows but the deep:
Thy tides were springtides, set against the neap
Of calmer souls: thy flood rebuked their rill.
Now night has come to thee--please God, of rest:
 So some time must it come to every man;
 To first and last, where many last are first.
Now fixed and finished thine eternal plan,
Thy best has done its best, thy worst its worst:
Thy best its best, please God, thy best its best.

The phrase "not in the shallows but the deep" gives me the shivers, even though I agree there's nothing obviously ingenious or original about it.  And "Thy best has done its best, thy worst its worst" is about as neat and satisfying a line of poetry as anybody could ever hope to write.

As I've been reading this work of criticism, I've been struck by a feeling that has become quite familiar to me recently-- that is, gratitude for the work of literary critics, and for academics in general.

When I started working in a university library, more than fifteen years ago, I felt a certain disdain towards academics, especially academics in the field of literature. I thought they sucked all the joy and fun out of poetry, and out of literature in general. There's nothing terribly original in this attitude. Yeats probably articulated best in his poem, "The Scholars":
Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

It's very easy to engage in this kind of sneering at academics, to contrast them unfavourably with creative writers. The poet creates; the scholar can only analyse. The poet is spontaneous and mysterious; the scholar is plodding and forensic. The poet is anarchic, the critic is in thrall to some hidebound theory or other.

I was also disdainful of the apparently endless multiplication of academic fields, each one more trivial than the last. Film Studies, Gender Studies, Celebrity Studies, Porn Studies...I was much amused once to discover that there is actual a Yeats Eliot Review. Guffaw, guffaw! I liked the witticism that "a specialist is someone who knows less and less about everything, until eventually he knows everything about nothing." I compared these cases of intellectual myopia, who perpetrated text-books full of unreadable academic jargon, with serious intellects such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who could write erudite and scholarly books which would also appeal to the general reader.

However, I've changed my mind. I think more is better, in general. I've come to believe that every field of human activity, every field of human concern, should have its specialist students, its specialist investigators, its own specialized discourse, with as much rigour as its possible in that particular field. Indeed, it seems to me a good thing that society can afford to pay people to think and write about one very specific subject. That's not something to be deplored, but to be celebrated. It's civilization.

And I'm grateful for the labours of academics. When I become interested in any particular subject, I'm grateful that there have been people there ahead of me, mapping the territory, trying to study it and think about it in a systematic way, looking at the thing from a variety of perspectives. When I become interested in a movie, for instance, I'm fascinated to see what critics and others have written about it; it adds to the movie, it doesn't take away from it. The same is true of poets and writers. I'll probably never read Catullus, but if I ever do, I'll be most grateful to the old learned respectable bald heads that edited and annotated his lines. And I'm very glad that many people have devoted a great portion of their lives to reading and thinking about Christina Rossetti, so that I can benefit from their long labours simply by picking up a book.

In our time, ordinary people are getting in on the act, and I see nothing to be deplored in this, either. I feel that a whole army of Amazon reviewers and Wikipedia contributors are benefiting society every day. There is an academic database called "web of knowledge"; it's a nice image, and I really think it's quite appropriate to our era. This is one of the good things about our time, and it's one for which I'm belatedly grateful.


  1. To be honest I never took to DRACULA that much. I think the horror story I liked the most was THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, possibly not solely for the horror content. The part where he blackmails his doctor-friend: Just that line even -"the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece seemed to him to be dividing time into separate atoms of agony, each of which was too terrible to be borne". So well written.
    I actually thought WUTHERING HEIGHTS was quite disturbing, if the "horror" genre could be expanded a bit ,it could rival the best of them.
    I thought Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN was too romantic- would anyone really admire the Italian countryside or muse on the price of bread knowing the there's a monster chasing them? But it was nice that Ireland came into the story.
    I'm not sure whether a more recent example (well worth reading) of the gothic novel is read often in Ireland, Joan Lindsay's PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK?
    Very unusual.

    1. Dorian Gray is my favourite books (all of which I've read, funnily enough). Wuthering Heights was a bit too intense for me. Frankenstein was too lachrymose. Picnic at Hanging Rock didn't really make any impression on me at all.

  2. I'd better take another look at Christina Rossetti! I didn't take to 'Goblin Market' and although I like 'In the Bleak Midwinter' I find the scansion a little rough-hewn (especially when trying to sing it). But that sonnet is quite something - thank you for bringing it to my attention. Always something different on this blog!

    1. Thanks for that compliment, I couldn't ask a better one! To be honest, I don't like "Goblin Market" myself. I don't really like narrative poetry...which explains why that copy of John Masefield poems I bought in Hampstead Heath in 2005 has remained unread on the shelf...

    2. Yes, I think I feel the same about narrative poetry, to my own irritation. So even I haven't read all Masefield's narrative verse (though will still dare to suggest that 'Dauber' is probably the best of these). It's Masefield's lyric verse, particularly his later poetry, that I like, for its homeliness and earthiness and the unabashed use of plain old bread-and-butter English words, like a dry-stone wall.

  3. W.H. Auden pointed out that Yeats' attitude was tremendously arrogant. It took `respectable old heads` hundreds of years of tiny textual analysis to rid all of the various manuscripts of their inherited errors and corruptions. The earliest manuscript of Catullus actually has a despairing note from its transcriber asking the reader not to blame him for the horrendous state of the text!

    There is a fascinating book online, W.M Lindsay's An Introduction to Latin Textual Analysis which details all of the tiny little details that need to be looked at and unravelled to produce readable texts:

    1. Thanks, Johnson. I do agree with Auden but I'm still glad Yeats wrote the poem he did. If we were always scrupulously fair, probably nobody would ever write anything!

      Thanks for the link.