Monday, August 28, 2017

This Blog Is Quoted!

I was happy to see my musings on romantic nationalism, from a few months ago, quoted extensively on the excellent Some Definite Service blog, in a meditation on Englishness which can be read here.

My blog is rarely quoted or linked to, and it doesn't appear on many blogrolls. One other blog that does link to it (I can see from my traffic flows) is a neo-reactionary blog which is so erudite that I've never managed to read a single one of its articles without losing the thread about half-way down. So that's very flattering. But, on the whole, I get very little traffic from other blogs, or from social media. This makes me despondent sometimes, especially since this blog has been going for six years. I guess it means that readers seek me out of their own accord-- that might be a better way of looking at it.

Anyway, being referenced by another blog gives me an opportunity to write about something which has been much on my mind recently.

I mentioned a while back that I was reading some literary criticism of the poetry of Christina Rossetti. I like Christina Rossetti very much (apart from her tiresome obsession with love stories), but in truth I was eager for any poetry criticism, rather than for criticism of Christina Rossetti in particular. One day, working in the library, I was suddenly seized with the urge to read poetry criticism.

One thing I like about poetry criticism is that the critic is applying so much thought and attention to what, after all, are simply words on a page-- not hospital waiting lists, not microchip processing speeds, not the vagaries of the stock market, but simple words on a page. This is delightful in itself.

But I also like the fact that poetry criticism is rarely just a critic writing about a poet-- more often, it is a critic writing about what other critics have written, too. And this seems to raise the dignity of the poem itself. It becomes something enigmatic, shimmering, heightened.

It's not just poetry criticism. I love any discourse that addresses itself to some text (in the broadest sense of that word) which has been discussed by others, and which also addresses those other commentaries. Similarly, I like any text which is itself a detailed response to a previous text.

I've had some very harsh words to say about the Catholic writer Mark Shea on this blog-- and, indeed, I've said some harsh words in the comment section of his own blog. So I'll say something nice about him. His trilogy Mary: The Mother of the Son is one of my favourite religious books ever. Not only did it unlock the idea of Marian devotion and Sacred Tradition for me, but the style in which it is written appeals to me vastly, to a great extent because of the phenomenon I'm discussing here. In the book, Shea engages with a whole series of other texts, from Scripture passages to internet pages written by nutty anti-Catholics. In each case, he comments upon them with a considerable degree of care and attentiveness. That appealed to me very much.

What is that pleases to me about such considered responses? It's hard to say, exactly. Partly it's the leisureliness of the thing. Partly it's the respectfulness-- even when you are writing a polemic, actually responding to what somebody has written shows a satisfying amount of respect, or recognition.

More than anything else, I think, it's the sense of connection. The randomness of life, though it can be quite pleasurable in some moods, can also be deeply depressing. Sometimes it seems like nobody is really listening to anybody else. Sometimes our own train of thought can be depressingly disjointed, inconsequential, haphazard. Macbeth's soliloquy on life as a "tale told by the idiot" is one of the greatest flights of lyricism ever written, for this very reason-- it captures this chilling, sickening waywardness so remarkable in human life.

So when one person responds to something another person has said or written-- and when it is a considered, reflective response to a considered, reflective original utterance-- that chill of randomness is replaced by a warmth of meaningfulness, of presence.

This is even truer when there are more than two participants, or more than a few participants, to the discussion-- when the discussion, in fact, is a particularly active or venerable one. Was Hamlet mad? Was World War One a just war? Was Jesus God? Why is Groundhog Day such a great movie?

This is one of the reasons I enjoy homilies, even boring homilies-- that is, homilies that are in some way Scriptural. It is an inspiring thought, to think that this particular passage of Scripture has been commented on innumerable times, from pulpits down through the ages and all over the world, and in works of exegesis, and even in everyday discussion. It gives me a thrill.

When it comes to cyberspace, "response videos" are a bang up-to-date manifestation of this phenomenon. One vlogger (video blogger) will very often make a video responding to a video made by another vlogger. These can be straightforward bitch-fests, but quite as often they can be leisurely and thoughtful responses.

"Leisurely". That word is very relevant, in seeking to describe the appeal of this phenomenon. When one person take the trouble to really address the ideas of somebody else-- especially when they concern something more consequential than why one of them didn't hang the laundry out to dry-- they seem to occupy a sphere of leisure, of contemplation, almost of timelessness. A twenty-first century writer who writes a commentary on a work of Plato is entering into a realm outside time, or at least a realm very distant from the time of the clock and the calendar.

The word "dialogue" has been abused so horrifically that it's now one of my least favourite words. Ironically, however, the concept is one that appeals to me tremendously. 

And, although I'm writing specifically about responses to texts here, I think the poetry I'm trying to evoke goes to the depths of human existence. One evening some years ago, I was walking along and looking at the moon. It occurred to me that I could never see the moon "for the first time", with fresh eyes-- and I was very glad of it. I didn't just see a disc of cloudy white. I saw it through a hundred thousands associations that I had inherited from the ages, through the eyes of innumerable human beings who had gone before me. And I could imagine nothing more wonderful.


  1. Thank you for the link - it's nice to be linked to in turn! Leisure is, I suppose, enjoyment multiplied by time, so what is nice about poetic criticism and the pleasure of conversation is that people enjoy going to the trouble of making it work. And there is also the pleasure of the company of other critics, enthusiasts, and so on.

    It's also the main reason why the widespread closure of pubs in England is such a tragedy. It's the company, as well as the ale, that is lost.

  2. Your remarks about the moon are the subject of Larkin's poem Sad Steps. WH Auden said that in his imaginary academy for schooling poets works of criticism would be banned. I wouldn't ban them, but I'd make sure the poets memorized at least one poem per week.

    1. I love that poem but I wonder is Larkin getting at quite the same thing.He was talking about how primordial and dramatic the moon is. Well, maybe he meant its cultural associations as well. Auden was a talented poet but he was full of claptrap and he wrote an awful lot of rubbish, in my view. Memorizing poems is always good.