Monday, October 15, 2018
REMINDER - "REID"S READER" NOW APPEARS FORTNIGHTLY RATHER THAN WEEKLY.
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“FIGURE AND GROUND: POEMS 2012-2018” by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, $NZ19:95); “LUXEMBOURG” by Stephen Oliver (Greywacke Press, $NZ29:99); “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE THE INTERNET IN SPRINGTIME” by Erik Kennedy (Victoria University Press, $NZ25);
Five years ago on this blog, I considered three volumes by one of New Zealand’s most underrated poets, Robert McLean (look up the 2013 posting Robert McLean). I find myself quoted on the blurb of McLean’s latest publication Figure and Ground, but I don’t mind in the least. As I’ve said before, McLean is an erudite poet with a wide knowledge of Western culture. He writes on the assumption that his readers share, or are able to access, a similar knowledge. Unlike most other poets who are his contemporaries, he provides no explanatory end-notes or footnotes when he deploys a literary or historical reference. Apparently he is well-versed in postmodernist literary theory, but I would describe his preferred style as High Modernist. He works hard at the form of his poems, often using traditional metres and rhyme, but he is no blind traditionalist. History and received culture are quarried stone to be whacked and shaped into something significant for us here and now.
In Figure and Ground, McLean sometimes makes specifically New Zealand scenes his topic. “The Terminal” is a sad, elegaic poem about flying out from Christchurch; and “Autumn, Island Bay” is a kiwi paysage moralise. But two other poems referencing New Zealanders place them in exotic settings, to wit the two poems about New Zealanders who fought in Europe in the Second World War, “Indexes and Libations” written in memory of Dan Davin (whose poems, collected as A Field Officer’s Notebook, were edited by McLean) and “John Mulgan in Greece”.
Most often, however, McLean’s inspiration is far from home. In “Jacopo’s Vision”, Dante’s son explain the origins of his father’s work. “Alberti’s Complaint” has the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti considered the pressures of patronage and hardship of building. “Housekeeping” comments piquantly on the nunnishness of Emily Dickinson. There is a poem on the heterosexual chauffeur and secretary whom Marcel Proust adored.
None of this is mere dabbling in High Culture, however. Where he comments, McLean questions, and at bottom his questions are searching ones about faith or no faith; aesthetics; the making of legends, and the paradox of the simultaneous necessity and mendacity of legends. “Lines on Tarkovsky” references the Russian director’s film Andrei Rublev, about the medieval icon-painter, and exhorts a boy to “Embrace your absent father / in light of celluloid. / To salve the aching void / embrace your absent father. / You’ve got no other.” There is a whole tension between types of literature in the poem “Lie Easy, Walter, or Lie All the Same”, concerned with Walter Savage Landor’s place in Italy. It is ostensibly an anti-romantic poem, telling us “Sightseers swarm Barrett - / Browning’s chintzy resting-place, / love’s stronghold. Landor’s grave / sinks deeper: this terminal garret / where the stoic saved face, / whom playful souls never forgave.” And yet it relents to suggest there is a form of idealism that is not to be disparaged. Quite brilliantly, I think, “In Memory of Anne Sexton” manages at once to celebrate the suicidal, confessional poet while undermining any glamourised ideas of Anne Sexton as prophet. Suffering is suffering – it is not pretty or to be emulated. There’s a simlar two-edged swing to “Hell on Earth” in which McLean is emphatically not debunking the legend of Troy (he wouldn’t be involved in such a foolish and obvious game) but is cautioning us about the blood-soaked truth that lies behind the legend.
I will now do the forbidden thing in reviewing a collection of poetry and nominate my favourite. “The Discovery of Pluto” is dedicated to the British poet Geoffrey Hill, who was deeply enmeshed in philosophy and Christian theology. Here the poet stands against the universe, knowing that it can be perceived only through our limited consciousness, and taking as his inspiration the recent “demotion” of Pluto from planet to large asteroid. “It was a planet. Now it’s not. In / our strictly unblinking cosmos, / thick with dark matter, to be forgotten / is never to have been…/”. Given our serial fallibility about the universe, it is fitting that the next poem is about Giordano Bruno.
Challenging but stimulating – a fine collection.
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I admit that I came to Stephen Oliver’s poetry late. I was first aware of him four years ago, when I guest-edited Poetry New Zealand in its old format (issue #48, March 2014) and enjoyed writing a brief notice on Oliver’s collection, Intercolonial – a kind of loose epic linking Australia and New Zealand, where tales of discovery jostled with vivid childhood remembrance. This is significant because the blurb of his latest [of nineteen!] collections, Luxembourg, describes Oliver as “Australasian”. Born in Wellington, the man has lived twenty years of his life in Oz before a recent return to Newzild, and he is happy to identify with either country. Or both.
Luxembourg is a capacious collection [nearly 100 pages] of what Oliver has been writing in the last four years.
Much of it references specific New Zealand landscapes. “Tracking Rupert Brooke” is a fantasia set in an earlier New Zealand, about what the Georgian poet might have written has he not been so coy about expressing passion. The poems “El Nino”, “Dilapidated Dream” and “Green Asterisk” comment on Te Kuiti, the King Country and the central North Island. The sequence “Road Notes” is a long collection of short stanzas following the Waikato. Sometimes the attitude to this country is jaded. “Undercover” tells us “Absent twenty years, I left a country of sheep, / returned to a country of cattle; rivers / wheeze through an iridescent landscape, / gorged on nutrient-rich run off.” It sees the King Country as “run-down rentals / and mouldering hatreds, hobbled by small / town boredoms”
Oliver also references topical or longstanding political situations, sometimes with the eye of a satirist, as in “The Great Repression” or “Scarecrow”, which is more-or-less an anti-Anzac Day poem. “Streets of Kiev” is specifically an anti-Vladimir Putin poem. (“His favourite cocktail, / Polonium-210, he serves up to those who dare oppose.”). “Impress” concerns refugees, and has the same sort of resigned melancholy tone that Ewin Muir used to strike in the 1950s, with such poems as “The Good Town”
What seems to concern Oliver more often, however, is an apocalyptic collapse of poetry and sense into tribalism (“The Map”) and an apocalyptic collapse of belief systems into anomie (“Testament”). This sense of desolation is also found in the portrait of a single woman in a tumbledown house (“Lace”). There are in this volume so many poems about mental disintegration, unease, and the inability to articulate something meaningful, as in “Nocturne” where “There is nothing but grainy silence. / A hissing sound, and the darkened objects of the room / surounding me.” The three prose poems “Dark Matter”, “Domes” and “Choristers” are attempts to fit human beings into the universe, given what we now know of its immeasurable vastness, and attempts to harmonise our moden knowledge with ancient, mythic views of the universe. While Oliver often tries to consider things on a vast, cosmic scale, this can lead to overblown rhetoric, as in the poem “Titan Love Song”. Could this overstatement indicate real insecurity on the poet’s part? Often Oliver’s uncertainty [about self; about time] is palpable, as in “The World’s Basement”, “What Angels Throw” and “Breaking Straws”. Nadir of not really knowing what he values must be the poem “Worry Beads”, where he wants to pray to something or someone, but in the end affirms only the sound of his own words.
Oliver’s attitude towards women is strangely Romantic. “Sister to the Sphinx” comes across as an overstated tribute to a former model, but then one remembers that even the likes of Yeats could go silly and gaga over a pretty face. The later poem “Stone Lintel” is almost as embarrassing from its opening lines’ assertion that “The gift of slowing time belongs exclusively to / beautiful women and the space they inhabit…” For the record, seeing good-looking women as beacons of inspiration seems to be part of this poet’s modus scribendi. As best I can decipher it, the title poem, “Luxembourg”, was inspired by the sight of a model on a billboard. She graces the cover and is obviously deemed important enough to have a German language translation placed next to the English language original in this book. Yet these elements of unlikely romantic worship are atoned for by the hard veracity of “The Lost German Girl”, concerning refugees. It has the same sort of straightforward truthfulness as “The Journey”, about a minor poet’s dedication to his work; or as “Broken”, a factual trbute to a trusty old typewriter the poet once cast away. It is when Oliver is not striving too hard for the Grand Gesture that he is at his best.
If I picked a highlight for this book, it would be the six-page tour de force called “Open-Learning Workshops” in which Oliver lays down ironically “rules” for poets, publishers, novelists, academics, book-festival organisers etc on how they should go about their business – and in the process, deflates their pretensions and displays a great deal of worldly wisdom in these fields. This is satire which, an opening notes tell us, is influenced by Auden and Cyril Connelly, but none the worse for that.
Annoyingly necessary footnote: As I have explained before on this blog [see the posting Who is This Ghost Who WalksBeside Me?) I am not the only person from New Zealand, with some literary connections, who is called Nicholas Reid. There is another Nicholas Reid (no relation), an expert on Coleridge and romantic poetry, who started an academic career in New Zealand and has now relocated to Australia. It is this “other” Nicholas Reid who is referenced in Stephen Oliver’s poem “Building Code” and [at least according to one of the publisher’s websites] it is this “other” Nicholas Reid who had a hand in editing Luxembourg. He appears to be a fine chap of good taste, but then so am I, so doubtless the confusion will continue.
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Is whimsy the thin cloak worn by despair?
I’ll leave that conundrum hanging in the air while I perform yet another manouevre forbidden in academically-respectable (i.e. dishonest) poetry criticism. I am going to divide Erik Kennedy’s debut volume There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime into the good and the bad. And because I want to end on a positive note (there are many, many good things in this collection, after all), I will begin with the bad.
It’s this ironical whimsy stuff.
Take the title poem – the very first in the book - “There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime”. It could be understood (as I understand it) to mean that springtime is not a place like the internet. Therefore it could be taken as a criticism of the internet. But the poet commits himself to no clear viewpoint – so ambiguous whimsy it becomes. A companion poem “Uninstall Your News App and Join a Hiking Club” could be read as a straightforward exhortation to do just that, but again the tone the poet strikes is laid-back hipster irony. Selecting other poems in this collection, I note that “Mailing in a Form Because There’s No Online Form” sees bureaucracy as the new means to confuse and control people as was once the role of war (getting close to conspiracy theory, folks). “You Can’t Teach Creative Writing” offers its title ironically, but then says nothing to refute the title statement as literal truth. Even a straightforward story about the poet’s great-uncle’s footballing career has to have a title that belittles it - “The Family Lore Poem” – as if to say the poet is sick of family lore poems. Less evasively, “Poem in Which, in Which, in Which” is a harmless bonbon in which the poet ridicules the pomposity of chapter headings in many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels.
Here’s the whimsy-irony thing in relatively innocuous form, but it skirts close to despair in other poems – hence the question with which I began this critique. “Four Directions at the Beach” uses the imagery of a beach to suggest there is no truth in any direction, and the best one can do is to abandon any search for truth and surrender to idle contemplation of the sky. “I Am an Animal Benefitting from Climate Change” is intended as cool irony, but reads as a surrender to the inevitable. In “I Can’t Even” we are schooled with the idea that human creativity is built on sorrow and disaster and may simply be a survival mechanism. “I Rank All the Beautiful Things There Are” has a bit more heft, saying that any form of categorisation is provisional and our tastes change.
I hear your objection to what I have said so far. I appear to be criticising the poet for the What rather than for the How, and we all know that great poems can be made out of very dodgy philosophical ideas, so the What is often less important than the How. But I am considering the How, namely the tone of irony that so often reads as affectation.
Right. I’m glad to have got all my negative comments done with. As I said, There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime has many very good things in it and I’m happy to note them. Rather than poking the ironical borax, “Your Grandfather’s War Stories” gives a larger and more thoughtful possibility of the repeated cycles of history. “Public Power” is a vignette of the first town in the world (Godalming in Surrey, England, in 1881) to have a public electricity supply; and “The Great Sunspot of 1947” is another vignette, this time about how people once interpreted things. In these three poems, Kennedy sets aside arch irony and looks at things compassionately.
Quite wonderful in this respect is “An Abandoned Farm Near Lockhart, New South Wales”. Like the world’s best poems, it lets its ideas creep up on you rather than bashing you over the head with them. On a superficial level, it is simply a description as its title declares – but note how the poet lets those matters of time, utility and decay enter into it, unforced and unironically.
I have used the term “irony” in a such a negative sense that you may assume I dislike irony in any circumstance. Not so. When it pairs with real wit, irony can work wonders. Take Kennedy’s witty “Georgics” which are , after all, satirical, as they produce such couplets as “A lambent light it is that fill the pastures, but it’s too dark to read. / The wise farmer rises early to get the best broadband speed.” And “You can ride a tractor from, as the Italians say, the stable to the stars. / The tractor’s GPS is more powerful than the computer on the ship that, some day, will take men to Mars.” Yet also, in a non-solemn way, this witty sally comments on the hardship of farming in a dying economy, even if the farming is industrialised.
Much of Kennedy’s political satire is transparent, clear and pungent, such as “The Paris Agreement” concerning prevarications over the climate change accord. Sometimes, though, the targets are unclear and the meaning opaque, as with “Growing Fears That the Leadership Contest Has Been Hijacked by Far-Left Infiltrators”. It might have had some immediate topical application as, according to an end-note, it was first printed in a Poets for Corbyn pamphlet. Without such context, its meaning is very unclear indeed.
And, showing how well irony can be used, may I commend the amiable, easy, ironic canters of “Love Poem With Seagull”, the wired couplets of “Amores” and the particularity of “How a New Zealand Sunrise Is Different from Other Sunrises”. As for complete laid-backness, “The Contentment Poem”, about leaving lawn-mowing incompleted, takes the prize. It’s hard not to notice, too, that Kennedy, an expatriate American, in the poem “Remembering America” is very ambiguous about his country of origin, but comes down on the side of rejection.
Lawks a mercy, but I’ve been very contradictory about this one, haven’t I? This thought occurs to me – often the best volumes of poetry, and the ones you remember longest, are the most provocative. There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime certainly provoked me and annoyed me at times – and at other times made me admire the poet’s skill and insight. This is a way of saying that it is very uneven and that it will probably affect you differently.What an interesting collection.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE LADY OF THE LAKE” by Sir Walter Scott (first published in 1810)
A little under two years ago, early in 2017, we spent a week in Edinburgh as part of a longer journey. Of course we visited most of the places that tourists visit – the Castle, the Royal Mile, Holyrood House, the Burns memorial on the hill, the Scottish National Gallery and the gallery of Modern Art, as well as some fine whisky retailers, some excellent second-hand booksellers, a Christmas Market, a literary pub crawl and a good jazz show. I think about half my ancestry is Scots (a quarter Lowlander, a quarter Highlander, a quarter Irish and a quarter English) so I enjoyed most of this, but at a certain point I became a little melancholy. Old Edinburgh is basically a Georgian city, specifically designed a little over two hundred years ago to assert English dominance. The very names of the streets (Hanover, Princes etc.) tell you this; and much of the pipes-and-tartans pageantry comes from a legacy of taming and prettifying the Scots nation for English consumption and in the service of the British Empire. Let’s not forget that nearly all the supposedly “traditional” tartans were designed long after English dominance was assured.
My melancholy was at its height when we visited the Scots National Portrait Gallery. In the lobby there are what the curators presumably think of as Scotland’s three most illustrious literary figures. On the left there is a bust of Robert Louis Stevenson, in the middle there is a full-length statue of Robert Burns, but on the right there is a bust of Sir Walter Scott. Oh dear! Walter Scott (1771-1832), the man who did most to prettify Scottish history and customs for English readers (see my blog posting Truthis Beauty). His full-length monument dominates part of Princes Street, Edinburgh’s main drag.
As I’ve noted once before on this blog (see the review of The Bride of Lammermoor), there was a time in my callow youth when I thought Scott was a writer worth reading. But, feeling that I have the right to make this judgment after wading through nine of his novels over the years, I have come to the conclusion that he is an appalling writer with his pompous Latinate vocabulary and stiff prose, which was unwieldy even in his own day. His plots as raw plots are interesting, if very melodramatic, and hence have sometimes made great source material for movies and operas. But his characters, though vivid, are thin, his descriptions are pasteboard and his ideas limited. So this is his legacy – a writer whose huge popularity across Europe in his own time tells us something about Romantic nostalgia and the state of early nineteenth century civilisation; and a writer who fired up opera librettists more than anybody apart from Shakespeare and perhaps Victor Hugo (and in the process inspired operas such as Lucia de Lammermoor which are greater works of art than their literary sources). In other words, he is now interesting mainly as part of cultural history.
But it was that prettification-of-Scottish-history element that really got to me after my brief Edinburgh visit. So I recently sat down and read Scott’s book-length narrative poem The Lady of the Lake, to see if I had misjudged him from reading his novels only. Bear in mind that Scott first made his name as a poet and some of his shorter lyrics, such as “Proud Maisie”, have rightly earned their place in anthologies; although many of these lyrics originally appeared as part of his longer narrative poems. When The Lady of the Lake was first published in 1810, 25,000 copies were sold within the year. It was more popular than Scott’s earlier narrative poems The Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion and his later one The Lord of the Isles. It continued to be a big bestseller right throughout the Victorian age until, by the earlier 20th century, it ceased to be to anyone’s taste.
I will not irritate you by synopsising it in detail. It is enough to say that it is set early in the 16th century, in the reign of King James V of Scotland, and its thematic focus is a contrast of wild highlanders and organised lowland authority.
Its six cantos cover six days. The highland chief Roderick Dhu, the lowland knight Sir James Fitz-James and the gentle Malcolm Graeme all vie for the hand of the “lady of the lake” Ellen Douglas, daughter of the clan chief The Douglas.
Ellen rescues Sir James Fitz-James, when he has lost his way during a stag hunt in the highlands, by taking him to her father’s island hideaway on Loch Katrine. He falls easily in love with her, but departs soon after his rescue without ever meeting her father. The Douglas is not yet sure whether he should pledge allegiance to the king. At a highland clan gathering, Roderick Dhu and Malcolm Graeme quarrel over Ellen. But the more important matter is the highland rising the fiery Roderick Dhu is planning against the upstart lowlander King James V, who has declared his intention to make the highlands his own domain and hunting ground. Roderick Dhu finds it hard to gather allies for his uprising, but can rely on the support of his own Clan Alpine. At some point in the story, there is a duel between Roderick Dhu and Sir James Fitz-James. The highland uprising (it is reported to us only in the song of a minstrel) is quashed. Roderick Dhu is killed. In the happy denouement Ellen gets Malcolm Graeme, the man to whom he father had betrothed her, and she discovers that the romantic knight James Fitz-James is in fact King James V himself, to whom The Douglas has already sworn allegiance. Highlands are now reconciled to lowlands.
As with his novels, Scott’s narrative poems are really sustained by picturesque set-pieces. They are begging to be incorporated into an opera (and indeed this poem became the basis for Rossini’s opera La Donna del Lago – the first of fully 25 Italian operas, by various composers, to be drawn from the works of Scott). Think of how the following events in the poem could be set to music as arias or choruses - the wild stag hunt and the knight’s horse falling down dead of exhaustion in the opening canto. The romantic meeting of the knight and the “lady of the lake” on the shores of Loch Katrine before she takes him to the island. In Canto Two the old bard who reminds fair Ellen of her family’s allegiances. In Canto Three the pagan hermit who speaks a prophecy as he sacrifices a goat. Not to mention Roderick Dhu’s burning of a fiery cross to summon the clans (sorry folks, but this really is where the Ku Klux Klan got the idea to do the same thing) and the highlanders rising as one man out of the heather. And the scene where the king reveals who he really is. Etc. etc. etc. – all of them fitting subjects for illustrations in de luxe Victorian editions of this poem.
Scott also inserts songs and ballads into each canto – in Canto One “Soldier rest, thy warfare o’er”; in Canto Two “Hail to the chief who in Triumph advances” The famous dirge “Coronach” (“He is gone on the mountain / He is lost to the forest”) in Canto Three, and later Ellen’s hymn to the Virgin Mary; in Canto Six a very vigorous soldiers’ drinking song, almost as good as Robbie Burns writing in the same boozy vein. It is in these shorter self-contained lyrics that Scott’s poetry is at its best.
But what of the octosyllabic rhyming couplets that make up the bulk of the narrative? They do soon exhaust us with their jig-jog. Take the following specimen, where the knight James Fitz-James is falling asleep on the island refuge he has been given:
Then,—from my couch may heavenly might
Chase that worst phantom of the night!—
Again returned the scenes of youth,
Of confident, undoubting truth;
Again his soul he interchanged
With friends whose hearts were long estranged.
They come, in dim procession led,
The cold, the faithless, and the dead;
As warm each hand, each brow as gay,
As if they parted yesterday.
And doubt distracts him at the view,—
O were his senses false or true?
Dream’d he of death , or broken vow,
Or is it all a vision now? (Canto 1, Stanza XXXIII)
The rhythm and rhyme-scheme are simply wrong for lines that are presumably meant to convery a sense of slightly melancholy reverie. Such rhythm and rhyme-scheme are, however, quite appropriate to the scenes of vigorous action.
I read somewhere (sorry, but I cannot locate the source) that when the First Canto, with its furious and galloping account of a wild stag hunt, was read to some of Wellington’s soldiers in Spain, where they were fighting what is now called the Peninsular War, they cheered lustily and declared it the best poetry they had ever heard. They were the right audience for this sort of poetic gallop. The swift movement of the verse also strikes me as appropriate to the following account of Roderick Dhu’s warriors arriving across the water (though we have to forgive Scott for his anachronistic reference to “tartans”) :
The point of Brianchoil they passed,
And, to the windward as they cast,
Against the sun they gave to shine
The bold Sir Roderick’s bannered Pine.
Nearer and nearer as they bear,
Spears, pikes, and axes flash in air.
Now might you see the tartans brave,
And plaids and plumage dance and wave:
Now see the bonnets sink and rise,
As his tough oar the rower plies;
See, flashing at each sturdy stroke,
The wave ascending into smoke;
See the proud pipers on the bow,
And mark the gaudy streamers flow
From their loud chanters down, and sweep
The furrowed bosom of the deep,
As, rushing through the lake amain,
They plied the ancient Highland strain. (Canto 2, Stanza XVI)
But again, the poetic form is out of place in the following lines, where a minor character (not mentioned in my synopsis) laments how he will probably be separated from his beloved after battle:
The heath this night must be my bed,
The bracken curtain for my head,
My lullaby the warder’s tread,
Far, far, from love and thee, Mary;
Tomorrow eve, more stilly laid,
My couch may be my bloody plaid,
My vesper song thy wail, sweet maid!
It will not waken me, Mary! (Canto 3, Stanza XXIII)
And as the last extract I shall quote, consider the following angry words of Roderick Dhu when he has been taken prisoner by one of the king’s men and asserts that he is merely protecting all that is left of a birthright that has been stolen by “Saxons” (English and lowlanders). One could imagine this as a forceful piece of rhetoric, a genuine nationalist rallying cry, if it did not jig-jog along so:
The Gael beheld him grim the while,
And answered with disdainful smile:
‘Saxon, from yonder mountain high,
I marked thee send delighted eye
Far to the south and east, where lay,
Extended in succession gay,
Deep waving fields and pastures green,
With gentle slopes and groves between:—
These fertile plains, that softened vale,
Were once the birthright of the Gael;
The stranger came with iron hand,
And from our fathers reft the land.
Where dwell we now? See, rudely swell
Crag over crag, and fell o’er fell.
Ask we this savage hill we tread
For fattened steer or household bread,
Ask we for flocks these shingles dry,
And well the mountain might reply,—
“To you, as to your sires of yore,
Belong the target and claymore!
I give you shelter in my breast,
Your own good blades must win the rest.”
Pent in this fortress of the North,
Think’st thou we will not sally forth,
To spoil the spoiler as we may
And from the robber rend the prey?
Ay, by my soul!—While on yon plain
The Saxon rears one shock of grain,
While of ten thousand herds there strays
But one along yon river’s maze,—
The Gael, of plain and river heir,
Shall with strong hand redeem his share.
Where live the mountain Chiefs who hold
That plundering Lowland field and fold
Is aught but retribution true?
Seek other cause ‘gainst Roderick Dhu.’ (Canto 5, Stanza VII)
So where are we left in assessing Scott’s “epic” verse? Let me not take one iota away from the industry and diligence of Scott, who wrote so many novels in such a short time and worked off great debts in doing so. A truly heroic feat. Let me not presume to say that he had no imagination, because he did indeed create memorable characters, even if they are mainly broad caricatures. Above all, let me not deny that he wrote some good short lyrics. But I cannot help agreeing most with William Hazlitt in his Lectures on English [sic] Poets, where he praises Scott’s best qualities but says that in the end his long narrative poems are “masquerades” as far as history is concerned – pretty, picturesque, but having little to do with real history. And, in a passage which (dammit!) I cannot specifically source at the moment, Hazlitt also said that to read Scott’s verse was like watching a troop of soldiers marching by – orderly, regular, neat and somehow lacking the spark of real poetic inspiration. In the end, much of his narrative verse is gifted doggerel.
Finally, of course, I have to come back to that question about Scottish nationalism which I raised in the earlier parts of this rant. Consider how The Lady of the Lake ends. Those wild, brave, but uncouth highlanders submit to the lowland king. Yes, they are picturesque and romantic, but they have served their turn, so now real civilisation may come. We Anglophones are the bearers of real civilisation. So let us look on those mountain Gaels as an interesting artefact of the past, about whom we can write Romantic poems without bothering to consider how much we have despoiled them of their land and culture. It is all rather in the way that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha ends. Having featured as the hero of a long poem, at the end Hiawatha, with no fuss or protest, conveniently shuffles off into the mists of time to make way for the Paleface. And we don’t have to consider how we really took the land from the tribes whom we have romanticised. Thus does Scott in The Lady of the Lake feed his English fan base.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
WORDS TO THE REALLY WISE
It is not usually my practice to comment on a new book in this “Something Thoughtful” section, but Exisle Publishers recently sent me a copy of Mark Broatch’s enjoyable Word to the Wise ($NZ 25:99) and I thought I could be sneaky and comment on it here, as it deals with matters upon which I have frequently expressed opinions – viz. matters of language and correct (or at least acceptable) usage.
Word to the Wise is subtitled “Untangling the mix-ups, misuse and myths of language”. After an introduction, with tips on clear writing, it becomes essentially an explication of words commonly confused with one other, and of words that are commonly misused. Very occasionally the confusion comes from pronunciation (as when Americans say “Ado” for “Adieu”.)
There are many old favourites here. I believe they would confuse few people with more than a rudimentary knowledge of English, but they could confuse people just beginning to learn English. “Comprise” / “compose”. “Dual” / “duel”. “Immanent” / “imminent”. “Imply” / “infer”. “Sewage” / “sewerage”. “Luxurious” / “luxuriant”. “Metal” / “mettle. “Alter” / “altar”. “Pray” / “prey”. And surely only the hoi-polloi would confuse “hoi polloi” with “hoity-toity”.
I really do wonder which people would confuse the following pairs, all included by Broatch: “Acrimony” and “alimony”. “Eccentric” and “eclectic”. “Miasma” and “milieu”. “Malinger” and “philander”. “Emancipated” and “emasculated”. “Ersatz” and “erstwhile”. Really, how often have these words been misused, one for the other? Has Broatch included them simply for the fun of it? And even if they understood the meaning of either, in what circumstances have people misused “iatrogenic” in place of “idiopathic”?
Some of the mistakes Broatch points out are cases of sheer illiteracy, the perpetrators of which will one day face the severest penalties when they are brought before my Court of Linguistic Correctness. (“Bias” instead of “biased”; “brought” instead of “bought” etc.). I am not sure that Broatch’s exposition concerning the correct uses of “that” and “which” really clarifies matters; and I am still unsure how to distinguish “predilection”, “proclivity” and “propensity”, even after his definition of each. He does raise some issues I’d never considered, such as the American and the British uses of “backward’ and “backwards”; and I was unaware that Americans are apparently adopting the habit of using “nonplussed” to mean “indifferent” or “bored”. I am quite nonplussed by this information.
So to a list of controversial matters raised and my responses to them. On the “alright” and “all right” controversy, I would say that the two forms now have two different meanings and the form “alright” should be accepted – even if one of my publishers once insisted that I turn my “alrights” into “all rights”. As for “crapulence” and its derivatives – I would either reserve them for drunkenness or not use them at all (Broatch rightly notes that they are often used wrongly). In the same way, I insist that “noisome” means smelly rather than noisy (although, of course, a fart can be both). I agree with Broatch that we must uphold the difference in meaning between “uninterested” and “disinterested”. People who confuse these words will be executed after trial in my Court of Linguistic Correctness. Unlike Broatch, however, I would return “crescendo” to meaning a gradual increase in sound, and not the final climactic blare. Likewise, I would rein in the use of “decimate”. I oppose the gradual “creep” in this word toward being a synonym for general destruction. Even if (as Broatch says) we no longer punish every tenth soldier, the word still means to sustain serious, but not decisive, losses. A decimated army is still an army that can offer battle. I differ from Boatch in that I would always use “different from” and I regard “different than” or “different to” as illiteracies. I would be wary of using “enormity” in such a way as to suggest that it refers to size. I am pleased to see that Broatch cautions against using “less” when you mean “fewer”, but my Linguistic Agents are now classifying him as a Person Of Interest for endorsing the loose use of adverbs such as “hopefully”, for encouraging the use of “impact” as a transitive verb and for defending the non-literal use of “literally”. I further caution that my hired investigators will soon be purging the staff of the OED (cited by Broatch) who suggest that the absolute term “unique” can be modified with words such as “very” or “quite”. Finally, if you are going to include a definition of “Procrustean”, why not include a definition “Draconian” [as the two terms both fall refer to great severity]?
I should note that Broatch ends his volume with lists of words often mispelled (or misspelt), common social media abbreviations, unusual plural forms and clichés. I should also note that he has a tendency to label (in both his introduction and his text) more fastidious users of English as “traditionalists”, but then he is manifestly not an advocate of a linguistic free-for-all. If he were, he would not compose a book such as this one. Likewise he often labels as “literary” words, such as “erstwhile”, that are only a short distance from everyday speech. Kingsley Amis’ enjoyable style-guide The Kings English is labelled by Broatch as “archly sticklerish”. This is ironic because I have now placed Broatch’s Word to the Wise on my shleves next to my copy of The King’s English.
We all know how annoying it can be when people question our own use of language. Recently, a reader called me to account for referring, in a book review, to people as “straight-laced” ( = correct, proper, perhaps prudish). The reader pointed out that it was spelled correctly “strait-laced”, and gave an etymology of the phrase to prove his point. I did a little research and found that the etymology is disputed and the term may legitimately be spelled either way. Likewise I remember once how annoyed a journalist became when a reader called him out for using the phrase “begging the question” as if it were a mere synonym for “raising the question”. (To “beg the question” means to assume the truth of an argument without proving it, usually by circular reasoning). Some matters to do with grammar and the correct use of words will always raise eyebrows and controversy. This status quo prevails even after reading Word to the Wise. But it is enjoyable to canter through it, and it will be of help to many.
For the record, you may find on this blog my own opinionated witterings about language and usage in earlier postings here Awareness of Language and How to Diminish It and here Grumpy Old Man Mode and here Passionate Impacts on your Behalf and here Um.