Monday, February 28, 2022

Something New

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books. 

“MARY’S BOY, JEAN-JACQUES and other stories” by Vincent O’Sullivan ( Te Herenga Waka University Press – formerly known as Victoria University Press, $NZ35); “DEVIL’S TRUMPET” by Tracey Slaughter (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ 30); “CITY OF VENGEANCE” by D.V.Bishop  (Macmillan Publishers, $NZ37:99)

I’m in the mood for apologising – not for anything I’ve done but for something I wasn’t able to do. As part of a panel judging works of New Zealand non-fiction for the Ockham Book Awards, I had to read my way through 56 books. The time this took meant I suspended this blog for a longer-than-average summer break. In the process, I was unable to review a number of books that were certainly worthy of notice and comment. So I apologise to all those poets, novelists and short-story writers whose works I have appeared to overlook. And I hope I can make further amends in my next posting as well.

This posting I apologise for taking so long to review Vincent O’Sullivan’s Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques and other stories, which comprises six short stories and the novella (100 pages long) “Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques”. If you have read on this blog reviews of O’Sullivan’s short-story collection The Families, the capacious Selected Stories  and the novel All This by Chance, you will be aware that O’Sullivan is nothing if not versatile in the types of prose he chooses to write. Psychological studies of character, earnest or tragic domestic scenes, jocular tales that still manage to make social or satirical comment and more recently bizarre stories, occasionally touching on the fantastic. Usually, but not always, the stories are set in New Zealand.


Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques and other stories again shows his versatility.

Three stories suggest the complexities, and perhaps trauma, of family life. “Good Form” (the title is ironical) has a rural setting. A brother and sister, now adults, deal with traumatic events in their childhood which shaped (or warped) them. O’Sullivan does not reduce them to being a “case”, however. In a mere 16 pages he gives enough indicators to depict a family in the round – something that others might take a whole novels to achieve. Though written in the third-person, “Splinters” is very much the thoughts of a grandmother, who regularly plays draughts with her adolescent grandson. Again, in a short story, O’Sullivan is able to indicate the outlines of a whole family with all its contradictions. And though there is no neat “message” to this story, you can feel a subtext telling you that younger people too often assume that very old people are innocents who haven’t led full lives and don’t know what the world is made of. More cryptic, and requiring very close reading, is “The Far Field”, told in the first-person and sometimes verging on stream-of-consciousness. A mother looks back at both her life and the lives of all her offspring, again indicating whole family lives.

Almost, but not quite, a matter of family is “The Walkers”, a painfully moving story of a father doing his best to protect his mentally-impaired son – more a tale of the rejected than of family.

Then there is the satirical and wryly comic story “The Young Girl’s Story”. What a provocative tale this is! A mother, literary critic and biographer, drags her unwilling daughter along to a literary conference. In ways that only a cad of a reviewer would reveal, the adolescent daughter is able to score a big one against her arriviste mother. Not for the first time in O’Sullivan’s oeuvre, people who regard themselves as being cultured and enlightened can spend much of their time undermining others and bitching furiously. I doubt not that in the depiction of the pecking order and the one-up-man-ship of literary conferences, the author must be drawing on personal experiences of such conferences. Interesting note – the mother is apparently an expert on a writer called Manson, who died about a century ago. The daughter says that rather than mingling with the literati, she’d prefer to stay in her room reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I can’t for the life of me think who that person called Manson was supposed to be…

The really bizarre story is “Ko Tenei, Ko Tena” which was first published in VUP’s collection of long-short stories Middle Distance. When I first read it in that collection, I saw it as an artful pastiche of Gothic Victorian tales with deliberate nineteenth-century locutions, and it is that. But on a second reading I notice a stronger implied critique of colonialism and of  people who assume their thinking is “advanced” but who live off privilege and exploit others. Buster of an ending, too.

And so to this collection’s piece de resistance, the novella “Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques”. We are again plunged into the nineteenth century, but in the 1820s, earlier than the Victorian era. Captain Francis Sharpe wants to make his name as an explorer by sailing from the Arctic to the Antarctic seas. His Lieutenant, or second-in-command, Richard Jackson, wants to make his name by being the first to verify the existence of a huge flightless bird somewhere in the South Seas. Captain Sharpe is a Catholic, member of a minority in England. A picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary hangs in his ship. Lieutenant Jackson is a freethinker and a radical. While sailing through the ice-floe-laden northern seas, captain and lieutenant see a monstrous human figure trudging through the ice. They save him and bring him aboard. We are in no doubt from the beginning that he is Frankenstein’s creature, who was last seen in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein disappearing in the frozen north. It turns out that Frankenstein isn’t fiction, but a report of real events.

So begins the struggle, the real core of this novella, between different ways of defining what humanity is and what our place in the universe is. The captain trusts to Providence, Creation and Certainty. The sceptical lieutenant trusts to Enlightenment, Experimentation and Uncertainty. Frankenstein’s creature listens to, and learns from, the polite arguments they both express. O’Sullivan does not weight the scales one way or the other. Both men have their say. The lieutenant decides to call this monstrous figure Jean-Jacques, after his Enlightenment hero Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But, as a creature who has never had a mother, the man-made Jean-Jacques often looks with interest at the image of the Virgin Mary. We are aware that the Virgin Mary gave life to a unique sort of man, but Mary Shelley also gave life to a unique sort of man. The title “Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacquescould refer to either.

Fear not. My synopsis covers only the first third of this novella. It is divided neatly into three chapters of equal length. Things do not happen as either captain or lieutenant expect. Only in the second chapter do we begin to understand Jean-Jacques’ thoughts and only in the third chapter does O’Sullivan throw a big curve-ball by landing us in wildest Fiordland and giving us a sort of alternative version of Adam and Eve, two wild creatures making their own rules. The captain’s and the lieutenant’s two radically different ways of thinking may both be inadequate to explaining what human beings essentially are.

In his most recent collection of poetry Things Okay With You?, O’Sullivan raises real questions about perception and epistemology. The same questions are implied in this novella – on top of which “Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacquescould also be read as a good yarn, certainly a bizarre one.

This is an engaging collection to say the least.


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Tracey Slaughter’s short-story collection Devil’s Trumpet was published in April of last year (2021), so you can see I am well behind the pack in making any comments upon it. But I did want to read it, because I had read and reviewed in the NZ Listener (on 28 May 2016, to be precise) her earlier story collection deleted scenes for lovers, and I wanted to see how she had developed as a writer over five years. So I got in touch with her publishers who very kindly sent me a copy of Devil’s Trumpet.  For the record, when I reviewed deleted scenes for lovers, I said its stories were “self-assured, forceful and filled with close observation”. But I also said, in both the intro and outro to my review, that reading the specific details of down-and-dirty sex was often like getting a punch in the face. Nothing held back, nothing sanitised.

The same is true of the stories in Devil’s Trumpet, only more so. Tracey Slaughter is even more specific about violent and generally unloving sexual intercourse in various – usually very depressing – settings. I won’t comb through the titles of the stories, but I will give you some typical contents. A bride is puked on by her drunken groom as they set out on their honeymoon. There is much middle-class adultery in motels and hotels, but ever more in grotty settings. A frustrated father oversees a teenage party and notes kids’ sexual, and drug-taking,  behaviour while doing some perving of his own. A narrator recalls a childhood memory of her family taking a beach holiday with another family, which implies sexual tension and wife-swapping leading to a breakup. There is more than one story of a wife who is with her husband but thinking constantly of, and having erotic fantasies about, an affair she had. Young teenage girls treat a younger girl cattily but it’s possible that one of them has been sexually abused. And there are teenage memories of being felt-up or raped or willingly shagging in cars and other venues. Small-town New Zealand is much on display. I am putting all this very politely.

There are a minority of stories that are not primarily about sex. “25-13” centres on a rugby-following mum who tells the story of typical rugby club manners (including teen shagging) centring on massive on-field injury done to her son, which has left him severely disabled and hospitalised. Draw a moral if you like, but Tracey Slaughter deliberately avoids articulating a simple moral and leaves her story open-ended, even if the crude habits of rugby culture are being exposed. A couple of Slaughter’s short-short stories (I prefer to call then vignettes), “Compact” and  “the deal,” concern older people. “if found please return to” is about the memories, and lack of memories, of an old woman in hospital. The longest story in the collection, at 50 pages almost a novella, “if there is no shelter”, is set in post-earthquake Christchurch. A woman’s husband has been severely injured in the ‘quake. The woman feels guilt about this as she was on the point of leaving him and seeking another lover. Trauma of a whole city pairs with her own emotional trauma, but in this case a discursive survey of the city’s devastation dominates.

The power of Slaughter’s prose depends on the specificity of her descriptions. Consider this paragraph, the opening words of one of her more sordid stories, “warpaint” : “It’s your standard pub accommodation – walls pockmarked a candy-mint. Chunk bashed out the blue Formica bedside table, forked on four metal legs. A sagging old sash window that won’t lever up, a clapped-out single under it. Bunk-beds door-side, low slung aluminium hammocks I test out both but they whine like a bitch. Teen bedspreads read Angel Bait! Don’t Cross: Queen of Hearts! Two towels, green-grey, gone stiff with sun, a stub of plastic-wrapped fern-print soap propped on them. The blonded goddess on the bedspread pattern has thick green satisfied eyelashes and a smirk that looks cuntstruck at herself…” From all this, we are primed for the first-person account of a woman, a band singer working in pubs, who stays with a man even though he routinely sleeps with other, younger and more gullible, partners. The environment embodies the hopeless characters.


Tracey Slaughter has some stylistic tricks. She likes making lists. There are numbered paragraphs [“stations of the end”]; lists of schoolkid sex-laden rumours [“Devil’s Trumpet”]; and “list of addictions in no special order” [which involves lots of greasy sex and drugs]. There are curt statements made in a single page, those vignettes I mentioned, such as “fisheye” , “three rides with my sister” “why she married your father” “jolt back” and “ministry”. There are as many first-person as third-person narrative voices, with the occasional bursts of second-person narration, as in “eleven love stories you paint blue”.

The story “point of view” is told self-referentially, in the first person, as if it were consciously being created by a tutor in creative writing; but in this case, the superstructure of narrator “making it up” is redundant to what basically becomes confessional. Is there any order to the way this collection of stories is presented? Maybe. The last two stories, the vignette “the best reasons” and the longer story “postcards are a thing of the past”, both deal with an affair that has come to an end – in the vignette the polite kiss-off, in the longer story the wife taking a depressing journey with her husband and constantly thinking of the man she’s no longer with. This could be seen as a conscious farewell to illicit sex.

I said at the beginning of this inadequate notice that I was behind the pack in considering this collection. I appreciated Rachel O’Connor’s astute review in the ANZL posting when Devil’s Trumpet first appeared. She called this collection “a fearless, shameless exposition of want” and noted, correctly, how many of the stories are about the destruction – not joy – brought about by obsessive lust in most cases and additional booze and drugs in some cases. However, I disagree with one of her sign-off lines where she wrote “when it was all over, I found I was unprepared to leave; I wanted more.”

Not me. I’d had enough.

I’m not so stupid as to confuse the narrator of any story with the author, or the author with the narrator, but with all the come splattered over pillows, finger-fucking, serial fucking, oiled thighs, mouldy motel and old hotel grot, teen grubbiness and woeful destructive lust, the author seems stuck in a rut. Of course these things are realities and Tracey Slaughter has chronicled them now in two collections. But if they are reality, they are not the whole of reality, even in small-town or suburban NZ. Time to move on.

I hope Slaughter will widen her perspectives in her next collection.


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School-teaching has its consolations – especially when you’re no longer a schoolteacher. Some months ago, I received a message from one David Bishop who had discovered my blog and who asked whether I was the Nicholas Reid who taught him History at XYZ high-school in Auckland in the early 1980s. I admitted my guilt. I had tortured him and his classmates with lessons on the English Civil Wars and the French Revolution. He said he should have listened more carefully and had spent too much time looking out the window. But his interest in History has blossomed. He offered me for review a copy of his historical novel City of Vengeance. I strove to understand that the polite schoolboy I knew forty years ago was now, obviously, middle-aged. More importantly, though, I was delighted that somebody I’d once taught had actually been able to put a knowledge of History to good use.

No beating about the bush here. City of Vengeance is a thriller and a detective story, set in Florence in 1536. This is the Florence of the Renaissance, but we are not concerned with wonderful paintings, frescoes and sculptures from various artistic geniuses, nor yet with philosophers and religious controversialists. This is the Renaissance Florence of pure power, intrigue and criminality. You may measure what you’re in for when the opening chapter has the main character ambushed by bandits and a nasty stiletto-slashing, blood-spraying affray ensues.

There’s plenty more where that came from.

Cesare Aldo, formerly a mercenary soldier, is now an astute officer of Florence’s highest criminal court – or what we would now call a police detective. Samuele Levi, a Jewish moneylender, has been murdered, and his ledger book has been stolen. Obviously someone wants to hide dodgy financial dealings that the ledger might reveal. This is the murder that Cesare Aldo is ordered to solve, and in double-quick time. But there’s another murder in Florence that week. Luca Corsini, a handsome young transvestite who sells himself to men, has been brutally beaten to death. He, too, left a book behind – a book that makes clear who some of his clients were, powerful and influential men among them. Cesare Aldo is not assigned to this case, but he has an interest in it. He doesn’t seek the services of male prostitutes, but, secretly, he is homosexual by inclination in an age and culture where sodomy is a criminal offence earning either imprisonment or execution.

I have, of course, given you the general set-up, taking you only a short way into the novel. My “don’t-be-a-swine” rule kicks in as I avoid explaining the many twists and turns the author devises as he ingeniously follows these two cases and introduces a large cast of characters - pimps, madams, blackmailers, hired thugs, judges and cardinals among them. I can tell you that the story involves the most powerful people in the city, the Medici, and a plot to overthrow the reigning Duke, because this is what the blurb tells you.

David Bishop (who signs himself D.V.Bishop) has researched the era and city well, taking us with confidence through bordellos, slimy prisons, law courts and ducal palaces, as well as across the Ponte Vecchio, which apparently is smothered in blood every day as the city’s butchers sluice our their stalls. The images are powerful, the setting credible.

Of course there is much violence, many muggings, stabbings and sometimes killings. Cesare Aldo is not exactly a superman, but he survives more attacks, beatings and attempts on his life than the average human being could survive. The cover tells me it is “introducing” Cesare Aldo, and obviously a series will follow. Indeed David Bishop informs me that the next Cesare Aldo book, called The Darkest Sin, will be published early this year. Others will follow.

City of Vengeance is a very effective page-turner, seasoned with knowledge of historical time and place.


Something Old

  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 PRELUDE” by William Wordsworth (first written between 1798 and 1805; amended and revised many times by the poet; final version first published posthumously in 1850)


             And why should I submit myself to the wearisome experience of reading all of William Wordsworth’s book-length, didactic poem The Prelude? – all 182 tightly-printed pages of it in an old Everyman’s edition? It has something to do with my warped bibliophilic conscience. There are certain “great books” that I feel guilty for not having read – Moby Dick for example, or The Brothers Karamazov. They sit on my shelves accusingly, telling me that I should have read them by my time of life. But The Prelude is a special case. Nearly fifty years ago, when I was doing an M.A. in Eng Lit, we studied the older English Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge) and the younger ones (Byron, Keats, Shelley, Clare). I read diligently the Wordsworth-Coleridge collaboration the Lyrical Ballads and hunted up quite a few of the shorter poems Wordsworth published elsewhere. In the right mood I could even enjoy the meditative plod of a poem like The Old Cumberland Beggar. But we were told that the best way to assess Wordsworth’s philosophy and his development as a poet would be to read The Prelude. And I simply never got around to it, even though I naturally encountered those extracted selections from it that are so often anthologised.

            So at last, over a sunny summer week this year, I got around to it.

            Before I begin grinding out my opinions of it, let me set out the nature of the beast. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) began writing what we call The Prelude in 1798 when he was 28. He finished the first version of it in 1799, then expanded it by 1805. But he did not have it published. For many years he tinkered with it and revised sections of it. It was not published until three months after his death in 1850. Wordsworth never gave this opus a title. Because the book often addresses Coleridge directly, Wordsworth himself had only ever referred to it as his “poem to Coleridge”. It was his widow Mary who gave it the title The Prelude or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind: An Autobiographical Poem. You can now find scholarly editions that offer you the choice of the 1799, 1805 and 1850 versions.

As The Prelude now exists (in its 1850 version), it consists of fourteen Books. Summarised briefly, Books 1 and 2 concern Wordsworth’s childhood years and school days in the Lake District. Books 3, 4, 5 and 6 cover his days as a student at Cambridge, including a vacation in France, the books he studied and a holiday in the alps. Book 7 deals with the time he spent in London (which he did not like). Book 8 is largely devoted to his general ideas on ethics and morality and is called “Love of Nature Leading to Love of Man”. Then come Books 9, 10 and 11 on his longer stay in France, focusing on his changing perspectives on the French Revolution. The concluding three Books 12, 13 and 14, are “Taste – How Impaired and Restored”, being Wordsworth’s version of how he regained his equilibrium and moral sense, and then his very general Conclusion.

            Because this is a long and very discursive work, it is not all of a piece, so I will begin with the three major things that I personally find attractive and nourishing in it.

First, we certainly learn much about Wordsworth’s development as a poet. In Book Six, where Wordsworth is studying at Cambridge, he first meets Coleridge and he accuses himself of idleness. He also notes that he had not yet learnt how to write in the common language saying: “In general terms,  / I was a better judge of thoughts than words” and “overprized / [the] dangerous craft of picking phrases out  / From languages that want the living voice”. (Book 6, ll.123-134) Writing in language that is commonly understood was one of the main ideas put forward in Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads, so he hadn’t yet embraced that concept when he was a student.

A further attraction is the vividness of his verse when he is describing physical action, as opposed to propounding aesthetic and philosophical theory. He is at his liveliest when he is recording childhood events or when he is venturing outside the Lake District and encountering, with fresh eyes, new lands and cultures. Book 1 has clear accounts of snaring birds by starlight and the famous episode – one of the sections of The Prelude that has often been anthologised – of the young boy Wordsworth taking a boat in the darkness and being unnerved by the daunting black shape of a mountain (Book 1, ll.357- 400). This was the time of his life when Wordsworth would stray about / Voluptuously through fields and rural walks /  And ask no record of the hours given up…” (Book 1, ll.254-258). In Book 2, covering his adolescence up to the age of 17, he presents himself and his friends running and rambling happily and rowing about Lake Windermere and having carefree adventures. Again he conveys the immediacy of these experiences without pontificating upon them. The same note is struck when he records walking in the hills with his dog and feeling he had a companion to inspire his verse (Book 4, ll.101-108) and in the closing books where there is his account of climbing Mt Snowdon with all its wind and hail. Where something physical is happening, The Prelude reads well.





Another positive aspect of The Prelude is what it reveals of this English observer’s changing attitudes to the French Revolution. This is of great historical interest and sometimes inspires the poet’s livelier passages. As the revolution begins, Wordsworth remarks “ ’twas a time when Europe was rejoiced, / France standing on the top of golden hours, / And human nature seeming born again”. (Book 6, ll.350-352). There is a common assumption that Wordsworth was at first an unconditional enthusiast for the revolution, then abruptly turned into a critic of it. This assumption is not supported by the text. Idealist or not, the fact is that Wordsworth felt misgivings even before his long residence in France. Despite admiring what the earlier French revolutionaries were attempting, he always had mixed feeling about the enterprise.

As he records in Book 6, he holidayed briefly in France when he was still a student at Cambridge. He landed in Calais “on the great federal day” and enjoyed seeing a crowd rejoicing at their new liberties BUT it gave him great pause to then see a mob preparing to ransack a monastery (or convent). Even while propounding his own idiosyncratic system of values, he always respected religion. When he settled for months in France, as recounted in Books 9, 10 and 11, his responses to revolution were always changing. In Paris he finds “In both her clamorous Halls, / The National Synod and the Jacobins, / I saw the Revolutionary Power  / Toss like a ship at anchor, rocked by storms.” There were “hissing Factionists with ardent eyes,” suggesting incipient fanaticism. And when he picks up a stone from the demolished Bastille he admits that he was not as inspired by it as he claimed to be: “in honest truth, / I looked for something that I could not find, / Affecting more emotion than I felt…” (Book 9, ll.42-73). Furthermore “The land all swarmed with passion, like a plain / Devoured by locusts…” (Book 9, ll.174-175). He is deeply distressed when revolutionaries attack or destroy churches (Book 9, ll.466-480). He praises “the bravest youth in France” for fighting against the invading armies who wished to impose a counter-revolution. When the King of France is overthrown,  Wordsworth rejoices in the new republic; but he soon observes the severity of the new regime. He contrasts the earlier idealistic plans of Robespierre with his later role in Terror (Book 10, ll.498-514). He rejoices when Robespierre is overthrown and wonders if there can now be the time for the perfect republic to emerge. In the opening lines of  Book 11 he is glad the Terror is over and thinks the new regime – the Directory – will be more benign. He still has the watery idealism which tells him that “Nature” will sort everything out and that younger people are nearer to Nature than their elders are. He is appalled that England now wars with France; but he is then even more appalled when the French themselves become warlike conquerors of other countries: “But now, become oppressors in their turn, / Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defence / For one of conquest, losing sight of all /  Which they had struggled for: up mounted now, / Openly in the eye of earth and heaven, / The scale of liberty”. (Book 11, ll.208-214) He admits to losing his early idealism and sometimes suggests that “liberty” for the individual can lead to anarchy. His reflections on France bring him up to the time he finished his first draft of The Prelude in 1805, when he declares his contempt for Napoleon and the pope who crowned him, as expressed in Book l1, ll.359-372. There is a constant interplay between his enthusiasm for the revolution and his uncertainty about it.

It should be remembered that the two most-quoted lines in The Prelude were written by Wordsworth in full awareness of their youthful naivete: “O pleasant exercise of hope and joy! / For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood / Upon our side, us who were strong in love! / Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven! O times, / In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways / Of custom, law, and statute, took at once / The attraction of a country in romance! / When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights / When most intent on making of herself / A prime enchantress…. / The inert / Were roused, and lively natures rapt away! / …Were called upon to exercise their skill, /  Not in Utopia,—subterranean fields,— / Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where! / But in the very world, which is the world / Of all of us,—the place where, in the end, / We find our happiness, or not at all!” (Book 11, ll.106-145) An earthly paradise was about to be built. But one has to note that Wordsworth’s callow sense of “bliss” and “very heaven” were as much inspired by his love for the Frenchwoman Annette Vallon, who bore his daughter, as they were inspired by the ongoing revolution. (To me, it is rather worrisome that he never specifically mentions Annette in The Prelude, making only vague allusions here and there to somebody who was important to him.)

However much his views had been modified and re-modified while the revolution was in progress, Wordsworth ended up disillusioned: “What then I learned, or think I learned, of truth, / And the errors into which I fell, betrayed / By present objects, and by reasonings false /  From their beginnings, inasmuch as drawn / Out of a heart that had been turned aside / From Nature’s way by outward accidents, / And which was thus confounded, more and more / Misguided, and misguiding.” (See whole long passage of his disillusion at Book 11, ll.288-322). There is a note close to despair in one of his direct addresses to Coleridge:But indignation works where hope is not, /  And thou, O Friend! wilt be refreshed. There is / One great society alone on earth: / The noble Living and the noble Dead.” (Book 11, ll.395-398)

            By the time he wrote this, Wordsworth was beginning on the path that would ultimately turn him into a conservative old gentleman and a staunch supporter of the Church of England.

            What is vivid in Wordsworth’s verse, what tells us about his development as a poet, and what he reports on the major historical event of his era are the things that make (parts of) The Prelude readable. But now, alas, we come to the matter of Wordsworth’s nebulous philosophy, and the laborious way in which it is expressed.

Whole weighty theses and critiques have been written about Wordsworth and Nature, and I am not going to delve at length into his “Natural” philosophy any more than I would step into the badlands of trying to find a coherent narrative in Shakespeare’s collected sonnets.

 To sum things up in brutal brevity, Wordsworth believed that Nature itself teaches us ethical and moral lessons, and that we are exulted and ennobled by immersing ourselves in Nature… but by “Nature” he seems more than anything to be referring to the pastoral scene, to places far from cities and throngs. Thus “if in this time / Of dereliction and dismay, I yet / Despair not of our nature; but retain / A more than Roman confidence, a faith /  That fails not, in all sorrow my support, / The blessing of my life, the gift is yours, / Ye mountains! thine, O Nature! Thou hast fed / My lofty speculations; and in thee, / For this uneasy heart of ours I find /  A never-failing principle of joy, / And purest passion. (Book 2, ll.449-472). Further, in farm labourers and those close to the land he sees “simplicity, / And beauty, and inevitable grace”. (Book 8, ll.98-110). He understands himself as privileged to have grown up, far from city life, in a remote part of the country: But doubly fortunate my lot; not here / Alone, that something of a better life / Perhaps was round me than it is the privilege /  Of most to move in, but that first I looked / At Man through objects that were great or fair; / First communed with him by their help. And thus / Was founded a sure safeguard and defence / Against the weight of meanness, selfish cares, /  Coarse manners, vulgar passions, that beat in / On all sides from the ordinary world / In which we traffic.” (Book 8, ll.313-323)

Though sometimes his ethical system comes close to pantheism [where all things are God], he still takes the classical approach that humanity is unique and is subject to a Higher Power: “In the midst stood Man, /  Outwardly, inwardly contemplated, / As, of all visible natures, crown, though born /  Of dust, and kindred to the worm; a Being, / Both in perception and discernment, first / In every capability of rapture, / Through the divine effect of power and love; / As, more than anything we know, instinct /  With godhead, and, by reason and by will, /  Acknowledging dependency sublime.” (Book 8, ll.479-496) There is a clearly expressed Deism in the closing words of Book 12, even if “Nature” is the ground on which our thoughts and impulses are forged: “Yet in the deepest passion, I bowed low / To God, Who thus corrected my desires; / And, afterwards, the wind and sleety rain, / And all the business of the elements, / The single sheep, and the one blasted tree, / And the bleak music from that old stone wall, / The noise of wood and water, and the mist / That on the line of each of those two roads  / Advanced in such indisputable shapes; / All these were kindred spectacles and sounds /  To which I oft repaired, and thence would drink, / As at a fountain; and on winter nights, / Down to this very time, when storm and rain / Beat on my roof, or, haply, at noon-day, / While in a grove I walk, whose lofty trees, /  Laden with summer’s thickest foliage, rock / In a strong wind, some working of the spirit, / Some inward agitations thence are brought, / Whate’er their office, whether to beguile / Thoughts over busy in the course they took, / Or animate an hour of vacant ease”. (Book 12, ll.316-336)

But he also notes, in the opening words of Book 13:“From Nature doth emotion come, and moods / Of calmness equally are Nature’s gift: / This is her glory; these two attributes / Are sister horns that constitute her strength. / Hence Genius, born to thrive by interchange /  Of peace and excitation, finds in her / His best and purest friend; from her receives / That energy by which he seeks the truth, / From her that happy stillness of the mind / Which fits him to receive it when unsought. /  Such benefit the humblest intellects…” (Book 13, ll.1-11)

By this stage I have beaten you into submission by quoting Wordsworth at length, as I wanted to assure you that I am representing the poet’s “Nature” philosophy accurately. But here comes the negative side of it, and my views do not derive from Aldous Huxley’s witty but rather glib riposte to the poet in his essay Wordsworth in the Tropics, wherein Huxley argued that Wordsworth worshipped nature only because he did not live in one of the Earth’s harsher terrains. Rather, I see Wordsworth as ineptly inflating his personal and particular experience into a universal moral code. It is clear for example, that on the whole he hated urban life. This is made plain especially in Book 7, where he gives his account of his time in London. I will not quote at length, but look up Book 7, ll. 415-431, where he is scandalised by whores openly at work and the filth of the city and “distress of mind ensued”; or Book 7, ll.722-771, where city dwellers are permanently caught in a whirl of “trivial things” which are “self-destroying” and “transient”. Of course I know that he wrote a famous sonnet “Upon Westminster Bridge” in which he presented an admiring  and positive view of London – but remember it was depicting London in the early morning when nobody was around. Put simply, Wordsworth saw Nature as a great escape from modernity and people – and a moral code which derives from ignoring the mass of humanity is not much of a moral code. Of course we have all felt uplifted and relieved when we discover a remote and beautiful beach  or walk the Heaphy track or the Tongariro Crossing or even the Waitakeres. It’s so delightful to be far from the madding crowd. But this is in the nature of a holiday – not a solid guide to how we should live our lives. 


Worse, when he speaks of Nature, his lengthy attempts at generalised thought are cloudy and tiresomely didactic. They are very hard to read, because their points of reference  are undefined and they speak in the abstract. Poor Wordsworth! I am sure that in his time, much of his work would have seemed radical, innovative, and seeking a new way to understand people.  He ends up telling us at length of the healing power of Nature; of the divinity of nature; of the moral code it implicitly gives us. But this is such a vague and nebulous commentary that it gives little real moral guidance. In the end, his retreat into Nature is a withdrawal from human affairs after he has been disillusioned by politics and failed attempts to better the world. On and on he goes, preaching to us like a forgetful priest, oblivious to the fact that his congregation has had enough and is getting restless.

What I have just said might strike some readers as being very disrespectful, given that Wordsworth is one of those essential canonical poets we are taught to admire. But I am in good company in my nay-saying. In a largely laudatory article in the old Pelican Guide to English Literature, the critic B.O.C.Winkler notes Wordsworth’s “deficiency of concreteness”. He judges Wordsworth as being at his best when he is conveying physical experiences, but “when such experience is not available, assertion is apt to become the staple of his verse and it then sometimes declines into the declamatory or even strident, as though to make up by emphasis what is lacking in evidence.” In other words, he goes vague and abstract on us. Keats criticised Wordsworth for being too ready to teach lessons and be didactic; and Wordsworth’s sometime collaborator and dedicatee Coleridge spent the last chapter of his Biographia Literaria pointing out Wordsworth’s defects as a poet. Coleridge calls out “a laborious minuteness and fidelity in the representation of objects and their positions as they appeared to the poet” and later says that much of Wordsworth’s poetry “belongs to the moral philosopher, and would be pursued not only more appropriately, but in my opinion with far greater probability of success, in sermons or moral essays than in an elevated poem”. In short, Wordsworth can be prose-y and preachy, and for me this element kills the greater part of The Prelude stone dead.

I cannot remember which sage it was who said there is no such thing as a long poem – only short poems stitched together. I’m not sure that this is a general truth, but it is certainly true of The Prelude, where brilliant moments are overshadowed by long, dull passages of vague, abstract moral theorising – passages that invite sleep. Now that I’ve read the whole thing, I conclude that it is one of those productions that is better enjoyed in anthologised selections. I don’t think I will ever again read The Prelude in its entirety, but I will dip into those lively selections that permit Wordsworth to be regarded as a great poet.

Something Thoughtful

 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.

                                                         PROBLEMATIC AGENCY


I am in the mood for chastising you once again for your slovenly, modish ways with language.

You know I have had to do this before. You will have read my posting The RightSide of History, wherein I pointed out the fallacious and bullying intent of a currently fashionable phrase, as dishonest as the statement “We’re just starting a conversation”. This is not the first time I have had to curate your language. When language begins to crack and lose coherence, a hero has to step in to mend the breach.

I am he.

So let me correct you in the matter of two insidious and currently modish words, “agency” and “problematic”.

When I was a wee and tiny child, the only meaning the term “agency” had was as a reference to some individual, group or company which acted as agent, or representative, for some larger group or company. A news agent was somebody who held a franchise to sell and distribute newspapers and periodicals for a publishing company. A real estate agent was somebody who sold houses or land on behalf of their owners (for a whacking fee, of course). In each case, “agency” designated the occupation of such agents.

Now I find the word “agency” being used in a more pretentious way.

Not too long ago, an ideologue was arguing that food banks were dreadful things because they did not solve the problem of poverty. We should shut down food banks and solve poverty so that food banks would be unnecessary. As I’m sure you’re aware, this tawdry argument has often been used by well-off people who are irritated that others are exercising practical charity when they are not. It ignores the obvious fact that solving the problem of poverty would be a very, very, long process, if it was ever achieved at all; and in that time, if food banks were closed down, many people would go hungry.

Part of the ideologue’s rant was that food banks deprived hungry people of “agency”. They did not have “agency” to choose which foods they wanted, but instead were given what was available by the people running the food bank. This, said the ideologue, was degrading.

What does “agency” mean in this newly coined sense? It means being free to “act” as you will. In other words, it is a poor substitute for the older term “free will”. If you have “agency” (i.e. free will) you are free to do whatever you choose. But, as was understood when “free will” was the common term, to act as you choose could mean to act wrongly. In simpler terms, you are free to do good or evil. The current use of “agency” suggests that free will is a virtue of itself, regardless of the consequences. As I see the term used now, “agency” reflects a society in which individuals have no responsibility to the community at large. Just so long as they have “agency”, and regardless of what they do, all is well.

As it is understood in this perverse sense, let “agency” be banished from your lexicon.

Much simpler to deal with is the blur word “problematic”. How often do I now read such statements as “This novel is problematic” or “Her ideas are problematic”. Obviously “problematic” means that there is a problem somewhere. But is it an objective, demonstrable, provable problem? Or does it simply mean that the author of such statements has a problem? Too often, as I now encounter this over-used term, “problematic” simply means “I have a problem with something.” Or even “I don’t like something”. Check out this over-used word if you can, and see how loosely it is used as a fig leaf for the writer’s prejudices.

Needless to say, both “agency” and “problematic” are now words most often used in the softer studies of what were once the humanities.