Friday, May 13, 2011

English 212 Home Page

Welcome to E212, British Literature since 1760
Spring 2011 at California State University, Fullerton

This blog will offer posts on most of the authors on our syllabus as optional reading. While the posts are not exactly the same as what I may choose to say during class sessions (i.e. these are not usually exact copies of my lecture notes), they should prove helpful in your engagement with the authors and in arriving at paper topics and studying for the exam.

A dedicated menu at my wiki site contains the necessary information for students enrolled in this course; when the semester has ended, this blog will remain online, and a copy of the syllabus will remain in the Archive menu.
Required Texts

Greenblatt, Stephen et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vols. DEF. 8th. ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Package 2 ISBN 0-393-92834-9.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Eds. Deidre Shauna Lynch and James Kinsley. 2nd. Edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. ISBN 0-192-80263-1.

Week 16, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia

05/10. Tu. Tom Stoppard. Arcadia (Act 1, 2752-89).

Notes on Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia


First of all the play's title comes to mind. Arcady or Arcadia is the stuff of pastoral poetry. From Theocritus onward, it has been the location where shepherds muse about their lives, complain about their loves, and sing lovely songs to the accompaniment of panpipes. Pastoral was always a sophisticated kind of poetry, as if it sprang into being fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. In that sort of poetry, desire and the ideal and reality are in constant conflict. That's why it is such a good name for the title of this play set in romantic era England, 1809 and then in the present, which at the time of writing would have been 1993. In the pastoral setting of a large country house in Derbyshire in the spring of 1809, we see an interesting dynamic play out – the interplay of neoclassical ideals and romantic Gothic in landscape, mathematical ideals of order juxtaposed with erotic desire and intrigue, a kind of chaos in the midst of paradise, dedication to learning intermingling with imaginative flights of fancy. I suppose you could say it all comes together in the stately dance at the end of the play, but we're not there yet.

Our first presenter is going to talk about the conversation between Thomasina Coverly and her tutor Septimus Hodge, who are discussing "carnal embrace" and Fermat’s last theorem, an enigmatic mathematical formula that was only solved shortly after Stoppard wrote his play. As the characters themselves imply, the theory in question calls to mind speculations about free will and the determination of all things by means of physics.

Thomasina is quite a prodigy; she notices that "if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again after you have initially stirred it. Heat and energy dissipate, and you cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again, so to speak. The implications of that insight are profound.

But even as all the speculating and defining in these two very different areas of life are happening, Jellaby comes in with a letter for Septimus Hodge, a letter from Ezra Chater the poet, who is hopping mad about what he has heard from Noakes the gardener about a dalliance between Septimus and his wife, Mrs. Chater. What follows is a rather dandiacal, ironic exchange between Septimus and Ezra about the dalliance and indeed about the virtue or lack thereof possessed by Mrs. Chater. Capt. Brice is able to add some very useful information to this discussion.

Anyway, while all of that is going on we are also treated to a conversation about the philosophy of landscape, which was an important factor in the transition from the neoclassical 18th-century in England to the romantic era that was in dialogue with it. Lady Croom is not happy with turning charming old neoclassical Sidley Park into a Gothic theme park. It is as if the picturesque is somewhere between an emphasis on rationally apprehended beauty and the irrational sublime; imagination and sensibility are, of course, coming into greater prominence. We should be careful to note that we are talking about emphasis here, not a complete break with the past. But anyway, Lady Croom is not comfortable with what the gardener Mr. Noakes seems to be up to. What is it that makes life most worth living – passion, the wild and the unpredictable, or the beautiful and orderly? Or both?

The scene ends with Septimus reading and note from Mrs. Chater and folding it up and inserting it into the pages of Mr. Chater's book.


The room remains largely the same, but now we are in the present time, so we can surmise that there will be a certain continuity of life and interest between the earlier characters and the ones to which we are going to be introduced. Mr. Noakes's sketchbook has now become a curiosity, but it's there nonetheless, and the same is true of Lady Croom's garden books.

Bernard Nightingale, an academic with a romantic sounding name, wants an introduction to the researcher Hannah Jarvis to get some information from her regarding the presence of Lord Byron on the estate all those years ago. Bernard and Valentine, the latter of whom is a proponent of Chaos theory, get into a silly argument for a moment about the value of statistical analysis of literature. Bernard doesn't have a great deal of patience with that sort of thing, and the argument will crop up again later. Should we study literature in a scientific manner, or should we go in only for the human element? That's actually a current debate that has taken on a more interesting cast in the last 10 or 15 years because scholars have been putting all sorts of material online and doing language studies of periodicals and novels based on the remarkable power of modern computers. When did a particular word first start to be used commonly? What changes in sensibility does that increasing usage indicate, and so forth? Anyway, Bernard doesn't care for it – perhaps he remembers the clunky beginnings of that debate back in the 1970s, when structuralists became interested in doing statistical analysis of literary works.

Bernard introduces the subject of Byron by mentioning Hannah's biography of Lady Caroline Lamb, one of Lord Byron's famous aristocratic lovers – she's the one who called him "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Bernard is trying to find out what on earth Lord Byron was up to here at Sidley Park back in 1809, and he wants to know about Septimus Hodge as well because Hodge was a friend of Lord Byron. They went to school together. Hannah is interested in the so-called Sidley hermit because she's working on some ideas about "the nervous breakdown of the Romantic Imagination." The hermit died in 1834, and as Bernard points out, so did Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Essentially, as you can see on page 2771, Hannah is interested in tracing the origins of the romantic manner in Gothic landscape and sensibility. Where did the Romantics get their ideas, particularly with regard to landscape theory? What she sees is imitations of imitations. Now Hannah knows from Thomas Love Peacock that Byron visited Sidley Park. And you learn on 2772 that Hannah is a pretty stern critic of romanticism – she calls it a sham perpetrated against the values and aesthetics of the enlightenment. The Sidley Park hermit, to her thinking, is the very emblem of the driving out of the Enlightenment ideals of order until they go mad. Anyway, you can see that she and Bernard are going to be at swords drawn throughout the play, even if in comic fashion.

Bernard offers to make a deal with Hannah – together, they can strike a blow against professional scholars of Lord Byron by offering up scandalous new information. That's kind of a silly idea, of course, because Byron's life involved a number of scandals, though I don't mean that to detract from his image. He was an awesome poet and died organizing the fight for Greek independence against the Turks. But he was also a womanizer whose conduct drove him into self-imposed exile on the continent. So to continue, Bernard has noticed that there's some mighty peculiar language in a copy of "The Couch of Eros," a book of poetry by Ezra Chater: "to my friend Septimus Hodge, who stood up and gave his best on behalf of the Author – Ezra Chater, at Sidley Park, Derbyshire, April 10, 1809." Bernard, as we find out, believes Lord Byron killed Ezra Chater in a duel and that that is why he left England in such haste shortly thereafter. Hannah thinks it's all nonsense – why would Lord Byron keep his mouth shut about a romantic duel? But Bernard is unfazed by her criticism. The scene ends with the silent character Gus offering Hannah an apple as if he were Satan from Paradise Lost. They are, after all, entering something like forbidden territory – digging up what Bernard purports to be a secret from the past. From the past of a major literary figure – nothing unsettles academics so much as that. What a Gothic shiver down the spines of those committed to the rational pursuit of knowledge!


The conversation between Thomasina and Septimus is a witty exchange about the power of love, and how to deal with loss, as she laments the disappearance of so many works of ancient literature. The subject of this conversation is a segue to discussion of the duel proposed between Mr. Chater and Septimus. Septimus's attitude is worthy of Beau Brummel for its wit and insouciance.


It seems to me that the process of information-gathering more and more follows the path of Valentine's Chaos theory, which I think relates nicely to the neat formulation Bernard has arrived at to explain alleged events at Sidley Park nearly two centuries ago. On 2784-85, Valentine remarks that migrating populations of animals are actually obeying "a mathematical rule," and the same is true for epidemics, average rainfall, cotton prices and a whole bunch of other things. As he puts it on 2785, "The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is. It's how nature creates itself, on every scale, the snowflake and the snowstorm." He is joyful about this insight. In one sense, Chaos theory embraces chaos, it embraces the unpredictable in ordinary life. But in another sense, it seems like a theory that is dedicated to the proposition that everything obeys rules – it's just that we don't have a firm grasp of what those rules for ordinary things are the way we do when we are talking about sub-atomic particles or the universe on the grand scale.

In the background of Valentine's discussion and of course what Septimus and Thomasina have been talking about are fundamental laws of physics. The first law of thermodynamics says that energy can be changed from one form to another but it cannot be either created or destroyed. The second law of thermodynamics says that with the passage of time, "differences in temperature, pressure, and chemical potential equilibrate in an isolated physical system." In other words, heat dissipates. Entropy, an associated concept, implies that "nature tends from order to disorder in isolated systems." Of course one could say that about the passage from neoclassicism to romanticism – that is sort of Hannah Jarvis's theory.

On 2787, we come across Hannah's tidbit that Lady Croom wrote her husband a letter explaining that her brother, Capt. Brice, married a Mrs. Chater. Bernard chips in, "There is a duel. Chater dead, Byron fled!"


2789-93. Bernard is hot on the trail, commenting that "a few days after he left Sidley Park, Byron wrote to his solicitor John Hanson: If the consequences of my leaving England were ten times as ruinous as you describe, I have no alternative…." And then there is a letter by Thomas Peacock. In addition, there is the fact of those messages in Byron's copy of "The Couch of Eros." Might it be the case, Bernard asks rhetorically, that since Byron got the copy from Septimus, Septimus and not Lord Byron had in fact put the letters there? Valentine's answer is in the affirmative, but he is told to shut up. Bernard cannot believe that Lord Byron isn't the culprit; he can't believe Ezra Chater would be able to get along with Septimus Hodge if the latter had been the man who "screwed his wife and kicked the shit out of his last book." Hannah doesn't see why not. Then Bernard insists that there must be or there must have been a platonic letter, as he calls it, that would confirm his entire theory. A letter by Lord Byron, that is, saying something like "what a tragic business, but thank God it ended well for poetry." Bernard is so captivated by his own theory that he is even planning to appear on some television show as a "Media Don," which seems a bit ridiculous.

2794-98. Valentine is not convinced by any of it, and he and Bernard get into a spat about the relative value of science and humanistic inquiry. Valentine does not care about "personalities," and Bernard couldn't care less about statistical models of literary works or letters by famous people. He says, "If knowledge isn't self-knowledge it isn't doing much, mate." Then he demolishes Hannah's book jacket, claiming that the images of Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb are not genuine, which annoys Hannah. She tells Valentine not to let Bernard get to him, saying that it is nothing more than performance art. He just enjoys unsettling everyone around him. Her own thesis seems pretty rock-solid to her: the hermit of Sidley Park is "The Age of Enlightenment banished into the Romantic wilderness! The genius of Sidley Park living on in a hermit's hut."


2799-2802. Lady Croom recounts to Septimus that Lord Byron and Mrs. Chater were discovered together in Lord Byron's room – discovered by her husband, that is. Byron sent his friend Septimus a letter – something like Bernard's platonic letter – and Septimus promptly burns it. Lady Croom adds that "Capt. Bryce has fixed his passion on Mrs. Chater, and to take her on voyage he has not scrupled to deceive the Admiralty…" Septimus explains his behavior to Lady Croom, saying that "I thought in my madness that the Chater with her skirts over her head would give me the momentary illusion of the happiness to which I dared not put a face." In other words, he is flattering Lady Croom. Septimus burns two more letters, ones he himself had written.


2802-03. It appears that Bernard's theory has by now been turned into fodder for the tabloids. Chloe and Valentine discuss a modulation of deterministic theory, and Chloe makes a very Thomasina-like point: "the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who are supposed to be in that part of the plan." In other words, sexual attraction.

2804-05. Hannah offers her perspective on the pursuit of knowledge: it is the pursuit that counts, not the final results. She doesn't care about the argument between Valentine and Bernard. Nonetheless, Valentine has finished his calculations about the birds in Sidley Park, and the results are impressive, if perhaps gloomy. Thomasina, unfortunately, as we are informed here, died in a fire long before she could make anything of her own theory.

2806-07. Valentine credits the Sidley Park hermit with knowing more leading up to the second law of thermodynamics than anyone during his time. We notice that in this scene, the characters from the past and the present are merging together, appearing side-by-side. What almost amounts to a dalliance between Thomasina and Septimus plays out.

2810-11. Thomasina declares with great certainty that Newton's observations cannot quite be turned into a deterministic universe because what's left out is "The action of bodies in heat." And here since she refers to Mrs. Chater, I think she really is talking about erotic attraction. It's the same point that Chloe will later make. Thomasina is quite certain as well that she's going to marry Lord Byron.

2814-15. Hannah Jarvis demolishes Bernard's theory on 2814. It seems that Ezra Chater did not die at Sidley Park but rather in 1810 or thereafter, in Martinique from a monkey bite. She is also planning to out Bernard's theory in a journal letter in the Times in just a couple of days. Two points for her. So much for Bernard's ideas.

2816-20. At the play’s end, Thomasina and Septimus come together to waltz, and the candlestick flame signifies her impending death. Gus and Hannah dance as well, with her theory about Septimus being the Hermit finally shown to have been true: it’s the picture of Plautus and Septimus that does it. Bernard is caught in a scandal with Chloe and has to leave, like a lesser Lord Byron. The point of the dance is that even though not all of the concerns of these searchers after knowledge have come close to the truth about Sidley Park and its inhabitants, and even though Valentine would seem to have won out with his gloomy talk about the world’s doom, what is left in the end is attraction and some measure of energy, some measure of grace. The human reaction to unknowability and possibly even the end, is to dance.

Week 15, T.S. Eliot, Auden, Rhys

05/03. Tu. T. S. Eliot. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (2289-93); "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (2319-25).

Notes on T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Eliot is both erudite and capable of a fine comic touch, both of which qualities are to be found in this poem. Notice the funny rhymes and repetitions, as if the speaker can’t quite take himself seriously. He’s a superfluous man, and there’s no prospect of a duel or something like that putting him on the trail of a heroic end. The consciousness in the poem is going nowhere eloquently. How to communicate one’s passion? And what’s the point? The loss of power of art itself seems to be one theme referenced in this poem; notice the comic mentions of “visions and revisions” (33) and those women who keep talking about Michelangelo as if the fellow were a subject of mere gossip. The allusion to Marvell’s appeal to time is brilliant – there’s no pressure of time here, in fact “there will be time” for just about any sort of foolishness, triviality, deception and masking. There will be time for anything but truth and full humanity, or the present moment in its authenticity.* The poem even seems to ask, “well, what’s the point of laying all this predicament bare -- this inability, really, to do or even feel much of anything?” The answer we get isn’t much of an answer. The reference to mermaids towards the poem’s end, I think, is one way of saying that the poet’s task of encouraging us to transition to a state of vision isn’t going to be carried out here, today: our speaker can’t hear them singing. He’s no Hamlet, no hero, not a man who’s likely to be led beyond himself. Perhaps that’s just as well those sirens tend to lead you to your doom, you know. Only Odysseus had dealings with them, and even he had himself tied to the mast of his ship. In the end, there’s no way to emerge from the subterranean superfluity evoked by the poem: not until, “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

*To his Coy Mistress
by Andrew Marvell (1681)

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day....

Notes on T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”

The past is altered by the present. We might consider this simply good neoclassicism—the past is a stable entity, yet it is not unattainable for us. It seems to me that for Eliot, European literature is one large lyric poem, unified like the poetry that Cleanth Brooks and other New Critics consider autonomous. Eliot means by historical sense something very different from historicism. It isn’t so much that ideas become obsolete, but rather that conditions render us unable to act or appreciate the relationship between past and present. It seems to be a perceptual problem brought on or intensified by material developments.

In fact, says Eliot, only the present can render the past intelligible. So how is this idea different from the romantic pursuit of ever-greater self-consciousness? The infinite march of reflective understanding, or the infinite regression of acts of self-consciousness—only not at the individual level.

Where does the individual poet get the ability to tap into this tradition? Well, see Matthew Arnold, who says that the man and the moment are necessary to genuine creation. Arnold says that we need a current of true and fresh ideas. Eliot seems to think that there is not such a current in his own day, so the poet becomes rather a bookish creature. The poet, that is, must be difficult in this modern age.

Eliot uses the term depersonalization. We might look at this demand of his from a few different perspectives. Northrop Frye, for example, says that Eliot is interested in eastern mysticism and religion. In such religious contexts, one achieves a sense described by the phrase “thou art that.” The terms karma and atman come to mind—karma is due to selfishness or desire, and atman is a kind of identification with the world without completely losing one’s individuality—it is a “total self.”

And of course, this is what romanticism is always trying to accomplish—recovering a lost unity between mind and nature, between an individual and all others. Well, we might also bring up Matthew Arnold, who writes about the need for disinterestedness, the ability to remain aloof from the goings-on of the world in all its self-interested frenzy. Arnold’s term refers to criticism, of course, not so much to poetry, but the point is that one needs to get outside one’s ordinary skin and achieve a certain degree of objectivity about the object of one’s attentions. Like Matthew Arnold, Eliot offers a formulation that betrays a certain pathos, a personal need to escape from personality. Notice that Eliot uses terms such as self-surrender. Perhaps his scientific metaphor of platinum covers up this romantic pathos. Indeed, we might compare his metaphor to romantic inspiration theory. The mind of the poet serves as a catalyst for language drawn from tradition and culture; tradition itself speaks through the poet. In a sense, then, this is an expressive theory—but what is expressed is not the poet’s personality but rather something much larger than himself. The poetic process is rather like the achievement in Hindu religion of “atman.” It is fair to remind ourselves that romantic theorists do not necessarily advocate simple theories of self-expression—they capture the complexities of language as a medium for spirit, and it makes sense to describe romanticism as an encounter between language and the poet, not simply as self-expression. In any case, the reward for readers is a truly new, authentic experience with art.

The poet has an experience with language and tradition, and is not simply expressing desires that flow from autonomous consciousness. Language and tradition use the poet; they express themselves through poetry. Again, it is worthwhile not separating Eliot entirely from romantic theory. Do good poets ever simply express their feelings? Oscar Wilde points out that “all bad poetry originates in sincere emotion.” When Eliot uses the term “fusion,” there is something in that term of the romantic symbol. The metaphor is scientific, but it carries theological overtones. The romantic symbol fuses things that were disparate, overcomes the gap between subject and object.

See the nightingale reference—this is a concrete image that serves as a focal point for disparate feelings. A complex, traditional literary image of this sort has the power to unify and embody otherwise disjointed feelings. So the poet is a medium who wields such images, he is not a personality that needs to express itself. His primary task is to combine images and words drawn from the literary tradition.

The New critics claim that poetic context warps ordinary or denotative meanings to suit the context of the poem. On this page, Eliot refers to emotion in this way. He rejects Wordsworth’s theory that emotion is recollected in tranquility, favoring instead a different kind of concentration. He seems to like the older or combinatorial terms of faculty psychology—for an author like Sir Philip Sidney, remember, originality was not the point of writing poetry.

We should mention imitative theory—the poet does not imitate but rather serves as a catalyst for the past, for tradition. Repetition is not the goal, but rather a scientific version of poetic creation comes to the forefront. It is as if Eliot is trying to achieve a balance between neoclassical respect for culture and modern faith in “making it New,” with a trace of romantic creative pathos thrown in for good measure. Eliot does not assume that tradition is simply stable, so pure imitative theory would not make sense for him. I don’t think he would agree that we can simply point to touchstones, as Matthew Arnold would call them.

Eliot calls emotion impersonal, and he means that emotion is embodied in the poem and sustained by its contexts. Up to now, we have listened to Eliot offer advice to the poet, as many poet-critics have done. But let’s ask at this point where the reader fits into Eliot’s scheme. The implication of what I just said about emotion getting embodied in an image or in the poem is that the reader, like the poet, must go out of himself and be willing to engage in a certain kind of transaction with language. So reading a modernist poem like The Waste Land turns out to be a very difficult endeavor.

W.H. Auden. "In Praise of Limestone" (2435-36); "The Shield of Achilles" (2437-38); "Poetry as Memorable Speech" (2438-41).

Notes on W. H. Auden

"In Praise of Limestone" (2435-36)

This conversational, pastoral poem is directly about Florentine landscape and the endurance of Mediterranean civilization and history made by creatures of perishing flesh, bone, and blood, but Auden universalizes his and others’ relationship to the rock in question, and in the end it turns out to be a poem relevant not only to the lovely Florentine landscape but also to his own north-England native region, Yorkshire, which itself shelters beautiful limestone formations. Yes, limestone – the impressionable rock seems so suitable to “inconstant” man, so suitable to the products and processes of imagination. It isn’t for those who see life as more solid, more otherworldly-tending, and who expect too much, but for those whose ties to the land remain strong, who stay in love with what Sidney called “the too-much love earth.”

"The Shield of Achilles" (2437-38)

Ekphrasis (from ekphrazein, to speak out, to call an inanimate object by name; or, more recently, to describe a visual work of art in literature) is the relevant term for this poem. Homer created pathos with his ekphrastic shield passage in book 18 of The Iliad, and the shield itself depicted the universe in microcosm. Auden's poem has to do with the death of heroism in modern times, to be replaced by regimentation and blight. Even imagining the heroic seems beyond the poem's urchins and "boots,” and what place is there for Thetis and Achilles in the modern world?

"In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (2429-31)

How a poet becomes a text, is disseminated into the world’s stream of language, words. So what is Mr. Yeats’ significance now? "Poetry makes nothing happen," but it is still a "way of happening," suggests Section II, and “survives / In the valley of its saying.” Section III expands on that thought in a way that I think goes beyond the usual formalist claims about the insular richness of poetic language that it might at first seem to indicate. The world’s an unforgiving place, but in the long run, it “Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives” (50). To sing of humanity’s unsuccess is still necessary, and to sing of its success as well: poetry can lead us to seek justice and other good things, and persuade us again that the best emotions and affinities are permanent in us, and worth expressing. It need not run into the street shouting at us lessons in morals and politics to have its greatest impact.

“Poetry as Memorable Speech” (2438-41)

Leave it to Auden to get to the heart of the matter. His formulation looks back to Shelley’s fine words about the first poets being clear perceivers and purveyors of “the before unapprehended relations of things” in rhythmic, passionate speech. Anybody who tries to learn something knows that Auden is right about how we make things stick: we remember what has an emotional charge for us. That’s perhaps why some foreign words you’re trying to learn stick like batter on an unbuttered griddle, and others slip away like water. And of course it’s why some kids can remember infinitely many baseball stats but somehow can’t be bothered to do their mathematics homework.

Good poetry connects emotionally with a person, and is not simply “memorable” in the rote sense but in a deeper one: it’s generative of insight: “The test of a poet is the frequency and diversity of the occasions on which we remember his poetry” (2439). Both on big occasions and in little, seemingly insignificant ones. Honestly, I think you could say much the same of excellent prose, even of certain works of culture criticism by Ruskin, or Carlyle, or Wilde, or any other great prose writer, even though we don’t often read their work aloud – it isn’t strictly “speech,” but it’s memorable all the same.

Auden certainly demands that a poem be “a well-made verbal object,” but he isn’t very fond of high-art conceptualization that separates poetry from the flow of life. Neither is he satisfied with the older theories about poetry as individual expression: “a universal art can only be the product of a community united in sympathy, sense of worth, and aspiration” (2440). Well, Matthew Arnold had said as well that for great art, you need both “the man and the moment,” or the results would be less than ideal. Auden ends his piece by addressing rather directly the concern of lots of C19-20 artists and appreciators of art: the average bloke, influenced by scientific discourse and utility-saturated modernity, tends to demand that art make itself immediately useful. No can do, Auden declares: but it can quicken the imagination and spirit in preparation for making the decisions that need to be made. As critic Kenneth Burke put it a bit less elegantly than Auden but still insightfully: literature is “equipment for living.”

Jean Rhys. "The Day They Burned the Books" (Norton Vol. F, 2356-61) and "Let Them Call It Jazz" (2361-72).

Notes on Jean Rhys

I haven't yet found time to post notes on this author.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Week 14, James Joyce

Notes on James Joyce

Introduction: Joyce’s career is bound up with political troubles in Ireland. Of course those troubles go back beyond even Cromwell. In C19, the Irish had national leaders such as Daniel O’Connell and Parnell. The Republic came in 1920, but that didn’t end the problems. Joyce wanted to avoid being pinned down by the nationalist cause, so he exiled himself from 1902 onwards and lived abroad in Trieste, Paris, and Zurich. I believe he gave English lessons sometimes to make a living—Joyce was no aristocrat or wealthy man.

It’s tempting to romanticize Joyce as a high priest of independent Modernist art, but the problem with this view is that his texts consistently put such possibilities of aesthetic escapism on the rack, and his art-priestly characters such as Stephen Dedalus aren’t convincing in their assertions of autonomy for an art that can either incorporate or exclude the world outside. If you want to be a wiseguy, I suppose you could say that this questioning doesn’t free him of the Modernist “high art” label: it could be argued that in Joyce we find Anglo-American High Modernism arguing with itself—with its own stylistic tendencies and claims to artistic autonomy that paradoxically set themselves forth as vitally important to entire cultures. And what could be more Modernist than that kind of balancing act?

In any case, it’s true enough that Joyce never really trusted other Modernists’ propensity to wield Classical and Irish myths as bedrock for the regeneration of the human spirit, and neither did he think that it was sufficient to return, as Yeats’ speaker in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” to “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” It seems that even the passionate and expressive moments that lead to artistic creation are always subject to some critical force beyond them and yet somehow connected with them. Everything, at all times, seems subject to mediation and change, in the texts of Joyce. There seems to be no “there there,” no starting point, no ending point, either for the characters in their attempt to set their life-lands in order, or for the artist reflecting upon the productions of his own mind. So the sometime “cool impersonality” of the Joycean narrator is not something we should take simply, in spite of his admiration for Gustave Flaubert’s fingernail paring. It implies a kind of disengaged, above-it-all artistic consciousness that exempts itself from the tribulations of the characters it creates. I think that Joyce sees this disinterestedness as a necessary pose, but is not following it out blindly. In “The Dead,” for instance, as Margot Norris says the bourgeois, Gabriel-happy narrative faces all sorts of “backtalk” and “palaver.”

In 1909, Joyce wrote an essay on Wilde. He was interested in Wilde because he was an Irishman who had to make his literary fame amongst the English, overcoming the barriers between them by his wit and genius. But Joyce’s fascination with Wilde stemmed in part from anxiety—Stephen describes Wilde as a court jester for the British. Joyce himself refused to make what he considered the humiliating pilgrimage to literary London. If one is an Irish artist, it may be possible to achieve something, but the English will never really accept you due to their racial and class-based pretensions. So Joyce saw being Irish as a trap, and turned internationalist, at least in a characteristically complex and ambivalent way.

Dubliners’ final story is “The Dead,” which stands out from the book and seems, at least if we accept the judgment of Gabriel at the conclusion, to swallow up all the other characters mentioned in the collection. As for Joyce’s style, I’ll take my cue from UCI’s Margot Norris. She says that most of Joyce’s work is based upon the language of desire—desire for recognition, for the overcoming of insecurities, etc. The characters speak not so much from conscious purpose as from such unconscious desires. And how does one construct a narrative that faithfully follows the movements of human desire? It is a very difficult task, no doubt, involving as it does all sorts of disjunctions and contradictions since our thoughts don’t always seem to come from anywhere specific or available to us, and they aren’t generally connected by any convincing sort of logic.. One could say with some justice that Joyce is a psychological realist, but that misses something vital if we don’t add that the narrative voice, even when it supports the characters’ streams of consciousness, doesn’t necessarily reduce to them. We have more than one track playing at the same time, and they aren’t necessarily in sync. Often the narrative voice or voices repeat or stage the main character’s blindness and inability to reflect upon their actions or motives. But this kind of repetition isn’t simple “copying”: it adds something, supplements the words and deeds of the character. And you should read your Derrida on a word like “supplementarity.”

What do Joyce’s characters desire? To be recognized by others, to overcome deep insecurities, to realize their erotic desires. The words they speak or even their internal monologues are produced by these desires, and so the overt narrative isn’t necessarily a trustworthy guide to “what’s really going on.” [We cannot count on a one-to-one correspondence between the words of the text and the internal discourse of the characters, which the narrative forces us to consider.] Often, too, the language in the text is borrowed from outside the text—from obscure historical references, persons, other literary texts, and even the language of commercial advertising. In sum, there is no unified narrative voice, so in Joyce, the narrator is not a principle of unity for the words others speak.

In addition, the language of desire is similar to parole vide, empty speech, speech that is not full. Parole pleine is speech plus gesture and context, environment, attitude. In Joyce, the meaning of what characters say is likely to be partly dependent on things that are going on as the words are spoken. What is done, and what is not said, may well account for much of the significance of a particular utterance. Gestures, positioning, and so forth, as on a stage, must be folded into whatever we draw from the utterances. Rather like a pantomime. The language of desire is a language that conceals aloud what the characters are like, what their real story or situation is—and of course such language produced by desire may well conceal these things from the characters themselves because they have a powerful need to conceal unpleasant insights or facts. Speech is concealment and self-concealment even as it reveals things overtly. Certainly Gabriel Conroy speaks this way in “The Dead.” What does Gabriel really think of his wife Gretta? Of Ireland? Etc. Is any of this ever captured raw, without mediation, even by the most brutally honest-seeming of his remarks as at the end of the story?

Moreover, sometimes a character will be talking, and all of a sudden another character’s gaze interrupts the flow of dialogue, stopping the speaker in his or her tracks. Often in Joyce, characters are forced to see themselves as they don’t want to be seen—as others see them. Refer to Ulysses, for instance: early in the work, Stephen Dedalus the would-be great artist is standing on the Martello Tower, along with Buck Mulligan his cynical Irish friend. He shows Stephen his face in a shaving mirror he has filched from the maid, saying “The rage of Caliban seeing his face in a glass,” and Stephen, catching the reference to Wilde’s witticism about literary realism’s failure, says, “It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant.” Stephen is afraid of becoming a servant of the English, as he thinks Wilde did. He holds out the mirror, looks at himself, and says, “as he and others see me.” That’s a primal fear in Joyce: that you will be seen in an unflattering light by others, and that their disapproval will prove damaging to you in your quest to achieve whatever you have set out to—gain artistic freedom, get free of nationalist struggling, etc. Worse yet, your high hopes may turn out to be pretentious illusions. One’s illusions may be stripped away by the gaze and speech of others.

On to “The Dead.” The setting is the annual Christmas party at the home of the sisters Kate and Julia Morkan. Like Joyce and many Irish people, everyone here loves opera. Julia especially was once, perhaps, a talented singer. Gabriel is expected to carve the Christmas goose and make a little speech.

2241. Notice the interchange between Gabriel and Lily the caretaker’s daughter, a working stiff. Gabriel is middle class and well educated. Perhaps he looks down on others without wanting to admit it to himself. He supposes “we’ll be going to your wedding.” But he hears that men nowadays are “only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” This surprises him, cutting through his class and gender-based presuppositions or misunderstandings that structure Gabriel’s entire existence. She has interrupted him with a genuine working-class, unromantic view of men. Then Gabriel forces money on her, and she finds that insulting. By his standards, the act is well-meant, but Lily appears to see through it and get to the bourgeois condescension in the gesture. This is a typical kind of encounter in Joyce.

2242. Here the speech betrays Gabriel’s anxiety about how to relate to the others at the gathering. He must make a speech. Discomposed by Lily’s words and attitude, he fiddles with his clothing, and wonders if he should leave the line by Browning in. They might not understand the quotation. Perhaps Shakespeare or an Irish melody would be more to the purpose? He will surely seem pompous and self-promoting. Apparently, Gabriel lumps Kate and Julia with their servant—all are ignorant Irish folk.

2243. The exchange about galoshes. How does Gabriel relate to his wife Greta? This exchange illustrates what Norris says about how Joyce’s texts are structured by the language of desire. They are talking past one another. Gabriel’s solicitude isn’t quite what it seems, though nobody says that. Joyce’s narrator never takes the side of anyone but Gabriel—it doesn’t overly undercut him or think other thoughts. The narrator never exposes him or says “Gabriel was wrong.” Rather, the narrative voice is blind, perhaps in the same way that Gabriel is to his own flaws and to his inability to comprehend his situation. But how does Gabriel actually relate to his wife, insofar as we can tell by interpreting the scene as a whole, and not basing our view just on what the characters say? He makes her wear the galoshes; it’s a matter of control, not health—he never inquires what Greta thinks or feels. That failure will show most of all when we find out about Greta’s passion for Michael Furey, and even before then at the moment when we see her gazing up the stairs at the great tenor. Greta, too, conceals out loud the true relationship between herself and her husband. “The next thing he’ll buy me will be a diving suit.” Now there’s overdetermined language—the two of them are in an alien environment, estranged, insulated in their respective bubbles. For Gabriel, Greta is a Victorian “Angel of the Hearth.” What is done around him in this scene undercuts Gabriel: Aunt Julia cuts him down with “and what are galoshes, Gabriel?” She does not laugh along with Kate. Does Julia understand something about Gabriel and Greta that Kate doesn’t? A student says that Gabriel must feel like he’s the butt of everybody’s jokes. He’s on stage, and always anxious about how his performance is being taken—as during the after-dinner speech, where he hopes to shine and hopes to put Miss Ivors in her place because she has accused him of not being a good nationalist.

2247-48. The scene with Miss Ivors. Around this point Gabriel betrays ambivalence towards his mother, who had opposed his marriage to Greta, calling her “country cute.” We keep seeing the Irish/British rifts coming up, but the class divisions appear even within the same family. Then Miss Ivors accuses him of being a “West Briton,” someone who sees Ireland as a British colony. Gabriel suffers the hostile gaze of this new and sophisticated breed of nationalists. He defends his journalism as apolitical. But in this context, being apolitical is political. Silence speaks volumes, and Gabriel looks to Miss Ivors like a fence-sitter. He sees literature as above politics, but he can’t defend this view in her presence, and is doomed to be seen as he doesn’t want to be seen. On 2248, Gabriel is drawn into saying that he is “sick of his country.” She has heated him, making him look ridiculous in front of others, and all Gabriel can do is play the gender card: she’s just a woman anyway.

2251. Julia used to sing in the choir, and had a budding career. She may not have been a great soprano. Mr. Brown the protestant intruder plays a role here, introducing Julia as a “discovery.” She’s treated as a wayward child who need defending; her thoughts never get much attention. Kate is more of a radical, criticizing her own religion. She says the Pope was wrong to keep women out of Church choirs, but Julia is embarrassed to hear such talk in front of the outsider Mr. Brown.

2256ff. Gabriel makes his speech, and his theme is the tradition of Irish hospitality, as evidenced in his hosts’ kind offer of an annual gathering. But of course Gabriel himself is no fan of Irishism, and doesn’t seem to think much of the ignorant old women who are his hosts. So there’s some hypocrisy in his speech, which he turns into an occasion to get back at Miss Ivors. (Wasn’t it written beforehand? Did he change it to suit the occasion?) The anecdote on the late Mr. Patrick Morkan, his grandfather, “the old gentleman,” makes fun of the family’s ancestors. There’s something uncannily realistic about this dinner: no wonder holidays are so depressing for so many of us. We wind up our dysfunctional relationships and watch them go.

2260. Gabriel and Greta’s relationship. How does he perceive her at the bottom of this page? He has an idea of Greta, she is an aesthetic object to him. He recognizes her clothes first, and builds up an image of her. If we didn’t know Gabriel somewhat, we might consider this a romantic moment. But since we are aware of his anxieties, we can’t read the moment that way. He’s turning his wife into a statue to be viewed with Kantian disinterestedness.

2262-63. Gabriel’s disinterestedness turns into erotic desire when Greta walks alongside him after the party. But this romantic pursuit turns frankly sexual, though Greta seems unaware of Gabriel’s emotions. It seems he has been hoping that the trip to the Morkan gathering would rejuvenate his marriage, the “secret” part of it.

2266-Conclusion: But the snow has been falling all along. Mary Jane brought it up at 2261; the “snow being general all over Ireland.” Social and marital conventions may be one thing that the snow symbolizes, dampening the fire of the soul and the passion in Gabriel and Greta’s marriage. Michael Furey was a hopeless consumptive romantic youth, and he makes an obvious contrast with Gabriel throughout the marriage. Gabriel is confronted with Michael as Greta’s hidden past; this is because he never bothered to ask her any questions. Gabriel sees himself as others see him, at least to a great extent, and his wife has unwittingly been instrumental in this epiphany. Does he fully accept the harsh picture of himself that now appears to him? Whether he does or doesn’t, does his current perspective change anything? Addition 9/29/2003: I should say more about the snow: sometimes symbols of this sort have a transformative power upon the narrative or the characters: it unites disparate threads and realizations. But is that true here? Has Gabriel been granted an epiphany about the meaning of his life? It seems to me that this literary symbol retains the wetness and blanketing, voiding qualities of real snow: it erases and blurs all sense of distinction and difference, the whole attempt on Gabriel’s part to sort things out concerning his marriage and his status with regard to Irish politics. The characters fade into the dreary landscape and unite with the dead, whose story is now over. To me, it seems that the whole narrative has led inexorably to this fading away into insignificance, as if there never was any way up or out. But why not? Is it Gabriel’s fault? Is it something else or something in addition to his past thoughts and conduct as an individual?

Week 13, WWI Poets and W. B. Yeats

Notes on Voices of WWI

On World War I poetry generally, see Paul Fussel’s book ‘‘The Great War and Modern Memory.’’ Introduction—why WWI poets as modernists? Well, they write of ghastly contexts that outside audiences can’t or won’t understand. So the WWI poets adopt a defiant stance, trying both to remain true to their experience and insight while at the same time realizing that experience is already subject to discursive construction and ideology. Simply conveying “experience” is not simple. Unpleasant reality doesn’t necessarily sell, especially if it runs counter to people’s strong need to see anything but “the way it really is.”

The WWI poets found themselves stripped of the old illusions about war and about civilization as a necessary and inevitable movement from the low to the high, the barbaric to the sophisticated. It isn’t easy to see how we can “let the ape and tiger die” when we—people from the same European background—are stabbing and gassing one another by the millions. So the WWI authors sometimes alienate their audiences, defy them. A great burden is on the reader, as in much modern art. Then, too, WWI authors find that they themselves must deploy the metaphor and myth of older times to describe present horrors, knowing the risk of complicity they run. One cannot simply leave the linguistic and cultural past behind, and yet one cannot simply accept it, either. They want to validate their intense individual experience, claim poetic authority on that basis, but the experiences themselves don’t necessarily allow them to offer up a usable past or present, an intelligible pattern to live by.

Siegfried Sassoon


Eerie changes in perspective—disorientation, deprivation, vague shapes and cracked mirrors: a world Sassoon struggles to represent. The speaker strives to keep moving forwards, up, out, anywhere. All is ghostly, like the dead solider, humanity can’t “keep up,” can’t adapt. Evolution doesn’t make us passionless moles in a few years. Sassoon deals with the increasing, and already deep, disjunction between military technology and strategy (mass movement, mechanized war, with consequent death of the heroic ideals of war) and the human psyche and body. The Allies won, but at great cost and without assurance that anything would change in future. A peaceful order did not emerge from this first world conflagration, and in fact perhaps even that title is misleading, since the Napoleonic Wars were similarly grand in scope.
Another problem comes with trench stalemate: this introduces a need to ideologize and aestheticize violence. The military must lie to people, heroize a struggle that actual participants see as nothing but inane butchery. Glorifying wartime violence makes us forget that it amounts to a collective human failure. After all, was war ever purely heroic? Many vets point out that jingoism is a mistake—see, for example, Studs Terkel’s ‘‘The Good War’’ or Paul Fussell’s ‘‘The Great War and Modern Memory.” The latter (himself a veteran of WWII) says the problem isn’t that we can’t describe wartime violence at all; it’s that people don’t want to hear it as it is. Voltaire’s quotation comes to mind: it goes something like, “Murder is always severely punished—unless it is committed in vast numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

“The General”

The brass and the enlisted men don’t operate at the same level; bureaucracy seeps in. Patton is good example from WWII: he supposedly wanted to relive Hannibal’s strategy in crossing the Alps, at considerable cost to the grunts on the ground. Alexander and Caesar were in the fight with the soldiers (even if their doubles rode about attracting attention away from them); war was not so technologized then.

“Glory of Women”

Gendered perceptions are at play here. Sassoon’s speaker is bitter at Victorian “Angels of the Hearth.” Gender construction correlates with war ideology, and there’s a feminine jingoism to go along with machismo on the homefront. Sassoon brings up the threat of emasculation—something ignored by both feminine and masculine rhetoric about war.

“Everyone Sang”

This poem is about the Armistice, but almost has the flavor of a fictional event, after all that’s happened, and given Sassoon’s attitude about war generally. The poem seems to describe a moment of spiritual epiphany collectively accomplished. But does the speaker imagine that he shouldn’t overplay the optimistic narrative here?

“Menin Gate”

Words here function as “forgetting” devices. As Nietzsche says, much of civilization thrives on cruel forgetting. Sassoon’s speaker condemns memorialization. At Menin Gate the problem seems to be civilian willingness to reduce everything to a simple lesson. The names have been lifted from one institutional moment (birth) to another (death in war), effacing the humanity of the dead. We have gone from baptism, the giving of identity, to a simultaneous transformation and stripping of that rooted human identity, a turning of it into martial shadow for propaganda.


Who are “they”? Ideologues treat soldiers en masse, but people experience war as individuals. They are dutiful and follow conventions, but are also scared, angry, confused, horrified, bored, intensely alive. See Tim O’Brien’s ‘‘The Things They Carried,” which explores this issue about individual perception and experience. Isn’t “experience” already a reflection and subject to reconstruction, falsification, etc? Experience is not a real-time or given event. We can’t know its significance real-time; it is discursive, ‘‘ex post facto.’’

War poems question definitions as well as the relation between individual and conventions or types. Aristotle defined courage as a mean between recklessness and cowardice. Many WWI vets thought their losses pointless. But bravery is no less worthy when based on adherence to conventional notions of the “war hero.” One can inhabit roles genuinely. (A modern journalist says that military bravado is a mask—yes, but there’s truth in masks, as Wilde says.) That’s why Sassoon and Owen can expose the absurdity of militarism while not putting down the common soldier, who has little choice but to bear up.


Sassoon points out here the mind-over-body assumptions made during war, the ideological “aestheticization” and spiritualization of violence.

Notes on Wilfred Owen

“Apologia Pro Poemate Meo”

War forges another language, another kind of experience—at least in part. The poet’s words can’t, or won’t, fully translate that experience. The risk Owen explores here is that war poetry is solipsistic, bound to mislead, but also that those who hear his insights are not worthy of them: the poet wants to be a prophet and sage, a diviner of sublimity and ultimate meanings. Owen’s poem may remind us that the WWI poet feels kindred anxiety to what the romantics felt for the burden they placed upon language as a conveyer of divine inspiration, an asserter of human community. Here we are dealing with an awful kind of experience that may not be intelligible to anyone but the person who experiences it. Owen separates his speaker from the civilian audience, and claims that he at least has drawn beauty from battlefield experiences and relationships. But the final stanza’s question has to do with whether or not his transcendental rhetoric—“I saw God through mud”—is as satisfying to him as others might think. With what insight has he emerged from hell, Dante-like? The poet’s lived experience must be conveyed in an almost private language—the aesthetic terms have been transformed and revalued by the experience itself, and this transformation can’t be passed on to us.


Similar to Sassoon’s “Rear-Guard.” Brute labor, by a process of forgetting, seems magically to generate a finely lit, civilized world. And that fine world has long been our dream: to rise from our materiality, letting “the ape and tiger in us die.” But somebody has to do the dirty work—coal-mining, war, etc.

“Dulce et Decorum Est”

This poem seems straightforward enough; but let’s ask here how directly this poem conveys experience. It’s a nightmare vision even at the most direct level—he sees the “drowning” man through a glass darkly—his gas mask’s glass, that is. And then he relives this dim vision in his dreams again and again. This is a decidedly anti-heroic poem. It is one of Owen’s modes to convey grim battle realities in the direct language of disease and disfigurement. Here he resents most of all the civilians’ tidy and rhetorical way of describing such experiences, as we may gather from the Horatian line “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori….” (“Sweet and right it is to die for one’s country.”)

“Strange Meeting”

It’s been said that Owen sometimes clings to the beautification of war. I hardly think so—he’s struggling with a problem I’ve already described: namely, we cannot simply dismiss all previous notions. War may “strip away the film of familiarity” in a shocking manner, but we must cover the abyss with language we know to be inadequate. That’s part of being human. That we know we engage in illusion-making doesn’t mean we can stop doing so altogether. So Owen is wrestling with the difficult relationship between his poetic language—eloquent stuff, not the sometimes strident tones of Siegfried Sassoon—and his raw experience.

What is he doing to that experience in trying to convey it, as of course he must? So here he invents a dream like the reality of war, lending the former equal status for the time being. And he forces himself to confront the man he has killed, not accepting the obvious excuse that he has been commanded to kill. After all, it is wartime. And the dead German speaks to him—what is Owen accomplishing here? Is his language expiatory? Cathartic? Can we guess the speaker’s attitude towards these questions?

All language falsifies what it describes, but how, if at all, may we falsify in good faith? Myth, aesthetic dreams, even cast as confrontations, may deepen the speaker’s complicity in the act he has already committed. Owen won’t excuse his own poetry, won’t take flight in gritty realism or shrill declamation, a refusal I find decent in him.

Notes on William Butler Yeats


Yeats was a poet of many phases, not as clearly marked as critics imply: romanticism and symbolism, Irish politics and folklore, aristocratic values, Modernist stylistic compression and an interest in poetic texts as containing entire symbolic systems. But he never left behind his early phases even after moving on from them. Yeats was always concerned with the power of art in relation to other areas of life, with poetry’s status as expression, with its approximation to religion and the stability and ultimate insight religions offer. His poetry becomes more and more complex in its investigation of all these matters. A Vision is his prose attempt to create, in the manner of Blake and Swedenborg, an integral system, a mystic yet accurate way of dealing with change in individual identity, the collective unconscious, and world history. Whether all his talk of “gyres,” “will/body of fate,” “creative mind / mask,” and so forth makes a theosophic system is beside the point: the whole affair is a vehicle for his poetry. His complex mature period blends with the Anglo-American Modernism of Eliot and Pound, among others. Take the Symbolist insistence that art constitutes a higher reality all its own, add the allusiveness and integrative power of myth, the spiritual imperatives of mysticism, a paradoxical yet genuine engagement with politics, and a willingness to question his broadest claims for poetry’s truth-status and relevance—and you get Yeats the High Modernist. There is a certain aloofness in Yeats’ manner, an aristocratic contempt for those who want nothing but pleasure from art, as if, to borrow from Bentham, pushpin were as good as poetry.

Like most Modernists, Yeats despises middle-class materialism, preferring the genuineness of the poor and the nobility alike. This carries forth a long romantic and Victorian tradition—recall Carlyle’s thundering at “Bobuses” who think of nothing but upward mobility and their stomachs.

But then, the argument over whether art should simply please us or improve us into the bargain is an ancient one; most critics and artists, even the most defiantly aloof among them, have implied that it should be a force both for social cohesion and for spiritual realization and transcendence. The Russian Formalists’ watchword “make it new” isn’t so new, and Modernists believe that art is a powerful shaping force over the spirit and intellect, even if they don’t trust themselves entirely when they say such things. The notion that Modernism doesn’t trust itself calls for an explanation: Yeats, with his occult and elitist tendencies, knows the risk he runs of his art collapsing into aestheticism or romantic solipsism. He’s fashioning a holy book out of his own semi-private symbolic language, a Book that promises special insight to the initiated. Even his use of the past’s myths and history throws down the interpretive gauntlet to us as readers—Yeats is a difficult poet who demands that we turn away from ordinary notions, step out of our individual selves, and understand him on his own terms. The self and the ordinary are cast as barriers to understanding and connection with others.

Yeats’ hero Blake wrote about religion’s tendency to become the province of an evil priesthood, a cynical hieratic class that feeds on the mysteries it propagates and guards. Mystery at its best—even the kind of manufactured mystery we see in the Victorian sages—can flow from genuine wonder at the complexity of humanity and the cosmos; but it can also take its origin from fear, ignorance, and misinterpretation, with consequent need for priestly elites. Modernist myth-making could easily amount to ideology in the service of somebody’s politics. Anglo-American Modernists seem to know this, and yet they find it necessary to offer us a religion of art. Yeats is a man of dilemmas—he’s all for universal myths, yet remains an Irish nationalist; he’s deeply personal and subjective, yet breaks down the barriers of selfhood. And above all, the phrase applied to Tennyson in the nineteenth century—“Lord of Language”—is just as appropriate to Yeats among his twentieth-century peers.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

An early poem, symbolist. The speaker will remove himself from the everyday world and hear what the “deep heart’s core” has to say; this alternative reality will have an order and a peace all its own. The poem has the force of a decision: “I will go to the place that’s calling to me.” He hasn’t done it yet, and the chant itself is part of the process whereby he will convince himself to go. There’s some genuine pastoral imagery, a touch of romanticism’s descriptions of beautiful things in nature. Innisfree is symbolic—it is at least as much a state of mind as a real place, perhaps more so. The poem speaks the reality that calls the poet forth, so language participates in the making of something real, whether a state of mind or an actual place.

“Easter 1916”

Yeats here treats an act of Irish nationalism and martyrdom as a work of art, something that transfigures even those participants he didn’t get along with. But in the final stanza, doesn’t Yeats also bring up the dangers of nationalism? See his line, “Too long a sacrifice…” Nationalism is a temporary tactic; Yeats never supported violent revolution, and shows a preference for art and myth as shaping and continuity-providing influences in collective life.

“The Second Coming”

The Russian Revolution occurred in 1917; a new world is being born, and it seems neither rational nor predictable. The Sphinx Riddle, at its core, concerns human nature, and the Oedipus myth turns on a series of outrages against a civic order taken as natural or in alliance with nature. Oedipus commits the scandal of incest (incest is both a universal taboo and yet a local violation, so it is scandalously natural and cultural—see Claude Lévi-Strauss). Will this new world be like the one ruled by Shelley’s cruel Pharaoh Ozymandias, whose image remains to glare at us as a recurring possibility even though the artist mocked him? An Egyptian tyranny? Yeats is drawing upon his own and on the collective European symbolic system to describe the birth throes of a new age. In uttering his prophecy, he rejects optimistic C19 narratives about progress and the upward march of the spirit. Change is inevitable, but not necessarily change for the better. The “rough beast” stalks obscenely into the world, its crude sexuality reminding us that we haven’t left behind the worst in ourselves or in history. History has been called “the pain of our ancestors,” and here is some new monstrosity shaping up. Yeats’ imagery comes from ancient myth and religion; history is disjunctive. It proceeds by terrible leaps and thunderclaps. So we need the artist as a wielder of myths new and old to make the world intelligible again, to whatever degree possible. This is a claim that High Modernists have adapted from romantic poet-prophets like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake.

What is intelligible may not comfort us, but we are responsible for confronting it in any case. Yeats had read Nietzsche on eternal recurrence—can one face all but unbearable realizations, yet remain willing to do it all again? Here we are confronted with our own recurrent power to tyrannize, setting up fear and dread abstraction as our gods (recall Blake’s “hapless soldier’s sigh” that “runs in blood down palace walls” in the poem “London”). And his ideas resemble Jung’s notion that there’s a collective unconscious—Jung was going beyond Freud’s psychology, which was centered on the bourgeois individual. Yeats’ accomplishment is to wield Jung-like collective myths with the fiery individualism of Blake: “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another’s!” Not that his is a narrowly self-based poetics; Yeats isn’t a romantic creator pure and simple—notice that he often writes as if he were being dictated to by a medium, an automatic writing that wells up from the collective unconscious, an archetypal image bank that comes from the Spiritus Mundi. Neither does he try to play the stage father with the meaning of his poems—he respects their status as words to be interpreted. His emphasis on the subjective side of existence is characteristically Modernist: they privilege impressions, subjective responses.

“Sailing to Byzantium”

How to cross over into what lasts? Yeats’ speaker explains why he has come to Byzantium, abandoning the boundaries of his ego and traveling to a region where he hopes to metamorphose into an eternal life in artistic form. This is truly a religion of art. Yeats refashions ancient symbols, grants us a vision of the Holy City, which is not Jerusalem in this poem but rather a decadent-phase Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The poem alludes to the poetic process itself, the magical hammering out of a world of eternal aesthetic artifacts. Like a Byzantine goldsmith’s handiwork, the poet’s sacred chant and symbolic system spanning many texts would fashion this world by what Shelley calls “the incantation of this verse.” But I’m not sure such claims for an eternal unchanging state of things suits Yeats’ theosophy in A Vision, as it emerges later. It seems to me that everything is dynamic in that explanation—Yeats, after all, borrows from the Pre-Socratics who are always talking about change as the only constant.

Stanza One: A personal poem about growing old and facing up to what one’s art has meant to oneself. The claim is that art transcends the “mire” of the material realm and human desire without simply rejecting them. Well, the first stanza rules out remaining in the world of natural generation, void of subjectivity. This kind of harmony and music doesn’t satisfy the self-conscious speaker about to pass on. Nature is “careful of the type, careless of the individual life,” as Tennyson writes in In Memoriam A.H.H.

Stanza Two: Notice the incantatory power here, the ordering power of rhythm: song of a different sort overcomes the mortal decay implied by the first stanza. Byzantium is in its decadent phase, a self-referential city wrapped up in artistic processiveness, in aestheticism. But Yeats is drawn to this beautiful solipsism, a place for intense concentration on what is eternal. This is not irresponsibility, I believe, but honesty—the speaker is old. Therefore, not having found his answer in physical nature, he has crossed waters, symbolizing creative power and life, and has come to this holy city. An old man must escape his dying self and enter into a different creative process—art.

Stanza Three: This stanza shows a turning away from the body and towards the forms of the sages on the Ravenna frieze mentioned in the Norton Anthology note. He prays to the sages, who have themselves been transformed into a work of art. He wants to be in the phase of existence they have reached, not remain where he is. His prayer is itself an outflowing of the phase in which he now finds himself.

Stanza Four: Once he has made the transition to a new world free of dying nature and the body, the artist will be wrought into his own artifice and become eternal. This poem confronts mortality, but not by reaffirming selfhood—instead, he confronts it on the grounds of his symbols and artifice, measuring his own endurance by their lasting power. A wish to merge with them. But will that be granted?

“Leda and the Swan”

Here the speaker handles poetic insight into history as a violent and dangerous gift. The rape of Leda engendered Helen, the Trojan War, and European history. What price insight? Many of the ancient prophets—Tiresias, Cassandra, Orpheus, gained their powers as compensation for terrible loss, or suffered for what they had been granted. Poetry is not merely pretty words. It is allied with prophecy and divination, and has been at the heart of civilization as a human task and process. The Modernists often describe poetry as an inseminative, male power. But is Zeus the only poet here, or is Leda also inspired? Does myth or poetic insight allow us to control such a process, or only describe it and face up to it spiritually? Coming to terms with the violent but necessary transitions from one epoch to the next seems to be the current poem’s task. This demands that we not dismiss the violent past, but try to make our knowledge of it worth something in the present—if that’s possible. Nietzsche says in “Homer’s Contest” that if we understood the Greeks “in Greek,” we would shudder—certainly Yeats’ choice of myths here doesn’t place him among the calm C19 Hellenizers. He says that the politics went out of the poem when he began to write it, but it still asks about the relationship between art and a given political order, indeed any political order. To what extent is poetic insight and language complicit in the violent events and transitions it presents? Leda and other myths, after all, were how the Greeks understood their own history and culture—at least early in their history, until C6-5 BCE, they lived within the framework of their myths. It is only with the pre-Socratic that they begin trying to explain natural phenomena in scientific terms. Different cultures will read the same myth differently; the myths recur but are subject to reinterpretation.

“Among School Children”

Here “the child is father of the man,” as Wordsworth wrote. But Yeats may not draw as much consolation as Wordsworth did in his “Immortality Ode.” The romantic poem cheered up the speaker, but Yeats’ speaker tries to reassure children that he’s not such a frightening schoolmaster or old scarecrow. His smile is a mask, like a Gno-mask, a conventional role. Hollow, he wants to fulfill his public office, which entails one generation’s responsibility towards another.

Stanza 5: Refers to the ancient myth of metempsychosis, as in Wordsworth’s line “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” See also Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus. Is the pain worth it?

Stanza 6: What is real? Philosophers sought abstract wisdom, and can’t tell. They propagate Bacon’s “Idols of the Theater”—the strange errors that come with the territory of philosophers bent upon explaining the world with the help of huge thought-systems. Yeats’ autobiography A Vision shows his dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy. Much philosophy is an attempt to capture the relationship between self and world, to build up a vast framework for arriving at what is ultimately intelligible and enduring. It comes to seem a vain and self-isolating endeavor. I think Yeats is making the traditional complaint that philosophical explanations don’t move us, don’t make us able to act in the world and bear up under its stresses as they occur.

Stanza 7: Here a different relationship between thought and object emerges: images that move us.

Stanza 8: The reference to the chestnut tree is pure romantic organic metaphor—you can’t dissect a living thing without killing it. The whole is more than the sum of the parts, and you can’t divide up a person easily into the Seven Ages of Man. Neither can we “know the dancer from the dance.” This is a complex metaphor—the point in reference to Yeats’ theories in A Vision that states of mind, acts of will, etc., are not separable from the particular phase in which a person currently is. So the Yeats-like speaker is an older man, still somewhat wrapped up in his own subjectivity. He does not see the huge and luminous world of the more objective-phase child. So his poem is a product of where he is in terms of spiritual phase. His final words may seem like romantic poetry in the optative mode, as in “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” But the trouble is that he isn’t dancing, that he cannot reenter the thoughts and dreams of childhood. He can only reflect upon his past, but the activity is not necessarily a comfort or a useful thing to him—he’s trying to come full circle, reflect back on his childhood and draw sustenance for his old age, wrap his mind around his life as a whole. But that kind of reflection is in itself Hamlet-like, and leads to further alienation, not to recuperation of the past. And so he remains distant from the children even in the midst of them.


What’s happening in Byzantium once the pilgrim arrives? We find spiritual transcendence being wrought from matter, from Roman “mire” and centuries of more vital history. Art and death have come together productively. Byzantium, in Yeats’ description, has become a place of transcendence, not the practical, political world of the Roman Empire.

Stanza 1: What has been made by human hands withdraws, disdains its makers and their mixture of mud and spirit. The domes and cathedrals are pure, illumined with celestial, not human, light.

Stanza 2: Mummy-cloth… is the winding path death? Is that the way out of mire?
Final Stanzas: Yeats was never satisfied with nature as an answer to the problems of self-conscious humans. You can see from “The Wilde Swans of Coole” that he aspires to a higher vision than nature could ever afford us. So here we find images begetting images, generating an alternative world, or a state that differs greatly from the unhappy one in which the speaker apparently finds himself.

Week 12, Oscar Wilde

Notes on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest

Introduction to the Main Types of Comedy

Old Comedy: This is satirical comedy that “ridicules political policies or philosophical doctrines, or else attacks deviations from the social order by making ridiculous the violators of its standards of morals or manners” (Abrams 29). The Greek playwright Aristophanes (circa 456-386 BCE) is the first great satiric comedian. If you’ve ever read or seen a comedy by Aristophanes (The Clouds, Lysistrata, The Birds, etc.), you know that it’s rough stuff—mainly topical satire about famous politicians and philosophers. The Clouds, for example, is about Socrates as proprietor of the Thinkery or Think-Shop, where all sorts of ridiculously improbable notions are propagated for the benefit of fools. Outrageous, bawdy, bubbly humor is the essence of such plays, and they can pack a genuine political wallop as well: Lysistrata sets forth a plot in which Greek women withhold sexual favors from men until they agree to put an end to the ruinous Peloponnesian War. On the whole, characters are ridiculous in Old Comedy—a main subject is the perennial nature of human folly, selfishness, and vice. Among the Elizabethans Ben Jonson is perhaps the greatest comic satirist. In his Volpone, things end badly for the play’s main character Volpone (i.e. “the fox”), but the play as a whole is still comic because Jonson (after some initial identification) makes us despise Volpone, not sympathize with him. So the aim in satiric comedy is mockery of a given society or of those who break its rules.

New Comedy: The Greek playwright Menander (circa 342-291 BCE), and his much later Roman followers Plautus (circa 254-184 BCE) and Terence (circa 190-158 BCE), offer a different brand of comic play that will later serve as the basis of Shakespeare’s comic plays and Restoration comedy of manners (Congreve’s The Way of the World, for example; Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost also make fine comedy of manners). The emphasis in New Comedy is on domestic matters rather than broad political issues. Love, or at least sexual desire treated sympathetically, is central to the action, and there’s also some concern for the relationship between the older generation and the younger, particularly between a father and his son, as well as some interest in relations between people of different status, such as masters and their clever slaves. Still, there’s plenty of fun at the expense of fools, dupes, lovers too old for the person they desire, etc. As M. H. Abrams explains in his A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th edition, the Roman comedies “dealt with the vicissitudes of young lovers and included what became the stock types of much later comedy, such as the clever servant, old and stodgy parents, and the wealthy rival.” English comedies, by contrast, tend towards “the relations and intrigues of men and women living in a sophisticated upper-class society, relying for comic effect in large part on the wit and sparkle of the dialogue—often in the form of repartee, a witty conversational give-and-take which constitutes a kind of verbal fencing match—and to a lesser degree, on the ridiculous violations of social conventions and decorum by stupid characters such as would-be-wits, jealous husbands, and foppish dandies” (Abrams 29). Some major authors of English comedy of manners are Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Arthur Pinero. New Comedy and its developments are seldom rigorous in their morals: the characters who win out tend—surprise!—to be the ones the playwright reckons the audience will like.

Sympathy trumps propriety. The popularity of comic mix-ups and disguises suggests that identities can be swapped at will, and because considerations such as wealth and social status are so important in structuring others’ perceptions of a given character, the new identity will be accepted long enough to get the job done.

The modern situation comedy—Seinfeld would be a sophisticated example—is remarkably like New Comedy: a number of silly but mostly sympathetic characters get themselves into and out of preposterous scrapes from one episode to the next in a competitive world, and through it all they don’t change much. They get insulted, taken advantage of, take advantage of others (though not mean-spiritedly), fall in and out of love, misunderstand one another at every turn, get jobs and get fired from jobs, obtain pleasure and ease and then throw it all away on a whim or through error, and they’re ready for the next absurdity life brings. Comedy reminds us that we seldom learn as much as we should from our mistakes, but it also gives us credit for being optimists and opportunists in spite of the misfortunes life throws our way.
There’s a bit of Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner in many a comic character: that fur-bearing evildoer Wiley Coyote isn’t going to keep the “poor little Roadrunner” from its appointed rounds (BeepBeep!), nor is Elmer Fudd going to stop Bugs from doing whatever the wascally wabbit wants to do. In comedy, desire is subject to deferral and detour, but not to permanent frustration. The comic orientation towards time is a favorable one: time and chance (accident) are on our side, at least if we are amongst the likeable or generous. In comedy, life is rich and full of opportunities—la vita è bella, as the Italians say. This attitude contrasts markedly with that of tragedy, where the world is stark and unforgiving, and our attention is riveted upon the thoughts and actions of a superior character in confrontation with that stark world.

Structure. The general (Terentian) structure of New Comedy is as follows: A. First comes the protasis, in which the basic characters and situation are established. This stage corresponds roughly to the first act of a modern five-act play. B. Then comes the epitasis in which events and characters are interwoven and complicated. This stage corresponds roughly to the second and third acts of a five-act play. C. Next comes the catastasis, in which the plot reaches a false climax. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio marries Kate towards the end of Act 3, but that important event hardly concludes the story: Kate must still be “tamed.” D. Last comes the real climax, the catastrophe, which in comedy turns out to be a happy ending, often a marriage or even a set of marriages.

A Note on Shakespearian Comedy. According to Northrop Frye, the structure of Shakespearean comedy often involves the main characters leaving their corrupt city or realm and entering a magical “green world,” from whence they emerge renewed and ready to return to civilized life. As You Like It is a fine example since Rosalind, Orlando, and other characters betake themselves to the Forest of Arden. The Tempest offers a variation, with Prospero exiled from Milan and subsequently resident on a strange but wonderful island. In The Winter’s Tale, much of the action takes place in a pastoral setting where Leontes’ and Hermione’s daughter Perdita resides, while A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of course, offers a remarkable nature-kingdom ruled by Oberon and Titania. In tragedy, the protagonist’s aim is to gain perspective on the disaster that has occurred and what brought it on; as Northrop Frye would say, a tragedy is oriented towards death and draws its meaning from that event. But in comedy, whose initial aim is to amuse the audience with tribulations giving way to a happy ending, the deeper aim is broadly social and oriented toward the renewal of life over generations. The kingdom or other city space may at first be badly ruled or in turmoil for some reason—perhaps the values and institutions of the citizens and/or rulers are in need of some re-examination. What is the basis of those values and institutions—can people live comfortably or at all within them?

Next, the main characters most often leave the city setting (willingly or otherwise) and end up in the countryside. This pastoral setting is often an enchanted space that allows for the necessary reexamination of values and social roles. Magical transformations of characters occur; they are put in situations that could not occur in the city or the kingdom, and the forest or countryside’s magic opens up new possibilities to them. As Meyer Abrams writes in A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th edition (1993), in a romantic comedy, “the problems and injustices of the ordinary world are dissolved, enemies reconciled, and true lovers united” (29). After the necessary reappraisal and readjustment period has been completed, the main characters come together—the young by marriage, the foundational institution of the civil order and its only hope for regeneration. Finally, the characters return to the kingdom proper or are about to return when the play ends. The key to Shakespearean comic structure is political and social regeneration, continuity for the ruling order. The question to be explored is, “How does a given society preserve order and its values from one generation to the next?”

Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest

This play is a fine comedy of manners that borrows something from Shakespeare’s emphasis on the relationship between the town and country in that the play begins with the characters in the city, moves them toward the countryside to straighten out the mess they’ve got themselves into, and points them toward city life again by the play’s end. As usual in comedy, events turn upon the attempts of the play’s lovers (there are two main couples in this one) to get together and on the many obstacles they must first overcome. So the structure of Wilde’s play is traditional. As for the play’s subject matter and dialogue, they certainly meet Abrams’ criteria for comedies of manners: IBE takes for its most basic subject “the relations and intrigues of men and women living in a sophisticated upper-class society”—indeed, Lady Bracknell calls the late Victorian Era “an age of surfaces.” The dialogue also largely fits the bill: the play is full of “wit and sparkle,” and it has its fair share of what Abrams would call repartee: “a witty conversational give-and-take which constitutes a kind of verbal fencing match.” Many of the characters box their way through the play with quick linguistic jabs, some of them much like the kind of sharp, opportunistically intelligent remarks that made Wilde himself London’s social lion until his downfall in 1895.

Structurally, the play is traditional in yet another sense: it follows the basic Terentian drama: a) first comes the protasis (pro-teino, put forward, propose), in which the basic characters and situation are established: in IBE,we meet Jack and Algernon, Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell. b) then comes the epitasis (epi-teino, stretch) in which events and characters are interwoven and complicated: in IBE, the characters’ competing erotic and class interests involve them in a tangle of deceptions and schemes. c) next comes the catastasis (katástasis, settling, appointment) in which the plot reaches a false climax. In IBE, all seems to have been resolved amongst Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, but then Lady Bracknell arrives in the countryside and new difficulties arise. d) last comes the real climax, the catastrophe (kata-strepho, overturn): in IBE, Jack discovers that he was always “Ernest/Earnest” after all, and the marriages may proceed.

Act One Synopsis: Jack Worthing, a young Justice of the Peace in rural Woolton, is an upper-class character of no background. When he wants to go out on the town, he uses his alternate self, brother Ernest, as a dodge. Algernon and all the big-city folk, therefore, know him as Ernest Worthing. This Jack/Ernest is in love with the Honorable Gwendolen Fairfax, daughter of Lady Bracknell. Gwendolen, a perfect product of the best fashion magazines, is just as much in love with the name “Ernest” as Jack is with her. If Jack wants to embody the Victorian “age of ideals” for Gwendolen, however, he must overcome a few obstacles. Firstly, his name is not Ernest, at least so far as he knows—which isn’t much. His second problem in Act One is Lady Bracknell and her strict requirements for any man who will marry her daughter: Does he smoke? Is he sufficiently ignorant? Is he sufficiently rich? Does he have a townhouse in the fashionable quarter of London? These are formidable demands, but Jack meets them all; he smokes and is indeed ignorant and rich. As for the townhouse in the fashionable quarter, either the townhouse or the quarter, or both, can be altered to suit Lady Bracknell’s liking. In spite of all these qualifications, however, Jack suffers from one flaw that keeps him off Lady Bracknell’s list of eligible bachelors: he was discovered, and for all intents born, in an ordinary handbag, stashed in the cloakroom, Brighton railroad line. This is inexcusable. If Jack has no better origin than this, he had better go out and find one, says Lady Bracknell. Compared to this hostility, the mild razzing Jack undergoes from Algernon is pleasant chatter. Algernon has apparently found his friend’s cigarette case, inscribed with a message from Cecily Cardew to “Uncle Jack.” Jack tries to lie his way out of the embarrassing situation by evoking the picture of a nice plump aunt, but Algernon easily infers that Aunt Cecily is some attractive young woman in the countryside. In a sense, that is true—since Jack was discovered by Mr. Thomas Cardew, it was only proper that the old man should make him the guardian over his granddaughter’s morals. The need to escape from this heavy responsibility was instrumental in Jack’s invention of the great escape hatch, Ernest. The first act ends with Algernon scheming to visit the country address he has copied from the cigarette case.

Act Two Synopsis: The second act opens with Miss Prism instructing Cecily on sentimental novels (one of which, ominously, she mislaid a long time ago), German, Geography, and political economy. She also engages in flirtatious metaphor-slinging with Canon Chasuble. Cecily soon grows tired of her lessons, but the servant Merriman enters with notice of “Ernest’s” arrival. One might call Algernon the impostor responsible for this intrusion on Jack’s country retreat, but then, “Ernest” never existed in the first place. Whatever Algernon’s status, Cecily decides that in spite of his alleged wickedness, the man looks like any other of his class. Soon, Jack makes his entrance in deep mourning clothes, if not spirit, only to be confronted by the all-too-living Algernon/Ernest. Jack wants him to leave at once, but Algernon, who has taken a fancy to Cecily, has no intention of leaving soon. This intransigence is only confirmed when he finds out that unbeknownst to him, he and Cecily have been courting each other for some time: all the action has taken place in her diary. Cecily’s one stipulation for a husband is the same as Gwendolen’s—she will marry no one but an Ernest. As luck would have it, this talk of marriage is followed by the unexpected arrival of Gwendolen, and the fireworks begin. When Cecily declares that she plans to wed “Ernest” (Algernon), Gwendolen is infuriated—she mistakes this Ernest for her own, the man we know as Jack Worthing in the country, Ernest in town. When Jack returns and is cornered into admitting his real name, the mix-up is cleared, but now the two men have a problem: neither of them is named Ernest. Gwendolen and Cecily march off together in a huff. The only thing the men can do for the remainder of the act is struggle over muffins and rechristening rights. Algernon wins the muffin contest and refuses to leave.

Act Three Synopsis: Cecily and Gwendolen take Jack and Algernon’s muffin binge as a sign of repentance, and are willing to be reconciled to their prospective mates so long as they are suitably rechristened. Just when it looks as if everything will go swimmingly, Lady Bracknell bursts onto the scene with all the force of Queen Victoria and Mother Grundy combined. Upon hearing that her nephew Algernon wants to marry the unknown Cecily, Lady Bracknell puts her qualifications to the test. Even though satisfied that the girl’s social status is not so “mobile” as Jack’s Brighton line, she balks at Cecily’s “incident”-crowded life and is about to depart when the phrase “hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the funds” strikes her ears. That is a presentable sum in this “age of surfaces,” so Lady Bracknell bestows her blessing on the newly charming Cecily. Unfortunately for Lady Bracknell, however, Jack won’t allow his ward to marry Algernon unless he gets permission to marry Gwendolen. Jack explains that according to the terms of her grandfather’s will, Cecily will not come of legal age until she is thirty-five, but Lady Bracknell will make no concessions and seems prepared to wait seventeen years for such a profitable match. The Lady’s wrath is even visited upon Algernon, who is forbidden to get himself rechristened “Ernest.” Just when things have reached a standstill, in rushes Miss Prism, who is promptly recognized as the very nurse who lost an infant attached to Lord Bracknell’s house some twenty-eight years ago. “Prism! Where is that baby?” demands Lady Bracknell. Miss Prism’s answer is that she accidentally placed her three-volume novel in the perambulator meant to accommodate the baby, and the baby itself, logically enough, wound up in the handbag that should have been used to hold the manuscript. This gives Jack an idea; he hurries out and comes back in with the handbag, which Miss Prism identifies as the same one she lost at the railroad station all those years ago. She has missed it bitterly. Even more importantly, though, Miss Prism’s recognition of the handbag leads Jack to his true origin as the son of Lady Bracknell’s own sister, Mrs. Moncrieff. It turns out, then, that old Jack has had a younger brother all along: Algernon Moncrieff. Only the name Jack now stands in Jack’s way, but that is cleared up when the Army Lists reveal that General Moncrieff’s first name was Ernest. Jack was always Ernest after all, and now realizes “the vital Importance of Being Earnest.” Algernon will doubtless overcome Lady Bracknell’s thin scruples about rechristening and cash in on beautiful Cecily’s fortune.

Comments on Act 1:

We might say that Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell are the obverse and reverse of this “Age of Ideals,” as Gwendolen calls it – they’re hardly opposites since Gwendolen’s interest in marrying an “Ernest” is every bit as fabricated and absurd as Lady Bracknell’s demands and her insistence that young Mr. Worthing go out and acquire the suitable background that he lacks. Both are more or less admitting that moral ideals are apt to be manufactured just like everything else in a consumer-driven economy. That’s a phenomenon we are very familiar with today – a sophisticated capitalist economy has a way of commodifying just about everything, even the Victorian moral earnestness that is the subject of this play’s light satire. If there’s any serious thing to say about Lady Bracknell’s offense at Mr. Worthing’s being traced back to a handbag on a railway car, I suppose it has to do with the railroad being a metaphor for the era’s social anxieties: railroads quickened the economy beginning in the 1830’s, which in turn meant more and more social mobility. In a few words, the pace of life quickened greatly, the concept of socio-economic status, while still strong in England, began to seem more fluid, and instability became the order of the day.

Comments on Act 2:

Prism and Chasuble, though not exactly simple rustics, are comic foils for the other comic couples in that their confoundedness stems from older-fashioned sexual reticence, which forces them to resort to silly parsing of Eros-laden metaphors. Cecily’s diary stems from the usual Wildean refusal to privilege nature over artifice: even though Cecily is a nice country girl, she is every bit as artificial as any other character in the play, and her “courtship” of Ernest, as Algernon finds to his perplexity but also his delight, was written in advance. Cecily’s exclamation that her private thoughts were from the outset “intended for publication” is prescient; isn’t the willful violation of personal privacy a mainstay of contemporary culture? We thrive on the revelation of private knowledge that really isn’t any business of ours, and there’s no shortage of people willing to take advantage of that trend, even if their gain comes at the cost of their own dignity.

Comments on Act 3:

It looks as if the play’s comic knot has been resolved when the ladies relent and all it will take is a rechristening or two to set things right – but that’s the catastasis, not the catastrophe. Lady Bracknell soon enough enters, and throws a grain of sand in the whole marriage-engine. Jack Worthing, too, has a strong hand to play, given that he doesn’t have to allow his ward Cecily to marry Algernon. It takes Miss Prism’s revelation of her confusion between her sentimental novel and the infant Worthing to settle matters and bring about the play’s rather traditional happy ending, with three couples about to be married.

The element of criticism in Wilde’s play isn’t difficult to construe: the late Victorian Period was running on the fumes of the mid-Victorian insistence on sincerity and moral propriety as its major ideals. By now, everything has become hollowed out and purely nominal, as the values by which a culture thrives will do over time. But the joyful conclusion of this play comes about because human nature really doesn’t change: desire will make opportunities, and in Wilde’s play the characters’ generous desire uses the era’s very shallowness to slide across its treacherous, glittering surfaces and win the prize of contentment. The pleasure principle trumps every other, and all good wishes come true for the “beautiful people” in Wilde’s brilliant comedy of manners.