Charles Carrington on Kipling’s verse (1955)

Charles Carrington’s biography of Kipling is a masterpiece, not only of privileged research (he had access to family papers and diaries which were later destroyed, as well as close advice from Kipling’s only surviving child, Elsie, b.1896) but of balance and careful judgment, and with wonderfully evocative passages of its own.

For a whole generation homesickness was reversed by Kipling’s magic spell. Englishmen felt the days of England sick and cold and the skies grey and old, heard the East a-calling, fawned on the younger nations, learned to speak the jargon of the seven seas; while, in the outposts of empire, men who read no other books recognised and approved the glimpses of their own lives in phrases from Kipling’s verse: the flying-fishes and the thunder-clouds over the Bay of Bengal, the voyage outward-bound till the old lost stars wheel back, the palm-tree bowing down beneath a low African moon, the wild tide-race that whips the harbour-mouth at Melbourne, the broom flowering above the windy town at Wellington, the islands where the anchor-chain goes rippling down through the coral-trash. (Rudyard Kipling His Life and Work by Charles Carrington, Penguin paperback edition p.398)

Carrington on Kipling’s verse

Two thirds of the way through the 600-page book, Carrington pauses his narrative to give a ten-page essay on Kipling’s verse, which is packed with insights:

The ballad

Carrington draws a direct link between Kipling and Sir Walter Scott, another writer prolific in popular verse and tales, who dominated his age. Kipling’s mother (Alice MacDonald) was Scottish, and he showed a marked fondness for Scottish characters (notable the famous engineer McAndrew) and Scots dialect.

Carrington summarises on page 413 the elements of Scott’s use of Lowland popular verse as including:

  • the free borrowing or adaptation of  his predecessors
  • stylised imagery
  • the use of incantatory repetitions
  • harmonics of words meant to be recited against the background of simple instrumental music
  • changes of sentiment indicated by changes of rhythm
  • the violent alternations of the grotesque, the horrible and the pathetic

To this list I’d add the deliberate use of older ‘poetic’ words and phrases. But whereas in Scott these are references to older Scots speech and pseudo-medievalisms, Kipling’s poems are drenched with the lexicon and rhythms of the Bible.

Influence of the Bible

Both Kipling’s parents were the children of Methodist ministers, reared in God-fearing, Bible-quoting households. In his horrible childhood in Southsea the young Kipling was tyrannised by a tub-thumping, Evangelical housewife in a household where Bible readings and hymn singing were compulsory.

This was the common fare of the great bulk of the English people in the nineteenth century – of almost all of them, it may be said, except the deracinated intellectuals. It was precisely because Kipling’s prose repeatedly echoes Biblical rhythms and turns of phrase that it was accepted and understood by a public that read the Bible, but did not read Walter Pater. (p.415)

His more serious poems were written in a didactic and sonorous style which directly derives from Hymns Ancient and Modern, ‘by far the most popular volume of verse in nineteenth century England’.

Popular tunes

But Carrington’s biggest insight into Kipling’s verse is the fact that he composed it to the rhythm of musical tunes. From his Methodist parents, from his harsh Evangelical upbringing, from weekly attendance at school chapel, Kipling knew a wide range of hymn tunes and, once he’d moved to London in 1889, he developed an enthusiasm for the London music hall, which introduced him to all the popular hits and melodies of the age – ‘The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo’, ‘Knocked ‘Em In The Old Kent Road’ – as well as American classics from earlier in the century like ‘John Brown’s Body’, ‘Marching Through Georgia’ and so on.

Carrington here and elsewhere in the biography quotes eye-witness accounts of the way his wife, friends and visitors would see and hear Kipling humming a tune as he walked round his study or up and down the garden or along the deck of an ocean liner, humming and singing to himself and slowly forming words which matched the rhythm of the song. His wife noted in her diary ‘Ruddy was singing a new poem today…’

He would say ‘Give me a hymn-tune’ and, when someone suggested one, would go about for days humming it over, drumming it out with his fingers until words framed themselves to the tune, intent upon that and oblivious of the world, until he had finished his verse. It did not matter, for that purpose, that the song whose tune he borrowed was quite incongruous with the poem he intended; it was the rhythm he wanted and made his own. (p.321)

It is best to think of many of his poems as music hall songs, which aren’t designed to evoke sensitive emotional responses from an aesthete drawling on a divan, but are intended to be recited and even sung, to a wide audience. Like music halls songs, they adopt a character or persona and are replete with comic ‘patter’, as a music hall star might intersperse jokes and comments into a song. And, like a song, instead of evoking a range of emotions in a range of readers, they are meant to unite an audience of listeners onto one clear and forceful message.

Carrington exemplifies the relevance of the musical interpretation over a purely technical interpretation by pointing out that both Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’ and Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’ are written in trochaic lines of eight feet.

Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’

Tennyson

Thro’ the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day;
Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.

The rhythm of the Kipling is more emphatic, as is the break or ‘caesura’ in the middle of each line – made crystal clear by the use of a comma – because it is a song and even if we read it silently, it still rings in our heads more like a song than a poem.

Carrington notes that Kipling himself fictionalised the process of ‘adapting’ a popular song in his comic story ‘The Village That Voted The World Was Flat’, where the village is pilloried in a popular song created by its enemies which is a straight lift of the tune of ‘Here We Go Gathering Nuts In May’. The title of the story is the title of the song and fits the tune perfectly.

Carrington identifies some tunes with specific poems: ‘Mandalay’ with a contemporary waltz tune; the refrain of ‘Follow Me ‘Ome’ with the Dead March; ‘Birds of Prey’ with ‘Knocked ‘Em In the Old Kent Road’ and, strikingly, the rhythm of ‘A School Song’ with ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’!

Let us now praise famous men’ –
Men of little showing –
For their work continueth,
And their work continueth,
Broad and deep continueth,
Greater than their knowing!

Kipling’s daughter is among the many witnesses quoted as to the importance of music in the composition process and herself suggests musical bases for some poems:

R.K. usually worked in the morning, if he had anything in hand, either doing the actual writing, or pacing up and down his study humming to himself. Much of  his best known verse was written to a tune, the ‘Recessional’ to ‘Melita’, the tune usually sung to ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’; ‘Mandalay’ to an old waltz tune: and so on; this was curious as R.K. was quite unmusical. (Quoted on page 481)

The story about ‘Recessional’ fits. You can indeed fit the words of Kipling’s poem to the hymn tune:

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Ghostly presences

Carrington’s last thought is that most of the poems can’t be easily identified with specific songs: only Kipling knew their derivation and source, and kept his secrets. But – and this makes them all the more effective – the ghosts and hints of old-time music hall songs, popular tunes or classic hymns known to millions float across the poems, underpin them, appear and disappear in their rhythms. And this deeper fugitive layer of meaning, of rhythmic and harmonic meaning, is one of the reasons why poems which, so often, ought to be trite and vulgar, in fact possess a strange and eerie power.

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A Choice of Kipling’s Verse by T.S. Eliot (1941)

Kipling… is the most inscrutable of authors. An immense gift for using words, an amazing curiosity and power of observation with his mind and with all his senses, the mask of the entertainer, and beyond that a queer gift of second sight, of transmitting messages from elsewhere, a gift so disconcerting when we are made aware of it that thenceforth we are never sure when it is not present: all this makes Kipling a writer impossible wholly to understand and quite impossible to belittle.

There are a number of paperback selections of Kipling’s poetry in print, which all include a more or less similar selection from the 350 or so poems he published, certainly all including the 20 or 30 greatest hits. This selection, for example, includes 123 poems – but what really distinguishes it is the magisterial introductory essay by the dean of Modern poetry, Thomas Stearns Eliot.

It’s a long and densely argued essay that is sometimes difficult to follow, but it is packed with fascinating insights.

Poetry and prose inseparable Kipling’s verse and prose are inseparable halves of the same achievement. ‘We must finally judge him, not separately as a poet and as a writer of prose fiction, but as the inventor of a mixed form.’ This is certainly the case in the volumes I’ve read recently, in the stories from Puck of Pook’s Hill onwards through to Debits and Credits, where every story is introduced or followed by a poem which comments on the characters and actions, shedding new light, modifying, deepening or perplexing our response.

Common criticisms

Eliot lists the common criticisms of Kipling:

Superficial jingles Most critics have to defend modern poetry from charges of obscurity; the critic writing about Kipling has to defend him from charges of ‘excessive lucidity’. We have to defend Kipling against the charge of being a journalist, writing for the lowest common denominator, against the charge that he wrote catchy superficial ‘jingles’. And yet there is no doubt that real deeps of poetry are sounded in many of his poems.

Topicality A further obstacle is Kipling’s poems’ topicality. So many of them are written a) for very specific occasions and b) from a political point of view which hardly anyone sympathises with nowadays. Personally, I have found occasional and political poetry to be an acquired taste. When I was young I liked emotional or rhetorical or dramatic poetry which spoke to my emotions. It was only in middle age that I tried Dryden again and realised, to my surprise that, once I fully understood the political background to his satires, I enjoyed their craft and wit and appropriateness. Same with Kipling. And in fact, as Eliot points out, the gift of being able to write really good occasional verse – i.e. verse directly speaking to a current event – and to do it to order, ‘is a very rare gift indeed’.

Similarly, both good epigrams and good hymns are very rare, and Kipling produced fine examples of both.

Imperialism Kipling thought the British Empire was a good thing. He thought the British had a unique ability to rule other peoples wisely and fairly. (And a comparison with the alternatives – with the Belgian or French or Spanish or Portuguese or German empires of the period – does tend to support this view; let alone a comparison with the alternatives of the Nazi Empire and the Soviet Empire, which grew up between the wars.)

But, contrary to the uninformed view that he is a prophet of Empire, his early stories are almost entirely satires on the greed, stupidity and snobbery of the British; throughout his prose runs blistering criticism of British politicians; and stories and poems alike from the Boer War onwards lament in graphic terms England’s failure to live up to her own best ideals.

The most notoriously imperial poems are less hymns to any kind of racial or cultural superiority, but rather calls to duty and responsibility. He explicitly condemns the mercantile parties (in Britain and America) who used the high ideals of empire as a fig leaf for rapacious exploitation.

Racism I find Kipling’s casual contempt for some Indian natives (as for many of the women) in his early stories revolting. But there is a good deal of evidence that he was in fact surprisingly tolerant for his time. The prime exhibit is Kim, his best book and one of the best English fictions to come out of the Raj, in which all the most sympathetic and real characters are Indian: the Lama, Mahbub Ali, Hurree Chunder Mookerjee and the widow. One of his most famous poems is Gunga Din in which the Indian is, quite simply, declared a better man than the narrator. He treats the multiple religions of India with equal respect or satire, depending on the context.

Kipling wrote a lot and his attitudes – or the attitudes of his narrators and characters – are mixed and contradictory. But one consistent worldview that the white man, the Englishman, is always and everywhere innately superior to the inferior races – is not there in his writings. He believed that white Western culture had a responsibility to bring the benefits of civilisation – law, schools, hospitals, railways, roads – to the developing world, and so spoke about the White Man’s Burden to do all this – and lamented the resentful ingratitude of the recipients, and the relentless criticism of anti-imperialists at home. But:

a) The era of empires and colonies is over – India and Pakistan will soon have been completely independent for 70 years – and so Kipling’s views have receded to become just the most forcefully expressed of a whole range of opinion from a period which historians can investigate and the literary reader can imaginatively inhabit, as I inhabit the mind of a 17th century French Catholic courtier when I read Racine or a medieval monk when I read Chaucer.

b) Throughout the month that I’ve been soaking myself in Kipling – with his relentless rhetoric about the responsibility of the ‘White Man’ to help the rest of the world – I have also been opening newspapers and hearing on the radio relentless calls for ‘the West’ to intervene in the bombing of Aleppo or do more about the refugee crisis, or intervene in Yemeni civil war. If you replace ‘white man’ in his poems with ‘the West’ you’ll see that a lot of the same paternalistic attitude lives on, even in self-proclaimed liberals and anti-imperialists: there is still the assumption that we in ‘the West’ must do something, are somehow responsible, somehow have magic powers to sort out the world’s troubles which (it is implied) the poor benighted inhabitants of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and all the rest of them lack.

In other words, although all right-thinking contemporary liberals decry Kipling’s patronising racism, or the paternalistic implications of his belief that the ‘White Man’ has some kind of responsibility to guide and help and save the rest of the world, I am struck by how much the same attitude of paternalism is alive and kicking in the same liberal minds.

Anyway, you only have to compare Kipling’s thoroughly articulated view that the White Man’s burden is to help and raise up the peoples he finds himself set over, with something like the Nazi doctrine of the innate superiority of the Aryan race, which saw every example of every other race as genetically inferior and only fit to be used as slaves or to carry out live experiments on – to realise the difference. Set against the Nazis, Kipling’s work overflows with sympathy for all types of native peoples – Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists – and with numerous narratives where the ‘native’ turns out to be the equal of or, quite often, a better person than the struggling white man.

Professionalism Eliot draws attention to Kipling’s professionalism – an aspect of his work which I also find admirable:

No writer has ever cared more for the craft of words than Kipling… We can only say that Kipling’s craftsmanship is more reliable than that of some greater poets, and that there is hardly any poem, even in the collected works, in which he fails to do what he has set out to do.

As Eliot points out, quite a few of the stories, particularly the later stories, refer to art and, specifically, to the redeeming element of craft, craftsmanship, the skill and dedication involved in making something. In this respect Kipling is more like the engineers he venerated – building useable structures for specific purposes – than the lyric poet of popular mythology, wanly waiting on inspiration from the Muse. (As Eliot points out, for both Dryden and Kipling, ‘wisdom has the primacy over inspiration’.)

Lack of psychology But this very facility lends itself to a further criticism, that it was in some sense too easy for Kipling; or, put another way, that his verse never feels as if it comes from the kind of psychological depths or offers the kind of personal, intimate or psychological insights which the post-Romantic reader is used to. We like to feel that a writer is in some sense compelled to write what and how he did. Eliot contrasts Kipling with Yeats, whose career included all kinds of compulsions – political, personal, social, romantic – and is often compelling because of it. Almost all Yeats’s poetry is lyrical in the sense that it is designed to arouse feeling. Kipling is the opposite. He is more like Dryden; both writers used poetry ‘to convey a simple forceful statement, rather than a musical pattern of emotional overtones’. His poetry might arise out of some particularly effective statement, but it is statement first and foremost, with almost no emotion or psychology.

In this respect, then, the objectivity of the ballad form suits the objectivity of his approach. For no other writer of comparable stature is there less sense of ‘this inner compulsion’, less sense that he had to write what he wrote. The majority of Kipling’s output derives from skilful craft and a facility in writing in all kinds of forms, a kind of impersonality, which many modern readers of poetry don’t find sympathetic.

Kipling is the most elusive of subjects: no writer has been more reticent about himself, or given fewer openings for curiosity.

Many types of literary criticism are essentially biographical in that they set out to show how an author developed, working with changing material and experiences, learning how to shape and deploy them over the course of their career etc. But this entire critical approach doesn’t work for Kipling, who is skilled and adept right from the start, who shows equal and astonishing fluency with whatever he turns his hand to, and whose oeuvre shows next to no personal or biographical content. The opposite.

Ballads This craftsmanship is exemplified in the form most identified with Kipling. Eliot dwells at length on the fact that Kipling wrote ballads – he wrote in more forms than the symmetrical rhyming ballad, but he was always driven by what Eliot calls ‘the ballad motive’. Eliot gives a brief history of the ballad, pointing out that a good ballad can appeal to both the uneducated and the highly educated, and then going on to praise Kipling’s mastery of the form:

  • ‘a consummate gift of word, phrase and rhythm’
  • ‘the variety of form which Kipling manages to devise for his ballads is remarkable: each is distinct, and perfectly fitted to the content and mood which the poem has to convey’

Eliot goes on to make the distinction between poets like himself, whose aim is to make something which will be and, as an evocative object, evoke a range of responses in different readers; and Kipling’s poems which are designed to act – designed to elicit exactly the same response in all its readers.

Poetry or verse? Eliot tackles the tricky subject of whether Kipling’s work is verse or poetry. I think he’s saying that most of it is verse (hence the title of this book), but that ‘poetry’ frequently arises within it.

With Kipling you cannot draw a line beyond which some of the verse becomes ‘poetry’; … the poetry when it comes, owes the gravity of its impact to being something over and above the bargain, something more than the writer undertook to give you.

Possessed Eliot makes the point that, completely contrary to his reputation as a blustering racist imperialist, there are in fact strange, really strange and eerie depths, hints of terrible psychological experiences, found in much of his work. (I’ve commented on this uncanny element in my review of a collection of his ghost and horror stories – Strange Tales – which in fact, far from depicting heroic chaps running a gleamingly efficient Empire, give a consistent sense of very ordinary men stretched to the limit by difficult work in impossible conditions and teetering on the verge of complete nervous and psychological collapse.)

But it isn’t just stress and collapse. Quite regularly something deeper, a sense of strange historical or even mythical depths, stirs in his work.

At times Kipling is not merely possessed of penetration, but also ‘possessed’ of a kind of second sight.

Hence Eliot is able to say that in a hymn-like poem written for a very public occasion, like Recessional:

Something breaks through from a deeper level than that of the mind of the conscious observer of political and social affairs –  something which has the true prophetic inspiration.

Verse or poetry?

Put simply, Kipling was capable of fluently writing verse for all occasions, which generally eschews all psychology, and certainly all autobiographical content, in order to put into objective ballad formats the catchy formulation of popular or common sentiments; but his sheer facility of phrasing and rhythm often lends this ‘verse’ a kind of depth which justifies the name of ‘poetry’.

I have been using the term ‘verse’ with his own authority, because that is what he called it himself. There is poetry in it; but when he writes verse that is not poetry it is not because he has tried to write poetry and failed. He had another purpose, and one to which he adhered with integrity.

Towards the end of the essay Eliot returns to the question.

What fundamentally differentiates his ‘verse’ from ‘poetry’ is the subordination of musical interest… There is a harmonics of poetry which is not merely beyond their range – it would interfere with their intention.

In other words Kipling wasn’t trying to write poetry, he was aiming at verse and he did write a good deal of truly great verse – but from that verse, from time to time, both true deep memorable poetry emerges, and also profound prophetic truths are articulated.

Five sample poems

I’ve selected five Kipling poems designed to give a sense of his variety of style, mood and subject matter: an example of the Ballad-Room Ballads which were such a popular success in the early 1890s demonstrates the young man’s bumptious good humour; one of the many poems which reveals the eerie, science-fiction-ish, visionary side of Kipling’s imagination; his most famous ‘hymn, with its Biblical imagery and refrain; an eerie moving poem about the Great War; and a compressed, bitter epigram from the same conflict.

1. Fuzzy-Wuzzy (1890)

A tribute to the bravery of the Sudanese warriors who the British Army faced in their campaign against the forces of ‘the Mahdi’ in the Sudan in 1884-85, in the Army’s march south to rescue General Gordon and his Egyptian garrison besieged in Khartoum. It includes a list of recent British military defeats, is a tribute to the superior fighting qualities of the black man, all told in high good humour as Kipling enjoys deploying outrageous rhymes and rhythms, an enjoyment which is still infectious.

We’ve fought with many men acrost the seas,
An’ some of ’em was brave an’ some was not:
The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o’ the lot.
We never got a ha’porth’s change of ‘im:
‘E squatted in the scrub an’ ‘ocked our ‘orses,
‘E cut our sentries up at Suakim,
An’ ‘e played the cat an’ banjo with our forces.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
We gives you your certificate, an’ if you want it signed
We’ll come an’ ‘ave a romp with you whenever you’re inclined.

We took our chanst among the Khyber ‘ills,
The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,
The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills,
An’ a Zulu impi dished us up in style:
But all we ever got from such as they
Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller;
We ‘eld our bloomin’ own, the papers say,
But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us ‘oller.
Then ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an’ of course we went an’ did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.

‘E ‘asn’t got no papers of ‘is own,
‘E ‘asn’t got no medals nor rewards,
So we must certify the skill ‘e’s shown
In usin’ of ‘is long two-‘anded swords:
When ‘e’s ‘oppin’ in an’ out among the bush
With ‘is coffin-‘eaded shield an’ shovel-spear,
An ‘appy day with Fuzzy on the rush
Will last an ‘ealthy Tommy for a year.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ your friends which are no more,
If we ‘adn’t lost some messmates we would ‘elp you to deplore.
But give an’ take’s the gospel, an’ we’ll call the bargain fair,
For if you ‘ave lost more than us, you crumpled up the square!

‘E rushes at the smoke when we let drive,
An’, before we know, ‘e’s ‘ackin’ at our ‘ead;
‘E’s all ‘ot sand an’ ginger when alive,
An’ ‘e’s generally shammin’ when ‘e’s dead.
‘E’s a daisy, ‘e’s a ducky, ‘e’s a lamb!
‘E’s a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,
‘E’s the on’y thing that doesn’t give a damn
For a Regiment o’ British Infantree!
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
An’ ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ‘ayrick ‘ead of ‘air —
You big black boundin’ beggar — for you broke a British square!

2. The Deep-Sea Cables (1893)

Part of a longer sequence Kipling called A Song of the English which describes various aspects of British naval and maritime supremacy. It describes the advent of cables laid on the ocean beds to carry telegraphic messages. At a stroke the continents of the world were united and messages which used to take months to travel from India or Australia to London could now be sent almost instantaneously. Hence the line ‘they have killed their father Time’. The poem is both an example of Kipling’s obsession with new technology, and his ability to make that technology glamorous and romantic; and at the same time hints at the occasional weirdness of his imagination, broaching on the territory of H.G.Wells or Conan Doyle’s tales of the uncanny.

The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar—
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.

Here in the womb of the world—here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat—
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth –
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.

They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o’er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, ‘Let us be one!’

3. Recessional (1897)

Written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, readers at the time and ever since have been struck by the absence of Pomp and Glory and rejoicing and jubilation. The opposite: the poem is a gloomy pessimistic vision of the way all empires fade and die and so the British Empire will, too. It is a sober call to duty and righteousness. It is on the basis of this solemn incantation that Eliot describes Kipling as ‘a great hymn writer’ – ‘Something breaks through from a deeper level than that of the mind of the conscious observer of political and social affairs – something which has the true prophetic inspiration.’

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

4. Gethsemane (1914-18)

Eliot says he doesn’t understand this poem. I see it as remarkably simple, in fact the simplicity of rhyme scheme, the short lines, the repetitive words all contribute to its haunting limpidity. The soldier going up the line towards the trenches pauses with his troop and officer for a rest, and bitterly prays that the cup – i.e. his death, his doom, his fate – will pass from him i.e. be avoided. But it isn’t. He is gassed. Compare and contrast with the long bouncy rhythms and good humour of Fuzzy Wuzzy, with the grand rolling phrases of Recessional, the eerie visionariness of the Sea Cables, and you begin to see Kipling’s variety and virtuosity. He could write poems for all occasions, for all moods – and they are not just good but brilliant.

The Garden called Gethsemane
In Picardy it was,
And there the people came to see
The English soldiers pass.
We used to pass—we used to pass
Or halt, as it might be,
And ship our masks in case of gas
Beyond Gethsemane.

The Garden called Gethsemane,
It held a pretty lass,
But all the time she talked to me
I prayed my cup might pass.
The officer sat on the chair,
The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there
I prayed my cup might pass.

It didn’t pass—it didn’t pass –
It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
Beyond Gethsemane!

5. Epitaph of War

Eliot writes: ‘Good epigrams in English are very rare; and the great hymn writer is very rare. Both are extremely objective types of verse: they can and should be charged with intense feeling, but it must be a feeling that is completely shared.’ Kipling had the inspired idea during and after the Great War to use the extremely short, abbreviated format of epigrams found in the Green Anthology as models for very short poems commemorating aspects of the conflict. Hence:

Common Form

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Conclusion

Although not a totally coherent piece of prose (given its occasionally rambling and repetitious structure), Eliot’s 30-page essay on Kipling nonetheless contains more ideas and insights into his verse than anything else I’ve read.


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Other Kipling reviews

How to build a Kingsley Amis sentence

I find it mind boggling that the blurbs on the Penguin paperbacks routinely describe Amis as the premier serious novelist in Britain (in the late 1980s, early 1990s). Surely not for the originality of his subject matter (middle-aged white people having dinner parties in north London). Nor for his attitude (a perceptive but consistently grumpy old so-and-so). And emphatically not for his style, which is one of the weirdest I know. It seems normal at first, and many paragraphs start perfectly normally, but then regularly twist and contort themselves into his peculiar attitude and phraseology. Having read nearly all his novels, I think I have a good feel for what constitutes the Kingsley Amis style, a good understanding of How To Build A Kingsley Amis Sentence.

You start by taking an event, the simpler the better:

‘He had been waiting a long time’.

Well, Amis’s sentences are generally long, sometimes very long, so let’s make the verb into a noun phrase:

‘He had been waiting a long time and the waiting a long time…’

Too repetitive; let’s use one of Amis’s favourite words to describe an element of a performance or routine, that word being ‘bit’:

‘He had been waiting a long time and the waiting bit…’

Too clear, too declarative and certain; need to add in Amis’s characteristic uncertainty, the wobbling or wavering which is a crucial ingredient of his style:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit…’

Add a tag, one of those little sentence fillers which also water down the meaning and make it seem somehow doubtful:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause…’

Well it needs an ending now, so let’s give the waiting man an irritated look:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of Richard’s expression of irritation…’

‘Expression of irritation’ is a little straightforward, isn’t it? A little obvious. We must add style, darlings i.e. some periphrasis, some circumlocution, to make it seem as if the thing – the event, person, object or expression – is being observed by a knowing and long-winded old buffer:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known was Richard’s expression of irritation…’

I think we can still pad that out a bit:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation…’

Except that we mustn’t forget the other prime ingredient of an Amis sentence – already knocked about by a the insertion of a ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybe’ or ‘possibly’, and the insertion of at least one colloquial tag – ‘sort of’, ‘in a way’, ‘after all’, ‘in the end’, that kind of thing – that prime ingredient being the little word ‘OR’, which comes in so handy to add another interpretation, or two, or three, to absolutely anything. Thus:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation, or pique, or exasperation.’

And then, the cherry on the cake, the sprig of garnish which brings the whole thing to perfection – the follow-up sentence which undermines everything you’ve just said:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation, or pique, or exasperation. Or something.’

Serve piping hot, accompanied by several hundred others of the same vintage.

Examples of the real thing

All these quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition of Amis’s 1992 novel, The Russian Girl. 

Reflecting on Anna Danilova’s poetry, Richard thinks:

Without any abatement of its horribleness in memory it was more easily borne there, becoming at that distance the almost funny phenomenon it very much was not when seen from closer. (p.103)

Later he contemplates what will happen if his wife meets his mistress.

More important, when and if the dread confrontation took place, then if he was present, which he unquestionably would have to be, whatever he said or did or failed to do or say, Cordelia would only have to see him looking or not looking at Anna and something awful but unforeseeable, but still awful and uncontrollable, would happen and oh God. (p.104)

Here’s an example of taking a perfectly everyday phrase and turning it into the subject of the sentence (there must be technical term for this in linguistics):

For the rest of that day and for the whole of the next, Richard saw nothing of his wife.

This is innocuous enough. But with Amis, the innocuous is only there to lull you into a false sense of normality. The next sentence is:

None of the individual bits of seeing nothing of her meant anything much in itself.

The Amis touch! ‘Saw nothing’ is turned into a noun phrase – ‘seeing nothing of her’ – which can then be picked apart and played with: first it turns out to have ‘bits’ [as previously mentioned, this is a favourite Amis word and concept] implying more complexity than is maybe justified; there’s an accidental but handy chime between ‘None’ and ‘nothing’, which introduces a momentary flicker of confusion, and there’s a characteristic dismissive ‘hedging’ phrase – ‘anything much’. From being clear and declarative, the paragraph has quickly become blurry, unfocused, dismissive, vague and woolly.

Afterwards Richard could not remember telling the chauffeur he could or must go, though obviously something of the kind must have occurred, nor was he at all sure where he had got the idea of telling him that, though he felt he knew he would never have done so without some sign coming or not coming from Anna. (p.137)

Is this the fine English style which the reviewers and blurb writers praise so highly?

I can’t believe so. But it is a striking and peculiar achievement, so consistently, over so many hundreds of pages, to keep cooking up from such plain English ingredients so many bewilderingly contorted, broken-backed, baffling and sometimes very funny sentences. Somewhere in Amis’s novels are plots and characters but, for me, their adventures are overshadowed and often obscured by the continual blind-siding of his convoluted and perplexing periods.


Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

Eye imagery in ‘The High Window’ and ‘The Little Sister’ by Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s characters are all acting

All Raymond Chandler’s novels dwell on the way the cops, crooks and dames in his mythical noir Los Angeles landscape are more or less consciously acting a part.

The texts regularly describe almost all the characters as playing up to roles they’ve set themselves, or modelling their behaviour on the actors they’ve seen up on the silver screen:

The blonde sobbed in rather a theatrical manner and showed me an open mouth twisted with misery and ham-acting. (The High Window, Chapter 10)

Morny lifted his cigarette away from his lips and narrowed his eyes to look at the tip. Every motion, every gesture, right out of the catalogue. (THW, Ch. 18)

Silence. Then the sound of a blow. The woman wailed. She was hurt, terribly hurt. Hurt in the depths of her soul. She made it rather good. ‘Look, angel,’ Morny snarled. ‘Don’t feed me the ham. I’ve been in pictures. I’m a connoisseur of ham. Skip it.’ (THW, Ch. 30)

Even the highly self-conscious, first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe is aware that he is performing routines, that all the world’s a stage:

I killed my cigarette and got another one out and went through all the slow futile face-saving motions of lighting it, getting rid of the match, blowing smoke off to one side, inhaling deeply as though that scrubby little office was a hilltop overlooking the bouncing ocean – all the tired clichéd mannerisms of my trade. (Ch. 11)

Marlowe humorously notes the way the tough guys he encounters ceaselessly model themselves – their mannerisms and attitude and wisecracking style – on the protagonists of Hollywood crime movies in what seems to be a widespread outbreak of reality copying fiction.

Thus Raymond Chandler’s novels are fictions in which fictitious characters criticise each other for modelling themselves on other fictitious characters.)

‘All those boys have been to picture shows and know how night-club bosses are supposed to act.’ (THW. Ch. 4)

Why are eyes so important?

Throughout the novels, I’ve been struck by the ingenuity Chandler expends on his descriptions of eyes and the numerous ways he finds to describe looks, glances, stares etc, and wondering why he takes so much trouble on what amounts almost to a mini-genre within his writings.

Finally, I think I realise how these two prominent themes – the acting, and the seeing – are interconnected.

Eyes are mechanisms of concealment and revelation

A detective is trying to get at a hidden truth which many, if not all, the other characters are trying to conceal from him.

Most if not all of the characters are lying. He himself is lying a lot of the time, or spinning different versions of events to watch their affect on his listeners. So, in a detective novel, what people say – words alone – are a poor guide to what is going on, to what people really mean, to what people’s intentions really are.

Given that, in this Universe of Liars, most of what most people say is baloney, it follows that everyone is judging everyone else not so much by their words, but by their actions.

They are, in other words, watching everyone else very closely and everyone is aware that they are being watched. They are watching how each other act, sizing up how successfully or not all the other characters are playing their roles play a part. They are watching themselves play their parts, and watching how others watch them play the part, in the long series of deceptions which make up the ‘plot’.

And one of the hardest things to fake, to pull off, is acting with your EYES.

People’s looks and glances can, potentially, say much more than people’s words and, inadvertently, give away all kinds of meanings and intentions which words alone conceal.

Thus, in Chandler’s texts, time and again, quick unguarded looks and regards give people away, reveal depths or meanings or truths which they are trying to conceal. In the following I categorise and try to define the various ways Chandler uses eye imagery.

1. Eyes as concealers – and revealers – of others’ intentions

The descriptions of eyes are a kind of fulcrum on which the pursuit of concealed truths balances and moves.

Chandler’s attention to the eyes of his characters and his often wonderfully inventive and vivid descriptions of eyes and looks aren’t an accident of style or a pretty habit: they are a crucial part of the structure of concealment and revelation which makes up ‘the detective story’.

As an old proverb has it, the eyes are windows into the soul and, in cynical 1940s Los Angeles, the eyes are windows which their owners are doing everything in their power to shutter and curtain, to cover with ‘blinds’.

But the eyes’ owners are all too often weak, and their eyes continually reveal things which the studied mannerisms of the body, the careful lies of the mouth, the calculated exchange of money and wounds, are at such pains to conceal.

She stared at me and said nothing. I thought that an idea was stirring at the back of her eyes, but if so it didn’t come out. (THW, Ch. 19)

She stared out of her own eyes for a brief instant before the act dropped over her again. (TLS, Ch. 12)

Her mouth twitched as if she was going to laugh. But there was no laughter in her eyes. (TLS, Ch. 19)

Her eyes widened a little too innocently. Her laugh was a little too silvery. (TLS, Ch. 19)

‘4 P 327,’ I said, watching his eyes. Nothing flicked in them. No trace of derision or concealment. (TLS, Ch. 11)

Murdock lifted his eyes. He tried to make them blank with astonishment. He only made them dull and shocked. (THW, Ch. 34)

I looked hard at him. It didn’t buy me a way into his soul. He was quiet, dark and shattered and all the misery of life was in his eyes. (TLS, Ch. 21)

Her cheeks were a little flushed. But behind her eyes things watched and waited. (Ch. 27)

She dabbed at her eyes. She watched me around the handkerchief. Once in a while she made a nice little appealing sob in her throat. (TLS, Ch. 33)

In other words, paying close attention to people’s eyes can be one of the quickest routes to insight and knowledge available to the seeker for truth in this fallen world, this ‘cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right’ (TLS Ch 13) – but that attention is continually foiled and deceived by others’ attempts at concealment.

People’s eyes, looks and regards become a kind of battlefield of concealment and revelation.

2. Eyes as enquirers into the narrator’s mind

But of course it works both ways: the other characters’ eyes not only reveal the inner state of the would-be liars to us (through the eyes of the narrator, Marlowe), they are also the searchlights which those third-person liars themselves use to probe into the narrator’s acts and thoughts.

They are not only the means other people use for acting and lying to us; they are also the device those other people use to assess whether the narrator is are acting and lying to them.

Toad studied me carefully with narrow eyes… ‘I heard you were kind of hard-boiled,’ Toad said slowly, his eyes cool and watchful.
‘You heard wrong. I’m a very sensitive guy. I go all to pieces over nothing.’
‘Yeah. I understand.’
He stared at me a long time without speaking. (TLS, Ch. 14)

The neat-appearing young man gave me a searching glance as I exchanged the check and some money for an envelope… He didn’t say anything, but the way he looked at me gave me the impression that he remembered I was not the man who had left the negative. (TLS, Ch. 16)

His sharp black eyes didn’t miss anything in my face. (THW, Ch. 7)

Finally he nodded yes, green eyes, watching me carefully… (THW, Ch. 9)

Breeze nodded and chewed his lips and explored my face with his eyes. (THW, Ch. 15)

He lifted his eyes and ran them lazily over my face. (TLS, Ch. 24)

Lieutenant Moses Maglashan took the carpenter’s pencil out of his mouth and looked at the teeth marks in the fat octangular pencil butt. Then he looked at me. His eyes went over me, slowly exploring me, noting me, cataloguing me. He said nothing. He put the pencil back in his mouth. (TLS, Ch. 24)

‘I don’t believe you,’ she said, and her eyes watched me like a cat watching a mousehole. (TLS, Ch. 33)

Marlowe looks at people’s eyes very closely for two reasons: to try and see into their souls, to see the true state of their feelings and intentions; and to assess how shrewdly they are looking into his soul and figuring out his motivations and purposes. Often this ballet of the looks, this interplay of eyes, is enacted in the prose:

I watched her for a minute, biting at the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (TLS, Ch. 28)

Fascination and exuberance

And hence Marlowe and Chandler’s fascination with eyes and looks. Every encounter with another human being is the occasion for weighing up and judging others, using our eyes: using our eyes to assess their eyes and using our eyes to assess their eyes assessing our eyes. No wonder he has scores of striking descriptions of what people’s eyes look like and how they use them, the affect of their looks, glances, gleams and stares.

And the subject becomes an opportunity for Chandler to show off, to take the language for a walk, rejoicing in the exuberance of his almost Shakespearian gift for vivid phrase-making:

She had pewter-coloured hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. (THW, Ch. 2)

A dangerous-looking redhead sat languidly at an Adam desk… I went over and she put a couple of cold blue pellets into me with her eyes… (TLS, Ch. 17)

Another cop in a tilted back chair nodded to him, and looked me over with that dead grey expression that grows on them like scum on a watertank. (TLS, Ch. 19)

3. Mirrors

There is a third category of ‘eye-awareness’, one that crops up fairly regularly: which is when Marlowe sees his own eyes in a mirror and, for a fleeting moment, applies his usual level of penetrating insight to himself.

I got up and went to the built-in wardrobe and looked at my face in the flawed mirror. It was me all right. I had a strained look. I’d been living too fast. (TLS, Ch. 20)

Of course, this trope is generally used to emphasise the jaded world-weariness which is Marlowe’s schtick, the exhausted knight toughing it out in a fallen world, which is how Marlowe likes to see himself, or how Chandler likes to see Marlowe.

On the way out I had another look at the face in the mirror. I looked as if I had made up my mind to drive off a cliff. (TLS, Ch. 20)

I pulled away from the door and pulled it open and went back through the hall into the living-room. A face in the mirror looked at me. A strained, leering face. I turned away from it quickly… (THW, Ch. 8)

‘That’s a nice sharp pencil you have there,’ I told him.
He looked up, surprised. The girls at the pinball machine looked at me, surprised. I went over and looked at myself in the mirror behind the counter. I looked surprised. (THW, Ch. 13)

Passing the open door of the wash cabinet I saw a stiff excited face in the glass. (THW, Ch. 26)

I got out a handkerchief and wiped the palms of my hands. I went over to the wash-basin and washed my hands and face. I sloshed cold water on my face and dried it off hard with the towel and looked at it in the mirror. ‘You drove off a cliff all right,’ I said to the face. (TLS, Ch. 24)

You can see from these examples how the mirror motif is generally associated with tough guy posing. Hell, I look tired. Hell, I’m a jaded tough guy private dick. The self-referentiality of his gaze is linked to the acute self-consciousness of all the characters, all playing parts.

4. Sun glasses

There’s another minor category of eye imagery, which is when the eyes are covered – by sunglasses or, sometimes, the glinting surface of normal glasses.

I don’t know how widely used shades were in late 1930s California, but they crop up surprisingly rarely in the novels. When they do it’s clear what their function is – to conceal the wearer’s eyes which, in the light of above, is an elementary, physical way of protecting or concealing the wearer’s motives and thoughts.

Sunglasses make the face significantly more impenetrable. Maybe this is why people wearing shades feel ‘cool’ i.e. less open to scrutiny, to having their expression searched and comprehended – and therefore more distant and detached from everyone else, including people they speak and interact with.

And why we feel a little threatened when dealing with people (especially the police) wearing shades. It is because, not being able to ‘read’ their mood or tone in their eyes, we feel adrift, uncertain, wrong-footed. At a disadvantage.

An attitude of supposed invulnerability which Marlowe mocks in one his few allusions to them:

The man in the brown suit posted himself at the end of the bar and drank coca-colas and looked bored… He had his dark glasses on again. That made him invisible. (THW, Ch. 4)

‘You may have noticed a certain atmosphere and strain about this house. Even with those silly mirror glasses on. Which you may now remove. They don’t make you look the least like Cary Grant.’ (TLS, Ch. 21)

Othertimes, as already noted, the shades are there, but the mockery is implicit. They are, quite simply, more opportunities for Chandler to display his virtuoso way with phrase making.

He had a pair of green sun-glasses on his nose… The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (THW, Ch. 22)

The small head jerked up. The light glinted on the glasses. There were no eyes behind them. (TLS, Ch. 33)

5. Neutrals

There’s another type of eyes – neutral eyes, belonging to people whose eyes are neither attacking or defending, people who are outside of the game of deception and search the main characters are playing. Take the old guy who mans the elevator in the dilapidated Belfont Building in The High Window.

The same old plough-horse sat in the elevator on his piece of folded burlap, looking straight in front of him, almost gathered to history. (THW, Ch. 14)

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a pair of eyes are just a pair of eyes. Or are they? The irony is that this old geezer – named Grandy – despite his dead, watery, old-man’s eyes, has in fact been observing the goings-on in the key building and is able to provide Marlowe with key information.

Maybe there are no innocent eyes anywhere in the stories.

6. Eyes of the dead

Of course there is a state in which eyes are there but no longer playing an active part in proceedings, namely when their owners are dead. No longer looking or concealing, they are hors du combat. For them the long war of human inter-judging is over.

His eyes were half open as such eyes usually are. They stared at a point in the corner of the ceiling. (Ch. 28)

The eye imagery reaches a kind of crescendo on the very last page of the The Little Sister, when Dr Lagardie murders Gonzalez in what appears to be a drugged-up state. And both of them are defined by the state of their eyes.

The doctor is so stoned he can’t see, he doesn’t seem able to see i.e. to understand, what he has done – seeing and perceiving are over for him and so he isn’t worth either talking to or judging. He is not in the game.

But this is even more true of the murdered nymphomaniac. The final sentence of the book describes the attending medic closing her dead eyes.

For this text, for the time being, the endless war of eyes against eyes is over. The last word of the novel is ‘eyes’, the last action the closing of eyes, the ending of perception, the last thing to go, the most important thing, the attribute which – I am arguing – is one of the central and defining activities of Chandler’s novels.

He glanced across at Dr Lagardie who saw nothing and heard nothing, if you could judge by his face. ‘I guess somebody lost a dream,’ the intern said. He bent over and closed her eyes. (Ch. 34)

7. Marginal eyes

And some final, minor examples of eye-sensitivity in the texts. They demonstrate that even to achieve small effects, to give the quickest snapshots of characters or their emotions, for Chandler the state of the character’s eyes is a crucial element, a talisman, the key indicator.

Mad

Except for her face she would have looked all right. In the first place her eyes were quite mad. There was white showing all around the iris and they had a sort of fixed look. When they moved the movement was so stiff that you could almost hear something creak. (Ch. 27)

Blind

A great long gallows of a man with a ravaged face and a haggard frozen right eye that had a clotted iris and the steady look of blindness. (Ch. 18)

Dying

He had eyes an eighth of an inch deep, pale grey-blue, wide open. They looked at me but didn’t see me. (TLS, Ch. 22)

Marlow is a ‘private eye’

Finally, and staring us in the face, is the fact that Marlowe is a Private EYE. What an odd phrase. Why does someone hire an ‘eye’?

Of all the parts of the body why is the private detective reduced by synechdoche to this one part of the anatomy? It is as if the job title recognises the importance of seeing above every other human ability, more important than any other aspect of a person which can be hired.

And it is as if the client’s two eyes just aren’t enough to interpret and understand – he must hire another pair. One pair of eyes isn’t enough in the war of eyes. The client needs to hire mercenary eyes.

Obviously the main point of the private eye is that they are unknown to whoever they’re tasked with investigating and spying on.

But that reinforces my point: watching, looking, spying, observing – and assessing, measuring, judging and interpreting – all these actions take place in Raymond Chandler’s novels predominantly through the eyes.

And hence, in the Chandler world, all references to eyes become loaded with phenomenal meaning and significance.


Appendix

a) Eyes in The High Window

All Chandler’s novels throng with sentences describing the look and action of eyes, ranging from the run-of-the-mill, through the contrived, to the inspired. It is the sheer variety, and the variety with which he describes such an apparently everyday business – looking and seeing – which is awe-inspiring.

Her eyes were as hard as the bricks in the front walk. I shrugged the stare off… (Ch. 2)

She watched me come into the room with the stiff, half-silly expression of a self-conscious person posing for a snapshot. (Ch. 2)

He leaned back again and brooded at me with pale eyes. (Ch. 3)

His eyes glinted, but he kept his smooth manner pretty well in place. (Ch. 3)

He eyed me over. ‘You ain’t working for him, are you?’ (Ch. 5)

He looked me up and down, brilliant black eyes sweeping slowly and the silky fringes of long eyelashes following them. (Ch. 5)

Vannier moved his hot angry eyes over to me and snapped. (Ch. 5)

The blonde giggled and petted his face with her eyes. (Ch. 5)

‘I think you could tell me yourself, if you wanted to.’
‘How are you going to make me want to?’ Her eyes were inviting. (Ch. 5)

His black eyes were sharp and blank at the same time, like a snake’s. (Ch. 5)

I looked at the blonde. Her eyes were bright and her mouth looked sensual and eager, watching us. (Ch. 5)

His face came all smooth again and his eyes opened, black and sharp and shrewd. (Ch. 7)

When the car stopped and I got out he didn’t speak or look at me again. He just sat there blank-eyed, hunched on the burlap and the wooden stool. (Ch. 14)

A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pyjamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins. (Ch. 17)

Prue let the front legs of the chair down on the carpet very quietly and looked at me. His good eye had a sleepy expression I didn’t like. (Ch. 18)

He raised his eyes on the last words and stared at me. I stared back and waited. (Ch. 18)

She moved her eyes over my face. We stared at each other. (Ch. 19)

I put my hay on the floor, just yesterday, and Mrs Murdock gave me the same hard level stare. (Ch. 20)

I waited, thinking she would tell me some story about how the coin had been returned, but she just stared at me bleakly over the wineglass… Her bleak eyes went up to the ceiling. (Ch. 20)

He stopped talking and looked up at me to see how I was taking it. Mrs Murdock had her eyes on my face, practically puttied there. The little girl was looking at Murdock with her lips parted and an expression of suffering on her face. (Ch. 21)

He stopped talking and wiped his face again. The little girl’s eyes moved up and down with the motions of his hand… The little girl tore her eyes away from his face and looked at me… The little girl stood up and smiled at her with shining eyes. (Ch. 21)

She drew her hand away swiftly and her eyes looked shocked… She jumped about three feet and her eyes blazed with panic… Her eyes melted with panic… Panic still twitched in the depths of her eyes, behind the tears. (Ch. 22)

The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (Ch. 22)

He waited, with his mouth a little open and the cigar in front of it, held up by a hard freckled hand, and his pale blue eyes full of dim satisfaction. (Ch. 23)

Spangler looked at me sideways along glistening eyes. (Ch. 23)

His cold black eyes looked over me silently. (Ch. 24)

She nodded. Her eyes stayed on my face. (Ch. 32)

A sort of panic twitched in the depths of her eyes, but very far back, very dim, and somehow as though it had been there for a long time and had just peeped out at me for a second. (Ch. 32)

She lifted her eyes slowly and gave me a long level gaze… Our eyes locked hard and held locked for a moment.  (Ch. 32)

His eyes had almost disappeared into the back of his head. They were doomed eyes. (Ch. 34)

b) Eyes in The Little Sister

She hesitated and there was something behind her eyes she tried not to have there. (Ch. 2)

Perhaps it was the  spring too. And something in her eyes that was much older than Manhattan, Kansas. (Ch. 2)

He gave me a narrow, thoughtful eye, then shovelled the money into a shabby brief-case. (Ch. 3)

He nodded, satisfied. The glare went out of his eyes. (Ch. 4)

He picked his cigar out of the green glass ash-tray and blew a little smoke. Through it he gave me the cold grey eye. (Ch. 4)

I gave him a shady leer. (Ch. 4)

She took half a step back, almost stumbled, and I reached an arm around her by pure instinct. Her eyes widened and she put her hands against my chest and pushed. (Ch. 7)

I saw Orfamay Quest’s face without the glasses, and polished and painted and with blonde hair piled up high on the forehead… And bedroom eyes. They all have to have bedroom eyes. (Ch. 7)

The girl behind the counter was a straw blonde with a long neck and tired eyes. (Ch. 8)

The floor carpet was new and had a hard look, like the room clerk. (Ch. 8)

I brought my eyes down and gave Flack a thick leaden stare. (Ch. 11)

Flack’s eyes flicked up at me and dropped all in one motion. (Ch. 11)

I did some more staring into his eyes. But I knew he was licked now. (Ch. 11)

Her eyes look enormous and black and the whites showed under them. (Ch. 12)

Her eyes were empty, her lips contemptuous. (Ch. 12)

The Gonzales looked back at her slowly, levelly, and with a knife in her eyes. (Ch. 12)

She stood her ground, one hand still reaching for the door-knob, her eyes full of dark-blue rage. (Ch. 12)

A peculiar stillness came over his face. A peculiar fixed look in his silent black eyes. (Ch. 12)

The creature with him was a weedy number with red eyes and sniffles. (Ch. 14)

Alfred’s eyes crawled sideways watching him, then jerked to the money on the desk. (Ch. 14)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering… She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. ‘Take my glasses off,’ she whispered. (Ch. 14)

Spink gave me a narrow glare of hate. (Ch. 18)

[Torrance, the movie director] had hot black eyes, but there was no heat in his voice. (Ch. 19)

At the door she turned and looked around carefully. Then she fixed her lovely blue eyes on my face. (Ch. 19)

She looked at me a long and steady moment before she dropped her eyes… She stared at the photograph. Her eyes came up again slowly, slowly… She reached the photo out from somewhere and stared at it, biting her lip. Her eyes came up without her head moving…. Her eyes snapped down to the picture again. (Ch. 19)

He raised his head slowly and stared at me with fixed contempt. (Ch. 21)

She held this doohickey in a black gauntleted glove and stared at me out of depthless black eyes that had no laughter in them now… Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch. 23)

The cops don’t like you to be wearing a gun in their territory… They like you to come in properly humble, with your hat in your hand, and your voice low and polite, and your eyes full of nothing. (Ch. 23)

Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch. 23)

There were large lumps of muscle at the corners of his jaws. His eyes had a reddish glare behind them… Maglashan clamped his teeth tight and the line of his jaw showed white. His eyes narrowed and glistened. (Ch. 24)

The cops just sat there and looked back at me… They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in hard condition. They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and grey like freezing water. The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind. (Ch. 24)

The light flaring in her face seemed to be swallowed up by her depthless black eyes. (Ch. 26)

I watched her for a minute, biting at the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (Ch. 28)

I stared hard at French. He looked at me as if I was the wallpaper. His eyes didn’t seem to see me at all. (Ch. 29)

He stared at me with hard morose eyes. I was back in cop-town again. (Ch. 30)

One of them was from the jail, in denim, with a guard. A white-faced kid built like a tackle, with sick, empty eyes. (Ch. 32)

She looked innocently surprised. Then her eyes glowed… She leaned back. There was a vague worry behind her eyes, but she smiled. (Ch. 33)

Her tooth came down on the outer edge of her lower lip and something flared in her eyes and very slowly died away. (Ch. 33)

P.S.

And finally, even the eyes of non-humans can be admitted into this realm of conflict, their animal devotion a respite from the endless inquisitor which is the human eye, but still not entirely innocent. No eye in Chandler ever is.

‘The eyes of your dog,’ Oppenheimer mused. ‘The most unforgettable thing in the world.’ (TLS, Ch. 19)


Other Raymond Chandler reviews

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics by JRR Tolkien (1936)

Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford from 1925 to 1945. In 1936 he delivered this lecture about Beowulf to the British Academy. It is often cited as a turning point in studies of the poem because it completely changed the focus from seeing Beowulf as a primarily historical document – which (from a historian’s point of view) frustratingly fails to explain the many legends it fleetingly refers to, and wastes all its energy on childish monsters – to viewing it as a sophisticated work of art which uses its fairy-tale monsters to convey a surprisingly modern and relevant worldview about the ubiquity of Evil and the need to confront it, no matter what the cost.

Beowulf misused as history Tolkien claims that up to his time Beowulf has been recognised as important by critics and historians but consistently misinterpreted. By historians, philologists, archaeologists etc it has been mined for information about Germanic customs and religion and clothes and warfare. But Beowulf is not a historical document: it is a poem, a work of art. Its very success as a poem has created the sense that it is historical when, in fact, the most recent research has tended to highlight (as with Shakespeare’s treatment of history) its inconsistencies and cavalier approach.

So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense – a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.

Critics despise the monsters And literary critics have consistently been embarrassed by the centrality to the plot of the monsters which Beowulf has to kill – Grendel, his mother and the dragon.

Literary critics up to Tolkien’s day preferred the many Germanic tales which are alluded to throughout the poem, stories which dealt with purely mortal men and sounded a lot like the classical Greek tragedies they had all studied in Classics at school.

For these critics, the Beowulf poet was guilty of crass bad taste in banishing these moving adult tragedies to the periphery and placing at the centre of the poem a series of childish folk tales, dealing with creatures out of fairy story or nursery rhyme. Tolkien quotes the great critic W.P. Ker, who in 1905 wrote:

The great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style. In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is undeniably weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.

Tolkien’s counter arguments It is this damning perception which Tolkien sets out to overturn, and he succeeded so well that his lecture is cited by every subsequent study as marking a sea change in attitudes.

For Tolkien asserted that, far from being the rag-tag, miscellany of an immature and juvenile culture, the ragamuffin product of a poet overwhelmed by silly folk stories and stitching them together willy-nilly – the Beowulf poet was a latecomer, arriving at the end of a mature and full civilisation, after it had been converted to Christianity, well aware of all the old legends and stories, who made a conscious choice to place the monsters at the centre of the poem because they are in fact the quintessence of the old pagan worldview: they encapsulate on a mythical level the evil, the unreason and the unavoidable death which all men face.

Tolkien marshals a range of arguments:

  • Other long Old English poems – e.g. Andreas, Guthlac – which contain just as dignified and high a style, somehow fail to have anything like the impact of Beowulf – could it be the much-condemned mythical subject matter which gives Beowulf depth and not its peers?
  • Criticism of the triviality and folk-taleness of the plot stem from reducing it to a synopsis, telling the story in outline – a fine methodology for comparative folk tale analysis but disastrous for poetry, which is made out of the texture of the words.
  • A deep prejudice of taste makes the critics of his time rate purely human tragedies as the highest genre: as he puts it, ‘Doom is held less literary than άµαρτία”. This represents, in Tolkien’s view, a lack of feeling for ‘the mythological mode of imagination’.

The significance of a myth is not easily pinned down on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.

  • The very process of analysing the poem, for purely historical or archaeological or narratological purposes, destroys its greatest effect, its power in every part.

Far from putting the essential legends of Germanic heroes at the periphery and filling the foreground with triteness, the Beowulf-poet has summarised the essence of the Northern worldview, of a doomed hero with his back against the wall – the exaltation of undefeated will. This is the Northern spirit which receives such stirring expression in the words of Byrhtwold at the battle of Maldon.

It is in Beowulf that a poet has devoted a whole poem to this theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time… The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre…

When we have read his poem, as a poem, rather than as a collection of episodes, we perceive that he who wrote hæleð under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof; whereon, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat….

Beowulf is not, then, the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy…

It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone:

lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod.

So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast, and they say He gibbers: He has no sense of proportion. I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.

By putting the monsters at the centre of his poem, the poet transcends the details of time and place to confront the timeless Problem of Evil

Tolkien goes on to address various other criticisms which have been made, such as the accusation that the poet’s combination of Old Testament with Germanic legends shows confusion and primitiveness. Tolkien argues at length that it shows just the opposite – a profound mind meditating on and assimilating the implications of the new Christian worldview:

In the poem I think we may observe not confusion, a half-hearted or a muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion. But that shift is not complete in Beowulf – whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise…

Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’or ‘civilization’) ends in night. The solution of that tragedy is not treated – it does not arise out of the material.

We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse.

Tolkien contrasts Beowulf with the southern, Mediterranean world of the Classics, which so many of his contemporaries were brought up on and against which they are judging Beowulf and finding it lacking:

It is the strength of the Northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the goðlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

Unlike, say, the Odyssey with its strange, hanging happy ending or the Iliad which ends in media res with the funeral of Patroclus but the war still unconcluded, Beowulf ends with the funeral and burial of the hero and the threatened end of his people, the Geats.

Although it manages to have Christian sentiment throughout, the final feeling is of a very modern existentialist view of the world, as cold, heartless, shelterless, where most of us are abandoned to figure out our lives by whatever code or guidelines we can muster.

For Tolkien, delivering this lecture in the 1930s, in the shadow of the Nazis, the heartless Northern view of life must have seemed much more pressing and contemporary than the sweet perfections of the Classical tradition.


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Conrad’s style (3) the Nihilist worldview

In the previous post on Conrad’s style I looked at his use of repetition, trying to analyse or list out the different ways Conrad uses repetition to amplify and embellish his prose. In this post, I look at his bigger, structural use of repetition – and something of what that tells us about his overall purpose.

The repetitiveness of Conrad’s plots

Seems to me that the obsessive repetition we observe in Conrad’s fiction at the level of the sentence and paragraph is repeated in bigger structures ie in the plots or narratives of entire stories and novels. Again and again men are abandoned.

  • Almayer, abandoned, dies of despair in the heartless jungle.
  • Willems, abandoned, dies a bloody death in the heartless jungle.
  • The nigger of the Narcissus dies a lonely death at sea.
  • Arsat’s woman dies leaving him abandoned by tribe and family.
  • Karain is a haunted outcast, abandoned by his tribe, betrayer of his best friend.
  • Kurtz has left behind every vestige of civilisation and dies, abandoned, in the heart of darkness; and so on and on.

The plots’ sole purpose is to place the wretched protagonists in situations of abandonment and despair, conveyed in a prose which is obsessively compelled to repeat descriptions of the same desolations again and again. Not once but a hundred, a thousand times, Conrad is compelled to tell us just how meaningless life is, how hollow the conventions of ‘civilisation’ are, and how indifferent the heartless universe is to our wretched fates.

The repetition of Conrad’s Existentialist worldview

Because to read Conrad is to enter not only the richness of his exotic settings and lush descriptions, but to become quickly aware of a compelling and coercing worldview. The same ominous, existentialist, stricken nihilistic message is rammed home in almost every one of the longer, descriptive paragraphs. There is, in fact, a fair bit of tautologia in Conrad – being ‘The repetition of the same idea in different words, but (often) in a way that is wearisome or unnecessary’.

The white man came out of the hut in time to see the enormous conflagration of sunset put out by the swift and stealthy shadows that, rising like a black and impalpable vapor above the tree-tops, spread over the heaven, extinguishing the crimson glow of floating clouds and the red brilliance of departing daylight. In a few moments all the stars came out above the intense blackness of the earth, and the great lagoon gleaming suddenly with reflected lights resembled an oval patch of night-sky flung down into the hopeless and abysmal night of the wilderness. (Lagoon)

Over the lagoon a mist drifting and low had crept, erasing slowly the glittering images of the stars. And now a great expanse of white vapour covered the land: flowed cold and gray in the darkness, eddied in noiseless whirls round the tree-trunks and about the platform of the house, which seemed to float upon a restless and impalpable illusion of a sea; seemed the only thing surviving the destruction of the world by that undulating and voiceless phantom of a flood. Only far away the tops of the trees stood outlined on the twinkle of heaven, like a sombre and forbidding shore – a coast deceptive, pitiless and black. (Lagoon)

Arsat had not moved. In the searching clearness of crude sunshine he was still standing before the house, he was still looking through the great light of a cloudless day into the hopeless darkness of the world…” [Last words of The Lagoon]

He had plumbed in one short afternoon the depths of horror and despair, and now found repose in the conviction that life had no more secrets for him: neither had death! (Outpost)

It was the very essence of anguish stripped of words that can be smiled at, argued away, shouted down, disdained. It was anguish naked and unashamed, the bare pain of existence let loose upon the world in the fleeting unreserve of a look that had in it an immensity of fatigue, the scornful sincerity, the black impudence of an extorted confession. (Return)

With a short thrill he saw himself an exiled forlorn figure in a realm of ungovernable, of unrestrained folly. Nothing could be foreseen, foretold—guarded against. And the sensation was intolerable, had something of the withering horror that may be conceived as following upon the utter extinction of all hope. (Return)

He remembered all the streets—the well-to-do streets he had passed on his way home; all the innumerable houses with closed doors and curtained windows. Each seemed now an abode of anguish and folly. (Return)

To-morrow had come; the mysterious and lying to-morrow that lures men, disdainful of love and faith, on and on through the poignant futilities of life to the fitting reward of a grave. (Return)

The revelation was terrible. He saw at once that nothing of what he knew mattered in the least. The acts of men and women, success, humiliation, dignity, failure—nothing mattered. (Return)

Never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness. (Heart)

Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. (Heart)

Conrad’s Repetition Compulsion: a Freudian interpretation 

It’s a basic idea of Freud’s that a range of symptoms of human behaviour, speech and thought are determined by early childhood traumas which our conscious minds repress but which have such overwhelming power that they seek to rise again into the conscious mind; and that the struggle of the conscious mind to control and suppress these feelings leads to peculiar and repeated types of behaviour or speech; in some people these expressions go beyond the bounds of ‘normality’ to become  neuroses, obsessions, hysterias. Thus, according to Freud, the suppressed content returns, disguised, in dreams, in jokes, in obsessive patterns of behaviour, in verbal (Freudian) slips, in the taboos of primitive societies and the religious rituals of more ‘advanced’ cultures.

When you learn (from Wikipedia) that Conrad’s father was condemned to exile by the Russian authorities for his Polish patriotic views, that he grew up in a gloomy exiled household dominated by the failure of his father’s Romantic hopes, and that first his mother died (when Conrad was 7) and then his father (when the boy was 11) – then you don’t have to be Dr Freud understand why so much of Conrad’s fiction is drenched in obsessive, compulsive repetitions of this primal childhood abandoning, an abandonment so complete as to dominate almost every sentence he wrote, and to set the deeply pessimistic tone and dictate the forlorn plots of almost all his fictions.

Conrad and Freud

  • Conrad was born in 1857. Freud in 1856.
  • Freud had the conceptual breakthrough which led to his theories in 1895, the same year Conrad published his first novel.
  • Both were uber-civilised, central European gentlemen driven to find prose outlets for their devastatingly nihilistic and pessimistic views of human nature.
  • Were they twins, secretly separated at birth?

The Europeanness of Conrad’s temperament stands out even more when you compare him with two Englishmen born in 1857 – Edward Elgar and Robert Baden-Powell. For subtlety, intelligence and culture, Conrad has vastly more in common with the Austrian doctor than with the composer of the Pomp & Circumstance marches or the founder of the Boy Scouts.


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The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)

John Bunyan came from very humble background. Born in a village near Bedford in 1628, he had some schooling before joining the Parliamentary (anti-king) army at the start of the Civil War (1642). This and his marriage spurred him to investigate his religion more closely and he began preaching to local groups of Christians outside the structure of the official Church of England.

After the restoration of Charles II (1660) the new, reactionary Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity, requiring all religious activity to be licensed and to follow the rites and rituals laid down in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer and all ministers to be appointed by an Anglican bishop. The aim was Control and Conformity after the anarchy of the Civil War years.

Bunyan refused to do this, not applying for a licence he knew he wouldn’t get and continuing to preach to non-Anglican groups around Bedford and beyond, which made him a non-conformist (for refusing to conform to the rules). He was arrested in November 1660, tried for his illegal preaching and ended up spending the next 12 years in prison (1660-72). The prison regime was quite lax, he had the company of various other devout Christians, books and writing materials and was even let out on some occasions for good behaviour.

While in prison he wrote Grace Abounding To The Chief of Sinners and began the Pilgrim’s Progress. During his imprisonment the political and social climate had changed significantly and in 1672 the king passed a Declaration of Indulgence which suspended penal laws against non-conformists. Thousands were released from prison, including Bunyan, who immediately applied for a licence to preach and took up his old activities.

Bunyan wrote prodigiously, mostly pamphlets, though he published some 40 longer works in his lifetime. By far the most famous is the Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1678 which went on to become the most published book in English after the Bible. It takes the form of an allegory, in which the Pilgrim is tasked with saving his soul and during his journey encounters characters representing types of person or attitudes towards the Christian life.

Notes on allegory

Allegory compels a one-to-one relationship between a symbol and its meaning. Unlike the a) vagueness b) take-it-or-leave-it, of symbolism, allegory demands that you go beneath the surface story to derive the secondary meaning. In Bunyan the allegory is continually in plain view, easy and accessible.

The Pilgrim’s Progress has endured because of:

  • the accuracy & immediacy of its characterisation
  • the similar accuracy of its dialogue & argumentation – I was particularly taken with the arguments of Mr Worldly-Wiseman
  • the swiftness of its pace; most of the incidents are over in a few pages; many of the debates are over in a paragraph.

For the modern reader the most notable aspects of the text is the complete absence of colour & description of anything:

Now there was not far from the place they lay, a castle, called Doubting-Castle, the owner whereof was Giant Despair, and it was in his grounds that they were now sleeping.

No description of the castle or the giant. Compare what Edmund Spenser would have done in his wonderful poetic allegory the Faerie Queene (1590). But then Spenser was writing for a highly cultured, courtly culture and invested his poem with Elizabethan luxury. Bunyan is deliberately doing the opposite: reducing the drama of the Christian life to its bare (very bare) essentials.

  • The accuracy of the characterisation
  • The mercifully brief length of the spiritual debates, because a great deal of the subject matter seems to us to consist of the splitting of almost invisible theological hairs

The lack of description is the obverse of its strength: it gets straight to the point, the point being to demonstrate fully and clearly the scores of temptations, excuses, pretences, delusions and delays which can divert the would-be Christian from following their faith and saving their soul.

The plot

The narrator falls asleep in a den & dreams a dream. He sees:

Christian, inhabitant of the City of Destruction, weeping with fear, reading in the Bible that he is condemned to die and labouring under a heavy burden (of sin) on his back. Evangelist hands him a roll simply saying ‘Fly the wrath to come’. Go to that distant Wicket Gate to seek the Celestial City.

Dialogue with Obstinate and Pliable.

Christian falls into the Slough of Despond, Pliable abandons him, Help comes & shows him the true path.
Christian meets Mr Worldly-Wiseman from the town of Carnal-Policy, who advises him to seek out Mr Legality in the town of Morality (or his son, Civility) i.e. replace true religion with legality & civil appearance.

But before Legality’s house is an enormous mountain threatening to fall on him & crush him, so Christian stops & hesitates. At this moment Evangelist reappears & critiques Worldly-Wiseman & all his guiles.
Terrified at his error, Christian retraces his way to the true path and comes soon to the Wicket Gate. Good Will opens & pulls him through, asking him to recount his adventures & explaining them.

Once again on the right way, Christian comes to the House of the Interpreter who shows him various emblems & interprets them for him:

  • a picture of an apostle
  • a parlour full of dust i.e. a soul full of original sin which requires the water of grace to be sprinkled on it to settle it
  • two little children, Passion and Patience
  • the fire of grace continually burning being fuelled by Christ which the Devil endlessly tries to extinguish
  • a Knight of God who fights his way into the Palace of God against the armed men outside
  • Christian is shown a man trapped in the cage of his own despair
  • Christian sees a man waking trembling from a dream of the Last Judgement in which he is not saved

Bolstered with these insights Christian sets off & soon comes to a hill with a Cross on top and a sepulchre at the bottom. Effortlessly the burden of his sin is lifted from him. Three holy ones say thy sins are forgiven, dress him in new clothes, put a mark on his forehead and give him a roll of writing with a seal upon.

Further down the way he sees to one side three sleeping figures, Simple, Sloth and Presumption. He tries to wake them but they ignore him.

Then two men scramble over the wall of the narrow way, Formality & Hypocrisy who boast that they don’t need to come in by way of the Narrow Gate; Christian disdains them & comes to a hill called Difficulty. Christian struggles up it but the Formality & Hypocrisy take the easy-looking paths round the side (but one is Danger & one is Destruction).

Halfway up the hill of Difficulty is a pleasant arbour & there Christian rests & sleeps & the holy roll falls out of his pocket. He wakes & continues to the top where he meets Timorous and Mistrust running the other way. He rejects their advice to run away but realises he’s lost his roll; returns to the arbour; find it; turns around; finally comes to the house Beautiful.

Is invited in by the porter Watchful, then discourses with Piety, Prudence and Charity. Watchful et al delay him several days & tell Christian stories of Christian heroes, clothe him in armour, show him the weapons used by eg Gideon, Moses, Samson. They set him on his way down into the Valley of Humiliation, where he meets Apollyon: they debate whose subject Christian is, Apollyon’s or Christ’s, then fall to fighting & Christian wounds Apollyon who flies off.

A hand appears with leaves from the Tree of Life to heal & refresh him. Then Christian comes to the brink of the Valley of The Shadow of Death, where he meets two spies heading back with scary reports of what lies ahead.

The way through the Valley is dark, with a ditch on one side into which the blind fall, and a quag on the other. In the middle of the Valley is the mouth of Hell spewing forth flames & smoke, and Christian can hear crowds of fiends coming towards him; he resorts to fervent prayer.

Eventually day breaks & he can see the perils he’s passed & see ahead the 2nd half of the Valley full of traps. Finally he comes to the end & sees 2 caves inhabited by Pagan & Pope, fronted by lots of dead bones of their victims. But Pagan is long since dead & Pope is a feeble old man who says you should all burn but is harmless.

From a small rise he sees Faithful ahead & runs to catch him up. Faithful tells him about his journey from the City of Destruction, to wit: he was tempted by the lady Wanton; he was invited to work for the First Adam & his daughters The Lust of the Flesh, The Lust of the Eyes and The Pride of Life. Then he’s overcome by Moses who batters him relentlessly to the ground, until he is freed by ‘one with holes in his hands’. In the Valley of Humility he meets Discontent who tells him it’s a crappy Valley; then Shame who rails against all forms of religion as unworthy a man.

Back to the present where Faithful & Christian fall in with Talkative who, it eventually dawns on them, is all talk. Faithful gives a very edifying discourse on the difference between talk/knowledge – and action. By their fruits shall ye know them. Talkative departs.

Then Evangelist catches up with them & encourages them & warns them of the extremities they will suffer in the coming town.

Faithful & Christian arrive in the town of Vanity and go through its Fair, established 5,000 years ago by Beelzebub & Apollyon to ensnare pilgrims. They quickly cause a hubbub by their outlandish clothes & high-minded speech until there’s eventually a fight; and they’re brought before the court of Lord Hategood. Faithful goes first and is testified against by Envy, Superstition and Pickthank; then the jury, foreman Mr Blindman, condemn him for treason to the King of the country ie Beelzebub, breaking the laws of Pharoah, Darius etc, he is tortured & finally burnt at the stake. But his soul is scooped up in a chariot & taken to glory in Heaven.

God lets Christian escape. He falls in immediately with Hope. They are soon joined by Mr By-Ends from the town of Fair-Speech which is full of temporisers, compromisers & deceivers i.e. those who betrayed their principles to conform in 1662. Christian & Hope reject him.

But then, in a genuinely novel-like incident, By-Ends meets up with his friends from school in Love-gain in the county of Coveting, Mr Hold-the-world, Mr Money-love and Mr Save-all, and they have a conversation justifying their principles i.e that if a churchman is offered worldly gain he ought to take it. The characterisation – the entering into an alien mindset and set of arguments is powerfully novellish.
They catch up with Christian and Hope put their arguments to them, who vigorously reject them. To make religion a stalking horse for worldly gain is a sin.

Leaving them stunned C&H come to a silver mine in the hill of Lucre, and Demas hails them to come see. They easily spot it as a trap & continue. When By-ends passes he goes over to look & falls in & is never seen again.

Shortly after they come across Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt, giving rise to reflections.
Then they see a stile by the way with another smoother way through a meadow & Christian persuades Hopeful to take it. They meet Vainglory who confirms their choice & they go along & it gets dark & Vainglory falls into a pit. Then they fear & turn back but lose their way & lie down to sleep & Giant Despair captures them & takes them to Doubting Castle where they are scourged & beaten & encouraged to kill themselves – for some weeks – until Christian remembers he has a Promise (of salvation) in his pocket & uses it to free them.

Back on the right way they come to the Delectable Mountains and the shepherds who graze it; who show them a hill called Error with victims at its foot, a hill called Caution from which they see those blinded by despair stumbling in a graveyard; and a doorway into hell. Then the shepherds take them to a hill called Clear & show them the way to the Celestial City through a telescope.

They encounter Ignorance, a confident lad who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Hopeful tells the story of Little-faith, who was mugged by Faint-heart, Mistrust and Guilt, giving rise to a long debate about faith.

A black man dressed in white robes decoys them & ties them in nets. They are rescued by a Shining One. They meet Atheist who laughs in their faces. They laugh back.

They come to the Enchanted Ground and feel very sleepy. To keep awake they talk, specifically Faithful describes his spiritual awakening which is similar to Bunyan’s. Then they tarry to talk to Ignorance i.e. to prove his faith ignorant because based on wishes to be saved not on the converse conviction of one’s own wretched hopeless sinfulness which is the foundation of Puritan faith. They speculate why some men feel a conviction of sin but quash it to live more carnally at ease with the world.

The next day they come to the Land of Beulah, which is an earthly paradise within sight of the Celestial City where they relax, eat & talk to the gardener.

Two angels escort them over the River of Death where Christian has his final fears & anxieties before making it across, being carried up & into the Celestial City.

The very last scene is of poor Ignorance struggling up behind them and, having no certificate, being despatched down a back passage to hell.

Conclusion

As the atheist I am I find it absolutely typical that a Christian can’t envisage the joys of heaven without gloating over someone else being consigned to the pains of hell. I guess this last note is to prevent complacency in its readers, as throughout the book – as throughout the Old Testament – it is emphasised that fear of God is the only true beginning of wisdom.

But you can disagree completely with the theology and still find this is a powerful, challenging, memorable book.

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Milton’s God by William Empson (1961)

The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people act on moral convictions different from your own. (p.261)

This I take to be a piece of humanism in the Lionel Trilling tradition.

What is more it has been thought from Aeschylus to Ibsen that a literary work may present a current moral problem, and to some extent alter the judgement of those who appreciate it by making them see the case as a whole. (p.261)

Ditto. On this view literature contributes to the ‘debate’, which is a fundamental of democratic societies.

What is literature?

By contrast, in my opinion, the term or concept ‘literature’ is an artefact

a) used in various ways in various times and places over the past 3,000 years, and part of its study should be a study of what people of the past have meant by ‘literature’; and a study of the conditions under which it has been i) produced ii) received iii) preserved
b) constructed under specific conditions in Western universities over the past 200 years or so, and it’s worth spending a little time pondering the history of the creation of departments of ‘literature’, studying the history of the subject itself…

In contrast to the varying theoretical views of ‘literature’ put forward by professors, in the real world writers have written for a wide variety of reasons & motives – but the single biggest one has been to earn a living. In this sense most ‘literature’ is motivated not by any belated idea of contributing to a ‘debate’ – but by the wish for fame, fortune, praise and money (from the ferocious competition among the ancient Greeks to win the palm for their tragedy, to Dr Johnson claiming no-one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.)

Milton’s God

It is a great shame that Empson only makes his ideological convictions clear in the final long polemical chapter, Christianity. It is especially regrettable that only on p.267 does he explain the rationale for the entire book, viz. modern Christians have a great amount of leeway in what they believe, can even incorporate bits of Darwinism, science etc into their syncretistic Christianity; and they tend to interpret Christian poets from the past as if they had the same easygoing faith. But Donne, Milton et al were stuck with Christianity – even when their consciences rebelled against its obvious harshness and cruelty. It was a struggle to accept many of its tenets. And so it is the revolt of Milton’s finer feelings against the harsh strictures of Christian belief that Empson sets out to map in this book, via close readings of cruxes to do with, in order, Satan (55 pages), Heaven (54), Eve (35) and Adam (29).

The one great message of this book is to refute the soft lit crit idea that you have to soak yourself into the time and mind-set of a writer in order to appreciate their work: Empson insists that an uncritical acceptance that Milton was a simple Christian belies the evidence of his personal theological work, De Doctrina Christiana, which is full of heresy and worry about God’s justice – and that this nagging doubt, worry & ambiguity are to be found at important cruxes in Paradise Lost.

Empson thinks that when Milton set himself the task of turning ‘the figures of the briefly recorded myth into high-minded intelligent characters’ he led himself into a world of woe, exposing almost every exchange to multiple ambiguities of the type he (Empson) loves to tease out. He thinks scores of these cruxes reveal that Milton actually had deep ambivalence about the myth and the kind of God it reveals – i.e. a sadistic bastard.

I think this is wrong-headed, and that, in a poem of 12,000 lines, there are bound to be anomalies, mistakes, contradictions which can be teased out and presented as deeply meaningful – but are in fact, just mistakes. I believe Milton’s aim and beliefs are clear and consistent.

Empson is a man enormously amused by his own eccentricity, who thinks he is a rebel (by standing out against the tide of neo-Christian critics spawned by Eliot) and a close reader (his tedious over-examination of words) and a humourist (imputing jokes to God, telling anecdotes about the Far East), but is in fact a muddle-headed bore.

By wrong-headed I mean the way Empson cheerfully insists that God really, deep down wanted Eve to eat the apple (p.163).

This is a foolish and ignorant book which demonstrates just how unscholarly, unsystematic, slapdash, unconsidered, inaccurate, wrongheaded, prejudiced, narrow-minded and short-sighted a so-called ‘literary critic’ can be, and why so many sensible intelligent people have looked down their noses at literary criticism as a dubious type of parlour game.

Empson is against Christianity, fine. But he uses his prejudice to interject no end of wrong-headed interpretations of Milton’s lines.

This book is like the school of criticism L.C. Knights lampooned in his 1933 essay, How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? i.e. criticism which investigates characters as if they were real people in the real world instead of figures in a total poetic, aesthetic system. It tends, therefore, to highlight logical flaws in the poem/play. As everyone knows, Shakespeare’s plays are full of anomalies, e.g. the non-functioning time schemes – but these don’t affect their dramatic plausibility or aesthetic impact. Thus, Empson picks on hundreds of different cruxes to show that, in each case, some lines – Raphael’s explanation of this or Eve’s understanding of that – imply something different from Milton’s overall and obviously Christian aim. Well, Empson’s readings might help to understand particular passages, but it in no way invalidates Milton’s obvious overall aim. I.e. all his examples don’t build up to a systematic critique.

His chapter ‘Critics’ would be useful to this day if it in any way summarised the debate over Milton as it stood in 1961. But it doesn’t, consisting of a muddle-headed skipping from one randomly-selected quote to another, not properly summarising, explaining or critiquing the famous views of Leavis, Lewis or Eliot.

Satan

I’ve just read his 50-page chapter on Satan and I’ve really no idea what it said. Towards the end he seems to be saying that Satan had very good reasons for believing what he did i.e. that God is a tyrant, that God is not the creator but the angels made themselves etc. This seems to me rubbish: whether Satan does or does not believe this is irrelevant to the overall thrust of the poem’s obvious Christian orthodoxy – and to the overall portrayal of Satan who starts off a heroic rebel and steadily degrades himself by the use of Wrong Reason. If we identify with him so much it is because we also are fallen creatures, liable to Satan’s foolish pride (ie erroneously believing there is no God; we made ourselves etc).

Heaven i.e. God is a bad God

Empson produces a list of moments where God seems a very bad God:

God rules Heaven badly

  • God produces a Heaven in which a third of the population rebels against Him; not a good sign.
  • God produces a heaven in which Satan (and presumably other devils) obsequiously and slavishly worship Him, while secretly wishing to overthrow Him.

God fails to win Satan round – in effect, encouraging him to rebel

  • If Satan simply requires proof of God’s omnipotence, why doesn’t God simply produce them – instead of leading Satan on to open rebellion and then orchestrating the whole chain of events which lead to the Fall.

God allows the Fall to happen

  • God lets Satan step out of his chains remarkably easily.
  • God sets Sin and Death in control of the gates of Hell – talk about crazy.
  • God lets Satan travel across Chaos, when a whiff of divine breath would have blown him off into infinity.
  • When Satan is discovered by Gabriel, God sets a scale in heaven to tell Gabriel to let Satan go!
  • Thus God sets a guard on Adam which turns out to be utterly hopeless – and of course he foreknows that.

God has perfect foreknowledge of the Fall – but still lets it happen

  • On the issue of foreknowledge, a parent who foresaw that its children would be mortally injured in an accident – but let it go ahead and happen – would be imprisoned or judged insane.

God encourages Raphael to plant the seeds of the ideas which Satan will exploit to successfully tempt Eve to eat the apple

  • I.e. Raphael tells them they will become like Gods – so later Eve falls for Satan’s argument that eating the apple will make her a god.

Eve

Repeats the same thesis as the whole book which is that God is a bastard who orchestrates and encourages Eve’s fall; namely by getting Raphael to describe Adam & Eve’s possible translation to heaven – which she thinks the serpent will facilitate…

pp.161 he comes to the core of the anti-God argument: a parent who punished an erring child’s first offense with a lifetime of torment and torture, disease, war and famine for all its posterity, would be locked up.

One expects the morality of a God to be archaic, but this God seems to be wickeder than any recorded society.

Adam

Concentrates on when and how Adam learns that his entire posterity will be blasted for the Fall. But mainly quotes a string of texts from De Doctrina Christiana to show just how nervous & ambivalent Milton was about the ideas of the Fall, of infinite punishment being visited on innocent people, of innocent souls being deliberately placed in fallen, impure bodies, etc. how difficult Milton found it to justify God’s justice.

Empson points out that a line in De Doctrina seems to indicate Milton’s rock-bottom position: that if there were no God how come we all have a sense of right and wrong. This is an argument C.S. Lewis uses widely – the so-called Moral Law inherent in the universe. Well, a modern materialist says it is implanted in us by our parents, carers, creating what Freud called the superego, part of our mind which absorbs the rules and regulations laid down by years of moulding by parents, teachers etc.

Milton had nowhere else to go. No intellectually credible alternative to Christianity existed. He was stuck with his God.

I’ve found Christian belief in various people to be a matter of a handful of firm convictions – about right and wrong, or about a purpose to life etc – and then they’ve used these handful of convictions as a foundation on which to ease themselves into the vast a) social organisation b) intellectual system, of Christianity. But Milton is exceptional because he refused to shy away from the logical conclusions of the Christian myth.

Which brings me to a point which arises usefully out of Empson’s book – Milton was a lifelong arguer and controversialist – Paradise Lost is mostly dialogue, most of which is devoted to people argufying. Empson thinks it unlikely that there is any argument about any aspect of Christianity that Milton won’t have considered. Hence the intellectual interest, like watching a philosopher or lawyer make a case.

Thoughts

It is my position that Milton put down in black and white the essential elements of the Christian religion – and that many Christians are extremely embarrassed to see it written down so openly, would prefer there to have been more ‘mystery’, ‘spirituality’ i.e. for it to have glossed over the uncomfortable facts. But Milton was a zealot, convinced of his cause. There is no subtle sub-text here – Milton wrote what he believed.

But the unappealingness – the moral bankruptcy – of the poem’s theology, need not put us off either enjoying it or rating it highly as a work of art. After all, the Iliad and Odyssey and arguably the Aeneid are morally bankrupt – the Aeneid written to justify the rule of a tyrant and murderer as implacable as Stalin – Homer expounding a cruel and sadistic bronze age warrior code.

The appeal of Paradise Lost is multi-levelled and you don’t have to give a Yes/No answer to Milton’s efforts on each individual level: sometimes it works, sometimes less so:

  • first is the sheer music of the verse; but he can be dull
  • then the breathtaking scale; but this can lead him into silliness, arguably the entire allegory of Sin & Death
  • then the psychological acuity of various moments, expressed in beautiful poetry, from Milton’s Invocations to, say, the soliloquy of Satan
  • after a lot more levels you eventually reach ideology, and I think it’s perfectly possible to be struck, at some moments, by the beauty of some aspects of the Christian story – say, the road travelled by Adam and Eve from bitter recriminations to a final resolve to help each other – that is moving and instructive on a human level – but other moments are almost embarrassing, particularly when God is trying to wriggle out of any blame – and whenever you stop and think it is pathetic that a supposedly omnipotent Father can’t either a) protect or b) heal his mortal children.

Why does it have to be 1,000 years before Christ appears to redeem mankind? And why do Sin and Death continue to triumph after the resurrection? Why do we have to wait another 2,000 years of torture and suffering for the so-called Second Coming?

If God is going to forgive and heal mankind – why wait, incurring worlds of pain? Why not forgive us the next day? That’s what you do to erring children…

The Tragic Sense

Empson’s nitpicking approach and facetious generalisations would look pretty stupid if applied to, say, the Iliad. You can imagine him dismissing the argument between Agamamnon and Achilles – why doesn’t Agamemnon just return the girl? Why didn’t the gods let Clytemnestra’s warning about Hecuba’s dream be heeded? Etc There are a 1,000 places where the event could have been prevented…

But to intervene constantly in this way is to miss the wood for the trees. The Iliad presents a tragic vision of life. It has its profound impact because millions of its readers have shared this profoundly tragic worldview and admire the poem for describing it in unflinching and moving detail. To nitpick about this or that aspect of the logic of the story is to completely fail to understand the emotional / psychological / aesthetic appeal.

Same with Paradise Lost. At the end of Empson’s book of nitpicking, he has clarified some points and maybe highlighted Milton’s ambivalence on certain points of Christian theology – but nothing he writes can alter the impact the poem has as a profound, brilliantly structured, and dazzlingly written meditation on the tragic view of human life – which is then overcome by a triumphantly optimistic will for redemption. The psychological factors at play in the broad outline of the story far far outweigh Empson’s individual points.

Conclusion

The book of Genesis works as a vague and metaphorical creation myth – but when it – and the rest of Christian theology implied by it – is written out as a literal narrative, as in Paradise Lost – giving the reader days or weeks to turn it over in great detail – it turns out to be immoral nonsense.

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Johnson’s Life of Milton (1777)

Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.

Since the end of poetry is pleasure, that cannot be unpoetical with which all are pleased.

The characteristic quality of his poem is sublimity… Its end is to raise the thoughts above sublunary cares or pleasures… his natural port is gigantic loftiness… he can please when pleasure is required, but it is his peculiar power to astonish… his great excellence is amplitude.

Johnson’s Lives of the Poets are not pleasurable to read because they are not underpinned by a strong central thesis. Instead he relates separate facts about each poet and comments on them in discrete paragraphs. They feel bitty.

Given Johnson’s complete lack of sympathy with Milton’s politics – and his critique of Milton’s appalling selfishness and beastly behaviour to his two daughters – it is notable how generous he is to Milton the poet.

It is striking how profoundly he misunderstands Milton the man e.g:

  • He deplores Milton’s lack of regular church attendance; Johnson thinks the discipline of church attendance is vital; this is what makes him a Tory; he can’t conceive of people whose spirituality is more free, independent, no less sincere.
  • Similarly, he attributes Milton’s republicanism to jealousy of power, and surly resentment, ‘an envious hatred of greatness… a petulance impatient of control’ – utterly failing to grasp Milton’s ideas about freedom – that everyone should be free to express themselves & rule themselves; that hirelings shouldn’t be appointed in the church just as men shouldn’t be subjected to arbitrary power in civil life.

Paradise Lost

With respect to design, the first product of the human mind.

Bossu says an epic requires 1st a moral – Johnson concurs that to justify the ways of God to men is the highest conceivable moral.

2nd the moral has to be enacted in a fable, i.e. a plot: ‘a narration artfully constructed so as to excite curiosity and surprise expectation.’ In this Milton equals every other poet in his design i.e. the creation of the world, its end, and everything in between, are carefully placed.

Johnson then considers the various characters, the angels, Satan, Adam & Eve.

Of episodes i.e. extraneous to the main action, Johnson correctly points out Raphael’s long account of the war in heaven, the creation, the universe – and Michael’s second book vision into the future as far as the crucifixion and resurrection and second coming. I.e. between them they prepare the background, and then explain the sequel, to the main Event.

The hero Dryden says Adam can’t be the hero; but why not? His posterity will triumph and the feeling of the end of the poem is upbeat.

Style Milton chose a subject appropriate to the vast luxuriance of his imagination and powers. ‘Sublimity is the general and prevailing quality of the poem.’

Moral sentiments ‘In Milton every line breathes sanctity of thought and purity of manners.’

Criticism

Johnson’s criticism is that the subject matter allows for very little human interest. Milton’s achievement is vast in bringing to bear a lifetime’s reading and knowledge to adorn and vary a well-known story – but in the end it feels heavy. ‘None ever wished it longer than it is.’

The poem is undermined by the confusion of spirit and matter: the angels are sometimes pure spirit, other times hit and wounded in battle. Incongruity.

Johnson dislikes the incorporation of Sin and Death – abstract ideas – as real actors in the narration: ‘one of the greatest faults of the poem’. It is mixing allegory with story. I like it because it makes the story a) vivid b) highly visual c) Spenser made a career out of bringing allegorical figures to life e.g. Rumour. But I agree that it feels different in kind and style from, say, Michael.

Faults in the narrative

  • Why did Gabriel let Satan simply go away after he was arrested by the angels?
  • If Man is created to fill the void left by the fall of the rebel angels, how come Satan had heard a rumour about man before his fall? Presumably because God foresees all.

Fault of tone Johnson particularly deprecates the Limbo of Fools in Book II, as inappropriate satire, as lowering the tone.

Diction ‘Both in prose and verse he had formed his style by a perverse and pedantic principle. He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom.’ Nonetheless, Johnson judges that this large fault is overwhelmed by the sheer imaginative power of the poem.

Rhyme Johnson thinks rhyme is superior to blank verse because it distinguishes poetry more easily (rather as he thinks a Christian ought to go to church because it distinguishes holy thoughts from mundane). Nonetheless can’t wish Paradise Lost rhymed (and, alas, makes no comment on Dryden’s rhyming version of the same subject, State of Innocence.)

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Paradise Lost Book XI by John Milton (1667)

PARADISE LOST
BOOK XI
901 lines

The ostensible subject of this book is Michael showing Adam visions of the future.
More generally Michael is inducting Adam into the implications of the Fall – fighting, murder, disease, old age, God’s anger, 1 sole holy man standing out against the giddy crowd, Enoch, Noah (Milton self-portraits).
And Michael imparts simple wisdom: the Middle Way. Moderation.

1-21 Adam and Eve stand penitent. Their prayers go up to heaven.
22-44 The Son intercedes on their behalf, reminding everyone he will eventually die for them.
45-71 The Father agrees forgiveness but they cannot stay in Eden.
72-83 a trumpet blown to assemble all the angelic host.
84-125 The Father explains that, lest the man also eat of the fruit of the tree of eternal life, he will expel him. The father calls & instructs Michael to expel man from paradise, but to do it gently and give him a vision of the future; and set up cherubim to guard the entrance to the garden.
126-140 Michael prepares to descend. Cut to Adam and Eve.
141-161 Adam says he thinks God is listening to their prayers; their lives shall be meliorated; he ends by blessing Eve for being mother of mankind. [We’ve come a long way from their suicide pact].
162-180 Resigned, Eve says let’s get to work.
181-192 But they both notice a change: the sky lours; a bird of prey chases another; a bear chases fawns. The world is Fallen.
193-207 Adam points this all out to Eve, plus he’s seen lights falling from heaven.
208-225 Michael and his cherubim touch down.
226-250 Michael approaches, manly not dazzling.
251-262 Michael announces he’s exiling them.
263-285 Eve laments having to leave the flowers and bower she has dressed.
286-292 Michael says there’s no choice: they will be together.
293-333 Adam manfully acquiesces: if Eve will miss the flowers, Adam will miss meeting with God face to face.
334-369 Michael assures Adam God will be everywhere and his grace follow him, with signs. Come up this hill & I’ll show you the future.
370-422 Adam ascends the hill whence he can see the whole world, and Michael closes his eyes with magic drops.
423-460 Vision 1 They foresee Cain murdering Abel.
461-499 Adam asks, Is this Death? Vision 2 Michael shows him a cave full of desperate sick people dominated by Death…
500-514 Adam asks, Why are we born when life is so horrible? Can the image of the Maker be so degraded?
515-525 They don’t degrade God’s image; they degrade their own, says Michael.
526-546 Michael says it is best to live in moderation; however old age and its infirmities cannot be avoided…
547-552 Why prolong life, asks Adam.

Nor love thy life, nor hate; but what thou liv’st
Live well, how long or short permit to heav’n.

556-637 Vision 3 the Giants marry the daughters of Cain. Seems happy, but Michael explains the daughters of Cain are atheists and wantons.
638-673 Vision 4 a populous plain and city, but war breaks out between the two populations, waste and destruction: a prophet, Enoch, rises up and appeals for peace but everyone turns on him and he is whirled up to Heaven.
674-711 Michael makes it plain he disapproves of the warrior code & ethos, the worshipping of might. Enoch’s righteousness is praised and an example of all the righteous whom God will save.
712-762 Vision 5 amid a world of decadence Noah builds his ark, and Adam watches while his entire posterity is wiped out in the great Flood.
763-786 Adam is appalled: he hoped things would improve not decline. What next?
787–839 Michael makes Milton’s ethics crystal clear: all military might and heroism is an empty sham; it leads to luxury and wantonness- and then to extermination. Only one man in a dark age shall sound the note of warning (cf Abdiel brave in the concourse of the fallen angels) a self-portrait of Milton. But also a crystal clear rejection of the entire ‘heroic’ ethos of Satan.
840-901 Vision 6 Adam sees the ark alight on a mountaintop and the waters recede and a rainbow in the sky and Michael interprets it as God’s promise never again to flood the earth.

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