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The Strangely Troubled Life of Digby Mackworth Dolben

- November 14, 2012 in Articles, Books, digby mackworth dolben, drowning, eton college, gerard manley hopkins, Literature, Poems, poetry, robert bridges, suicide

In 1911 the soon-to-be poet laureate Robert Bridges published the poems of Digby Mackworth Dolben, a school friend who had drowned to death at the age of 19 almost half a century earlier. Carl Miller looks at Bridges’ lengthy introduction in which he tells of the short and tragic life of the boy with whom fellow poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was reportedly besotted. Popular success came late in life to Robert Bridges—not that he much cared. When the journalists finally descended on his house in the summer of 1913 he responded first with indifference; and then not at all, leaving their importuning knocks unanswered. One might suspect that he had learned to hate the press from Tennyson, whose grand performance as Poet and Sage had burdened the Victorians of Bridges’s generation with an interpretation of the role whose hoary magic they could never quite forget, however much they’d come to hate the trick; but Bridges’s own reserve was deeply felt and honestly acquired. He was born in 1844 into a wealthy family of the Kentish gentry, and as such he had no need of ever living by his pen. He loved poetry but studied medicine, believing that a physician’s practice [...]

The Krakatoa Sunsets

- May 28, 2012 in Art and Illustrations, Articles, gerard manley hopkins, History, krakatoa, Literature, nature, Poems, poetry, richard hamblyn, Science, sunsets, william ascroft

When a volcano erupted on a small island in Indonesia in 1883, the evening skies of the world glowed for months with strange colours. Richard Hamblyn explores a little-known series of letters that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sent in to the journal Nature describing the phenomenon – letters that would constitute the majority of the small handful of writings published while he was alive.

Lithograph from 1888 showing the Krakatoa eruption, author unknown.

During the winter of 1883 the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins descended into one of his periodic depressions, “a wretched state of weakness and weariness, I can’t tell why,” he wrote, “always drowsy and incapable of reading or thinking to any effect.” It was partly boredom: Hopkins was ungainfully employed at a Catholic boarding school in Lancashire, where much of his time was spent steering his pupils through their university entrance exams. The thought that he was wasting his time and talents weighed heavily upon him during the long, brooding walks he took through the “sweet landscape” of Ribblesdale, “thy lovely dale”, as he described it in one of the handful of poems he managed to compose that winter. He was about to turn forty and felt trapped. Such was his state of mind when the Krakatoa sunsets began. The tiny volcanic island of Krakatoa (located halfway between Java and Sumatra) had staged a spectacular eruption at the end of August 1883, jettisoning billions of tonnes of ash and debris deep into the earth’’s upper atmosphere. Nearly 40,000 people had been killed by a series of mountainous waves thrown out by the force of the explosion: the Javan port of Anjer had been almost completely destroyed, along with more than a hundred coastal towns and villages. ““All gone. Plenty lives lost”, as a telegram sent from Serang reported, and for weeks afterwards the bodies of the drowned continued to wash up along the shoreline. Meanwhile, the vast volcanic ash-cloud had spread into a semi-opaque band that threaded slowly westward around the equator, forming memorable sunsets and afterglows across the earth’’s lower latitudes. A few weeks later, the stratospheric veil moved outwards from the tropics to the poles, and by late October 1883 most of the world, including Britain, was being subjected to lurid evening displays, caused by the scattering of incoming light by the meandering volcanic haze. Throughout November and December, the skies flared through virulent shades of green, blue, copper and magenta, “more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets,” wrote Hopkins; “the glow is intense; that is what strikes everyone; it has prolonged the daylight, and optically changed the season; it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1866, detail from a photo by Thomas C. Bayfield. National Portrait Gallery

In common with most other observers at the time, Hopkins had no idea what was causing the phenomenon, but he grew fascinated by the daily atmospheric displays, tracking their changing appearances over the course of that unsettled winter. At the end of December he collated his observations into a remarkable 2,000-word document, which he sent to the leading science journal, Nature. The article, published in January 1884, was a masterpiece of reportage, a heightened prose poem that mixed rhapsodic literary experimentation with a high degree of meteorological rigour:
Above the green in turn appeared a red glow, broader and burlier in make; it was softly brindled, and in the ribs or bars the colour was rosier, in the channels where the blue of the sky shone through it was a mallow colour. Above this was a vague lilac. The red was first noticed 45º above the horizon, and spokes or beams could be seen in it, compared by one beholder to a man’s open hand. By 4.45 the red had driven out the green, and, fusing with the remains of the orange, reached the horizon. By that time the east, which had a rose tinge, became of a duller red, compared to sand; according to my observation, the ground of the sky in the east was green or else tawny, and the crimson only in the clouds. A great sheet of heavy dark cloud, with a reefed or puckered make, drew off the west in the course of the pageant: the edge of this and the smaller pellets of cloud that filed across the bright field of the sundown caught a livid green. At 5 the red in the west was fainter, at 5.20 it became notably rosier and livelier; but it was never of a pure rose. A faint dusky blush was left as late as 5.30, or later. While these changes were going on in the sky, the landscape of Ribblesdale glowed with a frowning brown. (from G. M. Hopkins, “The Remarkable Sunsets”, Nature 29 (3 January 1884), pp. 222-23)
Hopkins was a gifted empirical observer with a near-forensic interest in the search for written equivalents to the complexity of the natural world. Such interest in the language of precision was shared by many scientists at the time, science, like poetry, being an inherently descriptive enterprise. Anyone who reads the official Royal Society report on the Krakatoa sunsets (published in 1888) will find flights of poetic prose to rival those of Hopkins, who described such language as “the current language heightened and unlike itself,” a dynamic written form that was particularly suited to the expression of what he called “inscape”: the distinctive unity of all natural phenomena that gives everything in nature its characterising beauty and uniqueness. The force of being that holds these dynamic identities together he termed “instress”, instress being the essential energy that enables an observer to recognise the inscape of another being. These post-Romantic notions formed a kind of personal poetic creed, a logocentric natural theology that was rooted in the work of Duns Scotus, the medieval Christian philosopher.

Photograph taken in 1928 of the destroyed Krakatoa island resurfacing, forming what is known now as 'Anak Krakatau', or 'Child of Krakatoa'. Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).

For Hopkins, inscape and instress lay at the heart of his religious and poetic practice, as well as being vital means of apprehending the natural world. In a journal entry for 22 April 1871, for instance, he records “such a lovely damasking in the sky as today I never felt before. The blue was charged with simple instress, the higher, zenith sky earnest and frowning, lower more light and sweet.” Note that he felt the damasking as well as saw it, and note, too, his calibrated descriptions of the banded blues of the sky, the higher “earnest and frowning”, the lower “more light and sweet.” His journals are full of such poetic quantifications, which he used as notes towards a quintet of articles that he published in the journal Nature, all on meteorological subjects. The first two, published in November 1882 and November 1883, were letters describing anti-crepuscular rays (cloud-shadows that appear in the evening sky opposite the sun), while the following three were all on the subject of the Krakatoa sunsets, which had evidently furnished the melancholy Hopkins with a much-needed source of distraction. He was not alone in his interest; all over the world, writers, artists and scientists responded to the drama of the volcanic skies. The poets Algernon Swinburne, Robert Bridges and Alfred Tennyson (then poet laureate), wrote lengthy descriptive strophes prompted by the unearthly twilights, although, as the historian Richard Altick pointed out, “the only good poetry that resulted from the celestial displays is found in Hopkins’ prose” (Richard D. Altick, “Four Victorian Poets and an Exploding Island”, Victorian Studies 3 (March 1960), p. 258). This is a fair assessment, though I do have a sneaking fondness for Tennyson’s blank-verse approximation of the cadences of Victorian popular science:
Had the fierce ashes of some fiery peak
Been hurl’d so high they ranged about the globe?
For day by day, thro’ many a blood-red eve . . .
The wrathful sunset glared . . . (“St. Telemachus”, pub. 1892)
Visual artists also found themselves extending their colour ranges in awed emulation of the skies. Painter William Ascroft spent many evenings making pastel sky-sketches from the banks of the Thames at Chelsea, noting his frustration that he “could only secure in a kind of chromatic shorthand the heart of the effect, as so much of the beauty of afterglow consisted in concentration.” He exhibited more than five hundred of these highly-coloured pastels in the galleries of the Science Museum, in the repository of which they remain to this day, little known and rarely seen.

Three of the hundreds of sketches carried out by William Ascroft in the winter of 1883/4 - used as the frontispiece of The Eruption of Krakatoa, and Subsequent Phenomena: Report of the Krakatoa committee of the Royal Society (1888), ed. by G.J. Simmons.

In Oslo, by contrast, the sunsets helped inspire one of the world’s best-known paintings: Edvard Munch was walking with some friends one evening as the sun descended through the haze: “it was as if a flaming sword of blood slashed open the vault of heaven,” he recalled; “the atmosphere turned to blood – with glaring tongues of fire – the hills became deep blue – the fjord shaded into cold blue – among the yellow and red colours – that garish blood-red – on the road – and the railing – my companions’ faces became yellow-white – I felt something like a great scream – and truly I heard a great scream.” His painting The Scream (1893), of which he made several versions, is an enduring (and much stolen) expressionist masterpiece, a vision of human desolation writhing beneath an apocalyptic sky, as “a great unending scream pierces through nature.” As it happens, the final eruption of Krakatoa on 27 August 1883 was the loudest sound ever recorded, travelling almost 5,000 km, and heard over nearly a tenth of the earth’s surface: a great scream indeed. As for Hopkins, the publication of his Krakatoa essay coincided with the welcome offer of a professorship in classics at University College Dublin. He left Lancashire for Ireland in February 1884, relieved to have made his escape. It didn’t last. Homesick, lonely and overworked, Hopkins succumbed to his worst depression yet, his misery traced in the so-called “terrible” sonnets of 1885 (“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”). He died of typhoid fever in June 1889 (aged 44), and was buried in an unmarked grave. Only his close friend Robert Bridges was aware of his greatness as a poet, and the bulk of his work remained unpublished until 1918. In fact, apart from a handful of minor poems that had appeared in obscure periodicals, the five Nature articles were the only works that Hopkins published in his lifetime.


Richard Hamblyn’s books include The Invention of Clouds , which won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize; Terra: Tales of the Earth (2009), a study of natural disasters; and The Art of Science (2011), an anthology of readable science writing from the Babylonians to the Higgs Boson. He is a lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.

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Phillis Wheatley: an Eighteenth-century Genius in Bondage

- February 6, 2012 in Articles, History, Literature, phillis wheatley, Poems, Poems on Various Subjects, poetry, Religious and Moral, Vincent Carretta

Transported as a slave from West Africa to America when just a child, Phillis Wheatley published in 1773 at the age of 20 her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Vincent Carretta takes a look at the remarkable life of the first ever African-American woman to be published.

Frontispiece from Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773).

The African-American poet Phillis Wheatley has achieved iconic status in American culture. A 174-word letter from her to a fellow servant of African descent in 1776 sold at auction in 2005 for $253,000, well over double what it had been expected to fetch, and the highest price ever paid for a letter by a woman of African descent. Elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the United States bear her name. A prominent statue in Boston memorializes her. Wheatley is the subject of numerous recent stories written for children and adolescents. Googling “Phillis Wheatley” turns up about 665,000 items. The author we now know as Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 somewhere in West Africa, probably between present-day Gambia and Ghana. She was forced to endure the Middle Passage from Africa to America when she was about seven or eight years old, and brought to Boston, where she was sold as a domestic servant to John and Susanna Wheatley. They called her Phillis, after the name of the slave ship that brought her from Africa. Encouraged by her owners, Phillis Wheatley quickly became literate and began writing poetry that soon found its way into local newspapers. Notwithstanding the prejudices against her race, social status, gender, and age, Wheatley became the first published woman of African descent in 1767. She gained international recognition with her funeral elegy on the death of the evangelist George Whitefield, addressed to his English patron, the Countess of Huntingdon, and published in Boston and London in 1770. By 1772 Wheatley had written enough poems to enable her to try to capitalize on her growing transatlantic reputation by producing a book of previously published and new works. Unable to find a publisher in Boston, in part because of racial prejudice, Wheatley and her owners successfully sought a London publisher and Huntingdon’s patronage in 1773 for her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

Letter from John Wheatley to the English publisher as featured in Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)

Phillis Wheatley’s trip to London with her master’s son to arrange for the publication of her book was a turning point in her personal and professional lives. Her six-week stay in London enabled her to establish a network of associations that included many of the militarily, politically, religiously, and socially most important people in North America and Britain She arrived in England a year after a court decision declared that slave owners could not legally compel their slaves to return to the colonies. Phillis returned to Boston shortly before her book was published. Within a month of her return she wrote a friend that she had been freed “at the desire of my friends in England.” She had apparently agreed to return only after her owner was compelled to promise to free her if she did. The assertiveness that Phillis probably displayed in her dealings with Nathaniel Wheatley was anticipated more subtly in her Poems. Wheatley does not hesitate in Poems to proclaim her African heritage. Her opening poem, “To Maecenas,” thanks her unnamed patron, loosely imitating Classical models such as Virgil and Horace’s poems dedicated to Maecenas, the Roman politician and patron of the arts. Emphasizing in a footnote that the Classical Roman poet Terence “was an African by birth,” Wheatley implies that her “Maecenas” has enabled her to claim a place in the Western literary tradition, which has included Africans since its beginning. Elsewhere in her poems, Wheatley appropriates the persona of authority or power normally associated with men and her social superiors. For example, in “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” first composed when she was about fifteen years old, Wheatley speaks as a teacher to students, or a minister to his flock, in addressing the young men of what was to become Harvard University, many of whom were being trained there to become ministers themselves. Several of Wheatley’s poems demonstrate a nuanced treatment of slavery unrecognized by some of her critics. For example, written in October 1772 to celebrate Dartmouth’s appointment the previous August, “To the Right Honourable WILLIAM, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America, &c.” is one of the most carefully crafted poems in the 1773 volume. In it Wheatley re-appropriates the concept of slavery from its common metaphorical use in the colonial rhetoric of discontent, which described any perceived limitation on colonial rights and liberty as an attempt by England to “enslave” (white) Americans. Wheatley appears to use slavery in this conventional sense in the poem:
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shall thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’enslave the land.
But Wheatley’s reference to her authority to speak against this conventionally metaphorical slavery reminds her readers of the reality of chattel slavery trivialized by the political metaphor:
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat
. . . .
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
Having gone to England as an enslaved African Briton, Wheatley returned to the colonies prepared to embrace the free African-American identity that the American Revolution soon made available to her. Her anti-slavery stance became more overt once she was free than in her poems published while she had been enslaved. She denounces slave owners as “Modern Egyptians” in a letter to the Indian Presbyterian minister Samson Occom that was widely reprinted in newspapers in March 1774 throughout New England, as well as in Canada. Wheatley increasingly came to believe that the colonial struggle for freedom from Britain would lead to the end of slavery in the former colonies. In her poem “To His Excellency General Washington” Wheatley pledged her allegiance in 1776 to the revolutionary cause, hoping that even the most eminent slave owner in North America would ultimately apply the revolutionary ideology of equality and liberty to people of African as well as European descent. In the poem “On the Death of General Wooster,” included in a letter to Wooster’s widow, Mary, on July 15, 1778, Wheatley exclaims, “But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find/Divine acceptance with th’Almighty mind—/While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace/And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race?”

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley which appeared in Revue des Colonies in Paris between 1834 and 1842 (Source: Schomburg Center)

The hopes that Phillis Wheatley brought home with her from England were soon frustrated. She did not live to see the enfranchisement of her fellow people of African descent. Nor was she able to publish a second volume. Susanna Wheatley died within months of Phillis’s return from London. Phillis married John Peters, a free black, on Thanksgiving Day, 1778, eight months after John Wheatley died. Although the marriage of Phillis and John Peters was initially prosperous, they soon fell victim to the general economic depression that followed the war. Peters, who at various times in his life advertised himself as a lawyer, physician, and gentleman was repeatedly jailed for debt. He was probably in prison when Phillis died on 5 December 1784, when she was about thirty-one years old. The cause of her death is unknown, but it may have been related to the “Asthmatic complaint” she suffered from in previous winters. The first American edition of her Poems was not published until 1786, in Philadelphia. Wheatley was the first person of African descent to publish a book, and consequently the first international celebrity of African descent. She also founded the literary tradition of English-speaking authors of African descent. Although Wheatley never met her contemporaries Jupiter Hammon, an enslaved African-American poet, Philip Quaque, an African-born Christian missionary to Africa, or Ignatius Sancho, a renowned contemporaneous African-British author, they all knew of her and her writings. Sancho called her a “Genius in Bondage.” Eighteenth-century opponents of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as nineteenth-century ante-bellum American abolitionists, cited Wheatley’s poetry as proof of the humanity, equality, and literary talents of people of African descent. But she and her work have not always been so highly valued. Arguments about the significance of Wheatley and her writings, from her own lifetime on, reflect the evolving re-assessment of African-American and African-British culture. Some commentators, black as well as white, questioned the literary quality of her writings, or the political and social significance of her life, in support of their own ideological positions on whether and how people of African descent should produce literature. The most notorious was Thomas Jefferson, who denied that she was a poet. During the period from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s, a number of critics expressed neo-Jeffersonian denunciations of Wheatley’s literary abilities, as well as of her racial loyalty. Phillis Wheatley’s place in the developing tradition of early transatlantic literature by people of African descent, and her role as the mother of African-American literature are now finally secure. The many ways in which she subtly and indirectly confronted the issues of racism, sexism, and slavery have been increasingly appreciated. The prophecy offered by the pseudonymous “Matilda” in “On Reading the Poems of Phillis Wheatley, the African Poetess” (New York Magazine, October 1796) has been realized:
A PHILLIS rises, and the world no more Denies the sacred right to mental pow’r;
While, Heav’n-inspir’d, she proves her Country’s claim
To Freedom, and her own to deathless Fame.


Vincent Carretta is a professor of English at the University of Maryland. He is the author of Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia Press, 2011), and the editor of Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings (Penguin Classics) (Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001).

Links to Works


  • Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley (1773)
  • Chapter on Captain John Wheatley in Genealogy of the Wheatley or Wheatleigh family. A history of the family in England and America (1902)

An Unlikely Lunch: When Maupassant met Swinburne

- January 24, 2012 in Articles, dieppe, etretat, julian barnes, Literature, maupassant, monkey, normandy, Poems, powell, Short stories, swinburne

Julian Barnes on when a young Guy de Maupassant was invited to lunch at the holiday cottage of Algernon Swinburne. A flayed human hand, pornography, the serving of monkey meat, and inordinate amounts of alcohol, all made for a truly strange Anglo-French encounter.

… and to accompany the article a new translation by Elliot Lewis of Maupassant’s “L’Anglais d’Etretat”.

Portrait of Swinburne by William Scott Bell, painted in 1860 when Swinburne was just 23 years old, 6 years before he'd publish his first book of poems.

In the first half of the 19th century, the British began to discover Normandy. Previously, the point of entry into France for most travellers had been Calais, which felt safely half-English, and where even the beggars importuned new arrivals in their own language. Those prepared to make the longer crossing to Dieppe were rewarded with a greater sense of strangeness: typified by the women in red-and-blue regional costume, clacking sabots and high white coifs that made them look like a cross between chefs and nuns. Hazlitt, passing through in 1824, noted that such headdresses were “much the same as those which the Spectator laughed out of countenance a hundred years ago in England”; and he concluded more generally that “In France one lives in the imagination of the past”. For the tourist, this meant antiquities and picturesque ruins within easy reach. The coastline was a further attraction: for those addicted to the new health-kick of sea-bathing, to the gentler pleasures of gambling (the casino at Dieppe opened in 1822), or to painting and sketching. Gradually, the journey from London became quicker – a combination of the London to Brighton railway and the new steam-packets brought the time down to a mere 11 hours by the 1840s. For centuries Dieppe’s main relationship with Britain had consisted of suffering occasional bombardment from the Royal Navy; now there were not just summer tourists, but year-round residents. There was even a quartier des Anglais (on the hill between the Paris road and the chateau), served by an Anglican chaplain and a British consul. And since the French more or less simultaneously decided to make Dieppe a sophisticated destination, the town flourished. British artists had started coming here as soon as the Napoleonic wars were over. John Sell Cotman delighted in the luminous quality of the Dieppe light (it is an unpatriotic truth that looking north from Dieppe is more visually complex than looking south from Brighton); Turner came several times in the 1820s; Richard Parkes Bonington in the 1830s. We tend to associate the Normandy coastline – Etretat, Pourville, Varengeville, Fécamp – with Monet and the impressionists; but (as with Cézanne and Mont Sainte-Victoire) previous generations of painters had preceded them. Boudin, who later taught Monet the principles, and the necessity, of pleinairisme, painted in Dieppe, as did Corot and Daubigny; while Delacroix came here in 1850 and 1852. His diary contains an unflattering depiction of the English colony, whose invitation he had accepted out of boredom. He went to the salon of a certain Mrs Sheppard, and the next day rebuked himself: “What a fool you are, getting a sore throat from talking to idiots, arguing with petticoated silliness for a whole evening, with everyone going on about God, and ‘the justice of the world’ and ‘good and evil’, and ‘progress’!” Now that the Channel tunnel has restored most traffic to the more northerly crossing, and the ferry service from Newhaven runs at unfriendly hours, Dieppe has sunk back into being largely French again. Serious war damage makes it harder to recreate in the mind the century – from 1815 to 1914 – during which the town became so fashionable. By the 1850s it had “the smartest and most popular plage in France”; the casino was rebuilt at regular intervals, each time more extravagantly; the British laid out what was only the fourth golf course in France, while the Paris crowd came down for steeplechasing at the new racetrack. The Prince of Wales kept a mistress and perhaps an illegitimate child in Dieppe; Lord Salisbury, while prime minister, built himself a chalet outside the town and maintained that, thanks to the telegraph station at Beachy Head, he was in better contact with London than if he had been on a Scottish grouse moor.

Autochrom photograph of holiday makers relaxing on the beach at Dieppe, ca. 1895

Simona Pakenham, who chronicled Dieppe’s Anglo-French entente in 60 Miles from England (1967), commented tartly that “The English colony was generally indifferent to any form of culture”. But the French needed the arts as the British needed sports. So Liszt played at the Bains Chauds; Meyebeer came; Rossini composed an operetta for the theatre. By the end of the 19th century, the casino summer band was recognised as the best in the country, since it was filled by Parisian orchestral players on holiday. In 1907, one of its violists was promoted to conductor, and surprised everyone by directing all Beethoven’s symphonies from memory: this was Pierre Monteux, who six years later conducted the premiere of The Rite of Spring. Not all the British visitors were philistines. The town was Sickert’s second home for several decades; and the British feature strongly in the impressive (and highly cosmopolitan) list of belle époque visitors to the town. These include Monet, Pissarro, Whistler, Degas, Renoir, Beardsley, Conder, Fritz Thurlaw (the Norwegian painter), Henry Harland (the editor of The Yellow Book), William Rothenstein, Proust, Saint-Saens, Fauré, Debussy, Maeterlinck, Puvis de Chavannes, Percy Grainger, Adelina Patti, George and Gerald du Maurier, Ernest Dowson, George Moore, Max Beerbohm, Annie Besant, Marie Tempest, John Barrymore and Gladys Cooper. The night boat of May 20 1897 brought Oscar Wilde, freshly sprung from Reading jail and carrying the manuscript of De Profundis. It is a small but interesting footnote to the history of the Dieppe ferry terminal that the two most noteworthy events there both involved pseudonyms. In 1848 Louis-Philippe, the last king of France, heading for exile in England, was hustled aboard a packet of the General Steam and Navigational Company bearing a passport in the suspiciously ordinary name of William Smith. Half a century later, Wilde came ashore, cloaked in the look-at-me alias of Sebastian Melmoth. The British brought trade, money and work to Dieppe; they laid the railway, and built the town’s station with English bricks. Neither race was or is as hospitable as they like to imagine themselves, but a working cordiality existed between the French and the British. The portrait painter and socialite Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942) operated for many years as a one-man diplomatic service, summering in Dieppe and wintering in London: his studio, just beneath the walls of the castle, was used by Degas, Whistler, Sargent, Boldini, Sickert, Conder, Beardsley and Helleu. “My dear friend,” Henry James said to Blanche, “Your Dieppe is a reduced Florence, every type of character for a novelist seems to gather there” – not that the Great Dieppe Novel was ever written. Such Anglo-French conviviality was helped by a willingness to speak one another’s language. Sickert was regarded as “un vrai Dieppois”, even managing the local fisherfolk’s patois; Wilde and Dowson both spoke and wrote excellent French. So did an English poet whose passing residence along the coast in 1868 led to one of the stranger Anglo-French literary encounters, one that echoed on for decades, in France at least. It also encapsulated the way the French preferred to see the British – and perhaps still do.

Agitated Sea at Etretat, by Claude Monet from 1883, depicting the famous rocky archway through which Swinburne was swept out to sea in 1868.

Etretat, some 50 miles west of Dieppe, has become a high point of pilgrimage for the artistic faithful, who gather above its white cliffs – especially the one that curves down into a great chalk flying-buttress – to compare eroded reality with visual memories of Monet’s pictures. By 1868 the impressionists had not yet arrived: Etretat was a fishing town that also attracted a certain number of tourists and summer residents. Among their number that year were the 18-year-old Guy de Maupassant and his mother (the family chateau of Miromesnil, where Guy had been born, was a few miles outside Dieppe). The water and its attendant pursuits – swimming, boating, rowing – were to become a thematic constant in Maupassant’s life and work; so it’s appropriate that the water was what provoked the encounter between this muscular, boastfully heterosexual French prose writer and a petite homosexual English poet: Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne, then aged 31, was staying outside the town in a low thatched cottage belonging to his friend George Powell. The people of Etretat had Frenchly decided that Powell was a milord – even if one modestly concealing his real identity under his mother’s maiden name. (In fact, Powell was his real name, and he was uncoroneted. He was brought up on the family estate at Nanteos, near Aberystwyth, went to Eton and Oxford, and died at 40.) Maupassant later wrote that Powell’s “solitary and bizarre” way of life had astonished the local bourgeois and mariners who were “little used to British fantasies and eccentricities”; he himself was to be afforded a closer look at what such Britishness consisted of. One September morning, Swinburne went swimming from the beach at Etretat and got into difficulties. According to Powell, treacherous undercurrents had carried the poet out to sea “through a rocky archway” (that very cliff formation Monet later celebrated). Ten minutes later Powell heard shouts from the clifftop that a man was drowning. He ran to the water’s edge, and after a few minutes received the news that Swinburne had been safely picked up by a fishing smack heading for nearby Yport. The poet, writing to his mother (and doubtless downplaying the event), described “a real sea adventure” in which he had been swept two miles out: “Luckily I was all right but very tired, and the result was that I made immense friends with all the fishermen and sailors about – who are quite the nicest people I ever knew.” Maupassant, who was somewhere near the scene, claimed that the poet had been “dead drunk” (despite it being ten o’clock in the morning); also, that he himself had gone out in one of the rescue boats; alternatively, that he had at the very least waded into the water and got soaked to the waist.

Photograph of Maupassant taken by the famous portrait photographer Felix Nadar, ca. 1888, 20 years after his encounter with Swinburne at the Chaumière de Dolmancé.

Whatever the specifics of the near-drowning and the rescue, Maupassant received an invitation to lunch the next day from the grateful Powell. According to Swinburne (again writing to his mother), the place where they lived was an idyllic retreat: “Powell has got the sweetest little farmhouse fitted up with music, books, drawings, etc … and of course he pokes me into the nicest room … There is a wild little garden all uphill, and avenues of trees about. The sea is splendid, and the cliffs very like the Isle of Wight – two arches of rock each side of the bay, and one needle only, exactly like half the Freshwater pair.” Maupassant described his visit to the cottage on three separate occasions: orally to Flaubert, Alphonse Daudet and Edmond de Goncourt in February 1875, an account that Goncourt transcribed into his Journal; in a newspaper article of November 1882 for Le Gaulois (“L’Anglais d’Etretat”)1; and in his introduction to the French translation of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads in 1891. Though the versions overlap and at times contradict one another, the main story line would have been enough to send the honest burghers of the Isle of Wight scaring up the libel lawyers. Maupassant noted “an inscription over the door which I didn’t read on that first occasion” – though if he had, he would have known more what to expect. There were pictures everywhere, some “splendid”, others more like “the imaginings of a lunatic”. Powell was short and fat, Swinburne short and thin, “with a pointed face, a hydrocephalous forehead, pigeon-chested, agitated by a trembling which affected his glass with St Vitus’ dance, and talking incessantly like a madman.” Here and there were laid out displays of bones; while a flayed human hand, supposedly that of a parricide, was the bohemian equivalent of a talking point. A large pet monkey was noisily present, being “titillated” by Powell, and trying to shove Maupassant’s head into his glass whenever he took a drink. Lunch included what the Frenchman assumed to be some kind of fish; though when he asked its name, his host “replied with a peculiar smile that it was meat, and I could not get any more out of him.” The fact that spirits rather than wine were served with lunch also struck the young Frenchman as peculiar – though perhaps was not all that surprising. Many of the British who were attracted to France at this time (not just artists and writers, but bankrupts, runaway fraudsters and bogus priests, mixed up with respectable folk seeking to make a pension stretch further than it did in England) were struck by the cheapness of French spirits – which also, of course, made them drunker quicker. After lunch the two Englishmen brought out some gigantic portfolios and showed young Guy – perhaps in a misguided attempt to groom him – pornographic photographs taken in Germany, all of male subjects. “I remember one of an English soldier masturbating on a pane of glass.” Powell was by this time very drunk, and kept sucking the fingers of the flayed hand (which was apparently used as a paperweight). A young servant came in, and the portfolio was swiftly closed. In these exotic and ghoulish surroundings, the conversation proceeded at the highest cultural level. Swinburne, who had published his first series of Poems and Ballads two years previously, and was already notorious in his own country, displayed “an immense fund of learning”. He translated some of his poems into French for Maupassant’s benefit, and enthused about Victor Hugo (whose entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica he was subsequently to write). Powell for his part had been to Iceland and brought back a store of old songs and legends which he had translated. The two men struck Maupassant as “singularly original, remarkable and bizarre”, a pair of hallucinatory visionaries in the tradition of Poe and ETA Hoffmann. “If genius,” he concluded, “is, as people say, a kind of delirium of the higher intelligence, then Algernon Charles Swinburne is assuredly a genius.”

Caricature of Swinburne by "Ape" Carlo Pellegrini, featured in Vanity Fair, November 1874.

Maupassant accepted a second invitation to lunch a few days later. This passed more peacefully, since the intrusive monkey was now dead, hanged from a tree by the young servant. Powell had ordered a huge block of granite for its tomb. At the end of the meal the two visionaries gave the Frenchman some liquor which nearly knocked him out; taking fright, he fled back to his hotel. Even so, he made one last visit, in the course of which he drew attention to the inscription above their door. It read: Chaumière de Dolmancé (Dolmancé’s Cottage). Maupassant asked the Englishmen if they knew who Dolmancé was (the hero and homosexual corrupter of Sade’s La Philosophie dans le Boudoir). They said that indeed they did. “Then that is the sign of the house?” Maupassant asked. “If you like,” they replied, “with terrifying expressions on their faces.” The Frenchman again fled, avoiding Swinburne and Powell thereafter. The account in the Goncourt Journal, as translated and edited by Robert Baldick (OUP, 1962), breaks off at this point. Perhaps for reasons of space, but more likely for reasons of taste in that only just post-Chatterley era, the rest of the French text was excised. In it, Maupassant continued:
Yes, they lived there together, satisfying themselves with monkeys or with young servant lads of fourteen or fifteen, sent out to Powell from England every three months or so: little servant boys of exquisite cleanness and freshness. The monkey that slept in Powell’s bed and shat in it every night was hanged by the servant boy, partly out of jealousy but also out of annoyance at having to change the sheets all the time. The house was full of strange noises and the shadows of sadism; one night, Powell was seen and heard firing a revolver in the garden at a black man. Those two were real Sadeian heroes, who wouldn’t have held back even from crime. Then this house, so full of living mystery, was suddenly silent, suddenly empty. Powell just disappeared, and no one knew how he had got away. No carriage was ever called for him, and no one had met him on the roads.
This is a rather novelistic ending, perhaps unsurprising given that Maupassant had had seven years to work up the story, and that it was being both told, and written down, by a fiction writer. At other times he ended the story differently. The 1882 account concludes with Maupassant going back to the Sadeian cottage a couple of years later, discovering that its contents were being sold off, and buying, as a souvenir of the two Englishmen, the parricide’s flayed hand. The block of granite had by now been raised into the monkey’s sepulchre, and the incident with the revolver is given fuller explanation. It was the young servant who was black, and it was he who was being shot at by an enraged Powell for having hanged the monkey. “Afterwards, the lad wandered around for days without food or a roof over his head, and then reappeared and began to sell barley-sugar in the streets of Etretat. He was finally expelled from the district after having very nearly strangled a customer who complained about his goods.” Maupassant’s later versions also elaborate on the suspicious protein the Englishmen served. In his 1882 account, he strongly suspects that it might have been monkey, not least because it was said to be common knowledge in Etretat that “this Englishman [Powell] ate only monkey – boiled, roasted, sautéed, or in a confit”. By the time of the 1891 account, Maupassant claims he had knowingly eaten spit-roasted monkey – indeed, the joint had been ordered in his honour from a purveyor of exotic meats in Le Havre. However, “The mere smell of the dish as I entered the house made me feel queasy, and the dreadful taste of the animal permanently removed all subsequent desire ever again to repeat such a meal.” This gastronomic queasiness did not imply any broader moral or social revulsion; quite the contrary. Maupassant, doubtless hoping to provoke readers of Le Gaulois, concluded his 1882 account thus: “The world would be a lot jollier if one came across ménages like that one a little more often.” He certainly played up the theme of the innocent young Frenchman (even if one already alive to Sadeian reference) falling into a nest of genial English perverts intent on displaying national characteristics. Goncourt deliberately drew on Maupassant’s description of Swinburne and Powell when writing his novel La Faustin (1882), in which an 18th-century English sadist called George Selwyn not only displays many of Swinburne’s mannerisms, but also happens to retire to a cottage on the coast called Chaumière de Dolmancé. However, all of Maupassant’s versions, despite their dwelling on perversity, are underpinned by deep admiration for the duo: for their literary and artistic passion, their rejection of bourgeois living, their recklessness and bravado.

Painting of Swinburne by Gabriel Dante Rossetti, 1862.

The French have traditionally regarded biography as a rather low form, being either mere gossip, or at best a reductive process, one that tethers the work to the life, rather than recognising the extent to which the work flies free of it. The Anglo-Saxon tradition is more tethering and more moralising; the biographer’s overt or tacit intention too often being, as John Updike has put it, to “reduce celebrities to a set of antics and ailments to which we can feel superior”. Whereas it never occurred to Maupassant to feel superior, or think that Swinburne’s extravagant life in any way invalidated, diminished or necessarily coloured his work. This is partly a matter of Flaubertian aesthetics; partly the consequence of how the French saw, and to some extent still see, the British. They think of us as polite, unspontaneous beings trained to such control and self-control that sometimes the lid has to blow off, both in art and life. Hence our personal eccentricities and a line of artistic non-conformity. Contemporary British writers are still being fitted into this historic schema. I remember once trying to keep a straight face when a French journalist, seeking to place me in my proper English context, proposed that my key literary ancestors were Laurence Sterne, Lewis Carroll and Monty Python. Of course I enthusiastically agreed. Maupassant never doubted that Swinburne was a genius. “He is a poet of exalted and frenzied lyricism, who is not in the least interested in the humble, decent reality which contemporary French artists obstinately and patiently seek; rather he strives to depict dreams and subtle thoughts which are sometimes ingenious and grand, sometimes inflated, but even so magnificent.” And it was the same when other British writers and artists of the time came up for French description and judgment. The French expected them to behave in peculiar ways, but declined to allow amusement or shock at their habits to affect aesthetic judgment. Jacques-Emile Blanche wrote of Sickert living in Dieppe for “thirty years, married, divorced, remarried, widower, or about to remarry”, moving between smart society and the obscure lodgings he shared with a red-haired fishmongress, and doing crazy things such as cutting off his hair to surprise a small girl; and in all those 30 years nobody ever saw him paint. None of this stopped the French accepting him as a true Dieppois and a true artist: “He was to be the painter of Dieppe. No other artist so perfectly felt and expressed the character of the town, whose Canaletto he has become.” Degas’s judgment on Wilde, after the 28-year-old Oscar had visited the painter’s Paris studio, was: “He behaves as if he’s playing Lord Byron in some suburban theatre.” Goncourt called Wilde un puffiste (a braggart, a blagger), and thought even his homosexuality wasn’t particular to himself, but imitative, if not plagiaristic: he had copied it from Verlaine, and also from Swinburne. The diarist Jules Renard wrote cuttingly, “He has at least the originality of being an Englishman” – the French never quite got hold of Wilde’s Irish connection. But while they saw him as a false human being, they judged him a true poet. The British who disembarked at Dieppe the century before last were often surprised by the cheerful affability of the people they encountered. When Hazlitt was staying in Dieppe, “A man and woman came and sang ‘God Save the King’ before the windows of the Hotel, as if the French had so much loyalty at present that they can spare us some of it.” (Hazlitt correctly noted that a reciprocal gesture beneath the windows of a Brighton or Dover hotel would be highly improbable.) A year after the incident at Etretat, Swinburne returned to stay with Powell at the Chaumière de Dolmancé once again. In the town, he was “rather astounded at finding myself rushed at, seized by the arms and legs, hoisted and cheered, and carried all down the street with shouts of welcome, by the fisher folk and sailors who knew me again at once”. Powell said to him, “Why, don’t you know you’re their hero?” – a status Swinburne thought unmerited by the mere act of not quite drowning. The poet memorialised his time on the Normandy coast in two ways. For the rest of his life he kept the “outsize garments” (outsize because he was so tiny) in which the rescuing fishermen had dressed him. And in his 1883 collection, A Century of Roundels, he published a poem called “Past Days”:
Above the sea and sea-washed town we dwelt,
We twain together, two brief summers, free
From heed of hours as light as clouds that melt
Above the sea.
The poem is partly a lament – for the dead Powell, and for passing time; also an idyll recreating “the days we had together” among “The Norman downs with bright grey waves for belt” and the “bright small seaward towns”. It is singularly lacking in references to monkey meat or Sadeian practices. Despite Swinburne’s considerable reputation in France, it seems that he and Maupassant never again met. What Maupassant, or his heirs, did with the flayed human hand is not recorded.


1. [Maupassant's 1882 short story "L’Anglais d’Etretat" has been translated into English by Elliot Lewis especially for The Public Domain Review, and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license]

Julian Barnes is the author of three books of stories, books of essays, a translation of Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain, and numerous novels, including Metroland published in 1980. His recent publications include Pulse, a collection of short stories, and The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize. In France, he is the only writer to have won both the Prix Médicis and the Prix Fémina, and in 2004 he became a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In England his honors include the Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. He has also received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the San Clemente literary prize. In 2011 he was awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature. Awarded biennially, the prize honours a lifetime’s achievement in literature for a writer in the English language who is a citizen of the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland.

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Robert Southey’s Dreams Revisited

- December 5, 2011 in Articles, dream diary, dream journal, dreams, Literature, Poems, poetry, robert southey, w a speck

As well as being poet laureate for 30 years and a prolific writer of letters, Robert Southey was an avid recorder of his dreams. W.A. Speck, author of Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters, explores the poet’s dream diary and the importance of dreams in his work.

Detail of a portrait of Southey painted by John James Masquerier in 1800.

Robert Southey (1774 – 1843), the poet laureate, biographer, historian and, in Byron’s words, ‘entire man of letters’ used a note book to record many of his dreams. A celebrated line in his verse was ‘my days among the dead are past’, referring to the works by authors who had died, many of them centuries ago, which lined the walls of Greta Hall, Southey’s home in Keswick. An analysis of his dreams demonstrates that his nights were passed among them too, since a disproportionate number of those which he recorded dealt with the dead. Deceased relatives and friends frequently visited him in them. He also encountered dead authors, as in the dream he had on 7 January 1805. ‘I was supping at Garrick’s house, and seated at his left hand, at the top of the table; my memory had made up his face accurately; he got upon the table, and spoke an epilogue of his own writing in the character of a cook –maid, and promised, at Mrs Garrick’s desire, to recite a serious poem afterwards, that I might hear him’. In another dream he was ‘at Swift’s house in Dublin, where he was living with two sisters’. And in another he met Matthew Lewis, the author of a sensational Gothic novel, The Monk. ‘Monk Lewis’ had been a contemporary of Southey’s at Westminster school, though he confessed that he never ‘had any affection for the man.’ This, however, did not prevent him contributing to a volume edited by Lewis, Tales of Wonder. Southey’s contribution consisted of six poems, all of which contained Gothic elements, including dreams. Thus ‘Bishop Bruno’ wakes from a recurrent dream that he had rung his own death knell, only to discover that it was prophetic. ‘Lord William’ drowns young Edmund, his deceased elder brother’s son, to claim the house of Erlingford, only to find that
In vain at midnight’s silent hour
Sleep closed the murderer’s eyes
In every dream the murderer saw
Young Edmund’s form arise.
‘The Pious Painter’ was renowned for his realistic portrayals of the Devil
What the Painter so earnestly thought on by day
He sometimes would dream of by night.
Southey himself strongly believed that waking thoughts led on to dreams. It led him to organise his days so that he did not work on one topic all day but switched from one to another, from composing poems to reviewing books to writing letters. This routine was not only economical in its use of time but was ‘also essential to the preservation of my health; for, by long experience, I know that whenever my attention is devoted to one object my sleep is disturbed by perplexing dreams concerning it. The remedy is easy; I do one thing in the morning, another in the evening – I never dream of either’. This routine was not foolproof, however, for his dream book records that what had occupied his mind during the day often inspired dreams that same night. The entry for 4 December 1821, for instance, describes a dream in which ‘Palmerin of England gave me Arcalaus, the enchanter, in the shape of an egg, the enchanter having taken that form, and bade me deliver it to Urganda. Urganda took the egg, and said her husband should eat it for his supper’. Southey then added to his account that his daughter ‘Isabel had been reading Amadis and Palmerin, and talking to me a great deal about both; hence this jumbled dream.’

Detail from The Knight's Dream (1655) by Antonio de Pereda (1611–1678)

Southey did not record all his dreams in the book by any means, he selected only those which he considered to be significant. As we have seen his poetry also alluded to dreamers and dreaming. The best source, however, for his reflections on his dreams is his 7000 or so extant letters. Unfortunately few of these have been published in reliable scholarly editions, most being scattered throughout repositories in Britain and North America. However, under the general editorship of Lynda Pratt, Tim Fulford and Ian Packer these are now being published electronically as The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. When the edition is complete it will be possible to trawl through it, for being on line the letters can be searched, for example for dreams. A search for ‘dream’, ‘dreamer’ and ‘dreaming’ brought up several passages in Southey’s correspondence in which dreams are mentioned. Some show the same morbid interest in death and ghosts that his dream book documents. Thus on 20 October 1793 he wrote to Horace Walpole Bedford:
I’ll betake me to bed & look sharp for a dream.

      God of dreams hear my prayer
      To my pillow repair
Indulge my petition tonight
      Around my wild brain
      Send thy fanciful train
And give me a dream I may write
And later:
… bid thy sprightly phantoms rare
Round my sleeping head repair.
Let me see in church yard gloom
The ghost slow rising from the tomb
Slow & stern his pale hand wave
And bid me follow to the grave.
Three weeks later, in mid November, he wrote to Horace’s brother, his old school friend Grosvenor Charles Bedford: ‘I am going to bed … to dream of you & heaven & happiness unless the demon of dismal dreams pops up under my pillow & harrows up my heart with some of his chimeras – oh if life were all one agreeable dream – or rather if death were – would there be a crime in taking laudanum as an opiate? Good night.’

W. A. Speck is author of Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters (Yale University Press, 2006) and ‘His nights amont the dead were passed: Robert Southey’s dreams’ in Robert Southey and the Contexts of English Romanticism edited by Lynda Pratt (Ashgate, 2006).

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See also Robert Southey on Wikisource

Lewis Carroll and The Hunting of the Snark

- February 22, 2011 in boojoum, Books, henry holiday, hunting of the snark, lewis carroll, Literature, Pictures, Poems, poetry, Public Domain

In 1876 Lewis Carroll published by far his longest poem – a fantastical epic tale recounting the adventures of a bizarre troupe of nine tradesmen and a beaver. Carrollian scholar, Edward Wakeling, introduces The Hunting of the Snark. Although best known as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Lewis Carroll – the pen-name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematical lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford – was also an avid reader and writer of poetry. He greatly enjoyed the poems of Victorian writers such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Christina Rossetti. His own poems were varied – some just humorous nonsense, some filled with hidden meanings, and some serious poems about love and life. Probably his best known is called “Jabberwocky,” with its opening line of “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…”, and its many invented words, some that have now entered the English language, such as “chortle” and “galumph”. Such nonsense verse is as popular now as it was when first published. His more serious poetry, it must be admitted, is generally inferior to his humorous verse and often over sentimental. Between 1860 and 1863 he contributed a dozen or more poems to College Rhymes, a pamphlet issued each term to members of Oxford and Cambridge universities, and which, for a time, he edited. In 1869, he compiled a book of poems, many of which he had already published elsewhere but now issued in revised form, together with one main new poem, which gives its title to the book, Phantasmagoria. One particular poem stands out from all the others that Carroll wrote. It has inspired parodies, continuations, musical adaptations, and a wide variety of interpretations. It is an epic nonsense poem written at a time when Carroll was struggling with his religious beliefs following the serious illness of his cousin and godson, Charlie Wilcox, who eventually died from tuberculosis. Although the poem concerns death and danger, it is filled with humour and whimsical ideas. Strangely, it was written backwards. After a night nursing his cousin, Carroll went for a long walk over the hills near Guildford, and a solitary line of verse came into his head – “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see!” The rest of the stanza, the last in the poem, came to him a few days later. Over a period of six months, the rest of poem was composed, ending up as 141 stanzas in 8 sections that Carroll called “fits.” The poem concerns a quest by a crew sailing to catch a mysterious creature called a Snark. Each member of the crew has an occupation beginning with the letter “B” – Bellman (the Captain), Baker, Banker, Barrister, Billiard-Marker, Boots, Bonnet-Maker, Broker, and Butcher, accompanied by a Beaver. Their maritime map is an absolute blank. They reach an island, and the hunt for a Snark begins. But the quest is fraught with danger because although Snarks are not in themselves harmful, those that are Boojums are ferocious and will kill. The question that naturally arises is “does the poem have a meaning?” Carroll denied that he meant anything in particular – the poem was all nonsense – but that did not stop people asking him, and it inspired others to give it their own meaning. To some extent, the poem is about the relationships that emerge among the crew, and the interaction between this motley bunch of characters. All behave in odd ways, some have close-shaves, and one completely vanishes – caught by a Boojum. The poem was entitled The Hunting of the Snark with the subtitle, An Agony in Eight Fits. Carroll originally intended it as a set of verses to be included in another of his children’s stories, but it grew too long and became a book in its own right. He published it on 1 April 1876 – the date chosen with care. However, many of his presentation copies to friends are dated 29 March. Although issued in a pictorial buff coloured cloth, he had copies bound in red, blue, green, and white cloth, all with gold decoration, to give away to his friends and family. The book was dedicated to one of his friends, Gertrude Chataway, and a dedicatory acrostic poem that introduces the book embodies her name as the first word of each stanza, Gert, Rude, Chat, Away, and also the first letter of each line. Accompanying the poem were illustrations by Henry Holiday (1839-1927), artist, sculptor, stained-glass designer, and book illustrator. He drew nine illustrations for the book; a tenth illustration depicting a Snark was rejected by Carroll – he wanted the creature to remain unimaginable.

The poem owes a debt to “Jabberwocky” – some of the invented words from these verses reappear in The Hunting of the Snark and Carroll explains their derivation in his Preface, such as frumious being a portmanteau word based on “fuming” and “furious.” Some of the creatures also make a second appearance – the vicious Jubjub bird and the terrifying Bandersnatch. The poem was very popular – it was reprinted many times. In Carroll’s lifetime, over 20,000 copies were sold. The poem was incorporated into Carroll’s compendium of humorous poetry entitled Rhyme? and Reason? (1883). Since then it has been illustrated by a variety of artists and translated into many languages, and the book rarely goes out of print. People are known to memorise and recite the poem. Some people form Snark Clubs. There is a timeless nature about the verses that make it as relevant today as it did in 1876. .
Edward Wakeling is a long-standing member of the Lewis Carroll Society. He has written widely on Carroll over the last three decades, and among his publications is the first unabridged edition of Lewis Carroll’s Diaries in 10 volumes. He has written on Carroll’s photography, letters, mathematics, puzzles and games, and logic. As a recognised Carrollian scholar and collector, he is frequently called upon to contribute to conferences, exhibitions, and television programmes around the world. His website is www.lewiscarroll-site.com

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Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno

- January 31, 2011 in cat jeoffry, christopher smart, frank key, jubilate agno, Literature, poem, Poems, Public Domain, resonance fm

The poet Christopher Smart – also known as “Kit Smart”, “Kitty Smart”, “Jack Smart” and, on occasion, “Mrs Mary Midnight” – was a well known figure in 18th century London. Nowadays he is perhaps best known for considering his cat Jeoffry. Writer and broadcaster Frank Key looks at Smart’s weird and wonderful Jubilate Agno. “My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place…” Concerning this unfortunate poet, Christopher Smart, who was confined in a madhouse, [Dr Johnson] had, at another time, the following conversation with Dr Burney… “I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.” James Boswell, The Life Of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Dr Johnson thought his friend should not be confined, but ‘society’ thought otherwise, and Christopher Smart (1722-1771) was incarcerated in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in Bethnal Green, London and then in Mr Potter’s private madhouse between 1757 and 1763. He died, eight years later, in debtor’s prison. These private miseries overshadowed the reputation he had gained as a poet and contributor to periodicals. He was a prolific writer, in both Latin and English, and five times won the Seatonian Prize, awarded to a Cambridge graduate for the best poem on “the perfections or attributes of the supreme being.” A Song To David, the major work published in his lifetime, was not well-received, however, and until Robert Browning championed it a century later, Smart was more or less forgotten. It was not until 1939 that his masterpiece, written during his confinement in St Luke’s, was first published. Jubilate Agno is one of the most extraordinary poems in the English language, and almost certainly the reason we remember Christopher Smart today. It has been described as a vast hymn of praise to God and all His works, and also as the ravings of a madman. Indeed, that first edition was published under the title Rejoice In The Lamb : A Song From Bedlam, clearly marking it as a curio from the history of mental illness. It was W H Bond’s revised edition of 1954 which gave order to Smart’s surviving manuscript, restoring the Latin title Jubilate Agno, bringing us the poem in the form we know it today. Christopher Smart never completed the work, which consists of four fragments making a total of over 1,200 lines, each beginning with the words “Let” or “For”. For example, Fragment A is all “Let”s, whereas in Fragment B the “Let”s and “For”s are paired, which may have been the intention for the entire work, modelled on antiphonal Hebrew poetry. References and allusions abound to Biblical (especially Old Testament) figures, plants and animals, gems, contemporary politics and science, the poet’s family and friends, even obituary lists in current periodicals. The language is full of puns, archaisms, coinages, and unfamiliar usages. Dr Johnson famously said “Nothing odd will do long; Tristram Shandy did not last”. Jubilate Agno is, if anything, “odder” than Sterne’s novel, and perhaps we are readier to appreciate it in the twenty-first century than when it was written. One section, much favoured by anthologists, gives some of the flavour of the work. For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

Here we have an example of what one could call Smart’s “encyclopaedic” style, his passion for listing and enumerating. And whereas the description of his cat is fairly straightforward, other passages in the poem are deeply obscure, seeming to emerge from some private store of reference. It has been suggested that, in his confinement, Smart had access to just six books: the King James Bible; Ainsworth’s Latin Thesaurus; Salmon’s guide for London pharmacists (in Latin); Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary; and Hill’s Useful Family Herbal and History of Plants. The modern reader cannot hope to grasp every reference and allusion scattered within the poem, but Smart’s language is exact and exquisite, with a musicality that becomes hypnotic. For a DREAM is a good thing from GOD.
For there is a dream from the adversary which is terror.
For the phenomenon of dreaming is not of one solution, but many.
For Eternity is like a grain of mustard as a growing body and improving spirit.
For the malignancy of fire is oweing to the Devil’s hiding of light, till it became visible darkness.
For the Circle may be SQUARED by swelling and flattening.
For the Life of God is in the body of man and his spirit in the Soul.
For there was no rain in Paradise because of the delicate construction of the spiritual herbs and flowers.
For the Planet Mercury is the WORD DISCERNMENT.
For the Scotchman seeks for truth at the bottom of a well, the Englishman in the Heaven of Heavens.

As that last line perhaps indicates, one of the great joys of Jubilate Agno is in its sudden dislocations and unexpected diversions. The “my cat Jeoffrey” passage is justly famous, but the poem is cram-packed with similar wonders, and must be read in full to appreciate its inimitable genius. Frank Key is a writer and broadcaster best known for his self-published short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. In a Hooting Yard special, on December 27th 2007, Key and the performance artist Germander Speedwell performed the whole of Jubilate Agno live, a performance which ran in excess of three hours.

LInks to Works

  • The complete Jubilate Agno
  • Reading of Jubilate Agno by Frank Key and Germander Speedwell