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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Mirrors versus Lamps
Though Spenser was well read in classical literature, scholars have noted that his poetry does not rehash tradition, but rather is distinctly his. This individuality may have resulted, to some extent, from a lack of comprehension of the classics.

This is Wikipedia putting it crassly, but it's just the kind of attitude that put me off Chaucerian criticism when I was an undergraduate. The notes to my edition of Chaucer were nothing but a list of references to what he'd borrowed from Virgil, Machaut, Ovid, Macrobius, etc. - and if there was a line or an idea without a source, something that might even be deemed original, you could just feel the frustration steaming from the the page. The thought that poets might think of something for themselves was clearly disturbing, threatening even, for then what would become of the poor scholar? Ergo, if Spenser is not sufficiently slavish in his imitation, the readiest explanation is incompetence.

Romantic critics didn't seem to have the same obsession. On the contrary, they valued novelty and genius, even where, as in the case of The Lyrical Ballads, it was presented by the poets themselves as something of a return to an existing folk tradition. (And of course such declarations of a return to simpler roots constitute a tradition in themselves: cf. Thomas Sprat extolling the Royal Society in 1667 for its "constant Resolution, to reject the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness".)

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that both sets of critics were influenced by the canons of the times they studied. Chaucer and Spenser, along with their contemporaries, set great store by authority and precedent; the Romantic poets emphasized genius and creativity (I simplify just a bit!). Their critics were perhaps drawn to these eras by a compatibility in their own temperaments and tastes, which were reinforced by what they found there; or else their nature was "subdued / to what it works in, like the dyer's hand". Either way, they needed to get out more.

Thomas Nashe was more of my mind, referring to Spenser in the splendidly-titled Have With You to Saffron Walden (a pamphlet written against Spenser's best friend, as it happens, so he had no cause to flatter) as "the Summ' tot' of whatsoeuer can be said of sharpe inuention and scholarship". A fine summation itself, and one that pays due regard to both these complementary, essential qualities.

I haven't read Spenser, and while I've read Chaucer I've never studied his work critically, but that exactly describes standard Shakespearean criticism as well. Everything has a source, and if Shakespeare actually makes something up the critics just flail around guessing for the source.

The fact that Shakespeare really did borrow wholesale, to an extent that would today have his writings immediately pulped for rampant plagiarism, far worse than anything committed by the writers of today who've actually suffered that fate, only encourages the critics in their source-hunting, and it infects the criticism of other authors.

Tolkien criticism today has turned largely into a manic hunt for sources in any conceivable quarry, and of course anything that predates his writing and bears the remotest resemblance to it must have been his source, preferably the One True and Only Source which is the real key to all his work. It only impresses on me more and more than genius lies not in picking source material but in what you do with it, but nobody seems interested in studying that.

I think there's a kind of intoxication that overcomes scholars who discover a Source. Immediately it appears like the Philosopher's Stone, and is attributed universal powers of explanation and enlightenment. This seems to be a natural human reaction, but wise scholars know to sit in a darkened room for a bit until the fit passes and the discovery assumes more realistic dimensions. When I see articles (or books) where people published while the messianic imperative was still on them, I feel a little embarrassed.

"Messianic impulse" is a good way of putting it. Many of these people - in Tolkien scholarship the most extreme cases come in teams, one male and one female - are indeed full of the glint-eyed fury.

But I'm sorry you picked Planet Narnia as an example, for that's a unique case - the only "I've found the One True Key" book I've ever either read or heard of that does not push its case beyond what the evidence will bear, and which furthermore is not monomaniacal about it. Rather in the way that, unusually among investigators of political conspiracies, Woodward and Bernstein actually found something, Ward may actually have found something. At least it deserves looking at instead of being tossed aside in exasperation.

Actually, the book Planet Narnia wasn't half as bad an offender in this respect as the documentary Ward made about it, which I saw before I read the book itself and which may have coloured my view of it. There, spurred perhaps by the more sensationalist demands of the medium, he put (or was asked to put) his case in crude "everyone was wrong till I came along with the Key" terms.

There are some instances where this is justified, perhaps - Champollion, Ventris, the team that worked with Turing - but not so much in lit crit.

I haven't seen the documentary.

The book doesn't say that earlier scholars were wrong, just that they missed something important. And while the discovery is a One True Key, it isn't a one true source, in that it's not something that Lewis supposedly just mindlessly copied.

Granted. I'm not very keen on One True Keys either, though, truth be told. And while I think Ward makes a scholarly and quite convincing circumstantial case, it remains (as I said in the entry in more detail) essentially a long and very interesting footnote rather than the key that unlocks the mystery of Narnia - which wasn't really a mystery to begin with.

Burgess pointed out that nothing new is ever written, just rearranged, recalling one of the few true statements from the Old Testament.

In my view, Romantic scholars miss the Classical allusions of their subjects because of the defect of their own education. For instance, for decades they claimed that Keats couldn't possibly have read Phiostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, but just relied on some hippy called Burton. What they meant was, they had never read it themselves and didn't realize all of the material he had borrowed from Philostratus that this Burton never mentioned. It's funny to read them say he couldn't have read Philostratus becuase he couldn't read Greek; what they mean is, they never bothered to found out that an English translation was published in 1809 (what do thy think he was doing with that ticket to the reading room of the British Library he was so proud of?). And what in the first 100 lines of Lamia that doesn't come from Philostratus, Keats lifted from the Echidna episode in Herodotus--something else the so-called scholars never bothered to read.

I'm no classical scholar myself, but I find all this very persuasive.

It was persuasive enough to get a dissertation accepted, but that's a story I'll never be able to tell!