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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Pricking on the Plain
I've been ludicrously busy the last couple of weeks, and have missed writing up several things I ordinarily would at least have mentioned. Here's a hurried rescue dig from the upper strata of my memory.

a) A week or so ago I found myself at a small local station in Clifton at around 9.45pm. Apparently, if I'd looked up (and there'd been no street lights) I might have caught a rare glimpse of the aurora borealis. However, my attention was caught instead by a row of around forty young men, clearly drunk, and dressed identically in shirts and ties, kneeling on the platform edge with their heads overhanging the track in a shoulder-to-shoulder row. Other drunk young men on the bridge overhead were enjoining them loudly to "Kneel!", but I could see no reason for their compliance, especially with the 9.51 due at any moment. It was bizarre rather than threatening, but I was relieved (if only for the driver's sake) that they stood up before the train actually got there, and even more so when they didn't board it. Instead, as we pulled away in the direction of Montpelier, they formed a guard of honour, hands clasped solemnly at their waists, so that looking out of the window I could see nothing but shirt'n'tie-shirt'n'tie-shirt'n'tie-shirt'n'tie until we ran out of platform.

Apparently it was some kind of initiation ceremony for rugby players.

b) A few days ago my latest ABBA piece appeared, a meditation on the proposition that Atropos too is a weaver. That phrase has been hanging round my head for years now, to the extent that I sometimes think it's a quotation, but I'm pretty sure it's my own.

c) I received my contributor copy of The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Childrens Literature. It's a snip at £97. All right, it's actually ridiculously overpriced - but it is a good volume, leaving my own contribution aside. If you want to read that - "The 'Grand Tour' as Transformative Experience in Children’s Novels about the Roman Invasion" - you can do so for free, should the fit seize you. (While fetching that link just now, I realised that this version is missing the illustration from Fletcher and Kipling's school history of England, showing ‘The Landing of the Romans’. That's a shame as it's well worth seeing for its evocation of the Kent seaside around AD 43.)

ILLUSTRATION 1 The landing of the romans

f) I watched Janina Ramirez's programme on The Faerie Queene with some trepidation, but was reassured: it was well judged, I think, considering it had only 30 minutes to play with and had to be pitched for an audience who would probably not have read (or perhaps even heard of) the poem. And we did get quite a few extracts read aloud, which is never less than a pleasure.

It's strange, though, how often people who don't like The Faerie Queene find it impossible to concede that other people might actually love it. Are they worried that they're missing something? Typical is this review from The New Statesmen by Rachel Cooke:

The series opened with Dr Janina Ramirez on The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, which she claimed to have loved ever since she first read it as a teenager (crikey, some teenager). I, for one, don’t think Dr Ramirez – the only non-celebrity to get a gig presenting an episode of this series – will have convinced too many Spenser virgins to try his allegorical epic, which is some 35,000 lines long and absolutely heaving with elves. There was something just a little unconvincing about her proclamations of its beauty, her insistence that what Spenser called its “darke conceit” had captured her imagination right from the off.

Well, Ramirez made it clear elsewhere in the programme that she'd first read it as an undergraduate, so an eighteen-year-old teenager, not a fourteen-year-old one - but why would even that be so very odd? I read it at 18 myself, and fell in love with it so deep that I wrote my PhD on it. Nothing can be to everyone's taste, of course, but if you have an ear for (and interest in) language, how can you not at least concede The Faerie Queene its own beauty, even if you're out of sympathy with it? "Absolutely heaving with elves" is the kind of sneer-as-substitute-for-criticism that Edmund Wilson practised on Tolkien (who was no great Spenser fan, by the way, though Lewis was). Oddly enough I've never heard it used to put down A Midsummer Night's Dream - though it would be equally true of that play.

Meanwhile, veteran sneerer A. N. Wilson's Return to Larkinland was less satisfactory. Despite having a whole hour to play with, this programme on Larkin's life and writing left out entire swathes (not just fractions of a swathe) of relevant material, including the very existence of any woman in his life other than Monica Jones (whom Wilson knew). Larkin's seven-year relationship with my aunt, including a two-year engagement, was not apparently worth mentioning - but there was plenty of room for extensive quotation from the semi-erotic schoolgirl fiction he produced at that time, and even - insult to injury - for a recitation of the damning assessment of The Faerie Queene with which he defaced a copy in the college library... as an undergraduate:

First I thought Troilus and Criseyde was the most boring poem in English. Then I thought Beowulf was. Then I thought Paradise Lost was. Now I know that The Faerie Queene is the dullest thing out. Blast it.

Well, Homer nods.

If you want to read that - "The 'Grand Tour' as Transformative Experience in Children’s Novels about the Roman Invasion" - you can do so for free, should the fit seize you.


Thank you!

I hate when people who don't enjoy something find it impossible to believe that other people genuinely do. What's the alternative, they're faking it for the prestige?

I suppose so. And of course that does happen sometimes - but to assume it's a universal conspiracy strains credulity.

And of course that does happen sometimes - but to assume it's a universal conspiracy strains credulity.

I've honestly met more people who pretend not to like things for the coolness factor than the other way round.

Wait, was it Larkin or Wilson who wrote that bit at the end? Because he can [redacted] right off; all of those poems are absolutely beautiful. In different ways, but that's a good thing, because otherwise poems would all be alike.

That was Larkin, I'm afraid. But Wilson read it out with evident glee.


(Besides, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is surely the most boring poem ever.)

Jasper Fforde hinged one of his plots on the concept that FQ is the most boring book ever written.

I disagree. I read Book 1 the summer I was 16, between Lower and Upper Sixth.

I'm glad to say I've not read that Fforde book - or it might have left a dent in my wall.

Sorry for hear that about Larkin.

The New York Times Book Review seems lately to have established a regular feature: worthies outbidding each other on what great works they're not taken in by. It's all very depressing in.

Isn't there a David Lodge novel where a bunch of academics try something similar, talking about the most famous book they haven't read? The winner, if I recall, is someone who's not read Hamlet.

Changing Places. The game is called Humiliation, and you get one point for each person who has read something that you have not. The guy who names Hamlet is one who can't stand to lose any competition. The punchline comes when he fails his tenure review.

That's the one! Thank you.

I hated The Faerie Queen because I expected it to be something absolutely different from what it was, and was crushed. (Sir Orfeo, IIRC -- it's been a very long time since I read it -- has much more the kind of atmosphere I expected.) I might like it better now.

Incorrect expectations can play havoc with one's enjoyment, to be sure. I enjoyed Sir Orfeo, but FQ is a very different kind of elfdom!

Yes. Mind you, "heaving with elves" (I am reminded of Hugo Dyson reportedly saying, "Oh, fuck, not another elf" during an Inklings meeting) is exactly why I WANTED to read it.

My second unexpected Stevie Smith sighting of the week - thank you for contributing :)

Not being in any way an expert on The Faerie Queene, I had not realized that this was a common reaction to it. How odd, though. I sadly did not read it as a teenager and in fact have only read Books I and III, while studying for the Literature GRE, but it was one of the best things I read while studying for the Literature GRE, and I forced my family to name our pet rabbit Una because of it (apparently, for years my father had thought I named her Oona after Charlie Chaplin's wife, but no).

I suppose my own vote for most boring poem in English, as long as people are sharing, is Absalom and Achitophel, but I think this is based on my own personal allergy to heroic couplets.

Any week with a Stevie Smith sighting is a good week!

DWJ note: it's well worth reading Book V of FQ for Hexwood-comprehension purposes, if nothing else.

Well, the likelihood of my ever getting around to anything on my reading list is limited, but that certainly is enough to put Book V there!

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Don't be surprised that Larkin (and Amis), with their fierce opposition to complex and allusive modernist literature, also disliked older elaborate works. I agree with Larkin in part - I could not penetrate Paradise Lost - and hugely admire his guts for saying it.

Oh, it doesn't surprise me at all. There's a kind of "What would Holden Caulfield do?" vibe to their horror of fakery and pretension. Of course the danger with such an attitude is that in overcompensating one denies oneself real potential pleasures, cutting off one's nose and then throwing it out with the bathwater.

I'd say, no, Paradise Lost really is duller, but I wouldn't know -- I find it unreadable. Bah.