Saturday, 25 April 2009
Sometimes I write answers in comments which are really too long to be there (I don't mind them from others but I don't guarantee to read them through) and, since I spent some time trying to sharpen one particular one in which I respond to Background Artist regarding Edmund Spenser and his cruelties in Ireland, I will sharpen it one last time here.
Poets are not necessarily the best and kindest of people. Cruelties are not unknown among them. For all that, Keats was much influenced by Spenser in his use of the open vowel. An arse-kissing poem - ie The Faery Queen in this case - may, nevertheless, be a great poem. Eliot uses Spenser's Prothalamion in constructing a moment of sadness and bliss in The Waste Land. "...Against the Brydale day, which is not long: / Sweete Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song..." is rather beautiful, so beautiful we read it as metaphor rather than as toadying. The poetry is not in the opinion but in the vision and the command of language. It is in the creation of the voice and its gifts. Alas, that it is so, but it is so.
That also makes Leni Riefenstahl's films of the Nuremberg Rally and the 1936 Olympiad rather masterful, indeed, beautiful, and I say that remembering it was the passionate consumers of those films that killed half my family. I don't mean three centuries ago. I mean directly in my parents' time. What this shows is that even in the most wicked vision there is enough to persuade some people that it is good. That is only because some of it is so. It is stirring, lyrical, breathtaking, ravishing, extraordinary, fantastical, and, in transporting people out of their normal condition, it reminds them of distant noble ideals and moments of happiness out of which they extract what they imagine is virtue. Extracting virtue is the fatal flaw.*
That, I think, is true. The rest is caricature. Resist caricature: resist even vision. Simply resist. Caricature and vision will continue as they were, with the power and charm of each, and it takes skill and grace to produce both. But they are not inexhaustible gold-mines of virtue.
It is impossible to judge people out of their time. Catholic Ireland was a strategic danger to Protestant England - the Pope's knife in the back. And in Elizabeth's time there was always the reign of Bloody Mary to remind people of what that might mean.
Empires and colonies have always been the way of the world. The Hungarians weren't always in the Carpathian Basin - they pushed, fought and tricked their way in. No occupier is secure. That's why they often treat the natives so cruelly. That is why they want to absorb and ingest them. The English are not alone in this. It is the invariable, universal practice.
The problem in Ireland is that it has always known one, and only one, oppressor. European countries have seen waves of them.
You can hate the 'toff' Spenser all you like. But I wouldn't waste all your energy on it. It's only self-harm in the long run. The 'poet' Spenser is to one side of that. He will continue avoiding the hatred directed at the toff.
Nor were all the barbarities on one side in Ireland. War zones are barbaric places, nor are they aberrations in the human imagination. They are an integral part of it, male and female mind equally. Distrust intensifies and turns poisonous. Ireland's sad fate has been to be the long-term battleground between two realpolitiks (Pope and King), two religious forms (think Shia and Sunni for a second), and the eventual product of those things: two mutually hostile cultures. Distrust. Poison. The rest.
*The notion of extracting virtue is interesting. The implied metaphor leads on. Another time.