Saturday, 25 April 2009

Extracting Virtue

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.


James said...

"Toff" again.. oh, Lord.

George, you're reminding me here very much of Patrick Dillon's recent book on the "Glorious Revolution", 1688. To modern British eyes, the fear of Catholicism seems bizarre, unfortunate and self-defeating. Let James II be Catholic, we think; what's the worst that can happen?

Dillon plays a simple trick in "1688": he fills it with primary sources, and renders them all into good modern English. When he does that, the intense, crippling fear of return to civil war - and what that actually meant to real flesh-and-blood people on the ground at all levels of society* - comes across in the most visceral and urgent fashion. Furthermore, he manages to communicate the sense the political classes had then - of only just managing to keep a lid on things, only just managing to prevent anarchy and chaos. That's both in terms of the general population, but also abroad: you can feel the weight of all those huge foreign armies, and England's lack of any proper defence should one of them come ashore.

*Calculations of losses from the seventeenth century can't be relied on entirely, but modern estimates put premature deaths in 1641-9 between 5% and 30%. Catastrophe, by any measure.

George S said...

Yes, it is hard to imagine a time where little or nothing was as it is now. The same barbarities, the same cruelties, the same pragmatic solutions to problems of desire would still be recognisable (we recognise them now when we read the words of the time) but the configuration would be utterly different.

'If I had been there, i'd have...' one man confidently ventures.

'But if you had been there, you would not have been quite the you you now are,' replies another.

That is hard on us, I suppose, but it's fairer to them.

Dillon's sounds a really interesting book.

Background Artist said...

Flip me. Always doin it, makin meself look daft.

I was seeing on Frasnce 24, the workers who took the bosses hostage and one was getting interviewed and that French revolutionary spirit on display.

Tony Benn was getting interviewed and he made some interesting points.

All the European comminsioners, arene't elected, the real power is with the banks and multinationals, and people won't stand for it.


As to the post itself and the history in ireland, it is what Kei Miller the Jamacan poet said in the latest Iota edited by Fermagah ollamh McLoughlin which and Bush and McKenzie have been regurgitating,. oohin and arghin over his insigth that *when you know you can do poetry, it can be frightening* - especially if you are woven in the fabric of royalty and just the sheer fact of one's life, our name, is enough to set the gods squabbling.

Knowing one's place, innit?

Mark Granier said...

"The problem in Ireland is that it has always known one, and only one, oppressor."

Too obvious perhaps, but I think you might at least acknowledge this one:


Tonight, the wind is the terror:
it claws at the waves’ white hair.

No fear of iron-headed icemen steadily
slicing the Irish Sea.

[Anon. 9th Century]

The terrorists in this case were of course The Vikings, who did indeed become our oppressors (and subsequently our enrichers) for a significant period of the 9th/10th centuries.

George S said...

Fair enough, Mark. Two then. How are Norse-Irish relations nowadays?

Mark Granier said...

"How are Norse-Irish relations nowadays?"

Considerably thawed, especially since Heaney won the Nobel.

Background Artist said...

Only one oppressor in the modern age. The culture itself was made up of 250 tuatha or areas controlled by the local leader and hard man. Then you would have 10-20 or so of these band together and form a petty kingdom and each petty kingdom would be enagaged in trying to take control of the island.

The myth has five different peoples who held the island until we hit a known reality about the 4C.

The Partholon - Nemed - For Bolg and Formorian and then the first big fight with Fir Bolg and the incoming Tuatha De Dannan, people of the goddess danu, a primordial water goddes, Danube, don etc and routing to Danu of Hindu myth maybe.

The four masters have them coming at around 1900BC, whilst Keating 1500

Then the Tuatha De Dannan for 150 years with seven kings, before the Milesians come around 1700 BC according to the four masters AND 1300 BC according to Keating, and then about 110 mythological kings until we reach Tuathal Techtmar IN THE 2c AD who came when the Romans were taking over Britain.

Obviously the mythology will be the creative casting of reality into myth, like Hesiod's Golden Age being the first in his five ages of Man, probably referring to Minoan Crete that ran for 1200 years from 2700- 1500 BC, before the great Bronze Age trading civilisations slowly imploded into war and strife after proliferation of Iron Age technology meant the thicko blokes of mainland Mycenaean Greece, thought they were being very clever by using the revolutionary technology, to forget trading with the softs and just go and take it.

So Minoan culture, in which the evidence shows a distinct lack of hard Appollo and Zeus Gods, in the time cthonic goddesses were worshipped, the White Goddess of Graves.

Hesiopd who came along in the 7C BC, 800 years after the collapse of peaceful trading culture as the norm, only ever known war for hundreds of years, writing just coming back into use, perhaps the Golden Age he describes in Theogony, is the trace of Minoan culture when it was Peace and not war as the norm.

The the Silver Age when Zeus disposes Cronus, maybe this is the start of the decline and begining of the rise of Mycenaean culture slowly displacing Minoan over a few hundred years, and the growing power of this empire in which society becomes Male orientated.

Bronze Age, the bubbling up of it, Minaon on the wane big time, Myceneaen culture now in command and no Peace because the thcikos are in command.

Heroic Age - the Age of Homer the events of Troy are happening 1100-900 AD, The Greek Dark Ages just before Hesiod, and the military way totally, the peace of Minoan life a long far off Golden Age when man and gods flit free together and all was fabbo.

Liam Guilar said...

That Spenser speculated about how to exterminate my ancestors is beyond argument. But the Fairy Queen contains great passages of poetry that don't have anything to do with Tudor politics in Ireland. I can read the poem in a way I can't read his "A View on the Present State of Ireland".

It seems almsot compulsory now for critics to point the political finger at writers of the past. But the artists of the Renaissance, or the musicians of almost any period are equally mired in the political webs of influence and patronage? If I shouldn't read Spenser because of his politics, should I shun Bach because I don't like his religion or his paymasters' actions?

Background Artist said...

I don't think anyone is advocating we don't read Spenser Liam.

My original post, was more a speculative-creative piece in which the *I* was at a remove. Not really me, but more a narrator *I* in the way Yeats used Crazy Jane and others to speak of certain parts of his personality.

If i had headed it with this caveat, that it was an exploratory voice which was not really speaking for me, but as a mask behind which i could rehearse the research of the past eight years.

As i said, it was only, literally, this week in which i managed to seperate narrator from poet, over on Carol Rumen's poem of the week on the guardian.

This weeks poem was: The Language School, by Tim Liardet. I sdtarted reading it and got about a quarter of the way through:

The charges might as well be read out
in Chinese, Bantu or Dravidian

or not be read at all – they drift, they loop
like light that cannot turn a corner

or soundwaves that bend in and out
of some fidelity to the original. To whom

do they cling? Another dumbstruck boy
who does not speak the English they speak...


And this is where i stopped and couldn't get past, "they".

Who were *they*?

My first response was to state i had a substantive obstacle with *they* as it wasn't clear who *they* reffered to.

MOst of the posters drew the inference that *they* referred to the lawyers and judges in the courthouse, and began a sloppy critical speculativie exercise on this premise. This far they have created 160 responses in the free for all free learning space where anyone can rant or leave the most sublime and informed critical writing.

The poem was thoroughly knocked about and many of the mostly annonymous posters had extrapolated spurious political sentiments from the narrator and then projected what they thought they saw in the poem, onto Liardet the private citizen and came up with all sorts of specualtive nonsense about a man they do not know.

But it was only after 140 posts, that someone pointed out that *they* referred to the charges themself, and this makes for a ciompletely different reading.

Once pointed out, it is clear that *they* do refer to the charges themselves, and after it being pointed out i could progress with my reading of the piece aremd with the full facts.

But in the intervening time, the many posts i made and writing i created, led to a cracking of pronoun and how to articualte successfully seperating the fictional figures in a poem, with the real person who created them.


The regular crowd who had been getting very cocky, annonymous posters with all the attendant prejudices toward published writers, a few of whom seem just to want to slag any poet off just because they are a poet and they aren't, learnt a very important lesson and had themselves pulled up short and straight, as all the charges they tried to lay on Liardet, were proven to be a figment of their imagination and that they were guilty of everything they were trying to accuse Liardet of, based on a simple error of misreading one word *they.

So when i came to Spenser, who i had wanted to get at for some time, to talk about in relation to my own *history* as a human being, it was at this point on the journey of learning i did so. After sorting and seperating everything in Carol Rumen's weekly classroom.

There are lots of different ways to approach it, like lawyer. We could say, ah yes, Spenser was a product of his time, but so what, he was still a human being, he didn't have to advocate what he did in relation to the Irish.

We could say, ah yes, it is totally understandable, of course, his work is great and we should pay no heed to his prose.

We should say, ah yes, seperate the artist from the human being and concentrate solely on the art, without letting their private beleifs and actions affect our response.

This however is not easy if there are personal reasons to be affected, such as my own, being a Desmond, Spenser writing in Kilcolman castle, and so there is however small, a connection and challenge, especially with someone like Spenser who carries such a heavy charge because of hios prose, even now.

But essentially, it is all in the presnetation, and getting carried away with ourselves is normal, but if i would have contextualised the narrater of the original piece this blog occassioned, as being at a remove and part of an ongoing process of specualtive discourse, it would have made a difference.


On a speperate note, 13 of Hitler's watercolour paintings just got sold for 100,000 pounds, one a self portrait on a bridge for about 10,000.

Liam Guilar said...

"This however is not easy if there are personal reasons to be affected, such as my own, being a Desmond, Spenser writing in Kilcolman castle, and so there is however small, a connection and challenge, especially with someone like Spenser who carries such a heavy charge because of hios prose, even now."

(Have you read "The Twylight Lords"?)

The issue of a writer's ideology and what to do with it is a topical one here at present because of changes to the way English is being taught. And I think I agree with what you're saying without coming to the same conclusion.

I think of poems as a performance and so to assume the voice speaking in the poem, the values in the poem, the arguments the poem advances, must be the poet's, seems to me to be a mistake.

I want to say that the politics of a poet dead over four hundred years doesn't affect the way I read his or her poem. I don't expect to share their assumptions about anything and I'm ready to accept that some of the things they did or endorsed would be unacceptable if they were alive today. I don't like Milton or Dante's religion, Spencer's politics etcetc. But I can still read all three. What I don't understand is at what point or why that indifference stops because I know it does.

Background Artist said...

Thank you very much Liam: i hadn't heard of that book before and have just put my order in.


When you say:

"The issue of a writer's ideology and what to do with it is a topical one here at present because of changes to the way English is being taught."

I would be very interested if you could elaborate on this please. I take it you mean in England?


I too think it's a mistake to assume or confuse the voice of the narrator in a poem with the poet's. This was the lesson of the week last week at Carol Rumen's poem of the week series where she showcased Tim Liardet's poem The Language School.

There was a massive difference in the role of the poet in Gaelic society prior to its collapse and the role of the poet in English culture.

Poetry and the law were intertwined, with overlapping areas, as much of the early *poetic* texts are essentially laws put into metrical form, in which compensation levels for a bewildering and comprehensive arrary of premises and outcomes which the entirely civil customary law - fénechas - could throw up.

By the time of the Tudors, the role of the filidh/poets was multi-faceted, much of the work being the custodian of geaneologies, there to praise their petty king and lords in whose service they had been for generations, as by this time there had been 1200 years in print and they were the top caste professionals, many families of hereditary poets who could look back hhundreds of years on a long tradition as keepers and custodians of the mytholgical fabric of Gaelic life which stretched back into the mists of time, as one poet lamented during the swift collapse, *since before the time of Christ*.

This is a tradition few study or have much of an interest in, but pretty much like seperating the narrator from the poet, by taking on this tradition, it allows the student to legitimately present an alternative to the accepted norm of what Poetry is.

There are few filidh poets in the mode of Raleigh and Spenser, the warrior poets in Irish tradition tend to be situated in the pagan times, and in the crossover period during the establishment of Christianity, and in comparison, Spenser would have been cast by his Irish counterpart, (who i will imaginatively give voice to by creating an imaginary narrator whose existence and mindset bears no relation to my own thoughts on the matter), as a *neaveau thug*.

There is a very informative article by Trinity's Katherine Simms, Irish Medievalist professor, in which she articulates on the fusion of poetry and law in Gaelic culture here~

I think it is an interesting question you pose, wondering at what point the indifference stops.

I suppose once the connection to a living past has been broken, lost in the past, cut off and the store's no longer passed from generation to generation.

I went to 15 Ushers Island last night, the house where Joyce's short story The Dead is set. The house being the one in which his aunt lived when it was a tenament.

It was the 40'th anniversary of the fopunding of the independent legal rights organisation, FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centre), in which lawyer/poet John O'Donnell read along with Dennis O'Driscoll and American poet Jane Hirshfield, all three doing a voluntary reading and Hirshfield said the poems she had chosen to read:

"...all lean in some way, with a couple of exceptions, toward compassion and consequence; because it seems to me that these two things underlie a great deal of the social compact which leads to law. Which leads to a society of law in the best sense, but which also leads to that which softens the harshest effect of law, which is also necessary.

The one other thing which I recognise is a theme running through a couple of the things I've chosen, is something which has long concerned me and that I wasn't aware for quite a while that runs through my poems, which is a themse of unknowability and fate.

That what happens to any person in their life is to some extent an accident of birth; out of control. And this haunts me, it haunts me, my own good luck. The less good luck of others. And the essential unknowabilty for us all, of anyone's life, including to some degree our own."

Liam Guilar said...

Here=Queensland Australia...sorry..should have been more explicit