Thursday, 5 March 2015

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 3

Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) 1694-1778

In thinking of those particular years I can’t help but include some elements of what I find are already parts of the received idea of England.  It is a received idea because I received it and because what I received did not run entirely contrary to my direct experience.

Voltaire's Letters on England begins with the Quakers:
I was of opinion that the doctrine and history of so extraordinary a people were worthy the attention of the curious. To acquaint myself with them I made a visit to one of the most eminent Quakers in England, who, after having traded thirty years, had the wisdom to prescribe limits to his fortune and to his desires, and was settled in a little solitude not far from London. Being come into it, I perceived a small but regularly built house, vastly neat, but without the least pomp of furniture. The Quaker who owned it was a hale, ruddy-complexioned old man, who had never been afflicted with sickness because he had always been insensible to passions, and a perfect stranger to intemperance. I never in my life saw a more noble or a more engaging aspect than his. He was dressed like those of his persuasion, in a plain coat without pleats in the sides, or buttons on the pockets and sleeves; and had on a beaver, the brims of which were horizontal like those of our clergy. He did not uncover himself when I appeared, and advanced towards me without once stooping his body; but there appeared more politeness in the open, humane air of his countenance, than in the custom of drawing one leg behind the other, and taking that from the head which is made to cover it.

And from Letter VII
There is no such thing here as haute, moyenne, and basse justice-- that is, a power to judge in all matters civil and criminal; nor a right or privilege of hunting in the grounds of a citizen, who at the same time is not permitted to fire a gun in his own field.

From Letter XVIII
the poetical genius of the English resembles a tufted tree planted by the hand of Nature, that throws out a thousand branches at random, and spreads unequally, but with great vigour.

From XX
The whole nation set themselves up as judges [over these], and every man has the liberty of publishing his thoughts with regard to public affairs.

And, lastly, from XXII
Possibly the English genius, which is either languid or impetuous, has not yet acquired that unaffected eloquence, that plain but majestic air which history requires. Possibly too, the spirit of party which exhibits objects in a dim and confused light may have sunk the credit of their historians. One half of the nation is always at variance with the other half…

…To conclude, in my opinion the English have not such good historians as the French have no such thing as a real tragedy, have several delightful comedies, some wonderful passages in certain of their poems…

These ideas, as I said, are received in the sense that we, as immigrants, received them. They were our starter kit. The ideas included, in Voltaire’s terms, extraordinariness; “a little solitude not far from London”; a house that was “small but regularly built”; plain dress; a humane air; something about common justice or “the level playing field”; and liberty – however comparative, however relative, of all sorts, including speaking, publishing and thinking, the tolerance, sometimes even the cultivation, of diversity and eccentricity.

Under such conditions life could be perceived, as Voltaire perceived it, as comedy rather than tragedy. And this brew, according to Voltaire, allowed for “some wonderful passages” of poetry, whether as written or as felt.

To my parents – both of whom were far to the left in terms of British politics – these seemed positively idyllic qualities of the kind that had been mostly missing in their lives. Some two years after my mother died, I asked my father what he thought was good about having come to England. He replied: the sea and freedom.

[To be continued by way of Pevsner

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