Those who spray-painted the Dickens Museum in Broadstairs with the words DICKENS A RACIST were unfortunately accurate in their description.
In 1865, there was a rebellion of plantation workers in Jamaica. The manner in which it was suppressed provoked outrage. That eloquent liberal John Stuart Mill, called for the Governor of Jamaica, Edward John Eyre, to be prosecuted for murder.
The rebellion had been instigated by a Baptist preacher called Paul Bogle, now a national hero in Jamaica. In the course of the uprising, 18 British militia-men were killed. Eyre’s response was to have 600 Jamaicans flogged. He burned down 1,000 houses and killed 439 people, including one of the mixed-race members of the Assembly, George William Gordon. The only possible defence for Eyre’s monstrous, truly monstrous, behaviour, was to suggest that Black Lives really do NOT matter. Eyre was prosecuted but he was exonerated in the Queen’s Bench, his legal costs were paid for by the Government and he lived out a comfortable retirement in Devon.
The incident was not typical of the way the British Empire was run. The very fact that John Stuart Mill, and other decent individuals, wanted to prosecute Eyre for murder shows that Victorian men and women did have a conscience about it.
Charles Dickens, in common with many others, vigorously defended Eyre’s position. It is not the only example of Dickens’s racism. The depiction of Fagin in Oliver Twist is plainly coloured by all the old antisemitic stereotypes. His mockery of Mrs Jellyby, in Bleak House, stems from her wish to support African charity-work .
In my recent book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, the mystery is – how could such a mixed-up character have come to write such wonderful books? And, more, how could someone who was so genuinely humane have been so monstrously unkind, domestically, and – on occasion publicly. He was, for example, an assiduous prison visitor, but he pressed for ever tougher, and more pointless punishments in British prisons.
The answer is, of course, that we are all a mixture of good and bad, and in the case of great geniuses, the extremes of vice and virtue are often glaring. When it came to pricking the conscience of the steel-hearted Victorians about child poverty, no one did it better than Dickens. When it came to imagining what it would be like to work as a poverty-stricken, recently liberated slave in Jamaica, the great novelist’s capacity for empathy deserted him.
Does this justify someone vandalising a Dickens Museum? That is for the magistrates to decide. We live in angry times. John Stuart Mill, who denounced the behaviour of Governor Eyre, worked for many years, as did his father, for the East India Company which exploited, diddled, and murdered many of his fellow-mortals. The past is a bloody awful place. We maybe learn more about it by reading the words of our ancestors than by smashing their statues or daubing paint on walls. But such actions are, I am afraid, very understandable . (This article appeared in The Daily Telegraph, June 30, 2020.)
There is an excellent article in the June 19th, 2020 edition of the Times Literary Supplement on the question of statues, and the topical question of their ethics: when to remove, or put up , statues of individuals once admired, now deemed obnoxious. –
The author points out for example that there was considerable opposition, from Irish MPs about the erection of a statue of Oliver Cromwell, in 1895, outside the Houses of Parliament. The statue had to be surrounded by a steel barrier to prevent attacks from the Fenians. The sculptor was Hamo Thornycroft.
Another Thornycroft sculpture, of which I had never heard , is the Poets’ Fountain. It was erected at the end of Park Lane, and depicted Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer. Erected in 1875 it was (slightly) damaged by enemy action during the Second World War. This was used as an excuse never to put it back. The anonymous TLS author asks “might a new poets’ memorial, including the original trio but adding more by popular vote be welcome? Then again, poets with unblemished reputations also might be in short supply”.
The questions raise any number of mare’s nests. Rudyard Kipling’s IF was voted not long ago to be the nation’s favourite poem – by a long margin. But just imagine what would happen if you tried to add Kipling to Poet’s Fountain! Given the fate of the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, his chum Kipling – the author not only of IF but of “The White Man’s Burden” would surely be asking for a red paint job before it was even erected. Auden said that “Time that with this strange excuse, pardoned Kipling and his views”… but that was written a very long time ago, and I am not sure Time is making those kind of excuses just at the moment.
Chaucer? My first six weeks of lockdown were spent reading the entire works of Chaucer and I absolutely loved it. But … The Prioress’s Tale? Oh dear. The virulent antisemitism… I know that when Chaucer wrote the tale, there were no Jews in England – they had all been long ago expelled – but even so, it makes your hair stand on end. And then there is the possibly Rolf Harris side to Chaucer: Cecilia Chaumpaigne, daughter of a London baker, was the young person in a case in which Chaucer was accused of “raptus”. Whether this was mere abduction or actual rape, and whether Chaucer fathered a child with this girl remains unclear, but he paid her £10, the equivalent of his entire annual salary as a Customs Collector. You do not pay that sort of hush money unless you have something to hush up.
However much we love the poetry of Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound , (well I love Ezra’s poetry even if some of you do not!) it is not difficult to imagine the reactions if you started trying to add them to Poet’s Fountain. Obviously, and hooray, – there would be calls for the big trio (assuming Chaucer survived because of all-round genius despite the objections I have raised)…to be joined by women. C.Rossetti, Stevie Smith., Hilda Dolittle (HD) and Vita Sackville-West, three paces forward ! Not to mention Sylvia Plath, of course… Even the thought of it, however, makes me see trouble of some kind ahead. If you had to choose just ONE female poet, I think I’d plump for Charlotte Mew , but there would be howls that she was not well enough known, that she was too sad, and that her ghastly end (drinking a disinfectant called LYSOL) did not provide a suitable role model for young aspirant female poets of today. That line of thinking will lead you to a “popular” choice.
At one of these literary festivals one is kindly asked to, I met Pam Ayres. Loved her. She is an extremely nice woman, and I love her verses, but if you put her on a plinth with Milton and Shakespeare, you would be making a mockery both of her and of poetry itself.
So – a nice idea, but maybe the Poet’s Fountain should remain dry.
If you haven’t read Charlotte Mew, try her. Well, that’s for another Blog maybe.
It will be interesting to see how long it is before someone reads Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and decides that his statue should be removed from the Natural History Museum. He was not merely, like so many Victorians, profoundly racist. He it was, especially in that disgusting book , who tried to give racism a “scientific” justification .
Writing as a scientist of international renown, Darwin used his reputation to state that the inferiority of “savages” to “civilised” people was an observable fact. He claimed that the size of people’s skulls and their intellectual faculties were correlative (something which every scientist in the world now knows to be nonsense). He rejoiced that the nineteenth century was one “in which civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations”. The subjugation of Africa and parts of Asia was the only hope the inhabitants could have of gaining a modicum of “civilisation”. Northern Europeans were superior to all the other races in the world because of their greater energy . The immense Negro and Portuguese element in Brazil, for example, accounted for the fact that Brazil was economically more backward than, say, France.
Although, in the Origin of Species, Darwin was obliged, for his theory to work, to believe that “the American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans” all derived from a common ancestor, this by no means meant they had all evolved subsequently at the same pace.
The sixty year old Darwin looked back to his younger self, who had visited Tierra del Fuego on HMS Beagle. He repeated the claim he had made earlier that the inhabitants were cannibals, which is completely untrue, In his laughably ignorant and wrong-headed reflections on the “evolution” of human language, he says that, whereas the civilised languages have huge vocabularies and complicated grammars, the inhabitants of Tiera del Fuego spoke a language “which scarcely deserves to be called articulate”. What he meant was, he did not bother to learn the Yaghan language which actually has a vocabulary of over 30,000 words. The Descent of Man gives the impression that “savages” of this planet do not really have languages at all, in the civilised sense of the term.
It was the Descent of Man which inspired Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, to evolve his idea of “eugenics”. In his conclusion to The Descent of Man, Darwin said that if the prudent avoid marriage, while the reckless, marry, it was inevitable that “inferior” members will supplant superior members of society. In the hands of Galton and his followers, this led to a fear of “race suicide”. Sidney Webb, for example, founder of the New Statesman, the London School of Economics, and a pioneer of the Independent Labour Party, feared that Britain was “gradually falling to the Irish and the Jews”, which was why, in his newly-founded LSE he established a Professorship of Eugenics.
All these Darwinian views were, of course, adopted wholesale in other parts of Europe. Less than thirty years after Sidney Webb founded the Chair of Eugenics in London, Germany was enacting the Reich Censorship Law, the Blood Protection Law, the Marital Health Law and the Nuremberg Laws for racial segregation, all based on the bogus Victorian science which started life in the gentle setting of Darwin’s study at Down House – now property of the National Trust. Surely they should think seriously about dismantling this seedbed of bogus racist theory?
I was vilified in some quarters, three years ago, when I published Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker, but I do not retract my view that although he was a brilliant naturalist, Darwin’s scientific theories are flawed, many of them are plain wrong, and his socio-political views, dressed up as pseudo-science, have done untold damage to the world.
One of the reasons that Germany’s greatest literary genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is all but unread in the English-speaking world, is the very great difficulty of translating his poetry.
The best of it, arguably, is the lyric verse. Undoubtedly the most interesting is contained in Faust, which displays a vast range of tone, a superfluity of styles and modes – now caustic, now lyrical, now sublimely spiritual, now melodramatic. It is symptomatic of the general English ignorance of Faust that most people, if they allude to it, assume that Goethe repeated the traditional story from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, of Faust’s “bargain” or “pact”, with the Devil. In fact, it was only after completing a version of Part One of Faust that Goethe got round to reading Marlowe. He totally subverted the original Faust legend, which he had first picked up as a child from watching versions in puppet theatres. His Faust feels in no danger of going to Hell, since he does not believe it exists. In the second part of the drama, Faust makes an imaginative journey back into the ancient world,. He embraces Classicism, and the grinning, nihilistic Mephistopheles is out of his depth when meeting his rivals, the Sirens, the witch Erictho, the Centaur-Mage-Medic Chiron, etc etc
How could we poor English be expected to make sense of it all? One of the moments in our history when we were most likely to do so was in 1949, the bicentenary of Goethe’s birth, when the radio broadcast six totally inspirational episodes of Faust. The translation was by a BBC employee, the poet Louis MacNeice.
A young classics don, Louis MacNeice had joined the BBC as war work in 1941 and he continued to work there until his early death in 1963. His Faust is easily the best translation I have ever found, and although it is not complete (he cut the longer disquisitions on science, for example) it is one which will set you on the path to reading the thing in full and eventually tackling it in German.
Compare and contrast MacNeice’s version of a famous speech – where Faust speaks of being “two souls” at war with one another, with that of Coleridge. (Faust is addressing his student-sidekick Wagner – nothing to do with the famous composer).
You are only conscious of one impulse. Never
Seek an acquaintance with the other.
Two souls, alas, cohabit in my breast,
A contract one of them desires to sever.
The one like a rough lover clings
To the world with the tentacles of its senses;
The other lifts to the Elysian Fields
Out of the mist on powerful wings.
Now Samuel Taylor Coleridge: –
In my bosom
Two spirits are contending, each attempting
To separate from the other. One with strong
But sensual ties is fettering me to earth;
The other powerfully soars, and spreads
Its wings to loftier emprize…
The original German does not have the “Elysian Fields”, but MacNeice perhaps inferred them from the words “Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen”, to the fields of higher thought. In German, the Elysian Fields are known as “die Gefilde der Seligen”.
Coleridge only translated a very truncated version of Faust Part One. MacNeice boldly translated the whole work, pruning, as I say, the repetitions and some of the wafflier bit of geological speculation etc .
His finest passages – and they are also among the finest passages in the German – are found in his translations of Part Two, Act II, when Faust was transported by magic to the Pharsalian fields, where Caesar and Pompey had fought their great battle against one another –
But here at Pharsalus was fought a master model
To prove how might opposes greater might and tears
To shreds the lovely thousand-petalled wreath of freedom
While the stiff laurel twists around the royal head.
It is here that Faust really takes leave of the old Nordic, Gothic Christian fantasy of a Devil and embraces, as Goethe did, the Classical. “(The Classical is what I call healthy, the Romantic is sick” as Goethe said in old age to Eckermann on 2 April, 1829).
MacNiece was of course a classicist –
Which things being so, as we said when we studied
The classics, I ought to be glad
That I studied the classics at Marlborough and Merton,#
Not everyone here having had
The privilege of learning a language
That is incontrovertibly dead,
And of carting a toy-box of hall-marked marmoreal phrases
Around in his head.
At Marlborough, incidentally, he had been a contemporary of Anthony Blunt and John Betjeman. Their dormitory chat must have been a cut above the average.
MacNeice was certainly a better classicist than Goethe, , but , with his combination of colloquialisms and the high style, he was able to convey some of the way that in Faust we lurch between the sublime, the satirical, the coarse-grained, the spiritual, the high and the low. While Faust, like Goethe on his Italian Journey, is awestruck,, in a Grand Tourist way to be in the mysterious presence of the ancient world –
Here, through a miracle, here in Greece! I stood
On her soil and felt at once the soil was good
Mephistopheles claims to feel at home among the spirits, monsters, sirens etc of the ancient world; he is actually , Gothic northern grotesque that he is, a bit out of his depth and soon has to revert to rather chippy negativism which does not convince
The Greeks were never up to much! They daze you
With licensed sensuality which betrays you
Into committing sins which look like fun –
Our sins seem gloomy by comparison.
This is the MacNeice who said that
“It’s no go the merry-go- round, it’s no go the ricksaw/All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow”.
It would be great if the BBC still possessed recordings of the original 1949 radio production of MacNiece’s FAUST. But if not, surely we would all tune in to a revival. Faust must, in its finished form , especially in Part Two be all but impossible to stage. But radio would allow us to fly through the air on horseback with Mephistopheles and to go again with Faust in spirit or dream to the “Classical Walpurgisnight”. Tuned into the radio, we could tap into the experience Faust himself has, as he reconnects with the imaginative, legendary and literary past.
“Shakspeare and the Paradise Lost every day become greater wonders to me” – John Keats wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey, 14 Aug 1819.
Milton ,the Guardian Spirit of English republicanism, was the brooding archangel who haunted all the English Romantics and whose influence – to use Harold Bloom’s famous phrase – provided the Anxiety out of which their original voice had to be wrestled and discovered.
Keats’s poem “On Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair” is of those spontaneous occasional pieces which he produced for his friends, almost as after-dinner recitations. He speaks in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey of going to see Leigh Hunt, the origin of Dickens’s Harold Skimpole, “I was at Hunt’s the other day, and he surprised me with a real authenticated Lock of Milton’s Hair.” After he has written the poem out – and it isn’t a very good poem – Keats says,”This I did at Hunt’s , at his request – perhaps I should have done something better alone and at home”. Although not a good poem, it is a good idea for a poem. Keats, a young poet in the year 1818 is suddenly confronted with this relic of another age. As he says in the final line – “Methought I had beheld it from the flood”. He is drawn back into the world of Milton, its long-vanished civil war and religious controversies, and at the same time, he is aware of himself, and his generation, being on the threshold of the modern world, in which most of what Milton believed – except for the unmentionable politics – and took for granted – is to be cast aside forever.
But vain is now the burning and the strife-
Pangs are in vain – until I grow high-rife
With Old Philosophy
And mad with glimpses of futurity.
In a long letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, written four months after he saw the lock of Milton’s hair, Keats wrote
“I must think Wordsworth is deeper than Milton – though I think it has depended more upon the general and gregarious advance of intellect, than individual greatness of Mind – from the Paradise Lost and the other Works of Milton , I hope it is not too presuming to say, that his Philosophy, human and divine, may be tolerably understood by one not much advanced in years, In his time Englishmen were just emancipated from a great superstition – and Men had got hold of certain points and resting places in reasoning which were too newly born to be doubted, and too much opposed by the Mass of Europe not to be thought etherial and authentically divine – who could gainsay his ideas of virtue, vice and Chastity in Comus, just at the time of the dismissal of Cod-pieces and a hundred other disgraces? Who could not rest satisfied with his hintings at good and evil in the Paradise Lost, when just free from the Inquisition and burnings in Smithfield? The Reformation produced such immediate and great benefits, that Protestantism was considered under the immediate eye of heaven, and its own remaining dogmas and superstitions, then,as it were, regenerated, constituted those resting places and seeming sure points of Reasoning – from that I have mentioned, Milton, whatever he may have thought in the sequel, appears to have been content with this by his writings – He did not think into the human heart as Wordsworth has done – Yet Milton, as a Philosopher had sure as great Powers as Wordsworth – What then is to be inferr’d? O Many things..It proves there is really a grand march of intellect”.
It is a very Hegelian letter. Keats is saying that merely by living in the nineteenth century rather than the seventeenth century, Wordsworth has been able to live without the shackles of dogma which still choked Milton’s imagination and understanding. It is remarkable that this letter, written in May,1818, is divided by only fifteen years from a poem that Keats could not possibly have known – Milton by William Blake, which was written in Felpham, a village on the Sussex coast near Bognor during the poet’s not altogether happy sojourn there. (It ended with Blake having an altercation with his patron, William Hayley; and a much more serious quarrel with a soldier, who invaded Blake’s garden, had a row – which resulted in Blake shouting out words which led to his being charged with sedition at Chichester Assizes. Luckily, the old man was acquitted.)
We remember that Leigh Hunt, who produced the lock of Milton’s hair for Keats to admire, was himself sent to prison for seditious libel against the Prince Regent. The liberty of which Milton dreamed had not perhaps come to pass in the England of John Keats and William Blake.
Like Keats in his letters, Blake, though from a very different perspective, takes Milton to task for being hide-bound by old dogmas from which the Reformation, had it been completed, would have set him free. The poem is dense, difficult – in some passages scarcely comprehensible. But the over-all meaning is clear enough. Milton in his reverence for the old God of Sinai had been the slave of the Law, rather than the Prophet of Grace. In this he had failed as a Prophet, and needs, in Blake’s poem, to undergo a sort of purgatory. In one of the most beautiful passages in the poem, Blake sees a lark rise outside his cottage.
Immediately the lark mounted with a loud trill from Felpham’s vale,
And the wild thyme from Wimbledon’s green & empurpled hills;
And Los & Enitharmon rose over the hills of Surrey.
Their clouds roll over London with a south wind: soft Oothoon
Pants in the vales of Lambeth, weeping o’er her human harvest.
Los listens to the cry of the poor man, his cloud
Over London in volume terrific, low bended in anger.
This is the poem which most people now a days only know from its dedicatory lines – “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green.” Blake wanted a revolution based upon a wholesale Hebraism. He imbibed Thomas Paine, but he despised the cheap and easy way in which revolutionaries ignored their debt to the Everlasting Gospel. The incantatory lines need to be read aloud. Don’t worry too much if some of Blake’s invented mythology is confusing,the first time you read it. Get hold of a good annotated edition, such as W. H., Stevenson’s,published by Longman’s. The poem concerns the most fundamental things possible: how to we lose the tyranny of selfhood, without losing individuality? Cults and religions offer a path, but in all cases they are operating power – the dark Satanic Mills. . Satan had made himself into a plausible God and “destroyed the Human Form divine”. Only by seeking God in Humanity, and abandoning “Natural religion” can he understand “eternal Annihilation; that none but the living shall/Dare to enter”. It is complicated, but at the same time as simple as larksong. “The imagination is not a state: it is human existence itself”.
The Letters of John Keats are the extraordinary mirror of a soul, a picture of a great genius responding to impressions, and discovering the nature of his art – discovering, as a mature mind but a touchingly young person what it was that he wanted to do. The Letters are all the more striking, because they belong, so many of them, to the period before Keats came to write the very great works which made his name immortal – the Odes, and the Eve of St Agnes.
It is not possible to say anything new about Keats. We can merely rejoice in his existence.
His poems have been picked to bits by academics, many of whom have had clever-clever insights, but few of whom, I think , have really enlarged our sense of Keats’s achievement. I except from this the very remarkable book by John Jones,, first published in 1969, John Keats’s Dream of Truth. And the works of textual scholarship such as Miriam Allot’s fine edition of his poems in the Longman’s series. I am not an expert on Keats, merely one who finds myself reading his poems and letters repeatedly and always with an enriched enjoyment. And also a sense which grows, as I become older and two of my children are already much older than Keats was when he died, that human lives are not to be measured in time. I am not meaning here to enter the debate of how Keats would have developed as a poet had he lived a full span. That is pointless. But I think you do have a sense in the letters that here was a man of exceptional wisdom and that, tragic – indeed unbearable – as his story is – it is a story of completion rather than of incompletion. His life and achievement were so much fuller than those of us who have lived twice as long as he did.
In his letters, Keats returns repeatedly to the liberating power of the Imagination. He wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey
“what might be regarded as his creed, one of the greatest of his letters and one which can fairly be used as a key by which to read his poetry.”
Keats is referring to the Eighth Book of Paradise Lost when he says,
“The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth. I am the more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning – and yet it must be.Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objectionsa. However it may be, O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! It is a ‘Vision in the form of Youth’ a Shadow of reality to come – and this consideration has further convinced me for it has come as auxiliary to another favourite speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated”.
I do not think that we need take Keats’s words as mere words. When his brother Tom died, some fifteen months after this letter to was written, Keats wrote to his surviving siblings George and Georgiana – “The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature; but his last moments were not so painful, and his very last was without a pang. I will not enter into any parsonic comments on death – yet the common observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs. I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature or other – neither had Tom”.
Like Blake, though in a very, very different way, Keats does not need the parsonic religion to confirm his sensations, to confirm the felt life which the Letters so sublimely and so spontaneously record.
“ I am certain of nothing but the of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as beauty must be Truth – whether it existed before or not – for they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.”
In my next Blog, I should like to speak a little of Keats and Blake, two London poets.