The Significance of Humoural Theory in Early Modern Drama

UnknownWhen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at Court in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Hamlet comments (in regards to the theatrical entertainments to be performed) that ‘the Humorous Man shall end his part in peace’ (2.2, 320). By ‘humorous’ Hamlet cannot mean ‘amusing’, ‘comic’, or ‘funny’ (OED A 4) ) for according to the OED that meaning came first into use in 1652, approximately fifty years after Hamlet was written. Instead Hamlet is referring to humoural theory which was in keeping with ancient and medieval physiology and medicine (OED A 1) as expounded by Empedocles, Hippocrates, and Galen – four building blocks or ‘roots’ of the material world with shared qualities resulting in certain physiological and psychological manifestations called humours and temperaments (Greenbaum, 7-18) found in all warm-blooded animals (Paster, 115):

ELEMENT QUALITY HUMOUR TEMPERAMENT
Fire Hot/dry Yellow Bile Choleric
Earth Cold/dry Black Bile Melancholic
Water Cold/wet Phlegm Phlegmatic
Air Hot/wet Blood Sanguine

The idea is not so much that, for example, black bile causes melancholy but that in some way it resides in it; in this sense ‘melancholy’ is not just a passing mood (as we might use the word today) but more or less a way of being in the world (Paster, 116-117). Humoural theory ascribed certain characteristic proclivities to the various temperaments as follows (taken from The Regimen of Health by John Harington, 1607, reproduced in Greenbaum, Appendix E and Nicholas Culpeper’s Descriptions of Temperament, reproduced in Greenbaum Appendix D)):

TEMPERAMENT CHARACTERISTICS
Choleric Violent, fierce, ambitious, proud, oft malicious, courageous, quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.
Melancholic Studious, solitary, pensive, musing, suspicious, avoids sport, harbours anger and hate, covetous, cowardly, envious, obstinate, spiteful and squeamish.
Phlegmatic Inclining to be fat, slothful, deadened spirit, dulled senses, little growth, dreamy (of great rains and drowning), sleepy, forgetful, shamefaced and sober.
Sanguine Loves women, wine, and all recreation (especially cards), merciful, courteous, enjoys pleasantries and music, not apt to take offence or be ireful, inclined to weep easily but little affected by grief.

In telling us that it is the ‘humorous’ character who will ‘end his part in peace -Hamlet hints that the theme of finding balance is one of the key significances of humoural theory for early modern drama. In his play Cynthia’s Revels, Ben Jonson expounds on this idea; ‘a creature of most perfect and divine temper’ is ‘one, in whom the Humours and Elements are peaceably met’ (i.e. balanced); whether this requires balance of all four humours or just two or three remains unclear and hence for purposes of this essay I will assume that balance is achieved when there remains no ‘emulation of Precedencie’. Jonson notes that should a man wish, to ensure his Humours and Elements are ‘peaceably met’, he must ‘strive’ through both his ‘discourse’ and ‘behaviour’ to be ‘Judicious’ (i.e. sensible in all matters’ (OED ad A 1). In other words, if the required effort is made and humoural balance is achieved such that no single temperament dominates, then according to Jonson ‘Fortune could never break’ a man (excerpt from Cynthia’s Revels is reproduced by Greenbaum, 38).humoral theory

Naturally no person could consist of a single temperament – as far back as Galan in the 2nd century it has been accepted that such ‘pure’ states are not possible in nature (Greenbaum, 14). Because the four temperaments share certain qualities, combinations are to be expected; in his translation of Galen’s Art of Physick (reproduced by Greenbaum in Appendix F), Nicholas Culpeper helpfully includes descriptions of certain ‘compound’ temperaments – for example a Choleric/Melancholic (sharing dryness) not only dreams of ‘Murders’ and ‘Hurts’ proceeding from ‘fire, fighting, or anger’ but is also ‘quick Witted’ and ‘studious’; he is however more ‘suspicious’, ‘fretful’, and ‘solitary’ than Choleric men. Not only that but in regards to men (but not to women) the transition from hot/dry (during adulthood all men are presumed to be hot/dry) to cold/dry occurs naturally with age (aging lowers body temperature).

Still it is not unusual to display a dominant temperament – for example Hamlet’s tendency to melancholy is more than evident when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive. Not only does he tell them that he has ‘lost all my mirth’ but also that he has ‘forgone all custom of exercises’ (2.2, 294-5). Later in the same scene he actually names his complaint – ‘my melancholy’; (2.2 590). But regardless of how many times Rosencrantz reminds Hamlet of his ‘ambitions’ (2.2, 250-260) – suggesting that Hamlet’s friend sees him as Choleric/Melancholic and hence having ambitions – Hamlet refuses (whether consciously or unconsciously) to engage with the full range of his temperaments – he does not ‘strive’ to be ‘judicious’ but instead allows himself to wallow in melancholy’s ‘foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’ (2.2, 300-301). In his essay Hamlet and His Problems, TS Eliot (81-87) concludes that such refusal leaves Hamlet ‘dominated by an emotion’ which ‘is inexpressible’ – he can neither ‘understand’ nor ‘objectify’ it – and if a key character such as Hamlet remains inexpressible on stage, then as Eliot suggests the play is an ‘artistic failure’.

This is not to suggest that all such exaggerations of type result in artistic failure. Compare Hamlet with Shakespeare’s I Henry IV – where in the opening conversation between Prince Hal and Falstaff (1.2, 69-70) the latter declares himself ‘as melancholy as a gib cat’ (cats by nature, are melancholy, Paster, 119). When Hal goes on to compare Falstaff with ‘an old lion’ or ‘a lover’s lute’ – again associated with melancholy (Paster, 115) – Falstaff plays along until Hal invokes the ‘melancholy of Moorditch’ (1.2, 73-74) at which point – with this implication of fetid stagnancy – Falstaff begs off the game (‘thou has the most unsavoury similes’, 1.2, 76). Although obviously aware of his humoural difficulties, like Hamlet, Falstaff fails (perhaps due to age) to balance his melancholy. Yet to my knowledge no one (including TS Eliot) has suggested that Henry IV is an artistic failure and this may be at least in part because by the end of 2 Henry IV the Choleric Hal (he has ambitions as he tells us from the start – ‘Yet herein will I imitate the sun, I.2, 186) and the Melancholic Falstaff cancel each other out. As Eliot (95) notes, in Shakespeare’s successful works his characters act upon each other in a way that is always fitting to their characteristic proclivities; there seems little doubt that Hal heightens his own fortunes at the expense of Falstaff’s.

Shakespeare’s use of humoural theory in Henry IV is in sharp contrast to that of Jonson. TS Eliot (89) suggests that in order to appreciate Jonson’s work, we must not look at the ‘emotional tone’ in a ‘single verse’, but instead at the ‘design of the whole’ work. This is because the success of Jonson’s comedies (but not his tragedies) is not because the characters have an effect on each other (as is the case with Shakespeare) but instead because of the effect of their combination as a whole (Eliot, 94).

Jonson’s work is satire and satire levels criticism against the real world. Thus it should thus come as no surprise that Jonson does not depict humours as balanced – but exactly the reverse – fortune breaks those who allow their characteristic proclivities to slide too far out of balance. Jonson himself has said in the Prologue to Every Man and His Humour that his intention is to ‘sport with human follies’ and ‘laugh at them’ because ‘they deserve no less’. Yet that is not to say that Jonson is more interested in the generation of laughter than in obtaining humoural balance; in his next sentence he qualifies that having seen his play ‘there’s hope left’ that once ‘you, that have so graced monsters’, may learn what it means to be men.

volp2If we are to learn from Jonson, then as TS Eliot suggests (89) we must look to the ‘design of the whole’ work. Like Hamlet, Jonson’s characters are exaggerations of type. Unlike Falstaff and Prince Hal, they fail to balance each other. However they become balanced as the result of the actions of outside forces. For example in Volpone balance is delivered through punishments imposed by the Avocatori, or four Magistrates; with Every Man in His Humour balance comes through the judgements of Justice Clement, also a magistrate. I further suggest that each character’s punishment/ judgement is in keeping with something that triggers a balancing shift in dominant temperament.

For example, in Volpone, the majority of the major players – Volpone, Mosca, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino for the most part display a single domimant temperament as the gulls obsequiously line up to secure their anticipated booty when the ‘childless, rich’ hoaxter Volpone ‘feigns sick’ and ‘offers his state to hopes of several heirs’ (The Argument, 1- 7): they receive balancing punishments as follows:

CHARACTER DOMINANT TEMPERAMENT PUNISHMENT
Volpone Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.

 

Along with his servant, Mosca, he plots the hoax on the others because he glories ‘more in the cunning purchase of my wealth’ than it its ‘possession (I i, 30-33).

Sanguine – hot/wet – not apt to take offence and little affected by grief.

Although he looses all wealth and sent to prison – he addresses the audience at end of the play indicating that for him ‘no suffering is due’ if the audience praises him – ‘clap your hands’ (Epilogue, 1-6)

Mosca Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.

Along with his master, he plots the hoax but turns on him in the end – refusing to acknowledge the hoax hoping to ‘inherit’ Volpone’s money himself.

Melancholic – cold/dry – harbours anger and hate, spiteful.

Sentenced to be whipped and sent to the galleys as a slave, he hisses to his accomplice in crime, ‘Bane to thy wolfish nature (V xii. 115)

 

Voltore Melancholic – cold/dry – covetous, cowardly, envious.

 

Although a lawyer, he perjures himself to ensure he gets the ‘inheritance’ – Volpone realises this and plays Voltore further – ‘unscrew my advocate upon new hopes’ (V Xi, 20).

Phlegmatic – Cold/wet – shamefaced and sober.

After disbarred – V xiii, 126-128, we imagine he is shamefaced to have so scandalized the worthy men of his profession.

Corbaccio Melancholic – cold/dry – covetous, cowardly, envious.

 

In order to secure he is Volpone’s sole heir he disinherits is own son.

‘And disinherit my son? (I iv,95-96) and ‘Tis done, ‘tis done, I go’ (I iv, 132).

 

Phlegmatic – Cold/wet – shamefaced and sober.

Upon losing all his worldly goods & being sent to a monastery to ‘die well’ at V xiii, 1129-1330 we can imagine his spirit will be deadened.

Corvino Sanguine – hot/wet – Loves women.

It is his prize, his beautiful wife, that he offers up in order to secure his ‘inheritance’. “The party, you wot of, Shall be min own wife (II vi, 80-81).

Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, quick to anger.

Sentenced to public humiliation and losing his wife at V xiii, 134-139 –he reacts angrily but cleverly – ‘I shall not see my shame, yet’.

In summary, the significance of humoural theory in Early Modern Drama is to be found in a character’s success or failure in ending ‘his part in peace’ in the sense that by the end of the play, his ‘Humours and Elements are peaceably met’ – or balanced. This can occur either through (1) striving to judiciously ensure no one temperament dominates to the end as Hamlet failed to do or (2) balancing dominate temperaments with other characters as did Prince Hal and his friend, Falstaff. Additionally Jonson has demonstrated that a character’s unbalanced humoural temperaments can achieve balance through the ‘design of the whole work’ by having balance imposed from the outside.

 

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Bibliography

Jonson, Ben. Five Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Shakespeare, William. 1 Henry IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Eliot, T.S. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.

Greenbaum, Dorian Gieseler. Temperament – Astrology’s Forgotten Key. Bournemouth: The Wessex Astrologer Ltd, 2005.

Paster, Gail Kern. ‘Melancholy Cats, Lugged Bears, and Early Modern Cosmology: Reading Shakespeare’s Psychological Materialism Across the Species Barrier’ (113-129). Reading the Modern Early Passions – Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion, ed. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rose, and Mary Floyd-Wilson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

The Role & Representation of the City in Modernist Literature

DublinersIn her essay Characters in Fiction, Virginia Woolf wrote that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed’ – people began to behave differently, she says – giving the example of behaviour of one’s cook – Victorian cooks stayed below in their kitchens and did their jobs whilst Georgian cooks were always wandering upstairs to borrow newspapers or get advice about a hat.

The implication is that if human character has changed (and according to Woolf at the end of the day all literature is about character) then literature must change as well. What better backdrop than the city to illustrate these changes! The problem is however that not all modernist writers were interested in representing the same changes and even where they were, they did not all do so to the same effect.

Cities provide a convenient container, their infrastructure juxtaposing the old and new. In the section entitled ‘The Fire Sermon’ in his poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot uses London’s Thames River to represent the differences between the nostalgic majesty of Elizabethan times (‘Elizabeth and Leicester’ – ‘beating oars’ – ‘a gilded shell’ – ‘red and bold’) and 1920’s London (‘trams and dusty trees’ that ‘undid me’ with little promise of a ‘new start’). Both these representations involve connections (boats/trams) whilst at the same time implying a fundamental disconnect. By choice of images invoked the speaker in this section of The Waste Land seems to suggest that the changes he or she experiences has turned yesterday’s London into a worse place.

Cities also provide a privileged space wherein everything that can happen birth, marriage, death, etc.) does happen with routine regularity. Although the speaker in the Waste Land seems to find little pleasure in his or her London, Virginia Woolf’s heroine, Clarissa, in Mrs Dalloway takes immense pleasure in hers – what with its ‘omnibuses, sandwich men, automobiles, and armies of people’. Little did she know however that just in a few hours wandering about London’s West End, Clarissa would confront so many complex issues –ghosts from her own past (prior lovers Peter Walsh and Sally Seton) and the devastations wrought by war (in the form of the suicide of poor Septimus). It is dislocating just to think of all the things a city throws up to its residents in a single day but the reader of Mrs Dalloway gets the sense that Clarissa finds more plusses than minuses in her London than did the speaker in Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Cities have a way of taking on a life of their own – contracting and expanding according to the needs of society as it changes. In Howards End, EM Forster represents the dislocation felt by the Schlegel family as their long-time London home is pulled down to make room for building a block of new flats. Like Clarissa Dalloway’s London, the Schlegel’s house is a temporal container (albeit in miniature) – for their ghosts. But rather like Woolf’s Clarissa, Margaret Schlegel found her London exhilarating and in the changes that the speaker in Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ found so threatening, Margaret found the promise for a ‘new start’ which would take her where she had needed go all along, Howards End.

Finally cities become symbols in their own right – representing a particular society as a whole – how characters react to this tells as much about them as the society itself. For example, in James Joyce’s story ‘Clay’ in Dubliners, Maria finds enough to admire in her city. Not only does she have a job that allows her enough money to pick and choose amongst the delightful goods at Downe’s cake-shop (and finally purchase a ‘thick slice of plumcake’) but she also has family with which to share them. Although Maria’s Dublin is more claustrophobic (despite singing nostalgic songs and playing games with her brother’s children, one cannot help thinking that Maria – ‘blushing very much’ – feels a bit put upon by her family) than Clarissa Dalloway’s London, it would appear better then what she might have experienced in days gone by (that a prayer book and subsequent jokes about entering a convent serves to remind everyone how much times have changed for the better, at least for women).

In summary, if as Woolf suggests human character has changed then modernist literature needed change to reflect that. The city provides an excellent opportunity to accomplish this because as a back-drop for the modernist writer’s characters, it is a privileged space – a container or microcosm – of humanity. Naturally with changing times comes feelings of dislocation but the way in which various modernist writers approach representations of their chosen cities suggests that for some such dislocation was welcome (as in the case of Maria, Margaret, and perhaps also Clarissa) while for others like the speaker in The Waste Land it was not.

TS Eliot and the Struggle for Maintenance of a Living Language

TS EliotLiving, the poet is carrying on that struggle for the maintenance of a living language, […] which must be kept up in every generation; dead, he provides standards for those who take up the struggle after him’ (T. S. ELIOT).

23 March 1921 – Virginia Woolf made an entry in her diary describing a taxi ride she shared that evening with T.S. Eliot in which she told him that neither of them were as good as Keats. He agreed noting that neither of them wrote ‘classics straight off’ because ‘we’re trying something harder’.

I am not even tempted to suggest that by a ‘living language’ Eliot was referring to that used by everyday people in their everyday lives. It takes only one look at his landmark poem, The Waste Land, and its collage of disjointed imagery, references to classical myth (by his own admission in his notes to the poem, he says that Tiresias, punished for affronting the Greek goddess Hera, is the ‘most important personage’ in the poem), and German, Greek, French, and Italian passages to realise that Eliot was not the least interested in making his mark on the common folk. What interest could he possibly have in maintaining a ‘living language’ for use by the likes of the ‘bored and tired typist’ and her ‘young man carbuncular’ that he so sardonically depicts in that poem’s section entitled The Fire Sermon?

By ‘living language’ he must be referring to something else – something perhaps related to that comment he made in the taxi to Woolf – something that would impress not only (1) his contemporaries like Woolf (he read The Waste Land out loud in her parlour and the Woolf’s publishing company, The Hogarth Press, printed the UK version of his poem) but also (2) those poets who (as he notes) will take up the struggle after him.

Unfortunately for purposes of that ‘living language’, these later poets are inextricably linked with those who have come before. In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot suggests that (at least in the eyes of a critic) a poet always walks a thin line between being innovative and following in the footsteps of those before him – get the mix wrong and the poet will either be regurgitating the past or completely out in the (present) left field. Eliot also suggests that an aspiring poet should aways be aware of the ‘main current’ (which does not always flow from those with the most distinguished reputations) whilst at the same time being aware that art never improves (albeit the subject matter changes).

Quite what all this means for the struggle of maintaining a ‘living language’, we can only conjecture – not only can maintaining this ‘living language’ not have to much do with innovation which usually strives to improve art, but it also can not have much to do with the poet’s personal experience because in that same essay, Eliot advises that the ‘emotion of art is impersonal’. If the ‘living language’ is neither about living, nor about how the folks in the street communicate, nor about taking a innovative approach to poetry, then about what can it be?

The only sensible answer remaining is in regards to subject matter (which admittedly according to Eliot does change); here the horrors of the Great War of 1915-18 come to the fore – for it is without argument that for many people (including poets) this war quite literally changed their world. Now we return to The Waste Land on more solid ground – for it more than adequately incorporates the destructive element of this war. Now the disjointed imagery makes more sense – how could anyone who had lived through such unprecedented devastation feel anything but disconnected? Now the sad reminiscences of the speaker in The Burial of the Dead about drinking coffee in the ‘sunlight’ in the ‘Hofgarten’ before going ‘down’ – ‘hold on tight’ – can be seen as both contemporary and timeless – that and ‘weren’t you with me at ‘Mylae’? serves to remind us that sadly war and its devastating are enduring through the generations – now the connections drawn between that ancient Battle of Mylae in 260 BC and the ‘corpses’ that have ‘begun to sprout’ in 1918 make perfect sense.

In summary, if in Eliot’s estimation any living poet is to carry on that struggle for the maintenance of a ‘living language’, he must look not to his personal experience nor to his innovative techniques, but instead to his subject matter else when dead and judged by those who will struggle after him, he will be judged to have simply regurgitated that which has come before or relegated to the ranks of poets deemed to have been out in left field. Quite how such judgement squares with Eliot’s comment to Virginia Woolf that he and she were not writing ‘classics’ as did Keats but ‘trying something harder’, I am afraid that I still cannot quite say except perhaps in the extent that Eliot hopes it shall place him in the ranks of those of his contemporaries who will someday have the most distinguished reputations.

Use of Fragmentation in the modernist work of Forster, Eliot, and Woolf

montageIn large part, modernist writers responded to the social conditions of modernity which, for a variety of reasons, spelt a serious disconnect with the past; naturally the old has always given way to the new but such transition had never before been perceived as so obtrusive – so fragmented – as it was in the early 20th century.

Not only had scientific advances thrown prior conceptions of physical reality out of the window (for example, the installation of city street lamps had all but eliminated the distinction between night and day) but also philosophers like Nietzsche had undercut traditional notions of an ordered, meaningful metaphysical reality by, for example, eliminating God. If that were not bad enough, psychologists such as Freud and Jung undercut traditional notions of perceived reality with suggestions that it was not human rationality running the show (as had been believed for almost 400 years) but instead an uncontrollable unconscious manifesting either as unruly, repressed personal desires or collective archetypal patterns reflected in myth and dreams.

Hence for purposes of this essay, I define fragmentation as any technique used by modernist writers to address these many fragmented, often seemingly disconnected, strands underlying modern constructions of reality. I suggest that whether or not such techniques are useful depends on the purpose for which the writer chose to use them and whilst we can never know what that purpose was, it is virtually impossible to determine if they were useful except in the limited sense that we as readers get a sense of the turmoil that society must have in some degree felt during this period.

Some modernist writers like EM Forster sought to connect fragmented bits of reality. For example in Howards End, Forster juxtaposed physical manifestations of the old and new; the idyllic countryside (‘untroubled meadows’) is viewed by Mrs Munt from the train on her journey to Howard’s End. She sees it as ‘awakening after a nap of a hundred years’ to such ‘life’ as is conferred by the ‘stench of motor-cars’. But if Mrs Munt was ‘equally indifferent’ to ‘history’ – ‘tragedy’ – the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, Forster was not. He uses that stinky motor-car as a symbol for death and destruction – Charles (with his fit-for purpose ‘gloves and spectacles’) who virtually becomes his car (his father admonishes – your ‘one idea is to get into a motor’) kills Mr Bast, and the paddock is sacrificed for a garage to house the motor, and the motor-car ‘flattens’ a cat. But no matter how often characters urge each other to ‘bridge’ the gap (between what is never made precisely clear) for the most part they seem to fail except perhaps through the marriage of Margaret (old order) and Henry Wilcox (new order) – neither of whom (interestingly) drives a ‘motor’!

But whilst Forster seeks connections, TS Eliot seems to glorify in disconnectedness especially in regards to metaphysical reality; in his poem The Wasteland, there are numerous references to a troubled Christianity – for example in the section entitled A Game of Chess, a reference to the ‘sylvan scene’ (an allusion to the 4th book of Paradise Lost by John Milton where Satan came in the view of Eden) serves as an appropriate forecast for the immediately following allusion to Philomela who was violently raped by her sister’s husband, Tiresias (who may be equated with Satan). The message would appear to be that all hell is breaking loose in creation.

Most certainly as each different section of The Wasteland shifts to the next without transition (or sometimes without even obvious links), we get a sense of how frustrated and lost that society must have felt when all around them they got the same message. But unlike Howards End, The Wasteland seems to suggest connections cannot be made. In What the Thunder Said, we learn from the poem’s speaker that he will be unable to ‘set my lands in order” because ‘London bridge is falling down’ – and that the ‘fragments’ have been ‘shored against my ruins’.

Whilst both Forster and Eliot draw attention to the problems inherent in making connections a fragmented reality, Virginia Woolf seems to suggest everything will sort itself out in the natural course of time. For example, in her autobiographical writings, Moments of Being, she states that she personally takes ‘great delight’ in pulling together her own ‘severed parts’ by dredging through memories (perceptions of time) – much in the same way that many of her fictional characters appear to do.

For example, in Mrs Dalloway, the ebb and tide of Clarissa’s day are a jumble of events, places, and people bound together solely by (often disparate and fragmented) memories spanning more than thirty years. Quite how reflections on the ‘most exquisite moment of her whole life’ when she had been kissed by Sally Seton are connected with her own ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, and suspicions’ (conjured up by Lady Bruton having not asked her to lunch) is left to the reader’s (vivid) imagination. But the way they are presented as a given – we sense that Woolf was never in doubt that they were connected. In Orlando, the only continuity between the hero turned heroine after a four-hundred year romp through history is his/her memories and face. Indeed, memory or personal perceptions of reality, are again here the binding thread – ‘running her needle in and out – up and down – hither and thither’ in a way that clock ‘time’ (which makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom with amazing punctuality’) can never do.

In summary, if we evaluate the usefulness of techniques of fragmentation for modernist writers in terms of whether their readers get some sense of the frustration that 20th century western society must have felt in the wake of changes on so many levels of ‘reality’, I suggest that at least in regards to Forster, Eliot, and Woolf it has been useful albiet in different ways; Forster suggesting that connections can be made between the fragments and provides clues how this might be achieved. Eliot suggests that such connections are inconcievalbe and we had better just make do with what we have with the fragmented ‘ruins’. Finally Woolf suggests that connections are not only are possible (through our perceptions of reality) as we grow older (and presumably wiser) these connections will be naturally be made.

New Criticism – its usefulness & drawbacks


The New Critics established that ‘literature requires and deserves responsible reading and readable response’, but the New Criticism was eventually rejected as being ‘intellectually naïve and methodologically fruitless’ (John Willingham). So what the usefulness and drawbacks, if any, of New Criticism?

New Criticism emphasizes close reading of a text – treating it is a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object – ‘art for ‘art’s sake’ – rather than a work fitting into some larger cultural or other context.

Such an approach is somewhat useful for at the end of the day all that we do have is the text and the larger context into which it may fit remains at best interpretation or conjecture. In this regard, New Criticism can never be ‘methodologically fruitless’; words do speak for themselves and if we are to understand what it being said it helps to focus on what is (as opposed to what is not) on the page.

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There is also significant room to argue as does Willingham, that New Criticism is intellectually naïve in the sense that for although we can never know for certain how the greater context in which it was written influences the text, we can be certain that it has indeed influenced it and if we ignore that influence then we have lost a great deal from our aesthetic experience.

For example in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a close reading of the text in 2.5 where Ferdinand expounds ‘Rhubarb, O for rhubarb (t)o purge this choler’ may well leave us none the wiser. Certainly a 21st century reader realises that Ferdinand is angry (for ‘choler’ has retained that link) but the connection between ‘rhubarb’ (the New Critics were keen to focus on ambiguity and indeed tried to show the unity beneath the text’s apparent disunity) and ‘purging’ that ‘choler’ is lost. Without context, it is almost impossible to fit rhubarb together with anger (unless one suggests they are both related to the colour red). Indeed we may even be tempted to see this ambiguity or disunity as a flaw in the work; many 21st century readers tend to judge a work harshly when we are forced stop reading and think.

However if we know that in the early 17th century rhubarb was considered to medicinally ‘purge’ or cure ‘choler’, then a meaningful connection is made. But unless we understand that Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ is not a fleeting state of mind, but his temperament, we cannot realise the full import of this connection. We can rectify this however if, for example, we examine this text as might a proponent of New Historicism – in conjunction with a text contemporary of the period. For example in John Harrington’s 1607 Poems on Temperament, we discover that a choleric like Ferdinand is not only angry, but he is ‘oft malicious’ and ‘all violent and fierce’. Not only that but ‘on little cause to anger’ a choleric like Ferdinand is ‘great inclin’d’. This understanding of the nature of his temperament presents a different picture that if we were to believe him simply angry on a certain day.

Further, if we accept that a text is an ‘aesthetic object’ (however TS Eliot and others might have us define that) then if we are to take anything valuable away from our ‘aesthetic experience’, we need to focus on what it tells us about ourselves. For example, if we were to examine this text as might a proponent of feminist literary criticism, we might focus more on the suggestion that Ferdinand intends to ‘purge’ his temper on his sister (whom in a few lines earlier was pronounced ‘a notorious strumpet’) because she has married not to his liking even whilst he appears to have no problem that his brother, the Cardinal, keeps as his mistress, another man’s wife. Where is the equality in this asks the feminist? How can the Duchess express herself (as she clearly is attempting to do by marrying of her own choice) if politically she has not the power to do so? Now the focus is no longer just on a choleric brother having a 17th century rant but on the sexual politics of the period and how they might still inform our own sexual politics in the 21st century.

If we were to examine this text as might a proponent of psychological literary criticism then we would focus not on Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ and its manifestations but instead on its potential causes – perhaps the problem is sexual libido gone wrong – this is not an unreasonable suggestion what with all the knives and their phallic symbolism (in 3.2 Ferdinand sneaks into his sister’s boudoir and surprises her with a knife) and Ferdinand’s protestations in 4.1 about the effect on him of her body (‘Damn her, That body of hers’). Thus instead of Rhubarb to ‘purge’ Ferdinand’s ‘choler’, a 21st century psychotherapist might prescribe psychoanalysis or even a modern day substitute for ‘rhubarb’ like prosaic. What might this tell us about how much scientific advancements have changed 21st century society as opposed to that of 17th century?

In summary, if we wish to come to grips with a text then as suggested by the New Critics we should focus on the text. To do otherwise make it all to easy miss not only what has been written but also to add things that have not. In this sense the approach of the New Critics cannot be methodologically fruitless. It can however be intellectually naïve to believe that one can fully appreciate a text (or indeed any piece of art) if one does not understand it in the context in which it was created. It is likewise intellectually naïve not to attempt to draw conclusions about what that text or piece of art might tell us about ourselves – for example how society has or has not changed over time.

Representations of Gender in Modernist Literature – Virginia Woolf & TS Eliot

A Room of Ones OneModernism has been seen as a response to widespread concern that the traditional ways of representing the world distort actual experience. In The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Pericles Lewis suggests that modernist literature attempts to respond to this ‘crisis of representation’ by creating literature that is radically different. Attitudes toward gender relations were shifting during this period and thus I suggest that modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot seized upon using radically different representations of gender in order to explore their own take on the gender-related concerns of modernity.

Woolf wrote extensively regarding women’s access to a level playing field – be it in marriage or the learned professions. In her essay A Room of One’s Own, she muses suggestively on the fate of William Shakespeare’s imagined sister, Judith, who, although as talented as her brother met with a very different results purely because of her sex. After running away from home to pursue her writerly goals, poor Judith would have been denied the same opportunities to display her talents as her brother would have enjoyed – and hence finally broken by the societal ‘ideas and prejudices’ that blighted her life, after committing suicide and instead of being enshrined as would be her brother, lay buried at ‘some crossroads’ where the ‘omnibuses now stop outside Elephant and Castle’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf evoked images of her own parents to demonstrate the inequalities of the sexes in marriage. Whilst Mr Ramsey (so gruff that he excited in his children such ‘extremes of emotion’ that they fanaticised ‘gashing a hole in his breast’ with any handy sharp object) strutted about pondering great things such as the philosopher David Hume, ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his long-suffering wife, Mrs Ramsey (adored by her numerous children), charitably knitted stockings for the Lighthouse keeper’s son (with a ‘tuberculosis hip’). But whilst Mr Ramsey lived a long, literary life littered with accolades, Mrs Ramsey died young having burned herself out in the service to others (Mr Ramsey was especially needy).

In another novel, Orlando, Woolf evoked representations of the androgynous Tiresias who as punishment for affronting the goddess Hera, was forced to experience life as both a man and a woman. Whilst as a man, the character Orlando lived and loved in unfettered freedom, eventually being appointed ambassador to Constantinople where between long, luxurious lunches, he was ‘kept busy’ with the ‘wax and seals’ and ‘various coloured ribbons’ of officialdom. However upon becoming a woman, Orlando was ‘forced to consider her position’ and with the ‘coil of skirts about her legs’ concluded her life now revolved solely around preservation of her chastity – that ‘jewel’ and ‘centre-piece’ – laying at the foundation of womanhood.

Tracy Hargreaves (Androgyny in Modern Literature) has suggested that for a broad range of writers, the androgyne has signalled both cultural regeneration and degeneration – a disruption in ‘normative’ gendered identities which can be seen as being ‘divine or reviled’. But whilst Woolf takes the position that such disruption would be divine, Eliot seems to suggest that as women become more like men, society suffers.

Certainly this is the picture he presents in his poem, The Waste Land when in the section entitled The Fire Sermon, the ‘bored and tired’ typist returns home from work ‘at teatime’ and ‘lays out food in tins’ before coupling indifferently with her equally uninspiring ‘small house agent’s clerk’. As is well known, androgynous beings cannot reproduce and impotency is an important theme of The Waste Land – much of its symbolism suggestive of the myth of the Fisher King whose damaged sexuality was the cause of his kingdom being infertile and drought-stricken (the poem invokes this from the beginning commenceing with ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’).

In his notes accompanying The Fire Sermon, Eliot states that Tiresias was the most ‘important personage’ in the poem, ‘uniting all the rest’. After witnessing the grim love-making of the typist and clerk, the speaker (presumably still Tiresias), making an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith’s poem When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly), looks wistfully back in time to the 16th century when a woman ‘knew’ her place as a woman (after illicit promiscuity, she could only hide her shame and die) rather than lackadaisically turning on her ‘gramophone’ as did the ‘bored and tired’ typist, saying ‘Well now that’s done’ and ‘I’m glad its over’ as perhaps might a man. Such reversals of gender can only spell trouble – for with the departure of normative gendered identities all hope of cultural regeneration is now lost (keeping in mind that Tiresias could prophesize the future) and our own civilisation is now destined to fall away as did Carthage – ‘burning burning burning burning’.

The changing fortunes of the ‘author’, ‘reader’, and ‘text’ in English literary criticism

barthes_graphThe interpretation of the relationship between conceptualizations of either author/reader vis a vis their engagement with a literary text and the relative significance of all three have grown increasingly complex and attenuated. It is my view that although such distinctions are of intellectual interest, their only practical benefit being to highlight new and novel parameters through which authors and readers may frame and express their engagement.

During the English reformation Sidney (Defence of Poesy) and Spenser (The Fairie Queen) announced that the purpose of poetry was both to ‘delight’ and ‘teach’. This was to be achieved through mimesis, the process of imitating (with a view to perfecting) nature. Arguably both the author and reader are equal partners in this process – the responsibility for delighting and teaching rests with the (real live) author and responsibility to being delighted and taught rests with a (real live) reader.

In the 18th century, when critics began scrutinising and commenting on various texts, the author arguably began to loose significance in favour of the reader/critic. By the end of the 19th century with poet-turned-critic Matthew Arnold, who espoused an objective criticism of poetry (proper subject matter = proper execution of authorial duties) the focus had shifted almost exclusively to the text leaving the significance of both author and reader in serious question. In the beginning of the 20th century, New Criticism (based on the ideas expressed by TS Eliot in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent) picked up this theme of text as good or bad and declared that a text was a self-referential aesthetic object – with authorial intent irrelevant and the role of the reader reduced to determining how the text slotted in (or not) with a historical line of ‘great’ texts.

In the mid 20th century with the advent of the Structuralists, the focus was on identifying similarities and differences amongst texts with a view to finding patterns (theme, design, symbology) common to all texts; in this regard the text remained of primary importance with the author and reader carrying little or no significance.

When the Post- Structuralists pronounced that as Nietzsche has declared there were ‘no facts only interpretations’, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault announced the ‘death of the author’ along with the corresponding ‘birth of the reader’. With this neither ‘author’ nor the ‘reader’ are real, live persons as had previously been understood but a ‘function’ for wielding the (dangerous) political power inherent in words.

With all meaning resting firmly now in the hands of the ‘reader’, other critical theories come into their own – looking for ‘meaning’ outside the text in many different places – for example, in gender politics (feminist and/or gay-lesbian criticism), in culturally determined divisions of society such as class (Marxist criticsm), or in cultural norms, beliefs, and practices (Cultural Materialsm and New Historicism). But by the time the Postmodernists come on board at the end of the 20th century, meaning has become so relational and provisional that it – as well as the authors and readers who would try to pin it down – all but (happily) disappears.

In summary, whether any of these many distinctions from the time Spenser and Sidney to the Postmodernists change the way readers and authors actually engage with their texts is questionable and unless rigorous scientific study is undertaken (to my knowledge this has not been done by any of the critical theorists) we will never know for certain. Hence I suggest that in in the 21st century when an author sits down to write a text he is pretty much still focused on delighting and teaching (or at least delighting should he wish his text to be picked up by mainstream publishing) and when choosing texts to read, readers will quickly put down anything that fails to either delight and/or teach and hence the question of his/her role vis a vis the author and/or text quickly becomes irrelevant. However at least should a reader choose to engage with a text, these critical theories will provide him/her with new and novel ways to frame and express his engagement.

Freedom and Power in English Renaissance Revenge Tragedy

UnknownAccording to Patrick Cheney, ‘(r)enaissance tragedy tells how a freedom-seeking individual is oppressed, always to annihilation by authorities in power, whether represented by a corrupt government or by the angry gods – often by both’. I suggest that this is a dangerous over generalization at least in regards to revenge tragedies, which are a dominant theme in renaissance tragedy (Pollard, 58). Not only does it fail to recognise there is no single definition of tragedy for the whole of this tumultuous fifty-odd year period, but it also fails to recognise the various types of power mongers presented in the plays as well as the different types of freedom sought by the individuals oppressed by them.

For example, the ‘authorities in power’ (however defined) are most decidedly not always corrupt and at least with regards to the sub-genre of domestic revenge tragedy such as Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, there are often no governments (corrupt or not) unless one accepts the view that a household is equivalent to a government in the sense of ‘everyman’s house is his castle’ and his ‘family’, a ‘private commonwealth’ (Richardson, 18-19).

In and of itself, this is not an unreasonable view. Hadfield (30) advises that in English tragedy, the fate of the ruling monarch has always been linked to the nation-state in the sense that when the monarch fails to act in the best interests of his subjects, everyone suffers and Richardson (20) argues that this applies likewise for the (male) head of a household and its residents; early modern communities the misbehaviour of a single member of a household tainted the reputation of the whole. This would certainly seem to be the case with The Changeling when after his daughter, Beatrice, has confessed her crimes and perished, Vermandero laments as how his family name and personal honour are comprised (‘Oh, my name is entered now in that (notorious) record,’ V,iii,180). Beatrice’s bereaved husband, Alsemero, however would seem to be less concerned with such damage because once ‘(t) guilty hit, that innocence is quit,’ (V iii 186). In The Duchess of Malfi, although the entire household suffers as the result of the ‘sins’ of the widowed Duchess at the end of the day all taint on the family name (quite possibly because by that time the ‘sin’s committed are no longer solely those of the Duchess) is purged leaving ‘no more fame’ than a ‘print in the snow’ when said snow ‘ever melts’ as ‘soon as the sun shines’ (V v 109 – 115).

But even if one accepts that the household is equivalent to the nation-state, at least in The Changeling it is difficult to conclude that, as head of household/government, Vermandero is ‘corrupt’ in the sense of being depraved or evil (OED II 4) or even perverted from uprightness and fidelity in the discharge of duty (OED II 5); he may be too forceful in his insistence that Beatrice marry as he pleases (‘I’ll want (my) will else’, I 1 12) for our modern tastes, but certainly this does not make him evil or failing in his duty as a early modern father. Likewise, although Alsemero might be faulted for falling in love with a betrothed woman (I i 1-12); but he makes little, if any, effort to win her and hence I cannot consider him to be depraved or evil or even to have failed uprightness or fidelity to discharge his duty; it is neither by his hand nor direction that his wife, Beatrice, dies. However in The Duchess of Malfi there is room to argue that Duke Ferdinand, as head of the household qua government is corrupt. Most certainly at times he borders on depravity and his elder brother, the Cardinal of Aragon, says as much: ‘(w)hy do you make yourself (s)o wild a tempest?’ (II v 17-18). Yet one corrupt head of household/government does not an overgeneralization like Mr Cheney’s support and besides, let us not forget that until the very end of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the King of Spain demonstrates his continuing loyalty to Hieronomo, the tragic protagonist, when for example, in Act 3, scene xii, he refuses to entertain the wily Lorenzo’s suggestion that Hieronimo is too ‘helplessly distract’ to properly do his job and should resign and also that in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, there is neither government nor household to be corrupt.

There is however a god. But despite Faustus’ protestations that He is ‘fierce’ (13, 108), this god is protrayed not so much angry but as business-like, concerned with enforcing the terms of a valid contract freely consented to by both parties. Indeed Cheney’s statement regarding ‘angry gods’ would seem better suited to the classical pagan pantheon depicted in The Spanish Tragedy (presented in the first act by the ghost of Don Andrea recounting his journey through the pagan underworld of the Greeks) than to the New Testament Christian God of Doctor Faustus, complete with hellish devils, heavenly angels, and frequent calls in the name of ‘Christ my Saviour’ for repentance (7, 78-80). Let us also remember that in both The Duchess of Malfi and The Changeling to the extent that any god is mentioned, Divinity plays a very insignificant role.

Perhaps the biggest fault with Mr Cheney’s sweeping assertion is that although it is qualified as pertaining only to ‘freedom-seeking’ individuals, Mr Cheney neglects to define ‘freedom’. This is problematic because over that fifty-odd year period of Renaissance Tragedy, these plays incorporate a mix and match of many different notions of freedom ranging from that of Roman Stoicism ( choice of personal response limited to conformance with cosmic laws ( ‘Logos’), (Macintyre, 101) to that of the grandeur of the renaissance pursuit of ‘self-chosen goals’. Not only that but with these various definitions of freedom come different consequences for the failure to judiciously utilise it; indeed I suggest that the notion of freedom has evolved to ‘self-chosen goals’, we have reached a complete end to ‘angry gods’. By the time of the English Renaissance, tragic protagonists like Shakespeare’s Hamlet (is it ‘nobler’ to ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, than to ‘take arms’ against one’s ‘troubles’ and ‘oppose them’? (3.1, 57-61), no longer struggle against fate and/or supernatural powers (i.e. ‘angry gods’), but instead with the overwhelming responsibility of shaping their own destinies (Dupré, 125).

It is widely agreed that after Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy the form of tragedy favoured by English Renaissance playwrights was drawn heavily from the revenge plays of Seneca, Roman philosopher and playwright. Hence it is only reasonable that in English Renaissance tragedies, there would be some evidence of Seneca’s Stoicism, one of the basic tenets of which is that every man must act ‘true to himself’ to make his own life journey and although he may be aided by others, at the end of the day he must assume responsibility for himself and to the extent that requires going against the authorities in power then so be it. (Asmis, 224).

This certainly seems to be the case with Hieronomo. Witness his agonies (‘this way or that way?’, III, xii, 16) before finally deciding he has no alternative but to seek revenge for the death of his son, Horatio. Further, although Hieronomo’s choices appear narrowly constrained to his ‘duty’ within a defined cosmos (‘Logos’), where ‘neither gods nor men be just to me’ (III 5 10-13) in the true Roman Stoic sense, it is important to note that even in this we find a mix and match of philosophies regarding freedom; for despite Seneca’s own use of revenge in his tragedies (perhaps as a backlash against the limitations of Stoic impassivity), Roman stoicism would have counselled against revenge for if a man is unable to remain calm in the face of disaster, he cannot be trusted to properly navigate his life journey (MacIntyre, 102)

As compared to Hieronomo’s Stoicism, Doctor Faustus takes a wider, more modern view of freedom; his perceived range of choices are more in line with the grandeur of the renaissance pursuit of ‘self-chosen goals’ when he follows his wildest fancies, the ‘metaphysics of magicians’ and the ‘heavenly’ books of necromancy ( I 49-50). Also while the consequences of Heironomo’s decisions appear to lie firmly in the hands of those pagan gods (the ghost of Don Andrea chooses to ‘lead Hieronomo where Orpheus plays, adding (s)weet pleasure to eternal days’ (IV v 23-24), the responsibility for the consequences of Faustus’ decisions are considered by him to be shared by himself and the Devil (‘(n)o Faustus, curse thy self’ and not god, but the devil (‘curse, Lucifer’), (13, 102-103).

Like Faustus, the Duchess of Malfi pursues her ‘self-chosen’ goals as she ‘winked’ and ‘chose a husband’ of her own liking (I i 340) and although the consequences of her action is execution at the hands of her brother’s henchman, she does not appear to repent for having by her own choice shaped her destiny any more than did Faustus – ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still’ (4.2 134) – and indeed she demonstrates more calm and bravery in the face of death )’(t)his cord should terrify you? Not a whit’ (4.2, 206 – 207) than Faustus who in his final moments momentarily thrashes about looking for someone else to blame (‘(c)ursed by the parents that engendered me’). Similarly the tragic protagonists of The Changeling, Beatrice and Deflores pursue their own goals – ‘I shall want (my will) if you do’(I i 213) and ‘I’ll have my will’ (I i 230) respectively. Although by the end of the play Beatrice exhibits token remorse for her behaviour (‘Forgive me, Alsemero, all forgive! ‘Tis time to die, when ‘tis a shame to live’, V iii 1178-179), Deflores exhibits none whatsoever when he wields his penknife.

If in his sweeping statement Mr Cheney has neglected to define ‘freedom’, he equally has neglected to define what he means by ‘tragedy.’ Although for Chaucer tragedy was a little ‘ditty’ about a time of prosperity ending in wretchedness, by early Elizabethan times, tragedy was commercially (if not idealistically) defined in line with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy – ‘tragical’ in the sense that it usually involved love and sexual desire gone wrong (Pincombe, 5-6, 11). Interestingly, according to Pincombe (12-13), many of these tragedies could equally be labelled as ‘heroic romance’ (romantic elements including a wandering hero, exploits of war and love, and the gratification of wish-fulfilling fantasy), leaving the defining terms of tragedy even more enigmatic. Love and sexual desire gone wrong most definitely underpins The Changeling; if Beatrice had not fancied Alsemero, there would have been no story. But love and sexual desire does not figure into Dr Faustus (his coupling with the incubus, Helen of Troy aside) and although lies behind the inciting incident – the death of Heironomo’s son, Horatio – it does not impact the way in which Heironomo takes his ‘tragic’ decision. Although the ‘sins’ of the Duchess of Malfi did revolved around love and sexual desire, I suggest that they cannot be said of have gone wrong except perhaps in the eyes of her designing brothers; indeed Chaucer’s definition of prosperity ending in wretchedness might equally apply, again underlining the difficulty of pinning down the defining terms of English Renaissance ‘tragedy’.

In summary, Mr Cheney’s statement regarding ‘(r)enaissance tragedy telling how a freedom-seeking individual is oppressed, always to annihilation by authorities in power, whether represented by a corrupt government or by the angry gods, is a sweeping over generalisation, dangerously failing to account for the variety of themes and plots combining under banner of ‘tragedy’ as well as different notions of ‘freedom’ represented. Often enough gods or governments are neither present nor materially significant to the plays’ denouement and indeed even when gods are represented they are not always ‘angry’ any more than the governments are always corrupt.

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Bibliography

Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus (based on the A-Text). London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014.

Middleton, Thomas and William Rowley. The Changeling. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013.

Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. Manchester: Manchester Univeristy Press, 2002.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009.

Asmis, Elizabeth. ‘Seneca’s Originality’, (224-238). The Cambridge Companion to Seneca, ed. Shadi Bartsch and Alessandro Schiesaro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015 (online).

Dupré, Louis. Passage to Modernity – As Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Hadfield, Andrew. ‘Tragedy and the nation state’, (30-43). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. A Short History of Ehtics. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2002.

Pincombe, Mike. ‘English Renaissance tragedy: theories and antecedents’, (3-16). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Pollard, Tanya. ‘Tragedy and revenge’, (58-72). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Richardson, Catherine. ‘Tragedy, family and household’, (17-29). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Moments of Being: the Importance of Time and Memory in the Writings of Virginia Woolf

Moments of BeingAccording to Joseph Frank, ‘(t)ime is no longer felt as an objective, causal progression with clearly marked out differences between periods: now it has become a continuum in which distinctions between past and present are wiped out.’ Most certainly that is more often than not the case in the writings of Virginia Woolf where I suggest that the more prosaic concepts of time and memory so lamented by Mr Frank have been manipulated in order to reflect Woolf’s own experience.

For Woolf, time was not always experienced as objective (in the OED (A 3 b) sense of ‘distinct from the subject or ‘independent of the mind’); she noted in her memoirs that it is only when one is thinking of the past, ‘seeing through the surface to the depths’, that one is ‘living most fully in the present’. For her this is because the ‘present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper’(Moments, 108).

In one sense, by this Woolf seems to suggest that time functions only as the result of memory. In Orlando, it is only through memory (running ‘her needle in an out, up and down, hither and thither’, Orlando, 48) that the jumble of (1) years (the life of its hero/heroine spans multiple centuries) and (2) seasons (‘at one moment’ it is ‘a summer’s day’ and the next, ‘all was winter and blackness again’, Orlando, 35), are bound together. Likewise for Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway, the narrative’s jumble of events, people, and places are bound with the present through memories spanning more than thirty years. For Septimus however, memory is so strong as to blot out the present to such an extent that suicide becomes his only option (Dalloway, 127).

In another sense, Woolf seems to suggest that memory can be manipulated in order to alter one’s experience of time. For her, memory is a continuum into which she can ‘dip’ at will (Memories,99). In To the Lighthouse (133), Lily Briscoe ‘dipped’ into her memories to ‘re-fashion’ the image of her former acquaintance, Charles Tansley. She was so successful in her task that it ‘stayed in the mind almost like a work of art’. This dipping into memory also proves useful for purging bits of the past that impinge, unpleasantly, on the present; in her memoirs, Woolf comments that she wrote To the Lighthouse very quickly and ‘when it was written’, she ‘ceased to be obsessed by my mother’, no longer ‘hear(ing) her voice ‘or ‘see (ing) her’ (Memories, 93). In To the Lighthouse (72), gliding ‘like a ghost’ Mrs Ramsey likewise revisits her experience of a house in which she had ‘been so very, very cold twenty years ago’. As the result not only does that ‘particular day’ become ‘very still and beautiful’, but she also manages to disconnect from Carrie, the house’s owner (‘she did not know this Carrie’) who is currently building a new billiard room (much to Mrs Ramsey’s apparent dislike). Sometimes however ‘memory’ and ‘reality’ are not so easily severed as when Orlando, watching the samphire gatherers ‘hanging half-way down the cliff’, realises that ‘like some derisive ghost’ scampering within her, ‘Shasha the lost, Sasha the memory’ has shown herself to remain ‘surprisingly’ real (Orlando, 97).

For Woolf, time was not always experienced as a continuum (with distinctions between past and present wiped out). Indeed for her some remembered moments (‘in the nursery, the road to the beach’) could be ‘more real than the present’ (Moments, 80). As the narrator in Orlando (59) points out, although it is ‘Time’ that makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality’, time has ‘no such simple effect upon the mind of man’.

Woolf suggests that as the result of this inconsistency, some moments of time will be remembered whilst others are forgotten. She gives an example; although she remembers yesterday’s walk through countryside with startling detail (‘the willows’ were ‘all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue’), she has ‘already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch, and at tea’ (Memories, 83).

She concludes that this is because of a distinction between that which she calls (1) ‘non-being’(moments during which we fail to live consciously) and (2)‘being’ (moments which make a ‘dint’ because of some powerful emotion attached to them, Memories, 83-84). Again from her own experience she provides an example: she was fighting with her brother, Thoby, on the lawn outside their summer home at St Ives when just as she raised her fist to hit him she felt ‘why hurt another person?’ This immediately gave her such a ‘feeling of hopeless sadness’ and ‘powerlessness’ that she ‘slunk off alone’, feeling ‘horribly depressed’.

While most of the examples of moments of ‘being’ from Woolf’s own experience are the result of negative emotions, this need not always be the case. Most certainly it was not for Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway (29-31. It is through the ‘echo of her old emotion’, that the moment of being kissed by Sally Seton(‘the most exquisite moment of her whole life’)will last a lifetime.

Woolf suggests that the difference between experiencing a moment of ‘being’ as either negative or positive is down to the one’s ability to find ‘reason’ in the experience (Memories, 85). She gives the example of looking at a flower bed and suddenly thinking that this ‘is the whole’ and that this would ‘likely be very useful to me later’. Such realisations support a theory of ‘self’, the making of personal identity, put forth by the philosopher David Hume (thoughts of whom of whom as ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, Mr Ramsey conjured up to entertain himself, Lighthouse, 54).

According to Hume, the only thing of which we can ever be certain is that we perceive an unbroken stream of subjective images and ideas and hence our notion of ‘self’ can be nothing more than a fiction; the mind’s way to join disparate events together as a continuum. As the result, the ‘self’ is always subject to change. In her memoirs, Woolf seems to suggest that she subscribes to Hume’s view noting that ‘it would be interesting’ to compare and contrast ‘the two people’ (‘I now’ and ‘I then’) in order to understand how much the past is ‘affected by the present moment’ (Memories, 87). As she grows older she finds she has ‘greater power through reason to provide an explanation’ for her moments of being, hence it is now a ‘great delight to put the severed parts together’ (Memories, 85). Most certainly Clarissa Dalloway accomplishes some ‘self-making’ in this way. As she sits at her dressing-table pursing her lips, she finds ‘her self’ when with ‘some effort, some call on her to be her self’, she ‘drew the parts together, the ‘different’, ‘incompatible’ parts – all the ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, suspicions (like Lady Bruton failing to ask her to lunch that day)into the ‘one woman’, that ‘meeting point’, which she knows herself to be (Dalloway, 31-32). Likewise we are told that although ‘he’ has become a ‘she’, Orlando has maintained her/his ‘identity’ not only because his/her face remained ‘practically the same’ but also, and perhaps more importantly, because her/his ‘memory’ – ‘all the events of her past life’ – remains the same. (Orlando, 83).

It would seem that it is not just one’s own experiences that create ‘self’ but also the impressions (real or imagined) of others. This is most certainly the case with Clarissa Dalloway who is prone to also define herself by what others think of her; ‘her servants like her’ and she ‘helped young people, who were grateful to her’ – but ‘what would he (her old lover, Peter Walsh) think’? (Dalloway, 31-32). It is also the case with Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse who, after collecting ‘her impressions of the Rayles’, concludes that instead of really ‘knowing’ them, she has only ‘made up’ a ‘series of scenes’ about them and worse, that ‘not a word of it was true’ (Lighthouse, 142).

Indeed, under Hume’s ‘radical scepticism’, we can not be certain there exists the thing which we call the mind (much less time) because these perceptions have no size or figure and hence cannot be located in space (McIntyre, 182-185). This certainly seems to be the case with Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse for if she is not conscious of something, then it simply does not exist – it seems ‘extraordinary’ to think that someone had ‘been capable of going on living all these years’ when she ‘had not thought of them more than once all that time’,(Lighthouse, (72).

For Woolf, time may or may not always have been experienced as a causal progression (with clearly marked out differences between periods), but it was always thus portrayed in her writings in keeping with contemporary narrative theory. I suggest that in his sweeping statement, Mr Frank misses the important distinction between (1) ‘narrative’, or the representation of events, (2) ‘story’, which is an event or sequence of events, (i.e. the action), and (3) ‘narrative discourse’, the events as actually represented. Whilst ‘narrative discourse’ is free to go in any temporal direction, ‘narrative’ by definition ‘entails movement through time’ both externally (words on the page) or internally (duration of an event), in the sense of beginning, middle, and end. It is only (3) story (like action) that can progress(causally) forward in time (Abbott, 16-19).

Woolf clearly demonstrates her understanding of narrative theory when, for example, in the segment of To the Lighthouse entitled Time Passes, time tells its own story; except for that beam from the Lighthouse entering the rooms ‘for a moment’ (Lighthouse, 113), everything changes in causal, temporal sequence: not only does the house literally fall apart (‘swallows nested in the drawing-room’ and ‘the plaster fell in shovelfuls’) but Prue Ramsey marries and dies whilst Andrew Ramsey is killed in the war that begins and ends with this segment. In another example, Mrs Ramsey predicted at the beginning of To the Lighthouse that her son James would remember that day of thwarted, teased promises of a trip to the lighthouse. Eleven years later, when at the end of the novel the trip to the lighthouse with is finally made, not only has James’ memory caused him to not want to go but also to hate his father for forcing him (Lighthouse, 138).

In conclusion, although Joseph Frank mourns that time is no longer felt an objective, causal progression but instead as a continuum without distinction between past and present, I would suggest that at least regarding the writings of Virginia Woolf this is because Mr Frank’s concept of time is not in keeping with how it is actually experienced. As the narrator in Orlando points out, although nature proceeds with prosaic punctuality, the effect of time on our minds does not. Woolf suggests that this incongruity results in some moments being infused with emotional reponse and hence not only carefully scrutinized but also long-remembered whilst other moments are quickly disgarded and forgotten.

This certainly sums up my own personal experience of time and memory and as we can deduce from her memoirs, it would seem to sum up those of Virginia Woolf as well. Further, it is our careful scrutinization of these moments of ‘being’ that, at least according to philosopher David Hume, contributes to the formation of our all important sense of ‘self’.

That Woolf, an innovator desirous of ‘pinning down the fleeting and evanescent’ (Spalding, 7), would write in the same way as as she experiences the world, makes perfect sense. In regards to Mr Frank’s lamentations that time is no longer felt as a causal progression with clearly marked out differences between periods, I would direct him to a closer reading of contemporary narrative theory.

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Bibliography

Woolf, Virgina. Mrs Dalloway. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2009.

Woolf, Virgina. Orlando.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Abbot, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

McIntyre, Jane L. ‘Hume and the Problem of Personal Identity, (177-208). The Cambridge Companion to Hume, ed. Dave Fate Norton and Jacqueline Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 (online).

Spalding, Frances (ed.). Virginia Woolf, Paper Darts. London: Collins & Brown, 1991.

Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being, Autobiographical Writings. ed. Jeanne Schulkind, London: Pimlico, 2002.

Only Connect: The tension of passion and prose in the writing of EM Forster

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According to Colmer (92), the phrase ‘only connect’, the epigraph to Howards End, immediately establishes the master theme as one of achieving harmony. Indeed the importance of bridging tensions across racial, class, and geopolitical barriers is a recurring theme in Forster’s work.

However I suggest that Forster does not always succeed (or perhaps did not wish to succeed) in bridging these tensions. This essay investigates how and why this might be the case in regards to resolving the tension between ‘prose’ and ‘passion’ in five major characters from Howards End and A Room with A View (both novels themselves connected by reference to the English art critic and author, John Ruskin).

Our first encounter with ‘prose’ and ‘passion’ comes shortly after Margaret Schlegel, a liberal intellectual, receives her first kiss from her chalk and cheese fiancé, Henry Wilcox, a conservative businessman. When Margaret finds that ‘the incident displeased her’ because ‘no tenderness had ensued’, she resolves to help Henry bridge the desired gap (HE, 169).

Although the word ‘passion’ is used twenty-three times in Howards End, it is not defined. However given the lack of physical passion in Margaret’s relationship as well as her musings about ‘half-monks’ and ‘half-beasts’ (HE 169), Henry’s ‘soul’ and the ‘whole of her sermon’ (HE 170), I suggest that the passion in question is more spiritual than physical. Although the word ‘passion’ occurs sixteen times in A Room with A View, it is likewise not defined. But given that yet again, there is little physical passion displayed in Lucy’s relationships (her first kiss – RV, 101 – apparently being as much a failure as Margaret’s), I am presuming that for sake of comparison that the passion in A Room with A View is likewise more spiritual than physical although perhaps not quite in the same way or to the same degree as in Howards End. For purposes of this essay, spirituality is presumed to be un-associated with traditional religions, for as Colmer (91) explains, Forster celebrated in all his novels a ‘spiritual aristocracy’ of the ‘sensitive, the considerate and the plucky’, the members of which ‘are to be found in all nations and classes’ and who have a ‘secret understanding between them when they meet.’Unknown

Colmer (90) also notes that the first Mrs Henry Wilcox definitely qualifies as a member of this spiritual aristocracy. I suggest that Margaret might then also qualify given that she was the first Mrs Wilcox’s ‘spiritual heir’ (HE, 90) but that for Mr Henry Wilcox, the businessman who was not ‘spiritually’ as ‘honest’ as Margaret, there would seem little hope, at least not on his own.

I also suggest that although Leonard Bast in Howards End was ‘a born adventurer’(HE, 108) and hence plucky, there was likewise little hope for him because he was ‘poor’ (HE 41). Stone (36), makes clear that Forster was convinced that only the well-off can attend to spiritual concerns. Indeed the narrator of Howards End reiterates this: ‘this story’ deals only with ‘gentlefolk’ (or those obliged to pretend they are gentlefolk) because ‘the very poor’ are ‘unthinkable’ and can ‘only be approached by the statistician or the poet.’ (HE 41).

Although Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with View might initially have been ‘in a state of spiritual starvation’ (RV,5) the narrator assures us that because of her music the ‘passion was there’, even though it ‘could not be easily labelled’ (RV, 28). Lucy continues to struggle with articulating her passion until Mr Emerson, George’s father, reveals that ‘passion does not blind’ (RV 183). With this she finally gets in touch with her passion and by the end of the novel when she and her new husband, George, commence their life together, the narrator assures us that ‘passion’ was ‘requited’ and ‘love attained.’

This brings us to the second half of the ‘prose’ / ‘passion’ equation.

Although in Howards End the word ‘prose’ is used eight times, it is not defined. However given Margaret’s obvious interest in literature perhaps we may justifiably take ‘prose’ to mean at least in part, ‘a composition or passage in prose’ as opposed to poetry (OED A 2 b). In A Room with a View, the word ‘prose’ is used only once and that is in regards to Ruskin who is a common factor for both novels being invoked seven times in Howards End and four times in A Room with a View. Hence I suggest it is not unreasonable to associate ‘prose’ with that of Ruskin. According to Hoy (221), in both these novels Forster tried to do for modern England what Ruskin had tried to do for Victorian England – to redeem her from the repressive forces that threatened to destroy her spirituality through retreat into an idealised view of the classical world, which valued not only high art but also a quality of mind characterized by disinterested contemplation. In other words, truth rises above the rumble and grumble of the everyday material world and hence only detached intellectuals are able to find it.

Most certainly Leonard Bast believed this to be the case; he felt that ‘if he kept on with Ruskin’ not only was he ‘being done good to’, but that he ‘would one day push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe’ (HE, 45). But Bast fails in his quest, killed by a ‘shower’ of the very books he believed would redeem him (HE, 295). Perhaps this was because as Colmer (102) points out, Ruskin not only promoted intellectually fuelled classicism but also ‘preached the gospel of work to invest the new forces of industrialism with value’. Interestingly this would seem compatible with yet another definition of ‘prose’ – that which is ‘plain, simple, or matter-of-fact’ (OED A 1 b) for as I understand it, with Ruskin came serious questions whether definitions of ‘culture’ could include the plain, simple, matter-of-fact rumble and grumble of everyday life or whether it could now only exist above and beyond. Hence for purposes of this essay, I posit that the message of Ruskin’s prose in both Howards End and A Room with a View is that to be valuable, intellectualism must be put to good use through the gospel of work (the word ‘work’ being used an amazing eighty-five times in the former and one hundred eighteen times in the later).

Although it was ‘work (that) Bast wants’ (HE, 206), I suggest it might not have been the type of work that Ruskin had in mind. Colmer (102) suggests that unlike Ruskin who believed that work must not be reduced to mechanics but instead be intrinsically linked with the enjoyment of that which it produced, Forster could see ‘work’ only in terms of counting houses and because Bast was a clerk, as he himself acknowledged, ‘there’s nothing’ he is ‘good enough to do’ (HE, 206).

Although Henry Wilcox may not have strove to be an intellectual as did Bast, he virtually embodies the gospel of work – he and those like him are ‘(s)ane, sound Englishmen! Building up empires’ (HE, 215). As readers we are reminded no fewer than five times that Henry Wilcox is a man of business and by definition this means he is engaged in ‘serious employment’ (OED II 9 a). However if Ruskin requires the marriage of intellectualism and valuable work, this would seem not enough for Henry for he had neither ‘fine feelings’ or ‘deep insight’ (HE, 187); he was a very ‘practical fellow’ indeed and hence ‘more tolerant’ than ‘intellectuals’ (HE, 133).

Likewise it is not enough for Margaret. However much she may talk about work (for example lecturing her brother, Tibby, regarding work as the cure for his empty life (HE, 100)), Margaret remains a secure member of the leisured middle class. According to Colmer (102) this is one explanation why Margaret was attracted to Henry Wilcox; he ‘embodies the importance of work’ which Margaret appreciated but, despite her extension of the gospel of work to women (HE, 100), she failed to take it up personally.

Even if Margaret was not able to ‘connect’ on her own (i.e. by failing to take up ‘serious employment’ she had not personally embraced the entirety of Ruskin’s prose), I suggest that she ‘connected’ through marriage. I suggest that similarly it was through her marriage to Henry that the first Mrs Wilcox connected her ‘passion’ with the ‘prose’ for however spiritual she might have been, she possessed no prose of her own – she was neither an intellectual nor engaged in ‘serious employment’, her ‘idea of business’ being ‘why do people who have enough money try to get more money?” (HE, 82).

In regards to Henry, although Margaret concludes that ‘he had refused to connect’ (HE, 301), I would aruge that he has done. Although he had once refused to give Howards End (arguably itself symbolic of ‘passion’ with its mysterious ‘pigs’ teeth stuck in the trunk’ of the ‘finest wych-elm in Hertfordshire’ (HE, 65)) to Margaret as requested by the first Mrs Wilcox on her death bed, in the final paragraphs of the novel he gives Howards End to his new wife ‘absolutely’ (HE 310). Although he might not have accomplished the ‘connection’ on his own, he was able to do so through marriage.

Like Leonard Bast, Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View is addicted to her Ruskin. When she first arrives in Florence, she is reluctant to consider what might be beautiful without guidance from him (RV, 19). But as she got into her own stride at Santé Croce, she dropped her pretence to intellectualism and was soon advising Mr Emerson that his son, George, ‘wanted employment’ to get over what would appear to be his existential angst (RV, 26). Whether her rhetoric regarding employment matters, I remain uncertain for unlike in Howards End, the thrust of Lucy’s ‘prose’ was neither the (1) intellectualism inspired by Ruskin (although she did experience her inciting events in Italy) nor (2) the gospel of work. I suggest that Lucy was faced with the other definition of ‘prose’ – that which is ‘plain, simple, or matter-of-fact’ (OED A 1 b). Indeed Colmer (44) suggests that the conflict confronting Lucy was that between naturalness and conventionality and I suggest that in breaking off her engagement to Cecil Vyse and eloping with George, the man she loved, she bridged the tension between her ‘passion’ and ‘prose’, albiet perhaps a different ‘prose’ than that bridged by the characters of Howards End.

In summary, Forster does not always succeed (or perhaps did not wish to succeed) in bridging the tension between the (1) ‘passion’ or the spiritual side of man with the (2) ‘prose’ or more rational, material side. With Leonard Bast, I suggest that he not only failed but that he wished to fail in order to emphasize that blind intellectuallism will never win the day and besides, Bast was never to be admitted to the ranks of the spiritual aristocracy because he was poor. With both Margaret and Henry, the connection is made but not on an individual basis for each lacked an essential ingredient in the the ‘prose’ / ‘passion’ equation. Likewise although the first Mrs Wilcox possessed ‘passion’ (in the sense of belonging to the spiritual aristocracy), without her husband she failed to possess ‘prose’ and the connection could only again be made as the result of marriage. Similarly Lucy Honeychurch was neither an intellectual nor an adherent to the gospel of work however her remit was somewhat different; the prose she was meant to achieve was to put aside the pretence of convention in favour of a ‘plain, simple, and matter-of-fact’ approach to life that allowed her to follow the dictates of her own heart. Lucy demonstrated her success in bridging the ‘prose’ and the ‘passion’ when she refused to marry the man society had chosen for her in favour of the choice of her own.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Forster, EM. Howards End. New York: The Modern Library (1999): (HE).

Forster, EM. A Room with a View. New York: Penguin Books (2000): (RV).

Colmer, John. E.M. Forster, the personal voice. London: Routedge & Kegan Paul. (1975).

Eagles, Stuart. After Ruskin: The Social and Political Legacies of a Victorian Prophet, 1870-1920. Oxford Scholarship Online (2011).

Hoy, Pat. C. ‘The Narrow, Rich Staircase in Forster’s Howards End’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 32, no. 2/3 Summer-Autumn, (1985) pp. 221-235.

Stone, Wilfred. The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E.M. Forster. Stanford: Stanford University Press (1966).