Review of Elisabeth Jay, British Writers and Paris 1830-1875

My research focuses primarily on the intersections between literature and science in the nineteenth century. Recently, though, I’ve been getting more and more interested in another aspect of nineteenth-century culture: the relation between definitions of Englishness and Britishness, and the ways in which literary writing might have helped to construct these mismatched but overlapping national identities. I started thinking about this a few years ago when I read and reviewed Robert J. C. Young’s book The Idea of English Ethnicity. Moving to Scotland in 2015, though, without question sharpened my awareness that my understanding of ‘English Literature’ in the nineteenth century was too firmly and parochially English, that I hadn’t thought seriously enough about the ways in which Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultures were subsumed within or marginalised by the prevailing Englishness of Victorian national identity.

The Brexit debate, too, has made me think about how Englishness and Britishness were defined in relation to Europe in the nineteenth century, and I’ve just finished reading a book which explores that issue. For the Victorians, Paris was a synecdoche not just for France but for Europe more generally, and Elisabeth Jay’s British Writers and Paris 1830-1875 persuasively shows that British authors were consistently ambivalent about the city. Many were happy to meet the demand for cautionary tales of Paris as a hub of scandal and immorality. This sensationalist view has retained its currency in the twenty-first century: in the 2008 film Taken, for instance, a wholesome American teenager travels to the city, is promptly kidnapped, and narrowly escapes being sold into prostitution by evil European gangsters. Mary Clarke Mohl, who hosted a popular salon in Paris, told a nineteenth-century version of the same story, warning that ‘it is a horrible fact that there are people who catch handsome young English girls in London and send them over here for vice.’ Horrible yet titillating, ‘facts’ such as these helped to cement Paris’s status as the epitome of the nineteenth-century city, a more extreme version of the ‘modern Babylon’ that the journalist W.T. Stead described in his writings about Victorian London.

This was also, of course, one of the reasons why the Victorians were so fond of Paris, either as a place to visit or as a more permanent home. Many British writers based themselves there, and perhaps the most impressive feature of Jay’s book is its detailed consideration of the various enticements that brought them to the city. In addition to its attractive reputation for hedonism, there was also its cosmopolitan and international cultural life; a sizeable expatriate community willing to pay for English-language publications; a plethora of European literary genres ready to be adapted or plagiarised; and a thriving print trade which gave to writers, and especially to journalists, a degree of social prestige that was rarely attainable in Britain. As Jay points out, authors ranging from Dickens, Thackeray, and Walter Bagehot to the radical novelist and journalist George Reynolds used stints in Paris, often writing for newspapers and periodicals, as a means of launching or consolidating their literary careers. Nearly as much as London, Manchester, or Edinburgh, the French capital in the mid-nineteenth century was a centre of British intellectual culture.

But the Victorians’ cosmopolitan embrace of Paris was checked by other, more nationalistic and nervous, responses to the city. Effectively closed to the British during the wars with France between 1793 and 1815, it remained an alien and alarming place, and reflections on the upheavals of the 1789 revolution were an omnipresent feature of British writing about the city. After 1815, lingering fears about French anarchy and militarism were assuaged (but also heightened) by a national habit of historical tourism, as British travellers flocked to the Parisian locations connected with the defeated revolution. For the majority of these travellers, Jay suggests, ‘Paris embodied not only France’s history but its quintessence.’ Another, less polite, way of putting this might be to say that Paris was all that many British tourists knew of France, and that descriptions of the city were often used, in the work of British writers, to encapsulate a set of sweeping assumptions and stereotypes about French culture. And especially after the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848 and the internationalist radicalism of the 1871 Commune, Paris was identified as a symbol not just of France but of a general European approach to politics, violent and chaotic, that was inimical to British interests and sensibilities.

Jay’s arguments about British attitudes to the city’s revolutionary history aren’t wholly consistent. On the one hand, she claims that the radicalism of the Commune, and the brutality of its suppression by the French army, fundamentally altered Victorian opinion on the city, bringing about ‘a deep rupture between past and present not only for Paris itself but for the relationship the British maintained with Paris.’ On the other hand, and more convincingly, she suggests that such ruptures shaped British attitudes throughout the nineteenth century. With each successive revolution and restoration (the July Revolution of 1830, the 1848 revolution, Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1851), the topography of Paris was transformed along with its social and political structures. Streets were renamed, monuments erected or demolished, and these recurring breaks with the past bothered the majority of British writers who shared, however critically, the Victorian commitment to a slow and steady kind of progress, an ideology of political reform dependent on the gradual development of traditions and institutions. Jay comments that the Parisian ‘practice of erasure, of everything from political leaders to buildings and street names, evoked in the British consciousness a fear of the loss of memory’s moral function, and reinforced a commensurately strong commitment to tracing origins and lines of descent.’

This is a tantalising claim, but Jay’s book doesn’t really examine how this conservative reaction to Parisian revolution contributed to nineteenth-century constructions of British national identity, or of the distinctions within that identity between the politics and culture of England, Ireland, and Scotland. I’ll discuss that question in my next post.

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Jane Austen’s Experiments

On Radio 4’s In Our Time in November, John Mullan described Jane Austen as ‘one of the great experimental writers of European fiction’. I agree, and I also think that this assessment can be taken more literally than Mullan perhaps intended. In a recent essay in the journal Nineteenth-Century Literature, I argue that Austen’s Sanditon, her final novel which remained unfinished at her death, presents a new style of fictional narrative which borrows from the empirical and observational practices of nineteenth-century science. As I wrote in a previous post on Sanditon, this novel adopts a forensic and objective narrative stance, through which the narrator bestows a sceptical and impartial attention on the fragment’s various characters. In this post, I want to argue that the methods of scientific experimentation also help to inform the literary experiment that Austen conducts in Sanditon.

As Charlotte Heywood, Sanditon’s heroine, promenades along the terrace of the eponymous seaside resort, she meets Sir Edward Denham coming out of the local library. In an effort to impress her, Sir Edward boasts of his credentials as a discerning reader of novels:

‘The mere trash of the common circulating library, I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences from which no useful deductions can be drawn.—In vain may we put them into a literary alembic;—we distil nothing which can add to science.—You understand me I am sure?’

‘I am not quite certain that I do’, replies Charlotte. Her hesitant response isn’t surprising, because Sir Edward’s account of his tastes is bafflingly inconsistent. Despite borrowing several novels from the circulating library, he dismisses such novels as trash, contributing nothing to ‘science’. He uses this word in its traditional sense, meaning general ‘knowledge or understanding acquired by study’, but his identification of the novel as a ‘literary alembic’, an instrument of experimentation, also points to a newer definition of science as a methodology, concerned ‘with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less comprehended by general laws, and incorporating trustworthy methods’ of verification (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘science’, definitions 2 and 4b).

But while Sir Edward implies that the novel should be capable of reaching conclusions through experimental methods, he contradicts himself by casually dismissing the relevance of ‘ordinary occurrences’, the observable and repeatable events on which scientific knowledge depends. Sir Edward is an object of ridicule in Sanditon: here, Austen’s satire is targeted not at his use of the alembic metaphor but at his failure to grasp its significance for the novel as a form. Perhaps even more in this fragment than in Austen’s other novels, everyday occurrences, and the ‘discordant principles’ of the characters involved in them, constitute the raw materials which, distilled and analysed by the impartial narrative voice, form the basis of a kind of literary experimentation.

This method of objective experimentation is directly discussed, at times, by the novel’s characters. For instance, Mr Parker, the financial speculator who befriends the Heywood family, starts to describe to Charlotte his relationship with his business partner Lady Denham, but then pauses: ‘Those who tell their own story you know must be listened to with caution.—When you see us in contact, you will judge for yourself’. Parker’s statement is significant for two reasons: first, because it shows that the importance of evidence-based judgement and knowledge is recognised by Sanditon’s characters; and second, because it suggests that, both for the characters and the readers of fictional narratives, such knowledge must be founded on the observation not of individuals but of characters ‘in contact’ with each other.

James Chandler has argued that characterization in the novels of Austen’s contemporary Maria Edgeworth can be read as a scientific process, structured on the methodological model ‘that forms the basis of all experimental knowledge: the capacity to compare observations across a range of similar scenarios or objects, where the registered difference among isolated variables enables a causal analysis that facilitates discovery’. A similar argument can be made about Sanditon: narrative and characterization depend in this text not just on observation but on a form of active experimentation, which brings characters into contact in order to compare their differing perspectives. In Sanditon Austen aims to establish an impartiality of form: the objective stance of the novel’s narrative voice offers a kind of unbiased knowledge that is based on observation and experimental comparison. Sanditon constitutes evidence for the close connection between the developing definitions of ‘literature’ and ‘science’ in the early nineteenth century, and it suggests that scientific methods played a significant part in Austen’s understanding of the novel as a form.

Five Reasons to Read Jane Austen’s Sanditon

I’ve just published an essay on Jane Austen in the journal Nineteenth-Century Literature. Rather than discussing any of Austen’s (extremely popular) six published novels, though, the essay focuses on Sanditon, the unfinished novel on which she was working during her months of illness before her death in July 1817. Sanditon is nowhere near as widely known as the published novels, and it’s strikingly different from Austen’s other writing. Here are five reasons why this fragment is an important and original part of her body of work, and why it’s more than worthy of readers’ time.

1. Manuscript

Thanks to an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, based at the University of Oxford, it’s possible to view the manuscript of Sanditon onlineSanditon wasn’t published until 1871, 54 years after Austen’s death; there was no published edition seen into print by Austen herself, and so the manuscript constitutes our only evidence of how she viewed and approached her final novel. There are no (known) surviving manuscripts of Austen’s published novels (apart from two chapters of Persuasion), and so the digitised version of the Sanditon manuscript gives readers a unique opportunity to look at Austen’s fiction as work in progress, and to examine how she revised and rethought her writing as she worked. (The website also  includes the manuscripts of the Persuasion chapters and of Austen’s other unpublished writings.)

2. Style

Austen is rightly admired for her use of free indirect discourse or free indirect style, a mode of writing in which the voice and point of view of a character or group of characters is merged with that of a third-person narrator. Austen sometimes deploys free indirect discourse for ironic effect – as in the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – and sometimes to focalise her narratives through, and elicit readers’ sympathy for, her protagonists. As Clara Tuite points out, though, Sanditon‘s narrative style is different; it “dispenses with Austen’s carefully cultivated protocols of free-indirect narrative witnessing in favor of a comparatively deracinated and disembodied third-person narrator”. In other words, Sanditon adopts a forensic and objective narrative stance, through which the narrator bestows a sceptical and impartial attention on the fragment’s various characters. Whether this is a consequence of Sanditon‘s status as an unfinished manuscript, or whether it points to a new approach to fiction on Austen’s part, it makes Sanditon an interesting source of comparison with the published novels.

3. Plot

The plot of Sanditon, of course, is unfinished, but the indications in its surviving chapters suggest that Austen was trying to do something new with the construction of her plot in this novel. Sanditon‘s protagonist is Charlotte Heywood, who, after meeting the financial speculator Mr Parker, travels with him and his family to his home village of Sanditon, which is also his pet project. Trading on the supposed curative properties of sea-bathing and the sea air, Parker plans to turn Sanditon into a destination for tourists and convalescents. In keeping with the impartiality of the narrative voice, however, Charlotte is not really privileged as the heroine of Sanditon‘s plot: she doesn’t suffer any economic or social hardship (as the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility, or Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, do) and, by the end of the fragment, there is only the smallest hint of the beginning of a courtship narrative. Instead, the novel concentrates on presenting detailed descriptions of a diverse cast of characters, of the interactions between them, and, importantly, of the village of Sanditon itself.

4. Setting

By setting her novel in a seaside resort, Austen relocates her fiction, moving away from the “Country Village” with its “3 or 4 Families” which, she claimed in a letter, was “such a spot as is the delight of my life”. The characters in her other novels sometimes leave this country village, and sometimes travel to coastal towns: in Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove injures her head in a fall from the cobb at Lyme Regis. But in Sanditon the seaside is not the site of a temporary excursion; it’s the novel’s primary setting, and it represents a model of economic and social relations that is new to Austen’s fiction. Instead of exploring, with her other novels, the fixed property-based economy and social life of a particular class (the early nineteenth-century British gentry), Sanditon uses its seaside setting to explore the socially disruptive (and self-consciously modern) capitalist practices of land speculation, tourism, and commodity culture.

The cobb at Lyme Regis: Austen liked to be beside the seaside (source: Wikimedia Commons)

5. Satire

Austen, you’ll be pleased to hear, doesn’t simply endorse these new social and economic practices. She holds them up for sharp critique, satirising Parker’s inflated ambitions for Sanditon, the rapacity of other characters who hope to make a profit from tourism, and the groundless and self-involved hypochondria of the valetudinarians who come to Sanditon to be “cured”. Austen is also brilliantly aware of the way in which literature is implicated in the capitalist exchanges that underpin Sanditon’s precarious tourist economy; fiction, like land or health, is a saleable commodity, and Sanditon is full of the overt (and funny) literary satire which is central to the early Northanger Abbey, but which is less prominent in Austen’s other published novels.

The Uses of Poetry in Victorian Science

Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Criticism and Debates, edited by Jonathan Herapath and Emma Mason, has just been published. The book is a collection of primary sources and critical essays on the key issues surrounding the writing and reception of poetry in nineteenth-century Britain, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to write the essay on science. One of the questions that I try to address in the essay, and in my research in general at the moment, is how poetry contributed to the rhetoric and the presentation of science in Victorian Britain. Victorian science writers frequently used quotations of and allusions to poetry to reinforce and enliven their presentation of scientific theories, or their broader arguments about the value of science as a mode of knowledge. As I wrote in my previous post, this is a strategy they share with popular science writers in the twenty-first century. Verse, however, was particularly effective as a rhetorical support for science in the Victorian period, because, although it was losing commercial ground and market share to the novel and to the periodical press, poetry in nineteenth-century culture retained its status as the height of artistic expression, and as the articulation of enduring emotional and spiritual truths.

Victorian science writers found various uses for the cultural authority of poetry as a form. To give one example: on 5 September 1867 the physicist and populariser of science John Tyndall gave a ‘lecture to the working men of Dundee’ titled ‘Matter and Force’. At the close of his explication of the molecular processes that constitute the transformation of liquid water into ice, Tyndall commented that, ‘to use the language of an American poet, “the atoms march in tune,” moving to the music of law, which thus renders the commonest substance in nature a miracle of beauty.’ The quotation is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1846 poem ‘Monadnoc’: ‘For the world was built in order, / And the atoms march in tune’. There are several ways of interpreting Tyndall’s deployment of this particular poet’s language. It might be argued that he uses Emerson’s poem as mere eloquence, an expressive form of words that functions straightforwardly as an ornamentation or embellishment of the argument of his prose. Alternatively, the quotation might perhaps be interpreted as an item of supporting evidence for that argument, encapsulating and demonstrating Tyndall’s suggestion that scientific knowledge (and scientific terminology such as ‘atoms’) also has aesthetic significance, making the ‘music’ of natural law and the ‘beauty’ of natural processes more readily appreciable.

A third possible interpretation is suggested by the next paragraph of Tyndall’s argument, in which he asserts, immediately after this quotation, that ‘it is the function of science, not as some think to divest this universe of its wonder and its mystery, but, as in the case here before us, to point out the wonder and the mystery of common things.’ In the light of this statement, it’s possible that the value of Emerson’s poetry for Tyndall is not just stylistic and aesthetic, but epistemological and even (in a way that he deliberately leaves vague and undefined) theological or spiritual. Tyndall was famously antagonistic towards theologians’ efforts to restrict the remit of science, and famously robust in his championing of scientific materialism and naturalistic explanation. Here, though, circumspectly yet firmly, he introduces a mysterious and arguably mystical element into his scientific argument. The ‘law’ to which his atoms conform is not wholly distinct from the providential ‘order’ that Emerson’s poem identifies in the world’s construction and operation.

Why would Tyndall (who, as Bernard Lightman has argued, was Victorian Britain’s most vocal proponent of scientific naturalism) use poetry in this way, as a kind of mystical, rhetorical safety net? Perhaps because, despite the growing prominence and intellectual authority of scientific thinking in the nineteenth century, there remained a widespread sense of anxiety or suspicion towards exclusively scientific models of explanation such as Tyndall’s. Gillian Beer, in an essay on Tyndall and Gerard Manley Hopkins which is republished in Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Criticism and Debates, writes that Tyndall saw a ‘recognition of a disjunction between natural processes and human patterns of expectation and design’ as ‘one of the characterizing gains of science.’ In many ways this disjunction was indeed a gain, but it was also a problem that needed to be managed and smoothed over, especially when addressing audiences who were not scientific specialists. In his lecture to the working men of Dundee, Tyndall uses Emerson’s poetry to reassure: scientific explanation is naturalistic and quantitative, but it is not reductive or mechanistic; it preserves space for wonder and mystery. The proof of this is that science can be communicated in, and made to sound like, poetry. Richard Dawkins, interestingly, does something similar in his popular science writing: poetic quotations are often found in his work in close proximity to celebrations of the ‘wonder’ of science. Poetry performed (and still performs) an active part in science communication: as a demonstration of the science writer’s cultural capital; as a means of conveying the aesthetic possibilities of scientific knowledge; and, perhaps most importantly and consistently, as a form of reassurance.

Popular Science and (Unpopular?) Poetry

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve been thinking about poetic quotation recently. I’ve probably been thinking about it too much: quotations of poetry in prose writing often seem fairly insignificant; a kind of ornamentation to the main argument, or a demonstration of the writer’s erudition; irrelevant to the larger structure of the text, and at best effective at a local level. But the practice of poetic quotation is so widespread, both in the nineteenth century and now, that I’m convinced that, however slight any single quotation might be, the convention as a whole is significant, and worthy of study. At the moment I’m researching a book chapter on poetic quotations in nineteenth-century scientific texts; because of this work, perhaps, I also can’t help noticing snippets of poetry scattered throughout my supposedly non-work-related reading. As I wrote in September, it seems to me that some contemporary novelists use quotations of poetry (and especially of Victorian poetry) as a sort of shorthand for characterisation. Another example, closer to my research, is the near-ubiquitous deployment of poetry in contemporary popular science, in a way that appears, surprisingly, very similar to the use of poetic quotation in nineteenth-century science writing.

My most recent example of this is from Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by the physicist Jim Al-Khalili and the microbiologist Johnjoe McFadden. The book is an interesting and astute piece of popular science writing, characterised by a thoughtful self-consciousness about the difficulties involved in presenting abstruse scientific concepts to non-specialist readers. For example, it presents a series of effective metaphors for describing the weird and counterintuitive actions of subatomic particles, while also retaining a sceptical awareness of the explanatory limits of metaphor. The aspect of the book’s style that most interests me, though, is the authors’ decision to end its final chapter (apart from a brief epilogue) with three lines of Shakespeare’s blank verse:

The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,

And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder…

This quotation is taken from Prospero’s speech in act 5, scene 1 of The Tempest (lines 42-44). Its main function in Life on the Edge is as the capstone to the governing metaphor of this particular chapter, which imagines organic life as a ship, precariously navigating between the chaotic, stormy “sea” of classical physics and the finely tuned, infinitesimally minute operations of quantum mechanics (which, according to Al-Khalili and McFadden, underpin the ‘coherence’ and precision of biological processes). The Tempest is a good source text for illustrating this maritime metaphor, and one of the chapter’s early sections commences with the play’s opening stage direction: “On a ship at sea: a tempestuous noise”.

In order to make the quotation from the fifth act fit more closely into the chapter’s argument and metaphorical structure, Al-Khalili and McFadden alter it, and they do so by utilising one of the most basic formal features of verse: line endings. By omitting the final clause of the preceding line – “I have bedimmed” – they obscure the fact that Prospero is describing his personal (and magical) control over the sun, the sea, and the sky. The grammar of the lines is transformed, and agency is transferred from Prospero to the natural world itself. This edited version of the quotation chimes closely with the chapter’s account of biological life as the site of a complex and precarious interaction between different orders of natural process. This similarity is only attained, though, through a significant reworking of the quotation, in which the source text appears to surrender authority over its own meaning.

At the same time, it seems that Shakespeare’s poetry still retains a kind of authority over the chapter’s scientific argument. Coming at the end of the chapter, constituting almost the last word on the book’s claims, it might be argued that these three lines of poetry are being implicitly presented by the book’s authors as the most apt or suitable summary of their account of the complex theories of quantum biology. Nineteenth-century science writers frequently use poetic quotations in this way, as an elevated and edifying means of encapsulating a scientific argument. This makes sense, I think, given the prominent cultural status of poetry in nineteenth-century Britain: even if poetry wasn’t widely read, it was consistently deferred to as the highest form of artistic expression. It’s surprising to me, though, that popular science writers are still using poetic quotations in the twenty-first century: the non-specialist readers that these writers are trying to reach are probably not familiar with the details of the science being discussed, but many of them are also probably not very familiar with, or impressed by, poetry as a form. On reflection, though, perhaps the unpopularity and obscurity of poetry in contemporary British culture increases the effectiveness of poetic quotations in popular science texts. Writers and readers may no longer defer to poetry, but poetic quotations provide a means of conveying recondite scientific concepts in language that is pithy and eloquent, while also being seen as culturally sophisticated, imaginatively rich, and intellectually challenging.

Why Do Novelists Need (Victorian) Poetry?

I’ve been thinking about poetic quotation recently. More specifically, I’ve been wondering why prose writers in the twenty-first century, working in forms ranging from popular science to the novel, frequently use quotations from poems (typically, formally regular poems written before 1900) to reinforce, validate, or summarise their arguments or narratives. In the case of the novel, it seems counterintuitive that, at a time when the commercial prospects and cultural fortunes of prose fiction are so much more robust than those of poetry, novelists should refer (or perhaps defer) so persistently and so readily to poets. A recent example is the 2014 Booker winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (which I admit I’ve only just read). In this novel, which recounts the experiences of an Australian doctor in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, Flanagan quotes repeatedly from the poetry of Alfred Tennyson. He’s by no means the only contemporary novelist to do so: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (2011) and Sebastian Faulks’s Where My Heart Used to Beat (2015) both derive their titles from Tennyson’s elegy In Memoriam. Why, then, do novelists seemingly find Tennyson so irresistible?

The Narrow Road to the Deep North abounds with verse: there are quotations from Japanese poetry, allusions to Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (apt in a novel about the brutality and futility of empire), and a cameo from the Australian Modernist poet Max Harris. It’s Tennyson’s much-quoted dramatic monologue “Ulysses”, though, which dominates. This was noted by Michael Hofmann in his scathing review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the London Review of Books: “the Tennyson never stops”, Hofmann wrote, and in his view the frequent recourse to poetic quotation epitomises the ersatz, recycled quality of this novel, in which the characters, plots, and metaphors “are all quoted, all sampled, they are all well-loved items from a catalogue or anthology”. The book is not without its flaws, but I think Hofmann’s assessment is unfair, and I think that poetic quotation plays a more substantive role than he allows, both in Flanagan’s novel and in contemporary prose fiction more generally.

The non-stop Tennyson might perhaps be explained by Flanagan’s particular interest in Victorian culture: his 2008 novel Wanting includes Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens among its characters. It’s not immediately clear, though, why he is so determined to incorporate Victorian verse into The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a novel set in the mid-twentieth century. In his 2010 study Tennyson Among the Novelists, John Morton shows that novelists have been quoting Tennyson almost from the start of his career, and that, both in Victorian fiction and in more recent neo-Victorian novels, “Tennyson’s works often seem to have been invoked in order to evoke periodicity”, either “in order to make the novel look up to date” (in the nineteenth century) or “to date it specifically”. In Flanagan’s novel, it is the attitudes and opinions of the protagonist Dorrigo Evans that are dated, and dated specifically by his obsession with Tennyson (“obsession” isn’t too strong a word: Evans even recites “Ulysses” – amazingly, with some success – as a method of seduction). When Evans hears Max Harris read his verse, he is “unable to make head or tail of it”, stating his preference for “the Victorian poets and the writers of antiquity.”

Later, the novel’s narrative voice comments that “Dorrigo Evans had grown up in an age when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry, or, as it was increasingly with him, the shadow of a single poem.” It seems difficult to imagine the first half of the twentieth century as such an age, and so it appears that Evans’s passion for Tennyson performs a specific, negative function in Flanagan’s construction of the character: it is a signifier of nostalgia, of Evans’s yearning for an unattainable past that is unattainable because it never really existed, of his refusal to come to terms with modernity.

It’s possible that contemporary novelists more generally use poetry (and Tennyson’s Victorian poetry especially) in the same way: to mark a disjunction between the old-fashioned otherworldliness of verse and the clear-eyed realism of the novel. At the start of The Narrow Road to the Deep North Evans quotes lines from “Ulysses” – “The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep / Moans round with many voices” – that are rewritten, in the novel’s final section, to describe the monotonous, attritional hardship of life in a prisoner-of-war camp: “The long night waxed, the slow quarter-moon continued rising through black rungs, the night moaned with many groans and snores.” This seems to subvert Evans’s frequent quotations of “Ulysses” throughout the rest of the book, suggesting that the measured eloquence of Tennyson’s blank verse needs to be roughened or reworked if it is to have any chance of accurately representing the brutalities of twentieth-century history.

At the same time, though, the novel’s return to “Ulysses” in its closing pages indicates how thoroughly the poem’s language influences Flanagan’s characterisation of Evans, and the way in which that influence extends, through free indirect discourse, to the language of the novel as a whole. In the book’s penultimate section Evans is still thinking about “Ulysses”, finding “every word now a revelation, as if it had been written for him, a poem his life and his life a poem.” Throughout The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Flanagan utilises Tennyson’s poem not just to represent his protagonist’s conservative tastes but to encapsulate his character in its entirety. I’m not convinced that this method of characterisation is unambiguously successful, but I think it demonstrates one of the main reasons why novelists need poetry: the brevity of verse, the concision and precision of poetic language, enables poetic quotations to function as a kind of shorthand, a condensation of a novel’s concerns and preoccupations (or of one of its characters). Poetic quotations make good titles, but The Narrow Road to the Deep North shows that they can also permeate, and offer a kind of pattern for, the structure and texture of prose writing.

Poets and Readers in 1815 and 2015

Yesterday, The Conversation published a piece by the poet and Professor of Creative Writing Ian Gregson, which argues that poetry is ‘well and truly in the margins’ of contemporary culture. Poetry’s marginalisation, according to Gregson, is a relatively recent phenomenon, brought about by the ‘growing prevalence of popular music’, which stole poetry’s lyrical thunder, and most importantly by the ‘new media’ of 24-hour television, the internet, and social media. The development of these media technologies, Gregson concludes, and the modes of thinking that they encourage, have been detrimental to the ‘slow reading that poetry demands’. The ‘painstaking process’ of reading, rereading, and understanding a poem is beyond many readers, whose reading practices are shaped by the limitless availability of instant, fragmented, technologically mediated information. That’s why poetry now languishes in the margins of culture.

200 years ago, in January 1815, William Wordsworth set out a surprisingly similar argument in the ‘Essay, Supplementary to the Preface’ that he wrote for his 1815 Poems. Wordsworth’s essay was primarily written as a riposte to the critics who had slated his (very long) 1814 poem The Excursion, particularly the influential reviewer Francis Jeffrey. The essay opens with an attack on unqualified and undiscriminating critics which, Wordsworth regrets, is ‘of too ungracious a nature to have been made without reluctance’. His reluctance, though, doesn’t stop him from then scolding the general readers who also failed to appreciate (or even to buy) The Excursion. The minds of the majority of readers, he claims, are too content to be ‘passive’, and this is a problem for writers of verse, because the concerns of the poet – ‘the profound and the exquisite in feeling, the lofty and universal in thought and imagination’ – cannot be appreciated ‘without the exertion of a co-operating power in the mind of the Reader’. Like Gregson 200 years later, Wordsworth fears that readers are no longer up to the active and painstaking task of exerting themselves in order to study and think through a challenging piece of poetry.

The reasons Wordsworth gives for readers’ failings are also not dissimilar to those mentioned by Gregson. In his 1815 essay, Wordsworth argues that the intellectual inactivity of the average reader derives from ‘that selfishness which is the child of apathy, – which, as Nations decline in productive and creative power, makes them value themselves upon a presumed refinement of judging.’ This is an early expression of an argument that would become commonplace throughout the nineteenth century: that modern, industrially developed societies (exemplified, of course, by nineteenth-century Britain) inevitably suffer a decline in poetic sensibility. In Wordsworth’s view, ‘creative power’ has been replaced in British culture by an over-readiness to make quick, lazy, and shallow judgements about the writings of those who do still try to create and innovate. In his 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, he is more precise about the causes of the declining quality of British readers: ‘a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and […] to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.’ Both Wordsworth in 1815 and Gregson in 2015 attribute the marginalisation of innovative, challenging poetry to the increasingly rapid circulation of information that characterises modern society.

The similarity of these arguments suggests, to me, two key points. First, it seems that, since at least 1800, poets have feared that modern media and social relations, and the habits of thinking they enable and promote, are inimical to the appreciation of poetry. It’s tempting to search for some grand historical explanation for this view: perhaps the emergence and rapid commercial success of the novel as a rival form in the eighteenth century; or even the gradual shift towards a more and more literate society, in which the reading aloud of verses was inexorably replaced by the silent reading of printed texts. My hunch, though, is that specialists in earlier periods of literary history could provide plenty of pre-1800 examples of poets lamenting the marginalisation of poetry; readers ain’t ever what they used to be. Perhaps, then, poetry often seems to be marginalised because the poet is an inherently marginal figure, commenting on social life from the assumed position of an outsider. Or perhaps it could be argued that poetry, innovative and challenging poetry at least, is not just marginal but oppositional, demanding that readers think about things, or think from perspectives, that are destabilising or discomfiting, and presenting its demands in unfamiliar forms and complex language. That’s probably never going to be popular.

The second key point is that Wordsworth and Gregson agree in arguing that poetry demands the active participation of the reader; understanding a poem requires the patient exertion of the reader’s imaginative and critical powers. Gregson ends his piece with a rallying call to university teachers of English literature and of creative writing: ‘universities should be at the forefront of renewing interest in poetry. Instead the opposite is happening, because universities are responding to financial constraints by giving students more and more of what they want.’ I agree unequivocally with the first sentence: universities have a responsibility to help their students develop the critical skills needed to appreciate poetry. I’m not, however, as gloomy as Gregson about the future of poetry in academia. Although many of my students at the University of Surrey are initially wary of studying poetry, the overwhelming majority of them, in the end, find something of significance for themselves in the poems they read. As Gregson states, university teachers need to continue to stimulate students’ interest in poetry. They need to do more than this, though; they also need to act as vocal advocates for the invigorating difficulty of poetry outside universities, throughout society more widely.