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Thursday, 20 September 2012

Literary thoughts

Wednesday, September 20th., Les Nefliers

I have been re-reading Kipling, and thought "Without Benefit of Clergy" fine, and yet perhaps not great. Other things pretty good but certainly not great.

This story first appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine for June 1890 and in Harper’s Weekly on 7 and 14 June the same year.In it John Holden leads a double life. To his colleagues in the civil service he is a bachelor, living in spartan bachelor quarters, and sometimes neglecting his work. But he has set up a young Muslim girl, Ameera, in a little house on the edge of the old city. She is the love of his life, and he of hers. They are idyllically happy together, and when she gives birth to a baby boy, Tota, their happiness is complete. When Tota dies of fever, they are distraught. Then Ameera is stricken with cholera and dies in Holden's arms. He is left desolate, and the house is soon pulled down. The idyll is over as if it had never been. 
By strict definition, 'Benefit of Clergy' was the right of exemption from trial in a secular court by those in Holy Orders: which later included all who could read. (This was abolished by 1841). However, Kipling’s punning use of the expression hinges on the fact that Holden and Ameera are living as man and wife without the blessing of his Church or hers; had one of them converted, they might have married, but such a union would have meant both social and professional ruin for Holden. 

Also William Watson, as to whom I am obliged to revise my estimate. If he isn't sometimes a great poet he comes near to being one.

Sir William Watson (2 August 1858 – 13 August 1935), was an English poet, popular in his time for the political content of his verse. He was born in Burley, in West Yorkshire. He was a prolific poet of the 1890s, and a contributor to The Yellow Book, though without 'decadent' associations. Indeed he was very much on the traditionalist wing of English poetry. He had a gift for resonant phrasing and reiterative rhythms which he mistook (and for 20 years many critics mistook) as a gift for poetry.

And now I am re-reading "Wilhelm Meister" after about twenty years.

Everybody has heard of Goethe, but the English have always had a tricky relationship with him. AS Byatt puts it perfectly: "Little of his major work resembles the forms and values we are comfortable with in our own literatures." That's why I like him. The hero of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship dreams of a life in the theatre, as exotic to him as space travel might seem to us. When an actress breaks his heart, he sets off with a touring company, encountering strange characters such as Mignon, an androgynous child, and a gloomy harp-playing minstrel whose songs Schubert set so beautifully. Goethe's writing is simple, elegant and uncluttered; the naturalism lures us into a story that gets odder by the page. Coincidences mount; there's a book-within-the-book that seems a complete digression. Then we find ourselves back with Wilhelm, at a mysterious castle where he meets members of the secret Society of the Tower, who have been conducting events all along. Everything connects; Wilhelm's life is a scroll in their library. 

We can see what Byatt meant: this is strange stuff, and one writer hugely influenced by it, surely, was Franz Kafka. So were Walter Scott, James Hogg and Thomas Carlyle: Goethe's sense of the uncanny found a receptive audience in 19th-century Scotland. 

The lesson of the book is that we should give unity to our lives by devoting them with hearty enthusiasm to some pursuit, and that the pursuit is assigned to us by Nature through the capacities she has given us. Sir J. R.Seeley

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