For the past few months I’ve been trying to broaden my reading to incorporate poetry written before 1570 and also to get to grips with the joys of Middle English. Thus far this has involved engaging primarily with Thomas Hoccleve and John Skelton, for both of these I’ve made use of editors which has proved to be a ‘mixed’ experience. I’m also in pursuit of most things relating to David Jones and this morning I received Rene Hague’s commentary on The Anathemata. Obviously I haven’t begun to read this in depth but this from the preface encapsulates some of my concerns:
I very soon met two difficulties. The first was the problem of whom I was addressing, and what knowledge, apt to help him in his interpretation, could I attribute to him. For while it is annoying not to be told, something of which you are ignorant, it is equally, or even more annoying to be told what you have known since childhood: it is as bad as having an obvious joke explained to you. I could only take my own friends, so often better informed than I, as a standard. I found it impossible to be consistent, and in the end I had to write as though simply for myself, with a friend reading over my shoulder.
The second difficulty arose from the impossibility of defining a literal meaning. That exists at no more than syntactical abstraction, which has little use unless it allows the reader to move onward into the intricacies of allusion, allegory, spiritual and even mystical interpretation; and here (even though a commentator may provide a useful starting-point) every reader must do his own work based on his own reading and thinking. Anyone who has studied the great poets closely and for many years will know how endless is that work, and how entrancing.
Needless to say, Hague has now been promoted to one of the Few who write well about poetry and understand the needs of the attentive reader. This balance is a useful benchmark and I would add, from recent personal experience, explanations or definitions that the reader doesn’t understand- I don’t think I should need to consult the OED to understand this kind of explanation. The other infuriation comes from notes/glosses that are wrong, that are factually incorrect and (usually) misleading.
In order to exemplify what Hague is describing, I set out below the sinners and saints in my recent (ish) reading with some examples. I readily accept that each reader brings a different knowledge base and vocabulary to this material but (as ever) this is a subjective view and I’d be grateful for other responses from interested readers.
Roger Ellis on Thomas Hoccleve’s ‘La Male Regle’.
Editors of Middle English poetry place modern definitions alongside the line in question. This particular poem is an extended version of what Drayton categorised as ‘ah, me!’ poetry in that the poet spends a lot of time bemoaning his plight and generally being sorry for himself. These lines are from the second stanza, Ellis’ definitions are in italics:
And now my body empty is, and bare
of ioie and ful of seekly heuynesse, sickly
al poore of ese and ryche of evel fare. in things bringing ease; in misfortune
I would argue that this last line is done an enormous disservice by this inept heavy-handedness. Not many readers will need to be told that ‘ese’='ease’ but if they did then it might be better/more helpful to give the phrase as ‘ill at ease’. With regard to being incorrect, ‘in misfortune’ completely misses the point. I’m not any kind of expert in these things but I can think of many more precise definitions and ‘evel fare’ doesn’t really need an explanation because most of us will be able to define both words for ourselves. It could of course be argued that this edition is aimed at students who might need this kind of assistance, I would then point out that in that case there is an even greater need for precise definition and not what appears to be lazy platitude.
Alexander Dyce on John Skelton’s ‘Diuers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous’.
Skelton was writing about a hundred years after Hoccleve at the start of what is thought of as the early modern period (a decidedly movable feast). This is the second verse of one of his more minor ‘ditties’:
Allectuary arrected to redres
These feuereous axys, the dedely wo and payne
Of thoughtfull hertys plungid in dystres;
Refresshyng myndys the Aprell shoure of rayne;
Condute of comforte, and well most souerayne;
Herber enverduryd, contynuall fressh and greene;
Of lusty somer the passing goodly quene;
Dyce’s edition of Skelton’s verse was published in 1843 and is a delight in that it is hopelessly partisan and idiosyncratic but you can feel the enthusiasm for the work bouncing off the page- the notes can be read on their own merit although it does help to know something of the period. However, Dyce often omits words and phrases which should be glossed and also gives explanations that the interested reader (me) may not understand.
This is how Dyce deals with the above:
Allectuary- Electuary. Arrected – appointed. Redres- relieve, remedy. Axys – (access) fits, paroxysms. Of thoughtful hertys plungid in dystre- Skelton borrowed this line from, Lydgate whose ‘Lyf of our Lady’ begins: “O thoughtful herte plungid in dustressed”. Thoughtfull is anxious, heavy, sad. Herber – arbour.
So, how many of us are familiar with ‘electuary? Was this a common word in 1843 and do we need a definition of ‘redres’ when we aren’t given one for either ‘condute’ or ‘enverduryd’? Because of his enthusiasm I should nevertheless confess that Dyce annoys me far less than Ellis.
At this point I could repeat what I’ve said elsewhere about commentators on Spenser, Herbert, Milton, Marvell and Wordsworth but instead I’ll move forward to the present and the problem of the introduction.
Ann Hassan on Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Speech! Speech!’
Thus far I’ve only read the introduction the Hassan’s commentary but it does contain one roadblock of a sentence. Following Hague, I’m of the view that the reader should be encouraged to undertake his or her own reading and to do the work of attention in all it’s senses. Early on in her introduction Hassan has this: “Hill’s stock preoccupations (in shorthand the triumvirate of martyrdom, memory and responsibility) are still present.” This glib, albeit ‘shorthand’, observation has no place in such an introduction because it sets out a position rather than encouraging readers to form their own impressions and views. For this reader, I think I know Hill’s work reasonably well and I’m deeply sceptical of a ‘triumvirate’ that omits God and England but I am deterred from preceding by the simple fact that this kind of generalisation isn’t helpful and may portend even more infuriations to come. There’s also a degree of complexity in Hill’s work that makes the adjective ‘stock’ either simplistic or (more likely) wrong. I will continue eventually however because I’m a Hill completist, I haven’t paid sufficient attention to this particular sequence and there are 294 pages for me to get lost in and annoyed with.