Literary History: Non-Subject Par Excellence Author(s): F. W. Bateson Source: New Literary History, Vol. 2, No.
1, A Symposium on Literary History (Autumn, 1970), pp. 115-122 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/468592 . Accessed: 01/03/2011 17:14
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" 2 Against these incidental blessings must be set certain incidental scandals. or bold. because it glosses over a logical contradiction between two opposed modes of thought.S. It can be compared to the Philosophers' Stone. 68.
. as Thackeray confused them in the evening preceding the duel in Esmond. have outgrown their adolescent enthusiasms without acquiring a mature critical sense. though a futile occupation in itself (one of the jokes of modern academic life). and N. 1922). In the same way literary history. two. has had its own valuable by-products. Bateson
par excellence? For two reasons: one (the topic to
which this essay is principally devoted). For one thing. they have always some good quality to recommend them-except one: they are never right. p. chap. W. The confusion between their arrival "at night fall" and Esmond's proposal over an hour later that they should have "half an hour's practice before nightfall" seems to reflect a muddle about sunset in O. or solid. a disreputable though not entirely useless by-product. xiv). Old Style is no longer confused with New Style. Though the medieval alchemists never discovered how to transmute lead into gold. Literary history is merely a by-product.Literary History: Non-Subject Par Excellence F. the I th of October. Literary history has provided an umbrella of respectability under which are still crowded teachers of literature who.). the science of chemistry is directly descended from their failures. because literature and history are both excellent things in themselves-provided they are considered (and practiced) separately.S.
Books and Characters (London. it has sharpened our chronological sense. In fact the Iith of October was a Friday (O. we would never say-as Lytton Strachey did in a review of Birkbeck Hill's edition of The Lives of the Poets in 19o6-that "Johnson's aesthetic judgments are almost invariably subtle.S. 1 Literary history has also played its part in encouraging habits of accurate documentation and a general consciousness of the relativity of critical values. It was against these unfortunate misfits that the New Criticism
I Esmond and Lord Castlewood set out for London on "Monday morning. in the year I700" (Book I.
only a slogan. And for a biographer it is necessary for his subject to be born. The umbrella now covers prosodists. (The historical order is deliberately confused. However. that there is an inherent contradiction in the notion of literary history. though an increasing specialization has now changed the essential situation. textual critics. into leaving the proper subject-matter
. therefore. I will call our condition (with Blake. and Virginia Woolf next to Sterne. episodes connect.S16
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led its successful revolution. No one would confuse one of Richardson's novels with one of James's." But I must not anticipate my conclusion. Wells next to Dickens. The reader of a historical work or a biography finds himself continuously compelled. is necessarily "esemplastic. The point that Forster seems to have missed is that history is essentially outward-looking... characters establish interrelationships. whereas literature is inward-looking. II We are faced with an initial logical difficulty. so far unfulfilled and perhaps unfulfillable. H. but a point has been made. No doubt these gentlemen must live. literature and history will not mix. analytical bibliographers. et hoc genus omne. Forster invites us to imagine "all the novelists ." to use Coleridge's term. images fuse with concepts. or James and Wells. as well as literary historians of the old school. In a familiar passage in Aspects of the Novel E. at work together in a circular room" (which he later compares to the Reading Room of the British Museum). though in a different context) "The lost traveller's dream under the hill. on the other hand. Forster's examples may seem to refute his generalization. We need literary history. And the differences between Virginia Woolf and Sterne are surely patent and enormous. but their need for bread and butter has obscured the persistence of a more intellectual instinct. It would seem. even though the child can sometimes be shown to be the father of the man. The emphasis in it is on similarities rather than differences. we shall find Samuel Richardson sitting by the side of Henry James. Art stands still" is. or at times coaxed. to mature. There.) His slogan "History develops. History is committed by its nature to the exposition of differences between one temporal event or period and another. though it may also be agreed that there are almost no resemblances between near-contemporaries like Richardson and Sterne. G. and ultimately to die-three conditions that necessarily differentiate themselves. he tells us. Like oil and water. as he half admits. stylisticians. A country in which no such differences can be distinguished is a country without a history. Literature. M.
A study of a past period enables one to predict. At a certain point in time a work of literature comes into being. and the judgments that a historian offers upon policies. whether it is private or public. social divisions. and the ultimate critical verdict is a skeleton of that skeleton. What remains in the memory is the merest skeleton of the actual subjective experience. At best we are left with an aesthetic nucleus that the memory has sifted." Literature being temporal in its essence (Act I precedes Act V). any such speculations will be a sign either of incompetent writing or of incompetent reading. In contrast to the historian's his success depends upon his ability to impose upon his readers the illusion of reality-a pseudo-reality that is nevertheless "like" reality as the vehicle of a metaphor is like its tenor. With literature. technological influences. Does it make much difference if Cyril Tourneur or Thomas Middleton was responsible for the words that constitute The Revenger's Tragedy? And how precisely must the date
. etc. may be proposed between critical judgments upon a work of literature. however precariously. A relationship of some kind must be conceded to be present between the array of names. even if-like Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde--hle may pretend for special reasons of his own not to be. the outcome of what is proceeding somewhere in the world at the time of reading. But a literary judgment or critical comment must still be distinguished from the literary experience "as in itself it really is. in 1638 it became publicly available in Justa Edouardo King. he is omniscient. or a whole corpus of such works. however. Before November I637 when it was written Lycidas did not exist. history (of a sort) must enter the argument. A connection. The words are essential. titles. But the identity of the author of the words is a secondary matter. the response to a work of literature must be continuous throughout its performance. if a frail one. III If we turn from the reader to his alter ego the writer. The reader or spectator is inside the aesthetic experience. one that is never wholly reliable because it has been reached outside the actual aesthetic experience and so is likely to have been influenced by various extraneous factors. and dates that constitutes a textbook history of English literature and the act of aesthetic communication between author's words and recipient reader which creates "literature" (the actual literary experience). The world upon which the historian is reporting is the real world about which his sources of information can never be complete or wholly reliable. The novelist or dramatist suffers from no such limitatiron. Take them away and nothing is left.LITERARY HISTORY:
of the book he is reading for glimpses into related historical episodes.
Uneasily aware of the irrelevance of historical "facts" we tend to take refuge in grandiose generalities. linguistic. with the obligations. they are members of society. Literary history as it was practiced until recently concentrated its attention on the discovery of new "sources.3 Similar dicta are scattered through Eliot's critical essays. 1932). and represents its highest point of consciousness. that such membership implies.I18
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of its composition be determined to affect its aesthetic content? Any year between I6oo and 1630 would be equally plausible if that play is regarded primarily as an aesthetic construct that is still available to a modern reader. economic. What is perhaps needed is a series of interlinking parallel disciplines-political. for example. is a feeble crutch because of its bias towards differentiation. as we have seen. the poet is said to have to "express with individual differences the general state of mind-not as a duty. In this way as much attention might be paid to similarities as to differences." When I was a graduate student at Harvard I remember the indignation with which Lowes repudiated the imputation: "Gentlemen. In the process of responding to the play as literature the modem reader will ignore such historical facts as the difference between the Jacobean pronunciation of English and that standard today. and they are dependent for their words on the language that is current at the moment. The aesthetic conditional is crucial. Selected Essays (London.
. p. but simply because he cannot help participating in it. no scenery. 15. its greatest power and its most delicate sensibility. On the contrary. Eliot is typical: The poetry of a people takes its life from the people's speech and in turn gives life to it. but I had just read The Road to Xanadu and recollecting that masterpiece of source-hunting I scribbled a note to my
3 4 The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism (London. or the difference between the public theatre in which The Revenger's Tragedy was originally performed (no lighting. I am not a source-hunter!" And the little man's enormous voice thundered round the room. The difficulty is to reconstruct the evidence from which such generalizations must depend if they are to carry any conviction. Literary history. It was a Chaucer class. 1933). and an "apron" stage) and its modem equivalent. In the "Baudelaire" (1930). S. no curtain. T. Writers do not live in ivory towers (if they did they would starve to death). 386. They are at least more reputable than those of the Art for Art's Sake critic."4 Such propositions receive our general assent. p. conscious or unconscious. cultural-which might be subsumed under some such label as Social Studies.
"5 Must it? Is it advisable to read an author's works in the order of their composition? The recommendation has a certain specious plausibility. it might seem reasonable to extend the same principle to the whole body of his writings. one in which the author invites you to begin with his first stanza. vi-
. was that "any satisfactory study of the works of Shakespeare. The objection that McKerrow's formula starts one off with the juvenilia. do not explain the poems. And what about chronological order. This is a risk that the conscientious literary student must be prepared to run. Since it cannot be the history of all the books ever written.LITERARY HISTORY:
neighbour: "The lady doth protest too much. so far as possible. He tells us in his preface that the conclusion he had reached. McKerrow's Prolegomena for the Oxford Shakespeare (1939) is specific on this point. is to ignore the differences of genre and context that separate the matter-of-fact travel-books and Coleridge's brilliantly fantastic poems. (One begins Spenser with The Faerie Queene. in that order. after many years work on the Oxford edition (still unpublished). . But there is a more cogent refutation in wait for McKerrow. may be considered frivolous. of course." and does not qualify accordingly as literary history. In less technical terms. in spite of Coleridge's repetitions of phrase and image from them. that The Road to Xanadu is concerned with similarities. The sensible thing to do surely is to begin with the works that are generally considered his masterpieces. a process of selection must be a necessary preliminary. a critical reading is the first necessity. however. and . act. If a work of literature is essentially a temporal artifact. though I have not detected them. it is advisable actually to study them. the echoes of the travel books Coleridge had been reading before writing "Kubla Khan" and "The Ancient Mariner. And if the selection is not to be merely conventional or mechanical. or chapter. But. there may be nuggets even in the earlier version of Spenser's "Visions of Bellay" that was printed in A Theatre for Worldlings (1569). which are often silly as well as immature. because of his initial pre5 P. The travel-books. They are not in pari materia-as some of the ballads in Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry can certainly be said to be. methinks!" It may be said. B. that other idol of the literary historian? R. This. must take full account of the order in which they were written. It is simply that a writer's juvenilia may not qualify as literature at all.) Literary history has a "value" element built into it. or indeed probably of any other author. The test proper to a temporal artifact can be summarized in a sentence: to qualify as literature the work under consideration must invite a reading backwards as well as a reading forwards. it must be memorable. .
modern editors follow him in treating all the 154 sonnets as a literary unit instead of the Shakespearian miscellany they clearly are. each in its separate frame. only their implications. And a similar process operates. for example. And such imprints accumulate and acquire contexts. if there should be no proper title. (The man is "honest" only in the appearance he knows how to create. and the shock of surprise induced by their successful interaction leaves a special imprint in the memory. The test of memorability is worth elaborating because it points the way to the semblance of history that literature seems to permit. what is or is not ironical. What is read stimulates the imagination-and so it is immediately re-read. on the first reading. whatever is said will have acquired a somewhat different meaning because its consequences will be known. in different forms and degrees. etc. a literary detective is encouraged to identify him in a learned journal. The problem that critical theory has been tempted to evade is what might be called the elasticity of the literary artifact. or Comus. which he dominates completely-such apparently genuine grievances. We tend to begin and end with the single poem.) But the words have not changed. Iago. such vitality of expression!-has become a very different person when the play ends. novel. A plausible case has even been made recently for dating Sonnet 145 as early as 1582 on the
. with the first and second reading of any unfamiliar literary artifact. play. however. The first reading presumes and indeed requires an ignorant and innocent performer. we invent one-the Legend of Good Women. with a title and an author's name attached to it. But this rage for bibliographical tidiness misses a crucial critical point: the encircling frame may be in the wrong place. for example. as it were. knowing as we do what is to come.120
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mises. And this second reading is superimposed. which of the dramatis personae to trust and which to distrust. Verbal progress and verbal regress complement each other.-each to be hung in the reader's private mental gallery. Shakespeare's Sonnets were published in 16o9 by that "well-wishing adventurer" Thomas Thorpe in a single volume. one who will not know what is to come next. If the author's name should be missing. the literary historian will find it difficult to read anything more than once. But the two readings-if the first is still fresh in the consciousness -are different in kind. It is disconcerting now to return to the first scene. and what he will tend to remember are the non-aesthetic differences in it. On a second reading. who is so plausible on a first acquaintance in the first scene of Othello.
Embarrassingly. (ii) the Elizabethan court (especially the Southampton/Essex circle). it was on such boughs-not in the choirs -that the birds once sang. Such diminutions are accompanied. then. (ii) English Petrarchanism (though "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" is as anti-Petrarchan as anything Donne wrote). we have three levels of poetic merit. of course. defying what the earlier lines want it to say. by similar expansions. where late the sweet birds sang" derives its memorability entirely from its detachment from the lines preceding it.LITERARY HISTORY:
ground that it is addressed to Ann Hathaway. Other similarly inclusive units are. "Shakespeare's
. (iii) the whole corpus of English Renaissance lyric poetry. A similar superiority to Sonnet 73's other thirteen lines is exhibited by general consent in its fourth line: "Bare ruined choirs. where late the sweet birds sang. (iii) 73's fourth line (which has proved one of the most memorable lines in the whole of the Sonnets. XXI (1971). each enclosing a shorter but superior and separable artifact: (i) the collection or series as a whole. The selfpitying poet has begun by comparing his condition to the end of the annual cycle (just a few yellow leaves left shaking in the cold)." EC. Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold") is typical of such detachment.
6 First Poem. for example." Here. S. it is unquestionably a part that is superior to the whole in which it happens to be found. Gurr. (i) Shakespeare's complete works. it is what the line says. See G. 6 The best of the Sonnets certainly detach themselves from the various series in which they occur and survive as single poems. Grammatically. Thus the Sonnets is also a part of three increasingly larger literary units: (i) the Elizabethan sonnet cycle. from the birds' exclusion from a church or chapel that is now a ruin. the larger the unit the less relevant it can be proved to be to a sympathetic comprehension of the particular artifact (such as Sonnet 73)-and correspondingly the better the artifact the more it resists a historical or even a rational interpretation. This is not what the sentence says. "Bare ruined choirs. I have selected nine obviously relevant historical elements or aspects that contribute in one way or another to the meaning of Shakespeare's Sonnets. the ruined choirs are simply a metaphoric extension of the trees' leafless boughs. The line once detached from its linguistic context derives its pathos. (ii) Sonnet 73. And whether the choirs' ruins are an after-effect of the dissolution of the monasteries or of capitalist sheep-farming is wholly immaterial. (iii) the contemporary capitalist bourgeoisie. however.
NEW LITERARY HISTORY
I have used Shakespeare's brilliant line to exemplify the paradox inherent in the concept of literary history. Its sweet birds inhabit no identifiable ruins. historical or structural-do not seem to affect the literary object as in itself it really is. The more closely great literature is examined.
. A historical context of one sort or another must always be presumed. but the "facts"-including those of language. the remoter its connections turn out to be with any sort of history.
CORPUS CHRISTI COLLEGE. the degree of aesthetic detachment increases. except perhaps in the preliminary stages of comprehension. their songs refuse to acknowledge this or that ancestral origin. As the quality of the literature improves.