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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 .
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Literary History: Non-Subject
Par Excellence
F. W. Bateson
HY
par
excellence? For two reasons: one
(the topic
to
which this
essay
is
principally devoted),
because it
glosses
over a
logical
contradiction between two
opposed
modes
of
thought; two,
because literature and
history
are both excellent
things
in
themselves-provided they
are considered
(and practiced)
separately. Literary history
is
merely
a
by-product,
a
disreputable
though
not
entirely
useless
by-product.
It can be
compared
to the
Philosophers'
Stone.
Though
the medieval alchemists never discovered
how to transmute lead into
gold,
the science of
chemistry
is
directly
descended from their failures. In the same
way literary history, though
a futile
occupation
in itself
(one
of the
jokes
of modern academic
life),
has had its own valuable
by-products.
For one
thing,
it has
sharpened
our
chronological sense;
Old
Style
is no
longer
confused with New
Style,
as
Thackeray
confused them in the
evening preceding
the duel
in Esmond.
1
Literary history
has also
played
its
part
in
encouraging
habits of accurate documentation and a
general
consciousness of the
relativity
of critical
values;
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
sub-
tle,
or
solid,
or
bold; they
have
always
some
good quality
to recom-
mend
them-except
one:
they
are never
right."
2
Against
these incidental
blessings
must be set certain incidental
scandals.
Literary history
has
provided
an umbrella of
respectability
under which are still crowded teachers of literature
who,
have out-
grown
their adolescent enthusiasms without
acquiring
a mature critical
sense. It was
against
these unfortunate misfits that the New Criticism
I
Esmond and Lord Castlewood set out for London on
"Monday morning,
the
I
th of
October,
in the
year I700" (Book I, chap. xiv).
In fact the
Iith
of Octo-
ber was a
Friday (O.S.).
The confusion between their arrival "at
night
fall" and
Esmond's
proposal
over an hour later that
they
should have "half an hour's
prac-
tice before
nightfall"
seems to reflect a muddle about sunset in O.S. and N.S.
2 Books and Characters
(London, 1922), p.
68.
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S16 NEW LITERARY HISTORY
led its successful
revolution, though
an
increasing specialization
has
now
changed
the essential situation. The umbrella now covers
pros-
odists, stylisticians,
textual
critics, analytical bibliographers,
et hoc
genus
omne,
as well as
literary
historians of the old school. No doubt
these
gentlemen
must
live,
but their need for bread and butter has ob-
scured the
persistence
of a more intellectual
instinct,
so far unfulfilled
and
perhaps
unfulfillable. We need
literary history.
I will call our con-
dition
(with Blake,
though
in a different
context)
"The lost traveller's
dream under the hill." But I must not
anticipate my
conclusion.
II
We are faced with an initial
logical difficulty. History
is committed
by
its nature to the
exposition
of
differences
between one
temporal
event or
period
and another. A
country
in which no such differences
can be
distinguished
is a
country
without a
history.
And for a
biogra-
pher
it is
necessary
for his
subject
to be
born,
to
mature,
and
ultimately
to die-three conditions that
necessarily
differentiate
themselves,
even
though
the child can sometimes be shown to be the father of the man.
Literature,
on the other
hand,
is
necessarily "esemplastic,"
to use Cole-
ridge's
term. The
emphasis
in it is on similarities rather than differ-
ences; images
fuse with
concepts, episodes
connect,
characters estab-
lish
interrelationships.
In a familiar
passage
in
Aspects of
the Novel
E. M. Forster invites us to
imagine
"all the novelists
...
at work to-
gether
in a circular room"
(which
he later
compares
to the Read-
ing
Room of the British
Museum). There,
he tells
us,
we shall find
Samuel Richardson
sitting by
the side of
Henry James,
H. G. Wells
next to
Dickens,
and
Virginia
Woolf next to Sterne.
(The
historical
order is
deliberately confused.)
His
slogan "History develops,
Art
stands still"
is,
as he half
admits,
only
a
slogan,
but a
point
has been
made.
It would
seem, therefore,
that there is an inherent contradiction in
the notion of
literary history.
Like oil and
water,
literature and
history
will not mix.
However,
Forster's
examples may
seem to refute his
generalization.
No one would confuse one of Richardson's novels
with one of
James's.
And the differences between
Virginia
Woolf and
Sterne are
surely patent
and
enormous,
though
it
may
also be
agreed
that there are almost no resemblances between
near-contemporaries
like Richardson and
Sterne,
or
James
and Wells.
The
point
that Forster seems to have missed is that
history
is es-
sentially outward-looking,
whereas literature is
inward-looking.
The
reader of a historical work or a
biography
finds himself
continuously
compelled,
or at times
coaxed,
into
leaving
the
proper subject-matter
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LITERARY HISTORY:
NON-SUBJECT
Par Excellence
I
7
of the book he is
reading
for
glimpses
into related historical
episodes.
A
study
of a
past period
enables one to
predict,
however
precariously,
the
outcome of what is
proceeding
somewhere in the world at the time of
reading.
With
literature, however, any
such
speculations
will be a
sign
either of
incompetent writing
or of
incompetent reading.
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;
he
is
omniscient,
even if-like Chaucer in Troilus and
Criseyde--hle
may
pretend
for
special
reasons of his own not to be. 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.
A
connection,
if a frail
one, may
be
proposed
between critical
judg-
ments
upon
a work of
literature,
or a whole
corpus
of such
works,
and
the
judgments
that a historian offers
upon policies,
social
divisions,
technological influences,
etc. But a
literary judgment
or critical com-
ment must still be
distinguished
from the
literary experience
"as in it-
self it
really
is." Literature
being temporal
in its essence
(Act
I
pre-
cedes Act
V),
the
response
to a work of literature must be continuous
throughout
its
performance,
whether it is
private
or
public.
The reader
or
spectator
is inside the aesthetic
experience.
What remains in the
memory
is the merest skeleton of the actual
subjective experience,
and
the ultimate critical verdict is a skeleton of that
skeleton,
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. At best we are left with an aesthetic nucleus that
the
memory
has sifted.
III
If we turn from the reader to his alter
ego
the
writer,
history (of
a
sort)
must enter the
argument.
At a certain
point
in time a work of
literature comes into
being.
Before November
I637
when it was writ-
ten
Lycidas
did not
exist;
in
1638
it became
publicly
available in
Justa
Edouardo
King.
A
relationship
of some kind must be conceded to be
present
between the
array
of
names, titles,
and dates that constitutes a
textbook
history
of
English
literature and the act of aesthetic communi-
cation between author's words and
recipient
reader which creates
"literature"
(the
actual
literary experience).
The words are essential.
Take them
away
and
nothing
is left. But the
identity
of the author of
the words is a
secondary
matter. 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
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I
18 NEW LITERARY HISTORY
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. The aesthetic conditional is crucial. 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,
or the difference between the
public
theatre in which The
Revenger's Tragedy
was
originally performed
(no lighting,
no
scenery,
no
curtain,
and an
"apron" stage)
and its
modem
equivalent.
Uneasily
aware of the irrelevance of historical "facts" we tend to
take
refuge
in
grandiose generalities.
T. S. Eliot is
typical:
The
poetry
of a
people
takes its life from the
people's speech
and in
turn
gives
life to
it;
and
represents
its
highest point
of
consciousness,
its
greatest power
and its most delicate
sensibility.3
Similar dicta are scattered
through
Eliot's critical
essays.
In the
"Baudelaire"
(1930),
for
example,
the
poet
is said to have to
"express
with individual differences the
general
state of mind-not as a
duty,
but
simply
because he cannot
help participating
in
it."4
Such
proposi-
tions receive our
general
assent.
They
are at least more
reputable
than
those of the Art for Art's Sake critic. Writers do not live in
ivory
towers
(if they
did
they
would starve to
death).
On the
contrary, they
are
members of
society,
with the
obligations,
conscious or
unconscious,
that such
membership implies,
and
they
are
dependent
for their words
on the
language
that is current at the moment.
The
difficulty
is to reconstruct the evidence from which such
gen-
eralizations must
depend
if
they
are to
carry any
conviction.
Literary
history,
as we have
seen,
is a feeble crutch because of its bias towards
differentiation. What is
perhaps
needed is a series of
interlinking parallel
disciplines-political,
economic, linguistic,
cultural-which
might
be
subsumed under some such label as Social Studies. In this
way
as much
attention
might
be
paid
to similarities as to differences.
Literary history
as it was
practiced
until
recently
concentrated its
attention on the
discovery
of new "sources." When I was a
graduate
student at Harvard I remember the
indignation
with which Lowes
repudiated
the
imputation: "Gentlemen,
I am not a source-hunter!"
And the little man's enormous voice thundered round the room. It
was a Chaucer
class,
but I had
just
read The Road to Xanadu and rec-
ollecting
that
masterpiece
of
source-hunting
I scribbled a note to
my
3
The Use
of Poetry
and The Use
of
Criticism
(London, 1933), p.
15.
4
Selected
Essays (London, 1932), p. 386.
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LITERARY HISTORY:
NON-SUBJECT
Par Excellence
119
neighbour:
"The
lady
doth
protest
too
much,
methinks!" It
may
be
said,
of
course,
that The Road to Xanadu is concerned with
similarities,
the echoes of the travel books
Coleridge
had been
reading
before writ-
ing
"Kubla Khan" and "The Ancient
Mariner,"
and does not
qualify
accordingly
as
literary history. This, however,
is to
ignore
the differ-
ences of
genre
and context that
separate
the matter-of-fact travel-books
and
Coleridge's brilliantly
fantastic
poems.
The
travel-books,
in
spite
of
Coleridge's repetitions
of
phrase
and
image
from
them,
do not
explain
the
poems. 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.
And what about
chronological order,
that other idol of the
literary
historian? R. B. McKerrow's
Prolegomena for
the
Oxford Shakespeare
(1939)
is
specific
on this
point.
He tells us in his
preface
that the con-
clusion he had
reached,
after
many years
work on the Oxford edition
(still unpublished),
was that
"any satisfactory study
of the works of
Shakespeare,
or indeed
probably
of
any
other
author,
must take full
account of the order in which
they
were
written,
and . . . it is ad-
visable
actually
to
study them,
so far as
possible,
in that
order."5
Must
it? Is it advisable to read an author's works in the order of their com-
position?
The recommendation has a certain
specious plausibility.
If
a work of literature is
essentially
a
temporal
artifact,
one in which the
author invites
you
to
begin
with his first
stanza, act,
or
chapter,
it
might
seem reasonable to extend the same
principle
to the whole
body
of his
writings.
The
objection
that McKerrow's formula starts one off with
the
juvenilia,
which are often
silly
as well as
immature,
may
be con-
sidered frivolous. This is a risk that the conscientious
literary
student
must be
prepared
to
run;
there
may
be
nuggets
even in the earlier
version of
Spenser's
"Visions of
Bellay"
that was
printed
in A Theatre
for Worldlings (1569), though
I have not detected them.
But there is a more
cogent
refutation in wait for McKerrow. It is
simply
that a writer's
juvenilia may
not
qualify
as literature at all.
The sensible
thing
to do
surely
is to
begin
with the works that are
generally
considered his
masterpieces. (One begins Spenser
with The
Faerie
Queene.) Literary history
has a "value" element built into it.
Since it cannot be the
history
of all the books ever
written,
a
process
of
selection must be a
necessary preliminary.
And if the selection is not to
be
merely
conventional or
mechanical,
a critical
reading
is the first
necessity.
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. In less
technical
terms,
it must be memorable.
But,
because of his initial
pre-
5
P.
vi-
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120 NEW LITERARY HISTORY
mises,
the
literary
historian will find it difficult to read
anything
more
than
once,
and what he will tend to remember are the non-aesthetic
differences in it.
The test of
memorability
is worth
elaborating
because it
points
the
way
to the semblance of
history
that literature seems to
permit.
What
is read stimulates the
imagination-and
so it is
immediately
re-read.
And this second
reading
is
superimposed,
as it
were,
on the first read-
ing.
But the two
readings-if
the first is still fresh in the consciousness
-are
different
in kind. The first
reading presumes
and indeed re-
quires
an
ignorant
and innocent
performer,
one who will not know
what is to come
next,
what is or is not
ironical,
which of the dramatis
personae
to trust and which to distrust. On a second
reading,
however,
whatever is said will have
acquired
a somewhat
different
meaning
be-
cause its
consequences
will be known.
Iago,
for
example,
who is so
plausible
on a first
acquaintance
in the first scene of
Othello,
which
he dominates
completely-such apparently genuine grievances,
such
vitality
of
expression!-has
become a
very
different
person
when the
play
ends. It is
disconcerting
now to return to the first
scene, knowing
as we do what is to come.
(The
man is "honest"
only
in the
appear-
ance he knows how to
create.)
But the words have not
changed, only
their
implications.
And a similar
process operates,
in
different
forms
and
degrees,
with the first and second
reading
of
any
unfamiliar
literary
artifact. Verbal
progress
and verbal
regress complement
each
other,
and the shock of
surprise
induced
by
their successful interaction leaves
a
special imprint
in the
memory.
And such
imprints
accumulate and
acquire
contexts.
The
problem
that critical
theory
has been
tempted
to evade is what
might
be called the
elasticity
of the
literary
artifact. We tend to
begin
and end with the
single poem, play,
novel,
etc.-each to be
hung
in
the reader's
private
mental
gallery,
each in its
separate
frame,
with a
title and an author's name attached to it. If the author's name should
be
missing,
a
literary
detective is
encouraged
to
identify
him in a
learned
journal;
if there should be no
proper
title,
we invent one-the
Legend of
Good
Women,
for
example,
or Comus. But this
rage
for
bibliographical
tidiness misses a crucial critical
point:
the
encircling
frame
may
be in the
wrong place.
Shakespeare's
Sonnets were
published
in
16o9 by
that
"well-wishing
adventurer" Thomas
Thorpe
in a
single volume;
modern editors fol-
low him in
treating
all the
154
sonnets as a
literary
unit instead of the
Shakespearian miscellany they clearly
are. A
plausible
case has even
been made
recently
for
dating
Sonnet
145
as
early
as
1582
on the
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LITERARY HISTORY:
NON-SUBJECT
Par Excellence 121
ground
that it is addressed to Ann
Hathaway.
6
The best of the Sonnets
certainly
detach themselves from the various series in which
they
occur
and survive as
single poems.
Sonnet
73 ("That
time of
year
thou
mayst
in me
behold")
is
typical
of such
detachment;
it is
unquestionably
a
part
that is
superior
to the whole in which it
happens
to be found. 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."
Here, then,
we have three levels of
poetic
merit,
each
enclosing
a shorter but
superior
and
separable
artifact:
(i)
the collec-
tion or series as a
whole, (ii)
Sonnet
73, (iii) 73's
fourth line
(which
has
proved
one of the most memorable lines in the whole of the Sonnets.
Such diminutions are
accompanied,
of
course, by
similar
expansions.
Thus the Sonnets is also a
part
of three
increasingly larger literary
units:
(i)
the Elizabethan sonnet
cycle, (ii) English
Petrarchanism
(though
"My
mistress'
eyes
are
nothing
like the sun" is as anti-Petrarchan as
anything
Donne
wrote), (iii)
the whole
corpus
of
English
Renaissance
lyric poetry.
Other
similarly
inclusive units
are,
for
example, (i)
Shakes-
peare's complete
works, (ii)
the Elizabethan court
(especially
the
Southampton/Essex circle), (iii)
the
contemporary capitalist
bour-
geoisie.
I have selected nine
obviously
relevant historical elements or
aspects
that contribute in one
way
or another to the
meaning
of
Shakespeare's
Sonnets.
Embarrassingly,
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.
"Bare
ruined
choirs,
where late the sweet birds
sang"
derives its
memorability
entirely
from its detachment from the lines
preceding
it. The self-
pitying poet
has
begun by comparing
his condition to the end of the
annual
cycle (just
a few
yellow
leaves left
shaking
in the
cold).
Grammatically,
the ruined choirs are
simply
a
metaphoric
extension
of the trees' leafless
boughs;
it was on such
boughs-not
in the choirs
-that the birds once
sang.
The line once detached from its
linguistic
context derives its
pathos,
however,
from the birds' exclusion from a
church or
chapel
that is now a ruin. This is not what the sentence
says;
it is what the line
says, defying
what the earlier lines want it to
say.
And whether the choirs' ruins are an after-effect of the dissolu-
tion of the monasteries or of
capitalist sheep-farming
is
wholly
im-
material.
6 See G. S.
Gurr, "Shakespeare's
First
Poem," EC,
XXI
(1971).
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I 22 NEW LITERARY HISTORY
I have used
Shakespeare's
brilliant line to
exemplify
the
paradox
in-
herent in the
concept
of
literary history.
The more
closely great
litera-
ture is
examined,
the remoter its connections turn out to be with
any
sort of
history.
A historical context of one sort or another must al-
ways
be
presumed,
but the
"facts"-including
those of
language,
his-
torical or structural-do not seem to affect the
literary object
as in it-
self it
really is,
except perhaps
in the
preliminary stages
of
comprehen-
sion. As the
quality
of the literature
improves,
the
degree
of aesthetic
detachment increases. Its sweet birds inhabit no identifiable
ruins;
their
songs
refuse to
acknowledge
this or that ancestral
origin.
CORPUS CHRISTI
COLLEGE,
OXFORD
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