A poet says “Jew” to another poet

Jews have always stuck in the throat of English literature.

George Orwell’s history of the condition is succinct and accurate. “There has been a perceptible antisemitic strain in English literature from Chaucer onwards,” he explained to an American Jewish magazine just before the end of World War II, and after a long list of examples he concluded: “Offhand, the only English writers I can think of who, before the days of Hitler, made a definite effort to stick up for Jews are Dickens and Charles Reade.” One huge omission from this short roster of exceptions is George Eliot, and if you want to consider James Joyce a writer in an English tradition the list will lengthen from three names to four. A possible fifth might be Anthony Trollope, who vented his hatred of Benjamin Disraeli in racial terms but wrote sympathetically about some of his own Jewish characters. But who else can be added? Israel Zangwill, Edwardian Jewish writer with crossover appeal whose play The Melting-Pot supplied Theodore Roosevelt’s America with a metaphor? Henry Harland, American-born editor of The Yellow Book who in his New York youth wrote Jewish-themed novels under a Jewish pseudonym? Even those minor-indeed writers came to literature’s attention only as traditional Christian Jew-hatred was being reinvigorated by nineteenth-century racial thinking. Before then, Jews in English literature were less a subject than a trait: a diagnostic sign of an author’s unconscious or barely conscious sense of his Christian culture.

So it may be interesting that a Victorian poet with the trait was once put through a rigorous diagnosis by another Victorian poet. No improvement in the patient’s condition followed, but the diagnostician’s notes retain a literary value. They show us one manifestation of the trait communicating with another.

The poet whose trait presented as a case of Jews in the head was Coventry Patmore, his diagnostician was his fellow Catholic Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the specific symptom examined was his poem “1867.” The poem’s title refers to one of Disraeli’s triumphs: his capture on behalf of the Conservatives of the Representation of the People Act of 1867, the second of three Parliamentary reforms (in 1832, 1867 and 1884) that broadened the franchise in Victorian England. Patmore, a Conservative himself, didn’t approve of that, at all. As he indignantly explained to Hopkins in 1883:

I hate (in all charity) Lord Beaconsfield [Disraeli] more, if possible, than I hate Gladstone. . . . Do you remember the details of the passage of his Reform Bill in 1867? How it began by being a real work of defence against the tide of revolution, and how it ended – rather than Mr. Disraeli should go out of office – in actually consummating the revolution wh. the Radicals were only dreaming of? (Abbott 345)

He had been more poignant than that when he published “1867” in 1877. Then he had only cried,

Patmore, The Unknown Eros

“I, Ah, me” is a mere sigh, with the two first-person pronouns stripped of their referents. But now, in 1883, Father Hopkins was trying to make his patient think about the sigh and rewrite it in meaningful words. Logic, said Hopkins; and not only logic but also theology; and not only logic and theology but history as well, all indicated flaws in Mr. Patmore’s processing of language. Implacably, Hopkins’s Scotist prose spooled out onto the page:

As Claude Colleer Abbott points out about the Hopkins-Patmore correspondence, the relation between the two poets was bound to be prickly. They had their conversion to Catholicism in common, but they were mutually rebarbative. Patmore was also 21 years older than Hopkins, and as of 1883 The Angel in the House, the long sentimental poem about marriage that had made him famous in the high Victorian age, was 29 years in the past and beginning to look comical to the young. So it probably isn’t surprising that when Patmore republished “1867” in the third edition of his collection The Unknown Eros in 1890, a year after Hopkins’s death, he refused to alter its position in the calendar of his life. On the contrary, he augmented its title with the superscript that you’ve noticed and then tried to tag it to unchanging history with a footnote:

Patmore, The Unknown Eros

Trailed by the note into the land of the dead, Hopkins was presumably to have considered himself awakened at last to a proper sense of the shamefulness of what he had to say. After all, his education in life had been one long preparation for the experience. One of the many depressing memorabilia in Robert Bernard Martin’s biography is the manuscript of a practice sermon with a line drawn at the point where Hopkins had to stop speaking because his fellow seminarians had begun laughing at him. The Sea of Galilee, he had been preaching when the ha ha ha’s exploded, is shaped like a human ear, and this teaches us . . .

No, Hopkins’s mind and its vocabulary didn’t separate realities from one another the way other minds and vocabularies do. The thought that it might be alarming to lie down in a driveway in order to get the inscape of its sandy surface (another incident from the biography) didn’t matter to him or (take your pick) didn’t occur to him. There was also the time when Patmore wrote to Hopkins that he was proud of his son, and Hopkins solemnly informed Patmore in reply that pride is a sin. In the labyrinth of Hopkins’s language any point is at maximum distance from the exit to daylight and its reflection in a human eye, and in his dark matrix Hopkins couldn’t accept language on any terms but his own. Patmore was suffering, and Hopkins wouldn’t understand.

And then, in his suffering, Patmore wrote into a poem a word so reflective of suffering that it can drive even sober prose crazy. What happened after that suggests that to say the word “Jew” in a way sanely comprehensible was beyond the skill even of that subtle madman Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Up to this point, what you have been reading is a revision of something I wrote in the summer of 2015, when I was concerned about the Modern Language Association’s ideas about the disposition of Israel. Two years later, with the American language being changed in ways that make it increasingly hard to have an idea about anything, the Modern Language Association seems trivial. Its language is going obsolete and the language of Patmore seems set for a return to lingua franca. As once-topical terms like “Boycott, divest, sanction” recede into “What was that about?” incomprehensibility, Patmore’s term “their Jew” seems to be noticeable again in a way once again comprehensible. Its return to the currency of significance is occurring, too, in a Patmore way, not a Hopkins way — that is, not as a concept but as a lyric sound. Hopkins’s corrective letter speaks to the song called Their Jew in prose, but the song sings back only to itself, because it is a song. To those who happen to overhear, however, it adds, “Hey, just sayin’.” And then it also adds:

Once you become one with me in my song, you’ll never again need to think the word Jew, or anything else.


Abbott, Claude Colleer, ed. Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Including His Correspondence with Coventry Patmore. Oxford University Press, 1956.

Martin, Robert Bernard. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. Putnam, 1991.

Orwell, George. “Antisemitism in Britain.” Contemporary Jewish Record, April 1945. http://orwell.ru/library/articles/antisemitism/english/e_antib, accessed 20 June 2015.

Patmore, Coventry. The Unknown Eros. Third edition. London: George Bell and Sons, 1890.

I owe my reminder of Trollope to Steven Helmling. See also Ann Marlowe, “Why Anthony Trollope is the Most Jewish of the Great English Novelists,” Tablet 24 April 2015, http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/190465/anthony-trollope-bicentennial


Starting with the footnotes, read up the page until you reach the sky

Note 2

The village of Gladstone is still there, though since 1912 it has been part of the borough of Peapack-Gladstone. The railroad is still there, though it now has a different corporate identity. The church is still there, though it has been remodeled. The railroad station is still there. The buildings next to it are not.

Note 1

According to the images’ annotations in the Library of Congress, the Detroit Photographic Company’s train made this visit to Gladstone either in 1899 or in 1902. On the side of the train’s only car was a sign reading, “Detroit Photographic Co. We photograph the world in the colors of nature,” and inside the car was the great explorer-photographer William Henry Jackson. On the bulkhead behind him you can see one of his most famous images: an 18-by-22-inch wet-plate photograph of Yellowstone Falls, made in the 1870s under arduous conditions. In 1899 or 1902, however, his train was traveling on the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western, a regional route extending only through the eastern states of Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. A lithographic process called Photochrom was used to add the colors of nature to the Detroit Photographic Company’s postcards, and as of 1899 or 1902 it was primarily these that traveled the world.



You can see the train 

toward the right side of this picture. Click it to enlarge. Delaware, Lackawanna and Western engine no. 130 pushed its car onto a siding, and then William Henry Jackson or a member of his crew carried an 8-by-10 inch view camera upgrade to record Gladstone as its trees were in the act of offering falling leaves and a bird’s nest to the fall of 1899 or the fall of 1902.

The record of the moment of offering has little itself to offer. Its news is only trees and weeds and a season, with the human at a distance. Jacob Ruisdael did that effect much better, if only because his palette had a human-perspective irony app for the sky.

Jackson’s Photochrom colorizings were only post-processing guesswork, and the orthochromatic photochemistry in his camera had to leave every sky blank. The news of the clouds couldn’t be accurately reported there, ever. But the blank in its Jacksonian monochrome does throw into contrast the trace of a few olds. If Google says the railroad station still exists in the present, the station’s visibly recorded existence in the past comes back to what looks like life, pleading to be reseen.

The lamp glassed in to shield a flame, say; or the large handsome building no longer playing shine and shadow with the sun: understood now to have been taken up into retrospect, how rich with fulfillment they seem now under their trees! Their roots drank their fill, and then the time came for them to have stopped drinking. We haven’t yet taken part in the offering of leaf, but they have.

Sources: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994012715/PP/http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994001269/PP/, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994001631/PP/, and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994007265/PP/. All from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress; all photoshopped.

An old-fashioned nationalist

In January 2015, the cyclical history of Martin Heidegger’s post-World War II rehabs and relapses entered a new phase when the chairman of the Martin Heidegger Society resigned his position, stating, “As chairman of a society, which is named after a person, one is in certain way a representative of that person. After reading the Schwarze Hefte, especially the antisemitic passages, I do not wish to be such a representative any longer. These statements have not only shocked me, but have turned me around to such an extent that it has become difficult to be a co-representative of this.” (http://dailynous.com/2015/01/19/germanys-heidegger-society-chair-resigns/)

The phrase Schwarze Hefte (“black notebooks”) refers to a group of previously unpublished manuscripts which are only now appearing in print, on a schedule dictated by Heidegger. The notebooks are bound in black oilcloth, and in the first instance that’s all the word schwarze means. But of course it also has moral connotations. The black notebooks seem to make clear, if anything in Heidegger’s ambit is clear, that racism was one of the fundamental, constitutive parts of his thought.

Well, the history of the Fascist years is filled with stories in the style of Henry James about eminent people shadowed by their past. The reputations of E. M. Cioran and Mircea Eliade, for instance, were at least a little tarnished by their association with the Iron Guard, Romania’s peculiarly nasty Fascist party. On the other hand, the Nazi section of Herbert von Karajan’s curriculum vitae did him no harm in after years. If anything, it only added more excitement to his bad-boy reputation. Until recently, at least, Heidegger’s reputation seemed to luxuriate in an ambiguity strong on both sides, as when he deplored the Holocaust as just another instance of the inauthenticity of plowing with tractors instead of horses like God intended. Unfortunately, history doesn’t seem just now as if it will continue indulging Heidegger’s reluctance to resolve his dilemma. The dilemma itself seems to be little more than silliness on one horn and careerism on the other. But when the moral ambiguities of the Hitlerzeit were forced up against the moral ambiguities of the Cold War era, the human consequence was sometimes larger and more interesting.

In 1950, for instance, the German field marshal Erich von Manstein was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. This was soon reduced to twelve years, and in the event he served only three. Almost immediately after his release, he was recruited to build a new army for West Germany, to be deployed against the enemy in which he had always specialized, the Soviet Union. Thereafter and therefore, official history decreed the former Manstein and his Wehrmacht to have been strictly apolitical, wholeheartedly humane, and motivated only by the ancient military virtues of uprightness and chivalry.

Look, therefore, at this image of the former Manstein leading his Romanian armies against the Bolsheviks.

Postwar, you’re intended to see an apologetic in every element of the composition. Fluently dictating from a prescribed lexicon,  it tells you: Marshal Manstein, like his moral compeer Martin Heidegger, was (the phrase enters the mind prefabricated, a brick of cliché) an old-fashioned nationalist. You experience the whole history of the word “old” in his upright posture and stern, unflinching attentiveness to the world, in all of its evil and all of its tragic good. Within this image frame, nothing except the old-fashioned has been allowed to survive. If you try to read through or past or around the image to anything in its background (anything called history, for instance) you’ll probably fail. Standing firm and still within his car, Marshal Manstein is on his way to taking dominion everywhere.

That’s easy to prove. See for yourself: having experienced the image of Marshal Manstein, didn’t you flinch when you began experiencing this other image?

It was captured by the photographer Costică Acsinte (1897-1984), who between 1930 and 1960 operated a studio in a Romanian farm town named Slobozia. After the studio closed, his glass negatives were stored for decades under neglectful conditions until they were rediscovered by another photographer, Cezar Popescu, who is now preserving and cataloging them. His online archive is at http://colectiacosticaacsinte.eu/.

The paragraph you’ve just read is one way of accounting for the image’s history. Another way might be to open a book and start reading about Romania during the 1930s and ’40s, when the photograph was probably taken. A guide to Romanian officers’ uniforms could provide further detail, and in Slobozia there may, even now, survive someone who can attach a name and a war diary to the image of the young man pointing his pistol at someone not visible in this image at this time — someone who happens to be standing to the right of the photographer.

What expression is on the face of the person facing the muzzle of the officer’s automatic? The officer is backed by a set from The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard, with flowers bordering a window and a door, but we’ll never learn who is about to walk forward from the camera’s vantage, speak the password that will make the officer reholster his gun, and enter the scene. Such an entrance would be an event. If the word could be spoken, the young man could relax his vigilance and begin speaking in his own turn. Until then, however, he can be nothing but a Manstein: a shape on photosensitive paper, serving a purpose off-camera.

His time on camera is short, too. Even as he waits for his event to begin, time is peeling his form away from its transparent backing. A break in the image’s continuity has already opened itself right across his eyes. He won’t be able to keep watch within the image frame much longer, and behind the image’s transparent support there seems to be nothing but dark. Still, the dark has a grammatical force of its own. Radiating forward to the image, it keeps it from communicating off camera. On camera, the officer’s uniform, a symbol written in a specialized code, may say “nationalism,” but it doesn’t seem able to translate the sentimental off-camera adjective “old-fashioned.” That which is old-fashioned is either thought to be dead or thought to be dying, and the historical record between Heidegger’s time and ours seems to show that the man with the pistol will live forever, just as he is imaged on camera here and now. The old-fashioned nationalist will never live to become old-fashioned because he isn’t going to die.

Sooner or later, too, we who still live in history may be able to imagine the pistol swinging in our direction. If that act of the imagination becomes possible, we will know that in this image Costică Acsinte achieved a work of art worthy of art’s terrible task of outliving.

Shadowing Domesday lines

Under fluorescent light on Philip Larkin’s desk in the library at the University of Hull lies a black-and-white photograph. Looking in, Larkin notices a midden of tiny broken English things. These he takes to be metonyms for a larger England which is about to be broken. In the image, under the famous cloudless sky of summer 1914, are men standing in lines to enlist for what is about to become the Great War. Observing the behavior of the shadows cast by the lines, Larkin writes out a forecast: in an amazingly short time from this illuminated moment, the sun will shine down on one more thing: the title of the poem Larkin is now about to write, “MCMXIV.” Then the word will be inscribed in the stone of a war memorial. But for now, in the photograph, it is not yet even a word. It is only a pre-verbal, pre-stone dust that nobody yet understands to be subject to future inscription:

. . . the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns . . .

A farthing was a copper coin worth one fourth of England’s old pre-decimal penny — that is, 1/960 of a pound. A sovereign was a one-pound coin made of gold. Long before England’s currency went decimal in 1965, both coins had disappeared from circulation — the farthing because its purchasing power had diminished to nothing, the sovereign because the gold it was made of had become worth more than the shrunken fiat pound. Larkin’s term for the vanished years of farthing and sovereign is “innocence.”

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word . . .

Or, in prose: on the sunny day they signed up to die for the British Empire, the men of 1914 had their pockets full of soon-to-be-lost value. They lived before the loss began, poor innocent men, and the British Empire died with them, and now not all the antique shops in England can keep the Pakis out of Larkin’s neighborhood. For most of its length, “MCMXIV” expresses an idea, and that really is all the idea amounts to. As George Orwell remarks in “Inside the Whale” about A. E. Housman’s tragic young men in their emotionally similar situation: “Hard cheese, old chap!”

Nevertheless, all sentimentality discounted, on the other side of the brooks too broad for leaping there does lie a world different from ours. There everything in the present is seen at eye level, and the past isn’t seen but experienced by intuition. This sovereign landscape is pastoral, and its weather hints at pastoral’s delicate foreboding irony: the quality of both knowing and seeming not to know that it is a mere literary fashion.

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence . . .

The earth-father of these Larkin lines is Wordsworth, and Larkin has obviously done the responsible thing and read Wordsworth’s report about the detection of splendor in the grass. But it’s hard to sense the grass-hazed coordinates of poetry’s specifics from on high, and during the Great War the coordinates of vision began acquiring a vertical axis. Here, then, is a counterimage to the one in “MCMXIV.” We see it from altitude, the War’s new sightline.

Onto the old world, says altitude, I have superimposed a new ruin: the aluminum frame of a German zeppelin bomber, all that remained after the zeppelin’s lifting gas burned off and recombined with its originating air. For the moment, the frame’s unburned streamlines are still contained within the rectilinear subframes of a pastoral landscape. In the poetry of Larkin and Housman and Edward Thomas and Hardy, these straight lines are taken to be metaphors for a natural order which incorporates human order into itself and makes the two orders one. Under the rules governing that genre, the only world there is is a world at ground level, seen from the height of a man. But the new ruin has begun to change that way of seeing. It descended on the land from above, and we see it now from above.

In ancient tragedy, only the gods see from above. The new image comes to us demonstrating that that’s no longer true. The original shadows of Domesday, level with the earth they were drawn on, have now been supplemented by lines surveyed from a higher angle. “MCMXIV” reads the new lines as an ironic antipastoral: not yet a new way of reading tragically, but a start.

For the start, poems like “MCMXIV” need more light, better distributed. Something verbal needs to be done, for instance, with the instance of light that penetrated for the first time into the skeleton of an airship. But time has been allotted for that to occur. After all, says the somber forecast from 1914, the new light is going to keep falling forever. With every declining sun in the century since a camera in the air first detected a fallen flightform, the lengthening, darkening, ever more almost-readable shapes of its roundness on the earth have shown us promises of more.

Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006001296/. Photoshopped.

Asks air silence; seeks sign

In his Amherst years, David Todd (1855-1939) had been the astronomer who almost but not quite discovered the moons of Mars. He was also the husband of Mabel Loomis Todd, who became first the mistress of Emily Dickinson’s brother and then the first editor of Dickinson’s poems and letters. It was David, an obsessive record-keeper, who induced Mabel to start keeping the sex diary which in later years made her one of the heroines of Peter Gay’s The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud — specifically volume 1, the volume subtitled Education of the Senses.

By 1924, David was in retirement, living out his years in a discontinuous series of mental hospitals. In August of that year, however, he was at liberty, and perhaps he was able then to catch the ear of President Coolidge, an Amherst alumnus. At any rate, here he is in Washington on August 21, 1924, with a démarche to Mars, an apparatus for recording the response, and (in the rear) the inventor of the apparatus, the radio pioneer C. Francis Jenkins.

And here is the report he filed from Mars.

And with those words “freak which we can’t explain,” this chapter in the history of air silence came to an end. Ever since, the static noises of freak have been equally a part of air silence’s language with explanation and poem.

Weekly World News, July 6, 1999

But back in Amherst Miss Dickinson’s three apparatuses were tuned to receive silence, only. Mrs. Todd used to visit her house and play Bach for her on her piano, but she saw Miss Dickinson’s face only once: in her coffin. In memory of piano, house, and long prepared deathbed, then,

this antenna array.


Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Volume 1: Education of the Senses. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Polly Longsworth, Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984.

“Dr. David Todd & C. F. Jenkins, 8/21/24.” National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/npc2007011972/. Photoshopped. The image is also discussed at http://www.shorpy.com/node/12482.

The image against the idea


Interviewer Thomas Vašek: You speak of a “metaphysical antisemitism” . . .

Donatella di Cesare, vice president of the Martin Heidegger Society and author of Heidegger e gli ebrei. I “Quaderni Neri” [Heidegger and the Jews: The “Black Notebooks”], forthcoming in English translation: [Heidegger] outlines a metaphysics of the Jew. That is, he doesn’t speak of specific Jews in their individual differences and he isn’t interested in the history of the Jewish people. Rather, he asks: What is the Jew? What is the nature of the Jew? And when he does that he falls back into metaphysics, against which he guards himself at all other times. That’s why I would speak of a metaphysical antisemitism.


Sources: “Heidegger-Enthüllung” [“Unmasking Heidegger”]. Hohe Luft 10 February 2015, http://www.hoheluft-magazin.de/2015/02/heidegger-enthuellung/. Online.

The Warsaw Ghetto in Photographs: 206 Views Made in 1941. Ed. Ulrich Keller. New York: Dover, 1984.