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


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.

In memory of a word

Toward the end of 2014, the United States Senate released the partial text of a report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of prisoners held in the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. This report showed that torture was a part of the Agency’s repertoire of practices.

In the media, CIA spokesmen defended the agency’s conduct, using for the purpose a vocabulary as chastened in its purity as Racine’s. If anything, in fact, it was purer. Classic French tragedy speaks into existence a life freed of reference to any of the multitudinous comic functions that keep us merely human, but the CIA spokesmen concentrated almost all of their liberating effort on a single word: “torture.” They had two reasons for doing so: one having to do with liability (under the United States Code, torture is unlawful if it’s called torture) and the other having to do with politics (see Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”).

To the extent that the reasons were obvious, they were uninteresting. Nevertheless, words in themselves, if they’re read one by one, have the power to compel our attention. As soon as they escape their contexts, they force us not to retreat into contexts of our own. In the realm of language as such, we cannot be evaded. There, at last, we become like Stevens’s Man on the Dump: errants in search of the definite article.

                                                    Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

In memory of the the, then, this memento: first by way of words, then on its wordless own.

And see: the term that came to your mind wasn’t the CIA’s euphemism, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Whether you wanted to or not, you thought of something merely human. The the compelled you to know.

Source: Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013645644/. Photoshopped.