Saturday, October 14, 2017

Dianne Firth: The 'Poetry and Place' Exhibition

Dianne Firth: Poetry and Place (2017)

Poetry and Place

Belconnen Arts Centre

26 August - 17 September 2017

Dianne Firth: Poetry and Place (2017)

So, a couple of days ago I received a very interesting email from textile artist Dianne Firth, in Australia. In it she said (among other things):
Dear Jack,

At the 2016 Poetry on the Move festival, at Paul [Munden]'s request, you wrote a poem about Canberra. For the 2017 festival I created a textile work in response to that poem and I would like to send you a catalogue book from the resulting exhibition 'Poetry and Place'.

Could you please send me your mail address.

I haven't yet received the catalogue - I'm looking forward to that very much - but I have managed to learn quite a lot about the exhibition by doing a bit of trawling around the internet.

It's not as if this came as a complete surprise. I remember the original request, and doing quite a lot of scrabbling around to put together something which might be construed as a poem about the Canberra landscape (quite unfamiliar to me until my visit to the 2016 Poetry on the Move Festival, as one of the judges of the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor's Poetry Prize).

I did duly send off the poem, "Canberra Tales" (which you can read here, if you're curious) before the deadline in December last year, but then after that I don't think I heard any more about it. I assumed that it was a bit too weird and/or insufficiently concerned with landscape to be of much use, and so - instead - I received the lovely present last year of an art piece by Bronwyn based on the first part of the it!

Bronwyn Lloyd: 1942 (2016)

I have to say that I love art-poetry collaborations. It's always so exciting to see what an artist has made of your own crazy musings, and I do seem to have clocked up quite a few of them over the years (check it out here, if you don't believe me).

This one was a bit different, though: this one was international. For a start, Dianne Firth is pretty eminent among Australian artists. In fact, she was honoured with an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday awards, which is no mean feat, and her work is clearly highly valued both in Australia and abroad. The brief for the show was as follows:
Inspired by her love of Canberra’s landscape and by contact with poets at the university’s Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, Firth invited poets from Australia and overseas who were in town for the summit to write about the beauty of our environment.

Some of them got carried away and came up with many poems. One British poet declined, Canberra was too far from the hedgerows of England.
I can't help wondering if I was the principal culprit among those 'who got carried away and came up with many poems' - as you can see from the list below, I seem to have been the only one whose poem got four separate works allotted to it!

The 14 poets in question, then, were:
From Canberra ... Jen Webb, Merlinda Bobis, Paul Hetherington, Subhash Jaireth, Penelope Layland, Paul Munden, Jen Crawford and Wiradjuri poet Jeanine Leane. From overseas ... Pamela Beasant (Scotland), Katharine Coles (US), Philip Gross (UK), Alvin Pang (Singapore) and Jack Ross and Elizabeth Smither (NZ).
And here are a few of the 34 works included in the exhibition:

Dianne Firth: Philip Gross

Dianne Firth: Alvin Pang

Dianne Firth: Jen Webb

Dianne Firth: Further works in situ

So there's the show (or the closest I can get to reconstructing it at present). Unfortunately I was too late to buy the works based on my poem, but Jen Crawford and Jen Webb were both kind enough to take photos of it, and no doubt there will be more about it in the catalogue.

So, all in all, I think I'd have to rate this as one of the nicest surprises I've ever had: entirely out of left field, but one of those serendipitous events which sometimes light up one's day. Thanks, above all, Dianne Firth - but thanks, too, to Paul Munden, for facilitating the choice of poems in the first place, and thanks to Jen Crawford, for reading out my poem at the end-of-exhibition event, and thanks to Jen Webb, for posting about it on facebook, and thus putting me on the right track!

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Allen Curnow Symposium

Allen Curnow: Collected Poems (2017)

A Symposium on the Life and Works of
Allen Curnow

30 September 2017
University of Auckland, Arts 1: Room 220

9.30 – 10.45
Panel One: Remembering Allen Curnow (I).

Chair, Alex Calder
  • C. K. Stead: ‘AC: informal recollections’
  • Elizabeth Smither: ‘Allen & Jeny: a tribute’
  • Wystan Curnow: ‘Venice’

10.45 - 11.00: Morning tea

11.00 - 12.35
Panel two: New Zealand Perspectives
Chair, Tom Bishop
  • Hugh Roberts: Unsettler Poetry: Curnow’s Literary Nationalism Revisited
  • John Newton, ‘All the History that Did Not Happen’
  • Paul Millar: Curnow and Pearson
  • Philip Steer: Curnow and Environmentalism

12.35 - 1.15 Lunch

1.15 – 2.50
Panel three: Poetry and Poetics
Chair, Erin Carlson
  • Roger Horrocks: ‘Trying to save poetry from poetry’
  • Dougal McNeill: ‘Abominable Tempers, Magic Makers: Allen Curnow, Earle Birney and Mid-Century Modernism’
  • Harry Ricketts: ‘Allen Curnow: A post-Christian Poet’
  • John Geraets: ‘Show and Tell: Curnow’s Stealth’

Afternoon tea: 2.50 – 3.10

3.10 - 4.25
Panel four: Early days, Latter days.
Chair, Alex Calder
  • Mark Houlahan: Curnow at Sonnets
  • Peter Simpson: 'Contraries in two late Curnow poems: “A Busy Port” and “Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water”’.
  • Jack Ross: ‘Teaching Late Curnow’.

Short break

4.30 – 5.45
Panel five: Remembering Allen Curnow (II)
Chair, Alex Calder
  • Michael Hulse: ‘That can’t be it!’
  • Jan Kemp: Poems for Allen Curnow

So guess where I was yesterday ... One always approaches these events with a certain trepidation, I fear. I think you'll agree that the above list represents a pretty packed programme, but - as the prime mover of the whole affair, Alex Calder, remarked at the end - all the presenters "brought their A-game," and there was really never a dull moment in the whole day (not to mention an excellent lunch, which is more important than one might think for morale on such occasions).

There were numerous biographical revelations: Curnow's defiant contempt for homophobia, marching down Princes Street arm in arm with his theatre producer, who'd just been convicted of 'lewd acts,' in full sight of Auckland University's powers-that-were, was a particular high point (thanks for that detail, Paul Millar); and many of C. K. Stead's points about the 'authorised' nature of the biography were also shrewd and to-the-point. Michael Hulse, Jan Kemp and Elizabeth Smither contributed fascinating accounts of their very different friendships with both Allen and Jeny Curnow.

The Academic papers were uniformly excellent. I particularly enjoyed the focus on his earlier work provided by Hugh Roberts, John Newton, Dougal McNeill and Mark Houlahan. At times they overlapped, at other times disagreed, but the combined picture they presented certainly helped me to understand a lot of aspects of his poetry which had hitherto been quite opaque to me.

It's the later poetry, from the 1970s onwards, for which I myself feel a real enthusiasm (as I hope I revealed in my own paper on my strategies for teaching some of these poems to local students). Even here, though, there was much to learn. Roger Horrocks' ringing defence of the first book Curnow published after his long silence throughout the 1960s, Tree, Effigies, Moving Objects (1972), from the various accusations of 'roughness' and 'excessive obscurity' which bedevilled it at the time, was very persuasive, and Peter Simpson's analysis of two of these later poems both informative and charming. It tied in very well with Wystan Curnow's account of his father's long love affair with Italy, and - in particular - la città del sogno [dream city] itself, Venice, which Wystan interestingly contrasted with the Lyttelton of his childhood.

What else? My Massey Palmerston North colleague Philip Steer had many interesting things to say about the environmental concerns of the 1930s, and the ways in which they manifest in Curnow's early poetry; Harry Ricketts analysed the 'coldness' many have claimed to detect in Curnow's 'post-Christian' poetry - which (I guess) places it alongside the work of such precursors as Eliot and Montale, as well as the more overtly present Wallace Stevens. John Geraets contributed a condensed overview of his thinking about Curnow over the years, grouped around certain predominant themes.

There were some other voices I would have liked to hear. I would have liked Elizabeth Caffin and Linda Cassells to talk some more about their work on (respectively) the new collected poems and the biography. But since I was unfortunately unable to attend the booklaunch on Friday night, I suspect that they may have already discussed the subject there. It would have been interesting to hear some more details about it, though.

All in all, it was a great day out, and a very fitting tribute to one of our most important and (I suspect) enduring poets.

Another important presence there (albeit in absentia) was that of the late Professor Terry Sturm, whom I knew pretty well when I used to work in the English Department. He was a very kind as well as a very brilliant man, and I have nothing but good memories of him (including a rather surprising speech in the Senior Common Room one day, after probably all of us had had a bit too much to drink, on the improbability of some of the more surprising claims made routinely in Penthouse forum ...). He was a good boss and a straight-shooting talker. I greatly enjoyed reading his biography of pioneering novelist Edith Lyttleton, and anticipate the same enjoyment from his work on Allen Curnow.

Mangroves, Little Shoal Bay
[Photograph: Ray Tomes (2009)]

from A Small Room with Large Windows (1957)

To creak in tune, comfortable to damn
Slime-suckled mangrove for its muddy truckling
With time and tide, knotted to the vein it leeches.

- Allen Curnow

New Zealand is a very small country, still. It's strange how many connections you can find with people you hardly know at all (except by reputation). Does it matter? I guess not really. It's fun to table a few of them, though:

My father told me that as kids they stayed in a boarding house in Akaroa where the Curnow family were also guests. They didn't much take to Allen, he said, but they had a great time playing with his brother Tony (this must have been sometime in the late 20s, I imagine, when my grandfather was working as a teacher in Templeton, on the outskirts of Christchurch).

Then my English teacher at Rangitoto College, Mr. Lamb, had many reminiscences of Allen Curnow as a lecturer. He retired from Auckland University a few years before I got there, though. In fact the only time I ever spoke to him was one day in (I think) 1986, when I was in the English Department mailroom and he asked me for help with the fax machine. I had to admit that it was a mystery to me, too, so there went my chance of making a good impression.

The next time I remember seeing him was at a poetry booklaunch in the late 1990s, where my friend Leicester Kyle finally gave into our persuasions that he go over and speak to the great man. Leicester's father, Cecil, who also had poetic ambitions, had been a fellow reporter of Curnow's on the Press in Christchurch in the 1930s, and they had some nice chat about it. There was a suggestion that Allen might write a preface to a collection of Leicester's own poems, but nothing ever came of that.

Connections: I know that Shoal Bay seascape of "A Small Room with Large Windows" very well. My grandmother lived in Ngataringa Bay, just around the headland, and we grew up sailing around on boats and wading over the mudflats. I don't know the West Coast beaches nearly as intimately as Curnow did, mind you. Of course I've been to Karekare many times, but have only stayed overnight there once. Muriwai is my favourite of those wonderfully evocative beaches, perhaps because it's really just round the corner from Mairangi Bay.

[Photograph: Brad's pictures]

from A Dead Lamb (1972)

Never turn your back on the sea.
The mumble of the fall of time is continuous.

A billion billion broken waves deliver
a coloured glass globe at your feet, intact.

You say it is a Japanese fisherman's float.
It is a Japanese fisherman's float.

- Allen Curnow

[Photograph: Marti Friedlander]

Allen Curnow (1911-2001)


  • Valley of Decision: Poems. Auckland: Auckland University College Students' Association, 1933.
  • Enemies: Poems 1934-36. Christchurch: Caxton Press,1937.
  • Not in Narrow Seas: Poems with Prose. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1939.
  • Island and Time. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1941
  • Sailing or Drowning: Poems. Wellington: Progressive Publishing Society, [1946?]
  • Jack Without Magic: Poems. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1946.
  • At Dead Low Water, and Sonnets. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1949.
  • Poems 1949-57. Wellington: Mermaid Press, 1957.
  • A Small Room With Large Windows. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
  • Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects: A Sequence. Wellington: Catspaw Press, 1972.
  • An Abominable Temper, and Other Poems. Wellington: Catspaw Press, 1973.
  • Collected Poems 1933-1973. Wellington: A.W. and A.H. Reed, 1974.
  • An Incorrigible Music. Dunedin: Auckland University Press, 1979.
  • Selected Poems. Auckland: Penguin, 1982.
  • You Will Know When You Get There: Poems 1979. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1982.
  • The Loop in Lone Kauri Road. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1986.
  • Continuum: New and Later Poems 1972-1988. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1988.
  • Selected Poems 1940-1989. London: Viking, 1990.
  • Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems 1941-1997. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997.
  • The Bells of Saint Babel’s. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001.
  • Sturm, Terry, ed. Whim Wham’s New Zealand: The Best of Whim Wham, 1937-1988. A Vintage Book. Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2005.
  • Collected Poems. Ed. Elizabeth Caffin & Terry Sturm. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017.
  • [Appendix to Allen Curnow: Collected Poems. Ed. Elizabeth Caffin & Terry Sturm. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017. Available at:].


  • The Axe: a Verse Tragedy. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1949.
  • Four Plays: The Axe, The Overseas Expert, The Duke’s Miracle, Resident of Nowhere. Wellington: A.W. and A.H. Reed, 1972.


  • Look Back Harder: Critical Writings 1935-1984. Edited by Peter Simpson. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1987.


  • Book of New Zealand Verse: 1923-45. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1945.
  • A Book of New Zealand Verse: 1923-50. Christchurch: The Caxton Press, 1951.
  • Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1960.


  • Simpson, Peter. Allen Curnow: The Loop in Lone Kauri Road. Titirangi: Lopdell House Gallery, 1995.
  • Sturm, Terry. Simply by Sailing in a New Direction. Allen Curnow: A Biography. Ed. Linda Cassells. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017.


Friday, September 15, 2017

'I Am Lost Without My Boswell'

Sir Joshua Reynolds: James Boswell of Auchinleck (1785)

The 1944 poem "Reading in Wartime" by Scottish poet (and pioneering translator of Kafka) Edwin Muir begins with the lines: "Boswell by my bed, / Tolstoy on my table":
Boswell's turbulent friend
And his deafening verbal strife,
Ivan Ilych's death
Tell me more about life,
The meaning and the end
Of our familiar breath,
Both being personal,
Than all the carnage can,
Retrieve the shape of man,
Lost and anonymous,
Tell me wherever I look
That not one soul can die
Of this or any clan
Who is not one of us
And has a personal tie
Perhaps to someone now
Searching an ancient book,
Folk-tale or country song
In many and many a tongue,
To find the original face,
The individual soul,
The eye, the lip, the brow
For ever gone from their place,
And gather an image whole.
If I understand him correctly, he seems to be saying that no-one can really die - no-one, that is, who leaves behind some kind of memory with the living.

If that is the case, then it's hard to imagine anyone who's left behind a more comprehensive record of himself than James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck (1740-1795).

Sir Joshua Reynolds: Samuel Johnson (1775)

Most important of all, of course, is his massive (and still well worth reading) Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). But it's worth remembering that he was known in his lifetime as 'Corsica Boswell,' for his account of that little-known island in the throes of its struggle for freedom against the Genoese.

Here's a short list of his works (or most of the ones published in his lifetime, at any rate):

  1. Boswell, James. Journal of a Tour to Corsica; and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli. 1768. Ed. Morchard Bishop. London: Williams & Norgate Ltd., 1951.

  2. Boswell, James. Boswell’s Column: Being his Seventy Contributions to the London Magazine under the pseudonym The Hypochondriack from 1777 to 1783 Here First printed In Book Form in England. Ed. Margery Bailey. London: William Kimber, 1951.

  3. Boswell, James. The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson. 1785. Introduction by T. C. Livingstone. Collins Classics. London & Glasgow: Collins, 1955.

  4. Johnson, Dr. Samuel & James Boswell. Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland & Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson LL.D. 1775 & 1785. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 1924. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

  5. Boswell, James, Esq. The Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D. 1791. Introduction by Herbert Askwith. The Modern Library of the World’s Best Books. New York: Random House Inc., n.d.

  6. Boswell, James. Boswell’s Life of Johnson. 1791. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford Standard Authors. 1904. London: Geoffrey Cumberlege / Oxford University Press, 1953.

George Willison: James Boswell in Rome (1765)

Funnily enough, the real story started long after his death. After a memorable slagging off by Macaulay, Boswell's stock sank pretty low during most of the nineteenth century. He was seen as a kind of glorifeed shorthand report, whose sole claim to fame was that he happened to be present during some memorable events.

His undoubted skill in submerging himself in the moment worked very much against him, strangely enough. People continued to read the Life of Johnson, but Boswell's part in creating it was depreciated to the point of invisibility: as if a great book could somehow come into being despite its author.

It was thought, also, that the extensive archives of letters and journals he drew on to create the book had all perished in a 'fire in Scotland.' A few attempts were made to investigate this, but the family rebuffed them for various reasons (mostly to do with the very complicated state of their finances, partially due to the early deaths of both of Boswell's sons: James of illness, and Alexander, his direct heir, in a duel).

David Buchanan: The Treasure of Auchinleck (1974)

Until, that is, Colonel Isham came to tea. The tea party in question was in Malahide Castle near Dublin, the home of the direct heir to the line of Auchinleck, the time the 1920s, and the result of this fishing expedition by a well-connected American book collector forms the subject of two books: David Buchanan's The Treasure of Auchinleck (which focusses principally on Isham's fascinating thirty-year quest to unite the Boswell papers), and Frederick A. Pottle's more general history of the whole strange sage, Pride and Negligence.

Frederick A. Pottle: Pride and Negligence (1981)

The story is too complicated to summarise here, but suffice it to say that the papers spread over houses in two different countries, in attics and haylofts and cabinets in old dusty rooms, were eventually united -- after various complex law-suits -- at Yale University, whence they've been issuing in a steady stream ever since.

The jewel in the crown of all these efforts was undoubtedly Boswell's incomparable journal, kept on and off for four decades, and now published (not quite in full) with extensive annotations and commentary in a series of 13 volumes:

Frederick A. Pottle, ed.: Boswell's London Journal (1950)

  1. Boswell, James. Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763. As First Published in 1950 from the Original Mss. Ed. Frederick A. Pottle. 1950. London: The Reprint Society, 1952.

  2. Boswell, James. Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764: Including His Correspondence with Belle de Zuylen (Zélide). Ed. Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 2). London: William Heinemann, 1952.

  3. Boswell, James. Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764. Ed. Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 4). London: William Heinemann, 1953.

  4. Boswell, James. Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France, 1765-1766. Ed. Frank Brady & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 5). London: William Heinemann, 1955.

  5. Boswell, James. Boswell in Search of a Wife, 1766-1769. Ed. Frank Brady & Frederick A. Pottle. 1957. London: The Reprint Society, 1958.

  6. Boswell, James. Boswell for the Defence, 1769-1774. Ed. William K. Wimsatt & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 7). London: William Heinemann, 1959.

  7. Boswell, James. Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, 1773. Ed. Frederick A. Pottle & Charles H. Bennett. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 8). London: William Heinemann, 1963.

  8. Boswell, James. Boswell: The Ominous Years, 1774-1776. Ed. Charles Ryskamp & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 9). London: William Heinemann, 1963.

  9. Boswell, James. Boswell in Extremes, 1776–1778. Ed. Charles McC. Weis & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 10). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970.

  10. Boswell, James. Boswell: Laird of Auchinleck, 1778-1782. Ed. Joseph W. Reed & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 11). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1977.

  11. Boswell, James. Boswell: The Applause of the Jury, 1782-1785. Ed. Irma S. Lustig & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 12). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981.

  12. Boswell, James. Boswell: The English Experiment, 1785-1789. Ed. Irma S. Lustig & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 13). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1986.

  13. Boswell, James. Boswell: The Great Biographer, 1789-1795. Ed. Marlies K. Danziger & Frank Brady. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 14). New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1989.

Marlies K. Danziger & Frank Brady, ed.: Boswell: The Great Biographer (1989)

The first of the volumes, Boswell's London Journal (1762-63), which records his famous meeting with Dr. Johnson ("I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it'), was a publishing sensation. Appearing when it did, in buttoned-up 1950, its revelations of Boswell's whoring ways among the street women and courtesans of the metropolis, made it seem like a saucy, rollicking read.

With the best will in the world, the subsequent volumes could not really keep up this reputation, and by the time the series finished in 1989, its British publishers had given up on it entirely, and only MCgraw-Hill in America was prepared to keep on issuing it faithfully. All of which is a bit of a pity, because Boswell's skill as an autobiographer certainly didn't lessen over the years.

What other pieces of Boswelliana ought one to mention? Well, there's the fascinating (and previously unknown) collection of biographical sketches of his friends by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was found among Boswell's papers, and therefore formed part of the Yale edition of his writings (there are actually two editions: one for the general reader, and another - far more expensive and slow to appear - of critical editions of all the papers in the collection):
  1. Reynolds, Sir Joshua. Portraits: Character Sketches of Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, and David Garrick, together with other Manuscripts of Reynolds Recently Discovered among the Private Papers of James Boswell and now first published. Ed. Frederick W. Hilles Bodman. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 3). London: William Heinemann, 1952.

  2. Boswell, James. Boswell’s Book of Bad Verse (A Verse Self-Portrait), or ‘Love Poems and Other Verses.’ Ed. Jack Werner. London: White Lion Publishers Limited, 1974.

Then there's the collection (above) of Boswell's poetry, for the really keen.

The standard biography is in two parts, the first by Frederick A. Pottle, the second by his long-time collaborator on the papers, Frank Brady. Adam Sisman's book, below, gives a good, succinct account of the complex process of composition which led to Boswell's immortal biography.

  1. Pottle, Frederick A. James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740-1769. London: Heinemann, 1966.

  2. Brady, Frank. James Boswell: The Later Years, 1769-1795. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1984.

  3. Sisman, Adam. Boswell’s Presumptuous Task. 2000. London: Penguin, 2001.

So next time anyone solemnly informs you that Boswell was a good writer by accident rather than by design, or that it was somehow easy to compile the greatest biography in the English language, tell them they're full of it. That pompous old windbag Macaulay (as so often) was dead wrong on that one. Boswell's long journal (together with his lifetime's crop of letters) constitute one of the most entertaining reads you'll ever come across, as well as being an incomparable source of information on just about everything to do with British (and Continental) culture in the late eighteenth century.

Thomas Rowlandson: The High Street in Edinburgh (1786)

Saturday, August 05, 2017

John Bunyan, Chief of Sinners

Thomas Sadler: John Bunyan (1684)

WHEN at the first I took my Pen in hand
Thus for to write; I did not understand
That I at all should make a little Book
In such a mode; Nay, I had undertook
To make another, which when almost done,
Before I was aware I this begun
For quite some time after it came out, a number of informed judges were of the opinion that John Bunyan could not possibly have been the author of such works as The Pilgrim's Progress, written while he was in prison for daring to preach without a licence, though not published until 1678, six years after his release.

Their difficulty lay in conceiving how an ill-educated tinker could have conceived so compelling and vivid a work of the imagination: not to mention demonstrated so consummate a command of English prose. That kind of thing was allowable to established wits such as Dryden and Congreve, not to mention erudite eccentrics such as the regicide Milton, but surely not to a member of the working classes!

John Bunyan: The Pilgrim's Progress (1678)

If you've never read it, rest assured that The Pilgrim's Progress is anything but a piece of dry-as-dust soul-searching. The story, with its fascinating echoes of the seventeenth century everyday of Bunyan's own experience, is absorbing enough, but the precise vernacular bite of the language he created to tell it lies behind virtually everything in the plain style which has been achieved since, from Swift to Cobbett to Orwell (not to mention, albeit at somewhat of a remove, Huckleberry Finn).

"The Author's Apology for His Book" is sometimes quoted as an example of the flatness of Bunyan's verse. I can assure you, though (as one who has tried it), that writing with such simplicity and directness as this is not an easy proposition: it is, in fact, much harder than the so-many-couplets-by-the-yard stuff, full of Classical allusions and pompous periphrases, which poets such as Dryden could more or less produce at will:
Neither did I but vacant seasons spend
In this my Scribble; nor did I intend
But to divert myself in doing this
From worser thoughts which make me do amiss

John Bunyan: Grace Abounding (1666)

What were these "worser thoughts"? The reason that Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), his spiritual autobiography, published while he was still in prison, is such a terrifying book to read is that it chronicles such excesses of paranoid self-scrutiny as to border, at times, on madness. There's one famous passage, in particular, where Bunyan is tempted to commit the sin against the Holy Ghost (what precisely this sin consists of has never been made quite clear, which is one reason it continues to terrify neurotic believers - such as myself as a child - to this day):
One day the temptation was hot upon me to try if I had faith by doing some miracle; which miracle was this, I must say to the puddles, Be dry, and to the dry places, Be you puddles.
This may sound a bit ridiculous, but it was anything but that to Bunyan. He persuaded himself that he had committed this sin, and was therefore damned to hell, and the sufferings he endured make grim (though also, at times, fascinating) reading. Eventually he escaped from this delusion. Prison was nothing beside it. By comparison, he endured twelve years of incarceration in Bedford Gaol with a light heart:
Thus I set Pen to Paper with delight,
And quickly had my thoughts in black and white.
For having now my Method by the end,
Still as I pull’d, it came; and so I penn’d
It down, until it came at last to be
For length and breadth the bigness which you see
The idea of writing fiction was certainly an alien one to Bunyan. There were no English novels as yet, though prose tales had been told and published as far back as the Middle Ages. He therefore chose allegory as his vehicle.
Well, when I had thus put mine ends together,
I shew’d them others, that I might see whether
They would condemn them, or them justifie;
And some said, Let them live; some, Let them die;
Some said, John, print it; others said, Not so:
Some said, It might do good; others said, No
Luckily he'd learnt by then to trust his own judgement - or, rather, God's:
At last I thought, Since you are thus divided,
I print it will, and so the case decided
Admittedly there are one or two aspects of the work which cause a certain amount of consternation nowadays: the cave where the giants 'Pope' and 'Pagan' waylay and eat unwary travellers, for instance, but for the most part the descriptions of the corrupt magistrates of Vanity Fair and the prevarications of Mr. Worldly Wiseman still ring disconcertingly true.

There are many modern editions of his most famous book. I've listed the ones I myself own below. Funnily enough, the most interesting to read is the one which I've put second on the list, the nineteenth-century 'religious tracts' edition, which gives Biblical references and running commentary in little squares of text along the way. It has a real feel of the intensity with which this book was once read.

The Complete Works is a very strange book indeed, with a carved wooden cover and illustrations throughout. It's not terribly convenient to read, but is definitely a thing of beauty in itself:

John Bunyan: Complete Works (1881)

John Bunyan

  1. Bunyan, John. The Complete Works. Introduction by John P. Gulliver. Illustrated Edition. Philadelphia; Brantford, Ont.: Bradley, Garretson & Co. / Chicago, Ills.; Columbus, Ohio; Nashville, Tenn.; St. Louis, Mo.; San Francisco, Cal.: Wm. Garretson & Co., 1881.

  2. Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is To Come: Delivered Under the Similitude of a Dream. London: The Religious Tract Society, n.d. [1877].

  3. Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Ed. Roger Sharrock. 1965. The Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

  4. Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World to that which is to come. 1666, 1678, & 1684. Ed. Roger Sharrock. 1962 & 1960. Oxford Standard Authors. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

  5. Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding & The Life and Death of Mr Badman. 1666 & 1680. Introduction by G. B. Harrison. An Everyman Paperback. Everyman’s Library, 1815. 1928. London: J. M. Dent & Sons / New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1969.

  6. Bunyan, John. The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. 1680. Introduction by Bonamy Dobrée. The Worlds’ Classics, 338. London: Humphrey Milford / Oxford University Press, 1929.

  7. Bunyan, John. The Holy War Made by King Shaddai upon Diabolus To regain the Metropolis of the World or, The Losing and Taking Again of the Town of Mansoul. 1682. Ed. Wilbur M. Smith. The Wycliffe Series of Christian Classics. Chicago: Moody Press, 1948.

I wrote this post at the suggestion of my good friend Richard Taylor, who seemed to feel that it might make a good follow-up to my posts on Spenser and Malory. I can't say that I regret having spent so much of my youth reading such ponderous tomes. Now, in my more frivolous middle age, I don't know that I'd have the energy to start on them from scratch (let alone such works as Piers Plowman or Beowulf, which I once had the application to plough through in the original).

Much of Bunyan's work is, however, extremely readable, and The Holy War and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (great title!) are well worth pursuing if you take a liking to The Pilgrim's Progress (both are better than part two of that work, to be honest).

I suppose my main interest in him nowadays is as a predecessor to such literary non-conformists as William Blake and John Clare, however. There's a fascinating tradition there, which I write about in more detail in one of my posts on contemporary English poet Peter Reading.

William Blake: Christian fights Apollyon (c. 1824-27)

Sunday, July 16, 2017


The other day a bunch of us were sitting around talking about books (as you do), when someone asked us each to name our favourite author. The answers were pretty interesting - and quite revealing. Bronwyn said 'Tracey Slaughter,' her sister Thérèse said 'Anne Carson,' Martin said 'Salman Rushdie,' I said 'Guillaume Apollinaire,' and my brother-in-law Greg said 'George Orwell.'

I guess on another day any one of us might have mentioned somebody else ('Stephen King' would probably have been more accurate for me, if the truth be told). But Orwell - that was the name that really struck me, and the response I envied most.

I've been reading his books for forty years, I'm astonished to discover. My second-hand copy of the 'Uniform Edition' of Down and Out in Paris and London cost me 20 cents in 1977, I see on the inside flap, and I acquired copies of The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia not much later. I'm sure I'd already read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four by then, though it wasn't till I bought the large hardback 'Octopus Books' edition of his complete novels that I read the other ones. Coming Up for Air is probably my favourite book of his, actually.

  • Orwell, George. Down and Out in Paris and London. 1933. Uniform Edition. 1949. London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., 1951.
  • Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier. 1937. Uniform Edition. London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., 1959.
  • Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia, & Looking Back on the Spanish War. 1938 & 1953. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
  • Orwell, George. Burmese Days / A Clergyman's Daughter / Keep the Aspidistra Flying / Coming Up for Air / Animal Farm / Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1934, 1935, 1936, 1939, 1945, 1949. London: Martin Secker & Warburg Limited / Octopus Books Limited, 1976.
  • Orwell, George, & Reginald Reynolds, ed. British Pamphleteers. Volume 1: From the 16th Century to the French Revolution. London: Allan Wingate, 1948.

Nine books: 6 novels, 3 books of non-fiction reportage, plus a couple of collections of reprinted essays: that was his life's work. Or all of it that was accessible to us for a long time, that is.

There was all the fuss about him when the year 1984 finally dawned, of course. I dutifully went out and bought the facsimile edition of the manuscript of the novel. More significantly, though, it must have been around then that I discovered the Penguin editions of his Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters:

  • Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Facsimile of the Extant Manuscript. Ed. Peter Davison. Preface by Daniel G. Siegel. London: Martin Secker & Warburg Limited / Weston, Massachusetts: M & S Press Inc., 1984.
  • Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume 1: An Age Like This, 1920–1940. Ed. Ian Angus & Sonia Brownell. 1968. 4 vols. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
  • Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume 2: My Country Right or Left, 1940–1943. Ed. Ian Angus & Sonia Brownell. 1968. 4 vols. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
  • Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume 3: As I Please, 1943–1945. Ed. Ian Angus & Sonia Brownell. 1968. 4 vols. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
  • Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume 4: In Front of Your Nose, 1945–1950. Ed. Ian Angus & Sonia Brownell. 1968. 4 vols. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

That was an absolute revelation. For the first time it was possible to get some idea of what it must have felt like to be 'George Orwell' - all the ups and downs of his extraordinary life and times, from the slums of the Depression through the Spanish War through the Second World War and out the other side into postwar austerity. I still think this four-volume collection is a miracle of good taste and good editing.

It did, though, have the effect of making me feel that I now knew the man inside out. I did buy the volumes of hitherto undiscovered War Broadcasts which appeared in 1985, but it was with a certain reluctance. They were - to tell the truth - a little tedious taken out of context, and the great thing about Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell's tapestry had been the discovery that Orwell almost never wrote a boring or superfluous word.

  • Orwell, George. The War Broadcasts. Ed. W. J. West. 1985. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.
  • Orwell, George. The War Commentaries. Ed. W. J. West. 1985. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.

That's where I stopped. For the past thirty years I've refreshed my memory of his work from the collected edition from time to time, but I haven't read each of the successive Orwell biographies, full as each of them has been of hitherto unsuspected 'facts' (that he was an exhibitionist, that he wasn't an exhibitionist, that he calculated his public persona carefully, that he stumbled into his public persona, etc. etc.) I was aware that there was some monstrous multi-volumed beast called the Complete Works, but I assumed that it mostly repeated what I already knew.

  • Buddicom, Jacintha. Eric and Us: A Remembrance of George Orwell. London: Leslie Frewin Publishers Limited, 1974.
  • Stansky, Peter, & William Abrahams. The Unknown Orwell. 1972. A Paladin Book. Frogmore, St. Albans, Herts.: Granada Publishing Limited, 1974.
  • Stansky, Peter, & William Abrahams. Orwell: The Transformation. 1979. A Paladin Book. Frogmore, St. Albans, Herts.: Granada Publishing Limited, 1981.
  • Crick, Bernard. George Orwell: A Life. 1980. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.
  • Coppard, Audrey, & Bernard Crick. Orwell Remembered. Ariel Books. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984.
  • Wadhams, Stephen, ed. Remembering Orwell. Introduction by George Woodcock. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

That is, until the other day when I ran across a second-hand copy of Orwell's Diaries, edited by a certain Peter Davison (not the Dr. Who actor, in case you were wondering), which claimed on its blurb to be the closest thing to the 'autobiography he never wrote.'

I bought it, of course, and in the process of investigating its introduction and apparatus, chanced on the extraordinary saga of Davison's own forty-year struggle with Orwell's work. (You can read his fascinating 2012 essay "The Troubled History Behind George Orwell's Complete Works" here).

  • Orwell, George. Diaries. Ed. Peter Davison. Harvill Secker. London: Random House, 2009.
  • Orwell, George. A Life in Letters. Ed. Peter Davison. 2010. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2011.

The critical response to Peter Davison's self-imposed task has been, to be honest, a little mixed. Quite a few reviewers have criticised him for his 'boots and all' approach to Orwell's work, preferring the more nuanced approach of Ian Angus and Orwell's second wife Sonia. But when I read in one of these pieces that the latter had attempted pretty systematically to expunge his first wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy (who died in 1945) from the record, I began to think that there might be something to be said for the wholesale approach after all.

And so it has proved. I'm steadily working my way through the eleven volumes of what Davidson describes as "his and his wife Eileen’s letters (some 1,100), 265 articles, 380 reviews, lecture notes and research materials, diaries (apart from one or two still believed to be held in the NKVD Archive in Moscow), his hundreds of BBC broadcasts to India and the arrangements for making those, together with a selection of letters written to him." True, some of the juvenilia is a bit lame, but pretty much from the publication of his first pieces of journalism in Paris, the authentic voice is very much in evidence.

Does anyone deserve to be documented on quite this scale? Well, I'm sure that it would horrify Orwell himself, but if anyone merits it, he does. Even his most hurried reviews are always sensible and interesting - and have the effect of providing a potted history of two decades of English intellectual life, as well as their many other virtues. The letters and diaries are also fascinating. Reading it is really like discovering a whole new Orwell: not the careful craftsman of the nine books, or the more expansive - but still rigorously controlled - journalist of the Ian Angus / Sonia Orwell selection, but a warts-and-all portrait of the artiste engagé.

  • Davison, Peter, with Ian Angus & Sheila Davison, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. 10: A Kind of Compulsion: 1903–1936. 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 2000.
  • Davison, Peter, with Ian Angus & Sheila Davison, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. 11: Facing Unpleasant Facts: 1937–1939. 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 2000.
  • Davison, Peter, with Ian Angus & Sheila Davison, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. 12: A Patriot After All: 1940–1941. 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 2002.
  • Davison, Peter, with Ian Angus & Sheila Davison, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. 13: All Propaganda Is Lies: 1941–1942. 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 2001.
  • Davison, Peter, with Ian Angus & Sheila Davison, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. 14: Keeping Our Little Corner Clean: 1942–1943. 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 2001.
  • Davison, Peter, with Ian Angus & Sheila Davison, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. 15: Two Wasted Years: 1943. 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 2001.
  • Davison, Peter, with Ian Angus & Sheila Davison, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. 16: I Have Tried to Tell the Truth: 1943–1944. 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 2001.
  • Davison, Peter, with Ian Angus & Sheila Davison, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. 17: I Belong to the Left: 1945. 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 2001.
  • Davison, Peter, with Ian Angus & Sheila Davison, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. 18: Smothered Under Journalism: 1946. 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 2001.
  • Davison, Peter, with Ian Angus & Sheila Davison, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. 19: It Is What I Think: 1947–1948. 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 2002.
  • Davison, Peter, with Ian Angus & Sheila Davison, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell. 20: Our Job Is to Make Life Worth Living: 1949–1950. 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 2002.
  • Davison, Peter, ed. The Lost Orwell: Being a Supplement to The Complete Works of George Orwell. London: Timewell Press Limited, 2006.

I'm astonished that I didn't think to investigate these 11 volumes (plus supplementary volume) before. In a sense, though, I'm glad. Now I can savour the treat fully, and at my leisure: rather than waiting for each new volume to appear in a fever of impatience.

There is, of course - given Davison's mania for completeness - more to it than that. The first nine volumes of his edition provide critical texts for each of the novels and books of reportage (texts more readily available now through Penguin Modern Classics). He has also edited four volumes of selections from the edition, each focussed on a particular book of Orwell's:

  • Davison, Peter, ed. Orwell and the Dispossessed: Down and Out in Paris and London in the Context of Essays, Reviews and Letters Selected from The Complete Works of George Orwell. Introduction by Peter Clarke. Penguin Modern Classics. London: Penguin, 2001.
  • Davison, Peter, ed. Orwell's England: The Road to Wigan Pier in the Context of Essays, Reviews and Letters Selected from The Complete Works of George Orwell. Introduction by Ben Pimlott. Penguin Modern Classics. London: Penguin, 2001.
  • Davison, Peter, ed. Orwell in Spain: The Full Text of Homage to Catalonia with Associated Articles, Reviews and Letters from The Complete Works of George Orwell. Introduction by Christopher Hitchens. Penguin Modern Classics. London: Penguin, 2001.
  • Davison, Peter, ed. Orwell and Politics: Animal Farm in the Context of Essays, Reviews and Letters Selected from The Complete Works of George Orwell. Introduction by Timothy Garton Ash. Penguin Modern Classics. London: Penguin, 2001.

Simon Schama's classic TV series on the History of Britain concludes with an episode entitled "The Two Winstons," contrasting Orwell's Winston Smith (from 1984) with that other Winston, Winston Churchill, as a way of exploring the UK in the twentieth century.

Simon Schama: A History of Britain (2002)

It works quite well, really. While I demonstrated in my previous post that I have spent quite a lot of time poring over Winston Churchill's literary remains, there is, I'm afraid, no comparison with the interest I feel in Orwell's. He really is one of the greatest writers of the last century, and it's nice to be able to see his work whole and entire at last, thanks to the largely thankless labours of that culture-hero Peter Davison.

George Orwell: Complete Novels (Folio Society, 2001)