Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Churchill on Screen

Ivor Robert-Jones: Winston Churchill (1973)

So who, so far, has played Winston Churchill on screen? Just about every portly British actor of a certain age, that's who. Nicholas Asbury, Brian Cox, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Robert Hardy, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, John Lithgow, Ian McNeice, Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall, Simon Ward, Timothy West - even American comic John Lithgow. Do any of them look at all like the man himself? No, not particularly. But on they come, scowling and spitting, nevertheless.

Churchills (2017)

They've certainly come at the problem of how to represent him from virtually every angle, one must admit: as a schoolboy and young adventurer in Young Winston; as a WWI Cabinet Minister in 37 Days; as a prophetic outcast in The Wilderness Years and The Gathering Storm; as wartime PM in Into the Storm, Churchill and the Generals, and now Churchill and the yet-to-be-released Darkest Hour; and then as a dithering old monument of the Tory party in Churchill's Secret and The Crown. Apparently, according to the IMDb, there have been no fewer than 208 such screen impersonations so far.

Why do I keep on watching them? Am I insane? (Don't answer that). It's not that there's much to be expected from each new growl-athon, and yet I find myself drawn to them for some odd reason. It's certainly not that I approve of his Conservative, Empire-building politics - and as for that statement at the end of Churchill, one of the very worst of these films, that he is 'often acclaimed as the greatest Briton of all time,' what does that even mean? Was he a better writer than Shakespeare? A more important statesman than Cromwell? A more visionary strategist than his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough? Clearly not.

And yet ... It's impossible for someone of my generation, at least, to listen to those 1940s speeches of Churchill's - even soundbytes from same - without emotion. Just those little phrases: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" - "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" - and, above all, "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour."
You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
That's the true Churchillian music. That was the moment when a lifetime of poring over maps and old books, and practising his orotund oratorical skills in parliament and on the hustings paid off, and the world suddenly stopped, and listened, and liked what they heard.

What they heard was defiance, and that was what was needed then - but there was more to it than that. It was how he put it. It was the difference between the vicious ravings of Dr. Goebbels - Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg? - and the warlike speeches in Henry V. It mattered, somehow.

Maybe that's why I keep on coming back to these films. After watching the deplorable spectacle a couple of days ago of President Trump introducing his cabinet of dullards and losers, each one of whom said what an "honour" and a "privilege" it was to serve their pitiful Dark Lord - shades of the compulsory standing ovations after each of Stalin's speeches ("Never be the first to stop clapping, Comrade") - it's refreshing to hear someone expressing such honest defiance against all the shopsoiled tyrants of the world ...

So here's my own list. I've seen all but one or two of them, I think. And I fear I'll be trotting along dutifully to watch Gary Oldman add his bit of cigar-puffing and wheezing to all the others in a few months time:

  1. Young Winston: feature film, dir. Richard Attenborough, writ. Carl Foreman (based on Churchill's memoir My Early Life) - with Simon Ward as Churchill & Anne Bancroft as his Mum, Lady Randolph Churchill (née Jennie Jerome) - (UK, 1972)
  2. Great stuff. Hugely entertaining. It also had the effect of putting me onto My Early Life, which is probably Churchill's most entertaining book.

  3. Churchill and the Generals: made-for-TV film, dir. Alan Gibson, writ. Ian Curteis - with Timothy West as Churchill - (UK, 1979)
  4. Haven't seen it. It sounds pretty good, though. I presume it's based - at least partially - on Field Marshall Alanbrooke's very revealing diaries about his time with Churchill.

  5. Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years: 8-part TV Series, dir. Ferdinand Fairfax, writ. Ferdinand Fairfax & William Humble (based on Martin Gilbert's biography) - with Robert Hardy as Churchill & Siân Phillips as Clementine Churchill ('Clemmie') - (UK, 1981)
  6. Love it. A lot of detail, and a genuine sense of the complexity of his personality. Siân Phillips plays a sinuous and rather distant Clemmie (a lot like her Livia in I Claudius, actually).

  7. World War II: When Lions Roared: 3-part TV miniseries, dir. Joseph Sargent, writ. David Rintels - with Bob Hoskins as Churchill, John Lithgow as Roosevelt & Michael Caine as Stalin - (USA, 1994)
  8. Haven't seen it. The prospect of seeing Michael Caine, of all people, play Stalin makes it tempting to hunt it down, though. It's funny to think of John Lithgow going full circle from Roosevelt, here, to Churchill in The Crown - with a quarter of a century in between.

  9. The Gathering Storm: feature film, dir. Richard Loncraine, writ. Hugh Whitemore - with Albert Finney as Churchill & Vanessa Redgrave as 'Clemmie' - (UK / USA, 2002)
  10. Rather repetitive of The Wilderness Years, but still very dramatic and entertaining. Vanessa Redgrave is a rather more affectionate but distinctly more tempestuous Clemmie than Siân Phillips.

  11. Into the Storm [aka Churchill at War]: feature film, dir. Thaddeus O'Sullivan, writ. Hugh Whitemore - with Brendan Gleeson as Churchill & Janet McTeer as Clemmie - (UK / USA, 2009)
  12. A shame they couldn't keep the same cast as in The Gathering Storm, but still a good overview of the war years, focussing on 1940 as a flashback from election defeat in 1945. Brendan Gleeson is a lot less loveable and definitely more of a pain than Albert Finney, but Janet McTeer's Clemmie steers a steady course between the Scylla of Siân and the Charybdis of Vanessa.

  13. The King's Speech: feature film, dir. Tom Hooper, writ. David Seidler - with Timothy Spall as Churchill - (UK, 2010)
  14. I guess it was inevitable that he'd get to do it sooner or later: somewhere between his bestial Turner and his suave and manipulative David Irving comes Timothy Spall's Churchill.

  15. Dr Who: Victory of the Daleks: TV series, dir. Andrew Gunn, writ. Mark Gatiss - with Ian McNeice as Churchill - (UK, 2010)
  16. Not a subtle impersonation, perhaps, but then the modern version of Dr Who doesn't really do subtle.

  17. Fleming: The Man Who Would be Bond: 4-part TV miniseries, dir. Mat Whitecross, writ. John Brownlow & Don Macpherson - with Toby Jones as Churchill - (UK, 2014)
  18. Just a cameo, really, but rather a good show on Toby Jones's part, I thought - making a nice change from the tedious bedhopping of the protagonist and the future Mrs. Fleming.

  19. 37 Days: 3-part TV miniseries, dir. Justin Hardy, writ. Mark Hayhurst - with Nicholas Asbury as Churchill - (UK, 2014)
  20. Churchill is played here as a knowing politician, alert to all the complexities of a question which apparently evade his superiors. Whether - to one, like myself, who's read his 5-volume World War I memoirs The World Crisis - this is accurate or not is questionable, but it makes for good drama, at any rate.

  21. Churchill's Secret: made-for-TV film, dir. Charles Sturridge, writ. Stewart Harcourt (based on the book The Churchill Secret: KBO by Jonathan Smith) - with Michael Gambon as Churchill & Lindsay Duncan as Clemmie - (UK / USA, 2016)
  22. Kind of a pointless piece of mystification. Churchill's advisors cover up how unfit he is for office, all of which plays some part in making Anthony Eden so frustrated that he takes it out on Nasser. True(ish), possibly, but not exactly earth-shattering.

  23. The Crown: Series 1: 10-part TV Series, writ. Peter Morgan - with John Lithgow as Churchill - (UK / USA, 2016)
  24. This I haven't yet seen, but I'm rather looking forward to doing so.

    Churchill (2017)

  25. Churchill: feature film, dir. Jonathan Teplitzky, writ. Alex von Tunzelmann - with Brian Cox as Churchill & Miranda Richardson as Clemmie - (UK, 2017)
  26. While I have to confess to enjoying it overall, I do think the multiple inaccuracies and exaggerations of the film do make it a very unfortunate version of Churchill. Certainly he was a pain around the office. Certainly he opposed the frontal assault in France (proposing, according to Alanbrooke, a diversion to Portugal at a very late stage in proceedings). Certainly he demanded to go over himself on D-Day - but all the Gallipoli references completely belie his own view of that campaign. Of course it was a disaster, but his point (as expounded very thoroughly in volume 2 of The World Crisis) was that this was inevitable given the piecemeal and futile way the idea of a landing was stumbled into. To give it as the main reason why he opposed the Normandy landings is sentimental tosh and plain wrong: and putting in all those stupid details designed to show how "out-of-date" he was in terms of contemporary tactics is also very misleading. Nor is the choice of Montgomery as the visionary commander putting him straight a particularly happy one, given the latter's blunders in Normandy and after ... Still, there are some pretty moments here and there. Miranda Richardson plays by far the most terrifying and contemptuous Clemmie to date.

    Darkest Hour (2017)

  27. Darkest Hour: feature film, dir. Joe Wright, writ. Anthony McCarten - with Gary Oldman as Churchill & Kristin Scott Thomas as Clemmie - (UK, 2017)
  28. I presume - though I don't know - that this will be about the period when Churchill was fighting Lord Halifax in cabinet to prevent the initiation of peace-talks (brokered by Mussolini) after the fall of France. Subsequent historians have suggested that this was a more vicious and no-holds-barred battle than anything that followed it in parliament, let alone the country at large. Hitler still had many friends and admirers in the British establishment at that point, and they would have done virtually anything to prevent a shooting war. That's the context where those speeches, quoted above, come in. Is it better to die on your feet than live on your knees? That's not, and never has been, an easy question to answer.

And here's a list of my own Churchilliana. I do find his books very readable and well expressed (if a trifle tendentious at times), and certainly indispensable to any student of the great European Civil War (1914-45). Some, though, are genuinely illuminating. Having read both G. M. Trevelyan's classic England Under Queen Anne trilogy (1930-34) and Churchill's four-volume Marlborough biography in very close succession last year, I can tell you that the latter certainly complements the former very well, and (almost) made it possible for me to understand the morass of late seventeenth / early eighteenth century European politics for the first time.

Winston Churchill (1904)

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill

Books I own are marked in bold:

    Frontiers and Wars (1898-1900)


  1. The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898)
    • The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War. 1898. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1901.
  2. The River War. Ed. Colonel Francis Rhodes. 2 vols (1899)
    • The River War. 1899. A Four Square Book. London: New English Library, 1964.
  3. London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900)
  4. Ian Hamilton's March (1900)
    • Frontiers and Wars: His Four Early Books, Covering His Life as Soldier and War Correspondent, Edited into One Volume. ["The Story of the Malakand Field Force" (1898); "The River War" (1899); "London to Ladysmith via Pretoria" (1900); "Ian Hamilton's March" (1900)]. 1962. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
  5. Lord Randolph Churchill. 2 vols (1906)
    • Lord Randolph Churchill. 2 vols. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1906.
  6. My African Journey (1908)
    • My African Journey. 1908. London: Icon Books Limited, 1964.

  7. Folio Society: The World Crisis (1923-31)

  8. The World Crisis. 6 vols (1923–1931)
    1. 1911–1914 (1923)
    2. 1915 (1923)
    3. 1916–1918 (Part 1) (1927)
    4. 1916–1918 (Part 2) (1927)
    5. The Aftermath (1929)
    6. The Eastern Front (1931)
    • The World Crisis. Introduction by Martin Gilbert. 2005. London: The Folio Society, 2007.
      • Volume 1: 1911-1914 (1923)
      • Volume 2: 1915 (1923)
      • Volume 3: 1916-1918 (1927)
      • Volume 4: The Aftermath (1929)
      • Volume 5: The Eastern Front (1931)
    • The World Crisis: 1911-1918. 1923, 1927. Rev. ed. 1931. A Four Square Book. London: Landsborough Publications Limited, 1960.

  9. My Early Life [US: 'A Roving Commission: My Early Life'] (1930)
    • My Early Life: A Roving Commission. 1930. The Fontana Library. London: Collins, 1959.
  10. Thoughts and Adventures [US: 'Amid These Storms'] (1932)
    • Thoughts and Adventures. 1932. London: Thomas Butterworth, Ltd., 1933.

  11. Marlborough: His Life and Times. 4 vols (1933–1938)
    • Marlborough: His Life and Times. 2 vols. 1947. London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1966 & 1969.
      • Book One: Consisting of Volumes I and II of the Original Work (1933 & 1934)
      • Book Two: Consisting of Volumes III and IV of the Original Work (1936 & 1938)
    • Marlborough: His Life and Times. 1933, 1934, 1936, 1938. 4 vols. London: Sphere Books, 1967.
  12. Great Contemporaries (1937)
    • Great Contemporaries. 1937. The Fontana Library. London: Collins, 1965.

  13. The Second World War. 6 vols (1948–1953)
    1. The Gathering Storm (1948)
    2. Their Finest Hour (1949)
    3. The Grand Alliance (1950)
    4. The Hinge of Fate (1950)
    5. Closing the Ring (1951)
    6. Triumph and Tragedy (1953)
    • The Second World War. 6 vols. London: Cassell & Co., Ltd., 1948-54.
      • Volume 1: The Gathering Storm (1948)
      • Volume 2: Their Finest Hour. 1949. 5th Edition (1955)
      • Volume 3: The Grand Alliance (1950)
      • Volume 4: The Hinge of Fate. 1951. 2nd Edition (1951)
      • Volume 5: Closing the Ring (1952)
      • Volume 6: Triumph and Tragedy. 1954. 2nd edition (1954)
    • The Second World War. And an Epilogue on the Years 1945 to 1957: Abridged One-Volume Edition. 1948-1954. Ed. Dennis Kelly. London: Cassell, 1959.

  14. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956–1958)
    1. The Birth of Britain (1956)
    2. The New World (1956)
    3. The Age of Revolution (1957)
    4. The Great Democracies (1958)
    • A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. 4 vols. 1956-58. London: Cassell & Co., Ltd., 1971-72.
      • Volume 1: The Birth of Britain. 1956 (1972)
      • Volume 2: The New World. 1956 (1971)
      • Volume 3: The Age of Revolution. 1957 (1971)
      • Volume 4: The Great Democracies. 1958 (1971)
  15. Young Winston's Wars: The Original Dispatches of Winston S. Churchill, War Correspondent, 1897–1900 (1972)
    • Young Winston’s Wars: The Original Despatches of Winston S. Churchill, War Correspondent 1897-1900. Ed. Frederick Woods. London: Sphere Books, 1972.
  16. The Collected Essays. 4 vols (1976)
  17. Memories and Adventures (1989)

  18. Savrola (1900)


  19. "Man Overboard; an Episode of the Red Sea." The Harmsworth Magazine (1898)
  20. Savrola (1900)
    • Savrola: a Tale of the Revolution in Laurania. 1900. London: Beacon Books, 1957.
  21. "If Lee Had NOT Won the Battle of Gettysburg". In If It Had Happened Otherwise. Ed. J. C. Squire (1931)
  22. "The Dream". 1947. The Sunday Telegraph (1966)

  23. Collected Speeches:

  24. Mr Broderick's Army 1903)
  25. For Free Trade 1906)
  26. Liberalism and the Social Problem 1909)
  27. The People's Rights 1910)
  28. Parliamentary Government and the Economic Problem 1930)
  29. India: Speeches and an Introduction 1931)
  30. Arms and the Covenant [US: "While England Slept"]. Ed. Randolph Churchill (1938)
  31. Step by Step: 1936–1939. Ed. Randolph Churchill (1939)
  32. Addresses Delivered (1940)
  33. Into Battle [US: "Blood, Sweat and Tears"]. Ed. Randolph Churchill (1941)
  34. Broadcast Addresses (1941)
  35. The Unrelenting Struggle. Ed. Charles Eade (1942)
  36. The End of the Beginning. Ed. Charles Eade (1943)
  37. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister (1943)
  38. Onwards to Victory. Ed. Charles Eade (1944)
  39. The Dawn of Liberation. Ed. Charles Eade (1945)
  40. Victory. Ed. Charles Eade (1946)
  41. Secret Sessions Speeches [US: "Winston Churchill's Secret Sessions Speeches"]. Ed. Charles Eade (1946)
  42. War Speeches. Ed. F. B. Czarnomskí (1946)
  43. World Spotlight Turns on Westminster (1946)
  44. The Sinews of Peace. Ed. Randolph Churchill (1948)
  45. Europe Unite: Speeches 1947 and 1948. Ed. Randolph Churchill (1950)
  46. In the Balance: Speeches 1949 and 1950. Ed. Randolph Churchill (1951)
  47. The War Speeches. Ed. Charles Eade (1952)
  48. King George VI: The Prime Minister's Broadcast, February 7, 1952 (1952)
  49. Stemming the Tide: Speeches 1951 and 1952. Ed. Randolph Churchill (1953)
  50. The Unwritten Alliance: Speeches 1953 and 1959. Ed. Randolph Churchill (1961)
  51. Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897-1963. 8 vols. Ed. Robert Rhodes James (1974)

  52. Miscellaneous:

  53. Charles, IXth Duke of Marlborough, KG: Tributes by Rt. Hon. W. Spencer-Churchill and C. C. Martindale (1934)
  54. Painting as a Pastime (1948)
    • Painting as a Pastime. 1932 & 1948. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.
  55. Maxims and Reflections [Rev. ed.: "Sir Winston Churchill: A Self-Portrait", 1954] (1948)
  56. [Ed., with others] The Eagle Book of Adventure Stories (1950)
  57. The Wisdom of Sir Winston Churchill (1956)
  58. Winston Churchill's Anti-Depression Proposal to Halt Inflation, Stabilize Prosperity, and Insure Full Freedom (1958)
  59. Churchill: His Paintings. Compiled by David Coombs and Minnie Churchill (1967)
  60. The Roar of the Lion (1969)
  61. Joan of Arc (1969 )
  62. Winston Churchill on America and Britain: A Selection of His Thoughts on America and Britain. Foreword by Lady Churchill (1970)
  63. [with John Glubb] Great Issues 71: A Forum on Important Questions Facing the American Public (1972)
  64. If I Lived My Life Again. Ed. Jack Fishman (1974)
  65. The Collected Poems of Sir Winston Churchill. Ed. F. John Herbert (1981)

  66. Letters:

  67. Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence. Ed. Warren F. Kimball (1984)
  68. Winston Churchill and Emery Reves: Correspondence, 1937–1964 (1997)
  69. Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill. Ed. Mary Soames (1998)

  70. Randolph Churchill & Martin Gilbert: Winston S. Churchill (1966-88)


  71. Churchill, Randolph. Winston S. Churchill. Volume 1: Youth, 1874-1900. 8 vols. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1966.
  72. Churchill, Randolph. Winston S. Churchill. Volume 2: Young Statesman, 1901-1914. 8
  73. Gilbert, Martin. Winston S. Churchill. Volume 3: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916. 8 vols. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1971.
  74. Gilbert, Martin. Winston S. Churchill. Volume 4: The Stricken World, 1916-1922. 8 vols. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1975.
  75. Gilbert, Martin. Winston S. Churchill. Volume 5: Prophet of Truth, 1922-1939. 8 vols. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1976.
  76. Gilbert, Martin. Winston S. Churchill. Volume 6: Finest Hour, 1939-1941. 8 vols. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1983.
  77. Gilbert, Martin. Winston S. Churchill. Volume 7: Road to Victory, 1941-1945. 8 vols. William Heinemann Ltd. London: Book Club Associates, 1986.
  78. Gilbert, Martin. Winston S. Churchill. Volume 8: Never Despair, 1945-1965. 8 vols. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1988.
  79. Gilbert, Martin. Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years. London: Macmillan London Limited, 1981.

  80. Martin Gilbert: The Wilderness Years (1981)

Churchill (1940)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Grenfell Tower

Grenfell Tower (19/6/17)

Grenfell Tower Block Fire
We built this city on rock ‘n’ roll
– Starship

Waving two children onto the ride
ahead of youit crashes

what does that say
about divine mercy

or coincidence?
they heard them calling out

from the upper floors
as the flames rose

someone threw out a baby
someone else caught it

the others died

I don't usually write these sorts of topical poems - let alone publish them - but I had a strange dream the night before it happened (the first incident in the poem), and I found myself turning this out without really meaning to. Such a terrible, terrible tragedy! (I was going to say "accident", but from what's come out since, if that's what it was, then it was an accident waiting to happen ...)

Friday, June 16, 2017

Spenser's Ireland

Edmund Spenser (c.1552-1599)

My friend and colleague Simon Sigley has requested a follow-up to my Malory post (below) on the subject of Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene - possibly the most famous unfinished poem in English (after The Canterbury Tales and "Kubla Khan", that is).

As luck would have it, I do possess some rather interesting bits of Spenser-iana - nothing old or valuable, you understand, but a good selection of the best contemporary editions of his works. Here they are, in any case:

    Edmund Spenser: Poetical Works (1965)

  1. Spenser, Edmund. Poetical Works. Ed. J. C. Smith & E. de Selincourt. 1912. Oxford Standard Authors. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.
  2. The standard edition, still. Cramped, and rather hard to read, but very compendious and useful, nevertheless.

    Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene (2007)

  3. Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. 1977. Longman Annotated English Poets. London: Longman Group Limited, 1980.

  4. Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. 1977. Revised Second Edition. 2001. Text edited by Hiroshi Yamashita & Toshiyuki Suzuki. Longman Annotated English Poets. Edinburgh Gate, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2007.
  5. A wonderful annotated edition, now available in a second, revised edition. (I still remember announcing with an air of triumph having found it in a second-hand shop the day before to an audience at breakfast in my Edinburgh Hall of Residence - only to be punched viciously on the arm by one of them, an Australian girl, who was working on Spenser and Blake and considered such tomes her own lawful prize! I was a little disconcerted at the time, but at least it confirmed the desirability of the find.)

    Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene (2003)

  6. Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. & C. Patrick O’Donnell, Jr. Penguin English Poets. 1978. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
  7. A good practical Penguin edition of the epic, with much more readable print, and some annotations also.

    C. S. Lewis: Spenser's Images of Life (1967)

  8. Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: a Study in Medieval Tradition. 1936. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

  9. Lewis, C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding Drama. 1954. Oxford History of English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

  10. Lewis, C. S. Spenser’s Images of Life. Ed. Alistair Fowler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.
  11. You'll note the exclusivity of C. S. Lewis in the section of secondary texts. This is not so much because I think he's said the last word - or even the best - on the subject, but mainly because I have such an extension collection of his works, both imaginative and critical. Nevertheless, it is true to say that the discussion of Spenser in his classic Allegory of Love is what got me interested in The Faerie Queene in the first place.

My first (and, to date, only) reading of the full text of the Faerie Queene, all the way through, was in or around 1983, when I was starting out on my M.A. (the coursework for which mostly focussed on medieval and other early English writers).

Our lecturer in the course, Ken Larsen, was a most ingenious reader of such renaissance texts, and could twist all sorts of meanings out of them. Since I'd been trying - mostly in vain - to make some sense of the Faerie Queene ever since I was a teenager, I gulped down his lessons like mother's milk.

Since then, I've reread parts of it (particularly the brilliant fragments of the seventh canto, on Mutability), but never re-started on the whole thing. To be honest, it was Spenser himself who repelled me. Or rather, the ghastly nature of his opinions on Ireland, where he held a small official role, and took over some property in the English 'plantation' (so-called).

Unfortunately he committed himself to print on the subject, publishing, in 1596, a book called A Veue of the Present State of Irelande, in which he explained the need to wipe out the hat-trick of local laws, customs and religion before the natives could be truly regarded as subjugated. His recommendation was for famine as a good way of accomplishing this, pointing out that after the 1579 rebellion:
Out of everye corner of the woode and glenns they came creepinge forth upon theire handes, for theire legges could not beare them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spake like ghostes, crying out of theire graves; they did eate of the carrions, happye wheare they could find them, yea, and one another soone after, in soe much as the verye carcasses they spared not to scrape out of theire graves; … in a shorte space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentyfull countrye suddenly lefte voyde of man or beast: yett sure in all that warr, there perished not manye by the sworde, but all by the extreamytie of famine ... they themselves had wrought
Funnily enough, he wasn't terribly popular with the local Irish, who burned down his castle in another rebellion two years later. Ben Jonson later claimed that one of Spenser's own infant children was killed in the blaze.

Do a writer's politics matter? I know that the contrary has often been argued. Wordsworth's shameless electioneering for a local Tory big-wig in exchange for a sinecure as collector of stamps of Westmorland - after all those radical attitudes he'd struck in his early work - has been said to have no influence at all on his later reams of unreadable verse (not to mention his refusal to acknowledge his illegitimate child with Annette Vallon). I'm sure that much can be said on both side, and to claim that radical poets write better than conservative ones is clearly nonsense. Betraying your own principles is generally a dangerous thing to do for an imaginative writer, however.

With Spenser, the case is quite different. He was a man of his time: subservient to authority, pitiless in his advocacy of force, and quite unable to regard his Irish neighbours as truly human (witness the gloating tone of that description of the efficacy of famine, above). The editor of his wikipedia page tries to argue that his 66,000-word anti-Irish book was more of a pamphlet, really, and should be treated merely as 'war propaganda.' It is, however, hard to think of a parallel in English literary history for such a vile encomium of genocide by a major poet or writer. Even Rudyard Kipling's proto-fascist ravings pale beside it.

But does all this affect our enjoyment of his poem? Well, yes, of course it does. There's a lot of prating about virtue therein, and some very beguiling characters (mostly, alas, demonic: as in Acrasia's Bower of Bliss in book 2). Book 5, published in the same year as his anti-Irish 'pamphlet', is where he really goes to town, however. In it he imagines an iron man called Talus, whose job it is to mete out 'justice': which he does with all the subtlety of a machine-gun or a Tiger Tank. Even fans of the earlier books of the poem find this one rather a bitter pill to swallow. Nor is it really feasible to separate the glee with which he describes this destructive power-fantasy with the dispassionate advocacy of violence in A Brief View of the Present State of Ireland.

All in all, if you're a poet, it's generally best to keep your more reactionary views on contemporary politics to yourself. Wordsworth, too, would probably have been wiser not to publish his rather silly views on the 1808 Convention of Cintra, though there's nothing in his pamphlet on the subject as damaging as in Spenser's book.

Lest you think that all of this is just my problem, and that everyone else is content just to admire the swelling flood of Spenser's mighty verse, consider the following poem - considerably less gnomic than usual - by the wonderful Marianne Moore:

Spenser's Ireland

has not altered;-
   a place as kind as it is green,
   the greenest place I’ve never seen.
Every name is a tune.
Denunciations do not affect
 the culprit; nor blows, but it
is torture to him to not be spoken to.
They’re natural,-
    the coat, like Venus’
mantle lined with stars,
buttoned close at the neck,- the sleeves new from disuse.

If in Ireland
   they play the harp backward at need,
   and gather at midday the seed
of the fern, eluding
their “giants all covered with iron," might
 there be fern seed for unlearn-
ing obduracy and for reinstating
the enchantment?
   Hindered characters
seldom have mothers
in Irish stories, but they all have grandmothers.

It was Irish;
   a match not a marriage was made
   when my great great grandmother’d said
with native genius for
disunion, “Although your suitor be
 perfection, one objection
is enough; he is not
Irish.”  Outwitting
    the fairies, befriending the furies,
whoever again
and again says, “I’ll never give in," never sees

that you’re not free
   until you’ve been made captive by
   supreme belief,- credulity
you say?  When large dainty
fingers tremblingly divide the wings
 of the fly for mid-July
with a needle and wrap it with peacock-tail,
or tie wool and
    buzzard’s wing, their pride,
like the enchanter’s
is in care, not madness.  Concurring hands divide

flax for damask
   that when bleached by Irish weather
   has the silvered chamois-leather
water-tightness of a
skin.  Twisted torcs and gold new-moon-shaped
 lunulae aren’t jewelry
like the purple-coral fuchsia-tree’s.  Eire-
the guillemot
   so neat and the hen
of the heath and the
linnet spinet-sweet-bespeak relentlessness?  Then

they are to me
   like enchanted Earl Gerald who
   changed himself into a stag, to
a great green-eyed cat of
the mountain.  Discommodity makes
 them invisible; they’ve dis-
appeared.  The Irish say your trouble is their
trouble and your
    joy their joy?  I wish
I could believe it;
I am troubled, I’m dissatisfied, I’m Irish.

"I am troubled, I’m dissatisfied, I’m Irish" - whether you're of Irish descent or not (in my case my paternal grandmother was one of their fellow Celts across the sea, from the Western Highlands of Scotland), it's hard not to feel something of that when you read Edmund Spenser, whether his early pastorals or his later epic. It is, to be sure, beautiful, dazzling, beguiling, but so much of it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Irish Famine (1849)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Finds: The Works of Malory (1947-48)

Eugène Vinaver, ed. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory (1947)

Vinaver, Eugène, ed. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. 1947. 3 vols. Oxford English Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948.

There can be few things more satisfying than walking into a bookshop and finding a book you've been looking for in vain for half your life. That's what happened to me the other day in Devonport, where I came across a copy of the original 3-volume Oxford English Texts edition of Eugène Vinaver's magisterial edition of the Works of Sir Thomas Malory.

Bronwyn says that I suddenly go quiet at such moments, then, somehow, stiffen, a bit like a gun-dog scenting prey. Until it's safely bought and paid for, I can take nothing for granted. No conversation about it can be permitted until it's packaged up, in my possession, and we're both safely outside the shop.

My copy doesn't look quite like the one pictured above. For a start, the dust-jacket's a bit ripped. For another thing, it's a second impression, not a bona fide first edition. You know what? I don't care. It's covered in mylar, so the tears in the dust-jacket are of no consequence. Also, a number of the (very numerous) errors of the first edition have been corrected in this impression, without any major rethinking of its contents, which didn't happen until the second edition of 1967 (with further addenda in 1973).

There's an interesting discussion of the whole subject in Pamela Yee's 2013 article "Eugène Vinaver's Magnificent Malory," available on the Robbins Library website.

Eugène Vinaver (1899-1979)

Essentially, Eugène Vinaver (born Yevgeniĭ Maksimovich Vinaver in St. Petersburg in 1899) argued that Malory had not written a single book about King Arthur and his Knights, but rather had composed 8 separate 'tales,' which had been combined - probably after his death - by his first editor William Caxton. Caxton's edition of the (so-called) Morte d'Arthur, printed in 1485, had thereafter been the sole witness to Malory's intentions as a writer.

William Caxton, ed. Le Morte d'Arthur (1485)

With the discovery - or, rather, re-identification - of an almost-complete manuscript of Malory's work in 1934 in Winchester College Library, the situation changed completely. Here's what it looks like:

Sir Thomas Malory: The Winchester Ms. (c.1471)

Vinaver saw it as a completely independent witness to Malory's intentions - still at some distance from the author's own manuscript, but a lot closer than Caxton's edition. Subsequent scholarship has now identified some of the ink blotches on this copy with the kinds of ink used in Caxton's workshop, which leaves the interesting possibility that this was the very copy Caxton used (or that he was at the very least aware of its contents), but this was not what Vinaver thought in 1947.

A little thing called the Second World War intervened between the completion of his editing work and the publication of this three-volume edition, but when it did eventually appear it started a landslide of reinterpretation.

Another feature of Vinaver's edition was his immensely learned account of the French sources Malory had used, and his complex justifications for their 'tapestry-like' approach to interweaving all the myriad threads of a story into the monstrous length of the 'Vulgate cycle' series of romances, was also a major contribution to Malory scholarship. Out went the automatic assumption that Malory's more 'modern' approach to storytelling was necessarily superior to that of his sources. In came the argument that he learned his craft as he went along, moving from crude beginnings to the sophisticated heights of his last two tales: 'Lancelot and Guinevere' and 'The Morte d'Arthur.'

I once wrote an essay where I compared this accretive method of storytelling in Malory to some of the narrative conventions in the 1001 Nights. In the process, I compiled an analysis of one of his early stories, 'A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake,' which still inspires me with a certain awe at the amount of free time I must have had on my hands (it was in the period just after completing my Doctorate when I would do anything to avoid thinking about any of the issues contained in that).

At the time, I was forced to use a revised later edition of Vinaver's masterwork which seemed to me to lack some of the intensity and crankiness of his original 1947 text. So you can see that it was considerable satisfaction that it is this version, not one of the revised and 'corrected' subsequent reprints that I found in the bookshop. It couldn't really have found a better home, I suspect.

So here are some of the highlights of my Malory collection:

    Sir Thomas Malory (c.1405–1471):

    Vinaver, Eugène: The Works of Malory (1947)

  1. Vinaver, Eugène, ed. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. 1947. 3 vols. Oxford English Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948.

  2. Malory: Works (1977)

  3. Malory, Sir Thomas. Works. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. 1954. Second ed. Oxford Standard Authors. London: Oxford University Press, 1977.

  4. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. Ed. William Caxton. 1485. Introduction by Sir John Rhys. 1906. 2 vols. Everyman’s Library, 45 & 46. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd. / New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1953.

  5. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. 1485. Ed. Janet Cowan. Introduction by John Lawlor. 1969. 2 vols. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

  6. The Romance of Lancelot & Guinevere, Taken from Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’. Illustrated by Lettice Sandford. London: The Folio Society, 1953.

  7. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. 1894. Ware, Hertfordshire: Omega Books., 1988.

As for the even more vexed question of who exactly Sir Thomas Malory was (various candidates have been proposed - with varying degrees of plausibility), don't even get me started on that ...