Tuesday, May 17, 2011

He was cured of the love of reading in all its shapes - Peacock's cogibundity of cogitation

Thomas Love Peacock’s novels are, I am told, packed with satirical versions of the celebrities of his day.  If Gryll Grange  has any at all, I failed to recognize them, but Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle have a number that are obvious enough.  My challenge this week, then, is to completely ignore Peacock’s caricatures, which have nothing to do with the quality of his writing.  It would be a shame if Peacock’s reputation were reduced to gossip.  He is one of the great English humorists:

When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head: having finished his education to the high satisfaction of the master and fellows of his college, who had, in testimony of their approbation, presented him with a silver fish-slice, on which his name figured at the head of a laudatory inscription in some semi-barbarous dialect of Anglo-Saxonised Latin. (Nightmare Abbey, Ch. I)

The reader who detects a hint or two of Bertie Wooster is reading well.  Much of Peacock’s humor is Wodehousian, or perhaps the order should be reversed.  Since Peacock brought up beating, perhaps I could beat the joke to death?  The word that makes the joke work, the first joke, I mean, must be “carefully,” unexpected, exactly wrong, after “beaten.”   Then the ludicrous simile evokes not just the ear of corn but an entire process of threshing, from the beating to the hand-picking, all with an entirely pointless result.  Comparing Scythrop's graduation award to a fish-slice has perhaps lost its savor – the fish-slice seems to have receded from American cutlery, at least  - but the mockery of Oxford Latin has a sting.

The first joke, the education joke, must be pretty well universal.  The Latin joke requires more investment by the reader in Peacock’s ethos, or so I suspect.  But would it look so out of place in Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett?  Or would this, continuing the theme of Scythrop’s education (he is now recovering from a broken heart):

He wandered about the ample pile, or along the garden-terrace, with 'his cogitative faculties immersed in cogibundity of cogitation.'  The terrace terminated at the south-western tower, which, as we have said, was ruinous and full of owls.  Here would Scythrop take his evening seat, on a fallen fragment of mossy stone, with his back resting against the ruined wall, a thick canopy of ivy, with an owl in it, over his head, and the Sorrows of Werther in his hand.  He had some taste for romance reading before he went to the university, where, we must confess, in justice to his college, he was cured of the love of reading in all its shapes; and the cure would have been radical, if disappointment in love, and total solitude, had not conspired to bring on a relapse. (Ch. II)

Now, “in justice to his college” – that’s good stuff.  Owls are inherently humorous; it is almost lazy of Peacock to employ them here.  As for the piece in quotation marks, your guess is as good as mine.  I don’t see how this would be any funnier knowing who this character “is.”  He is an invention, and a type, a type I have met myself in what I sometimes call "real" life, although they have replaced Werther with - with - what do the emo kids read?


  1. This sounds like it's right up my alley. Time to go to the library!

    (I wonder whether Evelyn Waugh took the title of the opening volume of his autobiography, A Little Learning from that Peacock line?)

  2. I believe Waugh and Peacock share a source in Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism, Canto II ("A little learning is a dangerous thing" and so on).

    Peacock is quite likely larded stem to stern with buried quotations like this.

  3. They don't read, they listen to Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday, and Brand New.

    Oh wait, did I just out myself as a closet emo (albeit an old one?). Oh well, such is the life of a Hopeless Romantic.

  4. The "cogibundity of cogitation" line is from Henry Carey. The moody freshmen I see here at the university are reading either Steppenwolf or Cormac McCarthy.

  5. Fantastic, Scott! Your guess may be as good as mine, but your actual knowledge is much better!

    The quotation is from Carey's Chrononhotonthologos (1734), the "most tragical tragedy that ever was tragediz'd by any company of tragedians."

    The kids are still grokking Steppenwolf, huh? All right. Good for them.

    Now, The Dismemberment Plan, that was my emo band of choice, if they count - I'm never sure who counts.

  6. Oh, right--as soon as you said Pope's name, I remembered the whole line, which had sunk into the mists. That makes much more sense.