Monday, May 16, 2011

A semi-barbarian in a civilized community - Thomas Love Peacock mocks what he loves

Another bad to terrible idea* from Wuthering Expectations:  a week or so writing about Thomas Love Peacock, friend of Percy Shelley, author of satirical novels, poems, and whatsits.  Not a forgotten author – I have evidence to the contrary – but one who is sliding in that direction.  I read three of his novels recently, Nightmare Abbey (1818), Crotchet Castle (1831), and Gryll Grange (1860) and enjoyed them all quite a lot, but I have some doubts about the, what shall I call it, universality of their appeal.

Fortunately, I can point to a brief exception, a well-prepared, clove-encrusted taste of Peacock, his 1829 poem “The War Song of Dinas Vawr”:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.

“The War Song” continues for four more stanzas; Peacock wisely wrote short.  In some sense, the poem is topically satirical, parodying the crude but sanitized blood-thirstiness of the flood of fake Border ballads and “historical” poems inspired by the success of Walter Scott and Thomas Moore and so on.  Peacock’s satire has outlived the poems it mocks, and I hope the reason is clear enough.  Contemporary writers and readers have switched to prose, but we have plenty of equivalents.

Anna Saikin, a PhD student specializing in British Romanticism, has kindly posted her Comprehensive Exam reading list.  Among a long list of books and I have read and books I hope I never read, Peacock is present, not under Fiction or Poetry, but rather as the author of “The Four Ages of Poetry” (1820), another sly piece of mockery, this time hitting the Romantic poets right where they live, which is not in the Golden or Silver or even the Bronze Age of poetry, but in the Age of Brass, a time of cheap knockoffs, tinny sentiments, and muddled thinking:

A poet in our time is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community.  He lives in the days that are past.  His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions.  The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.

Peacock, I should point out, loved Romantic poetry and was a Romantic poet himself.  Mockery can be an expression of love.

Why, I wonder, is Nightmare Abbey not on Anna’s list?  It is a short little thing, just ninety pages.  Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge are actually characters in the novel, not even thinly disguised.  It features Shelley communing with owls and drinking Madeira from a human skull.  My doubt about much of Peacock’s work is that its virtues might be too obscure for a reader not immersed in Peacock’s time.  For the reader who is immersed, the reader who has prowled around that British Romanticism reading list, Peacock is a relief, and a reward.

The entirety of “The War Song of Dinas Vawr” and “The Four Ages of Poetry,” as well as a fine little introduction to Peacock can be found here (PDF).  That’s Peacock’s section of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 2; I will bet you eight dollars that the intro is written by the great Robert M. Adams.

*  In the sense that obscure writer = skimmed and skipped posts.  Maybe I am wrong about that.


  1. In a book I recently read about consciousness, the author posits a theory that poetry is the language of the right hemisphere of the brain dominated by the same forces which give us muses, prophets, madness and music.

    An interesting thing to ponder.

  2. In a startling coincidence, I'm about to start Crotchet Castle. Would you recommend starting elsewhere, though?

  3. Oh snap! Called out for not reading widely enough in my period! I have Kindle editions of Nightmare Abbey, Gryll Grande and Headlong Hall ready to go. Primary reason for not reading more Peacock? Secondary literature. Comps should be over after this week and I look forward to reading Nightmare Abbey along with other forgotten gems such as Varney the Vampire and Last Days of Pompeii.

    Keep up the great commentary!

  4. This may be because I read Nightmare Abbey immediately after Northanger Abbey in my ill-advised and poorly-syllabused Gothic Novels Class (it was actually a 16th century British Lit class, which the MA student who taught decided to reformulate as a gothic novels class because that was what he was writing his thesis on and therefore the only thing he knew. Both Nightmare Abbey and Northanger Abbey [and Frankenstein and The Vampyre] were therefore outside the scope of the course. I'm only still bitter because he made us read ELEVEN TEXTS, and gothic novels are mostly quite long and very boring) and it seemed to me that Northanger Abbey was amusing across the board, provided you had a rudimentary knowledge of basic gothic tropes and enjoyed 17th century lit, whereas Nightmare Abbey required an in-depth understanding of the Romantic poets and their foibles (and would therefore have better been placed in a class on said poets) or a wealth of footnotes, and even then wasn't funny.

    - Still Angry About That Class

    (I forgot to close a bracket in that first comment and tried to leave it alone and COULDN'T so I had to delete it and try again.)

  5. Anna - I took your list as a data point, a snapshot of the state of the field. If "The Four Ages of Poetry" is more important than Nightmare Abbey, well, such is academic life.

    I assume - I don't see how this cannot be true - that Nightmare Abbey is massively better than Bulwer-Lytton and Varney. Better meaning, you know, better written.

    Best wishes and good luck, by the way. Knock 'em dead!

    Jenny - Crotchet Castle is fine. That is a strange coincidence, though. Defeats my whole dang premise - Peacock is perhaps much read and well remembered.

    raych - your school has a little quality control problem there. Did the poor sap ever admit that he had not known that Nightmare Abbey is not really in any way a Gothic novel? Or did he pretend he knew it all along?

    As for the eleven texts - good for him! No, he should have made you read twelve, or twenty! Get to work, young'uns! Get some reading done. It only gets harder.

    You've given me something to defend, so thanks. Not funny! Mocking emo kids is a timeless source of humor.

    Suze - some poetry! Peacock is more of an analytical writer.

  6. I really liked these lines-

    "We therefore deemed it meeter
    To carry off the latter."

    I admit it brought a happy smile to me-

    I looked over the reading list-thanks to Anne and you for sharing it-I have read just a few of the works on there-I read most of the Yale Walpole correspondence (but for the French) about ten years ago-I found the list very interesting

  7. Yes, I've read a lot of Thomas Love Peacock too - possibly because I like pseudo-philosophical dialogues about nothing much in particular. But all long ago: the last one I read, I think, was Maid Marian - though I don't remember anything about it now. He always seemed an author best read in small doses.

    I always liked the story of him proposing to his wife: he did it out of the blue, by letter, seven years after he'd last spoken to her.

  8. mel - That is definitely not a list I would look over for reading ideas, unless I were planning to follow Anna's path. There are some bad books on that list.

    I have come across two book bloggers lately, young people, talking about going on to graduate school, and they do not appear to know about reading lists like this. If someone could somehow gently pass it on to them without crushing their fragile spirits, it would be a kindness.

    Peacock's proposal story is almost sadder than the story of his death, which is in the Robert Adams introduction.

    But, yes, small doses. Gryll Grange was a perfect book for a daily ramble. Not a page-turner. Not a "good read," whatever that means. Except that it was a real pleasure to read.

  9. That's the proposal story of someone who *really* likes to think things over.

    I am reading Peacock on Michael Dirda's recommendation. (He calls himself a pavonine connoisseur; nice formulation.) Much-read and well-remembered, I dunno, but I'll get in line, at least.

  10. Ah, Dirda champions Peacock. Good.

    I'm using Amazon to look at the table of contents of Classics for Pleasure. Apparently almost no one with a book blog is following Dirda's advice. I see name after wonderful name, writers I almost never see on book blogs.

  11. Well, I am, though I started with Bound to Please (equally good, and where I found John Crowley, among many others.) More people should, though. I find Dirda's recommendations pretty reliable for my own taste. Hence my anticipation of enjoying Peacock.

  12. Bound to Please, let me inspect that one. Hmm hmm hmm. I'm skeptical about the value of reading all of those big biographies, but Dirda's reviews of the bios presumably lead the attentive reader to the right places.

    Yes, more people should follow him, many more people. Elevate the dang discourse in book blog land.

  13. I'm tired of "live mines and duds" as a tag line for my blog. (Comes from Annie Dillard, by the way.) I think I'll change it to "elevating the dang discourse since 2008."

    Or, you know, maybe I'll wait until I do.

  14. Oh, you're doing your part. That's a good, violent tag, like Kafka hitting me with an axe or Longfellow skewering me with an arrow.

    The hope, by the way, is that the authentic folksy regionalism undercuts the pretentious twaddle.

  15. Longfellow would skewer you with an arrow in a New York minute (Hiawatha!) but isn't it Dostoevsky who would hit you with an axe?

    The mixture of folksy regionalism and elevated dang discourse has its own long tradition, natch.

  16. The poem or book as arrow or axe metaphor is something I wrote about in this antique post.

    "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us... A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."

    That's Kafka. Kinda grisly.