Thursday, March 29, 2012

Swept into ocean – fate of the Extravagator: the glassily tinkling George Darley

What a terrible discovery.  I was thinking, while writing my note on D. G. Myers’s use of the MLA International Bibliography to rank American authors, that someone else with access to the database should do the same thing for other authors and literatures.  My terrible discovery was that I in fact have access to the database.  What a time-waster!  After today, I am going cold-turkey.

Some sample results (anyone trying to use this tool for a serious purpose should think carefully about it limits).  The database goes back to 1947.  The ten most over-researched authors are:

Shakespeare (38,396 published papers or books, not even 600 per year!)
Dante (10,553)
Joyce (10,031)
Goethe (9,734)
Chaucer (9,040)
Milton (8,595)
Faulkner (6,555)*
Dickens (6,531)
James (6,491)
Cervantes (6,088)

Note that these are the ten highest ranked authors out of the ones I bothered to look up.  I coulda missed someone bigger (Kafka: 4,607).  Despite the bias caused by the historical accident of the prominence of academic research in English literatures (Wordsworth: 4,898), the central figures of German, Spanish, and Italian (Petrarch: 2,429) literature appear in reasonable spots, so I suspect the method would be similarly enjoyable for many non-English languages (Borges: 3,874).  French literature, as we all know, is unusual in that it lacks a Shakespeare-like figure, a single canonical giant (Proust: 4,165).

The next thing someone besides me should do is divvy up the data by time, like Myers did with Kate Chopin, allowing one to see that, for example, although Jane Austen’s count looks surprisingly low (3,724) fully a third of the catalogued Austen research has been published within the last ten years.  Newly minted graduate students hoping to work on Austen:  good luck (Woolf: 4,861).

I would like to suggest an alternative, a contemporary of Austen:  Anna Laetitia Barbauld.  She wrote at least one good poem, as I discovered yesterday, and her MLA count is only 131, with 15 published in the 40 years before 1987, 116 in the 25 years since.  Or, if you want to do in your career before it begins, specialize in George Darley: only 13 articles since 1947, and – oh no! – 3 since 1987.  Sorry, Darley.  Snipping him from the Norton Anthology was not a hard call.

Back in the Dark Ages of Wuthering Expectations, I wrote a few words about Darley, accompanied by many of his own, most of them involving mermaids:

In his green den the murmuring seal
Close by his sleek companion lies;
While singly we to bedward steal,
And close in fruitless sleep our eyes.

That is a euphonious sample of “The Mermaidens’ Vesper Hymn.” Darley’s poems are packed with nymphs, unicorns, a phoenix, all sorts of nonsense like that:

From “The Phoenix”

Half-buried to her flaming breast
In this bright tree, she makes her nest,
Hundred-sunned Phoenix! when she must
Crumble at length to hoary dust.

“The Phoenix” is itself just a small part of the book length Nepenthe (1935), a preposterous jumble of abstruse mythology, original imagery, and pure poetic music, in the service of what I do not remember:

The glittering fountains seemed to pour
Steep downward rills of molten ore,
Glassily tinkling smooth between
Broom-shaded banks of golden green, (Canto I, right at the start)

The water in the stream is glittering and molten because it is sunny: “heaven’s hot tyrant..  was turning all he touched to gold.”  The music of this eyewash is almost unmatched, although I would imagine readers of more astringent tastes have trouble finishing a single line.  Fair enough.

But!  I have been browsing in the only online version of Nepenthe that I could find, an 1897 edition, which I am disappointed to see is incomplete.  The book lacks Darley’s marginal notes, which run through and comment on the entire poem, mostly mocking it.  “Voluptuous emotions begin,” or, at the end, “Swept into ocean – fate of the Extravagator.”**  Suddenly Darley’s Romantic gush takes on a surprising complexity.  I begin to doubt that those 13 publications have said everything there is to say about poor George Darley.

*  I am getting slightly different numbers than Myers, a problem someone else can solve.  Close enough.

**  Examples of marginal notes taken from Michael Bradshaw’s chapter in The Cambridge History of English Poetry, 2010, p. 556.


  1. How fascinating! I'm sort of surprised the Brontes aren't on here, but I suppose there's the issue of research being divided among the three sisters (and even Branwell).

  2. Brontë, C: 1,718
    Brontë, E: 951
    Brontë, A: 258

  3. Good luck, indeed, to those newly-minted Austen scholars. Back to the curates' diaries for them!

    I wonder if one could ever say enough about George Darley. Glassily tinkling, indeed. I think I need to take a nap.

  4. I'm not even going to look; I'd be lost for the rest of the year. But I'd encourage you to add an article to expand the Darley scholarship. I've never heard of him, but will never again be able to visit the docks of the bay without listening for any sound a seal can make that might possibly be described as "murmuring."

  5. What fun! I just discovered that I also have access to the database. I'm getting different results than you or Dr M. How are you setting up the query?

    JSTOR full texts, too! Honestly, I could spend a great deal of the rest of my life here. I should go to lunch instead.

  6. My method, such as it is, is to go to the "Basic Search" page, type in the name, hit the "Person - About" option, and then "Search." A count of works tagged with the author's name will be the top or second result. E.g. Bernhard, Thomas (637)

    Jenny knows the truth - this huge mass of publications is a good part of the reason people are writing dissertations on curate's diaries. The task is manageable.

    Just as a semi-scholarly article on Darley would actually be feasible for an amateur who thinks he has something to say. One of those 13 publications is a 3 page article on Darley as a "mountain writer," one is a dictionary entry. One could cover the field, at least to a significant degree.

    Look at these article titles: "George Darley: The Poet as Pigmy," "George Darley: The Burial of the Self." Poor George Darley!

  7. Looking at Meyers's numbers and the ones you have above, I've wondered if the change in numbers over time is a combination of fad (recent popularity of Austen thanks to movie-versions, for example) and amount of research already present. Are academics significantly discouraged by those thousands of articles already available to choose a different subject? Perhaps you answer that with the curate's diaries comment. I guess what I'm really wondering is how closely amount of articles in a given time frame relates to actual interest or importance?

  8. IN response to Amanda's question above, when I was in graduate school I was encouraged to base my thesis on someone with a low article count. I had a wonderful time doing just that, writing about the Findlater sisters, Mona Caird and Mary Cholmondeley who all have very low article counts at the time. Their totals have all gone up by at least one thanks to me.

  9. Amanda: great question. I do not know the answer. By comparing the change over time in interest in a wide variety of authors, big, medium, and small, a clever researcher might well be able to answer a question like that. Patterns will emerge. Although, who knows, Austen may be a special case.

    A typical supplement to C.B.'s strategy is to study a subject that brushes up against a canonical figure - so you do not have to master the Jane Austen secondary literature for your thesis on "Garden Landscaping in the Regency Novel" but you have Mansfield Park as an example - perhaps the only example - that people have actually heard of.

  10. I've gone away and skimmed Nepenthe. That's fascinating, the way his attention seems to fall asleep for a while and then come awake again, then go back to sleep, sometimes trying to make hie-hie-hie or hollo-hollo do all the work, and sometimes coming up with a useful compression like "treeless winds." I wonder how he wrote. Did he write a few lines, go away, think about something else, eat an egg, come back, write a few more lines, go away, etc, etc, or did he write solidly, for pages? It would be interesting to know.

  11. It would be interesting. What did he think was the really choice stuff.

    As much as I like Nepenthe, I do not regret the absence of the missing third canto. Nepenthe is not too short.

  12. Yes, if the excitement he put into the hie hie hie lines (assuming he was excited; he looks excited -- I can't think of those lines without imagining him bouncing on pure hie, ancestor to Hopkins and "Look at the stars! look, look, up at the skies! / O look ...") stayed with him, somehow imperishable, forever, and every time he read those words he felt revived. This is it, he thinks, this is wonderful, this works. Triumph.

  13. Part of Darley's story is his strong sense of himself as a minor poet, as the lesser heir of Shelley and Keats. I fear that may have vitiated some of his triumphs.