Monday, December 17, 2012

The Best Books of the Year: 1812 - The blight of Life - the demon Thought.

The dying light of the autumnal sunset reminds me that it is the season for Best Books of the Year lists, those jolly collections of well-meaning ephemera.

1812 featured two big, lasting literary events.

The most dramatic was the birth of Byronism with the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a Romaunt; and Other Poems.  George Gordon had published a couple of earlier books, but it was Childe Harold that made him an international celebrity (“I awoke one morning and found myself famous”):

What exile from himself can flee?
   To zones, though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where'er I be,
   The blight of life – the demon Thought.

Perhaps Byron’s fatalistic attitudinizing has become the poem's greatest legacy, but the poem itself is masterful and the book surrounding the poem would have served to undercut the facile Byronism if the facile Byronists had bothered to read it, with its lengthy footnotes and appendices on Albanian linguistics, classical references, and travel writing trivia:

As a specimen of the Albanian or Arnaout dialect of the Illyric, I here insert two of their most popular choral songs, which are generally chaunted in dancing by men or women indiscriminately.

Childe Harold would surprise people who only know Byron by reputation.

The second event was the publication of the first volume of the first edition of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen.  Now it is a truism that the original versions of the Fairy Tales, more violent and weird than later redactions, are worth seeking out.  They are.

Funny how both of these landmarks are partial and mutable texts.  Not only are they both incomplete, with more fairy tales and cantos of “Childe Harold” to follow in a few years, but they would both be published in all sorts of configurations.  Almost no one reads the original books – I haven’t.

What else survives from 1812?  Not much, honestly.  Two hundred years is a long time.  Johann David Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson, the second volume of Goethe’s memoir Poetry and Truth, Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee.  I have only read the Goethe.  How is The Absentee?

I am sure I have read George Crabbe’s Tales, a collection of narrative poems along the lines of his 1810 masterpiece “Peter Grimes,” but heck if I remember it.  My fault or Crabbe’s?  Either way, I can hardly pretend that this is a living book in 2012.

I wonder what I have missed?

John Constable’s 1812 “Autumnal Sunset” is owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum.  To see it, just go to the Prints & Drawings Study Room, room WS and paw through case R, shelf 29, box L.


  1. 1812 wasn't a great year for literature, except for Byron.

    Let's hope the Amateur Reader of 2212 will not have the same sad discovery about 2012!


  2. I would rank Grimms' Fairy Tales over Byron, but pretty much yes, a weak year.

    2012 will likely be a great year - look how many different books are on people's Best of lists!

  3. Remind me: what was Keats doing in 1812? As a writer, I always find the story of his death almost unbearable. I mention him at opportunity to try to make up for the neglect in his lifetime.

  4. In 1812 Keats was working as an apprentice to an apothecary. He did not start writing seriously for a couple more years, and publishing would follow a couple of years after that.