Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Stop! - for thy tread is on an Empire's dust! - the best books of 1816

Isn’t that 1816 Constable landscape pretty.  It’s Wivenhoe Park, Essex, for some reason now in Washington, D. C.  1816 was the Year without a Summer, the year of a worldwide volcano-induced deep freeze, even with the Napoleonic Wars over, a terrible year in Europe.

It was a wonderful year for English poetry, with Shelley’s first great book, Alastor; or The Spirit of Solitude: and Other Poems, and Keats’s first published poems, including “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (a book would come in 1817).  Few knew it.  Everyone knew about best-seller George Gordon Byron’s great year, with three big hits: the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (the post’s title is from stanza XVII), “The Prisoner of Chillon,” and one of his dumb Orientalist narrative poems, The Siege of Corinth, my personal favorite of his dumb etc.

Alp, “the renegade,” has been refused the hand of the woman he loves, so he has thrown in his lot with the Turks.  Is he helping them besiege the recalcitrant Greeks in Corinth for love or revenge?  Regardless, the poem ends in not just a battle scene but a massive explosion, just like it would in the Hollywood action movie of which The Siege of Corinth is a genuine precursor.  The last seventy lines describing the explosion are superb, with the shock moving out to the armies, then to the animals, to the birds, as if the world is protesting the event:

Many a tall and goodly man,
Scorch’d and shrivell’d to a span,
When he fell to earth again
Like a cinder strew’d the plain:
Down the ashes shower like rain…  (Canto XXXIII)

Horrible, violent, shocking poetry.  I had meant to reread the more allusive and difficult Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage before writing this post, but picking up the Selected Poems I was sucked into The Siege of Corinth instead.

Walter Scott published three books in 1816.  To understand this silly story it is important to remember that he was a best-selling poet but published Waverley (1814) anonymously, then Guy Mannering (1815) as “By the Author of Waverley,” and now The Antiquary (1816) as by the same.  The latter is the favorite Scott novel of many eminent writers, so I am glad I have read it.  Waverley kicked off the craze for historical novels that continues to this day; The Antiquary is in many ways about historical novels.  If only it were better.

At this point, with three hit anonymous novels under his belt, Scott decided to play a prank.  He retired “the Author of Waverley” and began a new series, with a new publisher, the Tales of My Landlord, which resulted in one short novel, The Black Dwarf and one long one, Old Mortality, published simultaneously.  To extend the prank, Scott published vicious (anonymous) reviews of his own novels.  Nevertheless, both books were hits, and readers with any sense of style knew they are by the Waverley writer.

Old Mortality is Scott’s best novel, I think, along with The Heart of Midlothian (1818).  It is about religious fanaticism, a topic of continuing relevance.  The stakes are higher than in Waverley, the world more dangerous.

What else is going on in 1816?  Goethe’s Italian Journey, Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” and “The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King,” Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe.  I have often mentioned how little French literature survived this period, but here is a major exception, a politician’s novel about a love affair with an older, stronger woman.  It is a dissection of the love affair and the narrator’s feelings about it:

We were living, so to speak, on a sort of memory of the heart, strong enough to make the thought of separation painful, but too weak for us to find satisfaction in being together.  I indulged in these emotions as a relaxation from my normal tension.  I would have liked to give Ellenore tokens of my love that would have made her happy, and indeed I sometimes went back to the language of love, but these emotions and this language resembled the pale and faded leaves which, like remains of funeral wreaths, grow listlessly on the branches of an uprooted tree.  (Ch. 6, tr. Leonard Tancock)

The entire book is written like that, with few scenes, description, or even dialogue, but rather alternating movement and analysis.  It is a kind of fiction I associate strongly with French literature.  The Albertine sections of In Search of Lost Time are in this mode.

The Empire is dust, and French literature is returning to life.


  1. That really was a pretty good year.

  2. Yes - and I forgot to mention "Christabel" and "Kubla Khan," the great "new" Coleridge poems.

  3. I've stood in front of that Constable painting, probably with my back to it because that room in the National Gallery is also home to six or seven gobsmacking Turners. A Turner in the room makes everything else fade.

    Really, what a remarkable year for the arts. I should see about reading another Scott one of these days.

    I read "Kubla Khan" when I was 12 or something, likely not understanding much of it but subsequently thinking of it as a poem for kids.

  4. I was in a museum this summer that put its Turner in a room all by itself, because of this very issue, I assume.

    "Kubla Khan" is a poem for kids. It is a poem for everyone. The screwy preface is as important as the poem itself.

    I should read Guy Mannering some day, but yes, I believe you would enjoy Waverley, Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian, at least.

  5. You write: "Old Mortality is Scott’s best novel, I think, along with The Heart of Midlothian (1818). It is about religious fanaticism, a topic of continuing relevance. The stakes are higher than in Waverley, the world more dangerous." I wonder what you mean by the second sentence. Well, I have not read anything by Scott, so I guess I should remedy that oversight by reading what you call the best. Still, there is that second sentence. Hmmmmm.

  6. Is it all that mysterious? Religious fanaticism is a big problem today, even if Scottish Presbyterians are not the source of the problem anymore. The Covenanters in Scott's novel are a useful historical case study.

  7. Well, I guess it depends upon how you define religious fanaticism in 2016, and it depends upon whom you define as religious fanatics in 2016. I am not being either obtuse or provocative. I am merely curious because different people understand religious fanaticism (zeal? excesses? enthusiasm? intolerances?) in different ways. For example, I understand Flannery O'Connor was a "religious fanatic" in a very positive way, but I understand judges at the Salem witch trials as "religious fanatics" in a very negative way. And then, of course, there is the current problem of ISIS and similar latter day zealots who appropriate religion for political purposes. Well, I'm simply curious about your POV since you say "religious fanaticism is a big problem today."

  8. Oh, I mean Boko Haram, ISIS - people who want to blow it all up in the name of their religion. The Covenanters in Scott's novel are 17th century versions of that. Murderous.