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clowdis of dyrk poecy

Seamus Heaney - Aeneid Book VI
And now to continue, as enjoined to often, ‘In my own words’.
Not so much ‘Englishing’ Virgil’s Aeneid as casting it in a quartzy Scots vernacular, the makar Gavin Douglas engrafted onto his verse its own self-justification:
Quhy suld I than, with dull forehede and vane, With ruide engine and barrand emptive brane, With bad harsk speche and lewit barbour tong, Presume to write quhar the sueit bell is rong, Or contirfait sa precious wourdis deir? Na, na, nocht sua, bot knele quhen I thame heir. For quhat compair betuix midday and nycht, Or quhat compare betuix myrknes and lycht, Or quhat compare is betuix blak and quhyte, Far gretar diference betuix my blunt endyte And thi scharp sugarat sang Virgiliane, Sa wyslie wrocht with nevir ane word in vane; My waverand wit, my cunnying feble at all, My mynd mysty, thir ma nocht myss ane fall.
Virgil is noontide sunlight, warmth, clarity of line; Douglas fends off scholarly carping by his admission that his own language must be a b…
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song of lights

Clive James – The Divine Comedy

W.H. Auden, in New York Letter (1940), appointed Dante the first of his cultural judiciary:
So, when my name is called, I face,                                               Presiding coldly on my case,                                               That lean hard-bitten pioneer                                               Who spoiled a temporal career                                               And to the supernatural brought                                               His passion, senses, will and thought,                                               By Amor Rationalis led                                               Through the three kingdoms of the dead,                                               In concrete details saw the whole                                               Environment that keeps the soul,                                               And grasped in its complexity                                               The Catholic ecolo…

critic, interrupted

James Wood – The Fun Stuff
Ex cathedra pronouncements on the state of literature are gratingly at odds with the democratic spirit of modern Western culture. An Arnold or a Leavis would find themselves on the back foot, in a climate in which the Canon has been disparaged and dismantled by the academic soixante-huitards, and to contend for the intrinsic elitism of art is to confess to one's political bias. A fuzzy left-liberal consensus has made the expression of value-judgements somehow, at best, suspect; a matter of reactionary tendencies and ill-concealed disdain for the popular accessibility of the arts, creeping unbidden into neutral debate. As if to argue that some works will inevitably be better than others amounts to a self-betrayal, letting slip clues to a High Toryism of the spirit. (No coincidence that this wholesale enfranchisement of literary culture has portended the non-appearance of another Lionel Trilling, say.)
James Wood emerged as precisely the kind of heir-pre…


Sifting his thoughts, idly, as if he had all the time in the world. The uninsistent English rain spattered the window. Dove-grey light disclosed a woman stepping briskly over the pavement, holding up an umbrella as freely and naturally as if it were her own hand that had bloomed, fingers lengthening to spokes, the webbing swelled to a fat dome held above her cropped head. Elementalist. The private garden on the other side of this residential road – bounded by a speared wrought-iron fence – was brilliant, bejewelled in its greenery, shining in the fresh wet. The woman crossed over, lightly, as on tiptoe. She carried her head high, with unemphatic elegance. The rain intensified a touch, and he could hear it through the glass, like cloth tearing.
She sidestepped a slow-crawling car, made the other side, continued. The sun was shy behind a grey swagged cloud. Larissa moved pantherishly, commandingly, it seemed to him – something flamed in the pit of his belly as he watched her ap…

decline and fall

Martin Amis – Lionel Asbo
Is Martin Amis a prose stylist too heavily mortgaged to his own style? It occurs to you, reading his new novel Lionel Asbo, that the trade-mark melopeia of his language really isn't equal to the celebrutality of modern England, its grotty decadence – too mannered, too prone to devolving on itself lyric finesse; well-tooled, when so much that it wants to describe is shabby, rough-edged and maladroit. Dickens could ascend to the High Style when the fit was on him, but his style was, au fond, born of low-slung journalese, siphoning its energies from the vernacular. Amis – reaching for a Dickensian amplitude and gusto – seems instinctively to revert to a miniaturist precision, a delicacy of registrement, that is almost, yes, Austenesque. And somehow wanly apolitical. The lovely mellowness of his previous novel The Pregnant Widow owed itself in large part to the four-ply style, a pitch and poise in the line, balance in each perfectly chased sentence. What a…

whisper music

Craig Raine – T.S. Eliot
There were hints and mutterings of his prejudices; but with Anthony Julius's T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, the charge was set forth aggressively. Eliot's sovereign standing had gone unchallenged for a generation or two, his pronunciamenti acquiring the weight of orthodoxy in the literary world. His poetry of negation spoke to a shared spiritual rudderlessness, as he searched painfully for meaning in a desacralised universe: Eliot, ..”a poet of apocalypse, of the last days and the renovation, the destruction of the earthly city as a chastisement of human presumption, but also of empire.” So Frank Kermode, in his Sense of an Ending. “He had his demonic host, too,” Kermode adds; “the word 'Jew' remained in lower case through all the editions of the poems until the last of his lifetime, the seventy-fifth birthday edition of 1963.” Julius levelled against Eliot the gravest of accusations. Insisting that the anti-Semitic insults we…

overlord of the spaces and the silences

Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies
One of Mantel's minor characters, the courtier Thomas Wriothesley voices what we may take to be an epitome of this novel and its predecessor Wolf Hall:
All our labours, our sophistry, all our learning both acquired or pretended; the stratagems of state, the lawyers' decrees, the churchmen's curses, and the grave resolutions of judges, sacred and secular: all and each can be defeated by a woman's body, can they not? God should have made their bellies transparent, and saved us the hope and fear. But perhaps what grows in there has to grow in the dark.
Mantel's Cromwell novels depict an extraordinary moment in English history – when the birth of the nation-state was bound up with the fortunes of two women, one discarded and damned, the other bearing in her belly the hopes of the succession. Katherine, the queen that was, is under house arrest, sequestered in a moated grange; Queen Anne, having given birth to the Princess Elizabeth, …