Friday, 23 November 2012

Quiller-Couch: Cornwall, Cambridge and English

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch must have been surprised when, a hundred years ago this month, he was invited to become King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge. He was fifty and hadn’t held a university post for over twenty years. True, he was what used to be called a man of letters; but his knighthood had been a recent reward for services to Asquith’s Liberal Party, not to Higher Education. His main literary achievement was The Oxford Book of English Verse.

There was the question of location, too. He was a Cornishman, born in Bodmin, living at The Haven in Fowey. He was Commodore of the local Yacht Club. Why give all this up for Cambridge? There wasn’t even a School of English there: he’d have a Chair, but no Tripos. Besides, he was an Oxford man, a classicist; would Cambridge welcome him? People assumed A.C. Benson would get the job. Benson himself feared he might be offered it.

Quiller-Couch’s cypher - Q - was almost emblematic of Cornish identity: I have even seen it adorning the cast-iron fireplace of a pub in far west Cornwall. I imagine he must have needed some persuading to forsake Fowey for the Fens. At the side of his house was a garden gate (Haven’s Gate?) Did he slip out here, down to the water’s edge to think it over? The gate survives, just. It’s rusty and neglected - rather like his reputation today.  No doubt, though, in 1912 it was new and brightly coloured – to judge by the traces of blue paint still showing. Actually, they’re Cambridge blue. Deliberate, or what?

Conventional wisdom has it that, though Quiller-Couch deserves credit for establishing a School of English, what people now call ‘Cambridge English’ - the English of I.A. Richards, of F.R. Leavis, of William Empson – was created almost in direct opposition to Q and all he stood for. Every time Terry Eagleton mentions him (at least once in most of his books from Literary Theory: an Introduction onwards) epithets like ‘patrician’, ‘dilettante’, ‘belles-lettres’ hang in the air like a bad smell.

I think conventional wisdom is right on the first count, but wrong on the second. And I think Eagleton has maligned and misread Q, - if, indeed, he’s read him at all.

Q accepted the professorship because it gave him a chance – the best chance there was –to define both the way English should be taught at Cambridge, and the way it should be taught throughout the country to every child, no matter what their background, school, or social level. He believed English should be the core subject of a national, liberal humanist curriculum. In the eleventh Lecture of On the Art of Reading he presented this credo:

I believe that while it may grow – and grow infinitely – with increase of learning, the grace of a liberal education, like the grace of Christianity, is so catholic a thing – so absolutely above being trafficked, retailed, apportioned, among ‘stations in life’ – that the humblest child may claim it by indefeasible right, having a soul.

(N.B. Q explicitly rejects the suggestion that only those lucky enough to afford a soul should be entitled to education for its own sake (liberal); everyone, he argues, has a soul; therefore a liberal education must be available to all because of itself it is something intrinsically worthwhile and good for the soul; it is not something to be judged by its utility and reduced to key skills, or transferable skills or even, horribile dictu, twenty-first century skills.)

It was Q who saw the need, and the opportunity, to explain why English mattered not as a dead subject but as a lively art. For him English was an evolving practice, a shared enterprise: the best of English literature, he believed, could yet be to come. Hence it’s no accident that the two key books from his early years at Cambridge are On The Art of Writing and On The Art of Reading. Q always ‘preached’ – his own word – that Literature is ‘memorable speech’ and that it is the birthright of all.

So, in the Preface to On The Art of Reading, he published his manifesto:

Though it be well worth while to strive that the study of English (of our own literature, and of the art of using our own language, in speech or in writing, to the best purpose) shall take an honourable place among the Schools of a great University … it is not in our Universities that the general redemption of English shall be won … The real battle for English lies in our elementary schools, and in the training of our Elementary Teachers.

Q’s project was to teach people how to teach English. He acknowledged the awkwardness of his position as a man who, occupying a Chair, ‘contrived to fall between two stools. My thoughts,’ he admitted, (speaking as one who for ten years had been an Inspector of rural schools in Cornwall), ‘have too often strayed from my audience in a University theatre away to remote rural class-rooms … to piteous groups of urchins standing at attention and chanting The Wreck of the Hesperus in unison.’  There had to be a better way to nourish the imagination, to use the humane discipline of English to create humane, discriminating adults.  (Discrimination was one of Q’s key words long before it was annexed by Leavis and his disciples.) Humanism he defined as

a quality which can, and should, condition all our teaching; which can, and should, be impressed as a character upon it all, from a poor child’s first lesson in reading up to a tutor’s last word to his pupil on the eve of a Tripos.

Like David Holbrook at Cambridge fifty years later, Q saw no essential difference between the work of teaching English to a young child in a disadvantaged school and the work of teaching it to a third year undergraduate at an elite university.

It was Q who said this first, and herein his lasting importance lies.

Adrian Barlow

I shall write about Q and the idea of a School of English, in January 2013, to mark the centenary of his Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge.

There is an excellent website about Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

[photo: the side gate to The Haven, Fowey, Q’s home in Cornwall © the author

Monday, 12 November 2012

Close reading: war memorials

Remembrance Sunday. Fine and sunny, a clear cold morning. Overcoats the order of the day. In Cambridge a large crowd gathers around the war memorial, ‘The Homecoming’, at the end of Station Road. 

This memorial has recently been moved: no longer marooned on a traffic island, it is now well set in a paved segmental concourse beside the road and bordered by the Botanic Gardens. You can at last walk safely all round it. You can even sit and contemplate this striking image of the young soldier striding home, with a backward glance towards the station and those comrades who have not returned. Close reading of war memorials matters more than ever, now that the Great War has passed out of personal reach into cultural memory.

I am interested in what figures on war memorials wear, or don’t wear. This isn’t just a matter of uniform. I have spent a lot of time recently studying the Great War Memorial in Northernhay Gardens, Exeter. It’s one of the most impressive anywhere, and one of the most unusual. Its iconography is complex, and what the five figures on the memorial wear is an important part of this complexity.
On top of a high pedestal an 8ft-tall female figure of Victory stands triumphant over the dragon of Tyranny. Her dress is diaphanous, her bare-breasted figure strongly eroticized. Half amazon, half Isadora Duncan, in one hand she holds a sword, in the other a sprig of laurel.

This, then, is technically a victory memorial (as is the Cambridge memorial), celebrating the successful outcome of the War. Nevertheless, the inscription around the plinth reads


which means this is also a memorial to the fallen. At the foot of the pedestal sit four figures, one on each compass point, forming a guard of honour for Victory herself.  At first glance, it looks as though the figures represent the Services: a soldier faces you; two other male figures, one clearly a sailor, sit either side; the fourth figure, a woman, is out of view at the back.

So you walk around the plinth, and you notice that while the soldier and the woman (wearing nurse’s uniform) are fully clothed, the other two figures are half or wholly naked. The sailor is bare-chested and barefoot but wears breeches, with the legs rolled up; it’s clear from the nets, ropes and glass buoys surrounding him that he is a Devon fisherman, not a sailor in uniform at all. In his lap, however, is a document (perhaps a chart) as if to indicate that he must now travel into unknown waters, leaving his familiar coast behind.

The other figure, naked but for a drape, is manacled. No other clue identifies him, but he represents – very unusually for British war memorials – prisoners of war. So why, and why in Exeter? Here some context helps. This memorial was erected by public subscription (it cost £6,000 in 1923), the appeal being launched by the Lord Mayor of Exeter. During the War itself, the Lord Mayor had been Sir James Owen; Lady Owen, as Mayoress, had co-ordinated a scheme for sending food parcels and other comforts to British servicemen held as prisoners-of-war. Exeter in fact had become a national centre for POW relief. The memorial therefore commemorates not only the POWs but the contribution of those who worked locally during the War for their relief.

What of the soldier and the nurse? Well, the soldier is depicted with utmost realism: every detail of his uniform and equipment is accurate, down to the hobnails in the sole of his boot. He is dressed for winter: not only is he wrapped in a heavy army-issue great coat, upturned collar all but hiding his face, he sits on a ground sheet and his legs are clumsily bound in sacking. By contrast, the muzzle of his rifle is carefully bound with oilcloth to ensure damp and dirt do not enter the barrel - a detail I’ve never seen on any other war memorial.

Hard, next, to tell whether it is simply patination, or whether the surface of this soldier’s clothes has been scuffed and smeared to look as if mud has frozen onto them. Whereas the sailor is idealized, and with his muscular torso even glamorized, the soldier is represented with an unflinching realism. He is enduring the worst that weather can make him suffer.

By contrast again, the nurse on the opposite side of the monument sits in sunlight. At her feet lies a sheaf of corn and discarded behind her is a great coat she has shrugged off. It is a coat of the same design as the soldier’s, and indeed it is a man’s (not a nurse’s) coat she has been wearing. The sculptor, John Angel – himself from Exeter, has been careful to let us see that she has had to turn back the cuffs because the sleeves are too long. Whose coat might it have been? A boyfriend’s? More likely a dead soldier’s, though these suggestions aren’t mutually exclusive. Yet the nurse is not in mourning: her expression is placid. She is absorbed in what she is doing – making bandages out of a sheet of cloth. The winter of war, signified by the great coat, is literally behind her. There is a better future ahead. The sheaf of corn peeping from under the hem of her uniform reminds me of Edith Sitwell’s lines:

Love is not changed by death
And nothing is lost
And all in the end is harvest.

Clothes (and the lack of clothes) are, of course, always signifiers, but they are not necessarily what we look at first on war memorial sculpture. Perhaps they should be: they add text and texture. We should read a war memorial as closely as we read a war poem.

Adrian Barlow

[Photographs: (i)  Remembrance Day, Cambridge, 11.11.12
© Adrian Barlow (ii) Exeter War Memorial, Northernhay Gardens

Monday, 5 November 2012

Heaney and the conversation of poetry

‘Poets,’ writes Carol Ann Duffy in this weekend’s Guardian Review, ‘are ultimately celebrators, of life and of poetry itself.’  And Seamus Heaney, in ‘Poet’s Chair’ (1996) has described poetry as ‘a ploughshare that turns time / Up and over …’

Every autumn for the past eight years I’ve come to Sèvres to work with teachers on the teaching of literature. Recently, we have focused a lot of our attention on teaching poetry and poets – especially on the challenge of teaching poetry in English to groups of mainly Francophone students in France.

Last year my theme was ‘The Singer and the Song’. This time I wanted to concentrate on the way poems celebrate life and poetry itself by speaking to each other, as well as to us their readers, across time and cultures and languages.

My first C.U.P. commission, twenty years ago, was to edit a poetry anthology. At a time when anthologies had alarming titles such as Touched With Fire or Dragonsteeth, I called mine The Calling of Kindred. The title was borrowed from a poem by the Welsh poet Ruth Bidgood, and I described in the Preface how it pointed to the central idea underlying my anthology. Echoes of distance and connection between poems explain my selection in The Calling of Kindred. I call this the conversation of poetry.

At Sèvres, I began with a poem by Seamus Heaney, possibly his shortest:

The dotted line my father’s ashplant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won’t wash away. (1996)

Sandymount Strand is a location familiar to readers of James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.
Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells ...
Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand …?

A signature and a man walking into eternity are exactly what Heaney's miniature poem – two formal iambic lines separated by the place name – are about. The dots join up in the poet’s mind to form a signature, signed not on but by the dotted line.  This signature becomes ‘something else’ of his now-dead father’s to add to other memories time and tide will not erase.

Nevertheless, the poem is called ‘The Strand’. Though this seems less specific than the Dublin seaside suburb (where Yeats was born, incidentally: earlier footsteps on this same beach), it’s an important signpost, pointing the reader in another direction entirely:

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washèd it away;
Again, I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide and made my pains his prey.

Heaney is calling up these lines from the poem by Edmund Spenser. To reach back to them, the ploughshare turns over 400 years of poetry. Earlier at Sèvres, we had been discussing students’ (and teachers?) reluctance to engage with pre-twentieth century poetry. So this reference back to the 16th century was not only important in the context of ‘The Strand’: it offered (I suggested) an ideal opportunity to investigate the form and function of the Elizabethan sonnet.

It’s easy enough to identify the familiar ABAB rhyme scheme of the opening quatrain, but this is no standard Shakespearean sonnet: the next quatrain breaks back into the previous one, BCBC.

Vain man (said she) that dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be be wipèd out likewise.

The ebb and return of the waves is also echoed in the internal rhymes and repetitions of the octave: name and came appear twice (and name will become an end rhyme in the sestet); also again, pains, vain (twice, punningly).

Not so  (quod I); let baser things devise
   To die in dust, but you shall live by fame;
   My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
   And in the heavens write your glorious name:
      Where, when as Death shall all the world subdue,                           
      Our love shall live, and later life renew.

There’s nothing novel about a poet claiming his poem will immortalize his girl friend – or boy friend (cf. ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?’). Still, the idea of their love living forever in heaven, ready to renew life on earth after the end of the world, is surely just piling conceit (hubris) upon conceit (poetic wit). This isn’t my favourite poem, but it’s a good one to introduce to students.

Back to Heaney. In a later session I proposed that one of his greatest services to literature had been his championing the importance of translation and of other poets unfamiliar to an Anglocentric readership: the Greek George Seferis, for instance, and the Pole Czeslaw Milosz. Heaney himself is a distinguished translator, of Latin (especially Virgil) but also of Anglo-Saxon and – in Human Chain, his most recent collection – of early Irish poetry. Translation, too, is part of the conversation of poetry. More than anyone else, Heaney has convinced me Robert Frost was wrong: poetry is not what gets lost in translation.

Given that my teachers were teaching students all more or less fluent in English and French, I suggested we put this to the test. I took another three lines of Heaney’s (from ‘Digging’) –

Beneath my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests,
Snug as a gun

– and invited translations. Here are three:

Entre mon indexe et mon pouce
Le stylo, trapu,
Se niche comme une arme.  (Kaye)

Entre mon indexe et mon pouce 
Dort la grosse plume:
Un fusil dans son fourreau. (Garry) 

Entre mon doigt et mon pouce
Se blottit mon stylo,
Calé comme un fusil.  (Emmanuelle)

My own attempt had cost me an hour of effort the previous night, and was laughably inept. Each of these, by contrast, sends the reader back to Heaney’s original words with renewed attention. That’s the value of this exercise: you need to be a good listener, and a good reader, to tune into the conversation of poetry.

Adrian Barlow

[Photos:  (i)‘Le pavilion de Lulli’ in the grounds of the Centre International d’Etudes Pédagogiques (CIEP), Sèvres, France (ii) Teachers during the two-day session at CIEP. Photographs © the author.

‘Poet’s Chair’ and ‘The Strand’ are in  Heaney’s collection The Spirit Level, Faber and Faber (1996). ‘Digging’ is from Death of a Naturalist (1966).