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BRITISH-IRISH-POETS  1998

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Subject:

further remarks

From:

George Sutherland <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

George Sutherland <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 27 Jun 1998 19:13:14 -0400

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text/plain

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text/plain (451 lines)



Oblique Hint at a Genealogy of Unambitious and Uninteresting 'Language'
Poetry

(Keston Sutherland)


The equation of oratorical prudence with socially or doctrinally stimulated
modesty was not inherited, or even principally derived, by Renaissance
writers, from their most esteemed oratorical authorities. Quintilian, of
an influence notably inferior to that of Cicero and yet sufficient to
sustain the comparison , states the connection - explicit and etymological
- of eloquence to plenty, or rather to the arrest of inhibition:

        the verb eloqui means the production and communication to the
audience of all that the speaker has conceived in his mind
                                                (Institutio Oratoria,
VIII.i.15)

"Eloqui enim est omnia...": a feat not of discretion, but of one of its
opposites; the incitements of humility to self-interruption, rather than
tempering speech, are (in Cicero as elsewhere in Latin oratory) expressly
deployed at its beginning and end as ritual professions of courtesy .
Prior to speech, one can or even must indulge in a little hesitancy - just
as it is decorous, when drawing to a close, to excuse oneself on grounds of
having anticipated impatience. But classical eloquence exceeds and is
radically distinct from the economies of political courtesy: "eloquence, or
the art of speaking, or copiousness" entails (according to Cicero's
apposition) a preferment of quantity. "[O]rnate...copioseque" is a
Ciceronian refrain - the two are imbricated on a thematic level; this is
not permitted simply to mean, however, that 'more is better': Cicero and
Quintilian rely similarly upon an aversion to possible excess, despite, for
instance, the latter's belief that a true orator "will never lose a single
word" of those he commands, but will involve in each speech his entire
vocabulary as a demonstration of aptitude. Excess is accommodated, in the
art of copiousness, as a preventative concept sharing the same moral
suggestiveness as distraction.
        Distraction in this case has a specifically social bearing: a
speaker should be able sensitively to attend to the requirements of
addressing his audience, and to modulate his eloquence without becoming too
distracted by any more general, formal inclination (e.g. to be lofty about
law, or trim when political):

        For whereas in deliberative oratory the senate demand a certain
loftiness and the people a certain impetuosity of eloquence, the
public cases of the courts and those involving capital punishment demand a
more exact style.
                                                (Qunitilian Institutio
Oratoria, VIII.iii.14)
                        
The elementariness of this regard for social efficacy is of course retained
intact, in English, where the practice of style is governed by a similar
logic of propriety, and where claims to an absolute and indiscriminate
correctness are rare . Eloquence, whilst assigned certain requisites and
predicates, is only incidentally perfected - when matched to its occasion -
and this only when the distracting figment of a socially independent
competence is resisted. In strict accordance with this logic, Lyly's
grossly repetitive, inertly elaborate and debilitatingly copious works
Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and his England (1580) -
both extremely popular and of immediate impact amongst contemporary readers
and writers - produce an order of eloquence that is fit to eulogise and to
excite the material development of politeness.
        What Ascham in 1570 with moderation calls "fulnes...not to be
misliked in a yong man, so in farder age, in greater skill, and weightier
affaires, it is to be temperated" , Sidney, inserting a pointed and zealous
invective into his 1595 The Defense of Poesie, has come to regard as "as
absurd a surfet to the eares as is possible" ; this difference in patience
is largely explained by the influence that Lyly's 'euphuistic' prose has
come to exert over his delighted contemporaries: "I would that this
fault...had not as large possessiõ among Prose-Printers" . As Euphues
himself states, obligingly and in the mode of Antonius' mechanical orator ,
"honnie taken excessiuelye cloyeth the stomacke though it be honnie" -
Sidney concurs with unironic vehemence, and describes bitterly how excess
leads directly to distraction: Lyly's is "a moste tedious pratling, rather
overswaying the memorie from the purpose whereto they were applied, then
anie whit informing the judgement..." Sidney is almost entirely accurate.
The copiousness of Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit in particular (and this was
the more widely read of the two) has the reverse effect to that extolled by
Cicero and by Quintilian, in that it provokes and sustains in its reader an
attitude of consistent distraction. Its emphasis on style at the expense
of any cumulative substance (or prior 'Idea', as Quintilian would put it),
produces an awareness of curiosity (being here both the arousal of the
reader's distraction, and that which in its excessive elaboration incites
such arousal) in which is included and which is characterized by a
seemingly errant reflexivity: Sidney is compelled to attend to the
"overswaying" of his own "memorie", and finds himself unable to prevent his
proper attention from becoming jeopardized. This is a coercion to be
descried. The resultant discord is a moral one, and is exhibited famously
in Augustine's Confessions, where men's artifice is "on a far more lavish
scale than is required to satisfy their own modest needs" (X.34). Both
Sidney and Augustine require that the object of their attention should be
of sufficient moral importance - whether this is characterized with
reference to devotion or to aesthetics - to warrant its status as such,
hence their immediate anxiety upon finding their alertness functioning
elsewhere. For a reader of Lyly, this requirement ought rapidly to be
abandoned. Or rather, in the absence of any remarkable pretension to
coherence or to exposition, and given the obvious, picturesque ambivalence
with which he ostensibly decides ethical and moral questions in his
'narrative', Lyly's principal (and proper) demand is that his copious
eloquence, despite being 'diligently imitated' from Cicero, should reverse
Cicero's appraisal of eloquence by allowing what has classically been its
adjunct concern to become prioritized - that is, to subject the ideas set
out in speech, not just accidentally, but absolutely, to speech's style.
The occasional parity or disparity of ideas, in Euphues, is made largely
inconsequential by its mere overtness; each decision, lecture, mishap,
love, or conversation that a character falls into, is of severely repressed
implication as it becomes clear that all these are styled rather to elicit
admiration of their prose, than any moral applause or disapprobation.
Euphues is given the freedom to exhort his friend Philautus to

        conferre all thy study all thy time, all thy treasure to the
attayning of the sacred and sincere knowledge of diuinitie
                                (Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, Works vol.i
p251-2)

without advertising his convictions so far as the reader, who, like Sidney,
will by this point be inured to the combination of rehearsed piety and
incessant alliteration. We should "Turne...vnto Christ with a willyng
hearte & a wayling minde" (ibid. p.303-4), chiefly so that we might admire
the poise with which Lyly's 'honnied' hero sets the almost antithetical
participles in harmony.

        O Philautus, if thou search thy selfe and see not sinne, then is
thy case almost curelesse.
                                                                (ibid.
p.309)

        That Sidney should find this reversal somewhat nauseating in its
relentlessness, is quite unobjectionable; that Donne would find so simple a
version of it repugnant , is striking, and helps to illuminate the peculiar
allowances Lyly arrogates to himself. A passage from Kierkegaard's
Repetition may help to sketch what might approximately be called the mean
of these positions:

        Who could be so inhuman as to play the observer if he saw a person
praying with his whole soul? Who would not rather be permeated by an
emanation from the devotion of the person praying? But if one hears
a clergyman declaim a learned sermon in which, unsolicited on the part of
the congregation, he testifies several times in an artificial,
grandiloquent, and affected passage that what he is saying is the
simple faith that knows nothing of neatly turned phrases but through
prayer provides what he, by his own account and probably for good
reasons, sought in vain in poetry, art, and scholarship - then one calmly
puts one's eye to the microscope, then one does not swallow everything one
hears but closes the jalousie, the critic's screen that tests every sound
and every word.


Sidney's is a disgruntled perspicacity - he sees too clearly (or too
closely, as Kierkegaard would have it) the mere and therefore ephemeral
technicity of Lyly's achievement; Kierkegaard, to notice a slight
contrariness, is especially perceptive in referring his example to an
emotional prerogative before it begins - "Who would not rather be
permeated..." - in that way maintaining that the choice whether or not to
be genuinely affected is inevitable even to him privileged with being the
opposite of an "observer". Sidney continues in his criticism, to accuse
the euphuists of a kind of masturbation (though this analogy is merely an
anachronistic amusement):

        who doth generally use ['these knacks' of ornamentation, i.e.
indulges in euphuistic copiousness], any man may see doth dance to his
owne musick, and so to be noted by the audience, more careful to speak
curiously, then truly.

Lyly's is a 'curious' style, and this is to be seen and noted by "any man":
the imperative resting just beneath Sidney's description - that any man
must see and must note that truthfulness is deferred in favour of an
immediate curiosity (or 'elaborateness') - is perhaps deliberately
withheld, as it weakens his polemic by suggesting that his entire
orientation to the work is rather resolutely, morally optimistic. And this
is in fact the case - Sidney supposes a benefit in his unwillingness
placidly to maintain a wasteful and improper regard, where he might instead
choose to see 'true' matter; on the whole he is right to orient himself
wrongly.
        The reversal of Cicero's appraisal is a also local reversal of the
myth of its genealogy: Cicero explains how "a certain art was called in
from outside, derived from another definite sphere...that it might give
coherence to things" , i.e. that style was originally a supplement to what
demanded expression intrinsically, and that its importance, whilst great
and in some sense determinable per se, should remain as that of an adjunct
to ideas (much as, in Shakespeare's words, "Learning is but an adjunct to
ourself, / And where we are, our learning likewise is."). As Quintilian
would later put it:

        While, then, style calls for the utmost attention, we must always
bear in mind that nothing should be done for the sake of words only,
since words were invented merely to give expression to things.
                                                        (Institutio
Oratoria VIII.i.32)

Style is, in this scheme, an adjunct facility, and because of this
essential belatedness contains an inherent curiosity, or potential
distraction from more credited forms of interest. Though crucially
participatory in the availability of adequate expression, its relation to
that availability is not determined by default, but requires
self-containment as its favourable condition; that is to say, it must be
allowed neither to operate "for its own sake" (thereby suppressing ideas
into ambivalence), nor to give a reader the plausible impression that it
does so. This kind of elaboration is not simply a superfluous use of words
(verbosity is not exactly for its own sake) but an excessive use, causing a
reductive, positive distraction in their favour. Transgressions of this
favourable condition can, of course, be disguised, and it is part of Lyly's
charm (or to Sidney, his insidiousness) that he disguises the fact that
style constitutes rather than improves the coherence of his writing, by
means of an attenuated and disarrayed selection of ideas. This willingness
to appear didactic, so that both parts of Aristotle's definition might be
acknowledged (edification as well as entertainment), is part of a broader
strategy of disavowal.
        "[W]hy goe I about to vse a longe processe to a little purpose?" -
so Euphues asks himself, in order not only to imitate Ciceronian courtesy,
but also to have secured in explicitness the fact of his author's
preparation: Lyly has anticipated Sidney's remarks - though perhaps not the
extent of their bitterness - and determines that his Euphues and his
England in particular will be circumscribed and so protected by an almost
exclusive interest in politeness.
        A polite style, in the late sixteenth century, is a 'smooth or
glassy' one, demanding the avoidance of abruptness, interruption and
opacity; this Lyly certainly achieves (his 'euphuism' became a widespread
fashion at court), through competent if overwhelming appropriation of Latin
materials, combined with an adept if single-minded manipulation of English
consonant sounds; more interesting than his sentences (which now seem far
more antiquated and laborious than Sidney's) is their incitement to a
theory of boredom. Euphues and his England offers an Epistle Dedicatory,
in which the author states conventionally his hopes for the book's
reception: "In that I haue written, I desire no praise of others but
patience" . This is undistinguished humility, but it does hint at Lyly's
suspicion of a possible shortcoming; to return again to Quintilian:

        A worse fault [than tautology] is...sameness, a term applied to a
style which has no variety to relieve its tedium, and which presents a
uniform monotony of hue.
                                                        (Institutio
Oratoria VIII.iii.52)
                            
The desire expressed in this caution is not the desire for distraction, nor
quite the desire not to be distracted, but the desire for faith in a style
that will include no opportunity either to resist distraction or to submit
to it; one's awareness of one's own attention should not become a
questioning awareness. Such a faith would be one kind of patience, but
Lyly could never pretend to so exceptional a politeness. His prose is
distracting throughout, its artificial refinement is staked wholly on the
condition that the reader is distracted from ideas. Patience in a reader
of Lyly (at least, the patience to which his Epistle might credibly aspire)
is far more reflex than it is indulgent, being an entirely neutral
attitude; whilst, or more accurately because denied the prospect of any
profitable idea or intimation of significant narrative crisis, a reader is
granted perpetual relief from the demands of any such prospect, and can,
without restless skirmishes of self-exoneration, relax into a simple and
curious enjoyment of what is nonetheless a considerable literary
achievement. Lyly concedes to style - in exchange for its infection of all
ideas with their own disavowal - the capacity for an entire absorption of
readers' interest (which is a low powered interest, namely distraction).
        The speculative A Funeral Oration, vpon the death of the late
deceased Princesse of famous memorye, Elizabeth... might seem to take
disavowal to an absurd end, given the basis of Lyly's reputation, in
claiming "No feigned liuerye my Inuention weares.", but its terms are
(surely accidentally) of a sophisticated aptness: where "liuerye" is not
importantly accountable to the object it serves to adorn, it can hardly be
"feigned" - it is the "Inuention" which is a fatuous, opportunistic and
blatant lie. As Philautus remarks, "wit shippeth it self to euery conceit
being cõstant in nothing but incõstancie."
        Boredom is partly evaded by means of this neutral patience. At
least one of its provocations is rejected - the provocation arising from
the rhythms of effort demanded by the interspersion of significant ideas.
Two rather spiteful associations clamour to suggest themselves, neither of
which manages entire relevance: firstly, Swift's A Compleat Collection of
Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (1738) - a horrendous, copious burlesque
on "polite obliging behaviour" which satirizes distraction in its later
development as Metropolitan leisure; secondly, Schopenhauer's pretty
remark that

        [the] need for exciting the will shows itself particularly in the
invention and maintenance of card-playing, which is in the truest sense
an expression of the wretched side of humanity.
                                (The World as Will and Representation vol.i
§57)


The word that most stimulates our fondness, here, is "maintenance" - the
"maintenance of card-playing" has persisted as a hidden terror to the
wretched even into our period; Lyly's characters prefer to exchange set
pieces of rhetorically refined moral timidity, spending their leisure in
the pursuit and foment of an English prose style that will amount to a
dazzling increase in politeness. They and Schopenhauer's card-players are
engaged in promoting a purposefulness to repetition; their efforts are
examples of what came to be called, in an unequivocally positive sense,
around the time of Lyly's literary productivity or very shortly after,
diversions. This need not be paradoxical, as a description of relief from
an exhausting or unpleasant labour. Euphues and his fellow
conversationalists divert themselves, however, from boredom; boredom proves
so aetiologically transparent as to be rectified merely by assent to the
condition of purposefulness.
        Though sufficient to appall Schopenhauer, this kind of patience - a
practiced contentment with arrested curiosity - is an utterly commonplace
behaviour, considerably more difficult to defamiliarize now than in 1819
(or 1580), because now serviced exhaustively by a 'range' (the word would
send Schopenhauer reeling) of sensitively targeted commodities (the
genealogy of the concept of Super Mario Bros. might, if anyone were willing
to make the effort, be coerced into temporary alignment with that of
non-adjunct prose styles. This would require a good deal of zest.)
Possibly of greater interest than the characters' attempts to alleviate
boredom, is the way in which the literary effectiveness of witnessing them
do so, is roughly the same order of effect by which the work as a whole is
pervaded. This discrepancy is not surmounted: we are not exactly sharing
their diversions, for the quality of our diversion is the same whether they
tease and titillate each other or weary each other with frigid moralizing.
Either way, our distraction remains intact. This total lack of sympathetic
extension - the inability of a reader to relate purposefully either to the
details or to the aggregate of the book's mimesis - is not just a denial,
but also an access; leisure is its entire theme, and our 'right' reaction
to the deferral of ideas (if we are to be shrewder readers than Sidney) is
a polite consent; the theme of leisure also explicates our own involvement
in the book's success (A forceful yet pragmatic approach to this curiosity
and consent in distraction is given by Pascal: "Language. The mind must
not be led off on to something else except for relaxation, but at the right
time; give it relaxation when it is due and not otherwise. Relaxation at
the wrong time wearies it and wearying it at the wrong time relaxes it, for
we just give everything up. Malicious concupiscence takes such delight in
producing the very opposite of what people want to get from us without
giving us any pleasure, the coin for which we will give people all they
want" Pensées 710 trans. Krailsheimer, p.249 "And", he might have added if
suitably enraged, "more than they need".)
        What we consent to in this inexpensive reading practice, is partly
Lyly's purposefulness; the advent of a thoroughly polite English prose
style was and remains of recognisable influence, conspiring to reach as far
in the hierarchical stakes as Shakespeare's early plays . Beyond this, and
prior to as well as exhibited in Lyly's style, is the question of
commonwealths:

        In every free nation, and most of all in communities which have
attained the enjoyment of peace and tranquillity, this one art
[oratory] has always flourished above the rest and ever reigned
supreme.
                                                (Crassus, Cicero De Oratore
I.viii.30)


Lyly is of course keen to provide overt eulogies, being ever hopeful of
becoming master of revels ; that his writing is implicitly panegyrical, in
its foremost permission, might also be recognised: "The lyuing God is onely
the Englysh God, wher he hath placed peace, which bryngeth all plentie" .
The copiousness of Euphues is certainly "plentie" as well as "fulnes", and
- by its very extent it recalls - where there is leisure for fiction that
is itself leisure, there is little grief (though perhaps a degree of
'wretchedness'); the English might feel themselves to be privileged in
having to themselves a God (perhaps borrowed from or shared with the
Italians) willing to invest the light of literary advancement in a style
that is access to the luxury of neutral patience. Such an access is,
according to Cicero, the benefit of 'tranquillity'. Ascham promotes this
leisure even more broadly:

        he, that can neither like Aristotle in Logicke and Philosophie, nor
Tullie in Rhetoricke and Eloquence, will, from these steppes,
likelie enough presume, by like pride, to mount hier, to the
misliking of greater matters: that is either in Religion, to haue a
dissentious head, or in the common wealth, to haue a factious hart.

It is almost as if, to choose not to be aroused by an authoritative
eloquence implies that one is ungrateful for the leisure to do so (even
when that authority is neither political nor Christian). Dissent in
reading and political impoliteness spring from the same pernicious source;
leisure among good subjects is remedial.
        Despite Ascham's high fervour, a more committed Christian in a
period and situation more favourable to privacy, would find his warnings
baseless and insipid. Herbert, with a different style of vigour, commits
his admonition to extolling leisure's opposite:

                Affliction then is ours;
        We are the trees, whom shaking fastens more,
        While blustring windes destroy the wanton bowres,
        And ruffle all their curious knots and store.
                                                        ('Affliction'
ll.19-22)

A "bowre", with its roof of overarching, woven branches that conceal
heaven, is where a "faire Queene" might sing "Ditties" , just as she might
converse in emulation of the wit and gaiety of Euphues' companions; its
"curious knots and store" are sociability, the overlapping and binding that
comes from mutual inclinations and closeness. These bowers incur the
damage of afflicting, "blustring windes", since they are, by their
curiousness, prohibited those winds' fortifying asperity ("thou didst use
displeasure / To make us thine" (ll.9-10)). In the scheme of Herbert's
sterner consolation, curiosity is an impediment, made drastic precisely by
its copiousness and the difficulty from which that would seem to protect
us, like a roof; this 'natural' protection is, however, desperately timid
and fragile.
        Lyly's "Englysh God" having "placed peace" among his people, having
deemed this more equitable than shaking them to destruction, might by that
armistice be positively, or at least accidentally recommending that they be
as curious (and as forgetful) as they wish, at least for the time being .
If unshaken, a bower is more polite than a single tree. It is an enabling
leisure that excites respect for sociable policy and personal cultivation,
where, in defiance of the moral condition that style is an adjunct, one can
(or even must) "Learne to speake first, then to wooe" . But crucially to
our understanding of curiosity, this leisure could never be claimed, within
a pious Christian understanding of human nature, as an unequivocal benefit;
the Christian epistemology demands that it must be assigned the status of a
compensation:

        when Adam woed there was no pollycie, but playne dealyng, no
colours but blacke and white. Affection was measured by faith, not by
fancie: he was not curious, nor Eue cruell
                                        (Euphues and his England, Works
vol.ii p.121)


Subtlety is an acquirement entailed in imperfection. At the best, and if
pressed to this end, Lyly can claim that diversion from a faith in ideas to
the intricacy and elaborateness of the style in which they are presented,
is gratuitous; if he lacked "pollycie", or were momentarily to eschew his
politeness, he might condemn that diversion as a willed reaction to a
concept of effort that ought itself never to have existed. Given that we
do permit an emotional ambiguity in "effort", and that this ambiguity is
now irrepugnably conducive to boredom, and that this particular boredom is
inevitably of a nature more readily assuaged by sociable than by devout
means; given this outset, Lyly's opportunism can provide, or at least
theorize, a substantial compensation:

        suspicion is as free as thought, and as farre as I see as
necessary, as credulitie...as false glasses shewe the fairest faces, so
fine gloses amend the baddest fancies.
                (Lyly, dedicatory letter to Watson's Passionate Centurie of
Loue (1582))

A compensation for common failure and subtlety is that these may be
rarefied; normal interactions are less awkwardly normal if exemplary, and
so Lyly demonstrates the elevation possible in sociable English speech
(even to oratory) in a narrative string of dissertations that, to use
Kierkegaard's distinction, defer 'significance' in polite favour of
'curiosity' . Sidney is resolute in the face of this pressure - the
embarrassment of curiosity's relation to an adequate boredom - and
maintains the desire for a curative apperception:

        our erected wit maketh us to know what perfectiõ is, and yet our
infected wil keepeth us frõ reaching unto it.
   

That this 'maintenance' calls to mind Schopenhauer's, is partly to be
dismissed. Lyly's and Sidney's, or Lyly's and Donne's attitudes to "our
infected wil" (for Donne, too great a "scrupulousnesse" is "overcurious" -
a sense remote from or even opposed to Lyly's) are only imperfectly
described as mere orientations, and no such liberty ought to be convincing;
yet both are responses to necessary subtlety, and both engage - each with
its own ambivalence - the wish for its (and curiosity's) extinction as a
visible motive to style. Lyly is in no hurry to see this wish fulfilled;
several of our present poets, likewise.


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