Browning’s Painter Poems

November 27, 2008 at 10:15 am (Aestheticism) ()

Thought I’d follow Vicky’s example (below) and post a few images as visual context for the three Browning dramatic monologues we’ll be reading in this afternoon’s session.  ‘My Last Duchess’ is, of course, fictional; but  Andrea del Sarto and Fra Lippo Lippi were both real people (I like to think of them as ‘Andrew Taylor’ and ‘Brother Mick Jagger’ respectively).  You’ll find 87 images of del Sarto’s work here; and here’s the image that Browning saw (a portrait of del Sarto’s wife, Lucrezia) that inspired him to write the poem:

'But do not let us quarrel any more...'

Nice enough, you might think: is it really as lifeless as Browning’s del Sarto thinks? (‘All is silver-grey,/Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!’ 98-99). Fifty-seven Fra Lippo Lippi images are viewable here: it’s not so clear which specific Lippi works Browning had in mind when he wrote the ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ dramatic monologue, but he was certainly familiar with the frescoes at Prato cathedral, near Florence:



A close up of that one:


The guy on the left right who looks a bit like Phil Mitchell?  That’s supposed to be a self-portrait by Lippi himself.  I like this three chins.  [AR]


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LIFE archive photos

November 21, 2008 at 9:46 am (Uncategorized) ()

Not qute sure why Sally’s ‘realisms readings’ post keeps bobbing to the top of the page, ahead of more recent posts (though I’m loathe to take it down). Ah well.

This is just a note (via the Valve) that a million or more photographs from the LIFE magazine archive are now accessible online through Google (go to Google Images and type in a name and “source:life”). They’re mostly twentieth-century figures, as you might expect given the magazine, but there are some nineteenth-century ones too. Check out these Charles Dickens, for instance; or these Robert Browning. Browsing through has thrown up one image of Dickens, actually, that I hadn’t seen before; and I’m trying to pin-down in my head who he looks like …. which is to say, which celebrity he reminds me of. Hmm. What do you reckon?


Is anybody else seeing Victorian Beckham with a beard?


(‘Victorian Beckham’ … did you see what I did, there?) [AR]

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Reading for Aestheticism & Decadence: Swinburne

November 17, 2008 at 6:18 pm (Aestheticism)

Hellenistic sculpture of Hermaphrodite (Louvre)

Hellenistic sculpture of Hermaphrodite (Louvre)

Symphony in White no.2 (1864)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Little White Girl: Symphony in White no.2 (1864)

Simeon Solomon, Damon and Aglae (1866)

Simeon Solomon, Damon and Aglae (1866)


Dear All,

All of the poems set for this week are taken from Swinburne’s explosive debut verse volume, Poems and Ballads: First Series (1866). They can be read online at

Three of the poems refer to separate artworks (shown at the head of the post).
1.’Before the Mirror’ to James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s The Little White Girl: Symphony in White no.2 (1864) (Tate)
2.’Erotion’ to Simeon Solomon’s painting Damon and Aglae (exhib. RA 1866)
3.’Hermaphroditus’ to the Hellinistic sculpture of Hermaphrodite, also known as the Borghese Hermaphrodite (in the Louvre, where Swinburine viewed it)

I will bring copies of the essay on your reading list – Swinburne’s ‘Simeon Solomon: notes on his “Vision of Love”‘ – to class on Thursday.

I look forward to hearing your responses to these texts!

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Victorian Decades seminar: Oxford Brookes

November 17, 2008 at 12:31 pm (General Victoriana) ()

With co-convener Dr Gail Marshall’s permission, I’m posting notice of a really interesting looking seminar to be held at Oxford Brookes University [Room BG01, Buckley Building] on Wednesday 26 November 2008 from 1-4pm: the subject is ‘Victorian Decades’. ‘Jointly convened by Dr Gail Marshall (Oxford Brookes), Dr Marion Thain (University of Birmingham) and Dr Juliet John (University of Liverpool), the session will explore the potential benefits to be accrued by examining the Victorian period on a decade by decade basis. This workshop should be of interest to those working with the Victorian period and also to anyone seeking to explore issues surrounding historicist approaches to literature and culture.’ Find more details here, and go along if you can (I’m teaching at Holloway that day, I’m afraid, and won’t be able to come; but if you can make it I really recommend you going). [AR]

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Adam Bede

November 11, 2008 at 11:47 am (Nineteenth-century novel) ()

Gearing up for the Adam Bede class on Thursday, I thought I’d direct your attention to the Valve reading group on George Eliot’s novel convened by Rohan Maitzen earlier this year.  It’s finished now (though there’s nothing to stop you adding to the debate in the comments boxes), but it remains posted:

June 16: Chapters I-V

June 23: Chapters VI-XI

July 1: Chapters XII-XVI

July 8: Chapters XVII-XXI

July 15: Chapters XXII-XXVI

July 22: Chapters XXVII-XXXV

July 29: Chapters XXXVI-XLVIII

August 5: The Whole Novel

August 11: Conclusions

It’s a very detailed series of reactions to the work by a number of different readers, some of them academic and some of them not, and I think you’ll find it not only very interesting, but conceivably useful as far as reading this novel, Eliot more generally or Victorian Fiction as a whole. [AR]

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Matthew Arnold’s Preface to Poems (1853)

November 5, 2008 at 12:52 pm (Aestheticism) ()

I’ve been asked whether the text of this famous preface is available online. Probably the best bet is Google books: here for example (under the slightly odd title ‘Poetry and the Classics’; but it is the 1853 Preface), or here. It’s also the first essay in this Project Gutenburg edition; scroll down a little. [AR]

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Rigaud and Louis Napoleon

October 29, 2008 at 10:00 am (Nineteenth-century novel) (, )

This will be my last post on Little Dorrit for a bit, I think (I must say I enjoyed the first episode of the BBC version last Sunday). But before I leave the topic: I mentioned in last week’s seminar that I’ve been doing a little work on representations of Napoleon III in the 1850s-70s.  Who he?  Napoleon Bonaparte‘s nephew, that’s who; an individual who took advantage of the political turmoil following the 1848 revolution to seize power in France by coup-d’état in 1851. He promised to restore ‘the family, the church and social order’, and a national plebiscite seemed to endorse his position (the name ‘Napoleon’ was politically a very useful one in France) and he ruled until 1870; but many were outraged by the violence of his rise to power.

Karl Marx wrote his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) about him, seeing the 1851 coup as a sympton of class struggle, and characterising it famously with the assertion: “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The tragic history of Napoleon Bonaparte was now being farcically aped by Napoleon III. Victor Hugo, perhaps the greatest French poet of the century, was particularly outraged by the way Louis Napoleon used the army to quell unrest in Paris, shooting and killing civilian men, women and children. He went into voluntary exile on the channel islands, vowing not to return to France until Napoleon III was dead or deposed (a vow he kept). He also wrote the first of his great epic masterpieces, a poem called Les Châtiments (1853) — the title means ‘The Chastisements’ or ‘The Punishments’. It’s an extraordinary piece, an immense satiric-epic of sustained vitriolic denunciation of Napoleon III and (presciently, I think) what Hugo considered he stood for: tyranny, military dictatorship, corruption, demagoguery, the scapegoating of vulnerable groups, propaganda. All lamentably familiar from dictatorships in the twentieth-century, of course; but I’d say Hugo was ahead of his time in identifying it as the political malaise of his age.

As I mentioned (I think) in the seminar, one of the things I’ve been doing — after being boggled to discover that Les Châtiments has never been fully translated into English — has been posting English versions of the poem in an on-going blog called Translating Hugo. Check it out, if you’re interested. I’m about a third of the way through, and hope to finish by next summer.

What has all this to do with Dickens? Well, because Napoleon III is buzzing around my head, I tend to see him everywhere; and there’s something very Napoleon-III-esque, I think, about Dickens’s descriptions of Rigaud:

His eyes, too close together, were not so nobly set in his head as those of the king of beasts are in his, and they were sharp rather than bright—pointed weapons with little surface to betray them. They had no depth or change; they glittered, and they opened and shut. So far, and waiving their use to himself, a clockmaker could have made a better pair. He had a hook nose, handsome after its kind, but too high between the eyes by probably just as much as his eyes were too near to one another. For the rest, he was large and tall in frame, had thin lips, where his thick moustache showed them at all, and a quantity of dry hair, of no definable colour, in its shaggy state, but shot with red. The hand with which he held the grating (seamed all over the back with ugly scratches newly healed), was unusually small and plump; would have been unusually white but for the prison grime. [LD I:i]

Here’s what the famously, and fastidiously, aristocratic mass-murderer (or, if you prefer, Saviour of Family, Church and Society) Louis Napoleon — a man who had spent a stretch of the 1840s in the prison of Ham, after an earlier coup attempt — looked like:

Contemporaries did comment on how narrow and close together Napoleon III’s eyes were (Hugo calls him ‘l’homme aux yeux étroits’). Here’s an official portrait, in all his bling:

Resemblance? What do you reckon? How does Rigaud describe himself (when going under the name Lagnier) in chapter 11? “I am sensitive and brave, and it is my character to govern.” Sinister fellow.

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BBC Little Dorrit Adaptation

October 25, 2008 at 4:07 pm (Nineteenth-century novel, Uncategorized) ()

The Andrew Davies version of Little Dorrit starts tomorrow (Sunday 26th October); it’ll be interesting to see how they do it. There’s boy-man Matthew Macfadyen, above, in the Arthur Clenham role (a little too young, maybe?): and L.D. herself is being played by Claire Foy, about whom I know nothing. Have a look at the whole Radio Times cast picture gallery, if you like: not a bad set of actors, although I’d say Anton Lesser is wrong for Merdle (who is described in the book more like a charisma-free blonder Boris Johnson); and I feel a bit sorry for Ruth Jones, whose audition must have gone something like: ‘yes, we need someone who used to be attractive when she was much younger, but now she’s all blowsy and ugly and absurd … hey, you’d be perfect!’ Perhaps acting is not the profession to go into if your feelings are easily hurt.

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Metaphor and Metonomy

October 24, 2008 at 8:36 am (Core Course) ()

A brief note after yesterday’s core course class, to recap on the distinction between metaphor and metonomy; because I’m not sure everybody was clear about it (or if you were all clear on that, then maybe people were unclear on its relevance to reading Dickens).  As Catherine said, metaphor and metonomy are both modes of saying something by saying something else; but metaphor is a mode of displacement (‘Achilles is a lion’), where a point of similarity (they’re both really brave and fierce) links what are otherwise quite different terms; and metonymy is a mode of association, or contiguity (‘the pen is mightier than the sword’; where the pen stands for ‘writing’ because it is a part of the larger whole). Synecdoche (‘two hundred head of cattle’; ‘a parish of a thousand souls’) is a kind of metonomy.

So, you might ask, what’s that to do with the reading of Dickens? OK: what we were discussing yesterday was Roman Jakobson‘s particular take on these two rhetorical terms: Richard Bradford’s Routledge introduction to Jakobson is a good place to start on this (you can start reading some of it [on metaphor and metonomy and ‘The Poetic Function’] at Google books).  For a briefer version here’s’s summary:

The message construction is based on two simultaneous operations*:

  1. Combination (horizontal) – constructing syntactic links; contexture.
    Relation through contiguity, juxtaposition.
    METONYMY – implying time, cause and effect, a chain of successive events
  2. Selection (vertical) – choosing among equivalent options.
    Relation on basis of similarity, substitution, equivalence or contrast; synonym / antonym.
    METAPHOR – implying space, a-temporal connection, simultaneity.

In poetry – the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection (metaphor) is used as the major means of constructing a sequence (combination; metonym).

This projection, according to Jacobson, is the defining characteristic of poetry, and it expresses itself in rhyme, meter, symmetries, repetitions, motifs.

The dominant mode in the poetic is therefore that of metaphor. Whereas in Prose – the metonym prevails, the chain of events, the plot, successive actions, a sequence of occurrences**.

*The terms METONYMY and METAPHOR are not used as figures of speech but rather as pervasive forces organizing language.

**The opposition is not an absolute one, but rather a mark of a tendency.

This still might seem a little remote to your sense of readng and writing about Dickens; but what we were doing last night was taking the two keynote thematic images with which Bleak House opens — Fog and Mud — and exploring the ways they resonated through the novel.  We touched, you’ll remember, on the way they articulated the novel’s concerns with obstruction, secrecy, things buried and obscured; and also with filth, disease, contagion.  I talked about the two conflicting mid-century theories of illness; the germ theory (mud) and the miasma theory (fog).  But more than that, I was trying to suggest ways in which Dickens as a novelist (and especially in his later novels) works both novelistically and, in a manner of speaking, poetically: that he is doing more than simply recording the conditions of London in the 1850s in terms of documentary verisimilitude (although he is doing that); he’s also expressing his concerns poetically.  Bleak House is precisely a novel about the tension between contiguity (everybody being connected) and displacement or separation.  It spreads itself horizontally, across London, and England, like the fog rolling upriver and down, north and south; but it also compacts itself densely at the centre, crushing and fossiling — and in the case of Krook, apparently squeezing him until he literally explodes … and is transformed into mud and fog; or more precisely into slime (‘a little thick nauseous pool’; ‘a dark greasy coating on the walls and ceiling’) and smoke (‘a smouldering suffocating vapour in his room’).  The point is not to pick out particular examples of metaphor (say); but rather to think about the way Dickens’s novel is shaped by these two symbolising principles; and the way the tension between the two of them articulates the book’s main concerns.

I mentioned Steve Connor’s excellent introductory book on Dickens (Charles Dickens [1985]: it’s in the library, 827 DIC D/CON ) which takes Jakobson’s metaphor and metonomy and applied them illuminatingly to the reading of several Dickens novels (though not, if I remember correctly, Bleak House).  I also mentioned Freud, although mentioning Freud provoked expressions of dislike from some members of the group.  You know who you are.  Now, one of the reasons I brought him up is that Freud argued that dreaming happens by a dual process of on the one hand association (metonomy: we’ve all had experience of the peculiar ‘dream logic’ by which things or events succeed one another) and on the other transference or substitution (metaphor).  Freud was also eloquent about — as Dickens is, in this novel — not only the way we keep secrets from other people, but the way we keep secrets from ourselves; and the mechanisms of repression, and the way the repressed always returns (in dreams, or slips-of-the-tongue, or neurotic symptoms) seems to me figured in dozens of ways throughout Bleak House.  Of course, you don’t have to be a Freudian to read this novel, or (more importantly) to write critically about Dickens.  But it will be worth your while to think not only about specific symbols in his writing, but about the broader logic of symbolisation itself.  That’s what we were talking about yesterday.

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October 22, 2008 at 11:52 am (Core Course) ()

Prior to tomorrow’s core-course disussion of Bleak House, which will start by close-reading the opening chapter, I thought I’d post the link to this review in the most recent TLS by Richard Fortey of these two books: Ralph O’Connor The Earth on Show: Fossils and the poetics of popular science, 1802–1856 (University of Chicago Press 2008) and Martin J. S. Rudwick Worlds Before Adam: the reconstruction of geohistory in the age of reform (University of Chicago Press 2008). I’ve not read either one yet, but they do look interesting; and I know some students are thinking about possible essays on ‘deep time’ and the geological revolution in relation to the literature we’re looking at.

Actually, though, this is all a ruse; my real reason for posting this is to give me an excuse to put up these lovely John Martin images of dinosaurs (you’ll see the first paragraph of Fortey’s review talks about Martin).

Splendid, aren’t they? That last one (click for a closer look) is particularly striking, I think: the seadragons’ lamplike eyes, mimicking that slightly hazy but still panoptic full moon. There’s a sort of Gothic sublimity at work, and the weird writhing of saurian flesh is almost orgiastic. I’m not sure it had occurred to me before that the representation of dinosaurs in the nineteenth-century could mediate subconscious sexuality. (Perhaps that still doesn’t occur to you …)

Also of interest (if you’re interested in this) is Louis Figuier’s The World Before the Deluge (1872) which has some very nice steel engravings of megalosauri: the text and pictures are available online here.

Finally, what did the Victorian actually think a Megalosaurus looked like? Well, like this:

Dig that hump, and that rather winning smile. If you live near Crystal Palace, you’ll have seen this splendid fellow already:

“As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” [AR]

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