A recent fossicking in a rummage sale at a Cambridge country house brought to light a rare volume by that scourge of poetastry, eminent francophile, and most donnish of philographers, George Saintsbury: his recondite Scrap Book of 1922.
His manner is dry. Extra Dry. His phrasing is convoluted with very often qualifying clauses further qualified by supplementary clauses before the subject of the sentence has been introduced, a practice that makes one’s head hurt.*
But never mind these incidental torments, Saintsbury is prescient and eloquent in his appreciation of Swinburne as the exemplar of Matter and Form, perfectly expressed in the poet’s ‘rush and roar’ of ‘volleying anapaests’ and the ‘rocketing soar’ of that masterpiece, a Song in Time of Revolution.
As to Saintsbury’s own views on criticism as a vocation, he writes: ‘Criticism is the result of the reaction of the processes of one mind on the products of another.’ The critic is to be considered, chemically, purely as a ‘reactant’ and he, Saintsbury, complains that ‘in the whole preceding history of criticism’ the mischief of prejudgement has prevailed, with critics ‘looking for certain pieces anticipated, not finding them, and judging accordingly.’
Well. My chemical reaction to Mr. Saintsbury’s tortuous 19th Century prose has been more a muted whimper than an outburst, for, regardless of my first impulse to recoil from over-ornateness, I find myself respecting the subtlety of thought that can introduce secondary shades of qualifications into such a recollection as this: ‘...a more delightful place than it then was I have seldom known.’
From his Scrapbook I can quote a no more representative fragment of Saintsbury’s dense prose than this remark: ‘There is no more mischievous class of human beings than a dissatisfied intelligentsia – no more pitiable or worthless one than a congregation of fruits secs.’
Here, surely, Saintsbury pierces to the root the discontent of a writer like Henry James, his exact contemporary, who famously lamented that both critics and the reading public failed to understand the modernity of his highly wrought prose technique, a matter of regret that never ceased to pain him.
Yet can one wonder at this exasperation with Jamesian mannerisms – the clotted adverbs, the finicky ramblings, the quaint syntax, the quibbling asides, the over-stippled effects – when even one of James’s later critics (Clara MacIntyre in 1912) could identify ‘such a sentence as “with the sense, moreover, of what he saw her see he had the sense of what she saw him” [as] not only hopelessly obscure; it seems grammatically incomplete.’ (The Golden Bowl, Chapter VIII.)
I suppose that I, too, like Clara, can quite easily take against this archetype of the Omniscient Narrator who fixedly intercepts each fleeting glance and counts each breath and flutter of heart and eyelid, if only because we mortals lack the infinite idle hours required to read these orotund ledgers of emotions encyclopedically itemised by a sedentary recording angel.
If this seems glib, please recognise here my veneration for a writer who, on his death bed, even in delirium, could yet compose perfectly measured and cadenced sentences.
Here, for your appreciation, is Henry James’s last dictation, dictated in delirium in 1915, weeks before his death. It's known as the ‘Napoleon** fragment’ or ‘Bonaparte letter’. As to its content, Henry may have thought he was writing to his brother William and his sister-in-law Alice. William had died six years before, but Henry probably thought of him as alive, and – significantly for an Omniscient Narrator – he may have seen him in his confused mind in the guise of Napoleon’s brother.
Dear and Most Esteemed Brother and Sister,
I call your attention to the precious enclosed transcripts of plans and designs for the decoration of certain apartments of the palaces, here, of the Louvre and the Tuileries, which you will find addressed in detail to artists and workmen who are to take them in hand. I commit them to your earnest care till the questions relating to this important work are fully settled. When that is the case I shall require of you further zeal and further taste. For the present the course is definitely marked out, and I beg you to let me know from stage to stage definitely how the scheme promises, and what results it may be held to inspire. It is, you will see, of a great scope, a majesty unsurpassed by any work of the kind yet undertaken in France. Please understand I regard these plans as fully developed and as having had my last consideration and look forward to no patchings nor perversions, and with no question of modifications either economic or aesthetic. This will be the case with all further projects of your affectionate NAPOLEONE
A Nightmare Courtroom Scene by Sir Max Beerbohm
Mr. Henry James subpoena’d, as psychological expert,
in a cause célèbre (1908).
Cross-examining counsel: ‘Come, sir, I ask you a plain question,
and I expect a plain answer!’
* The puzzle of a number of George Saintsbury’s labyrinthine sentences resides in the unorthodox ‘order of appearance’ of nouns and pronouns, when a noun as a natural ‘antecedent’ is placed in apposition after the pronoun, sometimes challenging a reader’s comprehension with a pronoun’s referent placed towards the end of a sentence, and too distant from its noun-ish stand-in for us to readily grasp.
Edgar Allan Poe is conditioned by metrical constraints to succumb to the same stylistic tic.
I could not love except where Death
Was mingling his with Beauty’s breath.Edgar Allan Poe 1831
and, Tennyson, of course:
. . . long since a body was found,
His who had given me life—O father!
**Consider this: The narrator of The Aspern Papers (a.k.a, Henry James), states, ‘I have been looking at furnished rooms all over the place, and it seems impossible to find any [in Venice] with a garden attached. Naturally in a place like Venice gardens are rare.’ (The narrator finds himself the possessor of such a rare garden.) Then, reader, consider that Napoleon, himself, with Venice as his dominion, caused the Giardinetti Reali (the Royal Gardens) to be created for his own pleasure, since he too recognised the scarcity of such an oasis in the ‘City of Water’.
Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence,
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)