Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Sussex Exodus of Altisonant Rats: Schoolboy’s Mock-Heroic Epic

That art is non-utile is a self-conscious truism voiced oftenest by post-Marxian cynics. 

As Oscar Wilde, a socialist manqué, makes clear: All art is quite useless. 

This banality is no more absurdly pointed up than in the verses of a lofty poet who compares himself with his father digging the family cabbage patch – a spade wielded with evident utility – yet who claims a special dispensation for his own artist’s pen . . . ‘I’ll dig with it.’ (Pause for involuntary cringe.)

Anthony Blunt – tarnished knight of the realm, professed communist, and Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures – was unequivocal when a young man in expressing his utopian sympathy for the cultural worthiness of Social Realism: ‘The culture of the revolution will be evolved by the proletariat to produce its own culture . . . If an art is not contributing to the common good, it is bad art.’ 

So, by Blunt’s measure, even the Queen’s Poet Laureate should cleave to utilitarian art . . . notwithstanding it’s a demand unmet by a recent incumbent in the opinion of those republican readers who’ve submitted the laureate verses of Ted Hughes to closer scrutiny. Although, of that versification, the finest – the beautiful Little Salmon Hymn – is a witty act of lese-majesty since the licensed poet-jester cheekily commands his empress to collude in acceptance of his metaphors as givens: ‘Say the constellations are flocks. And the sea-dawns, collecting colour, give it, the sea-spray the spectrum.’ [My italics.]

So any success in our tracking down utilitarian verse is likely to be somewhat limited, particularly as the poetry of knee-jerk imperialism is an overglutted market. (‘Who, or why, or which, or what, is the Akond of Swat?’ An example of lese-majesty in verse of the grosser sort, since the Principality of Swat is surely owed more than the glib doggerel of a melancholic syphilitic artist from the West, if one agrees that such smirking, unthinking condescension merits a reciprocal reductio ad absurdum.)  

After all, Maxim Gorky had a city named after him so at least one utilitarian writer can claim to have changed the landscape with the stroke of his pen, an act that was matched by only one rival . . . an autocrat . . . Tsar Nicholas I, who reputedly took his own sword as a ruler and astonished his surveyor by drawing a perfectly straight line on a map to ordain the path of the railroad between St Petersburg and Moscow. ‘Voilà votre chemin de fer!’ he decreed.

A utilitarian schoolboy poet . . . the necessity for literary invention.

Is art necessary? Well, for an enterprising Sussex schoolboy in 1812, aged fifteen, the facility to dash off classical Latin verse, as an accomplishment no different to boxing or riding to hounds, could earn him the valuable privileges of a ‘Senior’ promoted to a higher class. Indeed, in the memoir that follows, the narrator confesses, ‘I had such an object in view’, with the additional motive of earning a ‘higher mark’ that would win him a half holiday on a Friday. 

This utilitarianism in youthful art, which knowingly converts scholarly diligence into social advancement, explains, I believe, how a child can be father of the man who’s destined to outgrow a too facile creativity*. For there is a certain dilettantish class of patrician that disowns in adulthood the tyro dauber and dabbler he once was, and whose haughty defence is, ‘Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.’

Very small beer indeed.

Though it is surprisingly the case that the juvenile poetic facility described in the memoir you are about to read is later dismissed as journeyman work by its author, this dismissal must be understood in a scale of things beyond most people’s reckoning . . . for the author is destined to become the 19th century’s preeminent uniformitarian geologist, and one of the first who dared to believe that the world is older than 300 million years, so, for him, in the perspective of cosmological aeons, such poetical considerations as metaphorical ‘givens’ at Her Majesty's pleasure would seem to be very small beer indeed.

A memoir of schooldays by Sir Charles Lyell Kt FRS.

At the end of the first year arrived . . . what was called ‘the speaking,’ when certain boys recited verses written by themselves, those in the first two classes; and the rest different Greek, Latin. and English passages. The rehearsal first began, at which every boy had to exhibit, and then ten were selected to perform before the public. I obtained one of the places for reciting English, and was accordingly gifted with a prize, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ of which I was very proud. Every year afterwards I received invariably a prize for speaking, until high enough to carry off the prizes for Latin and English original composition. My inventive talents were not quick, but to have any is so rare a qualification, that it is sure to obtain a boy at our great schools (and afterwards as an author) some distinction.

Irregular versification. 

I had a livelier sense than most of the boys of the beauty of English poetry, Milton, Thomson, and Gray being my favourites; and even Virgil and Ovid gave me some real pleasure, and I knew the most poetic passages in them. I was much taken with Scott’s ‘Lady of the Lake’ on holidays, when I had risen to the second class, and presumed, when the prize was given on ‘Local Attachment’ in English verse (it being an understood thing that the metre was to be the usual ten-syllabic rhyme), to venture on writing it in the versification of Scott’s ‘Lady of the Lake.’ The verses were the only ones out of the first class which had any originality in them, or poetry, so the Doctor [the headmaster] was puzzled what to do. The innovation was a bold one : my excuse was that he had not given out a precise metre; on which he determined that this case was not to serve as a precedent, that in future the classical English metre was to be adopted, but mine was to have the prize, being eight-syllabic and irregular, and not in couplets.

When in the second class, I wrote a Latin copy of verses (a weekly exercise required of all) on the fight between the land-rats and the water-rats, suggested by reading Homer’s battle of the frogs and mice – a mock-heroic. Dr. Bayley had just drained a pond much infested by water-rats, which was on one side of our playground, and they used to forage on not only our cakes and bread and cheese in the night, but literally on our clothes and books. I am sure that from the date of this early achievement to the present hour I have never thought of this copy of verses; but I can recall with pleasure the incident, and it convinces me that I must very early have felt a pleasure not usual among boys of about sixteen in exerting my inventive powers voluntarily. 

Migration to sewer.

The plot was begun with a consultation of water-rats, to each of whom altisonant [high-sounding] Greek names were given, after the plan of Homer — cake-stealer, gin-dreader, book-eater, ditch-lover, &c. The king began by describing a dream in which the water-prophet covered with slimy reeds appeared to him, foretelling that the delicious expanse of sweet-scented mud would soon dry up, and foreboding woes. Part of the warning was copied or paraphrased from the Sybil’s song to the Trojans in the ‘Æneid’ of what should happen when they reached Italy. The dream and warning, taken, I suppose, from Agamemnon’s to the Grecian chiefs, being communicated, the others entered into the debate what they should do, and it was agreed that, as the fates had decreed the drying up of the waters, they should migrate to a neighbouring sewer, and should destroy the house-rats, who consumed so much provender in the schoolroom, and who had usurped their rights.

One passage, in which a chief was described as a great map-eater, and having at one meal consumed Africa, Europe, Asia, America. and the Ocean, was admired as good specimen of pompous description of mighty deeds, on the first entrance of a hero in an epic poem. The verses ran to thirty-eight, and when done, there was great discussion whether I should dare show up such a thing. It was thought, however, a wondrous feat, till the second master, Mr. Ayling, a youth of nineteen, who heard of it, said, ‘I dare say it’s all nonsense and bad Latin.’ I was requested, in vindication, to let him see it before it went up to Dr. Bayley. To justify his own anticipation, he cut it up as much as he could, pointing out all the grammatical errors and one false quantity. Though he thus made many think light of it, and checked my growing vanity not a little, it of course had the effect of my correcting the lines, and rewriting a copy.

Literary ambitions quenched.

Dr. Bayley, when he saw it, was much surprised at the correctness of the Latin, and struck, more than he chose to admit to us, with the invention displayed in the whole thing. He told the class that it was such good Latin that I deserved great credit, but he did not wish them or me to send him up more mock-heroics. From this time I took it into my head that I should one day do great things in a literary way, but my ambition was quenched afterwards, by failing in carrying off any prize at Oxford.

A frog, depicted on the Archaic silver staters of Serifos (circa 530 BC).
More probings into the contradictions in the life of Sir Anthony Blunt may be read here:

*It should be added that the English belletrist, Geoffrey Madan (who won the most prestigious scholarship to Eton in 1907), earned a day’s holiday for the whole school by the excellence of his account of Eton written in Herodotean Greek.

The Hexameter Challenge

Shortly before Christmas 2017 I hit upon a notion that the Sussex Exodus of Altisonant Rats might yet still be restored in spirit for the amusement of a later generation of budding Latinists. So, ever the completist (as I have admitted elsewhere), I tasked a number of Latin scholars around the world to re-imagine the achievement of the teenage Charles Lyell with their own versions of the opening verses from the boy’s mock-heroic epic.

On a whim, the actualisation of the Latin hexameter was prompted by an English couplet — of my own devising — composed of roughly hexametric dactylic lines. Yet, despite it comprising six metrical units, you’ll observe it’s lacking, in its sixth foot, the prescribed anceps of ideally two syllables.  
Oh woe the day that saw our Realm of Ooze undone, for Zeus a Drought has wrought                     to goad us rend old Foes: Tribes of the Netherworld whose Blood our Grudge long sought.
Nevertheless, I believed it conveyed the gist of young Charles’s intentions of 1812. What followed my ‘Hexameter Challenge’ was an extended period of instruction during which it was explained to me, in my innocence, that Latin hexameter — insofar as metre can be recognised by appearance — does not resemble the identifiable patterns of syllabic stress and intonation of classical prosodists composing in English, i.e. effectively five dactyls followed by the prescribed anceps of ideally two syllables:

dum-ditty | dum-ditty | dum-ditty | dum-ditty | dum-ditty| dum-dum 

Contrastingly, we learn, Latin hexameter permits any of the first four dactyls (one long syllable followed by two short syllables) of a line to be replaced with a spondee (two long or stressed syllables). However, the fifth foot is nearly always a dactyl, with the sixth foot an anceps, i.e., either a long-long (— —) or long-short (— ^). To accord with the art of recitation, the anceps is always treated as long to fill out the line.

Honours Board

The winning entry fulfilled admirably the specification to retrieve a schoolboy’s composition from over two centuries of oblivion. 

             Vae tibi dire dies! Nostrum ex uligine constans
             Imperium periit, nam Juppiter arida fecit
             Flumina ut antiquos stimulemur diripere hostes.
             Tartareas gentes quarum petiere cruorem
             Crimine nostra diu praecordia laesa doloso.

             Woe to thee, dreadful day! Our empire of swampyness 
             has perished, for Jupiter has made the flowings dry 
             so that we should be goaded into tearing ancient enemies asunder, 
             underworld peoples whose gore our innards have
             sought for a long time, affronted by a deceitful misdeed.

Using d for dactyl and s for spondee you'll see the first five feet of each line conform to the metrical rules described above, with the fifth foot, in each case, a dactyl in accordance with the fixed harmony of hexametric Latin verse.

             d d s s d
             d d s d d
             d s d s d
             d s s d d
             d d s d d

In this delightful Latin rendering we can recognise many familiar words, some still serviceable for flourishes of a more florid character in English prose: dire = fearful; cruor = gore; uliginous = slimy marshyness; arid flume = dried up channel; hostiles = enemies; perished empire, etc., so there is much that is pleasing to the uninitiated.

Regrettably, for purely etymological reasons (which many may consider irrationally idiosyncratic), a phrase from a rival submission to meet the Hexameter Challenge did not ‘make the final cut’ as we say . . . ‘tum periit Unctum regnum cunctum ariditate’. A worthy runner-up, but I preferred the uliginous characterisation of mud to its unctuosity! 

So, sorry, close but no cigar!

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, 

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