Marianne Dashwood and the Nobel Prize Committee, or how historical comparisons are ahistorical
The Véhicule Press Blog has posted a short extract from Jeremy Noel-Tod’s upcoming book of criticism The Whitsun Wedding Video: A Journey into British Poetry that’s woven a snarling thread on Facebook where it was shared. It’s a thread I don’t want to get caught up in, as what concerns me, the extract’s main rhetorical ploy, comparing William Cowper’s reputation to Seamus Heaney’s, has so far gone unreflected, and to remark the ironic ahistoricism of Noel-Tod’s gesture requires more space than a Facebook comment thread.
Noel-Tod’s point is that, because Cowper and Heaney are both “rural, reflective” poets who ironise “poetry’s grand manner with conversational self-consciousness and modest domesticity,” it is imaginable that just as Cowper’s reputation has waned, so might Heaney’s. Noel-Tod seems to present as evidence of Cowper’s status, either naively or tongue-in-cheek, the passionate enthusiasm of Jane Austen’s character from Sense and Sensibility (1811), Marianne Dashwood, almost “driven wild” by Cowper’s “beautiful lines.”
Noel-Tod’s historical comparison is risibly insensitive to history. It is two very different things to be a “rural, reflective” poet in early Nineteenth Century England and in modern Northern Ireland, as the relation between country and city and the nature of that country-side itself undergo radical changes over the course of the hundred-and-fifty years the comparison elides. It is equally two different poetic gestures to ironise the grand manner of England’s Augustan poets and to write in the aftermath of Yeats, whose cold, hard late poetry had already brought to earth the self-confessed Romanticism of his early verse. Finally, to imagine that a poet’s “reputation” in 1811 is comparable to a poet’s “reputation” in 2015 is to overlook among many, many changes the crisis of High Art thematized by literary Modernism. The problem with Noel-Tod’s comparison is that it seems to assume that history, temporal distance and the difference in context this distance registers, doesn’t exist: his “Authors are in Eternity.”
The converse to Noel-Tod’s abstraction are those schools of criticism that would explain an author’s reputation in purely sociological or ideological terms, an approach that is no more true to its object than Noel-Tod’s. Marx, famously, raised the question of how art from historically and socially distant cultures, e.g. Greek tragedy, can still possess undeniable aesthetic power. Neither appeals to some transcendent human condition nor the workings of ideology satisfactorily extract us from Marx’s quandary or the claims that art can make on us. What is interesting is precisely this curious power of art in and over time, a question of perhaps more value and promise than that of “reputation.”