“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, May 21, 2003


For the Devil can work upon stagnating filth to a very great degree.
For I prophecy that we shall have our horns again.
For in the day of David Men as yet had a glorious horn upon his forehead.
For this horn was a bright substance in colour and consistence as the nail of the hand.
For it was broad, thick and strong so as to serve for defence as well as ornament.
For it brightened to the Glory of God, which came upon the human face at morning prayer.
For it was largest and brightest in the best men.
For it was taken away all at once from all of them.
For this was done in the divine contempt of a general pusillanimity.
For this happened in a season after their return from the Babylonish captivity.
For their spirits were broke and their manhood impair'd by foreign vices for exaction.
For I prophecy that the English will recover their horns the first.
For I prophecy that all the nations in the world will do the like in turn.
For I prophecy that all Englishmen will wear their beards again.
For a beard is a good step to a horn.
For when men get their horns again, they will delight to go uncovered.
- Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno

LI recommends an essay in the Glasgow review on Chris Smart, with whom Samuel Johnson once kneeled in prayer on the street ("I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone," he famously remarked to Boswell). The author, Ross King, recounts some interesting bits from Smart's hectic life.
Smart was a typical eighteenth century literatus, in some ways -- for instance, he flattered Alexander Pope as a young man, translating some of his poems into Latin, which earned him a little patronage. He then attempted to float his own literary broadsheet, much in the style of Addison and Steele. It was in this framework that he first designed a satiric female figure, Mrs. Midnight, who seems to have exerted a peculiar fascination upon her creator, according to King:

"...it is interesting to consider the figure which Smart presents to the public ten years previously at the Castle Tavern in Paternoster Row and the New Theatre in the Haymarket. For beginning in December 1751 Smart dresses in petticoats and acts onstage the transvestite role of `Mrs Mary Midnight' a grotesque old woman whom he invented a year or two earlier in the pages of his threepenny monthly journal The Midwife. Variously called `The Old Woman's Oratory' and `Mrs Midnight's New Carnival Concert', the performances display carnivalesque inversions whereby more `serious' literary, theatrical, and musical practices are parodied by players in masquerade, by musicians with salt-boxes and wooden spoons, and by troupes of performing dogs and monkeys - all presided over by Smart's grotesque female figure of misrule, Mrs Midnight. Smart is attempting during this time to establish a serious literary reputation for himself by publishing imitations of classical verse, but, despite various learned allusions in the orations, these popular entertainments are enthusiastically plebeian, dedicated to the amusement of the rabble. As such they exemplify the debased literary palate which Pope condemns some years earlier in the first lines of The Dunciad when he laments the spread of the `taste of the Rabble' manifested in the shows and entertainments of Barthomomew Fair.[2] Smart's performances therefore subvert both the gender distinctions which Jubilate Agno would enforce and the literary and cultural practices in which, simultaneously, he hopes to establish his own career as a man of letters. What then is the nature of the relationship between Mrs Midnight and the poetic voice of Jubilate Agno a decade later?"

The question of whether Jubilate Agno is attempting to "enforce distinctions" is an interesting one in itself. Smart's most ardent fan in recent years has been Christopher Hawes, who has argued that Smart's poetics has to be viewed in the perspective of a rhetoric of mania, spawned during the great years of the English Civil War, developed by Ranters and Levellers, and persisting in the eighteenth century in an increasingly secularized form within literary culture. The key transformation between the millenarianism promised by the Ranters and the task of prophecy that poetry takes up is, according to Hawes, pictured, satirically, by Swift, in his Tale of a Tub. This tracing of a secret geneology, which is also Marcus Greil's project in Lipstick Traces, is an attractive project to LI. All of these projects are influenced by The World Turned Upside Down, Christopher Hill's marvelous history of the English Civil War's "infantile left," which rediscovered such figures as Abiezer Coppe, whose Fiery Flying Roll might have been known to Smart. In this tradition, the difference between man and woman is archetypal for all the boundaries between Heaven and Earth that will melt away at the Last Judgement. And the Last Judgement is taken from sacred history and reconfigured as a terminus in one's internal history -- a history that can only be understood through a form of sacred poetry. Here's a nice bit from Coppe. He is reporting a vision:

Upon this the life was

taken out of the body (for a season) and it was thus resembled,

as if a man with a great brush dipt in whiting, should with one

stroke wipe out, or sweep off a picture upon a wall, &c. after a

while, breath and life was returned into the form againe;

whereupon I saw various streames of light (in the night) which

appeared to the outward eye; and immediately I saw three hearts

(or three appearances) in the form of hearts, of exceeding

brightnesse; and immediately an innumerable company of hearts,

filling each corner of the room where I was. And methoughts

there was variety and distinction, as if there had been severall

hearts, and yet most strangely unexpressably complicated or

folded up in unity. I clearly saw distinction, diversity,

variety, and as clearly saw all swallowed up into unity. And it

hath been my song many times since, within and without, unity,

universality, universality, unity, Eternall Majesty, &c.

No comments: