A Bedlam Humour

Elizabethan dramatists are known for their fascination with the medical lore of their day, which was based on the ancient Greek teaching that each person has a constitution that is predominated by one or two of four humors. According to Hippocrates and Galen, some people are dominated by the hot and dry, or choleric humor; some by the hot and moist, or sanguine humor; others by the cold and moist, or phlegmatic humor; and still others by the cold and dry, or melancholic humor (Lewis 169). Each of the four humors corresponds to one of the four elements, one of four life stages, and one of the four seasons: choler is associated with fire, young adulthood, and summer; sanguine with air, childhood, and spring; phlegm with water, old age, and winter; and melancholy with earth, middle age, and autumn (Lewis 169-70, Hedley). Disease, according to this system, is caused by an imbalance or excess of humors, and physicians would prescribe herbs, changes of diet, or bloodletting in order to heal patients by bringing their humors back into balance (Culpeper 11). Ben Jonson and George Chapman wrote entire plays which center around the theme of humoral imbalances, and which are known as humoral comedies (Hunter 282). Although Shakespeare’s interest in early modern medicine may not be quite as overt as that of some of his colleagues, his plays are nevertheless peppered with references to the four humors.

One writer maintains that “there are far fewer phlegmatic leading characters in Shakespeare’s plays than there are sanguine, melancholic, and choleric. Besides Falstaff…they usually function in the subplot of the comedies…in tragedies they may appear in short scenes of comic relief” (Ekstrom). This statement is not accurate, and is based on a superficial understanding of the phlegmatic temperament. In addition to laziness and slow movement, phlegm is associated with characteristics such as prevarication, cowardice, avarice, and, most significantly, madness. Ophelia, Richard II, and Malcolm are all Shakespeare characters who suffer from a surfeit of phlegm. Ophelia is subjected to external pressures which intensify her imbalances, the subjects of Richard II rebel because of his phlegmatic imbalance, and Malcolm receives good advice and is eventually able to overcome his phlegmatic imbalance. Understanding phlegm can help students of Shakespeare understand the plots involving these characters with more clarity.

According to an exhibition created by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “madness of the kind Ophelia suffers after her father’s death and Hamlet’s rejection of her would have been understood as a drying and overheating of the brain” (“Melancholy Virgins”). There is no source given for this assertion, and it is contradicted by Nicholas Culpeper’s translation of Galen’s Art of Physick, in which hot and dry brains are understood to be clear and clever—the main drawback of having a hot and try distemper in the brain is chronic insomnia: “we shall first give the indications of a hot and dry Brain…they have excellent quick and nimble Wits, they watch much…” (Culpeper 21). In his discussion of brains, Galen attributes symptoms of madness exclusively to the distemper of a hot and moist brain: “[people who suffer from hot and moist brains] cannot keep themselves awake neither can they sleep quietly, but are molested with Dreams, and troubled with foolish imaginations, so that many times they think they see the things they see not, and hear the things they hear not, especially if the Brain offend more in heat than it doth in moisture” (Culpeper 23).

At first, it might appear as if Galen is saying that madness is caused by an excess of the hot and moist sanguine humor, or blood. This is surprising, however, because many medieval and early modern texts indicate that blood is associated with disease less than any of the other humors are—Chaucer even says that blood is “natures friend” (Lewis 171). One of Giovanni Maciocia’s modern textbooks on Chinese medicine can help to clarify the Galenic conception of madness:

When the mind is obstructed, there is a certain loss of insight, resulting in confused thinking, irrational thinking and behavior and, if there is also Heat, manic behavior. In extreme cases, obstruction of the Mind leads to the psychosis seen in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. However, it is important to realize that obstruction of the Mind occurs in a wide variety of degrees and having the Mind obstructed does not…mean mental illness in every case.

The Mind is obstructed by Phlegm or by Blood Stasis… (Chinese Medicine 447-48)

Fascinatingly, both Maciocia and Galen associate symptoms of psychosis with “heat.” Maciocia does not say that obstruction of the mind can be caused by the presence of blood, but he does say that it can be caused by the faulty movement of blood, and that it can also be caused by excess phlegm. That is, Maciocia says that madness can be caused by a problem with either of the two moist humors, and that mania occurs when heat is added to the mixture. Maciocia’s assertion that phlegm by itself can cause confused and irrational–but not psychotic or manic–thinking is exactly paralleled by Galen’s description of cold and moist brains:

The Brain afflicted with cold and moist distempers, moves a man to an inexpungable desire of sleep, and when he is awake, his Brain is so muddy, and his Senses so dull, that he can do nothing that will get him honor here, nor make him famous another day…his Head is full, though not of Wit… (Culpeper 25)

Before her madness, Ophelia is certainly not sanguine. The sanguine humor is associated with merriment, love, and courtesy; taciturn and docile, Ophelia unquestioningly obeys her father’s instructions to give up her lover, Hamlet, presumably without giving any kind of explanation to the latter (Culpeper 52-53, Hamlet. 2.1). Afterwards, she wordlessly agrees to be a tool in her father’s plot to trick Hamlet into betraying motivations which he is trying to hide (Ham. 3.1). Ophelia’s pre-madness behavior is in keeping with Culpeper’s description of the “dull” and “cowardly” phlegmatic temperament (Culpeper 57).

When Ophelia is subjected to emotional stress, her dull, phlegmatic behavior is replaced by manic psychosis. Laertes believes that her madness is caused by her grief for Polonius:

O heavens! Is’t possible a young maid’s wits

Should be as mortal as an old man’s life?

Nature is fine in love, and where ‘tis fine,

It sends some precious instance of itself

After the thing it loves. (Ham. 4.5.3037-41)

According to Maciocia, emotional stress causes Qi to rise, which in turn produces heat (“Empty Heat”). In the West, Galen introduced similar ideas about the effects of intense emotions on physical and mental health (“The Balance of Passions”). The specific image that Laertes is conjuring with “nature is fine in love” is Aristotle’s image of a flame burning upwards because it is lighter than the air around it: when a person experiences intense love, Laertes says, part of that person’s essence actually leaves his or her body and goes to the object of the love. Since Polonius is dead, Ophelia’s wits have flown to heaven with him. Whether it is called “rising Qi” or the “fineness of love,” what we have here is heat originating in emotion combining with Ophelia’s phlegmatic temperament to produce madness.

When he learns that Ophelia has drowned herself in her madness, Laertes says, “too much of water hast thou poor Ophelia,/ and therefore I forbid my tears” (Ham. 4.7.3335-36). This strange and sad pun could be understood in two ways, both of which are probably intended by the poet. Ophelia has, of course, drowned in water, and Laertes does not want to “add” to the water that drowned her, by crying. The other meaning of the pun is that Ophelia has been overcome by water internally—she has succumbed to an excess of phlegm, by dully sabotaging her own happiness by her obedient behavior before her father’s death, and by going mad after his death. Excessive crying is a pathology which, like dullness and madness, is also associated with phlegm, and Laertes is saying that, in honor of Ophelia, he will resist phlegm (Chinese Medicine 460).

In a note to his translation of Galen, Culpeper observes that a truly well-tempered man is “as rare as a phoenix” (Culpeper 12). In the English histories, perhaps more than in his other plays, Shakespeare focuses on the humors, contrasting a series of distempered kings with the perfectly tempered Henry V, who corresponds to Culpeper’s phoenix. Richard II is Shakespeare’s phlegmatic English king. Richard never becomes quite as mad as Ophelia does, but his characteristic indecision, rapid shifts in mood, and tendencies towards suspicion and tearful emotional outbursts betray a phlegmatic mind that is somewhat disturbed by heat.

When he disembarks from his Irish voyage, King Richard is elated, and, weeping, proclaims his feelings of joy, which he follows immediately with expressions of vindictiveness:

…I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again.

Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand…

Yield stinging nettles to mine enemies

And when they from thy bosom pluck a flower,
Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder
Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch
Throw death upon thy sovereign’s enemies. (Richard II 3.2.1411-30)

He follows these with declarations of confidence and invulnerability:

So when this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke,
Who all this while hath revell’d in the night
Whilst we were wandering with the antipodes,
Shall see us rising in our throne, the east,
His treasons will sit blushing in his face,
Not able to endure the sight of day,
But self-affrighted tremble at his sin.
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king; (R2. 3.2.1455-63)

However, as soon as, in the same scene, King Richard learns of the execution of his favorites, he despairs:

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones. (R2. 3.2.1554-64)

Hazlitt has pointed out that the king’s speech and behavior are often characterized by cowardliness and a failure to properly assess reality—he “is always lamenting the loss of his power which he has not the spirit to regain” (Hazlitt). If King Richard’s confusion and wild mood swings are not signs of actual madness, they are, at the very least, characteristic of a mind that is somewhat obstructed, and also touched by heat.

A Lutheran minister in the late nineteenth century gave a series of sermons on the spiritual side of the four humors, in which he describes the positive and negative tendencies of the phlegmatic:

If the choleric temperament is the grandest, and the sanguine the most amiable, the phlegmatic is the most practical of all…As of the other temperaments, so of this also, sin has taken hold…[The phlegmatic’s] practical activities excite in him sins of avarice and gain, rudeness and vindictiveness, deceit and cruelty, envy and suspicion. (Arndt 35)

This catalogue of phlegmatic sins corresponds remarkably well with Richard II’s behavior before Bolingbroke’s rebellion. Richard cruelly and rudely calls his dying uncle, John of Gaunt, a “lunatic lean-witted fool” (R2. 2.1.799).  Immediately after John of Gaunt’s death, the king avariciously seizes all of his uncle’s possessions, effectively disinheriting Bolingbroke. (R2. 2.1.847–49). The pretext of Bolingbroke’s successful rebellion is, of course, Richard II’s unjust pillaging of Bolingbroke’s inheritance. Bolingbroke at first convinces King Richard’s loyalists to join him by pointing out that

My father’s goods are all distrain’d and sold…

What would you have me do? I am a subject,

And I challenge law; attorneys are denied me;

And therefore, personally I lay my claim

To my inheritance and free descent. (R2. 2.3.1289-94)

Earlier in the play, after many lines of ridiculous indecision, Richard’s overly suspicious tendencies (and weak wits) lead him to banish both Mowbray, who is loyal to him, and Bolingbroke, who is ambivalent towards Richard (R2. 1.3). This is not an advantageous political tactic—Richard permanently exiles a potentially valuable ally, while further alienating a potential dangerous enemy. Richard’s actual death is unnatural, but the poor choices which lead up to it can, at least in part, be attributed to his phlegmatic temperament.

Malcolm, another phlegmatic prince, has a happier fate. He is an interesting foil to Macbeth: while Macbeth is an ambitious man of action who commits murder in order to gain a throne to which he has no claim, Malcolm is too cowardly to lawfully defend his right to the throne. He runs away to England as soon as he sees that his father has been murdered, and he does not voluntarily come back (Macbeth 2.3). As mentioned earlier, cowardice is typical of the phlegmatic temperament. Also noteworthy is Malcolm’s speech when he is confronted by Macduff—Malcolm’s descriptions of his own vices are striking:

It is myself I mean: in whom I know
All the particulars of vice so grafted
That, when they shall be open’d, black Macbeth
Will seem as pure as snow…

…there’s no bottom, none,
In my voluptuousness…
With this there grows
In my most ill-composed affection such
A stanchless avarice that, were I king,
I should cut off the nobles for their lands,
Desire his jewels and this other’s house:
And my more-having would be as a sauce
To make me hunger more; that I should forge
Quarrels unjust against the good and loyal,
Destroying them for wealth… (Mac. 4.3.1901–39)

When Malcolm is shamed into going with Macduff, he confesses that his previous confessions were false:

I put myself to thy direction, and
Unspeak mine own detraction, here abjure
The taints and blames I laid upon myself,
For strangers to my nature. (Mac. 4.3.1981-84)

The audience, which knows about Malcolm’s timidity from previous scenes, cannot be very surprised by Malcom’s retraction and explanation that his previous confessions were untrue; it can, however, be amused by his phlegmatic temperament, manifested both by the underlying cowardice and by the details of his first speech, which obviously has very little connection to reality. It can also be amused by his pliability and rapid shift in purpose, both of which are characteristic of the phlegmatic temperament as well. This scene is one of the few scenes of comic relief in Macbeth—Malcolm is a sort of Jos Sedley character. In the end, Malcolm fares better than Ophelia and Richard (and Jos Sedley) do: Macduff functions as a sort of a doctor, who, by example, nudges Malcolm out of his mild distemper and encourages him to be brave.

While, as we have seen, certain individuals have constitutions that are phlegmatic, there are also classes of people which are thought to be more phlegmatic than other classes of people: as mentioned earlier, the old and senile are especially associated with phlegm. So are women. In King Lear, Goneril discusses her father’s behavior with Regan:

The best and soundest of his time hath been but
rash; then must we look to receive from his age,
not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed
condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness
that infirm and choleric years bring with them.

When the heat of King Lear’s choleric temper combines with the phlegm of his years, it can be expected that the result will be an “unruly waywardness,” or a sort of madness.

Like the elderly, women are, to a certain degree, more associated with the two moister humors than men are. I hope to discuss the importance of the sanguine humor as it pertains to Shakespeare’s women in another blog post. The most obvious connection between women and phlegm, which is one that comes up in countless plays, is the constant reiteration of the rule that women are more likely to cry than men are. Ironically, this idea is usually mentioned when a man is crying, or when a woman is not crying (as far as I can remember).  The full version of Laertes’s speech about crying for Ophelia is one example:

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,

And therefore I forbid my tears. But yet

It is our trick. Nature her custom holds,

Let shame say what it will. When these are gone,

The woman will be out.—Adieu, my lord.

I have a speech of fire that fain would blaze,

But that this folly doubts it.

Another example is Hermione’s explanation for her lack of tears when her husband falsely accuses her of committing adultery:

Good my lords,
I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities: but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown…

That is, Hermione is an exceptional woman who does not cry, because she has a masculine choleric temperament, as evidenced by the burning action of her grief.

It is interesting to think about the connection between crying and phlegm. Tears are mostly water of course, and phlegm is the watery humor. “Wet brains” and obstruction of the mind may be relevant here as well: Hermione calls tears “vain dew,” implying that crying is a pointless and irrational act. The Greeks, of course, believed in the intellectual superiority of men over women, but men cry in Greek poetry nevertheless (I wonder whether men ever cry in Greek plays, though?). It seems to be the case that, at some point, Greek medical ideas became tied in with Greek philosophical ideas, and the taboo against male tears materialized. The idea that an emotional shock could produce a temporarily wet brain, which would involve temporary mental obstruction, fits with Galen’s general theory that emotions have effects upon physical health. The biological fact that men cry less often than women do must have, at some point, been linked to the fact that women were generally thought to be constitutionally wetter, which in turn was associated with the fact that women were thought be less intelligent.

While madness is not thought of as a monocausal disease in traditional medicine, phlegm is often considered to be a factor (Chinese Medicine 448). Whenever madness or other classic symptoms of phlegm—such as avarice or cowardice—arise in an early modern play, it is always worthwhile to consider whether the character in whom the symptom manifests may be a distempered phlegmatic. Distempered phlegmatics do have major parts in Shakespeare’s plays, and understanding the unique humor and pathos which Elizabethan audiences would have associated with their predicaments can increase a modern reader’s appreciation of the plays.


Works Cited


Arndt, Frederick. “The Phlegmatic Temperament.” The Homiletic Review, Volume 47. Funk and

Wagnalls Company, 1904, pp. 34–38.

Culpeper, Nicholas, ed. and trans. Galens Art of Physick. By: Galen. Peter Cole, at the Sign of

the Printing Press in Cornhill, 1652.

Ekstrom, Nelly. “The Humours in Shakespeare.” Wellcome Collection.

wellcomecollection.org/articles/the-humours-in-shakespeare/. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Hazlitt, William. “Henry VI in Three Parts.” Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays.

ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hazlitt/william/characters-of-shakespeares-plays/chapter17.html. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Hedley, Christopher. “Which Humour Are You?” Henriette’s Herbal Homepage.

https://www.henriettes-herb.com/articles/hedley-humours.html. Accessed 16. Jan 2018.

Hunter, G.K. English Drama: 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare. Clarendon Press, 1997. Print.

Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.

Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Maciocia, Giovanni, “Empty Heat.” Maciocia Online.

maciociaonline.blogspot.com/2012/06/empty-heat.html. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Maciocia, Giovanni. The Practice of Chinese Medicine. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2008.

“Melancholy Virgins: The Case of Ophelia.” And There’s the Humour of It: Shakespeare and

the Four Humours. U.S. National Library of Medicine. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/shakespeare/hamlet.html. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Shakespeare, William. “History of Richard II.” Open Source Shakespeare.

https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=richard2&Scope=entire&pleasewait=1&msg=pl. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” Open Source Shakespeare.

http://opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=hamlet&Scope=entire&pleasewait=1&msg=pl. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Open Source Shakespeare.

https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=macbeth&Scope=entire&pleasewait=1&msg=pl. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

“The Balance of Passions.” Emotions and Disease. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/emotions/balance.html. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Shakespeare and the Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test asks whether women in a work of literature ever talk to each other about anything other than men. I am always a little annoyed by people calling it the Bechdel Test, since Virginia Woolf invented it, but I guess it is necessary to go with the flow about the name at this point. Nowadays, some plots, like that of Disney’s Frozen, seem to be designed with the Bechdel test in mind. Many Victorian novels and poems that I can think of get a passing Bechdel grade, but it can be striking how “poorly” some older works of poetry and fiction perform on this test. I am sort of ambivalent about the significance of the test, but it is still a fun thing to think about.

I started wondering about how Shakespeare’s plays perform on the Bechdel test, and found this blog post which has already addressed that question. The conversation between the queen and her ladies in Richard II 3.4 does technically pass the Bechdel test, but as the author says, it is for a funny reason. I think that the ostensibly man-free conversation she cites between Alice and Katharine in Henry V 3.4 is even more dubious–and the understanding shall understand.

The conversation between Paulina and Emilia in The Winter’s Tale 2.2 ought to qualify. Although Paulina and Emilia do mention the king in that conversation, their primary concern is the health and welfare of the queen and her newborn girl, which they discuss for several lines before the king comes up. The learned banter between Rosalind and Celia, if not their discussions about their relative ranks and positions–which are related to, but not really about, their fathers–, in As You Like It 1.2, should also help As You Like It pass the Bechdel test.

The Absent Father of Postmodern Psychology

I am pretty sure that I read in an interview in the Paris Review that is now locked that Harold Bloom contends that Shakespeare was a brilliant original genius who anticipated Freud when he had the doctor in Macbeth declare that “the [psychiatric] patient must minister to himself.” I wonder whether the idea that healing from psychopathology needs to come from within was really an original idea of Shakespeare’s, though. In the Consolation of Philosophy–a work to which Shakespeare refers many times throughout his plays–Boethius’s mind is sick, and Boethius is cured by a woman named Philosophy, who explains to him why his unhappiness is irrational. Part of Philosophy’s teaching is that true happiness consists in self-sufficiency. Contrary to what modern leftist writers would have us believe, the value of self-sufficiency (in healing as in any other endeavor) used to be just as dear to the ancient and medieval West as it still is to those who adhere to Eastern philosophical traditions–the independent spirit of modern materialists and capitalists is a mere shadow of the systematic beliefs about the value of independence held by their fathers. It seems natural to assume that when Shakespeare wrote about healing from mental illness, his thoughts automatically reverted back to Boethius, and that the doctor’s demurral in Macbeth is a commonplace bit of contemporary wisdom, not some startling new insight.

Although Freud’s belief that psychiatric patients must heal themselves may not have been particularly original, he did, of course, articulate ideas about human psychology which were not widely recognized beforehand, and which have been backed up by modern empirical science (if not in the particulars, then at least in the generalities). However, it is interesting that clinical psychologists nowadays are leaving the practice of insight-based psychotherapy in droves. While they may accept Freud’s theories about the origins of neurosis, or the findings of developmental psychologists about the crucial role that attachment plays in the development of the healthy personality, they do not think that it is particularly important for patients to recognize the causes behind unhealthy patterns of behavior and thought. Rather, they choose to employ “new,” evidence-based methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which focus exclusively on identifying irrational or unhelpful patterns of thought and correcting them. The developers of these methods say that they were inspired by the wisdom of the East, so unlike that of the unphilosophical West.

The fact that psychotherapists are circling back to Boethius does not make the discoveries of Freud and the developmentalists irrelevant. John Bowlby concludes his trilogy on attachment with the wish that

despite all its deficiencies, our present knowledge may be sound enough to guide us in our efforts to help those already beset by difficulty and above all to prevent others becoming so. 

(Italics mine.) I don’t think it is coincidental that the deep unconscious was not a serious subject of study (at least in the West) until relatively recently. It has become a much more pressing concern in the past century and a half than it used to be–Boethius’s contemporaries would not have had the option of, for example, hospitalizing very young children for months without visiting them. While the most effective therapy for unhappy adults may be that which engages directly with the conscious mind, some knowledge of the workings of the dark side of the soul is invaluable for parents of children in a disorienting and rapidly changing society. We are very blessed to now have access to both kinds of psychological knowledge.

J.K. Rowling’s Intermagical Period

I recall that eight-year-olds in the nineties used to pass around the first Harry Potter book with enthusiastic praise, accompanied by one small caveat: the first chapter is boring. The first few chapters of The Order of the Phoenix, the fifth and weakest book in the series, are not only boring, but also poorly written–they are awkward and painfully self-conscious, devoid of the quick and natural energy that readers of the earlier best-sellers have come to expect from Rowling’s prose.  In The Casual Vacancy, her first non-magical novel, Rowling’s characteristic struggle with beginnings extends for a full seventy-five pages or so before she deploys her usual easy style.

Once the book is readable, it keeps our interest primarily with concern for the fate of the vividly portrayed central character. It is not a good book. Rowling has said in an interview that it would be presumptuous to aspire to actually be like Dickens, but that she “did want [The Casual Vacancy] to be like a Trollope or a Dickens or Mrs. Gaskell in the sense that [she is] taking a small community, literally a parochial community, and trying to analyze it and anatomize it in the way that they did.” Grouping Dickens together with Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell in this particular context is a bit odd. Dickens did not analyze, and he did not focus on communities, as Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell did, and as Rowling attempts to do in this book. Dickens, like Rowling in the Harry Potter novels, tends to focus on lovable weirdos and outcasts, and to non-analytically chronicle their often humorous brushes with the very bad and the very good.

Trollope and Mrs Gaskell (together with George Eliot) do actually attempt to paint panoramic pictures of communities. Their novels are characterized by a preoccupation with balance, nuance, and analysis. Mrs. Gaskell and George Eliot both wrote novels in which it is difficult to pinpoint villains. They tend to regard their poorly behaved characters with pity and occasional contempt. Although his satire is generally more caustic than that of his female contemporaries, Trollope’s hatred for his villains is still incomplete: most of the antagonists in his novels are complicated, realistic people painted with a fine brush, not cartoons. He was a committed liberal, but quite a few of his nicest characters are not only conservatives, but conservative politicians. In the frequent discussions of political topics which occur throughout his novels, he displays a subtle understanding of both sides of the contemporary political questions at hand. Similarly, Mrs. Gaskell’s North and South presents both striking union workers and stubborn mill owners in a sympathetic light.

J.K. Rowling, talented though she is, utterly fails to achieve–in this or in any other novel–the sort of nuance and tolerance which typically go together with the Victorian community portrait genre. In the Harry Potter books, the characters are distributed across the parts of the spectrum with which Dickens was comfortable: about half of them are wonderful people and those in the other half are detestable. Her adult characters here–even those who are on the “right” side of the political question at the center of the novel–are almost all comically repulsive and unsympathetic.

The political issue around which this political novel is constructed is clumsily handled. If she could not (and she cannot), like Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell, let both sides sympathetically express their opinions, Rowling ought to have been able to, like Dickens, viciously and effectively satirize some gross injustice. In the same interview quoted earlier, she explained that she wanted the book to address the questions of whether “we should be extending a helping hand and whether that should come from government and so on.” The specific question addressed by the book is whether the public schooling of children who live in a certain block of public housing should occur in a certain city or in a somewhat wealthier village nearby. Alas, a plea for the well-off rural “officer class” to assume the mantle of noblesse oblige more readily, although it may have been well-executed by a Mrs. Gaskell or a Trollope, is simply not something which lends itself to an effective treatment by a broad-brushing, Dickensian sort of artist.

Instead, Rowling contents herself with savagely exposing the hypocrisy of the petty and pious small business owners from the village who wish to disassociate themselves from the drug addicts and unwed mothers who live nearby. The villagers’ gluttony, lechery, avarice, pride, despair, wrath, vanity, and sloth are all duly trotted out for the disgust of the reader. Our concern for Krystal Wheedon, the girl from the slums, is certainly excited, and we do see that the paunch-bellied shopkeepers who couldn’t care less about her are inhumane. However, the political upshot of this political novel seems to be that, if one wishes to be a non-revolting person, one must keep the petit bourgeois at a distance, and vote with the nice educated professionals in the village council. In the end, the polemics of The Casual Vacancy hark back more to The Jew of Malta than to The Warden, Mary Barton, or Oliver Twist.

I believe that Rowling gets the magic of the Harry Potter books from Dickens; unlike Dickens, she also possesses a flair for constructing tight, compelling plots with satisfying surprise endings. The Cormoran Strike novels lack the exuberant joy which lies behind the magic of Harry Potter, but they retain the Potter books’ style, insofar as they have excellent plots and brilliant characters. Enjoyably, each of the books contains evidence of painstaking “research” the author has undertaken at Britain’s most celebrated eateries, where fussy and thoughtless interviewees often insist on meeting Strike, a perennially insolvent private investigator. Each crime mystery immerses the reader into a different colorful and compelling world: The Cuckoo’s Calling takes us into the world of London’s rich and famous, The Silkworm introduces us to the British publishing world, and Career of Evil explores a seedy criminal underworld, populated by more or less mentally imbalanced ne’er do wells.

Where Rowling fails to make any sort of coherent political argument in The Casual Vacancy, she does manage to slip some trenchant cultural commentary into the mouths of plain-speaking Strike and his sidekick, Robin Ellacott. We may never know whether Strike’s and Ellacott’s insistence on calling the people who send them weird letters “nutters,” in defiance of a culture which deems this behavior to be disrespectful to the mentally ill, is a perfectly accurate reflection of Rowling’s own opinion. In any case, the tempering perspective of an old socialist on this and on many other current questions of political correctness is interesting.

The Strike books are perfectly good for what they are, which is upmarket crime fiction– each is mostly enjoyable from the first page to the last. In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis suggests a genre-neutral test for whether or not a book is literary: is it read more than once by those people who like to read things more than once? Although I have read each of the Potter books multiple times over, I cannot see myself ever picking up one of the first two Strike books again. The possibilities that this difference could be attributed to my own advancing age or declining sensibility cannot be ruled out. But I suspect that the literary grain in the Potter books was mixed in somewhere with the happiness, hopefulness and magic.

This is not to say, of course, that I do not think that pessimistic books can be literary; of course, nobody can deny the artistic quality of (most of) the (mostly) sad twentieth century books which are generally more respected than Rowling’s. It is more that, for Rowling, despondency is an unnatural mood, and the artificiality which is necessarily present in her despondent writing precludes high literary quality. In The Casual Vacancy and the first two Strike books, at least, there is a feeling of something off, as if, in an effort to fit in with the current literary fashion, the author were occasionally suppressing what she really wants to write, or interpolating events that she does not want to write about. Strike is made to have a few somewhat boorish interactions with women, and we wonder, “is that really who he is?” The crimes and the suspected criminals in Career of Evil are more gruesome and creepy than those in Cuckoo and Silkworm; yet, paradoxically, the whole tenor of the book is somehow more buoyant and hopeful than that of its predecessors. Perhaps this is partly because Strike is allowed to be well-behaved for the entire time–Strike’s and Robin’s honesty and intense compassion for the crime victims they encounter comprise the engine which allow the book to sail past many frightening specters to a happy, if ambiguous, ending.

Virginia Woolf on Belloc, Chesterton, and Shaw

Jia Tolentino recently wrote for the New Yorker about the waning of the personal essay fad. This sparked a piece by Lorraine Berry in Literary Hub about Virginia Woolf’s intolerance for a certain kind of personal essay. Berry points out that Woolf’s anti-essay essay probably played a part in inspiring the personal essay genre that we have today: contemporary women who write harrowing confessional essays are obeying her call to “confront…the terrible spectre of themselves.”

If the essays on the internet today are part of a reactionary literary movement, what is the form to which they are reacting? In Night and Day, a couple of Woolf’s characters have a typically pedantic Woolfian dialogue about the essays of her day.

“…but I forget, you in your generation, with all your activity and enlightenment,…do not read De Quincey. You have your Belloc, your Chesterton, your Bernard Shaw–why should you read De Quincey?”

“But I do read De Quincey,” Ralph protested, “more than Belloc and Chesterton anyhow.”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Mrs. Cosham, with a gesture of surprise and relief mingled. “You are then, a ‘rara avis’ in your generation. I am delighted to meet anyone who reads De Quincey.”

I haven’t read Belloc’s essays, but I think that both Shaw’s and Chesterton’s styles mostly fit as the targets of Woolf’s deprecatory essay:

And thus, instead of the honest truth which we should all respect, we are given timid side-glances in the shape of essays, which, for the most part, fail in the cardinal virtue of sincerity. And those who do not sacrifice their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox think it beneath the dignity of the printed word to say simply what it means; in print they must pretend to an oracular and infallible nature.

She certainly has a point–both Shaw and Chesterton engage in shamelessly ridiculous trolling (although I think that they both have valuable critical insights as well, and are enjoyable to read even when they are extremely insincere). In The Short Oxford History of English Literature, Andrew Sanders sniffs at G.K. Chesterton’s “presumptuous” essays: they certainly are that, and he might have added that Shaw, even more so, “pretends to an oracular and infallible nature.” However, maybe Woolf and Sanders have missed the point as long as they do not acknowledge that the oracular style is all part of one big self-deprecating joke, as distasteful as some may (understandably) find that joke to be.

The part of Woolf’s essay which remains inexplicable to me is her suggestion that “if men and women must write, let them leave the great mysteries of art and literature unassailed,” and that people should write only of themselves. It is true that she puts a great deal of herself into her literary essays, but also true that those essays are primarily about art and literature. Since, presumably, Woolf was a person who succeeded in the cardinal virtue of sincerity, what can this literary limitation possibly mean?

The Poetics of Pilewort

It has long seemed to me that the burst of creative activity in our literature, through the first quarter of this century, had about it, in fact, something premature; and that from this cause its productions are doomed, most of them, in spite of the sanguine hopes which accompanied and do still accompany them, to prove hardly more lasting than the productions of far less splendid epochs. And this prematureness comes from its having proceeded without having its proper data, without sufficient materials to work with. In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough.

–Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”

In a footnote to “To the Small Celandine,” Wordsworth observes that “it is remarkable that this flower, coming out so early in the spring as it does, and so bright and beautiful, and in such profusion, should not have been noticed earlier in English verse.” The subtext of Wordsworth’s comment is that he is not really surprised by the fact that “vain” poets ignore the small celandine: it is an “unassuming” weed, “careless of its neighborhood,” and its beauty was appreciated exclusively by the “thrifty cottager,” until Wordsworth himself came along. A more clearly articulated dismissal of the artificiality and snobbery of his predecessors can be found in his preface to Lyrical Ballads. Surely, however, no sane person,–least of all Wordsworth, who admired Shakespeare–would include Shakespeare in a general accusation against the snobbery of poets. So, despite the subtext of the footnote, there must be some other explanation for the omission of this flower from older poetry.

Perhaps earlier poets’ neglect of this flower can be partially explained by the previous footnote, in which Wordsworth carefully informs his readers that the small celandine is none other than “the common pilewort.”  Shakespeare is more likely to write poetry about the medicinal virtues and symbolism of herbs and flowers than about their “pleasant faces.” His “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” is echoed by the matter of fact Culpeper, who informs us that rosemary “helps a weak memory, and quickens the senses.” In his description of Eden, Milton (who was also admired by Wordsworth) vaguely mentions “flowers of all hue” and “without thorn the rose,” but it is to a magical healing plant in another poem that he devotes a painstaking, Worsdsworthian description: “a small unsightly root,/ But of divine effect…The leaf was darkish, and had prickles on it/But in another country…Bore a bright golden flowre…” If Shakespeare had chosen to write about pilewort, he would probably have incorporated it into a satirical poem or a comedic scene, and it is difficult to imagine Milton writing anything either indecorous or mundane enough to warrant a specific pilewort reference.

Macaulay remarks that, while rugged scenery is–unlike a certain pretty, medicinal weed–present in pre-Romantic literature, it is consistently regarded with distaste.

In the south of our island scarcely any thing was known about the Celtic part of Scotland; and what was known excited no feeling but contempt and loathing. The crags and the glens, the woods and the waters, were indeed the same that now swarm every autumn with admiring gazers and stretchers…Goldsmith was one of the very few Saxons who, more than a century ago, ventured to explore the Highlands. He was disgusted by the hideous wilderness, and declared that he greatly preferred the charming country round Leyden, the vast expanse of verdant meadow, and the villas with their statues and grottoes, trim flower beds, and rectilinear avenues. Yet it is difficult to believe that the author of The Traveller and of The Deserted Village was naturally inferior in taste and sensibility to the thousands of clerks and milliners who are now thrown into raptures by the sight of Loch Katrine and Loch Lomond. His feelings may easily be explained. It was not till roads had been cut out of the rocks, till bridges had been flung over the courses of the rivulets, till inns had succeeded to dens of robbers, till there was as little danger of being slain or plundered in the wildest defile of Badenoch or Lochaber as in Cornhill, that strangers could be enchanted by the blue dimples of the lakes and by the rainbows which overhung the waterfalls, and could derive a solemn pleasure even from the clouds and tempests which lowered on the mountain tops.

Although Macaulay’s explanation is sensible and cannot be completely discarded, I wonder whether it accounts for the full story. Wordsworth, in particular, writes not only about the beauty of nature, but also about the awe and danger sometimes associated with it. For example, regarding the mountains in the part of England in which he grew up, he attests that

…images of danger and distress,
Man suffering among awful Powers and Forms;
Of this I heard, and saw enough to make
Imagination restless; nor was free
Myself from frequent perils; nor were tales
Wanting,—the tragedies of former times,
Hazards and strange escapes, of which the rocks
Immutable and overflowing streams,
Where’er I roamed, were speaking monuments.

In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis outlines an entire web of associations and beliefs about the natural and metaphysical world(s) which were held by medieval and early modern people. This web had, at some point between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, come undone. Isn’t it possible that it was this same gradual stripping of associations and the substitution of new ones which helped to free Wordsworth to write about plants without alluding to their planetary influences or their medicinal uses, as well as to allow him and and his contemporaries to appreciate the beauties of the wild Scottish landscape? Although Wordsworth still associated mountains with danger, the habit of disregarding old poetical and aesthetic conventions and creating new ones led him to appreciate their beauty as well.

Of course Wordsworth may be thinking about his more immediate predecessors when he wonders at the neglect of the small celandine. Poets such as Erasmus Darwin had continued the Renaissance tradition of involvement in all disciplines of gentle study,–including philosophy, art, and natural science–while, like Goethe, adapting their scientific mindset to the post-Bacon era. Instead of referencing the four humors, angelology, or herbs to expel evil spirits, this group of eighteenth century poets tends to describe natural phenomena in minute detail and reference Linnaean classifications. Wordsworth adopts these poets’ interest in nature for its own sake as well as the descriptive style of their “empirical” poetry, but drops their scientific pretensions. It may be that members of this school actually did neglect the small celandine because of their snobbish tendencies.

It is clear from a few lines in The Borderers that Wordsworth himself was keenly aware of the changes in attitudes which had occurred within the previous few centuries. When Marmaduke asks Oswald whether he prefers roses, poppies, or nightshade, Oswald replies that he prefers “that which, while it is strong to destroy, is also strong to heal.” I think that this line, which occurs early in the play, together with a dense volley of references to “saints,” “masses,” “Mary” etc. in the first act, serves to set the historical scene–the story is supposed to take place in the thirteenth century.

In addition to freedom from the old associations, another factor which would have made it easier for Wordsworth to pay attention to the small celandine is his specialist attitude towards poetry, which he discusses in his preface to Lyrical Ballads.

 If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.

While the well-rounded Renaissance poets and those who come just after them are pleased to dispense dietary advice and share their views about the natural world, Wordsworth sharply defines himself as a poet, in contrast to a man of science. While he and his successors do, as he had predicted, grapple with the outcomes of science, they do so as outsiders. If Wordsworth had been a doctor, like Vaughan, or even an amateur medicine enthusiast, like Shakespeare, it might have been difficult for him to keep his interests in plants’ uses from boiling over into his poetry (medical herbs did not fall out of widespread use until the early twentieth century). Because Wordsworth was a specialist, he labored under no such difficulty.




Bowlby on C.S. Lewis

In Loss, the third volume in his series on attachment, John Bowlby makes an interesting connection between an account of disordered mourning in the diary C.S. Lewis kept after the death of his wife and Lewis’s description of the nature of his earliest loss in his autobiography. Bowlby writes that Lewis’s account of mourning as an adult “strongly suggests a man whose feeling life had become to a great degree inhibited and suppressed during childhood and who had grown up, as a result, to be intensely introspective…The passages following are striking…”

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy…you will be–or so it feels–welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away…

Is it…the very intensity of longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel like we are staring into a vacuum…? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t.

Bowlby continues:

To anyone who approaches problems of mourning from [the point of view of attachment theory] certain inferences regarding how Lewis’s parents had responded to him when, as a child, he was distressed and sought comfort will be obvious; and some confirmation of these inferences is to be found in his autobiography. Not only did his mother die of cancer when he was nine and a half, but his father, always temperamental, became so distraught that he was in no state to comfort his two grieving sons. On the contrary, he alienated them: “he spoke wildly and unjustly…With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”

Lewis would probably have appreciated Bowlby’s insight. Over a decade before the occurrences described in his mourning diary, Lewis had written

We have learned from Freud and others about those distortions in character and errors in thought which result from a man’s early conflicts with his father. Far the most important thing we can know about George MacDonald is that his whole life illustrates the opposite process. An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.