. . . Mallock

. . .

The New Republic by W. H. Mallock

If I know you, you're most likely to have encountered (and immediately forgotten) W. H. Mallock as the unwitting source of A HUMUMENT, which paints over his ponderous three-decker, A Human Document. In his own time, however, Mallock's name was made by his first novel, The New Republic, a best-selling satire à clef consisting almost entirely of dialog.

Its timing was right. His targets (Jowett, Huxley, Arnold, Ruskin) were in the ascendant, and their tones would remain recognizable well into the next century. Mallock himself established at least one long-lasting Victorian reputation: Most of his readers came to the book already holding some image of Thomas Carlyle, which Mallock's timid "Donald Gordon" wasn't likely to reshape, but most would first encounter Walter Pater, then at the start of his unprolific publishing career, as "Mr. Rose," and "Mr. Rose" Pater would stay for the rest of their lives.

Mallock obtained his B.A. from Oxford in 1874. Two years later, still hanging around Oxford, he began serializing the book. It's the work of a clever and vindictive student, a vicious mimic with little experience of life outside home or school. The New Republic's deflating and punctured monologues, drawn from close observation of college lectures and sermons, match his gifts perfectly. (Its gauche attempts at poetry and man-of-the-worldliness match his limitations just as strikingly.)

Contemporaries naturally saw Mallock as the successor to Thomas Love Peacock. But Peacock's mockery was affectionate, based on the long drop from his friends' grand hot air balloons to their farcically messy private lives. In contrast, there's real venom in Mallock and little else of potency and so I'm more inclined to see him as the founder of that new line of satire which was to include Aldous Huxley and Wyndham Lewis. George Orwell was equally inclined to see him as the founder of the endemic "silly-clever religious book, which goes on the principle not of threatening the unbeliever with Hell, but of showing him up as an illogical ass."

Mallock was a pioneer in still another way. It's only a rumor that Carlyle bid him farewell with "Can ye hear me, Mr. Mallock? I didna enjoy your veesit, and I dinna want to see ye again." And it's only a rumor that, before Mallock's homophobia ruined Pater's reputation in the world at large, he ruined Pater's career at Oxford by fetching stolen private letters to the Master of the College, Benjamin Jowett. But we have sufficient proof before us that Mallock was unscrupulous in the spreading of rumors a piece of work, as they say. Willing to allow for the doctrines of might makes right (when he has the might) and survival of the fittest (while the rankings stay frozen in his favor), courageously resolved to manipulate the foolish masses for the benefit of the greater good (that is, himself), vehemently defending all the privilege of noblesse and none of the oblige, combining the social conscience of a libertine and the self-righteousness of a roundhead, Mallock's a recognizably contemporary conservative. It's easy to picture him as a Young Republican at Yale, blitzing out a novel which tells off PC and poststructuralism and women's studies to great acclaim and publicity....

And it might be pretty funny. He might actually do a book or two worth reading before his toothsomely juicy contempt shrivelled into a Buckleyish (or even Bennetish) bore. The New Republic is often (always at its nastiest) very funny. God forsake me, a few times I even squirmed. As David Daiches wrote for a newer moribund Republic in 1951:

If we can read through The New Republic without at one point or another being made to feel a little foolish, we are wise indeed. On questions of religion, culture and progress the view of the modern liberal intellectual tends to be a conflation of Benjamin Jowett and Matthew Arnold, and it is salutary (to use a favorite word of Arnold's) to have it so cunningly challenged.

(This on-line edition is dedicated to The Happy Tutor.)


Lawrence White wrote:
Your link to the Tribune columns led me to think, Orwell would have made a great blogger. Or is that going too far? I do like reading Orwell & thinking about his right-wing advocates. When I'm reading him gleefully fantasizing about the underclass training machine guns on the army, what is Roger Kimball reading?

For that matter, what is Roger Kimball wearing? Did his mom buy those clothes?

and ann coulter will be remembered more for her bosom than her buddies

Hey, that's unfair!

even constant vigilance may not be enough (dan reynolds)

Good thing, 'cause I need some sleep.

Gosse on Pater is wonderful!

Gosse may have been a dull critic but as an easy-going late Victorian raconteur he was excellent. From the same essay collection, I pulled the more personal comments on Walt Whitman and Christina Rossetti.

Lawrence White likes those too:

The Gosse on Whitman is quite beautiful. I guess I'm just a sap at heart but it was the sweetest thing.

In honor of all this Gosse love, I've just posted a portrait of the man himself.

tell them all how it really is

I used to have a blue guitar,
Till I smashed it one green day.
It would not play things as they are,
As Peter Townshend may....

. . .

Intermediate Hedonics

I wish they wouldn't call me “a hedonist”; it produces such a bad effect on the minds of people who don't know Greek.
- Walter Pater to Edmund Gosse

International Masturbation Month having just ended, we're well acquainted with the limitations of solitary pleasure. Among more social pleasures, bullying and torture often predominate. George W. Bush displays the lineaments of gratified desire more plainly than Allen Ginsberg even did, and I dislike him more as well.

So, no, hedonism is not enough. There's a reason humanity went to the effort of developing concepts like responsibility and shame. It's less a philosophical foundation than an empirical corrective.

Lingered over, sought out, often emphasizing what we'd do anyway, pleasure doesn't necessarily surprise us. Nevertheless, being above all else a signal, pleasure performs individuating and anti-systematic functions. It humanizes the humanist, puts the spring in Springfield, wakes the drowsy and dopes the knotted. Regular dosages are particularly recommended for guilt-ridden bible-thumping natural twisters such as, to take the example closest to hand, myself: in George Harrison's beautiful phrase, "a stuckup, up-tight, tight-assed asshole."

If my profile is at all typical of those whose life was saved by rock and roll, we deserve our poor reputation. Still, it's not like we'd be less creepy without our little inanimate friends. Hedonism is what's missing from Adorno's jeremiads, and he seems no more simpatico for its absence.

* * *

As Lawrence White has already commented, where there's pleasure, desire follows. And aesthetic desire, like all desires, can turn bad in a hurry: a regent who dungeons the prince. Of all the "there but for the grace of pleasure go I" monsters that torment my dreams, the collector may be the scariest, what with the full weight of corporate capitalism pushing aesthetes toward that reassuringly simple, communal, and self-destructive role. Again, close attention to what's attracting our attention is the best (or at least the cheapest) prophylactic I know.


That scene in 'Deliverance' where they're in the canoes and Reynolds' character Lewis yells "...Drew was shot!"? That's us too. And the Ned Beatty incident as well. And the church even, jacked up and lifted to higher ground. That Dickey was a diabetic isn't pertinent exactly, though it may have some relevance I can't get to right now. Used to have a mint set of Django Rheinhardt 78's from the 'Hot Club of France'. Now it's 'Third Watch' reruns shared communally with the rest of America.

Mikarrhea has anticipated me.

. . .

The Spasmodic Gap

(Written for The Valve)

In mid-nineteenth-century Great Britain, a group of left-wing lower-class poets publish autobiographical free verse epic dramas. Critics name them the Spasmodics.

It sounds like a Howard Waldrop premise. Could the Winter 2004 issue of Victorian Poetry be hoaxing us?

For a while, my answer was "Baby, I don't care." Editors Charles Laporte and Jason R. Rudy select well and structure novelistically. First, Herbert F. Tucker begins with a high overhead shot of exposition, a lightly satiric, lightly sympathetic tone to draw us into the story. Then, with admirably ethical opportunism, a series of contributors apply varied professional interests to bring out aspects of Spasmodic characters and times. Details and depth accumulate. Finally, Florence Saunders Boos, openly partisan, fully engaged, describes the movement's catastrophe, with heroes ambiguously vanquished and villains ambiguously triumphant, leaving the signature effect of alternate history: an exhilarating sense of possibility; a melancholy sense of possibility foreclosed.

When curiosity won, though, I found confirmation (if not texts) easily enough.

"But, by a certain gorgeousness or intricacy of language, by a scrupulous avoidance of the apparent commonplace in subject; by more or less elaborately hinted or expressed unorthodoxy in religion or philosophy; and, above all, by a neurotic sentimentalism which would be passion if it could, and, sometimes, is not absolutely far from it, though it is in constant danger of turning to the ridiculous or of tearing its own flimsiness to tatters by all these things and others they struggled to avoid the obvious and achieve poetic strangeness."
- George Saintsbury, Cambridge History of English and American Literature

How to excuse, or at least explain, my ignorance?

When I search my memory for verse of the 1840s and 1850s, I find Poe smouldering at one end of a long flat expanse of Tennyson, broken by a few Brownings, between the issueless extravagance of the late Romantics and the parentless extravagance of Swinburne and Whitman.

That bare spot is where the Spasmodic impulse once grew. Insofar as the Spasmodics could be construed as a group, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh is what's left of them. Kirstie Blair points out that, for once, reactionaries had reason to welcome a major work by a woman. Despite its provocations, Leigh's redemption ("Oh, wait did I say Art was the most important thing? Sorry, I meant Marriage.") provided a reassuring ending all round. Domestication was what the Spasmodics most infuriatingly lacked.

+ + +

"A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. [...] USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!"
- Charles Olson, "Projectivist Verse"
"Words rhythmically combined affect the feelings of the poetic hearer or utterer in the same way as the fact they represent: and thus by a reflex action the fact is reproduced in the imagination" ... "Depend on it, whatever is to live on paper, must have lived in flesh and blood." ... "certain rhythms and measures are metaphors of ideas and feelings" ... "the word of Man made flesh and dwelling amongst us."
- Sydney Dobell
(quoted in "Rhythmic Intimacy, Spasmodic Epistemology" by Jason R. Rudy)

+ + +

Pace (not really) Ron Silliman, the School of Quietude sometimes wins. Not by being remembered, but by making sure its competitors are forgotten first. (Silliman, for example, seems as ignorant of Whitman's Spasmodic interests as I was.)

The literary canon, like other institutions, bases its authority on a set of fragile contingencies. And literary justice, like other justice, usually depends on a few outspoken individuals who refuse to let an injustice go. I'm not sure all English majors realize how unlikely their access to Melville or Dickinson really is. (Most of the creative writing MFAs I've met could certainly benefit by deeper meditation on the subject.) In my own lifetime, Zukofsky and the other Objectivists might have stayed out of reach if weren't for Robert Creeley.

John Keats barely made it through the gates into the immortality of persistent reprinting. Thirty years after his death, plenty of authorities still wished he hadn't and wanted to ensure that it didn't happen again.

+ + +

"Take yourself, and make eyes at it in the glass until you think it looks like Keats, or the 'Boy Chatterton.' Then take an infinite yearning to be a poet, and a profound conviction that you never can be one, and try to stifle the latter. This you will not be able to do."
- W. H. Mallock, "How to Make a Spasmodic Poem"
(quoted in "Glandular Omnism and Beyond" by Herbert F. Tucker)
"What a brute you were to tell me to read Keats's Letters... What harm he has done to English Poetry. [...] But what perplexity Keats Tennyson et id genus omne must occasion to young writers of the όπλίτης [hoplite] sort; yes & those d-d Elizabethan poets generally. Those who cannot read Gk shld read nothing but Milton & parts of Wordsworth: the state should see to it...."
- Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough, 1848
(partially quoted in "Victorian Culture Wars" by Antony H. Harrison)

+ + +

In this case was literary injustice done?

It depends. (See, that's what sucks about justice.)

Like George Saintsbury, the Victorian Poetry essayists admit more or less kindly that the core Spasmodic works aren't great. Although I've only found excerpts so far, they certainly don't seem to my own taste.

But tastes differ. I also dislike the Beats, hippie shamans, declaimed celebrations of groupthink, and most attempts at lyric confession. That hasn't stripped them from bookstores and libraries.

And tastes change. The Spasmodics don't sound more embarrassing than the self-pitying concept albums of 1970s AOR. Or more embarrassing than I was back then, a teenage cracker in an isolated farming town writing imitations of John Berryman and arguing the relative merits of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson with my best friend, soon to become a born-again journalism major. A year or two later, for a few months during an alcoholic nervous breakdown, I even liked Charles Bukowski. For me, as for so many overweeners, Keats's defiant blush has always been a beacon.

At the very least, if I'd heard of them, my college band would have been named the New Spasmodics.

Most pertinently, authors can change if they're given the chance. Victorian Poetry essayists describe most Spasmodic targets as first volumes from beginning writers, not outrageously weaker than the first volumes from their better remembered peers, and usually more interesting than any volumes from their most hostile enemies. If there was a Spasmodic "school", it was shut down before the students matriculated. I was able to read this academic journal as alternate history partly because it so often emphasizes their lost potential.

Their pop-scientific poetics anticipated twentieth century avant-gardes. Their class diversity anticipated the GI-Billed New American Poetry. Their sprawling yet motionless epics of young writers struggling to produce sprawling epics anticipated the Thomas Wolfe subtype of the Great American Novel. Their shameless invocation of neuraesthenia as muse should have interested Eliot and the poet-professor crowd. That poor sap R. H. Horne anticipated the New Directions paperback with his one-farthing-cheap Orion. The young Alexander Smith was advised to produce one long poem rather than a collection of short ones, and that's a fairly early example of narrative trumping lyric.

Smith chose to embed his lyrics in an autobiographical fantasy epic drama, since that's what everyone else seemed to be doing. And it did indeed attract attention. It got him and his advisor whacked by viciously conservative William Edmondstoune Aytoun, first from the sniper tower of Blackwood's, and then in a book-length parody, Firmilian.

"Other 'spasmodic' impulses migrated into fiction, most conspicuously the 'sensation fiction' of the 1860s, but the shadow-movement's preoccupations with romantic populism, formal experimentation, and unguarded honesty endured. Aytoun played successfully to a receptive claque, but subsequent generations have largely consigned his sensibilities to a literary and political backwater. Then as now, it was easier to be a clever critic than it was to write a memorable poem.

"More disspiriting were the enduring triumphs of the iron laws of class and education that Aytoun exploited. No acknowledged 'major' poet of Victorian Britain came from working- or lower-middle-class origins, and none of the 'spasmodists' is likely to gain more than token entry into any twenty-first-century anthologies. Even here, however, Dobell, Smith and the others might have found a measure of vindication in the vast palette of subsequent generations' preoccupations with despair, recovery, aberrance, marginality, and self-examination a palette they helped, in the face of withering critical abuse, to configure."

- Florence Saunders Boos, "'Spasm' and Class"

Snobs produce memorable satires and parodies because reactionaries depend on reaction. Without venom, their tongues go dry. Without a victim to strangle, they lie limp and tangled, a heap of parasitic ivy. Having deadened the nervous impulse that gave it life, even Aytoun's Firmilian vanished from collections: an Acme-brand hole slapped onto the cliff face, and then peeled off and thrown away.

+ + +

"The calm philosophy of poetry, in its addresses to the understanding and the domestic affections, now holds the ascendancy; but as the fresh and energetic spirit of the present age advances, a contest is certain to take place in the fields of Literature on the above questions. The sooner, therefore, the battle is fought out, the better; and to this end, the poetical antagonisms shall at once be brought into collision."
- Richard H. Horne, A New Spirit of the Age, 1844
(quoted in "Editorial Introduction: Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics" by Charles Laporte & Jason R. Rudy)
"... and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas


i am still suspicious of a hoax.

Apparently, if you happen to have university library privileges and can get away from your job and family for a bit, you can see for yourself.

an elaborate hoax.
The word "hawk" begins in the air and ends with talon in the heart

'At's a good one, boss. Now I tell one: What's high in the middle and round on both ends?


Right! (I was gonna guess "E-40", myself.)


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.