Tuesday, 23rd March, 2010

The Last Augustan enters a brothel…

It is interesting to see how facts become facts. Darwin once said that mistakes in analysis were forgivable – other people could reinterpret the data later – but mistakes of fact were not; they might be perpetuated by anyone who ever came to read them.

I misquote Darwin there to prove my point. You must not go repeating it; it isn’t exactly what he said.

In 1968, Alethea Hayter wrote a really quite wonderful book called Opium and the Romantic Imagination. It is a study of the effects of the drug on various writers and their works and is a compelling and enlightening read. Faber has recently brought it back into print, and I’m glad of that, not least because amongst the poets she addresses is George Crabbe, and it’s the kind of book that might reach a general audience and send people off to discover him for themselves. It offers a way into a lot of writing that people might not usually approach because it’s often hard to get a handle on.

However, something else happens in the book, something that strikes me both as extraordinary, and dangerous, and yet probably more commonplace than we recognise.

In writing about Crabbe’s poem ‘The World of Dreams’, Hayter identifies one particular passage as referring to “some incident in his early days in London when [Crabbe] had been inveigled into a brothel, and had seen a bare-breasted prostitute in a filthy room.”

It’s an exciting detail that. Suddenly the life of this modest Suffolk clergyman, opium addict though he was, takes a turn in a direction we had not anticipated.

What’s perhaps most surprising is that no mention of this incident appears anywhere before Hayter’s book. I think it’s quite probable that the passage from the poem might refer to a dream of a prostitute – and there are various possible reasons for this – but crucially, before 1968 nobody had ever mentioned him seeing a bare-breasted prostitute in a filthy room.

What seems likely is that Hayter, in her extensive work on a great number of writers for the book, is simply confusing him for someone else.

It’s an error. It should be forgiven. It should not detract too much from a book that performs a valuable service.

However, where problems arise is what happens after. People read the book. People assume it to be correct. People write their own books and this mistake becomes repeated; appears to be a fact. One person saying something you have not heard before raises questions; if five people say it, you tend to assume some sort of basis for the thing.

A recent biography of Crabbe makes this error. Repeats it. Builds upon it. Assumes it to be unlikely that Crabbe visited a prostitute in his youth – suddenly the idea is out there that he “[became] entangled with a prostitute” aged sixty-two. Suddenly that is out in the world, and it is based on something someone got wrong for the first time in 1968.

Here is another example.

In a lot of criticism on Crabbe the argument arises over whether or not he was “the last Augustan” or “the last of the Augustans” – whether or not he is the final proponent of the Augustan tradition in poetry. For what it’s worth, I don’t think he is. I like to think of him as “the first Victorian”, but that’s by the by.

What is interesting is the phrase: “the last Augustan” – always in speech marks, always accepted as an accepted view. Where does it come from? Various writers from Thomas E. Kebbel in his Life of George Crabbe (1888) to F.R. Leavis in Revaluation (1936) have made connections between Crabbe’s writing and Augustan poetry, but who first began the debate on whether he was the last of the tradition?

The earliest direct usage appears to be Ian Gregor’s article ‘The last Augustan: some observations on the poetry of Crabbe’ in The Dublin Review (1955). Frank Whitehead in George Crabbe: A Reappraisal (London: Associated University Presses, 1995) suggests this to be the origin of the phrase, however, Walter E. Broman writing in 1953, two years before Gregor’s publication, mentions:

[...]the long-established assumption that Crabbe was a stodgy anachronism or merely “the last of the Augustans.”

‘Factors in Crabbe’s Eminence in the Early Nineteenth Century’ in Modern Philology, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Aug., 1953), p.44.

Despite the quotation marks, where Broman finds this assumption being “long-established” is not cited.

What seems most probable is that the phrase, though useful to the debate, originates in a misreading of something by T.S. Eliot. In the introduction to his edition of Johnson’s London and the Vanity of Human Wishes (Haslewood Books, 1930) Eliot notes of Johnson’s verse:

He has more in common in spirit with Crabbe than with any of his contemporaries; at the same time he is the last Augustan.

I’m not saying it’s a fact, but it appears that this is the first time the words “Crabbe” and “the last Augustan” appear as words on the same page. Even though Eliot by no means  was suggesting that Crabbe was such a thing, maybe a misreading of that  passage is how “the last Augustan” debate began.

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