Book questions

Back in 2010, I picked up Norman H. Mackenzie's own copy of Eliot's Selected Essays in my favourite second-hand bookshop in Kingston. But the inscription Eliot made for Queen's University's renown Hopkins scholar asks more questions than it answers. What brought both Eliot and MacKenzie to Durban in 1954 and what occasioned their meeting?

Modernist Aesthetics

Léon Spilliaert (1881–1946), Femme en pied (c. 1902). Pen and India Ink, brush and wash on paper. Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Bruxelles.

What I'm Reading

July reading

I know we’re not even mid-way through the month, but I thought I’d update you on what I’ve been reading in July. I have an ambitious programme of reading for the summer months and, in anticipation of the publication of Ali Smith’s Summer in early August, I’ll be re-reading the first three instalments of her quartet.

  •  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
  • The Animals at Lockwood Hall by Jane Healey
  • Adèle by Leïla Slimani (a re-read, as I read the original French edition last summer)
July 14th 2020

More Than “A World Of Imagination And Vision”

Marginalia is enjoying something of a moment at Oxford, as witnessed by the New Yorker’s recent feature on the Oxford University Marginalia group, founded by sometime Oxonian contributor April Pierce. It is no surprise, then, that some of the most rewarding aspects of the Ashmolean’s latest special exhibit, William Blake: Apprentice & Master, guest curated by Blake scholar Michael Phillips from the University of York, are several of the artist’s own comments, handwritten in the margins of influential books of the period: Blake’s own copy of The Works of Joshua Reynolds (3 vols., 1798, on loan from the British Library) and two of Blake’s copies of Emanuel Swedenborg’s The Wisdom of Angels Concerning The Divine Providence (1788 edition, on loan from the British Library, and the 1790 edition, on loan from the Cambridge University Library).


Nebuchadnezzar, c. 1795-1805

Blake’s marginalia allows visitors to see Blake’s mind at work, inspired by, and in reaction to, his contemporaries as he developed his ideas as an artist, poet, philosopher, and political animal. Notably, in his notes on Reynolds, on the title page of the first volume, he writes, “This man was Hired to Depress Art [.] This is the opinion of Will Blake[. M]y Proofs of this Opinion are given in the following Notes[.]” Later in the volume, Blake records his first reading of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) as well as his encounters with the polymath Francis Bacon and the philosopher John Locke. Indeed, one can see Blake’s reaction to Bacon’s emphasis on observation in his scientific method as developed in the Novum Organum (1620), and Locke’s argument for tabula rasa in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), in lines like:

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

(Plate 7, ‘Memorable Fancy,’ The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)


If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern

(Plate 14, ‘A Memorable Fancy,’ The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

and of Burke’s understanding of the sublime in the “fearful symmetry” of ‘The Tyger’.

What these instances of marginalia also show is that the exhibition is very much a collaborative one. Most of the works it features are from the Bodleian Library, but there are many on generous loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum and University Library in Cambridge, from the British Library and British Museum, from Tate Britain and the V&A, from the Hunterian Art Gallery and Glasgow University Library, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a number of private lenders “who wish to remain anonymous”. Phillips worked for two years gathering material for the exhibition—work funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the British Academy. If anything, this shows the importance of cooperative work and funding to such an immense and detailed exhibition. It also shows that Blake is demonstrably an international treasure.

For many people, however, Blake remains the poet of ‘Jerusalem’ from the ‘Preface’ to his Milton: A Poem (1808), adapted as a hymn by Sir Hubert Parry and adopted by the Suffragettes more than a century later; the creator of beloved children’s poems ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’ from Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789); or the man behind anarchic expressions such as the “mind-forg’d manacles” from ‘London’. However, during his lifetime, as this exhibition takes pains to present, Blake was also a successful engraver, a radically innovative print-maker, and a singularly influential artist. His father, James Blake, regarded him as a genius from a very young age and, were it not for the sheer amount of extant evidence, one might not believe that Blake was really the son of an encouraging and supportive hosier. The exhibition details Blake’s early life, with special attention to his father’s forethought and patronage: he gave Blake an allowance to buy prints and engravings so that he might learn from the Old Masters; he paid for Blake’s apprenticeship to James Basire so that he might have the practical skills of an engraver should he wish to become an artist later in life. At the end of the first room of the exhibition there are two excellent examples of Blake’s mid-career commission work. The first—a proof and print of Blake’s engraving (1788, 1790) after William Hogarth’s scenes from The Beggar’s Opera—shows how he develops his preference for the strong outline of forms rather than simply reproducing the chiaroscuro effect of Hogarth’s paintings as the etching progresses. The effect is that some of the nuance is lost, but more emphasis is gained. The second, the Head of a Damned Soul (also known as Satan) after William Fuseli (c. 1789-90), is an especially fine example of Blake’s dot and lozenge work, and demonstrates the grotesqueness of the human form.

Head of a Damned Soul, c. 1789-90

Both those new to and conversant with Blake’s art will be interested in the second room in the exhibition, which is dedicated to the artist’s innovation in printing and displays a vast array of materials that catalogue his developing technique. Beginning in the late 1780s, he began to experiment with a new manner of printing that combined etching with painting.

Using stop-out varnish, he would draw on his already-etched plates so as to produce colour prints—themselves a rarity in the Eighteenth Century—of the same engraving that were similar yet individualised. This method he described as “Illuminated Printing”. During this period of experimentation, Blake was incredibly productive as a poet-printmaker, for by 1793 he had produced many of his most influential works, as detailed in his prospectus “To the Public” issued in that same year: America, a Prophecy, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. As Blake’s techniques evolved, his use of colours and washes became more painterly and he became more interested in the surface texture of the print, discernible in the series of plates from Europe a Prophecy. The Large Colour Prints of 1795, especially Nebuchadnezzar (c. 1795-1805) and the three triptych-like versions of The House of Death/The Lazar House (c. 1795), are striking illustrations of Blake’s dedication to his artistic project. “Quite simply”, as Phillips asserts in his lavishly comprehensive exhibition catalogue, “and working alone, Blake had invented the most extraordinary innovation in this history of printmaking and painting.” This invention—the monotype—would go on to influence Edgar Degas and, more notably, Pablo Picasso.

The final room of the exhibition is split between Blake’s later works and those of his disciples, also known as the Ancients: Samuel Palmer, George Richmond, and Edward Calvert. The later Blake comprises some of the most spectacular but often overlooked pieces of Blake’s oeuvre, such as the epic Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims (1810), the plates from Jerusalem (1804-1821) and the Illustrations form the Book of Job (1826), the Illustrations to the Divine Comedy (1824-7), and his woodblock prints for Thornton’s The Pastorals of Virgil (1821/c.1830). It is also illustrative of his continuing struggle for artistic integrity, with a tension between the need for commissioned work and his desire to communicate his vision in the work he undertook. What is striking about these later pieces is not only their scale but also Blake’s return to the myths and stories that inspired him to create his own, at a time when Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge were turning away from—or like Shelley, Byron, and Keats, were reinterpreting—their relationship with the classical.

However, though the scope of the exhibition allows for a certain consideration of Blake’s nachtleben, few beyond those with a particular interest in Blake’s influence as an artist will find much of value in considering the works of the Ancients. This is not because their work lacks merit or is inherently uninteresting, but because of the place in which they fall in the structure of the exhibition: their engravings and paintings take on a penumbral quality, like an afterimage or a vestige of one of Blake’s preceding images. Richmond’s Abel and the Shepherd (1825), for instance, not only revisits a subject already approached by Blake but is actually the product of Blake’s own hand—he helped Richmond shape the form of the body in the preparatory sketch for the painting. This is the difficulty with Blake, for he is invariably superior to, and more saturate than, those who succeed him.

Still, the underwhelming final stage of the exhibition does little to detract from the impressiveness of its scale and detail. And while it is designed to reward a patient, attentive, and repeat visitor, there is much to delight and engage those with only a passing interest in, or a novice knowledge of, Blake or printmaking.

[Reprinted with permission from the Oxonian Review.] 

July 14th 2020

June reading update

In June, I finished reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch – an endeavour I undertook as a part of a lockdown reading circle with friends I would normally meet up with in person in Oxford.

  • FranKissStein by Jeanette Winterson
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • But the Hippopotamus by Susan Boynton 
  • Weather by Jenny Offill

While But the Hippopotamus is a classic and family favourite, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet emerged as the most compelling read of the month. 

June 30th 2020

Late Fall Reading

It’s a week until the winter solstice and the official beginning of winter, even though there has been snow on the ground (if not constantly, consistently) since mid-October here, so I thought it might be time to share some of my late fall reading with you. November and December are normally extremely busy months for me. This year is no exception, though the nature of the busy-ness has changed somewhat. Instead of frantically writing lectures and marking assignments, essays, and exams, I’ve been writing (fiction, non-fiction, cards, letters, tweets, academic articles) as fast as my fingers will fly. And when I haven’t been writing, I’ve been reading. I started off November by reading Herbert Read’s English Prose Style. It’s been on my light for quite some time, but library copies of it are rather hard to track down (the nearest to me is in special collections at the University of Alberta library and my college copy whilst in Oxford had gone walkabout). The book is divided into two parts—Composition and Rhetoric—mirroring the traditional North American divisions of the way in which English writing is taught at post-secondary institutions. One note: I’m saving the second part on rhetoric for a post-holiday read, I won’t discuss it yet. Read tackles Composition by breaking it down into its constituent elects: words (the smallest practicable unit in a non-grammar book), epithets (next smallest until), metaphors (slightly larger unit), the sentence (again, larger), the paragraph (larger still), and arrangement (not really largest, but a reflection of how the units fit together). It was noticeable how often the statements Read would make, in particular in his chapter on words, sent me following up on his sources. Thankfully, I have a number of volumes of Jespesen’s A Modern English Grammar to hand and could use the Internet Archive to source many of the rest, otherwise falling down this philological rabbit hole might have been less convenient. I think I enjoyed his chapter on metaphor the most, even though it is the shortest, because of the way it challenges the association of metaphor with poetry. Read draws throughout from a rich body of prose writing. Where else could you find long quotations—necessary as good and bad examples of what is being discussed—from William Morris, William Hazlitt (quote enough to clearly be a favourite), Walter Pater, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Edmund Burke, C. M. Doughty (also a favourite), John Bunyan, Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lord Macaulay, Laurence Sterne, John Milton, D. H. Lawrence, Oliver Goldsmith, Emily Brontë (a woman!), and Henry James all in one place? You’d also of need an English degree to identify all of these authors. One does, after reading all these overwhelmingly male authors, better understand the frustration of writers like Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, lamenting the dearth of female predecessors, or models for the style of écriture femimine with which they experimented. But then again, a recent conversation on the VICTORIA list-serv suggests there not only a dearth of female essayists writers but an even larger gap in awareness (still) of what female essayists writers there are. Equally surprising is the number of instances Read points to scientific texts as examples of good prose style. I see an article here…. 

Why should I read it? Have you ever wondered why you study/ consider the form of poetry but not of prose? Do you want to know why you prefer some author’s style of writing over others? Difficulty level: If you can identify (or, indeed, enjoy identifying) the subject, object, and verb of a sentence, you can read this book. If I like this, what should I also read? Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Nothing less than amazing. I don’t want to say much more about it at the moment, as I’m hoping to write something longer about it in the future, but I highly recommend this collection of loosely intersecting short stories. A. S. Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia”: I read this for the purposes of research for a prose fiction project I am working on but also out of an enjoyment of neo-Victorian fiction. I had watched the 1996 film adaptation of the novella—Angels and Insects a few weeks ago (it features Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas) and wanted to compare the two. While the film is a successfully faithful adaptation of the novella, the medium of film isn’t really equipped to address Byatt’s metafictional interests. For instance, we hear only vaguely that William is helping his father-in-law with a book on design (i.e., a mediation between natural selection and mid-nineteenth century theology), we are only told about Matty’s book of fables, and we only see parts of William and Matty’s chronicle of local ant life. In the novellas, we experience them directly and are left not only to judge their merit but to glean moral and ideological lessons from them (without much interpretive guidance, I midget add). I understand the purpose of this activity, though I’m not sure I enjoyed reading the excerpts of those texts (even though I am someone who has read widely across the different genres and registers of nineteenth century literature). I do feel, however, that Byatt tackles the issue of the reception of natural selection in a very nuanced and persuasive manner in “Morpo Eugenia"—I’m sure lots of discussion could follow from setting this as a text in a literature and science course or module. Peter Middleton & Nicky Marsh’s Teaching Modernist Poetry: I sheepishly admit the following: Why oh why didn’t I read this before I taught Modernist Poetry & Prose last year?! Every essay in the edited collection is thoughtful and thought-provoking, though I benefited (intellectually and pedagogically) most particularly from Peter Nicholls’s "The Elusive Allusion: Poetry and Exegesis,” Michael Whitworth’s “Science and Poetry,” and Carole Sweeney’s “Race, Modernism, and institutions.” (Michael supervised my doctoral thesis while I was at Oxford, but I don’t let that stop me from recommending his work.) Nicholls’s essay reminded me of when I taught Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley for the first time and frequently had to exhort my students to “just trust me,” when I would expand on one of the footnotes or explain one of the many un-footnoted allusions or words in their course text (I have a love-hate relationship with Laurence Rainey’s Modernism: An Anthology). Whitworth’s essay, in which he asks “[h]ow can one help students to become knowledge producers rather than passive acquirers, in the face of the real and perceived difficulties of science?”, put in perspective the differences of teaching students in the UK versus in North America, where most will have taken some science classes in high school but also potentially as mandatory electives at university. Sweeney’s essay not only reinforced for me the importance of addressing race when teaching modernist poetry but also pointed to concrete ways in which to achieve this as a part of the course rather than as an addendum or supplement to it. (And here continues my love-hate relationship with a Rainey’s anthology: if there are no (few) writers of colour in the anthology, they will always seem supplemental, or an exception.) Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart: I’m 75% of the way through and really only started reading it now to see if it would make a good Christmas gift for my husband (I always pre-read his Christmas gifts to prevent the great Mieville’s Kraken incident of 2011). It is so well crafted and nimbly written that I am gliding like butter through its ~900+ pages.

December 14th 2016