Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Don't Worry, There's Enough Faint Praise Here to Damn Everyone From Robert E. Spiller's review of Anna Robeson Burr's Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters (1929) in American Literature: This was, therefore, probably the right sort of book to write at this time, and it is safe to say that, unless the same sources are again available and are again sorted over and reprinted, the present biography will not be superseded, even though to its lack of balance we must add the faults of unnecessary bulk, indefinite bibliographical entries, and a totally inadequate index. Thus it is indispensable to any library which contains one or more novels by this distinguished and kindly old doctor who divided his attention among nervous women, salmon, and fiction. (314) Were I to rank critical slams, this one would be somewhere in the vicinity of Fish's masterpiece, albeit for different reasons. Fish merely denigrated Burton Weber for his contributions to Milton studies. Spiller attacks the very idea that someone would want to study Mitchell, much less compile an overlong, inadequately indexed collection of his autobiographical fragments and letters. Not that I agree with him, obviously. In 1930, when Spiller wrote this review, the critical community took Mitchell at his word. When asked whether he "would rather be remembered for [his] literary work or [his] medical work," Mitchell didn't hesitate, replying "Medical, of course!" And in the literary community, he would be remembered for his medical work—albeit a very small portion of it, popularized by a patient who'd failed to respond to his treatment. When I started this chapter, I did so not to defend Mitchell but to right the historical injustice done to him by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Why? I'm not entirely sure, but it seems to be the defining quality of my work. The problem is, it may land my work far outside the critical consensus and unlikely to be engaged by people working in the scholarly mainstream. A figure must not merely be but be thought important. I can easily demonstrate the former, but as the Spiller slams home, the latter may prove far more difficult.
Close-Reading Exercise: A Good Bad Reading of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Part V [Being the fifth installment of my insanely close reading of Keats "Ode on a Grecian Urn." You can find the first here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here. You should also check out Ray's excellent response.] The fifth stanza opens with the speaker addressing the urn: O Attic shape! Fair Attitude! with brede Of marble men and maidens overwrought, With forest branches and the trodden weed; Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought As dost eternity ... The speaker addresses the urn with the exclamatory "O Attic shape!" or "This is what you look like!" (41). Here he draws our attention away from the imagined scenes of empty towns which closed the fourth stanza and returns to the urn with an emphasis on its materiality. This thing, with its Attic shape and fair attitude, is a dead thing. It possesses the power to inspire, but the speaker reminds us—with an insistence reminiscent of the happy, happy, happy third stanza—that this power is not inherent in the dead thing before us. Sure, it possesses a "Fair Attitude!" what with its tangled "brede" (think "braid") of "men and maidens" in "forest branches and the trodden weed," but that attitude is a "silent form" (41-44). Or is it a "Silent Form!" and therefore like "Cold Pastoral!" the antecedent of "Thou" (44, 45)? Hard to tell. It seems clear from all the variations that "Fair Attitude!" and "Cold Pastoral!" are meant as the antecedents of the lines which follow them, as they share a similar capitalization and punctuation scheme—except when they don't. And sometimes, they even share it with "Silent Form!" This distinction matters, as a "fair attitude" is not the same thing as a "silent form." If the former is the antecedent of "thou" (44), then silent form describes things with fair attitudes; if the latter is, then silent form alone could be enough to "tease us out of thought / as doth eternity" (44, 45). To put it another way, if a "fair attitude" is responsible for the urn's effects, then anything, ancient, modern or accidental in possession of a "fair attitude" would be enough to trigger this line of thought. The rest of the poem, then, points to "silent form" as the antecedent, as that would be more consonant with the idea of an enabling ignorance. As Cleanth Brooks wrote in The Well Wrought Urn: The "Sylvan historian" will recite its history to other generations. What will it say to them? Presumably, what it says to the poet now: that "formed experience," imaginative insight, embodies the basic and fundamental perception of man and nature. The urn is beautiful, and yet its beauty is based—what else is the poem concerned with?—on an imaginative perception of essentials. Such a vision is beautiful but it is also true. The sylvan historian presents us with beautiful histories, but they are true histories, and it is a good historian. [...] The names, dates, and special circumstances, the wealth of data—these the...

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