Sunday, May 03, 2009

oh my ["a pale peach at sunrise"]

[Edward Burne-Jones, Perseus Slaying the Sea Serpent, ca. 1875-1877]

As someone who's thought about, & even dabbled in, the genre of literary biography, I yield to no-one in my admiration for Tim Hilton's enormous two-volume biography of Ruskin, John Ruskin: The Early Years (Yale UP, 1985) & John Ruskin: The Later Years (Yale UP, 2000). It really does seem one of those books "unlikely to be superceded" – Hilton seems to capture every last significant detail of Ruskin's doings, at the same time keeping up a running & very perspicacious commentary on his writings. I've read some 4 or 5 lives of Ruskin now – more than anyone except Pound & Shakespeare, I think – & Hilton's is by far the best (tho John Batchelor's much more manageable life has much to recommend it, & John Dixon Hunt's The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin is 150 pages in a rather extraordinary book – of which more anon).

But I turned the other day back to the first Hilton book I'd ever read, The Pre-Raphaelites, a 1970 monograph now available in the usually excellent Thames & Hudson "World of Art" series. After you've read Hilton's biography, his book on the P-Rs seems very much a footnote to his later work on Ruskin – The Pre-Raphaelites is saturated with references to Ruskin, takes Ruskin as a pivot around which Hilton's entire assessment of the movement revolves.

And the book, while it's beautifully written & full of strongly & wittily stated opinions, hasn't aged particularly well in some respects. Take sexual politics, for instance. It's difficult to imagine an art historian getting away with a passage like this these days:
Perseus Slaying the Sea Serpent [see above] has a fine slimy monster, and the added advantage of an extremely fetching naked girl. Here is an aspect of Burne-Jones's art which deserves manly [!] commendation, for even if he did it with something of a sly, voyeuristic quality, Burne-Jones did put an end to the latitancy of the mid-Victorian nude.... It is always nice to see a breast in a painting, or as delicately glorious a bottom as Andromeda's, like a pale peach at sunrise [!!]. There are many such pleasantnesses in Burne-Jones's painting. The historical point is that he painted nudes at a time when naturalism could be combined with idealism, and it is the idealism that makes his nudes so much more shapely than those of [William] Etty, but at the same time less tangible. That, of course, is the trouble with ideal girls.
Of course.
In re/ Ed's question as to writing instruments: the metal dip pen began to be mass-produced in 1822 (when Ruskin was 3), & by the middle of the century had rendered the quill pen entirely obsolete. Ruskin & Dickens, & all those prolific Victorians, used Manchester-made steel pens. You still have to periodically re-dip, of course, but it obviates the need for the periodical re-trimming of the nib that one suffers thru with the quill. Ruskin really didn't live long enough to enter the fountain pen era, tho if he had I'm sure he would've jumped on that bandwagon enthusiastically. (Note for future blog post: Influence of pen technology on poets' handwriting, with special reference to Zukofsky.)


walrus said...

Hello there,
Just out of curiosity, I'd be v interested to know which Pound biography or biographies you'd recommend.
All the best,

E. M. Selinger said...

"Trim that back a few feet and we'll talk."

(Why? How would YOU caption it?)

Mark Scroggins said...

Hey Walrus--

Humphrey Carpenter is the biography of record (ie the longest & most complete), but marred by the fact that HC hates Pound & doesn't really understand the poetry; Noel Stock is a bit of a slog, but (barely) okay; John Tytell is derivative, as are all the shorter bios. The one to read is A. David Moody's (blogged somewhere earlier); unfortunately only his 1st volume, thru 1920 or so, is available as yet. Stay tuned.

I'm gonna resist captioning, E, on the basis that sometimes a giant sea serpent is just a giant sea serpent. Ahem.

walrus said...

Thanks for that advice, Mark.
And as regards appreciations of Pound, I guess Hugh Kenner stands out? Any others worth mentioning?

E, how dare you be so lookist!

W ;)

Norman Finkelstein said...

Now I understand what Prufrock meant when he asked "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

Mark Scroggins said...

I'm blushing, Norman -- like a peach at sunrise...

Walrus: The Pound Era is a treasure-house, tho much in it hasn't aged well (the gross sexism, the politics, etc). I like Peter Makin's book on The Cantos as a general introduction/commentary on that poem, & Michael Alexander's The Poetic Achievement of EP on EP in general. Christine Brooke-Rose's ZBC of Ezra Pound is a great but challenging read.

Vance Maverick said...

Seems like a restatement of Ingres' Ruggiero Delivering Angelica, which Rossetti thought worth a sonnet. Except that the grossly phallic element is the serpent in one, the lance in the other.

I too have loved The Pound Era, but could add to that list of defects -- for "politics" read also the whitewashing of Pound's politics.

E. M. Selinger said...

This list (the best introductions to Pound) is really helpful, Mark. My students hanker for suggestions, and I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't kept up. Thanks!


If you think my captions are bad, check out the romance novel cover snark over at the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog some time!

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