Thursday, May 15, 2014

she canters away on their backs

As I'm reading the Woolf essay about Margaret Cavendish I remember George Eliot's Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, though there is not complete similarity between those two pieces of writing but primarily the idea of a writer, a woman, indicating that some other writers, who are also women, could be sharper than they are -- Eliot saying it like this, circa 1856: “In the majority of woman's books you see that kind of facility which springs from the absence of any high standard; that fertility in imbecile combination or feeble imitation which a little self-criticism would check and reduce to barrenness; just as with a total want of musical ear people will sing out of tune, while a degree more melodic sensibility would suffice to render them silent” – and Woolf like this about Cavendish: “her native wit, so abundant that outside succour pained it, so honest that it would not accept help from others.”

Order, continuity, the logical development of her argument are all unknown to her. No fears impede her. She has the irresponsibility of a child and the arrogance of a Duchess. The wildest fancies come to her, and she canters away on their backs.

You could substitute John Cowper Powys' name for hers in all of this, I reckon. My mind is still partly on Powys. “Order, continuity, the logical development of his argument are all unknown to him. No fears impede him. He has the irresponsibility of a child and the arrogance of a Duchess. The wildest fancies come to him, and he canters away on their backs.”

Is Woolf right? I haven't read all of Cavendish but none of it, not the parts that I have read, look like the work of someone to whom “order, continuity, the logical development of her argument” are all unknown. Maybe The Blazing World, which hops between ideas, but the ideas are not unexpanded so much as they are short lessons. The Lady Empress asks a question, it is answered, she asks another one, the Worm-men answer her again. The author is aware of the “fantastical” nature of the book, and warns you about it in the introduction, which is not what you do when you arrogantly and irresponsibly expect people to swallow your wildest fancies: “The First Part is Romancical; the Second, Philosophical; and the Third is meerly Fancy; or (as I may call it) Fantastical.”

Her skinned eye in the Queen of Fairies is the result of too much logical development, not too little. If omelettes made “of ant eggs new” and “Glow-worms for candles,” are adorable then a sheet made out of a dove's eye should be adorable too: QED. If it is not adorable then that is not logic's fault. Queen is a sane poem with no imagination and there's the problem with it: too many fairy poems (I say, from my small readings of fairy poems) are reworkings of other fairy poems, and made to avoid the fantastic, not to wrestle with it, Barron Field's Botany Bay Flowers a prime example. The poet, meeting a genuinely unfamiliar set of flowers and trees, ignores the invitation to fruitful ignorance by going down, around, into a familiar formula. “Here” – in Australia --

Queen Mab would have no cause to fear
For her respectable approach,
Lest she could not set up her coach.
Here's a fine grub for a coach-maker,
Good as in Fairy-land Long-Acre;
And very-long-indeed-legg'd spinners,
To make her waggon-spokes, the sinners!

It is the exploitation of little creatures all over again, and why should this insect-slavery, lizard-slavery, flora-slavery be imported to Australia, I ask you, Barron Field (1786 - 1846), who brought it here in your Shakespeare-soaked brain, ah, Queen Mab, ah, how sweet, "Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners' legs," says Mercutio, "Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut | Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub," but can we not leave this shameful habit at home, and let the redbacks and mallee worms run free without pulling coaches and spinning tablecloths and otherwise upholding your savage utilitarian agenda? Fascist. (I think I have argued this one with you on this blog before, dead man.)

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