British poet Shelley and the Peterloo massacre


This 29 May 2019 video from Britain says about itself:

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Songs for Peterloo

News of the Peterloo Massacre, when it reached Shelley in Italy, sparked off a six month-long writing surge that saw the poet respond from a variety of angles. Four songs by John Webster with Brindaband, taking lyrics from key poems, chart his reaction to the massacre. His fiery initial poems and later works with a more measured philosophical response bear witness to his ‘tremendous commitment’ (as Paul Foot put it) to bringing positive change.

By Paul Bond in Britain:

The Peterloo massacre and Shelley

Part 1: The aftermath of the massacre and the responses

30 September 2019

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, a critical event in British history. On August 16, 1819, a crowd of 60,000 to 100,000 protestors gathered peacefully on Manchester’s St. Peter’s Field. They came to appeal for adult suffrage and the reform of parliamentary representation.

The disenfranchised working class—cotton workers, many of them women, with a large contingent of Irish workers—who made up the crowd were struggling with the increasingly dire economic conditions following the end of the Napoleonic Wars four years earlier.

Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest the speakers and sent cavalry of Yeomanry and a regular army regiment to attack the crowd. They charged with sabres drawn. Eighteen people were killed and up to 700 injured.

On August 16 of this year the WSWS published an appraisal of the massacre.

The following is the first part of a two-part article focusing on the response to the massacre by the great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The Peterloo Massacre elicited an immediate and furious response from the working class and sections of middle-class radicals.

The escalation of repression by the ruling class that followed, resulting in a greater suppression of civil liberties, was met with meetings of thousands and the widespread circulation of accounts of the massacre. There was a determination to learn from the massacre and not allow it to be forgotten or misrepresented. Poetic responses played an important part in memorialising Peterloo.

The Peterloo Massacre

Violent class conflict erupted across north western England. Yeomen and hussars continued attacks on workers across Manchester, and the ruling class launched an intensive campaign of disinformation and retribution.

At the trial of Rochdale workers charged with rioting on the night after Peterloo, Attorney General Sir Robert Gifford made clear that the ruling class would stop at nothing to crush the development of radical and revolutionary sentiment in the masses. He declared: “Men deluded themselves if they thought their condition would be bettered by such kind of Reform as Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments, and Vote by Ballot; or that it was just that the property of the country ought to be equally divided among its inhabitants, or that such a daring innovation would ever take place.”

Samuel BamfordSamuel Bamford, a reformer and weaver who led a contingent of several thousand marchers to Manchester from the town of Middleton, said he spent the evening of the massacre “brooding over a spirit of vengeance towards the authors of our humiliation.” Bamford told the judge at his trial for sedition that he would not recommend non-violent protest again.

Workers took a more direct response, even as the military were being deployed widely against the population. Despite the military presence, and press claims that the city had been subdued, riots continued across Manchester.

Two women were shot by hussars on August 20. A fortnight after Peterloo, the most affected area, Manchester’s New Cross district, was described in the London press as a by-word for trouble and a risky area for the wealthy to pass through. Soldiers were shooting in the area to disperse rioters. On August 18, a special constable fired a loaded pistol in the New Cross streets and was attacked by an angry crowd, who beat him to death with a poker and stoned him.

There was a similar response elsewhere locally, with riots in Oldham and Rochdale and what has been described by one historian as “a pitched battle” in Macclesfield on the night of August 17.

Crowds in their thousands welcomed the coach carrying Henry Hunt and the other arrested Peterloo speakers to court in Salford, the city across the River Irwell from Manchester. Salford’s magistrates reportedly feared a “tendency to tumult”, while in Bolton the Hussars had trouble keeping the public from other prisoners. The crowd shouted, “Down with the tyrants!”

While the courts meted out sharper punishment to the arrested rioters, mass meetings and protests continued across Britain. Meetings to condemn the massacre took place in Wakefield, Glasgow, Sheffield, Huddersfield and Nottingham. In Leeds, the crowd was asked if they would support physical force to achieve radical reform. They unanimously raised their hands.

These were meetings attended by tens of thousands and they did not end despite the escalating repression. The Twitter account Peterloo 1819 News (@Live1819) is providing a useful daily update on historical responses until the end of this year.

A protest meeting at London’s Smithfield on August 25 drew crowds estimated at 15,000-40,000. At least 20,000 demonstrated in Newcastle on October 11. The mayor wrote dishonestly to the home secretary, Lord Sidmouth, of this teetotal and entirely orderly peaceful demonstration that 700 of the participants “were prepared with arms (concealed) to resist the civil power.”

The response was felt across the whole of the British Isles. In Belfast, the Irishman newspaper wrote, “The spirit of Reform rises from the blood of the Manchester Martyrs with a giant strength!”

A meeting of 10,000 was held in Dundee in November that collected funds “for obtaining justice for the Manchester sufferers.” That same month saw a meeting of 10,000 in Leicester and one of 12,000 near Burnley. In Wigan, just a few miles north of the site of Peterloo, around 20,000 assembled to discuss “parliamentary reform and the massacre at Manchester.” The yeomanry were standing ready at many of these meetings.

The state was determined to suppress criticism. Commenting on the events, it published false statements about the massacre and individual deaths. Radical MP Sir Francis Burdett was fined £2,000 and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for “seditious libel” in response to his denunciation of the Peterloo massacre. On September 2, he addressed 30,000 at a meeting in London’s Palace Yard, demanding the prosecution of the Manchester magistrates.

Richard Carlile

Radical publisher Richard Carlile, who had been at Peterloo, was arrested late in August. He was told that proceedings against him would be dropped if he stopped circulating his accounts of the massacre. He did not and was subsequently tried and convicted of seditious libel and blasphemy.

The main indictment against him was his publication of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Like Bamford, Carlile also concluded that armed defence was now necessary: He wrote, “Every man in Manchester who avows his opinions on the necessity of reform should never go unarmed—retaliation has become a duty, and revenge an act of justice.”

In Chudleigh, Devon, John Jenkins was arrested for owning a crude but accurate print of the yeomanry charging the Peterloo crowd when Henry Hunt was arrested. A local vicar, a magistrate, informed on Jenkins, whose major “crime” was that he was sharing information about Peterloo. Jenkins was showing the print to people, using a magnifying glass in a viewing box. The charge against Jenkins argued that the print was “intended to inflame the minds of His Majesty’s Subjects and to bring His Majesty’s Soldiery into hatred and contempt.”

Against this attempt to suppress the historical record there was a wide range of efforts to preserve the memory of Peterloo. Verses, poems and songs appeared widely. In October, a banner in Halifax bore the lines:

With heartfelt grief we mourn for those
Who fell a victim to our cause
While we with indignation view
The bloody field of Peterloo.

Anonymous verses were published on cheap broadsides, while others were credited to local radical workers. Many recounted the day’s events, often with a subversive undercurrent. The broadside ballad, “A New Song on the Peterloo Meeting,” for example, was written to the tune “Parker’s Widow,” a song about the widow of 1797 naval mutineer Richard Parker.

Weaver poet John Stafford, who regularly sang at radical meetings, wrote a longer, more detailed account of the day’s events in a song titled “Peterloo.”

The shoemaker poet Allen Davenport satirised in song the Reverend Charles Wicksteed Ethelston of Cheetham Hill—a magistrate who had organised spies against the radical movement and, as the leader of the Manchester magistrates who authorised the massacre, claimed to have read the Riot Act at Peterloo.

Ethelston played a vital role in the repression by the authorities after Peterloo. At a September hearing of two men who were accused of military drilling on a moor in the north of Manchester the day before Peterloo, he told one of them, James Kaye, “I believe that you are a downright blackguard reformer. Some of you reformers ought to be hanged; and some of you are sure to be hanged—the rope is already round your necks; the law has been a great deal too lenient with you.”

Ethelston was also attacked in verse by Bamford, who called him “the Plotting Parson.” Davenport’s “St. Ethelstone’s Day” portrays Peterloo as Ethelston‘s attempt at self-sanctification. Its content is pointed— “In every direction they slaughtered away, Drunken with blood on St. Ethelstone’s Day”—but Davenport sharpens the satire even further by specifying the tune “Gee Ho Dobbin,” the prince regent’s favourite. (These songs are included on the recent Road to Peterloo album by three singers and musicians from North West England—Pete Coe, Brian Peters and Laura Smyth.)

The poetic response was not confined to social reformers and radical workers. The most astonishing outpouring of work came from isolated radical bourgeois elements in exile.

Portrait of Shelley_by Alfred Clint (1829)

On September 5, news of the massacre reached the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in Italy. He recognised its significance and responded immediately. Shelley’s reaction to Peterloo, what one biographer has called “the most intensely creative eight weeks of his whole life,” embodies and elevates what is greatest about his work. It underscores his importance to us now.

Even among the radical Romantics, Shelley is distinctive. He has long been championed by Marxists for that very reason. Franz Mehring famously noted: “Referring to Byron and Shelley, however, [Karl Marx] declared that those who loved and understood these two poets must consider it fortunate that Byron died at the age of 36, for had he lived out his full span he would undoubtedly have become a reactionary bourgeois, whilst regretting on the other hand that Shelley died at the age of 29, for Shelley was a thorough revolutionary and would have remained in the van of socialism all his life.” (Karl Marx: The Story of His Life, Harvester Press, New Jersey, 1966, p.504)

Franz Mehring around 1900

Shelley came from an affluent landowning family, his father a Whig MP. Byron’s continued pride in his title and his recognition of the distance separating himself, a peer of the realm, from his friend, a son of the landed gentry, brings home the pressures against Shelley and the fact that he was able to transcend his background.

To be continued.

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19th-century United States literature and politics, interview


United States historian Brenda Wineapple (Credit: Elena Seibert)

By David Walsh in the USA:

An interview with historian Brenda Wineapple, author of books on Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson

“Writing is a solitary and private act … I’m going to say what I think is true”

13 August 2019

Historian Brenda Wineapple has authored a number of intriguing books about 19th-century American writers and social processes in particular.

We first encountered her work in the process of writing about Wild Nights with Emily, director Madeleine Olnek’s film about American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Olnek’s work concentrates almost exclusively on Dickinson’s relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, depicting an overpowering sexual relationship that is largely (or perhaps entirely) the product of Olnek’s imagination.

We suggested that Wild Nights with Emily was “a largely degrading work that obliterates or trivializes history, demeaning not only Dickinson, but also, in passing, the remarkable abolitionist and literary figure Thomas Wentworth Higginson.”

Olnek, for reasons of her own, chooses to transform Higginson into a self-important, condescending, repressive cartoon male, who simply doesn’t “get” Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson in 1846 or 1847

Wineapple’s White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (2008), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, arrived as both an antidote and a breath of fresh air. The book deals meticulously and honestly with the contradictions and peculiarities of the mid-19th century period, the milieus to which Dickinson and Higginson belonged, and their personalities and trajectories. It pays tribute to Higginson’s remarkable activities and concerns, including his support for abolitionist John Brown, while noting at the same time, that he was a “man of limits, to be sure,” who “was gifted enough to sense what lay beyond him,” i.e., the full significance and originality of Dickinson’s poetry.

White Heat

The honesty and objectivity of Wineapple’s approach in White Heat finds expression as well in The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation (2019). Coincidentally, the WSWS reviewed the book in June, only a few weeks after the comment on Wild Nights with Emily appeared.

The Impeachers treats the effort in 1868 to remove President Andrew Johnson, who had assumed office upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, because of Johnson’s anti-democratic and illegal efforts to defend the remnants of the slavocracy and defy the attempt by Congress to reorganize the rebel states to protect the former slaves.

Analysis of Johnson’s impeachment, as Eric London explained in his review of Wineapple’s book, “has long been dominated by apologists for the slavocracy who claim that the trial was led by vindictive radicals to punish Johnson for seeking ‘compromise’ with the former rebels. … Wineapple takes aim at the notion that the impeachment of Johnson was merely an example of ‘hyper-partisanship.’ She has written a book that cuts through the lies of the Lost Cause and Dunning School of historians.”

Wineapple has also written Hawthorne: A Life (2003), a major biography of the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, responsible for The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Marble Faun (1860).

She is the author as well of Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner (1989); Sister Brother Gertrude and Leo Stein (1996); and Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 (2013). Wineapple edited The Selected Poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier (2004) for the Library of America and the anthology, Nineteenth-Century American Writers on Writing (2010).

In addition, Whitman Speaks, her selection of the poet’s observations about writing, literature, America and what it means to be a maverick was published last spring in celebration of the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth.

Wineapple’s numerous honors include a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, two National Endowment Fellowships in the Humanities, and most recently an NEH Public Scholars Award. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Society of American Historians and regularly contributes to publications such as the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books.

Born in Boston and a graduate of Brandeis University, Wineapple teaches at the New School and Columbia University in New York City.

We spoke recently on the phone about a number of issues raised in her books. Eric London contributed the questions about The Impeachers.

* * * * *

David Walsh: This all began with a foolish movie, Wild Nights with Emily, which I suppose I do have to thank, in fact, for directing me toward Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson and toward your remarkable book, White Heat.

I’m not going to put you on the spot about the film, but I hope the article indicated its unconvincing … character. In general, it seems to me contemporary artists have a much weakened “historical sense”, the ability to imagine social conditions and relationships different than their own.

Brenda Wineapple: Well, yes, if you actually looked more deeply into the past you wouldn’t have to foist contemporary views onto it. You could tease out perspectives; you could indicate how the past flows into and resonates today rather than superimpose contemporary attitudes and ideas on it. To do that suggests a lack of historical imagination, as you say, which is a problem.

DW: Emily Dickinson comes across as a brilliant figure, an almost terrifying figure. I say this half-jokingly, but when Higginson says, “I am glad not to live near her”, you wonder a little if she secluded herself in Amherst, Massachusetts not to be protected from other people, but to protect them from her.

BW: I really do feel that Higginson’s comment has been misread. It’s not that he couldn’t handle her, but rather that Dickinson was one of those people who was really exhausting; she took everything out of you because she was on fire, so it must have been enervating just to keep up with her. “She drained my nerve-power”, as he said. Her astonishing inventiveness, her quickness, her vision permeate not just the poetry but her letters, which are simply astonishing. So imagine what she must have been like in person.

And don’t forget that Higginson was a very unusual figure, given the times during which they both lived. Of course he wasn’t perfect, and he certainly wasn’t the genius Dickinson was, but that’s not the point. He was a committed abolitionist—and activist—during one of the most tumultuous and dangerous decades in American history.

DW: Your book does a great deal to resurrect or restore both figures, Higginson in particular. Dickinson is probably not in need of it, anyway.

BW: It seemed fascinating to me that you had these two characters, two individuals, not simply alive at the same moment but who formed a friendship that was important to both of them and lasted almost twenty-five years, right to the end of Dickinson’s life.

DW: Did you set out to do this, resurrect Higginson, or was this a need you discovered in the course of your research?

BW: I came to this book with a set of questions. I’ve always admired Dickinson and I had the conventional view of Higginson: he bowdlerized her, he ruined her poetry, he didn’t get her. But then I wondered why she was friends with him. And then I thought, if we admire her, which we do, if we think she was so perceptive, so brilliant in so many ways, then why don’t we look more carefully at her choice of friends? Because she chose so few. So she must have seen something in him that we didn’t see. So I began with those kinds of questions. So I didn’t set out to resurrect or restore him but to discover what we could learn about this man that would respect her choice.

Of course I knew something about Higginson because he was adjacent, so to speak, to the book I did on Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was of the same world, although Hawthorne would not have had anything do with him because of their different politics. And I’d done a little edition of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poetry, and Whittier was himself a committed abolitionist, so he and Higginson sort of overlapped historically and therefore I’d heard of him apart from Emily Dickinson.

DW: When Dickinson wrote to Higginson: you saved my life, how do you take that? She wasn’t just flattering him.

BW: I don’t think so. Of course, she could be very coquettish, to use a 19th-century word. She wasn’t lying. She was hyperbolic though. I think she meant that he gave her something that no one else was really able to.

DW: What do you think that was?

BW: It’s hard to know. Dickinson constantly wanted him to come to visit her in Amherst. Even though she knew he didn’t entirely understand her poetry, she must have respected him. And he was some sort of representative as well of the outside world, while she penetrated the interior world, “where the meanings are”, as she once wrote. And then to use a trite word, Higginson represented a kind of “otherness” that she must have perceived she shared with him. Neither of them, in their very different ways, represented the status quo.

But it is very difficult to know precisely. We don’t have a lot of his letters to her. We have enough, but not that many. So perhaps he provided a kind of empathy that had nothing to do with his in-depth understanding of the poetry. But he appreciated it—and her. He knew she was a genuine maverick, and she knew he knew.

Plus, let’s not forget Higginson was an unusual guy. He was so enamored of [Henry David] Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers [1849] when he received a galley that he took a train up to Concord to see Thoreau. Who does that?

DW: The relationship of artists to social life and to great events like the Civil War is very complex. Higginson’s relationship to the Civil War, of course, is quite clear. The cases of [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and Thoreau too are pretty clear-cut, Walt Whitman as well perhaps. The relationship of Dickinson, Hawthorne, Herman Melville to big events is more oblique. But I don’t think Dickinson was removed from her period of history. And I can’t help but think that was part of her interest in Higginson.

BW: Absolutely. She knew who he was. He was writing about slave revolts, writing very radical pieces in the Atlantic. Her family received the Atlantic. She read his pieces. These writers were very connected to what was going on historically. To suggest that Dickinson had no consciousness of the Civil War is just silly. Her father had been in Congress. He was bringing that home all the time. I don’t know how you could not be conscious of that.

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841 (Peabody Essex Museum)

Hawthorne is another case. He was a close personal friend of Franklin Pierce, the future president, who is a horror from our point of view. Hawthorne really loved the guy, and dedicated a book to him. Emerson was so disgusted that he tore out the dedication in his copy of the book. We don’t know enough about Melville because many of his papers are gone. In his book of poems, Battle-Pieces [1866], Melville has an afterword in which he speaks, to put it simply, about forgiving the South. He was also a lifelong Democrat. Whitman was too.
Herman Melville, 1860

DW: In terms of Dickinson—during what other period could a poet, a supposedly dainty poet, have written the line, “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—”?

BW: She’s thinking about guns!

DW: An incredible line, which you suggest may have been inspired by Higginson’s essay about the Nat Turner slave revolt.

American literature reached a new height in the pre-revolutionary decade of the 1850s. Have you thought about what it was and how it was that artists were working with such intensity and urgency in the period before and perhaps during the Civil War? In any case, something was sending off powerful impulses.

BW: I definitely think so. Dickinson wasn’t active, so to speak, in any conventional sense. But you could say she was in some way seeing Higginson’s activity as an extension of herself.

DW: Exactly. He was in some way her representative in that other, more public world. She was such a powerful personality that I think she was hoping—and I don’t mean this in a negative way—she could will him, direct him in some way. And probably she did!

BW: He did have to resist her somewhat. As we said, her magnetic force was huge. But it’s interesting that after he wrote the essay, “Letter to a Young Contributor,” in the Atlantic magazine [in April 1862], he received a huge number of letters; Dickinson wasn’t the only person reaching out to him. But she was the only one he really responded to.

Hawthorne - A Life

DW: Nathaniel Hawthorne is another remarkable figure. Politically, he certainly isn’t attractive. A Democrat and no friend of the abolitionists. But a brilliant writer. The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables are milestones.

BW: He was a brilliant writer. Someone said, “Hawthorne can see in the dark.” He really could. But, to go back to the issue of lacking a historical sense, we also have this almost childish wish to make the writers that we think of as remarkable, as in the case of Hawthorne, conform to whatever our historical, political, social principles happen to be. And he doesn’t.

DW: Art and social life have a very complicated relationship.

BW: Hawthorne was most comfortable being by himself, writing, and yet his friends were people involved in politics and, in many cases, Southern-sympathizing politics: John O’Sullivan, to an extent Horatio Bridge, and of course Franklin Pierce. These were dear friends.

DW: Coming out of that history of Puritanism and severity in Salem, and then reflecting on it so intensely and self-critically, it’s not so odd that he was tortured. It would be odd if he weren’t.

BW: I’m from New England too. You can’t get out of there without being tortured.

DW: They’re very different, but both Dickinson and Hawthorne have this profound attachment to the past, they’re immersed and embedded in the past, to a certain extent, but something in the future is also pulling them very strongly.

BW: I think that’s absolutely true. This pull—of the past and of the future—creates a tremendous conflict for them but also, perhaps, a rewarding and enriching one.

DW: You have these very lovely sentences: “Had Hawthorne squeezed refractory emotions into channels much too narrow? No: those channels helped to create emotion by harnessing what they unleashed.” Could you perhaps explain them a little?

BW: I think it’s precisely what we’re talking about. With Hawthorne, there was a terrible conflict, a sense that he was almost destroyed by what made him great. He was able to use it, up to a point, but again it was also so depleting in many ways and he had to channel it into a form that was almost 18th century in style that then recreated this emotion for the reader.

DW: You also point to the utopian, visionary element in Hawthorne, passages where he sounds downright revolutionary. There’s this in The House of the Seven Gables that struck me: “[Holgrave] had that sense, or inward prophecy … that we are not doomed to creep on forever in the old bad way, but that, this very now, there are the harbingers abroad of a golden era, to be accomplished in his own lifetime. It seemed to Holgrave … that in this age, more than ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew.”

This quasi-revolutionary vision of tearing down the past, thrusting institutions out of the way and so forth is immediately followed by a wretched argument for gradualism and fatalism:

“His [Holgrave’s] error lay in supposing that this age, more than any past or future one, is destined to see the tattered garments of Antiquity exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves by patchwork; in applying his own little life-span as the measure of an interminable achievement; and, more than all, in fancying that it mattered anything to the great end in view whether he himself should contend for it or against it. … He would still have faith in man’s brightening destiny, and perhaps love him all the better, as he should recognize his helplessness in his own behalf; and the haughty faith, with which he began life, would be well bartered for a far humbler one at its close, in discerning that man’s best directed effort accomplishes a kind of dream, while God is the sole worker of realities.”

BW: It’s interesting, because it’s exactly what Hester Prynne feels in the thirteenth chapter of The Scarlet Letter, “Another View of Hester”, which I write about.

Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter

Hester essentially thinks, everything needs to be torn down and the relationship between men and woman has to start all over again to be effective, just and fair both to women and to men. It’s an enormously radical vision. And she’s part of Hawthorne since he created her. But then, to a certain extent, he punishes her, precisely for having that vision. In the same way, he sends Holgrave off to this pointless future, marrying Phoebe and living happily ever after—which I don’t believe Holgrave does.

That is, Hawthorne was attracted, almost violently, to this vision of a new world, which by the way was very much in the air. Bronson Alcott and others were talking about or planning or trying actually to live this new world. But then Hawthorne condemns it in his novel The Blithedale Romance [1852], which was about the Brook Farm experiment.

DW: The honest artist is not simply the sum-total of his social and political views. You write: “Of all writers, female or male, in nineteenth-century America, Hawthorne created a woman, Hester Prynne, who still stands, statuesque, the heroine par excellence impaled by courage, conservatism, consensus: take your pick. Yet there she is.”

BW: It’s kind of astonishing.

DW: We don’t remember or value Hawthorne because of his seedy dealings with the Democratic Party, with Pierce, we remember him because of that, because of Hester Prynne and the others he created—or discovered.

BW: That’s his real, objective contribution to us. The irony is that he made this contribution, this statuesque and strong woman, almost against his will. He wants to create her, and then doesn’t quite want to. But the truth is that nobody in American fiction is quite like her.

The Impeachers

DW: I also have a few questions about The Impeachers. Can you tell us a little more about the political program of Senator Ben Wade from Ohio and his career following the failed effort to remove President Andrew Johnson in 1868?

BW: Wade, of course, was singled out by Karl Marx because he was the radical of radicals, who then more or less disappeared from our consciousness. Other radicals such as Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens disappeared to a certain extent too, but not entirely. But in the late 1860s, and certainly beyond, an emerging conservatism erased Ben Wade. And don’t forget that by 1868 he had lost his Senate seat.

Wade was born, I believe, in 1800, so he was 68 by this time, which was considered rather old then. In 1868, he went back to Ohio, because his term in the Senate was at an end. But Wade had been a tremendous force in Congress—and even one of the reasons that an impeached Andrew Johnson was acquitted. People were afraid of Wade. Given Lincoln’s assassination, if Johnson, his replacement, had been convicted in the Senate, Wade, as president pro tempore of the Senate, would have become president for the remainder of Johnson’s term.

With the failure of the impeachment of Johnson, it not only became clear Wade was not going to be president, but neither did he really have a shot at being vice president on the Grant ticket, which he probably would have had if impeachment had succeeded. At that point, he no longer had a political career or a political future.

Benjamin F. Wade

Wade scandalized many people. He was so radical that he actually thought women should have the vote. Hah! In my book I mention that one of the “terrible” rumors circulating was that if Wade were in the White House, he might put Susan B. Anthony in his cabinet. That horrified certain people.

DW: How did the impeachment process and its fallout change the political character of the two parties, if it did?

BW: It definitely changed the character of the Republican Party. The group of moderate Republicans, who initially supported impeachment but who then backed away from it, became the core of what was called the Liberal Republican Party, formally organized in 1872.

The Liberal Republican Party, as opposed to the Radical Republicans, was the forerunner of today’s Republican Party. They were an elite group who believed they were the best men in the country, and the government should only be run by the best men. They considered that they knew best. They hated Ulysses S. Grant, whom they regarded as both a radical—and an embarrassment. They were much more content with Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House, which promised the end of Reconstruction.

These Liberal Republicans were the basis for the free-market Republican Party that we know today. For not until later did the Democratic Party become the modern Democratic Party. The Democrats of the 1850s and ’60s … it’s almost unthinkable what they represented, which for many of them was a continuation of slavery or the perpetuation of its noxious legacy. Yet Andrew Johnson was toxic to them; they weren’t going to nominate him in 1868, for sure. But they nominated two candidates, one of whom was a non-entity, Horatio Seymour, governor of New York, and then the other, for vice president, one of the most outspoken and violent white supremacists of his era, Francis Blair of Missouri. Blair’s rhetoric out-Johnsoned Johnson. They went down to defeat, fortunately. Grant won.

Andrew Johnson

The Democrats didn’t reconstitute themselves for years. Or perhaps they never did entirely, because it was always the southern Democratic wing that was very much in power in the party up until the middle of the 20th century.

DW: In our review, the WSWS emphasized the significance of the emergence of the working class as a political force and its impact on American politics during this period. Were the personalities in your book aware of this?

BW: Many of them didn’t live that long. In many cases, they didn’t outlive this immediate era, the era of the Civil War. Obviously, to someone like Thaddeus Stevens and Ben Wade, the relationship between capital and labor, if you want to use those terms, had to change once you no longer had slavery. Because wage slavery had been an issue from the 1850s up until the war; in fact the exploitation of wage laborers was a Democratic Party argument against the Republicans: you can’t talk about slavery as exploitation; we treat the slaves well, but it’s factory workers who are exploited. So the radicals were aware of the labor question but not so much in terms of what was to occur in the cities or with the rise of the railroads, in particular, especially after the war, which really changed everything. They didn’t foresee all that and what it would mean for the country. And, as I said, many of them didn’t live long enough to address these issues.

But they were conscious of them, especially as they would affect the South after the war. That’s why someone like Thaddeus Stevens wanted to confiscate the planters’ land and redistribute it—redistribute the wealth—to those who had actually labored on it. Still, many old-time abolitionists, who had been around a long time, may have found it difficult to adopt a new outlook when conditions changed—and labor was no longer “free”.

Take someone like Higginson, who was lost for a time. He eventually pulled himself together toward the end of the century, but he didn’t really understand the problems represented by strikes and labor. Far from it. He only became outspoken again when the issue of Jim Crow became dominant in the 1890s. He certainly spoke out against the racism of, say, William Jennings Bryan. And he was a definite anti-imperialist.

DW: Not to beat around the bush, although I already have, one of the things that struck me about White Heat was its honesty, whether I agreed with every idea and assessment or not. You write about men and women without cant or jargon. …

BW: Frankly I have no idea. I don’t see the world that way. It’s an odd thing—when you sit down at the desk, especially after having written several books—the more experience you have, you realize that no matter what you do, somebody’s not going to approve of it, not approve of you. Writing then is a solitary and private act—and then you just say, damn it, I’m going to say what I think is true.

DW: The problem is, most people don’t operate that way.

BW: I can’t speak for them. I just have to be honest with myself. Because I feel that if I don’t say what I really think, and I’m criticized or it doesn’t work, then I’ll know it was my own fault. When I finish something, I feel that, well, perhaps this or that reader won’t like it, but I’ll stand by it. Perhaps in five years I won’t feel that way, I’ll decide I was wrong, but now I believe it. That’s how I manage to sleep at night.

And then there’s this: when I’m confronted, let’s say, by a poem of Dickinson’s, and I am overwhelmed, I think, what the hell, I may not understand it perfectly, does anyone entirely? Isn’t that in part what makes it great?—it speaks to so very many of us in a language that’s almost impossible to translate. That makes me feel better and allows me to go ahead and say what I get out of it.

Of course I enjoy what I do. To a certain extent, I feel free when I’m writing, or I try to feel free. In a social situation, you can’t always say what you think. But when it’s just you and the piece of paper, that’s different … and perhaps even more challenging.

Poet Walt Whitman’s bicentenary in New York


This music video from the USA says about itself:

“Wood Odors”
For SSA Choir & Harp
Music by Peter Nocella
Text by Walt Whitman
In celebration of Whitman’s Bicentenary

Performed by:
The Nazareth Academy Chorale
Katherine Chmelko, Director
Thérèse Hurley, Harp
Madeline Parkes, Piano
May 23, 2019

By Fred Mazelis in the USA:

Two celebrations of Walt Whitman’s bicentenary in New York City

29 July 2019

Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy, at Morgan Library and Museum, through September 15, 2019

Walt Whitman: America’s Poet, at New York Public Library, Central Branch, through July 27, 2019

The 19th century saw a flowering of American poetry. Among the many important figures of the period—including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson—Walt Whitman occupies a special place. Some reasons for his particular fame are suggested by the names of two exhibitions currently on view in New York City in observance of the 200th anniversary of his birth. He was the foremost “bard of democracy,” and he has often been called “America’s Poet.”

Walt Whitman photographed by Mathew Brady

The Morgan Library and Museum has drawn on its own holdings of Whitman’s works and memorabilia, and also includes some material in its exhibition from the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The New York Public Library has one of the largest collections of Whitman’s correspondence, original editions and other materials. Both of these exhibitions are well worth a visit, as an introduction to the work and the continuing legacy of this trailblazing figure. Whitman met with relatively little critical or commercial success until fairly late in his lifetime, but his unique contribution as both a poet and a very public figure evokes more interest than ever, and has much to say to the world today.

Born in Long Island in 1819, Whitman was brought up in Brooklyn, long before it merged in 1898 to form New York City in its present boundaries. His enormous literary ambition found its first poetic expression in Leaves of Grass, just 12 poems, published on July 4, 1855. That small book, however, emerged from many years of varied experiences in a city that was booming in the decades before the Civil War. Whitman was a printer’s apprentice, then a journeyman printer, followed by many other jobs, including journalist, teacher and newspaper editor. While still in his 20s, he wrote and edited for many New York and Brooklyn newspapers. The Public Library exhibition displays some samples of Whitman’s early journalism.

Whitman later wrote that Leaves of Grass “arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people, for 15 years, with an intensity, an eagerness, and an abandon, probably never equaled.”

Walt Whitman, 35, from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison

Whitman was driven to find expression for his feelings and sentiments in the language of poetry. Leaves of Grass is often celebrated as a paean to subjectivity and individualism, but Whitman’s own words about “absorbing a million people” show that this is a very one-sided appreciation. He wrote of himself as a part of the whole: “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.” “Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns at last to me,” he wrote. “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbs it.”

Leaves of Grass stood apart from most of what was being written both in form and in content. Whitman’s free verse was unusual, and it was accompanied by the use of the vernacular, of sensual language and imagery that was considered “vulgar” by the custodians of cultural criticism.

F.O. Matthiessen in his American Renaissance (1941) suggested that, according to Whitman’s way of thinking, “Living speech could come to a man only through his absorption in the life surrounding him. He must learn that the final decisions of language are not made by dictionary makers but by ‘the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea.’”

Whitman’s form was wedded to a democratic content, poetry that took as its subject the lives of ordinary working people, as demonstrated by some of the most famous lines of Leaves of Grass:

I I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass…

Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere—on water and land…

I am large, I contain multitudes…

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck…

Whitman’s poetry did not at first meet with great interest or acclaim. A sign of the fame that awaited the newly published poet came in the rapturous response from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous writer and founder of New England Transcendentalism. The exhibition at the Morgan Library includes an autograph copy of the letter sent by Emerson to Whitman on July 21, 1855, only weeks after publication of the poems, in which Emerson wrote, “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed…I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.”

An especially interesting section at the Morgan exhibition displays an autograph manuscript of an essay entitled, “The Eighteenth Presidency!” This work was written in 1855-56, as a response to the presidential race involving Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, and John C. Frémont, right on the heels of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. “The Eighteenth Presidency!”, though not published in Whitman’s lifetime, sheds some light on the poet’s social and political concerns during this period. In the essay Whitman refers to the “crawling, serpentine men” leading the country, betraying its ideals with their support for slavery.

A loyal Democrat who had brothers named after Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, he was not an abolitionist and there were times when he voiced ignorant views on race, but his anti-slavery views had gradually strengthened in the decade preceding the Civil War. The Fugitive Slave Act had been passed by Congress a few years earlier, mandating the return of escaped slaves to their masters. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 laid the basis for the extension of slavery into the territories seeking statehood. The ruthlessness of the pro-slavery elements, their frenzy born of desperation and weakness, contributed to the radicalization of millions, including Whitman.

The Civil War was only a few years off. The poet sensed that a reckoning was coming. Although he supported Democrat Stephen Douglas in his 1858 debates with Abraham Lincoln, by the time of Lincoln’s election Whitman was an enthusiastic adherent of the new president.

The lifelong struggle of Whitman to add to and continually produce new editions of Leaves of Grass, which grew to 438 pages in the “deathbed edition” published soon after his passing, was shaped by the struggle against slavery, by the Civil War and its aftermath. Whitman, in notes written in 1859, had called himself, in characteristically outspoken and immodest language, “the Bard of Democracy”.

The poet called the war “the very center, circumference, umbilicus, of my whole career.” He traveled to Washington and settled there, working as a visitor and volunteer nurse at hospitals. He later said that he had made over 600 visits and ministered in one way or another to nearly 100,000 sick and wounded soldiers. Dozens of poems on the Civil War followed, in Drum Taps, published in 1865.

Incorporated into the growing Leaves of Grass, these included “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, two of his most famous and popular poems, written in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Lincoln. Whitman is supposed to have said he was almost sorry he wrote “O Captain!” because, with its more conventional rhyme and imagery, it had drawn so much attention away from the rest of his work.

In 1860-61 Whitman had published a third edition of Leaves of Grass, with 146 new poems. These included celebrations of what the poet called “manly love”. The sensuality of the earlier poems had now blossomed into more openly homoerotic themes, and critics were scandalized. The poet, of course, never discussed his private life. The term for homosexuality had not even been coined at that time, and did not come into usage in the US until some decades later.

The Morgan Library exhibition, however, does refer to the intimate friendship of Whitman and Peter Doyle, the Irish immigrant streetcar conductor whom he met in Washington in 1865. The two were inseparable for eight years, as the exhibition notes. Included here is the well-known photograph of Whitman and Doyle, along with some correspondence with the man whom the poet addressed as “my darling boy.”

The poet’s work during the war contributed to his growing reputation as the “Good Gray Poet”. In his later years Whitman was especially associated with the memory of Lincoln. He gave annual lectures commemorating the assassination of the martyred president. The Morgan exhibition includes a printed ticket for the lecture given by Whitman at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1887. Doyle, who had been at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was killed, had given Whitman the details he needed to make the tragic events come alive. Remarkably, the audience when Whitman spoke in 1887 included Cuban revolutionary José Martí, author Mark Twain and industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

Leaves of Grass (Boston- Thayer and Eldridge, year 85 of the States, 1860) (New York Public Library)

Another section of this exhibition notes Whitman’s interest in the still young medium of photography. Over the decades he was the subject of 130 professional photos, including the famous 1854 daguerreotype that was used in the first edition of
Leaves of Grass, the 1865 portrait by Matthew Brady and later depictions of the “Good Gray Poet” as an aging and kindly symbol of the struggles of the recent past.

Whitman, like his almost exact contemporary Frederick Douglass, gave eloquent voice to the revolutionary and democratic impulses that found expression in the war that put an end to chattel slavery. Like Douglass as well, he had difficulty orienting himself in the decades following the Civil War. He remained a radical, a humanist, but he could see little alternative to the America of the Gilded Age, other than an America of artisan craftsmen that was rapidly disappearing.

Walt Whitman, 1887

During the last years of his life in Camden, New Jersey, Whitman’s comments were taken down by the much younger Horace Traubel, who eventually accumulated some 5,000 pages of material drawn from their conversations. The editor of a recently published abridged version of the material (Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America, 2019), Brenda Wineapple, comments that Traubel “pushed back against some of Whitman’s biases, both men enjoying the give-and-take. For Traubel was a committed socialist, which Whitman decidedly was not. ‘How much have you looked into the subject of the economic origin of things we call vices, evils, sins?’ Traubel gently needled his friend. Smiling, Whitman replied with good humor, ‘You know how I shy at problems, duties, consciences: you seem to like to trip me with your pertinent impertinences.’”

Left-wing literary critic Newton Arvin in Whitman (1938) was quite insistent that Whitman was a socialist, but this over-simplifies a complicated historical process and substitutes an element of wishful thinking for concrete social and intellectual realities.

Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins, 1887-88

The Public Library exhibition contains an interesting section on the impact of Whitman on American culture. A wall is given over to copies of books of poetry and prose by writers inspired or shaped by Whitman: Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg and many others.

Also available are brief audio excerpts from musical figures influenced by Whitman, including Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” and Kurt Weill, who composed “Three Whitman Songs” in 1942, just after the entry of the US into the Second World War. …

The public library exhibition prominently features the following profound excerpt from the preface to the very first edition of Leaves of Grass: “Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is…The greatest poet…places himself where the future becomes present.” Clearly Whitman wrote with a sense of history, of his own place in history, of the connection between the present and the past and with an optimism about the future.

While it may be appropriate to call Whitman “America’s poet”, that title should not be seen as an expression of a narrow nationalism. His American nationalism, though contradictory, was not of a chauvinist or exclusionary character. In “Salut Au Monde,” one of his poems in Leaves of Grass, he offers a fraternal greeting to the world:

What cities the light or warmth penetrates
I penetrate those cities myself
All islands to which birds wing their way
I wing my way myself.

Toward you all, in America’s name,
I raise high the perpendicular hand,
I make the signal,
To remain after me in sight forever,
For all the haunts and homes of men.

Indeed, Matthiessen in American Renaissance points out that Whitman’s “belief in the need to speak not merely for Americans but for the workers of all lands seems to have given the impetus for his odd habit of introducing random words from other languages, to the point of talking about ‘the ouvrier class’!”

Spanish censorship of research on Franco atrocities


This is a 2012 Spanish video about poets in the prisons of dictator Franco.

By Alejandro López in Spain:

Spain’s University of Alicante censors scholarly articles on fascist repression

27 June 2019

In an unprecedented decision, the University of Alicante (UA) agreed to a request from a fascist lieutenant’s son to censor scholarly articles linking his father to deadly repression at the time of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). This sets a dangerous precedent to censor academic research, opening the door to large-scale revision of the history of Spanish fascism.

Last week, the UA provisionally agreed to erase from two digital articles written by Professor Juan Antonio Ríos Carratalá the name of lieutenant Antonio Luis Baena Tocón, who participated in the fascist repression. Baena was secretary in the council of war that condemned to death the famous poet Miguel Hernández. Another article by Ríos Carratalá, “The Diego San José case, the shadow of Miguel Hernández and the humourist judge” was removed from the UA’s Institutional Repository.

The fascist regime led by General Francisco Franco was one of Europe’s most repressive regimes in the 20th century. More than 200,000 men and women were executed during the Civil War, and another 200,000 died in fascist concentration camps. Officially, 114,266 people are still classified as “disappeared”, that is, their bodies were abandoned or buried by paramilitary units of the fascist Falange or by the military. Hundreds of thousands of others fled Spain and remained in exile until the fall of the dictatorship.

Hernández was a poet and playwright associated with the Generation of ’27 movement and the Generation of ’36 movement, and is recognised as one of great Spanish poets. During the Civil War, he campaigned against Franco’s fascist forces, enrolling in the Communist Party-led Fifth Regiment, and joined the First Cavalry Company as a cultural-affairs officer, reading his poetry daily on the radio. He travelled extensively, organising cultural events and reading his poetry at rallies and on the front lines to Republican forces fighting the fascists.

Hernández did not escape Spain after the Republican surrender to Franco in April 1939. He was arrested multiple times after the war for his anti-fascist sympathies. He was eventually sentenced to death as “an extremely dangerous and despicable element to all good Spaniards.” Franco later commuted his sentence to 30 years in prison, to avoid making him an international martyr like Federico Garcia Lorca—the celebrated poet, playwright, and theatre director who was executed by fascist forces at the beginning of the civil war.

The harshness of his incarceration took its toll, however, and Hernández died of tuberculosis in 1942, at the age of 31.

According to Ríos Carratalá, Baena Tocón was a secondary figure in fascist repression, but supported it. Carratalá writes that Baena Tocón, “the person who could have told the specialists in the biography of Miguel Hernández so much, carried out an essential task during the postwar period, under the orders of the investigating judge: purging, emptying and eliminating the collection of republican press deposited in the library of Madrid. His objective was to search for ‘crimes’, whose consequences could be a death sentence.”

Now, however, Antonio Luis Baena Tocón will only be linked with Hernández’s death through his initials in Ríos Carratalá’s articles. The fascist lieutenant’s son complained to El País: “I have found various falsehoods about the way he was and acted … They present him as an executioner, while he was another victim” of Franco.

… Now, amid a broad promotion of Francoism in the Spanish ruling elite, researchers are to be forbidden to identify the authors of its bloody crimes.

Over 40 years later, after decades of increasing war since the 1991 Stalinist dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a decade of draconian social austerity since the 2008 financial crisis, Spanish capitalism is in a deep crisis. Amid the discrediting of the post-Francoite Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP) duopoly, police brutally cracked down on the 2017 Catalan independence referendum. The ruling elite was then promoting Vox, an explicitly pro-Francoite party linked to the army, granting it air time and allowing it to establish itself in mainstream politics.

As part and parcel of this offensive, the Spanish ruling class is now seeking to suppress the record of its bloody crimes under fascism in order to legitimise the resurgence of Spanish fascism.

The UA’s resolution comes just weeks after Spain’s Supreme Court issued a ruling endorsing Franco’s 1936 fascist coup. Claiming that the removal of Franco’s remains from the “Valley of the Fallen”, a state-run monument, would be “extraordinarily harmful” to the “public interest”, the court referred to Franco as “head of state from 1 October 1936 until his death in November 1975.” This unprecedented ruling implies that the state considers as legitimate Franco’s declaration that he was head of state, based on launching a fascist coup against an elected government.

The UA’s resolution is receiving growing opposition.

Ana Martínez Rus, Professor of Contemporary History at University Complutense of Madrid told eldiario.org: “I’m very angry … [the resolution] questions our profession and is another obstacle to writing about the Franco regime.”

Enumerating everything that the resolution questions, Martinez Rus lists “Freedom of teaching and expression, scientific rigor, historiographical practice, the right to information.” She added that it opens a precedent: “All of us can get involved in a lawsuit, and not only about the civil war, this can be extended to other times, everyone is a descendent from someone and has a surname. They do not want their names to appear as repressors, and we end up not knowing the magnitude. This opens the Pandora’s box, it leaves us helpless.”

Ismael Saz, professor at Valencia University, said the resolution is “academic censorship, one of the worst kind”. He added that “we work with people, not statues, with victims and repressors.”

Saz also linked the case to the Supreme Court’s recent endorsement of Franco, stating that “It comes just 10 days after the Supreme Court’s resolution recognising the dictator since ’36. … Francoism continues to raise blisters because they won a war, lasted a lot, and during the Transition there was no break with it.”

The opposition to the censorship was also visible on Twitter. Hours after El País posted the story, tens of thousands of users repeated the name of Antonio Luis Baena Tocón, the name of the university or Miguel Hernández, making these terms the Trending Topic in Spain in the social network. Many Twitter users stressed that they did not want the name of Antonio Luis Baena Tocón to be forgotten.

The author also recommends:

Spain’s Supreme Court endorses 1936 fascist coup
[17 June 2019]

The Spanish elections and the struggle against authoritarian rule
[27 April 2019]

Ancient Roman poet Ovid, a Marxist?


This 2016 video from England says about itself:

In this module, Dr Llewelyn Morgan (University of Oxford) thinks about Ovid’s Metamorphoses in relation to Virgil’s Aeneid.

Some time ago, this blog asked the question whether ancient Greek poet Homer was a Marxist.

My short answer was no. However, did ancient Homer at least have one idea in common with modern socialists?

Yes. In Homer’s Odyssey, book XVII, King Odysseus is disguised as a beggar. He tells his companion, the swineherd Eumaios, that he can stand lots of trouble. However, now he is hungry. Odysseus then says (lines 285-289; my translation),

“But one thing no one can deny is ravening hunger, a cursed plague bringing people much trouble. That is why people launch oared ships for faraway expeditions across the harvestless sea, to bring evil and death to enemies.”

Here Odysseus, and Homer, in fact say wars are about economic resources. They sound like Bertolt Brecht on eating and morality. Homer did have at least one idea, the idea about the origins of wars, in common with modern Marxists and other socialists.

Now, to Ovid. Like Homer, not really a Marxist. However, like Homer, he had a ´socialist´ idea about the origin of wars.

In Metamorphoses, lines 141 to 143, he writes, translated by Brookes More:

they penetrated to the bowels of earth
and dug up wealth, bad cause of all our ills,
rich ores which long ago the earth had hid
and deep removed to gloomy Stygian caves:
and soon destructive iron and harmful gold
were brought to light; and War, which uses both,
came forth and shook with sanguinary grip
his clashing arms.

These lines are about the ‘iron age’ of human history according to Ovid.

That brings us to, to some extent, another parallel between Ovid and Marxists. Ovid in lines 89-150 of Metamorphoses describes the, according to him, four ages of human (pre-)history.

The age of the first human beings is the ‘golden age’. A time when there was equality and no private property yet. A classless and stateless society. So, no need for repressive governments and wars. There is a parallel with what Karl Marx called ‘primitive communism‘; and what other social scientists call ‘hunter-gatherer societies’. There are differences: Ovid adds mythological elements, like golden age spring lasting all year and rivers of milk and nectar flowing.

According to Ovid, after the golden age come the silver, bronze and iron age. This is a variation on the five ages of mankind of ancient Greek poet Hesiod. Progressively, these ages get worse and more violent. While human beings get more and more depraved.

According to Marx and other social scientists, after primitive communism come various types of class societies. With a rise of repressive governments and wars. Contrary to Hesiod and Ovid, Marx and similar scientists don´t claim that human beings as a whole get more and more depraved.

Though Ovid was no Marxist, extreme right people might call him a ‘cultural Marxist‘. A term of abuse among ‘alt-right’ neonazis for everyone opposing their support of inequality, their misogyny, their wars, etc.

Beowulf, ancient poem, new research


This 2015 video is called Classics Summarized: Beowulf.

From Harvard University in the USA:

Breaking down Beowulf

Researchers use statistical technique to find evidence that Old English poem had a single author

April 8, 2019

Summary: Using a statistical approach known as stylometry, which analyzes everything from the poem’s meter to the number of times different combinations of letters show up in the text, a team of researchers found new evidence that Beowulf is the work of a single author.

It’s been a towering landmark in the world of English literature for more than two centuries, but Beowulf is still the subject of fierce academic debate, in part between those who claim the epic poem is the work of a single author and those who claim it was stitched together from multiple sources.

In an effort to resolve the dispute, a team of researchers led by Madison Krieger, a post-doctoral fellow at the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics and Joseph Dexter, who received a Ph.D. from Harvard, turned to a very modern tool — a computer.

Using a statistical approach known as stylometry, which analyzes everything from the poem’s meter to the number of times different combinations of letters show up in the text, Krieger and colleagues found new evidence that Beowulf is the work of a single author. The study is described in a April 8 paper published in Nature Human Behaviour.

In addition to Krieger, the study was co-authored by Leonard Neidorf from Nanjing University, an expert on Beowulf whose numerous studies include a book on the poem’s transmission, as well as Michelle Yakubek, who worked on the project as a student at the Research Science Institute, and Pramit Chaudhuri from the University of Texas at Austin. Chaudhuri and Dexter are the co-directors of the Quantitative Criticism Lab, a multi-institutional group devoted to developing computational approaches for the study of literature and culture.

“We looked at four broad categories of items in the text,” Krieger said. “Each line has a meter, and many lines have what we call a sense pause, which is a small pause between clauses and sentences similar to the pauses we typically mark with punctuation in Modern English. We also looked at aspects of word choice.”

“But it turns out one of the best markers you can measure is not at the level of words, but at the level of letter-combinations,” he continued. “So we counted all the times the author used the combination ‘ab’, ‘ac’, ‘ad’, and so on.”

Using those metrics, Krieger said, the team combed through the Beowulf text, and found it to be consistent throughout — a result that lends further support to the theory of single authorship.

“Across many of the proposed breaks in the poem, we see that these measures are homogeneous,” Krieger said. “So as far as the actual text of Beowulf is concerned, it doesn’t act as though there is supposed to be a major stylistic change at these breaks. The absence of major stylistic shifts is an argument for unity.”

The study is just the latest effort to pin down Beowulf’s often-mysterious background.

“There are two big debates about Beowulf,” Krieger explained. “The first is when it was composed, because the date of composition affects our understanding of how Beowulf is to be interpreted. For instance, whether it is a poem near or far in time from the conversion to Christianity is an important question.”

The second debate among Beowulf academics, Krieger said, is related to whether the poem was the work of one author, or many.

“The first edition that was widely available to the public was published in 1815, and the unity of the work was almost immediately attacked,” Krieger said. “From high school, everyone remembers the battle with Grendel and Grendel’s mother, and maybe the dragon, but if you go back and read the whole poem, there are weird sections about, for instance, how good Beowulf is at swimming, and other sections that go back hundreds of years and talk about hero kings that have ostensibly nothing to do with the story. So the way we read it now… seems very disjointed.”

One piece of evidence that has factored into debates about unitary composition can be seen just by looking at the text.

“The handwriting is different,” Krieger said. “At what I would call a random point in the poem, just mid-sentence, and not really an important sentence, the first scribe’s handwriting stops, and somebody else takes over. It’s clear that the second scribe also proofread the first scribe, so even though currently nobody really thinks that these two guys were different poets, or were joining together parts of a poem at this random mid-sentence location, it has helped contribute to a narrative according to which the writing of Beowulf, and maybe its original composition, was a long and collaborative effort.

For the nineteenth century, the prevailing view among academics was that the poem must be the work of multiple authors. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that another author — one whose name is all but synonymous with epic storytelling — began to challenge that idea.

His name? J.R.R. Tolkien.

“Tolkien was one of the greatest champions of single authorship,” Krieger said. “He was a very prominent Beowulf scholar, and in 1936 he wrote a landmark piece, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, that really revived the idea that it was the work of a single person.”

At the heart of Tolkien‘s argument, Krieger said, was the way in which Christianity is reflected in the text.

“The Christianization of Beowulf is very interesting, because every single character in it is a pagan, even in these odd digressions” Krieger said. “Beowulf is from southern Sweden and goes to Denmark to help other pagan Germanic peoples fight monsters…but it’s overlaid throughout with a Christian perspective and infused with Christian language.” Computational evidence from the study supports Tolkien’s view, from a new perspective. “Arguments based on the poem’s content or its author’s supposed belief system are vital, of course, but equally important are arguments based on the nitty-gritty of stylistic details. The latter also have the merit of being testable, measurable.”

Though he acknowledged it’s unlikely the new study will be the end of the debates about Beowulf’s authorship, Krieger believes it can shed important new light on English literary traditions.

“If we really believe this is one coherent work by one person, what does it mean that it has these strange asides?” he asked. “Maybe one of the biggest takeaways from this is about how you structured a story back then. Maybe we have just lost the ability to read literature in the way people at the time would have understood it, and we should try to understand how these asides actually fit into the story.”

Going forward, Krieger and colleagues are hoping to apply the stylometry tools developed for the study to other literary traditions and other landmark works.

“Even works as well-studied as the Iliad and the Odyssey have yet to be analyzed using a full array of computational tools,” Krieger said. “The fine-grained features that seem to matter most have never been examined in a lot of traditions, and we’re hoping to spread these techniques that we think could change the way similar problems are approached.”

Krieger also hopes to use the techniques to understand the stylistic evolution of English across history.

“Putting Old English in context is the springboard,” he said. “This is the birth of English literature. From here, we can look at what aspects of style evolved — not just grammar, but at the cultural level, what features people enjoyed, and how they changed over time.”

Ultimately, though, Krieger believes the study is a prime example of how ancient texts still hold secrets that can be uncovered through the use of modern tools.

“This is the first step in taking an old debate and refreshing it with some new methodology,” he said. “It’s a new extension of the whole critical apparatus, and it’s exciting that an area probably assumed to be very traditional can in fact be at the cutting edge of work that spans the humanities and sciences.”

This research was supported with funding from a Neukom Institute for Computational Science CompX Grant, a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant, a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and a Neukom Fellowship.

Great gray shrike, wren and poetry


This is a 2007 Dutch video on the Oude Buisse Heide.

This video is the sequel.

After 23 January 2018 came 24 January. Our final full day at Oude Buisse Heide.

Early in the morning, again a nuthatch at the feeder.

Atelier, 24 January 2019

This photo shows the Oude Buisse Heide atelier building, where poetess Henriette Roland Holst wrote poems and her visual artist husband made his art.

Atelier, on 24 January 2019

This photo shows the atelier at a closer distance.

Richard Roland Holst, 24 January 2019

Inside the atelier there are these words by Henriette, commemorating her deceased husband Richard (Rik).

Henriette Roland Holst, 24 January 2019

And also these lines by Henriette Roland Holst about friendships.

Two stock doves sit on the roof of the Angora farm.

De Reten, 24 January 2019

We walk from the Oude Buisse Heide north to nature reserve De Reten; which became a nature reserve only recently.

Arriving at De Moeren woodland, we turn back.

Many roe deer footprints.

Just after passing the border between De Reten and Oude Buisse Heide, a great grey shrike sits on a treetop.

De Reten-Oude Buisse Heide border, 24 January 2019

A bit further, a wren.

This was our last Oude Buisse Heide day. We will not forget it!