Saturday, April 30, 2011

"Adam, his internal fluids, 18"

It hadn't occurred to me that one of the funnier parts of an anthology of bad verse, if done right, would be the subject index. E.g., via Futility Closet, snippets from the index of D.B. Wyndham-Lewis's anthology The Stuffed Owl --
Adam, his internal fluids, 18
Bagpipes, their silence regretted, 151
Bards, dead, common objects of the sea-shore, 66
Beef, death-dealing, 239
Cabbage, true-hearted, 22
Fire, wetness not an attribute of, 28
Maiden, feathered, uncontrolled appetites of, 59
Woman, useful as a protection against lions, 118

This entry is almost a standalone Beckett (or Lydia Davis) story, or a story-of-Alan's-life:
Muse, reformed by a pension, 5; fooled by grovelling sons of verse, 73; the manurial, 91; invited to celebrate Mr. Baker’s return to health, 109; proves unequal to the task, 110

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sockdolagers revisited

A story about "sock cloggers" (via Elisa Gabbert) having reminded Matt P. (who's Dr P. as of a couple of hours ago) of sockdolagers, now is probably a good time to note that a sockdolager is not merely a "decisive blow" or "something exceptional in any respect (esp. a large fish)" but is also a particular form of fishhook:

The way this apparently works is that when the fish pulls on the lower hook it releases the spring and gets impaled by the second hook... The first OED quotes for "sockdolager" in the punch and fish senses both date from the 1830s, and it is not fully clear which came first. The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests very implausibly that the word is
said to be a variant of doxology, on a notion of "finality." The meaning "something exceptional" is attested from 1838. Sockdologising was nearly the last word President Abraham Lincoln heard. During the performance of Tom Taylor's "Our American Cousin," assassin John Wilkes Booth (who knew the play well) waited for the line "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologising old man-trap," and as the audience laughed, Booth fired the fatal shot.

in which case the "punch" sense would most likely have come first; however, one is inclined to side with the Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant which describes sockdolager as "a word inadequately explained by its imperfect resemblance to doxology" (but then goes on to offer an extremely silly Icelandic etymology). O. Henry's use in "Confessions of a humorist" possibly supports the derivation from doxology but is in any case far too late to be relevant. It is interesting, by the way, that the obvious derivation from "sock" is rendered implausible because sock (v.) as "beat" is attested only once (in a 1699 book of sailors' slang) before the coining of "sockdolager."

Dept of florid little squiggles

Orwell, in his essay on Dickens:

Next day, child swallowed two beads; the day after that, he treated himself to three, and so on, till in a week's time he had got through the necklace — five-and-twenty beads in all. The sister, who was an industrious girl and seldom treated herself to a bit of finery, cried her eyes out at the loss of the necklace; looked high and low for it; but I needn't say, didn't find it. A few days afterwards, the family were at dinner — baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it — the child, who wasn't hungry, was playing about the room, when suddenly there was the devil of a noise, like a small hailstorm. [...]
...the unmistakable Dickens touch, the thing that nobody else would have thought of, is the baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it. How does this advance the story? The answer is that it doesn't. It is something totally unnecessary, a florid little squiggle on the edge of the page; only, it is by just these squiggles that the special Dickens atmosphere is created. 
I'm frequently reminded of this insight, as it applies to a lot of things that seem almost inadvertently charming; an example is this bit from today's City Room post on retiring Columbia Japanese prof. Donald Keene (via Light reading / disambiguation):
He [Donald Keene] was born in 1922 in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and attended James Madison High School where, because of alphabetical seating, he became friends with a young man at a nearby desk named Lee, who was Chinese.
“I grew interested in the Orient and one day I bought a translation of the Japanese story ‘Tale of Genji’ in the Hotel Astor bookstore in Times Square, only because it was so cheap — two volumes for 49 cents. And that’s how I got hooked on Japanese literature.” —"Columbia Professor's Retirement Is Big News in Japan," NYT
Though you could argue that it helps the story by stressing the essential arbitrariness of the choice -- which is played off against Keene's 60-odd years at Columbia.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Grad school as a sinecure

The latest issue of Nature had a lot of articles -- ranging from indifferent to bad -- about the PhD, Jonathan Mayhew has been talking about grad school/academia on his weird quasi-professional blog, and then there's the whole Peter Thiel-centered discourse on whether people should even go to college... research pressure prevents a long or esp. reasoned post on any of this so I'll just give a brief account of my own reasons for going to grad school, as I can't find anyone expressing the same view anywhere. (In general my views on higher education are "conservative" in the sense that I think radical changes are likely to destroy value, and "left-wing" in favoring high spending levels on education. But I've blogged about this in the past.)

I'm puzzled by the campaign to reduce the rate of production of science PhD's on the grounds that people are somehow being gypped. I am convinced that these hypothetical victims are mostly straw-men. I don't know of anyone who starts (e.g.) a physics PhD thinking it's an efficient way to increase their potential earnings -- or, for that matter, that a PhD guarantees a tenured job. Personally, I was intellectually adrift as a senior; I didn't want to take up a demanding job that was unrelated to my interests, and on the other hand I didn't trust myself, left to my own devices, to accomplish or learn anything, being indolent and dilettantish. Besides, there was much to be said for high-speed internet, insomnia-friendly hours, and access to university libraries. (I remember not applying to explicitly technical schools like MIT because I was worried they wouldn't have well-stocked libraries.) It seemed worthwhile to give grad school a shot. While some of this is idiosyncratic, a reasonable fraction -- between a third and a half -- of people seem to drift into grad school along vaguely similar paths.

(Why physics? (I was one of those multiple-majors.) One consideration, which should have been more important than it in fact was, was money. I didn't want to be dependent on my parents or on loans and this nixed law school. I briefly considered English grad school but was influenced by Brad Leithauser telling me that if I wanted to do English grad school it'd be wise to take a few years off after college; as I don't think far ahead his advice had the effect of just entirely killing the idea. I chose physics over math because the physics dept. at Amherst was friendlier and I had the amorphous sense that they'd do a better job of getting me into grad school somewhere.)

By and large, with a couple of minor sociological caveats, I think grad school served my purposes quite well. One gets paid enough to break even, without exceptional effort. The initial spurt of classes kept one engaged, challenged, etc. -- maybe pedagogically "worse" than college in general, but pedagogy is irrelevant beyond a certain level; what matters is whether the material is interesting -- and of course one can be essentially arbitrarily busy with research. (This is how one ought to do it but the flesh is weak.) There's more job security than in the average corporate workplace, esp. at a large public university; I think some people have been grad students for a decade or so. And I imagine that if I were to leave academia after my PhD and a postdoc, I'd find some manner of (semi-)quantitative work out there; while it's true that I'd earn much less than classmates who went straight to the real world after college, that is the nature of backup plans... admittedly the calculus is quite different if one (say) has kids to support, etc. but most people in the relevant situation do not.

(I suspect that the right kind of grad school would also be an ideal place to job-hunt from. Urbana isn't that, being just a little too far from Chicago. On the other hand, stipends do not scale with living expenses and one would be much more out-of-pocket in a major city.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"A straggling a false beard that had slipped"

Again via Calista, a delightful reminiscence about Empson's year teaching at Kenyon College [see here for previous coverage of Empson's habits]

The Remarkable Mr. Empson

Empson was, hands down, the star of that summer. He chose, for instance, to live in the student dormitory, so that we saw a lot of him. He was friendly and accessible. Even if one did not know who he was, one knew that he was the man with the yellowed cigarette holder in his lips, even when he was the captain of the Ambiguities playing softball, as I have said; or when walking around the campus reading a book as he walked--and I would swear I saw him dive into a swimming pool with it. Once when I asked if it wasn't difficult to read while he was walking, he replied, "It's much harder on a bicycle."

He was odd enough just to look at. He was of slight build, but sturdy and vigorous. His dark eyes were magnified by thick lenses. But one's attention was drawn immediately to a most unfortunate beard, which the writer and critic John Gross once described as "a straggling appendage which began below his jaw line and looked like a false beard that had slipped." He was extraordinarily nervous, and ran his fingers through it when speaking. (I remember an amusing conversation with Robert Lowell, comparing beards: Lowell had worn one during his time as a conscientious objector and complained that he had a hard time keeping it clean: ketchup, he said, was the worst.) But Empson's nervousness was that of a person who was over-energetic and preoccupied, not fidgeting.

He wore whitish suits, unkempt, discolored, loose. His belts did not run through the loops of his trousers but ran around the trousers below the loops. And, in addition to that yellowed cigarette holder, he sometimes smoked a gross yellow pipe.

As his clothes suggested, he was not tidy. At the Lowells' afternoons, he smoked, of course, incessantly, thumping the ashes on the floor. When he finished a cigarette, he absent-mindedly threw the extinguished butt toward a window, usually having it bounce back from the screen. After a moment of startled indecision, he seemed to contemplate whether he should pick it up, but turned his back instead.

To the swimming pool he wore a flowing Chinese robe with a dragon on the back. He would walk, silently, to the diving board, stand on it several minutes, clasping his hands behind his head like a bearded fakir doing penance on a mountain, then suddenly he would dash forward, give one brusque hop, dive into the water, swim to the end underwater, clamber out, repeat the whole procedure one more time, then leave the pool.

The bike inside your heart

A couple of days ago Calista sent along a fascinating poem, "Thirty Bob a Week," by the late-Victorian poet John Davidson. It's got considerable documentary interest (e.g., "like a mole I journey in the dark / a travelling along the Underground" and "with your science and your books and your theories about spooks") but, like most Victorian verse, comes apart near the end when it tries to get serious. This passage caught my eye (RPO has a v. with notes):

I step into my heart and there I meet
   A god-almighty devil singing small,
 Who would like to shout and whistle in the street,
   And squelch the passers flat against the wall;
 If the whole world was a cake he had the power to take,
   He would take it, ask for more, and eat them all.

 And I meet a sort of simpleton beside,
   The kind that life is always giving beans;
 With thirty bob a week to keep a bride
   He fell in love and married in his teens:
 At thirty bob he stuck; but he knows it isn't luck:
   He knows the seas are deeper than tureens.

 And the god-almighty devil and the fool
   That meet me in the High Street on the strike,
 When I walk about my heart a-gathering wool,
   Are my good and evil angels if you like.
 And both of them together in every kind of weather
   Ride me like a double-seated bike. 
It is obvious why this would have appealed to McDiarmid. I'm surprised that Auden didn't include this poem in his light verse anthology; it was sufficiently well-known that either A. or the Doddses would almost certainly have read it, it meets the criteria, and the quoted passage is reminiscent of Auden's famous analysis of T.S. Eliot's sensibility:
T.S. Eliot is not a single figure but a household. This household has, I think, at least three permanent residents. First, there is the archdeacon, who believes in and practices order, discipline, and good manners, social and intellectual, with a thoroughly Anglican distaste for evangelical excess.... And, no wonder, for the poor gentleman is condemned to be domiciled with a figure of a very different stamp, a violent and passionate old peasant grandmother, who has witnessed murder, rape, pogroms, famine, flood, fire, everything; who has looked into the abyss and, unless restrained, would scream the house down.... Last, as if this state of affairs were not difficult enough, there is a young boy who likes to play slightly malicious jokes. The too earnest guest, who has come to interview the Reverend, is startled and bewildered in being handed an explosive cigar.

One possible diagnosis of what went wrong with Victorian poetry -- and more generally with Victorian writing -- is that the diction got stratified to such a degree that you couldn't sensibly talk about seas in the same register as tureens; the only ways around this were to write in dialect or at least in brogue, or to use images that were in some sense explicitly comic. Davidson's poem, in the parts that work, does a bit of both but I think depends chiefly on deniability-through-comedy; his use of the outlandish but up-to-date image is very like what Eliot does in the first few paragraphs of "Prufrock."

Friday, April 22, 2011

The rhetoric of happiness

Photo src.

Evan Osnos has a good post on the new happiness drive in China, which is naturally faintly ludicrous:

Beijing Trade Union has arranged for forty thousand screens on buses and subway trains, as well as jumbotrons in city train stations and shopping malls, to play “happy testimonials” from workers, farmers, and teachers. A crew called the “Happy Blossom” is also making short films about the happy lives led by factory workers, to be shown on Beijing television. (Global Times includes a qualifying paragraph: “However, not every laborer appears to lead a happy life. ‘I am not happy at all to be a teacher. I majored in bel canto and I have to teach pupils because I don’t have better job opportunities,’ a 25-year old music teacher” told the paper.) 
Silliness aside, the Chinese govt. is playing a rhetorical game with happiness -- using it as a catch-all justification for policies that don't have easily measurable implications, or as a synonym for "intangibles" -- that has lately become ubiquitous. I find the "happiness" idea quite unambiguously worthwhile in its purely destructive uses: consider, e.g., the old Krugman point about French GDP per head being lower than American GDP per head because the French take more time off. It is intuitively clear that this weakens arguments of the form, "the French are poorer than the Americans, therefore they should adopt policies that make them more like the Americans" -- there clearly is a trade-off, and (at least at the intuitive level) a trade-off corresponds to a set of points that are not "well-ordered" in terms of utility.

With the constructive agenda based on happiness, however, I am almost entirely out of sympathy. No doubt this is partly stylistic -- like Ian Leslie, I dislike the "Trendy Vicar tone" of the happiness movement, all the "stop to think about it" / "hectic pace of life" crap -- and partly based on skepticism about self-reported happiness (largely dispositional, heavily socially influenced, inflected by signaling: I approve of people who respond to "how are you" with a grunt). But it also seems trivial to come up with situations that are the exact inverse of that Krugman argument: cases in which it is intuitively sensible to trade happiness for other things, like knowledge or responsibilities. For instance most works of art, and perhaps the large majority of scientific inventions -- e.g., the spinning jenny -- probably can't be justified through their impact on gross human happiness, but are worthwhile in some fairly obvious sense. (One can wriggle out of this through redefining "happiness" to include every possibly valuable thing, have higher/lower forms, etc. but this is a stupid semantic game.)

Anyway, the point about "happiness" is that it is the latest buzzword for scientism in the humanities; it is what "progress" was in the era after Herbert Spencer, and (perhaps) what growth was for a while in the mid-20th. (Perhaps the era of Lagrange and Gauss, ca. 1800, was obsessed with voting systems for a similar reason.) There is an enduring tendency for the latest scientific fad -- preferably something that is a little amorphous, though this seems not to be essential -- to be applied to human affairs by implicitly adopting a self-serving value system according to which the one thing the new science is about is precisely the thing that's to be maximized. Thus with psychology -- evolutionary and otherwise -- and happiness.

Of course, these scientistic fads have their political implications (Evolutionary Progress, of course, goes with racism; happiness, with a sort of goofy Chestertonian conservatism). There is a chicken-and-egg puzzle here that I'd like to understand better: to what extent are these political tendencies autonomous attributes of the sciences, and to what extent are they derivatives of the "class interests" of scientists? For instance, it seems clear to me that the discovery of large innate racial differences would delight Steven Pinker, although I doubt that he's a racist; it would just be a dramatic vindication of the kind of biological determinism his research is based on. At the other extreme, a lot of people, like Richard Posner, seem to have pre-existing views that they garnish with faddish scientific examples. On the third hand, one becomes an evolutionary psychologist or neurobiologist by choice, and chooses, again, to work on topics that impinge on human affairs -- typically not the most intellectually interesting part of a discipline. To what extent is ideological self-selection important here?

Happiness is different from Progress because its intrinsic political tendency seems to me traditionalist and conservative, i.e., quite different from the pre-existing tendencies and the "class interests" of scientists, much closer to those of David Brooks and Ross Douthat. This makes the politics of happiness an interesting test case for one's meta-theories about the social sciences...


Unrelated but too short for a separate post: because Elisa Gabbert is Boston's best poet, you can now buy her book The French Exit for $6. Do yourself a favor and buy it even if you "don't like poetry": it's one of the more entertaining books I've read this year. (This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of its merits; the reviews focus on "cleverness" which is misleading; more accurate, I think, to see the wit as (a) part of the definition of a well-defined and appealing voice, (b) a way of crystallizing the mostly everyday subject matter.) Here is one of my favorite poems in the book, conveniently online.


PPS In the interests of full disclosure I should confess that I've been meaning to write a post on happiness ever since I saw the picture that heads this post.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Long-haired guinea pigs

I'm probably the last person on earth to hear about these (thanks, twitter!), but they are still exceedingly weird:

Sources: 1, 2, 3. How to make sure your guinea pig is healthy:

- The long haired guinea pig's nose, eyes, and ears should be clean and free of discharge.
- The coat of the long haired guinea pig should be full, thick, and soft. Pat it a few times to see if you can find any bald patches or irritated areas. A little ruffle from playing is normal.
- The fur should be free of parasites such as lice, which can cause serious harm for the long haired guinea pig.
- The long haired guinea pig should be plump, round, and firm.
- Long haired guinea pig should not be underweight nor overweight; both of these conditions are signs of health issues or possible future health issues. [ed. putting the locks in Goldilocks]

The white pig pictured is a Peruvian; Wikipedia says:

The Peruvian is the progenitor of all modern long haired breeds, being a Guinea pig with hair that grows long continuously all over its body, sometimes to an excess of 20 inches.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fire escapes and broken staircases

Reading Teju Cole's Open City I had the distinct sense that fire escapes were a Chekhovian gun (phrase appears only twice in the first half of the book though), and when I got to the scene near the end in which the narrator takes the wrong door out of a concert and ends up on a crow's-nest-like fire escape, I was a little surprised that I hadn't read a fire escape scene in a literary novel before this. The novel is one I'd recommend; it's fascinatingly (dis)organized (James Wood is good on this aspect of it), intermittently very well-written esp. in descriptive passages -- e.g., I liked "starlight coming as fast as it could," and rain "like a great torrent of mirrors" -- but both probably need context to work -- and the voice is on the whole right for the narrator, superficially a plodding Nigerian psych resident living in New York. While clearly influenced by Sebald, Cole seems to me quite lacking in one of Sebald's great merits -- there is little that is self-delighting about the narrator's knowledge, it is mostly humdrum and dutiful and sometimes downright boring; again this is probably appropriate to the narrator, such as he is, and a much more Sebaldian narrator would have been wrong for this book and definitely less psychologically interesting.

But this post is meant to be about fire escapes, which are peculiarly evocative of a certain kind of New York street, and ultimately of a certain era. My favorite description is from Richard Price's Lush Life:
the hanging gardens of ancient fire escapes
but Cole has a good one too:
prewar buildings, each with an elaborate fire escape that it offered like a transparent mask to the world.
(There are other refs to Yoruba masks in the book.) Cole is very good on cities-as-palimpsests, and the narrator's getting stuck on the fire stairs of Carnegie Hall is of-a-piece with the meditations about, say, the lack of significance of Ellis Island for black immigrants; fire escapes and ramshackle tenements are symbols of the immigration-heavy early 20th, when the experience was better-defined and in some ways richer. Being a certain kind of present-day immigrant is, in relative terms, an amorphous predicament; the actual differences between cities are relatively small (power outages!) and one can easily keep in touch with people, etc. but the old, once-functional set of associations are now a little absurd if "evocative."

As I was walking back to work from the coffee-shop where I finished the book, I remembered the line from Price and tried to recreate the passage it was from; I seemed to remember it "musically," as periods and pauses one had to set words to -- this didn't work at all, because as it happens I was just remembering the tune of a sentence in Proust-Scott Moncrieff-Kilmartin:
In each of their gardens the moonlight, copying the art of Hubert Robert, scattered its broken staircases of white marble, its fountains, its iron gates temptingly ajar. 

There are gardens, iron, and staircases here I guess...

(Self-indulgent to record this here w/ no attempt to vivify, but it was an interesting experience and quite unusual with prose.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Paul Collins's article on the etymology of shitfaced (via Light reading) has a throwaway remark about Scots "words like to shog, a verb that means 'to shake from corpulence.'" This sent me back to the only place I'd seen "shog" before, a William Dunbar passage that is even better than I remember it being [fpelling flightly modernized from the Google books version]:
My fore-grantschir hecht Fyn Mac Kowle
That dang the devil, and gart him yowle,
The skyis rained when he wald scowle,
He troublit all the air:
He gat my grantschir Gog Magog,
Ay when he dansit, the warld wald schog;
Five thousand ells yeid in his frog
Of Hieland pladdis, and mair.
Yet he was but of tendir youth;
But after he grew mickle at fouth,
Ellevyne mile wide met was his mouth,
His teith was ten ell sqwair.
He wald upon his tais stand,
And tak the sternis doun with his hand,
And set them in a gold garland
Above his wyfis hair.

He had a wyf was lang of clift;
Hir hed wan higher than the lift;
The hevyne reardit when she wald rift,
The lass was no thyng slendir;
She spittit Loch Lomond with hir lippis;
Thunner and fyre-flaucht flew fra her hippis;
When she was crabbit the son tholit clippis;
The feende durst nocht offend hir.

Glossary (disclaimer: I'm not a Scots scholar). hecht = hight, was called. dang = flogged (pret. of "ding"). gart = made. ay = always. dansit = danced. ell = roughly a yard. yeid = went. frog = frock. mickle at fouth = to full bigness, "fulth". tais = toes. sternis = stars. clift = cleft. lift = sky. fyre-flaucht = fire-flight, lightning. tholit clippis = suffered eclipse.

Incidental OED factoid:
The Old Germanic word [for ell] (a compound of which is elbow n.) meant originally arm or fore-arm, and is cognate with Greek ὠλένη, Latin ulna, of same meaning. The diversity of meanings is common to all words denoting linear measures derived from the length of the arm; compare cubit n. and Latin ulna. The word ell seems to have been variously taken to represent the distance from the elbow or from the shoulder to the wrist or to the finger-tips, while in some cases a ‘double ell’ has superseded the original measure, and has taken its name.
 See also here for my favorite Dunbar poem (with glossary), famous for first OED use of "fuck."

"The fanged fish-gobbler"

Ciaran Byrne on twitter has been pushing a story from Northern Ireland about a wayward otter:

(Image from the BBC.)

The BBC has the clearest report of the events:
Farmer Joe Burke and shop owner Mike Hogan first noticed the animal as it passed by on the footpath outside Mr Hogan's window.
Concerned for its safety, they decided to come to its aid. However, the otter clearly had other ideas.
As a large crowd gathered, the otter became "very aggressive" and started trying to bite people.

He took a thick bag used for holding animal feed, and after a minor struggle, managed to capture the animal.
The two men loaded their charge into the back of Mr Burke's jeep, and made their way to a local lake with the intention of releasing the otter back into its natural habitat.
But again the otter was refusing to go quietly.
"He chewed his way out of the bag," said Mr Hogan. "The back window was missing on the jeep so he jumped out when we stopped."
The resourceful animal then made a dash for freedom half a mile back towards Tulla, before Mr Burke was able to catch it under a traffic cone.Mr Burke and Mr Hogan evenually caught the otter under a traffic cone. The men slid a piece of plywood under the cone and carried it back to the lake, where they let the otter back into the water.

Do, however, read the versions in the Sun ("fanged fish-gobbler"), the Irish Independent ("village terrorized by termin-otter"),  JOE ("Psycho Tayto bag otter runs amok in Irish town"), and best of all, the original Irish Sun headline ("Devil otter ate my mini-van").

This story is hopefully on its way to becoming a meme; here, for instance, is a story in the Irish Broadsheet titled "Devil Otter ate our Soccer Panel". Although it is not directly otter-related, I cannot resist posting this highly representative page of the Sun:

Monday, April 18, 2011

"A permanent hermeneutics of oneself"

Was much taken with Foucault's part of this LRB "seminar" on sexuality and solitude. (The LRB twitter feed dredged it up as a conversation about wanking, though Foucault's essay is really about the changing relationship between desire and action.)

On Artemidorus as interpreter of dreams:
Artemidorus wrote a book about the interpretation of dreams in the third century after the death of Christ, but he was a pagan. Three chapters of this book are devoted to sexual dreams. What is the meaning, or, more precisely, what is the prognostic value, of a sexual dream? It is significant that Artemidorus interpreted dreams in a way contrary to Freud, and gives an interpretation of sexual dreams in terms of economics, social relations, success and reverses in political activity and everyday life. For instance, if you dream that you have sex with your mother, that means that you will succeed as a magistrate, since your mother is obviously the symbol of your city or country... The only act he knows or recognises as sexual is penetration. Penetration is for him not only a sexual act, but is part of the social role of a man in a city. For Artemidorus sexuality is relational, and that sexual relations cannot be dissociated from social relations.

Whereas, for Augustine, involuntary desire is a reenactment within the individual's body of the Fall:
As a punishment of this revolt and as a consequence of this will to will independently from God, Adam lost control of himself. He wanted to acquire an autonomous will, and lost the ontological support for that will. That then became mixed in an indissociable way with involuntary movements, and this weakening of Adam’s will had a disastrous effect. His body, and parts of his body, stopped obeying his commands, revolted against him, and the sexual parts of his body were the first to rise up in this disobedience.

[...] The spiritual struggle consists, on the contrary, in turning our eyes continuously downwards or inwards in order to decipher, among the movements of the soul, which ones come from the libido. The task is at first indefinite, since libido and will can never be substantially dissociated from one another. And this task is not only an issue of mastership but also a question of the diagnosis of truth and illusion. It requires a permanent hermeneutics of oneself. [...] The main question of sexual ethics has moved from relations to people, and from the penetration model to the relation to oneself and to the erection problem: I mean to the set of internal movements which develop from the first and nearly imperceptible thought to the final but still solitary pollution.

All of this is supposed to hook up somehow with Richard Sennett's ideas about solitude in the early 19th cent.; it does, but not really in the way that Sennett wants, I think; his facts suggest that censorious, practical people -- like the Victorians -- inheriting the relevant Christian views, would take this notion of a "hermeneutics of oneself" and transform it into a hermeneutics of other people. Sennett: "Truthfulness with other people will depend on how a person has managed his or her own sexuality." And obviously, just as the monks could gauge their cleanliness by counting erections, the Victorians developed an obsession with the outward manifestations of sexual habits -- masturbation chief amongst these:
We are all aware of the bizarre symptoms Victorian medicine had to invent for the masturbator: hair suddenly growing on the palms of the masturbating hand, the tongue swelling up, the eyes distending, or, in the case of women, the radically distended clitoris. Victorian doctors had a reason for inventing these symptoms: since sexual desire itself was secret, hidden within the individual, the doctor or other authority could get control over the individual only by creating symptoms which would give sexual desire away. The extreme of this fantasy-invention appeared in 1876 in a text by Pouillet on female masturbation, one of the first texts in the medical literature on the subject. The diagnosis of female masturbation was peevishness, surliness towards strangers, and lying. These are the invariable signs that a woman has been masturbating.
I don't really buy Sennett's belief in the 18th century as a sane one in this context. Besides it is quite unclear on his account why attitudes changed when and as they did. I do however like the notion that auto-eroticism was used as a "model" of eroticism in general; it is a very "physics-y" attitude, to start off with a one-body problem and work outwards: also cf. Woody Allen on masturbation as "sex with someone I love."

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Two versions of a trick; Lowell poem with cat

It's hard to miss the similarity between the early poems of Geoffrey Hill and Robert Lowell, partly due to the shared Allen Tate influence; their first books even had similar titles, For the Unfallen and Land of Unlikeness respectively. (Hill's first poem: "Against the burly air I strode / Crying the miracles of God." Cf. Lowell's "he grappled at the net / with the coiled hurdling muscles of his thighs." I don't like Tate and by and large don't care for early Lowell or Hill either [1].) Less obviously, much of Hill's work is quite like History and the other books in Lowell's sonnet-writing phase; the resemblance has to do with the intensely "literary" personalities of both poets and the technical problems, and opportunities, that literariness brings up. For instance I think there is an obvious parallel between the endings of these poems:

I. Hill, "Funeral Music" part 8

Not as we are but as we must appear,   
Contractual ghosts of pity; not as we   
Desire life but as they would have us live,   
Set apart in timeless colloquy.
So it is required; so we bear witness,   
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,   
Each distant sphere of harmony forever   
Poised, unanswerable. If it is without   
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or   
If it is not, all echoes are the same   
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,   
How that should comfort us—or anyone   
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end ‘I have not finished’.
Our love will not come back on fortune’s wheel—

in the end it gets us, though a man know what he’d have:
old cars, old money, old undebased pre-Lyndon
silver, no copper rubbing through . . . old wives;
I could live such a too long time with mine.
In the end, every hypochondriac is his own prophet.
Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest
of all transcendence in a mode of being, hushing
all becoming. I’m for and with myself in my otherness,
in the eternal return of earth’s fairer children,
the lily, the rose, the sun on brick at dusk,
the loved, the lover, and their fear of life,
their unconquered flux, insensate oneness, painful “It was. . . .”
After loving you so much, can I forget
you for eternity, and have no other choice?
Both poems hinge on the trick of setting up a direct, personal close by attaching it to a string of generalities, expressed in less-than-immediate lines that especially in Lowell's case are verbiage; the turn, when it comes, is effective because of the flatness of the middle of the poem. The closing couplet, though famous, is not that effective on its own. (As usual, I find Hill more interesting at the verbal level, I am fond of "contractual ghosts of pity" and of the use of "vaunt.") L and H are like each other in being prone to both mustiness and cheap rhetoric; usually a good poem involves avoiding both faults, but these strike me as successful examples of indulging both and playing them off against each other.

(There is, likewise, a way of setting up one's special effects badly that I associate with Pound.)


This poem in Lowell's first book, which really ought to be a Lowellcat, reads like an inspired and hilarious self-parody (which I assume it wasn't, at least consciously, as Lowell never republished it):
A Suicidal Nightmare

Tonight and crouching in your jungle-bed,
O tiger of the gutless heart, you spied
The maimed man stooping with his bag;
And there was none to help. Cat, you saw red,
And like a grinning sphinx, you prophesied
Cain's nine and outcast lives are in the bag.

Watching the man, I spun my borrowed car
Into the bog. I'd left the traveled road
And crashed into a lower bog;
And that was why the catapulting fur,
A woolly lava of abstractions, flowed
Over my memory's inflated bag.

The maimed man stooped and slung me on his back:
My borrowed car flopped quacking in the flood,
It foundered in the lowest bog.
Man, why was it your rotten fabric broke?
"Brother, I fattened a caged beast on blood
And knowledge let the cat out of the bag."

"Pork, eggs, egret"

On this morning's Wikipedia ramble [1], I stumbled upon the article about Eleanor of Brittany, who preceded King John [2] and Henry III in the line of succession to Richard the Lionheart, and therefore had to be kept under house arrest all her life and prevented from having children. The conditions of her confinement were not especially restrictive:
While imprisoned by her uncle John, Eleanor was allowed to have 3 maids, and was provided fabric for clothes and bedding, and pocket money as much as 5 mark per quarter.[20]She also got a saddle with gilded reins and scarlet ornaments from John and another saddle from Henry III, which implied that she might be a horsewoman, and that she could not always be confined in her room.

What caught my eye, however, was this factoid:
Henry himself once sent her 50 yards of linen cloth, three wimples, 50 pounds of almonds and raisins respectively and a basket of figs.[19]

The mind boggles at the quantity of almonds... A later footnote provides a shopping list that is suggestive of the royal diet of the times:
Saturday: bread, ale, sole, almonds, butter, eggs. Sunday: mutton, pork, chicken and eggs. Monday: beef, pork, honey, vinegar. Tuesday. pork, eggs, egret. Wednesday: herring, conger, sole, eels, almonds and eggs. Thursday: pork, eggs, pepper, honey. Friday: conger, sole, eels, herring and almonds.

Source: 1215: The Year of Magna Carta, by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham. I don't know if Eleanor had a particular thing for almonds or this was standard medieval-royalty food, but she does seem to have gone through them at a shocking rate. NB the list is a shopping list, which is presumably why conger and eels were bought on the same day.


[1] I think the sequence was Edmund Gosse - Hamo Thornycroft (friend of Gosse's; awesome name) - Hamo the Sheriff (name remembered from Domesday Book) - Humphrey de Bohun (successor of H. the S.) - Henry III - Eleanor of Brittany.

[2] John was apparently referred to as John Lackland or Softsword (!)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Kindle: first and second impressions

I finally got around to ordering a Kindle last weekend; it arrived yesterday and I've been playing with it compulsively, mostly downloading free stuff (the most awesome thing about the kindle is all the free pre-1900 ebooks). Today my inbox looks like this:

I had resisted the idea of getting a Kindle because: (1) I'm by nature a late adopter, I like letting other people find the bugs. (2) Anything sufficiently technical or obscure (including all physics monographs and most contemporary poetry, even Heaney) is unavailable on the Kindle; the Kindle store is in some ways more like Borders than like Amazon. (3) Most of my reading comes from the university library anyway. (4) There is something unappealing [straight face] about taking electrical appliances to bed.[/straight face] However, (a) the Kindle is really cheap now and I had some gift certificate money just sitting in my Amazon account; (b) I travel a fair bit and always pick the most inappropriate in-flight reading, and besides my laptop has terrible battery life and is worthless as a portable pdf reader; (c) one sometimes needs instant gratification!

A few impressions:

1. The size of the thing is a little odd, too large for one's pockets but it feels a little daft to use one's backpack to cart it around. It is probably just the right size for a certain species of women's handbag but there is no unisex/male equivalent. (Maybe the Paris Review stoat bag?) So far I have been using a plastic bag from the college bookstore. Perhaps the larger-screen v. is more sensible, though as I said on twitter, buyer's remorse is the most enduring human emotion after Schadenfreude.

2. Screen size aside, the display is great. To test this I read an entire book -- Bertrand Russell's account of his visit to the USSR ca. 1920 -- in one go; it was pretty gentle on the eyes. The device -- at least the small v. -- is light enough to be comfortable to read in bed, and is perhaps easier to read one-handed than a book.

3. Elif Batuman's article on buying books drunk is an excellent user's guide to the Kindle. (See also here; the link is to Grobstein's new tumblr.) I did in fact end up downloading The Anatomy of Melancholy and Fanny Hill and a myriad free samples. The Kindle is basically worth the price as a delivery mechanism for Project Gutenberg texts, if one is into that kind of thing.

4. The poetry selection is dismal, and a lot of the free poetry e-texts are missing linebreaks. It is perhaps worthwhile to pony up the 99 cents for a cleaned-up text should one exist... For instance, I found a nice text of Pound that has the Sextus Propertius versions -- really my favorite thing of his -- formatted as in print versions. (I also downloaded a Latin text of Propertius, which was of course without linebreaks. Which is fitting as so were the Latin texts.)

5. It is much better to shop on one's laptop than on the Kindle.

6. As a pdf reader the Kindle leaves much to be desired. The basic problem is that the screen is too small for letter-sized documents and scrolling is primitive, you seem to only be able to move one entire screen in any direction, which is exasperating. For all-text pdfs I believe the "convert to Kindle" feature works OK but for the physics literature it emphatically does not. It is unfortunate that you can't zoom except in 50% increments, so there's no obvious way to optimize the magnification and you always have to reckon with unnecessary whitespace or a truncated page. For Phys. Rev. or Nature a tolerable solution is to turn the page sideways and increase the contrast.

6'. Another thing to note is that the Kindle is slow qua computer, and has a lot of trouble w/ pdfs w/ large images.

7. Some things I've been meaning to read for a while and that I downloaded last night (all free): Edmund Gosse's Father and Son, Daniel Deronda, Nicholas Nickleby, Education Sentimentale, Tacitus's Histories, Coleridge's Biographia Literaria.

Addendum 8. The Kindle now has an experimental web browser; it is really about as good as one can expect of what is a Firefox clone, given that the Kindle technology doesn't allow rapid page refreshing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"A gigantic iron drainpipe"

Earlier today @LondonReview dredged up a delightful James Meek essay from 2005 on the history of the Tube. I am tempted to quote at inordinate length but shall try to restrain myself...

On the initial days of the Underground:
After all, who, before the Underground, was under the ground of London? Rats, the dead, and those brave few whose job it was to build and maintain sewers. No wonder the Times referred to the ‘foul subsoil of London’ and contemporaries talked about ‘trains in drains’. Never mind the generous compensation paid to the wealthy for driving the Metropolitan across their land. Never mind that the Metropolitan’s route avoided posh areas wherever possible, digging up roads and demolishing the dwellings of the poor instead. Never mind that the Metropolitan, when it began running, had separate compartments for three classes of passenger. It was still strange to have trespassers running beneath your property. When the first section of the District Line, from South Kensington to Blackfriars, was built between 1865 and 1870, Lord Harrington forbade the construction of ventilation shafts on his Kensington estate. Train whistles were not allowed to sound near Temple, except in an emergency, for fear of breaking the concentration of barristers. Lord Palmerston, Britain’s 79-year-old prime minister, declined to attend the opening of the Metropolitan, saying that at his age he would rather stay above ground for as long as he could.
 On the Tube during WW1:

From 1914, Tube advertising played to people’s fears. ‘It is bomb proof down below,’ one ad read. ‘Underground for safety; plenty of bright trains, business as usual.’ Another read like a sinister piece of verse:
Never mind the dark and dangerous streets
It is warm and bright
Be comfortable in well-lit trains and read the latest war news.
And a (present-day) list of "the locations of nearby cash machines and bars and clubs: Bed Bar, Betsy Trotwood, Bleeding Heart Tavern, Dust, Eagle, Ember, Fluid, Fabric."

(An aside: I've lately been obsessed with metanalysis; in this spirit -- ouzel having been metanalyzed in the Middle Ages to nosyll -- I mentioned to a friend that the Douche N Ouzel would would be a good name for a bar and he replied that so would the Oozing Douche. It seems to me that virtually all American pubs of a certain type are named after one of these templates. An ouzel pub would, for etymological reasons, have to serve Amstel.)

(Another aside: I badly wanted to like Seamus Heaney's District and Circle but found it a horrible letdown.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Working both sides of the ontic street"

James Wood, writing about the invention of hell:
Paul etherealises Jesus’ Messianism. Paul also believed in an imminent Last Judgment, but for him resurrection would be not national but individual, and it would involve physical and spiritual immortality. We shall be resurrected as bodies, but as uncorrupted, renewed bodies, free of sinful flesh: spiritual bodies. This optimistic fudge – Paul working both sides of the ontic street – was not new; the Egyptians had practised mummification in order to keep the corpse from decaying, so that it could be reunited with its soul in the afterlife. Paul’s dark novelty was to argue backwards from the death and resurrection of Jesus: we have been saved from death by Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection; therefore we must all have been cursed to death long before Jesus’ decisive intervention; therefore we have all been sinners from Adam: ‘For as in Adam all die, even in Christ shall all be made alive.’ As Casey argues, this bolting of the Saviour God onto the Messiah idea makes Christianity very different from Judaism or Islam.
If true this is a pretty fascinating bit of intellectual history. Wood's essay (or the book under review) has the virtue of taking the Pelagian heresy seriously, or at least of admitting the stakes. Personally I feel that most of what is worthwhile and interesting in Christianity derives from the Pauline-Augustinian-Calvinist belief in the basic and irredeemable depravity of humans; this has the effect, as Wood notes, of trivializing morality; but another way to construe this is that the Pauline account carries the implicit moral that Orwell saw in Lear:
"Give away your lands if you want to, but don't expect to gain happiness by doing so. Probably you won't gain happiness. If you live for others, you must live FOR OTHERS, and not as a roundabout way of getting an advantage for yourself." 
This is what Ronald Dworkin called the "austere view" in his recent NYRB essay on morality-informed ethics/ethics-informed morality, and I would be drawn to it even if he didn't call it that. (It is easy to persuade me to hold views advertised as "austere" or "bleak" or "comfortless.") By contrast the Pelagian view conduces far too well to the smug and self-righteous tendencies of most people. Wood uses the word "stolid," which is exactly right: it's a suburban right-wing sort of view, on which people can pat themselves on the back for paying their taxes and doing the right thing by their families and having normal-and-healthy emotions and preferences -- and judge others for their failure to match up.

This dispute has very little to do with religion: I often feel, arguing against the latest normative inference from evolutionary biology, that I'm rehashing Augustine vs. Pelagius. The majority opinion is obviously always going to be Pelagian, but I think the Pauline gloss -- in its fierce and possibly accidental egalitarianism -- is less separable from the other elements of left-wing tendency in Christianity than Wood is willing to acknowledge. Consider George Herbert's "Redemption":
knowing his great birth,
    Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
    In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
    Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
    Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

On the Pelagian account of Christianity this would be purely eccentric behavior: the deserving poor, yeah, why not, but thieves and murderers? Of course it doesn't follow from everyone deserving hellfire that anyone should actually suffer it.


Also in this LRB, and also gated, is this excellent passage by Steven Shapin on corpses:
The corpse begins its dissolution into evil-smelling liquids and gases soon after death, and depending on temperature, moisture and other conditions, the stench becomes inescapable within two or three days. (The ‘worms’ – as the schoolyard song has it – really do begin to ‘crawl in and out’, bacteria, bugs and their larvae aiding in decomposition.) The release of gases – including hydrogen sulphide, methane and ammonia – makes the corpse bloat, and the pressure build-up can cause liquid to ooze out of the body’s orifices. Before we’re dust, we’re a cheesy mud. Sometimes the mud blows up: ‘Gas pressure is capable of bursting the thoracic or abdominal cavities,’ Cantor writes. ‘Before embalming was common, sealed coffins sometimes exploded’ because of it. There is a story that the corpse of Elizabeth I – retained for more than a month before burial – blew up, shattering the wooden coffin and lead sarcophagus in which it was being kept.  

Shapin mentions the rather hilarious euphemism "cremains," which I think I had heard before but had forgotten.

A study of reading habits

Google reader screenshot, initially noted for "3,333" and "63,963":

The fact that I process my feeds at a basically flat rate through the day is a little at odds with my subjective sense that I do most of my reading in the mornings. It's possible that the statistics are missing an important qualitative distinction between teaser-viewing and actual reading. But I'm also more severely internet-addicted than I like to admit. For some reason I very strongly associate my desk with procrastination (a point that a photograph would buttress if I had a camera)... it is easier to be productive anywhere else.

(The 7-8 pm spike of mostly unread articles is the arxiv dump.)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

An Auden poem that's stuck in my head...

... for reasons I don't understand. It isn't like I recently read it or anything. But blogging is occasionally an effective form of exorcism. (Btw the NYRB is doing a poem a day for national cruelty month, including this late Auden poem that was new to me, and this Les Murray poem I liked (the first one).)

The Letter
W.H. Auden

From the very first coming down
Into a new valley with a frown
Because of the sun and a lost way,
You certainly remain: to-day
I, crouching behind a sheep-pen, heard
Travel across a sudden bird,
Cry out against the storm, and found
The year's arc a completed round
And love's worn circuit re-begun,
Endless with no dissenting turn.
Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen
The swallow on the tile, Spring's green
Preliminary shiver, passed
A solitary truck, the last
Of shunting in the Autumn. But now
To interrupt the homely brow,
Thought warmed to evening through and through
Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much but not to come.

Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

Labor and the duvet

Some time ago I quoted Chesterton on lying in bed (via Calista):
Instead of being regarded, as it ought to be, as a matter of personal convenience and adjustment, it has come to be regarded by many as if it were a part of essential morals to get up early in the morning. It is upon the whole part of practical wisdom; but there is nothing good about it or bad about its opposite. Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before. 
Apparently this is now a major political theme in the rest of the Anglophone world:

In her first media conference as Prime Minister last June, [Julia Gillard] first spoke of Australians who “set their alarm clocks early”. The line has recurred several times since, and featured prominently in her election campaign launch speech, when she spoke of how “it can be tough getting up every morning and going to work, setting the alarm clock early, getting the kids out to school”. Virtually the same sentence cropped up last week.
Since Gillard first used it, the phrase has been appropriated by British deputy PM Nick Clegg, who must get up very early indeed such is the vigour with which he is destroying the Liberal Democrat Party. Clegg pitched the coalition government and its budget cuts to “alarm clock Britain” in January, accused Labour leader Ed Milliband of “hiding under his duvet”, and even strayed into Python territory by elaborating on a sort of hierarchy of early risers, lauding those who had to “set the alarm incredibly early”, doing jobs “long before it’s even light”.

As politics, this is of course very similar in spirit to Hillary Clinton's "hardworking Americans, white Americans" moment, a nod in the general direction of conservative populism. (Perhaps the welfare reform we really need is having the relevant office close at 9am?) The rest of the article flitters around a point that has become oddly salient in recent years, viz. that the labor union movement and its sympathizers have essentially entirely different politics from the "greens"/urban liberals, and for any given purpose either contingent can be peeled off by a reasonably competent conservative movement.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

"Finishing a book ... is a race against the clock of the next pandemic"

From James Shapiro's review [LRB, gated] of Plague Writing in Early Modern England:

Shakespeare’s most explicit evocation of plague and its symptoms, weirdly, appears in an extended metaphor in Love’s Labour’s Lost, written around 1595. In the final scene the witty young lover Berowne, bantering with Rosaline, tells her that his three friends are stricken with love for her friends. He teasingly urges her to ‘Write, “Lord have mercy on us” on those three./They are infected; in their hearts it lies;/They have the plague, and caught it of your eyes.’ He then adds that Rosaline herself is unknowingly plague-stricken: ‘You are not free,/For the Lord’s tokens on you do I see.’ It’s hard to decide what’s more disturbing about the exchange: the casual joking about spotting ‘the Lord’s tokens’ on her skin – as close to a death warrant as you could get – or the joke about inscribing the warning ‘Lord have mercy on me’ on the infected.
There couldn’t have been many in the playhouse unaware of what Berowne’s words signified. Elizabethan authorities required plague-infested houses to be sealed, with their inhabitants – infected along with healthy – inside. To warn passers-by that it was a plague-infested dwelling, a red cross was either nailed to or painted on the door and a printed bill was hung above on which was written ‘Lord Have Mercy on Us.’ Survivors of the plague that two years earlier had killed more than 10,000 Londoners would have been agonisingly familiar with those words. How could Shakespeare or anybody in the audience think this funny? It’s the sort of thing that reminds us how little we know about what it was like to live back then, how unfathomable and alien Shakespeare and his world can seem.

The rest of the review is quite entertaining; the fact that it's a hatchet job only becomes apparent halfway through. Gilman (the title of this post is a quote) sounds appealingly unhinged. There are some factoids I should have known but didn't: e.g., that on account of the plague, "from 1603 to 1610 public playhouses were probably closed two-thirds of the time." One major oversight: in his list of dramatic references to the plague (meant to show that there weren't any, really) Shapiro misses the most obvious and vivid, from Epicoene ("he" is the sound-averse Morose):
O, i' the Queens time, he was wont to go out of Town every Saturday at ten a Clock, or on Holy-day Eves. But now, by reason of the sickness, the perpetuity of ringing has made him devise a Room, with double Walls, and treble Cielings; the Windows close shut and calk'd: and there he lives by Candlelight.

This passage is about as direct as, e.g., the prologue to the Decameron. More generally I don't think there is anything particularly alien about gallows humor in love songs; it is uncharacteristic of early Shakespeare, but 1595 is not that far from Donne's love song with "a bracelet of bright hair about the bone." (Tangentially: much is lost when spellings are modernized; "ghest" is so much better than "guest" in this context.)

A few further notes. (1) 16th and 17th cent. writing about the plague -- such as it is -- and about death in general is I think best understood as essentially medieval. Most of the power of medieval writing comes from its pervasive consciousness of death; the passing bells outside the tavern, the shifting silences immediately underneath the revelry, and the courage in being able to revel at all. See, e.g., the Pardoner's Tale:
Thise riotoures thre of whiche I telle, 
Longe erst er prime rong of any belle, 

Were set hem in a tauerne to drynke,

And as they sat, they herde a belle clynke
Biforn a cors, was caried to his graue. 

That oon of hem gan callen to his knaue: 

“Go bet,” quod he, “and axe redily 

What cors is this that passeth heer forby

And looke that thou reporte his name weel.”

“Sire”, quod this boy, “it nedeth neuer-a-deel

It was me toold er ye cam heer two houres. 

He was, pardee, an old felawe of youres,

And sodaynly he was yslayn tonyght, 

Fordronke, as he sat on his bench vpright

Ther cam a privee theef men clepeth Deeth, 

That in this contree al the peple sleeth,

And with his spere he smoot his herte atwo,

And wente his wey withouten wordes mo.

He hath a thousand slayn this pestilence

(2) It is interesting that Gilman settled on Jonson as plague-writer-in-chief, because the best-known poetic response to the AIDS epidemic, Thom Gunn's Man with Night Sweats, is openly Jonsonian. (See the Isherwood elegy for instance.) I had always thought of the Jonson angle and the AIDS angle as merely a happy coincidence -- Gunn being a formally restless poet in the same way as Lowell -- but there's probably more to be said about this. Jonson is a poet I initially dismissed as boring but his plain style is really a very distinctive and beautiful thing, which is also just right for situations when you want to speak indirectly about something powerful without hamming it up either in the obvious way or the significant-silence way.

(3) Speaking of which, cf. Peter Howarth on R.S. Thomas (in the LRB archives):
His pared-down lines no longer sound as though he were slicing away all self-deceit; those famous line-breaks now seem more like theatrical pauses, halting mid-sentence to let the echo reverberate round his empty church.
(4) Re the plague, I think Empson noted somewhere that the ending of the famous Nashe poem about the plague says the same thing in three strikingly different registers:

Mount we unto the sky;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord have mercy on us.

But I hadn't realized -- what now seems obvious -- that the last line would in its context have evoked chiefly a civic rather than a religious register.