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X marks the spot

July 21, 2016

I’m speaking this weekend at a conference in York about David Jones and Irenaeus of Lyon. There’s quite a few passages from Irenaeus I’d like to discuss here in the near future (though we’ll see if I get around to it). Here’s one of the most interesting, from Against Heresies IV.xxvi (emphasis added), which I had hoped to mention in my talk, but could not fit in:

If any one, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the treasure which was hid in the field, in this world (for “the field is the world”); but the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ, since He was pointed out by means of types and parables. Hence His human nature could not be understood, prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of Christ. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet: “Shut up the words, and seal the book even to the time of consummation, until many learn, and knowledge be completed. For at that time, when the dispersion shall be accomplished, they shall know all these things.” But Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things.” For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is to men enigmas and ambiguities. But when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then the prophecies have a clear and certain exposition. And for this reason, indeed, when at this present time the law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation of all things pertaining to the advent of the Son of God, which took place in human nature; but when it [the law] is read by the Christians, it is a treasure, hid indeed in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of men, and showing forth the wisdom of God and declaring His dispensations with regard to man, and forming the kingdom of Christ beforehand, and preaching by anticipation the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the man who loves God shall arrive at such excellency as even to see God, and hear His word, and from the hearing of His discourse be glorified to such an extent, that others cannot behold the glory of his countenance, as was said by Daniel: “Those who do understand, shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever.” Thus, then, I have shown it to be, if any one read the Scriptures. For thus it was that the Lord discoursed with the disciples after His resurrection from the dead, proving to them from the Scriptures themselves “that Christ must suffer, and enter into His glory, and that remission of sins should be preached in His name throughout all the world.” And the disciple will be perfected, and like the householder, “who brings forth from his treasure things new and old.”

The logic of this passage is complex. The basic claim is that, for some relation, call it “mapping,” it’s the case both that OT (the Old Testament) maps X (Christ), and that X maps OT. But how can this be? If mapping were an obviously symmetric relation like “resembling,” this wouldn’t even be worth noting, but this is far from obvious—it seems absurd. If I have a map to buried treasure, we wouldn’t usually say that the buried treasure is itself a map to my map.

But OT and X, Irenaeus thinks, are special. Once we know about X, we can recognize OT as mapping X; but without X, we cannot recognize this about OT, and so in a sense X maps OT as well. From a certain angle, this seems like an attempt to construct a form-based metaphysics that will evaide the anti-Platonic third man argument. What besides an additional map ensures that my map is indeed a map to the treasure? (Cf. Wittgenstein: What can tell me how to interpret a rule besides another rule?) Answer: the treasure itself.

Except, that isn’t quite right. Irenaeus thinks that both OT and X map each other only because both of them do not just exist, but mean. The OT is a collection of words; X is the Word. OT and X can map one another only because both have meaning, and their meanings inform one another. A map to buried treasure lacks this structure because only the map means; the treasure simply is. The treasure does have something to do with the map being a map to buried treasure, but it doesn’t map the map itself.

A can map B only if A has meaning. This does not, however, mean that, if A maps B and B maps A, they have the same meaning. The mapping relation is never symmetric. Rather, mapping, for Irenaeus, is a genus that includes, in addition to the normal mapping relation, where only the first term has meaning, two relations in which both terms have meaning: foreshadowing and fulfilling. These are reciprocals; if A foreshadows B, then B fulfills A. Though each implies the other, B has an ontological priority over A, in the way that the whole has priority over its parts.

Which is to say, basically, that Christ and the Old Testament stand in a relation of hermeneutic circularity. I wonder if this passage isn’t the first to make such a claim in the history of Western philosophy.

Below High’s lodge

July 11, 2016

Consider what3words. The concept is simple:

The world is poorly addressed. This is frustrating and costly in developed nations; and in developing nations this is life-threatening and growth limiting. | what3words is a unique combination of just 3 words that identifies a 3mx3m square, anywhere on the planet. | It’s far more accurate than a postal address and it’s much easier to remember, use and share than a set of coordinates. | Better addressing improves customer experience, delivers business efficiencies, drives growth and helps the social & economic development of countries.

For example, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago—or at least, one 3mx3m square of it—is “below.highs.lodge”. Its address, meanwhile, is “1155 E 58th St, Chicago, IL 60637“. The former of these is, in theory, considerably easier to remember than the latter; it consists of just three words, compared to four words plus three arbitrary numbers, one of 2, one of 4, one of 5 digits.

On the other hand, the Oriental Institute’s postal address carries a great deal of information. 60637: the first three digits tell you the region (6=lower Midwest) and mail distribution center (06=the one in Chicago), while the last two designate a particular region in the city. Then we get some of that information again, the redundancy helping protect against errors: IL: we’re in Illinois; Chicago: we’re in the largest city bordering Lake Michigan. The first half of the address tells us even more. St: we’re on a street, not an avenue, so we’re on a road that runs east-west. 58th: we’re 58 blocks, give or take, south of downtown Chicago, right south of 57th St. and north of 59th St. E: we’re east of downtown Chicago; 1155: by about 23 blocks. If you understand ZIP codes and the city of Chicago, you can find the Oriental Institute on the basis of its address alone, without knowing here it is in advance.

The what3words for the Oriental Institute, meanwhile, tells us basically nothing. It’s easy to remember, but entirely devoid of information. In fact, it actively seeks to ensure that its addresses offer a form of anti-information:

The what3words algorithm actively shuffles similar-sounding 3 word combinations around the world to enable both human and automated intelligent error-checking (e.g. table.chair.lamp & table.chair.lamps are on different continents). | If you enter a 3 word address slightly incorrectly and the result is still a valid what3words result, the location will be so far away from your intended area that it will be immediately obvious to the person searching or an intelligent automated error-detection system.

That’s great, if you already know roughly where something is, and you’re trying to find your way there precisely; for example, if I’m in Chicago and want to go to the Oriental Institute, I’ll notice immediately if the address seems to be in Belgium instead. It seems less helpful for things like mailing addresses, unless it functions like a ZIP code with city and state adjacent, for error-correction. I don’t expect to ever see letters addressed to “below.highs.lodge” without any further information. After all, if there were a typo, it could wind up in Bangladesh, and there where would we be?

In other words, addresses in what3words are entirely parasitic upon linguistic structures—that’s what makes them memorable—while being entirely devoid of linguistic meaning. Despite the meaning of the words conveying zero information, we remember addresses like “below.highs.lodge” by telling a story about the phrase; perhaps we fancy the Oriental Institute to be located beneath a lodge built by Mr. High. It’s the most extreme form of mnemonics I’ve ever seen. So extreme, in fact, that it’s impossible for humans to use without computer assistance; what3words is useless without the massive database of correspondences between the 57 million w3w addresses and their respective LAT/LONG coordinates. Incidentally, the developers do intend to monetize the what3words technology.

There may be some practical benefits to what3words, but it’s worth noting that its universal adoption would tend to undermine the very thing it relies on. What what3words lacks that old-fashioned addresses have, I want to say, is the ability of language to convey not information, but knowledge about the structure of the world. Linguistic structures are memorable because they represent, in some hard-to-define sense, those worldly structures; if they didn’t, what3words addresses would sound just as much like gobbledygook as do LAT/LONG coordinates. Or, rather, would sound even more absurd; LAT/LONG coordinates at least convey information directly, even if in a hard-to-remember fashion, whereas what3words addresses are just absurd strings of three random words absent an entirely arbitrary set of 57 million correspondences.

In the end, my thoughts on what3words quite resemble those of Samuel Taylor Coleridge when asked about smaller-scale mnemonic systems:

The act of consciousness is indeed identical with time considered in its essence. I mean time per se, as contra-distinguished from our notion of time; for this is always blended with the idea of space, which, as the opposite of time, is therefore its measure. Nevertheless the accident of seeing two objects at the same moment, and the accident of seeing them in the same place are two distinct or distinguishable causes: and the true practical general law of association is this; that whatever makes certain parts of a total impression more vivid or distinct than the rest, will determine the mind to recall these in preference to others equally linked together by the common condition of contemporaneity, or (what I deem a more appropriate and philosophical term) of continuity. But the will itself by confining and intensifying the attention may arbitrarily give vividness or distinctness to any object whatsoever; and from hence we may deduce the uselessness, if not the absurdity, of certain recent schemes which promise an artificial memory, but which in reality can only produce a confusion and debasement of the fancy. Sound logic, as the habitual subordination of the individual to the species, and of the species to the genus; philosophical knowledge of facts under the relation of cause and effect; a cheerful and communicative temper disposing us to notice the similarities and contrasts of things, that we may be able to illustrate the one by the other; a quiet conscience; a condition free from anxieties; sound health, and above all (as far as relates to passive remembrance) a healthy digestion; these are the best, these are the only Arts of Memory.

Dona eis requiem aeternam

July 3, 2016

Geoffrey Hill died last Thursday, June 30th. Hill has in recent decades been called the “greatest living poet in the English language”; now he is one of the greatest dead ones.

I first read Hill’s poetry five years ago, then put him out of my mind until last March, when I read his Collected Critical Writings. They made a tremendous impact on my thinking about poetry, language, history, religion… not so much particular things he’s said, as his way of asking questions. Or rather, not asking specific questions, but sounding out various words and phrases. I also went back and looked again at his poetry; his earlier work now matters a great deal to me, though I’m still (as almost everyone seems to be) baffled by the more recent productions.

Even as I read a lot of Hill I was not thinking much at all about Hill the living human being. Then a few months ago I had a conversation with my advisor about Hill, whose office at B.U., it turned out, had been next to hers. When I mentioned how strange it sounded to hear first-hand anecdotes about someone who always seemed to me a “book person,” she exclaimed that, far from a “book person,” Hill was more alive than most people. He was full of life, full of moral and critical and poetic energy. After that conversation I tracked down the recordings of Hill’s lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry (you can find them here), and listened to them in early June. I came to share my advisor’s assessment: he sounds aged in those lectures, but not at all decrepit.

It’s strange to learn of Hill’s death just weeks after he most seemed to me alive.

*

I don’t think Hill would have appreciated the kind of sentimental outbursts one seens on the occasion of celebrity deaths. He loathed celebrity, including his own, and he loathed memorial kitsch. He was grotesquely fascinated by the Holocaust, by the difficulty and perhaps impossibility of responding to it without making it about our own feelings of horror. His elegy September Song explores the problem incisively:

September Song

born 19.6.32—deported 24.9.42

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.

As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.

(I have made
an elegy for myself it
is true)

September fattens on vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

Am I sad that Hill has died? A few months ago I said that his was one of the only celebrity deaths that would, hypothetically speaking, bother me. It does bother me as I predicted, but perhaps one ought not to make an elegy for oneself after all. Or at least, one should realize for whom the elegy is written—or else it won’t be true.

*

Everyone I’ve talked to who knows what they’re talking about has said that David Jones influenced Hill immensely. But HIll has written hardly a word about this supposed influence. A few months ago an acquaintance said that we’re all waiting for Hill to write an essay on Jones; now, I suppose, we’ll wait forever. Or perhaps in Hill’s papers somewhere there’s a draft of such an essay to be found, and it can be published posthumously. Time will tell.

They say Mercian Hymns is the most Jonesian of Hill’s books of poetry. It’s also among my favorites; a bizarre sequence of thirty prose-poems mingling the life of Offa, king of Mercia, with that of Hill himself. For example:

Mercian Hymns VII

Gasholders, russett among fields. Milldams, marlpools that
lay unstirring. Eel-swarms. Coagulations of frogs: once,
with branches and half-bricks, he battered a ditchful;
then sidled away from the stillness and silence.

Ceolred was his friend and remained so, even after the
day of the lost fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and
irreplaceable, two inches of heavy snub silver. Ceolred let
it spin through a hole in the classroom-floorboards,
softly, into the rat-droppings and coins.

After school he lured Ceolred, who was sniggering with
fright, down to the old quarries and flayed him. Then,
leaving Ceolred, he journeyed for hours, calm and alone,
in his private derelict sandlorry named Albion.

*

Hill was married to an Anglican priestess, and he wrote often about theology and theological poetry; but he does not seem quite to have brought himself to belief. Since today is the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, this Hill poem seems particularly appropriate:

Canticle for Good Friday

The cross staggered him. At the cliff-top
Thomas, beneath its burden, stood
While the dulled wood
Spat on the stones each drop
Of deliberate blood.

A clamping, cold-figured day
Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,
Watched
Smelt vinegar and blood. He
As yet unsearched, unscratched,

And suffered to remain
At such near distance
(A slight miracle might cleanse
His brain
Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)

In unaccountable darkness moved away,
The strange flesh untouched, carion-sustenance
Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,
Creation’s issue congealing (and one woman’s).

A little out of tune

June 20, 2016

On the shift from just intonation to equal temperament, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, cf. this passage from a 1910 lecture by one Alfred Daniell to the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion entitled “Some remarks on certain vocal traditions in Wales”:

Violins and their kindred generally can produce the true harmonic scale, or any other scale; so, they say, can trombones but harpsichords and other instruments of fixed pitch led to horrible results if they were tuned to the key of C or G or F with pure intervals in the harmonic scale of that key. You had to keep to the key for which the instrument was tuned; if you ventured on transitions, or played in other keys, the instrument gave beats and was said to bay like a wolf. If you wanted to avoid this you must have an impracticable number of keys to the octave on the harpsichord or organ. The difficulty came to a head in the time of John Sebastian Bach, who cut the Gordian knot by splitting the difference. “Don’t try to put anything exactly in tune put everything a little out of tune; make the octave consist of twelve exactly equal semitones. We know that’s wrong, but we shall get accustomed to it.” Such was his advice, and all the advances of orchestral music since his day have been rendered possible through everything being a little out of tune.

(I encountered this passage in a quotation of one of David Jones’ letters.)

Locofoco!

June 13, 2016

I’ve recently come across the claim that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville were all self-avowed Locofocos (though I haven’t seen the evidence to back this up). What was a Locofoco exactly? The following has been cobbled together from Wikipedia and the old encyclopedias that Wikipedia in its turn frankensteined. (It’s mostly quotation but there’s a bit of summary.)

The name Loco-foco was originally used by John Marck for a self-igniting cigar, which he had patented in April 1834. Marck, an immigrant, invented his name from a combination of the Latin prefix “loco”, which as part of the word “locomotive” had recently entered general public use, and was usually misinterpreted to mean “self”, and a misspelling of the Italian word “fuoco” for “fire”. Therefore, Marck’s name for his product was originally meant in the sense of “self firing”. It appears that Marck’s term was quickly genericized to mean any self-igniting match. In 1835 it became a nickname for the Equal Rights Party, which was created in New York City as a protest against that city’s regular Democratic organization (“Tammany Hall”). The nickname originated when a group of New York Jacksonians used locofoco matches to light candles to continue a political meeting after Tammany men tried to break up the meeting by turning off the gaslights. Locofocos were vigorous advocates of laissez-faire and opponents of monopoly. In the 1840 election, the term “Locofoco” was applied to the entire Democratic Party by its Whig opponents, both because Democratic President Martin Van Buren had incorporated many Locofoco ideas into his economic policy, and because Whigs considered the term to be derogatory. They developed an alternate derivation of “Loco Foco”, from the combination of the Spanish word “loco”, meaning mad or crack brained, and “foco”, from “focus”. Their meaning then was that the faction and later the entire Democratic party, was the “focus of folly”.

I’m tempted to say that such an etymological trainwreck could only happen in the U.S. of A. But I’m sure we could find comparable incidents elsewhere, if we knew where to look. In any case, some obvious questions all this raises include:

  • What the heck is a “self-lighting cigar”?
  • How could anyone think “loco” means “self” when it’s so obviously related to “location”?
  • Why didn’t Marck trademark the name? Or did he just fail to protect his trademark?
  • Did the Locofocos fetishize matches the way Tea Partiers sometimes dress up as Founding Fathers?
  • Are the metaphorical resonances of “self-firing” intentional?
  • How would things have played out differently if everyone had still been using the previous generation of matches, known as “lucifers”?

Postscript: the Locofocos originated as a protest party trying to fight Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall was controlled at the time by a man named Preserved Fish. His father and grandfather were also named Preserved Fish. “Preserved” is pronounced with three syllables: “pre-SER-vedd.” His life story, in a nutshell:

As a youth, the younger Preserved Fish shipped to the Pacific on a whaler, becoming its captain at the age of 21. He soon realized that fortune lay in selling whale oil, not in getting it, so he became a merchant, and later a banker.

Remember that Melville was from New York, and that he became a writer during the years when Preserved Fish controlled New York politics. I’m tempted now to try to track down references to all this stuff in Melville’s writings. Might Moby-Dick contains some heretofore-unrecognized puns about Mr. Fish?

The free spirit hurled onward

May 30, 2016

[Consisting of links to various books and articles of note.]

I’ve recently been reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. Not really an autobiography, it’s more a critique of Wordsworth’s poetic theory combined with a defense of Wordsworth’s poetry; along the way Coleridge tries to clarify the relationship between imagination and criticism. Much here worth quoting; I particularly like his account of why poems are written in meter:

The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself. Like the motion of a serpent, which the Egyptians made the emblem of intellectual power; or like the path of sound through the air; at every step he pauses and half recedes, and from the retrogressive movement collects the force which again carries him onward. ‘Precipitandus est liber spiritus,’ says Petronius Arbiter most happily. The epithet, liber, here balances the preceding verb; and it is not easy to conceive more meaning condensed in fewer words. (Chapter XIV)

My edition translates the Latin as “The free spirit must be hurried onward”; a more literal version might be “The free spirit is to-be-hurled-onward.” The basic thought, as I read it, is that thought is both active and passive, an experience of tension alternating with a movement of relaxation, and meter helps hurl us into the freedom of the imagination.

*

Coleridge thinks free thought to be something like the telos of human life, and he also recognizes how easily the circumstances of our lives can prevent us from achieving it (for this reason he encourages all would-be poets to become curates, thus ensuring that their lives will be leisurely). So I imagine he would have a modicum of sympathy with the sorts of claims this article in Jacobin makes for the coming Marxist utopia:

No more would “great art” simply be the purview of a lucky, transcendentally gifted few, but something symphonically integrated into our everyday lives. Socialism will be the first absolute unleashing of creativity in human history, in which the entirety of each individual’s imagination, talents, and mental and physical capacities would be allowed to blossom.

But only a modicum. Coleridge would despise the suggestion that, once we take away the conditions of capitalist exploitation, the imagination will simply flourish like the lilies of the valley which neither toil nor spin. This might be true if imagination means merely self-expression, and if everyone had a self they could more or less straightfowardly express, but it doesn’t, and in any case they don’t. The imagination has to do with thought, and it takes effort (if of a peculiar kind) to achieve the true thought and avoid the false.

The article’s vision of the socialist paradise depends on its analysis of “that atomizing, humiliating feeling pushed down our throats by so many tastemakers and cultural gatekeepers: that we are of little consequence to history’s greatest creations.” What nonsense. This feeling isn’t forced on us because the Man (what man?) wants to keep us down. Each of us force it on each other, because most of what most of us make just isn’t very good, especially not compared to the works of Shakespeare or Milton.

*

The only way for our imaginations to escape the threat of humiliation would be for us to refrain from ever criticizing each others’ imaginings—but this would require either universal harmony, or universal atomization. The former we will never achieve until heaven and earth have passed away. The latter would horrify even the most ardent capitalist, but it is possible: we just have to say that we cannot meaningfully respond to the content of another’s imaginative creations, only to the fact that they were created.

Well, I suppose the latter has already begun to happen:

“In class, sometimes I say, ‘Is your identity a kind of knowledge?’ ” James O’Leary, an assistant professor of musicology at the Oberlin Conservatory, told me. “The answer, for forever, has been no.” But his current students often vigorously disagree. In the post-Foucaultian tradition, it’s thought to be impossible to isolate accepted “knowledge” from power structures, and sometimes that principle is turned backward, to link personal discomfort with larger abuses of power. “Students believe that their gender, their ethnicity, their race, whatever, gives them a sort of privileged knowledge—a community-based knowledge—that other groups don’t have,” O’Leary went on. The trouble comes when their perspectives clash.

The less said about such things, perhaps, the better.

*

I was surprised to see the power-to-the-imagination article published in Jacobin, which I think of as a place that makes socialist arguments in realistic terms. But I suppose that realism only applies to the critique of the current regime; for socialists, the regime-to-come is an eschatological concept. In the terms of a recent Slate Star Codex essay, Jacobin is pessimistic about capitalism, and thinks capitalism is flawed because it creates conflict rather than collaboration. My pessimism, like Scott’s, comes from a slightly different worry: what if collaborative goodwill can only go so far?

The southeast corner is people who think that we’re all in this together, but that helping the poor is really hard. They agree with the free school lunch crowd that capitalism is more the solution than the problem, and that we should think of this in terms of complicated impersonal social and educational factors preventing poor people from fitting into the economy. But the southeasterners worry school lunches won’t be enough. Maybe even hiring great teachers, giving everybody free health care, ending racism, and giving generous vocational training to people in need wouldn’t be enough. If we held a communist revolution, it wouldn’t do a thing: you can’t hold a revolution against skill mismatch. This is a very gloomy quadrant, and I don’t blame people for not wanting to be in it. But it’s where I spend most of my time.

What I would add, perhaps, is this: all social systems work through incentives (this is the only way they can work), and even the best system of incentives will not produce an optimal outcome. The solution isn’t revolution—that would just mean replacing the current incentive system with another. Rather, we need to overcome our enslavement to the incentives we face, and try to do what’s actually the right thing. But this kind of freedom can’t be incentivized, and so can’t be systematized. The best we can do is create a society where it’s possible for each individual person to achieve it.

*

I have my doubts that Scott with agree with that last part, and I take this disagreement to trace the boundary between humanism and technocratism. Alan Jacobs’s current book project is about this divergence, as it took shape in the 1940s; his recent post on the topic resembles in some ways my digression on five English modernist Catholic poets.

*

Speaking of digressions, let us now return to the propulsion of the free spirit, i.e. to the role of meter in the imagination. Consider this piece about the difference between modality and tonality, which turns out to be is the difference between spirit and letter,  and between metrical movement through time, and calcified spatial relations:

The entire raison d’être of modal music is to stretch the umbilical cord which connects it to its fundamental generating principle (the primal frequency) to the limit, only to be drawn inexorably back to the point of its beginning — and thus its ending. At this “point” when it once again becomes One with its creator, universal harmony is restored. In modal music intervals only have a function as they are related to their “creator”, not to each other. without their fundamental they cannot exist.

Cf. also my ramblings from two years ago about philosophical temperament.

Five English modernist Catholics poets

May 16, 2016

Charles Williams (1886-1945). Anglican. Eliot admired his novels, and wrote an introduction to one of them. Tolkien knew him through C.S. Lewis, but disliked him, and thought his writing too modern. Jones wrote approvingly of his Arthuriana, but thought his writing not modern enough. Auden adored his theological writings, every year reading again his The Descent of the Dove.

Thomas Sterns Eliot (1888-1965). Anglican (and really American, not English, but he pretended it were otherwise). Tolkien despised what was called modernist poetry, including, presumably, that of Eliot. He edited Jones and Auden at Faber & Faber. Jones liked him and made “the waste land” a key term in his own thinking, though he thought Eliot ultimately too subjective. Auden liked but distrusted him, and said his books should be kept on a high shelf away from young poets.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973). Roman Catholic. Taught Auden at Oxford about Anglo-Saxon poetry; Auden later defended The Lord of the Rings against “highbrow” critics. Jones read and recommended Tolkien’s philological essays.

David Jones (1895-1974). Roman Catholic. Auden called Jones’ The Anathemata a masterpiece; Jones said that Auden better say so, he borrowed enough from it.

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973). Anglican.

*

Most of these poets met each other at least once. I’m not sure about Tolkien-Eliot, Jones-Williams, or Jones-Tolkien; there may be anecdotes of which I’m unaware. The younger writers on this list usually had opinions about their elders’ work; less often, the elders had opinions about them. Again, I haven’t read all their papers so there may be opinions expressed which I haven’t taken into account.

None of these writers, however, were close friends, and to my knowledge no three of them were ever in the same room at the same time. They do not form a coterie, only a nexus of people who I think can fairly be called at the same time English, modernist, Catholic, and poet. This is the nexus in which I happen to be particularly interested. Of course there’s little point in drawing these sorts of boundaries too precisely, and it was a more or less arbitrary decision to exclude from this list people like Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), and Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966).

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