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The Roots of American & British Crime Fiction



British and American detective fiction share a common origin in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, but by the time they were enjoying their respective Golden Ages in the early twentieth century they had already become quite distinct from the other, with each possessing its own unique tropes and clichés. This article will look at the development of the hard-boiled and ‘soft-boiled’ genres, and provide an explanation for the British preference for the countryside and the American predilection for stories set in the ‘mean streets’ of L.A., San Francisco, etc. It will demonstrate that the differences between British and American crime fiction can be attributed not only to obvious matters of geography but also their social milieus, and that both the British and American detective were designed to fulfil very different purposes: stability and the preservation of the status quo in the case of the former, and a study into moral complexity and blue-collar sympathy regarding the latter.

The first literary detective was Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Poe is the font from which all future crime writers drew their inspiration, but Dupin has more in common with British creations like Hercule Poirot than he does Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Dupin is European, eccentric, aristocratic, arcane in his pursuits and, like Sherlock Holmes, is best characterised as a ‘consulting detective’. Unlike later American detective stories, whenever Poe utilised miasmic streets and labyrinthine alleys he turned to London (The Man of the Crowd) or Paris (Murders in the Rue Morgue) as backdrop. Mid-to-late nineteenth century American fiction, when dealing with their own cities, tended to portray them as “urban-pastoral world[s] of primeval novelty” rather than “a city anyone ever inhabited.” The “mean streets” of Chandler and Hammett had yet to emerge from the turmoil of the new century.

The classic British detective story, according to P.D. James, was concerned with “bringing order out of disorder” and was typically “a genre of reconciliation and social healing”. Though detectives like Poirot sometimes found themselves jaunting between Britain, Egypt, Iraq and the Continent, the typical location for these stories was the countryside, often represented as “an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal, crime an aberration”. Readers could be assured that whenever a story’s mystery was resolved the countryside would be restored to its previous “prelapsarian tranquillity” by an omnisciently-observant gentleman detective.

These detectives were typically aristocratic and included doctors, solicitors, spinsters, and pastime sleuths. They were “never frightened or appalled, never himself (and occasionally herself) a victim of events, never outwitted or daunted” and their ultimate purpose was “to build and uphold a firm structure of social and moral values.” Stephen Knight noted that some societies in early crime fiction were “so tightly knit that escape will not be possible … If there has been a murder, ‘some gentleman’ will come along and take the criminal to a magistrate.” If the police themselves are ever hostile or condescending towards the private investigator then by the tale’s resolution they are “humbly amazed” by his singular brilliance. The idealised British detective therefore was a paragon, especially equipped to remove crime from the countryside. In his book British Writers of the Thirties author Valentine Cunningham puts forward that the detective genre “doubtless owed a lot to its ritualized acts of determining order and significance amidst the seeming randomness of the murderer’s bullet or cut-throat razor.”

British crime fiction’s predilection for posing murder and mystery in the countryside rather than the city are manifold. Firstly, the early detective novels sprang from the country-house genre. Raymond Williams writes that “the true fate of the country-house novel was its evolution into the middle-class detective story … with some of its roots in George Eliot and Hardy but with a significant limitation of scope.” ‘Country house’ novels typically explored small, interlocked communities where social and personal familiarity were key themes. These concerns were transposed more or less directly into the detective novel, even if only to be exploited.

Secondly, English rural writers and poets had long denigrated London and its “insolent rabble” and the “idle, profligate and debauched” therein. They came from a tradition that insisted upon the “very powerful myth of modern England in which the transition from a rural to an industrial society is seen as a kind of fall, the true cause and origin of our social suffering and disorder.” That cities were chaotic and polluted was a given, that they were troubled by incessant crime a certainty. For many intellectual and refined detectives the criminals in England’s cities were too common and their crimes too conventional. Crime fiction put knives and poisons in the hands of zealous parlour maids, butlers, housekeepers, fortune hunters and remaindermen. It took the strange and terrible and transposed it into the mundane and ordinary.

In Agatha Christie’s short story collection The Thirteen Problems a writer, a clergyman, a solicitor and a former police commissioner all debate on whose profession and “what class of brain” is best suited for solving mysteries. Each would become a British mystery novel archetype, as would the victor in their debate – an elderly spinster called Miss Marple. Marple is an inconspicuous figure. Her modesty disguises a sharp intellect and a peregrine’s eye for details. Her long life has made her a storehouse of knowledge, but she conducts herself with a disarming Socratic humility.

“I think it would be very interesting,” said Miss Marple, “especially with so many clever gentleman present. I am afraid I am not clever myself, but living all these years in St Mary Mead does give one an insight into human nature.”
“I am very sure your co-operation will be very valuable,” said Sir Henry, courteously.

In true parlour fashion, the mysteries in The Thirteen Problems are merely mental exercises, solved from the comfort of an armchair, the stakes no higher than the loss of face during a guessing game. The book’s main device is what Poe called “ratiocination” (and what Christie’s own Poirot would refer to as his ‘little grey cells’); it is the unique ability to soak up details and turn out precise observations that reveal deeper or hidden truths. It is this class of brain, and this stock of character, Marple’s companions realise, that is best suited for solving mysteries.

Williams found it fitting “that a mode of analysis of human relationships which came out of Baker Street, out of the fogs of the transient city, should find a temporary resting-place in this facade way of life, before it eventually returned to its true place in the streets.” To suggest that the streets are the ‘true place’ of deduction and syllogistic reasoning is to suggest that it has no place in the countryside at all: that the people there have no need for it, that they are intrinsically trustworthy and devoid of iniquity. This assumption highlights why the countryside was the perfect environment for a mystery story: the notion that a butler, vicar or maid could be a murderer is more likely to surprise a reader than if the suspects were a pickpocket, a burglar or any other felon. The detective novel’s purpose was to provide the stimulant of a puzzle and the thrill of revelation. It was not designed to remind readers of the squalor of the inner cities, but tease them with the exciting prospect that there was something hidden amongst the picket fences and cropped grass and familiar and genteel smiles of their neighbours. “Very painful and distressing things happen in villages sometimes,” Miss Marple teases in The Thirteen Problems.

Even the most famous city detective found the demure countryside landscape chilling. Sherlock Holmes, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, utters that “The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” And we must remember that London, as Watson tells us in A Study in Scarlet, is “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.”

Holmes and Watson. Parlour games and exercises of the mind.

Holmes and Watson. Parlour games and exercises of the mind.

While the British detective held court in the parlour rooms of the country house the hard-boiled detective stalked through the mean streets of a rapidly expanding and yet decaying Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago. His origin is to be found (or is lost) in the dime novels of the early twentieth century.

These ‘grey papers’ or pulp magazines specialised in making heroes out of “cowboys, soldiers, explorers and masked avengers” before branching out to crime detection. They were sparely-written, flecked with slang and colloquialisms, and peopled by tough and unsentimental detectives who were routinely referred to in the new street lingo as gumshoes, snoopers or sleuths. The bumbling or inept constabularies of British detective fiction were also replaced by corrupt or indifferent police departments, and disillusionment with the police force was usually a compelling factor for the sleuth to become a private detective in the first place. American detectives weren’t afraid to go knuckle-to-knuckle with an adversary, even before introductory words can be exchanged. Their clients include the spurned and the desperate (only the British detective can call aiding the King of Bohemia a “small matter,” as is the case with Holmes). The American detective frequented flop houses and clip joints. They fought against and walked amongst finks, juicers, dips, goons and two-time losers as well as gangsters and plutocrats. The gumshoe has no villainous arch-rival, no Moriarty or Dr. Fu Manchu, because he himself is largely unspectacular. “He is a common man,” Raymond Chandler wrote of the hard-boiled hero, “or he could not go among common people.”

The American detective owes his roughhouse distinctiveness to, of course, America. In the fifty years between Poe’s death and the new century a calamitous civil war had been settled, the nation had “doubled its geography”, and the number of “foreign born, suicides, industrial labourers, divorces, gross national product, and white-collar workers all doubled.” Thomas J. Schlereth writes of early twentieth century America that “A country in transition was also in transit. Everyone seemed en route: emigrating and immigrating, removing or being removed, resettling and relocating in many directionseast to west, south to north, rural to urban, urban to suburban.” Architecture also went its own way: ‘Queen Anne’ styled housing went out of fashion and the rise of the skyscraper gave big city skylines a distinct appearance (notably, in Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Miss Marple, suffering the passing of old friends and strange new villagers, finds comfort in “the little nest of Queen Anne and Georgian houses, of which hers was one”. Rural England’s architecture being the only constant anchor for an aging and archaic mode of life).

The end result was that by the early twentieth century Americans, transformed by inescapable upheaval and progress, were beginning to make “strident claims for ‘100 percent Americanism’”. Inevitably the country’s literature began to evolve into new and distinct forms. Detective fiction, despite its progenitor’s rejection of “the idea that there should be a specifically national character to American writing,” also became distinctly American or, as the genre came to be called, hard-boiled. Chandler wrote of the hard-boiled creed:

The realist in murder writes of a world in which the gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the finger man for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket.

Though American writers were undoubtedly aware of, and had extensively read, the work of their British counterparts, the hard-boiled did not arise as a response to it, but as the natural consequence of a domestic social revolution. Ian Ousby writes:

The hard-boiled school came not in reaction against Golden Age fiction, or indeed as the result of any programme of rebelling, but simply as a separate and rival development in the USA – a country which was anyway bound to tire of borrowing from the Old World to find its voice.

British detective fiction, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly archaic and stereotypical. The post-First-War period was increasingly an age of “mass-production, mass-demonstrations, mass-meetings, mass sporting occasions, mass-communications, mass-armies, a time when things would be done in, and to, and for crowds.” But while hard-boiled fiction took to the city streets the ‘soft-boiled’ equivalent stayed comfortably rustic, to its eventual detriment. “Even the exterior setting of the thing is in danger of becoming stereotyped,” complained Ronald Knox, “If I walked into the detective-story house, I believe I should be able to find my way about it perfectly; it is always more or less the same in design.” Incessant sequels and a glut of knock-offs diluted the bourgeois detective until he was no longer remarkable and no longer effective. Writer William Trevor remarked that

All over England, it seemed to me, bodies were being discovered by housemaids in libraries. Village poison pens were tirelessly at work. There was murder in Mayfair, on trains, in airships, in Palm Court lounges, between the acts. Golfers stumbled over corpses on fairways. Constables awoke to them in their gardens.

The British detective was fast losing his relevancy and potency. He was trapped in an unending cycle of locked rooms and exotic poisons and contested wills and perfidious servants. He was ageless and static and increasingly becoming a figure of fun. “Society was becoming corporate and efficient,” wrote William Marling. “The erudite Victorian hero wasn’t; he lost potency as alter ego, and eventually he became an anachronism.” P.D. James surmised that:

The omni-talented amateur with apparently nothing to do with his time but solve murders which interest him has had his day, partly because his rich and privileged lifestyle became less admirable, and his deferential acceptance by the police less credible, in an age when men were expected to work.

As the British detective was declining the American counterpart was quickly confirming his relevance. The gumshoe’s motivation would be employment, not leisure; he is vexed and frustrated, rather than thrilled or invigorated, by elaborate puzzles and ruses. If the aristocratic pastime detective finds himself taking on cases as a result of his immense free time and wealth then the gumshoe is a victim of his economic circumstances. “He is a relatively poor man,” Chandler wrote, “or he would not be a detective at all.”

The prototype for the hardboiled detective is arguably Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, who first appeared in Black Mask serials before being transported into novels like Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. The Op is short, portly, and not particularly erudite. His namelessness and unremarkable demeanour mark him as an everyman. “If you know all you should know about ceramics and Egyptian needlework,” Chandler later wrote, “you don’t know anything at all about the police.”

Hammett’s later creation Sam Spade is another bold deviation from the classic mold. His physical description is given at the beginning of the novel, and he is described as an impossible variety of ‘v’ shapes (chin, mouth, nostrils, brows, and hairline) and even his body seems “conical”. His description as a “blond satan” evocatively sets him apart from his forebearers and contemporaries. He is handsome, but not upstanding. William Marling contends that “Hammett, designing a new hero for new readers in a new era, tells them by this design that Spade is no Victorian detective. Spade is modern, seemingly amoral, rather than a synecdoche for any reassuring quality, as, say, Sherlock Holmes was for reason.” But despite any of his drawbacks, the typical cocky gumshoe was also an idealised figure. Hammett, in the 1934 introduction to The Maltese Falcon, explained that:

[Spade] is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander or client.

Spade is no gentleman, and isn’t particularly compassionate either. At the story’s beginning we see him feign politesse and compassion: “Spade nodded his blond satan’s head, frowned sympathetically, and tightened his lips together.” He operates from his office, rather than a parlour room or apartment. His workspace is merely one cell in a series of interconnected capillaries and he can never feel, even when isolated, truly alone: “The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine’s typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighbouring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully.”

Veteran actor Howard Duff portrayed Sam Spade in the radio show The Adventures of Sam Spade.

Veteran actor Howard Duff portrayed Sam Spade in the radio show The Adventures of Sam Spade.

Ronald Knox and other British crime writers had decreed that the detective is not to fall in love or even toil with it. Though that rule had been sporadically bent before, it was in the American tradition where love or lust could be convincingly utilised as more than an aside or distraction. Spade’s quandary when giving up Brigid O’Shaughnessy to the police is not incidental to The Maltese Falcon’s drama; it is the culmination of it:

 “You didn’t–don’t–l-love me?”
“I think I do,” Spade said. “What of it?” The muscles holding his smile in place stood out like wales. “I’m not Thursby. I’m not Jacobi. I won’t play the sap for you.”

Spade explicitly rejects revenge or love as motivating factors. He hands Brigid in not because he distrusts her, but because “I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.” Brigid may have killed Spade’s partner, but her arrest is not personal. His desires are secondary. His moral code is a natural one. He is, ultimately, a deontologist. But this is not a reassuring or all-encompassing morality: for one, though it drives him to solve his partner’s murder, it does not stop him from sleeping with the man’s wife; secondly, sending Brigid to her inevitable execution horrifies his secretary, Effie, who can’t bear to have Spade touch her. Though his moral code does not protect him from acting immorally, and even though it damages, if only temporarily, his relationships with other people, it must be abided by.

Though the British detective seems mired in a never ending cycle of peace and disruption, they at least have the consolation of harmony, however brief. In The Dain Curse the Op is told that he is “A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same.” The Op and his ilk may often act in the greater moral interest, but they are not entirely likeable. Conversely, Sherlock Holmes can regularly be told that he has “saved England from a great public scandal”. But the gumshoe is not a solution to the world’s problems and there is no ‘prelapsarian tranquillity’ to restore it to. The effort to return a crime-ridden city into some semblance of serenity was explored in Hammett’s Red Harvest, and in typical hard-boiled fashion required gangsters and corrupt policemen to be gunned down to achieve its (arguably impossible) goal. The American detective could never set the world right. His was too primitive and yet too complex.

If the British detective can only amble on into irrelevance or retirement, the American sleuth, the perennial poor man in an onerous profession, must die in the gutter or keep his doors open for business, as Sam Spade is doomed to do in The Maltese Falcon’s closing moments:

“Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly. ‘Yes,’ he said, and shivered. ‘Well, send her in.’”


  • Cawelti, John G., Adventure, Mystery and Romance, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).
  • Chandler, Raymond, The Simple Art of Murder, (New York: Vintage Books, 1988).
  • Christie, Agatha, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, (New York: HarperCollins Ltd, 1977).
  • Christie, Agatha, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).
  • Christie, Agatha, The Thirteen Problems, (New York: HarperCollins Ltd, 1932).
  • Conan Doyle, Arthur, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892).
  • Cunningham, Valentine, British Writers of the Thirties, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).
  • Deforest, Tim, Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America (Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc, 2004).
  • Hammett, Dashiell, The Maltese Falcon, (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2000).
  • James, P.D., Talking about Detective Fiction, (Oxford: The Bodleian Library, 2009).
  • Marling, William, The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain and Chandler, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995).
  • Marx, Leo, ‘The Puzzle of Anti-Urbanism in Classic American Literature’ in Graham Clarke (ed.) The American City: Literary Sources and Documents, (Hastings: Helm Information ltd, 1997).
  • Ousby, Ian, The Crime and Mystery Book, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997).
  • Reidhead, Julia (ed.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007).
  • Schlereth, Thomas J, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915, (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).
  • Symons, Julian, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, (London: Faber & Faber, 1972).
  • Williams, Raymond, The Country and the City, (London: Chattos & Windus Ltd, 1973).

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Within and Without the Hall: Anglo-Saxons in Exile


The mead hall was not merely a place of retreat from a hostile world but was also the foundation and fulcrum of Anglo-Saxon life – for in addition to obvious benefits such as warmth and safety it was also a hub of group solidarity, where tribute was made and the bonds between lord and vassal were sealed and sustained.

Anglo-Saxon hall society had its roots in barbarian Europe where bonds of kinship were strongly encouraged and enforced. Tacitus noted in his book Germania that men were “bound to take up the feuds as well as friendships of father or kinsman,” and it was considered “impious to turn any man away from your door.” Gift-giving was also a highly cherished tradition: “The leaders take peculiar pleasure in gifts from neighbouring states, which are sent not only by individuals, but by the community as well.” In these societies, as well as in their Anglo-Saxon descendants, homage and condemnation were public, never private, affairs.

In such communities certain laws or customs were expected to be obeyed above all else. Internecine violence within the king’s circle was so repellent an idea that its accompanying punishment was severe – more severe, in fact, than those penalties meted out to anyone who happened to brawl within a holy place such as a monastery. The law code of King Ine of Wessex (composed circa 688 – 695 A.D.) demanded that:

If anyone fights in the king’s house, he shall forfeit all his property, and it shall be for the king to decide whether he shall be put to death or not […] If anyone fights in a monastery, he shall pay 120 shillings compensation.

The importance of keeping the peace in the hall was so vital that King Alfred transplanted Ine’s law regarding the issue, almost verbatim, into his own law codes of the ninth century. De duodecim abusivis saeculi, an anonymously authored tract that originated in 8th century Ireland, lays out twelve social and political ‘abuses’ that kings and their subjects were to be aware of. The tract frowns upon “the young man without obedience”, highlighting the importance of respect between elders and youths (or between ranks), and it also disapproves of “the rich man without almsgiving”, which stresses the importance of putting wealth to good and generous use. Additionally, the article abhors “the lord without strength” and “the unjust king”. It was the king’s duty to secure the safety of his people and to see them amply rewarded for their loyalty – or punished for their disobedience.


I, wretched and sorrowful,
on the ice-cold sea
dwelt for a winter
in the paths of exile,
bereft of friendly kinsmen
~ The Seafarer.

For those living under the protection of a hall and its lord, life was not only potentially prosperous but given heterogeneity as well. In poems like Beowulf warriors introduce themselves as the descendants of great soldiers and as the inheritors of great halls and legacies. The best that kings and warriors could hope for was that their reputations would survive even after their own lives or immediate glories had passed. Beowulf demonstrates to the reader how a good reputation can merit a king in troubled times by telling us that Hrothgar, despite being unable to stop Grendel, is still considered a good king because of his adherence to kingly manners. But unjust men, whether they were thegns or even rulers, like the historical Sigeberht of Wessex, could be deposed and driven from their lands for their iniquitous behaviour.

Such castaways and wanderers were social detritus and were to be treated with suspicion, even according to law. The law code of Wihtred of Kent demanded that “If a man from afar, or a stranger, quits the road, and neither shouts, nor blows a horn, he may be considered a thief, [and as such may] be either slain or put to ransom.” This law was also enforced by Ine of Wessex at roughly the same time.

For Christian soldiers the outcome of unlawful and shameful behaviour was especially stark due to its theological implications: Satan had been damned for his attempt at supplanting God, Adam and Eve were banished for their disobedience and Cain made an outcast and branded for the murder of his brethren. In the poem Christ and Satan the devil himself, the original exile, bemoans that “I shall not be allowed to enjoy a more promising home, neither city nor palace.” Linked to cowards and usurpers, demons and devils, an exile carried nothing but negative connotations. In Beowulf, they are literally monsters: the warped progeny of Cain as well as a dragon.

The precise physical nature of Grendel and his mother have been a point of contention for many years: are they monsters, or merely monstrous? But there is one aspect of their nature that is unambiguous, and that is their status as exiles. Beowulf makes it clear that the many ills and malevolent spirits in the world result from Cain’s murder of Abel and his subsequent banishment:

Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.

Grendel’s fury is instigated by the circumstances of his wretched existence, “he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters,” a condition of living which makes “the harp being struck and the clear song of a skilled poet” utterly abhorrent to his ears. The fact that Grendel cannot be tied to any one homestead or hall, the mere fact that he is a homeless wanderer, inspires fear in the Danes upon whom he preys: “young and old were hunted down by that dark death-shadow who lurked and swooped in the long nights on the misty moors; nobody knows where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.”

When Hrothgar relates to Beowulf the rumours of Grendel and his mother much of the horror is concentrated not so much on their deeds or appearances, but where they dare to roam: “They dwell apart among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags and treacherous keshes, where cold streams pour down the mountain and disappear under mist and moorland.” These creatures live and lurk on the periphery of civilisation, they are the ongoing survivors of a bleak and hostile world who have rejected or been rejected by all the pleasures of the hall. They suffer greatly from the absence of company and direct their fury upon the lucky and loyal retainers inhabiting Heorot. To the Anglo-Saxon mind, an exile was not only a damned spirit but a condemnatory one that would blame and wreak his misfortune on others if encountered.

‘Where has the horse gone? where is the rider? where is the giver of gold?  Where are the seats of the feast? where are the joys of the hall?  O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!  O the glory of princes! How the time passed away, slipped into nightfall as if it had never been!’

‘Where has the horse gone? where is the rider? where is the giver of gold?
Where are the seats of the feast? where are the joys of the hall?
O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!
O the glory of princes! How the time passed away, slipped into nightfall as if it had never been!’
~ The Wanderer.

But the loss of the hall and kinship with other men was deeply felt by the outcasts. Grendel and his mother lurk in an underwater, twisted facsimile of a hall, replete with “hall-roofing” to fight off the water current and a hoard of weapons and treasure. The dragon also dwells in such an environment, an ancient barrow laden with treasure, but he is a stowaway who has assumed ownership of the tomb and its riches. When he attacks the countryside due to the theft of one of his treasures we see that he is powerful and gluttonous, a monstrous counterpart to the worst of human corruption.

One of Beowulf’s other outcasts is not a beast, but the lone survivor of a destructed race. It is this last man who deposits his peoples’ “rich inheritance” in the barrow that the dragon later claims as his own. After burying the treasure hoard this “forgotten person” wanders the earth until his own death:

And so he mourned as he moved about the world,
deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness
day and night, until death’s flood
brimmed up in his heart.

The language here evokes a solitary life as a slow drowning. Dying alone in the wild was an ignominious end for a warrior.

But sometimes fear presents a greater argument than honour, and warriors lose their mettle. At the climax of Beowulf the titular hero’s own war-band struggles to keep brave during their fight with the dragon and eventually flee:

No help or backing was to be had then
from his high-born comrades; that hand-picked troop
broke ranks and ran for their lives
to the safety of the wood.

Only one, Wiglaf, resolves to stay and fight. The text notes that “in a man of worth the claims of kinship cannot be denied.” After the battle ends the cowardly warriors (or as the text designates them, “battle-dodgers” and “tail-turners”) shamefully return to the field, and Wiglaf declares that foreign invasion will be imminent “once princes from beyond get tidings of how you turned and fled and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame.” We can deduce that abandoning the king or comitatus was considered not only a crime against individual members of the group but against the group, and nation, as a whole. Cowardice was a grave offence, and a coward’s lingering presence in a comitatus or hall would not only shame the group but potentially endanger it as well. Warriors in disgrace were obviously feared and hated whenever they came across honourable men.

The bleak and embattled mindset of an exile was often expressed in poems known as elegies; among them are poems like The Seafarer and The Wife’s Lament. Elegies such as these take place nowhere and are narrated by no one – that is, there is no firm geographical locale indicated in the texts, and the characters refuse, or simply neglect, to identify themselves.

However frustrating this may be for a more historically-minded reader (or for those simply wanting to expand upon the narrative and its circumstances) this absence of localisation and identification adds to, rather than detracts from, the sense of being cast adrift in an impersonal and uncaring landscape. It is not surprising that poems such as The Seafarer, which contains no identifiable narrator or any specific seascape, are often thought of as psychological or even allegorical pieces. Critics like John C. Pope, writing in his essay ‘Second thoughts on the interpretation of The Seafarer’, assert that it “is no wonder” that the poem “at its conclusion should allow the literally conceived pilgrimage of the speaker to suggest the broader idea of allegorical pilgrimage.”

That the icy froth and spume could be figurative language denoting an elegiac psychological bombardment is not dissimilar from the use of storms, hail, rain, and thunder as metaphors for battle or weaponry in other Old English texts (for example, arrows are described as raining down in “showers” in Judith.) The Exeter Book’s third riddle speaks of clouds that “do combat” and also portrays lightning as “death-spears” and “a whistling weapon”. There’s no doubt that the outside world was often seen as a brutal and ever-present enemy to be contended with -an army of natural forces whose battlefield was everywhere- and that this assault took place in the mind as much as it did on the body.

"So this middle-earth, a bit each day, droops and decays." ~ The Wanderer.

“So this middle-earth,
a bit each day,
droops and decays.”
~ The Wanderer.

There was one social group that rejected hall society and the practice of ring-giving and instead embraced exile, and that was the monastic orders. The practice of holy eremitism was not as old as Europe’s warrior society, but it did have a long and storied tradition with its own legends and, eventually, literature.

One of the earliest hagiographies of a saintly hermit was that of Martin of Tours (316 A.D. – 397 A.D.), written by Sulpicius Severus during Martin’s lifetime. Martin had left the Roman Army as a conscientious objector and settled as a hermit in Poitiers, France, gathering around himself a devoted group of followers who committed themselves to an ascetic life. Severus’ biography became “an immediate best seller” that “became a model for an immense flood of ‘Saints’ Lives’, popular literature published in Gaul and Britain during the next several centuries.”

The lives of many future saints followed the same guiding principles of Martin as outlined by Severus: the rejection of the world and its wealth, self-imposed exile and frugal living. Soon many hagiographies were borrowing miracles and events from their predecessors with little or sometimes no alteration. 

Their aim was to get away from the ‘society of man’, to live alone with a few companions in caves or ‘desert wildernesses’ […] The saints did not set out to reform society. They gave it up as an evil to avoid.
~ John Morris, The Age of Arthur, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973)

The burgeoning popularity of monasticism among the holy orders (and even among the common folk who felt beleaguered by widespread strife and war) eventually brought paradox to the movement: hermits found themselves settling into the hills and caves of Britain with other hermits, forming small societies in the process. Michael Swanton, in his chapter ‘An Assured Heroism’, noted that “By the end of the seventh century monasticism was well established and even regally endorsed among the Anglo-Saxons as a socially acceptable mode of life.” John Morris writes in The Age of Arthur that:

Place names attest the scale of the movement and its locality. Sixth-century Latin usage calls the monastery claustra, enclosure, whence comes the English word ‘cloister’. Its equivalent in Welsh was llan, whose literal meaning is ‘enclosure’. Well over six hundred Welsh towns and hamlets bear the name Llan.

Gerald of Wales, on his tour of the country in the twelfth century, wrote of the abbey church Llanthony, “originally founded by two hermits, in honour of the eremitical way of life, in solitude and far removed from the bustle of everyday existence.” Social approval had done much to enlarge and institutionalise the monastic lifestyle, though this, as church luminaries like Gerald complained, would eventually serve to undo many of its positive and holy aspects. The brothers at Llanthony had struggled for generations to keep society from invading their solitude, and were:

greatly distressed when it began to be endowed with land and church benefices […] In their desire for poverty, they refused many offers of manors and churches in those early years. Situated as they were in the wilderness, they refused to permit the overgrown recesses of the valley, where it widened out into an impenetrable wood, ever to be cleared or levelled off to make an open meadow, for they had no wish to abandon their eremitical mode of life.

The hermits found themselves resisting well-intentioned lords and kings who attempted to bequeath gifts upon them. However the nobility valued it, the old practice of ring-giving was abhorrent to the monks. It could only invite sin. “There in Gloucester men strive for earthly possessions, “ writes Gerald, “but here in Llanthony let them rather turn their minds towards the promise of eternal bliss. There let them enjoy the company of mortal men, but here let them prefer the concourse of angels.”

In Anglo-Saxon Christian literature the fraternising and frolicking that occurred in the hall were also looked upon with disdain. When the heroine of the Biblically inspired Judith enters Holofernes’ tent she looks at the drunken warriors with scorn. Though words like “gold-giving” are used to describe Holofernes, the text displays none of the admiration and awe that we might expect due to a “powerful man” and “lord of heroes”. Instead it is clearly stated that the cavorting and drinking have made the warriors careless and foolish:

[Holofernes] drenched his retainers with wine until they lay unconscious,
the whole of his troop were as drunk as if they had been struck down
in death,
drained of every ability.

There are similar insinuations in Beowulf, where Unferth’s belligerence is attributed to drunkenness, and the poem does not fail to remind readers that the fate of Heorot is tied directly to its grandeur and the jealousies of those inside and outside its doors.

Both self-exile and the apparently disparate notion of a comitatus-themed community eventually reconciled themselves and came together in the form of the chivalric Christian Knight who leaves his band of brothers and goes into the misty and mysterious landscape, alone, to pursue a holy quest. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there are positive depictions of revelry in King Arthur’s Court, rather than the ominous forebodings and disapproval present in other Christian works.

It was fine to hear such glorious commotion:
lively uproar all day and dancing at night,
the sheerest indulgence in dance hall and bedroom
by the ladies and lords, whatever whim took them.
With all worldly pleasures they dwelt there together:
the most famous knights in all of Christendom
It would be hard nowadays
to find such fellowship.

Gawain tells us that the carousing at the court is not only bawdy and abundant, but also represents a golden age for chivalry and Christianity. When Gawain starts to leave for his journey in search of the Green Knight all of Arthur’s court sees him off with sadness: “Much deep sorrow was felt in the hall, that one as valued as him should go on this quest.” Many tales of the saints describe how crowds wept whenever they took their leave. The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith detailed that “As the ship sailed across the river, he looked towards the brothers mourning his departure and heard the sublime sound of their song mixed with grief.”

"The son of nobles crossed over The steep stone cliffs,  the constricted climb, a narrow solitary path,  a course unknown..." ~ Beowulf.

“The son of nobles crossed over
The steep stone cliffs,
the constricted climb,
a narrow solitary path,
a course unknown…”
~ Beowulf.

Similarly Gawain, like all holy or disgraced nomads before him, ventures out and finds the world unkind:

He struggled up cliffs in godforsaken regions,
as, far from his friends, he wandered as a stranger.

Separated from his band of fellow knights, Gawain is isolated in a world that will grant him no respect or quarter on account of his honour and title. Again, as in earlier literature, the natural world is constantly harassing and threatening our lone wanderer: “At every ford and stream that the warrior passed, it was rare if he found no foe to face him.” However, like the self-exiled saints, Gawain has God to protect him from the harshness of nature: “If he hadn’t been alert, and helped by the Lord, he would certainly have went to his death.” God had certainly intervened to help his most blessed of subjects before. In Bede’s Life of Cuthbert the saint is given a loaf of bread, ostensibly from God, when he is in need. Afterwards Cuthbert resumes his journey without fear of hunger:

now that he knew he had been fed in his solitude by Him […] His eyes are ever on them that fear Him and hope in His mercy, so that He may, in the words of the Psalmist, ‘snatch their souls from death and feed them in time of famine.’

Eddius Stephanus’ Life of Wilfrid gives another example of Divine protection:

So Wilfrid and his companions left their native land and set off in exile for the kingdoms of the south. God, who does not leave his saints to endure alone, sent a kind-hearted man to meet them on their way.

To be stripped of one’s titles and honours, to be sent from the warmth of the hall, or to falter in allegiance during the thick of battle, was more terrible than death – but only for a few. Later Christian saints welcomed the wilderness, loneliness and limerance. They saw themselves as divorced from the pleasures and temptations of the hall; they walked not with men but were companioned by choruses of angels. After centuries of co-mingling the two modes of life found themselves reconciled in the form of the lone Christian Knight, a man loved by many but sometimes accompanied by few: he could find glory alone as well as among a brotherhood.

Art by Zdzisław Beksińsk

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Apocalyptic Angst and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes towards Transience.


“The final sum of days he himself established by his authentic power.”
~ Christ and Satan
(Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11, p 213 – 29)

In 601 C.E. Pope Gregory wrote to King Ethelbert, the first English king to convert to Christianity. He began his letter by complimenting Ethelbert, before turning to a gloomier and graver concern: “The end of this present world is at hand,” he warned, “and the everlasting kingdom of the saints is approaching.” Gregory continued by explaining that the first pangs of doomsday would make themselves palpably felt: “When the end of the world is near, unprecedented things occur – portents in the sky, terrors from heaven, unseasonable tempests, wars, famines, pestilences, and widespread earthquakes.”

There were several modes of thought concerning the apocalypse. The version sanctioned by the Church was that doomsday was inevitable but its day of arrival unforeseeable. As Gregory tells Ethelbert, “Not all of these things will happen during our own lifetimes, but will all ensue in due course.” Christ III (The Judgment), a piece contained in The Exeter Book, maintains the same message, and insists that Judgment Day will arrive “with sudden swiftness upon the midnight” like “an audacious thief who goes abroad in the dark … it will painfully cast down those people unprepared.”

This doctrine alone would be enough to incite Anglo-Saxon apocalyptic angst, but another, often discouraged view, held that the world was already in its final stages of life and the apocalypse imminent. In his essay ‘The Ruin of Time’, Michael Swanton notes that, “It was commonplace to contemporary thought that the world as it neared the millennium would show clear signs of decline if not of actual decay.” Swanton points out that, for the Anglo-Saxons at least, the proof of Judgment Day was stamped all over the known world: “All over Western Europe lay the tangible ruins of a once-great civilisation: towns, villas, and public buildings lying desolate and empty.”

Poems like The Ruin do not herald the end of days, but they do catalogue the abundance of buildings “smashed by fate”: crumbled, collapsed, and sinking into the mud. The Seafarer also explains that the world is in a state of disrepair: “The nobility of the earth ages and dries up.” The Wanderer also depicts a world that “each and every day declines and falls.” It elaborates that “The Creator of men thus laid waste this earth,” indicating that the world’s steady dereliction is heavenly mandated. “Here, wealth is transitory; here a friend is transitory; here a man is transitory; here a kinsman is transitory. All the earth’s foundation will become empty.” Neither The Seafarer nor The Wanderer proselytise the end of the world, but they do depict one that is obviously teetering on the brink.

The ruins of Roman and post-Roman British towns speckling the countryside would be an ample reminder that God-sanctioned destruction was a very real (and just) possibility. Christian moralists therefore usually invoked the apocalypse as a means of frightening their wayward congregations into observing good behaviour. Gregory tells Ethelbert that “these portents of the end are sent to warn us to consider the welfare of our souls and remember our last end, so that, when our Judge comes, he shall find us prepared by good lives.” Later in the tenth century Aelfric of Eynsham would write that “men have need of good teaching above all at this time, which is the ending of the world.” The Blickling Homily XI (circa 971 A.D.) asserts that the Day of Judgment “is not far distant, for all the signs and portents which our Lord said should occur before doomsday have occurred, except only that the accursed visitant Antichrist has not yet come into the world.” Afterwards, between 1010 and 1026, an English bishop named Wulfstan wrote The Sermon of the Wolf to the English, which opened with the lines “Beloved men, know that which is true: this world is in haste and it nears the end.” Wulfstan aimed to remind the English that the Britons had been displaced from their land as punishment from God, and that the same fate would befall the descendants of their Anglo-Saxon conquerors if they continued to live in sin.

But the end never came. Judgment Day seemed to be starting and stalling through a succession of disasters and maladies, and after decades of internecine conflict and foreign invasion and doomy portents the English had become well acquainted with the transience of worldly things as a result. Aelfric, in his Second Series of Catholic Homilies, seemed frustrated: “Often people say, behold, now doomsday is coming because the prophecies that were laid down about it have passed. But there comes war after war, tribulation after tribulation, earthquake after earthquake, famine after famine, nation after nation, and still the bridegroom does not come.”

Transience, decay, and the eventual judgment of mankind became familiar themes in Old English poetry. Some, like the aforementioned The Ruin, focus on architectural deterioration, where the “work of giants decays.” Others, like Soul and Body I & II, focus on the posthumous breakdown of the human body and the gratification or anguish of its spirit, as well as its eventual fate on Judgment Day – a date which, importantly, is left ambiguous. In Soul and Body II, the spirit of the recently deceased must visit its corpse every week for three hundred years, “unless the everlasting Lord, almighty God, brings about the end of the world beforehand.” Poems such as these keep Judgment Day distant but certain; in the meanwhile the soul has an untold amount of time to reflect on its eventual doom. Extracts such as Judgment Day II affirm that the end of days will erupt suddenly, leaving mortals in a state of angst and woeful surprise: “I remembered my sins, the crimes of my life and the long-drawn-out time of dark death’s advent upon earth, and I was afraid of the great judgment because of my wicked deeds upon earth.” Later works like Earth upon Earth also focus on bodily decay and the composition of the human form: namely, dust or clay rendered flesh that will, upon death, return to its prior form.

The impermanence of things is remarked upon frequently in Beowulf, where we are reminded that Heorot is doomed (almost as soon as we are introduced to it), and that all great genealogies come to an end, whether they are those of Hrothgar, the monster Grendel, or Beowulf himself. In the 8th century poem, Guthlac A, an angel promises the titular figure that the Kingdom of Heaven will host “edifices which never decay”, and will ensure that life for the saved, in comparison to their prior existence in the mortal world, “grows better for them the longer it goes on”. Later, an angel assures Guthlac that the “whole earth beneath the sky was ephemeral,” and he praises “the enduing good in the heavens,” where things are everlasting. A later story, Guthlac B, attests that worldly existence is merely an “ephemeral span” and “a long wait.”

Apocalyptic language and portents also permeated texts such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In 635 A.D. the Chronicle noted that, “This year there was in Britain a bloody rain, and milk and butter were turned to blood.” Compare this to Revelation 16:4, and the language reveals itself as apocalyptic: “The third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters, and they became blood.” As Pope Gregory forewarned in his correspondence with Ethelbert, there would be palpable signs of the world’s end, including war, famine, and signs in the sky, and the Chronicle recorded them all. There was “great famine” in 975, 976, 1005, and 1082. In 678 a comet, another harbinger of doom, appeared in the sky for three months “like sunshine.” More comets appeared in 793, 891, 905, 975, 995, and of course in 1066, when Halley’s Comet arrived along with William the Conqueror. Eilmer of Malmesbury, who seems to have spied Halley’s Comet on its last circuit, was quoted by William of Malmesbury on the topic of the bolide’s reappearance in 1066: “Thou art come! A matter of lamentation to many a mother, thou art come; I have seen thee long since; but now I behold thee much more terrible, threatening to hurl destruction on this country.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle connects many disturbances in the year 975 A.D. with a comet: first, King Edgar dies following the death of “the good bishop Cyneweard,” and this itself is followed by the banishment of Oslac of York. “Many wise servants of God were expelled,” the Chronicle notes, and:

“Then, up in the heavens, a star in the firmament
Made its appearance, which confident sages,
Wise seers, astronomers, and sage scholars
Everywhere call by the name of ‘comet.’
Throughout the nation, the vengeance of the Lord
Was widely evident when hunger reigned
Over the earth.”

There were more catastrophes connected with mercurial weather in 793 A.D.:

“In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, and miserably frightened the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.”

These heathens were the Vikings, and their appearance is tied directly to the chaos seen in the skies, as is the famine, which “soon followed these signs”, the language here being very clear that the stormy weather and dragon sightings were not randomly occurring phenomenon, but very deliberate warnings of coming destruction. Later, in 1066, the Chronicle would tie the appearance of Halley’s Comet with the beginnings of another foreign invasion: “Throughout all England, a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens. Some declared that the star was a comet … Soon thereafter came Earl Tostig from across the sea to the Isle of Wight, with as many household troops as he could muster.” Note the author connecting the arrival of the star with the arrival of Earl Tostig. The comet’s reputation as a harbinger is sealed here: “He sailed thence,” the Chronicle continues, “and did damage everywhere along the seacoast where he could.”

Most of these calamities were not unusual features in the embryonic English landscape. War was certainly common; the shape and make-up of the country was constantly being revised by it. In his book The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn writes that:

“Generation after generation lived in constant expectation of the all-destroying demon whose reign was indeed to be lawless chaos … People were always on the watch for the ‘signs’ which, according to the prophetic tradition, were to herald and accompany the final ‘time of troubles’; and since the ‘signs’ included bad rulers, civil discord, war, drought, famine, plague, comets, sudden deaths of prominent persons and an increase in general sinfulness, there was never any difficulty about finding them.”

Texts such as the apocryphal Apocalypse of Thomas, though written in Latin between the second and fourth centuries and despite its excision from Christian orthodoxy, found some popularity in Old English homilies in the tenth century. In his essay ‘Two Uses of Apocrypha in Old English Homilies’, Milton McCormick Gatch writes that “Anglo-Saxon writers did not subject Latin materials to rigorous tests of orthodoxy and canonicity,” and that preaching an apocryphal text would not be too unusual, especially texts that reminded the laity of their salvation or damnation, whichever was relevant for the moment. The Apocalypse of Thomas is thought to have inspired a post-millennial text known as Fifteen Signs before Doomsday, which promises floods, droughts, earthquakes, and the typical apocalyptic chaos.

The Apocalypse itself was not necessarily dreaded. For the doubtful or guilty-minded it was a source of anxiety and pain; for the pious it was the cumulative moment of their life’s work. Tales of Armageddon are frequently introduced with flashes of terror and torture and hellfire, but conclude with Christ’s eternal reign and joy for the blessed. Saintly figures were often depicted as going to their deaths in a jovial mood. As Bede died he did so “on the floor of his cell singing.” Guthlac A ends with Eden-esque imagery, as the saint retires to a tranquil plot of land where fruit is plenty and the animals eat from his palm. Eventually his spirit is lifted to Heaven. In Guthlac B he attests that upon his death “my days in the earthly journey will have slipped away, my sorrow will be assuaged.” Christ III (The Judgment) delineates the fates of damned and saved souls, as does Judgment Day II and Soul and Body I & II.

But for many the end of the world still invoked feelings of damnation and perdition. The Domesday Book earned its ominous title through the common feeling of the conquered English people, as, according to one twelfth century Norman writer, “Doomsday is what the man in the street calls it in the English language, that is, to us, ‘The Book of the Day of Judgment’, for its verdicts are just as unanswerable.”

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The Romantics


If you were to merely glance over the work of the first and second generation of Romantic poets then there would seem to be nothing separating the two other than chronology, and in some aspects this is true enough: both strive to escape urban realities in favour of the natural sublime; both tend towards lone figures in scenic environments; and both stress the importance of raw feeling over purely rational thinking.

But wherever the two generations match, they also differ. William Wordsworth, in the introduction to his Lyrical Ballads (1798), dismisses the personification of abstract ideas whereas Percy Shelley uses them to great effect – see Murder and Fraud in The Masque of Anarchy (1819). To Shelley, a poet was an instrument, a lyre over which the imagination blew like a wind, giving it music. Wordsworth strove for accessibility and prose-like poetry that spoke plainly yet deeply. For him, a poet is “a man speaking to men”; a far more rustic concept than Shelley’s metaphoric elaboration. John Keats, a second generation Romantic alongside Shelley, agreed with Wordsworth: “Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts.”

But again, coupled with the similarities were discrepancies in method or style. Keats’ theory of ‘negative capability’ necessitated the disappearance of the poet, with a strong focus on the poem’s object of choice. Negative capability is the ability to detach oneself from your own being; the poet becomes an abstraction who can investigate an object from many differing avenues of thought. Wordsworth however inserted himself into his poetry as a singular, interacting character.

In Simon Lee, not only does Wordsworth address the reader directly (“O gentle Reader!”) he talks to and assists the  poem’s subject matter (an elderly herdsman) in cutting down a tree. In many of his poems the narrator is identified as “I”, who is of course Wordsworth himself. Keats on the other hand claimed that the poet “is every thing and nothing …  he has no identity – he is continually in for, and filling some other body: The Sun, The Moon, the Sea and Men and Women…” With Wordsworth we follow the poet not only as a narrator but also as a guide, a biographer of pastoral life seeking to transpose real rustic scenes into ‘serious’ contemplative literature, hence his focus on the countryside’s ‘small folk’, from huntsmen to leech collectors to “the solitary child … on a wide moor”.

In comparison, the characters inhabiting Keats’ poems are either personified emotions (Melancholy and Joy, Love and Ambition), historical figures like Sappho or Petrarch, or mythological characters like Hermes and Apollo. Interestingly, when Keats focuses on rural figures they are merely representations painted upon an urn, and their stories are ultimately unknowable.

There is however also a sense that what Wordsworth conveys is not a first hand sensory experience; it has been lacquered with what he called “a certain colouring of imagination” in order to make the ordinary interesting. With Keats the object of choice, whether a book (On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer), a series of sculptures (On Seeing the Elgin Marbles) or ancient pottery (Ode to a Grecian Urn) is examined and interrogated entirely on its own merit. Keats would concentrate so intensely on a singular item that the resulting sense of beauty would “overcome every other consideration, or rather obliterate all consideration”.

What mattered to Keats was the raw sensual experience, and not whatever conclusions the poet came to at the end. There was to be no “irritable reaching after fact and reason”, only the object and its effect. In his letters Keats directly noted that poets like Samuel Coleridge lacked the ability to satisfy themselves with “half-knowledge” – the accusation being that Coleridge does not seek to merely experience purity or beauty through nature, but seeks the acquisition of knowledge. Keats suspects that Coleridge places thought over sensation – a betrayal of the Romantic ‘creed’, if there was one.

St. Augustine defined poetry as a pathway to God, “with no mediating Nature between [them],” but Wordsworth, in The Tables Turned, claimed that:

“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.”

The advice here is simply to “Let nature be your teacher”. The trouble was that with advancing age we become saddled with distractions which all work together to detract from our appreciation of (and connection to) nature.

To Wordsworth, a long life had a wearying and detrimental effect on one’s appreciation of nature. In Intimations of Immortality he writes, “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream/The earth and every common sight/To me did seem/Apparelled in celestial light”. Wordsworth claimed a belief in the Platonic idea that our pre-existence is a state of perfection, and that “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” As children we can see the glory of nature; we are “Nature’s Priest”, but “At length the Man perceives it die away/And fade into the light of common day”.

In this poem Wordsworth also used prison imagery to describe the human experience:

“Shades of the prison house begin to close
Upon the growing boy …
Inmate Man
Forget the glories he hath known
And that imperial palace whence he came.”

Wordsworth’s only respite from the agony of forgetting the “splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower” is that with age also comes a philosophic mind. He can find “Strength in what remains behind … In the soothing thoughts that spring/Out of human suffering;/In the faith that looks through death.”

In Tintern Abbey he concludes that “The mind within us”, loaded with joyful memories and appreciation of nature, will become a bulwark against “evil tongues”, “rash judgments”, “the sneers of selfish men” and “the dreary intercourse of daily life”. The “wild ecstasies” of youth will transform into “sober pleasure”, and though the “celestial light” dims as the years pass, Wordsworth finds a way to illuminate his brief, transitory existence.

Keats’ approach was far more existential. Death was a worryingly inevitable conclusion and he always felt that time was short. In Ode to Melancholy he rejects suicide and forgetfulness as solutions to melancholy. Instead the sufferer should “glut thy sorrow on a morning rose”, though this solution is temporary: in When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be Keats writes that the knowledge of his mortality spoils his appreciation of the world:

“When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
And I think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance …
Then on the shore of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness sink.”

There is a source of respite for Keats, and that is art. Though man may be ephemeral, an artistic work can survive the ages. In Ode to a Grecian Urn he explores the theme of immortality through art – in this case, a painted Greek urn. “When old age shall this generation waste/Thou shalt remain,” he writes of the urn and its painted figures. But such immortality comes with a price: though the figures painted on the ceramic have survived the centuries, they do not live. Of the trees painted there, he laments: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed/Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu”. Furthermore, anything beyond the characters’ physical appearances remain a mystery: “What men or gods are these?/What maidens loth?/What mad pursuit?/What struggle to escape?”

Keats cannot know these answers – but, if we recall, that is beyond the point. For Keats it is the sensory experience that matters, not his conclusions. He is a poet who, always hoping to delay the future, lives to become lost in the present moment.

A final point should be made: there was certainly more cross-over of ideas and love shared between Keats and Wordsworth than there was between Keats and his contemporaries. Though Wordsworth’s name is inextricably linked to that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the two having walked and mused and collaborated during the span of their friendship, the relationship between the likewise contemporaneous Lord Byron and John Keats was one of unveiled animosity; Byron was a flamboyant, witty and charming poet who “woke one morning to find myself famous”. Keats was “a pale flower”, a troubled and easily daunted young man whose reputation as a great poet was born posthumously.

Personality and fortunes aside, Keats, in his poetical manifesto, Sleep and Poetry, dismissed one Nicolas Boileau, whose Art Poétique (1674) anticipated Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1711) and a whole school of popular critical thought. Byron, an acolyte of Pope, never forgave Keats for allegedly transgressing against his idol. Similarly, though Keats praised Percy Shelley for his individuality, he also eschewed intimacy with the poet to attain and preserve his “own unfettered scope”. The idea that a battle-line was drawn between both generations, with homogenous and allied forces on both sides, is an artifice; a product of our tendency to divide history into easily-perused categories .

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“The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

– or so claimed Thomas Carlyle, who also claimed that “No sadder proof can be given of a man’s littleness than his disbelief in great men.” The nineteenth century philosopher, Hegel, could not help but behold the “World Spirit” in Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who, as Hegel saw, “reaches out over the world and masters it”. Friedrich Nietzsche later claimed, like Carlyle, that “the goal of humanity lies in its greatest specimens.” What Carlyle called a ‘great man’, Nietzsche would later classify as an ‘ubermensch’.

In the twentieth century the sociologist Herbert Spencer would provide the de facto refutation of Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory, succinctly summarised in his phrase, “Before he can remake society, first society must make him”. Such a thought was in fact implicit in Hegel, who, though recognising the existence of great men, saw them as the result of a myriad of historical and social factors that just so happened to result in the great man himself, through no volition or force of will of his own. For Carlyle, outside circumstances and influences meant little.

Traces of Carlyle’s idea managed to creep into Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which was inspired by Carlyle’s A History of the French Revolution, (Carlyle’s friend- and mentorship would earn him a tribute in the opening pages of Dickens’ Hard Times). When, in Two Cities, the mob outside the Bastille is finally moved to violence, Dickens uses the character of Madam Defarge to drive the action. Historically, the violence was perpetuated anonymously. By inserting Defarge, Dickens takes a historical reality and presents it through the lens of a singular ‘hero’ (however inappropriate that word seems here) who drives the fated event to its bloody conclusion. According to some critical circles, Defarge is said to be represent one of the Fates from Greek Mythology; essentially, she is one member of a cabal of entities that can influence the flow of history.

Defarge later rouses the mob to murder a French official: “give us the blood of Foulon, rend Foulon to pieces!” This has serious and long-lasting implications, and Defarge represents the bloodlust of the Revolution, with the rioting mobs merely a tool for her vengeance. Carlyle appreciated the character, calling Dickens’ novel “wonderful”. However, Dickens, though a Carlylian acolyte, never proselytized the Ecclefechan Prophet’s teachings – Defarge, though a driving force, conquers nothing, and is eventually felled by a bullet from her own gun. Still, Defarge’s actions and their consequences in the novel follow Carlyle’s theory that people of great force can direct the flow and ebb of life, and not the other way around.

Despite the character of Defarge, Carlyle himself was not one to attribute women with great qualities. Great Men are the epitome of masculinity, power and nobility. Women were simply considered to be lesser beings. But they did have their champions. In her poem Aurora Leigh, E.B. Browning stages a debate between the titular character and her cousin on the merits of women and their potential for greatness. Browning had been ruffled by Carlyle’s “praise for dumb heroic action” at the loss of finer qualities – qualities, like chivalry, that Browning argued men of her age had lost. “The world’s male chivalry has perished out, but woman are knights-errant to the last,” she wrote. Women are teachers of the world, and even if “women do not think at all, they may teach thinking.” Carlyle read Aurora Leigh, and though he admired Browning’s talent, he surmised that, “[T]his Lady ‘hath a good utterance of speech;’ but as to the thing said with it, one asks: is it a thing at all?”

Whilst Browning denied that men had any chivalry about them, Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre, didn’t deny its existence, but was clear that she found overabundant masculinity, such as that found in a Carlylian ‘great man’, to be simply uninteresting: “had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape,” says Eyre of the helpless Rochester, “[I] should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.” While women have no place by the side of Carlyle’s great men, Jane Eyre is drawn to Rochester because he needs her; Bronte understanding that a man and a woman can complement one another. Additionally, where Carlyle characterises a ‘great man’ as one who “willingly devotes his life to the divine and inner truth and shares his vision with the rest of the world,” Bronte warns that “The human and fallible should not arrogate a power with which the divine and perfect alone can be safely entrusted”.

Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory is almost Biblical in that it sees history as a narrative led and understood through singular figures, i.e., Moses, Noah, and Christ. This is perhaps a remnant of his religious upbringing – the hierarchical, duty-bound Calvinism and its belief in a preordained “chosen people”. Such notions were of course thrown into disarray and panic by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which contained his theory of evolution through natural selection. Great men, then, were the result of generations of biological refinement. Carlyle had bemoaned the mechanisation of labour that was occurring during the Industrial Revolution, and Darwin’s book, in Carlyle’s eyes, seemed to mechanise mankind himself whilst also extinguishing his soul and severing his connection to the Divine (and greatness) altogether. As he was with E.B. Browning, Carlyle was dismissive of Darwin. “I have no time for these gorilla damnifications of humanity,” he said. Darwin could only shrug, “As far as I could judge, I never met a man with a mind so ill-adapted for scientific research.”

Darwin stressed that mankind’s position as the most advanced species on Earth was due to the merits of our every ancestor, rather than the achievements of a few fine specimens. According to Darwin, Man did not advance through history and to the top of the organic scale “through his own exertions”; but he points out that we “may be excused for feeling some pride for having risen” in the first place. “[T]he fact of having thus risen, instead of being aboriginally placed there, may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future.”

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Fragments of a Forgotten Life

" If even the bottom of the mountain could scare me, how much more terrifying it became as we made our way ... going higher and higher until we were stepping on the very clouds!"

“If even the bottom of the mountain could scare me, how much more terrifying it became as we made our way … going higher and higher until we were stepping on the very clouds!”
~ ‘Lady Sarashina’, As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams.

The past is largely anonymous. Very few members of the human race have managed to stand tall among the remaining dust of their contemporaries; for every Julius Caesar or George Washington or Alexander the Great are great swirls of ash: the formless remains of forgotten artisans, poets, city planners, tradesmen, ship builders, tree fellers, stone haulers, city officials, soldiers, weavers, wanderers, brawlers, milliners, farmers, and commoners. Modern estimates calculate that over 108 billion humans have been born in the last 50,000 years. A glance at history reveals that we have only managed to preserve the names, appearances, and memories of a select few – and even then, the facts are contentious.

The inclusion of a Caesar or Alexander into this ‘pantheon of history’ needs little explanation or justification. Even non-conquerors, like the diarist Anne Frank, find themselves providing Posterity with a window into one particular period of time. What a loss we would suffer had we been denied The Diary of a Young Girl. But what about other sparse, surviving accounts from history? What do we gain from the anonymous Japanese author (dubbed ‘Lady Sarashina’ in the centuries since her death) of As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams?

Lady Sarashina (1008 C.E. – 10??) was disadvantageously shy, meek, elegiac and passive. She was also a constant daydreamer and a lover of fancies; whether they were notions, imaginings, or came in the form of ‘Tales’, her favourite being the famous Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji. She found herself unsuited for court life, and for socialising in general: “I tried to make myself inconspicuous by staying behind the lady who had first introduced me at court, and in that great throng of people no one got a clear view of me.” She is so anxious when surrounded by strangers during her time there that she “could not sleep a wink” and “wept secretly until dawn”. Sarashina’s life is one constantly interrupted by tears, doubts, and inaction. She has dreams that she considers prophetic, but constantly fails to act on them. When a would-be suitor appears, she routinely (though not deliberately) avoids him. When a festival comes to town, she ups and leaves to avoid the bustle.

Sarashina ends her account by bemoaning the absence of her remaining family. Her final days and destiny go unrecorded. “I had wandered through my life without realising any of my hopes or accumulating any merit,” she says in her elder years. “Many years have passed, but when I think about that sad, dreamlike time my heart is thrown into turmoil and my eyes darken, so that even now I cannot clearly remember all that happened”. Sarashina is, as her final recorded correspondence with a friend notes, “one who finally renounced the world”.

On the whole, we glean seemingly nothing from the account of her life but a picturesque travelogue of the many shrines she has pilgrimaged to. She makes no record of historical events, fails to inform us of the customs of her time, and even neglects to inform the reader of what we would consider to be important details of her own life: a husband crops up from nowhere, as do children. Other family members spring in and out of existence, only mentioned when they have seen fit to cross paths with her. Her father (over whom she seems to dote) apparently dies off-page and without comment. Sometimes her sparse writing has a surprising effect. On one page Sarashina’s sister muses, “If I flew away now all of a sudden and disappeared without a trace, what would you think?” The question goes unanswered, but a page -and apparently, years- later, Sarashina writes, “On the First Day of the Fifth Month my sister died while giving birth to her baby.”

There are also moments of comedy and poignancy, such as Sarashina’s adoption of a cat that she and her sister fancy to be the reincarnation of a city official’s daughter (very few people have names, here).

Once when I was alone she came and sat beside me. I stroked her for a long time. ‘So you are the Major Counsellor’s daughter!’ I said. ‘If only I could let His Excellency know that you are here!’ Hearing this, she gazed at me intently and gave a long miaow. It may have been my imagination but that moment her eyes were not those of an ordinary cat; they seemed to understand exactly what I was saying.

This is as introspective as the Lady gets when dealing with creatures beyond herself; tellingly, the awkward girl shares this brief moment of understanding with an animal, rather than a person. Such scenes are not recorded later in her book. Sadly, the Counsellor’s Daughter soon moves on to another incarnation of life after the cat dies in a house fire.

Such anecdotes reveal nothing about the world outside of Sarashina, and it may be asked why we should bother to preserve such things when there are surely greater  mysteries about the world and its history to be discovered? Perhaps the mere fact that the remembrances of an 11th century Japanese girl are so rare will adequately answer the question. Perhaps by even asking such a thing we are mistakenly and loftily assuming that the present time we inhabit is all-important – but history, as we’ve said, is littered with forgotten statesmen, historians, scribes, generals, and artists. Who’s to say that anyone currently alive will be worth a moment of thought in the far-flung future? In a thousand years to come, when our distant descendants look back to the early internet, they will find no shortage of material to pore over; but what will they find worth remembering?

Ultimately, like the Lady’s life, the book feels sadly incomplete. In one regard this only adds to, rather than detracts from, the overall effect. You get the impression that Time only preserved Sarashina so that she may serve as a warning against the idle and those who fail to seize opportunity.

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