Showing posts with label supernatural. Show all posts
Showing posts with label supernatural. Show all posts

Saturday, 21 May 2016

'Death and the Doctor' - David Garrick

‘As Doctor ** musing sate,
Death saw, and came without delay:
Enters the room, begins the chat
With, “Doctor, why so thoughtful, pray?”’

‘Death and the Doctor’
David Garrick
(published 1763)

Even today, the name of David Garrick has a glamorous magic: perhaps the most famous actor of the eighteenth-century, the dramatic painting of him in the role of Richard III is for many (myself included) one of the great highlights of a visit to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.  As an actor, he was famed for the bewitching power of his voice, and his ability to portray a broad register of different emotions on-stage, but he was also a writer of both plays and poetry.  Sometimes the latter would take the form of poetic prologues or epilogues to be spoken before or after a theatrical performance by one of the actors in character.  Today’s offering is simply a standalone narrative, but it is also a splendid example of Garrick’s sly, witty brilliance.

The subtitle provides all the background the reader needs:  this is a defensive poem, ‘Occasioned by a Physician’s lampooning a Friend of the Author’.  If you’ve never encountered this term before, to lampoon is to ‘Publicly criticize (someone or something) by using ridicule, irony, or sarcasm’ (the definition is from Oxford Dictionaries, the free version!).  Call me a sentimentalist if you will, but I think it’s rather sweetly loyal of him to have gone to so much effort to support his friend as the construction of a whole poetic narrative!  Even the title is a bit of a clever put-down, since in saying ‘Death and the Doctor’ Garrick places gives Death the priority by placing it first in the sentence.  As the great Sir Ian McKellen said recently in a programme to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare, who would want to play Romeo if the play was called ‘Juliet and Romeo’?

In the poem, the scene starts somewhat theatrically with the doctor sitting and thoughtfully ‘musing’; Death notices this, and hurries at once to investigate.  At first, the doctor is a bit startled (who wouldn’t be if the grim reaper suddenly appeared in the living room wanting a chat?).  He ‘started from his place’ in a manner that again seems to evoke the spirit of theatrical performance.  Perhaps more surprisingly, the pair soon ‘more familiar grew’ and fall into conversation about such a conventional everyday topic as the state of the Doctor’s practice.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable talking shop with Death; yet in a sense this is a subtle way of beginning to discredit the anonymous Doctor, by suggesting he has a rather mercantile and desensitised personality.  A few minutes after meeting Death, the ultimate arch-enemy of humanity, he is gloomily complaining that ‘trade was low and friends were few’.

Death of course takes a rather more practical view.  ‘Away with fear’ he cries, advising the doctor to at once ‘mend [his] trade’ for, he says, ‘we both are losers if you fail’.  There is no indication that the Doctor sees anything odd about this statement, though the reader will notice the huge irony in the idea that a lack of business for a doctor would mean Death losing out on victims.  The business of Doctors should, after all, be to bring people back to health.  Though the joke about doctors killing off their patients was by no means new at this point, Garrick makes it fresh through the argument that follows.  For it is not through conventional medical treatment that Death suggests the Doctor would be able to furnish him with a steady supply of victims.  Rather, it is through the poisonous nature of his satirical scribbling.  ‘Go write’, suggests Death, disregarding the quality of such compositions as he claims that it is ‘No matter, whether smart, or true’. Advocating the dispersion of these writings among the doctor’s friends, Death suggests that this will inevitably make all readers ‘grow sick’ and dependent upon the doctor’s (somewhat dubious) services.  The final joke comes as Death claims that this will help them both, for this way he says ‘you are sure to have your fees, / And I am sure to have your friends.”’  Splendid, isn’t it?  Without directly insulting the doctor at all, Garrick neatly manages to completely demolish the physician’s whole credibility.  Whoever this man is, he is no longer to be regarded as a serious medical professional, but rather as a money-minded charlatan, ready to stoop to any low trick to conjure business for himself.  The true wit here is not the doctor with his character-assassinating writings, but Garrick. 
Happy reading!!

You can find this poem:
(A wonderful new site loaded with free editions of obscure eighteenth-century verse.  Go on, you know you want to look…)

More about the lovely David Garrick:

(I didn’t want to reproduce this image directly in case of copyright issues, but do follow the link to the Walker Art Gallery website.  Hogarth’s ‘Garrick as Richard III’ is one of the iconic masterpieces of 18th century art, and an absolute must-see!! And while you’re at it, why not visit the Walker and come see all the other lovely 18th century paintings at one of the absolute best art galleries in the country?)

(Wikipedia, for details about this fascinating chap’s exciting life!)

(And to cross reference, why not check out Encyclopaedia Britannica?  This could be the most interesting thing you read all day!!)

(And if you’re really getting into this by this point, why not look at the info about him at the Twickenham Museum?  Looks like it could be a good day out folks…)

(Ok, by this point you’ve probably realised that Garrick is still quite a popular guy… If you want to get even more detail the links on this page are definitely for you!!)
(Fab image of, and info about, the memorial to Garrick in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey!)

Monday, 18 January 2016

'A Night-Piece on Death' - Thomas Parnell

‘How deep yon azure dyes the sky,
Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie,
While through their ranks in silver pride
The nether crescent seems to glide.
The slumb’ring breeze forgets to breathe,
The lake is smooth and clear beneath,
Where once again the spangled show
Descends to meet our eyes below.’
(lines 9-16)
A Night-Piece on Death
Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)
(published 1722)
Surely the eighteenth century was the great age for poetic descriptions of landscape: in just a few lines Thomas Parnell captures his reader and takes them out by the hand to wander through a cool, still night.  This is not a long poem, but it has a lot to say.  It also has a lot of really splendid images: when he begins by describing ‘the blue taper’s trembling light’ (line 1), for example, we can instantly see inside his cosy little study, and see the frail quiver of the candle flame.  Parnell writes that ‘No more I waste the wakeful night’ (line 2), and he doesn’t waste words either. 
The poem starts off late at night in a study; the poet has been reading the works of ‘The schoolmen and the sages’ (line 4), trying to find the path to wisdom.  But ‘at best’, he decides, such books can only ‘point […] the longest way’ (line 6).  The real way to understand the world here ‘below’ the heavens, is to go outside and experience it first hand: ‘How deep yon azure dyes the sky, / Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie’ (lines 9-10).  Beautiful, isn’t it?
Thomas Parnell.  Image courtesy of
Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Then as he walks he sees ‘a place of graves’ (line 19), and gently the poem grows more solemn.  Another subtle shift here is that the poem suddenly begins to address the reader (or, to use the jargon, talking in the second person):
‘There pass, with melancholy state,
By all the solemn heaps of fate,
And think, as softly-sad you tread
Above the venerable dead,
“Time was, like thee they life possessed,
And time shall be, that thou shalt rest.”’
(lines 23-28)
Ok, so it sounds a little gloomy perhaps; but it’s also a fair point.  It’s also interesting that Parnell is now addressing his reader directly.  Somewhat paradoxically, he has now become like the ‘schoolmen and sages’ whose books he had been reading, as he now begins to write about the knowledge and wisdom he has gained through his midnight ramblings.  (Needless to say, late-night wanderings around graveyards are NOT recommended for today’s readers!)
To Parnell, the graves are a symbol of labour at rest.  Once again his delightful turn of phrase produces such poignant images as ‘The flat smooth stones that bear a name, / The chisel’s slender help to fame’ (lines 33-34).  As is frequently the case with graveyard poetry in the eighteenth-century, the emphasis is firmly upon death as a social leveller – in this graveyard are the poor, the ‘middle race of mortals’, and those who ‘in vaulted arches lie’ (lines 37 & .  40). The rich and great might try to preserve their fame after death through elaborate tombs, but as Parnell neatly notes they are those ‘Who, while on earth in fame they live, / Are senseless of the fame they give’ (lines 45-6).  The ‘they’ in the second line here refers to the ‘Arms, angels, epitaphs and bones’ (line 43) that adorn the graves of the rich.  In other words, while alive, these people paid little or no attention to the fame of their ancestors, proclaimed in the same manner in which they themselves have since attempted to proclaim theirs.  It’s a bit of a sweeping swipe at the aristocracy, but all the same rather cleverly put.
Then things get a bit more spooky, as he imagines the ghosts rising up from their graves as ‘pale Cynthia fades’ (line 47); Cynthia here refers to the moon, via Greek mythology.  The poet hears ‘a voice begin’ (line 55), and the lines between imagination and the supernatural become delightfully blurred.  The voice is that of Death, the ‘King of Fears’ (line 62), but the words he speaks are rather less terrifying than might be expected.  According to this voice, ‘Death’s but a path that must be trod, / If man would ever pass to God’ (lines 67-8).  Mocking the traditional eighteenth-century funeral fare of ‘flowing sable stoles, / Deep pendant cypress, mourning poles’ (lines 71-2) and so on, the voice then proceeds to paint a rather cheery picture of death that draws upon Christian religious belief in rebirth and resurrection.  Accordingly, the voice suggests that life is like a long prison sentence from which worthy souls may ‘Spring forth to greet the glitt’ring sun’ after death, and ultimately ‘mingle with the blaze of day’ (lines 82 & 90).  Certainly a very upbeat ending for a poem that is, essentially, all about death!
Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)
 Thomas Parnell was ordained as a deacon in 1700, and installed as a minor canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin in 1704, so perhaps it is not surprising that his poem takes religious belief as its centrepoint.  At St Patrick’s, Parnell met Jonathan Swift, and both men were later members of the informal social grouping known today in academic circles as the Scriblerus Club.  Although this grouping included some of the most acclaimed literary figures of the early eighteenth-century (such as Alexander Pope and John Gay), Parnell’s poetry was not published until 1722, four years after his death.
If you want to find out more about Thomas Parnell:
(Encyclopaedia Britannica – a bit like Wikipedia, but sounds more intellectual!)
You can find this poem:
(Can’t wait to start reading?  Know how you feel… Check out this free copy online at the Poetry Foundation!)
(English Poetry 1579-1830: a fascinating database of poetry with a healthy smattering of notes and commentary.  Compiled by David Hill Radcliffe, Virginia Tech.  Great stuff!!)
David Fairer & Christine Gerrard (eds), Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology 3rd ed. (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015)  pp. 66-67.
(Want a copy you can hold in your hand?  This anthology has this poem and loads more inside! It’s often used as a student text, so check for second-hand copies on eBay or similar before purchasing if you’re shopping on a budget!)
Information for this blogpost came from the following source:
Bryan Coleborne, ‘Parnell, Thomas (1679-1718), poet and essayist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. <> [accessed 18 Jan 2016]
(If you are fortunate enough to have a subscription to this database, or to study at an institution that does, do have a read: it’s a fascinating little article!)

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley

‘Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was.  I cherished hope, it is true; but it vanished, when I beheld my person reflected in water, or my shadow in the moonshine, even as that frail image and that inconstant shade.’
(Chapter XV)

Mary Shelley
(1818, reprinted and amended in 1831)

Ok, so you’re probably wondering why I didn’t save this for Halloween.  I didn’t because, despite popular myth, this actually isn’t a horror story.  Over a century of cinematic dramatizations and ‘reimaginings’ have created an image of this tale as a straightforward terrifying-monster-chases-helpless-populace kind of plot; a bit like an eighteenth-century Jurassic Park.  I’m not much of a horror/thriller fan myself, so I must confess that it was quite a long time before I finally decided to read Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein.  When I did, I was astonished to discover that the ‘monster’ is actually quite an appealing character.  

I know I said this book isn't about a rampaging
monster, but isn't he cute?  Lego Frankenstein,
with many thanks to
who don't realise they have generously lent this image.
To me, he is portrayed as something of an ‘ugly duckling’ figure, always searching for a place to belong yet unable ever to overcome the sense of revulsion that his own physical being creates in others.  There’s certainly the midnight laboratory scene of popular and pulp fantasy, but even here it is a misguided rather than an evil Dr. Frankenstein who creates the ‘creature’, and who is promptly so horrified by his actions that he goes to bed.  Yes, he really does go to bed, and then becomes terrified when he wakes to see his creation peeping at him through the bed curtains.  What did he expect his little ‘monster’ to do? 

It is after this creation scene, though, that things become really interesting. In a cosy fireside reunion sometime later, the ‘creature’ tells Frankenstein what he has been up to since leaving the workshop.  This includes voyeuristically watching the daily life of a small family, during the course of which he performs small, silent acts of kindness for them such as cutting firewood.  He longs for inclusion within the affectionate arms of this family, but when he attempts to place himself under their protection he is repulsed, not because he is not a nice person (indeed, he is at this point quite an affectionate and philosophical individual, who has spent his leisure time reading classics such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives).  Rather, he is rejected because they just find him hideous to look at.  There is an poignant scene involving a blind father, and a couple of young, sight-possessing, fainting girls which Shelley uses to explore judgements based upon personal appearance…but you probably get the idea.

Suffice to say, this is a book that deals with far more than a simple monster-rampage.  The question of whether the ‘monster’ even is a genuine ‘monster’ is a good starting point for discussion.  Shelley uses her novel to explore a meeting point between theology and science, and to confront issues of the moral responsibility attached to the creation of artificial life that remain relevant to this day.  The added dimension of the creature’s apparent ‘ugliness’ also seems designed to provoke thought and discussion upon perceptions of so-called deformity, a useful exercise in itself.

This is only a small book, but it is an immensely powerful one.  Philosophical rather than horrific, thought-provoking rather than nightmare-inducing, this is a book that all readers should investigate at some point.  So why not this week, hey?

You can find this text:

(If you’re on a tight budget, this Wordsworth classics edition is a great choice: nice presentation of text, only £1.99 at the moment!  Also, as this is a text that habitually recurs on university and A-Level courses, it’s always worth checking second hand dealers for nice affordable copies of Penguin or Oxford World’s Classics editions!)

(Penguin classics edition of the text.  I’ve linked to Waterstones rather than Amazon because I believe in supporting actual bookshops! I have no idea what the cover image has to do with the story, but that aside this looks a very interesting edition! As always, try to buy a copy of the text that has explanatory notes, as these can be enormously useful when reading novels that were written in a different century)

You can find out more about Mary Shelley:


(Encylopædia Britannica: the more sophisticated Wikipedia.  I would say, though, that this article seems ludicrously short for an account of the life of a woman who is widely regarded as the founder of the modern sci-fi genre.  Just saying.)


Monday, 15 June 2015

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner - James Hogg

'I felt a sort of invisible power which drew me towards him, something like the force of enchantment, which I could not resist'

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
James Hogg
(Novel, first published 1824)

Catchy title, huh?  I suspect this book is one of those whose title is probably its worst enemy.  What it sounds like you’re going to get is a lengthy biographical account of a religious devotee.  What you actually get is a weird little story of doppelgangers and devilry, in which murder and mayhem abound, and where two women finally turn detective to uncover the truth. 

It begins, somewhat unconventionally, with a wedding scene in which a disgruntled bride is disgusted with her new husband’s dissipated partying, but quickly takes up the story of their two sons (well at least, there is some scope for debate about the parentage of one of the boys… but I won’t spoil it for you!).  The important thing to know before reading this book is that the ‘Justified Sinner’ of the title refers to an offshoot of Christianity called Antinomianism which adopts the belief that ‘Christians are by grace set free from the need to observe any moral law’ (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ‘antinomianism’ definition).  More simply put, this system states that a person can only gain a place in heaven through faith and the grace of God, and not by earning it through good deeds.  What James Hogg does in his book is to explore a bigoted, extremist version of this idea, in which one man comes to believe that, no matter what crimes he commits, it cannot be morally wrong because he believes he is one of God’s chosen people.

Underlying this is a brilliantly subtle, and typically eighteenth-century, conflict of supernatural vs scientific explanation.  One of my university tutors argued that, despite appearances, it is possible to provide a rational explanation for everything that occurs in the text... but then there are others (myself included) who simply cannot believe that there is not (quite literally) some devilry at work…

One other thing I should mention, when it says ‘Editor’s Narrative’ at the beginning, this is not some tedious explanation of abstract editorial practice, it is actually the start of the story.  As a way of giving the tale an enhanced realism, Hogg creates the character of an editor into whose hands have come the interesting documents in which the story continues.  Kind of a way of writing himself into his own story; neat, eh?
Set in Scotland, much of the action of the narrative occurs in Edinburgh, and as I’ve just got back from a brief visit there I couldn’t resist including a photo of Arthur’s Seat (the scene of an important encounter in this novel, but as I don’t want to give away any spoilers I had better say no more…)

With its emphasis on religious zealotry and the tragic absurdities to which this can lead, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is actually an extremely modern narrative, and a truly absorbing read.  Think Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is an intriguing character?  Just wait until you meet the elusive Gil-Martin…
Happy reading!  As always, feel free to ask questions in comments!


You can find this book:
Oxford World Classics edition:
(always hugely recommended: these offer just the right balance of historical information to understand the story without intruding on the text too much!)

Edinburgh University Press edition:
(a detailed scholarly edition) 

(an affordable edition, with some explanatory notes; apologies for the commercial bias of referencing Amazon here, this edition is available in various other shops)

All these editions have various quantities of annotation, a useful tool when reading texts this old, and something that I hope to discuss further in future blogposts.  Don’t worry, though, what are known as ‘scholarly editions’ don’t have to cost the earth: check out sites such as Ebay, etc. for second hand copies, as these are often readily available at very economical rates!  Free versions may be available for e-readers, though it should be remembered that such texts have not always been prepared carefully for publication.  I cannot overemphasise the importance of the helpful little notes that a publisher like Penguin or Oxford World Classics would include in illuminating obscure or archaic references!

If you want to know more about James Hogg:
(a useful starting point)

(includes an extensive reading list for those thirsting to know more!)

The James Hogg Society blog:
(contains lots of interesting info)

The quotation in this blogpost is from:
E.A. Livingstone, (ed.), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.  Oxford Reference, 2006.  Online version [accessed 15 June 2015]