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On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

03 March 2017

Visual Verses: John Vicars’s God in the Mount, or Jehova-jireh, 1641.

by Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

George Herbert’s Easter Wings (1633) is the most renowned example of an early modern English pattern poem; it appears in all the anthologies and has been widely discussed and analysed. So, it is a real treat to find an example of an early printed pattern poem that is seemingly little-known, especially when it comes from a surprisingly incongruous source having been composed by a militant Presbyterian iconoclast.

John Vicars (1580-1652) schoolmaster and poet, is remembered most for his Parliamentary chronicles printed during the 1640s, a series of newsbook-style pamphlets written in the sermon rhetoric of popular puritanism. In his sixties by the time of the Great Rebellion he wrote in favour of iconoclastic reform and in praise of Parliament’s efforts to bring it about. He specifically contributed to the literature of iconoclasm with The sinfulness and unlawfulness of making or having the picture of Christ’s humanity (1641) in which the poet William Prynne also contributed a verse against images. Vicars gleefully chronicled incidents of the removal of images, crucifixes, popish books and ‘Babylonish trinkets’, his reports manifest an un-hinged enthusiasm. Fiercely anti-Rome, he staged a dramatic scene to personally pull down a crucifix discretely located in Christ’s Hospital.

Following his sycophantic poem England’s Remembrancer, or, a thankfull acknowledgement of Parliamentary mercies to our English-nation (1641), the first of his Parliamentary chronicles proper, God in the Mount, (also known as Jehova-jireh) (1642), presents the reader with a prominent visualisation of his glorifications. The book’s first three preliminary pages hammer home its purpose as panegyric: the title page is printed in the form of a pyramid, a mount; then there is the virtual monument to the Trinity; but more playfully we see on the next page a dedicatory verse in patterned form, to the Houses of Parliament.

 

Visualverses1

John Vicars’s dedicatory shaped poem to the Houses of Parliament (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

To The Right Honourable, thrice Noble and illustrious Senatours of the House of Peers in Parliament.

To Our Trulie Honourable and most renowned Patriots; the House of Commons, in Parliament.

Right Noble Lords and England’s Commons rare,

(For whom the Lord hath joyn’d, disjoin who dare?)

The poem exalts the men of Parliament, offering prayer that their power is protected from “stormes and mischief” and wishes them courage, “to work a pure, A perfect Reformation”, to:

Go on though you great obstacles endure;

Sol shines most clear, though clouds It (oft) obscure;

Heav’n crown your Counsels (still) with good successe,

And you and yours for all your labours blesse,

How can the poem be evaluated? There are some rhymes constructed in there - at the line breaks (rare and dare; blast and cast; tears and re-chears, endure and obscure etc) and arranged inside the two columns (votarie and memorie; erected and protected; valiantly and malignity; Reformation and generation etc), but its literary worth as poetry is usually best declared upon by expert critics (it’s unlikely to score well!). Another way of measuring its impact though is from some estimation about whether the visual effect ‘works’? It is quite imposing and unambiguous, but also a little crude and unsophisticated. It is always worth considering these efforts as a feat of printing and typography. In fairness, this technopaegnion (the more precise term for this type of shaped poem) does look a little sloppy: we can picture the compositor sat frowning at how to set the type with the author peering over his shoulder. The compositor has had to incorporate different sized type and make much use of em-dashes and fleurs-de-lis to fill spaces to create the pattern.

Texts presented in patterns do not just frustrate the compositor; what happens in the reader’s head when attempting to read the poem? Our minds are accustomed to conventions in the structure of letters and words when reading a text. Shaped text is spatial rather than linear, so normal reading is altered and challenged. The line-by-line arrangement is subverted and the visual impact takes primacy and dominates. Whilst our brains look for conventional patterns they are also powerful problem solvers, so these patterns make us try different ways of reading: is there one way to read it, or several different possibilities? Does the subversion and domination of the pattern detract from textual and other values of poetry? Is it pleasing to look at, or just, well, a bit annoying? It can take some time and effort to read and transcribe.

Is this innovation just a bit eccentric? Here lies its curiosity – this English shaped poem is unusual and uncommon. A previous blog-post on ‘visual verses’ mentions that continental enthusiasm for shape poems in the early modern period was not matched in British Literature. Why is this? This poem by John Vicars, the iconoclast, may help explain. Fear and hatred of idolatry lay at the root of Puritan iconoclasm. Hostility towards false, idolatrous art risked deepening into an iconophobic hatred of all art-forms which appealed to the senses. A widespread antipathy towards visual art was a part of the cultural impact of the English revolution. Religious reformers withdrew from printed ballads, stage plays and pictorial art. So, it seems incongruous that Vicars, the iconoclast, here makes use of innovation and visual images to worship and proselytise the cause of Parliament, God, the Trinity and religious Reformation. Maybe, there is intentional irony and these pyramides and monuments are being offered as an alternative to the usual Popish icons. All the same, this work of Vicars does seem to sit somewhat outside the conventions of his very own prescribed culture.

 

  Visualverses2

Title page of John Vicars’s God in the Mount, or Jehova-jireh (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

Visualverses3

The iconoclast’s monumental tribute to The Trinitie (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

Some further reading :

God in the mount. Or, Englands remembrancer. Being a panegyrick piramides, erected to the everlasting high honour of Englands God, in the most gratefull commemoration of al [sic] the miraculous Parliamentarie. .. by John Vicars  (British Library shelfmark 4103.d.34)

Visual Verses: Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia, or Passionate Century of Love, 1582.

Puritan iconoclasm in the English civil war, Julie Spraggon (YC2003a22358)

The Princerton encycolpedia of poetry and poetics, edited by Roland Greene (Open Access  Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 808.103; General Reference Collection YC.2012.b.2422)

The Word Turned Image: Reading Pattern Poems, by Sabine Gross in Poetics Today Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring, 1997) (P.901/1862)

 

 

27 February 2017

First report from the Will Self archive: family matters

Chris Beckett writes:

Will Self’s review (for the New Statesman) of Peter Ackroyd’s Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002) begins with the suggestion that his grandfather would have enjoyed the book. Before telling us why (Cockney visionaries both, with a tendency to compendiousness), we are treated to a pen-portrait of grandfather Sir Henry:

‘Albert Henry Self was the son of the conductor on the Number 11 tram. A Fulham boy, he was waiting table in a cafe when a patron spotted his ability to add the bill up with a single saccade of his bulbous blue eyes. The cafe's patron became my grandfather's, putting him through school and sponsoring him while he took the civil service examinations. Henry Self ended up as a heavyweight mandarin, Beaverbrook's permanent undersecretary during the war and, latterly, chairman of the Electricity Board. A Knight of the Garter, and one time President of the Laity of the Church of England, in his old age, my grandfather's cockney origins only emerged when he'd had an extra Guinness or three over lunch. On these occasions, he'd beat time with his knife on the table and give us a rousing chorus of "Don't Have Any More, Mrs Moore", much to the consternation of my authentically genteel grandmother, who'd bleat: "Really Henry!"’

As an unexpected bonus, the archive of Will Self at the British Library includes a fascinating documentary foreground: an assortment of family papers – photographs, letters, diaries – that have passed into the author’s possession. Cataloguing of the substantial archive is currently well-advanced: the family papers have been addressed, and work has now commenced on the core of the collection, the multiple drafts of Self’s fiction. Among the family papers is Sir Henry’s compendious ‘The Divine Indwelling’, a grand philosophical summa in five volumes that attempts a ‘reconciliation of science, religion and philosophy’.

Will IMG_5910 IMAGE 1 Self blog

Sir Henry Self, ‘The Divine Indwelling’. Annotations in blue ink are in the hand of his son, Peter Self.

It was this unpublished work (not unpublished for want of trying, however, as Sir Henry’s correspondence in the archive records) that prompted Self to compare his grandfather’s synthesising habit of thought to that of Peter Ackroyd. But Self quickly makes brutally plain the all-important difference between them – the pre-loaded punchline of his comparison – that ‘Ackroyd can write’.

‘Before he too expired from a surfeit of prolixity,’ Self’s review continues, ‘my father repeatedly enjoined me to "do something" about The Divine Indwelling’. In Walking to Hollywood (2010, p. 253), we glimpse ‘the yellowing typescript’ resting – waiting wordily for attention – on the top shelf in Self’s study. Perhaps the patrilineal burden of what to do about Sir Henry’s magnum opus – his laboursome philosophical folly – has now been resolved, custody secured, by its incorporation in the archive of his grandson.

The earliest item in the archive is a Victorian family photograph album, from Lady Rosalind Self, Will Self’s grandmother. The gallery of stiff portraits that fill most of the album give way in the later pages to less formal ‘snaps’ of her two sons, Peter and Hugh Michael. Rosalind Self was the daughter of Sir John Otter. As Mayor of Brighton (1913-15), Sir John initiated the building of The Chattri war memorial, a monument to the Sikh and Hindu soldiers who died in the military hospitals of Brighton. Sir John had served in the Indian Medical Service. The Chattri, a Grade-II listed structure, sits on the South Downs in a remote spot above Patcham, overlooking Brighton. It was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1921, as photographs in the album record. The archive includes photographs of some of the original architectural designs (which show that initially a somewhat larger monument had been envisaged).

Will Chattri_03 IMAGE 2 Self blog

Lady Self was the granddaughter of the Anglican educationalist the Rev. Nathaniel Woodard, who founded eleven schools for the rising and increasingly affluent Victorian middle class. The first school was Lancing College, near Lewes, founded in 1848. In 1843, Woodard had published A Plea for the Middle Classes. He summarised his purpose as the provision of ‘a good and complete education for the middle classes, at such a charge as will make it available to most of them’. In 1925, Sir John Otter published a memoir of Woodard.

Henry and Rosalind Self lived in Brighton, not far from Lancing, in a house in Vernon Terrace that Rosalind had inherited. Peter, Will Self’s father (who held chairs in Public Administration at the London School of Economics, and subsequently at The Australian National University at Canberra) and his brother Hugh Michael (Queen’s Counsel) were both boarders at Lancing College. It had been their mother’s wish that her sons should board there (Henry had been in favour of Brighton Grammar School). From time to time, the brothers must have passed the impressive tomb of their great-grandfather, Nathaniel Woodard, in the grand Gothic setting of Lancing College Chapel, a stolid reminder of the weight of ancestry, and of scholarly expectation.

Will Nathaniel_Woodard IMAGE 3 Self blog

The archive includes Peter Self’s unfinished draft memoir ‘Through a Glass Brightly’ in which he recounts his childhood and his memories of Lancing: ‘my life at Lancing, which seemed at the time interminable, sucked me into a complete, insulated world of intense experience, which made the “real” world outside, for which we were supposedly being prepared, seem remote and unreal’ (f. 45).

Will Self’s American Jewish mother, Elaine (née Rosenbloom) first enters Self’s fictional world in the early story ‘The North London Book of the Dead’, written following her death in 1988. Elaine later takes centre-stage as the (Joycean) Lily Bloom, the sharp voice and the lively dead consciousness of How the Dead Live (2000). The archive includes her diaries and journals (most as copies), which register something of her misanthropic tone and take on life, echoed in the acerbic voicing of How the Dead Live: ‘So many people left to disparage – so little time’ (p. 55). The archive includes the letters she received throughout her life from American and English family and friends, and from her husband Peter.

The Self family letters in the archive span three generations and the three continents of Europe, America, and Australia. After Peter Self emigrated to Australia in 1980, to teach at Canberra, he usually wrote an airletter to his mother on a Monday; they form the sort of tidy pile an archivist loves to find. Will Self’s letters to his father are of particular interest: they make frequent and illuminating reference to his writing. Some were sent from the remote island of Rousay in the Orkneys, a quiet location where many of Self’s novels from the 1990s received their final drafts.

Will IMG_5884 IMAGE 4 Self blog

In a recent interview published in the Paris Review (2012), Self described his first book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991) – a collection of short stories, most of which satirise the world of academic research in the social and psychiatric medical sciences – as an act of parricide: ‘It takes the piss out of my father and his friends and their irrelevance as I saw it and the perniciousness of their discourse and the way in which people believed it.’ The symbolic murder of the father, as Self recalls, was not an entirely conscious action but was ‘done with a sleight of mind’. In ‘My Old Man’ (The Guardian, 15 June 2008), he acknowledges a shift in his appreciation of his father: ‘Ours was an ambulatory, ludic and pedagogic relationship [….] As we come to resemble our fathers, so we re-encounter the individual who reared us’. Certainly, the physical resemblance of Henry, Peter, and Will, all standing at some six and a half feet tall, is striking. Temperamentally, they all enjoyed and enjoy, in Self’s felicitous phrase, the pleasures of ‘happy disputation’. In the light of family history, it is perhaps not surprising that Will Woodard Self has recently turned to teaching. In March 2012, Self was appointed Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University.

Sir Henry Self, a working-class son, was, by all accounts, a man of extraordinary talents, not least in respect of his exceptional capacity for memory. He used his time commuting from Brighton to London to gain eleven degrees. Sir Henry’s prodigious memory is alluded to in My Idea of Fun (1993), in the eidetic – or photographic – memory of young Ian Wharton; his ‘eidetiking’ facilitates the ominous entry of The Fat Controller into his life. In the same novel (partly set on the Brighton coast familiar from Self’s childhood), the shadowy absence of Ian’s father – ‘little more than a ghost in the domestic machine’ – seems to reflect the absence of Peter Self from the family home (from the age of nine). Lily Bloom reflects that she married into a family of ‘true shabby gentility’, a family of ‘nursery names’. In the letters in the archive, we discover that Lady Self is always addressed as ‘Mumbles’ and always signs her letters by the same name, to everyone in the family. Sir Henry’s ‘nursery name’ was ‘Dids’.

Much of Self’s fiction is framed by an exploration of masculine identity, from Cock and Bull (1992) to Dorian (2002), and The Book of Dave (2006). Self’s memoir of his father in the introduction to Perfidious Man (2000), at once a warmly humorous and distancing account, is also enlightening on the subject. Drafts of the novel Umbrella (2012) have been filed by the author along with Sir Henry’s passport and several genealogical research papers. As the author commented when Umbrella was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize: ‘Having reached my 40s, like many another slightly nerdy man (and I think it is a mostly male preoccupation), I started looking into my immediate ancestry.’ The family papers included in Will Self’s archive at the British Library suggest that however extreme the alternative reality his fiction portrays, however skewed and re-scaled the world it depicts, its well-spring is quite likely to be, bubbling beneath, a family matter.

 

17 February 2017

Ken Campbell: 4 poems

Earlier this year, the British Library completed its collection of the published works of the British artist Ken Campbell, with his most recent work You All Know The Words (2016). The British Library is the only Library in UK to hold all the works. At the end of October, the Library held a celebration of the work of Ken Campbell. The texts of presentations from Cathy Courtney and Richard Price can be found on this blog. Reprinted here, with kind permission, are four poems by Ken Campbell.  

 

He is now so close Death

that is, to speak of him is crude,

as remarking on another in the room.

Blackness around the vision

marks the card; prelude

to black ink of songs flow

through windows and door fattening

cushions of dark fill the room

leaving only the space of the client.

 

Terror, Terror 1977

 

KC A Knife Romance

A Knife Romance (1988). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Widow’s Song

Is that you; chance being,

a fine thing; is that you.

The stair creaks, money kept

under carpet, particular tread

now not long dead; is that you.

 

Hovers in the glass of door

your needle, my thread; dog stares,

our garden’s grown too big

with pints of sweetened tea gone cold;

time to leave: is that you.

 

A Knife Romance, 1988

 

KC Fathers Romance

Father’s Garden (1989). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Father’s garden ran his ship:

no waves outraged his wailing walls:

no pitching keel beneath his feet

– nor claycrumb shift in his cold helm.

 

One vision, his, stood stack stock still:

his cargoes all the displaced knew,

& how they all could kill; thus twine

& baling; thus stolen, lying sleepers

 

stacked-in-law, & ordered buckets of fill

made fit. Garden ship shape never could

set sail: I so felt myself & missing went

overboard, awol. Breadcast. Fatherwater.

 

Round the chairdecks made windbreak

his hull horizon sat down stare for me:

a row of planted beanstakes breaking leaf

– our father’s juice flows everywhere.

 

Time water drowns all our fetch,

in reach of unsung dunes: - unless,

land-locked, life-tides work and move: so

ere it remembers you, remember home.

 

KC fathers Garden2

Father’s Garden (1989). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Unlaced in springtime

stepping beneath a golden monastery

a buck in a bush

leapt to his morning furrow.

 

Such a day brought such a boy

from golden morning hoof

to the hammered dead of the afternoon:

history rang on the boiler of his engine.

 

Father’s Garden, 1989