Harry Bailey versus the Man from Porlock: the Identical Agents of British Poetry

Dr Ankur Konar

Assitant Professor, Rashbehari Ghosh Mahavidyalaya

 Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF

Abstract

Most of the criticisms on Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales are directed to the text’s comparative/contrastive standpoint to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Critics like John Speirs in the book Chaucer the Maker have read the two texts through a marked difference between two civilizations. This paper is an attempt to build a concept that Chaucer can also be read vis-à-vis another British poet S.T. Coleridge. It would not be a rigid statement to script down the fact that British poetry incidentally began with Harry Bailey’s proposal to tell stories whereas the spontaneity of British poetry was temporarily resisted by the Man from Porlock’s sudden appearance, a disturbing negative catalyst that in fact resisted the growth of radical sense of poeticization. The characteristic agencies of these two identical persons play a crucial role to determine many significant phases in British poetry.

“Identity can only be understood as a process. One’s social identity (or identities) is never a final settled matter” (Jenkins 5).

Most of the criticisms on Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387) are directed at the text’s comparative/contrastive standpoint to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922). Critics like John Speirs in the book Chaucer the Maker (1951) have read the two texts through a marked difference between two civilizations. This paper is an attempt to build a concept that Chaucer can also be read vis-à-vis another British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). British poetry, with its implication of the circuitous journey from allocated encoding to collocated decoding, deploys the conceptual baggage of social and cultural ethos. In spite of many powerful attempts in the last few centuries, the identical map of British poetry has remained somewhat illusory and indefinable. The reason of this slippery indeterminacy is due to the fact that different poets have treated poetry differently that essentially nurtures a constant changing pattern because Poetry poeticizes not the fixed, rather the flowing.

As ideology was and is continuously in the making of the identity of British poetry, the poetic sensibilities of different poets have created an aura of different poetic efficacies. Poetry, as its advancement in the last two centuries indicates, can never be simply called a literary product of a particular tradition, nation and place. The literary critic Harold Bloom opines in his oft-cited book The Anxiety of Influence (1973) that taking something from the tradition and contributing something to it is the essential characteristic feature in the field of poetry. The famous literary critic Neil Roberts in the Introduction to A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry (2002) observes: “Poetry in the English language is practiced on every continent: there is more of it, and it is more various, than at any time before.” (3) What really makes a real sense of poetry is its continuing sense of universality and it has to evoke the irrevocable knock of humanity; vis-à-vis the interplay of improbable possibilities and probable impossibilities, other parameters are subjected to constant construction. As Roberts further argues:

The universality of poetry … assures that it will continue to be written and received in some form. However the elitist modern conception of poetry … which still influences the practice, social role and reception of the art, will surely not survive. The global erosion of the center-periphery structure, most dramatically witnessed by the fact that the most celebrated living Anglophone poet, Derek Walcott, comes from a tiny Caribbean island, may be reflected with in societies and nations. (3)

Irrespective of all ages many serious attempts have been made to break away with tradition to ‘make it new’. In fact, poetry is that literary space where the paradigmatic social changes vis-à-vis the types of cultural trajectories can easily be located. As  ‘identity categories provide modes of articulating and examining significant correlations between lived experience and social location’ (Moya 4), different pens of different poets have jotted down poetry to satisfy their specific historical age; for example, the treatment of poetry in Chaucer’s hands was more democratic in direction than the poetry of Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare. The strong root of social dimension of Chaucer’s poetry marks it to be of ‘Everyman’ whereas the poetry of Sidney or Spenser is either about Penelope Devereux or about Elizabeth Boyle – the interpersonal relation of the poet and his beloved where the sustainability of society has largely been ignored. The dialogic heteroglossia in Chaucer has been taken over by the dramatic monologues of Sidney and Spenser whose subject matter almost in all their poetry is the inspirational idiosyncratic love that they feel for their beloveds. After the initial orality of poetry (particularly in the Old English Age and Middle English Age) the standard sense of poetry has been initiated in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In fact, critics have agreed on the point that real taste of poetry began with Chaucer in the identical map of British poetry.

Without any exaggeration, it can be claimed that genuine poetry began with the character Harry Bailey’s proposal in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales of telling stories during the pilgrims’ journey to Canterbury:

“Lordynges,” quod he, ‘now herkneth for the beste;

But taak it nought, I prey yow, in desdeyn.

This is the point, to speken short and pleyn,

That ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye,

In this viage shal telle tales tweye

To Canterbury-ward, I mene it so,

And homeward he shal tellen othere two,

Of adventures that whilom han bifalle.

And which of yow that bereth hym best of alle,

That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas

Tales of best sentence and moost solaas,

Shal have a soper at oure aller cost

Here in this place, sittynge by this post,

Whan that we come again fro Canterbury … (L 788-801)

The Canterbury Tales marks the radical social inclusion in the formation of poetry. The national portrait gallery of England including the different categories of social estates – the Knight, the Yeoman, the Monk, the Friar, the Prioress, the Squire, the Priest, the Nun and the Ploughman had been strategically spaced in the text. Allied with the combination of triviality and comicality, the text becomes a mirror upto society, introducing the element of social science-identity politics in the formation of the characters. The playfulness of the characters with the additional imposition of indeterminacy anticipated the disturbing germs of Postmodernism, containing different voices to be theoretically labelled as a polyphonic text in the Bakhtinian sense.

The year 1798 is important for its epoch-making involvement of spontaneity in the formation of poetry.1 At the same time the spontaneity gets a big jolt in the same year when the man from Porlock dramatically intrudes in Coleridge’s spontaneous space of poetic sensibility:

In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton … he fell asleep in his chair at the moment he was reading … “Purchas’s Pilgrimage” … The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep … On waking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found … that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purpose of the vision … all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast … (qtd in Sengupta and Cama 184-5)

Incidentally the Man from Porlock’s sudden appearance occurred in 1798 which is also the publication year of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s joint venture Lyrical Ballads, an anthology which will be regularly remembered in the years to come for its radical endorsement of “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”.2 Dealing with the inescapable psychological exploration of ‘self’, the Romanticism marks and maps a strong division between society and self. As Harold Bloom in the Introduction to his edited book English Romantic Poetry (2004) points out:

The movement of quest-romance, before its internalization by the high Romantics, was from nature to redeemed nature, the sanction of redemption being the gift of some external spiritual authority, sometimes magical. The Romantic movement is from nature to the imagination’s freedom (sometimes a reluctant freedom), and the imagination’s freedom is frequently purgatorial, redemptive in direction but destructive of the social self. (4)

The year 1798 is Janus-faced because it incidentally juxtaposes the contraries — the Man from Porlock who makes a resistance to the growth of poetry and the endorsement of the spontaneous poetic gems/germs through Lyrical Ballads. Similarly, the poetic space of “Kubla Khan” is deeply ambivalent because the text nurtures an in-between melting pot – the simultaneous presence of the Man from Porlock and the damsel with the dulcimer who invokes musicality or rhythmic impact of poetry. At this point it would be relevant to mention why David Perkins mentions Lowes in the essay “The Imaginative Vision of Kubla Khan: On Coleridge’s Introductory Note”: “John Livingston Lowes used to tell his classes: “If there is any man in the history of literature who should be hanged, drawn, and quartered, it is the man on business from Porlock.” He has become, as Elizabeth Schneider remarks, a byword for Philistine intrusion upon genius.” (Bloom 251) This observation helps the reader to understand that the man from Porlock played the role of a negative catalyst in the poet’s engagement with spontaneity.

The journey from Harry Bailey to the Man from Porlock or the journey from Tabard Inn to Xanadu nurtures a journey from social inclusion to self-centered exclusion, from polyphonic to monologic because the democratic atmosphere has been replaced by an imperial narration. Whereas in Chaucer the jolly spirit of the host implements the story-telling method, the textual lines of Coleridge contain the germs of inversion of perception — in the replacement map, society is supplemented to self, unification is to fragmentation and celebration is to exploitation. What is more noteworthy in such happenings of inference and transference is that in spite of so many referential incidents in ‘Xanadu’, the tone remains somewhat passive; as no human figure is mentioned, the deliberate redundancy of the identity of the natives of Xanadu may be marked because under the theoretical sense of ‘subject formation’ process, the natives are portrayed as cartographically coy. The desire to dominate nature has the underlying lust for the domination of human beings. Thus the social unification as well as the textual unification in Chaucer can be read as a stark contrast to the individualistic notation of textual ‘fragment’ in Coleridge. As J.C.C. Mays rightly observes:

Like “Kubla Khan”, poems like “Christabel”, “The Wanderings of Cain”, “The Three Graves” can easily be lebelled as fragment: “Their fragmentary nature is typically attributed to an external cause (a man from Porlock, etc.), in distinction from the later poems where the supposition is that the complete meaning is too private or painful to be fully articulated. But in both instances the fragments by their fragmentariness summon into existence a fiction of textual wholeness which does not materially exist.” (98)

Through the interplay of proposal and refusal, an identical map of incommensurability occurs in the modus operandi of these two texts. Thus the so long reflection of cultural lag from location to locution probes the limits of representations.

To conclusive, it would not be a rigid statement to script down the fact that British poetry incidentally began with Harry Bailey’s proposal to tell stories whereas the spontaneity of British poetry was temporarily resisted by the Man from Porlock’s sudden appearance, a disturbing negative catalyst that in fact resisted the growth of radical sense of poeticization. The characteristic agencies of these two identical persons play a crucial role to determine many significant phases in British poetry. As “social identity is never unilateral” (Jenkins 21), Chaucer and Coleridge freely exploited the artistic possibilities of the plurality of identity/identities and the transgression of boundaries between different worlds.

 References

  1. One should mark the significance of ‘98’ in British literature: Whereas 1798 is unique for the endorsement of ‘spontaneous overflow’ of poetry through the joint venture Lyrical Ballads, 1898 is crucial for Shaw’s equation of drama with conflict in the Preface to Plays Pleasant:: “no conflict, no drama”; similarly 1698 did put a death knell on British Drama as Jeremy Collier published a disturbing literary piece “A Short View on Immorality and Profaneness on the English Stage”.
  2. Wordsworth writes: “For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (165).

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold, ed. English Romantic Poetry. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Print.

Jenkins, Richard. Social Identity. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Mays, J.C.C. “The Later Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge. Ed. Lucy Newlyn. New York: Cambridge UP,            2002. 89-99. Print.

Moya, Paula M.L. Introduction. Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism. Ed. Paula M.L. Moya and Michael Hames-Garcia. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2001. Print.

Roberts, Neil, ed. A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. Oxford: Blackwell, Indian Edition, 2002. Print.

Sengupta, Debjani, and Shernaz Cama, eds. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Delhi: Worldview, 2008. Print.

Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” English Critical Texts: 16th Century        to 20th Century. Ed. Enright, D.J., and Ernst De Chickera. New Delhi: OxfordUP, 1962. 162-189. Print.

Dr Ankur Konar is an Assistant Professor and Head at the Department of English, Sir Rashbehari Ghosh Mahavidyalaya. He has authored Cultural Poetics: Poetry, Society, Theory (2012) and Drama, Dattani, Discourse (2013) and has edited Discourses on Indian Drama in English (2014).

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