Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Faithful to the Greek?: Swinburnian Patterning (Hopkinsian Dapple)

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Faithful to the Greek?: Swinburnian Patterning (Hopkinsian Dapple)

Article excerpt

Reference has been made to Swinburne's `pessimism in regard to language', and his failure to `suggest that language makes it possible for us to triumph [...] over [...] contradictions'. (1) A tendency, ruinous to `meaningful discourse', whereby he `dissociates words from things' is regularly censured. (2) Allusion is made to the `philosophical importance' invested by him in `the trope of doubling'. (3) I should like to argue that all these elements are not merely `subjective' or `Victorian', or wilfully adopted as a `trope', but are continually affirmed by him as his chief subject-matter, deriving from that loyalty to Greek patterns of language fiercely claimed in youth and (granted later weakening of grasp) never let go. (4)

Till the demise of traditional `classics' in recent years, those proficient in such study were saturated for life in ancient literature, not theoretically but directly; evolving their own English style by continual translation, and shaping their sense of language by pastiche of ancient masters in prose and verse. Such `classical' influence, just because it was imbibed in youth at the `superficial' level of linguistic imitation, ran too deep to be eliminated by mere wishing. Whereas Hopkins is all but eviscerated by his contention with it, Swinburne remains dedicated to its traditions.

Sharing a profound fascination with Greek literature and culture, Hopkins and Swinburne differ sharply in their response to a concept at the heart of the Greek sense of patterning, equally valid in aesthetic and metaphysical contexts: [Text not reproducible in ascii text.], or `the dappled'. Two examples from classical Greek literature illustrate the double significance of this concept: simultaneously an aesthetic celebration and an insight into the problem of cosmic meaning.

At the climax of Aeschylus's Agamemnon (ll. 923-24), the king hesitates to tread on the sumptuous fabrics his murderous wife has strewn on the palace steps for his ensnarement. A literal translation reveals a mimetic patterning familiar in the case of inflected languages such as Latin and Greek, though it reads awkwardly in English: `Among dappled, being mortal, beauties | To walk for me is nowise without fear'.

The `mortal' is literally flanked by `dappled [...] beauties': to the enhancement of a sense of contrasting enmeshedness; of a fearful progression through a series of treacherous enchantments.

The `dappled' connects with words of embroidery and of writing. (5) It is a means of arranging, as though for our pleasure, referents and images of a world we recognize, with mounting apprehension (approaching death's door with Agamemnon) not to be so arranged, after all. At first it tempts us as offering a `field of regularity for various positions of subjectivity'; but in the end reverts to being only a substitution for those inexorable `"things" anterior to discourse': providing no reliable system of truth, but merely serving to arrange a `regular formation of objects that emerge only in discourse.' (6) Our logos, in a word, has not helped to make a knowable world; it has merely pretended to arrange the unknowable world. For the Greeks, `beauty' and `the universe' are defined by the same word: kosmos, which implies `order'. It is of the essence of the `dappled' to confound our attempts to read that order. Epitomized in the coat of the leopard that runs with Dionysus, the `dappled' is a camouflage of light and dark that refuses to let us see which of the two is the ultimate ground. In Dante's Christianized reading of the pattern, it is light that the universe has at its heart. Ruskin, and Hopkins after him, clung to that principle. Swinburne, more pagan and antique, and more Nietzschean and modernist, clung to the ambiguity. In his battle between the angels of light and darkness, there is no third day; no Miltonic Messiah to vindicate a supremacy of righteousness. …

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