Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

More Hot Air: A Large and Serious Response to Tom MacFaul*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

More Hot Air: A Large and Serious Response to Tom MacFaul*

Article excerpt

Let Poets feed on aire, or what they wiU;

Let me feed fuU, tiU that I fart, sayes Jill.

(Herrick 216-17)

Literary criticism has long been divided between privileging (and attempting to identify) material causes as the source of (and reason for) the creation of a uterary work, as opposed to emphasizing a work's otherworldly and /or moral significance as its main inspiration and reason for being. This critical division continues in MacFaul' s Uvely analysis of three "micro-epics" (or epyllions), Edmund Spenser's "Muiopotmos: or The Fate of the Butterflie" (1595), Ben Jonson's Epigram CXXXIII ("On the Famous Voyage") (1616) and William Davenant's " Jeff er eidos, on the Captivity of Jeffery" (1638). MacFaul's light capering between the creative-critical poles of earth and air - material vs. spiritual causation - leaves this reader puzzled, however, and asking for more sustained and consistent analysis.

At stake, furthermore, is what constitutes good art worth analyzing in depth, as opposed to mere hot air. MacFaul caUs "[a]U three poems [...] brilliant and bravura performances in their own distinctive ways" (161) but in this case, we may wish to distinguish between good art and long fart. These three widely varying poems, pubUshed over a period of forty-three years, are Unked by little other than the laureate status of their authors and a few "mock-epic" motifs, including the heroic voyage, a confrontation with the bestial and monstrous and - unstressed enough by MacFaul - a preoccupation with Hell and hence the wages of sin. Spenser's scintillating poem is rich in images, sources and poetic diction, lyrically graceful, nicely plotted (with two Ovidian digressions that greatly increase the poem's thematic complexity), pleasing, teasing and tasteful, with darkly disturbing elements; Jonson's poem is verbally brilliant, intellectually complex, playful and bawdy albeit frankly (and effectively) disgusting.1 Devenant' s emission, however, cannot measure up to the other two in intellectual substance nor quality of sound.2 A poem beginning with the clunky rhymed couplets

A Sayle! a sayle! cry'd they, who did consent

Once more to break the eighth Commandement

For a few Coles, of which by theft so well

Th' are stor'd, they have enow to furnish Hell (Devenant 37, 11. 1-4)3

should have been stopped immediately. When reaching such lines as

we feel relieved that the poem is so short. Does a rampaging pirate care who Ogge is? This is part of the joke, of course, but the narrative is similarly halting, the whole thing pedantic. MacFaul' s politicized analysis of the poem - a tale of a dwarfish court jester attacked by pirates and a chicken on his way home from France - is intriguing ("Given Charles I's own diminutive and non-heroic stature, the poem may also glance at the King" [MacFaul 157]), but - like a true mockepic protagonist - I refuse to go any further with it.4

The other two poems, on the other hand, deserve and receive more attention from MacFaul, although I have a similar conclusion regarding his treatment of both: I disagree with MacFaul's opening thesis that the two poems, despite their parodie epic take on human foibles, "attempt to reduce the heroic mode to an absurd minimum" (MacFaul 144). Davenant's poem arguably does this (deliberately and inadvertently). Rather, I choose to read "Muiopotmos," about the doomed butterfly Clarion, as containing a sincere moral message as well as a forthright imperial-heroic theme.5

As for "On the Famous Voyage," as MacFaul himself writes, "Jonson sees a truer heroism in inspecting the city's drains" than in celebrating an "imperial" and "national heroism" of the kind promoted elsewhere by Spenser (in his "Prothalamion," for example; MacFaul 157). I agree, but wish to further emphasize the moral significance in Jonson's poem as well, so as to make it seem less ironic, or silly and ephemeral, at heart. Publicizing bad sewage is not without moral merit, any more than Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is merely absurd, or John Snow's simple removal of the choleric pump handle was a trivial act. …

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