Tag Archives: Thomas Love Peacock

Novel Conversations

First this, from the well-fed man of action:

It doesn’t do to read too much…You get to look at life with a false perspective.  By all means have some familiarity with the standard authors.  I should never raise any objection to that.   But it is no good clogging your mind with a lot of trash from modern novels.

Then this response from the languid aesthete:

But I must say, modern books are very consolatory and congenial to my feelings.  There is, as it were, a delightful northeast wind, an intellectual blight breathing through them; a delicious misanthropy and discontent that demonstrates the nullity of virtue and energy, and puts me in good humor with myself and my sofa.

Literature is sometimes described as a conversation that takes place without regard to time or place among authors not necessarily contemporary with one another or conversant with each other’s works.  Macchiavelli in a nice passage somewhere talks about the reader’s participation in that conversation too.  But perhaps we can describe another level of talk that exists alongside or below this one, carried on between even more ephemeral interlocutors – fictional characters themselves.

It would make a tedious but possibly amusing pastime to arrange quotes like these (respectively from Anthony Powell’s Kenneth Widmerpool and Thomas Love Peacock’s Mr Listless) into the form of long symposia.  The discussion above is specially poignant because the speakers are commenting on the means of their own incarnation: Widmerpool, though it’s tempting to doubt it, only lives by the fact of other people reading him into being; Mr Listless himself is only a gust of the delightful northeast wind that blows through Nightmare Abbey.

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Marginalia, no.37

While the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish heap of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age… A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community.  He lives in the days that are past.  His ideas, thoughts, feelings associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs and exploded superstitions.  The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.  The brighter the light diffused around him by the progress of reason, the thicker is the darkness of antiquated barbarism, in which he buries himself like a mole, to throw up the barren hillocks of his Cimmerian labours.

~ Thomas Love Peacock, The Four Ages of Poetry (1820)

By 1820 Peacock himself had published no fewer than nine volumes of poetry.  The good-humored butchering of one’s own sacred cows can be a source of rich and unexpected nourishment. I wonder if this capacity for self-satire belongs to nature or to the critical influences of civilization.  It’s surely one of the signs of a civilized people.  You don’t imagine the Vandals and Huns went in for this kind of thing.

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