Foreword by R. H. Twigg
Bella, horrida bella,
The supreme function of satire is to inveigh against preventable evils. In seeking to do so, it encounters obstacles which are deeply rooted in human nature. One is that by the very order of things such evils are not demonstrable until they have occurred: at each stage in their onset there is room for doubt and for dispute whether they be real or imaginary. By the same token, they attract little critical attention in comparison with current troubles, which are indisputable and pressing, and to which they are habitually imagined to be mere analogies: whence the besetting temptation of so much recent criticism to concern itself with the immediate present and the recent past at the expense of an encroaching future. Above all, we are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles and even for desiring troubles: “If only,” we seem to think, “if only people wouldn’t write about it, it probably wouldn’t happen.” If only
Perhaps this habit goes back to the primitive desire of finding in literature
the word and the thing, the name and the object, made identical again: a ‘consummation devoutly to be wished’
perhaps, but never entertained as a delusion. This is the cusp on which ironic satire in the Swiftian tradition
stands. It is useless to blame the Houyhnhnms for driving Gulliver to a state of abject misanthropy with the
moral certainty that stems from their idealistic culture and linguistics. Instead, it is an intellectual
failing of Gulliver’s that he can neither criticize the fantastic premises of their Utopia nor offer any
more effective remedy on his return than to balk at the dissembling and degenerate ‘yahoos’.
Swift was never so unsophisticated as his travelling ingenu.
The implication is clear: we should resist a surface reading of the poem (itself the voice of
American-style commercial television) if we ourselves are not to become the counterfeit narrators
of the dystopia it predicts. Television will stamp the fake values of a morally degenerative
ideology in the substance of our psyches. We should look beyond this to the light outside
Plato’s cave and, in order to do so, we must constantly bring to mind the implicit distinction
the epigraphic stanza draws between the ancient role of the poet-soothsayer and the modern role
of the television station ‘continuity announcer’. This first announcement—the only point at
which the voice reveals whose it really is—both mocks and insinuates television’s
shadowy connotations of supernatural prescience. The poem is thereby introduced as an appalling
‘vision’ poem (the pre-eminent mode of galvanising moral verse in the English tradition since
Langland’s Piers the Plowan; Skeat’s seminal edition of which I can only hope to emulate here.)
from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is passed or passing or to come.
The ‘Grecian goldsmiths’ are
identified by our poet not just as the artists who decorated the
cathedral walls with ‘gold enamelling’ but also as the workers of the mint, the ‘form… of hammered
gold’ being quite readily glossable as a coin.
I think that in early Byzantium, and maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architects and artificers—though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract—spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter and the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of Sacred Books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject-matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, pattern, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image, and this vision, this proclamation of their invisible master, had the Greek nobility, Satan always the still half divine Serpent, never the horned scarecrow of the didactic Middle Ages.
The tempting Byronic flippancies are identified with the glib voice of commercial television and, like the cajoling words of Milton’s Satan and the psychagogic incantations flirted with by Yeats, they are to be resisted. The linguistic and moral environments are both characterized by this dangerous Yeatsian antinomy; it is one in which ‘the centre cannot hold’. Words are ‘counter words’, not simply in the sense that their stems are severed from their roots and they become—like tokens in a game (or ‘fiat money’)—bandied about with little or no correspondence to their original meanings, but more uncannily as words which are ‘contrary’ to themselves. As Sigmund Freud contends, in the ‘primal’ semantic environment of dreams the only words that can exist are necessarily ‘antithetical’.
There is a clear line of descent in this kind of thinking through the more tortured and tortuous meditations of German philosophy (Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche) and it is not at all irrelevant to a reading of this poem that this is the point at which Freudian Psychoanalysis is supposed by Lenin to intersect with Marxist Dialectics. This too, the poem says, is a tempting fiction to be shunned. The example of this phenomenon most often cited in English is the verb ‘to cleave’. The reason for its illustrative ubiquity is clear: the paradoxical action which the verb encapsulates (at once an impassioned combination and a forcible division-to cleave together and to cleave in two) is precisely the effect these words have upon their antithetical senses. It is therefore a word which slices through the thematic and semantic fabric of the poem.
It is the ‘counter’ however which is closest to this poem’s core. ‘Counter’ is (amongst many other things) a colloquial term for a worthless coin. It is impossible to say whether this usage derives from the root compter (to count) or contre (against): both French. The former gives us one who calculates or an object used in calculation—and, thereby, a symbolic token of value and an intrinsically valueless coin; but the latter gives us precisely the same ultimate denotation via an abbreviation of ‘counterfeit’: contrefait—‘made against’ (‘against’, that is, the authority whose seal it falsely carries). A ‘counter’, in numismatic terms, is therefore something which stands both for and against the sovereignty which confers the value it claims for itself (in the absence of intrinsic worth) by inscribed denomination. A ‘counter’ is at once a token and a fake.
If ‘cleave’ is the verb that wields the semantic threat of the ‘primal words’ in this nightmarish premonition (from which we must force ourselves to awake), ‘counter’ is the noun that sums them up. Cleave is a counter and counters cleave. To appoint a ‘counter’ as the narrator of a story that accosts the reader with a travesty (the recounter of an encounter with a contradiction), is implicitly (one hopes) to denounce the deregulated token monetarism forged in Birmingham, now returning to us from America, which debases all intrinsic value in our culture and society and therefore makes such debilitating and surreal artifices as this poem (such brummagem toys) possible. Instead, we should return to the ancient traditions of honesty, nobility and stable value embodied in the authoritative seal of the monarch.
This can only happen if the monarch is allowed to ‘tell the truth’: if, that is, the value of the sovereign coinage is once again made to correspond directly to that of the gold and silver in which it is uttered. If we continue to allow Birminghamized American culture to force these debased coinages (semantic, monetary and pharmaceutical) to circulate in our mouths, our wallets and our arteries, the entire nation will be rendered shoddy, fake and barely conscious.
For these dangerous and degenerative elements commercial television is the very pabulum they need to flourish. Here is the means by which an ersatz ideology can consolidate its grip on the public imagination via the technological weapons which the ignorant and ill-informed have installed in their own sitting rooms. If we do not take heed of what this poem has to tell us, if we fail to reject the cunning rhetoric it satirically exemplifies, and which is already taking possession of our airwaves, soon it will be impossible to tell representation from reality, intoxication from sobriety, black from white and male from female; Britannia herself will be re-cast as a bibulous Creole homosexual dart-player; everything and everywhere, this poem cautions, will be Brummagem TV.
That tragic and intractable phenomenon of relativist anarchy which we watch with apprehension on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. It will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will ever be the public will to demand and obtain that action, and therefore to publish grievous warnings of this kind, I do not know. All I know… all this poem knows… is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.
I hope my faith in its dreadful prescience will give me steel enough to bring the project to a point at which this preface might be fleshed out: to include, for instance, some discussion of the poem’s authorship. I suspect however, by the time our tastes have been sufficiently inured to its indecent content for the piece to be deemed acceptable for publication, and therefore in need of a proper introduction, that its dire predictions (and those of my impetuous student) may already, necessarily, have come to pass.
R. H. Twigg. Temple College, Oxford. October 1953.
1 According to G. R. Negley and J. M. Patrick in The Quest for Utopia (1952: pp. xvii, 298), the tradition of English dystopia (a term they prefer to Bentham’s cacotopia), begins with the Mundus alter et idem sive Terra Australis antehac semper incognita published in 1605 by an unidentified author under the sobriquet “Mercurius Britannicus”. Just as More’s Utopia is heavily influenced by the translation undertaken by himself and Erasmus in 1506 of Lucian’s Menippus Goes to Hell, and just as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four seems to have been instigated by his reading of a Bolshevik dystopia called We by the Russian author Evgenii Zamyatin, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels owes a great deal to the Mundus alter et idem.
In 1674 Thomas Hyde, the librarian of the Bodleian, identified this particular “Mercurius Britannicus” as Joseph Hall, who (as a student at Oxford) had been the author of the first true Horatian satires published in English: Virgidemiarum (1597). On the other hand, E. A. Petherick, in The Gentleman’s Magazine (July 1896), suggested he was Alberico Gentili, the Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford from 1587 to 1608. It certainly would be curious to discover that Joseph Hall, the defender of the episcopacy and the future Bishop of Norwich—a leading figure on the side of the King in the process of Anglicanization of the Scottish Church which provoked the disastrous Bishops’ Wars of 1639-40, and one of those imprisoned in the tower by the Long Parliament on New Year’s Day 1642—used the same nom-de-plume as the Parliamentarian propaganda machine in the Civil War. If Hall was involved in any publishing at the time one would expect it to be under the auspices of “Mercurius Aulicus” (the newsbook of Royalist Oxford) rather than “Mercurius Britannicus”. This has nothing to do with the name itself, however. The claim made by the puritan revolutionaries to be the messengers of Britain is entirely fraudulent if one recognizes the nation of ‘Britain’ to have been reasserted by the Stuart monarchy and reliant entirely on the King as the unifier of the ancient body-politic. I consider it quite likely, in fact, that ‘Britannicus’ is chosen by the revolutionaries specifically to attack this idea by subverting Hall’s position as the most eloquent conciliatory voice of reason in the period, thereby mocking his perceived role in instigating the wars with Scotland. Hall was a Calvinist, we should remember, and therefore viewed by fanatical puritans as even more of a traitor, as an apologist, than those bishops they seriously suspected of ‘popism’.
The chief fanatic of letters in the period is, of course, John Milton. Milton is the literary heavyweight of C17th revolution, conscripted explicitly to satirize this (former) satirist; I suspect his influence at work. Milton is the instigator of the luciferan revolutionary bent in English poetry and therefore a man well aware of the power of turning the language of the enemy against itself. I would not be surprised to discover evidence that he was responsible for this first violence against the name Britannia, carried to such an emetic extreme in this poem.
2 In this regard it is not dissimilar to the traditional ballad form so prolific in the C17th battles between puritans and the Crown. See esp. the ‘Birmingham Broadsides’ of 1681 and 1682. The sardonic pamphleteering that took place during the Exclusion Debates is the beginning of the tradition that finds its apotheosis in A Modest Proposal and The Drapier’s Letters. The Broadside Ballads were simply the most populist form of publication in this pamphelteering tradition, appealing as they did to both the educated and the illiterate. It is consequently no surprise that Swift—the consummate comic pamphleteer—is such an important figure in the instigation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.
3 There is some suggestion, though largely effaced from Coinage of Saorstát Éireann (1928), that the eventual decision to commission the English artist Percy Metcalfe to design all 8 coins was a political one. It was taken, that is, in the knowledge that the chairman’s own preferred solution—to use two or three designs from the best two or three artists—would have required the state to commission work from the Italian medallist, Publio Morbiducci. Five years earlier, Morbiducci had created the very first piece of Fascist art (and even provided the movement with its definitive icon) when he produced a fasce design (a bundle of rods rolled around an axe: originally a symbol of Roman Imperial power) for the reverse of the new 2 lira piece. The fasce had first appeared on a modern coin in the talons of the American Eagle on the reverse of the US ‘Mercury’ dime in 1916, but Morbiducci’s design was the one to introduce a genuine ‘fascist æsthetic’ to the world. Yeats found it difficult to disguise his admiration for the new politics and new æsthetic of Mussolini’s party. He described the muscular, threatening interpretation of the Bull of Thurii in Morbiducci’s submission—with its massive arched neck, heavy pistle and pawing right front hoof—as ‘magnificent’.
4 This is a clear indication, if any were needed, of Yeats’s gnosticism. Many gnostics of the Byzantine era, for example, believed the serpent in the Garden of Eden to have been sent as a messenger of Sophia (wisdom) to help humanity defy the Demiurge who had imprisoned them in his creation. There is also the Kabbalistic image to be borne in mind of the lightning strike of knowledge on the tree of life, which could just as easily represent a serpentine ascent as a thunderclap of revelation. The Kabbala, after all, is posited on the notion that the Bible does not mean what on the surface it appears to say. The final source from antiquity which might complete the trinity of the ‘half divine serpent’ is Pythia, the Sybil of Delphi, who is associated with the snake-goddess of Python—herself a version of the ancient snake-handling deities in the city-states of Assyria, Mesopotamia and Persia. This last example obviously bridges the imaginative gap back to the Golden Bough. The Sybil at Cumæ is, at the very least, the offspring of Pythia. She tells Æneas to search for a particular tree in the wood and to pull a golden branch off it. The story is patently similar to that of the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis. Who is to say the Golden Bough could not, in fact, have been a snake?
© Copyright S.A.M. Trainor 2002-2008