Bella, horrida bella,
et Thygrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno.
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.
Rejecting pompous veridiction and eutopian projection as methods of criticising the past and future directions of society, Swift knew that irony and parody (however ludicrous or unpalatable) were much more effective tools of political rhetoric. The Birmingham Quean is a satire in this tradition.1 My controversial admiration for a work of undeniable vulgarity, and my determination to embark upon the preparation of this edition, is born of a belief that The Birmingham Quean is a heavily ironic piece of visionary satire—a dystopia—no less visionary for being unpublishable. In contemporary terms, it is a devastating counterpart to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is designed to complement that author’s warning of the privations that might beset humanity at the hands of an authoritarian regime with one that extrapolates the equally dehumanising effects American commercial liberalism might have on Britain in the next millennium.
It is only right for a poet, capable of such prescience, to denounce a possible threat to the foundations of British society of racial, sexual and economic anarchy concealed in the Trojan Horse of the almighty dollar. In turn, it is the responsibility of critics to highlight and support such revelations. In any event, the authors of Hudibras, A Modest Proposal, Erewhon, Brave New World, Anthem, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and (most recently) Love Among the Ruins, would certainly agree that the discussion of future grave but avoidable evils is the most necessary occupation for both the satirist and his commentator. Those who knowingly shirk such responsibilities deserve the curses of those who come after. They are damning future generations with their silence.
A month or two ago I fell into conversation with a student, a quite unexceptional young man educated at one of our minor public schools. After a sentence or two about the lecture I had just given, he suddenly said: "If I had the money, I’d go to college in America." I made some self-deprecatory reply to the effect that even my rambling introductory course on the Metaphysicals wouldn’t last for ever; but he took no notice, and continued: "I have three friends there already, all of them went through film academy and two of them have found themselves jobs in Hollywood. I can’t wait to get out there myself. In 15 or 20 years this country will be an American State, and we’ll have colour TV.’
I can already hear the chorus of execration. How dare I repeat such an awful thing? How dare I stir up trouble and inflame relations with our closest ally by mentioning such a careless conversation? The answer is that I do not have the right not to do so. Here is an educated fellow Englishman, potentially a future statesman, who in broad daylight in one of the country’s oldest and most sacred academic institutions says to me, his tutor, that he wishes his country to be subsumed by the trashy and deracinated culture of an ex-colony. I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else. What he is saying, thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking in the sitting rooms and picture theatres of Britain. What is more, the words they are using to do so are increasingly those words released like a continual stream of spores into our fragile linguistic ecology by US culture since it descended on us in such massive numbers in the war. Most notably, these are the words that name the technological media by which their dissemination has been principally effected: ‘the radio’, ‘the TV’ and ‘the movies’.
Herein lies the difficulty of The Birmingham Quean. Its strength as a work of Swiftian irony derives from its insistence on the unmediated employment of the language and ideology of the object of its satire. This is a rhetorical attack composed in the projected jargon of the enemy.2 Where Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is framed as the putative address of an apologetic representative of the old world (1888) to the inhabitants of a fantastic socialist utopia he has encountered in the year 2000, this poem is a vision of a dystopian future told as if from and (in some sense) by that future, rather than simply about it. To continue a previous analogy, imagine Orwell had written Nineteen Eighty-Four entirely in ‘Newspeak’ and from the narrative position of Big Brother speaking through the ‘telescreen’: give a man enough rope, this poem says (give an unconscionable speaker a platform) and he will hang himself.
This is a dangerous game. It relies on the eternal vigilance of the critical reader. To present a satire of a future society as if recounted by the physical embodiment of the very principle of decadence that has itself brought about that society’s degeneration, and go so far as to allow that spirit of decadence to enunciate its own rabid satirical attack on a society it sees as not yet decadent enough, is to reach unprecedented levels of ironic immorality. The danger, of course, is that the irony will not be recognized.
This danger is covertly courted by the poet. His true satirical intentions are to be construed through not just one, but two levels of vocal masquerade. The first and closest level to the reader (in the sense that we hear from it most consistently) is the voice of the counterfeit-narrator: the Queen’s head on a fake sovereign, stamped erroneously in reverse by an incompetent die-caster. As long as we remember who is speaking, it is very easy to doubt the value of any claims made by such a storyteller.
Much more perilous than forgetting the identity of the narrator is forgetting the identity of the poetic persona: that voice whose interjections form the guiding principle of the poem’s explicit structure and politics. This is, as the pseudo-epigraphic Stanza 0 makes quite clear (see below), not the author’s voice at all but that of a fictional ‘continuity announcer’: the mouthpiece of a commercial television station.
Even more than the ridiculous counterfeit, it is the logic and morality carried by this voice that the poet asks us to reject. Where it might be relatively easy to refuse, as Swift’s Drapier’s Letters demand, to pass debased currency (and thereby resist acquiescence to an Imperial monetary policy), this poem shows just how difficult it is to hold at bay the insidious colonising influence of the television on the psyche of the nation.
I am bound to point out that the word ‘television’—which might, in some idyllic projection of society, have come to mean a technologically enhanced ability to peer into the furthest reaches of space and time (and the most obscure regions of human understanding)—is now irreversibly attached to the everyday idiot-box, from which we get a far more mindless depiction of the universe and the future reminiscent of the American ‘B-feature.’ The Quatermass Experiment, which seems to be quite literally inveigling its way into the nation’s consciousness as I write, is no-doubt a particularly dismal example.
The consequences of the insidious influence television is already having on the national consciousness is dramatized by the poet more than it is explicitly denounced. The canto is easily read as a vitriolic satire on the kind of debasement of society and literature which this technological toy might instigate, depict and symbolically represent. ‘Easily’, that is, if it were always easy to remember. It is not. In a precise mirroring of the process of forgetting that characterizes our hypnotized response to the television itself—think of the ‘soma’ and the ‘feelies’ in Huxley’s Brave New World—the poet allows us to lose sight of the influence this voice is having on our minds as we are lulled into a state of susceptibility by its mantra-like rhythms. As a response, he is demanding that we break the spell and perform, by a process of critical reading, precisely the kind of rejection of this voice that he would like us to enact in contemporary life.
Fortunately there are one or two moments, just as there tend to be in Swift, where this ironic masquerade cannot contain the poet’s righteous indignation. The irony therefore becomes reversed and, rather like a double-negative, we catch a glimpse of what the poet really thinks. One such moment, perhaps the most important in the piece, is where this voice is allowed to express the poet’s true belief that it is television which is turning us, metaphorically, into the debased coinage which is the spiritual voice of future decadence:
TV’s a stand-in for the British sun.
We bronze our features in its beta rays.
And as it reaches its meridian,
We’re mad enough to keep it in our gaze
Until some lasting damage can be done:
Our skin anneals; our eyes begin to glaze.
I sound like one of those self-righteous saddos,
But turn your telly round and watch the shadows
Reticulating round your furniture;
Just give your own imagination sway
To picture its own mental signature.
Perhaps you’ll question what I can convey,
Redoing Plato’s cave in miniature,
But is it less insane the other way?
To contemplate a source of radiation
Was once a sign of mental aberration.)
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.)
As such, it perhaps comes closer, both in terms of its form and its unsettling atmosphere of semantic and moral ambiguity, to Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (1927) than to the poem it explicitly burlesques. In other words, the tawdry parody of Don Juan is the surface sheen of the commercial television station: the poem’s flimsy gilt-leaf. In truth the mettle of this poem is the ironic voice of a Yeatsian visionary.
The spirit of the piece might be understood as taking its ‘bodily form’ not
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.
Two facts of numismatic history are important to this reading. The first is that the foundation of Constantinople—the New Rome—and thereby the formation of the Christian Eastern Roman Empire we call ‘Byzantium’, was inseparable from the minting of the solidus (in terms of denomination, the ancestor of the English shilling; but in material, appearance and use, having much more in common with the gold sovereign). The pre-eminence of the Byzantine Empire over that of the Latin West throughout the Dark Ages was not merely symbolized by the new solid-gold coin of Emperor Constantine (introduced to halt the piecemeal debasements of the Augustan aureus over the previous two centuries) but quite literally embodied by it. It is fair to say, I think, that ‘Byzantium’—its cæsaropapism, its transcendental iconography, its use of Greek instead of Latin, its alchemical focus on gold as the perfect state of matter: the very epitome of the ‘Unity of Being’ summed up in the equivalence of form and content—was the Solidus; and the Solidus was ‘Byzantium’.
The second fact is that W. B. Yeats, between 1926 and 1928, chaired the first coinage committee of the Irish Free State. In a speech to the Seanad Éireann on March 3rd 1926, he said: ‘Designs in connection with postage stamps and coinage may be described, I think, as the silent ambassadors of national taste.’ At the time of writing ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, the committee was engaged in a discussion as to whether the coins should carry (on the reverse) religious iconography (as had the Byzantine solidus) or mythographic animals like those depicted on the coins issued by the pagan city states of Ancient Greece. In the end it was decided that the ‘wealth of Ireland’, of which the coins were to be merely tokens, was ‘natural’; and so the animal icons were chosen. To this day, the Irish threepenny piece appears to depict the hare of Messana, as does their shilling the bull of Thurii, and their half-crown the Carthaginian horse. ‘Fish, flesh or fowl’ were chosen over beatific ‘monuments of their own munificence.’ It was thought that if the coinage were to carry Christian iconography, there might be a serious impact made on the economy by the number turned into religious medals. Ireland always had a lot more God than it had gold.3
Yeats’ ‘golden bough’ alludes self-consciously to J. G. Frazer’s eponymous ‘Study of Magic and Religion’. Frazer’s is an attempt to provide an account of the evolution of all religious thought by explaining, in anthropological terms, Virgil’s symbol of the Golden Bough, on which the doves of Venus sit which sing the future to Æneas, who then—following the instructions of the Sybil of Cumæ—breaks it off and carries it with him in order to gain entry to (and have protection in) the underworld. Yeats is clearly drawing a comparison between his ‘Vision’ and that of Æneas witnessing the future glories of the empire he will found.
Considering Yeats’s election to the senate of the newly formed Irish Free State, and his anti-Latinism, this comparison cannot fail to have its ironies. By turns, the poet of this Canto takes Yeats’s debased comparison to its most grotesque extreme, presenting a vision of the future, not of a glorious Rome or a transcendent Byzantium, but of an all too earth-bound and inglorious Great Britain: a society characterized by sexual and moral degradation, alcoholism, crime, violence and surreal reversals of logic, seen as if on Television. Just as Marlowe’s Helen is a hideous succubus, Britannia has become a dark and towering travesty medusa in a Union Jack dress, against whom the fake gold sovereign is no defence precisely because it is itself the Mephistopheles that has brought forth the Sibylline harridan: it is a diabolical inversion of the moly which protects Odysseus from emasculation at the hands of Circe, the shields of Perseus and Æneas, the ægis of Athene and the Golden Bough itself.
It is worth quoting Yeats at length:
R. H. Twigg. Temple College, Oxford. October 1953.
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?