Nov 6 2023
THINGS BEING VARIOUS: John Lucas discusses two very different works by Neil Curry – a monograph on Horace Walpole and a slim volume of delicate and well-observed poetry
Horace Walpole Neil Curry Greenwich Exchange ISBN: 978-1-910996-70-6 £11.99 .. . . . Things Being Various Neil Curry Wayleave Poetry ISBN 978-1-8383378-5-8 £6 . . .
Neil Curry is probably best known as a poet, author of some ten collections, including Ships in Bottles, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and, more recently, a Selected, Other Rooms. He has also translated from the Greek (including Euripedes’ The Trojan Women and The Bacchae) and French (Supervielle’s Fable of the World). But over the past decade or so he has gained a deserved reputation for a number of biographical and critical monographs of, among others, Norman Nicholson, as well as such 18th century masters as Pope, Johnson, Cowper, and, now, the elusive, difficult to place, Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto and creator of Strawberry Hill.
Curry begins his new book, teasingly enough, ‘Horace Walpole was the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, England’s first Prime Minister. Or was he?’ Well, you tell us. And Curry does. There is, he says, ‘the obvious fact that in appearance and temperament Horace was so unlike any other member of the Walpole family.’ Nevertheless, and despite other doubts about the authenticity of his lineage, including Robert’s readiness to ‘put it about’, to use a Byronic term, Curry is inclined to accept that Horace was, to coin a phrase, a legitimate chap off the old bloke.
It isn’t, however, Walpole’s parentage that makes him of genuine interest. Far more important is the fact that he was the author of that supreme Gothic fantasy, The Castle of Otranto, and that he built – well, designed and had built for him – Strawberry Hill. Not that these achievements counted for much in what were once considered to be orthodox accounts of the Eighteenth century. According to such accounts, that century was better called The Augustan Age, the Age of Reason, and its literary masters – pre-eminently Dryden (though he died in 1700), Swift, Pope, Johnson, Fielding and Richardson – were Classics of what Matthew Arnold had pronounced ‘the Age of Prose.’ No women, of course.
And no mention of, among others, ‘mad’ Christopher Smart, or the ‘marvellous boy’ Chatterton, or such freaks of nature as Robert Bloomfield, Shenstone (‘incurably a slight figure’), or Akenside, while Gray and Goldsmith, though each was allowed to have produced a ‘minor masterpiece,’ could be more or less reduced to a footnote or two. Ditto William Cowper. Apart from that, Lord Copper, no name was allowed to trouble the scorers. The law-givers of Lit. Hist., such as F.R. Leavis, Geoffrey Tillotson, and Basil Willey, were all agreed that the period between 1700-1800 was pretty well cut and dried and could be laid out for confident inspection, with works by the names listed in the paragraph above providing all you needed to know. I remember first reading Cowper, under cover of darkness as it were, and discovering to my thrilled amazement that such poems as ‘The Castaway’ and, in very different ways, ‘The Poplar Field’ and much of the ‘divine chit-chat’ of ‘The Task’ were superb achievements. And as for Smart’s ‘Jubilate Agno,’ how on earth was it possible to overlook that wonderful, entirely original work?
Since then, praise be, the history of the century has been rewritten, and among those many scholars and critics who are responsible for bringing about wholesale re-assessments of ‘The Age of Reason’ Neil Curry’s work deserves honourable mention. His critical monographs of such creators as Smart, Cowper, Shenstone (‘Landscape Gardener and Poet’), and Samuel Johnson, are significant contributions to the prolonged, necessary and continuous mapping out of a very complicated hundred years, one during which the last, visceral claims of an English Absolute Monarchy went under, Empire became troublingly significant, Anglican monotheism fractured into sects, the pre-eminence of Graeco-Roman cultural heritage began to lose its grip, working-class self-consciousness grew to manly proportions (still no women), and Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Royal Academy, intended to guard against the intrusions of the barbarians, found itself under threat from new styles of architecture and a change of art, especially cartoon and vicious caricature, both of them owing a good deal to newspapers and periodical literature. (The Spectator, Tatler, Gentleman’s Magazine). ‘This man was hired to depress genius,’ Blake said of Reynolds, and you could imagine the ghosts of Gilroy and Rowlandson, and even of Hogarth, nodding agreement.
Would Walpole have nodded along with them? Possibly not. Curry presents him as a fairly fly character, adroit at keeping out of harm’s way, very unlike Swift, Pope, and Johnson, therefore, who were usually up for a fight. True, he went into Parliament, but that didn’t mean that he became at all committed to party politics. For young men of noble families in the eighteenth century, Curry remarks, entering parliament ‘was simply what one did. It was not something they regarded as a career, nor were they motivated by a burning desire to do something for their country.’ No change there, then, not as far as many tory peers are concerned, anyway. As far as Walpole was concerned, which was not at all, ‘he was still in Italy [in 1740] when he was elected MP for Callington in Cornwall, a constituency he “represented” for over ten years without once even visiting it.’ Some twenty years later, when he represented King’s Lynn, he was given the Freedom of the City, and had to endure ‘riding at the head of two thousand people … dining with above two hundred of them, amid bumpers, huzzas, songs, and tobacco, and finishing with country dancing at a ball and sixpenny whisk!’
‘It sounds dreadful,’ Curry says, though I can think of worse forms of suffering, and to be fair, Curry goes on to exculpate Walpole from absolute indifference to political consideration when he notes that in looking back over H.W’s years in the Commons ‘we see a man of compassionate and liberal views, selfless, totally loyal to his friends and content to let others take the credit for proposals he had suggested.’
But there can be no doubt that his abiding concerns pointed elsewhere. First, Strawberry Hill. Curry tells us that Walpole was initially attracted by the location, on the banks of the Thames near Twickenham. ‘Nearby were Hampton Court, Kew, and the grandeur of Lord Burlington’s Garden at Chiswick. Fashionable as it was, [the area] had also attracted writers: Fielding Thomson, William Collins, Lady Wortley Montague, and … Pope.’ (Though Pope, I should note, had been dead for three years when Walpole took note of the spot in 1747.) It was here that Walpole built the ‘Gothic’ mansion that I myself passed often enough when I was at school at Hampton in the 1950s; and it was on the route I took of an evening when I navigated my way to Eel Pie Island, that eyot on the Thames at Twickenham where I heard jazz groups perform at the island’s tumble-down hotel with its sprung dance-floor that bounced to the rhythm of jazz-jive while the Thames ran either side of the eyot and in that bliss of being alive we dreamed that the island was New Orleans on Thames.
Walpole’s dream was very different. This ‘project of a lifetime,’ as Curry dubs it, and about which he writes with understanding and detailed regard, was conceived as an example of English-Gothic architecture, and I advise anyone with an interest in this form of building to consult his pages. They form one of the best introductions to the subject that I know, and Curry’s monograph would be worth buying for the chapter on Strawberry Hill alone.
Equally compelling is what he has to say about that Gothic horror novel/fantasy/story – call it what you will – The Castle of Otranto. This was published in 1764, although its gestation belongs to the time when Strawberry Hill was first being dreamed into existence. Obfuscation surrounded its publication. In the first place, it didn’t come from Walpole’s own Strawberry-Hill Press but from Lowndes of Fleet Street, a London printshop. In the second place, the book was purportedly a translation ‘by William Marshall from the original Italian.’ Such elaborate subterfuge, Curry quotes Sir Walter Scott as surmising in his editon of 1811, was because ‘Mr Walpole [was] uncertain of the reception which a work upon so new a plan might experience’, and dreaded the possibility of ridicule. Instead, of course, it proved an enormous and long lasting success, as readers of Northanger Abbey for example will know. And as with the chapter on Strawberry Hill, so Curry’s account of Walpole’s Gothic Tales is an exemplary piece of work, detailed, informative, deftly written. All in all, Horace Walpole could hardly be improved on as a work of critical biography. It is the ideal introduction to a complex man and a complex age.
As it happens, Curry’s slim sequence of poems, Things Being Various, is also newly out, attractively published by Wayleave Press, and appearing under a title that comes from a famous poem by Louis MacNeice. Seventeen short lyrics muse on the sounds and sights of natural phenomena and their suggestive promptings.
Looking down from the height of the sand dunes in a failing light, I saw what I took to be an oil slick further along the beach, but binos showed it to be a flock (no) a flight (no); a slick – yes, that’s it – a slick of oystercatchers, huddled together, waiting for the tide to give ground enough for them to start jabbing and hammering their way into a flotsam of molluscs.
The rhythmic and syntactic hesitancies here are integral to what at first seems to be a wry, comic account of uncertain vision (a sighting); but with the closing lines the poem becomes a good deal less comforting. ‘Jabbing and hammering.’ Nature red in beak and maw. Other poems play with reversals of expectation, or enjoy incongruities of sound or vision, such as the moment when ‘a bittern responds//mournfully/to the sound of the/14.23 to Arnside,’ or the snowdrops which ‘modestly [hang] their pale heads as though/what they’d achieved was really no great matter.’ The drunkenness of things being various takes on a new range of possibilities throughout Curry’s beguiling sequence in which wit and exact notice buttress and play off each other. Not to be missed.