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Would someone raise William Empson from the dead?

October 13, 2010

One of the Elgin Marbles: A Centaur and a Lapith fighting.

Today, a query about one line by Thomas Hardy in “Christmas in the Elgin Room,” a poem collected in his last volume, Winter Words (1928). My quibble has to do with a single word in stanza one of the poem. If you find such small-scale investigations tedious, read no more. But first, here’s the whole of the poem, followed by a few remarks reprinted here, with modification, from another entry in The Era of Casual Fridays.

CHRISTMAS IN THE ELGIN ROOM
BRITISH MUSEUM: EARLY LAST CENTURY

“What is the noise that shakes the night,
And seems to soar to the Pole-star height?”
—“Christmas bells,
The watchman tells
Who walks this hall that blears us captives with its blight.”

“And what, then, mean such clangs, so clear?”
“—’Tis said to have been a day of cheer,
And source of grace
To the human race
Long ere their woven sails winged us to exile here.

“We are those whom Christmas overthrew
Some centuries after Pheidias knew
How to shape us
And bedrape us
And to set us in Athena’s temple for men’s view.
“O it is sad now we are sold—

We gods! for Borean people’s gold,
And brought to the gloom
Of this gaunt room
Which sunlight shuns, and sweet Aurore but enters cold.

“For all these bells, would I were still
Radiant as on Athenai‘s Hill.”
—“And I, and I!”
The others sigh,
“Before this Christ was known, and we had men’s good will.”

Thereat old Helios could but nod,
Throbbed, too, the Ilissus River-god,
And the torsos there
Of deities fair,
Whose limbs were shards beneath some Acropolitan clod:

Demeter too, Poseidon hoar,
Persephone, and many more
Of Zeus‘ high breed,—
All loth to heed
What the bells sang that night which shook them to the core.
1905 and 1926.

Section of a frieze from the Elgin Marbles.

The reference, of course, is to the so-called Elgin Marbles, sometimes also called the Parthenon Marbles. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799–1803, somewhat dubiously obtained permission from Ottoman authorities to secure the pieces mentioned in the above poem from Greece.

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin (1766-1841).


During the first decade of the 19th century, Elgin’s agents removed a large portion of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, transporting them by sea to Britain. The acquisition, if acquisition it can be called, stirred up a controversy, with some of his harshest critics accusing Lord Elgin of looting and vandalism. (Elgin had to sever certain parts of some of the marbles in order to extricate them. Hence the lines above: “the torsos there / Of deities fair, / Whose limbs were shards beneath some Acropolitan clod.”) Parliament ultimately vindicated Elgin, allocating funds to purchase the pieces in 1816, after which they were displayed in the British Museum. One can gather, from reading this poem, some sense of where Hardy stood, I suppose, with respect to Lord Elgin, and with respect as well to the larger business of the British empire, in the discourse of which enterprise this poem registers its queer anecdote. And as for that Borean English “gold”: Elgin paid £75,000 for the marbles, of which he recovered slightly less than half from Parliament.

But today, my question pertains, as I say, to stanza one:

“What is the noise that shakes the night,
And seems to soar to the Pole-star height?”
—“Christmas bells,
The watchman tells
Who walks this hall that blears us captives with its blight.”

What, specifically is the meaning and function of the word “tells” here? The fiction of the poem asks us to imagine the Elgin marbles—or rather, the gods they represent—conversing one with another. A circumstance not unusual in Hardy’s poetry, given that persons speak from beyond the grave, or that a star and a man hold a brief conversation, and that he often inquires into the consciousness of animals. But as I now learn, some readers suppose also that the poem may ask us further to imagine that the watchman “tells” the marbles what the Christmas bells are for and what they signify. After all, what the marbles know of Christmas must come from some source. What is it? In the first line of the poem one of the marbles puts the question, and, in answering, a second speaks of the watchman as “telling”—something. Whereupon one of the more unknowing marbles just as quickly asks what all the fuss is about, which prompts, of course, the explanation. I suspect the location of the “telling” amidst the Q&A is why some readers suppose that what the marbles know must come from a contemporary, English source—in that place where now they stand on display for an onlooking Christian public. But what does our watchman “tell”?

Thomas Hardy

I puzzled the matter out with a colleague who’d assigned the poem to a few of our students, one of whom raised a query about the verb in question here. I realized at once that it had never occurred to me to settle the matter as to what “tells,” here, can and can not mean. No doubt this is because our reading of the line doesn’t materially affect our general reading of the poem. So, let’s stipulate, merely for the sake of argument, that the Elgin Marbles, or anyway one of them, may have queried the watchman about the bells and gotten an answer, which he now conveys to his fellows, exiled in time and place. And let’s stipulate also that it cannot be that the marbles “overhear” the watchman talking about the bells with someone else. He is there in the singular (“watchman”); and no Englishmen would need to be told what the bells are for (i.e., there’s no imaginable occasion for the query to arise amongst two Englishmen). All well and good. So, perhaps the watchman “tells” the marbles what the Christmas bells mean, though, strictly speaking, I’d expect a comma after “tells” in that case. Or perhaps (as another reader has suggested to me) our watchman muses aloud upon the matter and the marbles overhear him.

Perhaps, I say, because I find neither of these readings convincing or satisfying. I get hung up on the verb “tells” here, and want it to be more immediately transitive (with “bells” for its simple object) than the readings I just dismissed allow. It vexes me such that I want to pin it down. Why? Because the watchman may well be “telling” the bells off as they toll. He may be “counting” them, “registering” them, as who should say (to himself), “Ah, yes, twelve tolls, now it is midnight and Christmas!” Here I have in mind for “tell” OED sense II.21.a: “to enumerate, reckon in; to reckon up, count, number. Also absol. Now arch. or dial.” Hardy’s diction is often a bit quaint, and often dialectal. The wisest of the marbles, the one who conveys most of the information in the poem, may mean precisely this, as if he said to himself, “That watchman over there: he seems to be telling off the bells so as to know exactly when this damned Christmas affair falls. I see the look of recognition on his face,” etc. I favor this reading because it requires us to suppose only that the marbles converse with each other, and not with the watchman. That would be consistent with the Elgin Marbles’ sense of alienation from the Boreal prison in which they find themselves displayed, and consistent also with the separation of the two spheres imagined in the poem—the ancient Pagan one, and the still-vital Christian one that overthrew it. Why should the (looted) marbles have a companionable relation, or a relation of any kind, to their watchman/jailer? I prefer to suppose that they haggle it all out amongst themselves, expressing their regrets at having been cast into obsolescence by Christianity; or their longing for the old days when they held the spotlight; or their bitterness at having been (quasi-illegally) spirited away to this place amongst an alien, Borean (i.e., northern and “cold”), Christian people; and so on.

Detail from a portrait of Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (1775).

Though I believe Hardy certainly can ask the reader to entertain the fiction that the Elgin marbles speak broodingly amongst themselves, I think—for the thematic reasons I just stated, but also for reasons of taste—that he cannot ask his readers to entertain the (to me) absurd fiction (within an already fanciful fiction) that the watchman “tells” the marbles what those bells mean. Mutatis mutandis, this violates the unities of the poem, as the saying used to go in dramatic contexts. Of course, Samuel Johnson might here reproach me, as from his “Preface to Shakespeare“: “Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation.” If Hardy asks the reader to entertain the one fiction, why not both fictions? Well, because the idea that our watchman addresses himself to the marbles adds a slightly farcical element to the poem, at least as I read it. Men once thought that the Pagan gods spoke amongst themselves. We are readied, then, for a revival of that fiction. So far as I can discern, the poem implies no complete breakage or lapse in the continuity of their “consciousness” (the god who imparts most of the information knows how they wound up in the British Museum: “O it is sad now we are sold— / We gods! for Borean people’s gold, / And brought to the gloom /  Of this gaunt room…”). Did our watchman tell the marbles about this also? I cannot imagine that Hardy would have us believe it. In fact, this is all a part of the biting wit of the poem. Christ may have “overthrown” the Pagan gods once the Roman Empire adopted Christianity. But that was merely a worldly, political affair. And here, the old gods revisit us, with their colloquy, as by a haunting. And what they say suggests, ever so subtly, how untenable, in the long-run, any godly regime—any regime—actually is. Someday Christ on his cross will be in a museum somewhere, disturbed by new sacraments, and longing for the days when a billion or so folk spoke his name, whether in prayer or while repairing a car in cold weather. In fact, Hardy touches this very theme in another poem from Winter Words titled “A Drinking Song,” which registers, in each of its stanzas, the fall of one dispensation after another from that of the pre-Socratic philosophers on down to modernity, when Darwin, and then Albert Einstein after him, changed utterly our ways of describing ourselves and the time and spaces we inhabit.

But that a solid, beef-eating, ale-drinking Englishman keeping his watch on Christmas night might have had a little chat with the Elgin Marbles, cluing them in, so to speak—well, here I cry foul. The decorum Hardy establishes for the duration of the piece somehow forbids this. (I herewith discard outright the possibility that the watchman is himself ringing a bell, though for a fleeting moment—the length of a short cab ride, as it happens—I still wondered whether “tell” here might be some dialectal or archaic form of “toll.” But of course, why would the British Museum ever cause a watchman to ring a bell in the empty halls at night on Christmas? Nonsense, yes? And upon inquiry, the OED backs me here, if any backing is needed. “Tell” isn’t a possible form of “toll.”)

So, what view do I take? Hardy needed to make his rhyme true and chose the verb “tells,” which here means “counts,” notwithstanding that some readers might take the verb to mean—inexactly, in my opinion—”says” or “explains.” But whatever the case, bringing “tells” into the orbit of “bells” confuses the matter a bit: because of the associations “telling” has with “counting” and “reckoning,” and with “saying” and “explaining,” and because one perhaps feels the encroachment—inappropriately, as it happens—of “tolls” upon “tells.”

In sum, I now hold fast to the view that the watchman counts the bells; that he is “telling them off” as each toll sounds; that he realizes it’s midnight, and therefore Christmas; and that the most voluble of the old stones takes the occasion to offer up his rueful explanations. Why one of the Elgin Marbles would know more than any other about the whole affair isn’t made clear. But the poem doesn’t need to clarify that point, its general theme being perfectly intelligible, as I see it anyway.

The problem, insofar as there is one, likely stems from the fact that Hardy has to make his rhyme and winds up with a word that has (in this context) certain vagrant implications, not all of which are neatly (or immediately) controlled by the context, given that some readers feel that some source for the information about Christmas is needed, and given that the line “The watchman tells” falls between a query and then an answer, which readers inclined to read “tells” as “says” or “explains” naturally take to indicate that he has spoken of Christmas.

Cover of the 1930 edition.


I’d like to hear William Empson weigh in on the question, if he were still among the living. Alas, he doesn’t take it up in 7 Types of Ambiguity. I might myself try to “place” this particular instance of ambiguity—assuming, generously, that it is one for a quorum of readers—according to Empson’s somewhat hazy typology (does it fall, say, under type 3?). However, I think it easier simply to raise him from the dead.

Incidentally, my colleague (a classicist) made an interesting observation that I’d never have thought to pursue. The most talkative and well-informed of the marbles refers to the “Borean” people in whose quarters the Elgin marbles find themselves (in damp, chilly England, as against their sunny Mediterranean). As it happens, the epithet “Borean,” in the mouth of an ancient Athenian god, and in this context, is very likely not value-neutral, meaning simply “of the north,” or “associated with the north wind”; it may well be a slander. By reputation, Boreas, god of the north wind, had a violent temper. In one of the old tales, he abducts and rapes Orithyia, daughter of King Erechtheus of Athens, as she dances by the Ilissos River (alluded to in the poem). I can well imagine that the Elgin Marbles, as Hardy gives them to us in this poem, might sympathize with that other Borean abductee, Orithyia; for they, too, had been kidnapped, violated, and plundered. I wonder whether Hardy took some satisfaction in the coincidence (and meant for his ideal reader to).

N.B. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the felicity of putting “blear” back into its verbal form, in the last line of the stanza I’ve been discussing. The OED records no use of it as a verb in the 20th century; very like Hardy to fetch it back in. And finally, here is the passage (alluded to above) from Samuel Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare”:

“The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible. The criticks hold it impossible, that an action of months or years can be possibly believed to pass in three hours; or that the spectator can suppose himself to sit in the theatre, while ambassadors go and return between distant kings, while armies are levied and towns besieged, while an exile wanders and returns, or till he whom they saw courting his mistress, shall lament the untimely fall of his son. The mind revolts from evident falsehood, and fiction loses its force when it departs from the resemblance of reality.

From the narrow limitation of time necessarily arises the contraction of place. The spectator, who knows that he saw the first act at Alexandria, cannot suppose that he sees the next at Rome, at a distance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in so short a time, have transported him; he knows with certainty that he has not changed his place; and he knows that place cannot change itself; that what was a house cannot become a plain; that what was Thebes can never be Persepolis.

Such is the triumphant language with which a critick exults over the misery of an irregular poet, and exults commonly without resistance or reply. It is time therefore to tell him, by the authority of Shakespeare, that he assumes, as an unquestionable principle, a position, which, while his breath is forming it into words, his understanding pronounces to be false. It is false, that any representation is mistaken for reality; that any dramatick fable in its materiality was ever credible, or,  for a single moment, was ever credited.

The objection arising from the impossibility of passing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, supposes, that when the play opens the spectator really imagines himself at Alexandria, and believes that his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra. Surely he that imagines this, may imagine more. He that can take the stage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation; if the spectator can be once persuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Caesar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharsalia, or the bank of Granicus, he is in a state of elevation above the reach of reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry, may despise the circumscriptions of terrestrial nature. There is no reason why a mind thus wandering in extasy should count the clock, or why an hour should not be a century in that calenture of the brains that can make the stage a field.

The truth is, that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players.”

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