The Turkey carpet style of writing

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Yesterday, I posted about an Iranian government entity whose Persian name, Majma'a Tash-khees Maslahat Nezam (مجمع تشخیص مصلحت نظام), literally means something like "The Council for Discerning the System's Interest", but is normally given in English as "The Expediency Discernment Council of the System", or the "Expediency Council" for short. I found this translation to be odd, because expediency often has rather negative connotations in English, especially in a context where it might be implicitly opposed to concepts like principle, justice, duty, or honor. As evidence (or at least illustration) for these connotations, I offered a few quotations chosen more or less at random from a search of Literature Online.

One of these quotations set off a different sort of bizarreness reaction in John V. Burke, who wrote:

I never thought to see Robert Montgomery's name outside The Stuffed Owl, an Anthology of Bad Verse, edited by D. B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee.

Well, bad poetry may be a better source for stereotypical associations than good poetry is — though my first randomly-chosen example came from Hugh MacDiarmid, who was a very good poet indeed.

In any case, this path leads serendipitously through Lewis and Lee's treatment of Montgomery to  a memorable 1830 essay by Thomas Babington Macaulay. As Lewis and Lee explain:

ROBERT MONTGOMERY, born Gomery, had assumed the genteel prefix some time before his longish poem The Omnipresence of the Deity, dedicated to Bishop Howley, brought him fame in 1828. The poem was sufficiently divorced from all the lovely Graces, rich in elementary bathos and bombast, and steeped in the suburban religiosity of the period to find instant success with the British public and to run into eight editions in eight months. It was this, together with the frantic newspaper puffing which welcomed Mr. Montgomery's next two offerings–A Universal Prayer: Death; A vision of Heaven; and a Vision of Hell, and Satan, or Intellect without God–which earned the complacent poet (whose editions were soon enriched with a frontispiece-portrait of himself with eyes lifted heavenwards, and resembling Byron as much as possible) the historic castigation by Macaulay in the Edinburgh Review of April 1830; an annihilating so Jove-like that the victim automatically commands the reader's sympathy…

Courtesy of Google Books, we don't need to leave our laptops to read Thomas Babington Macaulay's "Mr.Robert Montgomery", as reprinted in Critical and Historical Essays Contributed to the Edinburgh Review.

The first thing that struck me about this essay is that Macaulay seems to accuse Montgomery of  modernism, a century too early:

His writing bears the same relation to poetry which a Turkey carpet bears to a picture. There are colors in the Turkey carpet out of which a picture might be made. There are words in Mr. Montgomery's writing which, when disposed in certain orders and combinations, have made, and will again make, good poetry.

If Montgomery really arranged words (and the associated concepts) according to the logic of formal patterns that ignore or disrupt normal representational assumptions, this observation would have become a form of praise, a hundred years later. But I doubt that Ezra Pound would have approved, all the same, because what Macaulay mostly means is that Montgomery frames his metaphors carelessly:

"With fearful gaze, still be it mine to see
How all is fill'd and vivified by Thee;
Upon thy mirror, earth's majestic view,
To paint Thy Presence, and to feel it too."

The last two lines contain an excellent specimen of Mr. Robert Montgomery's Turkey carpet style of writing. The majestic view of earth is the mirror of God's presence; and on this mirror Mr. Robert Montgomery paints God's presence. The use of a mirror, we submit, is not to be painted upon.

Or again:

"The soul, aspiring, pants its source to mount,
As streams meander level with their fount."

We take this to be, on the whole, the worst similitude in the world. In the first place, no stream meanders, or can possibly meander, level with its fount. In the next place, if streams did meander level with their founts, no two motions can be less like each other than that of meandering level and that of mounting upwards.

One more:

The tempest is thus described:

"But lo! around the marsh'lling clouds unite,
Like thick battalions halting for the fight;
The sun sinks back, the tempest spirits sweep
Fierce through the air and flutter on the deep.
Till from their caverns rush the maniac blasts,
Tear the loose sails, and split the creaking masts,
And the lash'd billows, rolling in a train,
Rear their white heads, and race along the main"

What, we should like to know, is the difference between the two operations which Mr. Robert Montgomery so accurately distinguishes from each other, the fierce sweeping of the tempest-spirits through the air, and the rushing of the maniac blasts from their caverns? And why does the former operation end exactly when the latter commences?

Macaulay also discerns some passages that are syntactically confusing:

The effect which the Ocean produces on Atheists is then described in the following lofty lines:

"Oh! never did the dark-soul'd ATHEIST stand,
And watch the breakers boiling on the strand,
And, while Creation stagger'd at his nod,
Mock the dread presence of the mighty God!
We hear Him in the wind-heaved ocean's roar,
Hurling her billowy crags upon the shore
We hear Him in the riot of the blast,
And shake, while rush the raving whirlwinds past!"

If Mr. Robert Montgomery's genius were not far too free and aspiring to be shackled by the rules of syntax, we should suppose that it is at the nod of the Atheist that creation staggers. But Mr. Robert Montgomery's readers must take such grammar as they can get, and be thankful.

In other cases, no consistent construal seems possible at all:

"Yet not alone created realms engage
Thy faultless wisdom, grand, primeval sage!
For all the thronging woes to life allied
Thy mercy tempers, and thy cares provide."

We should be glad to know what the word "For" means here. If it is a preposition, it makes nonsense of the words, "Thy mercy tempers." If it is an adverb, it makes nonsense of the words, "Thy cares provide."

The passage that I quoted yesterday illustrates Montgomery's practice of Personification By Capitalization:

… while Principle expires,
And base Expediency's polluted breath
Falls, like a mildew, over minds and men.

Macaulay has some fun with this:

"Then, blood-stain`d Murder, bare thy hideous arm
And thou, Rebellion, welter in thy storm:
Awake, ye spirits of avenging crime;
Burst from your bonds, and battle with the time!"

Mr. Robert Montgomery is fond of personification, and belongs, we need not say, to that school of poets who hold that nothing more is necessary to a personification in poetry than to begin a word with a capital letter. Murder may, without impropriety, bare her arm, as she did long ago, in Mr. Campbell's Pleasures of Hope. But what possible motive Rebellion can have for weltering in her storm, what avenging crime may be, who its spirits may be, why they should be burst from their bonds, what their bonds may be, why they should battle with the time, what the time may be, and what a battle between the time and the spirits of avenging crime would resemble, we must confess ourselves quite unable to understand.

"And here let Memory turn her tearful glance
On the dark horrors of tumultuous France,
When blood and blasphemy defiled her land,
And fierce Rebellion shook her savage hand."

Whether Rebellion shakes her own hand, shakes the hand of Memory, or shakes the hand of France, or what any one of these three metaphors would mean, we, know no more than we know what is the sense of the following passage

"Let the foul orgies of infuriate crime
Picture the raging havoc of that time,
When leagued Rebellion march'd to kindle man,
Fright in her rear, and Murder in her van.
And thou, sweet flower of Austria, slaughter'd Queen,
Who dropp'd no tear upon the dreadful scene,
When gush'd the life-blood from thine angel form,
And martyr'd beauty perish'd in the storm,
Once worshipp'd paragon of all who saw,
Thy look obedience, and thy smile a law."

What is the distinction between the foul orgies and the raging havoc which the foul orgies are to picture? Why does Fright go behind Rebellion, and Murder before? Why should not Murder fall behind Fright? Or why should not all the three walk abreast?

Before I end up quoting the whole essay, I'll close with Macaulay's dissection of Montgomery's arguments for Intelligent Design:

Mr. Robert Montgomery is very severe on the infidels, and undertakes to prove, that, as he elegantly expresses it,

"One great Enchanter helm'd the harmonious whole."

What an enchanter has to do with helming, or what a helm has to do with harmony, he does not explain. He proceeds with his argument thus:

And dare men dream that dismal Chance has framed
All that the eye perceives, or tongue has named
The spacious world, and all its wonders, born
Designless, self-created, and forlorn;
Like to the flashing bubbles on a stream,
Fire from the cloud, or phantom in a dream?

We should be sorry to stake our faith in a higher Power on Mr. Robert Montgomery's logic. He informs us that lightning is designless and self-created. If he can believe this, we cannot conceive why he may not believe that the whole universe is designless and self-created. A few lines before, he tells us that it is the Deity who bids "thunder rattle from the skiey deep." His theory is therefore this, that God made the thunder, but that the lightning made itself.

So in the end, Montgomery was no modernist — he seems to have been more of a 19th-century poetical version of Glen Beck.  Still, I wonder what Macaulay would have made of T.S. Eliot and Bob Dylan.

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23 Comments »

  1. Bob Lieblich said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 9:19 am

    Typo alert: Your text mentions a "memorable 1930 essay." It is, of course, from 1830. I hadn't seen it before, but it's a wonderful complement (or precursor) to Twain's vivisection of Fenimore Cooper.

    [(myl) Oops. Fixed now -- thanks. ]

  2. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    Thanks for finding and citing the full text of Macaulay. What raises The Stuffed Owl above, say, Really Bad Poetry is that its targets, in the main, aren't the clumsy, bathetic verses of small-town editorial pages or privately printed devotional booklets, but poets who were (like Montgomery and the earier Nahum Tate) or still are (Wordsworth, Byron, Tennyson) regarded as major figures.

    Collectors of cringe-inducing trivia may want to know that Nahum Tate, mindful of the jumpiness of his Restoration patrons, rewrote "King Lear" for their entertainment, with a happy ending in which Cordelia doesn't die but marries Edgar.

  3. JonJ said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    The last two lines of Montgomery's you quoted,

    "Like to the flashing bubbles on a stream,
    Fire from the cloud, or phantom in a dream?"

    are very similar to the verse at the end of the great Mahayana Buddhist Diamond Sutra, which had probably been translated into English by that time. Is this evidence of his having studied Asian religion, or just a coincidence?

    [(myl) I don't know. The echo of images (bubbles, lighting, dreams) is certainly striking, and Macaulay does accuse Montgomery of extensive plagiarism from other poets, e.g.

    We never fell in, however, with any plunderer who so little understood how to turn his booty to good account as Mr. Montgomery. Lord Byron, in a passage which everybody knows by heart, has said, addressing the sea,

    Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow.

    Mr. Robert Montgomery very coolly appropriates the image and reproduces the stolen goods in the following form:

    And thou vast Ocean, on whose awful face Time's iron feet can print no ruin-trace.

    So may such ill-got gains ever prosper!

    However, this page says of the Diamond Sutra that "The translations into Western Languages are recent, as late as the early decades of the twentieth Century." ]

  4. Picky said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    Poor Montgomery. Jack Aubrey's follower and friend Lt Mowett did that sort of poetry so much better.

  5. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    JonJ writes:

    "Is this evidence of his having studied Asian religion, …"

    "Asian religion" strikes me as a particularly funny term of political correctness, replacing the now-obsolete "Eastern religion" or "Oriental religion". Particularly funny since fully 12 of the 12 usually accepted World Religions are Asian in origin.

  6. NW said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    (Off-topic) But in his day Greek, Roman, and (Romantic neo-)Celtic religions would have been familiar objects of study and sources of imagery.

  7. Troy S. said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    To weigh in as Persianist, I'd have to say the the word مصلحت is being translated as "expediency" although not in the more common sense of haste or exigency but rather:
    "The quality or state of being suited to the end in view : suitability, fitness"
    -from Merriam Webster online m-w.com
    (Curiously enough, though you and I regard it as the more common one, the same entry lists the sense of haste as being obsolete!)
    I agree, it's an odd translation of مصلحت maybe, Advisability Council would be a better translation, but it's institutionalized now.

  8. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    US law recognizes the existence of "public policy," against which acts of the legislative branch can be adjudged. Could the Persian word's intended meaning be better conveyed by the phrase "public policy council?"

  9. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

    I've always thought Mark Twain's "vivisection" of Fenimore Cooper a quite extraordinarily mean-spirited affair that says a lot more about Twain than Cooper.

    In fact
    "an annihilating so Jove-like that the victim automatically commands the reader's sympathy"

    except that Twain, unlike Macaulay, can't do "Jove-like", and merely manages "class bully".

  10. Dee Lawrence said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    The Edinburgh Review essay reminds me of many articles criticizing the writings of Thomas Friedman. Puffed, popular, full of imagery that confuses if you read it too carefully? All of the above…

    [(myl) You might mean this...]

  11. dr pepper said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

    Twain actully took another poke at Cooper later.

    It was in the unfinished further adventures of Tom and Huck. They go west, i think to homestead but i'm not sure. Tom starts out full of noble savage views towards the indians.. Later, when Huck asks where he got all those wrong headed notions, he replies with disgust, "Cooper's novels".

  12. Stephen Jones said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    of many articles criticizing the writings of Thomas Friedman

    Criticizing Friedman is like shooting fish in a barrel except more fun. He is to journalism what Dan Brown is to Literature.

  13. outeast said,

    June 16, 2009 @ 5:50 am

    A marvellous assult. But was Monty sincere, you think, or merely cynical? (The same thing I wonder about Blen Beck, as it happens. Though there I'm pretty sure it's 'cynical'.)

  14. William Berry said,

    June 16, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    The "turkey carpet" metaphor. Wow!

    "Still, I wonder what Macaulay would have made of T.S. Eliot and Bob Dylan."

    Or, for that matter, of Henry James.

    Years (decades, even) ago I read a well-known story by James that was called "The Figure in The Carpet", or something similar. This used to be (still is?) widely taught in literature courses dealing with issues of meaning and form. Your Macaulay story (which I hadn't heard before) makes me wonder if the "turkey carpet" meme influenced James' thinking in this area.

  15. citizen mack said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 6:12 am

    As an instance of petitio principii, 'The Expediency Discernment Council of the System' reminded me of the selfservingness of that French Revolutionary classic body, The Committee of Public Safety.

    cf. the ancient wisdom:
    Treason never prospers.
    What's the reason?
    For it it prospers
    None dare call it treason.

  16. marie-lucie said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    that French Revolutionary classic body, The Committee of Public Safety

    "Safety" is not quite the right translation.

    The French title was le comité de Salut Public: unlike "safety" which has a static meaning, le salut always implies saving or being saved from a danger, whether physical or moral (in which case it means "salvation"). The purpose of the committee was not to safeguard the public in general but to save the nation from being pulled back into pre-revolutionary ways.

    "Safety" as a goal of a civil government would be translated by la sûreté, as in the name of the Québec police force la Sûreté du Québec, or la sécurité.

  17. Simon Cauchi said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    @citizen mack
    Your epigram should be properly attributed to its author, Sir John Harington, rather than to "ancient wisdom". And it should be set out as a distich:

    Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason?
    For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.

  18. citizen mack said,

    June 18, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    The gist of a useful concept – and its subjectivity – was more important here than swank about its provenance. Systemic expediency can also be discerned in a Mobster’s lightly veiled threats: ‘Nice place you got here . . . Shame if anything happened to it’. Who or what would a shopkeeper need protection from? From hoodlums such as these. QED. As with the Committee of Public Safety, or the need for an Iranian recount, key decisions tend to be made by the victors (but not in the Carl Foreman sense).

  19. Simon Cauchi said,

    June 18, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

    There was no swank involved. Merely a concern to keep the record straight. Sloppy misquotation and failure to give due attribution mustn't be allowed to pass. And I think you are overstating the case a little with your "QED".

  20. citizen mack said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 7:12 am

    There was no record to keep straight. I know who Sir John Harington was, though I prefer Thomas Nashe. But I was not discussing Tudor and Stuart politics. I was writing about the convenience of definition, by committees and other bodies such as the Expediency Council, that assume what they purport to prove. That’s how protection rackets work: a need for protection is asserted — and then provided, for a consideration. Assertion succeeds. Demurral or resistance also demonstrates a need for protection. QED.

  21. John Cowan said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

    Marie-Lucie: "Committee of Public Safety" has been the traditional English translation probably since the institution existed; I agree that it's something of a misnomer, but there you are.

  22. Andrew Gaylard said,

    June 21, 2009 @ 4:39 am

    Goodness me, citizen mack, I detected no element of 'swank' in what struck me as a mild and graceful contribution correcting both source and text. Not out of place in what is a relatively scholarly forum.

    Your original point, which was well-made, is undiminished, or enhanced (even if not proved), by accuracy in its supporting material.

  23. citizen mack said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    I regret the confusion. The ‘swank’ referred to was my own and didn’t happen, because I chose not to write ‘doth prosper’ &c. or cite the source. (I don’t say ‘glisters’ much either.)
    The ‘QED’ however wasn’t my own, but that imputed to a racketeer suggesting that someone needs protection whatever the response is, or – by extension – a decision made for reasons other than the ostensible. Who defines the public interest?
    As D H Lawrence put it [but I haven't checked this], ‘Never trust the teller, trust the tale‘.

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