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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

“…how the Giaour was to be pronounced….as if he meant to be understood…”: Jane Austen’s Subtle Ironic Deflations of Benwick & Anne’s Poetry Colloquy in Persuasion

The following famous passage in Chapter 11 of Persuasion describes Anne Elliot’s and Benwick’s first colloquy with each other about romantic poetry:

“…though shy, he did not seem reserved; it had rather the appearance of feelings glad to burst their usual restraints; and having talked of poetry, the richness of the present age, and gone through a brief comparison of opinion as to the first-rate poets, trying to ascertain whether Marmion or The Lady of the Lake were to be preferred, and how ranked the Giaour and The Bride of Abydos; AND MOREOVER, HOW THE GIAOUR WAS TO BE PRONOUNCED, he showed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely AS IF HE MEANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.”

Today, upon rereading of same, I noticed two bits of narration buried in it, which I show in all caps, above,  and which, I suggest, change the way this passage is read--two quintessential examples of JA’s subtle ironic deflations.

First, I read  “…and moreover, how the Giaour was to be pronounced,…”  as a non sequitur from the high-flown subject matter of all that precedes it in that sentence.  Anne and Benwick are engaged in an intense discussion of the relative merits of the best-selling poets, Scott and Byron, including Benwick’s actually quoting poetry. And then, poof! The intensity drops off a cliff, from The Best Poem to How To Pronounce “Giaour”.  

The needle that pops the rhetorical balloon is the word “moreover”. It should properly be used to introduce the most significant element in the chain of argument. And yet, here it introduces a trivial issue. That’s ironic deflation at its best.

And then, for good measure, JA added a second deflating needle in that passage in Persuasion, and that is the following:

“,…and looked so entirely as if [Benwick] meant to be understood,…”

Again, we have a similar pattern as with the first. We read the hyperbole about Benwick’s recitals of poetry reflecting his own emotional upheavals, and then, just when we’re expecting the most pathetic example of Benwick’s poetic sensibility, we do a double-take when we read that Benwick  “looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood” . What exactly does that mean, “as if he meant to be understood”? Who engages in such an intense conversation and does NOT mean to be understood?

I suggest that these two deflations provide a giant hint from the narrator that the reader should not take Benwick’s presentation as a man of intense feeling entirely seriously. And, indeed, we learn soon enough that Benwick’s constancy to his late fiancée is shockingly short-lived. And it sure upsets Wentworth, as we all know.

And so, maybe these two subtle pins that JA sticks in Benwick’s bubble are JA’s ways of alerting the observant reader as to what Benwick will wind up doing, not walking the walk of constancy, after talking the talk. In short, he’s a phony.

And I also see an ironic jab also being directed at our heroine, Anne. Anne has mounted her pedantic high horse, seeking to fulfill her own vanithy—her self image as the great fixer of other people’s problems (“None so capable as Anne”). She is sure she has Benwick pegged as suffering from poetry-itis—and her prescription is  for him to take two Samuel Johnsons and a glass of Richardson, and get a good night’s sleep, and wake calm and rational. But as she (almost) acknowledges herself at the end of that passage, the one who needs to go cold turkey on intense poetry is actually Anne herself. Benwick is only an emotional “hypochondriac”.

And behind it all, the winking eye of Jane Austen, mistress of ironic deflation. 

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: As I was about to post the above, it reminds me very much of the following resonant passage, also describing a monologue about aesthetics, in NA, which also deflates abruptly and ironically from the sublime to the mundane:

“In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances—side-screens and perspectives—lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape. Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, IT WAS AN EASY STEP TO SILENCE.”

In the case of Benwick and Anne,  it was an easy step to the mundane.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

But is the issue of how to pronounce "giaour" really so insignificant? I admit to having had no idea how to pronounce it myself before I looked it up just now to discover that it it rhymes with "power".

But looking it up doesn't actually solve the problem; I also looked up the text of Byron's poem:

The first appearance of the word in the poem is here:

And though to-morrow's tempest lower,
'Tis calmer than thy heart, young Giaour

If "lower" was then pronounced as it is today, then "Giaour" would no longer be a full rhyme with "power".

But the word appears several more times as a rhyme word in Byron's poem, where it rhymes with power, hour, and bower.

So the issue of pronunciation is perhaps not as mundane here as you make it out to be.


I also wonder about "as if he meant to be understood" as a deflation of what came before -- and in fact, I'm a bit surprised that you of all people read it the way you do here. For I see it as Benwick reciting in such a way as to communicate, without saying it explicitly, that these lines have a particular meaning for him. His recitation leads Anne to understand the lines as having a double sense: both their sense in the explicit stories of the works and their sense in the particular, implicit story of Benwick's life.

So another way to read this (besides your ironic deflation) would be as a scene in which Anne engages in the kind of "double reading" that I see in the "coolness of judgment" / "eagerness of mind" passage in S&S (as well as in other places) and that you see as pervading Austen's work with the overt story and the shadow story.