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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, September 13, 2013

“ Likes best the prayers whose meaning least he knows“ : The First Great Interpreter of Jane Austen’s 1807 “Extreme Rhyming” “Rose” Poem:

In my post yesterday analyzing Jane Austen’s  little-known 1807 “extreme rhyming”  “rose” poem …
…it was not rocket science when I noted an obvious point, i.e., that the following are the satirical punch lines of the poem—they constitute classic, spare, elegant, cutting Jane Austen irony at its very best: 
 “Pays to the place the reverence he owes,
Likes best the prayers whose meaning least he knows. “ 

It was only today, though, as I reread those unjustly obscure lines, known as they have been till yesterday to precious few Janeites, that my memory was jogged by those rhyming lines to another, infinitely more famous prose sentence—one sentence which changed the course of 20th century Austen scholarship forever---a sentence written not by, but about, Jane Austen.  
 Maybe you’ve now also been prompted to recall those lines, published circa1940; but if not, I am pretty sure that many Janeites reasonably well versed in Austen will immediately recognize them:
 "…her books are, as she meant them to be, read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked; she is a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers, held widely enough, would undermine."

Of course, this is the notorious sentence written circa 1940 by the English critic/psychologist D. W. Harding,  the shot heard round the Janeite world, which constituted an earthquake in Austen studies when published, and which have continued cause as much controversy over the past seven decades as any critical comments ever written about Jane Austen’s fiction.
 Anyway, it did not take me more than two minutes of moving my eyes back and forth between the punch line from Jane Austen’s “rose” poem, on the one hand, and Harding’s knockout punch directed at the jaw of orthodoxy about Jane Austen as a writer, on the other, to confirm what my ear had told me straight off, i.e., that Harding’s extensive studies of JA’s writing must have included not merely her novels and her biography, but also even short miscellanea like her “rose” poem-- a poem which, as I posted yesterday, has essentially been ignored by practically every other Austen scholar both before and since 1940. Whereas, Harding showed by this single brilliant sentence that he had not only read JA’s poem, he had understood it on its deepest levels, and had therefore been able to emulate it to a tee.
 As you might by now have gathered, Harding is a hero of mine, the word “ pioneer” does not even begin to do justice to the amazing positive impact I believe that his subversive take on Jane Austen, published during the medieval era of Austen studies, has had, and is still having to this day, in Austenworld. I know that if not for Harding, there’s a good chance that I’d have been struggling against an even more deeply entrenched mythology about Jane Austen’s novels and biography.
 So I am extremely glad today to have the privilege of being the first to show that Harding had not merely gotten to the heart of the matter, Jane Austen-wise, by perfectly crystallizing the essential purpose of Jane Austen’s omnipresent ironies.
 He did that, but it turns out that he did it better than perfectly. How so? Because, as the guidebooks for good writing always counsel, he didn’t just tell us that Jane Austen was a profound ironist whose biggest target were her own conventional readers, he showed us by producing a sentence Jane Austen would have been proud to write.
 As you can see in the above two lines from JA’s poems, which Harding has, I think you’ll agree, obviously alluded to, Harding expressed his irony in a perfect copy of Jane Austen's voice disguised as his own voice, and with a veiled allusion to the very line in all her writing that already epitomized her ironic reversals of meaning, which she always hid in plain sight.  What Harding hid in plain sight was that he was being classically Austenesque in the way he said it.
 And best of all, because it is such a perfect rendition of Jane Austen’s voice, in addition to its being spot on content-wise, his sentence was so wittily epigrammatical that it became the most famous line in all of Harding's writing about Jane Austen and her writing.  
I conclude by returning one last time to Jane Austen’s poetic punch line---I did some more checking overnight and found that Laura Mooneyham White also briefly discussed JA’s “rose” poem, and was no closer than David Selwyn to grasping JA’s subversive irony.
 And that brought to my mind the point that Harold Bloom must have made two hundred times in his 1989 The Book of J, i.e., that conventional religious readers and even the other male authors of the other strands of the Torah, were simply unable to assimilate the pervasive subtle irony of “J”, i.e. the (possibly female) author of the Yahwist strands primarily found in Genesis and Exodus in the Torah/Pentateuch. 

I mention this because I can think of no better example of this same critical incapacity to assimilate Jane Austen's irony to conventional interpretations of her life and work, than JA's 'rose' poem, and I hope that these posts of mine about it these past two days will finally swell the ranks of those who 'get it' beyond myself and the late, great D.W. Harding.

Cheers, ARNIE
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