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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Revealing the Danteesque, Miltonian & Austenian Triumph of Charles Lamb’s “Prince of Whales”

In my last post, yesterday….…I reviewed and expanded upon Daniel Pollack-Pelzner’s excellent 2013 article “Jane Austen the Prose Shakespeare” about the significant influence of Charles & Mary Lamb’s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare on Jane Austen’s narrative style (so-called “free indirect discourse”) in her novels.

In particular, I pointed out that Dan’s claim of Lamb’s influence on Austen was strongly bolstered by Colleen Sheehan’s 2007 article
It set forth Colleen’s discovery of the astonishing covert allusion that Jane Austen made (via the “courtship” charade she wrote in Chapter 9 of her 1816 masterpiece Emma) to Charles Lamb’s 1812 “Triumph of the Whale”, a parodic poem Lamb published anonymously, which savagely satirized the corpulent Prince Regent as “the Prince of Whales”. In a nutshell, Sheehan discovered that Austen’s charade hid in plain sight 2 anagram acrostics on Lamb’s own name, and also hid “Prince of Whales” as an additional secret answer. In my opinion, that was already more than enough to validate, beyond a reasonable doubt, the claim that Austen intentionally, covertly alluded to Lamb’s savage satire.

And yet, I’m not surprised that Sheehan’s extraordinary discovery remains, 8 years after its publication in the most widely read Austen scholarly journal, almost entirely unknown to Austen scholars and ordinary Janeites alike, even though it ought to be common knowledge. I’m not surprised, because of what I have repeatedly referred to as The Myth of Jane Austen, still alive and kicking nearly 2 centuries after its earliest version was foisted on the public by Jane’s brother Henry in his Biographical Notice, barely a year after her death, when she was no longer around to be able to debunk it herself!

Think about what it would mean for the common understanding of Jane Austen the person, if she were widely recognized to have really been an author who would consciously embed in her greatest novel that sort of biting parody of a major authority figure in her society. It would explode the Myth, which portrays a modest, obedient, pious Anglican spinster, who lived a life of Christian forbearance and was most definitely not a radical feminist.

So it’s sad-almost tragic, actually, given the universal acknowledgment of Austen as one of the great fiction writers of all time---that, even when strong, startling new evidence of JA’s subversiveness is brought to light in a highly probative manner, as in Sheehan’s article, it still remains invisible! It’s an irony which JA herself would have noted, because I’ve long claimed that Austen’s novels are not merely among the most sophisticated romances ever written, they are also sophisticated veiled treatises on epistemology – the ancient wisdom about human subjectivity, which she demonstrated via her novels, i.e., that people only see what they expect to see, not what is actually there.

Our all-too-human pride, prejudice, sensibility, and persuadability all work to blind us to anything close to objective reality. And Emma in particular is right up there in the pantheon of fiction, alongside Hamlet, as works of art that best dramatize that eternal principle. It’s no accident that Miss Bates saying “What is before me, I see”, is JA’s subtle echo of the following famous exchange:
HAMLET: Do you see nothing there? GERTRUDE: Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.

So, today, I’ll take another poke at the brick wall of the Myth of Jane Austen, knock out another brick, & maybe enable a few more Janeites to see through the holes to what’s really there in her fiction. I’ll present more textual evidence of the subtle presence of Lamb’s satirical poem in the Emma charade, and show how both Lamb and Austen had Milton and Dante in the back of their minds. It turns out that the “Prince of Whales” solution and the two Lambs in JA’s charade, are only the first layer of allusion, there is more. Then, in a followup post tomorrow, I’ll place Lamb’s poem and Austen’s charade in a larger 19th century context of authorial subversion of governmental/ patriarchal oppression, involving Byron, Shelley, Poe, & Melville.

To begin today, for your ease of reference, here is the full text of the charade which Mr. Elton gives to Emma and Harriet in Chapter 9 of Emma, which Colleen Sheehan demonstrated was based in part on Lamb’s “Triumph of the Whale”, and which I have previously claimed….
…was actually recycled by Mr. Elton, having previously been given to him by his “friend” (wing man) in courtship, Frank Churchill, after Frank gave it to Miss Hawkins…before eventually jilting her, leaving her to be scooped up by Mr. Elton after Emma rejected him:

M    My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
L      Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
A     Another view of man, my second brings,
B      Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!

B     But ah! united, what reverse we have!
M     Man's boasted power and freedom, all are flown;
L      Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave,
A      And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.

 Thy ready wit the word will soon supply,
 May its approval beam in that soft eye!

As should be obvious, I’ve altered Jane Austen’s visual presentation so as to foreground the “BALM” acrostic (going up) and “BMLA” (going down) acrostic/anagrams of the name “Lamb”, which are otherwise only subliminally perceptible. And now I present to you the full text of Lamb’s poem (in the same foregrounding format as above) and intersperse my own commentary in brackets to explain Lamb’s own wordplay and allusive meanings that I claim Jane Austen also emulated and understood:

Triumph of the Whale

Io! Paean! Io! Sing
To the FINNY people’s King.
Not a mightier WHALE than this

I     In the vast Atlantic is                     s;
N   Not a fatter fish than he                  e
F    Flounders round the polar SEA     A.

[The idea of the British people as sea creatures is the central image of Lamb’s poem, and it is apt, given that the British Navy did indeed rule the waves of the Regency Era world. Lamb puns on that symbolism, by referring to the Brits as “the FINNY people”, which rhymes with “PRINNY”, the popular nickname of the Prince Regent, who was in a practical sense already “King”. Plus, we already have him being referred to as a “whale”, foreshadowing the punch line “Prince of Whales” at the end of the poem. And, as I also show, above, the last 3 lines of the stanza begin with an anagram acrostic on the word “fin” and end with an acrostic on the word “sea”, which refers to “the vast Atlantic” within the stanza. So, from the get-go, Charles Lamb (who was already famous to his fellow Brits as a creator of acrostics) is doing some clever, multifaceted vertical acrosticking to amplify his horizontal meanings.]

See his blubbers—at his gills
What a world of drink he swills,
From his trunk, as from a spout,
Which next moment he pours out.

Such his person—next declare,
Muse, who his companions are.—
Every fish of generous kind
Scuds aside, or slinks behind;

B        But about his presence keep
AL     All the Monsters of the Deep;
M       Mermaids, with their tails and singing

[And above, we see an acrostic (with the second letter on the second line included) on the word “BALM”, which I believe Jane Austen consciously copied in her  BALM acrostic in the charade (see above). So Lamb here is in effect including an anagram-acrostic signature on a poem he published anonymously for obvious reasons, and Jane Austen in effect is “signing” Lamb’s name to the charade!]

His delighted fancy stinging;
Crooked Dolphins, they surround him,
Dog-like Seals, they fawn around him.
Following hard, the progress mark
Of the intolerant salt sea shark.
For his solace and relief,

F   Flat fish are his courtiers chief.
L   Last and lowest in his train,
I    Ink-fish (libellers of the main)
T   Their black liquor shed in spite:

[The acrostic “flit” superficially coincides with the “Ink-fish” (i.e., octopi/squid) who “flit” and “slink” around—but it seems clear to me that Lamb is indulging in a slur on the sexual orientation of the lowly courtiers who “flit” and “fawn around” the Prince---and if “flit” in that derogatory sense sounds vaguely familiar to you, it may be because you read it in Holden Caulfield’s casual teenage homophobia in Catcher in the Rye (“The other end of the bar was full of flits. They weren’t too flitty-looking…but you could tell they were flits anyway” ”And flits and Lesbians. Old Luce who knew every flit and Lesbian in the United States was. All you had to do was mention somebody-anybody-and old Luce’d tell you if he was a flit or not…”).

Which brings me right back to the (in)famous sexual innuendo of the 16 year old Jane Austen:

“SHARADE:  My first is what my second was to King James the 1st, and you tread on my whole.
The principal favourites of his Majesty were Car, who was afterwards created Earl of Somerset and whose name perhaps may have some share in the above mentioned Sharade, and George Villiers afterwards Duke of Buckingham...."

The answer being “Car-pet”, referring to the sexual relationship between the king and his “pet” Carr.

And THAT makes me realize that Jane Austen was still thinking along these lines, when she broadly hinted at a similar relationship between the “King” of Highbury, Mr. Knightley, and his chief fawning “courtier”, the foppish “beau” Mr. Elton, in writing Mrs. Elton’s boasting about her husband, which takes on shocking new meaning when read from a sexually suspicious perspective:

"He promised to come to me as soon as he could disengage himself from Knightley; but he and Knightley are shut up together in deep consultation.—Mr. E. is Knightley's right hand."

I count five sexual winks in that one sentence, but my favorite is the part about Elton being Knightley’s “right hand”!

Now, I can’t prove that this latter sexual joking was in any way inspired by Lamb’s “flit” acrostic, but they sure fit together perfectly! Now back to Lamb’s poem…]

(S     Such on EARTH the things that write.)
I        In his stomach, some do say,
N      No good thing can ever stay.

[This acrostic “sin” is very interesting, given the following footnote in Sheehan’s 2007 article:

“Both Lamb’s poem and Cruikshank’s print were inspired by Milton’s description in Book I of Paradise Lost of the mariners casting anchor on the scaly rind of the enormous Leviathan.  I am indebted to Susan Allen Ford for directing me to this passage about the “Arch-Fiend,” which Lamb was clearly referencing in his poem (Milton 1.194-209).  The original printing of the Cruikshank caricature of “The Prince of Whales or the Fisherman at Anchor” in the Scourge included a reference to Milton’s description in Paradise Lost. 

And here is a synopsis of the relevant section of Paradise Lost, where Sin comes in:
“Sin is met by Satan at the gates of Hell in Book II of Paradise Lost. She holds the key to Hell's gate and opens the gate so that Satan (her father) can pass through on his way up to heaven. Sin has no mother but was born out of Satan himself at his rebellious assembly in heaven, both an allegorical representation of his sin against God and a parody of God's creation of the Son. Sin is 'woman to the waist' (II.650) and has a fish's tail, but she shifts shape and is constantly re-forming and breeding, giving birth to dog-like young. She has no control over these changes but is held captive by cruel pregnancies in a body in perpetual labour, cursed by her own fertility. Satan raped his daughter in heaven, and she gave birth to Death.”

Needless to say, then, Lamb is calling the Prince a Satan (especially with the reference to the “dog-like” seals), and we may wonder about Mr. Woodhouse’s sensitive stomach, in which we might well say that “no good thing can ever stay”---and Emma’s concern that her wishing to marry Knightley might constitute a “sin of thought”.]

Had it been the fortune of it
To have swallowed that old Prophet,
Three days there he’d not have dwell’d,
But in one have been EXPELL’D.
Hapless mariners are they,
Who beguil’d (as seamen say),
Deeming him some rock or island,
Footing sure, safe spot, and dry land,

A       Anchor in his scaly rind;
S       Soon the difference they find;
S       Sudden plumb, he sinks beneath them;

Does to ruthless seas bequeath them.

[It only occurred to me while reading that “ass” acrostic that it wasn’t just Milton whom Lamb had in mind in his Satanic imagery, it was also one of Milton’s primary sources for Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno! I believe Lamb’s acrostic “ass” is a scatological allusion to Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXI. The following summary of Canto XXI makes my case for me, that it was a primary source both for Milton and for Lamb:

“The next valley held a pool of boiling tar, which reminded Dante of the pitch the Venetians used to patch up their ships. While Dante was watching the tar, Virgil warned him to look out. Turning around, he saw a black demon racing up, carrying a SINNER which he cast into the pool, calling out to the other demons, the Malebranche, that it was an elder of Saint Zita. He said he was going back for more, and that there were plenty of grafters in that city. The sinner tried to get out of the pitch, but other demons thrust him down with long hooks, taunting him all the while. Virgil told Dante not to be afraid of the demons, and went over to speak with them. At first they looked menacing, but when Virgil told them that they were there by divine will, the head demon, Malacoda, gave them an escort made up of eight demons. Dante was not pleased to have an escort, but Virgil again told him not to be frightened: the demons' growling faces were meant to scare the sinners. As a signal to begin, the leader, Barbariccia, "made a trumpet of his ass."

Plus….this acrostic “ass” comes right after the passage in which Lamb has rather sacrilegiously suggested that Jonah would have been “expelled” from the Prince of Whales in one day, not three, because of the hellish physiology of the Prince’s gluttony-saturated stomach. And the same then applies to the “hapless mariners” who think he is an island, but then “sudden plumb” occurs when the whale dives, which makes it sound as if they are all whale excrement, which is very much a Danteesque grotesque image.]

 N       ame or title what has he?
I         s he Regent of the Sea?
F        rom this difficulty free us,

[And here we have the punch line, which is clearly the prompt to think of the Prince of Whales---and so how apt that at this moment Lamb gives the acrostic “fin”, which echoes back to the “finny people” at the beginning of the poem, which of course refers to the British Navy (or, as Austen charade puts it, “the monarch of the seas”)]

Buffon, Banks or sage Linnaeus.
With his wondrous attributes
Say what appellation suits.
By his bulk, and by his size,
By his oily qualities,
This (or else my eyesight fails),
This should be the PRINCE OF WHALES. 

So when Jane Austen chose to mold her courtship charade around this Dante, Milton & Lamb imagery of Satan in hell, and to wink at the multiple acrostics in Lamb's poem with her two anagram acrostics on "Lamb", it tells us all she really meant it when she confided to close friend (and more) Martha Lloyd in 1812 that she really hated the Prince Regent. And it also tells us that she enjoyed the sacrilegious content of Lamb’s poem, and saw in it a kindred spirit to her own teenage Sharade on James I. And finally, it confirms to me what I have long believed, which is that Mr. Knightley is the Prince of Whales of Emma, and that Jane Austen is hinting to us that he swallows Emma whole at the end of the novel, to Emma's grave detriment.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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