Saturday, 31 October 2015

Four Creepy Classics for Halloween.

The Premature Burial by Edgar Allan Poe.
"To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes
which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality."

The first creepy classic for today: The Premature Burial by Poe, first published in 1844 in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. The theme, as the title suggests, is being buried alive, something Poe has written about several times before (for example Berenice, 1835; The Fall of the House of Usher, 1839; The Black Cat, 1843). The story begins,
There are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction. These the mere romanticist must eschew, if he do not wish to offend or to disgust. They are with propriety handled only when the severity and majesty of Truth sanctify and sustain them. We thrill, for example, with the most intense of "pleasurable pain" over the accounts of the Passage of the Beresina, of the Earthquake at Lisbon, of the Plague at London, of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, or of the stifling of the hundred and twenty-three prisoners in the Black Hole at Calcutta. But in these accounts it is the fact - it is the reality - it is the history which excites. As inventions, we should regard them with simple abhorrence.
The narrator has become obsessed with death and with the horrifying possibility of a premature burial. He questions the difference between life and death, writing,
The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?
Illustration for The Premature Burial by Harry Clarke (1919).
He tells us about death-like trances (catalepsy), then goes on to recount several incidents whereby someone has been buried alive, for example:
The wife of one of the most respectable citizens-a lawyer of eminence and a member of Congress - was seized with a sudden and unaccountable illness, which completely baffled the skill of her physicians. After much suffering she died, or was supposed to die. No one suspected, indeed, or had reason to suspect, that she was not actually dead. She presented all the ordinary appearances of death. The face assumed the usual pinched and sunken outline. The lips were of the usual marble pallor. The eyes were lustreless. There was no warmth. Pulsation had ceased. For three days the body was preserved unburied, during which it had acquired a stony rigidity. The funeral, in short, was hastened, on account of the rapid advance of what was supposed to be decomposition.
The lady was deposited in her family vault, which, for three subsequent years, was undisturbed. At the expiration of this term it was opened for the reception of a sarcophagus; - but, alas! how fearful a shock awaited the husband, who, personally, threw open the door! As its portals swung outwardly back, some white-apparelled object fell rattling within his arms. It was the skeleton of his wife in her yet unmoulded shroud.
A careful investigation rendered it evident that she had revived within two days after her entombment; that her struggles within the coffin had caused it to fall from a ledge, or shelf to the floor, where it was so broken as to permit her escape. A lamp which had been accidentally left, full of oil, within the tomb, was found empty; it might have been exhausted, however, by evaporation. On the uttermost of the steps which led down into the dread chamber was a large fragment of the coffin, with which, it seemed, that she had endeavored to arrest attention by striking the iron door. While thus occupied, she probably swooned, or possibly died, through sheer terror; and, in failing, her shroud became entangled in some iron -- work which projected interiorly. Thus she remained, and thus she rotted, erect.
Edgar Allan Poe.
The narrator, understandably, develops an intense phobia of death and being buried alive: "I was lost in reveries of death, and the idea of premature burial held continual possession of my brain". But one day he is summoned by Death:
Methought I was immersed in a cataleptic trance of more than usual duration and profundity. Suddenly there came an icy hand upon my forehead, and an impatient, gibbering voice whispered the word "Arise!" within my ear.
He goes on,
I endeavored to shriek, and my lips and my parched tongue moved convulsively together in the attempt - but no voice issued from the cavernous lungs, which oppressed as if by the weight of some incumbent mountain, gasped and palpitated, with the heart, at every elaborate and struggling inspiration. 
Will our narrator be buried alive? You can read the whole online here.

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot.
"For I foresee when I shall die, and everything that will happen in my last moments"

George Eliot.
The Lifted Veil by George Eliot was first published in 1859 in Blackwood's Magazine in 1859. She called it here "jeu de melancholie", and, from the author who wrote Middlemarch (1871-72) it is quite a surprise. This not the realism we associate with Eliot, this is a pure horror story in the realms of Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897) and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818). She writes on death, life, fate, and the idea of extrasensory perception. The narrator, Latimer, can in short see the future. The story begins,
The time of my end approaches.  I have lately been subject to attacks of angina pectoris; and in the ordinary course of things, my physician tells me, I may fairly hope that my life will not be protracted many months.  Unless, then, I am cursed with an exceptional physical constitution, as I am cursed with an exceptional mental character, I shall not much longer groan under the wearisome burthen of this earthly existence.  If it were to be otherwise—if I were to live on to the age most men desire and provide for—I should for once have known whether the miseries of delusive expectation can outweigh the miseries of true provision.  For I foresee when I shall die, and everything that will happen in my last moments.
Just a month from this day, on September 20, 1850, I shall be sitting in this chair, in this study, at ten o’clock at night, longing to die, weary of incessant insight and foresight, without delusions and without hope.  Just as I am watching a tongue of blue flame rising in the fire, and my lamp is burning low, the horrible contraction will begin at my chest.  I shall only have time to reach the bell, and pull it violently, before the sense of suffocation will come.  No one will answer my bell.  I know why.  My two servants are lovers, and will have quarrelled.  My housekeeper will have rushed out of the house in a fury, two hours before, hoping that Perry will believe she has gone to drown herself.  Perry is alarmed at last, and is gone out after her.  The little scullery-maid is asleep on a bench: she never answers the bell; it does not wake her.  The sense of suffocation increases: my lamp goes out with a horrible stench: I make a great effort, and snatch at the bell again.  I long for life, and there is no help.  I thirsted for the unknown: the thirst is gone.  O God, let me stay with the known, and be weary of it: I am content.  Agony of pain and suffocation—and all the while the earth, the fields, the pebbly brook at the bottom of the rookery, the fresh scent after the rain, the light of the morning through my chamber-window, the warmth of the hearth after the frosty air—will darkness close over them for ever?
He becomes obsessed with Bertha Grant, his brother's cold, cruel, and flirtatious fiancée (perhaps her character was a precursor for Rosamund Vincy of Middlemarch). He knows she will kill him - this is revealed very quickly:
The gardens, the summer sky, the consciousness of Bertha’s arm being within mine, all vanished, and I seemed to be suddenly in darkness, out of which there gradually broke a dim firelight, and I felt myself sitting in my father’s leather chair in the library at home.  I knew the fireplace—the dogs for the wood-fire—the black marble chimney-piece with the white marble medallion of the dying Cleopatra in the centre.  Intense and hopeless misery was pressing on my soul; the light became stronger, for Bertha was entering with a candle in her hand—Bertha, my wife—with cruel eyes, with green jewels and green leaves on her white ball-dress; every hateful thought within her present to me . . . “Madman, idiot! why don’t you kill yourself, then?”  It was a moment of hell.  I saw into her pitiless soul—saw its barren worldliness, its scorching hate—and felt it clothe me round like an air I was obliged to breathe.  She came with her candle and stood over me with a bitter smile of contempt; I saw the great emerald brooch on her bosom, a studded serpent with diamond eyes.  I shuddered—I despised this woman with the barren soul and mean thoughts; but I felt helpless before her, as if she clutched my bleeding heart, and would clutch it till the last drop of life-blood ebbed away.  She was my wife, and we hated each other.  Gradually the hearth, the dim library, the candle-light disappeared—seemed to melt away into a background of light, the green serpent with the diamond eyes remaining a dark image on the retina.  
But this realisation and fear manifests in a shocking and horrific way at the end that cannot be predicted. So awful it is that John Blackwood, her publisher, wrote and recommended she remove the scene entirely, arguing that it was 'in poor taste', adding "I think you must have been worrying and disturbing yourself about something when you wrote it," though conceding later after publication "Lovers of the painful are thrilled and delighted". It is a disturbing tale, and, though strange, it is almost recognisably Eliot's with her sensitivity and concerns with not only human frailty but human relationships, sympathy, and lack of. You can read the story in full online here.

The Signal Man by Charles Dickens.
"Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood."

Clayton Tunnel.
The Signal Man by Charles Dickens first appeared in  'All the Year Round' in 1866, five years after The Clayton Tunnel rail crash of 1861 in which 23 passengers were killed and 173 injured after two trains collided in the tunnel. It is said that one of the signal men, Signalman Killick, had worked a full 24 hour shift and that possibly was one of the causes of this accident.

The incident quite possibly inspired The Signal Man. In this the narrator of the tale is told by a signal man of supernatural goings on. The signal man tells him,
"One moonlight night," said the man, "I was sitting here, when I heard a voice cry, ‘Halloa! Below there!’ I started up, looked from that door, and saw this Some one else standing by the red light near the tunnel, waving as I just now showed you. The voice seemed hoarse with shouting, and it cried, ‘Look out! Look out!’ And then attain, ‘Halloa! Below there! Look out!’ I caught up my lamp, turned it on red, and ran towards the figure, calling, ‘What’s wrong? What has happened? Where?’ It stood just outside the blackness of the tunnel. I advanced so close upon it that I wondered at its keeping the sleeve across its eyes. I ran right up at it, and had my hand stretched out to pull the sleeve away, when it was gone."
Charles Dickens.
After that and every other vision tragedy strikes: after one -
"Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood."
And another,
"That very day, as a train came out of the tunnel, I noticed, at a carriage window on my side, what looked like a confusion of hands and heads, and something waved. I saw it just in time to signal the driver, Stop! He shut off, and put his brake on, but the train drifted past here a hundred and fifty yards or more. I ran after it, and, as I went along, heard terrible screams and cries. A beautiful young lady had died instantaneously in one of the compartments, and was brought in here, and laid down on this floor between us."
The narrator, though unnerved, is sceptical. The next day he returns to visit his new friend the signal man and he sees a group of men apparently investigating an incident on the line -
With an irresistible sense that something was wrong — with a flashing self-reproachful fear that fatal mischief had come of my leaving the man there, and causing no one to be sent to overlook or correct what he did — I descended the notched path with all the speed I could make.
I'll leave it to the reader to find out what happens next... It can be read full online here.

Dead Men Tell No Tales by Émile Zola.
"I died on a Satuday morning at six a.m., after an illness lasting three days."

Dead Men Tell No Tales, or The Death of Olivier Becaille (La Mort d'Olivier Bécaille) was first published in Vestnik Evropy in 1879. It is, I do believe, the most disturbing of these tales. The theme is a return to Edgar Allan Poe's story The Premature Burial: the narrator, Olivier, is seized with catalepsy - he is more than just paralysed: he appears very much to be dead:
I heard everything, but the sounds seemed to come from a great distance. My left eye still detected a faint glimmer, a whitish light in which all objects melted, but my right eye was quite bereft of sight. It was the coma of my whole being, as if a thunderbolt had struck me. My will was annihilated; not a fiber of flesh obeyed my bidding. And yet amid the impotency of my inert limbs my thoughts subsisted, sluggish and lazy, still perfectly clear.
His wife discovers him, and through the panic he ponders life and death -
Was it really death? I had pictured to myself a darker night, a deeper silence. As a little child I had already felt afraid to die. Being weak and compassionately petted by everyone, I had concluded that I had not long to live, that I should soon be buried, and the thought of the cold earth filled me with a dread I could not master — a dread which haunted me day and night. As I grew older the same terror pursued me. Sometimes, after long hours spent in reasoning with myself, I thought that I had conquered my fear. I reflected, "After all, what does it matter? One dies and all is over. It is the common fate; nothing could be better or easier." 
He wishes he could calm his wife and he looks forward to recovering from this so they can comfort each other, their love quite possibly strengthened by such a terrifying incident. Yet he remains calm - the doctor will arrive and examine him, and they will all realise he is still alive. Then the doctor arrives - 
The lamp had been lit when a knock was heard at the door.
“It must be the doctor at last,” said the old woman.
It was the doctor; he did not apologize for coming so late, for he had no doubt ascended many flights of stairs during the day. The room being but imperfectly lighted by the lamp, he inquired: “Is the body here?”
“Yes, it is,” answered Simoneau.
Marguerite had risen, trembling violently. Mme Gabin dismissed Dede, saying it was useless that a child should be present, and then she tried to lead my wife to the window, to spare her the sight of what was about to take place.
The doctor quickly approached the bed. I guessed that he was bored, tired and impatient. Had he touched my wrist? Had he placed his hand on my heart? I could not tell, but I fancied that he had only carelessly bent over me.
“Shall I bring the lamp so that you may see better?” asked Simoneau obligingly.
“No it is not necessary,” quietly answered the doctor.
Not necessary! That man held my life in his hands, and he did not think it worth while to proceed to a careful examination! I was not dead! I wanted to cry out that I was not dead!
“At what o’clock did he die?” asked the doctor.
“At six this morning,” volunteered Simoneau.
A feeling of frenzy and rebellion rose within me, bound as I was in seemingly iron chains. Oh, for the power of uttering one word, of moving a single limb!
“This close weather is unhealthy,” resumed the doctor; “nothing is more trying than these early spring days.”
And then he moved away. It was like my life departing. Screams, sobs and insults were choking me, struggling in my convulsed throat, in which even my breath was arrested. The wretch! Turned into a mere machine by professional habits, he only came to a deathbed to accomplish a perfunctory formality; he knew nothing; his science was a lie, since he could not at a glance distinguish life from death — and now he was going — going!
“Good night, sir,” said Simoneau.
There came a moment’s silence; the doctor was probably bowing to Marguerite, who had turned while Mme Gabin was fastening the window. He left the room, and I heard his footsteps descending the stairs.
Preparations for his burial begins - but is he really dead? Is this narrated from the grave? What causes the death of Olivier Becaille? This is one of Zola's most dramatic tales, without a doubt the most horrifying I've read. And if you'd like to read it it can be read online here.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Friday, 30 October 2015

Exemplary Stories by Miguel de Cervantes.

This week for the Deal Me In Challenge I drew The Dialogue of Dogs by Miguel de Cervantes, but, as with Carmen and Other Stories by Prosper Mérimée, I did want to finish Exemplary Stories and write a review of the entire book when I drew this final Cervantes title, so here it is! 

Exemplary Stories (Novelas ejemplares) is a collection of twelve short stories and novellas by Miguel de Cervantes (unfortunately I've only just learned that I had an abridged version with only eight of the tales!) and was most likely composed in the 1590s, but not published until 1613, just three years before his death. They are:
  1. 'The Little Gypsy Girl' (La Gitanilla)
  2. 'Rinconete and Cortadillo' (Rinconete y Cortadillo)
  3. 'The Glass Graduate' (El licenciado Vidriera)
  4. 'The Power of Blood' (La fuerza de la sangre)
  5. 'The Jealous Old Man from Extremadura' (El celoso extremeño)
  6. 'The Illustrious Kitchen Maid' (La ilustre fregona)
  7. 'The Deceitful Marriage' (El casamiento engañoso)
  8. 'The Dialogue of the Dogs' (El coloquio de los perros)
  9. 'The Lady Cornelia' (La señora Cornelia)
  10. 'The Two Damsels' (Las dos doncellas)
  11. 'The Generous Lover' (El amante liberal)
  12. 'The Spanish English Lady' (La española inglesa)
I am rather disappointed my edition didn't contain all the stories. I have read stories 1 - 8, and as you can see I've already written posts on 'The Little Gypsy Girl' and 'The Glass Graduate'. 'The Glass Graduate' is certainly one of my favourites, and so too is 'The Jealous Old Man from Extremadura'.

The book begins with a prologue in which Cervantes explains why he called his stories "Exemplary", and his motivations for writing them:
I have called them exemplary, because if you rightly consider them, there is not one of them from which you may not draw some useful example; and were I not afraid of being too prolix, I might show you what savoury and wholesome fruit might be extracted from them, collectively and severally. 
My intention has been to set up, in the midst of our community, a billiard-table, at which every one may amuse himself without hurt to body and soul; for innocent recreations do good rather than harm. One cannot be always at church, or always saying one's prayers, or always engaged in one's business, however important it may be; there are hours for recreation when the wearied mind should take repose. It is to this end that alleys of trees are planted to walk in, waters are conveyed from remote fountains, hills are levelled, and gardens are cultivated with such care. One thing I boldly declare: could I by any means suppose that these novels could excite any bad thought or desire in those who read them, I would rather cut off the hand with which I write them, than give them to the public. I am at an age when it does not become me to trifle with the life to come, for I am upwards of sixty-four.
The first story in my edition is 'The Little Gypsy Girl', which I've already written about. The next - 'Rinconete and Cortadillo', two young men who meet at the Molinillo Inn, on the edge of the plain of Alcudia. One of a card-sharper, the other a pickpocket. They join forces, but they draw the attention of a criminal gang in Seville which the join, and the story tells of the various crimes they witness, all the while contrasted with the religious setting around and amongst the Cathedral and its people. Though it may sound an unpleasant tale is manages to be rather humorous.

The third tale, 'The Glass Graduate', is again another story I've already written about. The fourth: 'The Power of Blood'. In this Leocadia, the daughter of a respectable family is kidnapped and raped by Rodolfo who then abandons her. She is pregnant, and she has her son and lives in seclusion, not telling anyone of what happened until her son is seven years old, after which she informs Rodolfo's parents. His mother arranges for them to meet, they fall in love, and they live happily together for the rest of their lives. In this story Cervantes writes on power, privilege, and what it is to be noble.

The fifth tale, 'The Jealous Old Man from Extremadura', is possibly my favourite, and it did have an air of 'The Merchant's Tale' from The Canterbury Tales. In this we're told the story of Felipe Carrizales, who returns to Spain having wasted his money on alcohol and women. Now an old man he decides to settle day and marry. He picks Leonora, a very young woman, they marry, and such is his jealous and paranoia he keeps her locked up: only maids and a eunuch may wait on her. However the young Loaysa foils Carrizales' plot and attempts to seduce Leonora. She is not technically unfaithful, however clearly looks as though she has been. Nevertheless Carrizales blames himself for his unfair treatment of her. As with the fairly numerous 'May - December' relationship stories this is concerned with male paranoia and pride, however it is more subtle than others, for example The Merchant's Tale or Panfilo's tale from The Decameron (the ninth story told on the seventh day) from which Chaucer's tale was inspired. Carrizales, though unpleasant, is at times sympathetic, and Leonora is more complex than simply a young woman desperate to have an affair with anyone who comes her way: her stunted emotional and sexual growth is portrayed sensitively, despite this being farcical at times.

The next story, 'The Illustrious Kitchen Maid', is about two young noblemen in love with a kitchen maid. It is, I think, my least favourite. The two men live the lives of pícaros (adventurers) and, as I've said, they fall in love with a woman very much beneath them - a kitchen maid. Again Cervantes examines privilege and experience, and also the nature of the romance genre.

The final two stories, 'The Deceitful Marriage' and 'The Dialogue of the Dogs' are a pair. In 'The Deceitful Marriage' Campuzano tells his friend Peralta of his rather unsuccessful marriage: the upshot is he is being treated for syphilis. He tells Peralta that while on the ward he has heard the conversation of two dogs. He promises to tell him all that has been said, and we go from this story to the next, 'The Dialogue of Dogs' subtitled "Story and dialogue that took place between Scipio and Berganza, who are commonly known as Mahude's dogs and who belong to the Hospital of Resurrection, which is in the city of Valladolid, outside the Camo Gate". It's a satire on the human condition in a conversation not unlike the framework of some Greek dialogues. They talk about the society in which live, human traits, sex, education, race, and even witchcraft. A fun and occasionally enlightening tale.

I wish my edition had the final four stories, but as I say they weren't included. What I read though I enjoyed on the whole. It is, if I can try and sum it up, a funny collection of snapshots of ideas and social mores rather than an attempt at a realistic portrayal of 16th and 17th Century Spain and for that is most interesting. It felt more of a frame story, like the Decameron or The Canterbury Tales than simply a collection of short stories, and with the odd moralising in parts of the stories it had a Medieval feel too. I think it's a good introduction to Cervantes, possibly more so than his most famous work Don Quixote.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Leonard Woolf: A Life by Victoria Glendinning.

I've had for many years this awful habit of imagining that Leonard Woolf was invented in around 1912 when he married Virginia Woolf, and then, following her suicide in 1941 he stayed only to sort her papers before ultimately disappearing into obscurity. It's too easy to see him as the man who married, nurtured and cared for Virginia Woolf, and who ensured that we would have her novels, biographies, essays, letters, and diaries. But as Victoria Glendinning shows in her biography of Woolf, Leonard Woolf: A Life (2006), Leonard Woolf was so much more than just "Virginia Woolf's husband".

He was born on 25th November 1880 to Sidney and Marie Woolf, the third of ten children, and they lived in Kensington, London. They were a Jewish family, and Leonard's mother and father had previously lived in Spitalfields in London's East End where many poor Jewish families resided. His father studied at the University College School in London and qualified as a solicitor, and at the age of 45 (in 1890) became a Q.C. Leonard, following his father's death in 1892, boarded at Arlington House School (near Brighton in Sussex), then in 1894 he attended St Paul's School, London, and in 1899 he won a scholarship to study Classics at  Trinity College, Cambridge where he met Virginia Woolf's brother Toby Stephen (nicknamed 'The Goth')as well as other members of what would come to be known as the 'Bloomsbury set': E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey (nicknamed 'the Strache'), John Maynard Keynes, and G.E. Moore. In 1903 he first met Virginia and her sister Vanessa. Glendinning writes,
In their white dresses and large hats, with parasols in their hands, 'their beauty quite literally took one's breath away'. It was an awkward occasion. The Goth was not socially adept. His sisters, for all their 'astonishing beauty', were shy and demure. Leonard, more than half a century on, in Sowing [part of his autobiography], fancied he recalled a look in their eyes 'which belied the demureness, a look of great intelligence, hypercritical, sarcastic, satirical'.
Leonard Woolf in Ceylon. 
Having taken his Civil Service examinations in 1904 (and ranking at a very poor 69th) he was offered an 'Eastern Cadetship' in the Colonial Service. On 19th November he was on board the S.S. Syria and on his way to Ceylon (known now as Sri Lanka). The voyage, as Glendinning notes, "took a whole calendar month plus one day". There he stayed until 1911 (having been made  assistant government agent in the Southern Province in 1908) when he returned to England.

Leonard and Virginia Woolf
in 1912.
In 1912 Leonard resigned from the civil service, and in the same year, on the 10th August, he married Virginia Stephen. He had referred to her as 'Aspasia' ("The real-life Aspasia," Glendinning explains, "was the intelligent, cultivated mistress of Pericles, the ideal leader who, in Leonard's view, makde Athens in the fifth century before Christ the universal model for civilised society"). This is probably the most well-known period of Woolf's life - his marriage to Virginia. She suffered several severe nervous break-downs; she published her first novel, The Voyage Out in 1915, which she had been writing since 1910, and she went on to write another eight novels and numerous essays and short stories. In 1917 Leonard and Virginia founded the Hogarth Press (it continued until 1946, in which time it published 527 titles, and then was taken over by Chatto & Windus). Leonard was also a writer, and during his marriage wrote five works of fiction (The Village in the Jungle, 1913; The Wise Virgins, 1914; The Three Jews, 1917; Stories of the East, 1912; and The Hotel, 1939) as well as a great number of non-fictional works (including International Government, 1916; Cooperation and the Future of Industry, 1918; Economic Imperialism, 1920; Empire and Commerce in Africa, 1920; and Socialism and Co-operation, 1921. He was also literary editor of 'The Nation and Atheneum' from 1923 to 1930, joint founder and editor of 'The Political Quarterly' from 1931 to 1959, and worked as secretary of the Labour Party's advisory committees on international and colonial issues.

Article in the New York Times.
On 28th March 1941 Virginia committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Ouse, however her body was not found until over a month later by a group of teenagers. Glendinning writes about the search for her body, and then Leonard having to identify it after three weeks of being underwater. Theirs had been a very happy marriage, and her death was understandably a terrible blow.

Leonard Woolf by Trekkie Parsons
A few years later Leonard embarked on an affair with Trekkie Parson (Marjorie Tulip Parsons née Ritchie). Glendinning describes Trekkie:
Everyone liked Trekkie Parsons... She was attractive, amusing, direct, kind. She was a good cook, and had a talent for interior design. She could be bossy, and she had a quick temper - for which she always apologised afterwards.
This affair lasted the rest of Leonard's life: he died on 14th August 1969 from a stroke. Like Virginia he was cremated and his ashes buried next to hers under an elm tree in their home of Monks House, Rodmell, Sussex. In these later years he published several autobiographical writings: Sowing: An autobiography of the years 1880–1904 (1960); Growing: An autobiography of the years 1904–1911 (1961); Diaries in Ceylon, 1908–1911 and Stories from the East: Records of a colonial administrator (1963); Beginning again: An autobiography of the years 1911–1918 (1964); Downhill all the way: An autobiography of the years 1919–1939 (1967); and The journey not the arrival matters: An autobiography of the years 1939–1969 (1969).

Leonard Woolf in 1968.
This is an excellent biography of Glendinning's. She writes very sensitively on Leonard's life, the depression that ran in his family, his Jewishness, Virginia's anti-Semitism, his marriage to her and her affair with Vita Sackville West, her mental breakdowns, and their chaste marriage. There was a sense, however, that Glendinning was not so fond of the Bloomsbury set, something that she confirmed in an interview with Anne Sebba for The Australian (2007):
Well, a little bit of me hates Bloomsbury. The Jewish and the Quaker bit of me and the way they all worked for posterity. They were venal, gossipy, frivolous, clever and privileged and not all of them were that talented. And there is something of the devil in me… My friend Hermione Lee had written marvellously about Virginia and I thought Leonard is always in second place, always the nurturer, the looker after. Or else American feminists saw him as the oppressor of Virginia, or worse: the conniver in her death.
There was, as she says, a bit of a backlash against Leonard; some feminist scholars wrote of him as controlling, the "oppressor" as she says, who drove Virginia to suicide. What we see in Leonard Woolf: A Life is a man who deeply loved and cared for Virginia, and was terrified of the possibility of another nervous breakdown. It is a sympathetic portrayal (I must note that by that I'm not suggesting that this is spin), and very well done too. It is very interesting to Virginia Woolf fans of course, but not only that. Leonard was a prolific writer and well known in his own right. Leonard Woolf: A Life reminds us of that.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Parson's Prologue and Tale & Chaucer's Retraction from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Well, here we are: the final fragment of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer - Fragment X - which is The Parson's Prologue and Tale and Chaucer's Retraction. The Parson's Tale is a long one and it is pretty brutal in terms of a difficulty rating! It's in prose (which I find very hard in Middle English), and it isn't even a tale - it is more of a treatise on penance. Interesting, yes, but it does rather mean The Canterbury Tales, taking also into account Chaucer's Retraction, ends on a bit of a low note. Fortunately this isn't my final post - I have a very happy and positive conclusion to write on the whole book next week. Until then - let me get on with The Parson. 

The Parson's prologue begins with the observation that it is now early evening and almost everyone has told a tale. The Host:
Seyde in this wise: "Lordynges everichoon,
Fulfilled is my sentence and my decree;
I trowe that we han herd of ech degree;
Almoost fulfild is al myn ordinaunce.
We have had, so far, 23 tales by 22 pilgrims (Geoffrey Chaucer the pilgrim told two) and there was, on the whole, a sense of jollity, that this was an outing more than a pilgrimage. The Parson brings us crashing back to reality, however. When asked to tell a tale he replies,
"Thou getest fable noon ytoold for me,
For Paul, that writeth unto Thymothee,
Repreveth hem that weyven soothfastnesse
And tellen fables and swich wrecchednesse..."
But he does promise to tell a merry tale in prose: "merry" presumably, in context, meaning "good" as in "the Good News", and perhaps "prose" meaning non-fiction. The Host bids him to start:
"Sire preest," quod he, "now faire yow bifalle!
Telleth," quod he, "youre meditacioun.
But hasteth yow; the sonne wole adoun;
Beth fructuous, and that in litel space,
And to do wel God sende yow his grace!
Sey what yow list, and we wol gladly heere."
And with that word he seyde in this manere.
The 'tale' begins,
Oure sweete lord God of hevene, that no man wole perisse, but wole that we comen alle to the knoweleche of hym, and to the blisful lif that is perdurable, amonesteth us by the prophete jeremie, that seith in thys wyse:/ stondeth upon the weyes, and seeth and axeth of olde pathes (that is to seyn, of olde sentences) which is the goode wey./ And wald eth in that wey, and ye shal fynde refresshynge for youre soules, etc./ Manye been the weyes espirituels that leden fold to oure lord jhesu Crist, and to the regne of glorie./ Of whiche weyes, ther is a ful noble wey and ful covenable, which may nat fayle to man ne to womman that thurgh synne hath mysgoon fro the righte wey of jerusalem celestial;/ and this wey is cleped penitence, of which man sholde gladly herknen and enquere with his herte,/ to wyten what is penitence, and wheenes it is cleped penitence, and in how manye maners been the acciouns or werkynges of penitence,/ and how manye speces ther been of penitence, and whiche thynges apertenen and bihoven to penitence, and whiche thynges destourben penitence.
He defines penitence as 'the lamentation of man who sorrows for his sin and punishes himself because he has done wrong: "Penitence is the waymentynge of man that sorweth for his synne, and pyneth hymself for he hath mysdoon". There are, he goes on, three types of penitence - "Oon of hem is solempne [solemn], another is commune [common], and the thridde is privee [private]", and there are three things necessary for perfect penitence: 
With contricioun of herte [contrition], and shrift of mouth [confession of mouth], with satisfaccioun [satisfaction]; and in werkynge of alle manere humylitee.
Furthermore, there are three things that anger Christ:
And this is fruytful penitence agayn three thinges in which we wratthe oure lord jhesu crist:/ this is to seyn, by delit in thynkynge [delight in thinking], by reccheleesnesse in spekynge [recklessness in speaking], and by wikked synful werknyge [wicked sinful doings / workings].
Penitence guards against this, and can be likened to a tree: the root is contrition, the branches confession, and the fruit satisfaction. On contrition, The Parson invokes St. Bernard who said - 
it shal been hevy and grevous, and ful sharp and poynaunt in herte./ First, for man hath agilt his lord and his creatour; and moore sharp and poynaunt, for he hath agilt hys fader celestial;/ and yet moore sharp and poynaunt, for he hath wrathed and agilt hym that boghte hym, that with his precious blood hath delivered us fro the bondes of synne, and fro the crueltee of the deve, and fro the peynes of helle.
He goes on to give six reasons why a man ought to be penitent: a man remembers his actions and they cause him deep pain and regret at the memory, the knowledge that sin makes slaves of us, dread of the day of judgement, the sad remembrance of failing to do good, the knowledge that Jesus suffered for our sins, and finally the hope for forgiveness of sins, for grace, and for a place in heaven.

In Part II, The Parson talks of confession, and that nothing must be hidden from the priest:
Al moot be seyd, and no thyng excused ne hyd ne forwrapped, and noght avaunte thee of thy goode werkes.
He talks of the nature of sin; either venial or deadly ("venial, or deedly synne"). A venial sin, he explains, is if a man loves Jesus less than he ought to. A deadly sin is to love anyone or anything more than Jesus. It is difficult, he concedes, to avoid venial sins, but with good work and penitence "it shal but litel greve".

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things 
by Hieronymus Bosch (1485).
In Part III The Parson speaks of the seven deadly sins:
  1. De Superbie (Concerning Pride) and Remedium contra peccatum Superbia (The remedy against the sin of Pride), which is humility and meekness ("hymylitee, or mekenesse").
  2. Sequitur de Invidia (Now follows the section on Envy) and Remedium contra peccatum Invidie (the remedy against the sin of envy): "Certes, thanne is love the medicine that casteth out the venym of envye fro mannes herte".
  3. Sequitur de Ira (Anger) and Sequitur remedium contra peccatum Ire (the remedy): "The remedie agayns ire is a vertu that men clepen mansuetude, that is debonairette; and eek another vertu, that men callen pacience or suffrance".
  4. Sequitur de Accidia (sloth) and Remedium contra peccatum Accidie: "a vertu that is called fortitudo or strentthe".
  5. Sequitur de Avaricia (avarice) and Relevacio contra peccatum Avaricie (the relief against the sin of avarice): "misericorde [mercy], and pitee largely".
  6. Sequitur de Gula (gluttony) and Remedium contra peccatum Gule: "abstinence", quite simply.
  7. Sequitur de Luxuria (lechery) and Remedium contra peccatum Luxurie: "chastitee and continence".
N.B. - Part III takes up the bulk of the tale. I've shortened it a great deal, in full it's around 600 lines.

Part IV is concerned again with the next part of understanding penitence; satisfaction. The Parson speaks of the three sorts of alms:

Now been ther thre manere of almesse: contricion of herte, where a man offreth hymself to god; another is to han pitee of defaute of his neighebores; and the thridde is in yevynge of good conseil and comfort, goostly and bodily, where men han nede, and namely in sustenaunce of mannes foode.
He then talks of prayer, pain, fasting, and despair. He then reminds the pilgrims of Christ's mercy, and concludes:
Thanne shal men understonde what is the fruyt of penaunce; and, after the word of Jhesu crist, it is the endelees blisse of hevene,/ ther joye hath no contrarioustee of wo ne grevaunce; ther alle harmes been passed of this present lyf; ther as is the sikernesse fro the peyne of helle; ther as is the blisful compaignye that rejoysen hem everemo, everich of  otheres joye;/ ther as the body of man, that whilom was foul and derk, is moore cleer than the sonne; ther as the body, that whilom was syk, freele, and fieble, and mortal, is inmortal, and so strong and so hool that ther may no thyng apeyren it;/ ther as ne is neither hunger, thurst, ne coold, but every soule replenyssed with the sighte of the parfit knowynge of god./ This blisful regne may men purchace by poverte espiritueel, and the glorie by lowenesse, the plentee of joye by hunger and thurst, and the reste by travaille, and the lyf by deeth and mortificacion of synne. 
And there ends the final tale of The Canterbury Tales. If I may be blunt: The Parson's Tale was, for me, excruciating. It's about 1,000 lines but it felt a great deal longer. It was interesting in that one could imagine this as a sermon for those living towards the end of the 14th Century, and it is also of note that The Parson is the only of pilgrim out of the clergy there who has shown any inclination towards preaching and saving souls. Other than that, I can say the only pleasure I had in really had was in finishing it!

Chaucer's Retraction

Chaucer's Retraction follows neatly on from The Parson's tale. In full:
Now preye I to hem alle that herkne this litel tretys or rede, that if ther be any thynge in it that liketh hem, that therof they thanken oure lord Jhesu Crist, of whom procedeth al wit and al goodnesse. And if ther be any thyng that displese hem, I preye hem also that they arrette it to the defaute of myn unkonnynge, and nat to my wyl, that wolde ful fayn have seyd bettre if I hadde had konnynge. For oure book seith, al that is writen is writen for our doctrine, and that is myn entente. Wherfore I biseke yow mekely, for the mercy of God, that ye preye for me that Crist have mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes; and namely of my translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke in my retracciouns: as is the book of Troilus; the book also of Fame; the book of the XXV. Ladies; the book of the Duchesse; the book of Seint Valentynes day of the Parlement of Briddes; the tales of Caunterbury, thilke that sownen into synne; the book of the Leoun; and many another book. If they were in my remembrance, and many a song and many a leccherous lay; that Crist for his grete mercy foryeve me the synne. But of the translacion of Boece de Consolacione, and othere bookes of legendes of seintes, and omelies and moralitee, and devocioun. That thanke I oure lord Jhesu Crist and his blisful mooder, and alle the seintes of hevene, bisekynge hem that they from hennes forth unto my lyves ende sende me grace to biwayle my giltes, and to studie to the salvacioun of my soule, and graunte me grace of verray penitence, confessioun and satisfaccioun to doon in this present lyf, thurgh the benigne grace of hym that is kyng of kynges and preest over alle preestes, that boghte us with the precious blood of his herte; so that is may been oon of hem at the day of doom that shulle be saved. Qui cum patre et spiritu sancto vivit et regnat deus per omnia secula. Amen. 
He begins by thanking Christ and encouraging those who have heard his tales to do so also. He then apologises if there is anything offensive to be found and says it wasn't his intention to offend ("nat to my wyl") and it can be blamed on his ignorance ("myn unkonnynge"). He goes on to pray for forgiveness for his writings and translations of 'worldly vanities' ("Crist have mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes; and namely of my translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees"). In retracting his works ("I revoke in my retracciouns") he mentions some of his greatest works: "book of Troilus" - Troilus and Criseyde (1382-86); "the book also of Fame" - The House of Fame (1379-80); "the book of the XXV. Ladies" - The Legend of Good Women (1386-88); "the book of the Duchesse" - The Book of the Duchess (1369-72); "the book of Seint Valentynes day of the Parlement of Briddes" - The Parliament of Fowls (1382); "the tales of Caunterbury" - The Canterbury Tales (1386-94); and "the book of the Leoun [lion]" - unknown, presumably lost. However he does not retract them all - he mentions "Boece de Consolacione" - Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy (also known as Boece) and other books of saints' legends, homilies, moralities, and devotions ("othere bookes of legendes of seintes, and omelies and moralitee, and devocioun"), for which he thanks Jesus and Mary. He  asks that they send him grace to, as The Parson recommends, meditate on his soul and salvation so that he may be one of those at the day of judgement that shall be saved ("may been oon of hem at the day of doom that shulle be saved"). He ends with a quote in Latin:
Qui cum patre et spiritu sancto vivit et regnat deus per omnia secula.
[He who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, God, world without end]
Heere is ended the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury, compiled by Geffrey Chaucer, of whos soule Jhesu Crist have mercy. Amen.
There The Canterbury Tales ends.

The Retraction poses somewhat of a problem. Did he mean what he wrote? Did he really retract his great works? It's possible he was showing religious terror, and that he was, from his heart, asking for mercy and expressing regret. Perhaps The Parson's Tale, which was possibly translations of the Summa casuum poenitentiae of Raymond of Peñafort, and the Summa vitiorum of William Perault, was inspiring to him. Perhaps it was simply a way of acknowledging The Parson's Tale in this, the following section, as other tales had been in their preceding prologues. Cynically, it could have been a sort of advert: 'If you liked this, try my other secular works'! As it is in keeping with The Parson's Tale, I think it's realistic to consider it is simply a neat way of ending the work. But it's a strong possibility that it is truly genuine, so I can't offer a definitive conclusion any more than anyone else. I read some people wishing he hadn't written this retraction: I wouldn't go that far, but it does mean the book ends on a question.

Next week I'll be writing a concluding post (I need the weekend to mull it all over!). For now, here's a list of all the prologues and tales in The Canterbury Tales:

Chaucer's Retraction.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Philoctetes by Sophocles.

Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos by James Barry (1770).
Philoctetes (Φιλοκτήτης) is a play by Sophocles, first performed at the Festival of Dionysus in 409 B.C. (there it won first prize). In it Sophocles tells the story of Philoctetes, a soldier who had accompanied Odysseus, Neoptolemus (son of Achilles), and others on the Grecian expedition to Troy. but, when he visited the temple of the goddess Chryse he had been bitten by a venomous snake, and so repulsed were his fellow soldiers he was banished to the island of Lemnos where during the Trojan War he suffered in pain. However a prophecy is revealed - in order for the Greeks to win the Trojan War the invincible bow and arrows of Heracles are needed, and they are in possession of Philoctetes: in an earlier play, Women of Trachis, when Heracles was near death he wished to be burned on a pyre. Philoctetes was the one who lit this fire, and as a reward Heracles gave him his bow.

The play begins on the coast of Lemnos:
Oᴅʏssᴇᴜs: This is the coast of Lemnos, a desolate island
In the midst of the sea, where no man walks or lives.
Now, young Neoptolemus, son of the great Achilles,
Acting on the orders of our overlords,
I left Philoctetes the Malian, Poeas' son,
Lamed by a festering ulcer in his foot,
At which he would moan and howl incessantly;
Our camp was never free of his frantic wailing -
Never a moment's pause for libation or prayer,
But the silence was desecrated by his tortured cries.
The story's a long one; I cannot tell it now.
If he once finds out I'm here, my clever device
To capture him will fall to the ground. To work!
I need your help.
First, see if you can find
A cave with a double entrance, the sort of place
To afford two sun-traps on a chilly day
Or a cool retreat for sleep in the height of summer,
Fanned by a current of air. A little below,
To the left, there should be a spring of running water,
Unless it's now dried up. Go quietly,
And see if there's any sign of the fellow still
In his old accustomed haunts; and bring me word;
And then I'll tell you want we've got to do,
And we'll go to work together.
Map of the Island of Lemnos by Piri Reis.
The cave is quickly found by Neoptolemus; it is empty, but there are signs that it is inhabited. Another solider is sent to track Philoctetes down, and meanwhile Odysseus tells Neoptolemus his plans to trick Philoctetes: Neoptolemus is to tell him he has left the fight and he holds a grudge against the Greeks and in particular Odysseus, who has in his possession his father Achilles' armour, and he refuses to return it. Neoptolemus expresses his doubt at this plan, saying "I'd rather lose by fair means than win by foul". Odysseus then explains the importance of this bow and arrow, that by having them Philoctetes has "Arrows that never miss, flying to kill", and that "Without those arrows Troy will never be ours". He finished by telling Neoptolemus that two prizes await him when he tricks Philoctetes: "A prize for intelligence / And a prize for courage". Neoptolemus is convinced.

Philoctetes later appears, described as
... a pitiful figure in ragged garments, the famous bow in his hand, and his wounded foot swathed in crude bandages.
Neoptolemus approaches him and tells he and his men have left fighting the Trojan War, and that he is the son of Achilles. Philoctetes then tells his story, how he was left for ten years in pain and misery. Neoptolemus responds by telling him his own, the story agreed between him and Odysseus. They bond over their common enemy, Neoptolemus gains Philoctetes trust, and eventually Philoctetes shows Neoptolemus the bow:
Nᴇᴏᴘᴛᴏʟᴇᴍᴜs: Is that the famous bow you have in your hand?
Pʜɪʟᴏᴄᴛᴇᴛᴇs: It is - none other - this very one I hold.
Nᴇᴏᴘᴛᴏʟᴇᴍᴜs: May I look at it closer, handle it myself? Salute it, rather, as a holy thing.
Pʜɪʟᴏᴄᴛᴇᴛᴇs: Of course; I would do anything for your satisfaction.
Nᴇᴏᴘᴛᴏʟᴇᴍᴜs: I'd dearly like to touch it; but - are you sure?
Is it permitted? If not, then... let it be.
Pʜɪʟᴏᴄᴛᴇᴛᴇs: You speak with reverence, my son. It is permitted.
You are my saviour; you have given me life,
Given me the hope of seeing my home again,
My friends, my father; you have raised me up
Above the enemies who trod me down.
Yes, you shall take the bow into your hands:
Touch it. Hold it. Now give it back to me.
Neoptolemus is in awe of Philoctetes; the two have truly built up a trust between them, and Neoptolemus does hand the bow back. But, when Philoctetes is seized by a sudden spasm of pain he instructs Neoptolemus to keep the bow for him, and Neoptolemus vows to take care of it and never let it fall into the wrong hands. When Philoctetes is asleep Neoptolemus struggles with his conscience, entering into a debate with the Chorus. When Philoctetes awakens, Neoptolemus tells him he is going to take him to Troy:
First, save you from this wretchedness; and then -
Then we must make Troy tremble, you and I.
The plot to trick Philoctetes is then revealed and Odysseus returns and tries to overpower him, however he is unsuccessful and both Odysseus and Neoptolemus are forced to flee. Philoctetes is left with the Chorus who tell him that Neoptolemus is his friend. Meanwhile Neoptolemus tells Odysseus of his regrets in participating in such a plan -"I used base treachery against a fellow-creature". He goes back to Philoctetes and returns his bow, telling him of the prophecy that his bow will defeat the Trojans. He begs him to return, and -
... To trust in the gods, and in my promises,
And come with me, as a friend.
Heracles then appears and says,
You are are to go to Troy
With him; you are to have your sickness cured;
You are to be the chosen champion
Of that great army; you are to seek out Paris,
First cause of all this wickedness, and destroy him
With those, my weapons; you are to sack the city
And carry home the spoils, the award of honour
To Oeta, to delight your father's eyes;
And there, upon my altar, dedicate
A portion, in remembrance of the bow.
Philoctetes consents, and he departs to do just that.

When I read this I felt it had somewhat of an air of Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone; it is more a philosophical play than a dramatic one because it deals more with emotions; Philoctetes struggles with pain, and his sense of abandonment, and Neoptolemus sense of honour - his task set by Odysseus, his friendship with Philoctetes, and knowing if he succeeds in his task he will have betrayed his friend, which leads to the question - is it right, as Odysseus believes, to betray a friend to help the greater good, or, as Neoptolemus said in the beginning, "I'd rather lose by fair means than win by foul"? For me, I sided with Neoptolemus.

It is another great play by Sophocles, who is now very firmly one of my favourite authors. Sadly I only have two left to read - Ajax and Electra, both of which I shall be reading at some point before the year is out...

Philoctète sur l'île de Lemnos by Jean Germain Drouais (1788).
~ Sophocles' Plays ~

The Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.) | Oedipus at Colonus (406 B.C.) Antigone (441 B.C.)
OthersAjax (450 - 430 B.C.) | Women of Trachis (440 - 430 B.C.)
Electra (410 B.C.) | Philoctetes (409 B.C.)

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Plays of William Shakespeare by Samuel Johnson.

The Plays of William Shakespeare by Sir John Gilbert (1849).
In 1765 (150 years or so after the death of William Shakespeare) a collection of Shakespeare's works were published: The Plays of William Shakespeare, in Eight Volumes, with the Corrections and Illustrations of Various Commentators; to which are added Notes by Sam. Johnson. This week for the Deal Me In Challenge I have read the Preface to works by Johnson in which Johnson of course writes about Shakespeare's plays, but also adds his thoughts to literary criticism in general.

The Oxford University Press edition of The Major Works (edited by Donald Greene) suggests that the Preface may be divided into four parts:
  1. Shakespeare's virtues.
  2. Shakespeare's faults.
  3. A defence of Shakespeare.
  4. A history of the editing of Shakespeare and a statement of Johnson's own editorial principles.
The Preface begins,
That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox; or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time.
He goes on to note however that prejudice may work both ways, and some will exalt Shakespeare's plays simply because they have survived:
Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past than present excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys the sun through artificial opacity. The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an authour is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead we rate them by his best. 
From the Bodleian Library.
In this first part Johnson writes on Shakespeare's qualities, for instance that his plays and characters have a universal quality - "His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion". He goes on,
It is from this wide extension of design that so much instruction is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakespeare with practical axioms and domestick wisdom.
Another virtue - that Shakespeare did not rely on the extreme in order to draw an audience:
Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the writers of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he that should form his expectations of human affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion: Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life. 
His drama, Johnson adds, "is the mirrour of life". Because of this it isn't so easy to divide the plays, as scholars have done, into either "tragedies" or "comedies" - 
Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.
Johnson goes on to discuss these divisions, which, as the process of dividing Shakespeare's plays has interested me for some time, I'll quote in full:
An action which ended happily to the principal persons, however serious or distressful through its intermediate incidents, in their opinion constituted a comedy. This idea of a comedy continued long amongst us, and plays were written, which, by changing the catastrophe, were tragedies to-day and comedies to-morrow. 
Tragedy was not in those times a poem of more general dignity or elevation than comedy; it required only a calamitous conclusion, with which the common criticism of that age was satisfied, whatever lighter pleasure it afforded in its progress. 
History was a series of actions, with no other than chronological succession, independent of each other, and without any tendency to introduce or regulate the conclusion. It is not always very nicely distinguished from tragedy. There is not much nearer approach to unity of action in the tragedy of "Antony and Cleopatra", than in the history of "Richard the Second". But a history might be continued through many plays; as it had no plan, it had no limits.
From here Johnson moves on to discuss Shakespeare's short-comings:
Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults, and faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit. I shall shew them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious malignity or superstitious veneration. 
The first is that Shakespeare appears not to show concern with moral instruction:
He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. 
This was a subject Johnson had visited before in 'The New Realistic Novel' from The Rambler (Saturday, March 31st 1750) he expressed concern that immoral heroes and heroines corrupt the minds of young readers whose minds are "not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account". Returning to Shakespeare, Johnson goes on:
From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. 
Furthermore, plots are "loosely formed", the endings aren't so good as the beginnings, and he is at times unrealistic in his settings, both geographical and historical: Johnson remarks at times Shakespeare is a "violator of chronology". His comedy is often unsuccessful, and is "commonly gross" and "licentious", and his tragedies are oft to be overdone -
In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of passion which exigence forces out are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.
His diction too is under criticism for being lengthy and heavy at times, and certain speeches "commonly cold and weak".

In the third part of this Preface Johnson moves on to give a defence. First he refers to Aristotle's Poetics, arguing
But his [Shakespeare's] plan has commonly what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is concatenated with another, and the conclusion follows by easy consequence. There are perhaps some incidents that might be spared, as in other poets there is much talk that only fills up time upon the stage; but the general system makes gradual advances, and the end of the play is the end of expectation.
Secondly, the notion that unities of time and place must be observed to make a play credible is not necessarily so -
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... 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... Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind [my emphasis]
His plots, whether historical or fabulous, are always crouded with incidents, by which the attention of a rude people was more easily caught than by sentiment or argumentation; and such is the power of the marvellous even over those who despise it, that every man finds his mind more strongly seized by the tragedies of Shakespeare than of any other writer; others please us by particular speeches, but he always makes us anxious for the event, and has perhaps excelled all but Homer in securing the first purpose of a writer, by exciting restless and unquenchable curiosity, and compelling him that reads his work to read it through.
In the final part of the Preface Johnson writes about the difficulties Shakespeare scholars have found. He writes,
It does not appear, that Shakespeare thought his works worthy of posterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further prospect, than of present popularity and present profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end; he solicited no addition of honour from the reader. He therefore made no scruple to repeat the same jests in many dialogues, or to entangle different plots by the same knot of perplexity, which may be at least forgiven him, by those who recollect, that of Congreve's four comedies, two are concluded by a marriage in a mask, by a deception, which perhaps never happened, and which, whether likely or not, he did not invent.
A consequence of this apparently careless attitude was that William Shakespeare made no attempts to gather up his work towards the end of his life, so
Had the authour published his own works, we should have sat quietly down to disentangle his intricacies, and clear his obscurities; but now we tear what we cannot loose, and eject what we happen not to understand.
Before Johnson's edition, previous attempts of course had been made, and Johnson notes Nicholas Rowe (1709), whose own preface was preserved, "though not written with much elegance or spirit; it relates however what is now to be known, and therefore deserves to pass through all succeeding publications". Alexander Pope also produced an edition (1725), and Johnson notes that it
fell below his own expectations, and he was so much offended, when he was found to have left any thing for others to do, that he past the latter part of his life in a state of hostility with verbal criticism.
Nevertheless John preserves his work, and that of his (Pope's) critic Lewis Theobald. Johnson then goes on describe other editors of Shakespeare's works. He then concludes his preface with,
Among these candidates of inferiour fame, I am now to stand the judgment of the publick; and wish that I could confidently produce my commentary as equal to the encouragement which I have had the honour of receiving. Every work of this kind is by its nature deficient, and I should feel little solicitude about the sentence, were it to be pronounced only by the skilful and the learned.
It is a fascinating read - there is an almost "superstition" as Johnson puts it with Shakespeare's works: fans are unwilling to criticise him, and those who dislike Shakespeare sometimes appear to dislike him all the more for this veneration. Johnson loved Shakespeare, but he was not blind to his short-comings.

From this Preface Johnson went on to introduce and to add notes to Shakespeare's plays, and some examples, as well as this preface in full can be found here.

Receipt of a subscription to Johnson's Shakespeare from the Bodleian Library.

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