What an Episode of “Father Brown” Can Teach Us About Literature

Hannah Moxley describing the plot of new novel to Father Brown

Last year, when I wrote about the oddly soothing aspects of the murder mystery genre, I mentioned that I had another post about the show Father Brown that I wanted to write. Well, over a year later, I’ve finally gotten around to doing just that.

For those who aren’t aware, Father Brown is an amateur detective show loosely based on the short stories of G. K. Chesterton. The show follows the title priest (played by Mark Williams) as he solves various crimes—usually murder—around the fictional English town of Kembleford in the post-WWII period. Father Brown is joined by a group of supporting characters, including parish secretary Mrs McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) and local noblewoman Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll), and he often butts heads with an ever-changing line of police detectives, such as Inspector Sullivan (Tom Chambers), who rather begrudgingly tolerate the priest’s side hobby of sleuthing.

The episode I would like to look at in particular is “The Kembleford Boggart,” the seventh episode of the show’s third series. This is one of my favorite episodes of the show, not because of the mystery itself, but because of what the episode has to say about writing and about our reactions to it. I’m going to break this little investigation into three parts. In Part I, we’ll talk about the central figure of the episode and her concerns about how her writing will be received. In Part II, we’ll move onto the murder and how it instructs us on the way the artistic process actually works. Finally, in Part III, we’ll unravel the mystery and discuss the audience’s relationship with the author of a work.

Oh, before we begin—normally I find our age’s spoiler-phobia to be pretty obnoxious and a serious impediment to discussing art critically, but since this is a mystery we’re talking about, where half the fun is trying to piece the clues together yourself, consider this a spoiler warning: we’re going to reveal all the twists in this episode, because otherwise the themes are impossible to fully talk about. So, with that out of the way….

I: The Author

At the center of “The Kembleford Boggart”—aside from Father Brown, of course—is Hannah Moxley (Nathalie Buscombe), a 22-year-old woman who seems to be rather nervous about where her life stands. Some of her anxieties are professional. Hannah is a rising star of the British literary world; her debut novel, The Darkest Rose, was something of a sensation in the recent past, and she’s about to read an excerpt from her current manuscript at the home of Lady Felicia. For a writer that young, she could hardly ask for better. Still, she’s not certain that her new novel will find a publisher, even though Father Brown assures her that, from what he hears, “the literary establishment is waiting with bated breath.”

Of course, such anticipation can be its own form of pressure. Every writer who attains even the tiniest bit of artistic success fears that they’ll never be able to recreate that magic, that they’ve spent all their creativity on past works. But Hannah has an additional reason to worry about how her new novel will be received: it’s a significant departure from her previous work. We the audience aren’t told much about The Darkest Rose, but from other characters’ descriptions we glean that it’s an “uplifting” tale filled with “high jinks and espionage”. By contrast, her new book is an atmospheric horror story about a woman terrorized by a boggart. She’s completely shifted genres, and there’s no guarantee that her audience will follow her muse with her.

Judging by the response she gets at the reading, her concerns might not be unfounded. There’s a noticeable silence after Hannah finishes reading the excerpt from her work, before Lady Felicia hurriedly spurs the crowd into applause. Her story has certainly had an effect on Mrs McCarthy; she’s so shocked during the reading that she almost spills her sherry. But she’s more repulsed than enraptured by it, saying afterwards, “If that’s what passes for modern literature, I’ll stick with the Woman’s Weekly.” This is a small sample size, but it at least suggests that’s right to be worried.

It was a minor miracle, however, that Hannah was able to give a reading at all, which brings us to her second source of worry: her father, Jeremiah (Simon Williams). Although Hannah is an adult already, Jeremiah Moxley exercises a great deal of control over his daughter’s life. He won’t allow her to manage her own finances, and he doesn’t allow her to read the fan mail that she’s received from around the world. Had Father Brown not offered to act as chaperone, Jeremiah would not have let Hannah read at Lady Felicia’s, lest she start socializing with the wrong sort of people. Even then, he expects that she will not leave Father Brown’s sight and that she’ll return home by eight o’clock sharp. Hannah, for her part, does her best to comply with her father’s various restrictions, but when alone with Father Brown she vents about how unreasonable her current situation is.

Indeed, a close look at the first scene after the cold open reveals how her different worries tie into each other. It would appear that her father’s overbearing nature has done a number on Hannah’s confidence as a storyteller. We first see Hannah describing the plot of her new book to Father Brown, who looks a bit puzzled by it. She assumes that he doesn’t like the story, but in fact he’s merely unsure of what a boggart is. Her face lights up at the chance to explain this bit of folklore, but alas Jeremiah enters the room and cuts her off with his own explanation. He then dismisses his daughter’s penchant for such stories right in front of her. “Forgive my daughter,” he says to Father Brown. “She has a fine talent, I’m assured, but her fantasies are a little far-fetched for my taste.” One expects that a writer’s parents would be her biggest cheerleaders; if they’re not on board with the project, why would anyone else be?

Hannah’s got quite a bit on her plate—and we haven’t even gotten to the murder yet.

II: The Mystery

Why don’t hear a little bit of Hannah’s latest? Here’s the excerpt from her new book that so shocked the crowd at Lady Felicia’s:

Mrs Mallory lay stiff and bloated at Clarissa’s feet. Across her throat a tidy, fine slash, the stinging mark of a whip sharp tail. And all around the room, she saw the messy trail of an uninvited guest. A fresh fall of soot blanketed the hearth, and the floor was marked by jagged claws. As she rushed to the empty cot, she saw the boggart’s promise had been fulfilled. The housekeeper was dead and the baby was gone.

Hannah Moxley, unpublished manuscript, page numbers TBD

This being a murder mystery show, it’s only natural that this excerpt turns into the blueprint for an actual crime. The cinematic language makes it clear that Jeremiah will be the victim, as Hannah starts her reading over footage of her father opening her fan mail. After the reading, Father Brown loses track of Hannah, so he and Mrs McCarthy hustle over to the Moxley house in hopes of meeting her there. When they arrive, they find the door already open, and after some investigation they discover Jeremiah on the floor of an attic room, killed by his letter opener. It’s then that Mrs McCarthy notices that the room is full of soot and the floor all scratched up, just like the room described in Hannah’s novel.

Father Brown jokes that the perpetrator was the boggart from the story, but no one actually buys into that notion. Mrs McCarthy immediately suspects Alfons (Philip McGinley), an Irish Traveller who got into a spat with Jeremiah that morning, while Inspector Sullivan considers the possibility that this was a burglary gone wrong. Father Brown, however, does think that the secret to the murder lies in Hannah’s story, as he spends all night reading over her manuscript. His initial thought, understandably, is the prospect that someone has re-enacted the scene from the novel, or more disturbing, that the novel is a preemptive confession from a beleaguered daughter. It’s not until later on that Father Brown realizes that he’s gotten the whole thing backwards.

See, we have often think of creativity in limited ways. We imagine inspiration as a sort of epiphany, a sudden blast of the divine. This view has a certain romantic aura to it, but it tends to render the process of creation completely inscrutable and unknowable; one either has the spark, or one doesn’t. More often that not, however, inspiration comes from the synthesis of small details that we experience. It’s not necessarily a veiled autobiography or a confession, but it does come from the world of the concrete, either senses or emotions. It’s only when Father Brown remembers that fact that the mystery starts clarifying itself.

After finishing Hannah’s new book, he takes Mrs McCarthy back to the Moxley house for what he calls “a lesson in perspective.” This is Father Brown’s big lecture for the episode, the step-by-step explanation of what’s been going on. But it’s not an explanation of how the murder happened; he’s not sure who did it at this point. No, it’s an explanation of why the room resembles the one in Hannah’s story:

[N]either of us had ever been in this attic room before. So how would we know that what we saw was unusual? Perhaps it wasn’t unusual. What if soot fell from that chimney every day? For instance, when somebody retrieved something from it…For example [reaches into the hearth and pulls something out], a key. And what if a badly hung door made marks on the floor every time it is opened, makes the scratches of deadly talons. Not life imitating art, Mrs McCarthy, art imitating life. It wasn’t until I finished Hannah’s manuscript that I realised the most significant image of all: the missing child.

Father Brown then unlocks the door, revealing a hidden nursery, where Hannah’s baby is asleep. The implication is clear: Hannah’s novel, the whole story about the boggart and the missing child, comes from her own experiences of having to hide her baby from the world, and the atmospheric details come from the steps she has to take to see him.

This little lecture from Father Brown not only advances the plot, but also further clarifies why Hannah seems especially nervous about her new novel. While on the surface it seems more fantastical than The Darkest Rose, it is in fact far more personal than her first novel. She’s transformed a source of shame into art, and now plans on sharing it with the world. But we’ve still got one mystery left: whodunit?

III: The Killer

As I mentioned in the first section, Hannah’s gotten quite a few fans off the back of The Darkest Rose, and it’s obvious that a number of them have formed parasocial relationships with her. In what might be Jeremiah’s one instance of genuine insight, he notes that the men writing fan letters to Hannah “have not got literature on their minds,” and that the volume and the passion of the fan mail increased after Hannah’s photograph was included in Modern Profile magazine. His daughter has become the object of affection—or obsession—for a great number of men, and that’s not necessarily the sort of attention that a young woman wants.

As it happens, we meet one of Hannah’s admirers at the reading at Lady Felicia’s, a journalist named Harry Grandage (Ben Deery). His work takes him all around the globe, where he seems to cover one tragedy after another. This is why, he tells Father Brown, Hannah’s work means so much to him:

I’ve only just got back from Brussels. I spent two months there before traveling down to Antwerp. I was covering the damage from the North Sea floods…My work always seems to bring me to people in times of grief. It takes its toll. So, when I read The Darkest Rose, I was so happy to lose myself to it. It’s a modern masterpiece.

Naturally, Harry is very excited to meet Hannah in person, but if you pay close attention to his tone and his facial expressions you’ll realize that he’s more than a little perplexed that Hannah’s not already familiar with him. Even worse, when Hannah signs his copy of The Darkest Rose, she makes it out to “Larry”. He laughs it off, saying that it’s “charming”, but he’s clearly a bit stung by their interaction.

It’s sometimes tempting to think that we can know a person through their art and that, by extension, we can form an actual relationship with them through it. We will excitedly praise a work for understanding us in a time of confusion or crisis, even if we know, intellectually, that the work emerged independently of our struggles and that the author wouldn’t know us from Adam. These parasocial bonds that we form with artists can be helpful in certain ways; for example, they can give us the knowledge that we are not alone in our difficulties. But where Harry appears to go wrong is in thinking that this grants him knowledge of the actual person behind the work.

One word that Harry uses a lot when describing Hannah’s writing is “escape”. After Jeremiah’s death, he explains to Father Brown why he’s staying in Kembleford to comfort Hannah: “When I first read her book, I was in the Republic of Korea covering the war, a taste of hell. Her work offered me the chance to escape then, and now I can do the same for her.” It’s clear that Harry needed some way to escape his troubles as a journalist, but note how he’s made the assumption that Hannah needs the same thing. It’s true that by strict definition Harry’s relationship with Hannah is no longer parasocial, but it’s by no means intimate, either. Harry sees himself as a companion, but by any objective measure, he’s just a passing acquaintance.

This being a murder mystery, Harry’s relationship with Hannah turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. Father Brown realizes that Harry’s one of the men who’s been writing fan mail to Hannah, not knowing that her father doesn’t allow her to read such letters. Instead, Jeremiah has been corresponding with Harry, posing as his daughter for the purposes of arranging a marriage. Hence Harry’s confusion at the reading: he’s been duped. Long story short: he confronts Jeremiah at the house and tries to leave to tell Hannah the truth; Jeremiah attacks him the letter opener and in the struggle Harry accidentally stabs him with it. The whole killing was accident, the result of a tragic misunderstanding.

But even after all that comes out, even after Harry realizes his whole relationship with Hannah was a sham, he still can’t let go of the image of her that he’s created in his head. Father Brown meets Harry in the woods, where he’s planning on leaving Kembleford with Hannah in tow. “She’s desperately in need of escape,” he tells Father Brown, still insisting that his needs are hers as well. Once Hannah arrives on the scene and the whole truth comes out, though, she takes Harry to task for his assumptions:

Harry: All I wanted was to take you away to escape with you. Isn’t that what you wanted?

Hannah: No! You’re no better than [my father] was. You want to control me. Well, I won’t let you. I’ve spent too long locked away. I want a free life. I owe that much to him.

To be clear: Harry is correct in thinking that Hannah would like to escape her current circumstances—we’ve established that much in the build-up to this—but that in no way implies that she wants to escape with him. That’s a major, nigh unresolvable problem with trying to read an artist through the works we enjoy: even if we’re completely accurate in our diagnoses, it’s pure narcissism to think we have anything to do with them.

For the record, Hannah’s actual love, Alfons, also got to know her through her writings: she would head down to the camp of Irish Travellers when they stopped by and read her stories to them. But the context there is completely different than it was for Harry, as Alfons got the chance to know Hannah as a person, not just as a name on a front cover and a photograph in a magazine profile. There were no assumptions to be made, just life to experience.


That was quite a bit from me, but what’s your take on all this? Are there any other films or TV shows that deal with literature in this way? Do have a favorite episode of Father Brown that you’d like to share? Sound off in the comments.

While your here, perhaps you’d like to read more about our relationship with art and our tendency to form parasocial relationships with artists. In that case, check on my post called “On Angst Music,” which might be my favorite blog post that I’ve written here.

And as always, thanks for your time.

Recent Publication: Cumberland River Review

I’m very happy to have another poem in Cumberland River Review! Their current issue features my piece entitled “On a Small Farm in Waterbury, VT,” which is inspired by a photograph by Sasha Arutyunova that was featured in The National, the Amtrak in-train magazine. The photograph was part of a larger series documenting the Vermonter route between New York City and Waterbury, all of which are worth checking out. (Surprisingly, The National is a really good magazine; give it a read if you’re ever on Amtrak.)

Thanks again to the editorial staff at CRR for selecting my work for inclusion!

You can read “On a Small Farm in Waterbury, VT” by clicking here, and you can read my previous poem in CRR, “Overland Express Arriving at Helena, Mont.,” by clicking here. If you would like to see Arutyunova’s series of photographs that I mentioned above, you find them on her website (the one that inspired my poem is the 12th in the series).

Recent Publication: The McNeese Review

I’m very pleased to announce that two poems of mine have been published in the most recent issue of The McNeese Review: “Men Who Stand Still Are Broken” and “Luis Martinetti”. The former poem was inspired by a line someone had written on a column in the 42nd Street–Port Authority Bus Terminal subway station, and I think it’s the only poem I’ve written where the organizing principle is having a fixed number of words per line. The latter is another installment in my series of ekphrastic poems about the Edison Studios catalog of short films (which I have mentioned here and here). In this case, it’s inspired by some footage of an acrobat going through his routine. I’m rather proud of both these pieces, so I guess finding a market for them helps validate my taste in my own work.

This publication is very exciting for a couple of reasons. First, it turns out that I’m in the same issue with Jim Daniels, a faculty member at my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University. (I never had a class with him, but I did get to speak with him a handful of times.) Second, this is the first publication that I’m actually getting paid for, so I can finally cross that goal off my list.

You can order a copy of this issue of The McNeese Review through the magazine’s website. If you’d like to see the film that inspired “Luis Martinetti” (i.e., the film Luis Martinetti), you can watch it below:

Classics Club #1: “The Dyer’s Hand” by W. H. Auden

For a number of reasons, I knew that I wanted to start my Classics Club project with a look at W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand. For one, of all the books on my list, it’s the only one that I’d read any part of; during the first semester of my MFA program, I had to read several essays from the book and then write poems inspired by them. For another, as a work of literary criticism, I thought that The Dyer’s Hand might provide a high-level view from which to consider the rest of the books on the list. And for a third, it just happened to be next on my queue regardless.

But while I was reading it, I found it difficult to settle on a direction to take this post. After the first three or four essays, I thought about comparing Auden’s fragmentary style to the philosophical inquiries of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but then Auden’s style became more streamlined and structured as the collection went on. I thought about comparing my thoughts on various artworks to Auden’s, but let’s just say that he’s seen Don Giovanni infinitely more times than I have. And I thought about discussing the Ariel/Prospero distinction he mentions in his essay on Robert Frost, until I remembered that I wrote such an essay in grad school and decided I didn’t want to repeat myself.

I was completely stuck, until I happened upon a discussion that has apparently been raging across the internet: the state of the negative review. It’s a topic that the book-blogging community raises frequently (see, for instance, this post from Krysta of Pages Unbound), but of late the topic has come up more in the popular press. In recent months we’ve seen Kyle Paoletta decry the overly-celebratory nature of TV criticism for The Baffler, Rob Harvilla contemplate the role of the take-down in the age of social media for The Ringer, and sci-fi author John Scalzi defend the virtues of the pan on his blog. And I found all this fascinating in the context of The Dyer’s Hand, because if high-brow W. H. Auden were to walk into this conversation that’s been going on, he’d actually be the most skeptical of the negative review’s value.

In the first essay in The Dyer’s Hand, entitled “Reading,” Auden says that a critic ought to perform at least one of the following tasks when discussing a work:

1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.

2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.

3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.

4) Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.

5) Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”

6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

The Dyer’s Handpp. 8-9

Looking closely at this list, one can conclude that Auden doesn’t really see aesthetic appraisal as a vital role for the critic. Auden’s ideal critics should provide context, draw connections, share discoveries, and reveal truths, but it’s not clear that they should provide up-or-down judgments as to whether a book is good. The task which comes closest here is the second, and even there, it would seen that Auden wants the critic to go in a specific direction: to show that a work is better (or perhaps just more interesting) than the audience had given it credit for. He does not advocate that critics tear down works which they believe have been wrongly praised.

Indeed, throughout “Reading,” Auden is skeptical of the notion that writing bad reviews serves any purpose, and he addresses either directly or implicitly some of the common arguments in favor of the practice. An obvious argument would be that writing a negative review will persuade readers not to waste their time on a given work. But Auden reminds us that even a negative review acts as publicity and keeps a work in the current conversation. “Had Macaulay never written his review of Robert Montgomery,” he writes, “we would not today be still under the illusion that Montgomery was a great poet” (p. 10). Instead, Auden would have advised Macaulay to remain silent on the matter, allowing Montgomery’s work to fade into obscurity.

I’ll admit, I find this argument to be Auden’s weakest, or rather the least generally applicable. Being a poet, Auden naturally has poetry on his mind as he’s writing this essay. Even by the standards of book publishing, the poetry market is incredibly small; one could probably count on one hand the number of people making a living solely off revenue from writing poems. There aren’t any big marketing campaigns to smear the latest chapbooks across the public consciousness, so reviews are basically all the advertising a poet may get. Thus, if their collection is terrible and no one wants to review it, then it will almost certainly be forgotten for all time. But the same rules don’t apply to Hollywood films and popular TV shows. The machinery supporting those cultural products is so large and powerful that there is little chance of them simply withering in the darkness.

But at other points, Auden’s critique of the negative review seems not only reasonable, but also insightful. For example, he takes up the notion that one must critique bad works of art, lest those works inspire artists to make even more inferior pieces. The problem with that argument is that influence doesn’t necessarily work like that. Those who make bad works of art often draw inspiration from masterpieces; they simply lack the skill or vision to duplicate their forebears’ successes. Think about how many terrible student films come from kids who fashion themselves the next Quentin Tarantino or David Fincher. “The more powerful and original a writer,” says Auden, “the more dangerous he is to lesser talents who are trying to find themselves. On the other hand, works which were in themselves poor have often proved a stumulus [sic] to the imagination and become the indirect cause of good work in others” (p. 10). That last point rings especially true for me: I find I have far more success in writing when I use mediocre poets as a model, rather than trying to write something like Milton or Dryden.

This is not to say that Auden sees no value in the take-down. First, he concedes that in practice, critics often can’t just refuse to review a bad work. The terms of their employment may require them to write something, and if they can’t stay silent then they’ll at least be honest. Second, Auden still believes that the “corruption of the language” should be “continually publicly attacked,” but even then he says the true culprit is not the work in question but “the misuse of language by the man-in-the-street, journalists, politicians, etc.” (p. 11). But that’s about as far as Auden is willing to go in this essay. Personally, I’d carve out a larger space for the negative review. In particular, the belief that one should connect a work “to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.” requires that a critic call out harmful or dishonest artworks when they encounter them, lest we pretend the realms of art and life are somehow separable. And the more prominent a work is in the culture, the more harm it can do, and the less compelling Auden’s arguments seem to become.

It will be interesting to see whether I can, or whether I should, keep to the spirit of Auden’s position for the rest of my Classic Club posts. At the very least, I always want to keep those six tasks he listed in mind when writing a post. I’m certain that I’ll dislike at least some of the next forty-nine books I read for this project, but whatever I write about them should have some substance beyond mere vitriol. It may be true that, as Auden claims, [o]ne cannot review a bad book without showing off” (p.11). But I’m sure one can do so without just showing off.


Please feel free to share your thoughts on The Dyer’s Hand or on negative reviews in the comments below. If you’d like to get a sense of what’s on the horizon for my Classics Club project, you can access my list of fifty books here. And as always, thank you for reading.

Three Fragments on a Painting by John Singer Sargent

I.

The above image is an 1884 painting called The Breakfast Table. The artist is the American portraitist John Singer Sargent, and the subject is the artist’s youngest sister, Violet. In this painting, Sargent has captured his sister in an instant of the perfectly everyday: reading a book over breakfast.

It’s clearly a page-turner, given that she’s staring down at the text while peeling an orange, not even glancing back at the blade that she’s sliding under the skin. If you look closely, you’ll notice that she’s even got the book propped up on some more oranges, which is perhaps the most charming detail here. It’s a potentially chaotic moment in this otherwise composed setting: what if her hand slips? what if the oranges roll off? When one thinks on it perhaps too long, the scene seems to have the potential for slapstick. Yet, looking at Violet’s expression, I cannot believe that any such calamity could occur. She’s too studious in her reading, too steady with the knife she’s holding, for any ill to befall her. I know, intellectually, that she will need to turn the page at some point, but I can imagine her holding this position for hours on end, a model of concentration.

The fact that I can see both chaotic and controlled futures in the world of the painting perhaps explains why I’m uncertain how to categorize it. It’s easy to call The Breakfast Table a genre painting, that is, a painting that depicts a scene from everyday life. Genre paintings tend to be alive with action; in this case, it’s the tension surrounding the woman, the book, and the knife. But we also see the poise associated with traditional portraiture, and given how much physical space on the canvas is dedicated to the breakfast room’s furnishings, one could even call it an artificial landscape.

You might think that such labeling is merely academic, but the context in which one views a work of art is important, and genre is a massive piece of context. I first saw The Breakfast Table with the expectation of seeing a portrait, based on what I knew of the artist, and so I first focused on the features and demeanor of the one person in the frame. But were I instead told it was a genre painting ahead of time, I’d likely focus my attention on the subject’s actions, and if someone said it was a landscape, I’d give myself over to the gestalt sensation of the room. In each case, I’d still judge the painting by how compelling and truthful it is, but just what would constitute truth may vary depending on which frame of reference I employ. Would the warmth of a morning at the breakfast table, which I’d want to find in a landscape, necessarily be welcome in the expression of someone being portrayed deep in concentration? I think it unlikely.

II.

The Breakfast Table is currently part of the collection of the Harvard University Arts Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts; according to their website, one can view the painting in Room 2100 on the second floor, a gallery themed around “Centuries of Tradition, Changing Times: Art for an Uncertain Age” (perhaps I was onto something in the above section regarding all those tensions). As you have probably gathered from that last sentence, I have not seen The Breakfast Table in person. I was not even aware that Harvard had art museums, though that fact shouldn’t really surprise me.

Instead, I found The Breakfast Table through an art book, specifically, John Singer Sargent by Trevor Fairbrother (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994). The book, which was made in association with the Smithsonian, is more or less what you would expect, with scans of paintings from all stages of Sargent’s development as an artist and informative writing from Fairbrother to place those paintings in context. At least, that’s what I assume one would expect, as this is only the second art book that I’ve read.

I’m honestly not sure why I haven’t read more art books in the past. Art history represents a significant hole in my knowledge base; watching Jeopardy!, few categories fill me with as much dread as the fine arts ones. My ignorance is especially odd because I write so many ekphrastic poems. (The last poem I had published, for example, was inspired by Fernand Léger’s painting Animated Landscape.) Every time I sit down to write something on a painting or a sculpture or what have you, I rediscover that I can’t really place the poem in its full historical context. I may know, for example, that a given work was made during the Gilded Age, but what art was like during the Gilded Age, or how it differed from what came before or after, is beyond me. Art books seem like a perfect way to fill that gap, especially now that I live in the country, where there are far fewer art museums.

Granted, I find art books to be somewhat odd on a conceptual level. Let’s set aside that, to build on Walter Benjamin, such books cannot convey the “aura” that viewing the original in person does, and instead let’s focus on the nature of books and paintings. To read a book is a continuous process; you are always moving from one word to the next, turning the pages to pull the thread of the book along. This is different from how you view of a painting, where you linger over the brushstrokes and the play of light and so forth. If someone were to stop dead in their tracks and observe the same spot on a canvas for twenty minutes, we’d assume they that were deep in aesthetic appreciation; if someone did the same to the book they were reading, we’d assume that they had merely zoned out.

To read an art book, I’d say, is to negotiate the tension between two impulses. At least, that’s what I’m finding as I read Fairbrother’s book. To the extent that I’m reading a book, my instinct is to keep moving along, to read more about, for instance, the context in which Sargent painted The Breakfast Table (the scandal surrounding his Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau at the Salon of 1883, his experiments in Impressionism, etc.). To the extent that I’m admiring a collection of paintings, though, my instinct is to slow down, to investigate each painting I come across, to scour The Breakfast Table for evidence of the claims Fairbrother makes. I simultaneously believe I am moving too quickly and too slowly, which is as good an approximation of life as any.

III.

In describing how Sargent frames The Breakfast Table with furnishings cropped by the edge of the canvas, Fairbrother states that the artist wishes to “enhance the viewer’s sense of privileged intrusion into the scene” (p. 56). The word “privileged” there carries two connotations. The first sense, the one that Fairbrother certainly intends, is the connotation of intimacy. The subject, a woman reading to herself, is engaged in an inherently private activity. She is alone not only in her physical space, but in her mental one as well. To read is to temporarily seal oneself off from the surrounding environment by imagining a different one, and to view this painting is to breach that seal.

The second sense, the one that Fairbrother does not likely intend but is still fitting, is the connotation of wealth and status. In his caption to the painting, Fairbrother calls The Breakfast Table “an interior devoted to the charms and comforts of middle-class domesticity: silver, linen, and roses in an aura of tranquility and privacy” (p. 55). While the woman at the table is the focal point of the work, the great majority of the canvas is dedicated to depicting the fine and tasteful décor that surrounds her. In viewing the scene from this angle, the audience may have a chance to see how the other half lives.

I don’t think that the woman’s reading is incidental to this display of material privilege, either. Even with rising literacy rates and falling production costs over time, reading is still in some sense a luxury activity, or at least a luxurious one. There is obviously the monetary cost of acquiring new books, but let’s not forget the cost in time as well. Even the shortest of novels will take hours to read, and if a person must work to make a living, or must care for children or elderly family members, they will have far less time to enjoy literature than will the idle rich. (For an almost comical illustration: think how long it can take to linger over a monstrously sized art book, and then imagine someone trying to squeeze it into their commute on public transportation.)

More than anything else, that’s what The Breakfast Table has come to mean for me: a reminder that to read, to write poetry, to even consider running this blog on the side, are all products of relative privilege. There are invisible costs to every human activity, but we can become aware of them in oddest ways. I cannot imagine Sargent had anything like this in mind when he painted his sister reading in his family’s dining room. But a work of art is an opportunity for self-reflection, as much a mirror as it is a window.


Thank you for reading this most recent installment in my “Fragments” series. You would perhaps like to check out my previous efforts in the form: on the 2017 National Book Festival, on nothing, and on a photograph of Yankees game. And if you have any thoughts on John Singer Sargent’s The Breakfast Table, art books, or anything else on topic, let me know in the comments!

Marianne Moore’s “No Swan So Fine”: An Analysis

Marianne Moore wasn’t my favorite poet who I studied as part of my MFA, but she was one of my favorite characters. The way that Elizabeth Bishop describes in particular is just so charming: an almost comically old-fashioned woman who happened to have an experimental flair for poetry, an erudite thinker with popular appeal. I admired her in concept without loving her in fact. At least, that is, until I really stopped to analyze today’s poem, “No Swan So Fine.”

The poem, which you can read over at the Poetry Foundation website, is in many ways the perfect poem to start off the new year with. After all, a new year is a time of transition, a time to reflect upon the past and confront the uncertainty of the present moment. I’m hard-pressed to think of poems that quite capture that anxious attitude toward time like this one does.

We might as well begin with the quote that opens the poem: “No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles” (lines 1-2). If you’re not familiar with Marianne Moore’s style, your first question entering the poem may concern who is speaking there, and why we never hear from that person again. As it happens, the opening quote is not dialogue at all, but rather a line that Moore came across while reading the New York Times Magazine. This is one of Moore’s many trademark moves: incorporating material from mundane, non-poetic sources into her own work. If you’ve ever read her most famous piece, “Poetry,” you’ll recall that she did not think it “valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books’; all these phenomena are important” (17-19). For Moore, profound and fruitful material could be found everywhere.

In this case, the opening quote comes from an article that Percy Phillip wrote for the New York Times Magazine about the restoration of the Palace of Versailles, the grand home of the Bourbon dynasty for the century prior to the French Revolution. As the tone of the quoted material indicates, Phillip found that the restoration still left that symbol of the Ancien Régime feeling sterile, yet because the statement is framed as an absolute, there’s still a sort of grandeur to the setting. Little wonder, then, that Moore found the line inspiring, for it’s the exact sort of language that she extols in “Poetry.”

Where Moore places the line within the poem, however, is somewhat unusual for her work. Generally, these quotes from brochures and technical manuals and whatnot happen in the middle of her poems, occurring almost casually within the verse. In the case of “No Swan So Fine,” though, Moore uses the quote to open the poem, where it blurs the line between text and paratext; were it not for the visual presentation, one might mistake it for an epigraph. In fact, the line more or less functions as one, because the quote directly inspires the speaker’s reflections that comprise the poem.

From that line in the New York Times Magazine, the speaker makes an associative leap to an ornamental swan “[l]odged in the Louis Fifteenth / candelabrum-tree” (8-9). As Grace Shulman writes in Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement (excerpt available on the University of Illinois website), the real-life piece Moore had in mind was a candelabra owned by former British Prime Minister Lord Balfour, which had recently been auctioned off. Both the palace and the swan are antiques of a declining aristocracy, pieces of history whose auras have faded through time.

The speaker’s feeling toward the swan seems ambivalent, to judge by the language used to describe it. To get a sense that ambivalence, let’s look at that first stanza in full:

"No water so still as the
    dead fountains of Versailles." No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and ambidextrous legs, so fine
    as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown-eyes and toothed gold
    collar on to show whose bird it was. (1-7)

On the one hand, there is a regal quality to the verse here, which comes through strongly in the stanza form. As with many of Moore’s early poem, “No Swan So Fine” is built on what Lewis Turco would call quantitative syllabics: repeated stanzas with the same arbitrary pattern in the number of syllables per line. In this case, the stanza form is 7-8-6-8-8-5-9. (Granted, this requires one to use the archaic one-syllable pronunciation of “flowers” in line 14, but such archaisms are not exactly unwelcome given the subject.) Compared with other Moore poems in quantitative syllabics, which often juxtapose Whitman-esque line-lengths with Williams-esque ones, the line lengths of “No Swan So Fine” are relatively regular, with only the last two lines of each stanza differing all that much from the mean.

Further, Moore had a predilection for so-called light rhymes, which are so soft that read aloud they hardly register; one needs to read “The Fish” on the page, for instance, to realize that it rhymes “an” with “fan” and “the” with “sea.” There are no such light rhymes in “No Swan So Fine.” This first stanza’s sole rhyme, “swan” and “fawn,” hits so strongly, despite “fawn” coming as part of a hyphenated compound, that I’m tempted to call this poem Moore’s version of heroic couplets: composed, self-contained, and befitting high subject matter.

While the form of “No Swan So Fine” looks like how a modernist would mourn the decline of aristocratic society, the diction of the poem tends to knock down such nostalgia. While there is something majestic about this statue’s “swart blind look askance,” the speaker mentioning its “ambidextrous legs” only calls attention to the statue’s fundamental inability to move; at any rate, “ambidextrous” is far too functional and clinical a term to “properly” elevate its subject. (Moore would perhaps disagree, but imagine Dryden praising a bird in this fashion.) Or consider the “chintz china” material. While “chintz” can describe a floral pattern originally used in fabric, it also calls to mind the word “chintzy,” meaning gaudy or cheap. Add on that “toothed gold / collar,” and you can envision a statue that is really a grotesque parody of old-money opulence.

Yet just when the reader may start suspecting that Moore looks at the swan sculpture the way Phillip looks at Versailles, the second stanza pulls back on that “look askance,” as it were. Whereas the first stanza focuses on the man-made, artificial elements of the sculpture, the second stanza highlights the natural objects that the sculpture has replicated. The candelabrum is a mixture of “coxcomb- / tinted buttons, dahlias, / sea urchins and everlastings” (9-11), things whose mere mention brings to mind more vibrancy than anything described previously; it’s an almost excessive blooming of life, enough to overcome the knowledge that these, too, are as motionless and inert as the swan itself.

It’s at this point that “No Swan So Fine” appears as though it’s building to a revelatory climax, as though it’s about to uncover something previously unappreciated in the swan sculpture. Closing the above list with “everlastings” carries the suggestion of immortality, and then the speaker has the swan takes its proverbial throne: “it perches on the branching foam / of polished sculptured / flowers—at ease and tall” (12-14). These lines, with that archaic pronunciation of “flowers” I mentioned earlier, have a perfect iambic rhythm, in addition to the quantitative syllabic rhythm the poem is built around. The “polished sculptured / flowers” are the dignified counterpart to the “chintz china” of the first stanza. After that dash, the swan’s poise, how it perches “at ease and tall,” may as well promise a royal rebirth, a restoration.

And then, the punch: “The king is dead.” Four words, then full-stop.

This last sentence is so final, so sudden, that its impact—at least on me—takes a bit to fully sink in. First off, the line recalls those “dead fountains of Versailles” that inspired the poem in the first place, and why those fountains are now full of still water (namely, the execution of Louis XVI). But even stronger, Moore chooses to end the poem before the phrase is complete. After all, the saying goes, “The king is dead, love live the king!” There’s the promise, the guarantee, of continuity in the line of succession, a promise that the world of the poem cannot keep.

When that last line is taken as whole, we’re left with a very uneasy sentiment: the stability of “at ease and tall” vs. the earth-shattering “The king is dead.” There is no obvious way to resolve this tension; rather, it is best to accept is as an essential element of the poem. Schulman sees a “dialectical progress of the mind” in Moore’s poem, in how it oscillates between the two moods we’ve discussed, and if you ask me, no moment embodies that tendency more than this last line.

No poem less certain than the jewel crafted by Marianne Moore.


But I’ve gone on for long enough. What are your thoughts on “No Swan So Fine”? Are there any poems that you think capture a similar feeling to this one. Let me know in the comments!

And as always, thanks for reading.

Recent Publication: Maryland Literary Review

I’m pleased to announce that I have a poem in the inaugural issue of the Maryland Literary Review. It’s called “We Sleep However We Can,” and it’s an ekphrastic poem inspired by Fernard Léger’s Animated Landscape, a 1921 painting in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. I lived in Baltimore for almost three years while pursuing my MFA, so it’s nice to have a poem published that can rep for the Old Line State.

Special thanks and good luck wishes go to Nathan Leslie, the editor of the Maryland Literary Review. May your new journal find its audience!

You can read “We Sleep However We Can” by clicking here, and you can see the BMA’s listing for Léger’s painting here.