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This item is taken from PN Review 193, Volume 36 Number 5, May - June 2010.

On 10 January 150 years ago Ivan Turgenev lectured on ‘Hamlet and Don Quixote’ in St Petersburg, an event to raise money for the Society for the Aid of Indigent Writers and Scientists. Dostoyevsky, recently back from exile, was in the audience. In the wake of Czar Nicholas I, there were plenty of indigent writers and scientists to aid. Turgenev quotes Goethe, ‘To comprehend a poet, one must enter that poet’s environment.’ One must enter the environment of Turgenev’s lecture, accustom the ear to his ceremonious formality and follow him on his ‘tour of exploration’.

The lecture begins with an error of fact: that the first quarto of Hamlet (1603) and the first part of Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605) were published in the same year. But they were published suggestively close in the opening years of the seventeenth century. ‘This concurrence seems momentous. The proximity of time in this instance induces a consideration of a whole series of events.’ Not unnaturally Turgenev, himself a reader of Spanish who once considered translating Don Quixote into Russian, and whose temperament is more at home with the Knight of the Sad Figure than with the soliloquising Prince, wonders whether Shakespeare in retirement might have become familiar with Quixote, in Spanish or in translation. How archaic, and how modern, the Spaniard would have seemed to him.

The liberal instincts which irritated Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Turgenev are evident here: ‘the poetic masterpieces created by the genius of superior minds, and endowed with an eternal vitality, have this peculiarity […]: one’s conceptions of them, as of life in general, may differ greatly from another’s, may even be diametrically opposed, yet at the same time be valid.’

Though their meanings cannot be confined, paraphrased or reconciled, the valid contrary directions of these works are undeniable. But Hamlet is more variously interpretable than Don Quixote: ‘the idiosyncrasy of its purpose and the truly admirable lucidity of a narrative that seems permeated by the Southern Sun, do not permit of such a diversity of critical reaction’. Turgenev regrets that the Don is often read merely as a figure of jest, the embodiment of ‘idealistic nonsense’: ‘in reality one ought to see the Quixotic as a template of self-sacrifice, even though Don Quixote himself has been drawn as ludicrous’.

In Hamlet and Don Quixote, Turgenev concludes, ‘are embodied two contrasting basic tendencies, the two poles of the human axis about which they revolve. All men, to my mind, conform to one type or the other; one to that of Hamlet, another to that of Don Quixote, though it is true, no doubt, that in our era the Hamlets are far more common.’

Christopher Ricks’s engagement with Geoffrey Hill and his poetry in True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound (Yale University Press), published last month, suggests that in Hill’s imagination Hamlet and Quixote are in a curious way, if not reconciled, then contained in an anxious and volatile tension. Ricks himself, brilliantly, adopts the roll now of a guileless Sancho Panza, now of an avuncular Polonius, but mainly of an equable, emollient Horatio, urging the Knight- Prince to be less aggrieved, and probing the spaces between Hill’s reading of Eliot’s prose and his verse. ‘Hills’s poems as well as his criticism wrestle angelically with Eliot, with Pound, and with Lowell,’ he says; but on balance, when he considers Eliot’s prose, he speaks with a vengeful voice.

Eliot wrote of Harry Crosby’s Transit of Venus: ‘Of course one can “go too far” and except in directions in which we can go too far there is no interest in going at all; and only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out just how far one can go. Not to go far enough is to remain “in the vague” as surely and less creditably than to exceed.’ Hamlet, Quixote and Hill all take the risk; Hill has yet to reach the extreme of his pathway. Had Hill had his way, Eliot would have gone another route: ‘The deepening failure of Eliot, both as a poet and critic, to focus his powers, I attribute to his increasing inability - and it begins fairly early, in the 1920s - to contemplate the heavy cost of being, of becoming, radically, irretrievably, alienated.’

Ricks resists Hill’s ‘disparagement of consolation’, his sense that ‘disturbing and alienating readers are intrinsically the good or the better things to do’. How far will ‘the hissing of my own animus’ take Hill? Quite a long way, it would seem, with a few more miles to go. And Ricks will follow him, not too many paces behind, occasionally getting cuffed and berated for his efforts.

In this issue of PN Review we include a page of extracts from Michael Glover’s web-magazine The Bow-Wow Shop. He will contribute extract pages to future issues, including gobbets, longer passages and occasionally illustrations. Several on-line magazines of moment or promise now exist: The Bow-Wow Shop is among the most beguiling.

This item is taken from PN Review 193, Volume 36 Number 5, May - June 2010.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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