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This is about Jane Austen

By Rebecca Wolff

I thought I’d share some mature thoughts on Lisa Robertson’s magic powers but instead I’m thinking about Jane Austen. She’s really come down in the world. My parents were watching some PBS bodice-ripper a few months ago, and it took me several minutes to discern that it was a hotted-up Pride & Prejudice. Lots of longing and heavy breathing in between those elegant sentences. (I know I sound Puritanical but I’ve recently realized I am a Puritan.)

Sentences are what fascinated me so much, I think, about Jane Austen’s novels, when I was a developing poet, ages oh twelve through nineteen is about the peak of my engagement with what I now realize ARE truly romances. I used to always point to Austen as a strong influence, alongside Henry James, and what I thought I was talking about was the absoluteness of the precision with which her characters express themselves and with which she defines their motives. Sentences are there to be reported, broken, or completed, in poems, and I have loved doing all of these.

But I have to admit to a clinical disappointment reading Persuasion, her last novel, during a recent bout with Lyme disease. Granted I was sporting Fever 103 and all its attendant visions (one audio hallucination that I could perfectly “mix” a Crosby Stills & Nash song with a Radiohead song–they blended so beautifully–gone forever), but this was like a reverse hallucination: The novel stripped of all its language-aura, a pedestrian strapping together of elements of plot that Must Come Together, the sentences workmanlike. I wonder if I ought to go to Charlotte Bronte now.

Comments (32)

  • On July 14, 2009 at 1:05 pm Don Share wrote:

    Anyone ever read Jane Austen’s poems?? Here’s one:

    I’ve a Pain in my Head

    ‘I’ve a pain in my head’
    Said the suffering Beckford;
    To her Doctor so dread.
    ‘Oh! what shall I take for’t?’

    Said this Doctor so dread
    Whose name it was Newnham.
    ‘For this pain in your head
    Ah! What can you do Ma’am?’

    Said Miss Beckford, ‘Suppose
    If you think there’s no risk,
    I take a good Dose
    Of calomel brisk.’–

    ‘What a praise worthy Notion.’
    Replied Mr. Newnham.
    ‘You shall have such a potion
    And so will I too Ma’am.’

  • On July 14, 2009 at 2:37 pm jason wrote:

    I like Northanger Abbey best.

    Also, this happened:


    . . .now with ultra-violent zombie mayhem.

  • On July 14, 2009 at 3:19 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Hast read D. A. Miller’s Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style? The opening is beautiful:

    “All of us who read Austen early—say, at eleven or twelve, the age when she began writing—were lost to the siren lure of her voice. ‘How nicely you talk; I love to hear you. You understand everything.’ Yet whereas Emma’s talk merely held Harriet with the charm of a person, what Austen’s writing channeled for us was the considerably more exciting appeal of no longer being one…. No extraneous static encumbered the dictation of a grammar that completed, and an art that finished, every crystalline sentence. Altogether, such thrillingly inhuman utterance was not stylish; it was Style itself.”

    Now, if only someone’s talk around here could hold Harriet with the charm of a person.

  • On July 14, 2009 at 4:06 pm duane sosseur wrote:

    …cool poetry from jane austen

  • On July 14, 2009 at 4:09 pm Boyd Nielson wrote:

    Ooooh, yes, Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style is gorgeous. Highly recommended.

    Pleased to read this, Rebecca, and pleased to hear you call yourself a puritan. But, you know, puritans themselves often loved longing! Anyone here read Edward Taylor, or Jonathan Edwards on desire?

  • On July 14, 2009 at 4:53 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Rebecca, Hi! How did you discover you’re a Puritan? Very exciting.

  • On July 14, 2009 at 5:54 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Better than George Eliot’s epigraphs in Middlemarch, anyway.

  • On July 14, 2009 at 7:16 pm Steve wrote:

    Don’t go knocking the epigraphs to Middlemarch until you’ve tried to write thoughtful Wordsworthian (and Shakespearean and other) pastiche yourself.

    I like the sentences in Persuasion– though it’s a softer, more generous book than the rest. Rebecca, are you feeling better by now? I hope so; don’t leave us worrying…

  • On July 14, 2009 at 7:48 pm Rebecca Wolff wrote:

    I read almost the whole of this standing in a bookstore (the new organized-by-nation indie bookstore on 16th street in Manhattan–Idlewild?) and thought it was so brilliant. Though kind of short on zombie action.

  • On July 14, 2009 at 7:58 pm Rebecca Wolff wrote:

    I’m so Puritan longing makes me uncomfortable! and makes me start pointing fingers at witches. But seriously, I do trace my ancestry through her brother to Rebecca Nurse, famous upstanding citizen of Salem Village, hung in I think 1692? My mother named me after her.

    Another unpleasant surprise in my Lyme tick haze (from which I am fully recovered, thank you, although apparently the serum of the tick can lodge deep in your spine and cause you great trouble later on) was to discover how shallow the satire of Persuasion. It didn’t feel generous at all! Austen seemed to take such easy shots at, for example, the father, who cares only about how well he–or anyone–looks and how high the peerage. It felt awfully thin.

  • On July 14, 2009 at 8:03 pm Rebecca Wolff wrote:

    My mama drummed it into me (see above) from childhood, our authentic (though not WASP-y, more spooky) early Americanism. And my dispositional Puritanism I’ve lately begun to think is because my parents were in their twenties in the fifties. Or because I grew up in New York in the seventies. I know it could have gone the other way but it didn’t.

  • On July 14, 2009 at 8:05 pm Rebecca Wolff wrote:

    Steve, I responded to your post in my reply to the post two above! Silly me.

  • On July 15, 2009 at 1:01 am Terreson wrote:

    Well, Rebecca Wolff, your article doesn’t give me much to chew on. Apart from the fact I’ve been informed you are puritanical in inclination and that you’ve been bitten by a tick I am still kind of wondering about your estimate of Jane Austen.


  • On July 15, 2009 at 7:54 am jaime_d wrote:

    Yes, come to the Charlotte Bronte side of town! “Villette” will surely cure your Austen romance blues.

  • On July 15, 2009 at 9:47 am Boyd Nielson wrote:

    Well, see, that is just the thing: longing hardly made (many) puritans uncomfortable. I know you’re joking, of course. But we shouldn’t forget that–as obvious examples–the sermons of John Cotton, the sermons and poems of Edward Taylor and most anything of Jonathan Edwards are all deeply invested in (an often feminized) longing. For instance, take these stanzas from Taylor’s Meditation 163:

    Sweet Lord, all sweet from top to bottom all
    From Heart to hide, sweet, mostly sweet.
    Sweet Manhood and sweet Godhood ere shall.
    Thou art the best of sweeting. And so keep.
    Thou art made up of best of Sweeting brast.
    Thy Fruit is ever sweet unto my tast.

    While I sat longing in the shadow here
    To tast the fruite this Apple tree all ripe
    How sweet these sweetings bee. Oh! sweet good Cheere
    How I am filld with sweet most sweet delight.
    The fruite, while I was in its shady place
    Was and is to mee now sweet to my tast.

    Of course, such forms of puritan longing are also historically contingent and certainly different from forms of desire in the novel. Michael mentioned The Secret of Style above, and, as a side note, it occurs to me that Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction might just have something useful for the discussion on Austen and Charlotte Bronte (even if, of course, one ends up disagreeing with Armstrong):

    “The Brontes indeed saw their work as a reaction against the tradition of domestic fiction exemplified by Jane Austen…If they designated certain forms of female desire as outside of culture, they did so in order to make these forms represent a new basis in nature for the self, thus a new human nature. And so Charlotte’s critique of Austen concludes with the famous statement that establishes such forms of sexuality as the basis for the aesthetics of fiction: ‘Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless), woman'” (191-2).

  • On July 15, 2009 at 10:15 am michael robbins wrote:

    I love both Taylor & Edwards. I wish someone would do a post on puritan longing. No one but Taylor could have come up with this trope:

    In this sad state, God’s Tender Bowels run
    Out streams of Grace: and He to end all strife
    The Purest Wheat in Heaven His dear-dear Son
    Grinds, and kneads up into this Bread of Life.
    Which Bread of Life from Heaven down came and stands
    Dashed on Thy Table up by Angels’ Hands

  • On July 15, 2009 at 10:53 am Rebecca Wolff wrote:

    “Article”? “Article”?! I’m afraid sir you misunderstand my genre at the moment. I’m blogging.

  • On July 16, 2009 at 9:56 am thomas brady wrote:


    I think I’m a Puritan, too, a Mayflower descendent with all the ‘first American’ creds.

    I was raised as an atheist and still have no religion; as a neutral Outsider I can say pretty much anything I want about religion (though my background, liberal WASP, means I should probably keep my mouth shut, or utter platitudes about ‘the self’ and ‘longing’) but, in truth, I don’t see how a poet can avoid confronting religion, either by taking on the role of ‘poet-priest, or, a subordinate role as court entertainer, or the role of an oracle who openly defies religion.

    Jane Austen and Henry James, as novelists, can filter religion through moral vistas of stories and gossip–poets don’t have this luxury.

    The problem here is that confronting religion is not an easy task. Religious strictures define morals and behavior for society at large; how can a poet—especially a secular one, take on this sort of authority? First, they probably wouldn’t want it, secondly, I doubt they would know/or be able to take on that kind of authority, and thirdly, purely as a practical matter, how could they possibly be effective?

    The best a poet could do as a moralist would be to echo or mimic certain established moral and ethical elements in the religious firmament & society at large, but this would probably be hateful to a poet, making them feel bland and petty and small, and they would certainly hide such gestures behind vague and indirect language, in order to avoid appearing petty and self-consciously moral.

    “The Spoon River Anthology” by Edgar Lee Masters was probably the last attempt to tackle moral, religious issues in a direct manner for a mainstream audience, but the plain-speaking, prosaic, anecdotal, modernist writing style of Master seems to have doomed him to irrelevance.

    Carl Dennis is the Edgar Lee Masters of today; just turn the pronoun from ‘you’ to ‘I’ in Dennis’ plain-speaking‘The God Who Loves You’ and it becomes one of Masters’ talking graves.

    Carl Dennis and Edgar Lee Masters have done all that could be expected of a poet in these terms, but neither are much in favor with the general public, and I would guess it has something to do with the fact that readers of poetry don’t really want religious and moral questions discussed overtly, no matter how blandly, tactfully, intelligently and irreligiously the poet manages to take on this role.

    Billy Collins has had more success than Dennis because Collins does not speculate on *religious* questions very much; as a student of the Romantics, Billy Collins speculates on art-in-life, not religion-in-life (even though the two things will overlap); Collins resides in a Romantic realm where art is the new religion, and thus he escapes having to be a small-time preacher in his poems, and can instead explore what today’s educated, poetry-reading public is more comfortable with; religion is a difficult subject and we would rather look at morals through the glass of poetry; Collins’ self-conscious reflections work, then, in a happy, humorous vein, and this is the key to his success.


  • On July 16, 2009 at 10:03 am thomas brady wrote:


    To explore this question a little further:

    The Edgar Lee Masters School is by far the largest school of contemporary American poetry, I would say, and includes A.R. Ammons, C.K. Williams, Stephen Dunn, and thousands of others.

    Edgar Lee Masters isn’t discussed much these days, and this may be part of the problem: the ignorance of source. Masters organized his work into a specific form which aided his popularity at the time—and this formula has been ignored by his unconscious followers like Ammons and C.K. Williams.

    The poet who takes on the role of a puritan priest could become very popular. Collins, the Romantic satirist, is probably as popular as any secular poet in our age is ever going to get, as long as Romanticism remains a religion for the English Majors–but no one else.

    The court entertainer mode is exemplified by Ashbery, who never commits moral gestures. Unfortunately, Ashbery is little more than still-born Keats-dying-into-Victorianism, the revenge of *self-conscious* surface on *unconscious* surface; Ashbery is art-for-art’s sake pounded into flatness as art-for-art’s sake is willfully misread into a mere floor-plan of itself.

    Romanticism took on religion (see: Poe, Shelley, Keats) but since then, poetry has been at a loss regarding it, taking either the plain-speaking Edgar Lee Masters route (ineffective, since in the wake of Keats’ triumph, plain-speaking is retrograde rather than progressive) or the mystical John Ashbery route (also retro, since it shirks Romanticism’s task of specifically challenging religion).

    The Wordsworth—Mary Oliver line has popular appeal, but Nature needs to be enlivened in poetry, it cannot be merely reflected in it—-which points up the whole problem generally, in terms of poetry matching wits and influence with religion. The love of animals, unfortunately, is a horribly trite subject, and the more nobly it is indulged, the more cloying it becomes. Nature cannot live without Man (and the mirror reverse of this: Nature cannot live with Man works, too) and this brings us right back to the ‘religious’ question, and the poet-as-priest.

    Emerson, which American Letters insists on holding aloft as a model, is a not a particularlry good one for poetry, and even though Harold Bloom is not a poet, he should know this, for Emerson combines the worst elements of Masters and Ashbery (prosaic on one hand and mystical on the other) and this is the problem with Puritanism generally—it seeks to be logical within a subject long colored in the popular mind by miracles, mystery and authority.

    The suppressed line of descent from Emerson to T.S. Eliot (whose early Futurist success as Mr. Prufrock singing mock-heroic songs in the Waste Land dwindled into self-conscious Episcopalian dribble) was called out by the Old World Literary Lion William Butler Yeats, who, in his old age, referred to Eliot as “a New England Protestant by descent.”

    All puritans, take note!


  • On July 16, 2009 at 12:02 pm michael robbins wrote:

    “If living is a hate crime, so be it.” – John Ashbery

  • On July 16, 2009 at 12:09 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Also, sheesh, I guess it falls to me to point out that Ashbery doesn’t shirk from the task of confronting religion, as those who are actually familiar with his work (as opposed to assuming they don’t need to be familiar with his work in order to make oracular pronouncements about it) know already.

    When someone lectures others pedantically, rather than engaging in discussion, no one pays him any attention. He’s a street preacher, a conspiracy theorist, always ready to tell you things you know are false, but which he invests with spittle-flecked manic certainty. Notice how often the tone is hectoring, leaving no room for respectful disagreement, the fevered voice of someone who knows the answers already & can’t believe no one else takes him seriously. I am not the only one who’s tired of it, & I’m not the only one to decide to bow out until the one-man show shuts down. See you around the way.

  • On July 16, 2009 at 12:19 pm thomas brady wrote:

    ?? Not sure what you or Ashbery are talking about there, Michael. ??

  • On July 16, 2009 at 12:23 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Not a lecture, Michael, just giving Rebecca’s post the respect it deserves–a substantive response. Are you jealous? I don’t like small-talk, that’s just the way I reply to a post, when I have a moment. I thought you were going to tell us something new about Ashbery, but all you wanted to say is that you are “familiar” with Ashbery, and I am not. OK, thanks!

  • On July 16, 2009 at 12:29 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Like I said, Thomas, I’m retiring. But here’s one last homework assignment for you: read Three Poems in its entirety, then get back to us.

  • On July 16, 2009 at 12:55 pm thomas brady wrote:

    I agree, Michael, I’m taking a break; I want to give others a chance to speak; a tip: show more substance in your posts before you give assignments…

  • On July 16, 2009 at 3:26 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    We won’t have Brady to kick around any more.

  • On July 16, 2009 at 8:18 pm Gail White wrote:

    Rebecca, I have to admit that “Persuasion” is actually a favorite of mine. I love the heroine’s dilemma – which could NEVER occur to a heroine today – of how to let the once-rejected lover know that she loves him still when she CAN’T GIVE HIM THE SLIGHTEST HINT OF HER FEELINGS! Austen clues him in with the overheard conversation in which Anne says that “women love longest when all hope is gone.”

    I think that for this novel of love between people who are no longer young, and a woman whose life has long been repressed and subservient to others, the dryer style is just right.

  • On July 16, 2009 at 9:32 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    For all those people (whose names shall not be spoken) that believe there is no relevant religious poetry being written today, I say:


    How reconcile this paradox,
    this Creator who loves creation,
    with the brutality and blood
    that makes it turn,
    this endless flow of life,
    forms granted their existence
    by the eating of each other,
    the bewildered, starving young
    still awaiting their dead mother?

    How resolve dearth of compassion,
    this cruelly designed summation
    by the One who loves us all,
    those lost to fire and fang and flood
    or blown from nests in storms?

    We will reason, for we are human
    and create our fine Religions
    which our reason then deforms.

    Copyright 2008 – HARDWOOD-77 Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald


    Sunday On The Rio Religio

    A wide river, as black as space
    and swift; impossible to swim.
    It has swallowed many a soul and craft.
    So many bridges built to defeat the current
    and each week the faithful tramp across them,
    marching from their humble homes
    to the hope on the farther side.
    The bridge is long, for the river’s wide,
    stretching to re-link the here to there,
    the brighter to the dim

    It’s a long walk across this bridge
    and as we walked and walked and walked
    from lost to leading side,
    we watched the river move and slide
    beneath us. We saw a bird fly across.
    The wings of her natural spirit took her
    over in half the time.

    Copyright – SOFTWOOD-Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On July 16, 2009 at 9:33 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    So there!

  • On July 17, 2009 at 8:45 am thomas brady wrote:


    I’m a bit nervous, because this is my first ‘like/dislike’ posting.

    OK…I can do this…

    Let us admit the Reverend Gary Fitzgerald has uttered two poems; but one features the tired old cliche, ‘How can God love us if things are so bad?’ and the other seems to be demonstrating the notion that birds fly faster than people walk across bridges.

    My point, Mr. Fitzgerald, is that poems such as these garner no religious authority; they skate over the subject, they don’t engage the topic in such a way that the general public would ever take notice; they remain simply, *poems,* which is fine, but they don’t rise to anything more.

    For instance, I would never consider myself a religious poet just because I wrote the following poem:

    Whale Island

    As I approach Whale Island
    I notice there are no whales
    And no islands. There is
    Nothing but sentimentality
    Of story in someone else’s words.
    “You go to Whale Island,”
    The elders told me,
    With knowing wink and nod,
    The grin we see which says
    All one needs to know
    Of the real life and the real God.

    So here I am approaching
    Whale Island, that those who are gone
    Never got around to seeing
    Because they were saying
    Something else for a long time,
    The usual things one says on the sod
    In a coat of flesh, with no understanding of God.

    Now Whale Island, in all its beauty,
    Looms in front of me.
    I laugh because Anita Gota
    Shared a laugh with me
    When I used the word
    “Looms” in a journalism project.
    Every time we saw “looms” in a newspaper
    We laughed.
    Here it is. Whale Island.
    Now isn’t this odd?
    I cannot tell, either,
    Why there is laughter and fever
    And unrequited love forever
    For all who toil or trip on sod,
    Howling in their suit of flesh
    For what was once so beautiful and fresh
    Before Whale Island was mentioned, or God.

    Or, this one:

    Ah Yes

    Scooped from a plum among birds singing,
    Nature ate her full while mankind looked on.
    Why is there so much eating? Why death?
    Nature, drooling, said, “Ask the sun.”
    Why does nature permit this holocaust?
    Why is death allowed its eternal mockery?
    Why do the sons of memory perish in the frost?
    Why is our wisdom dominated by mouth and elegy?
    Why is our calendar peppered with death?
    Love drinks clear streams and still has foul breath.
    Nature chews on its tail, looks at me with blank eyes.
    Nature, ignorant of history, eats, flying as it flies.
    The poop littered the trail. The senator instructed the committee
    That hope and commerce were good and we would be free.

    Like you, Mr. Fitzgerald, I am not challenging religion or providing an alternative to religion; I am simply musing philosophically in my poems on what religion builds upon.

    We, my dear Gary, are not Milton, Keats, Shelley, or Poe.


  • On July 17, 2009 at 10:23 am Rebecca Wolff wrote:

    Wow, this is fun. Here’s a poem about religion without being religious from The King:

    Attitudes at Altitudes

    The other side of the mountain
    and even cultivates
    its mystery

    I’m quite secular myself
    but I have no problem
    with religion

    in fact I encourage it

    How do I encourage it?

    You might ask.

    With my sentences. . . .

    Vantage point . . .
    Plate-blue sky . . .
    Plateau of clouds . . .

    Good God.

    They trail off.

  • On July 17, 2009 at 6:08 pm disenchanting wrote:

    Austen funny,
    Austen wise
    Austen (very often)
    shall surprise.
    Austen shows us how to live;
    be brave,
    be good,
    don’t just take, give.

    But don’t be only
    soft of heart

    use your head
    to play your part

    and make the language
    a good friend

    then happy after
    all will

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 by Rebecca Wolff.