Reconstructing The Victorian House: Philip Childs Hermeneutic
by Elizabeth Bieman
For a few years after Philip Childs long narrative poem The Victorian House appeared 1951, in a slim volume with a few added lyrics, it enjoyed a modest degree of acceptance. Northrop Frye described this narrative developed in reverie, rather than dramatically with favour and understanding in his annual review of Letters in Canada in 1952: the narrator has to sell his family home, and in throwing it open to a purchaser memories come back to him and build up a picture of his early life. He achieves, in the process, a fleeting sense of an eternal home life in a single body of love. Frye regretted, however, a rather self-deprecating melancholy, a tentative gentleness, and a mannerism of quoting too many tags from Shakespeare.1
It may well have been the overt literary traditionalism of the work that led Ontario educators to prescribe it on the common curriculum for Grade 13 in the academic years 1952-3 and 1964-5, when graduating high school students faced province-wide university entrance departmentals. Whatever the intent in assigning a very sophisticated poem to a young readership, they assured a certain proportion of educated Ontarians of some familiarity with it. The teachers at the time may have been influenced by the dust jacket and dedication of the first edition to introduce it as the poets in memoriam to an age that is past and gone,2 and thus to reinforce the impressions of melancholy and mannerism that Frye recorded. It is not probable that many, in those earlier years, were prompted to notice the poem as a mimesis of the process by which networks of meaningful language grow by accretion and adjust themselves in the face of change, in the evolving cosmos of literature. This essay will argue, among other matters, that the literary echoes in the poem function primarily to draw attention to such a process.
In 1965, William H. Magee announced that strong though the competition may be, the most neglected of good Canadian authors is probably Philip Child: his reappraisal sought to promote interest in the novels by drawing attention to their modernism, and the cosmopolitanism which he suspected of hindering their acceptance by Canadian readers. The Victorian House he judged adversely, as different from prose as melancholy and static in contrast to the optimistic and energetic fiction. Magees brief description of the poem missed the interconnectedness that should be seen between a mans longing for the security of the last generation as he sells his home and the secondary theme which examines abstract love in a world that produces Judases in every generation.3
The critical neglect deplored in 1965 has been at least interrupted recently by Dennis Duffy. In MEMORY= PAIN The Haunted World of Philip Childs Fiction, Duffy concerns himself with dimensions of the novels that are anything but optimistic and energetic. Disclaiming revisionist or Rehabilitative purpose, he agrees readily with Desmond Paceys influential dismissal of the Child Fiction as too didactic and unhappily unwilling to rely upon implication and indirection.4 Duffy chooses to point out the presence and significance of certain themes (his title identifies them) to demonstrate an entire aspect . . . of considerable interest to students of the affective and psychological aspects of Canadian literature. From his chosen perspective he is led to observe that Childs ideology for which he accepts Paceys label Christian humanism fails in the novels to confer the secure and rational optimism both seem to expect of such a belief.
This present essay will be avowedly revisionary, and if not rehabilitative it will be reconstructionist in the sense I find demanded by The Victorian House. I wish to counter the prevailing tendency to settle upon the dimensions of melancholy and suffering that are most certainly to be found in the poem (as in the novels). In so doing, I shall find those darker dimensions expressed primarily through the semi-transparent persona that Child reluctantly assumes to narrate the poem in the first person.5 I shall find them modified and balanced, and potentially overcome, by other voices and factors that fill out a far from melancholy pattern when the narration is complete. I shall concern myself with a network of symbolic language that offers interconnections so intricate and shifting that the shape the poem takes must be for each reader new, and far from final. Reverie, as phenomenologists like Bachelard have been leading us to see, may be dynamically and open-endedly creative:6 this poem, as Frye has rightly seen, is far more reverie than conventional narration. As the symbolic network shapes and reshapes itself for the narrator, so it does in all probability for the author, whose personal involvement has been admitted, and so it should for the reader.
The term I apply to the reading I propose reconstructionist is meant to indicate the rebuilding by the narrator through daydream of an alternate for the world that is being torn apart. It may also serve to acknowledge an inservile debt to the deconstructionist critics who contribute to our realization that literature, and the interpretation of literature, represent a dynamic process of change. It will signal a refusal to use negative language forms, or to rest in a meaning-denying view, of the processes by which symbolic language operates. Such language can be made to cast its network back to recover the past, can confer shape upon that past in crucial acts of remembering, and can open the one who remembers (narrator, poet, and imaginatively assenting reader) to a future radically new because it is rooted deep, by the roots of the language chosen, in the past.7 Such a process is creatively positive. It neither denies change and the consequent pain, mimesis of which has evoked negative reactions from Childs readers, nor exorcises change and pain in an agon of opposition: it accepts and redeems them by incorporating them into the patterned flux of the inner life. In the symbolic structure of the poem, Judas represents the precipitator of the change that brings pain. The narrators father yearns for his redemption; the sons memories as shaped by Child do much to accomplish it for the reader, and eventually for the narrator himself.
Something of Childs own poetic, set forth in his review of Sheila Watsons The Double Hook, may be introduced here, in order to be turned back upon his poem.
Symbols, of course, must convey the matters that are more important than crude event, and they
It will be seen that Child could share with modern critics a central concern with the process by which a structure of symbolic language generates new apprehensions in each new reader. But unlike those who are unconcerned with the potentiality of signifiers and signifieds to shape themselves into patterns of valid, if never final, significance, or those who would deny that any significance can be postulated beyond the momentary chimaeras that appear to the individual mind,9 Child points in The Victorian House to a mode of apprehension compatible with the older forms of belief suggested in the term Christian humanism. His achievement is to reaffirm the values of loving and hoping in symbols drawn from the Bible and humane literature, even as he painfully comes to terms in his poem with the demolition of the older structures of thinking signified by the outmoded and doomed housed.10
Against the fictional setting of the old house, Child unfolds a web of relationships of many sorts, between persons, between times and events, between ways of looking at the world. To attempt as I must in this argument to indicate the dominant patterns that they make is to risk arresting the dance of the symbols. Some safeguards have already been mustered in the emphasis that has been laid upon the hermeneutical process. But Child himself provides many safeguards against too rigid or too certain a reading his symbols connect, disconnect, regroup, and quite refuse to stand firm and still.
Childs broader structuring principles are graspable enough. The direct narration of the poem is given in flexible, unrhymed pentameter lines, primarily iambic, their flow oscillating from the narrative present (the ongoing encounter with the developer) to the past of memory and to the atemporal dimensions of meditation. The shifts are at first occasioned logically, as a specific location in the house calls up associated memories, as memory leads to elaborating meditation, or as the physical presence of Mr. Hammer reimposes itself. As the poem unfolds, the doors to new areas of the imagination are unlocked more often by something in the world of developing inner significance than by a movement in the outer narrative: eventually, the presence of Mr. Hammer is countenanced within the reverie.11 The direct speech of many voices is marked off clearly by quotation marks, whether it be that of the narrator himself to Mr. Hammer, Hammers to him, or the words of a voice recalled in reverie. Because voices past and present are given, structurally, in the same way, we are prompted to read them ultimately as in conversation with each other and to find them of balancing significance in the emerging pattern. At intervals, several brief poems in italics interrupt the flow of direct narration: some are ascribed to a specific voice from the past, and some seem to come without identification from another dimension of the narrators consciousness. Literary, mythic, and historical voices, too, sound everywhere through evocative echo: the Shakespearean speakers of the too many tags are joined by at least as powerful presences from the Bible to lead a company that includes Plato and Aristotle, St. Bernard, St. Francis and other medieval mystics, Dante, Cranmer and Latimer, Milton, Traherne, Bunyan, Blake, Wordsworth, Lewis Carroll, Freud, Eliot, and Karel Cape.12
The flux of all these voices, echoes, events and meditative responses cumulative evidences of individual experience played out in an inner world shaped by the humane and Christian past is marshalled by Child into eight sections, quite uneven in length, set off by Roman numerals. The divisions seem at first simply appropriate to the Victorianism of the enterprise. Eventually they emerge as numerological gestures appropriate to the older humane Christian milieu that the literary echoes evoke.
We may begin tracing some of the specific symbolic patterns by noting two intersecting axes of relationship established very early in the poem, that between the narrator and his interlocutor, Mr. Hammer, and (far more vivid at first) that between the narrator and the father he recalls:
The language here has established Mr. Hammer as a figure of death and destruction. He has earlier been marked as mathematical before the hint of death, the calculating. He has asked for a count of the rooms in the fathers house; the narrator has never thought of counting them before today.14 Having recorded the number (there are nineteen) and a capsule history of the house, the threatening agent proceeds to find every possible fault with the exterior:
The fathers figure emerges clearly in Section II. As Hammer is measuring, memories are flooding in upon the narrator in the upper rooms":
The talk of measure in the outer world is counterpoised to the recollection of an alter-world behind the mirror-door:
The father inhabits a dimension totally different from that of Mr. Hammer: their simultaneous presence to the narrator establishes another axis of relationship, this one symbolic, between these two. The father inhabits a world of the art that orders memory behind the mirroring door whose obverse has reflected the everyday world of the developer with his measure. The difference between them is as extreme as that between Christ and the Judas he could not . . . draw . . . into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Later, in Section IV, the narrator remembers a poem, written by his father, concerned with the fate of Judas under Judgment. As he responds to this memory the opposition that we see in the father and Mr. Hammer between art and everyday is spelled out in terms of poetry and prose":
Associated with poetry we note the figure of the father; the impulse to forgiveness in the father brought to realization in the quoting of Christs words (Judas is included in the prayer the fathers query is answered in the act of its posing); and the act of writing under atemporal flashes of insight. There is also an oblique analogy or equation, when we recall the first reference to Judas in a conversation behind the mirrored door, of poetry to the Kingdom of Heaven, to which Judas may, or may not, be admitted, according to the symbolic category that prevails. Associated with prose we note Mr. Hammer, and the narrator when he is not under the impulses that evoke forgiveness and the writing of poetry. It is not a simple opposition of bad and good: the walls of prose go up to surround the Debate in the Soul, a debate that must come to terms with the remorseless probing of the rats like love and forgiveness, rats insist upon inhabiting this world of poetry, and require the deepest attention. The prosaic man, like Hammer, may content himself ordinarily with seeing the flaws in the outer world the structural defects in the house, and the rats in its material walls. The poetic man, like the narrator in communion with memory and dream, must confront evidences of decay and danger that are infinitely more painful, evidences involving the human lives that have unfolded within and beyond the prosaic walls.
The axis that links poetry and prose has to do with modes of feeling and seeing and knowing, rather than with categories of practical or moralistic judgment. It has to do with many other axes that intersect with it, at many differing angles: with the lines between time and eternity, appearance and reality, acorn and oak, child and man.15 Poetic man may seem safer in some of these terms than prosaic man, but he is in much graver danger, when he confronts that which he sees as evil, of suffering, and judging himself as harshly as another. Judas was, arguably, as mathematical as Mr. Hammer in taking the quasi-political action that yielded him thirty coins,16 but the Judas who hastily hanged himself had glimpsed in partial poetic truth that which he had done as evil. He had not waited to see, in fuller vision, the eternal forgiveness to which Christs prayer, repeated in the fathers poem, bears cryptic witness.
The warning we have heard in Childs own words about the distance between symbols and concepts must be repeated. It will not do to think of these pairs belonging stably to columns such as this:
Evidence already presented indicates that the narrator is operating on both sides of the chart and that past and present interfuse. Moreover, to the active interpreting imagination Judas may be seen as already redeemed (although father and narrator may not be able to see him so) by the prayerful love of Christ that is mirrored by the father in his poem, and by the narrator himself as reshaper and transmitter of past and reverie in the larger poem by Child. The symbolic axes tangle in mimesis of chaos when we seek to order them conceptually, yet the poem requires of us that we try.
Mr. Hammers schematic relationship to Judas may be documented by setting a brief passage beside the narrators admission, I am, in prose, . . . not overfond of Brother Hammer":
Relatively inoffensive and sporadically ludicrous as Mr. Hammer seems, he is the present tense of the narration the Judas in need of redemption by the narrator, the poet, or the reader. In the poetic dimension he is clearly dangerous enough a bringer of pain of many sorts. He threatens the beloved old house both the external signifying structure, and the signified structures of memory and thought that it becomes. This Hammer first hints at rats in the decaying walls, launching the narrator into dreams and nightmares that can be contained neither by those outer walls nor by the innocent sense of security that is imaginatively evoked from a past lived within them.
For a time the nightmare is collective: it shapes itself out of memories of the war, in which the younger self of the narrator was taken far from his home and taught to clench/My teeth on hate. But far worse is the more personal nightmare that invades the sanctuary of the remembered house itself.
The fifth section of the poem begins in an anticipation of torment marked as private by the first person pronouns and universalized by echoes of the agony of Christ:
When, two pages later, the thread image has been established as the tangled line of this narrators life, he finds himself resigned to invite the antagonist to the more sacred spaces upstairs in the house:
The hint of remembered guilt in the line just quoted forces the shocked realization that we may be confronted here by something written in the blood of . . . one [of the] slain reticences by which Child has been forced in the unfolding poetry to reveal more of himself than in the prose of life he would ordinarily disclose. The allusions to the brothers departure, and to the undisclosed reasons for wanting to share a room, juxtaposed to Mr. Hammers disclosure of flaws in the baseboard that precariously hides the rats, suggest that a repressed tangle of memories involving family relationship has surfaced to menace the narrator, forcing him to strip the room bare of the life he has given it and shoulder the blame for the loss.
If the narrator, by reticent evasion, has briefly encouraged such suspicion, he soon makes his language dance in more decorous, and more painful, patterns. He shifts back to memories of the war that involved them both and indicates that his brother Ken . . . did not return to find our house grown old. In this revisionary process, the guilt now becomes the irrational burden assumed by a surviving brother the guilt of a relatively innocent Cain, of not having been the one to die.
At the end of this fifth section the narrator turns his attention outward to Mr. Hammer . . . drumming his fingers on the sill . . . Brown-studying the last sere leaves that hang/From wet black limbs. Without open speech he wonders Does he hear the rats . . . ? clearly now rats that witness to spiritual decay, since this antagonist has always had ears for rats in the material walls.
The narrators concern here reflects his fathers concern for Judas; perhaps the reverie-encountered intimations of his own guilt have led him to feel a human bond he could not recognize earlier in the interchange.
From the outset the sixth section inverts the hint of a bond of positive human concern, confronting instead a nightmare of all mankind . . . bound together/To rendezvous in Pandemonium. It takes the shape of further memories of war, and culminates in an agonized, and agonizing, chaos of metaphysical speculation, at once appropriate to this modern fiction and mimetic of the Victorianism the setting evokes:17
In this apocalyptic vision the words of the Lords Prayer are garbled and truncated: they entangle and invert, in the chaos, the thought of Aristotelian purposiveness that was incorporated, early on, in the very name that the narrators father had given his house:
The words Thine is the Kingdom, which could have been a transfiguring into Biblical terms of the entelechy the family has been joking about in section II,18 are utterly missing from the prayer fragments the narrator has tossed about in this vision of the end of the world created in six days, at the end of the sixth section of Childs poem. The plea for forgiveness of trespasses which should follow that for daily bread is also missing. Power is now totally without glory in prosaic daily life.
Yet section VI ends, finally, not with the strew of bricks in a gaping pit in the penultimate line but with a pointed question: Whose hands will build tomorrows house with it?
After the climactic despair of Section VI, yet still within the section bearing the earthbound number, the shift to a positive tone has been effected through the narrators verbal shaping of a question. As in the fathers poetic query about Judas, the question itself may be seen as seed-point for the unfolding process that points itself towards an answer.
The narrator opens a section, numbered VII, that will speak of a variety of sabbatarian visions. He shows intense awareness of the mystics difficulty in finding language commensurate to their needs:
They speak also of the unitive sense that can bring together
He claims never to have known the burning mystics vision of the Real; yet he recalls an experience which most modern analysts would classify as mystical.19 Looking once from the window now drummed upon by the fingers of Mr. Hammer (the hint is of the impact of nails),
He felt moved by the very-wind of love to see himself in reciprocal relationship with all Otherness. Though the narrator does not go on to find these words just yet, the reader of Childs network of symbolic language can begin to see the warring brothers, the separated Judasses and Christs of a prosaic world, coming together in life and love.
Far more significant to the narrator than the quickening vision of the external world is his memory of a human indicator to the end he craves:
Seeing the man in the child, the oak in the acorn, the shaping of a soul as it grows in and towards the Kingdom of Heaven, this Christlike figure is ambiguously close to, but never fully identified with, the father who built the house. (He seems to be summoned from a later period of the narrators life: there are indications of an academic milieu.) The narrator has spoken before this of those who have died in the Victorian house, and he now recalls this mans deathbed, localizing it neither in the house nor elsewhere. What he recalls is beyond need of specific location.
The intellect that has been dulled for a time is restored to clarity near the end, with the added dimension of a heightened intuition:
At this point the reader may be almost surprised to find that he is not printed He": the authority conferred is of knowledge beyond this world. Yet the poem is in the modern business of transposing the Logocentricity of the Victorian House to a word-centredness more answerable to the self-consciousness of a world struggling from within to reshape the strew of bricks left in the wake of Hiroshima, and the strew of thoughts testified to by all the verbal tags echoing through the poem.
The narrators sceptical longing was quite timeless:
They were trite, worn in the utterance of a thousand million men. What mattered was the unspoken grief both felt because no meeting could be foreseen in the sense-bound flesh both valued; and the answer to that grief, the sudden smile that transformed it. Once again under the compulsion of love the attempt must be made to express the ineffable:
A force, like the wind: once again we may see more than the narrator, in the particularity of circumstantial memory, can be realizing. The mystic vision he has claimed himself incapable of knowing is shown to be upon him the same vision of wholeness, whether it is expressed in the language forms of the New Testament, in the words found to meet the call of a remembered human encounter, or in words evocative of his Edenic memories of a quickening wind in the maple and apple leaves.
Given Childs recurrent direct allusions to language and poetry in the symbolic network he is casting upon us, it will be no frivolity to find a suggestion in the leaves in motion20 that points beyond the narrators consciousness to the pages of a poem unfolding in the widening process of human self-realization through language. Childs own voice, thus, will be heard behind the narrators limited affirmation:
Since the making of a poem for publication is a more deliberate language-act than the expression of his reveries by the narrator, we find the affirmation much fuller if we notice the wordplay.
The narrator turns back to Biblical forms renewed for him by the life of his dying friend:
It may be some reticence surviving that has prevented more direct allusion here to the fourth gospel, The Book of St. John, especially to the fourteenth chapter in which we find the metaphor of my Fathers house of many mansions. Immediately following that promise by Jesus, and an assurance to Thomas that in the Son he may know the way to the Father, we read of this encounter between Christ and another beloved disciple, neither Peter,or Thomas, nor John:
The symbolic wordplay I find suggested by this passage defies conceptual precision, but invites our participation in the sort of associative reverie that occupies the narrator throughout the poem. Jesus, speaking words of comfort to his beloved disciples, Peter, Thomas and Philip in the book of John, knows that he is at one with the Father and that the way to the Fathers ultimate Kingdom, and the present verbal expression of His Kingship, are to be realized through the Son.
The narrator, voicing in poetic reverie the words of comfort and hope that have been spoken to him by his father, and the father-like, Christ-like friend, comes to know his double obligation to keep it inwardly and give /from it as best [he] can. Another son, Philip, Child-son of another Child of Christ (and Aristotle), accepts his own obligation to dip his pen in the blood of at least one or two slain reticences as he voices, in response to remembered pain, a hope in the power and the glory of transmitted language to lead yet another generation to the sanctuary of the inner kingdom.
Child was sceptic enough to anchor his strongest poetic affirmations in something as insubstantial as the image of a remembered loving smile; scholar enough to know that neither the Biblical nor the classical strands of his Christian humanism offered, or required, an end to scepticism;21 mystic enough to know that particular times and places may be seen, but never conceptually proved, to manifest the unified and unifying Very-Truth, and, that the experience of such a vision, communicated through love, commands response in language. The conceptually precise tools of daily prose are bound, in time, to change and fail. For generation after generation they shift upon their non-conceptual foundations and fall in a strew of fragments. But a dance of symbols has more staying power. Poetry may suggest, and when reverie is sufficiently creative (whether in fictional character, poet or reader), may make manifest a vision by which sons, fathers, and brothers22 come to know their oneness with all Otherness. They may even come to understand that the Fathers kingdom may prevail in the world of daily prose as well as in poetry and vision.
This last seems to be the import of section VIII,23 for the poem does not end in mystic vision. The section is prosaic in tone yet full of significance, and brief enough to quote in full:
In this final movement of the dance we should note that the tree is stripped bare for sleep not death; that the narrator, on the point of accepting Mr. Hammers mathematical figure for the house, hints that it has quite another value for him; but that he can see now that his prosaic antagonist is his com panion on his way, like me/To the Kingdom.
The last evidence of outward acceptance and inward confidence testifies to the unifying force of ongoing reverie, to the positive advance achieved in the bringing together of inherited and personal symbols. But we should not judge Philip Child to be a didactic Christian humanist voicing an outward structure of inherited meaning too attenuated to shelter him from pain and melancholy. His triumph has been to work through mimetically to an inner resting-place24 that will satisfy his narrator and his reader for a time. As the narrator has faced chaos more than once, he will, presumably, again. And, as he, so we. The poem has shown us a process of building a new significance with the strewn bricks of inherited language. When this new structure tumbles, further verbal structures may be formed to realize, for a time, potential answers in the very act of confronting their questions. In those Structures, Brother Judas may be redeemed once more, but he will be given quite another name than Hammer. His brother-redeemer may not even name the Name of Christ. What may be hoped, this poem tells us, is that a quickened sense of . . . creature-consciousness may open those who learn to love another to the Otherness that has brought them into life; and that poetic words may participate in such a creative process.
Matthew, as a devout Jew avoiding the direct use of the divine name, uses kingdom of Heaven as equivalent for the more usual Biblical phrase kingdom of God. Philip Child adopts Matthews variant, presumably because of the spatial dimensions that fit his own controlling metaphor, with its roots in John.
In either form, kingdom means rule
or kingship: Jesuss repeated proclamations of the kingdom are ambiguous
as to time. The kingdom is at hand (Matt 3:2; 4:17; 10:7): in the words of
Hans Kung, the hopeful message arises from the certainty that God is already the
creator and hidden lord of this contradictory world and that in the future he will redeem
his word [sic] (On Being a Christian, Glasgow: Collins, 1974, p. 216). For a primary
exposition of kingdom theology see C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, (rev.
ed. London: Scribner, 1961).[back]
For an understanding of the hermeneutical
undertaking through the ages as the remaking of meaning by the erudite and sensitive
questioner, see Barrie A. Wilson, Interpretation: The One and the Many, Queens
Quarterly 87, 1 (Spring 1980), pp. 16-3; or R.M. Grant, A Short History of the
Interpretation of the Bible (New York: Macmillan, 1963).[back]
I find that Childs manipulation of
fictional, personal, and literary experience to the point where subjective and objective
visions merge fits itself very neatly to the hermeneutic principles of Heidegger and
Hans-Georg Gadamer as outlined by Wilson (see note 21), and by Fred Lawrence in a review
article on the work of Gadamer in Religious Studies Review 3, 1 (January, 1977),
pp. 35-44. Building upon the work of Heidegger, Lawrence explains, Gadamer . . .
work[ed] out a phenomenologically grounded ontology of the work of art [seeing
it] as an encounter with what is most real, as an act of familiarization that
includes . . . being surpassed. . . . Moreover, Gadamer could give a
philosophic account of how it is that every encounter with the language of art is an
encounter with a still unfinished process and is itself a part of this process
thus justifying acts of open-ended critical interpretation, and the critical
reading of critical essays.[back]