Wednesday, March 6, 2013

84. A new interpretation of The Great Worm

Until recently, John Gray's story 'The Great Worm', which was published in the first issue of The Dial in 1889, was not taken seriously. Gray's biographer wrote:

It is a story of a dragon who dies from unrequited love; its silliness is so precisely balanced with pathos, its parody by bemused self-parody (the worm turns out to be the dreamer of the tale), that one must suspend judgment about its success. The risks alone are worth reading of it, as if a rococo artist had painted (say, in gold and white) one of Oscar Wilde's fairy tales. (Jerusha Hull McCormack, John Gray. Poet, Dandy, and Priest, 1991, p. 25).

Charles Ricketts, vignette and initial for John Gray's story 'The Great Worm', in The Dial, 1889, p. 14.
Earlier, Richard Harold Quinn wrote a thesis on The Dial in which the story was relevated:

'The great Worm' is best described as a dream vision, but it is clearly one of the most curious of its type. Asleep in a garden of lilies, a poet sees a gold and white worm, an 'unaffected beast', who lived 'somewhere in the belly of one of those mountain ranges in Central Asia, with a name as ragged as its silhouette.' Having offered his services to the prince of the region, the worm is sent out at the head of an army to establish order among wavering subjects. The expedition goes well until an unnamed 'figure of silent whiteness,' the inhabitant of a glorious city, offers the worm a lily, which he then wears on his breast. That night he is heard to moan 'Why am I a worm?' And within days, the lily having taking root, he is dead. 
Faced with the task of interpreting 'The Great Worm,' one is tempted by allegorical possibilities (the dragon of evil defeated by purity; sin destroyed by Holy Church) and even by Symbolist possibilities (the mysteriousness of the worm's identity and motives; the metaphysical suggestiveness of the lily and the 'figure of silent whiteness'). On the other hand, to quote Alexandra Zaina, 'it seems unlikely that this story was meant to be taken seriously.' (Richard Harold Quinn, Charles Ricketts and The Dial, 1977, p. 112-113)

But why not take the story seriously? The Dial was a serious attempt to ventilate new ideas about art, and one of its editors - Ricketts - considered it worthwhile to devote no less than four illustrations to this story: a vignette/initial at the beginning, a tailpiece at the end, a colour lithograph and an etching.
Charles Ricketts, illustration to 'The Great Worm', lithograph, in The Dial, 1889, plate AA.
Another later commentator, C.N. Pondrom, wrote: 

Much of the original literary contents of the  periodical show an affinity with the pseudo-medieval, fantastic, misty literature associated with the pre-Raphaelite movement, and in this sense, as well as in the frequency and excellence of illustration, the Dial is a clear successor to the Germ. Examples of this affinity may be seen in the Charles Ricketts' short story 'The cup of Happiness' and John Gray's parable 'The Great Worm'. (Cyrena Norman Pondrom, English Literary Periodicals 1885-1918, 1966, p. 74). 

A new interpretation was published earlier this year in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1930, volume 56 (2013) 1, p. 33-50: Petra Clark's essay 'Bitextuality, Sexuality, and the Male Aesthete in The Dial: "Not through an orthodox channel"'. Petra Clark is a Lasner Research Assistant at the University of Delaware, where I met her during my visit in February.

Her essay is firmly rooted in modern research theories, inspired by such scholars as Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Elaine Showalter, and Dennis Denisoff. Clark's sometimes witty interpretation focuses on the sexual imagery in the story, and likens the worm's physique to the male sexual organ.

the varied representations of masculinity and the blatant sexual (and arguably homoerotic) imagery it contains have been largely overlooked, as well as how these factors contribute to the notion of the artist that the Dial seems to be constructing.

More about this study in blog no. 88: 'The Great Worm revisited'.