Wednesday, April 3, 2013

88. The Great Worm revisited

John Gray's story 'The Great Worm' was published in the first number of The Dial, issued by Shannon and Ricketts from their house in The Vale. The short story describes the worm (in the last paragraph he is also called a dragon) as 'an unaffected beast', with 'four short crooked legs and two little wings', coloured 'white and gold', and having 'an exceedingly long tongue'.

This description is followed by a long scene in which the worm enters a city, and while he is examined in turn by a doorkeeper, a horseman, an officer, a surgeon-major, a philosopher, and a medical officer, the worm announces that he has come to enlist in the royal armies of the prince who rules the city. He is appointed a general. The next scene is shorter and describes how the worm, followed by the army, re-establishes the prince as the ruler in all his dominions. A longer scene follows, in which they reach a city that looks green, but turns blue. This city seems to be uninhabited, until a 'figure of silent whiteness' comes towards the worm and gives him a lily. He wears it to his heart, and during the night he is in agony, asking himself: 'Why am I a worm?'

Ah! it was too horrible; he remembered that he had been human.

The lily has taken root on his breast, and a few days later - they have resumed their journey - the worm dies. The story is followed by a short 'epilogue':

A poet lay in a white garden of lilies, shaping the images of his fancy, as the river ran through his trailing hair.
But in his garden a long worm shook himself after sleep; forgotten his face like a pearl, his beautiful eyes like a snake's, his breathing hair - all. He had complete reminiscences of a worm, and sought the deserts and ravines the dragon loves.

Illustration to 'The Great Worm', etched by Charles Ricketts (plate AE, in: The Dial, No. 1, 1889)
In blog number 84, 'A new interpretation of The Great Worm', I quoted earlier comments, and mentioned that Petra Clark of the University of Delaware published an article about this story in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1930 (volume 56, number 1, 2013). 

Gray's story was profusely illustrated by Charles Ricketts, with a vignette/initial at the beginning, a tailpiece at the end, an original colour lithograph, and an etching (reproduced in photography). However, it should be noted that there is a second contribution in this issue of The Dial in which a worm is one of the characters. This is a parody of a Wagner opera, called 'The Cup of Happiness'. For this Ricketts did a woodcut of a lady with a wormlike dragon, comprising an initial 'T'.
Illustration to 'The Cup of  Happiness', by Charles Ricketts (The Dial, No. 1, 1889, p. 27)
This is relevant, because it follows that Ricketts and Gray were working on a story about a worm simultaneously. We must question whether the illustrations for Gray's story were done before, during, or after Gray had submitted his story to Shannon and Ricketts. In the magazine this story and its illustrations are presented as a coherent cooperation. Surely, Ricketts must have read Gray's story before he could design the initial V and the tailpiece. But for the larger illustrations - the etching and the lithograph - we cannot be absolutely certain. It is, however, unlikely but not impossible, that Gray and Ricketts discussed the story and illustrations, while they were at work on them. In order to interpret the story, one has to find clues that may or may not be affirmed by the illustrations. Petra Clark avoids the pitfalls of interpreting an illustrated story:

Here, Ricketts's illustrations do not merely 'illustrate' Gray's story; instead, the aspects of "The Great Worm" that Ricketts chooses to portray tell us much about the ideas he wishes to comment upon, as does his exercise of editorial control in deciding where to place those images. Appearing as they do, in unexpected locations throughout the first number, his illustrations therefore "color" the reading of the content as a whole. These illustrations also force readers to see the Worm as Ricketts does - many pages before they encounter the story itself - since the first representation of this figure serves as the color frontispiece. (p. 35)

The colour lithograph depicts the lady with the lily opposite the white and golden worm in a green mountainous landscape (see blog 84).

Yet it is hard to [...] ignore the overtly phallic shape of the Worm's body or his cheeky grin (p. 36)

The story and the illustrations complement and contradict one another, says Clark, and they

engage in the discourses of gender, sexuality and aestheticism that characterize the Dial in general. (p. 37)

Clark points out that the epilogue is a small but important segment:

Here the poet and the story he crafts about the Worm become conflated: the poet imagines the Great Worm in particular and has the memories of a worm in general, insinuating that he is somehow implicitly tied to his artistic imaginings. (p. 39)

In both illustrations [the initial and the lithograph] the Worm rears its head as though in a state of arousal produced by the voluptuous nude woman before him. When this imagery of arousal is translated into the Epilogue, the poet's sexual excitement would instead be seen to stem from the "images of his fancy" that he has shaped, as though artistic creation is stimulating to the artist's "masculinity" in more ways than one. By linking the story's Worm and the Epilogue's poet in these ways, Gray simultaneously emphasizes the quixotic effeteness and the virile productive power of the Worm/poet as an artist, while Ricketts's illustrations of the Great Worm further poke fun at these contradictory attributes of the male artist. (p. 39-40)

Clark points out that during the Aesthetic Movement, Britain's imperial strength was at its summit, glorifying virility, and bringing about a 'cult of masculinity'. The Worm's volunteering for service may be seen as an act of manliness. Clark also points out that Ricketts omits certain aspects from his images, thus isolating the lady with the lily and the worm:

In both images, the Worm and the woman therefore come face each other in a much more dramatic and erotic fashion than the equivalent scene in Gray's story might suggest. (p. 46)

Clark links the lily to a symbolism of homosexuality.

One might once again refer to the fact that, after the Worm's death, the tale turns to the suspiciously languid figure of the poet of the Epilogue. The emphasis, then, is less on death than on "orgasmic ecstasy" (p. 48)

The conclusion is that

one of the extra-artistic aims of the Dial is to reimagine aesthetic or even homosexual masculinity as an alternative to the "heteronormative, masculine image of the artist," but not to take itself too seriously in the process. (p. 48)

A few loose ends in Petra Clarks interpretation should be pointed out. Firstly, Clark mentions that Ricketts did three illustrations for the story, and she ignores the tailpiece that illustrates the important Epilogue.

Tailpiece for 'The Great Worm', by Charles Ricketts (The Dial, No. 1, 1889, p. 18)
The reclining female figure once again contradicts the masculinity of the poet in the epilogue.

Another point is the appearance of the poet laureate in the story. After the worm has accepted the post of general, and after he has been examined by the medical officer, there is a short scene in which the poet comes to the fore:

This would have ended the formalities, had not the court poet found an opportunity to commence reciting the worm's military antecedents.
- Is that that man again? asked the prince; I abolish the office. The laureate ceased.

The poet laureate at the time was, of course, Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose poems had glorified the Victorian ideals, famously in 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. Tennyson was at the end of his life when Gray wrote his story; he would die in 1892. It is not completely clear why Gray inserted this passage about the poet laureate in a story that equaled the worm to a poet. However, the poet laureate glorifies militarism, and is immediately sacked. He is the kind of poet that Gray did not want to be.