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begging the question; and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

February 20, 2015

I came across two things in last week’s Independent on Sunday which I should have blogged about right then, but procrastinated, so now, five days later, I’ll wrap them up in one post. First, DJ Taylor wrote (I’m quoting from memory): ‘There used to be a graffito at UEA begging the question “What is the difference between Malcolm Bradbury and God?”’

Begging the question. As I’ve previously written (13th March 2012) begging the question originally had a pleasing and precise usage, referring to a flaw in logic by which, in answering a question, one makes the assumption that the answer is already known. Thus, if someone asks how we know God exists and we say “Because the Bible says so”, and then we’re asked how we know that what the Bible says is true, and we say “Because the Bible is the word of God”, we are begging the question: we are assuming the truth of the very proposition we wish to prove. Unfortunately this delicate meaning has now pretty much disappeared, and instead the phrase is just a fancy alternative for ‘raising/posing the question’ – as in DJ Taylor’s usage. I’d avoid it myself.

By the way, the answer to the riddle was “Because God is everywhere, and Malcolm Bradbury is everywhere except UEA.”

The other thing in the IoS was a sports piece by Michael Calvin in which, for some reason that now escapes me, he referred to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s godawful poem ‘How do I Love Thee’ as a sensuous love poem. Sensuous my arse! This poem is a dreadful example of mawkish Victorian sentimentality. One knows something is wrong from the very first line: “How do I love thee?” What? Why thee? Nobody said that in Victorian times. It had been obsolete for over a century. She was just trying to hitch a ride on the prestigious texts of Early Modern English – Shakeseare and the King James Bible. And then: “Let me count the ways”; this is a false promise since she never actually counts them, merely lists them, and they are not clearly distinguished from one another. It is not even clear to me that they are ‘ways’. ‘I love thee freely, as men strive for right?” Is that actually a way of loving someone? And in what important way is it different from “I love thee purely, as they turn from praise?” Both seem to me to be airy-fairy, abstract, non-physical ways of loving someone: I’m really not getting a multi-dimensional model of love here. At no point does she mention anything to do with physical passion. If a woman gave this “love” poem to me, I’d just think, “Oh, well, she doesn’t fancy me.” As for the last line, ‘I shall but love thee better after death” – what the fucking hell is that supposed to mean? You’ll love me even better when I’m dead? Oh great, can’t wait. Or you’ll love me even better when you’re dead? Afraid I really can’t see how you’re going to manage that…

Sorry, I’ve always hated this poem, and seeing it mentioned in print there gave me an opportunity to get it off my chest.

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2 Comments
  1. Duncan permalink

    That was a lot more entertaining than the poem.

  2. The Blott permalink

    The poem is clumsy and convoluted. I’ve never understood why anyone would choose it for a wedding.

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