Poets’ economics

Rishi Dastidar plainly wishes The Poets’ Guide to Economics had a different focus (August 19/26); But sees it as “a challenge to poets writing now: how can we get outside the web of trades we live in, to more adroitly represent their contours and costs?”.

Far be it from me to challenge modern poets or pronounce on their craft. I designed my Poets’ Guide as a historical essay about literary figures who also wrote on economics. I hope it is accessible to followers of economics who know nothing of poetry, and vice versa. It has received kindly notices in both the Investors’ Chronicle and Poetry Newsand from the Irish finance minister (in the Irish Times).

There is indeed some poetic license in the title. One or two of the writers I discuss were less obviously poets, though all have a valid claim. What they have in common is writing about economics. Walter Scott saved the Scottish pound. (His image adorns Scottish banknotes to this day.) Punitive trade restrictions on Irish exports led Swift to write his “Modest Proposal” (that Irish babies be reared for the rich man’s table). Coleridge, far ahead of the experts, identified financial excess as the root cause of economic booms and busts. And so forth.

It is true that I only cite a few poems: the works I discuss were mostly written in prose. Sadly, they are all by men: women poets did not moonlight as economists. I break off in 1944 because poets stopped writing books with titles such as The ABC of Economics. Ezra Pound effectively killed the genre. Besides, thanks to Keynes, economics had finally produced some answers.

Though much derided at the time, poets proved to be astute critics of economic orthodoxy that often turned out to be wrong, scientifically as well as ethically. The interest of the book lies, to my mind, in what these writers said about economics. Rishi Dastidar seems more interested in how they said it. But I hope this can be inferred from the extracts I cite, which seem to me by turns incisive, eloquent, angry, elegiac and funny (as one would expect from writers of their calibre).

Even Nobel prizewinning economists think that “economics is too important to leave to economists” (Esther Duflo). The poets’ example might encourage us all to look more critically at the economic ideas that rule our lives.

John Ramsden
London N19

Shakespeare’s reading

Hannibal Hamlin (Letters, September 9) does well to remind us that contemporary scholarship has underestimated Shakespeare’s use of religious “resources” that he could hardly have avoided. I would argue that Sonnet 94 (“They that have power to hurt”) is a case in point. Absent from the most detailed commentaries (Booth and Vendler) and from recent heavily annotated editions of the Sonnets (Blakemore Evans, Duncan-Jones, Kerrigan, Burrow) is any recognition that this sonnet engages with hotly contested theological issues as predestination, freedom of the will and, above all, the role of good works in the process of salvation. The echoes of the general epistle of James, that bugbear of both Lutheran and Calvinist reformers, are too strong to be unintentional.

Anthony Mortimer
University of Friborg, Switzerland

James Hutton

Andrew Knoll, in his review of Ray Perman’s The Genius of Time (September 9), a new biography of the philosopher-geologist James Hutton, emphasizes the discovery of Siccar Point on Scotland’s southeast coast as a turning point in the discovery of “deep time” and in the history of geology: “Hutton and two friends found evidence of this vast timescale along a wave-swept coastline not far from Edinburgh.” The discovery was immortalized by John Playfair, one of Hutton’s companions that day in 1788: “The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.”

In fact, by 1787 Hutton had already found sufficient evidence at other sites (Arran, Jedburgh, Teviotdale) to convince himself of the workings of the rock cycle in maintaining Earth’s habitability over an “indefinite” amount of time. At Siccar Point he was pleased to impress friends who were only familiar with his ideas as “theoretical speculations”, but at Jedburgh he had “rejoiced at my good fortune in stumbling upon an object so interesting in the natural history of the earth, and which I had been long looking for in vine.” In fact, Siccar Point, at Jedburgh he had found the “particular marks” of the rock cycle he had been looking for: the presence of eroded fragments of the lower, folded strata in the base of the upper, horizontal rock beds. And on the Siccar Point trip they visited several other sites down the coast that Hutton stated were “remarkable examples” of the theory, and “could not fail to give us great satisfaction.”

The sum total of his field work on the matter on the rock cycle extended “from one end to the other, and on both sides of that range of mountains which run from sea to sea in the south of Scotland…”. All this is detailed in Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, with Proofs and Illustrations (1795).

How much Siccar Point added to Hutton’s understanding of the rock cycle is debatable, but, thanks to Playfair, the place makes for a good quotation. Unfortunately, it reduces the history of geology to a cartoon.

Keith Montgomery
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

Inca traditions

On the cover of Inventing Indigenism by Natalia Majluf is a painting of a figure by Francisco Laso, a nineteenth-century Peruvian artist. David Lehmann (In Brief, September 2) talks of the painting’s depiction of the “dark symmetry of the ‘Inhabitant'” and the figurine held by it that “references the ‘violent stifling’ of Inca society”. This stifling was still taking place in the 1980s, when Pope John Paul II visited Peru. Around the turn of the century, my wife and I visited Cusco and had the services of an “Inca” guide (she claimed direct descent) to take us around the Inca sites. One of these was Sacsayhuamán, their most sacred site, high in the hills overlooking Cusco. Our guide told us that when the Pope visited, he held a Mass here, as though to confirm that the Inca beliefs were dead and the Catholic church still reigned supreme. A very large cross was erected in commemoration. Shortly after, the cross disappeared, taken down one night by persons unknown. Another cross was erected. That too disappeared. Perhaps this was a manifestation of the “sense of loss that Laso believed to be imprinted in Indian memory”. This time the cross was never replaced.

FW Nunneley
Beckley, East Sussex

The Queen’s reading

I am having trouble reconciling two titbits of information in your paper regarding the late Queen. Your correspondent Rory Johnston (Letters, September 16) confidently asserts that her “favorite author” was James Joyce, while Andrew Motion, recalling his stint as Poet Laureate, relates that she told him she never had “any time” to read poetry. If the latter is indeed the case, where did she find the time to familiarize herself with Ulyssesnot to mention Finnegans Wake?

Alan Taylor
Bowden, Scottish Borders


As Stephen Kotkin points out (September 9), one of Gorbachev’s “monumental blunders” earned him the gratitude of the West, particularly Germany. We are also in his debt for the nuclear disarmament deal with Reagan, which seemed to end the Cold War. But the peaceful coexistence that it promised was not what it seemed to either the West or the Russians. The Cold War was seen, and is still seen, as a conflict between communism and capitalism. This was a way of presenting it that suited both the United States and Russia. The Russians were referred to as the USSR, and the terms were interchangeable, disguising the fact that the USSR was the Russian empire. Even Gorbachev confused communism with loyalty to Moscow in his harsh dealings with the Baltic states. When he was kidnapped by the hardliners, however, it was because he wasn’t a proper communist. They feared his liberal delusions would lead to the collapse of the USSR. We should be grateful for his second monumental delusion. Without it Russia would be far more powerful than it is now. The “thuggishness and bottomless cynicism” of Vladimir Putin and his regime, or something similar, would still be there.

Michael Stafford
Sedgeford, Norfolk

Tenacious of life

Craig Raine points out (Afterthoughts, September 9) that Julian Barnes may owe the phrase “tenacious of life” to Nabokov. Perhaps they are both indebted to Charlotte Brontë: when Mr Rochester learns that the new governess has survived the harsh regime of Lowood School for eight years, he exclaims perceptively, “you must be tenacious of life”.

Cathy Wells-Cole
Leatherhead, Surrey

The Poisonous Solicitor

I read Sharon Footerman’s letter (September 9) about the review of my book The Poisonous Solicitor (July 8) with gratitude that it gave the book more publicity, but concern that she repeated misconceptions about the trial of Major Armstrong for poisoning his wife 100 years ago.

The box of poisoned chocolates that she implied came from Armstrong was not included at his trial precisely because it could not be proved that it came from him; nor was there ever a nozzle (he was supposed to have injected dandelions in his garden with arsenic-laced weedkiller), though the police certainly searched for one. The fact that the poisoned chocolates did not feature at his trial scarcely mattered, however, since they had been widely reported on during the committal dates.

Nor was it ever really proved that Armstrong had attempted to poison his rival solicitor Oswald Martin. Following the infamous tea party at Armstrong’s house in October 1921, Martin did indeed fall sick, but only after he had gone home and eaten a hearty supper. He was well again within three days. The small, non-lethal trace of arsenic in a specimen he gave several days later could easily have come from the bismuth he took for his stomach ache. In any case, the indication was that Armstrong would not have had time or opportunity to poison a scone prepared by his housekeeper for the party.

Having said that, my research uncovered another potential victim of the major, if he was indeed trying to poison rivals. But he certainly did not get a fair trial. The judge, Charles Darling, seems to have been determined to hang him, and so Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong became the only solicitor ever to be executed for murder.

Stephen Bates
Deal, Kent

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