Anthony Esolen uses Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book here to demonstrate how the richest irony presupposes truth and order. In his book Ironies of Faith he also shows how irony is used by Shakespeare, Herbert, Dickens and Gerard Manley Hopkins to reveal the mysteries of Christian faith.
Before I define what irony is, let us examine what habits of mind are necessary for understanding so subtle a feature of language. Those habits are all the more necessary as the language of Christendom grows more distant and the culture more foreign.
Cleverness is not the answer. I would like to illustrate why by turning to a masterpiece of Christian poetry. Robert Browning wrote his longest and most difficult work, The Ring and the Book, precisely to show human beings failing to interpret correctly the actions and motives of one another. They fail not because they are dim-witted, but because their moral compromises limit their vision. Pride — and its concomitant assumption that everyone must be just like oneself, only not quite so intelligent or strong-willed — is the problem.
Browning derives his plot from the account of a notorious series of trials in late-seventeenth-century Rome. Violante, a childless wife, finds a woman of the streets who has recently given birth to a girl. She pays her for the baby and passes it off to her husband Pietro as their own. They christen her Pompilia , and together they live well enough for people with no hereditary title. ‘Worried that the secret of the birth will come out, Violante seeks to marry Pompilia away as soon as she can to someone with the title they lack. She finds one Guido, an Aretine and hanger-on at the cardinal’s court, no priest but enough of a cleric to claim ecclesiastical privilege. He is a short, middle-aged, cowardly, ugly, embittered, and poverty-stricken aristocrat. The marriage is a hugger-mugger affair, Pietro not even present. Guido expects a large dowry; Pietro imagines the wealth of Guido’s ancestral home. When that castle in Arezzo proves dilapidated and cold, and when Guido treats the parents with brute tyranny, they flee to their old home in Rome, leaving Pompilia behind.
There she bides, patient and unhappy, subjected to Guido’s tyrannical whims and to the obscenity of his brother, a canon of the church. When the parents suddenly turn about and attack their attacker, testifying that Pompilia was not their daughter (and that therefore Guido was not entitled to her dowry), Guido counters by attempting to tar her as an adulteress. Fic uses maids and “friends” to try to press Pompilia into compromising herself with a local priest, the dashing Giuseppe Caponsacchi. He goes so far as to compel her to “write” letters at his instruction: he holds her hand and forces the pen along, as she can neither read nor write, nor does she know the content of what he has her compose. Caponsacchi, however, who has never spoken with or met Pompilia but only looked upon her sad, strange beauty once and from afar, sees through the ruse and resists.
Pompilia entreats first the governor of Arezzo, then the archbishop, while weeping like a child, pleading to he rescued from the evil that threatens her, body and soul. But they are worldly men and cronies of her husband. They know better. They wink at the wickedness and tell her to go home. They have no ears to hear.
At that, Pompilia turns to her last hope. She has never spoken to Caponsacchi. By all rights she should know nothing about him. But she does know. She has looked into his eyes once and seen — her knight.
Browning dares the reader to play the archbishop or the governor, to smile and shake his head and say that such “knowledge” is for fairy tales and not for real life (whatever that is). But a true man is what Pompilia sees. She manages to send him a plea to come take her away. After some days of hesitation, for he knows that no one will understand, and that he is about to destroy the churchly career his superiors have chiseled out for him, Caponsacchi submits to the promptings of a holy love. He sweeps her away to Rome. Just before they arrive, they are overtaken by Guido and his henchmen — Pompilia sleeping in a bedroom in a wayside inn, the priest watching over her.
So incriminating are the appearances that Guido might have slain her on the spot and been pardoned. But he is a coward; the priest raises a sword to defend Pompilia, and when the henchmen pinion his arms, the girl herself seizes a sword and raises it against Guido. At this point he retreats and decides to take legal action. The trial of charge and countercharge ends in stalemate: Guido is allowed to keep the dowry, Caponsacchi is removed to a retreat house, and Pompilia is committed to a convent outside Rome. When, a few weeks later, she is found pregnant, the court mercifully remands her to the home of her mother and father, under provision that she not leave. There she gives birth to a son, whom she names Cactano, after a recently canonized saint, for as she sees it, Guido has no part in this son — only heaven.
Infuriated by the perceived insult to his honor, Guido steals to Rome during Christmastide and knocks at the door where the family dwells. When they ask who is there, he utters the magic word, “Caponsacchi.” When Violante opens, he slashes her in the face. He and his fellows cut her mother and father to pieces, and give Pompilia what should have been a dozen death-stabs. But Pompilia does not die, not yet. Guido is discovered fleeing back to Arezzo and is brought to Rome to stand trial. Pompilia gives her full testimony from the bed where she will soon die — the testimony of a young woman in love, chaste love, with her champion, the gallant Caponsacchi The priest and Guido testify and Browning provides us with the “opinions” of the half of Rome that is for Guido, and of the half of Rome that is for Pompilia, and also of what he calls “Tertium Quid,” the sophisticates who see more keenly, so they think, than does either side of the rabble. We are likewise presented with the trial preparations of the prosecutor (the grandly titled Fisc) and the defense attorney — worldly men, not exactly had and not exactly good, full of themselves, and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.
When Guido is convicted and sentenced to death, he appeals to the pope, Innocent XII, himself old and dying. The pope responds that while, everyone might have expected Guido to long outlive him, as it is, in all his weakness the pope will live another day, while Guido shall not see the sun set again.
What Browning shows us in this tangle of purity and wickedness, and half-virtue and shadowy half-vice, is not only how difficult it is for us to “read.” That is what critics of Browning put forth: he is the poet, they say, of multiple points of view, himself coolly distant from judgment. We are granted the irony of seeing that the same events might he viewed in a variety of ways, with all kinds of arguments to justify them.
But the irony Browning relishes is deeper than that. The spokesman for “Tertium Quid,” a cool aristocratic skeptic, dismisses Pompilia’s claim of innocence as incredible and dismisses Guido as a coward who in part got what he deserved. And he expects the pope to do the “reasonable” thing, to commute the sentence. Tertium might well be a modern trader in literary criticism. He is well-heeled, smiling at outrageous claims either to surpassing virtue or to surpassing wickedness. He pretends to a careful examination of evidence, hut actually he works for self-advancement, whispering into the ear of his lordly master just what his lordly master is to believe of all the brouhaha. Yet the irony cuts against him and against all skeptics: for Browning reveals that Pompilia was not only innocent but miraculously pure. We who cannot believe are the ultimate objects of his admonition.
Pompilia is also the most acute “critic” in the poem — she, barely seventeen, who can neither read nor write, and who was married, as she says, “hardly knowing what a husband meant” (7.410). What makes her wise? Browning identifies it unhesitatingly. Pompilia’s humility enables her to move outside herself, to imagine what it might be like to be someone else. So she is the only one in the poem, aside from the similarly humble pope, to excuse the whore who sold her away:
Well, since she had to hear this brand — let me!
The rather do I understand her now, —
From my experience of what hate calls love, –
Much love might be in what their love called hate. (874-77)
So too she reads the virtue in Caponsacchi, though he — trained for worldly expectations, and having priested it so far among the gentry — struggles honestly and abashedly to find the same. And, ironically, she knows that others will “know” better:
So we are made, such difference in minds,
Such difference too in eyes that see the minds!
That man, yon misinterpret and misprise –
The glory of his nature, I had thought,
Shot itself out in white light, blazed the truth
Through every atom of his act with me:
Yet where I point you, through the crystal shine,
Purity in quintessence, one clew-drop,
You all descry a spider in the midst.
One says, “The head of it is plain to see,”
And one, “They are the Feet by which I judge,”
All say, those Films were spun by nothing else.” (7.918-29)
We judge by what we see, and unless we love deeply, we see ourselves. So will a cheat watch the fingers of everyone else at the card table.
What do the Romans make of the evidence? Most often, Browning shows, evidence is a motley’ thing, patched up with fads, haff—heard news, clichés, smug assumptions about how all people must be, self—satisfaction, and, in the case of the, professional Fisc and his hilariously slick—talking opponent Lord Hyacinth of the Archangels, the false alleys provided by a little learning and a heap of rhetorical trash. Pompilia, Caponsacchi, and the pope also have to weigh evidence; but humility opens their hearts to insight. Here is Pompilia, trying to express a joy in bearing a child who xviii never know his mother, but who will probably hear the lies:
Who is it makes the soft gold hair turn black,
And sets the tongue, might lie so long at rest,
Trying to talk? Let us leave God alone!
Why should I doubt tie will explain in time
What I feel non’, but fail to find the words? (7.1756—61)
Her words profess incapacity — and speak to the heart. God, who unties the tongue of the infant, will reveal to Gaetano the truth. An innocent child will hear when all the world is deaf.
The pope hears and understands. We meet him in his chambers, pondering the mystery of evil, knowing he is not long for this world, and wondering what fruit of all his shepherding he will have to show in the end. The world regards him as powerful, but the world is wrong. Consider with what humility and love he regards Pompilia:
I see in the world the intellect of man,
That sword, the energy his subtle spear,
The knowledge which defends him like a shield— Everywhere; hut they make not up, I think,
‘the marvel of a soul like thine, earth’s flower
She holds up to the softened gaze of God!
It was not given Pompilia to know much,
Speak much, to write a book, to move mankind,
Be memorized by who records my time.
Yet if in purity and patience, if
In faith held fast despite the plucking fiend,
Safe like the signet-stone with the new name
‘That saints are known by, — if in right returned
For wrong, most pardon for worst injury,
If there be any virtue, any praise,–
Then will this woman—child have proved — who knows? –
Just the one prize vouchsafed unworthy me. (10.1019-29)
No one sees what is really going on, says the pope; no one can read the narrative of the world from God’s point of view. Yet he sees, humbly enough, that the finest harvest from his priesthood may be just this one poor soul, the illiterate Pompilia, a “woman-child,” of whose virtue and sanctity Innocent considers himself unworthy. She never wrote a book, or even her own name. The papal historian will not remember her. But the Recording Angel will. Does that assertion strike the reader as credulous sentiment? Beware. The problem with skeptics and cynics is not only the faith they lose, but the faith they gain. It is what the pope identifies as Guido’s telltale mark, “That he believes in just the vile of life” (10511). On the night before his execution Guido can “see through,” with what he thinks is ironical acuity, the façade of the pope’s goodness:
The Pope moreover, this old Innocent,
Being so meek and mild and merciful,
So fond o’ the poor and so fatigued of earth,
So . . . fifty thousand plagues in deepest hell (11.55-58)
So the spokesman for “Half-Rome” can also “know” what a curly-haired young priest is all about, “Apollos turned Apollo” (2.794)1 He’ll not “prejudge the case” (68o), he insists, yet so far does prejudge it that he pieces events out with his own sly imagination, picturing the contretemps between Pompilia and Caponsacchi, things that never happened at all: “Now he pressed close till his foot touched her gown; / His hand touched hers” (803-4).
If we must he blind, would it not he better to be dazzled by a piercing light? In this way Pompilia is blind, and therefore she sees — and it is actually there — the virtue of a man, Caponsacchi, who is yet to become the man she imagines. If she is blind to the faults of a less-than-chastely spent youth, it is because she is dazzled by the greater light. These are her dying words, spoken as if even now Caponsacchi were her saving knight, and not she his saving damsel.:
So, let him wait Gods instant men call years
Meantime hold hard by truth and his great soul,
Do out the duty! Through such souls alone
God stooping shows sufficient of His light
For us i’ the dark to rise by. And I rise (7.1841-45)
Criticism and Gossip
THE RING AND THE BOOK is a storm of irony, currents and crosscurrents of knowledge and ignorance surefire plans foiled, certitudes that wither awry, and un-possibilities come to pass. To understand the irony we must adopt the stance of Socrates, who in humility, perhaps in mock humility, insisted that he was the only man in Athens who did not know anything. For irony, as we shall see, has to do with what people think they know, or what they think they can expect. All criticism that does not begin in the humility of wonder must end up as the one or the other half of Rome: when correct, correct by happenstance; pretending to analyze, yet studying nothing with that patience that invites us to learn from what is beyond us; mired in gossip, and often gossip with a clear incentive in money or prestige.
From gossip we learn nothing new. If Mrs. Jones flirts with the delivery man, we may find it shameless; but we know nothing more from our self-pleasing gossip than that she has done what we would not (usually, let it be noted, because we happen not to be tempted that way). But of what it might he like to be Mrs. Jones, or the poor workman, nothing. Gossip preempts, then deadens, our half-hearted attempts to enter imaginatively into the life of another. If we could glimpse the world for a moment through something distantly like Mrs. Jones’s eyes, our understanding of her action might be very different. We might then be ready to invite her to tea, or to lock her up. There is no logical reason to suppose that our imaginative entry into her world must make us think the better of her; the pope saw into Guido, and found the lizards of our lower nature. Consider how uncomfortable you would feel if your admirers could enter your thoughts for the twinkling of an eye.
But perhaps I have miscast the action. Most of us are not endowed with what Keats called “negative capability,” the imaginative power whereby we empty ourselves and assume the minds and souls of others. If we are to work our imaginations, we must love or hate. If we hate, we will, from our position of moral superiority, see our own vices smiling back at us, as Browning’s Romans do, the vices we would possess if we were like the people we judge; but, thanks he to almighty God or to a sound education, we are not like them. He whom I imagine is no better than I am. So the Fisc, to win his case for Pompilia, will not concede that she had any love affair with the priest, nor that she committed adultery (unless the priest took his importunate way with her while she slept). Fine; but see how his “defense” patronizes her supposed weakness of character and turns her into a common flirt:
And what is beauty’s sore concomitant,
Nay intimate essential character,
But melting wiles, deliciousest deceits,
The whole redoubted armoury of love? (9.229-32)
No beauty that reflects the grandeur of God, this. The Fisc’s vision is imaginative indeed, drearily so, and many “truths” of the petty and misleading variety can be derived from such a thing. We can happily note the small wickedness of others, and miss the darkness that is our own.
The truly educative act of imagination is spurred by love: that turn of the mind towards the fellow sufferer on his way to the grave. It may he tinged with pity; it need not be, and may be better if not. I turn towards him because he means something to me — he is as I am. Such an act of imagination begins in humility. I am no better than is he whom I imagine. I may be worse. In any case, I will be more apt to aspire to assume his virtues than to assign to him my vices. My understanding of him will thus be far subtler and far richer, far more fulfilling than if were moved by hate. For virtue is to vice as manliness is to machismo, as womanliness is to effeminacy, as any full-blooded reality is to its caricature. In this vision, by an act of humble imagination, I recast my inner world in the image of someone else.
Unfortunately, much of what passes for criticism is little better than idle gossip. Its initial spur is often not honor for the work of genius at hand, but the desire to say something clever. That is not fertile ground for love; thus, neither for the imagination. Yet the result can be impressive in a perverse way. Milton’s Satan, hating Eve, saw his own vices potentially in her, and thus could squat like a toad at her ear, imaginatively entering her and attempting to pollute her. Nor could Nietzsche have misunderstood the Bible so well had he not hated it so thoroughly.
With far less of fallen glory the same can be said of many a critic of Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Milton. Their words all but confess that they dislike the deepest beliefs these men either possessed or struggled vainly not to possess. Having delivered beauty, sex, love, sport, religion, education, youth, age family life, and even the care of newborns to an obsession with politics, the modem critic sees his own political face everywhere. Lorenzo and Jessica in the Merchant of Venice sing their rallying love-hymn to the night; the critic sees tiresome struggle for power. The traitor Macbeth is beheaded; the critic snickers and says that Malcolm will probably prove worse.
Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We Know
Is it possible to come to wrong conclusions on every important point? If our criticism were subject to random chance, we would be bound to get many things right. But the more intelligent we are, the more consistent our conclusions will be, and if we start from false principles, the more consistently wrong they will be. Take for example a young critic of medieval and Renaissance English poetry. Suppose that he is thoroughly conversant with the language of those old texts. Suppose also that he knows the history of England — and not just the wool trade or the tin mines or other now fashionable niches of economic history. Grant that he knows it well enough to place the poetry in its historic context, the better to understand what the words on the page mean. Grant him the rare knack for catching the well-turned phrase or the well-hewn line. Such a critic must still fail if he does not also understand what it might he like to believe in the Christianity which was the shared faith of Chaucer, Spenser. Donne, Shakespeare, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, and Milton.
Can such an understanding he attained? If not, why read books? I am a great lover of the poet Lucretius, though he is a materialist and, for all practical purposes, an atheist, while I am not. When I read Lucretius, the skeptic, the satirist, and the scientist in me can relish his attack upon superstition. So could the ancient Christian polemicist Lactantius, who enjoyed the poetry and then used it as a sabre against paganism. But Lactantius could hardly have done so had he not entered into the spirit of Lucretius.
For the sake of understanding materialist poetry, then, I become provisionally and temporarily a materialist. As C. S. Lewis says, what the critic requires is not so often a suspension of disbelief as a suspension of belief. It is too easy to respond that such self-transformation is an illusion. Of course we cannot leave our minds behind. The point is that our minds possess myriads of possibilities, usually dormant, inactive, unrealized. Good reading sets them in motion. For the sake of Lucretius’ great poetry I allow the materialist in me to take the stage and declaim. That Lucretius’ voice is still bound up with my own does not matter. It could not he otherwise; nor do I require it. All I require is that humbling release of what I am and what I believe now, surrendering to what I might have been or to what I might have believed had I been more like Lucretius. I say with Alyosha Karamazov, who tries to understand his brother Ivan, “I want to suffer too” (The Brothers Karamazov, 287). I surrender in imaginative love.
Now there is a catch to this surrender. The farther you are from the faith of the author you are reading, the more readily you will acknowledge the need to surrender yourself, but the more difficult it will be. The closer you are to the author’s faith, the easier the surrender would be, could you ever he prevailed upon to see the need. In the case of Christianity, it is as Chestcrton puts it. You had better be in the faith completely or out of it completely. The worst position, if you want to understand it, is to be partly in and partly out, or to have a passing, culturally based familiarity with its surface. You are neither so familiar with it as to probe its depths, nor is it so strange that you are moved to approach it with care. You take the attitude of Petronius, or of “Tertium Quid,” You’ve seen it all before.
Apply a two-dimensional Christianity to the mature allegories of Spenser and Milton, and at once you will discover discrepancies and incoherence. Why don’t Spenser’s Guyon and the Palmer kill the witch Acrasia? Are they still tempted by her Bower of Bliss? Why do the devils in hell discourse on philosophy? Has Milton rejected his classical education? Are faith and reason to part forever? Many such false dilemmas arise because the critic has failed to understand the subtleties of the Christian faith.
And Christianity is the subtlest of faiths, yet of a wondrous simplicity “I thank thee,” Jesus observes with biting irony, “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matthew 1:25) The kernel of the faith can he grasped by a child. We are sinners. The Lord who created us not to sin sent his obedient Son to die for us. That Son rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father. We may join him in heaven if we have faith.
Christianity is the opposite of a mystery religion: the creed is short and openly professed. Yet its simple tenets belie unfathomable depth. “Matter is a form of energy.” We all know this Einsteinian truth — a child could be taught it, and, to the limits of his capacity, really believe it. But what does it imply? What does it mean? “There are three persons in one God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Again, a child could learn the formula, but what does the Trinity imply? The wise and prudent are struck dumb. A religious anthropologist may chatter about the symbolism of three, and how all cultures attach a mystical importance to it, and on and learnedly on. But to the clean of heart it may reveal the mystery of existence itself. So Dante implies in his invocation to God:
O Light that dwell within thyself alone,
who alone know thyself, are known, and smile
with Love upon the Knowing and the Known.
Merely to exist, to be a knowable object, is to have been made by the God of knowledge who knows and is known, whose being is love, and who has loved into being all things that have been, are, and are to come.
Pride is blinding; the moral problem becomes epistemological. Suppose we assume that the lanky fellow across the table is a dullard. When he remarks of someone else’s immorality, “For them as likes that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they likes,” we will find our prejudice confirmed. The statement is tautological arid evasive. But if we knew that the man was Lincoln, we might see the wry condemnation hiding beneath the hayseed humor. We will know, when he assumes the self-deprecatory air, not to take him at his word. When we later discover the same man condemning that behavior, we will know that it is not he who is inconsistent, but we who underestimated him.
Irony and Knowledge
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE to do with irony and faith? Much, if we consider what irony is. Until fairly recently, most writers on irony have defined it as speech that means something other than (or opposite to) what is literally said. The problem with this definition is that it is at once too narrow, too broad, and beside the point. Liars mean other than what they say, but the lie is not in itself ironic; and you may, with irony, mean exactly what you say, but in a way that your audience (or perhaps a putative audience, more foolish than those who are actually listening to you) will not understand. The definition is beside the point, since moments of dramatic irony, or what some have called “irony of event,” may not involve speech at all, but only strange turns of fate.
Contemporary literary theorists have attempted to distill the essence of irony, that which underlies both the winking assertions of ignorance made by Socrates, and concatenations of events that seem (but only seem) to suggest design, or that demolish any sense of design. Irony, they assert, is a universal solvent: no theology or epistemology can contain it. It dissolves— — “deconstructs” every assertion of absolute truth
The trouble with this view of irony now prevalent in the academy is that it enshrines one sort of ironic statement or event and ignores the rest. Worse, the kind of irony it enshrines is destructive, and the first thing it destroys is irony. If there is no objective truth — if irony must undermine and destabilize — then, once we have noticed the fact, there is no more point for irony, just as it makes no sense for the skeptic to embark on a quest for knowledge, when there is no knowledge to be had. How, after all, does one then proceed. by irony, to undermine the “truth” that every truth can be undermined? If all speech is inherently slippery, why trouble oneself with the subtleties of irony? Why pour oil on a sheet of ice?
But in fact, irony commonly is used to exalt rather than undermine. It can stun us with wonder and raise our eyes to behold a truth we had missed. All kinds of unsuspected truths, particularly those combined in paradoxes await our attention, but we are too dulled by habit to notice. Then irony — verbal or dramatic — awakes us. Consider:
1. A bystander watches as a professor, holding forth to his suffering companion on the epistemological subtleties of irony, steps dangerously near a banana peel.
2. In King Lear, Gloucester tries to refuse the help of his son Edgar, whom he cannot see and does not know: “I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled When I saw,” (4.1. 18-19)
3. In II Henry IV (and apparently in real life, too) the usurper King Henry, who had wanted to atone for his sin by fighting in the Crusades, removes to die in a room called “Jerusalem,” noting that it had been foretold to him that he would die in Jerusalem. (4.5 236-40)
4. St. Paul sings a hymn of Christ’s Atonement:
Let this mind be in you, which Was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that even tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father
5. In Moliere’s comedy Tartuffe, the jealous husband Orgon squirms under the table where his wife Elmire has put him, listening as his protégé Tartuffe, the one man he is amazingly not suspicious of attempts to seduce her. (4.5)
What do the cases have in common? The first verges upon slapstick; the second involves a lesson learned in an unusual way; the third hinges upon a play on words; the fourth is a theological reversal of expectations; the fifth is a piece of staged ignorance. Each involves a problem of knowing. The irony lies in a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows. This clash is staged to let the reader or the audience in on the secret. We are, then, not merely watching ignorance, but ignorance unaware of itself and about to learn better, or at least about to teach by way of its own incorrigibility. The irony reveals, with a kind of electric shock, order where randomness was expected, or complexity and subtlety where simplicity was expected.
Each case involves a staged clash of incompatible levels of knowledge:
1. The professor thinks he knows a lot about the subtlest things, but misses the humble and material banana at his feet. The bystander probably knows a great deal less about irony, but he does see the hazard and, if he possesses either a profound moral sensibility or none at all, will stand back to enjoy the tumble. The apparent intellectual hierarchy belies a richer order: the great intellect is not so wise. He “deserves” to slip, falling victim to the very thing, irony, about which he declaims so proudly. Had he known less about it, he might have looked to the sidewalk in time.
2. Only after Gloucester loses his eyes does he ‘see” how rashly and unjustly lie has treated his son Edgar. The irony, a reversal of expectations accompanied by a deepening knowledge, is richly theological as well. For there is an order at work, bringing about Gloucester’s sight through blindness, and his reconciliation with his son through suffering. The man before him is that wronged son, whom he has seen in disguise and taken for one Tom-a-Bedlam, the “poor, bare, forked animal” that “un-accommodated man” is (King Lear, 3.4. 105-106). Now it is the wronged Gloucester reduced to misery who requires assistance from Mad Tom. Gloucester does not yet understand what his “way” is, why he has been blinded and what he must suffer still. He says he has no way, yet his meeting with Edgar shows that a way has been designed for him nonetheless. He will walk towards a final, terrible resignation to his punishment and reconciliation with his son. And Edgar wii1 he his eyes — his spiritual guide — along this way.
3. We “know” that Henry might have died in any room or might have died falling from a horse on a holiday hunt. He had hoped to die in the Holy Land, and when he learns the name of the room, he finally sees the design and resigns himself to its justice. For us, that death feels right–better than if he had died a-crusading, better than if he had been hanged at the Tower of London. The usurper should not be granted a matyr’s death; better that he should he disappointed by his hope to expiate the crime. The place of his death reveals a more subtle order than either he or we had expected.
4. The chasm between human expectations and divine will has never been sung more powerfully. The prophet cries, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” (Isaiah: 55:8), but here Saint Paul fleshes out that cry with specifics that seem impossible to hold simultaneously. If Christ is equal with God, why should He, or how can He, empty himself, making himself of no reputation? How can God become obedient to God, obedient unto the shameful death on a cross? How can submission exalt? For Christ is not exalted despite his humility but in it and through it. For the believer, then, Paul’s hymn reveals complexities in the notions of equality and hierarchy: because Christ was the Son of God, He set aside that equality, and in his obedience He is set above all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. He is equal to the Father because he obeys.
5. This brilliant stage business shows dramatic irony at its purest. Of this double-plot no one, not even the audience, can see everything. Elmire knows she is chaste, but as she leads ‘Tartuffe on, to prove to her husband under the table what a fool he has been to trust the charlatan, she must worry lest her trick backfire and Tartuffe ravish her before Orgon manages to get out from under there. For she cannot see him, and cannot be sure that he will come to his senses even when he hears Tartuffe making love to her. Meanwhile Organ can only fry in imagination: he hears but cannot see the couple, and must restrain his wrath and jealousy long enough to let Tartuffe hang himself for certain. The audience, too, can see Tartuffe and Elmire, and so they know’ what Orgon must learn; but they cannot see Orgon, and must guess, from his awkward and frantic movements under the table, what must be going through his mind. Finally, there is Tartuffe, master trickster, steeped in ignorance, believing himself so clever yet missing so obvious a trick — for I do not think Orgon can remain as still as a chuchmouse!
It is, then, not the unexpectedness of a thing that produces irony—a violin flung at a man’s head is unexpected, but not ironic — nor is it ignorance that produces irony — after all, if he saw the violin he would duck. Irony arises, rather, from the ignorance of unseen or unexpected order (or, as it may happen, disorder), from the failure to note subtleties, or from seeing subtleties that are not there, especially when the ignorance and the failure are highlighted before observers are in a better position to see the truth. That is the sort of thing we feel as ironic. A violin flung at a man’s head is not ironic. A man missing a sharp as he tries to hum the Kreutzer sonata is not ironic. The same man botching Beethoven as the violin sails his way — now that is ironic.