The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

Dave again. We have something special for next week, and then Kim is going to take the next two weeks. For the moment, however:

The Sotweed Factor, or A Voyage to Maryland, A Satyr is a poem by the English-born poet Ebenezer Cooke. However, we’re not talking about that today. Today we’re talking about The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth. We need to keep that straight.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Donald Harington.)

The Sot-Weed Factor is a satirical historical epic involving a fictionalized Ebenezer Cooke. Ebenezer decides while carousing in college that he wants to be a poet, letting his studies slip and fail. He ends up getting an interview with Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, promising to both help Calvert regain Maryland and write an epic poem to Maryland as its poet laureate:

“The Marylandiad!” repeated Ebenezer, and declaimed as from a title-page: “An epic to out-epic epics: the history of the princely house of Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore and Lord Proprietary of the Province of Maryland, relating the heroic founding of that province! The courage and perseverance of her settlers in battling barb’rous nature and fearsome salvage to wrest a territory from the wild and transform it to an earthly paradise! The majesty and enlightenment of her proprietors, who like kingly gardeners fostered the tender seeds of civilization in their rude soil, and so husbanded and cultivated them as to bring to fruit a Maryland beauteous beyond description; verdant, fertile, prosperous, and cultured; peopled with brave, men and virtuous women, healthy, handsome, and refined: a Maryland, in short, splendid in her past, majestic in her present, and glorious in her future the brightest jewel in the fair crown of England, owned and ruled to the benefit of both by a family second to none in the recorded history of the universal world the whole done into heroic couplets, printed on linen, bound in calf, stamped in gold” here Ebenezer bowed with a flourish of his beaver “and dedicated to Your Lordship!”

*****

“I have no authority,” Charles concluded, “and so can no longer confer dignities and titles as before. But I declare to you this, Mr. Cooke: hie you to Maryland; put her history out of mind and look you at her peerless virtues the graciousness of her inhabitants, their good breeding and excellent dwelling places, the majesty of her laws, the comfort of her inns and ordinaries, the richness and beauty of her fields, woods, and waters look you at these, I say; study them; mark them well. Then, if you can, turn what you see to verse; tune and music it for all the world’s ears! Rhyme me such a rhyme, Eben Cooke; verse me such a verse, I charge you; make me this Maryland, that neither time nor intrigue can rob me of; that I can pass on to my son and my son’s son and all the ages of the world! Sing me this song, sir, and by my faith, in the eyes and heart of Charles Calvert and of every Christian lover of Beauty and Justice, thou’rt in sooth Poet and Laureate of the Province! And should e’er it come to pass what against all hope and expectation I nightly pray for to Holy Mary and all saints that one day the entire complexion of things alters, and my sweet province is once again restored to her proprietor, then, by Heav’n, I shall confer you the title in fact, lettered on sheepskin, beribboned in satin, signed by myself, and stamped for the world to gape at with the Great Seal of Maryland!”

Mind you, to this point he’d written almost no poetry, though he has managed to dedicate eternal devotion and virginity to the beauty of a prostitute he had a comical encounter with, Joan Toast. That’s probably okay though, given that it likely wasn’t even Charles Calvert, but instead Ebenezer’s old tutor. His tutor masquerades as a number of different people throughout a convoluted and complex conspiracy that is beyond Ebenezer, as apparently does Joan Toast. Regardless, Ebenezer goes off to Maryland on a bizarre, misguided, and ill-fated adventure that is often to Candide and Tom Jones. Though he ends up writing his Maryland poem, by then Ebenezer is so frustrated and hounded that he instead writes a biting satire:

He lay back and closed his eyes; his head throbbed from the small exertion of perusing his work. “I’faith!” he said to himself. “What price this laureateship! Here’s naught but scoundrels and perverts, hovels and brothels, corruption and poltroonery! What glory, to be singer of such a sewer!”

The more he reflected upon his vicissitudes, the more his anguish became infused with wrath, until at length, despite his weariness, he ripped from the ledger his entire stock of sea-verses, and using the quill and ink provided by his host he wrote on the virgin paper thus exposed:

Condemned by Fate, to wayward Curse,

Of Friends unkind, and empty Purse,

Plagues worse than fill’d Pandoras Box,

I took my Leave of Albions Rocks,

With heavy Heart, concern’ d that I

Was forc’d my native Soil to fly,

And the old World must bid Good-b’ye.

No sooner were these lines set down than more came rushing unbidden to his fancy, and though he was not strong enough at the time to write them out, he conceived then and there a momentous project to occupy him during the weeks ahead which, should he find no means of regaining his estate, might well be his last on earth. He would versify his voyage to Maryland from beginning to end, just as he had planned before, but so far from writing a panegyric, he would scourge the Province with the lash of Hudibrastic as a harlot is scourged at the public post, catalogue her every wickedness, and expose her every trap laid for the trusting, the unwary, the innocent!

Fun, no?

For a book rumored to be difficult to read, I had no difficulty and enjoyed The Sot-Weed Factor immensely. The book is large, but I do not think Barth could have accomplished what he does in any less space. The Sot-Weed Factor has a story that is both comic and compelling, suspenseful and entertaining. It has the feel of the historic, but says things that never would have been said in a piece from the period. My final summation would have to be that The Sot-Weed Factor has plenty to chew on yet doesn’t chip teeth.

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