Literary Names

Claude Rawson’s review of Alastair Fowler’s Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature focuses on names used to mock and deride. Swift, for instance, “attached enormous importance to naming and not being named (a characteristic Fowler incidentally identifies with Milton’s fallen angels). Swift scrupulously marked with an ‘X; every reference to himself in his 1735 copy of Pope’s Works . He was proud to have been attacked by name in the Commons by Robert Walpole, then an opposition MP. Conversely, he made a point of never acknowledging the existence of his despised adversary Daniel Defoe, deigning once, in a much reprinted work, to refer to him as ‘the Fellow that was pilloryed , I have forgot his Name.’ When the piece was collected a quarter of a century later, he allowed the name into a footnote without removing the pretence of having forgotten it.”

Outside satire, Fowler informs us that “Spenser was one of the first English poets ‘to give full attention to fictional names,’ whose work contains more than a thousand names, ‘some of them loaded with implications,’ though ‘it was Shakespeare who made name after name icons of the great works they dominate. Hamlet, Cleopatra, Othello, and scores of others,’ and that there are ‘2662 acts of naming in Paradise Lost .’”

Rawson thinks Fowler has sometimes overloaded the implication: “I find myself personally impervious to the significance of ‘hell’ inside the name of Othello, or of ‘ass’ in Cassio.” But he seems persuaded by Fowler’s argument that medieval ” authors used covert ways of indicating authorship, including puns, acrostics and anagrams. He makes the fascinating point that much medieval literature remains anonymous because modern readers have not decoded the acrostics and anagrams.”

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