Milady Millay: or, Edna, come over here.

Sorting-Poetry-Bks

(Sorting out poetry books on the mistaken assumption that they can be fitted into the space available in such a way that the ones I want will always be at the front. . .but no Millay in any case)

‘I have just finished two volumes of letters—’, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friends Kit and Ilse Barker in the autumn of 1953, ‘Hart Crane’s and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s and I don’t know which is more depressing. I suppose his is, it was all over quicker—but she isn’t quite so narcissistic and has some sense of humour, at least.’[1] A couple of months later, writing to Robert Lowell, Bishop agreed with Elizabeth Hardwick about ‘poor E St. V Millay’, in Hardwick’s review of letters by Millay, Hart Crane and Sherwood Anderson in the Partisan Review, ‘Heavens she suffered. But I also suffered reading Hart Crane’.[2]

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). I suspect that, while her name may be widely familiar to readers of poetry, she’s not actually read all that much now; maybe more so in the United States, where she used to be extremely popular. Perhaps the name conjures up a particular kind of poetry; or appeals to a particular kind of reader.

Millay

(That name: seven syllables, with a saint thrown in. I thought at one point I remembered her name being shoehorned into the lyrics of a song I’d heard but now suspect that I’m thinking of an old song lyric of my own, which managed to incorporate the name of blues and boogie-woogie pianist Champion Jack Dupree, the nickname derived from his boxing days when he fought more than a hundred bouts.)

In her long letter to Lowell of 4-5 April 1962, Bishop wrote: ‘I remember reciting that parody on E St. V Millay to you—“I want to be drowned in the deep sea water (?) I want my body to bump the pier. / Neptune is calling his wayward daughter: / ‘Edna, come over here!’” I asked Dwight Macdonald [Parodies, 1960] why he hadn’t put it in his parody book and he thought it was “dated”, I think he said.’[3]

The question mark is justified since Bishop was quoting from memory and didn’t have the first and last lines of Samuel Hoffenstein’s ‘Miss Millay Says Something Too’ exactly right:

I want to drown in good-salt water,
I want my body to bump the pier;
Neptune is calling his wayward daughter,
Crying ‘Edna, come over here!’

(See http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/the-love-song-of-samuel-hoffenstein.html )

A good many histories and surveys of the period bypass Millay altogether, though Cary Nelson sets her beside Claude McKay when claiming that the ‘centrality of revolutionary change in traditional forms’ is ‘especially clear in the transformation’ that the two poets ‘worked in the sonnet.’[4]

Millay-2

The sonnet, yes. Here’s ‘Sonnet xlii’:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Millay has eight poems in F. O. Matthiessen’s The Oxford Book of American Verse (1950); in David Lehman’s 2006 The Oxford Book of American Poetry, she has six. In Geoffrey Moore’s The Penguin Book of American Verse (revised edition, 1983), she’s down to just two, the 1923 sonnet just quoted and ‘Sonnet cv’ (1931):

Hearing your words and not a word among them
Tuned to my liking, on a salty day
When inland woods were pushed by winds that flung them
Hissing to leeward like a ton of spray,
I thought how off Matinicus the tide
Came pounding in, came running through the Gut,
While from the Rock the warning whistle cried,
And children whimpered, and the doors blew shut;
There in the autumn when the men go forth,
With slapping skirts the island women stand
In gardens stripped and scattered, peering north,
With dahlia tubers dripping from the hand:
The wind of their endurance, driving south,
Flattened your words against your speaking mouth.

No marked modernist experimentation or pioneering divergences; but real skill and an ear well-tuned to that subtle boundary where the effective, well-spaced deployment of alliteration and assonance tips or slips into droning or hammering. The wind is truly driving in from the sea in this poem and not simply in the words that explicitly tell you so.

Millay—or the generally accepted valuation of Millay—seems to have made a later generation of women poets a little uneasy, especially those wanting to explore their own lives and histories in a franker, less inhibited way. Of course, there were—are?—large and lazy assumptions about what ‘women’s poetry’ was and was not. Robert Lowell, in conversation with Ian Hamilton, would name only four women who ‘stand with our best men’: Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath.[5]

lowell-bishop-1962

Lowell is, of course, often cited—and almost as often damned—for initiating, to a large extent, the ‘confessional’ mode. When Bishop wrote to him in March 1972, expressing her deep concerns about Lowell having used and, crucially, changed letters from Elizabeth Hardwick, she added, ‘In general, I deplore the “confessional”—however, when you wrote LIFE STUDIES perhaps it was a necessary movement, and it helped make poetry more real, fresh and immediate. But now—ye gods—anything goes, and I am so sick of poems about the students’ mothers & fathers and sex-lives and so on. All that can be done—but at the same time one surely should have a feeling that one can trust the writer—not to distort, tell lies, etc.’[6]

Lowell himself was not always comfortable with the work of poets said to be influenced by him, including Anne Sexton—and Sylvia Plath, who readily acknowledged the importance of Lowell’s Life Studies in what she viewed as a ‘breakthrough into very serious, very personal emotional experience, which I feel has been partly taboo.’[7] Plath wrote to her mother in 1956, ‘Ted [Hughes] says he never read poems by a woman like mine; they are strong and full and rich—not quailing and whining like [Sara] Teasdale or simple lyrics like Millay’.[8]

In that same conversation with Ian Hamilton, asked about Anne Sexton, Lowell answered carefully that he knew Sexton well: ‘It would be a test to say what I thought of her.’ But he added, ‘She is Edna Millay after Snodgrass’. ‘After Snodgrass’ meant after—perhaps chronologically but also in the style of—that poet’s 1959 collection, Heart’s Needle: Snodgrass was an acknowledged influence on Lowell’s own move towards a freer and more personal poetry.[9] But ‘Edna Millay’ – alas, alas. Sexton specifically expressed a ‘secret fear’ of being ‘a reincarnation’ of Millay, a poet she considered ‘soggily sentimental’.[10]

‘Soggily sentimental’, though? Some of it may well be, I’ve not ventured that far; best to tread carefully and be selective. Still, you could say that of a great many others, more often than not.

Death devours all lovely things:
Lesbia with her sparrow
Shares the darkness,—presently
Every bed is narrow.

 
References

[1] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 272.

[2] Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 148.

[3] Words in Air , 402.

[4] Cary Nelson, ‘Modern American Poetry’, in The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism, edited by Walter Kalaidjian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 78.

[5] ‘A Conversation with Ian Hamilton’ (1971), in Robert Lowell, Collected Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 287.

[6] Words in Air, 708-709.

[7] Sylvia Plath to a British Council interviewer, quoted by A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), 38.

[8] Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963, selected and edited with a commentary by Aurelia Schober Plath (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), 244.

[9] Steven Gould Axelrod, Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 97-99.

[10] Quoted by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1: The War of the Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 206.

 

A day’s news, reviews, revues

Blossom

The first important news of the day, conveyed by the Librarian, is of a stand-off between two cats in the back garden, interrupted by the magpie with the screw-you attitude. It sometimes taunts the cat by raiding the bird table under its nose—and does so now under two such noses.

Making breakfast, I keep an eye on the dramatically upgraded arrangement for the birds—metal not wood, and taller, very like the lamp post in Narnia, scene of the first encounter between Lucy and Mr Tumnus. The female blackbird has cottoned on quickly; the male, not so much. Upstairs, the Librarian berates Nick Robinson for his woeful line of questioning of John McDonnell. And it is, of course, The Day: in fact, the newspapers and radio and television bulletins are awash with items for which I’m not the target audience, notably royal weddings and cup finals. I realise that huge numbers of people are drawn to these things but, as with, say, piercings, barbecues, tattoos, reality shows and holidays in ‘exotic’ places, they’re not really for me. Luckily—though some folk display a frightening propensity for forcing their views upon others—there’s generally enough world to go round, so that we can follow our own tastes and inclinations, leaving others to theirs.

‘I know you don’t like Michelangelo’, Ford Madox Ford wrote in a poem addressed to the partner of his last decade, the painter Janice Biala:

‘But the Universe is very large, having room
Within it for infinities of Gods
All co-existing, much as you and I
Drudge on, engrossed by paper or on canvas,
You in that corner, I, in this, our thoughts
Going side by side for years and years and years’.

Okay. So we have books and journals, the diversions of wildlife and gardening, food to prepare for a daughter’s visit later—and yet, and yet, there is always the nagging pull of spectacle, theatre, candyfloss and popcorn: and the Librarian is making worrying suggestions about cucumber sandwiches, even mentioning Pimm’s and lemonade. . .
 

 

One thing leading to another

Light-in-August-Penguin

An online image of the jacket of the Penguin edition of William Faulkner’s Light in August that I used to own caught my attention. In the background there, E pluribus unum, the one out of many, or many made one. A painful, if not tragic, irony now, in this time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’, as Thomas Hardy wrote in another context—and the phrase with which George Oppen headed his poem ‘The Lighthouses’, for his once close and now estranged friend Louis Zukofsky: ‘(for L. Z. in time of the breaking of nations)’.[1]

So, the one, the one thing, a phrase to dwell upon. ‘The real unum necessarium [the one thing needful] for us’, Matthew Arnold wrote in Culture and Anarchy, ‘is to come to our best at all points.’[2] Emily Dickinson, continuing to resist the extreme pressure at her college to convert and be ‘saved’, in the midst of a religious revival, wrote in a letter of May 1848: ‘I have neglected the one thing needful when all were obtaining it.’[3]

Views on that one needful thing tend to differ, depending on circumstance and character. In Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel Innocence, ‘They were talking about their bowel movements. Loyalty from that quarter was the one thing necessary, said Ricasoli, for absolute peace of mind.’[4] Well, if not the one thing, certainly a contender. And Sarah Bakewell tells us that Montaigne, in his main chamber, had the roof beams painted with classical quotations, including this from Pliny the Elder: Solum certum nihil esse certi / Et homine nihil miseries aut superbius [Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain / And nothing is more wretched or arrogant than man].[5]

Our best selves; our bowels; uncertainty. In other contexts, that ‘one thing’ is immutability: ‘Strange how, when you are young, you owe no duty to the future; but when you are old, you owe a duty to the past. To the one thing you can’t change.’[6] Or it might be clarity: ‘this book, and my manner of writing it, should make one thing about my life clear: that everything I have lived through either has been completely forgotten or is as yesterday. There is no blue to the horizon of Time.’[7]

EW-WM

Eudora Welty and William Maxwell:
https://www.cleveland.com/books/index.ssf/2011/05/eudora_welty_and_william_maxwe.html

But, it hardly needs saying, one thing tends to lead to another. ‘Ever since Christmas, I have had such an appetite for reading that one thing leads off to another, to the point of madness’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty.[8] ‘All this really began’, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote to her editor Richard Ollard, ‘when I tried to find out who really discovered the blue poppy, meconopsis baileyi, as it seems not really to have been Colonel Bailey at all, and one thing led to another, but never mind that now.’[9]

‘All this’ was Fitzgerald’s last novel, The Blue Flower, drawing closely on the early life of the German Romantic writer Friedrich von Hardenberg, who took the name ‘Novalis’. His young brother, known as ‘The Bernhard’, reflects on the first chapter of the story that Friedrich has written:

‘He had been struck – before he crammed the story back into Fritz’s book-bag – by one thing in particular: the stranger who had spoken at the dinner table about the Blue Flower had been understood by one person and one only. This person must have been singled out as distinct from all the rest of his family. It was a matter of recognising your own fate and greeting it as familiar when it came.’[10]

The singular, the distinct, the discrete. But the mind moves on, cannot do other than move on. Sebastian Barry wrote in A Long Long Way: ‘Funny how a person thought of one thing and then thought of another thing. And then another thing. And was the third thing brother at all to the first?’[11] A good question. Delano, in Robert Lowell’s play, ‘Benito Cereno’, says:

‘I wish people wouldn’t take me as representative of our country:
America’s one thing, I am another;
we shouldn’t have to bear one another’s burdens.’[12]

One-Thing

In the title story of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s collection, One Thing Leading to Another, Helen Logie accidentally adds snuff instead of curry powder to the dish she serves up to Father Green and his curate, Father Curtin, the two Catholic priests for whom she keeps house. Their lack of response prompts her to a few more culinary experiments, still without getting any reaction. When rheumatism prevents her from pinning up her abundant red hair, its luxuriant looseness is deemed unacceptable. She gets a local lad, Willy Duppy, to help her pin it up but enlisting such aid is also beyond the pale and an impasse is reached. ‘So that was the secret! All a woman need do to get herself attended to was to have a fit of rheumatism that would make it impossible for her to put her hair up.’ Helen moves towards self-assertion and a final exasperated bid for freedom: she gives notice and ultimately reappears in a new guise: ‘soon after Easter, Mr Radbone’s redecorated shop opened its doors for the sale of light refreshments, cooked meats, cakes, jams, scones, and bannocks, and there was Helen presiding over it, assisted by Willy Duppy.’[13]

Temperamentally, I’d say I’m definitely in the one-thing-leading-to-many-others camp; I doubt if I could settle convincingly or consistently on the one thing needful. Perhaps that requires extreme youth; or the kind of certainty that grows increasingly difficult to keep in focus.

 
References

[1] Thomas Hardy, ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’, in The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 543; George Oppen, New Collected Poems, edited by Michael Davidson (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 256.

[2] Matthew Arnold, Culture And Anarchy (1869; edited by J. Dover Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 150.

[3] Quoted by Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (London: Virago Press, 2011), 43.

[4] Penelope Fitzgerald, Innocence (London: Flamingo, 1987), 148.

[5] Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (London: Vintage 2011), 29.

[6] Julian Barnes, The Only Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 168.

[7] Richard Wollheim, Germs: A Memoir of Childhood, (London: Black Swan, 2005), 40.

[8] William Maxwell to Eudora Welty, 7 January 1979, Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 346.

[9] Letter of 14 September [1994], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 416.

[10] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (London: Everyman, 2001), 448.

[11] Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), 124.

[12] Robert Lowell, The Old Glory (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 149.

[13] Sylvia Townsend Warner, One Thing Leading to Another (London: Chatto and Windus, 1984), 45-63.

 

Feeling sheepish

Lambs-gazing

Outside the back door: the familiar plant pots; the collapsing shed; the teetering bird table that caters to blackbirds, magpies, blue tits. Working keenly enough at the thinning, clearing, preparations for the new season’s plants, the Librarian is, nevertheless, a little wistful: she is missing the sheep.

Close to the Black Mountains, we stayed in a cottage six hundred years old. People were smaller in those days, Robin of Locksley’s chum Little John notwithstanding. I think my skull had significant contact with wood six times in all: twice to remember to duck as I went in or out between kitchen and terrace; twice more to remember to stay ducked, since the total breadth of solid wood to be negotiated before straightening was more than twelve inches; and, say, twice accounted for by thinking of, or looking at, something else as I approached the doorway.

The noise of that world was its height when you could just make out the sound of the tractor in the field across the valley. Otherwise, you heard only sheep, birdsong—and bees interrogating the crevices in the slate wall which bordered the terrace below the orchard. At times, especially at day’s end, you heard nothing. The sound of silence.

‘As the truest society approaches always nearer to solitude, so the most excellent speech finally falls into silence.’[1] So wrote Henry Thoreau, who was not, perhaps, that crazy about society. Still, for our first three days in border country, we went nowhere and saw nobody—and loved it.

Holiday-reading

Did I take anything to read? I did. The Librarian’s gathering was a separate matter but didn’t consist of many fewer books.

As for sheep—literary sheep—I recalled the curious sentence in Ford Madox Ford’s memoir of Joseph Conrad: ‘In all our ten thousand conversations down the years we had only these two themes over which we quarrelled: as to the taste of saffron and as to whether one sheep is distinguishable from another.’ Hmm. The saffron affair came down to Conrad’s declaration that saffron had no flavour but was merely a matter of colouring, against Ford’s assertion that saffron was strongly flavoured. And one sheep distinguishable from another?

There was one more bone of contention mentioned later: the matter of official honours. ‘The reader should understand that this matter is one which divides forever—into sheep and goats—the world of the arts. There are some few artists who will accept Academic honours; to the majority of those who are really artists the idea is abhorrent, and those who accept such honours betray their brothers. To this majority Conrad had enthusiastically belonged. You had Flaubert who refused, you had Zola who all his life sought, academic distinction. For Conrad there had used to be no question as to which to follow. Now he had followed Zola.’[2]

As for the burning question of whether one sheep is distinguishable from another – on the basis of extensive research conducted over the last week, occasionally with a glass in my hand, I have an answer ready: yes.

 

 

References

[1] Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod (New York: Library of America, 1985), 318.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 29-30, 69.

 

Merry Jesting

Rousseau_Carriole-Juniet

(Henri Rousseau, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (1908): Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.)

Published in the Partisan Review in the summer of 1939, Elizabeth Bishop’s appreciation of Gregorio Valdes made no claims for him as a great painter—‘sometimes he was not even a good “primitive”’—and observed that the artist himself saw no difference between ‘what we think of as his good pictures and his poor pictures’, that success and failure seemed to be merely a matter of luck. Most were copied from photographs or reproductions, nevertheless, ‘when he copied, particularly from a photograph, and particularly from a photograph of something he knew and liked, such as palm trees, he managed to make just the right changes in perspective and coloring to give it a peculiar and captivating freshness, flatness, and remoteness.’

Bishop commissioned Valdes to paint a picture of the Key West house she was living in with Louise Crane, and asked the painter for extras: more flowers, ‘a monkey that lived next door, a parrot and a certain kind of palm tree, called the Traveller’s Palm.’ She began her memoir by describing the first Valdes painting that she saw, ‘a real View’: ‘In the middle of the road was the tiny figure of a man on a donkey, and far away on the right the white speck of a thatched Cuban cabin that seemed to have the same mysterious properties of perspective as the little dog in Rousseau’s The Cariole of M. Juniot.’[1] In letters of that period, she referred to Valdes as ‘our new Key West Rousseau’ and ‘our local Rousseau’.[2]

In 1949, Flannery O’Connor met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, and subsequently moved into their house, Ridgefield, Connecticut, as a paying guest. In a letter to Janet McKane, 27 August 1963, O’Connor wrote: ‘Thanks so much for the museum bulletins with devilish dogs etc. The dog I like in painting is one in a painting of Rousseau. I don’t know the name of it but the family is in a wagon, all looking ahead and there is one dog in the wagon and one underneath, kind of prim diabolical dogs. It’s very funny. It used to hang in the Fitzgeralds’ kitchen (the people I lived with in Connecticut) but I have never seen it anywhere else.’[3]

OConnor-InaDillardRussellLibrary

(Flannery O’Connor: Ina Dillard Russell Library via New Georgia Encyclopedia)

It is, of course, the same painting, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (‘Old Juniet’s Cart’), by Henri Rousseau, commonly called ‘Le Douanier’, although ‘he was never a douanier (customs inspector) but a gabelou (employee of the municipal toll service).’[4] Like most of the work of Valdes, Rousseau’s painting began with a photograph, ‘which shows how he selected and revised at will. The bleak snapshot is transformed into a study of red wheels and shafts penetrating masses of black. In the painting the people sit in a compact arrangement in the cart, with space around them, instead of standing formlessly on the kerb. They have become, recognizably, creatures of Rousseau’s vision.’[5] (And four of the people in the picture plus one dog are, pace O’Connor’s memory, not looking ahead but rather at us—only old Juniet and two of the dogs seem to be looking ahead.)

Rousseau has consistently been mocked or celebrated, and sometimes both simultaneously, as was the case with most of the guests attending the famous banquet, given in Rousseau’s honour by Pablo Picasso and Fernande Olivier at the Bateau Lavoir, probably on 21 November 1908. Those guests included Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, André Salmon and Georges Braque. Many years later, Picasso commented that it was ‘vraiment une blague [really a joke]. Nobody believed in his talent, only Rousseau took it seriously. He wept with joy.’ And yet Picasso was ‘the only person present who genuinely admired Rousseau’s work.’[6]

André Derain commented on the work of Henri Rousseau that, ‘“It seems hardly worthwhile searching and using technical training, when a person so simple, so pure, such a dope, in fact, can succeed in giving such an impression; his work is the triumph of the dopes.”’[7] Nevertheless, his influence on several other painters, notably Robert Delaunay, is often remarked, and Guy Davenport suggests that Picasso’s career-long habit of ‘combining full face and profile’, which became ‘a stylistic trademark’, prompted Rousseau’s ‘perfectly accurate observation, “You and I, M. Picasso, are the two greatest living painters, I in the modern manner, you in the Egyptian,” the full-face eye in a face seen sideways being the rule in Egyptian drawing.’[8]

So too, the impact of the Rousseau retrospective at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants (the year following his death) was considerable. The younger artists ‘conspired to present a retrospective exhibition’ of forty-seven of Rousseau’s paintings. ‘Esteemed as a true “primitive” by Delaunay and Léger, Rousseau was considered a precursor by the salon cubists, on a par with Cézanne, another modernist primitive’.[9]

John, Gwen, 1876-1939; A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris

(Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris: Museums Sheffield)

There were other, perhaps less predictable, appreciations. ‘In the Indépendants a man named Rousseau had a collection of pictures which you would be very interested in, I’m sure’, Gwen John wrote in a letter of 22 August 1911. ‘He has died lately. He was a douanier and at fifty year[s] old he felt he must paint and so he painted, not knowing at all how to paint. His pictures are very remarkable works, as you can imagine, but they are works of art. I hope you will be able to see them some day, but I don’t know where they are now. I suppose they have gone to his family. The other exhibitors in the Indépendants are just mad people.’[10]

Among recent critics, Robert Hughes wrote that Rousseau meant his visions to be absolutely real, the authenticity of the jungle scenes resting on a tissue of fibs about serving in the French army in Mexico in the 1860s. It was important, Hughes went on, that these spectacles ‘should seem witnessed, not invented’ – and they had, in fact, been witnessed twice, once in Rousseau’s imagination, once more in the Jardin des Plantes.[11] In fact, Roger Shattuck comments, much of the ‘lingering falsehood’ stems from Apollinaire’s articles, in which he stated that Rousseau ‘went to Mexico with troops sent by Napoleon III to support Maximilian, and that it is the memory of the “forbidden” tropical fruits in Central America that obsessed him in his jungle paintings.’ There’s no evidence of such a trip but, as Shattuck remarks, ‘Rousseau’s imagination was capable of its own voyages.’[12]

So it was. His paintings are unsettling but oddly compelling, with their huge children and tiny animals, moustachioed figures frozen in peculiar poses, startling vegetation, sly self-portraits, the sleeping gypsy (who is, in fact, awake, though pretending to be dead), the velvety exoticism of his snake-charmer.

Rousseau_Merry_Jesters

(Henri Rousseau, Les joyeux farceurs: Louis and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

‘Until we are willing to enter Rousseau’s world’, Guy Davenport writes, ‘we are going to misread all his paintings.’ (He has just discussed five such misreadings, of Rousseau’s Les joyeux farceurs.) And, ‘What, psychologically, was most useful to Rousseau was not childishness but a quality wholly mature: the ability to fool himself.’ That is, he saw his paintings as he wished to see them. ‘In this he was a kind of Don Quixote; and, as with the Don, Rousseau wins us over to his way of seeing.’[13]

In a letter to Hugh Kenner (1 March 1963), accompanying his long poem, Flowers and Leaves, Davenport signed himself ‘The Douanier Rousseau of Poetry’ (Kenner’s letter of 1 May 1963 began ‘Dear Mr Rousseau’).[14] * And, as Davenport mentions in the essay just cited, Monsieur Rousseau is there, in that poem:

Henri Rousseau’s garden jungle
Is sincerity’s domain.

And:

Mr Rousseau, master in the modern manner,
Has depicted us in forests of flowers, inquisitive
As catfish, intelligent as Miss Gertrude Stein.[15]

* (Currently scheduled for October this year, and keenly awaited in some quarters, is Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward Burns, published by Counterpoint Press: a total of 2016 – no, that’s not a date – pages: two volumes of a thousand pages each. Quoted price is $95.00 which, given that a lot of slim UK monographs come in at £70 or even £80 these days, seems a snip.)

 

 

References

[1] ‘Gregorio Valdes, 1879-1939’, in Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2008), 326-332.

[2] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 75; Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, 746.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 1190.

[4] Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, revised edition (New York: Vintage, 1968), 46.

[5] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 100.

[6] John Richardson, A Life of Picasso. Volume II, 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life (London: Pimlico, 1997), 110, 112.

[7] Derain, in Denys Sutton, André Derain (London: Phaidon, 1959), 27: quoted in Judi Freeman, The Fauve Landscape (London: Guild Publishing, 1990), 110.

[8] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 68.

[9] Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, editors, A Cubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 1906-1914 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), 120, 121.

[10] Gwen John to John Quinn, in Letters and Notebooks, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 69.

[11] Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, revised edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 229.

[12] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 46.

[13] Guy Davenport, ‘What Are Those Monkeys Doing?’, in Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 14, 26.

[14] Edward M. Burns, ‘Questioning Minds: The Letters of Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport’, The Hopkins Review, 8, 3 (Summer 2015), 338-371 (349).

[15] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 91, 110.

 

Larking about

Henry, George, 1858-1943; The Lark
(George Henry, The Lark: Newport Museum and Art Gallery)

After last week, when the rain drenched and draggled so doggedly that I was reminded of Louis MacNeice’s comment on ‘those April showers which in Ireland persist for twelve months’,[1] we are back to more settled unsettled weather, veering from sunshine to rain in the merest jiffy. We’re even promised a heat wave soon.

In a cool room, anyway, inching my eyes down the page, I encounter this:

Can vei la lauzeta mover
De joi sas alas contral ray,
Que s · oblida e · s layssa cazer
Per la doussor qu · al cor li vai
,
O my!’

Hmm. Yet it seems faintly familiar. The next lines are: ‘Bird and she bird / Love and fall’.[2] I recalled Guy Davenport outlining his initial version of Ezra Pound, ‘first of all a man who had written a rich, barely comprehensible poem, a man whose portrait bust had been chiselled by Gaudier. My first response was to learn Italian and Provençal, and to paint in the quattrocento manner. All real education is such unconscious seduction.’[3]

henri gaudier-brzeska hieratic head of ezra pound 1914
(Henri Gaudier Brzeska, Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914: Tate)

I myself have signally failed to learn Provençal and must blunder along as best I can. Perhaps not Arnaut Daniel, and not Bertran de Born. I rummage in teetering piles. In Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry, I find, ah yes, Bernard de Ventadour’s poem, translated there as prose: ‘When I see the lark beating with joy its wings against the ray of the sun until, oblivious, it swoons and drops for the sweetness which enters its heart’.[4] Ah, ‘Bird and she bird / Love and fall’ – so larks, like swifts, mate on the wing? Elsewhere, the poet W. D. Snodgrass offers rhymes:

‘Now when I see the skylark lift
His wings for joy in dawn’s first ray
Then let himself, oblivious, drift
For all his heart is glad and gay’.[5]

And, of course, the path snakes back to Pound: ‘When I see the lark a-moving / For joy his wings against the sunlight, / Who forgets himself and lets himself fall / For the sweetness which goes into his heart’.[6] That must be where I first saw it, thirty years back, probably more. So early in Pound’s career; but, very late in that career, in one of the last scraps of Cantos, the fragment ending ‘To be men not destroyers’, we find this:

“es laissa cader”
so high toward the sun and then falling,
“de joi sas alas”
to set here the roads of France.

In fact, the third line of Bernard’s verse has appeared in the first of the Pisan Cantos; the line about the roads of France, two cantos later.[7] And, apart from the sources of a Bible and an anthology of poetry, the Pisan Cantos are, of course, primarily memories—fragmentary, often imperfect, no doubt, adhering in odd patterns and permutations—mixed with observation of the day-to-day life of the camp. In retrospect, among Pound’s glimpses of paradise were life in pre-war London and his great ventures into Provence, in 1912, 1919 and 1924, but particularly the first. ‘Or, again, a man may walk the hill roads and river roads from Limoges and Charente to Dordogne and Narbonne and learn a little, or more than a little, of what the country meant to the wandering singers, he may learn, or think he learns, why so many canzos open with speech of the weather; or why such a man made war on such and such castles.’[8]

Layng, Mabel Frances, 1881-1937; The Gypsy
(Mabyl Frances Lang, The Gypsy: Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)

Or a man might write ‘The Gypsy’ or ‘Provincia Deserta’—or ‘Near Perigord’:

Take the whole man and ravel out the story.
He loved this lady in castle Montaignac?
The castle flanked him—he had need of it.
You read to-day, how long the overlords of Perigord,
The Talleyrands, have held the place, it was no transient fiction.
And Maent failed him? Or saw through the scheme?[9]

The lark is, I gather, ‘one of the most popular birds in post-classical Europeans poetry.’ I am directed to Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Spenser, Wordsworth, Milton. Tennyson, Dante, Goethe, Shelley and Blake, among others.[10] It was George Meredith’s poem that gave Vaughan Williams the title of his ‘tone poem’, The Lark Ascending. It sometimes seems that this piece has been damned by its widespread popularity, though I don’t tire of it any more than I tire of, say, the several points on Somerset and Dorset roads where you breast a rise between trees and the world suddenly opens up, with great sweeps of country on either side and the clear sky fled endlessly away—or, in bookish vein, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories or yes (I’ve just confirmed) Hergé’s adventures of Tintin. A sweetness entering the heart – more or less.

References

[1] Louis MacNeice, The Strings are False: An Unfinished Autobiography, edited E. R. Dodds (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 216.

[2] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 56.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Ezra Pound, 1885-1972’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174.

[4] Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry, edited and translated by Alan R. Press (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press, 1971), 77.

[5] W. D. Snodgrass, ‘The Skylark’, in Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, edited by Robert Kehew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 75.

[6] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 41.

[7] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 802, 431, 455. In fact, Bernard’s poem crops up in Canto VI (22) as well.

[8] Ezra Pound, ‘Troubadours – Their Sorts and Conditions’ (1913), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 95.

[9] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 304.

[10] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 104, 105.

 

The plural of referendum is – Herodotus?

Herodotus

(Herodotus asking ‘What??’)

In the latest issue of the London Review of Books, David Runciman’s ‘Too Few to Mention’, a review of Nick Clegg’s How to Stop Brexit (and Make Britain Great Again), assesses the arguments for and against a second referendum and concludes that ‘the likeliest way to overturn the referendum result is to wait until one party or other has taken clear ownership of its consequences. For that to happen, Brexit has to happen too.’ He adds: ‘It is possible that at some point a second referendum will be appropriate, once a new status quo has been established, to see whether people would prefer an alternative. Until then, however, conventional electoral politics will have to decide our collective fate.’

If you regard the whole Brexit business as a nose-to-tail blunder of epochal proportions (and arguably a very twenty-first century right-wing coup), this makes grim but convincing reading. Of course, the offhand incompetence displayed on an almost daily basis by those charged with seeing the whole sorry process through is itself extraordinary and I know that a great many people have been reduced to a state of rigid boredom as it drags on. Others still retain enough energy for outrage or forceful questioning – but this is generally of a rhetorical kind, with no real expectation of satisfactory answers. It’s not a new phenomenon, that of people reacting and indeed voting according to criteria that exclude facts, reason, logic and the rest: everyone does it to a greater or lesser extent, I suspect, the relevant question being the degree to which we’re conscious of doing so. What does seem to be a fairly recent phenomenon is the general realisation—by analysts of the reasonable, the rational, the logical—that this is actually the case. Why did so many people vote for Donald Trump, for Brexit, for political extremists in Hungary, Germany, Denmark? Hmmm. ‘How anyone can still be voting Tory,’ the Librarian remarks, as we listen to the results of the English local elections, ‘is baffling.’ I acknowledge and share that bafflement. But here we are.

Still, looking back at the EU referendum, I am strongly reminded of Herodotus writing about the Persians: ‘If an important decision is to be made, they discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober. If they still approve it, it is adopted; if not, it is abandoned. Conversely, any decision they make when they are sober, is reconsidered afterwards when they are drunk.’[1]

Yes. I don’t think we advanced beyond the discussion-when-drunk stage. But I still don’t expect a second referendum.

 

 

Reference
[1] Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 56. Cf. Tacitus, Germania, in Agricola and Germania, translated by S. A. Handford (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 120: ‘They debate when they are incapable of pretence but reserve their decision for a time when they cannot well make a mistake”