Owl’s Eyes

Owls

My daughter’s flight from Barcelona, due late in the evening, is delayed by two hours, so I sit up, well beyond my usual bedtime. ‘Night-owl’, people used to say, certainly my mother used to say, of those who kept late hours, though Edward Hopper’s famous 1942 painting of four people in a diner keeping very late hours, ‘the classic film noir Hopper’, as Robert Hughes calls it, is entitled Nighthawks.[1]

Nighthawks

(Edward Hopper, Nighthawks: The Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection)

Owls, though, I associate with at least three firsts in my life: in the pages of the brief travel journal I kept on my first trip to Greece some twenty years ago, I see several mentions of the call of the Scops owl, the Eurasian (or Common) Scops owl, known to a generation of young (and older) readers of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books because Ron Weasley’s owl is a Scops. Similar in some ways to a Scops and, apparently, sometimes mistaken for it, is the Little Owl, Athene noctua, sacred owl of Athena. The goddess with the grey eyes, she was traditionally described as. When James Joyce talked to Sylvia Beach of his eye problems and mentioned glaucoma, Beach remembered: ‘It was the first time I had ever heard of this disease, with its beautiful name. “The gray owl eyes of Athena,” said Joyce.’[2] So said the author of Ulysses but, apparently, while Homer uses the word for an ‘owl’ (skops) only once, glaukopis—derived from glaux, the generic term for ‘owl’—occurs some ninety times in his work. It may have meant ‘sharp-eyed’ or ‘with gleaming eyes’.[3]

SB-JJ

(Sylvia Beach and James Joyce via The Washington Times)

I was working on my thesis when my supervisor, the poet Charles Tomlinson, mentioned in conversation that John Ruskin had discussed the meaning of glaukopis in a book called The Queen of the Air (1869). ‘In her prudence, or sight in darkness, she is “Glaukopis,” owl-eyed’, he wrote of Athena. And a little later, Glaukopis ‘chiefly means grey-eyed: grey standing for a pale or luminous blue; but it only means “owl-eyed” in thought of the roundness and expansion, not from the colour; this breadth and brightness being, again, in their moral sense, typical of the breadth, intensity, and singleness of the sight in prudence’.[4]

I’d been reading Ezra Pound on Allen Upward and the pages to which Charles had directed me evolved into a large part of my first published essay.[5] Upward regarded with a severely critical eye the attempts of scholars thus far ‘to understand the word glaukopis, given to the goddess Athene. Did it mean blue-eyed, or gray-eyed, or—by the aid of Sanskrit—merely glare-eyed? And all the time they had not only the word glaux staring them in the face, as the Athenian name for owl, and the name of ox-eyed Hera to guide them, but they had the owl itself cut at the foot of every statue of Athene, and stamped on every coin of Athens, to tell them that she was the owl-eyed goddess, the lightning that blinks like an owl. For what is characteristic of the owl’s eyes is not that they glare, but that they suddenly leave off glaring, like lighthouses whose light is shut off. We may see the shutter of the lightning in that mask that overhangs Athene’s brow, and hear its click in the word glaukos. And the leafage of the olive, whose writhen trunk bears, as it were, the lightning’s brand, does not glare, but glitters, the pale under face of the leaves alternating with the dark upper face, and so the olive is Athene’s tree, and is called glaukos. Why need we carry owls to Oxford?’[6] (The many owls that were in Athens gave rise to the saying, ‘To bring owls to Athens’, an early forerunner of the English phrase, ‘to take coals to Newcastle’.)

Athenes-Owl

The novelist Violet Hunt, who often received Ezra Pound at South Lodge, her home on Campden Hill Road, had an owl named Ann Veronica, after the novel by H. G. Wells, ‘a very pretty little owl’ but—‘She died untimely.’[7] The owl was part of a menagerie that included a bulldog, nine Persian cats, and several parrots that ‘shrieked “Ezra! Ezra!” whenever they saw him bouncing up the walk.’[8] Hunt’s partner for a decade was, of course, Ford Madox Ford, the other main focus of my research: the rest of my essay linked Upward and his double vortex, or waterspout, with Ford’s 1913 novel The Young Lovell. Ford published almost eighty books in his lifetime but the first of them all was a fairy tale called The Brown Owl, its frontispiece created by his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown.

Brown_Owl_FMB

The mountains being so tall
And forcing the town on the river,
The market’s so small
That, with the wet cobbles, dark arches and all,
The owls
(For in dark rainy weather the owls fly out
Well before four), so the owls
In the gloom
Have too little room
And brush by the saint on the fountain
In veering about.[9]

 
References

[1] Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 427.

[2] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, new edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 39.

[3] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 146. Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon has ‘epithet of Minerva’—Roman goddess identified with Greek Athene—‘with gleaming eyes’.

[4] The Works of John Ruskin, Library Edition, Volume XIX: The Cestus of Aglaia and The Queen of the Air with Other Papers and Lectures on Art and Literature, 1860–1870, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1905), 306, 381.

[5] Paul Skinner, ‘Of Owls and Waterspouts’, Paideuma, 17, 1 (Spring 1988), 59-68.

[6] Allen Upward, The New Word: An Open Letter addressed to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on the meaning of the word IDEALIST (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1910), 238.

[7] Violet Hunt, The Flurried Years (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1926), 109.

[8] Barbara Belford, Violet: The Story of the Irrepressible Violet Hunt and her Circle of Lovers and Friends—Ford Madox Ford, H. G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, and Henry James (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 166-167.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, ‘In the Little Old Market-place’, Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Max Saunders (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997), 68.

 

Using your loaf

Jean_Francois_Millet_-_Woman_Baking_Bread_12x16_jdscqy__80810.1486481549

(Jean-Francois Millet, Woman Baking Bread)

Yesterday, after a night of rain had put paid to the snow and the bird chorus in the park was at full stretch again, I walked uphill in mizzle or, better, dringey—‘the kind of light rain that still manages to get you soaking wet’—which I borrow from the back pages of Melissa Harrison’s splendid Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, even though she indicates that its usage is mainly in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. I should also nod to her ‘Scotch mist’, noted here as ‘the kind of fine rain a Scotsman will barely notice but which will wet an Englishman to the skin (Northamptonshire, Scotland)’.[1]

In fact, there were still sad heaps of snow—or rather, heaps of sad snow—scattered about the slopes, some the remains of snowmen, others less artistic, never being more than heaps, just bigger ones for a while. The rest had melted away more quickly—much more quickly—than a fantasy Brexit.

Snow-pile

With that in mind, today I reach for flour and yeast. One small step for man—actually no, not for this particular man. Decades since I made bread but it seems, at this juncture, a handy skill to have. Not that I’m paranoid, you understand—though I recall with fondness the days when certain people were only on the early pages of the How to Fuck your Country Up Handbook, Part One, initial indicative wish list: lorry queues from Dover to Dartford, empty supermarket shelves and bodies strewn along the sides of the roads—and we’ve normally bought bread from a local baker anyway. But making your own is just a very satisfying thing to do. Carpentry would be too – but I have no talent for it and can barely cut paper straight. Mastery of a foreign language would be, yes – but I’ve shown little aptitude for it thus far and it’s a bit late now. I can, though, bake a loaf of bread.

This baking business is no mundane matter. In 1917, there was a Royal Proclamation, a call from the King to his people, to eat less bread, in the face of unrestricted U-boat warfare.[2] A world war later, here was poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, then working on the land and railing against the false division of things into different ‘departments’, singling out the baking of a loaf of bread: ‘Is this an economic action, a spiritual ritual, a biological necessity or a work of art? Is it not obvious that the whole is contained in any part?’[3] I think I’m aiming for the first and last of these, though when you get into the rhythm of kneading, the idea of ritual is a feasible one.

Bread

Then, too, there’s a pleasing language to roam around in: wholemeal, sourdough, banana bread, rye, flatbread, brioche, crumpet, muffin, pretzel, pumpernickel, focaccia, scone, split tin, cottage loaf, bagel, ciabatta, Bannock, Soda bread, spelt, teacake, Bara brith, Lardy cake, oatcake. . .

‘Give us this day our daily bread’, I intoned for years as a child before experiencing what was, I suppose, the opposite of what Saul of Tarsus experienced, though also on a dusty road, in my case walking to a summer Sunday service from the school where my father had chosen to board me while he occupied himself with a new job a hundred and fifty miles away—and, concurrently, divorce from my mother.

James Joyce seems to have had a properly elevated view of such things, Stephen Dedalus seeing himself as ‘a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.’[4]

I probably won’t aim quite so high – but I do need to advance beyond that two pound loaf tin. I feel it’s cramping my style a little. Today the tin but tomorrow – the baking sheet.

 

References

[1] Melissa Harrison, Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), 90, 93.

[2] E. S. Turner, Dear Old Blighty (London: Michael Joseph 1980), 229.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber 1944), 87.

[4] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916; edited with an introduction and notes by Jeri Johnson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 226.

 

Lesbia’s lively guest

hokusai-sparrows

(Hokusai, Sparrows)

Snow still on the ground from the falls of Thursday night, which produced enough to satisfy the Librarian’s appetite for such things and to allow for taking impressive photographs of a crow in the park. Nothing much since but the temperature hasn’t climbed enough to clear it. And still no sign of the robin – which, I gather, doesn’t do well in cold weather. I clear the water dish each morning of its solid disc of ice and refill it, and have scraped off the hillocks of snow from the seed tray and feeder, but I’ve noticed only one pigeon and one sparrow turn up so far.

The sparrow has been the more persistent: two visits on Friday and three on Saturday. Long ones too, perched in the seed tray for up to ten minutes. Apart from their inherent attractiveness, I’ve always felt particularly sympathetic towards sparrows since reading about how they were regarded as unusually lustful by earlier ages. Apparently, the Greek strouthos (sparrow) could mean ‘lewd fellow’ or ‘lecher’.[1] Sappho had Aphrodite’s chariot pulled by them:

In that chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted,
Swift in their flying, a quick blur aquiver,
Beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
Down to the black earth[2]

More famous is Catullus, first detailing the interaction between Lesbia — Clodia Metelli – and her pet sparrow. In Walter Savage Landor’s version:

Sparrow! Lesbia’s lively guest,
Cherish’d ever in her breast!
Whom with tantalizing jokes
Oft to peck her she provokes:
Thus in pretty playful wiles
Love and absence she beguiles.

Oft, like her, to ease my pain,
I thy little fondness gain.
Dear to me as, bards have told,
Was the apple’s orb of gold
To the Nymph whose long-tied zone
That could loose, and that alone.[3]

Bewick-Dunnock

(Thomas Bewick’s Dunnock, or Hedgesparrow)

In the following poem, Catullus responds to the sparrow’s death. It has ‘now hopped solitarily/ down that dark alleyway of no returns’, its loss ‘swelling my girl’s veiled eyes/ which redden with tears.’[4]

There’s a remarkable Scots version of Catullus 3 by G. S. Davies (1912):

Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all,
And ilka Man o’ decent feelin’:
My lassie’s lost her wee, wee bird,
And that’s a loss, ye’ll ken, past healin’.

The lassie lo’ed him like her een:
The darling wee thing lo’ed the ither,
And knew and nestled to her breast,
As only bairnie to her mither.

Her bosom was his dear, dear haunt—
So dear, he cared na lang to leave it;
He’d nae but gang his ain sma’ jaunt,
And flutter piping back bereavit.

The wee thing’s gane the shadowy road
That’s never traveled back by ony:
Out on ye, Shades! Ye’re greedy aye
To grab at aught that’s brave and bonny.

Puir, foolish, fondling, bonnie bird,
Ye little ken what wark ye’re leavin’:
Ye’ve bar’d my lassie’s een grow red,
Those bonnie een grow red wi’ grieving.[5]

I’ve just found it quoted too in a post by the poet and translator A. E. Stallings on the Poetry Foundation website, where she discusses several version of Catullus, including those of Louis and Celia Zukofsky:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/09/miss-her-catullus

Then again, there’s this post by Katherine Langrish:

http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2018/04/lesbias-sparrow-katherine-langrish.html

In short, once again, a small bird (or its equivalent in other contexts) expands into flocks, squadrons, gigantic murmurations, up and out into limitless stretches of space and light.

I’m still keeping an eye open for the robin.

 

References

[1] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 198.

[2] Sappho 1, in Guy Davenport, Seven Greeks (New York: New Directions, 1995), 69.

[3] Walter Savage Landor, ‘To the Sparrow of Lesbia’, in Charles Tomlinson, editor, Eros English’d: Classical Erotic Poetry in Translation: from Golding to Hardy (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1992), 203.

[4] The Poems of Catullus, translated with an introduction by Peter Whigham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966), 52.

[5] The Oxford Book of Classical Verse, edited by Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 265-266.

 

Berwick, Sussex, tenebrosities

berwick-via-guardian

(Berwick-on-Tweed, via The Guardian)

In January 1923, Ezra Pound wrote: ‘Les guerres de Napoléon having interrupted communications between the islanders and the rest of the world, the light of the eighteenth century was lost, Landor went into exile, the inhabitants of Berwick and Sussex existed in darkness, England as a whole fell back into the tenebrosities of the counter reformation, and has remained there ever since.’[1]

Ah, those tenebrosities. Hello, darkness, my old friend, as we are practising saying. But the light of the eighteenth century? Pound is less likely to be pointing to Samuel Johnson, Pope, Crabbe, Burke and Swift than, given the context and his Francophile tendencies, the Encyclopaedists, Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu.

blake_ancient_of_days

(Some 18th century light: William Blake, The Ancient of Days)

‘If Pound’s Enlightenment, with its stress on Bayle, Voltaire, a few historians, and the antecedents of Revolutionary America, is not precisely that of the eighteenth-century specialist, that is because of the sharp selection and re-emphasis incident to solving a poetic problem located two centuries later’, Hugh Kenner remarked, that ‘problem’ being Pound’s need to ‘break free from Rossetti, “the nineties” and the opalescent word’.[2]

NPG Ax7811; Ezra Pound by Alvin Langdon Coburn  yeats-1911

(Alvin Langdon Coburn, Ezra Pound)        (W. B. Yeats, 1916)

As for those inhabitants of Berwick and Sussex – it could be a straightforward ‘north’ and ‘south’ of England: still, for the latter, there had been Pound’s three winters (1913-1916) at Stone Cottage at the edge of Ashdown Forest, as ‘secretary’ to William Butler Yeats.[3] Then, too, in the summer of 1920, Pound had visited his friend Ford Madox Ford in Bedham: ‘And Mr. Pound appeared, aloft on the seat of my immense dog-cart, like a bewildered Stuart pretender visiting a repellent portion of his realms. For Mr. Pound hated the country, though I will put it on record that he can carve a sucking pig as few others can. With him I quarrelled about vers libres and he shortly afterwards left England and acquired his mastery of the more resounding rhythms.’[4]

And then – Berwick. In the summer of 1914, as Ford recalled it nearly twenty years later, ‘I went home to pack my things. Next morning I was on the high platform of Berwick station. Berwick town is in Berwickshire and Berwickshire is in Scotland. But Berwick town is neither English nor Scottish. It is “juist Berwick”. The King’s proclamations are ordered to be affixed to the church doors of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and the town of Berwick-on-Tweed.’ Then, putting down the newspaper, Ford catches sight of a three-line paragraph, ‘tucked away at the bottom of a page and headed minutely: AUSTRIAN HEIR MURDERED IN SARAJEVO. It was London’s news of the 28th June, 1914, reaching me there in a border town.’[5]

A little nearer in time to the events described, he shifts that moment forward a few weeks, writing that, ‘On the morning of 20th July, 1914, I stood upon the platform of Berwick-on-Tweed station, reading the London papers.’[6] Max Saunders discusses the conflicting dates with his usual thoroughness and accuracy.[7]

Ford was at Berwick-on-Tweed to catch the train on to Duns, where he and Violet Hunt had been invited to a house party by the novelist Mary Borden, who had rented Duns Manor with her husband, George Turner. The other houseguests included E. M. Forster and Wyndham Lewis (with whom Borden was having an affair).[8] Pound was not present but was in close contact with both Ford and Lewis (whose fictional rendering of the occasion, ‘The Country House Party, Scotland’, remained unpublished in his lifetime, though a version appears in his first autobiographical volume, Blasting and Bombardiering.[9]

At that time, Borden had published only one novel and a play, both under the name of ‘Bridget MacLagan’. She eventually produced twenty-five books, publishing well into the 1950s: the most highly regarded probably remains The Forbidden Zone, a collection of sketches and poems finally published in 1929. In both world wars, Borden set up and ran mobile hospitals in France, close to the front line, making full use of her wealth and contacts but also demonstrating immense personal courage and endurance. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre and made a member of the Légion d’honneur. After the fall of France in 1940, and a circuitous, hair-raising journey home, Borden ended up running a hospital in the Western Desert, spending time in Syria and Lebanon. She died in December 1968.[10]

mar-borden-france

Mary Borden working at a Field Hospital in France:
https://modernismmodernity.org/articles/war-experience-modernist-noise

Duns, the county town of Berwickshire, bordered the twin parishes of Bunkle and Preston, in which Ford’s great-grandfather, the physician John Brown had been born in the winter of 1735-36. In The Spirit of the People,[11] Ford again referred to Berwick-on-Tweed as if it were a separate entity, neither Scottish nor English and, a few years later, in his novel of border country, The Young Lovell, he has the Earl of Northumberland read to Margaret from an old document: ‘And when he had done with Hotspur, the Earl went on to read of the fate of the father of Hotspur, Henry, the Fourth Lord Percy of Alnwick. This lord fell at Bramham Moor fighting against King Henry IV, as Hotspur had done at Hately Field, fighting against the same King four years before. This lord’s head and quarters were placed upon London Bridge: one quarter upon the gate of York, another at Newcastle, and yet further pieces at King’s Lynn and Berwick- on-Tweed.’[12]

That seems to add up to five quarters, a miscounting to set beside Murphy’s scarves in Samuel Beckett’s novel (the text says seven but accounts for only six). In a letter to Hugh Kenner, referring to Guy Davenport’s work on the drawings for The Stoic Comedians, Beckett wrote: ‘I wonder where he will place that 7th scarf.’ In fact, Davenport used eight.[13]

Ford worked Berwick and the return journey to London into the first volume of the Tietjens tetralogy;[14] and Berwick is there again more than a decade later, ‘the patient New Yorker’ reading in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur Sir Gawaine’s letter to Sir Launcelot, telling him that he had been smitten upon the old wound received from Launcelot ‘afore the cité of Benwyke, and thorow that wounde I am com to my deth-day.’[15]

How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival Were Fed with the Sanct Grael; but Sir Percival's Sister Died by the Way 1864 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival Were Fed with the Sanct Grael; but Sir Percival’s Sister Died by the Way (1864): Tate

There’s an obvious affinity between Ford (Englishman, German father, lived in France and America, published across two centuries, modernist who doesn’t quite fit the template), who wrote often—explicitly and implicitly—about borders, and Berwick, the northernmost town in England, at the mouth of a river which runs across the Anglo-Scottish border, a town which was at one time in Scotland, some of whose inhabitants regard themselves as English, some Scottish, others simply as Berwickers.

Fertile ground for the arts, then, borders – but in the wider world they can be lethal. . .

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/31/ireland-hard-border-brexit-backstop-good-friday-agreement

 

References

[1] Ezra Pound, ‘On Criticism in General’, Criterion, I, 2 (January 1923), 143.

[2] Hugh Kenner, ‘Ezra Pound and the Light of France’, in Gnomon: Essays on Contemporary Literature (New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1958), 264.

[3] This chapter of modernism is splendidly described by James Longenbach, in Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[4] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 138.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 434, 435.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Between St Dennis and St George: A Sketch of Three Civilisations (London: Hodder, 1915), 38.

[7] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 604-605, n.12.

[8] Paul O’Keeffe, Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000), 158-159.

[9] Wyndham Lewis, ‘In Berwickshire, August 1914’, Blasting and Bombardiering (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1937), 60-63.

[10] See Jane Conway, A Woman of Two Wars: The Life of Mary Borden (London: Munday Books, 2010).

[11] Ford Madox Ford, The Spirit of the People (1907), in England and the English, edited by Sara Haslam (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 253.

[12] Ford Madox Ford, The Young Lovell: A Romance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1913), 140.

[13] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 144, 158; Davenport’s drawing, ‘Murphy rocking: prior to inversion’, is in Hugh Kenner, The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett (1962; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 99.

[14] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 195 and n., 227, 231, 234.

[15] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 75, 89; The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, edited by Eugène Vinaver (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 863.

 

Albers, Bonnard, Carter: as easy as ABC

Bonnard, Pierre, 1867-1947; Coffee (Le Cafe)

(Pierre Bonnard, Le Café: Tate)

In search of ways to take our minds off the quagmire of Brexit, we head for the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern, just squeezing in before it closes. It was certainly impressive—and important that a woman working in the fields of weaving, textiles and design should be recognised as a significant artist. My difficulties were, firstly, that the lighting, reduced for understandable reasons, made it tricky for me to see some of the materials very clearly; secondly, that the show required a certain level of technical knowledge to appreciate what was actually displayed—knowing a bit about the Bauhaus and more about Black Mountain College didn’t cut the mustard; and, thirdly, lacking the requisite knowledge, chunks of the exhibition seemed rather repetitive. Still, several items, such as the Six Prayers, were astonishing even to the most inexperienced eye.

albers-six-prayers-1965

(Albers: Six Prayers)

To have gone all the way to London, at such expense, only for that might have felt to me a bit, hmm, thin. Luckily, there was, at the same address, an exhibition of paintings, and drawings, and photographs, by Pierre Bonnard. That is to say, light and colour and Marthe, his companion of fifty years, glimpsed, clothed or naked, in the bath, in the kitchen, at the table. She died in January 1942. ‘You can imagine my grief and my solitude’, Bonnard wrote to Henri Matisse, ‘filled with bitterness and worry about the life I may be leading from now on.’ (‘Vous jugez de mon chagrin et de ma solitude pleine d’amertume et d’inquiétude sur la vie que je puis mener encore.’)[1] Julian Barnes, whose essay on the artist is called, not unreasonably, ‘Bonnard: Marthe, Marthe, Marthe, Marthe’, comments that ‘Bonnard’s subject-matter is sometimes so seductive as to be problematic’ and notes that Bonnard’s exteriors, when they occur, retain the qualities of the interiors: ‘Bonnard is the painter of the Great Indoors, even when he’s painting the Great Outdoors’.[2] And those ‘Great Indoors’, of course, are his true domain. Laura Cumming, in a typically acute and discriminating review, remarks that Bonnard ‘turns curiously conventional outdoors’ (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jan/26/pierre-bonnard-the-colour-of-memory-review-tate-modern-wife-marthe)
which is perfectly true – but a lot of that outdoors is seen through an open window and here is the bath, the table, the coffee cup, the door or window frame, the curve of hip or breast or shoulder in Southern French light, the essential Bonnard: the sketched, the familiar, the remembered, the known, felt on the skin and the fingertips and the mind’s eye. There’s an extraordinary canvas, The Sunlit Terrace, which was painted over seven years, 1939-1946, right across the span of the Second World War; and some unsettling late self-portraits which radically undercut the idea of Bonnard as a consistently happy or serene painter.

bonnard-nude inaninterior

(Bonnard, Nude in an Interior: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Back on the 16:30 train, with a valuable reminder, if such were needed, that some people just Can’t Shut Up. Two of them on their phones for miles after mile, talking over and against each other, a twenty-first century duel to set against those of Lermontov, Pushkin, George Canning and Lord Castlereagh. Still, there and back, I sojourned happily enough in the Golden Age of Crime—Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers—as opposed to this age of it, the Brass one.

wise-children

(Wise Children, via The Guardian)

Then, on Saturday, to the marvellous Emma Rice adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children at Bristol Old Vic. The Librarian and her sister shaking with laughter beside me; their mother crying with laughter in the seat in front of me. Songs, dancing, spontaneous applause, tears, jokes, a deafening ovation to end with. As someone rarely seized by things theatrical, I was—seized.

And we are back, with a glass of wine to offset cultural overload—but that Other Thing, alas, is still with us.

References

[1] Antoine Terrasse, Bonnard/Matisse: Letters Between Friends, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Abrams, 1992), 101.
[2] Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015), 142.

Terrible things

goya

(Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son)

A correspondent writes: ‘You will remember that Ford Madox Ford quote you often used—“Terrible things—for those to whom terrible things occur in their lives—happen in the last days of January”—and will no doubt trot it out again and try to connect it with that bloody damnable Brexit thing.’

No, Cornelius, I won’t trot it out again. Here, instead, is Edmund Blunden, the poet and prose writer, who served in France, was gassed and won the Military Cross, who died on this day forty-five years ago that. Early in his classic memoir, Undertones of War, he writes: ‘One of the first ideas that established themselves in my enquiring mind was the prevailing sense of the endlessness of the war. No one here appeared to conceive any end to it.’

Will we get to the end of this catastrophic farce—and, if we do, will it only be a beginning anyway? It’s not a comfortable or edifying spectacle, this watching your country eat its own intestines, though difficult to look away from, provoking as it does a kind of appalled fascination. There has been an avalanche of essays and articles on the theme of ‘how to break the impasse’, most managing to say nothing of much value. And with such rigidity and posturing, with so many people talking of ‘the national interest’ while actively pursuing something quite other, the signs are not promising.

milkman

Still, intelligence, imagination, tolerance, an understanding of history and knowledge of the human heart are readily available elsewhere, so thanks to – among others this month so far – Colm Tóibín, Anna Burns, Deborah Levy, Dorothy Baker and Henry James.

‘People can be extraordinarily slipshod whenever already they have made up their minds’, Anna Burns writes in Milkman, her very funny—and scary—Man Booker Prize-winning novel.

Indeed they can.

Sargent, Lavishness, Girls and Herrings

Vernon Lee 1881 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

(John Singer Sargent, Vernon Lee, 1881, Tate Gallery)

John Singer Sargent: American; born on 12 January 1856 in Florence; later lived in Paris and London, where he died in 1925. The novelist James Salter once told an interviewer: ‘Someone said that I write the way Sargent painted. Sargent based his style on direct observation and an economical use of paint—which is close to my own method.’[1]

Two of my strong likings may connect then, Sargent’s pictures and Salter’s prose. I have hugely pleasurable memories of the 2015 John Singer Sargent show at the National Portrait Gallery, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. Reviewing that show, Jackie Wullschlager wrote in the Financial Times that: ‘Virtuosity made Sargent’s fortune, but his formal portraiture, its grand manner and lavish brushwork derived from Velázquez and Frans Hals, never fully persuaded critical opinion.’

sargents

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/sargent/home.php

I do recall that a few of the more formal portraits– mainly of American sitters – worked less well, when there seemed less reciprocal current between artist and subject. But the vast majority were superbly successful. When there are fewer restraints on what Sargent is obliged or moved to do, the technical mastery that is always there soars and sweeps. There are wonderful details, a finger, a buttonhole, the faintest touch of whiteness on a lip, and moments of dizzying poise as the brushstrokes, never losing their hold on the recognised and recognisable world, edge towards abstraction, in parts, fluid and swift.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

(John Singer Sargent, Carnation-Lily-Lily-Rose: Tate Britain)

Here are some lines from Hart Crane:

A goose, tobacco and cologne—
Three winged and gold-shod prophecies of heaven,
The lavish heart shall always have to leaven
And spread with bells and voices, and atone
The abating shadows of our conscript dust.[2]

hart-crane

Hmm, never a quick read. Or should it be? How to read. An Ezra Pound title. How to read Ezra Pound? For Hugh Kenner, that question was illuminated by hearing Pound talk, the speed (or slowness) and rhythms of his speech. Donald Davie wrote of reading the Cantos at two speeds, once fast and once slow: ‘so the verse-lines of the Cantos have to be read fast for their meanings, but slow for their sounds’.[3] That’s probably how best to read Ulysses too: once at a canter, not worrying about every word or phrase, just gorging on the language and laughing a lot. Then roll your sleeves up.

‘The lavish heart’, though. Lavish brushwork, lavish heart.

There used to be a regular feature in – was it The Guardian? – in which some notable person would be presented with a list of questions, one of which was ‘What is your favourite word?’ I used to run idly over a number of possibilities. My words of the moment varied, of course: resonance, tessellated, desolation, susurrate, imago, though I liked, always, the word ‘girl’, which I knew wouldn’t do at all, being immediately suspect in the twenty-first century, not to mention a chunk of the twentieth, though it seems to recur now in every other new book title.

Another choice for me would be ‘lavish’. ‘Après mot le deluge’, in James Joyce’s little poem for his friend Eugene Jolas, fits this, the old French lavasse meaning deluge of rain, the Latin lavare meaning to wash. Outpouring, then, but always with the sense of profusion, extravagance, overabundance. It also has a couple of positive literary links for me. First is Louis MacNeice’s wonderful ‘Bagpipe Music’, which I have, once again, managed to commit to memory (I think), having mislaid a few lines for a while:

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn’t count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it as a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

Farquharson, David, 1839-1907; The Herring Fleet Leaving the Dee, Aberdeen

(David Farquharson, The Herring Fleet Leaving the Dee, Aberdeen: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums)

‘Cran’ refers, apparently, to a measure of capacity for herrings just landed in port. Chambers Dictionary (of Edinburgh) specifies 37½ gallons, wonderfully specific. I assume this is because that, in turn, equals 300 pints.

Second is the phrase that William Maxwell employs in the introduction to his edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters, and which, in turn, provides the title of Michael Steinman’s edition of the letters between Warner and Maxwell: The Element of Lavishness. ‘The personal correspondence of writers feeds on left-over energy,’ Maxwell noted. ‘There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter’s surviving are fifty-fifty, at most. And there is the element of confidence–of the relaxed backhand stroke that can place the ball anywhere in the court that it pleases the writer to have it go.’

element-of-lavishness

This is still high among my favourite volumes of letters between two writers (along with Warner–Garnett, Maxwell–Welty, Garnett–White and even Davenport–Laughlin or Salter–Phelps, though completion of the Davenport-Kenner correspondence may shake up the league table). Warner to Maxwell, 4 October 1953: ‘My old friend, Jane Ann, died the week before, all in a flash, and though death cannot close an inn when there is not another within sixteen miles of it, I rang up her brother thinking I would put off, and only changed my mind when he said, She had everything planned for you. So not to go there would have been an impiety. Life has never seemed such a fleeting thing as it did in that house, the same chairs, the same cut glass dishes, the stuffed fox and the prize curling-stone in their old place, the same brand of matches in the bedroom candlesticks, the same voices in the tap-room, the same smell in the early morning of the hills and the river outside and porridge cooking inside. Everything was so familiar, I might have been dead myself.’

And once more, 26 March 1971: ‘I hope your cold is better and the kettle put by –though I have nothing against kettles. I remember many happy days with them in my childhood, with my father coming with story-books & champagne. Champagne for everything above the waist, brandy for anything below it, was the medicinal way; and I am still a credit to his theory.’[4]

An element of lavishness indeed.

 

References

[1] Salter, interview with Edward Hirsch, Paris Review, 127 (Summer 1993).

[2] Hart Crane, ‘For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen’, Complete Poems and Selected Letters, edited by Langdon Hammer (New York: Library of America, 2006), 23.

[3] Hugh Kenner, ‘Retrospect: 1985’, in The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951; Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 3-4; Davie, Pound (London: Fontana, 1975), 90.

[4] William Maxwell, ‘Introduction’ to Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters  (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), viii; Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 44, 219.