Frost, wine, hyacinth girls


(John William Buxton Knight, Old December’s Bareness Everywhere: Tate)

December: how is it? Bloody cold but sometimes, walking on frosty ground under chilled blue skies, the stark trees nodding as you go – quite beautiful. In December, I – what shall I say, what did I do? Walked, read, ate, drank, wrote a little. Bought and carried home, in fact, a Christmas tree, just this afternoon. The world, despite my repeated requests, did not cease to go to hell, barely paused, in fact. Thank all the gods there are for wine.

In December, ‘Melancholy and Phlegm much increase, which are heavy, dull, and cold, and therefore it behoves all that will consider their healths, to keep their heads and bodies very well from cold, and to eat such things as be of a hot quality.’[1] Ah, yes. Though millions of poor souls in Brexit Britain can only lament and reflect that the chance would be a damned fine thing, forced as they are to choose between eating and heating – and an increasing number able to do neither.


(He came, he saw, he. . .)

Do I still hold my breath when panting runners pass me on the paths in the park? Why yes, I do, but am immeasurably improved in other areas, a few other areas, one or two other areas. Item: dinner with the doyen of Ford Madox Ford studies, Professor Max Saunders, an excellent choice for my first foray into after-dark city streets in something approaching three years. Item: another foray—and another indoor event, though this one with neither wine nor sausages—to see Lyndall Gordon, whose books on T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson I’d read and admired, in conversation with Noreen Masud, lecturer in Twentieth-Century Literature at the University of Bristol.

The event was prompted by the publication of Gordon’s new book, The Hyacinth Girl: T. S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse, drawing heavily on the Emily Hale letters in Princeton’s Special Collections, which were finally made available to readers in January 2020. It was a fascinating conversation, not least because of the intelligent exchanges about how we approach those artists whose attitudes or language or assumptions, are sometimes unsettling—or worse—to modern sensibilities. Considering writers of a hundred or more years ago, well, frankly, that’s most of them. We can pick at this, blush at that, throw up our hands here—or just throw up there—and then, often, we just read the work or look at the picture or listen to the music and all that other stuff is, for however short or long a time, simply blown away.


(Emily Hale and T. S. Eliot via New York Times)

So the conversation was consistently interesting – but before it even started, Niamh Cusack read, wonderfully, The Waste Land. Oh, my. ‘That was a blast’, I said to the Librarian afterwards, ‘several times, I didn’t know whether to shout or cry.’ Nor did I. How many times have I read it, all of it, bits of it? I have no idea. Many lines were familiar enough for me to realise my lips were shaping the words along with the reader. At other times, it was completely unfamiliar, a voice from a cloud. ‘I’ve never heard it read by a woman before’, the Librarian remarked. An early chunk of ‘A Game at Chess’ seemed to have passed me by entirely. Echoes and repetitions heard as if for the first time spilled over me. When Niamh Cusack pronounced Sanskrit words, I could feel the Librarian’s gaze on me but steadfastly refused to meet it. I knew she was thinking of my own pronunciation, which I’d picked up from Charles Tomlinson when he read the poem to members of the English Department however many years ago – he explained that he’d been to a performance of sacred Indian music and made his way backstage to ask (as you do): ‘How would you pronounce this?’ It’s occurred to me since that, of course, there would probably be no one way to do so, any more than would be the case if individuals in Yorkshire and Cornwall (or Mississippi and New Jersey) were asked about pronunciation. But when the lines, ‘I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones’ cropped up, I was morally obliged to meet her gaze simply because that’s my stock answer to the question, in practically any context: ‘What do you think?’

What do I think? I think that I can’t remember when I last heard words read aloud which made it genuinely difficult for me to stay in my seat. There is something extraordinary about a poem that has been so much read, read about, explained, analysed, annotated, contextualised, parodied, worshipped and damned to within an inch of its life – still striking the ear like thunder, singing in the blood, chafing the nerves and knocking the pulses.

Art, yes, I’ve heard tell of it. Isn’t that the stuff that bears endless repetition because no two readings or viewings or listenings are the same? The cornucopia, the horn of plenty, the Holy Grail, in fact. You could go on long journeys and undergo all manner of ordeals and challenges, battle with ghosts and gods, move through enchanted chambers, withstand the amorous attentions of maidens of surpassing beauty, slay monsters – or you could simply take a book off the shelf (the right book for you, mind, the right book now, at this juncture).


By a knight of ghosts and shadows,
I summoned am to tourney
      Ten leagues beyond
      The wild world’s end –
Methinks it is no journey.

It is, of course. It is.

Notes

[1] Richard Saunders, Apollo Anglicanus, quoted by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 481.

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