Swallowing Venus

St-Marks

(St Mark’s Square, Venice. Photograph: Manuel Silvestri/Reuters: via The Guardian)

An end to March, then. Looking back, it was as recently as 28 February that Greta Thunberg visited Bristol and I decided against trying to attend the rally because of the vast crowds thronging the streets. Now photographs from around the world show us places empty of people: from Piccadilly Circus to St Mark’s Square in Venice, from Gaobeidian, Beijing to Market Square, Frankfurt. That the distance from there to here is just a little over four weeks is dizzying and almost impossible to grasp securely. I’m reminded that a decade after the Boer War—‘that never to be sufficiently accursed war’—Ford Madox Ford wrote that it ‘set, as it were, an iron door between the past and the present.’ Perhaps more appositely, he remarked that it ‘appears to me like a chasm separating the new world from the old.’[1]

Across that chasm, we see the ghosts of former lives, the normal that no longer exists and may not do so again. Among strange doublenesses, it’s both reassuring and immensely sad that approaching figures in a quiet park veer off on a different trajectory, twenty or thirty metres ahead of us, if we haven’t already begun to do the same. At the dinner table, we wonder aloud how long it will be before we browse in shops again without anxiety, or move comfortably among crowds, or visit dentists and hairdressers. The answers vary from ‘maybe six months’ to ‘probably never’.

In ancient Rome, the festival of Venus Verticordia or Venus Genetrix ran for three days from the first day of April. The preceding night, 31 March, occasioned the 93-line poem the Pervigilium VenerisThe Eve of Venus or The Vigil of Venus, its authorship and date of composition uncertain.[2]

Swallow-BBC

(Swallow: via BBC)

One of the most familiar bits of the poem is lodged in the closing lines of the most famous modern poem, among the fragments that one of The Waste Land’s voices has shored against his or her ruin:

‘Quando fiam uti chelidon [When shall I be as the swallow]—O swallow swallow’

The story of Philomela, raped by Tereus, king of Thrace, who cut out her tongue so she might not make the dreadful story known to her sister Procne, the wife of Tereus—which she does at last through another voice, the tale told in a tapestry—runs from Homer and Aeschylus through Ovid and on through great swathes of English literature, as detailed in the expansive notes in the Ricks and McCue edition of Eliot’s poems.[3]

In the myth, the sisters kill Itylus, son of Tereus and Procne, cook him and feed him to Tereus. When he is told what they’ve done, he sets off in murderous pursuit of them: but the gods save them, turn Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow.

Swinburne’s ‘Itylus’ takes the form of a monologue by Philomela:

Swallow, my sister, O sister swallow,
How can thine heart be full of the spring?
A thousand summers are over and dead.
What hast thou found in the spring to follow?
What has thou found in thine heart to sing?
What wilt thou do when the summer I shed?[4]

In 1868, Dante Gabriel Rossetti published a sonnet, ‘Venus Verticordia (for a picture)’ – the picture was commissioned in 1863 and finally sent to John Mitchell of Bradford in the autumn of 1869.

Rossetti-Venus-Verticordia

(Rossetti, Venus Verticordia: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth)

She hath the apple in her hand for thee,
Yet almost in her heart would hold it back;
She muses, with her eyes upon the track
Of that which in thy spirit they can see.
Haply, ‘Behold, he is at peace,’ saith she;
‘Alas! the apple for his lips,—the dart
That follows its brief sweetness to his heart,—
The wandering of his feet perpetually!’

A little space her glance is still and coy;
But if she give the fruit that works her spell,
Those eyes shall flame as for her Phrygian boy.
Then shall her bird’s strained throat the woe foretell,
And her far seas moan as a single shell,
And through her dark grove strike the light of Troy.[5]

In 1936, Ford wrote to Allen Tate: ‘Is there, by the bye, any decent translation of the XELIDON [swallow] song? If there isn’t, I think I’d have a shot at it. Isn’t it the most beautiful thing that was ever made…or is that one of my sexagenarian delusions?’[6]

Tate did translate the Pervigilium Veneris as ‘The Vigil of Venus’ (1943). In his preface, he wrote that he had come upon the poem in about 1917 ‘in the usual way’ (in Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean), looked up the Latin text and was disappointed, because his ‘adolescent revolt’ against the influence of Swinburne made it impossible ‘to read properly any poem about pagan love.’ He didn’t look at the poem again until about 1930, when he ‘tried to work out a translation of the famous refrain’, an attempt that failed. He returned to it in the fall of 1942, and this time translated the entire poem.

Tate’s preface ends with his acknowledgements: to Robert Lowell, ‘for constant criticism’ and, for the translation of the first line of stanza XXI, to his wife Caroline Gordon, the novelist and short story writer:

Now the tall swans with hoarse cries thrash the lake:
The girl of Tereus pours from the poplar ring
Musical change—sad sister who bewails
Her act of darkness with the barbarous king!

And that famous refrain? The Latin is: Cras amet qui nunquam amavit, quique amavit cras ame. There are, Ford noted, many translations. Tate has ‘Tomorrow may loveless, may lover tomorrow make love.’[7]

Ford’s own ‘free rendering’ was: ‘He that has never loved, let him love tomorrow; the lusty lover, let him love again.[8]

Now April beckons. The cruellest month, some say. We can only hope not.

 
Notes

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections: Being the Memories of a Young Man (London: Chapman & Hall, 1911), 175, 154.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 139.

[3] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 705-706.

[4] Algernon Charles Swinburne, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, edited by Kenneth Haynes (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 45.

[5] The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edited with a preface by William Rossetti (London: Ellis and Elvey, 1893), 360.

[6] Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 259.

[7] Allen Tate, Collected Poems, 1919-1976 ((New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 145, 149, 161.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), 277.

 

‘Into your clothes and come!’

‘“Come, Watson, come!” he cried. “The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”’* Yes, the mornings just lately begin like that, though my name is not Watson (and ‘he’ is ‘she’) but, for that single permitted daily exercise outing, it’s up at six, into our clothes, feed the cat and go.

(* ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’)

The Victorian Garden cemetery where we liked to walk – 45 acres, quiet apart from the magpies – has now closed its gates, so we use our (very: thirty metres away) local park, which was seeming a bit crowded four or five days ago but, at this hour of the morning, there are very few people around and perhaps the same number of dogs, if you average it out over solitary runners and owners of two or even three hounds. We walk briskly, the slightly more paranoid one – me – turning round more often to make sure that nobody’s coming up the path behind us. But the last few days have seen a definite change: everybody in the park keeps their distance – and a healthy distance at that. Half an hour’s walking then back for breakfast.

My reading has become even more disorganised and haphazard just lately; books picked up on no scheme or plan, to be read for the first time or reread or read properly after previous dipping-in or briefly browsing. So, in the parapet around me, I have Michael J. K. Walsh’s study of the painter Richard (C. R. W.) Nevinson, H. D.’s Trilogy, Roy Foster’s Paddy & Mr Punch, Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost (filched from the Librarian’s bedside pile), The Letters of Gamel Woolsey to Llewellyn Powys, John Buchan’s autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door and Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy. Our of the corner of my eye, I can see a pile of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels in the new Penguin translations, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and John Christopher The Death of Grass, Penelope Fitzgerald’s A House of Air, another Irish history title by Foster – Vivid Faces – and Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey. Add them together and they should see me through a few weeks (if not the duration of a pandemic).

My days have altered less than a lot of other people’s because, since retirement, I’ve done more or less what I do now, except that I have much less time outside and the Librarian is currently at home though often engaged with online meetings, referencing queries, team briefings and the like. Being what William Maxwell termed ‘a sociable introvert’ helps too: I sympathise with those people who are naturally gregarious, who like the constant company of others and really only enjoy and value face to face interactions rather than remote ones. They must be having a very hard time.

Yesterday evening, at our open front door, clapping those on the frontline in this crisis: NHS staff, care workers, pharmacists, delivery drivers, supermarket staff and others. The closest thing to a social event for a while: near and more distant neighbours all along our street applauding, some waving and calling.

So it’s not all dark.

 

 

‘Swinburne my only miss’

EP-Pisa-viaWallStJournalNPG x81998; Algernon Charles Swinburne by Elliott & Fry

(Pound in the dispensary at the DTC via Wall Street Journal; Algernon Charles Swinburne by John McLanachan: Wikipedia Commons)

It’s the first day of official lockdown in the UK, a little looser as yet than in some other countries but a large stride in what had become a necessary direction.

In an earlier and rather different instance of containment—the Disciplinary Training Center near Pisa in 1945—remembering those days ‘before the world was given over to wars’, Ezra Pound wrote: ‘Swinburne my only miss’. To his parents, in the Spring of 1909, the literary traveller (who would seek out W. B. Yeats, meet most other leading writers and ‘glare’ at Henry James across a room) had remarked that ‘Swinburne happens to be stone deaf with a temper a bit the worse for wear, so I haven’t continued investigation in that direction.’[1]

Less than three weeks after that letter, on 10 April 1909, Swinburne died. ‘He grafted on to epic volume a Berserker rage: he was a man of fine frenzies’, Ford Madox Ford wrote in the May 1909 issue of The English Review,[2] seeming to allude to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Theseus asserts that ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact’:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (V.i.12-17)

Fuseli, Henry, 1741-1825; Titania and Bottom

(Henry Fuseli, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Tate)

Ford’s obituary note on Swinburne is generous – but he certainly didn’t regard rage and frenzy as ideal writerly qualities. He once described what he termed ‘the view of their profession held by what it is convenient to call the Typical English Writer of the pre-Moonrise period. You sit down; you write; the vine leaves are in your hair; you forget mundane tribulations; gradually intoxication steals over you. Sometimes you stumble into sense; sometimes you do not.’[3] Nearly thirty years later, borrowing Jean Cocteau’s remark about Victor Hugo, Ford would describe the painful progress of his ‘weary eyes’ and ‘enfeebled mind’ through ‘rivulets of print between top and bottom of a page’ of Swinburne’s verse: ‘And then in exasperated protest: “That page is mad. . . . It thinks it’s Swinburne!”’[4]

Ford disliked the notion of the inspired, even intoxicated poet; he disliked inversions, needless profusions of rhymewords and, with regard to Victorian poets in particular, was dismayed by the sheer quantity of stuff that they disgorged. His doubts about Swinburne at least were shared wholly or in part by other writers, including Browning, Matthew Arnold and A. E. Housman.[5]

‘Love of sound and especially of rhyme persuaded [Swinburne] to a somewhat lighter use of words than is common among great poets’, Edward Thomas wrote, a couple of years after Swinburne’s death. ‘Space would be wasted by examples of words produced apparently by submission to rhyme, not mastery over it. The one line in “Hesperia”: “Shrill shrieks in our faces the blind bland air that was mute as a maiden”, is enough to illustrate the poet’s carelessness of the fact that alliteration is not a virtue in itself.’[6]

In Ford’s The Good Soldier, the narrator, John Dowell, recalls of Edward Ashburnham that: ‘Once, in the hall, when Leonora was going out, Edward said, beneath his breath—but I just caught the words: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean.”’ Interestingly, Dowell then adds: ‘It was like his sentimentality to quote Swinburne.’[7]

The line is from Swinburne’s ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, which laments the ousting of the pagan gods and goddesses by the Christian faith:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunk of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.
Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day;
But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.[8]

FMF-Good-Soldier

‘Sentimental’ or ‘sentimentalist’ is applied to Edward Ashburnham more than two dozen times in this short novel. Early on, speculating on what so many people, particularly women, see in Ashburnham, Dowell wonders too what he even talks to them about. ‘Ah, well, suddenly, as if by a flash of inspiration, I know. For all good soldiers are sentimentalists—all good soldiers of that type. Their profession, for one thing is full of the big words, courage, loyalty, honour, constancy’ (28).

That phrase ‘a flash of inspiration’ may prompt us to caution but I think there is a parallel between what Edward Thomas called ‘submission to rhyme, not mastery over it’, and an unthinking adherence to preferences or forms of thought or behaviour without review or scrutiny. We grow out of things, we adapt, develop and change: this may mean leaving behind some youthful tastes and assumptions, not clinging to them for wrong reasons. John Buchan, late in life, reflected on those ‘oddments’ which are ‘carried over from youth’, the memory of them recalling ‘blessed moments’ with which we associate them. He terms it ‘pure sentimentality, but how many of us are free from it?’ He goes on: ‘My memory is full of such light baggage. Stanzas of Swinburne, whom I do not greatly admire, remind me of summer mornings when I shouted them on a hill-top, and still please, because of the hill-top, not the poetry.’[9]

VH_FMF_Selsey

(Ford and Violet Hunt at Selsey)

Ford is one of the recurrent figures in Pound’s Pisan Cantos and elsewhere in Canto 80, after the mention of ‘the mass of preraphaelite reliques/ in a trunk in a walled-up cellar in Selsey’—a reference to the West Sussex cottage, owned by Violet Hunt, where she and, very often, Ford spent a good deal of time—we read: ‘“Tyke ’im up to the bawth” (meaning Swinburne)’ (80/508).

In ‘Swinburne versus his Biographers’ (1918), Pound had launched with even more orthographic gusto into his Cockney performance, citing: ‘Swinburne at the Madox Browns’ door in a cab, while the house-keeper lectures the cabman: “Wot! No, sir, my marster is at the ’ead of ’is table carving the j’int. That’s Mr. Swinburne—tike ’im up to the barth”’.[10]

Through his grandfather, Ford knew both Swinburne and Theodore Watts-Dunton, who cared for Swinburne during the last thirty years of the poet’s life. Pound’s line derives from Ford’s writing—or, more likely, conversation—recalling the anecdotes about his grandfather’s housemaid, Charlotte Kirby. In Ancient Lights, Ford recalls her telling him: ‘“I was down in the kitchen waiting to carry up the meat, when a cabman comes down the area steps and says: ‘I’ve got your master in my cab. He’s very drunk.’ I says to him— “and an immense intonation of pride would come into Charlotte’s voice—” ‘My master’s a-sitting at the head of his table entertaining his guests. That’s Mr. —. Carry him upstairs and lay him in the bath.’”

A later version has Ford overhearing the conversation himself – and the blank is filled in: ‘At last she brought out composedly the words:
“That’s Mr. Swinburne. Help me carry him upstairs and put him in the bath.”
And that was done.’[11]

Ford_Madox_Brown

(Ford Madox Brown)

Ford explains that his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown, ‘whose laudable desire it was at many stages of his career to redeem poets and others from dipsomania, was in the habit of providing several of them with labels upon which were inscribed his own name and address. Thus, when any of these geniuses were found incapable in the neighbourhood they would be brought by cabmen or others to Fitzroy Square’ (Ancient Lights 12).

In his essay on Swinburne—one of Pound’s early enthusiasms but one which he now felt he could see in a clearer perspective[12]—Pound is frank about what he sees as Swinburne’s defects while also extolling his virtues: ‘we can, whatever our verbal fastidiousness, be thankful for any man who kept alive some spirit of paganism and of revolt in a papier-mâché era’. While he remarks that ‘No man who cares for his art can be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne, deaf to their splendour, deaf also to their bathos’, there are signs of familiar—and not, perhaps, strictly ‘literary’—Poundian preoccupations of that period. One is that ‘paganism’ (and lack of enthusiasm for the Christian faith) of ‘Hymn to Proserpine’; another is made clear by the assertion that his essays ends on: Swinburne’s ‘magnificent passion for liberty—a passion dead as mutton in a people who allow their literature to be blanketed by a Comstock and his successors; for liberty is not merely a catchword of politics, nor a right to shove little slips of paper through a hole. The passion not merely for political, but also for personal, liberty is the bedrock of Swinburne’s writing’ (Literary Essays 294).

LR-Oct-17

(The Modernist Journals Project (Searchable database). Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing)

Pound’s long essay on Henry James, published a few months later, would praise James in part along the same lines: ‘the hater of tyranny’, author of ‘book after early book against oppression’, with ‘outbursts in The Tragic Muse, the whole of The Turn of the Screw, human liberty, personal liberty, the rights of the human individual against all sorts of intangible bondage!’ (Literary Essays 296). D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow had been suppressed in 1915; in October 1917, the issue of the Little Review containing Wyndham Lewis’s ‘Cantleman’s Spring Mate’ had been seized by the U.S. postal authorities and the same periodical’s serialising of Joyce’s Ulysses would soon lead to more censorship difficulties, culminating in a trial in early 1921.[13] In that climate, Pound’s celebration of a ‘passion for liberty’ in artists he admires is hardly surprising but the tribute to Swinburne is nevertheless a genuine and powerful one.

 
Notes

[1] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 82/523, 80/506; letters dated 21 February 1912 and c. 24 March 1909: Ezra Pound to His Parents: Letters 1895–1929, edited by Mary de Rachewiltz, David Moody and Joanna Moody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 273, 165.

[2] The English Review (May 1909), 193-194: reprinted in Ford Madox Ford, Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 71-72. Ford wrote a two-part essay entitled ‘The Poet’s Eye’ in 1913.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 9.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 194.

[5] All mentioned by Kenneth Haynes in his edition of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon (London: Penguin Books, 2000), xiv-xv.

[6] Edward Thomas, A Language not to be Betrayed: Selected Prose, edited by Edna Longley (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1985), 43.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 190. A nice detail here is that Swinburne’s maternal grandfather was the third Earl of Ashburnham.

[8] ‘Hymn to Proserpine (After the Proclamation in Rome of the Christian Faith)’, Haynes, Poems, 55-61. Daniel R. Barnes comments that ‘Leonora, as the agent of orthodox Catholicism, has triumphed over [Edward Ashburnham’s] own paganism’. See ‘Ford and the “Slaughtered Saints”: A New Reading of The Good Soldier’, Modern Fictions Studies, XIV, 2 (Summer 1968), 168.

[9] John Buchan, Memory Hold-the-Door (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1940), 202-203.

[10] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 290.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 11-12; Portraits from Life, 187.

[12] For the youthful enthusiasm, see Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound, edited by Michael John King (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), 40-43, 261; and Christoph de Nagy, The Poetry of Ezra Pound: The Pre-Imagist Stage (Bern: Francke, 1960), on Pound seeing Swinburne as ‘the poet of human destiny’, who asked ‘the final questions about the fate of man’ rather than the erotic or perverse poet; also as the poet of ‘liberation’ (73, 74).

[13] That ‘pale Galilean’ crops up in Ulysses, as do a good many other Swinburne references: see index to Don Gifford, with Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, revised and expanded edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). There’s also a lot of Swinburne in Lawrence’s work, not least in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, largely because of his constant recurrence to the Persephone myth.

 

Zigzagging to the park – and the cemetery

STC205055

(22 March, birthday of the artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott: ‘Scene at Montone’, with the shepherd and his sweetheart – ­if she is that – observing the rule of social distancing rather better than some inhabitants of these islands)

That old saying about a week being a long time in politics has been drastically revised; now a day is a long time and single hours are catching up, in part because, increasingly, we pay attention to other parts of the world, countries whose situations have previously tended to slide by under the generous rubric of ‘Elsewhere’.

The only course the Librarian and I can take is to stay at home and, for as long as possible and with all feasible precautions, have a daily walk. But the walks are getting trickier. Fine weather just at the moment, and more people feeling the need for fresh air, unused to spending so much more time than usual indoors. So we are zigzagging. Crisscrossing. Dodging to and fro, as we progress up the long, steep road, cut through the small park, circle the cemetery and come home again. One or two of the paths there are generously wide but most are not. A growing number of people are clearly conscious of the risks and the need to distance themselves but this only makes more obvious the many who are still not, whether distracted or thoughtless or simply irresponsible. Most of those, though, are at least walking near their homes and are to be distinguished from the massed ranks of arrant fools littering roads in the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District and Snowdonia and the Yorkshire Dales, crowding onto beaches and into beauty spots, stuffing themselves into second homes and holiday cottages in areas ill-equipped to deal with the likely fallout of their dangerous idiocy.

Path

At long to medium range, you register the risks: people with young children and with dogs are likely to wander over the pavement without much warning for child- or dog-related reasons, so we give them a wide berth. Pregnant women are already mindful of the dangers so tend to take their own avoiding action. And there are those others, still behaving as though there is no crisis, no pandemic infecting huge swathes of people and killing a lot of them. We were changing to single file and keeping to the edge of the path but all too often the people bearing down on us would either hog the centre of the path or veer about all over it. So now we simply cross the road or dive down side paths or detour abruptly over flowerbeds or old graves. In the cemetery, there are many paths branching off the main road – but other walkers can appear without warning, necessitating an explosive burst of speed. I’m now armed with the useful knowledge that the Librarian can move from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in about four seconds when threatened by a family group bursting out of the trees.

At least we can still go for a walk without needing to produce a document authorising us to do so. That, of course, could change. What’s needed is for common sense to become a bit more common – and quickly.

 

Plague, fire, war – and bark

Cowper

(George Romney, William Cowper (1792): © National Portrait Gallery)

On another 19 March (1788), the poet William Cowper wrote to his friend the Reverend Walter Bagot, ‘The Spring is come, but not I suppose that Spring which our poets have celebrated. So I judge at least by the extreme severity of the Season, sunless skies and freezing blasts, surpassing all that we experienced in the depth of winter. How do you dispose of yourself in this howling month of March? As for me, I walk daily be the weather what it may, take Bark, and write verses.’[1]

Cinchona

https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/p/perbar29.html

Similarly, I walk with the Librarian daily (‘be the weather what it may’) – the park is noticeably busier but the cemetery is still pretty quiet – though I tend to write prose more often these days – and I’ve never knowingly taken ‘Bark’. Nor was I even sure what it meant. My dictionary offered ‘cinchona’ and I gather that this was Peruvian bark, the source of quinine. Roy Porter notes that it was brought to Europe between 1630 and 1640 or thereabouts, possibly by Jesuit missionaries, the reason for its being known as ‘Jesuits’ Bark’ – and also the reason why ‘staunch Protestants like Oliver Cromwell’ refused to take it. Porter adds that cinchona, demonstrably effective against fevers, was introduced into the London Pharmacopoeia in 1677.[2]

In August 1685, the diarist (among much else) John Evelyn visited Mr Watts, ‘keeper of the Apothecaries Garden of simples at Chelsea where there is a collection of innumerable rarieties of that sort, particularly beside many rare annuals the tree bearing the Jesuit’s bark, which had done such cures in quartans’.[3]

[‘Quartans’ refers to a form of malaria resulting in a fever which recurs every third day – by inclusive reckoning, the fourth day, so Latin quartanus, of the fourth]

Samuel_Pepys

(Samuel Pepys)

Recalling that Evelyn’s famous contemporary, Samuel Pepys, also lived through a period of war, plague and fire, I looked up his 19 March 1665 entry, though the Great Plague broke out in earnest a little later than that, so the record of that particular ‘Lords Day’, begins: ‘Mr Povy and I in his coach to Hide parke, being the first day of the Tour there – where many brave ladies. Among others Castlemayne lay impudently upon her back in her coach, asleep with her mouth open. There was also my Lady Kerneeguy, once my Lady Anne Hambleton, that is said to have given the Duke a clap upon his first coming over.’[4]

No reference to applause there, I suspect.

Plague, fire and war: that’s to say the second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667, when the peace treaty gave the Dutch a monopoly on nutmeg); it was a period thickly populated with conflicts. In another, later time of war (c. 19 March 1915), D. H. Lawrence wrote enthusiastically to Ottoline Morrell of his novel The Rainbow, having had the first 71 pages typed: ‘It really puts a new thing in the world, almost a new vision of life.’[5]

Lady_Ottoline_Morrell

(Ottoline Morrell)

A positive, anyway, a blow on behalf of the ordinary universe. A new thing in the world. Happy birthday, then, to Philip Roth, born on this day in 1933: ‘But back in bed he thought, The burden isn’t that everything has to be a book. It’s that everything can be a book. And doesn’t count as life until it is.’[6]

Yes. One more 19 March. 1941 this time, when Penelope Fitzgerald (by then a producer in the BBC Features Department) kept her friend Hugh Lee (‘Ham’) up to date: ‘The BBC is not exactly tedious, in fact it is rent with scandals and there are dreadful quarrels in the canteen, about liberty, the peoples’ convention, &c, and the air is dark with flying spoons and dishes. Miss Stevens poured some tea down Mr Fletcher’s neck the other day. He knew Freud who told him the term inferiority complex was a mistranslation and there was really no such thing. I have to eat all the time to keep my spirits up so I am getting quite fat.’[7]

Whatever it takes to keep your spirits up at the moment, I’d say, is just fine.

 
Notes

[1] William Cowper, Letters and Prose Writings, Volume III: 1787-1791, edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 128.

[2] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 233.

[3] John Evelyn’s Diary, quoted by Miles Hadfield, A History of British Gardening (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 143.

[4] Samuel Pepys, The Shorter Pepys, selected and edited by Robert Latham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993), 446-447.

[5] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 308.

[6] Philip Roth, The Anatomy Lesson (1984), in Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979-1985 (New York: Library of America, 2007), 443.

[7] So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 22.

 

Hand wash, news watch

Defoe-Journal

The news changes daily, hourly, minute by minute at times. I’d drifted away from my excessive consumption of the stuff because of the depressing political developments but this has drawn me back, however unwillingly. My younger daughter is in Barcelona (finding it hard to believe that Britain is being so slow to act when it’s clear what needs to be done), my elder daughter working in the National Health Service, the Librarian working in the university sector which is just emerging from a series of scheduled strikes and now has to make very difficult decisions quickly, there are friends in Europe and North America. So yes, I watch the news: Canada, the Netherlands, Argentina; China, Myanmar, Iran; Hong Kong, Australia, India, Monaco, the United States. . . France, Spain, England.

In the past, we’ve had epidemics that turned out not to be so bad, others that were deadly but didn’t spread beyond a few countries, one that was hugely and widely destructive but still allowed vast numbers of people to feel that it wouldn’t affect them since they weren’t ‘like that’. Whenever the news of such threats first breaks, it’s inevitable that we wonder: is this The One?

Now we have Covid-19, a true pandemic – that seems to target predominantly the elderly or those with existing health problems but which may prove to be rather less discriminating. And while the elderly are regarded as most vulnerable to the virus, others are highly vulnerable to the related effects of it: the poor – cash-poor, time-poor, resource-poor – who don’t have the options and can’t make the choices that the luckier ones enjoy. So our government also needs to focus attention and resources on precisely those who have come off very badly under recent administrations: the impoverished, the precarious, the disabled, the unemployed, the homeless, those with the greatest needs and the least hope of meeting them.

But all this washing of hands! Pontius Pilate on steroids, I thought, impressing myself for the space of a heartbeat before remembering that it is, if anything, the opposite: a taking of personal responsibility rather than the avoidance of it. So the hands get washed alarmingly often, door handles are wiped, parcels put aside for a while. Otherwise, I just read, cook, write. Every day we go out for a reasonable walk, avoiding busy places and keeping a wary eye on other walkers. While the weather’s still cool, I wear gloves, not yet looking a little paranoid, though warmer days may foster that impression. But after all, just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean that the virus isn’t out to get you.

And behind closed doors? Are bookish types reading or re-reading Camus’ The Plague or John Christopher’s The Death of Grass or the more recent post-apocalyptic delights? Or are they rewriting Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year? In Britain, more than a hundred thousand copies of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light are being read: but at least everyone knows how that story ends.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

Covid-19 will clearly be with us for quite a while: and speculation about possible sequels has hardly begun.

Last Posting

The still life, Guy Davenport observed in Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature, ‘likes puns and double meanings’.

So too, among many others, did James Joyce (‘yung and easily freudened’), Ezra Pound – and Ford Madox Ford. One of the attractions of Last Post as a title for our Ford journal, certainly to my mind, was its many possible interpretations. I’d also edited the first critical edition of Ford’s novel of that title (the final volume of the Parade’s End tetralogy) where I’d discussed some of those interpretations,* so it was always going to be close to my heart.

My copies of the second issue of Last Post have just arrived—after long delays of the kind familiar to journal editors everywhere, I suspect—and I’m very glad to see it. The first issue is now open access and freely downloadable from the Ford Madox Ford Society website: http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/

Just lately it seems that the most obviously timely writer is the sixteenth-century Thomas Nashe (‘In Time of Pestilence’):

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade;
All things to end are made;
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!

I’m sometimes made a little uneasy by attempts to make various historical figures (including writers) ‘relevant’ to our times: it’s often impressive enough if they were relevant to their own. But I find Ford inexhaustibly interesting both in revealing social, political and artistic facets of his own time and—smallholder, environmentalist, cultural commentator as well as creative artist—often illuminating aspects of ours too. So there’s plenty of scope for many more issues – and Last Post 3 is shaping up pretty well.

[* Among the ‘posts’: the Latin for ‘after’ or ‘since’ (‘post-war’), horse-racing, mail, support, the point at which a soldier is stationed when on duty, boundary marker, furniture and—these days—blogging. ‘Last’ takes us into the realms of cobblers, cargoes, endurance and contemporaneity. Taken together, they speak of communications and, of course, the bugle call signalling the order to retire for the night as well as the final farewell at military funerals and at remembrance services.]