Positive Blossoming

Blossom

A large bumble bee, having perhaps misread the calendar, veers about in our small garden. The plump, intellectually challenged grey cat, perched on a stone pillar, dabs in its general direction with an ineffectual paw. The grey cat is still in recovery mode, having all but fallen from the fence just now, scrabbling frantically, clutching and scraping, hauling itself back only to be plunged into embarrassment by finding me watching its antics from the kitchen table, where I sat over a fat volume.

‘“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,” I recall James Taylor singing over and over on the news radio station between updates on the 1978 Mandeville and Kanan fires, both of which started on October 23 of that year and could be seen burning toward each other, systematically wiping out large parts of Malibu and Pacific Palisades, from an upstairs window of my house in Brentwood.’[1]

Oddly, I’d been thinking of James Taylor myself the previous day, when I passed trees in the park already in blossom. I say ‘already’ but, if they were autumn cherry, they’d be blossoming fitfully from November to March. Almond blossom? Not sure.

Blossom, anyway. Meteorologically, spring has started, psychologically not so much, though, when the breeze quickens and becomes something else, the Romantics among us murmur: ‘O, Wind,/ If Winter comes/ Can Spring be far behind?’[2]

Sweet-baby-James

James Taylor’s ‘Blossom’ was the second track on the second side of his second album, Sweet Baby James, melodic and, as they say, reassuringly unthreatening, though not without its darker tints. It’s one of two tracks on the album—the other was ‘Country Road’—on which Randy Meisner, founder member of The Eagles, played bass.

The word ‘blossom’ is one of those whose syllables seem to act out the actions and qualities associated with it. Ivor Gurney wrote of his beloved Gloucestershire, ‘where Spring sends greetings before other less happy counties have forgotten Winter and the snow. Where the talk is men’s talk, and eyes of folk are as soft as the kind airs. The best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty content in security, strength quiet in confidence controlled, blood mixed of plain and hill, Welsh and English; are not these only of my county, my home?’ Though he added—he was writing to Marion Scott from near Tidworth in March 1916—‘And yet were I there the canker in my soul would taint all these.’[3]

Blossom fits with sweet reasonableness into contexts of ironic undercurrent and ambiguity, say, the final stanza of Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’:

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.[4]

And here is the narrator of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, blossom a part of his learning to read the English landscape and its complicated history:

‘When I grew to see the wild roses and hawthorn on my walk, I didn’t see the windbreak they grew beside as a sign of the big landowners who had left their mark on the solitude, had preserved it, had planted the woods in certain places (in imitation, it was said, of the positions at the battle of Trafalgar – or was it Waterloo?), I didn’t think of the landowners. My mood was purer: I thought of these single-petalled roses and sweet-smelling blossom at the side of the road as wild and natural growths.’[5]

Brett, Dorothy Eugenie, 1883-1977; D. H. Lawrence

Dorothy Brett, D. H. Lawrence
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

For D. H. Lawrence, it seems a symbol of a stage on the road to moral growth: ‘You have to suffer before you blossom in this life’, Lettie tells George in The White Peacock. ‘When death is just touching a plant, it forces it into a passion of flowering.’[6] His short story, ‘The Last Laugh’, centring on an encounter with Pan ends with a faint scent of almond blossom in the air[7]—and Pan is not only a recurrent element in Lawrence’s work but crops up all over the place at that time: from E. M. Forster to The Wind in the Willows. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, what Lawrence sees as our separation from the natural world finds blossom on the casualty list as he gets into his stride in the last year of his life:

‘Sex is the balance of male and female in the universe, the attraction, the repulsion, the transit of neutrality, the new attraction, the new repulsion, always different, always new. The long neuter spell of Lent, when the blood is low, and the delight of the Easter kiss, the sexual revel of spring, the passion of midsummer, the slow recoil, revolt, and grief of autumn, greyness again, then the sharp stimulus of winter, of the long nights. Sex goes through the rhythm of the year, in man and woman, ceaselessly changing: the rhythm of the sun in his relation to the earth.’ [ . . . ] This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table.’[8]

Cherry-Blossom-Japan-Guide

(Via www.japan-guide.com )

When it comes to national obsessions, some Western countries might do better to look to Japan: ‘Residents of Kochi Prefecture in the Shikoku region will be the first to see cherry blossoms of the Somei-Yoshino tree this year, as early as March 18, according to a forecast by an Osaka-based meteorological company that predicts Japan’s iconic sakura may bloom earlier than usual’, the Japan Times reported:
https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/01/15/national/cherry-blossoms-across-japan-forecast-arrive-earlier-usual-2019/#.XH-WyFP7RQM

I don’t pitch my own interest and enthusiasm quite that high but I’ll still lean towards the positive side: new growth, new life, new beauty. Some news as good news. ‘The positive side’—here, now, England, March 2019.

Remarkable.

 
References

[1] Joan Didion, ‘Fire Season’, in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), 656.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ode to the West Wind’, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), 574.

[3] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 75.

[4] Henry Reed, ‘Naming of Parts’, in Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007), 49.

[5] V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections (1987; London: Pan McMillan, 2002), 20.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, The White Peacock (1911; Cambridge University Press, edited by Andrew Robertson, Cambridge 1983), 28.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Last Laugh’, in The Collected Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (London: William Heinemann, 1974), 587-602.

[8] D. H. Lawrence, ‘A Propos of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, in Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence, Collected and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (London: William Heinemann, 1968), 504.

 

Always changing, always the same

durrell.via.theamericanreader.com .  Mansfield

‘I think that, as I say, in England, living as if we are not part of Europe, we are living against the grain of what is nourishing to our artists, do you see? There seems to be an ingrown psychological thing about it, I don’t know why it is. You can see it reflected even in quite primitive ways like this market business now—the European Common Market. It’s purely psychological, the feeling that we are too damned superior to join this bunch of continentals in anything they do. And I think that’s why it is so vitally important for young artists to identify more and more with Europe. As for me, I have joined the Common Market, as it were. But, mind you, that doesn’t qualify one’s origins or one’s attitude to things. I mean if I’m writing, I’m writing for England—and so long as I write English it will be for England that I have to write.’

(Lawrence Durrell—born 27 February 1912: happy birthday, Larry—interviewed by Julian Mitchell and Gene Andrewski, 23 April 1959,[1] fourteen years before the United Kingdom joined what was then the EEC (European Economic Community). Two years later, a referendum resulted in a 67.2% vote in favour of remaining in the EEC.)

‘I shall never live in England again’, Katherine Mansfield wrote to Sydney Waterlow, ‘I recognise England’s admirable qualities, but we simply don’t get on. We have nothing to say to each other, we are always meeting as strangers.’[2] Of course, that ‘never’ turned out to have strict limits since, less than two years after writing her letter, Mansfield was dead, at the age of thirty-four.

A hundred years on; there are still some ‘admirable qualities’ (my choices wouldn’t be everybody’s) and I shall certainly go on living in England. That ‘meeting as strangers’, though, crops up a lot just lately. Good grief, how many times can you ask the question—of the empty air or, indeed, of a Librarian—‘What is wrong with these people?’

Dore-Punishment-Sowers-Discord

(Gustave Doré, ‘Punishment of the Sowers of Discord’ (1890), illustration for Dante’s Inferno)

The end-of-pier show lurched into literature following Donald Tusk’s studied musing into a microphone as to ‘what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely’. Letter-writers determinedly sited the miscreants in Dante’s Inferno. I remember one suggestion that the ‘special place’ might be the poet’s eighth Bolgia or ditch, where the souls of deceivers and false counsellors are found, though I’d been thinking of the ninth one, where the sowers of discord are given a very hard time by a large demon equipped with a sharp sword. But of course, it might not be a special place at all and they may just be pitchforked in with the rest of the riff-raff.

There were people in the public sphere to be admired – but they all seemed to be under voting age – the twelve year old journalist Hilde Lysak, for instance (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/feb/24/hilde-lysak-police-officer-arrest-video) and the thousands of schoolchildren striking in protest at the feeble gestures made by the political class towards combatting climate change and environmental crisis, inspired by the example of the – now – sixteen year old Swede Greta Thunberg. The criticism of this demonstration from Downing Street and in the columns of one or two professional dimwits rather strengthened the case made by other commentators that the only adults in the room seemed to be, ah, children. The young environmental activists were acting in concert in the face of a planetary disaster. In the House of Commons, even the imminence of a national disaster couldn’t affect the posturing and squabbling and the exorbitant influence on Government policy exerted by a gaggle of fops, chancers and wide-boys.

Still, as a friend remarked to me yesterday, although the situation seems always the same it also seems to be constantly changing, a bizarre but discernible feature. So the Labour leadership has, at that familiar glacial pace, finally arrived at allowing, if not actually supporting, the idea of a People’s Vote, turning up at the party with a bottle of cheap white wine as the ashtrays are being emptied, the floors swept and the lights turned out. It could all, as they say, have been so different. But when historic opportunities come along, the relevant people need to be looking in the right direction.

 
References

[1] Writers at Work: the Paris Review Interviews, 2nd series, edited by George Plimpton ((Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), 263.

[2] Katherine Mansfield, Selected Letters, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 199.

 

Bearded men in overcoats: Edward Gorey

Gorey-Avedon

(Photograph by Richard Avedon, via The New Yorker
© The Richard Avedon Foundation)

‘Gorey’, Hugh Kenner wrote to Guy Davenport in 1962. ‘I have tracked down THE CURIOUS SOFA, THE FATAL LOZENGE, THE WILLOWDALE EXPRESS [i.e., The Willowdale Handcar], and THE HAPLESS CHILD. No others seem to be available. One is especially curious about THE DOUBTFUL GUEST and ($1,000,000 prize title) THE LISTING ATTIC. Are any sources of supply known to you?’

The following Spring, breathing down the neck of Pound-Joyce-Ruskin references that will emerge in different form a dozen years later in ‘The House That Jack Built’, is this Davenport remark: ‘All the bearded men in overcoats in Gorey are Gorey.’[1]

Doubtful-Guest

‘At times it would tear out whole chapters from books,
Or put roomfuls of pictures askew on their hooks.’[2]

Some of the attractions for Davenport are fairly obvious: a wide and varied taste in books (Gorey owned upwards of 25000), cats—and the hospitality offered to other living creatures—virtuosic graphic work, an extraordinary range of interests and knowledge, a productive eccentricity and a distinctly individual stance towards the world.

Edward St John Gorey was born 22 February 1925 (and died in 2000). He published more than a hundred of his own works, beginning with The Unstrung Harp in 1953, and illustrated the works of scores of other writers, poets and critics, from Dickens, Edward Lear, H. G. Wells and Samuel Beckett to Saki, Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf and the wonderful Treehorn books by Florence Parry Heide.

Treehorn

‘The next morning Treehorn was so small he had to jump out of bed. On the floor under the bed was a game he’d pushed under there and forgotten about. He walked under the bed to look at it.’[3]

Moving around our house, I find Gorey items in a surprising number of places: small hardbacks and larger paperbacks, postcards, a jigsaw, even a toy theatre, Edward Gorey’s Dracula, a Christmas present to the Librarian some years back.

Gorey-Dracula

There are some irresistible moments in the interview of Gorey by Clifford Ross:

CR: What about your working day?
EG: I usually wake up and think, “Oh, I really must do something today.” But then quite often many things come up before I can start doing them.
CR: Do you work each day?
EG: I try and do something each day. Work might not be exactly the word for it.

Elsewhere, ‘But I do collect postcards of dead babies.’ And, in response to the question about what sort of art he collects—Balthus, Burchfield, Albert York, Vuillard, Bonnard—‘And I have one Munch lithograph, I think.’ Ross asks which one and Gorey tells him: ‘Omega and the Bear. I couldn’t resist it. It’s this back of a naked lady and she’s got her arms around a big bear. I think it has some significance. I’m not sure what.’

Karen Wilkin, in her absorbing essay, lists some of the inhabitants—‘Mustachioed men in ankle-length overcoats; elegant matrons with high-piled hair; athletic hearties in thick turtlenecks; imposing patriarchs in sumptuous dressing-gowns; kohl-eyed wantons with alarming décolletages and nodding plumes’—of what she terms ‘an utterly unreal but wholly believable universe instantly recognizable, at least to initiates, as the world of Edward Gorey.’ It is, it is. She details the influence of theatre and, particularly, dance on Gorey’s art. He rarely missed a performance of the New York Ballet for thirty years and his ‘knowledge and understanding’ of the choreography of George Balanchine was ‘profound’.[4]

McDermott-Elephant-House

(© Kevin McDermott, photograph facing chapter heading ‘The Living Room’)

Kevin McDermot, in his book about Gorey’s Cape Cod house, illustrated with his own superb photographs, quotes a Vanity Fair interview with Gorey from October 1997:

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
“Cats.”
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
“A stone.”
What is your favourite journey?
“Looking out the window.”[5]

Accept no substitutes.

Gorey’s home is now a museum, dedicated to his life and work, open from April to December each year. The Edward Gorey House: http://www.edwardgoreyhouse.org/

 
References

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 167, 286.

[2] Edward Gorey, The Doubtful Guest (1957), in Amphigorey: Fifteen Books by Edward Gorey (New York: Perigee Books, 1981), unpaginated.

[3] Florence Parry Heide, The Shrinking of Treehorn, in The Treehorn Trilogy, drawings by Edward Gorey (New York: Abrams, 2006), unpaginated.

[4] Clifford Ross, ‘Interview with Edward Gorey’, in Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin, The World of Edward Gorey (New York: Abrams, 1996), 19; Karen Wilkins, ‘Mr. Earbrass Jots Down a Few Visual Notes: The World of Edward Gorey’, 45, 86.

[5] Kevin McDermot, Elephant House, or, The Home of Edward Gorey (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2003), unpaginated.

 

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.