Sounds of silence—sounds and silence.

THE ARMISTICE DAY, NOVEMBER 1918

(Crowd awaiting news of signing of the Armistice in Paris, 11 November 1918.)
Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 69705)

Sitting reading in an upstairs room, I’m hardly conscious of the quiet. Most of the time, I would have to strain my ears to hear the noise of traffic on the main road at the far end of our street. At the nearer end, there’s a park, popular and well-used but not generating the kind of noise that carries very far. Some people, I know, are made uncomfortable by a complete absence of sound—if such a thing exists in a twenty-first-century city. I lean the other way and think myself lucky not to have to shut out extraneous noise. Silence is not a neutral quality, any more than sound: we bring to it our personality, our training, our conditioning, our education, our predilections, our choices. The things we like or admire are often most clearly defined by contrast with the things that we don’t like or admire. Note that the louder the music playing in the car that just passed you, the worse it was. Quite unlike the music you play when you’re driving in your car.

blue-highways

Alex Ross’s book on twentieth-century music—‘Listening to the Twentieth Century’— was published ten years ago and entitled The Rest is Noise; while Hamlet’s last words, if not sounds, are ‘The rest is silence’.[1] ‘Speech is silver, silence is golden’, an old proverb says, urging the wisdom of biting your tongue and keeping your own counsel. And silence has traditionally been seen, certain among British men of a certain class, as a sign of strength of character. No doubt it enhances our ability to hear, sometimes others, sometimes ourselves. William Least Heat-Moon recalled the words of Brother Patrick Duffy, whom he met in Georgia: ‘When I go quiet I stop hearing myself and start hearing the world outside me. Then I hear something very great.’[2] And  an inner silence, or calm, can surely be a source of strength, as Robert Louis Stevenson remarked: ‘Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.’[3]

To the east of Avesnes on the morning of 11th November 1918, the noise was deafening. Then, at 11:00 A.M., it stopped and ‘the sudden quietness made us all feel dazed—almost stunned—and it was some time before anyone spoke. We who were left just stood gazing into space. It was rather like one feels in regaining consciousness after an anaesthetic.’

This is Gunner James Davidson of the 50th Divisional Trench Mortar Battery: his 1978 letter to the BBC is being quoted by Stanley Weintraub in his fine account of the end of the Great War.[4]

Such noise—in volume, in intensity, in duration—as that inflicted by the Great War had not previously been known. In 1900, Ford Madox Ford had written, at the end of his large volume on The Cinque Ports: ‘But I have sometimes thought that, in the end, a time will come, when the brain of man—of humanity all the world over—will suddenly grow unable to bear with the hurry and turmoil that itself has created.’[5] Sixteen years later, as he would subsequently recall, during the Battle of the Somme, ‘in pitch blackness, in the midst of gunfire that shook the earth I did once pray to the major Heavenly powers that my reason might be preserved.…’[6]

Anne_Bradstreet

(Anne Bradstreet, 1612(?)–1672)

All of us, or most of us, begin with a cry—

‘drencht & powerful, I did it with my body!’ John Berryman has Anne Bradstreet say. And, a little later: ‘Blossomed Sarah, and I/ blossom. Is that thing alive? I hear a famisht howl.’[7]

and end in silence.

Into our earlier silences, noise comes, must be accommodated, incorporated, used. Henry David Thoreau, ‘self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms’, marvellously sets against one another the penetrating sound of the locomotive whistle and the solitude and stillness in which, for the most part, he sits. Thoreau is indeed a noted connoisseur of both sound and soundlessness. There are, as he says, ‘many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.’[8]

The sound of the railway would become background noise; as would the noise of the car and, eventually, the noise of the aeroplane. Now we move through walls of sound, seas of sound, and are largely unaware of them. In the early years of the twentieth century, Don Gifford remarks, ‘most people regarded the telephone as a medium for messages that were rather more urgent than casual talk.’[9] Now the loudness of a mobile telephone call in a public place is generally an index of its triviality, its banality.

Just as darkness is no longer darkness as our grandparents knew it, so silence is rarely noiseless now. In his splendid novel, The Broken Lands, based on the tragic Franklin expedition of 1845-8, Robert Edric writes at one point: ‘They passed into a stillness and an emptiness that even the flocks of following birds seemed to acknowledge in their silence.’[10] A hundred and forty years later, on a hill above Bristol, I thought that I was surrounded by silence until I concentrated on what was not and eventually compiled a list of nineteen separate and identifiable sounds.

Fra_Angelico_St._Dominic

(Not Ambrose but Fra Angelico’s S. Dominic. Still, a saint reading.)

I still read poetry aloud—but tend to ensure that I’m on my own when I do so. It helps both remembering and understanding and, of course, used to be simply how it was done. Alberto Manguel discusses Saint Augustine’s account of St Ambrose reading—remarkably—to himself and in silence. ‘Augustine’s description of Ambrose’s silent reading (including the remark that he never read aloud) is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature.’[11]

Looking almost as far back into (literary) history—and in another country—Arthur Cooper, writing of the 8th-century poet Li Po, notes that poems were always sung or chanted: there was ‘no notion of reading poems silently till perhaps a thousand years later’.[12] This was the poet whom Ezra Pound called Rihaku, following the Japanese form of the name in the notebooks of Ernest Fenollosa, original source of the poems in Cathay and the Noh plays which so enthused W. B. Yeats and led to his writing At the Hawk’s Well. A few years later, Pound would write in Canto 21 of ‘Another war without glory, and another peace without quiet.’[13]

 

References

[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, V, ii, l.363; edited by Harold Jenkins (London: Routledge, 1989), 416. The First Folio had, after ‘silence’, ‘O, o, o, o, o.’

[2] William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey into America (London: Picador, 1984), 88.

[3] Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 71.

[4] Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Around the World: The End of the Great War, November 1918 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 223.

[5] Ford, The Cinque Ports (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1900), 372.

[6] Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 100.

[7] Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and Other Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 17.

[8] Thoreau, Walden, edited by J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 1974), 18, 141.

[9] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber, 1990), 61.

[10] Robert Edric, The Broken Lands (London: Jonathan Cape 1992), 41.

[11] Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (London: Flamingo, 1997), 42-43; and see Saint Augustine, Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 92-93.

[12] Arthur Cooper, Li Po and Tu Fu (Penguin, 1973), 32.

[13] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 98.

Vale, Ford Madox Ford

FMF-via_Arts_Desk

‘I am the Knight of London, your Majesty.’

‘London, London; where’s that?—I’ve never heard of it.’

‘London is the capital city of England.’

‘But where is England?’ she asked.

‘I had thought that every one had heard of England,’ he said. ‘However, as no report of England has ever reached your ears, I will tell your Majesty. The British Islands, of which England is one, are a set of small islands off the west coast of Europe. They are composed of England, Scot—’

But here the Princess interrupted him.—The Brown Owl (1891)

 

The only satisfactory age in England! … Yet what chance had it to-day? Or, still more, to-morrow? In the sense that the age of, say, Shakespeare had a chance. Or Pericles! or Augustus!

Heaven knew, we did not want a preposterous drum-beating such as the Elizabethans produced—and received. Like lions at a fair…. But what chance had quiet fields, Anglican sainthood, accuracy of thought, heavy-leaved, timbered hedgerows, slowly creeping plough-lands moving up the slopes? … Still, the land remains….

The land remains…. It remains! … At that same moment the dawn was wetly revealing; over there in George Herbert’s parish…. What was it called? … What the devil was its name? Oh, Hell! … Between Salisbury and Wilton…. The tiny church…. But he refused to consider the plough-lands, the heavy groves, the slow highroad above the church that the dawn was at that moment wetly revealing—until he could remember that name…. He refused to consider that, probably even to-day, that land ran to … produced the stock of … Anglican sainthood. The quiet thing!

But until he could remember the name he would consider nothing….

He said:

“Are those damned Mills bombs coming?”—A Man Could Stand Up— (1926)

 
Ford Madox Ford, novelist, poet, critic, editor, Englishman, Londoner and European (born in Merton, Surrey, 17 December 1873; died in Deauville, 26 June 1939).

 

Turning to the Sunflowers

Sunflowers_4_small

On a day disfigured by news of another mass murder, this time in London, I turn to our new dwarf sunflowers, as the sunflower itself is fabled to turn toward the sun. Helianthus annuus, ‘frequently appearing on rubbish-tips and in unexpected places in gardens, usually from birdseed’, Richard Mabey notes.[1]

‘I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when you know that what I’m at is the painting of some big sunflowers,’ Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo.

Van_Gogh_Sunflowers

(Vincent van Gogh, ‘Sunflowers’: National Gallery)

‘I have three canvases going—1st, three huge flowers in a green vase, with a light background, a size 15 canvas; 2nd, three flowers, one gone to seed, having lost its petals, and one a bud against a royal-blue background, size 25 canvas; 3rd, twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (size 30 canvas). The last one is therefore light on light, and I hope it will be the best. Probably I shall not stop at that. Now that I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own, I want to make decorations for the studio. Nothing but big flowers. Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, you know there is a lovely decoration of flowers; I always remember the big sunflowers in the window there.’[2]

Sunflowers.1

In ‘Morality and the Novel’, D. H. Lawrence writes of ‘the living moment’, of the ‘business’ of art being ‘to reveal the relation between man and his circumambient universe’ at that moment. His first example is this: ‘When van Gogh paints sunflowers, he reveals, or achieves, the vivid relation between himself, as man, and the sunflower, as sunflower, at that quick moment of time. His painting does not represent the sunflower itself. We shall never know what the sunflower itself is. And the camera will visualize the sunflower far more perfectly than van Gogh can.
‘The vision on the canvas is a third thing, utterly intangible and inexplicable, the offspring of the sunflower itself and van Gogh himself. The vision on the canvas is for ever incommensurable with the canvas, or the paint, or van Gogh as a human organism, or the sunflower as a botanical organism. You cannot weigh nor measure nor even describe the vision on the canvas. It exists, to tell the truth, only in the much-debated fourth dimension. In dimensional space it has no existence.
‘It is a revelation of the perfected relation, at a certain moment, between a man and a sunflower.’[3]

Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Sunflower Sutra’ remembers an occasion with Jack Kerouac but looks back to William Blake:

‘Look at the sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust—
—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—’[4]

ginsberg-flower

(Allen Ginsberg: https://bluerailroad.wordpress.com/allen-ginsberg-an-interview/)

Blake’s Songs of Experience included ‘Ah Sun-flower!’

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.[5]

Hardly a cheerful poem, to be sure: ‘his terrible lyric on the sunflower’, the flower ‘which wistfully follows the sun across the sky all day, a perfect symbol of the “vegetable” life rooted in this world and longing to be free.’[6] It’s a flower, too, associated strongly with a painter—Vincent—who killed himself at the age of thirty-seven.

Not uncomplicatedly life-affirming, then, but clearly hugely attractive to a great many poets and painters. And forget those, anyway, for the moment, because what strikes me most often is people that say simply: ‘I love sunflowers’ or ‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ Quite basic, no doubt: the shape of a sun, the colour of sunlight. But an immediate, powerful, and genuine response or sense of connection.

Paul Nash planned a series of four sunflower paintings but completed only Solstice of the Sunflower (1945), the year of his death, and 1944’s The Eclipse of the Sunflower.

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; Eclipse of the Sunflower

(Photo credit: British Council Collection)

Last word to Conrad Aiken:

Each morning we devour the unknown.
Each day we find, and take, and spill, or spend, or lose, a sunflower splendor of which none knows the source.[7]

References

[1] Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 379.

[2] The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, second edition (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978), III, 18-19.

[3] D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, edited and with an introduction by Edward D. McDonald (London: William Heinemann, 1936), 527.

[4] Ginsberg, Selected Poems 1947-1995 (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 60.

[5] The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, newly revised edition, edited by David V. Erdman (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), 25. There is a short video of Ginsberg reading this poem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jySDWBowDnY

[6] Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 74.

[7] ‘A Letter from Li Po’: Conrad Aiken, Selected Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 248.

Poppies by the million

Poppy.2

We bought a poppy plant at the garden centre yesterday and it had bloomed already this morning, even under such a glowering sky.

Apart from its fiery beauty, the poppy is blessed or cursed with an extraordinary array of literary, artistic, historical, mythological and medicinal associations, but is most widely recognised in the context of Armistice Day in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries.

As for the paintings: leafing through art books once to settle on the one half-remembered picture after passing a school where a flowerbed had been thickly planted with poppies, I realised just how many there were to choose from. John Constable and Mary Fedden, Angelica Garnett and Vincent Van Gogh, Vanessa Bell and Georgia O’Keeffe, Christopher Wood and Ivon Hitchens, real one and paper ones by William Nicholson (in the early years, people wore real poppies on Armistice Day). But I finally decided that I must have been thinking either of Claude Monet:

Poppy_Field_Near_Argenteuil

(Claude Monet, Poppy Field Near Argentuil)

or, yes, of Stanley Spencer, whose irises and poppies stick in the mind just as surely as his resurrections, figures on beds, swans, soldiers and shipbuilding.

Spencer, Stanley, 1891-1959; Poppies

(Stanley Spencer, Poppies, 1938. Newark Town Hall Museum and Art Gallery:
© the estate of Stanley Spencer; all rights reserved 2014, Bridgeman Images)

And literary associations? The poppy’s connection with the First World War often takes off from the Canadian John McCrae’s poem, first published anonymously in Punch in December 1915:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

ending:

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.[1]

Edmund Blunden wrote, in ‘Vlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau, July, 1917’:

Bold great daisies’ golden lights,
Bubbling roses’ pinks and whites—
Such a gay carpet! poppies by the million;
Such damask! such vermilion!
But if you ask me, mate, the choice of colour
Is scarcely right; this red should have been duller.[2]

Rosenberg, Isaac, 1890-1918; Isaac Rosenberg

(Isaac Rosenberg, Self-Portrait, 1914: National Portrait Gallery, London)

The one that most stays with me, though, is probably Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, which ends:

Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.[3]

But then I think of a holiday in Greece more than fifteen years ago now, a vivid memory of Mycenae, with everywhere the bright clusters of blood-red poppies.

The poppy’s literary associations begin in classical texts, usually there the ‘sleep-bearing’ or garden poppy, the source of opium. Alethea Hayter notes that, ‘In an Egyptian medical treatise of the sixteenth century B. C., Theban physicians were advised to prescribe opium for crying children just as, three and a half millennia later, Victorian babies were dosed with the opiate Godfrey’s Cordial by their nurses to keep them quiet.’[4]

The ancient Greeks and Romans grew poppies in their gardens and ate the seeds, often mixed with honey.[5] The link between the poppy and sleep is implicit in the last lines of McCrae’s poem. Hypnos, the god of sleep, holds a poppy in the representations of him in Roman and Hellenistic sculpture. He worked in partnership with his brother Thanatos, god of death, to remove fallen warriors from the battlefield.[6]

The most notable association, though, is probably with Demeter who, frantic from the loss of her daughter Persephone, who had been carried off by the god of the underworld, ‘soothed her grief with the narcotic juice of the poppy’. The plant ‘has the reputation of giving life, hence the association of the poppy with Demeter, the earth goddess who bestowed fertility on fields.’[7] Alethea Hayter mentions the legend that tells of Demeter, in her search for Persephone, reaching Sicyon, ‘once called Mecone, the city of poppies’, and gathering their flowers. Slitting the seed-cases, she tasted the juice and ‘forgot her sorrows’. She was sometimes portrayed, then, holding a poppy instead of the more established sheaf of corn: the flower ‘adorned her altars and its drug was perhaps used in her rites at Eleusis, to bring forgetfulness of the sorrow of the dying year and to share, by a short winter sleep of the emotions, in the death and re-birth of the plants’.[8]

In his poem ‘In the Trenches’, Richard Aldington wrote:

But that each rush and crash
Of mortar and shell,
Each cruel bitter shriek of bullet
That tears the wind like a blade,
Each wound on the breast of earth,
Of Demeter, our Mother,
Wound us also[9]

In Homer’s Iliad, Teukros, aiming an arrow straight at Hector, misses him and strikes instead Gorgythion:

He bent drooping his head to one side, as a garden poppy
bends beneath the weight of its yield and the rains of springtime;
so his head bent slack to one side beneath the helm’s weight.[10]

This is how Alice Oswald renders that passage:

And now the arrow flies through GIORGYTHION
Somebody’s darling son

As if it was June
A poppy being hammered by the rain
Sinks its head down
It’s exactly like that
When a man’s neck gives in
And the bronze calyx of his helmet
Sinks his head down[11]

Death as slackening, bending, as sinking into sleep, all consciousness and memory gone. Hypnos and Thanatos, sleep and death, lived in Hades, near Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

Allen Ginsberg, in ‘A Supermarket in California’, addressed to Walt Whitman, ends:

‘Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?’[12]

Also.Poppy

One more Poppy. . . .

 

References

[1] Robert Giddings, The War Poets (1988; London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 55-57.

[2] Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; London: Penguin Books, 1982), 256.

[3] Isaac Rosenberg (21st-Century Authors), edited by Vivien Noakes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 106.

[4] Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 19. Godfrey’s Cordial was a mixture of opium, treacle, water and spices. See also Hayter’s introduction to Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 14-15.

[5] See Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 160-161. See also: http://classicalanthology.theclassicslibrary.com/2015/02/17/poppies-in-classical-poetry-homer-catullus-virgil-dante-contributed-by-jane-mason-and-david-bevan/

[6] I. Aghion, C. Barbillon, F. Lissarragne, Gods and Heroes of Classical Antiquity (Paris: Flammarion, 1996), 162-163.

[7] Hellmut Baumann, Greek Wild Flowers and plant lore in ancient Greece, translated and augmented by William T. Stearn and Eldwyth Ruth Stearn (London: The Herbert Press, 1993), 69.

[8] Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, 20.

[9]The Complete Poems of Richard Aldington (London: Allen Wingate, 1948), 62.

[10] Homer, The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richard Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 190, Bk.V., ll.306-308.

[11] Alice Oswald, Memorial (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 32.

[12] Ginsberg, Selected Poems 1947-1995 (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 59.

Poor Jamie, poor Gérard

I am currently with James Boswell in Holland. Since his Dutch journal, continued in the same vein as his London journal, had been lost, this volume comprises his almost daily memoranda; his French ‘themes’, short essays he wrote at the intended rate of two pages a day, to improve his facility in the language; letters to him from friends and family and some of his letters to them; and a substantial section of documents based on his not-quite-love-affair with a young Dutch woman, Isabelle van Tuyll van Serooskerken, generally known as Belle de Zuylen or Zélide, whose first novel had been published the year before Boswell met her. Later, she also produced plays and pamphlets, and wrote music.

Belle_van_Zuylen,_attributed_to_Guillaume_de_Spinny

(Belle de Zuylen by Guillaume de Spinny, 1759: Zuylen Castle)

In the words of the editor’s summary, Boswell ‘had resolved that he would reform on the day he left England for Holland. He did. For ten months in Holland he was by heroic effort modest, studious, frugal, reserved, and chaste. And he almost went out of his mind.’[1] Poor Jamie. Certainly, his interest in women did not diminish. He wrote in a letter to Charles de Guiffardière: ‘There are so many beautiful and amiable ladies in our circle that a quire of paper could not contain their praises, though written by a man of a much cooler fancy and a much smaller handwriting than myself’ (91).

Labouring to stay on the paths of righteousness, sobriety, godliness and celibacy, he repeatedly addresses stern memoranda to himself: ‘Guard against liking billiards. They are blackguard’ (21), ‘Write French before ten each morning, and lay out hours exactly. Spend not so much time in sauntering. Be firm to be always employed’ (37). Sometimes he admonishes himself for slight lapses: ‘But remember how near you was to getting drunk and exposing yourself, for if you had gone on a little longer, you could not have stopped’ (66), ‘Yesterday you did not at all keep to rules as you ought to do’ (55). And sometimes he congratulates himself—‘Yesterday you did extremely well’ (65).

Nadar_Daumier

(‘Nadar elevating Photography to Art’: lithograph by Honoré Daumier, 1863)

My departures from Boswell involve revisiting the tales of Isak Dinesen or Algernon Blackwood; or, particularly, travelling with the biographer and translator Richard Holmes. He is currently in the France of his youth, rubbing shoulders with the pioneer photographer and balloonist Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), the theatrical phenomenon Jean-Gaspard Deburau; and the writers Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval.

Gérard de Nerval (born on this day, 22nd May, in 1806; he died—a suicide—in 1855) is still generally known to Anglophone readers, when known at all, as the man who walked a lobster on a blue silk ribbon through the gardens of the Palais Royal.[2] The other detail familiar to some readers is that T. S. Eliot quotes a line from Nerval’s sonnet, ‘El Desdichado’—‘Le prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie’—in The Waste Land.[3]

Félix_Nadar_1820-1910_portraits_Gérard_de_Nerval

(Nadar: portrait of Gérard de Nerval)

The source of the lobster story appears to have been Nerval’s friend Théophile Gautier, to whom Nerval defended his choice of companion by asking why it was any more ridiculous than walking a dog or a cat—‘or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk?’ He added: ‘I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea’.[4]

When I read this, I thought of Eliot’s earlier poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

The tremendously thorough annotations of the 2015 The Poems of T. S. Eliot mention, in connection with these lines, Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man (and much else)[5] but I did wonder when Eliot became aware of Gérard de Nerval.

In December 1908, Eliot picked up the ‘newly published second edition of Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature’ in the Harvard Union library’ and, as a result of his reading of this book, immediately ordered the three volume edition of Jules Laforgue’s Oeuvres complètes.[6] The influence of Laforgue on Eliot’s early work is well-documented but, interestingly, in this second edition of Symons’ book, which differs a good deal from the first, the opening chapter is on Gérard de Nerval (that on Laforgue is the fifth; and Gautier is now mentioned only in the chapter on Nerval). Symons refers to the occasion on which Nerval ‘was found in the Palais-Royal, leading a lobster at the end of a blue ribbon (because, he said, it does not bark, and knows the secrets of the sea)’.[7]

Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature

Nerval had developed an obsessive love for an actress called Jenny Colon, who died in 1842. Shortly afterwards, he set off on his travels to Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey, returning to Paris in 1844: his Journey to the Orient appeared two years later. Following his first major breakdown in 1841, he suffered from mental health problems and periods of hospitalisation for the rest of his short life. In a letter of 1915, Symons mentioned that he had purchased an autograph letter of Jenny Colon—he compared Nerval’s breakdown to his own in 1908.[8]

‘Everything is alive, everything is in motion, everything corresponds; the magnetic rays that emanate from me or from others flow directly through the infinite chain of creation whose transparent network is in continuous communication with the planets and the stars. A captive here on earth for the moment, I commune with the chorus of stars and they join in my sorrows and joys.’[9]

 

References

[1] Boswell in Holland 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), xiii: bracketed figures refer to page numbers in this volume.

[2] See Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), 212-213, where he suggests that the story is ‘perhaps apocryphal’; see also the script of his radio play, ‘Inside the Tower’, based on the life of Nerval (‘All Nerval’s speeches are drawn from his own essays, letters and journals’), in  Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (London: Harper Collins, 2000), 89-131 (105-106).

[3] The Waste Land, ll.429. For the text of the poem accompanied by a prose translation, see Gérard de Nerval, Selected Writings, translated with an introduction by Richard Sieburth (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 363.

[4] Holmes, Footsteps, 213.

[5] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 389-390.

[6] Lyndall Gordon, Eliot’s Early Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 28, 29.

[7] Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, second revised edition (London: Archibald Constable & Co., 1908), 12-13.

[8] Arthur Symons, Selected Letters, 1880-1935, edited by Karl Beckson and John M. Munro (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1989), 238, 239n3.

[9] Nerval, ‘Aurelia’, translated by Richard Sieburth, Selected Writings, 307.

Champagne, oysters and last tales

‘I have always rather enjoyed being with mad or slightly dotty people; there is something liberating about being able sometimes to get away from the unspeakably worn-down, conventional paths, for the mind as well. I understand so well how it was that great folk in the old days felt their ménage to be incomplete without a jester, who should preferably not be quite all there’.[1]

Blixen

(Karen Blixen with one of her deerhounds, via http://blixen.dk/?lang=en)

We are still in the early stages of the book cull. Thirteen carrier bags to the charity shop so far; more to go. A small terraced house is (allegedly) not the most comfortable container for thousands of books (gathered over a long period: my wife and I were both booksellers for years). Some of this culling comes easily; some is hard; some impossible. A few of my solutions have been highly suspect. Recently, a second Library of America edition of work by Carson McCullers breezed in: those two volumes can now replace, yes, three paperbacks. One book less. It’s true that the two volumes take up more space than the three they replace; and they were more expensive. But damn! they do look good.

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This second volume contains the complete stories, plays, essays, poems and autobiographical writings. After I’d ordered it—but before it arrived—I ordered a secondhand copy of Isak Dinesen’s Anecdotes of Destiny. I have other books by Dinesen: Last Tales, Seven Gothic Tales, Shadows on the Grass, Winter’s Tales, her Letters From Africa and, of course, Out of Africa, as well as the biography of Dinesen by Judith Thurman (who also wrote a very good one of Colette )—but I was missing that collection. What prompted me to order it was looking at a list of films I wanted either to watch or to watch again and remembering that I’d never actually seen the 1987 film Babette’s Feast (based on one of the stories in Anecdotes of Destiny), a Danish production directed by Gabriel Axel.

Babettes_Feast_Poster

Babette’s Feast film poster via http://www.cine-vue.com

When the McCullers volume arrived, a few days ago, I opened it at random and immediately saw the name Isak Dinesen. Is there a unique category, a dedicated name for this sort of synchronicity specific to the world of books? Or is it just that, if you have a highly associative mind (one which retains a high density of that sort of material), those connections are apparent more widely and more frequently? I know that the moment for my reading a book I may have owned for months or even years is quite often decided by two or three references to it in different contexts. It’s a bit like the famous quote from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger: ‘“Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action’.”’ (Fleming used these categories as section titles in the novel: the quotation comes at the end of the second section.)

McCullers has two short pieces on Dinesen in this Library of America collection, the first on the volume called Winter’s Tales, the other an account which begins with McCullers being given, and reading, Out of Africa, published under the author’s real name, Karen Blixen. She realises that this is ‘one of the most radiant books’ of her life.[2] Subsequently, and unsurprisingly, she moves on to other books by that author: ‘When I was ill or out of sorts with the world, I would turn to Out of Africa, which never failed to comfort and support me—and when I wanted to be lifted out of my life, I would read Seven Gothic Tales or Winter’s Tales or, much later, The Last Tales.’[3]

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‘“Madame,” he said, “I have been telling you a story. Stories have been told as long as speech has existed, and sans stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished sans water.”’[4]

The essay moves on to McCullers’ recollection of the Academy of Arts and Letters dinner in January 1959, at which Dinesen—in fact, the Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke—was a guest of honour. They sat next to one another at dinner and, asked by Dinesen if she could arrange a meeting with Marilyn Monroe, McCullers said she could. On 5 February, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe called for Dinesen and her companion Clara Svendsen, arriving ‘with the unpunctuality Marilyn was famous for’, and they all lunched with Carson McCullers, a meal including oysters, white grapes, champagne and a soufflé, laid out on McCullers’ ‘black marble table.’ Miller expressed concern about the extremely frail Dinesen’s standard menu—she’d said that, when oysters were out of season, she turned to asparagus—and recklessly mentioned ‘protein’. Dinesen replied that she didn’t know anything about that but she was old; she ate what she wanted and what agreed with her.[5]

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(Marilyn Monroe, Isak Dinesen, Carson McCullers)

Dinesen died on Friday 7 September 1962, of emaciation. Monroe had died barely a month before, on 5 August. Dinesen and McCullers had long admired one another’s work and Dinesen ‘loved’ McCullers but it was Marilyn Monroe who had made the deepest impression on her. ‘It is not that she is pretty,’ she wrote, ‘although of course she is almost incredibly pretty—but that she radiates at the same time unbounded vitality and a kind of unbelievable innocence.’[6]

USA. Long Island. US actress Marilyn MONROE reading James Joyce. 1955.

This is one of my favourite photographs of Marilyn Monroe, by Eve Arnold. (‘She doesn’t have to pose, we don’t even need to see her face, what comes off the photo is absolute concentration, and nothing is sexier than absolute concentration’, Jeanette Winterson wrote of this photograph.)[7]

Marilyn’s holding a copy of Ulysses and the book is open almost at the end, so she’s reading the final chapter, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy: ‘and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms round him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’[8] Continue reading “Champagne, oysters and last tales”

‘The courage of a fly in the milk’

We’re approaching 16 May, which is—among other things (not least, the birthday of Stella Bowen: see previous post)—the two hundred and fifty-fourth anniversary of the first meeting, in the bookshop run by Tom Davies, in Russell Street, off Covent Garden market, of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. I’ve lately been reading Boswell’s London Journal, not because of the looming anniversary but because of Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose fiction is marvellous and whose letters are superb. To Leonard Bacon, the American poet and translator, she wrote: ‘The thing that struck me most about Boswell’s Dutch Diary was his desperate courage—the courage of a fly in the milk. I love him, of course, but I also esteem him. A man whose heart is a black pit of terror, black as a Geneva gown, and who yet can attend to the colour of the waistcoat he puts over it is a man after my own heart.’[1]

STW_via_NYRB

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via New York Review Books)

This was the direct, traceable cause of my picking up a secondhand copy of Boswell in Holland 1763-1764 in Lyme Regis six months ago. It was like a recommendation from a friend. On the matter of waistcoats, at the end of the volume, the editor has included a list, translated from the original French, compiled by François Mazerac, Boswell’s servant:

‘Clothes and linens that I found on entering the service of Monsieur Boswell

1 coat, waistcoat, and breeches, with silver lace

1 red coat, waistcoat, and breeches, with gold lace

1 rose-coloured coat and waistcoat, with gold buttons

1 blue coat, waistcoat, and breeches, with white buttons’

and so on for another two dozen lines, enumerating stockings, lace ruffles, silk handkerchiefs, night-caps, garter-buckles, breeches and much else.[2]

Boswell-in-Holland

The London Journal covers the two years preceding Boswell’s trip to Holland, so when I came across a copy of that in the Oxfam Bookshop recently, I grabbed it. Both of these volumes are in what’s called the ‘trade edition’, derived from the great ‘Yale Edition of the Private Papers of James Boswell’. There is also a ‘research edition’ of these and other Boswell writings, which offer complete texts and much more extensive annotation, while also preserving the spelling and capitalisation of the original manuscripts. The ‘trade’ edition is also termed the ‘reading’ edition, surely not without cause. That’s the one I have.

The London Journal is hugely diverting and gives a very vivid and complex sense of a man who is often ridiculous, sometimes silly, snobbish, prone to melancholia, afraid of ghosts, veering frequently from remorse to vigorous self-regard, yet always honest, or at least candid. I’m a newcomer to this Boswell, though I’d read his Life of Johnson years ago and found it as extraordinary an achievement as it’s generally acknowledged to be. For a long time after the biography was first published, though, Boswell himself was poorly regarded. He was seen as having been lucky in meeting Johnson when he did; and having simply recorded, in a rather naïve and straightforward manner, whatever he could of Johnson’s doings and sayings. The case was altered by the discovery of the ‘colossal hoard’ of Boswell papers, manuscripts of the Life and other writings, journals and letters. From being viewed as ‘a little man who wrote a great book’, Boswell’s reputation and standing changed quite radically. He ‘came to be seen as an important literary figure, a pioneer of modern biography — and of autobiography, for the focus of academic interest has shifted from subject to author’. He was, it became clear, ‘a much more careful and ambitious writer than anybody had supposed.’[3] The long, complex story of the discovery of Boswell’s papers and their tortuous journey into safe, scholarly hands was also new to me.[4]

Boswell-London-Journal

Boswell had left Scotland for his second sojourn in London on 15 November 1762, so he’d only just passed his twenty-second birthday (he was born on 29 October 1740). His father, the Laird of Auchinleck, wanted him to pursue the law but Boswell had conceived a desire to serve in the Guards, believing that a commission in that regiment would enable him to live permanently in London.[5]

A good deal of his time was spent in soliciting the help of powerful people in the cause of securing that commission, among them the Duke of Queensberry and the Countess of Northumberland. There are some wonderful moments of comedy when Boswell congratulates himself, such as the occasion of a ‘rout’, a large party which was ‘full of the best company’. Boswell had secured the attention of the Countess, who approached him ‘with the greatest complacency and kindness’: ‘I could observe people looking at me with envy, as a man of some distinction and a favourite of my Lady’s. Bravo! thought I. I am sure I deserve to be a favourite. It was curious to find of how little consequence each individual was in such a crowd. I could imagine how an officer in a great army may be killed without being observed. I came home quiet, laid by my clothes, and went coolly to bed. There’s conduct for you.’[6] Just a few months later, he entertains severe doubts about Lady Northumberland’s sincerity: ‘O these Great People! They are a sad set of beings. This woman who seemed to be so cordially my friend and promised me her good offices so strongly is, I fear, a fallacious hussy.’ A moment later: ‘However, let me not yet be too certain. She may perhaps be honest’ (238).

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(Sir Joshua Reynolds, portrait of Elizabeth Percy Northumberland)

On another occasion, turning over in his mind the complications inextricable from having too little money and too many ways of making life pleasant, his thoughts move from economics to artistry and, again, he finds strong cause for satisfaction. ‘How easily and cleverly do I write just now! I am really pleased with myself; words come skipping to me like lambs upon Moffat Hill; and I turn my periods smoothly and imperceptibly like a skilful wheelwright turning tops in a turning-loom. There’s fancy! There’s simile! In short, I am at present a genius: in that does my opulence consist, and not in base metal’ (187).

NPG 4452; James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds

(James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds; oil on canvas, 1785
762 mm x 635 mm © National Portrait Gallery)

One of his preoccupations is, of course, sex—an often risky business in eighteenth-century London. When Boswell’s father had fetched him back from London in 1760, and Boswell reluctantly returned to his law studies, he had already contracted ‘the first of many venereal infections’.[7] Ten days after leaving Scotland, though ‘determined to have nothing to do with whores’, he picks up a girl in the Strand ‘and went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour [a prophylactic sheath]. But she had none. I toyed with her, She wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.’ No consummation, then, but the girl gets a shilling and Boswell gets a boost to his ego. He resolves ‘to wait cheerfully’ till he can find ‘some safe girl’ or is ‘liked by some woman of fashion.’[8] On numerous occasions, that cheerful waiting melts like summer snow. Sometimes he berates himself, sometimes just shrugs: ‘then came to the Park, and in armorial guise performed concubinage with a strong, plump, good-humoured girl called Nanny Baker’ (237). He frequently determines to be better—gravity, restraint, abstinence, seriousness—and such determination as frequently falters. Just as he humanised Johnson, recording Johnson’s flaws and faults and weaknesses as faithfully as he did the evidences of Johnson’s greatness, so the candour, the recognition of blunders and failures in his own life and character humanise the fallible and endearing Boswell.

The journal became extremely important to him: his father deprecated the habit and his old friend William Temple said that: ‘he imagined that my journal did me harm, as it made me hunt about for adventures to adorn it with, whereas I should endeavour to be calm and studious and regular in my conduct, in order to attain by habit a proper consistency of conduct. No doubt consistency of conduct is of the utmost importance. But I cannot find fault with this my journal, which is far from wishing for extravagant adventures, and is as willing to receive my silent and serious meditations as my loud and boisterous rhodomontades.’[9] Crucially, the journal habit is supported by Samuel Johnson. Even before he knows that Boswell keeps one, he suggests that he do so. ‘No former solicitations and censures could tempt me to lay thee aside,’ Boswell addresses his journal, ‘and now is there any argument which can outweigh the sanction of Mr. Samuel Johnson?’ (305)

He tells Johnson that he puts down ‘all sorts of little incidents’ in his journal and notes Johnson’s reply, which will find its way into the Life: ‘“Sir,” said he, “there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great knowledge of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.”’[10]

Doctor Samuel Johnson ?1772 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792

(Sir Joshua Reynolds, portrait of Samuel Johnson, ?1772: © Tate Gallery)

And indeed, in addition to the larger issues and events, Boswell records not only the little things but those days when there seems to be nothing much at all: ‘FRIDAY 11 FEBRUARY. Nothing worth putting into my journal occurred this day. It passed away imperceptibly, like the whole life of many a human experience’ (188); ‘THURSDAY 7 APRIL. I breakfasted with [William Johnson] Temple. This day was afterwards passed in dissipation which has left no traces on my brain’ (235); ‘Thursday 21 July 1763. ‘I remember nothing that happened worth relating this day. How many such days does mortal man pass!’ (316).

There’s a fine cast of characters: apart from those Boswellian friends and relations whose names are not generally known, the ones that are include Charles Churchill, David Hume, Oliver Goldsmith, John Wilkes, David Garrick—and, of course, Doctor Johnson.

I look forward to Holland in Jamie Boswell’s company.

 

References

[1] Letter of 18 October 1953: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 131.

[2] Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 383-384.

[3] Adam Sisman, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000), xviii-xix.

[4] Apart from Sisman’s account in his final chapter, ‘Posterity’, there’s a good account in Ian Hamilton’s chapter, ‘Boswell’s Colossal Hoard’, in his Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (1992; London: Pimlico, 1993), 63-84. Frederick A. Pottle, who edited both the London and Holland journals, published a detailed account in Pride and Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982).

[5] Pottle’s introduction to the London Journal, with its biographical outline, notes on the recurring figures in Boswell’s story and eighteenth-century background, is very helpful for those not overly familiar with the history of the period.

[6] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1950), 71: any bracketed page numbers in the text refer to this.

[7] Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, 12.

[8] Boswell’s London Journal, 49-50.

[9] Boswell’s London Journal, 269—now usually ‘rodomontade’: boastful or inflated talk or behaviour.

[10] Boswell’s London Journal, 305; see Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 307.