August and blackberrying

Orpen, William, 1878-1931; Harvest

William Orpen, Harvest (1918), © Imperial War Museum.
The ambiguities of autumn enlarged: war and peace, life and death.

August. High summer, though you’d hardly know it as the rainclouds roll over the house and the showers come and go. The first day of August, in fact. Lammas, hlafmaesse, ‘loaf-mass’. First fruits, harvest. Hurry into your local church with the bread and the wheat.[1] ‘After Lammas corn ripens as much by night as by day.’[2]

The harvest (a word related in origin to ‘autumn’) has been, is still, quite literally a matter of life and death for a great many people. It’s been a rich source for the horror genre too, both on the screen and on the page (Stephen King, Thomas Tryon, The Harvest, Dark Harvest, Blood Harvest, and more, no doubt). And it has its visionary or mystical moments. Poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, a pacifist, ran a co-operative farm in Devon during the Second World War. He recalled of an August day in 1940 that, ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats, I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[3]

West-Mill-Welcombe-Devon

West Mill, Welcombe, Devon: http://www.literaryplaces.co.uk/?p=147

‘Standing there in the morning happiness,’ T. H. White recalled, ‘with a saffron sky in the east and the moon in the south-west still lemon yellow, beside a field where the harvest had already begun, one saw in the mind’s eye the imaginary lines all over England: the roads coming up macadamized to the invisible threads, and going on as stone, the ditches suddenly changing from cut to uncut, the parishes and territories and neighbours’ landmarks: all slept at peace now, all this beautiful achievement of cooperation and forethought among our fathers who were at peace also, in dust.’[4]

Light-in-August-US-1932

Over the years, William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August provoked a good deal of discussion over the meaning of its title. Lena Grove is heavily pregnant at the novel’s opening and Faulkner was once asked at the University of Virginia whether his title did indeed refer to a ‘colloquialism for the completion of a pregnancy’. He said no, it was to do with the peculiar quality of light in that month.[5] In his biography of Faulkner, Joseph Blotner tells of the novelist sitting with his wife Estelle in the late afternoon. ‘“Bill,” she said, “does it ever seem to you that the light in August is different from any other time of the year?”’ In this account, Faulkner goes directly to his worktable, crosses out his working title for the novel, ‘Dark House’ and replaces it with ‘Light in August’. It has to be said, though, that Faulkner was largely responsible for the later uncertainty over the ‘meaning’ of his title.[6]

This morning, I noticed a tiny stain on the shoulder of the shirt I wore yesterday: blackberry juice. We’d been wading in among the brambles and nettles for the second time in a few days. Blackberrying is ‘the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island’, Richard Mabey writes.[7] The country in the city, so to speak. We pick them on a path which certainly isn’t hidden. There’s a fair amount of traffic but only by foot and bicycle—there’s no motor traffic nearby which is the main consideration, since we object to being poisoned. Still, it’s odd that quite a few passers-by seem baffled by what we’re doing and hurry their children past. (‘What are they doing, mummy?’ ‘Picking delicious free food, dear, I’ve no idea why.’) Blackberry and apple crumble: even the words taste good.

Gash, Walter Bonner, 1869-1928; Two Girls Picking Blackberries*

Walter Bonner Gash, Two Girls Picking Blackberries
© Alfred East Art Gallery Permanent Collection

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking.

The speaker in Heaney’s poem recalls how quickly the blackberries would rot. ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’[8]

Blackberries

And we have thorn pricks, nettle stings, stained hands. Still—two and a half kilos of blackberries in the freezer. Kilos! What am I saying? That may be a little too foreign for these troubled time. Say five and a half pounds, avoirdupois—but there I go again. . .

I have, though, called to mind a story that Ford Madox Ford told, which seems to me to hint at why some people chose the option that they did in last year’s referendum (and perhaps in more than one election since). Ford was, for a brief time, working on a small farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia. His employer eventually hired another worker, which released Ford from his labours. He was stopping up a wasp’s nest one day, while the hired man was on the roof, fixing the shingles.

I heard him call:
“I’m coming down now.”
I said: “Wait while I fetch a ladder.” When I came back he was lying on the ground.
He said: “I’ve bruck me leg.”
I said: “What did you jump for?”
He answered: “Wal, I thought I’d see.”[9]

 

References

[1] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 260-261.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 315.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), 52-53.

[4] T. H. White, The Goshawk (1951; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 39.

[5] Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 375.

[6] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner : A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 702 and ‘Notes’, 102.

[7] Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 183.

[8] Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, Death of a Naturalist (1966; London: Faber and Faber, 2006), 8.

[9] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 166-167.

Lawrence Outside England

Tinners_Arms

(The Tinners Arms, Zennor)

On Friday 29 July 1870, the Reverend Francis Kilvert wrote in his diary: ‘Then we came to Zennor, the strange old tower in the granite wilderness in a hollow of the wild hillside, a corner and end of the world, desolate, solitary, bare, dreary, the cluster of white and grey houses round the massive old granite Church tower, a sort of place that might have been quite lately discovered and where “fragments of forgotten peoples might dwell”.’[1]

The literary associations of Zennor these days are most likely to be with D. H. Lawrence’s stay there in the middle years of the First World War—or with the fine novel, based on those events, by Helen Dunmore, whose untimely death occurred so recently.[2]

Lawrence and Frieda spent nearly three weeks at the Tinner’s Arms, Zennor, in early 1916, before moving into ‘a little 2-roomed cottage, for £5 a year’, as Lawrence wrote to his friend S. S. Koteliansky, adding: ‘We are going to furnish it and live like foxes under the hill.’[3] They moved into the cottage at Higher Tregerthen on 17 March 1916 and remained in Cornwall until October 1917. For a little over two months, Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, who had been witnesses at Lawrence and Frieda’s wedding in 1914, lived with the Lawrences at Higher Tregerthen. But the relationship was always stressful and Mansfield and Murry moved to Mylor in South Cornwall in mid-June 1916.[4]

Lawrences_Wedding.Spartacus

(Lawrence; Katherine Mansfield; Frieda; John Middleton Murry via http://spartacus-educational.com/)

At a time when Lawrence’s feelings towards England were at their most complex, feeling thoroughly English yet hating the country—his great novel The Rainbow suppressed by the authorities, the sense of humiliation at the medical examination for military service (he was granted complete exemption), as detailed in the ‘Nightmare’ chapter of Kangaroo[5]—he found in Cornwall the sense of a country outside England. At the end of 1915, staying at Padstow, he had written to his friend Dollie Radford: ‘This country is bare and rather desolate, a sort of no-man’s-land. For that I love it: it is not England.’ The following day, he wrote to his agent, J. B. Pinker: ‘Already, here, in Cornwall, it is better; the wind blows very hard, the sea all comes up the cliffs in smoke. Here one is outside England, the England of London—thank God.’[6]

On 10 August 1916, he wrote to Catherine Carswell, welcoming the news of her forthcoming novel: ‘I feel it is coming under the same banner with mine.’ His had been called ‘The Sisters’ but May Sinclair had published a novel called The Three Sisters two years earlier. Lawrence added: ‘I thought of calling this of mine Women in Love. But I don’t feel at all sure of it.’[7]

DH-Lawrence-and-Frieda-Weekley

(Lawrence and Frieda, Mexico, 1923: University of Nottingham)

D. H. Lawrence was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, on 11 September 1885; he died in Vence (between Nice and Antibes), on 2 March 1930. He was just 44 years old.

There’s a D. H. Lawrence festival in Eastwood, where the Lawrence Society is based and which publishes the Journal of D. H. Lawrence Studies. There are frequent international conferences, the most recent taking place just this month: ‘London Calling: Lawrence and the Metropolis’. There have been radio programmes and documentaries; and another recent BBC version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – though the reviewers’ consensus, as far as there was one, seemed to be: ‘Where’s the sex?’

All this would seem to argue a healthy level of interest; yet one of those reviews included the confident statement: ‘Barely anybody reads D. H. Lawrence any more’.[8] Poor bloody them if that’s true, I thought. But I wonder. Is it?

There’s certainly a good deal of academic interest; and a good deal of, what, biographical interest, many visitors to the places where Lawrence lived and grew up. Later, most of his addresses would be in more remote locations, so the early years are the most fruitful from this country’s point of view. But is he really not read much by the general reader, the library user (if their local public library has survived the clumsy cudgels of austerity), the literary wanderer, the restless traveller? Do they know what they’re missing – or do they just assume that they know?

dhlawrence

The adaptations of Lawrence’s work, over the years, in cinema and television, though tending to concentrate on the handful of best-known works (which are often the most highly regarded too—Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love, Lady Chatterley’s Lover) have also included several of his short stories, a couple of novellas (The Fox, The Virgin and the Gipsy), a few of his plays – even a mini-series, Australian, unsurprisingly, based on The Boy in the Bush and starring Kenneth Branagh. Still, there are half a dozen other novels, scores of short stories, several novellas, apparently untouched by screenwriters – though there may be countless projects that never made it into the home straight. I recall from my bookselling days how rarely I sold a Lawrence text that fell outside the chosen few, while I waited patiently for the rarer spirits, the explorers.
—Do you have Mornings in Mexico or Kangaroo or Mr Noon or Aaron’s Rod?
—Yes, we do. All of them.

A few years ago, I read or – mainly – re-read all of Lawrence’s fiction, including the three versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the short novels and the Collected Short Stories; plus some of Phoenix and Phoenix II; and a couple of volumes of the letters. I can’t remember now what started me off on that and I certainly felt a little apprehensive about how I would view some of the work that I hadn’t read for, say, twenty years. Visits after long gaps can be hugely pleasurable, stimulating, enlightening; but they can also be wholly baffling. Nor are they prone to consistency or rational analysis.

In the case of Lawrence, briefly, I found that I remembered the faults or, at least, the irritations, well enough. He often hectors, sounds off in inappropriate contexts, voices opinions that a great many contemporary readers would draw in their skirts against, and, not unlike Thomas Hardy, can move from clunky to sublime in the space of a paragraph. But his strengths, recalled in general or somewhat abstractly, leapt into sharp and startling focus. He can write so vividly, with such an acute eye for beauty (and ugliness), for the detail, for the contrast, that the thing seen and rendered is alive in the room. His freshness and vitality make many other writers seem artificial, laboured, painfully literary and derivative. And those strengths are not confined to the ‘major’ works.

DHL_Jackets

Famously, Joseph Conrad wrote: ‘My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.’[9] Lawrence carries that achievement to the uttermost, in his fiction, his travel books, his poetry, his extraordinary letters. The pleasures can be both large and small. ‘Lemon trees, like Italians, seem to be happiest when they are touching one another all round.’ And, from the same book, back on the mainland: ‘Once more we knew ourselves in the real active world, where the air seems like a lively wine dissolving the pearl of the old order. I hope, dear reader, you like the metaphor.’

‘The sharpness of Lawrence’s eye is incredible,’ Anthony Burgess writes in his ‘Introduction’ to D. H. Lawrence and Italy, ‘and his judgements are madly sane.’[10] Indeed. Sometimes, the first moment of thinking ‘Nonsense’ or ‘You can’t say that’, slides rapturously into ‘Actually, though. . . ’

And, of course, there’s a tremendous bonus, once you find a writer who gives you pleasure and food for thought and insight (and perhaps also gives a little pain, provokes a little rage or violent disagreement), to have quantity, a wide expanse of territory in which to wander, get lost and (perhaps) find yourself again: Lawrence, Faulkner, Woolf, Ford, Burgess, Colette, Kipling, Durrell, Sylvia Townsend Warner. How Lawrence achieved all this by the age of 44 is a separate story, a separate mystery. But we have the writing; and a body of writing which has benefited from an extraordinary and sustained scholarly project: the Cambridge Edition of the Works of D. H. Lawrence (1979 – ).

‘All real living hurts as well as fulfils. Happiness comes when we have lived and have a respite for sheer forgetting. Happiness, in the vulgar sense, is just a holiday experience. The life-long happiness lies in being used by life; hurt by life, driven and goaded by life, replenished and overjoyed with life, fighting for life’s sake. That is real happiness. In the undergoing, a large part of it is pain.’[11]

 

References

[1] Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), I, 199. The quotation is from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, ‘The Passing of Arthur’, actually ‘Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt’: Tennyson: A Selected Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks (Harlow: Longman Group, 1989), 963.

[2] Zennor in Darkness was her first novel, published in 1993; it won the McKitterick Prize the following year.

[3] To Koteliansky, 8 March 1916: Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 568-569.

[4] See Mark Kinkead-Weekes, D. H, Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 317-327.

[5] Kangaroo (1923; edited by Bruce Steele (London: Penguin Books, 1997), Chapter XII, 212-259. See also Paul Delany, D. H. Lawrence’s Nightmare: The Writer and His Circle in the Years of the Great War (Hassocks: The Harvester Press, 1979), Chapters VI and VII, on the Lawrences at Zennor.

[6] To Dollie Radford, 31 December 1915; to J. B. Pinker, 1 January 1916: Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, 494.

[7] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, 639.

[8] Jasper Rees, Daily Telegraph, 6 September 2015.

[9] Conrad, ‘Preface’ to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”’, in Typhoon and Other Tales (New York: Signet Classics, 1962), 21.

[10] Sea and Sardinia (1921), in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 5, 181, xii.

[11] D. H. Lawrence, The Boy in the Bush, written with M. L. Skinner (1924; edited by Paul Eggert, London: Penguin Books, 1996), 92.

 

Butterflies in ruins

Small White - Male

http://urbanbutterflygarden.co.uk/

In our small back garden, I doubt whether I’ve seen more than half a dozen butterflies so far this summer, perhaps fewer than that. It’s hardly surprising in the light of recent research, which suggests that 2016 was one of the worst on record for butterflies in this country, with nearly three-quarters of all species experiencing a decline in numbers.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/12/uk-butterflies-worst-hit-in-2016-with-70-of-species-in-decline-study-finds

A rare sighting of butterflies now often brings back memories of a holiday in Greece nearly twenty years ago in Ayía Efamía, on the island of Kefaloniá, but with a week on the mainland. Against the scarcity of England now, profusion and abundance then: the wild flowers, the scutter of lizards, the columns of ants—and butterflies everywhere, starting up in clouds as you stepped along the grassy lane, red and yellow and white, one with paper thin white wings with, at their base, an intricate pattern like leaves and branches, in vivid green.

The Greek word psyche meant both ‘butterfly’ and ‘soul’. Some vase paintings contain images of butterflies emerging from the mouths of the dead. ‘To have heard the farfalla [butterfly] gasping as toward a bridge over worlds . . . ’ Ezra Pound writes of that hazardous terrain between life and death.[1]

And butterflies were always there among the ruins, at Delphi, Mystras, Mycenae, flickering above and around broken blocks of stone, fallen pillars, fractured arches. Butterflies amidst the ruins of empire.

Olympia

Olympia via www.discovergreece.com/

The collapse of empires recurs through history, as does the collapse of financial systems. We, of course, continue to add those contemporary extras, not only terminal climate change, but also the rapid extinction of species—butterflies among them.

In the Romantic era, poets, philosophers, artists, travellers had ruins often on their minds. Romanticism, Raphael Samuel remarks, was built on time’s ruins. Its idea of memory was premised on a sense of loss.[2]

In the midst of the revolution which made or unmade France, Comte de Volney, a deputy in the National Assembly, published Les Ruines, Paris 1791. (That same year, the sixteen-year-old J. M. W. Turner was working in Bristol; he was always, Peter Ackroyd remarks, fascinated by fire and ruins.)[3] In 1818, the eighteen-year-old poet Victor Hugo’s mother came to live on the third floor of 18 rue des Petits-Augustins. ‘An elderly visitor who frequently climbed the stairs of No. 18 was a cousin of Mme. Hugo, the Comte de Volney.’[4]

The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night c.1799 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, ‘The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night’, c.1799, watercolour and graphite on paper: ©Tate Britain)

In an essay on Walt Whitman, Guy Davenport remarks that: ‘It is [ . . . ] worth reading Whitman against the intellectual background he assumed his readers knew and which is no longer remembered except sporadically: the world of Alexander von Humboldt, from which Whitman takes the word cosmos, Louis Agassiz, for whom Thoreau collected turtles, Volney’s Ruins, the historical perspective of which is as informative in Whitman as in Shelley, Fourier, Scott. A great deal that seems naif and spontaneous in Whitman has roots and branches.’[5]

‘Things have roots and branches’, Ezra Pound wrote in his later version of Confucius, ‘affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows, is almost as good as having a head and feet.’[6]

Volney crops up in a wide variety of contexts. Of Shelley’s ‘Philosophical poem’, Queen Mab, Richard Holmes remarks that ‘The conception of such a total approach to human knowledge was encouraged in Shelley by the reading of Count Volney’s notorious vision of corrupt society, The Ruins of Empire, and Erasmus Darwin’s poems of science and society.’[7]

Curran, Amelia, 1775-1847; Percy Bysshe Shelley

(Amelia Curran, Percy Bysshe Shelley, oil on canvas, 1819.
Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shelley’s famous ‘Ozymandias’ has a word or two to say about the ruins of hubristic ambition and the delusions of the powerful:

‘And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’[8]

But not only ruins. Just today, The Observer’s tribute to the photographer David Newell-Smith included one of his shots of the Rolling Stones performing in Hyde Park, 5 July 1969.

(A gallery of Newell-Smith’s photographs for The Observer is here:
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2017/jul/22/david-newell-smith-the-art-of-the-newspaper-photographer)

Planned as both a return to live performance and the debut appearance of new guitarist Mick Taylor, the Hyde Park concert became in large part a memorial for Brian Jones, who had died just two days earlier. Famously, Mick Jagger read an extract from Adonais, Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, before hundreds of cabbage white butterflies were released (there had been around 2500 but, in the hot weather, many had died).

Stones_Hyde_Park_1969

Rolling Stones on stage, Hyde Park, 5 July 1969
( https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39102141)

Out of interest, I looked back at what Mick Jagger actually read. Adonais is not a short poem: it consists of 55 stanzas, each of nine lines (so almost 500 lines in all). Jagger read stanza XXXIX and part of stanza LII (he left out the last two and a half lines): he also departed quite a few times from what Shelley actually wrote, usually adding short words—probably to make it easier both for him to read and for the audience to grasp.

And yet—ruins, after all. The two and a half lines that Mick Jagger omitted, probably because of the momentary confusion that mention of ‘Rome’ would cause, run:

Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.[9]

Around the time that he was writing Queen Mab, Shelley also wrote a long poem called ‘The Retrospect: Cwm Elan, 1812’, contrasting his mental and emotional state of the time with that of a year earlier:

Changed!—not the loathsome worm that fed
In the dark mansions of the dead,
Now soaring through the fields of air,
And gathering purest nectar there,
A butterfly, whose million hues
The dazzled eye of wonder views,
Long lingering on a work so strange,
Has undergone so bright a change.[10]

Just two years before the Hyde Park concert, there had, of course, been another celebrated Mick Jagger link with Lepidoptera, when William Reese-Mogg, quoting (almost) a line from Alexander Pope’s ‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’, headed his Times leader article ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’ This was in the wake of the dubious court case, in which the judge, Leslie Block, had imposed prison sentences on Jagger and Keith Richards for drug offences.[11]

‘We Love You’, the Jagger-Richards song that followed shortly after that court case, and that begins with the crash of prison cell doors closing, was released on 18 August 1967.

References

[1] ‘Notes for CXVII et seq.’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 802. See also Canto XCII, 619: ‘farfalla in tempesta/ under rain in the dark: / many wings fragile’.

[2] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), ix.

[3] Ackroyd, Turner (London: Vintage Books 2006), 9.

[4] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London: Chatto and Windus, 2001), 158-159.

[5] ‘Whitman’, in Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 70.

[6] Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29.

[7] Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London: Penguin, 1987), 202.

[8] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), 546. On this poem, see Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination, 278-281.

[9] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 438.

[10] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 865.

[11] The Times, 1 July 1967. Pope’s line has ‘upon’ rather than ‘on’.

Houses That Jack Built

The_house_that_Jack_built

This is the farmer sowing his corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn,
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

The accumulative rhyme, ‘The House That Jack Built’ was first published in a 1755 collection, Nurse Truelove’s New-Year’s-Gift: or, The Book of Books for Children. It has ‘probably been more parodied than any other nursery story’, in politics and advertising: but also in literature.[1]

In Canto XVII of Autumn Sequel (1954), Louis MacNeice writes: ‘The reasons and the rhymes/ Of Mother Church and Mother Goose have grown/ Equally useless since we have grown up/ And learnt to call our minds (if minds they are) our own’. Mother Goose might have found something oddly familiar in MacNeice’s later ‘Château Jackson’, included in The Burning Perch (1963) and beginning:

Where is the Jack that built the house
That housed the folk that tilled the field
That filled the bags that brimmed the mill
That ground the floor that browned the bread
That fed the serfs that scrubbed the floors
That wore the mats that kissed the feet
That bore the bums that raised the heads
That raised the eyes that eyed the glass
That sold the pass that linked the lands. . .[2]

Bishop

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/elizabeth-bishop

Fifteen years earlier, Elizabeth Bishop had visited Ezra Pound in St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where Pound had been confined since being found unfit to plead on charges of treason. Bishop was introduced to Pound by Robert Lowell and later, when serving as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, visited Pound—who called her ‘Liz Bish’, a name she much disliked—regularly.[3]

First published in 1956 but dated by Bishop as 1950, her remarkable poem ‘Visits to St Elizabeths’ begins with an instantly recognisable rhythm and form:

This is the house of Bedlam.

This is the man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

Its final stanza—it’s a poem of 78 lines—runs:

This is the soldier home from the war.
These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is round or flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances carefully down the ward,
walking the plank of a coffin board
with the crazy sailor
that shows his watch that tells the time
of the wretched man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.[4]

Though Bishop referred to this more than once as her ‘Pound poem’,[5] she told Anne Stevenson that ‘the characters are based on the other inmates of St. E[lizabeth]’s [ . . . ] One boy used to show us his watch, another patted the floor, etc.—but naturally it’s a mixture of fact and fancy.’[6]

In the course of one of his most brilliant essays, ‘The House That Jack Built’, first given as a paper to inaugurate the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Center for the Study of Ezra Pound and His Contemporaries on 30 October 1975 (it would have been Pound’s ninetieth birthday but he had died three years earlier), Guy Davenport begins by recreating John Ruskin’s writing of Letter XXIII of Fors Clavigera, almost exactly one hundred years before Pound’s death. The letter is indeed dated 24 October 1872.[7]

Beinecke-Stacks

Photo credit: David Driscoll: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections

Davenport describes Fors as ‘a kind of Victorian prose Cantos’, but his interest in that particular letter is indicated by Ruskin’s title: ‘The Labyrinth’ and perhaps the footnote, which reads: ‘A rejected title for this letter was “The House that Jack Built”’. Ruskin writes about ‘the great Athenian squire’, Theseus, among much else, before reaching the cathedral door at Lucca, on which are engraved several Latin sentences, many centuries old, which Ruskin translates as: ‘This is the labyrinth which the Cretan Dedalus built, out of which nobody could get who was inside, except Theseus: nor could he have done it, unless he had been helped with a thread by Adriane, all for love’. And that statement, ‘This is the labyrinth which the Cretan Dedalus built’, can, Ruskin says, be reduced from medieval sublimity to the rather more popular ‘This is the House that Jack Built’. He analyses the symbols, considers coins, justice and other matter ‘until he can triumphantly identify the Minotaur with greed, lust, and usury’. At one point, Davenport observes that Ruskin ‘is just getting warmed up’.[8]

The same might be said of Davenport, who will, in the course of the remainder of the essay, range over Olson, Joyce, Ovid, William Carlos Williams, Pavel Tchelitchew, Zukofsky, Leonardo da Vinci, Henri Rousseau, Picasso, Apollinaire, Brancusi, Michael Ayrton (maker of labyrinths), Wilbur Wright and others: but mainly Ezra Pound. Davenport is one of the most acute readers of Pound. One of the others, Hugh Kenner, concluded his magisterial The Pound Era with the statement that ‘Thought is a labyrinth.’[9] Indeed.

GD_JW_via_Jacket

(Guy Davenport by Jonathan Williams, via Jacket magazine:
http://jacketmagazine.com/38/jwb01-davenport.shtml)

A labyrinth is certainly one in which we may be hopelessly and helplessly lost, sometimes unsure of whether we have passed this way before or even repeatedly – unless we have a thread. ‘All for love.’ Love is a good thread, undoubtedly. And there are others.

Davenport writes at one point of the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia, painted for the Este family. Yeats once recalled Pound’s telling him that the frescoes had  provided a basic outline for the scheme of his epic poem. Davenport continues: ‘The Cantos do indeed follow the triumphs, the seasons, and the activities of the seasons. To know the triumphs we must know the past, which is told in many tongues in many places; to know the past we descend, like Odysseus, into the House of Hades and give the blood of our attention (as translators, historians, poets) so that the dead may speak. To know the seasons we must understand metamorphosis, for things are never still, and never wear the same mask from age to age. The contemporary is without meaning while it is happening: it is a vortex, a whirlpool of action. It is a labyrinth.’ And he concludes that ‘The clue to this labyrinth, Pound knew, was history.’[10]

‘Labyrinthine’ might mean complex or endless, perhaps needlessly convoluted. Coleridge referred to De Quincey’s mind as ‘at once systematic and labyrinthine’.[11] Yeats wrote that : ‘A man in his own secret meditation / Is lost among the labyrinth that he has made / In art or politics’.[12] But it can be a point of focus, a positive necessity. The novelist Nicholas Mosley writes: ‘The idea that to make sense of one’s life one has to tell of the bad things as well as the good at least to oneself is at the back of much of this story: without a recognition of darkness as well as light there is no pattern; without pattern there is no chance of glimpsing a path through the maze. And without this what is the point of life, what is its wonder?’[13]

Yes.

References

[1] See The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 229-232.

[2] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), 448-449, 580.

[3] Brett C. Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 199, 220.

[4] Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2008), 127-129.

[5] Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 201, 345.

[6] Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, 853.

[7] ‘Letter 23. The Labyrinth’: Fors Clavigera, II, 394. The Ruskin Library and Research Centre at Lancaster University has digitized and made generally available the monumental 39-volume Cook and Wedderburn edition (1903-1912) of the Works of John Ruskin. A stupendous project, wonderfully achieved: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/depts/ruskinlib/Pages/Works.html

[8] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 45-47.

[9] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber, 1972), 561.

[10] Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination, 56.

[11] Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, III: 1807-1814, edited by E. L. Griggs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 205, quoted by Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 234.

[12] W. B. Yeats, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, Collected Poems, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1950), 235.

[13] Nicholas Mosley, Efforts at Truth: An Autobiography (London: Minerva, 1996), 187.

 

Tristan Corbière

Tristan_Corbiere_portrait

Tristan Corbière was born (christened Édouard) in Finistère on 18 July 1845; he died in 1875, aged twenty-nine.

My knowledge of him is sketchy. He admired those engaged in the seafaring life, sailors and fishermen, and used a lot of sailors’ slang. Died of tuberculosis, hardly known as a writer; his poems were included in Verlaine’s collection of Les poètes maudits in 1884; he was later a strong influence on both Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot—who wrote a poem, in French, called simply ‘Tristan Corbière’.[1]

To be honest, the major intervention of Corbière in my life was not actually the poet but a racehorse, although it was because the horse bore the name of the poet that I actually placed a bet and picked a winning horse for the only time in my life—and the Grand National, at that. 1983: Corbiere (without the accent, I believe), trained by Jenny Pitman, ridden by Ben de Haan, a chestnut gelding with a broad white blaze coming through at 13/1. Had that white blaze been a silver blaze, things would have been even more literary but a French poet was enough to part me from my money—though not for long.[2]

Centenary-Corbiere

Most of Corbiére’s poems are too long to quote entire and, I’d surmise, damned tricky to render into English since they rhyme very solidly and are extremely demotic, with a lot of slang and wordplay: ‘Corbiére’s controlled disorder permitted his mélange of mystical and bawdy, cynical and sentimental elements’.[3] Here’s the beginning of ‘Au Vieux Roscoff: Berceuse en Nord-Ouest mineur’:

Trou de flibustiers, vieux nid
A corsaires! – dans la tourmente,
Dors ton bon somme de granit
Sur tes caves que le flot hante…

Ronfle à la mer, ronfle à la brise;
Ta corne dans la brume grise,
Ton pied marin dans les brisans . . .
– Dors: tu peux fermer ton oeil borgne
Ouvert sur le large, et qui lorgne
Les Anglais, depuis trois cents ans.

The redoubtable Val Warner, who translates the poems in The Centenary Corbière and also supplies a detailed, learned and highly informative 55-page introduction, offers this, ‘To Old Roscoff: Lullaby in North-west Minor’, as:

A hole for buccaneers, old nest
Of freebooters! – in the tempest,
Sleep your heavy granite slumber
Over your cellar haunted by the combers . . .

Snore with the breeze, snore with the waters;
Through the grey fog your horn high,
Your sea legs in the breakers . . .
– Sleep: you can close your single flashing eye
Open on the open sea, where you’ve peered
For the English, for three hundred years.[4]

Warner’s introduction thoroughly explores the afterlife of Corbiére’s work and its tendency to crop up in a wide range of Anglo-American literary contexts, closing with the dedication in John Berryman’s Love & Fame (1971):

To the memory of
the suffering lover & young Breton master
who called himself ‘Tristan Corbière’

(I wish I versed with his bite)[5]

 

References

[1] Written about 1917: eventually published in Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (London: Faber and Faber, 1996).

[2] The first story in the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection (1892), notable for the ‘curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ conversation and the wonderfully direct conversational opening (‘“I am afraid, Watson, that I shall have to go,” said Holmes, as we sat down together to our breakfast one morning.””)

[3] The Centenary Corbière, translated with an introduction by Val Warner (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), lviii. The first edition appeared in 1974, i.e., in time to mark the centenary of his death.

[4] The Centenary Corbière, 110-111.

[5] The Centenary Corbière, lix.

The Mark on the Wall

Carrington_Stephen_Tomlin

(Carrington and Stephen Tomlin via http://spartacus-educational.com/)

Writing to Leonard Woolf on 17 July 1917, Lytton Strachey praised the inaugural production from the Hogarth Press. This was ‘Two Stories’, one each by Virginia (‘The Mark on the Wall’) and Leonard (‘Three Jews’), with four woodcuts by Carrington. To Carrington, two days earlier, Strachey wrote: ‘The Woolf booklet has come – but probably you’ve seen it. Damn them – they haven’t put enough ink on your cuts. I adore the snail. Virginia I consider a genius.’

Now to Leonard, Strachey wrote: ‘The “Two Stories” was a most cheering production. I never could have believed it possible. My only criticism is that there doesn’t seem to be quite enough ink. Virginia’s is, I consider, a work of genius.’[1]

Mark-on-the-wall

Via Echoes from the Vault: a blog from the Special Collections of the University of St Andrews
https://standrewsrarebooks.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/highlight-two-stories-and-kew-gardens-%e2%80%93-new-woolf-acquisitions/

The machining and inking had been Leonard’s responsibility; Virginia’s the typesetting, binding and distribution. Carrington’s (unsigned) woodcuts earned her fifteen shillings.[2] Virginia had written to her on 13 July: ‘We like the wood cuts immensely. It was very good of you to bring them yourself—We have printed them off, and they make the book much more interesting than it would have been without. The ones I like best are the servant girl and the plates and the Snail.’[3]

‘The Mark on the Wall’ is a little less than seven pages in my copy of the short fiction.[4] It was clearly significant for Woolf: more than a dozen years later, she wrote to Ethel Smyth, ‘I shall never forget the day I wrote The Mark on the Wall—all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months.’[5] A breakthrough, then: and ‘a work of genius’?

Woolf_Shorter_Fiction

Perhaps it is. It’s certainly ingeniously suggestive and brilliantly keeps in play the definite and the indefinite. That mark on the wall is both. Though unidentified until the end of the story, it’s an apparently fixed point from which to take off on imaginative flights or to trawl through memory. That juggling is present from the first line: ‘Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall.’

‘Perhaps’. It starts with uncertainty: and the middle of a month is fairly definite but not exact. ‘I first looked up’—might the narrator have seen it before, say, looking downwards at it? But the second sentence is key: ‘In order to fix a date it is necessary to remember what one saw.’ So the material—and the source of what is written, the memory—is immediately transposed into a visual key. Commenting first on the ‘mock-precision, the pseudo-historicism of the story’s method’, Sue Roe notes that ‘the mode is pictorial; and the history invoked resides in the history of painting, rather than that of literature.’[6] Roe then draws upon Kenneth Clark’s description of Leonard da Vinci’s comments in his Treatise on Painting about such phenomena as firelight—and stains on walls—as stimulants to the free play of imagination.[7] And Woolf’s story not only takes off from that mark on the wall, indulging in the free play of her imagination but the story itself provokes something similar in the reader. We bring to it half-remembered or half-recognised references, books, pictures. Did Woolf place them there—or do we? Readers recognise this fruitful uncertainty when faced with all manner of stories, novels and poems, of course, but the effect is very pronounced here, I think.

So, while ‘Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows’ might vaguely recall Homer’s Odyssey, look how that sentence ends: ‘like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office!’ The dictionary firmly asserts that ‘shoot’ is a recognised alternative to ‘chute’—but still, ‘shoot in the post office’, a year after the Easter Rising in Dublin and the occupation of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, is bound to catch some people’s attention. It certainly caught mine.

Then the dust on the mantelpiece, ‘the dust which, so they say, buried Troy three times over, only fragments of pots utterly refusing annihilation, as one can believe’ (84). This surely glances—or does it?—at the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s, who claimed to have discovered ancient Troy, granting material meaning to Greek words and phrases that had survived in texts as disembodied signifiers but could now be attached to jewellery, armour, cups and masks. ‘As his discoveries persisted, more and more Homeric words came to mean something producible, something belonging to the universe of the naturalistic novelist.’[8]

Sophia_schliemann_treasure

(Sophia, Heinrich Schliemann’s wife, wearing treasures recovered at Hisarlik)

Also striking is the example of the person or place or process glimpsed from the train window that Woolf’s narrator invokes to convey the abruptness with which she was separated from the ‘very interesting people’ who ‘had this house before us’—this recalls such specific examples as Ford Madox Ford’s The Soul of London, where he writes of ‘so many little bits of uncompleted life’, of how ‘the constant succession of much smaller happenings that one sees, and that one never sees completed, gives to looking out of train windows a touch of pathos and of dissatisfaction.’[9] There is an ingrained human desire to see the end of stories: and this frustrates that desire. Much modernist art and literature, though, does so in order to provoke a different desire, subject to a different kind of satisfaction. The closed narrative, in literature as in life, seals off the innumerable other possibilities. As Declan Kiberd observes of Ulysses, ‘Joyce seeks to capture not just the openness but also the randomness of life, something which it is almost impossible to do in a neat narrative.’[10]

But the glimpse from the window of the speeding train can stand for a central feature of modern art: in an age of transformational technological and scientific change, that art is increasingly marked by the unstable, the fragmentary, the minute, the unfamiliar. And we, the readers, the viewers, the listeners must, to a greater extent than ever before, fit those fragments together and shape a meaning for ourselves.

So I experience a faint but strengthening suspicion that a reader might, if so minded, see here, in miniature, not only much of Woolf’s career—at this stage, she’s published only one novel—but also, in miniature, a great deal of modern, or modernist, writing. There’s the uncertainty of genre: in what sense is it ‘a story’, or autobiography, or an essay? Then the folding of a fiction into a fiction, the narrator picturing a man, a scene but deciding that this ‘historical fiction’ is dull and doesn’t interest her, so she imagines another narrative, in which she enters a room and joins a discussion. There’s the instability that attaches to the statement or assertion immediately undermined or countermanded, the firmness of outlines thinning and dissolving. There’s the playfulness and punning of words like ‘reflections’, both thoughts and looking-glasses: ‘As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes’ (85).

And what of the war, often treated obliquely in her novels? The phrase ‘since the war’ occurs almost exactly halfway through the story, after a discussion of ‘a few of the things lost in our lifetime’ (84) and the ‘military sound’ of the word ‘generalisation’. Then the narrator mentions ‘those barrows on the South Downs which are, they say, either tombs or camps.’ And, ‘Of the two I should prefer them to be tombs, desiring melancholy like most English people, and finding it natural at the end of a walk to think of the bones stretched beneath the turf. . . . ’ (86).

And then, of course, the irruption of the second voice onto the page, announcing the intention to go out and buy a newspaper: ‘“Though it’s no good buying newspapers . . . . Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war!”’ (89).

Carrington_Snail

(Snail: woodcut by Carrington: via http://scholarlyediting.org/2014/editions/intro.markonthewall.html)

And, at the last, the snail. Symbol of slowness, in this maelstrom of rapid thought and quicksilver phrases; an image of fragility with its brittle shell, yet remarkably enduring, certainly throughout this tale; and a shell that is spiral, a turning and winding about a central axis.

A work of genius—very likely.

 

References

[1] The Letters of Lytton Strachey, edited by Paul Levy (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 358.

[2] Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus. 1996), 364.

[3] Virginia Woolf, The Question of Things Happening: Collected Letters II, 1912-1922 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980), 162.

[4] The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, edited by Susan Dick, second edition (Orlando: Harcourt, 1989), 83-89: page numbers in brackets.

[5] Letter of 16 October 1930: A Reflection of the Other Person: Collected Letters IV, 1929-31 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1981), 231.

[6] Sue Roe, ‘The Impact of Post-Impressionism’, in The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, edited by Sue Roe and Susan Sellers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 175. Roe has just been discussing another short piece (or pair of very short pieces), ‘Blue & Green’, both strikingly visual.

[7] Roe, ‘The Impact of Post-Impressionism’, 176-177.

[8] See Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber, 1972), 42-44, on the significance of Schliemann’s discoveries for the author of Ulysses.

[9] Ford, The Soul of London (1905), collected in England and the English, edited by Sara Haslam (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 40, 41.

[10] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 154.

 

Making Hay

Hay-Castle-2

Hay-on-Wye, a small town in the Welsh Marches, has a couple of dozen bookshops—and, curiously, that’s more or less the number of books that we bought during our stay there.

There are probably two useful guidelines in such a situation: firstly, if you’re trying to cull the absurd quantity of books in your house, don’t choose a place famous as ‘the town of books’ in which to spend a few days; secondly, if you do go anyway, don’t pretend that you’re not going to buy books while you’re there. Take a list rather than scrabble around to produce one, on a creased half-sheet of paper, while moaning ‘I can’t think, I’ve gone blank’, in the face of acres of packed shelving.

Firbank

We simply needed—one of us rather more than the other—a change of scene and a chance to relax. It was certainly a change; and she did relax. Hay was a good choice: the right size, the right location, the right atmosphere; a couple of good places to eat; some fine walks within easy reach. The rented apartment was ideally placed and pleasant to be in: unfussily but well furnished and equipped. Looking out on a castle, its high wall often lined with jackdaws, suited me pretty well.

Imagists-1930

There are some indifferent, and a few very good, bookshops among Hay’s two dozen. Richard Booth’s Bookshop (and café and cinema) is extraordinary but our best haul was probably in the Hay Cinema Bookshop—and the laurel wreath, appropriately, must go to the wonderful Poetry Bookshop.

Poetry_Bkshp_via_Biblio.com

(Poetry Bookshop via biblio.com)