Pronouns, tales of the tribe and which side are you on?

Stone-wall

‘I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade’.

So, famously, W. H. Auden begins ‘September 1, 1939’. This was the day on which Germany invaded Poland. The British and French declarations of war followed two days later. Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the final stanza:

‘Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.’[1]

Sept 1 NYT

We are, of course, slurring our way towards the close of a low, dishonest decade, not for the first time. And a lot of us are feeling ‘beleaguered’, for sure. But the point on which you catch your clothes—or your skin—is those damn pronouns. ‘We’, ‘’us’, ‘them’. And ‘the Just? Us, obviously, though, again, query ‘us’ (itself usefully contained in the words ‘dust’ and ‘Just’), and note Auden’s use of ‘them’.

‘There is no mystery about the Cantos, they are the tale of the tribe’, Ezra Pound wrote towards the close of the decade of which Auden was writing, ‘—give Rudyard credit for his use of the phrase’.[2] But which tribe? He meant, I’d say, the collective human tribe; and was echoing a talk given by Kipling thirty years earlier.[3]

We are, it seems, reverting to tribes again. ‘Everybody’s shouting “Which side are you on”?’, Bob Dylan sang on Desolation Row. It’s a topical question, for sure. One of the songs performed by Natalie Merchant and her guitarist Erik Della Penna in an outstanding show in Bath the other evening was the song Dylan probably alluded to, Which Side Are You On?, its lyrics written in 1931 by poet and activist Florence Reece, its melody borrowed from either the ballad Jack Munro or the hymn Lay the Lily Low. Reece’s husband Sam was an organizer for the mineworkers’ union in Harlan County, Kentucky, which was locked in a fierce struggle with the mine owners, who hired men, including a sheriff, to intimidate Reece.

Merchant-Tour

The lines of battle would have been starkly drawn then, as they were in the context of Auden’s poem. For the bosses or for the workers; for or against fascism, genocide, armed conquest. And now? Pretty clear, you’d think—but no, seemingly not. You couldn’t make it up, I hear people say. End of days, the Librarian comments, watching the news from America or, nearer, groups of zealots wielding disproportionate power or divulging ‘the will of the people’—a slightly risky business since just 37% of the electorate actually voted to leave the European Union.

‘Probability? Nothing is so improbable as what is true’, Ambrose Bierce wrote in a critique of the realist novelist, William Dean Howells. ‘It is the unexpected that occurs; but that is not saying enough; it is also the unlikely—one might almost say the impossible.’[4] And, in an ‘Author’s Note’ to her huge novel of the French Revolution, Hilary Mantel remarked, ‘The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.’[5]

I seem to come across half a dozen lucid, intelligent articles a week that set out or summarise where we’ve got to and how—and the dangers that we—the people and the democratic process which defines and enables us—are facing. And I know that, for the most part, their only readers are those who already know some or all of this stuff and will have reached similar conclusions. But what of the others?

One of the most baffling and frequently recurring questions is ‘just what would it take?’ And, in the United States, for instance, the answer seems to be that nothing Donald Trump might do, or leave undone, would disappoint or alienate his core supporters. Even after the recent Presidential trip to Europe, when he attacked his European allies, trashed the British Prime Minister’s policies and prioritised Mr Putin’s assurances over the painstaking work and unambiguous conclusions of his own intelligence services, nearly 80% of Republicans ‘approved of his handling of the Russian president at the post-summit press conference’, while 85% ‘think the justice department investigation into Russia’s meddling in US elections is a distraction.’

The former White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, was quoted as saying that, ‘They couldn’t care less about what happened in Russia. They love this guy, they think this guy’s for them. These are low information, emotional voters and they like what they see in the president. They think he’s working for them.’[6]

The phrase ‘low information’ rang a bell. One of the most striking ironies about the EU referendum is that a great many of those who voted in what would turn out to be the bitterest and most divisive electoral contest in living memory appear not to pay much attention to politics at all. The endless revisiting of Brexit ‘heartlands’ by journalists that still want to understand and explain it is not particularly enlightening but I’ve been struck by the number of times that people are quoted as saying that they don’t follow current affairs, that politics is ‘nothing to do with them’. The related irony is the widespread belief that their votes don’t really make any difference in General Elections—largely true given our antiquated electoral system and the huge proportion of ‘safe seats’—but that in this one case, the ill-conceived and worse-designed referendum, their votes actually did make a difference.

But I was remembering too a passage in Sarah Churchwell’s Behold, America, where she’s citing a 1923 essay in Vanity Fair by the hugely influential journalist and political commentator, Walter Lippmann. ‘Education and the White Collar Class’ stressed the importance of widening access to higher education: without it, America would be left with ‘a literate and uneducated democracy’. Churchwell points out that ‘the distinction between literacy and education was crucial: what would happen to a nation in which voters could read, but weren’t well informed?’ What, indeed? ‘An uneducated but literate democracy would, Lippmann warned, elect the incompetent, the corrupt and the fascistic.’[7]

Lippmann

We have in this country a largely literate democracy but not, I tend to feel, a very well-informed one on the whole. There are several reasons for this: some gaping holes in the standard educational fare, the poor quality of much of the national press, the increased distancing of government from people, the emasculation of local councils, the sheer noise of social media and the apparent illusion that because there’s so much available information it must somehow be absorbed into the mind—or simply through the skin perhaps. Then the effect of recent administrations has tended to produce indifference, a widespread lack of interest in the political process and an inability to take seriously what are genuine threats, now that there are factions in positions of power  perfectly willing to see this country crash and burn rather than their view of it not prevail.

In the wake of the First World War, Pound wrote:

Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor. . .

walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;

usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.[8]

‘Liars in public places’: surely never more so than now. We are all—or rather, some of us are—wearing that tee-shirt.

 

 

References

[1] W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 245-247.

[2] Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur (1938; New York: New Directions, 1970), 194; see too Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 294.

[3] Rudyard Kipling, ‘Literature’, in A Book of Words (London: Macmillan, 1928), 3-8. See Michael André Bernstein, The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 7-8.

[4] Ambrose Bierce, ‘The Short Story’ (1897), in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Other Stories, edited by Tom Quirk (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 2000), 259.

[5] Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993), x.

[6] David Smith, ‘Solid support: why Trump voters don’t care about Putin controversy’, The Guardian (Saturday 21 July 2018), 26.

[7] Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 109, 110.

[8] Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, IV, Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 551.

 

Gilbert White of Selborne

Skylark

(Skylark: https://findingnature.co.uk/animal/skylark/ )

In Great Trade Route, Ford Madox Ford, recalling a visit to a New Jersey truck farm in the company of William Carlos Williams, commented on the behaviour of a snipe which was distracting the men from the nest to protect its young, an example of what Gilbert White famously termed storgé, using the Greek word for familial or ‘natural’ affection, one of the four Greek terms for ‘love’, along with philia, agape and eros: all were discussed in C. S. Lewis’s book, The Four Loves (1960).[1]

Ford often mentioned Gilbert White of Selborne (born 18 July 1720), the ‘parson-naturalist’, in both fictional and non-fictional contexts. In Parade’s End, White crops up in the first volume, Some Do Not. . .  as Christopher Tietjens spars with Valentine Wannop on their night-ride.

Gilbert-White

(Gilbert White)

‘He said:
“Where do you get your absurd Latin nomenclature from? Isn’t it phalæna …
She had answered:
“From White . . . The Natural History of Selborne is the only natural history I ever read….
“He’s the last English writer that could write,” said Tietjens.
“He calls the downs ‘those majestic and amusing mountains,’” she said. “Where do you get your dreadful Latin pronunciation from? Phal i i na! To rhyme with Dinah!”
“It’s ‘sublime and amusing mountains,’ not ‘majestic and amusing,’” Tietjens said. “I got my Latin pronunciation, like all public schoolboys of to-day, from the German.”’[2]

Later, in the third volume, A Man Could Stand Up—, Tietjens is in the trenches, where his Sergeant enthusiastically praises the skylark’s ‘Won’erful trust in yumanity! Won’erful hinstinck set in the fethered brest by the Halmighty!’

Tietjens says ‘mildly’ that he thinks the Sergeant has ‘got his natural history wrong. He must divide the males from the females. The females sat on the nest through obstinate attachment to their eggs; the males obstinately soared above the nests in order to pour out abuse at other male skylarks in the vicinity.’

‘“Gilbert White of Selbourne,” he said to the Sergeant, “called the behaviour of the female STORGE: a good word for it.” But, as for trust in humanity, the Sergeant might take it that larks never gave us a thought. We were part of the landscape and if what destroyed their nests whilst they sat on them was a bit of H[igh].E[xplosive]. shell or the coulter of a plough it was all one to them.’

The sergeant is highly sceptical of such sentiments:

‘“Ju ’eer what the orfcer said, Corporal,” the one said to the other. Wottever’ll ’e say next! Skylarks not trust ’uman beens in battles! Cor!”
The other grunted and, mournfully, the voices died out.’

Later in the same volume, Ford recurs to White in Valentine’s own reflections – Ford uses the image or allusion echoed in the thoughts of multiple characters to frequently brilliant effect:

‘Her mother was too cunning for them. With the cunning that makes the mother wild-duck tumble apparently broken-winged just under your feet to decoy you away from her little things. STORGE, Gilbert White calls it!’[3]

White-The-Wakes

(The Wakes, Gilbert White’s house:
http://gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/?venue=gilbert-whites-house)

In The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception, 1798-1984, a superb, rich study of how technological developments since the eighteenth century have affected the ways in which we interpret the world, Don Gifford wrote of how, for Samuel Johnson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the ambition to be generally well read, that is, to have a reasonable grasp of all that was being published and made available, ‘was within reach’, and that a community of those sharing that distinction or at least that ambition was ‘at least imagined to be a given among educated men and women.’ His footnote mentions the assumption evident in Gilbert White’s letters that his correspondents shared his acquaintance with Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift, Gray, Johnson, Hume, Gibbon, Sterne – as well as with the Bible, Virgil, Homer, Horace, the Koran, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. By the mid-80s (when he was writing this book), Gifford adds, ‘the idea of being well read and of belonging to such a community is a joke we have politely learned not to mention except with a shrug of self-deprecation.’

Of course, White’s acquaintance with Pope was not only with the man’s work: he was presented with a copy of Pope’s six-volume translation of the Iliad by the poet himself, when graduating with distinction from Oriel College, Oxford, in 1743.[4]

White’s fascinating and deceptively simple work has embedded itself in English culture in numerous contexts. His genius, as Ronald Blythe remarks, was ‘to revolutionise the study of natural history by noting what exactly lay outside his own back-door.’[5] In his first letter to the Honourable Daines Barrington in June 1769, White wrote, ‘I see you are a gentleman of great candour, and one that will make allowances; especially where the writer professes to be an out-door naturalist, one that takes his observations from the subject itself, and not from the writings of others’ (Selborne 104). He produced hundreds of pages, records of looking and listening and remembering and wondering. Birds, plants, insects, weather, animals, not least the human. ‘My musical friend, at whose house I am now visiting, has tried all the owls that are his near neighbours with a pitch-pipe set at concert-pitch, and finds they all hoot in B flat. He will examine the nightingales next spring’ (Selborne 127).

White's_Selborne_1813_title_page

The local as the universal. A hundred and eighty years after White’s death, William Carlos Williams would note that the poet’s business was ‘to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, in the particular to discover the universal.’ He quoted the line of John Dewey’s that he had come upon by chance, ‘The local is the only universal, upon that all else builds’, commenting elsewhere that, ‘in proportion as a man has bestirred himself to become awake to his own locality he will perceive more and more of what is disclosed and find himself in a position to make the necessary translations.’[6] Williams in Rutherford; Thoreau in Concord; White in Selborne.

Don Gifford points out that, ‘In effect, White’s perspective differs radically from our own because he had no a priori basis for distinguishing between trivial and significant things.’ So, in addition to seeing with his own eyes, White ‘had to see cumulatively, a second order of seeing’. He tells the story of Henry Thoreau reducing Ellery Channing to tears when the two men went out into the woods together: Channing knew so little about what to record that he returned with an empty notebook, desperate and frustrated.[7]

White’s journals were published in 1931 and, Alexandra Harris comments, ‘his work was tirelessly reissued over the next decade.’ But then, in addition to being valued for his ‘timeless qualities’, White was ‘also being used as someone relevant to the present time precisely because the world he knew was disappearing.’[8]

When we read those writers detailing the current decline or disappearance of so much British wildlife, through environmental damage, farming practices and government policies, the parallels hardly need stressing.

On the matter of White’s journals, let your fingers do the running, to this superb resource:
http://naturalhistoryofselborne.com/

House and garden, café and shop?
http://www.gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/

 

 
References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 184; Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 114, 133-134.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 163-164.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), 63, 64, 65, 201.

[4] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 158 and n., 5.

[5] Ronald Blythe, Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960-2010, edited by Peter Tolhurst (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2010), 226.

[6] William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1967), 391; Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1969), 28.

[7] Gifford, Farther Shore, 10, 11.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames & Hudson 2010), 171, 173.

 

Turning left to Poets’ Walk

Lookout

In recovery mode, so short a time after our hasty retreat from a yurt in the border country, we remember Clevedon. When were we last there? That we can’t remember. But it’s close, barely a dozen miles away; we don’t have to return the car until tomorrow; and there will be sea. We drive. Turn left, the Librarian murmurs, left. When? I ask. Back there. Ah. But there will be other turnings, surely. And there are.

Clevedon: seaside town with a fine pier overlooking the Bristol Channel (you can have coffee overlooking the pier). You can gaze across to Wales: on your extreme right the Second Severn Crossing. Ahead of you, the guide to the vista notes, among other allurements, ‘Swansea, 48 miles, not visible.’

There’s a bandstand, a marine lake and, apparently, the oldest purpose-built cinema in the world—the Curzon—which is still in working order. Arthur Hallam, subject of Alfred Tennyson’s immense poem, In Memoriam, is buried here. Tuppence Middleton, whom I’ve been watching lately in Sense8—and previously saw in the BBC’s War and Peace—grew up here. But the most famous cultural association is probably with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived here with his wife, Sara Fricker, after their marriage in St Mary Redcliffe in October 1795. ‘After all the upheavals of life with Southey’, Richard Holmes comments—Coleridge and Robert Southey had ‘quarrelled irrevocably’—‘these first few weeks of domestic calm and intimacy were poetically very rich for Coleridge.’[1]

Coleridge-Cottage-Clevedon

Coleridge cottage on Old Church Road
Via http://discovernorthsomerset.co.uk/

It was ‘probably not the cottage now bearing a commemorative tablet’, Tom Mayberry remarks, adding that Coleridge and Sara, ‘in further disregard of the proprieties’, first stayed there over a month before their marriage.[2]

The headnote to Coleridge’s ‘Effusion XXXV’ does indeed read ‘Composed August 20th, 1795, at Clevedon, Somersetshire’. It was revised as ‘The Eolian Harp’, the first of what came to be known as the ‘Conversation Poems’.

My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o’ergrown
With white-flowered Jasmin, and the broad-leaved Myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such would Wisdom be)
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents
Snatched from yon bean-field! and the world so hushed!
The stilly murmur of the distant Sea
Tells us of silence.

The harp is a stringed instrument with a sound box: placed in a window or at a point where the wind can play over it, it emits ‘a natural music’. Coleridge shaped it as ‘an image of inspiration in which the poet was a harp over whom the winds of inspiration blow.’[3]

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?[4]

Idyllic, perhaps, but the cottage, myrtle and jasmine notwithstanding, would not do for long. Clevedon proved to be too far from Bristol—the library, literary contacts, not least friend and publisher Joseph Cottle—for Coleridge to walk there and back in a day.[5] What milksops these Romantic poets were: a snivelling twenty-seven miles round trip. Today, most people can walk almost as far as the car park without complaint.

Lookout-plaque

Poets’ Walk (Coleridge! Thackeray! Tennyson!) is a popular footpath which runs along the coast and around Wain’s Hill and Church Hill at the southern end of Clevedon. Along the way is the Lookout, with its plaque detailing the watched-for arrival of sugar ships from the West Indies in the nineteenth century. The slave trade was formally abolished in the British Empire in 1807 but slavery was not finally abolished until 1833. Notoriously, the colonial slave owners were handed millions of pounds in compensation by the government: the former slaves were offered nothing.

Poets-Walk

That sloping path under the trees is blessedly cool on those days, quite frequent lately, when the English summer has become a little unhinged.

We make a marginal note: Clevedon again. Soon. Turn left there.

 
References

[1] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), 100, 103.

[2] Tom Mayberry, Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Crucible of Friendship, revised edition (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000), 45.

[3] Paul Magnuson, ‘The “Conversation” Poems’, in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, edited by Lucy Newlyn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 34.

[4] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Eolian Harp’, in The Complete Poems, edited by William Keach (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 87, 88.

[5] Rosemary Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 78.

 

Reading, rallying, resisting

Demo1

Rereading The Solid Mandala, I come across this snatch of dialogue between the two brothers, Waldo—competent, rational, self-professed writer of genius who hasn’t actually written anything much—and Arthur, regarded as mentally challenged, ‘short of a shingle’, a hopeless burden on his brother.

‘He said: “One day perhaps I’ll be able to explain – not explain, because it’s difficult for me, isn’t it, to put into words – but to make you see. Words are not what make you see.”
‘“I was taught they were,” Waldo answered in hot words.
‘“I dunno,” Arthur said. “I forget what I was taught. I only remember what I’ve learnt.”’

A good many people forget what they’ve been taught, of course. And a fair number seem not to have learnt anything much: some of them, oddly, are in important political positions.

Patrick-White-Speaks

White, in contrast, learned and remembered an extraordinary amount. And, in the last twenty years of his life, he became increasingly active politically, both writing and speaking, against the depredations of developers and local politicians, cultural provincialism, the mining and export of uranium, the continued mistreatment and exploitation of Australian Aborigines, hostility to immigrants, the Vietnam War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

White-Hiroshima

(Patrick White and Tom Uren, Hiroshima Day demonstration, Sydney, 1984)
https://www.portrait.gov.au/magazines/26/the-activist-a-list

So I read Patrick White on the train, en route and coming home again. In between, in the company of wife and elder daughter, I move slowly from Regents Park to Trafalgar Square, along with a hundred thousand other people [update five days later: I was far too restrained: more like 250,000], of all kinds, classes, ages and nationalities (quite a few Americans). It was tremendously encouraging to see so many individuals and families opposing racism, misogyny, the forcible separation of young children from their parents, serial untruths, environmental vandalism and the degradation of the office of United States President – and restating the case for decency, truthfulness, peace, justice, honesty, equitable treatment of individuals: all quite reasonable standards and expectations, you might think, and so inevitably trashed by rags like the Daily Mail.

Demo3 Demo2

Still, it may finally have dawned on a few more of those people who have been mouthing the words ‘US trade deal’ with semi-religious fervour that, while the United States has historically been an ally of Great Britain, this President is not. His main concern is to fracture alliances, treaties and agreements, and to separate nations if he can from positions of collective strength to positions of individual weakness, so they can be more easily bullied and exploited. And on we go.

 

In search of coolness

blue gentian (gentiana clusii)

In search of coolness, I think usually of green; of, say, Lawrence Durrell and Panos heading for Klepini to gather cyclamens. ‘Though it was only a few hundred feet up we had moved into different air. The faint luminous tremble of damp had gone from the sky, and the sea which rolled below us among the silver-fretted screen of olives was green now, green as a Homeric adjective.’[1] Or W. H. Hudson’s ‘green refreshing nooks’.[2] Or Andrew Marvell’s doubled greenness, ‘green thought in a green shade’.[3]

But is blue, in some of its variations, even cooler?

In one of his essays, Geoffrey Grigson wrote of the spring gentian, ‘which properly is an alpine; and which I first saw like the flash of a sapphire ring lost in the grass as a car took me quickly along the sea road from Ballyvaughan around Black Head. Its colour is deep and clear enough for one to be able to pick it out in that way, pick out a mere single flower in the grass as one goes by at forty miles an hour. The spring gentian is one of several flowers, most of them blues, whose colour seems to have depth, like the colour coming from a jewel stone.’[4]

‘Most of them blues’: yes, depth and richness. The title of Penelope Fitzgerald’s last published novel, The Blue Flower, drawing on the brief life of Friederich von Hardenberg, who used the pseudonym of ‘Novalis’ and died at the age of twenty-eight, already seems to carry the kind of resonance that greater specificity will not further enrich.

Cruel-Way

Ella Maillart inventively extends the context of the flower Grigson terms ‘properly an alpine’, writing that, ‘The higher you climb on mountains, the deeper is the cobalt of the gentian, the green of the turf, the scarlet of the alpine rose. The same seems to apply to Asian mosaics the further one climbs back in time. Then at a certain altitude, ice and rock prevail, all vegetation having disappeared. So, before the twelfth century, as far as I know, there is no coloured enamel: ascetic plain brick reigns supreme beside the snow of stucco-work.’[5]

Famously, D. H. Lawrence writes of Bavarian gentians, native to the European Alps:

Not every man has gentians in his house
in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the day-time torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s
gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale lamps give off
light,
lead me then, lead the way.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness.
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness was awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendour of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the
lost bride and her groom.[6]

In her introduction to Lawrence’s 1920 novel The Lost Girl, Carol Siegel remarks that ‘The most important referent for Alvina’s experience is the myth of Persephone.’ She points to this 1928 poem and comments that, ‘Many of Lawrence’s other writings refer to the myth less directly.’ Well yes, just a few. She mentions his Twilight in Italy and cites Virginia Hyde’s essay, ‘”Lost” Girls’ as providing ‘a full discussion of the recurrence of references to the Persephone myth in Lawrence’s work’.[7]

Persephone-Bks

Cool enough in the underworld, surely, all that damp earth – though conditions vary dramatically. In Dante’s Hell, the third circle offers perpetual icy rain and the ninth an icy lake, though with a bit of infernal flaming in between.

Lawrence’s Lydia, originally Polish, feels a rather different chill after her husband’s death in The Rainbow: ‘She was like one walking in the Underworld, where the shades throng intelligibly but have no connection with one. She felt the English people as a potent, cold, slightly hostile host amongst whom she walked.’[8]

Yes, that would cool the blood, for sure.

And in the end there is always cool blues—or cool jazz—as reported by Lew Archer when he visits The Listening Ear, which is ‘full of dark blue light and pale blue music. A combo made up of piano, bass fiddle, trumpet, and drums was playing something advanced. I didn’t have my slide rule with me, but the four musicians seemed to understand each other. From time to time they smiled and nodded like space jockeys passing in the night.’[9]

 

References

[1] Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 221.

[2] W. H. Hudson, Afoot in England (1909; London: Dent, 1924), 32. The phrase ‘green nook’ recurs in the work of his friend Ford Madox Ford: Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 105; The Cinque Ports (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1900), 360; No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 112.

[3] Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’, in The Complete Poems, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), 101.

[4] Geoffrey Grigson, ‘The Melancholia of Burren’, in Country Writings (London: Century Publishing, 1984), 156.

[5] Ella K. Maillart, The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939 (1947; Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013, with a new foreword by Jessa Crispin), 123-124.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Bavarian Gentians’, The Complete Poems, edited by Vivian de Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), 697; for a variant version, see 960.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, The Lost Girl, edited by John Worthen, with an introduction and notes by Carol Siegel (Cambridge edition, 1981; London: Penguin, 1995), xxiii, xxiv, xxix; Virginia Hyde, ‘“Lost” Girls: D. H. Lawrence’s Versions of Persephone’, in Elizabeth T. Hayes, editor, Images of Persephone: Feminist Readings in Western Literature (Gaines: University Press of Florida, 1994). Andrew Radford has since published The Lost Girls: Demeter-Persephone and the Literary Imagination, 1850-1930 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007): Chapter 6 is ‘Lawrence’s Underworld’.

[8] D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow, edited Mark Kinkead-Weekes, introduction and notes Anne Fernihough (Cambridge, 1989; Penguin edition with new editorial matter, 1995), 50.

[9] Ross Macdonald, The Galton Case (1959), in Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan (New York: Library of America, 2015), 700.

 

Camping, decamping

Yurt-setting

We drive. We are on, hmm, a short camping trip. Staying in a yurt. In the border country. But did I actually shut the freezer door properly? I only ask because we’ve been woken by the alarm twice before now; and also because we’re now approaching the Second Severn Crossing and it’s too late to do anything about it. Once over the bridge, the motorway traffic stalls and crawls. Flashing signals urge us to keep our speed down to 40, just as the speedometer limps up to 15. Heat. Are my legs swelling as they seemed to the other day? Heat-related oedema, the Librarian explained then, helpfully. I am feeling claustrophobic even in dense traffic these days.

But then, I say (as three army lorries in succession pass us in the slow lane), what’s the worst that can happen if the freezer door isn’t shut? Water all over the kitchen floor and some food ruined? Unless the fridge overheats and explodes, the Librarian suggests. Yes, I agree, unless that.

Still, when we turn off at Junction 24, things ease. Past Abergavenny and heading for Hereford. Along narrow lanes, up agonising tracks. The directions are ambiguous and, once parked, we carefully head off to the wrong corner of the field, staggering under the weight of several bags. We stare at the directions again, peer into dazzling distances, up and down slopes, plunge into clumps of trees and we’re finally there.

It would suit some people very well. It clearly has done: some posted reviews are fulsome, verging on ecstatic. We walk up the field again to get some icepacks from a communal fridge. Back at the yurt, we walk around, go outside, locate the view. Our last holiday deluged us with light and space and air. Here, I feel hemmed in, short of both light and space. There’s a view but it’s round the corner, so to speak.

Yurt-1

This was to be a mini-break for reading and relaxation, simply that: and to exorcize the Librarian’s long-established yurt yearnings. We walk around again, look outside, look at each other. Three questions, I say, four really, if we count the possible freezer door problem. One, could you relax here? Two, could you settle down to read here? Three, would any of the food that we’ve carefully transported here last even until tomorrow morning without turning into something else? The Librarian considers this carefully for almost a second. No. No. And no.

No need to repack bags that were not disturbed. Two trips back up to the car, staggering even more obviously now, as muscles sag and the heat takes its toll. We drive. Only a single navigational hiccup finds us on an unintended road to Chepstow. One signpost mentions fourteen miles but that’s a clearly a joke or local legend. But we do finally emerge at a junction where the caption BRISTOL 17 MILES eases away all tensions and dark suspicions. We drive.

At home, we return the food and drink to fridge and freezer. The plants are already watered, tomorrow’s recycling already outside on the pavement. There is little to do but raise our glasses: ‘Chepstow!’

The freezer door was, of course, firmly closed.

Squeaky toys, Punch and Judy

Nobody-for-tennis

(Nobody for tennis?)

The weather continues hot, certainly by British standards. I recall the opening of Samuel Beckett’s first novel as ‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it’, pausing there because I can’t remember what comes next (my copy is in a box ‘at another location’, as they say in the storage business), except that it places Murphy somewhere in London, a hundred and twenty miles from my desk. But certainly, as far as is possible, I sit out of it.

If I need to go out, I go as early as I can. In the park, small groups, especially the ones with small children, arrange themselves sensibly under the trees,. A few reckless or uninformed individuals sprawl asleep on unprotected slopes of grass. Small dogs race after balls and squeaky toys. A man and a woman are sitting together on the bench beside the path I’m walking down, with home almost in sight. A terrier races back towards the bench with a rubber ring between its teeth. “Good boy’, says the man. ‘Good girl’, says the woman. Good grief, I think, even the dog has gender issues.

Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, has been and gone, largely drowned here by the roars of football fans and the smack of racquet on ball at Wimbledon; and muffled too, perhaps, by uncertainty about what precisely independence signifies, truth, equality, liberty and happiness having become so oddly complicated of late.

‘And the American dream isn’t dead, either – we just have no idea what it means any more.’ Sarah Churchwell wrote in Behold, America, reviewed in this week’s TLS.

Behold-America

Brexit, alas, is not dead either: but then nobody—whether unemployed metal workers, rural Tories, billionaire fixers, market traders, Scottish trawler men, barstool economists or, indeed, the people supposedly in charge of the process—ever really knew what that meant and certainly couldn’t agree on what it meant.

‘The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered’, Edward Dahlberg once wrote. Reviewing the latest sequence in our long-running Punch and Judy show, one can only nod and raise a glass to the man Jonathan Williams called ‘the Job of American Letters’.