Very fine swans indeed

Swans.1

In Pavannes and Divisions, his prose collection of June 1918, Ezra Pound included ‘A Retrospect’, a group of ‘early essays and notes’, gathered from a period of some four or five years. Towards the close, under the heading ‘Only Emotion Endures’, Pound wrote: ‘Surely it is better for me to name over the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head than for me to search my flat for back numbers of periodicals and rearrange all that I have said about friendly and hostile writers.’[1]

The poets he names are, for the most part, predictable: Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Richard Aldington, H. D., Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce; and, of course, T. S. Eliot (‘I am almost a different person when I come to take up the argument for Eliot’s poems’). Two others are rather less expected: Alice Corbin, for instance, who, as well as a poet, was associate editor of Poetry magazine, for which Pound served as foreign correspondent, writing to her often in the 1912-1917 period.[2] He mentions her ‘One City Only’, which he himself published in his Catholic Anthology, 1914-1915. The second he alludes to—‘another ending “But sliding water over a stone”’—is ‘Love me at last’, published in Poetry in December 1914:
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=12993

The other slightly surprising inclusion is Padraic Colum—surprising, I mean, because, once again, this is a poet with a very traditional style yet with an evident appeal to Pound, even though he has been through the Imagist and Vorticist periods and publishes early versions of the first three Cantos in the summer of 1917. Indeed, it’s Colum whom he names first of all: ‘The first twelve lines of Padraic Colum’s “Drover”; his “O Woman shapely as a swan, on your account I shall not die”’.

The ‘first twelve lines’ of Colum’s ‘A Drover’ are:

To Meath of the pastures,
From wet hills by the sea,
Through Leitrim and Longford
Go my cattle and me.
I hear in the darkness
Their slipping and breathing.
I name them the bye-ways
They’re to pass without heeding.
Then the wet, winding roads,
Brown bogs with black water;
And my thoughts on white ships
And the King o’ Spain’s daughter.

Very simple; the kind of inversion (‘Go my cattle and me’) that you’d expect to set Pound’s teeth on edge. Yet this is quite skilled stuff: the subtle lengthening of lines to avoid the thud of the metronome; a light alliteration that never hits you over the head; the varies use of feminine line-endings; the twelfth line’s hint at a traditional children’s rhyme. Another twenty-four lines, though, beginning: ‘O! farmer, strong farmer!’ are less appealing, a bit more prone to poeticism and cliché.

The other poem, ‘I Shall Not Die’, begins:

O woman, shapely as the swan,
On your account I shall not die:
The men you’ve slain — a trivial clan —
Were less than I.
I ask me shall I die for these —
For blossom teeth and scarlet lips —
And shall that delicate swan-shape
Bring me eclipse?[3]

The swan, Michael Ferber notes, ‘has long been one of the most popular birds in poetry, not least because of the association of swans with poets themselves.’[4] There has certainly been an astonishing procession of literary swans, hardly surprising if the swan is the bird both of Apollo (god of poetry and music) and of Venus, goddess of love: from classical literature through to Shakespeare (the swan of Avon), Pope, Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and others. Among modern poets, the poet of swans is surely Yeats, who draws on the complex mythological links between Leda, Helen of Troy— long a Yeatsian symbol for Maud Gonne—and Clytemnestra in ‘Leda and the Swan’.[5] A swan is there too in that volume’s title poem, ‘The Tower’ when, mindful of death (in a section beginning ‘It is time that I wrote my will’), Yeats writes of ‘the hour’

When the swan must fix his eye
Upon a fading gleam,
Float out upon a long
Last reach of glittering stream
And there sing his last song.

Perhaps most memorable is the title poem of the wonderful 1919 volume, The Wild Swans at Coole. The weight and balance of those lines, ostensibly unremarkable language, in five six-line stanzas:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

There are phrases in this poem that echo lines in ‘Easter 1916’, which will appear in Michael Robartes and the Dancer in 1921 but which Yeats himself dates ‘September 25, 1916’—he held it back for political rather than poetical reasons.[6]

Yeats_Lady_Gregory.Coole.1915

(Yeats and Lady Gregory, Coole Park, 1915: http://yeats2015.com/event/major-exhibition-explores-w-b-yeats-connections-with-the-west/ )

The attractions of the swan for the poet are evident enough, I think: its colour, the purity of whiteness but with that intense dash of black and yellow on its bill; the grace of the curve and sweep of its body and wings and neck, the extraordinary spectacle of its landing on water; the size and strength and grandeur of it; the long history, traditions, myths and symbols attached to the bird: in brief, beauty and transformation.[7]

Transformation. I have a vague childhood memory of Danny Kaye, who’d starred as the title character in the 1952 Hollywood musical, Hans Christian Anderson, singing one of the songs from the film: ‘The Ugly Duckling’. There was an album of the songs released subsequently but I may simply have heard it played on the radio: it was internationally successful at the time. The duckling outsider turns out, of course, to be a very fine swan indeed (‘Me, a swan?’ ‘I am a swan’).

Danny_Kaye_HCA

In 1959, Ezra Pound wrote from Rapallo to William Cookson, who had just launched, in close association with Pound, Agenda, the highly influential poetry magazine (still current). At the top of the letter is a suggested ‘Motto for Agenda No 3 or 4’: ‘How can anyone go antisemite in a world that contains Danny Kaye’.[8]

I picture Cookson opening that letter and reading that line; then lowering his forehead to beat it softly but repeatedly against the desktop. But perhaps not.

 

References

[1] Reprinted in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber, 1960), 14: all quotations from the same page.

[2] See The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, edited by Ira B. Nadel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).

[3] Selected Poems of Padraic Colum, edited by Sanford Sternlicht (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1989), 41-42, 24.

[4] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 214.

[5] See A. Norman Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: The Macmillan Press, 1984), 247-249.

[6] Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan London Ltd., 1950), 223, 147, 204. ‘Easter 1916’, though privately printed in an edition of twenty-five, ‘stayed out of public circulation’ until its publication in the New Statesman (23 October 1920): see R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life. II. The Arch-Poet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 58-64.

[7] On the complex, often destructive—and class-ridden—history of the swan, see Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 60-69.

[8] ‘Some Letters to William Cookson 1956-1970’, Agenda, 17, 3-4 — 18, 1 (3 issues: Autumn-Winter-Spring, 1979/80) ‘Twenty-First Anniversary Ezra Pound Special Issue’, 39.

Cultivating our garden

Pots

We are cultivating our garden—at least, my wife is. Watering, deadheading, repotting, composting. A small space, containing less than a dozen pots. Nevertheless, whether window-box or rolling acres, a garden is, both practically and symbolically, an almost inexhaustible resource.

Gardens

‘When Voltaire ends Candide with the famous declaration “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” the garden in question must be viewed against the background of the wars, pestilence, and natural disasters evoked by the novel’, Robert Pogue Harrison writes. ‘The emphasis on cultivation is essential. It is because we are thrown into history that we must cultivate our garden.’[1]

Indeed. It’s striking that two of the most interesting museums in London, the Garden Museum and the Imperial War Museum, are physically so close, a very manageable walk apart.

Garden.Museum2

(Garden Museum, Lambeth, London)

Harrison’s book is an examination of the many ways gardens evoke the human condition, from the ancient world to the homeless people in contemporary New York. Throughout history, the garden has served as a check against the destruction and losses of history. In  the ancient world, gardens were associated with self-cultivation and self-improvement, both essential to serenity and enlightenment, and the association has endured.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.[2]

The garden can be read and understood as this tiny, immediate space—and also as the city, the nation, the planet we inhabit. From the tiny to the immense and back again. That Latin root, colere, means both to till (to tend, to care for) and to worship. ‘Cultivate’ and ‘culture’ are not merely neighbouring words in the dictionary: to civilise. Civis, citizen. Caring for the citizens—all of them, not just a carefully selected few.

Edward Fitzgerald, translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and champion letter writer, certainly saw gardens in terms of art, of the cultivated. ‘I am quite sure gardens should be formal and unlike general Nature’, he wrote to Frederick Tennyson (elder brother of Alfred). ‘I much prefer the old French and Dutch gardens to what are called the English.’[3]

Samuel Johnson used the sense in which the garden, as domestic setting, may be contrasted with the agricultural one, to comment on an incident in which Methodist students were expelled from Oxford for constantly praying in public: ‘Sir, I believe they might be good beings; but they were not fit to be in the University of Oxford. A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a garden.’[4]

IWN_film_poster copy

(Film poster for the new documentary on Ford, directed by Paul Lewis and Ryan Poe)

Ford Madox Ford, himself a smallholder and accomplished gardener, often used gardening metaphors. He alluded once to his concern, not for the commercial novelist but for ‘a queer, not easily defined fellow. To him writing has the aspects of an art. One’s art is a small enclosed garden within whose high walls one moves administering certain manures and certain treatments in order to get certain effects. One thinks that people ought to like these effects, say of saxifrages against granite.’ He never tired of experimenting with potatoes. ‘Of, say, fifty different plants by the end of 1922 I had succeeded in selecting nine that seemed to be reasonably new varieties and two that apparently resisted all the diseases they were likely to meet.’[5]

Curiously, by the end of 1922, Ford had published just over fifty books.

 

References

[1] Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), x.

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

[3] The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, four volumes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), II, 56.

[4] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 490.

[5] Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 108.

 

This sceptic isle

Arthur_Burdett_Frost

(Arthur Burdett Frost, via Old Book Illustrations)

In a letter of 10 July 1972, Sylvia Townsend Warner detailed, in a letter to William Maxwell, that day’s sequence of events. A telephone call from her cousin Rachel, ‘to tell me she had long suspected she was under a curse, and had now been assured by an expert that she was’; then a visit from the parson, ‘to ask how I was keeping and could I let him have a large kettle for the Youth Club’s canteen. I couldn’t but consoled him with strawberries.’ Another telephone call followed, ‘to ask me if I could adopt two frogs’. Again she had to refuse, ‘three cats made this garden unsuitable for frog conservation.’ She concluded: ‘All this before mid-day. This island is inflexibly lunatic.’[1]

STW_Gdn_stw.com

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via http://www.townsendwarner.com)

It’s a suspicion that never quite goes away and one I revisit constantly, generally with less good temper than Sylvia, often remembering too the words of Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, to Nora Manning, in As Good As It Gets: ‘Sell crazy someplace else, we’re all stocked up here.’[2]

Yes, this island did seem to be increasingly well-stocked. And yes, it still feels more divided than ever. But there are some encouraging signs.

My own particular elite metropolitan bubble, the city and county of Bristol, comprises four electoral districts, totalling 323,840 voters.[3] Some bubble. And are all those voters affluent, middle-class Guardian-readers? Probably not. There are surely plenty of angry white men of the kind that howl at Jeremy Corbyn when he shows insufficient enthusiasm for murdering millions of innocent civilians (‘strong on defence’, as the saying is). Nevertheless, though we had three Labour MPs until Thursday, we now have four. All four. Four out of four.

And yet, and yet. Remarkable as that election result was, it’s still only foreplay—and we need consummation. Evidently, even after the past few years, after it all, many millions of people still voted for the Conservatives—and just the last twelve months have seen this Party of Austerity hold an unnecessary referendum followed by an unnecessary General Election, at a cost of well over £200 million of public money. Does this ring no alarm bells in the minds of the faithful? ‘Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point’, Pascal wrote, ‘The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know’.[4]

Gurney_BBC

(Ivor Gurney via the BBC)

Ah but now we have heard that trumpet call to arms: Stability! Certainty! Though, come to think of it, I recall Ivor Gurney writing to Mrs Matilda Chapman, 21 April 1915: ‘But nothing – nothing is certain, but uncertainty.’[5]

Of course, he was writing in the middle of a war.

 

References

[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 234.

[2] This line is for Andrew, who likes it, I know.

[3] Figures taken from The Guardian ‘General Election Results’ supplement, 10 June 2017.

[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 158. I recall that the Duchess of Windsor chose the first five words as the title of her memoir. Make of that what you will.

[5] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 18.

Why it’s so difficult. . .

(James Salter and Robert Phelps, via Narrative magazine)

On 12 June (close enough) 1975, in a letter to Robert Phelps, James Salter wrote: ‘Why is it so difficult to assemble those things that really matter in life and to dwell among them only? I am referring to certain landscapes, persons, beasts, books, rooms, meteorological conditions, fruits. In fact, I insist on it.’[1]

Why is it so difficult? The temptation for a lot of readers would be simply to answer: ‘Money.’ But it’s rarely simply a question of money.

Towards the end of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, the narrator, John Dowell, asks: ‘Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing. Perhaps you can make head or tail of it; it is beyond me.’[2]

The four main characters in Ford’s novel are not short of cash and ‘everybody has the wrong thing’ gets a little closer to the real point. In what may—or certainly should—be a defining moment in the election campaign, the Prime Minister answered a nurse who had asked why her net pay had not increased in the past eight years by saying: ‘there isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want.’ Apart from the sheer offensiveness of that response, the untruth was also very striking. As several commentators have pointed out in the past few days, if we’re talking about banks or controversial weapons systems, there certainly is a magic money tree, to the tune of tens—or hundreds—of billions of pounds. It is always a matter of choices, always a matter of priorities. (And these days, when a politician refers—with furrowed brow—to the need to make ‘difficult choices’, you know they mean ‘choosing to make life more difficult for you suckers’.)

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/06/magic-money-tree-theresa-may-banks-nurses

We don’t pay nurses properly or seriously tackle the housing crisis or sufficiently fund education or social care or local councils not because there isn’t sufficient money to do so but because the government chooses not to.

Obviously, some voters believe or assume that the government’s current priorities are the right ones. Others think that the important things are the ones that identify a truly civilised society: education, health, housing, the environment, social care, a humane welfare system, public libraries, pavements that you can actually walk on, stuff like that.

Can it change? Of course it can. Will it change? We should have a better idea, come Friday morning.

 

References

[1] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre, foreword by Michael Dirda (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 143-144.

[2] Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 181.

 

Rainmaking

Chapman_Rainmaker

So the rain falls. Again. I don’t know that there’s a recognised function in history or myth entitled ‘Rainstopper’ or ‘Rainbreaker’; but there’s certainly plenty of scope for ‘Rainmaker’.

To people of a certain age and predilection, the word most likely conjures up the debut album of Michael Chapman, guitarist extraordinary, from Harvest Records, 1969. The (instrumental) title track followed the outstanding ‘It Didn’t Work Out’.

In a more literary frame of mind, the word—or rather, the idea—summons up the arresting opening of Allen Upward’s The Divine Mystery.

‘I was sitting like Abraham in my tent door in the heat of the day, outside a Pagan city of Africa, when the lord of the thunder appeared before me, going on his way into the town to call down thunder from heaven upon it.
‘He had on his wizard’s robe, hung round with magical shells that rattled as he moved; and there walked behind him a young man carrying a lute. I gave the magician a piece of silver, and he danced before me the dance that draws down the thunder. After which he went his way into the town; and the people were gathered together in the courtyard of the king’s house; and he danced before them all. Then it thundered for the first time for many days ; and the king gave the thunder-maker a black goat—the immemorial reward of the performing god.
‘So begins the history of the Divine Man, and such is his rude nativity. The secret of genius is sensitiveness. The Genius of the Thunder who revealed himself to me could not call the thunder, but he could be called by it. He was more quick than other men to feel the changes of the atmosphere; perhaps he had rendered his nervous system more sensitive still by fasting or mental abstraction; and he had learned to read his own symptoms as we read a barometer. So, when he felt the storm gathering round his head, he put on his symbolical vestment, and marched forth to be its Word, the archetype of all Heroes in all Mysteries.’[1]

divinemystery

Wonderful. Who wouldn’t feel curious enough to read on? This is also the passage with which Ezra Pound opened his review of Upward’s book, commenting then: ‘So begins the most fascinating book on folk-lore that I have ever opened. I can scarcely call it a book on “folk-lore”, it is a consummation. It is a history of the development of human intelligence.’[2]

Upward stresses the superior sensitivity of the seer, who ‘perceives as events in the future events which are already in existence as intentions or dispositions.’[3] He’d begun writing for The New Age in 1909, A. R. Orage, in Upward’s words, being ‘almost the only editor who has approached me of his own accord to ask for contributions, and he offered me an absolutely free hand’.[4] Upward outlined his philosophy of individual genius in a series of three articles entitled “The Order of the Seraphim”. In one of them, he writes: ‘Genius is the power of being sensitive to what is divine. The man of genius, the last delicate bud that sprouts from the tree of man, may be compared to the slender wire that rises from the receiving station to catch the unseen message that comes across the sea from an unseen continent. His duty, like the duty of the wire, is to record that message as he receives it.’[5]

That was written in 1910. Eight years earlier, Rudyard Kipling published ‘“Wireless”’, a mysterious story in which, while a chemist’s nephew is trying to pick up a signal on his wireless set, the chemist’s assistant takes medicine concocted by the narrator, who’s called in to see the ‘Marconi experiment’. The assistant, falling into a trance, starts to ‘compose’ fragments of poems by John Keats. In his diary for 1918, Kipling’s friend Rider Haggard quoted Kipling as saying: ‘We are only telephone wires.’[6]

Kipling-1905

(Rudyard Kipling in 1905: via BBC)

In his 1918 essay on Henry James, Pound wrote: ‘Artists are the antennae of the race’.[7] And Pound also had his rainmaking connections. He wrote in Canto 74:

‘I am noman, my name is noman’
but Wanjina is, shall we say, Ouan Jin
or the man with an education
and whose mouth was removed by his father
because he made too many things

‘Noman’ refers to the Greek ‘ou tis’ (no man or nobody), used by Odysseus to trick the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey. Ouan Jin—Chinese, ‘man of letters’—is rhymed with Wondjina, a rain god in Australian Aboriginal mythology. Later in the same Canto, Pound refers to the legend of Wagadu, the city destroyed four times, by vanity, falsehood, greed and dissension: reconstructed once more, it will live ‘now in the mind indestructible’.[8]

African_Genesis

That story, ‘Gassire’s Lute’, was included in African Genesis:[9] Douglas Fox, who co-wrote it with by the German anthropologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius, told Pound of an old man who explained to him that, had Wondjina’s father not removed his mouth, his people would have been burdened with ‘the glittering claptrap of the white man’s culture’, unable to devote themselves to ‘the important things of life: conversation, dancing, hunting and warfare.’[10]

But wait a moment – yes, the rain has stopped. Again. Ah, and started again. I shall put a notice in the window, next to the election poster: ‘No rainmaker required’.

 

References

[1] Upward, The Divine Mystery: A Reading of the History of Christianity Down to the Time of Christ (Garden City Press, 1913; Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson, with an introduction by Robert Duncan, 1976).

[2] The New Freewoman, 15 November 1913; reprinted in Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 373; this volume also includes Pound’s 1914 essay ‘Allen Upward Serious’, 377-382.

[3] The Divine Mystery, 13.

[4] Upward quoted in Wallace Martin’s The New Age Under Orage: Chapters in English Cultural History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967), 34.

[5] The Divine Mystery, 376.

[6] Collected in Traffics and Discoveries (1904; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987), edited by Hermione Lee, 181-199. See her notes on the story, 331-334, citing Haggard and including a wealth of other interesting material.

[7] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 297.

[8] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 426-427, 430.

[9] Leo Frobenius and Douglas C. Fox, African Genesis (1937; New York: Dover, 1999), 97-110.

[10] See the notes to Richard Sieburth’s edition of The Pisan Cantos (New York: New Directions, 2003), 120-121.

 

 

Imagined past or possible future

Newspaper_reader

(Adolph von Menzel, via https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/)

Three days to the General Election. The true state of the parties is curiously opaque, though the current movement in the polls is reflected in the increasingly hysterical headlines in the Tory newspapers. (It’s been a marked feature of the past few weeks that the Conservatives have concentrated almost entirely on negative campaigning, using primarily personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn.)

There are still, it seems, great numbers of voters undecided or switching from one side to the other. Such fickleness is baffling to those who’ve long ago made up their mind. There have been elections in the past where there seemed—not nothing to choose between the parties but certainly not enough—though it’s not true of this one. The futures envisaged on either side are radically different. A lot of it’s to do with the EU referendum, no doubt. Political allegiance in the United Kingdom may still be tribal but not in the old ways: the divisions are different, sharper, fiercer, more extreme.

The choice now seems quite clearly to be between a vote for an imagined past—or one for a possible positive future.

 

 

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.