‘Camerado! this is no book’

walt-whitman

Walt Whitman—‘an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos’[1]
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/walt-whitman

‘Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man’—Walt Whitman, ‘So Long!’[2]

In the summer of 1945, a prisoner in the Disciplinary Training Center in Pisa, Ezra Pound, at the end of his tether (‘au bout de mes forces’), came across a copy of The Pocket Book of Verse, edited by Morris Speare and first published in 1940:

That from the gates of death
that from the gates of death: Whitman or Lovelace
found on the jo-house seat at that
in a cheap edition! [and thanks to Professor Speare]
hast’ou swum in a sea of air strip
through an aeon of nothingness,
when the raft broke and the waters went over me[3]

In April 1913, Pound had published ‘A Pact’.

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.[4]

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a poet who will throw you a lifeline thirty years later. One can see why Pound was included in the list of those ‘arbiters of current taste’ that, in John Berryman’s words, ‘have generally now declared themselves in favour of Whitman; but always reluctantly and with a certain resentment or even contempt. I am not,’ Berryman goes on, ‘able to feel these reservations myself’, and then: ‘I like or love Whitman unreservedly’.[5]

Randall Jarrell (never better than when he is enthusing about someone or something) wrote that: ‘To show Whitman for what he is one does not need to praise or explain or argue, one needs simply to quote.’ Jarrell does, at length and with great effect. And again, ‘Not many poets have written better, in queerer and more convincing and more individual language, about the world’s gliding wonders’. And again, ‘In modern times, what controlling, organising, selecting poet has created a world with as much in it as Whitman’s, a world that so plainly is the world?’ Perhaps just one more: ‘The thereness and suchness of the world are incarnate in Whitman as they are in few other writers.’[6]
claude-cahun-sylvia-beach

(Sylvia Beach 1919 by Claude Cahun, via http://www.artnet.fr/)

Sylvia Beach (proprietor of Shakespeare & Co., first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses), wrote of her Aunt Agnes visiting Whitman in Camden, where manuscripts were strewn all over the floor. Her aunt was with a friend, Alys Smith, who later married Bertrand Russell. Earlier visitors had included Henry Thoreau who, on 10 November 1849, went to Brooklyn with Bronson Alcott to meet Whitman, while, according to one of Whitman’s biographers, Bram Stoker also paid a visit and later ‘used Whitman as the model for the murderous count in Dracula’.[7]

It’s just short of 200 years since Walt Whitman was born, 31 May, at West Hills, Long Island; 162 since his copyright was registered (15 May 1855) and 795 copies of Leaves of Grass printed, 200 of them with embossed green cover and gilded lettering, while the remainder were bound more cheaply.[8]

Walt-Whitman-2

(Walt Whitman: via The Guardian)

He was prolific, sometimes heroic, sometimes verbose, sometimes ridiculous, often magnificent. I tend towards Berryman’s sentiment here: unreservedly, why not? Jarrell is not uncritical—‘only a man with the most extraordinary feel for language, or none whatsoever, could have cooked up Whitman’s worst messes’—but he grasps what is perhaps the salient point about Whitman: while we are too often steered towards ‘gems’, the glittering phrases, the quotable lines, some poets need to be approached and seen and held more largely. Quoting section 36 of Song of Myself, Jarrell comments: ‘There are faults in this passage, and they do not matter’.[9] Yes. (It occurs to me at this juncture that, setting these three—Whitman, Berryman, Jarrell—together, I achieve not only an assembly of fine poets but a trio, a triumvirate, a trinity of profusely bearded Americans.)

JohnBerryman_TomBerthiaume  RandallJarrell_poets.org

(John Berryman; Randall Jarrell; both via Academy of American Poets (https://www.poets.org/): John Berryman photo credit: Tom Berthiaume)

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.[10]

‘If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles’, Whitman wrote towards the end of ‘Song of Myself’. And again: ‘Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.’[11]

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)[12]

And he does. As we do, which is really the point.

There is a wonderful resource, the Walt Whitman Archive, at: http://www.whitmanarchive.org/
Co-directed by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price and published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it offers published works, letters, manuscripts, biography, criticism, pictures, Civil War notebooks and journalism, and much else. They have also digitized—good grief—the whole nine volumes of Horace Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden.

 

References

[1] Song of Myself (1855 edition), printed as Appendix 4 of Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 698.

[2] Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, 513.

[3] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 512-513. The last lines refer to the sequence in The Odyssey (Book V) where Odysseus, having left Calypso’s island on a raft, is shipwrecked through the malice of the god Poseidon and saved through the intervention of the goddess Leucothea.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations (New York: Library of America, 2003), 269.

[5] Berryman, ‘“Song of Myself”: Intention and Substance’, in The Freedom of the Poet (New York: Farrar. Straus & Giroux, 1976), 227.

[6] Jarrell, Poetry and the Age ([1955] London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 107, 110, 119, 122.

[7] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, new edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 20; Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 422-426, 445.

[8] Paul Zweig, Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986), 231.

[9] Jarrell, Poetry and the Age, 110, 116.

[10] Whitman, Song of Myself, Section 4. This is the 1891-1892 ‘deathbed’ edition, in Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, 66-67.

[11] Song of Myself, Section 52; and the last lines: The Complete Poems, 124.

[12] Song of Myself, Section 51: The Complete Poems, 123.

 

‘Decent provision for the poor’

foodbank

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/food-banks-hidden-uk-poverty-hundreds-independent-food-aid-network-trussel-trust-a7762576.html

Between 1st April 2016 and 31st March 2017, The Trussell Trust’s Foodbank Network provided 1,182,954 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis compared to 1,109,309 in 2015-16. Of this number, 436,938 went to children.

https://www.trusselltrust.org/2017/04/25/uk-foodbank-use-continues-rise/

‘Where a great proportion of the people (said he,) are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization’ (1770)—James Boswell, Life of Johnson

Oh, Doctor Johnson, you . . .  Tory!

 

 

Poppies by the million

Poppy.2

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

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

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

Poppy_Field_Near_Argenteuil

(Claude Monet, Poppy Field Near Argentuil)

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

Spencer, Stanley, 1891-1959; Poppies

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

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

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

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

ending:

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

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

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

Rosenberg, Isaac, 1890-1918; Isaac Rosenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how Alice Oswald renders that passage:

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

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

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

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

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

Also.Poppy

One more Poppy. . . .

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Furious fancies: defence in Bedlam

Hogarth_Scene-in-Bedlam
(‘Scene in Bedlam’: Plate VIII of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress.)

Hearing politicians declaim about ‘defence’ these days often puts me in mind of the anonymous poem, ‘Tom a Bedlam’ or ‘Tom o’Bedlam’s Song’, probably dating from the early seventeenth century if not before. Its last two verses are:

With an host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander.
With a burning spear
And a horse of Air,
To the wilderness I wander.

By a knight of ghosts and shadows,
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond
The wild world’s end-
Methinks it is no journey.[1]

Phantasmal armies; equally phantasmal foes. Knowing the reality of what actually threatens us now, who are these enemies that can be defeated or discouraged by a massively expensive and inevitably anachronistic nuclear weapons system?

Following Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in the wake of the mass murder in Manchester, Theresa May, other Tories and the right-wing tabloids launched a predictable attack.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/may/26/may-puts-manchester-bombing-at-heart-of-election-with-attack-on-corbyn

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/26/jeremy-corbyn-making-excuses-terror-attacks-theresa-may-says/

It’s only too possible that Michael Fallon didn’t wholly grasp what Mr Corbyn actually said. Certainly, on Channel 4 News, he dismissed a statement simply because he believed it to be by Jeremy Corbyn when in fact it was a quote from Boris Johnson. Theresa May would have understood what Jeremy Corbyn was saying but chose to wilfully misrepresent him, safe in the knowledge that most people would not have seen the text of his speech, and that a great many voters’ grasp of defence policy is hardly nuanced or anything much more than a drowsy assumption that Trident is something to do with an intelligent ‘defence policy’—rather than expressing a determination of the ‘size matters’ lobby to stay at the big table of the Security Council of the United Nations.

Trident-via

http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/peace/trident-the-uks-nuclear-weapons-system

The primary misrepresentation was to pretend that Mr Corbyn had claimed that the Manchester atrocity and other terrorist acts were solely due to British foreign policy (though that pretence also entailed an apparent unfamiliarity with the English language’s distinction between ‘excuse’ and ‘explanation’). Neither he nor anyone else worth attending to would claim that this country’s foreign policy was the only factor but it would be naïve, misinformed or, frankly, deliberately misleading to claim that there is no connection whatsoever.[2]

Jeremy Corbyn actually said (in what was a perfectly reasonable and rational response): ‘We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.
‘That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.
‘But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.
‘Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.
‘Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone.’
‘And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre. But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.’
‘So, let the quality of our debate, over the next fortnight, be worthy of the country we are proud to defend. Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror.’

But it seems that we can’t do that in this country. We have to impugn, we have to dilute, we have to posture.

I am always busily resisting the temptation to align myself—mutatis mutandis—with the Major in J. G. Farrell’s novel Troubles, set during the Irish War of Independence:

‘The Major only glanced at the newspaper these days, tired of trying to comprehend a situation which defied comprehension, a war without battles or trenches. Why should one bother with the details: the raids for arms, the shootings of policemen, the intimidations? What could one learn from the details of chaos? Every now and then, however, he would become aware with a feeling of shock that, for all its lack of pattern, the situation was different, and always a little worse.’[3]

References

[1] Famously, this poem inspired Kenneth Patchen’s extraordinary 1941 novel, The Journal of Albion Moonlight.
[2] Shiraz Maher, ‘In the minds of the murderers’, New Statesman, 26 May—1 June 2017, 24.
[3] J. G. Farrell, Troubles (1970; London: Flamingo Books, 1984), 169.

 

Dawn chorus and aubades

Woken by the bird chorus at 04:15, I note that it’s a new record for this month, having previously been woken at 05:15 and 04:45. They’ll be waking me the previous evening before too long. Since we are still, so to speak, between cats, we have—with curious logic—set up a bird table in our small back garden. The regular visitors are blackbirds, blue tits, and beautiful—if omnivorous and scavenging—magpies, plus the occasional sparrow. Perhaps this dawn choir is an expression of avian gratitude.

Magpie_rspb.org

(Magpie via https://www.rspb.org.uk/ )

There was a distinct dawn-related genre in Provençal troubadour literature: the aube or aubade, poems or songs announcing, or in praise of, the dawn—though the Troubadour poets sometimes lamented the dawn’s arrival since it meant the parting of the lovers.

The appeal of first light (or, sometimes, darkness) has endured. Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ begins: ‘I work all day, and get half-drunk at night./ Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.’[1]

The first stanza of William Empson’s fine ‘Aubade’ runs:

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.[2]

(Nine more stanzas with just a bare handful of run-on lines; also a quite intricate pattern of repetition.)

Empson_via_New_Directions

(William Empson via New Directions Publishing)

Ezra Pound’s second book, A Quinzaine for this Yule, was dedicated to ‘The Aube of the West Dawn’; he wrote and translated several aubades.

In No More Parades (the second of the volumes of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End), Sylvia Tietjens has turned up at the Rouen base camp where her husband Christopher is charged with moving troops up the line.

He added: “I shall have to be up in camp before four-thirty to-morrow morning. . . . ”
Sylvia could not resist saying:
“Isn’t there a poem . . . Ah me, the dawn, the dawn, it comes too soon! . . . said of course by lovers in bed? . . . Who was the poet?”
[ . . . ]
[Tietjens] then said in his leisurely way:
“There were a great many poems with that refrain in the Middle Ages…. You are probably thinking of an albade by Arnaut Daniel, which someone translated lately. . . . An albade was a song to be sung at dawn when, presumably, no one but lovers would be likely to sing. . . . ”
“Will there,” Sylvia asked, “be anyone but you singing up in your camp to-morrow at four?”[3]

The lines that Sylvia quotes are most likely from Pound’s ‘Alba Innominata’, a translation based on the anonymous Provençal poem, ‘En un vergier sotz fue’. Its five verses and ‘Envoi’ all end (apart from one slight variation) with the line ‘Ah God! Ah God! That dawn should come so soon!’[4]

Lark_in_Morning_

Ford and Pound had met in April 1909, through the novelist May Sinclair, and Pound’s third volume, Personae, appeared in that same month. His first important periodical publication in this country was in the pages of the English Review, edited by Ford: ‘Sestina: Altaforte’, in the issue of June 1909. ‘Alba Innominata’ was included in Pound’s next volume, Exultations, published in October 1909.

At the end of 1920, Pound and his wife Dorothy moved to Paris and, in late 1922, Ford and Stella Bowen also moved to France, first to St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, then Paris. In early 1925, they took a cottage in the village of Guermantes, about an hour’s train travel from Paris. No More Parades was begin in October 1924 and, in that same month, Pound and his wife Dorothy moved permanently to Rapallo, in Italy

Six years after his novel was published, Ford would recall Pound’s early years in London when the poet, ‘looking down his nose would chuckle like Mephistopheles and read you a translation from Arnaut Daniel. The only part of that albade that you would understand would be the refrain: “Ah me, the darn, the darn it comes toe sune!”’[5]

 

References

[1] Larkin, Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite (East St Kilda: The Marvell Press and London: Faber, 2003), 190.

[2] Empson’s poem is taken from Contemporary Verse, edited by Kenneth Allott (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1950), 157.

[3] Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 134-135.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations (New York: Library of America, 2003), 120; and see Richard Sieburth’s note, 1262.

[5] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 388.

Poor Jamie, poor Gérard

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

Belle_van_Zuylen,_attributed_to_Guillaume_de_Spinny

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

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

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

Nadar_Daumier

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

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

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

Félix_Nadar_1820-1910_portraits_Gérard_de_Nerval

(Nadar: portrait of Gérard de Nerval)

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

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

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

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

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

Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

[4] Holmes, Footsteps, 213.

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

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

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

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

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

Apocalyptic frames of reference

Walking home the back way, two sourdough loaves from Mark’s bakery in my rucksack, the warmth of them pressed into the small of my back, not unpleasant even on a humid morning. The back way, in this instance, runs past a small trading estate, along a shared path (cyclists and pedestrians) and beside a stretch of the Malago River which, at this point, is a stream, a brook, a brooklet.

(On the Malago, see https://malago.wordpress.com/ )

As in many areas accessible to the public but a little off the beaten track—though hardly limited to those—rubbish is often scattered here, behind or against fences and walls, tossed into undergrowth, even dropped into the water. Volunteer teams of local residents regularly get together and clear this stuff but the relief is only ever temporary.

If other species fouled their own habitats in such a reckless and incontinent manner, we would, I suspect, view their extinction as both inevitable and deserved. The guano of cormorants eventually ‘fouls the nest colony’ but they shift their location, presumably because of this.[1] Human fouling is on a larger scale entirely, its effects reaching far beyond crowded and polluted cities to oceans, coral reefs, distant islands:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/15/38-million-pieces-of-plastic-waste-found-on-uninhabited-south-pacific-island

It’s also, of course, indefensible, since we know the effects of our behaviour but refuse to modify it—and shifting our location is not a practicable option.

Ernst_Europe

(Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1940-1942: © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT)

There have been countless works, in all media, of an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic strain. Freakish weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and, increasingly over the past few decades, nuclear war, though the actual cause of the catastrophe is often left unspecified, the primary interest, from the writer’s point of view, being generally in the aftermath, the physical transformation together with the political, social and psychological conditions arising from it. And there have been some extraordinary works, from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man through Richard Jefferies’ After London to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

An apocalyptic frame of mind prompts other reflections. One that’s occurred to me several times over the years relates to our increased reliance on technology: is there a corresponding increase in our vulnerability in the event of that technology’s failure—whether through data corruption or the actions of hostile forces? If those things that we rely on—the internet, email, mobile phones—failed, how long would it take for the unease, anxiety, frustration, fear, to turn into more aggressive and destructive reactions?

Then there’s that oft-cited ‘thin line’ between civilisation and barbarism; and the obvious fact—though perhaps it’s not obvious to everyone—that, while it takes many decades, centuries, millennia, to build a civilisation, it takes very little time to destroy it:

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal[2]

It’s true in other contexts too, as vast as civilisations, as small as personal relationships: building is slow and often difficult while destroying is quick and usually easy—and thus well-suited to certain types of character and types of mind. Guy Davenport remarked that humans’ advantages over their fellow creatures ‘are all mechanical and therefore dependent on the education of each generation: meaning that an intervening generation of barbarians destroys all that has been carefully accumulated for centuries.’[3]

GD_Geography

That fragility of the civilised state is a topic of extraordinary interest to writers. In a novel published well before the First World War, Arnold Bennett wrote of humanity walking ever ‘on a thin crust over terrific abysses.’[4] John Buchan, in a book that actually appeared during that war (though written in 1913), has his brilliant arch-villain Lumley say: ‘You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.’[5] A few years later, another of his characters, John Heritage, tells Dickson McCunn that he ‘learned in the war that civilization anywhere is a very thin crust.’[6] Fifteen years after the Armistice, Ford Madox Ford, who had served in the British army in France, wrote of it having been revealed to him that ‘beneath Ordered Life itself was stretched, the merest film with, beneath it, the abysses of Chaos. One had come from the frail shelters of the Line to a world that was more frail than any canvas hut.’[7]

FMF_IWN

Rudyard Kipling, too, influenced by ‘the Hindu concept of maya (or illusion)’, Andrew Lycett suggests, ‘came to regard civilisation as a fragile edifice’,[8] while J. G. Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, convinced of the ‘solid layer of savagery beneath the surface of society’, asserted that ‘we seem to move on a thin crust which may at any moment be rent by the subterranean forces slumbering below’.[9]

 This cheerful frame of mind can probably be partly blamed on my recent rereading of Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains. I read her first six novels within a few months, decades ago; and most of her other books at more widely-spaced points over many more years. One or two of the (much) later novels were more appreciated critically but I suspect I liked the earlier ones more, for all their imperfections (not that those were evident to me). I liked them firstly because I found them out entirely by myself; and because I hadn’t come across anything similar at that stage. I particularly liked Heroes and Villains because it was even more unfamiliar to me than Carter’s other books. Unlike several of my friends at that time, I’d never contracted the science fiction or fantasy habit.

It was reading New Worlds, then edited by Michael Moorcock and frequently including work by J. G. Ballard, that was a significant factor in Carter’s writing Heroes and Villains, between January 1968 and January 1969, often working for twelve hours a day on her ‘post-apocalyptic fairy tale’.[10]

‘The roads were arteries which no longer sprang from a heart. Once the cities were gone, the roads reverted to an older function; they were used for the most existential kind of travelling, that nomadic peregrination which is an end in itself.’[11]

Reading the novel again after so many years, things were visible to me that hadn’t been then, of course, and no doubt there are some autobiographical elements that criticism and biography has since traced out. But my own impressions were, firstly, that it’s a very consciously written book, its effects quite deliberately worked out; secondly, that it’s thickly populated with ideas and theories and propositions from the books she was reading at the time; thirdly, and most strikingly, the palpable sense of liberation. That sense often emerges in the work of a writer (or painter or composer) who’s realised that he or she is not bound by genres or classifications: the novel can be both realistic and fantastic; it can be poetic and prosaic; it can include references to classical literature and popular culture; it can provoke expectations and frustrate them; it can conform in some ways to quite recognisable generic rules—such as fairy tale—but can, at the same time, explore the most vital contemporary concerns, sexual politics, social anthropology, linguistics, environmental science.

Unsurprisingly, I noticed literary references that I wouldn’t have caught before: one of the Barbarian mothers wears ‘a dead wrist watch on her arm, purely for decoration; it was a little corpse of time having stopped for good and all at ten to three one distant and forgotten day’ (Heroes and Villains 44). Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ famously ends: ‘oh! yet / Stands the Church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?’ and it’s a choice replete with ironies (some of them Brooke’s). Later in the book, after Marianne has rescued Jewel from drowning himself in the sea, ‘Water streamed from his hair and his soaked clothes stuck to him, the gaunt survivor of a shipwreck, his eyes momentarily blind as pearls’ (Heroes and Villains 143), which surely waves to The Waste Land again—‘(Those are pearls that were his eyes)’: The Waste Land, l.257—which is itself quoting The Tempest (I.ii.401).

Near_Thing_Captain_Najork

But there are hazards to reference-hunting: having made a reasonable case for a phrase in the early pages of the novel faintly echoing Bob Dylan’s ‘Outlaw Blues’—Bringing It All Back Home was released in 1965, Carter’s novel in 1969, so it’s at least feasible—I then  attempted to convince myself that the tone and crispness of several other phrases were surely reminiscent of similar instances in two superb children’s books by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Quentin Blake: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen and A Near Thing for Captain Najork. I was saved from such delusions by chronology: the first was published in 1974, the second a year later.

It’s a dangerous path. . .

 

References

[1] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, in Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 37.

[2] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922), ll. 371-376.

[3] Davenport, ‘The Symbol of the Archaic’, in The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 19.

[4] Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908; Penguin, 1983), 444.

[5] Buchan, The Power-House (1916; Edinburgh: B&W Publishing, 1993), 38.

[6] Buchan, Huntingtower (1922; edited by Anne Stonehouse, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 116.

[7] Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 49.

[8] Lycett, Rudyard Kipling (London: Weidenfeld, 1999), 3.

[9] Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, abridged edition (London: Macmillan, 1957), 73. The passage is quoted in the course of a discussion of Frazer’s significant influence on early modernist writers by Helen Carr, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists (London: Cape 2009), 262-267.

[10] Edmund Gordon’s phrase in his The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), 118-119.

[11] Heroes and Villains (1969; London: Picador, 1972), 107.