Positive Blossoming

Blossom

A large bumble bee, having perhaps misread the calendar, veers about in our small garden. The plump, intellectually challenged grey cat, perched on a stone pillar, dabs in its general direction with an ineffectual paw. The grey cat is still in recovery mode, having all but fallen from the fence just now, scrabbling frantically, clutching and scraping, hauling itself back only to be plunged into embarrassment by finding me watching its antics from the kitchen table, where I sat over a fat volume.

‘“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,” I recall James Taylor singing over and over on the news radio station between updates on the 1978 Mandeville and Kanan fires, both of which started on October 23 of that year and could be seen burning toward each other, systematically wiping out large parts of Malibu and Pacific Palisades, from an upstairs window of my house in Brentwood.’[1]

Oddly, I’d been thinking of James Taylor myself the previous day, when I passed trees in the park already in blossom. I say ‘already’ but, if they were autumn cherry, they’d be blossoming fitfully from November to March. Almond blossom? Not sure.

Blossom, anyway. Meteorologically, spring has started, psychologically not so much, though, when the breeze quickens and becomes something else, the Romantics among us murmur: ‘O, Wind,/ If Winter comes/ Can Spring be far behind?’[2]

Sweet-baby-James

James Taylor’s ‘Blossom’ was the second track on the second side of his second album, Sweet Baby James, melodic and, as they say, reassuringly unthreatening, though not without its darker tints. It’s one of two tracks on the album—the other was ‘Country Road’—on which Randy Meisner, founder member of The Eagles, played bass.

The word ‘blossom’ is one of those whose syllables seem to act out the actions and qualities associated with it. Ivor Gurney wrote of his beloved Gloucestershire, ‘where Spring sends greetings before other less happy counties have forgotten Winter and the snow. Where the talk is men’s talk, and eyes of folk are as soft as the kind airs. The best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty content in security, strength quiet in confidence controlled, blood mixed of plain and hill, Welsh and English; are not these only of my county, my home?’ Though he added—he was writing to Marion Scott from near Tidworth in March 1916—‘And yet were I there the canker in my soul would taint all these.’[3]

Blossom fits with sweet reasonableness into contexts of ironic undercurrent and ambiguity, say, the final stanza of Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’:

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.[4]

And here is the narrator of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, blossom a part of his learning to read the English landscape and its complicated history:

‘When I grew to see the wild roses and hawthorn on my walk, I didn’t see the windbreak they grew beside as a sign of the big landowners who had left their mark on the solitude, had preserved it, had planted the woods in certain places (in imitation, it was said, of the positions at the battle of Trafalgar – or was it Waterloo?), I didn’t think of the landowners. My mood was purer: I thought of these single-petalled roses and sweet-smelling blossom at the side of the road as wild and natural growths.’[5]

Brett, Dorothy Eugenie, 1883-1977; D. H. Lawrence

Dorothy Brett, D. H. Lawrence
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

For D. H. Lawrence, it seems a symbol of a stage on the road to moral growth: ‘You have to suffer before you blossom in this life’, Lettie tells George in The White Peacock. ‘When death is just touching a plant, it forces it into a passion of flowering.’[6] His short story, ‘The Last Laugh’, centring on an encounter with Pan ends with a faint scent of almond blossom in the air[7]—and Pan is not only a recurrent element in Lawrence’s work but crops up all over the place at that time: from E. M. Forster to The Wind in the Willows. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, what Lawrence sees as our separation from the natural world finds blossom on the casualty list as he gets into his stride in the last year of his life:

‘Sex is the balance of male and female in the universe, the attraction, the repulsion, the transit of neutrality, the new attraction, the new repulsion, always different, always new. The long neuter spell of Lent, when the blood is low, and the delight of the Easter kiss, the sexual revel of spring, the passion of midsummer, the slow recoil, revolt, and grief of autumn, greyness again, then the sharp stimulus of winter, of the long nights. Sex goes through the rhythm of the year, in man and woman, ceaselessly changing: the rhythm of the sun in his relation to the earth.’ [ . . . ] This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table.’[8]

Cherry-Blossom-Japan-Guide

(Via www.japan-guide.com )

When it comes to national obsessions, some Western countries might do better to look to Japan: ‘Residents of Kochi Prefecture in the Shikoku region will be the first to see cherry blossoms of the Somei-Yoshino tree this year, as early as March 18, according to a forecast by an Osaka-based meteorological company that predicts Japan’s iconic sakura may bloom earlier than usual’, the Japan Times reported:
https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/01/15/national/cherry-blossoms-across-japan-forecast-arrive-earlier-usual-2019/#.XH-WyFP7RQM

I don’t pitch my own interest and enthusiasm quite that high but I’ll still lean towards the positive side: new growth, new life, new beauty. Some news as good news. ‘The positive side’—here, now, England, March 2019.

Remarkable.

 
References

[1] Joan Didion, ‘Fire Season’, in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), 656.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ode to the West Wind’, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), 574.

[3] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 75.

[4] Henry Reed, ‘Naming of Parts’, in Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007), 49.

[5] V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections (1987; London: Pan McMillan, 2002), 20.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, The White Peacock (1911; Cambridge University Press, edited by Andrew Robertson, Cambridge 1983), 28.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Last Laugh’, in The Collected Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (London: William Heinemann, 1974), 587-602.

[8] D. H. Lawrence, ‘A Propos of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, in Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence, Collected and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (London: William Heinemann, 1968), 504.

 

That terrible word ‘genius’

Gimme-Shelter

(Image from the website called, yes, www.genius.com )

Listening again to the opening riff of the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, I think: ‘This is genius’. Coming up to fifty years ago—it was the opening track on Let It Bleed (1969)—Keith Richards playing an open tuning on a Maton EG240 Supreme, which he was ‘looking after’ for a friend. It sounded great, Richards said, although, on the very last note of Gimme Shelter, ‘the whole neck fell off. You can hear it on the original take.’ (www.guitarworld.com) If your guitar needs looking after, leave it with Keith.

‘This is genius’. If that statement doesn’t conjure up the phrase, ‘Excellency, a few goats’, you probably don’t spend a disproportionate amount of your time on such curious characters as Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad. Ford is writing here of himself in the third person: ‘But no sooner had he got the words on the paper than Conrad burst into one of his roars of ecstasy. “This,” he shouted when he was in a condition to speak, “is genius!” And out of breath, exhausted and rolling on the sofa, he continued to gasp, “Genius I … This is genius…. That’s what it is. Pure genius…. Genius, I tell you!” The writer agreed that it was genius—for the sake of peace!’[1]

Romance

The occasion for this outburst was Ford’s reading to his collaborator a sentence written ‘in a quite commonplace frame of mind’, to ‘provide an obscure Lugareño [local, villager] with a plausible occupation’ – the man is being interrogated by the judge as to how he makes his living – hence the reply: ‘“Excellency—a few goats. . . . ”’[2] In Ford’s telling, Conrad recurred to this example of writerly precision and concision with great frequency for years afterwards.

goats
http://www.bristol.ac.uk/policybristol/policy-briefings/sheep-and-goat/

‘Genius’ – or, as Ford termed it elsewhere, ‘that terrible word “genius”’. He had, after all, come out of ‘the hot-house atmosphere of Pre-Raphaelism where I was being trained for a genius.’[3] Fondly recalling his grandfather once more, forty years after Ford Madox Brown’s death, he wrote: ‘He was, I imagine, the best, the most honorable, the most generous, and the most optimistic of men. For him all geese were swans and all his children and grandchildren geniuses. That was what he asked of life—and to be allowed to go on working.’[4]

Terrible the word may have been but it recurs with striking frequency in Ford’s work (and the work of a great many others too, it’s only fair to add). It certainly did the rounds of the circle of fellow-writers with whom Ford was more usually associated. In 1913, he would note Henry James’s application of the phrase ‘the beautiful genius’ to Ivan Turgenev; in 1927, he would apply the same phrase to Stephen Crane and also referred to Conrad in just that way.[5]

Brett, Dorothy Eugenie, 1883-1977; D. H. Lawrence

(D. H. Lawrence by Dorothy Brett © National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

D. H. Lawrence too found himself in the firing-line. In ‘Autobiographical Sketch’, he recalled showing the manuscript of his first novel, The White Peacock, to Ford, who read it immediately. ‘And in his queer voice, when we were in an omnibus in London, he shouted in my ear: “It’s got every fault that the English novel can have.”’ Lawrence remarks that, ‘Just then the English novel was supposed to have so many faults, in comparison with the French, that it was hardly allowed to exist at all. “But,” shouted Hueffer in the ’bus, “you’ve got GENIUS.”’ Lawrence goes on to say that, ‘This made me want to laugh, it sounded so comical. In the early days they were always telling me I had got genius, as if to console me for not having their own incomparable advantages.
‘But Hueffer didn’t mean that. I always thought he had a bit of genius himself.’[6]

So did Ford’s friend Olive Garnett, who unleashed the offending word in a diary entry of March 1892. Commenting on a man named Henry Cecil Sturt, who worked at the British Museum, she wrote: “I couldn’t help contrasting him & Ford & the two arguments. He representing solid worth, clear & elaborate construction; Ford, unreliability, inaccuracy &—genius . . . ’[7]

Ezra Pound seemed not to have any problem with the word, writing home in 1908: ‘You have my hearty sympathy for having possibility of genius in the family but I suppose it cant be helped.’[8] And he would supply a lucid enough explanation for that quality in the Roman poet Propertius:

Yet you ask on what account I write so many love lyrics
And whence this soft book comes into my mouth.
Neither Calliope nor Apollo sung these things into my ear,
My genius is no more than a girl.

The poet goes on to enlarge upon this:

Cynthia

If she with ivory fingers drive a tune through the lyre,
We look at the process.
How easy the moving fingers; if hair is mussed on her forehead,
If she goes in a gleam of Cos, in a slither of dyed stuff,
There is a volume in the matter; if her eyelids sink into sleep,
There are new jobs for the author;
And if she plays with me with her shirt off,
We shall construct many Iliads.
And whatever she does or says
We shall spin long yarns out of nothing.[9]

Towards the end of his life, Ford specified one danger of using the word in connection with writers: ‘Really to account for how Jane Austen and Richardson achieved their masterpieces one has to resort to the very dangerous expedient of saying that they must have been natural geniuses. That is dangerous because once you make the concession the whole cry of hounds of the professorio-academic pack will be on your back, shouting: “You see, when it comes to real works of art this fellow has to admit that they can only be produced autochthonously—by writers and others who follow no traditions and know no aesthetic law.” With the corollary that artists who do follow traditions and aesthetic rules are dull fellows whom nobody loves.’[10]

Danger, genius at work! Yes, explanations are not always forthcoming or particularly helpful when they do arrive. Hugh Kenner remarks that ‘the biographer’s is the tested American strategy for doing something about unassimilable phenomena like Howard Hughes and literary genius.’[11] The dictionary can help with that one – ‘assimilable’: able to be taken fully into the mind; or made similar; or received and accepted fully into a group.

With this word in mind, I circle back to Lawrence, who had his faults but also, we remember, genius. Here he is, writing in 1921: ‘The moment has come when America, that extremist in world-assimilation and world-oneness, is reacting into violent egocentricity, a truly Amerindian egocentricity. As sure as fate we are on the brink of American empire.’[12]

Ah, on the brink. Yes, we’ve all been there, I think.

 

References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 147.

[2] Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, Romance: A Novel (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1903), 395.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 101, 195. The terrible word appears on at least thirty pages of the book.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Pre-Raphaelite Epitaph’, The Saturday Review of Literature, X, 27 (20 January 1934), 418.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Henry James: A Critical Study (London: Martin Secker, 1914), 10; New York Essays (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1927), 21; Joseph Conrad, 32.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence, Collected and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (London: William Heinemann, 1968), 593, 594.

[7] Olive Garnett, Tea and Anarchy! The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1890-1893, edited by Barry C. Johnson (London: Bartletts Press, 1989), 71.

[8] Ezra Pound to His Parents: Letters 1895–1929, edited by Mary de Rachewiltz, David Moody and Joanna Moody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 125.

[9] ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ (V, ii), Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 534.

[10] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), 595-596.

[11] Hugh Kenner, ‘Literary Biographies’, in Historical Fictions (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 47.

[12] D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997): Sea and Sardinia, 91.

 

Still feeling the heat – but smelling the rain

Sultry-month

It was ‘the hottest summer month that anyone could remember. For the first twenty-two days of the month the average day temperature was 84° in the shade, 105° in the sun. Kent had had six weeks without rain and midday temperatures of 104° to 116°.’ Alethea Hayter is writing here, in A Sultry Month, about June 1846, though the period covered by her book extends over the first two weeks of July as well.

It was, she adds, ‘murderous weather. Wherrymen, out in boats on the Thames all day, died of sunstroke; farm-labourers died of heat-stroke after a day’s mowing; many people all over the country were drowned while bathing.’ But there were also ‘sudden and violent storms all over the country, many people were killed by lightning, in some places the very air smelt of fire, and the raindrops that fell were the largest ever seen.’[1]

It’s been murderous weather enough in Greece and Japan, to name but two. Still, we tend to look at temperatures with a comparative eye. Only 86°F? In the past few days, I see that Arizona has been running up temperatures of 111° while Basra recorded 45C (113°F). But in 1846 there was no refrigeration; workers’ rights were minimal or non-existent; and in many places the water was quite unfit to drink: a Royal Commission, reporting in 1844 and 1845, inquired among much else into the water-supply of fifty large towns and found that it was good in only six cases.[2]

As for the dangers—no sun cream and no health professionals advising you to slap it on. Half a century after Hayter’s sultry month, Roy Porter notes, the Danish physician Niels Finsen (1860-1904) suggested ‘that ultraviolet rays were bactericidal, and so could be useful against conditions like lupus. Many early hospital radiology departments provided both radiation and ultraviolet light therapy, and Finsen’s researches stimulated high-altitude tuberculosis sanatoria and inspired the unfortunate belief that sun-tans were healthy.’[3]

Sun-tans. Sunbaths. Sun. In his story of that title, D. H. Lawrence writes of a woman and her child sent away to the sun. ‘It was not just taking sunbaths. It was much more than that. Something deep inside her unfolded and relaxed, and she was given.’ Naked by the cypress trees when the husband, in his suit and tie, returns after many weeks. ‘She had always been mistress of herself, aware of what she was doing, and held tense for her own power. Now she felt inside her quite another sort of power, something greater than herself, flowing by itself. Now she was vague, but she had a power beyond herself.’ She becomes intimate with a peasant, seen from a distance—though her next child will be her husband’s.[4]

‘It is strange how different the sun-dried, ancient, southern slopes of the world are, from the northern slopes’, Lawrence wrote in another context. ‘It is as if the god Pan really had his home among these sun-bleached stones and tough, sun-dark trees. And one knows it all in one’s blood, it is pure, sun-dried memory.’[5]

Lawrences-Bynner-Teotihuacan-1923

D. H. Lawrence, Frieda and Witter Bynner at Teotihuacan, Mexico, 1923: site of the Pyramid of the Sun

He was not always so positive about the beneficial effects of the sun. Immediately following ‘Sun’ in the Collected Stories is ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’: the sun reaching a certain point in the sky is the moment at which the woman will be sacrificed under the knife of the old priest. ‘The Shadow in the Rose Garden’ has a woman encountering her ex-lover Archie, the rector’s son, now a lunatic after contracting sunstroke during military service in Africa.

Rupert Brooke’s death from blood poisoning in 1915 was first reported as sunstroke. Lawrence attributed this to the sun-god, Phoebus Apollo: ‘He was slain by bright Phoebus shaft – it was in keeping with his general sunniness [ . . . ] Bright Phoebus smote him down. It is all in the saga.’[6]

In Patrick White’s Voss, Laura Trevelyan takes charge of Rose Portion’s baby. Her relationship with the child wonderfully exemplifies Laura’s own complex and courageous character: ‘They were the baby’s days. There was a golden fuzz of morning in the garden. She could not bring herself to tread upon the tender flesh of rose petals that were showered at her feet. To avoid this, she would walk round by another way, though it meant running the gauntlet of the sun. Then her duty was most delicious. She was the living shield, that rejoiced to deflect the most savage blows. Other pains, of desert suns, of letters unwritten, of the touch of his man’s hands, with their queer pronounced finger-joints, would fluctuate, as she carried her baby along the golden tunnels of light.’[7]

Vlaminck-maisons-et-arbres

Maurice de Vlaminck, Maisons et Arbres, 1906.

Julian Barnes remarks that Fauvism was ‘all about heat’ and that ‘the journey towards analytic and then synthetic cubism also plays out in terms of temperature.’ Fauvism ‘is all pinks and mauves, with shouty blues and hilarious oranges: the sun is ferocious, whatever the sky in the picture may pretend.’ Classical Cubism was suspicious of colour, Braque embracing rich browns, greens, greys. ‘By 1910-11 you could have any colour you liked, so long as it was grey, brown or beige.’[8]

HD-via-ND

(H. D. via New Directions)

‘O wind, rend open the heat’, H. D. wrote:

cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.

Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air—
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.

Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.[9]

But now the cloud is thickening and darkening, and the quickening wind smells of rain, all of this perfectly natural, since I’ve just watered the tomato plants. . .

 
References

[1] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 47.

[2] Llewellyn Woodward, The Age of Reform: 1815-1870, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 463.

[3] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 607.

[4] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Sun’, in The Collected Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (London: William Heinemann, 1974), 493-508.

[5] D. H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy, in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 163.

[6] Paul Delany, The Neo-Pagans: Friendship and Love in the Rupert Brooke Circle (London: Macmillan, 1987), 211; Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 330-331.

[7] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 247.

[8] Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015), 195.

[9] H. D., ‘Garden’, in Collected Poems 1912-1944, edited by Louis L. Martz (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1984), 25.

 

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.

 

Foxes, Graces, Fatal Flowers

Maitland, Paul Fordyce, 1863-1909; Boats Moored on the Thames

(Paul Fordyce Maitland, Boats Moored on the Thames: York Museums Trust)

On a cold and blue and almost cloudless day, I pass through the park, between the bobbing magpies. Once you recognise the sight and sound of them, they’re everywhere. In our small garden yesterday, I watched a magpie take into its beak three, four, five suet pellets, and was put in mind of the fox.

Six or seven years ago, looking out of the window of my mother’s first-floor flat in Sutton, I would sometimes see foxes jogging along beside the railway line, about fifty metres away. At the end of the short garden was a garage with a flat roof and the downstairs neighbour used to throw food up onto it. One morning a fox appeared there – the roof was accessible from a low wall nearby. It took up items of food into its long jaws, meat and vegetables, five, six, seven pieces and, at the last, added a whole egg. Then it made its way down off the roof and emerged at the side of the track, all the food still apparently in place, undamaged, before padding off in the direction of home where, presumably, its cubs were waiting.

There are times when something occupying our minds or strongly present for a while—and it might be anything, from a car, a song or a woman’s name to a painting, a terrace of houses or a body of writing—exerts a powerful centripetal force. Details of things seen or heard fly to it and stick like burrs. Sounds and sights, images, phrases, connect with an audible click.

Since I’m reading or, mostly, rereading Penelope Fitzgerald’s books at present, when I walked in the park yesterday and heard the skirl of bagpipes launching into ‘Amazing Grace’, it was enough to recall the novel I’d just finished. Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, is set on the barges moored on Chelsea Reach and is dedicated ‘To Grace and all who sailed in her’. Grace is the name of the central character Nenna James’s barge, as it was the name of Fitzgerald’s, ‘a battered, patched, caulked, tar-blackened hulk’. The ‘great consolation was that a Thames barge, because of the camber of the deck, never sinks completely.’ On this point, Fitzgerald remarked, she could ‘give evidence, because we went down twice, and on both occasions the deck stayed just above water’, although Grace was finally ‘towed away to the Essex marshes to be broken up.’[1] After one of those disasters, Fitzgerald ‘went back to her teaching the next day, looking more than usually dishevelled, and said to her class: “I’m sorry I’m late, but my house sank.”’[2]

Bavarian-Gentian

Similarly, thoughts of that fox recalled Fitzgerald’s letter in response to Frank Kermode’s review of her final novel, The Blue Flower, which centres on the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, who wrote as ‘Novalis’. ‘I hope you won’t mind me writing to thank you for your review of The Blue Flower. I started from D. H. Lawrence’s “fatal flower of happiness” at the end of The Fox, having always wondered how DHL knew it was blue, and never quite managed to find out all I wanted to, partly because Novalis’ letters to Sophie have disappeared, buried in her grave I daresay.’[3]

Kermode had written of Fitzgerald: ‘She has the gift of knowing, or seeming to know, everything necessary, and as it were knowing it from the inside, conveying it by gleams and fractions, leaving those who feel so disposed to make it explicit.’ And, of the object of Fritz’s quest, ‘The visionary blue flower dominates his imagination, but in the waking life of Fritz von Hardenberg the part of the flower was played by Sophie von Kühn’.[4]

Sophie was the twelve-year-old girl with whom the poet fell in love. They became engaged on her thirteenth birthday but she died of tuberculosis just two years later. Novalis himself died before reaching thirty.

The end of ‘The Fox’ has ‘poor March’ musing on how, ‘The more you reached after the fatal flower of happiness, which trembles so blue and lovely in a crevice just beyond your grasp, the more fearfully you became aware of the ghastly and awful gulf of the precipice below you, into which you will inevitably plunge, as into the bottomless pit, if you reach any further. You pluck flower after flower – it is never the flower.’[5]

And the ending of Offshore? The two weakest characters, drunk and more than usually incapable, drift off in the storm, when the anchor comes clear and the mooring-ropes pull free under the strain. ‘It was in this way that Maurice, with the two of them clinging on for dear life, put out on the tide.’[6]

A craft that should be firmly linked to those of its close neighbours becoming unmoored and drifting off into the open sea because of intoxicated incompetence. Not a fable for our time, obviously.

References

[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 477-478.

[2] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 158.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald to Frank Kermode, 3 October [1995], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 453.

[4] Frank Kermode, ‘Dark Fates’, review of The Blue Flower, London Review of Books, 17, 19 (5 October, 1995), 7.

[5] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Fox’, in The Complete Short Novels, edited by Keith Sagar and Melissa Partridge (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 203.

[6] Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore (1979; London: Everyman, 2003), 131.

 

Wintry discontents

Winter

It was St Matthew who observed that God ‘maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust’ (Matthew 5:45). Still, some people—very few of whom will fall into such clear-cut categories—get a lot more sun than others; or a lot more rain; or snow; or just weather, generally.

BBC weather reports mention strong winds disrupting events at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang; a tropical storm threatening the Phillipines; and, just over a week ago, the extreme weather in Moscow. The Russian capital had seen its heaviest snowfall in a day since records began, with more than 2000 trees brought down and air travel disrupted, according to official statements. This followed the breaking of another record in December, when the city registered the least amount of sunshine ever seen in a month there.

And here, in the mild South? Glumly dutiful rain today: no snow, of course (though more Northern parts of the country have had plenty), and it’s not even that cold. I turn the thermostat up one degree and it’s comfortable enough. But yes, some days lately have been pretty murky. ‘We just sat and grew older’, Frank Kermode recalled of his early naval experience in the Second World War, parked off the coast of Iceland, ‘as lightless winter followed nightless summer and the gales swept down the funnel of the fjord’.[1]

Patrick Hamilton was probably right to observe that, certainly in the twentieth century, ‘Wars, on the whole, are remembered by their winters.’[2] In the First World War, 1916-17 was claimed to be ‘the coldest winter in living memory.’[3] And the next year? Holidays for some. ‘Even in the doom-struck winter of 1917-18’, E. S. Turner observed, ‘British newspapers carried advertisements headed, “Where to Winter: Monte Carlo.”’[4]

Friedrich, Caspar David, 1774-1840; Winter Landscape

(Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape:
photo credit, The National Gallery)

In war or peace, though, winters take their toll, physically, financially, psychologically, emotionally. ‘Wynter wakeneth al my care’, an anonymous medieval (early fourteenth century) lyricist wrote – or sang, sighing and sorely mourning, ‘When hit cometh in my thoht / Of this worldes joie, hou it geth al to noht.’

Nou hit is, and nou hit nys,
Al so hit ner nere, ywys[5]

(Now it is and now it is not,
As though it had never been, indeed)

White-GWHouse

(http://gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/ )

It might well seem that the world’s joy (and much else) was pretty fleeting when the average life expectancy for a male child was not much more than thirty years. In later centuries, people would take a longer view: Gilbert White could look back almost the length of that medieval lifespan when, writing of the winter of 1767-8, he noted that there was ‘reason to believe that some days were more severe than any since the year 1739-40.’[6]

On to Victorian England, where the Reverend Francis Kilvert can record in his diary for Septuagesima Sunday, St Valentine’s Eve, 13 February 1870: ‘the hardest frost we have had yet.’ Arriving at the Chapel, he writes, ‘my beard moustaches and whiskers were so stiff with ice that I could hardly open my mouth and my beard was frozen on to my mackintosh.’[7]

Ah, that old beard and mackintosh combo.

VW-Hut-Int

A little later still: though Virginia Woolf defined ‘the greatest pleasure of town life in winter’ as ‘rambling the streets of London’,[8] the disquieting character of the first winter of the war certainly unsettled her. ‘It’s a queer winter—the worst I ever knew, & suitable for the war & all the rest of it’, she wrote in her diary for Friday 22 January 1915. And, three weeks later: ‘I am sure however many years I keep this diary, I shall never find a winter to beat this. It seems to have lost all self control.’[9]

It was in the winter of the next year that D. H. Lawrence retrospectively placed the apocalyptic moment from which there was no real coming back. ‘It was in 1915 the old world ended. In the winter of 1915-1916 the spirit of the old London collapsed, the city, in some way, perished, perished from being a heart of the world, and became a vortex of broken passions, lusts, hopes, fears, and horrors.’[10]

Lady_Ottoline_Morrell

(Ottoline Morrell by George Charles Beresford, 1864-1938)

That was through the eyes, or in the voice, of his protagonist, Richard Somers, still traumatised by his encounters with officialdom. Lawrence’s letters of the time are not, though, hugely different. To Harriet Monroe, he wrote on 15 September 1915:‘This is the real winter of the spirit in England.’ Less than two months later, though, to Ottoline Morrell, he wrote with—if not optimism, then at least a crack of light—‘There must be deep winter before there can be spring.’

DH-Lawrence

(D. H. Lawrence)

No, definitely not optimism. He is advising her to drift and let go. His postscript reads: ‘Only do not struggle – let go and become dark, quite dark.’[11]

References

[1] Frank Kermode, Not Entitled: A Memoir (London: Harper Collins, 1996), 125.

[2] Patrick Hamilton, The West Pier (1951; in The Gorse Trilogy, Black Spring Press, 2007), 30.

[3] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 94.

[4] E. S. Turner, Dear Old Blighty (London: Michael Joseph 1980), 49.

[5] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 9, 10.

[6] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (1789; London: Macmillan, 1984), 46.

[7] Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), Volume One (1 January 1870—19 August 1871), 34.

[8] Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 177.

[9] The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 1: 1915-19, edited by Anne Olivier Bell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 26, 33.

[10] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, edited by Bruce Steele, with an introduction and notes by Mac Daly (1923; Cambridge edition, 1994; London: Penguin, 1997), 216.

[11] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 393, 469.

 

Acts of Attention

Vermeer-Lacemaker

(Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker)

Concentration: the focusing of all one’s attention; the keeping of the mind fixed on something.

Towards the end of the first year of the Great War, Friday 16 July 1915, Vera Brittain noted in her diary, ‘I find it very difficult to read just now, especially fiction; the immense realities of the present crowd in upon my mind, making concentration almost impossible & fictitious events quite trivial.’[1]

The present certainly offers plenty of ‘immense realities’—not all of them likely to foster optimism—though I’m not finding it difficult to read. Still, concentration is a little trickier these days. There’s the matter of intensity; but also the question of duration. The rate at which I read varies wildly—a crime novel, however good, demands a different kind of attention from, say, The Anathemata of David Jones—but on average, if I manage a hundred or a hundred and fifty pages in a day, that’s pretty good going. Yet I remember—how many years ago?—reading a Dickens novel, perhaps Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, and reading four hundred or four hundred and fifty pages in a day.

So I seem to have lost that ability to stick to a single task, a single object of interest, for that length of time; but, of course, this is in large part because of the various distractions that can break my concentration and the habits I’ve lapsed into of allowing myself to be distracted.

Still, when I read of people who go crazy after eight hours without a phone, or who check their texts or emails every five minutes, a hundred and fifty times a day, I feel entirely dissociated from such patterns of behaviour. I’m not so easily distracted, am I? Just how often do I check the damned thing? In any case, here, sitting by the back door, reading, yes, Michel Leiris (‘Like many men, I have made my descent into Hell, and like some, I have more or less returned from it’),[2] my attention is caught—too easily caught—by a movement outside. And I mean this as a serial event: wind in the leaves, birds on the fence or on the bird table or, perhaps, this—neither a bird nor a plane:

Cat-tree

That cat—the visiting cat—is absurdly prone to distraction: a leaf, a fly, a cloud, gulls passing overhead, any of these will do. We have confidently diagnosed ADHD or the feline version of it. Yet, come to think of it, such behaviour has become typically human.

I was remembering—and getting almost right, from memory—an early passage in Aldous Huxley’s Island, when Will Farnaby, hearing the mynah bird utter its one-word message—‘Attention’—yet again, turns to Doctor MacPhail:

“Attention to what?” he asked, in the hope of eliciting a more enlightening answer than the one he had received from Mary Sarojini.
“To Attention,” said Dr MacPhail.
“Attention to attention?”
“Of course.”[3]

Paying attention: a transaction. We hand over a portion of ourselves and receive in return—what? It varies, of course, but, ideally, an addition, an augmentation, an enlargement of the self. Colette lamented that ‘We do not look, we never look enough, never attentively enough, never excitedly enough.’[4] What is enough? As John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, observes, ‘This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.’[5]

Not that it is simply a question of giving it attention. Don Gifford recalled the tale of Thoreau’s young friend Ellery Channing being reduced to tears because, as he himself admitted, ‘he knew so little about what merited recording that he returned home from his nature walks day after day with an empty notebook.’[6] And Robert Richardson writes of Thoreau ‘eagerly’ reading Ruskin and Gilpin, ‘whose work starts from the often ignored fact that the uneducated eye simply does not notice most of what is in front of it. Until our attention is called to this detail or that feature, we rarely scrutinize our surroundings, “in the full, clear sense of the word, we do not see.”’[7]

EstruscanPlaces

Attention at such a pitch is sometimes seen as a sacramental act: the Latin root of the word means an oath or a pledge. Of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, Declan Kiberd observes, ‘To each and every detail of the surrounding world he gives that close attention which is the nearest modern equivalent of prayer.’[8] D. H. Lawrence, writing of augury and divination, pointed out that there is ‘no other way when you are dealing with life.’ You may pray to a personal god or rationally mull things over but it amounts to the same thing in the end: ‘it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination.’ And he asserts that: ‘All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.’[9]

An act of pure attention seems like something to aim at. Or, failing that, a hundred or so pages in a day punctuated by phones, emails, whirring birds and treed cats.

 
References

[1] Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain’s Diary 1913-1917, edited by Alan Bishop (London: Gollancz 1981), 221.

[2] Michel Leiris, Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility, translated by Richard Howard (1939; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 6. I’m still in the midst of it—it may not all be as cheerful as that quotation suggests.

[3] Aldous Huxley, Island (1962; London: Vintage, 2005), 21.

[4] Colette, Looking Backwards: Recollections [Journal à rebours and De ma fenêtre], translated by David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen, 1975), 149.

[5] Marilynne Robinson Gilead (London: Virago 2008), 32.

[6] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber, 1990), 11-12.

[7] Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 53.

[8] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 89.

[9] D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places (1932), in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 54-55.