Roses (almost) all the way


‘What a lovely thing a rose is’, Sherlock Holmes remarks, adverting to the necessity of deduction in religion – and goes on to add that: ‘Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.’ Client and client’s fiancée view this demonstration ‘with surprise and a good deal of disappointment’ but Holmes, with the moss-rose between his fingers, has fallen into a reverie. Not unusually, all turns out well in the end.[1] Oddly, I see that, in the language of flowers, the moss-rose was associated with ‘voluptuous love’, not the first thing that comes to mind in Holmes’s case.

It’s that time of the morning when there are no workmen yet hammering, drilling or sawing, and the park and the cemetery are peaceful enough even for me. The Librarian photographs a good many flowers and trees while I stand gazing into middle distances, though I succumb to the orange specimen in the park on the way back home.


Reading Rebecca Solnit earlier, I was reminded again of how much George Orwell’s short life (forty-six and a half years) was hampered by respiratory disease: bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis.[2] Set against that are the plump volumes of Peter Davison’s scholarly edition of Orwell’s work: twenty of them in all. Of the ones I have, the 600-page extent of the first volume is not unrepresentative. But then Orwell’s productivity, given his state of health and his honest confrontation of it, the long-held knowledge that his life would not be a long one, is not itself unique: the example that comes quickest to mind is D. H. Lawrence, also hugely prolific, his letters alone filling eight fat volumes, his life two years shorter than Orwell’s.


‘If war has an opposite’, Solnit writes, ‘gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks and gardens’ (5). Orwell’s life was, as she says, shot through with wars. The German writer Ernst Jünger, born almost a decade before Orwell and in a markedly different cultural tradition, recalled that: ‘Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war, We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted: the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience.’[3]

This theme of roses conjured up for me not Ruskin, Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sappho, Shakespeare or Sir John Mandeville but, not for the first time, Patrick White, a young child in the First World War, an intelligence officer in the Second, serving in Egypt, Palestine, Greece. His books are dense with roses. A dozen references, more, in The Tree of Man, as motif, symbol, marker of passing time, from the moment when Stan and Amy Parker arrive at the house after the wedding:

‘Once I saw a house’, she said, in the even dreamlike voice of inspiration, ‘that had a white rosebush growing beside it, and I always said that if I had a house I would plant a white rose. It was a tobacco rose, the lady said.’
‘Well’, he said, laughing up at her, ‘you have the house.’[4]

The black rose on Theodora Goodman’s hat in The Aunt’s Story; Waldo and Arthur talking of the white rose in The Solid Mandala; and, in Riders in the Chariot: ‘Where Himmelfarb was at last put down, roses met him, and led him all the way. Had he been blind, he could have walked by holding on to ropes of roses.’[5] Among the stories, ‘Dead Roses’ calls attention to itself while ‘The Letters’, another  mother-son relationship leading to mental disintegration, has some lovely flowers but, alas, ‘this morning something was eating the roses.’ In ‘A Cheery Soul’, the dreadful Miss Docker doesn’t care for the rector’s wife, who ‘accused her of pruning Crimson Glory to death. “I only did it as a gesture,” Miss Docker had defended herself, “and nobody knows for certain the rose did not die a natural death.”’[6] Most poignantly, perhaps, in Voss, Laura picks roses while the pregnant Rose Portion holds the basket: ‘But the girl was dazed by roses.’ Laura will later find Rose dead in her bed: ‘the girl who had arrived breathless, blooming with expectation and the roses she had pinned at her throat, was herself turned yellow by the hot wind of death.’[7]

White had met Manoly Lascaris, with whom he would live for the rest of his life, in the apartment of Charles de Menasce in Alexandria, in July 1941.[8] They would spend a good deal of time in Greece and, appropriately, White remembered, decades later, Athens after the German occupation: ‘The smell of those days remains with me – the perfume of stocks in the Maroussi fields, chestnuts roasting at street corners, Kokkoretsi turning on spits in open doorways. And the roses, the crimson roses. . . ’[9]

Maxfield Parrish, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Colliers (1912)

No rose without a thorn, the saying goes – unless you’re that lucky. Or perhaps in the right sort of story, say ‘Briar Rose’, where, the hundred years of the curse having expired precisely on the day that the prince comes breezing along, the briar hedge is transformed into beautiful flowers. The bride is won with minimal effort—no giants or dragons—just impeccable timing, ‘illustrating’, as Maria Tatar observes, ‘how good fortune often trumps heroic feats in fairy tales.’[10]

Remembering the appearance of the early romances of H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘Fairy tales are a prime necessity of the world’.[11] So they are, so they are.


Notes

[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Naval Treaty’, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2 volumes, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2005), I, 686, 687.

[2] Rebecca Solnit, Orwell’s Roses (London: Granta Books, 2021), 25-26.

[3] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 5.

[4] Patrick White, The Tree of Man, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 28.

[5] Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 383.

[6] Patrick White, The Burnt Ones (1964; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 231, 180.

[7] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 170, 250.

[8] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 213.

[9] ‘Greece – My Other Country’ (1983), in Patrick White Speaks, edited by Paul Brennan and Christine Flynn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), 134.

[10] Maria Tatar, editor, The Annotated Brothers Grimm (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 238.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 109.

Oddnesses and cloudy crossroads


With the Librarian away and the cat, though frankly puzzled, not yet overtly resentful, I walk uphill after breakfast, through the other, smaller park and along quiet streets, one or two walkers glimpsed at comfortable distances, barely any cars on the roads I’ve chosen, and the only mild disturbance a runner with a backpack, who pants his way past while I shift well away, thinking that there’s surely no real need for that sort of thing.

Mild disturbance, though, is almost welcome, after the past few days of relentless activity in the neighbouring house, which is evidently being gutted before its sale or re-letting. Yesterday, the workmen seemed to be drilling directly through the wall – I expected their imminent arrival in the room where I sat at my keyboard. On several days last week they took over from the other crew beyond the back fence, the ones with the shocking musical taste. Occasionally they would harmonise, after a fashion, sledgehammer against drill, concrete mixer against hacksaw. Though raising sympathetic eyebrows to the Librarian and Harry the cat when our paths crossed, I regarded the unholy row with relative equanimity—mostly—still feeling the after taste of euphoria that attended the final surrender of a tooth that had wavered and jiggled for more than a week, making mealtimes purgatory and tending to vandalise my dreams.

(Honoré Daumier, Workmen on the Street: National Museum of Wales)

We tend to think of incessant noise as a recent development—wars apart—given motorised road traffic, aircraft and other modern machinery. It’s largely true. Still, it’s salutary to be reminded of the London streets in Victorian times, when the Inns of Court served as ‘oases of quiet’, into which people walked, especially in Dickens’ work, in order to hear one another speak.[1]

Out early this morning, not in Dickens’ London, I was buffeted and boomed at only by birdsong, the bushes and hedges and thick-leaved branches in constant movement. I always find such occasions oddly heartening, as when I saw recently, in the tree that overlooks—and reaches over—our garden fence, at least two bluetits and a pair of goldfinches, plausibly the same ones seen on several occasions this past fortnight. Why ‘oddly’, though? An odd choice of word. I should know by now that I can rely more confidently on birds, trees, cats, walls, cemetery paths and grassy slopes for reassurance that we are not approaching the end of days than on the behaviour of my fellow humans (sometimes yes, often no).


‘Nature has no destiny for us: our boat is upon her ocean and in her winds, but she has expended as much ingenuity designing the flea as she has expended on us, and is perfectly indifferent to Hooke’s conversation at Garraway’s Coffee House. We, however, perish the instant we take our eyes off nature.’[2]

There we have it: the perish option. Or not. Don’t take your eyes off it—her—it. And cherish the oddities, as Enid Bagnold wrote: ‘Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. To “Why am I here?” To uselessness. It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.’[3]

The past two and a half years­—very nearly that now—have changed some behaviours, habits, attitudes and perceptions in ways which are still largely invisible to us. In Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, Friends and Relations, Lady Elfrida reflects that: ‘Surely people were odder, or was it just that one met them? Had these years, with their still recent sense of catastrophe, brought out curious people, like toads after rain?’[4] I often find other people’s behaviour odd, to be sure, but suspect that the newer, larger oddness is in myself. ‘That is to say’, Ford’s narrator Gringoire in No Enemy remarks of the recent war from which he has emerged, ‘it did teach us what a hell – what a hell! – of a lot we can do without.’[5]

A good many people in the current crisis—there is always a crisis for some of them—are finding that they have little or no choice in the matter of what to do without, of course. Others, who are in a more comfortable position, have evidently decided on at least one of the things that they won’t do without. That scrubbed-smooth sky this morning was streaked with cloud strips like tracer but also with the swift lines of numerous aircraft, stuffed with people making their modest but not insignificant contributions to the climate crisis. At one point, with a symbolism so apt as to verge on unconvincing, the clouds had formed a solid and clearly delineated crossroads which one of those crammed airliners was approaching.

It ploughed straight on, of course.


Notes

[1] Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, (London: Atlantic Books, 2012), 30-33.

[2] Guy Davenport, ‘The Death of Picasso’, Eclogues: Eight Stories (London: Picador, 1984), 23. That would be scientist and philosopher Robert Hooke (1635-1703), while Garraway’s, dating from the 1650s, was the first coffee house in London. I see that Simon Schama has it as ‘Garway’ – but am not downhearted.

[3] Enid Bagnold, Autobiography (London: Century Publishing, 1985), 59.

[4] Elizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations: A Novel (1931; Chicago: University Chicago Press, 2012), 82.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 52. A decade earlier, his poem ‘The Starling’ began: ‘It’s an odd thing how one changes’.

On the other hand


There was, is, a saying:
‘Till April is dead
Change not a thread’

Perhaps less a suggestion to heavy users of social media than a body blow to personal hygiene. All Fools’ Day, I finally troubled to find out, is of French origin, the poisson d’avril—April fish—persons to be hoaxed or have a cardboard fish attached to their backs or simply to be sent on some ridiculous errand. The April fish, because of its abundance in that month, is the mackerel – and the French maquereau also meaning ‘pimp’, occasional complications, or extensions of the idea, were always likely to arise.[1]

‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote’ or no, rather, as has been very often quoted of late, ‘the cruellest month’. Some days begin well enough. After breakfast, sitting at the kitchen table with Wodehouse or Lawrence or Mary Wollstonecraft (‘more tea, Mary?’), the cat at the back door or already upstairs again, sprawled on the bed with the Librarian, who is speaking French back at her iPad or looking at her timetable, clouds on the breezier days moving, steadily stately galleons, above the trees and houses, maybe the quick crossword done, even a sentence written that stays written.

But the news is always there, whether just arriving or already waiting. The worst is still from Ukraine, of course, the continued targeting and murder of civilians, and names that will not be forgotten by historians of atrocity: Borodyanka, Bucha, Mariupol, Kramatorsk.

‘Far from his illness’, W. H. Auden wrote of W. B. Yeats, ‘The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests’.[2] To those deluged in grief or fighting for their lives, it’s often shocking that things go on elsewhere – perhaps not as normal, or as before, but they go on. Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, youngest member of Scott’s second Antarctic expedition, who had gone to the war with his health still shaky, was invalided out of the army with what was eventually diagnosed as ulcerative colitis. While men died in their hundreds of thousands on the other side of the channel, Cherry found himself, in 1916, alone in the family home for the first time. ‘There, in the stillness behind the high yew hedge, he watched the oaks and beeches flower and observed the progress of a family of robins nesting in the willow. He noted the arrival of a hen sparrowhawk, and listed the species of tits hovering around the fruit trees. It was a stay against the chaos of the war, and he absorbed himself in the smallness of his garden while the world went mad.’[3]

A few months after the end of that war, Aldous Huxley—who had, in fact, volunteered but was, inevitably, rejected on health grounds because of his famously poor eyesight, following a serious infection years before—wrote to his brother Julian: ‘great events are both terrifying and boring, terrifying because one may be killed and boring because they interfere with the free exercise of the mind—and after all, that freedom is the only thing in the world worth having and the people who can use it properly are the only ones worthy of the least respect: the others are all madmen, pursuing shadows and prepared at any moment to commit acts of violence. The prospects of the universe seem to me dim and dismal to a degree.’[4]

Well, yes. On the other hand – there are goldfinches in our garden. . .


Notes

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 140, 142-143.

[2] Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats (d. Jan. 1939)’, W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 241.

[3] Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Gerrard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 185.

[4] Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 173-174

Lasting


The summer has made a last-gasp effort, a last hurrah, last rites, last trump, with a handful of hot and sunny days – just as a lot of people were beginning to eye up the thermostat on their heating system or at least hunt out the blankets. Hurrahs have been thin on the ground these past few weeks, at least in the wider world, given the retreat from, and betrayal of, Afghanistan; and then the latest phase in the war against women, perpetrated in Texas and ratified by a Supreme Court stacked with anti-choice zealots.


In the (slightly) smaller world of Ford Madox Ford studies, research moves on with the huge task of editing his letters, generally inch by inch through dense thickets, a process punctuated by occasional short sprints over unexpectedly open ground. And the new issue of Last Post, the Ford journal, has emerged, looking very good and ecologically sound, and now sent out to all subscribing members.


In that other world, of varying size, sometimes circumscribed, sometime dizzyingly limitless, a world of bodies, minds, cats, dreams, food, wine, books and walks—that is, home life in the twenty-first century—the blackberry season has come and (almost) gone. We found several excellent sites very close to us: parks, verges, pathways have been cut back much less this year and plant life—including the blackberries—has flourished, helped too by the odd weather that has dominated so much of our summer, rain and sun locked in an endless dance, a close embrace, taking turns to dominate a dozen times in a day.


A lot of supermarket shelves are currently empty and more emptiness is apparently on the way—largely courtesy of Brexit, less the gift that keeps on giving than the rift that keeps on riving—so I find I have no objection whatsoever to free food, literally growing on trees (or bushes), fruit to be served up hot in pies and crumbles or bagged up in the freezer for later rainy days.

As for the Ford letters project, I only have a few dozen books to reread, a few hundred letters to transcribe and a few thousand annotations to make. When you retire from full-time work, you need something to fill the days.

Binding weeds


On Sunday, and again this morning, with the temperature due to rise to 30 degrees Celsius, we are out early. A handful of dog walkers in the park as we pass, occasional runners putting the time in while it’s still manageable. This morning, the inevitable traffic but our contact with the main road is brief.

Up the steep road to the top Perrett’s Park entrance, where we catch sight of a notice inviting people to help cull the bindweed which takes root and spreads so disastrously. Going on to Arnos Vale, the Victorian cemetery, both cool and quiet at this time of the day, we’re newly aware of the extent to which bindweed has taken hold here too.


Bindweed. Convolvulus arvensis—with the same root, unsurprisingly, as ‘convoluted’, it does its mischief to other plants by winding itself, binding itself, round the host counter-clockwise. Geoffrey Grigson launches with gusto into its local names, my favourites including Billy-Clipper, Devil’s Guts, Fairies’ Winecups, Granny’s Nightcap, Robin-run-in-the-field and Gipsy’s Hat. ‘Every gardener knows it’, Grigson remarks, ‘and perhaps more blasphemy is expended on Devil’s Guts, Cornbine, Withwind, and Withywind than upon all the other weeds of Great Britain. Neither blasphemy, hoeing, nor selective weed killers have yet destroyed it.’ He adds, characteristically (and quite rightly), ‘One should speak kindly of its white and pink flowers, all the same.’[1]

William Curtis, in his late 18th century Flora Londinensis, ‘warned against the deception implicit in its representation’, asserting that, ‘Beautiful as this plant appears to the eye, experiences proves it to have a most pernicious tendency in agriculture’. Only eradication by the spade could destroy it: simply cutting it down wouldn’t do the trick.[2]

No political symbolism here, obviously. None at all.



Notes


[1] Geoffrey Grigson, An Englishman’s Flora (Oxford: Helicon, 1996), 287.

[2] Mark Laird, A Natural History of English Gardening (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 374, 376, 377.

Ashes, sawdust, felled trees


In 1976, 3 March was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Western Lent, named for the custom of sprinkling on the heads of penitents the ashes of consecrated palms left over from Palm Sunday. In a letter of this date, Hugh Kenner wrote to Guy Davenport: ‘The enclosed clippings may amuse. And did I mention the sermon on hell in an Irish church last month, in the midst of which a choir boy was noticed to be on fire? Sleeve too near a candle apparently.’[1]

Dear Hugh – ‘was noticed’.

Clear, dry days draw us back to Arnos Vale, our local Victorian garden cemetery, one of the city’s wonders. The last few visits there, though, have been a bit disconcerting: unfamiliar gaps and bare slopes and sightlines where before were dense gatherings of trees. Then, too, we can often hear the melancholy sound of chainsaws.

Guy Davenport wrote of two entwined trees, an apple and a pear, which had stood near his home for over fifty years. They were cut down by a developer, ‘in full bloom, with a power saw, the whining growl of which is surely the language of devils at their business, which is to cancel creation.’[2]

‘My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled’, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote,

Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
   Of a fresh and following folded rank
         Not spared, not one
         That dandled a sandalled
   Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering
   weed-winding bank.[3]


The situation at Arnos Vale is quite other. Not, like the felled trees mourned by Hopkins or Davenport, due to rapacious developers, nor like those in so many present or recent cases of misguided (or not wholly disinterested) councils or the disastrous vandalism inextricable from hugely expensive vanity projects. The Arnos Vale trees have fallen prey to Chalara ash dieback, a fungal disease affecting ash trees in many locations across the country, an infection frequently fatal once contracted. At Arnos Vale they have been dealing with it since 2017 and, tragically, they have almost total infection across this beautiful 45-acre site.
https://arnosvale.org.uk/ash-dieback-faqs/#:~:text=If%20you%20have%20recently%20visited,total%20infection%20across%20the%20site.

The cemetery was, in fact, rescued from development, more than thirty years ago, when the private owner of the site announced plans to clear and commercially develop a large part of it. Local individuals and other citizens, Bristol city council and well wishers from around the world campaigned and worked together to rescue and preserve it for future generations. Still a working cemetery, it also offers a paradise for walkers with or without dogs, nature lovers, curious children, people in need of quiet, of ‘a green thought in a green shade.’[4]


They will plant other trees there. The gaps will be filled, the spaces will narrow and we’ll go on walking along the paths. If we could change governments or perceived priorities or media shortcomings or UK laws, we’d do that. Since we can’t, we’ll have to settle for making a donation every so often, to help the work that’s being done there. Where better, after all, could we walk?

Notes


[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1611.

[2] Guy Davenport, ‘Shaker Light’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 59.

[3] ‘Binsey Poplars (felled 1879)’, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, fourth edition, revised and enlarged, edited by W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 78.

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

Foxed, boxed

(Via Natural History Museum)

I begin to think that the foxes recognise us – by sight or scent? The second, more likely. At first they would retreat much further along the road that crosses the hill we walk up; now, as we reach that point, we see them sitting or crouching only a few metres from the junction and can almost see the thought bubble that reads: It’s them, walking straight up as usual. No problem.
 
A morning’s tally of close encounters: three foxes, one white cat—emerging like a ghost from the bushes in the small park—one woman runner and, as we pass the larger park when almost home, a man with two small dogs. On another morning, darker and with a heavy mist, we see no foxes, two cats and five people: not so good. But always the birds: sparrows, certainly, in some of the hedges, and blackbirds, beyond which even my provisional identification skills peter out.
 
I’ve read, just lately, reflections on several encounters with the wild, by Helen Macdonald, John Burnside and Melissa Harrison, particularly focused on what Harrison, probably in her excellent podcast (https://melissaharrison.co.uk/podcast/) called the ‘I and Thou’ moments, after Martin Buber, the moment of relationship rather than objectification, when the bird, the animal, the forest, even the single tree, looks back at the observer, listens to the listener, in a reciprocal engagement.
 
Certainly, for me, these near-encounters with the wild—however wild urban foxes are reckoned to be these days—are like a shot into the veins, a thrill along the nerves, a rush of oxygen into flagging lungs. Is it the increasing rarity, the always-attendant sense of what’s being lost, the disorienting nudge out of the circles and boxes and bubbles into which we back ourselves these days, even without pandemics? Hard to say. It could just be the contrast with people, with some people.
 
National leaders trashing their own countries’ reputations—and often enough trashing  the countries themselves—the lethal incompetence, the undisguised corruption; the sheer impunity, the denial of climate emergency, the barefaced, continuous lying and the blatant contempt for those voters who, quite bafflingly, will vote for them again—or so it seems. To those of us old enough to remember the Thatcher years, Cold Wars, nuclear stand-offs, illegal invasions and the rest, it seems extraordinary to find oneself thinking—and saying—‘It has never been this bad before.’
 
Ah, well. Winter is coming—as the saying goes.
 

‘Face to face with nature’: Richard Jefferies

p757.jpg
(Richard Jefferies/Edward Thomas, © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS via Times Literary Supplement)

(‘By standing face to face with nature, and not from books, I have convinced myself that there is no design and no evolution. What there is, what was the cause, how and why, is not yet known; certainly it was neither of these.’—The Story of My Heart)

Noticing that it is Richard Jefferies’ birthday (1848-1887), I was reminded of an essay I wrote for an intellectual history module, on the utopian ideas of Jefferies, William Morris and Samuel Butler, the specific books mentioned being Morris’s News From Nowhere, Butler’s Erewhon and After London by Jefferies. I must have been, certainly became, extraordinarily enthusiastic about it because I consumed an absurd amount of reading matter, given the significance of the essay in the context of the whole course: and the bulk of that extra reading was of Jefferies.

He published around twenty books in his lifetime—he died at the age of thirty-eight, so living no longer than Guillaume Apollinaire, Felix Mendelssohn, George Gershwin or Federico García Lorca. He wrote a great deal about rural life, the changing countryside and farming practices: The Amateur Poacher, The Gamekeeper at Home, Hodge and His Masters; also novels, the children’s classic, Bevis: The Story of a Boy, and a remarkable autobiographical work, The Story of My Heart, perhaps the most marked example of Jefferies’ mystical or pantheistic strain

‘How strange that condition of mind’, he wrote there, ‘which cannot accept anything but the earth, the sea, the tangible universe!’ And, ‘There is an immense ocean over which the mind can sail, upon which the vessel of thought has not yet been launched.’ Asserting that, ‘Now, today, as I write, I stand in exactly the same position as the Caveman. Written tradition, systems of culture, modes of thought, have for me no existence’, he would repeat that ‘the divine beauty of flesh is life itself to me’.[1]

Coate-Farm

(Coate Farm: https://richardjefferies.wordpress.com/ )

In 1909, Edward Thomas published his biography of Jefferies, mentioning in his preface that he had known Jefferies’ part of Wiltshire (he was born at Coate Farm, near Swindon) for twenty years, ‘and I hope that I have got most of what the country people had to tell about him and his family.’ It’s a thorough, informed and sympathetic portrait. Thomas remarks that ‘Jefferies’ thinking was symptomatic of the age rather than original; it is stimulating because it is personal.’[2] It’s certainly that.

In an 1877 essay (in which I see he mentions ‘Fung-shuy’ – Feng Shui), Jefferies writes: ‘Wherever you can find a single blade of grass, however small, there you stand face to face with the mystery of life, and all the possibilities of existence.’ And, ‘If you should chance to find a blade of grass withering in a rocky place, carry it a little water for the sake of the thoughts that spring from it.’ And in a period when many people were still coming to terms with the evolutionary ideas of Darwin and others: ‘I think that bees, birds and animals would change their apparently immutable habits without hesitation if they found an advantage in doing so.’[3]

In his first chapter, ‘The Country of Richard Jefferies’, Thomas remarks that the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal which, roughly speaking, was Jefferies’ northern boundary, ‘has now relapsed into barbarism; its stiffened and weedy waters are stirred only by the moorhen, who walks more than she swims across them’ (Richard Jefferies 2). The first part of Jefferies’ After London or Wild England is entitled ‘The Relapse into Barbarism’ and opens with a statement of oral tradition: ‘The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.’ A little later, the narrator remarks: ‘Now the mark of a noble is that he can read and write.’ There is a brief ‘Appendix’, ‘The Great Snow’, the headnote describing it as ‘An alternative catastrophe, probably written before 1875’. This edition has an introduction by John Fowles, whose The French Lieutenant’s Woman, published a decade earlier, offered multiple alternative endings. Fowles writes of the several strangenesses of Jefferies’ novel: ‘And strangest of all is the fact that it should be the supposedly “sensitive” nature writer, author in 1883 of a passionate explosion, The Story of My Heart, against machine thinking and machine society, who two years later portrays the miseries of a future world bereft of higher knowledge and technology.’[4]

William_Henry_Hudson

(W. H. Hudson)

Edward Thomas’s biography of Jefferies was dedicated to W. H. Hudson. They had met in 1906 and when Thomas began work on the book in the following year, he asked Hudson to accept the dedication. Towards the end of his life, Hudson would remark that in Thomas ‘he had seen the son he wanted’. There were other curious connections. On 2 November 1900, ‘by a happy chance’, Hudson had lodged in the house at Hurstbourne Tarrant where William Cobbett had begun to write his Rural Rides – on 2 November 1821. In March 1921, when Hudson’s wife Emily died, she was buried in Broadwater cemetery at Worthing, where Richard Jefferies lies.[5]

In 1909, in the course of an appreciation of Hudson, Ford Madox Ford quoted from ‘Thistle-Down’, the opening chapter of Nature in Downland, ‘the first passage of Mr Hudson’s work that we ever read’, Ford noted.[6] He would recur to it several times in his later writings.

Charles, James, 1851-1906; Sussex Downs

(James Charles, Sussex Downs: The Council House, Chichester)

‘When, lying on my back, I gazed up into the blue sky, the air as far as I could see was still peopled with the flying down; and beyond all that was visible to the naked eye, far from the earth still more down was revealed by my glasses—innumerable, faintly seen silvery stars moving athwart the immeasurable blue expanse of heaven.’

A little later in that chapter, Hudson writes of Jefferies, of how, although he was so closely associated with Wiltshire, ‘the Sussex coast country where he found a home powerfully attracted and held him’. He added: ‘Jefferies was much in my mind just now because by chance I happen to be writing this introductory chapter in the last house he inhabited, and where he died, in the small village of Goring, between the sea and the West Sussex Downs.’[7]

‘By chance’. Wonderful. I must reread, at least, After London.

 
Notes

[1] Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart (1883; London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1922), 46, 54, 56, 88, 89.

[2] Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies (1909; London: Faber and Faber, 1978), ix, 294.

[3] Richard Jefferies, ‘Village Hunting’ and ‘Butterfly Corner’, 1887, collected in Landscape and Labour, edited by John Pearson (Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker Press, 1979), 47, 53.

[4] Richard Jefferies, After London or Wild England (1885; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 1, 32, 243, vii.

[5] Ruth Tomalin, W. H. Hudson: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 182, 179, 230.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, ‘The Work of W. H. Hudson’, English Review, II, i (April 1909), 160.

[7] W. H. Hudson, Nature in Downland (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1900), 14, 16.

Soil, bones, grass

Buson-narrow-road-deep-north

(Yosa Buson, Narrow Road to the Deep North)

I was reading Bashō, who wrote: ‘I went to see the Atsuta Shrine, but it had been reduced to utter ruins. Walls had crumbled and dry grasses were standing among the falling blocks.’[1]

Grass as witness to decay, deterioration, disappearance. Or grass signifying growth, fertility, recovery. Times, circumstances, characters.

For A. E. Housman, born on this day in 1859, it could be positive, as in ‘Spring Morning’:

Now the old come out to look,
Winter past and winter’s pains,
How the sky in pool and brook
Glitters on the grassy plains.

But, as Nick Laird writes in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Housman’s poems, ‘Like Webster, Housman was much possessed by death’—death and lads would cover a lot of it, in fact—so there is also:

The sigh that heaves the grasses
Whence thou wilt never rise
Is of the air that passes
And knows not if it sighs.[2]

Robert Frost, also born on this day, in 1874, published one of his most famous poems, ‘The Road Not Taken’, in August 1915. It is, as Frost himself said, ‘a tricky poem – very tricky’, and the poet seems to have had his friend Edward Thomas in mind when he wrote it.[3] The narrator of Frost’s poem looks down one path as far as possible before it bends into the undergrowth:

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

‘About the same’ – and both paths covered in freshly fallen leaves anyway.[4]

One more: on this day, in 1892, Walt Whitman died, the great poet of Leaves of Grass, thinking not only of graves but also of growth, expansion, burgeoning power.

Buson-Basho

(Yosa Buson, Matsuo Bashō)

For Ezra Pound’s Li Po, in eighth-century China, grass grows over the piled bones of the dead:

Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?
Who has brought the flaming imperial anger?
Who has brought the army with drums and with
kettle-drums?
Barbarous kings.[5]

Lucille, in A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s novel about the French Revolution, looks to a future which will evidence recognisably similar signs: ‘With all the desperate passions in our heads and bodies, one day these walls will split, one day this house will fall down. There will be soil and bones and grass, and they will read our diaries to find out what we were.’[6]

rousseau-portrait-of-pierre-loti

(Henri Rousseau, Portrait of Pierre Loti, 1891)

In his translator’s note to Pierre Loti’s 1917 pamphlet, L’Outrage des barbaresThe Trail of the Barbarians (1918), Ford Madox Ford disagreed with Loti’s use of the word ‘irreparable’, believing that the land in France would indeed recover, thanks to its ‘little industries’ and its traditions of husbandry: ‘ . . . I am more sure than Mr Loti that the grass is already moving that shall cover the graveyards and the rusty heaps of recovered provinces.’[7]

Still, circling back to Bashō, I find: ‘When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.’[8]

As we know, not all a country’s defeats are military – nor even caused by external forces.
References

[1] Matsuo Bashō, ‘The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton’, in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and other travel sketches, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (London: Penguin Books, 1966), 59.

[2] A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems: The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett, with an introduction by Nick Laird (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 102, xi, 114.

[3] As discussed by Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber, 2012), 233-236.

[4] The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977), 105.

[5] ‘Lament of the Frontier Guard’, in Cathay (1915): Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 254.

[6] Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 722.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, War Prose, edited by Max Saunders (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1999), 191.

[8] Bashō, Narrow Road to the Far North, 118.

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.