A Turn around the Cemetery

Arnos-Vale-1

2 October. Taking time away from news bulletins detailing mass murder, police brutality, terrorism and gross political irresponsibility, I take a turn around the cemetery, where the dead seem quite peacefully disposed.

They were calmer times in Westmorland, even though Britain and France were at war, when Dorothy Wordsworth recorded details of her day (and William’s) that Thursday, 2 October 1800. ‘A very rainy morning. We walked after dinner to observe the torrents. I followed Wm to Rydale, he afterwards went to Butterlip How. I came home to receive the Lloyds. They walked with us to see Churnmilk force and the Black quarter. The black quarter looked marshy, and the general prospect was cold, but the Force was very grand. The Lychens are now coming out afresh. I carried home a collection in the afternoon. We had a pleasant conversation about the manners of the rich—avarice, inordinate desires, and the effeminacy unnaturalness and the unworthy objects of education. After the Lloyds were gone we walked—a showery evening. The moonlight lay upon the hills like snow.’[1]

In Arnos Vale, I can hear, from far off, the workmen busy at the end of Sydenham Road. Wind buffets the trees. A woman in dark glasses walks three dogs towards me, one black, two matching white. We exchange half-smiles, nothing too risky.

Arnos-Vale-2

The wind pauses and the birdsong is more audible. Two, three Red Admirals in as many minutes pass me. The wind was only drawing breath. Gathered again, it gusts, leans, stills. There’s a sudden rush of children’s voices as the doors of the nearby school slap open and they spill into the playground.

On another 2 October, 1940, into the second year of another war, Josie Brinton wrote from Alexandria to her mother in Tennessee, ‘I know how worried you must be and it’s useless to tell you not to be but what else can I say. If you saw the carefree life everyone leads here you’d wonder what all the excitement was about’. Italian troops had crossed the border from Libya into Egypt three weeks earlier. Josie went on to recount the story current in Alexandria that ‘in the Mediterranean now all the English sailors had to do was lean over the side of their ships and shout “waiter” to have an Italian submarine come to the surface!’[2]

Alexandria-1940

(Alexandria, 1940 via histclo.com)

I used to be friends with a man who drove a Volkswagen Beetle. Drivers of this car would salute—or at least, acknowledge—one another, hooting, flashing their lights or simply waving. As a consequence, the whole world seethed with Beetle drivers: they were everywhere. Just so, romantic love will narrow all the people in the world to women with red hair or blue dresses, to men with slight stoops or yellow scarves. Now the streets are full of men of about my age, all equipped with rucksacks exactly like mine, all walking purposefully (when I am) or sauntering unhurriedly, without direction (when I am).

But there are no such men in the cemetery today: men with matching dogs, yes, but nothing more (I have no dog to match). And I notice again how often here the magpies are in pairs, as though companionship were more necessary, or at least a little more desirable, in the company of the dead.

References

[1] Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, edited by Mary Moorman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 41.

[2] Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (Yale University Press, 2004), 180.

 

The Sea – and James Agee

Beach

We have been to see the sea. We see it fairly often in any case but this time it was for a long, hard look, the window of the sitting-room of the rented apartment giving straight out onto the smaller beach and a wide view of the sea.

We are, of course, acquitted of the need to fashion trenchant or memorable remarks about it. It has all been done so many, many times before. ‘MER: N’a pas de fond. Image de l’infini. Donne de grandes pensées,’ Gustave Flaubert wrote, a hundred and fifty years ago, in his posthumously published Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Bottomless, a symbol of infinity, prompting deep thoughts.[1] That more or less covers it.

The fact is that gazing at a calm sea or, indeed, a restless one, is as transfixing as staring into an open fire, far more so, in fact. I might have added ‘watching other people work’ but this is often oddly gender-specific: men will watch for hours while other men dig a hole but perhaps they are ex-diggers themselves, so the watching is simply an exercise in nostalgia. Certainly, I can regard the open sea for a considerable period of time without strain; and have seen innumerable other people—regardless of gender—doing the same.

Agee

(© Walker Evans, 1937; via Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Writing of summer evenings in Knoxville, 1915, James Agee describes at length ‘the fathers of families’ all ‘hosing their lawns.’ After closely describing the varied sounds emitted by the hoses, singly and in concert, and then the dwindling and final ceasing of such activity, he notes that the locusts ‘carry on this noise of hoses on their much higher and sharper key.’ There is, again, the doubled effect, of the individual and the choral:

‘They are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums, the boldest of all the sounds of night. And yet it is habitual to summer nights, and is of the great order of noises, like the noises of the sea and of the blood her precocious grandchild, which you realize you are hearing only when you catch yourself listening.’[2]

That wonderful sentence is echoed for me, in another book published that same year, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons, in which he stands with the Hodja (teacher) as darkness falls over the sea. ‘It was a blessed moment—a sunset which the Greeks and Romans knew—in which the swinging cradle-motion of the sea slowly copied itself into the consciousness, and made one’s mind beat with the elemental rhythm of the earth itself.’[3]

Bitter-Lemons

That ‘great order of noises’ evokes for me a faint tang of the divine, as of a religious order, which may not be fanciful, since religion played a significant part in Agee’s development: from the age of about ten, he lived for years in the dormitory at St Andrew’s School, established by Episcopal monks of the Order of the Holy Cross. His short novel The Morning Watch is set in such an institution, and centres on the thoughts and emotions of a young boy, Richard, in the early hours of Good Friday.

‘Knoxville: Summer 1915’ now stands as a brief prologue to Agee’s major novel, A Death in the Family. The central event, the death of the father in an automobile accident, is drawn from Agee’s boyhood: his own father died in just that way when James was seven. It’s an uneven but often very powerful book. The unevenness, or variations in control, focus and intensity, derive in part from the fact that Agee did not live to effect final revisions, which means, on occasion, that choices haven’t been made and words or phrases overlap and blur into one another. Then, too, the first editors chose to italicise sections of the book which they feel are not strictly part of the story: these are the reflections of the boy, Rufus, but it’s highly problematic to decide what is or is not ‘part of the story’ when that story largely comprises an intense recall of the events and its consequences: psychological, emotional and religious. The italics, anyway, are a little disconcerting at first – though only at first – recalling Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Agee explores the reactions (and fears and repressions) of several members of the extended family, sometimes with a startlingly close-up, penetrative stare. Not formally perfect then, not aesthetically neat, but very effective, often strong, sometimes delicate.

Agee worked on A Death in the Family for several years from the late 1940s. When he died in 1955, it was completed, with the addition of ‘Knoxville : Summer 1915’, by the editors at McDowell, Obolensky (Agee’s friend David McDowell, was one of the co-founders), who also produced books by Hugh Kenner and William Carlos Williams, among others. Published in 1957, Agee’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The University of Tennessee Press published a scholarly edition of the ‘restored’ manuscript ten years ago, edited by Michael A. Lofaro, professor of American literature and American and cultural studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

There’s a nice photograph by Helen Levitt, dating from 1939, which sat on my desktop for a while: Agee sitting at the wheel of his convertible beside his second wife, Alma, with, in the back seat, the young Delmore Schwartz.

Agee-Alma-Schwartz

Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art © Estate of Helen Levitt (1913-2009)

Clouds of cigarette smoke, inevitably, drift up from the front seat; and all three are facing forward, Agee in what looks like a corduroy cap, Schwartz with his intent, distinctive profile; Alma, with her headscarf slipping back a little, gazing slightly down and, perhaps, inwards, maybe already sensing trouble to come. Here’s another photograph of Alma, by the great Walker Evans, taken in Brooklyn in 1939.

Alma-Agee

Walker Evans Archive, 1994 © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evans took the photographs which are so integral a part of the classic book he produced with Agee, published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (included in the Agee volume together with A Death in the Family and Agee’s shorter fiction: his novella The Morning Watch and a handful of short stories).

Much of Agee’s creative energy went into his film criticism (and co-writing the screenplay for The African Queen; he wrote the script for Charles Laughton’s 1955 The Night of the Hunter too, though Laughton cut it substantially). Agee also adapted ‘The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky’ by Stephen Crane. He appeared in a minor role in the film, which was released in a two-part Face to Face, the second section being an adaptation of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer.

That last detail interests the Ford Madox Ford scholar, because of Ford’s very specific allusions to Crane’s story,[4] and because several commentators have seen in Conrad’s novella evidence of his complicated attitude towards the collaboration with Ford (which produced two full-length novels and a long short story) and its ending.[5]

When her marriage to Agee broke down, Alma moved to Mexico with their young son, Joel; then back briefly to New York, then Mexico again, where she finally married the writer and political activist Bodo Uhse. She had some interesting encounters while working in a Mexico City Gallery, coming to know Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Pablo Neruda. In 1948, Alma, Bodo and Joel moved to East Germany. Joel later wrote a memoir called Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany (2000), published by the University of Chicago Press. Also for Chicago, Joel Agee has translated from German a number of volumes by writers including Rilke and Hans Erich Nossack, but principally, Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Pledge, The Assignment, The Inspector Barlach Mysteries and the three-volume Selected Works.

Alma lived into her mid-sixties, dying in 1988: her memoir, Always Straight Ahead, appeared in 1993. But one striking fact about Agee’s generation of writers is how many of them failed even to attain that age. Agee himself died at 45, suffering a massive heart attack in a New York taxicab, while Delmore Schwartz died in a shabby hotel at 52. Weldon Kees was 41, John Berryman managed 57, and Robert Lowell 60. The slightly older R. P. Blackmur died – very slightly older – at just 61.

References

[1] Published in 1913: Robert Baldick’s translation of The Dictionary of Received Ideas is included in the A. J. Krailsheimer translation of Bouvard and Pécuchet (London: Penguin Books, 1976).

[2] James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction, edited by Michael Sragow (New York: Library of America, 2005), 470, 471.

[3] Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), 240.

[4] See Ford, Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 108; and, particularly, ‘Stevie and Co.’, in New York Essays (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1927). 29.

[5] See Frederick R. Karl, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 673; letter from Thomas C. Moser, quoted in Zdzisław Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle, translated by Halina Carroll-Najder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 361; Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 149.

 

Sorrows, joys, magpies

magpies

Watching a magpie on the garden fence, trying to identify the memory that its gestures and movements called to mind, I realised that it was Jacques Tati, in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. (One of my earliest visits to the cinema: the only time I ever saw my father crying with laughter.) The abrupt uplifting and lowering of the head, the stiff yet rapid leaning forward from the waist, the quick flicks of the head to left and right: mais oui, c’est Monsieur Hulot!

Tati

Their distinctive staccato chatter sounds from the roof, the fence, the tree, the neighbouring chimneys. It’s everywhere in the nearby park, though generally singly. There was a period during which we would see five or six in a group, strutting, leering, looking distinctly thuggish. But lately it’s one at a time. More than a dozen years ago now, my wife was walking to work over the park and had just noted two magpies when she slipped on black ice and fractured her wrist. Since then, we have been wary of rhymes’ prophetic validity. Two may not be lucky but do the loners necessarily signify misfortune?

One for sorrow, two for joy
Three for a girl, four for a boy

That’s the version most people know, at least if of a certain age and able to recall the television programme. What is, presumably, the older rhyme runs:

One’s sorrow, two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth[1]

This survives in the version – from a sixteen-year-old Birmingham schoolgirl, recorded by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey:

One for anger, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth

This version gets ‘saltier’ (their word) as it progresses:

Five for rich, six for poor
Seven for a bitch, eight for a whore[2]

The origin of the name runs back through Shakespeare’s Macbeth (‘maggot-pie’) to ‘Margaret’ or ‘Margot the pye’, from a French equivalent. Iona and Peter Opie have a nice story of the poet laureate, Henry James Pye, appointed in 1790, whose first (very poor) ode was for the king’s birthday, and was guyed by a punster named George Steevens (‘when the PYE was opened’), unimpressed as he was by Pye’s feeble effort. The Opies quote a version of ‘Sing a song of sixpence’, the rhyme published in 1784, which ends with ‘Up came a magpie and bit off her nose.’ The maid still suffers, then, but at the hands – beak, rather – of a different bird.[3]

‘Pie’ is ‘pied’, of course, the black and white plumage, and bishops were sometimes termed ‘magpies’ because of the similarly contrasting colours of their vestments. The magpie’s occurrences in literature include one in Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto 81’:

Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail[4]

The black and the white together is a handy representation of the opposing strains of interpretation of this passage and the question of just who is being addressed here (‘Pull down thy vanity’): some say it’s Pound himself, others the U.S. Army (Pound’s captors at that time, in the Disciplinary Training Center at Pisa).[5]

Ezra_Pound_1945_May_26_mug_shot

In ‘House and Man’, Edward Thomas recalls a man in his house amidst ‘forest silence and forest murmur’, the only house for miles:

But why I call back house and man again
Is that now on a beech-tree’s tip I see
As then I saw – I at the gate, and he
In the house darkness, – a magpie veering about,
A magpie like a weathercock in doubt.[6]

This is, as you’d expect from Thomas, quite accurate: I’ve watched magpies, precisely, veering about; and ‘a weathercock in doubt’ is wonderfully suggestive.

John Fowles had a bookplate which showed his name surrounded by magpies, a pictorial representation of his habits as both reader and buyer of books. ‘A quite literal pair of magpies breed in my garden every year,’ he closes his essay on the subject. ‘Wicked creatures though they are, I let them be. One must not harm one’s own.’[7]

‘Wicked’? The magpie certainly has a justified reputation for being omnivorous: eggs and nestlings feature among many other food sources. It’s a famously intelligent bird, sociable, mischievous and, I’d venture, with a strong sense of humour. Pretty widespread too: Jonathan Trouern-Trend, who served in Iraq, notes sightings of grebes, egrets, kites, vultures, bustards and avocets galore but, happily, our friend Pica pica is also there: ‘Seen year round at LSAA [LSA – Logistics Support Area is my guess – Anaconda, his home base], seemed more common at higher elevations.’[8]

 

References

[1] The version quoted by Sylvia Townsend Warner, in a letter to Julius Lipton, 21 October 1935: Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 36-37.

[2] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 400.

[3] The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 471, 472.

[4] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 521.

[5] So, for instance, Christine Froula—‘self-accusations’—in A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1983), 236; and A. David Moody—‘humbled’—Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 159; as against Jerome McGann—‘not himself but the US Army’—in Towards a Literature of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 114.

[6] Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008), 60.

[7] John Fowles, ‘Of Memoirs and Magpies’, in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, edited by Jan Relf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998), 33.

[8] Jonathan Trouern-Trend, Birding Babylon: A Soldier’s Journal from Iraq (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 79.

 

August and blackberrying

Orpen, William, 1878-1931; Harvest

William Orpen, Harvest (1918), © Imperial War Museum.
The ambiguities of autumn enlarged: war and peace, life and death.

August. High summer, though you’d hardly know it as the rainclouds roll over the house and the showers come and go. The first day of August, in fact. Lammas, hlafmaesse, ‘loaf-mass’. First fruits, harvest. Hurry into your local church with the bread and the wheat.[1] ‘After Lammas corn ripens as much by night as by day.’[2]

The harvest (a word related in origin to ‘autumn’) has been, is still, quite literally a matter of life and death for a great many people. It’s been a rich source for the horror genre too, both on the screen and on the page (Stephen King, Thomas Tryon, The Harvest, Dark Harvest, Blood Harvest, and more, no doubt). And it has its visionary or mystical moments. Poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, a pacifist, ran a co-operative farm in Devon during the Second World War. He recalled of an August day in 1940 that, ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats, I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[3]

West-Mill-Welcombe-Devon

West Mill, Welcombe, Devon: http://www.literaryplaces.co.uk/?p=147

‘Standing there in the morning happiness,’ T. H. White recalled, ‘with a saffron sky in the east and the moon in the south-west still lemon yellow, beside a field where the harvest had already begun, one saw in the mind’s eye the imaginary lines all over England: the roads coming up macadamized to the invisible threads, and going on as stone, the ditches suddenly changing from cut to uncut, the parishes and territories and neighbours’ landmarks: all slept at peace now, all this beautiful achievement of cooperation and forethought among our fathers who were at peace also, in dust.’[4]

Light-in-August-US-1932

Over the years, William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August provoked a good deal of discussion over the meaning of its title. Lena Grove is heavily pregnant at the novel’s opening and Faulkner was once asked at the University of Virginia whether his title did indeed refer to a ‘colloquialism for the completion of a pregnancy’. He said no, it was to do with the peculiar quality of light in that month.[5] In his biography of Faulkner, Joseph Blotner tells of the novelist sitting with his wife Estelle in the late afternoon. ‘“Bill,” she said, “does it ever seem to you that the light in August is different from any other time of the year?”’ In this account, Faulkner goes directly to his worktable, crosses out his working title for the novel, ‘Dark House’ and replaces it with ‘Light in August’. It has to be said, though, that Faulkner was largely responsible for the later uncertainty over the ‘meaning’ of his title.[6]

This morning, I noticed a tiny stain on the shoulder of the shirt I wore yesterday: blackberry juice. We’d been wading in among the brambles and nettles for the second time in a few days. Blackberrying is ‘the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island’, Richard Mabey writes.[7] The country in the city, so to speak. We pick them on a path which certainly isn’t hidden. There’s a fair amount of traffic but only by foot and bicycle—there’s no motor traffic nearby which is the main consideration, since we object to being poisoned. Still, it’s odd that quite a few passers-by seem baffled by what we’re doing and hurry their children past. (‘What are they doing, mummy?’ ‘Picking delicious free food, dear, I’ve no idea why.’) Blackberry and apple crumble: even the words taste good.

Gash, Walter Bonner, 1869-1928; Two Girls Picking Blackberries*

Walter Bonner Gash, Two Girls Picking Blackberries
© Alfred East Art Gallery Permanent Collection

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking.

The speaker in Heaney’s poem recalls how quickly the blackberries would rot. ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’[8]

Blackberries

And we have thorn pricks, nettle stings, stained hands. Still—two and a half kilos of blackberries in the freezer. Kilos! What am I saying? That may be a little too foreign for these troubled time. Say five and a half pounds, avoirdupois—but there I go again. . .

I have, though, called to mind a story that Ford Madox Ford told, which seems to me to hint at why some people chose the option that they did in last year’s referendum (and perhaps in more than one election since). Ford was, for a brief time, working on a small farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia. His employer eventually hired another worker, which released Ford from his labours. He was stopping up a wasp’s nest one day, while the hired man was on the roof, fixing the shingles.

I heard him call:
“I’m coming down now.”
I said: “Wait while I fetch a ladder.” When I came back he was lying on the ground.
He said: “I’ve bruck me leg.”
I said: “What did you jump for?”
He answered: “Wal, I thought I’d see.”[9]

 

References

[1] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 260-261.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 315.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), 52-53.

[4] T. H. White, The Goshawk (1951; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 39.

[5] Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 375.

[6] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner : A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 702 and ‘Notes’, 102.

[7] Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 183.

[8] Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, Death of a Naturalist (1966; London: Faber and Faber, 2006), 8.

[9] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 166-167.

Butterflies in ruins

Small White - Male

http://urbanbutterflygarden.co.uk/

In our small back garden, I doubt whether I’ve seen more than half a dozen butterflies so far this summer, perhaps fewer than that. It’s hardly surprising in the light of recent research, which suggests that 2016 was one of the worst on record for butterflies in this country, with nearly three-quarters of all species experiencing a decline in numbers.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/12/uk-butterflies-worst-hit-in-2016-with-70-of-species-in-decline-study-finds

A rare sighting of butterflies now often brings back memories of a holiday in Greece nearly twenty years ago in Ayía Efamía, on the island of Kefaloniá, but with a week on the mainland. Against the scarcity of England now, profusion and abundance then: the wild flowers, the scutter of lizards, the columns of ants—and butterflies everywhere, starting up in clouds as you stepped along the grassy lane, red and yellow and white, one with paper thin white wings with, at their base, an intricate pattern like leaves and branches, in vivid green.

The Greek word psyche meant both ‘butterfly’ and ‘soul’. Some vase paintings contain images of butterflies emerging from the mouths of the dead. ‘To have heard the farfalla [butterfly] gasping as toward a bridge over worlds . . . ’ Ezra Pound writes of that hazardous terrain between life and death.[1]

And butterflies were always there among the ruins, at Delphi, Mystras, Mycenae, flickering above and around broken blocks of stone, fallen pillars, fractured arches. Butterflies amidst the ruins of empire.

Olympia

Olympia via www.discovergreece.com/

The collapse of empires recurs through history, as does the collapse of financial systems. We, of course, continue to add those contemporary extras, not only terminal climate change, but also the rapid extinction of species—butterflies among them.

In the Romantic era, poets, philosophers, artists, travellers had ruins often on their minds. Romanticism, Raphael Samuel remarks, was built on time’s ruins. Its idea of memory was premised on a sense of loss.[2]

In the midst of the revolution which made or unmade France, Comte de Volney, a deputy in the National Assembly, published Les Ruines, Paris 1791. (That same year, the sixteen-year-old J. M. W. Turner was working in Bristol; he was always, Peter Ackroyd remarks, fascinated by fire and ruins.)[3] In 1818, the eighteen-year-old poet Victor Hugo’s mother came to live on the third floor of 18 rue des Petits-Augustins. ‘An elderly visitor who frequently climbed the stairs of No. 18 was a cousin of Mme. Hugo, the Comte de Volney.’[4]

The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night c.1799 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, ‘The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night’, c.1799, watercolour and graphite on paper: ©Tate Britain)

In an essay on Walt Whitman, Guy Davenport remarks that: ‘It is [ . . . ] worth reading Whitman against the intellectual background he assumed his readers knew and which is no longer remembered except sporadically: the world of Alexander von Humboldt, from which Whitman takes the word cosmos, Louis Agassiz, for whom Thoreau collected turtles, Volney’s Ruins, the historical perspective of which is as informative in Whitman as in Shelley, Fourier, Scott. A great deal that seems naif and spontaneous in Whitman has roots and branches.’[5]

‘Things have roots and branches’, Ezra Pound wrote in his later version of Confucius, ‘affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows, is almost as good as having a head and feet.’[6]

Volney crops up in a wide variety of contexts. Of Shelley’s ‘Philosophical poem’, Queen Mab, Richard Holmes remarks that ‘The conception of such a total approach to human knowledge was encouraged in Shelley by the reading of Count Volney’s notorious vision of corrupt society, The Ruins of Empire, and Erasmus Darwin’s poems of science and society.’[7]

Curran, Amelia, 1775-1847; Percy Bysshe Shelley

(Amelia Curran, Percy Bysshe Shelley, oil on canvas, 1819.
Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shelley’s famous ‘Ozymandias’ has a word or two to say about the ruins of hubristic ambition and the delusions of the powerful:

‘And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’[8]

But not only ruins. Just today, The Observer’s tribute to the photographer David Newell-Smith included one of his shots of the Rolling Stones performing in Hyde Park, 5 July 1969.

(A gallery of Newell-Smith’s photographs for The Observer is here:
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2017/jul/22/david-newell-smith-the-art-of-the-newspaper-photographer)

Planned as both a return to live performance and the debut appearance of new guitarist Mick Taylor, the Hyde Park concert became in large part a memorial for Brian Jones, who had died just two days earlier. Famously, Mick Jagger read an extract from Adonais, Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, before hundreds of cabbage white butterflies were released (there had been around 2500 but, in the hot weather, many had died).

Stones_Hyde_Park_1969

Rolling Stones on stage, Hyde Park, 5 July 1969
( https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39102141)

Out of interest, I looked back at what Mick Jagger actually read. Adonais is not a short poem: it consists of 55 stanzas, each of nine lines (so almost 500 lines in all). Jagger read stanza XXXIX and part of stanza LII (he left out the last two and a half lines): he also departed quite a few times from what Shelley actually wrote, usually adding short words—probably to make it easier both for him to read and for the audience to grasp.

And yet—ruins, after all. The two and a half lines that Mick Jagger omitted, probably because of the momentary confusion that mention of ‘Rome’ would cause, run:

Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.[9]

Around the time that he was writing Queen Mab, Shelley also wrote a long poem called ‘The Retrospect: Cwm Elan, 1812’, contrasting his mental and emotional state of the time with that of a year earlier:

Changed!—not the loathsome worm that fed
In the dark mansions of the dead,
Now soaring through the fields of air,
And gathering purest nectar there,
A butterfly, whose million hues
The dazzled eye of wonder views,
Long lingering on a work so strange,
Has undergone so bright a change.[10]

Just two years before the Hyde Park concert, there had, of course, been another celebrated Mick Jagger link with Lepidoptera, when William Reese-Mogg, quoting (almost) a line from Alexander Pope’s ‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’, headed his Times leader article ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’ This was in the wake of the dubious court case, in which the judge, Leslie Block, had imposed prison sentences on Jagger and Keith Richards for drug offences.[11]

‘We Love You’, the Jagger-Richards song that followed shortly after that court case, and that begins with the crash of prison cell doors closing, was released on 18 August 1967.

References

[1] ‘Notes for CXVII et seq.’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 802. See also Canto XCII, 619: ‘farfalla in tempesta/ under rain in the dark: / many wings fragile’.

[2] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), ix.

[3] Ackroyd, Turner (London: Vintage Books 2006), 9.

[4] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London: Chatto and Windus, 2001), 158-159.

[5] ‘Whitman’, in Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 70.

[6] Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29.

[7] Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London: Penguin, 1987), 202.

[8] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), 546. On this poem, see Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination, 278-281.

[9] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 438.

[10] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 865.

[11] The Times, 1 July 1967. Pope’s line has ‘upon’ rather than ‘on’.

Very fine swans indeed

Swans.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeats_Lady_Gregory.Coole.1915

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

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

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

Danny_Kaye_HCA

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultivating our garden

Pots

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

Gardens

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

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

Garden.Museum2

(Garden Museum, Lambeth, London)

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

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

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

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

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

IWN_film_poster copy

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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