‘We poets in our youth’

Redcliffe_Church_via_OBI.tumblr

(George Shepherd, Via https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/ )

‘The weather was brilliant’, the Reverend Francis Kilvert recorded in his diary, Friday 24 October 1873, when he attended the Bristol Music Festival. ‘We walked first to St Mary Redcliffe Church and remained to service in the beautiful Lady Chapel at 11 o’clock.’[1]

This imposing church, some of it dating back to the twelfth century, is about a mile from where I sit at this moment. Bristol boasts a giddily multifarious literary-historical line-up, those who have lived, visited or worked here ranging from Richard Hakluyt, Maria Edgeworth and Thomas Lovell Beddoes to Walter Savage Landor, Angela Carter and Charles Tomlinson. Edmund Burke was Member of Parliament, Humphry Davy experimented with laughing gas (often on himself) and Daniel Defoe may have met Alexander Selkirk, the ‘original’ of Robinson Crusoe, in a tavern in King Street. But traces of English Romanticism show up particularly strongly in any blood sample taken from the city’s literary history, and St Mary Redcliffe’s is a name that recurs often.

On this day, 4 October, in 1795, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet—recently, though briefly, having served with the Fifteenth Light Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache—was married to Miss Sara Fricker in St Mary Redcliffe. He was not quite twenty-three, she a year or two older. The marriage would not be a conspicuous success but, in and around this year, Coleridge was meeting and often enchanting other figures who would be crucially important to his life and art.

‘SOUTHEY! thy melodies steal o’er mine ear
Like far-off joyance, or the murmuring
Of wild bees in the sunny showers of Spring –
Sounds of such mingled import as may cheer

The lonely breast, yet rouse a mindful tear’.[2]

Coleridge and Southey first met in Oxford in June 1794. Coleridge and his travelling companion, Joseph Hucks, had just begun a walking tour which would extend to more than five hundred miles in just over a month. The three-day stopover was transformed into a three-week stay, essentially because of this encounter between Coleridge and the twenty-year-old Southey, who ‘wrote bad poetry at tremendous speed’ and, though a self-proclaimed atheist and democrat, ‘with strong Jacobin sympathies’, was at that stage destined for the church.[3] Southey was a Bristol man, born above the family draper’s shop in Wine Street in August 1774, educated at Westminster School and then Balliol College. Coleridge’s friendship with him—like his friendships with several other men of letters—would be prone to convulsions, smarts and sorties but it started out with a tremendous velocity.

Coleridge

(Coleridge, 1975, by Peter Vandyke: © National Portrait Gallery)

By the time he and Hucks moved on from Oxford, Coleridge had established with Southey plans for a community on the banks of the Susquehanna river in Pennsylvania, which would sustain itself through farming (two or three hours’ daily labour) and would be grandly based on the principles of ‘Pantisocracy’, a Coleridgean coining, from Greek roots, meaning, more or less, government by all. The ‘astonishing’ speed with which this all happened ‘was testimony not only to the transforming effect they had on one another, but to the very weak foundations upon which the whole enterprise rested.’[4]

Within the next three months, Coleridge would meet Thomas Poole, radical, philanthropist and essayist, then living in Bristol, who would become a lifelong friend; and his future wife, Sara Fricker.

‘My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me,
Elm-shadowed Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea.
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here.’[5]

In August and September, Coleridge composed other poems looking forward to his marriage: ‘The Eolian Harp’, the first of his celebrated ‘Conversation’ poems; and ‘Lines Written at Shurton Bars’, in which he ‘even dares to anticipate metaphorically the soon-to-be-enjoyed sexual congress with Sara (‘And so shall flash my love-charg’d eye/ When all the heart’s big ecstasy/ Shoots rapid through the frame!’).[6]

Still, there were hints for Sara of the absences and unreliability to come:

‘O Peace, that on a lilied bank dost love
To rest thine head beneath an olive tree,
I would, that from the pinions of thy dove
One quill withouten pain ypluck’d might be!
For O! I wish my Sara’s frowns to flee,
And fain to her some soothing song would write,
Lest she resent my rude discourtesy,
Who vowed to meet her ere the morning light,
But broke my plighted word—ah! false and recreant wight!’[7]

In August or September 1795, Coleridge met William Wordsworth, in Bristol: most likely at the house of John Pinney, a hugely wealthy merchant whose fortune was founded on sugar and slaves.

(The University of Bristol Library Special Collections include the Pinney family papers: accounts, letter-books, family and estate papers, mainly relating to Dorset and the West Indies, 1650-1986. See https://www.bristol.ac.uk//library/resources/specialcollections/archives/#pinney )

WW-Robert-Hancock-1798

(William Wordsworth, 1798, by Robert Hancock: © National Portrait Gallery)

In that same busy period, he quarrelled with Southey: though they were reconciled in the autumn of the following year, their Pantisocracy scheme, hardly surprisingly, fell through. And, less than six weeks after the Coleridge wedding, on 13 November 1795, Southey also married—also in St Mary Redcliffe Church. His bride was Edith Fricker, a sister of Coleridge’s wife.

In later years, when the Southeys lived in Keswick, at Greta Hall, they also supported Sara Coleridge and her children. And where was Coleridge then? In London, perhaps; or Germany; or South Wales; or Scotland; or Malta; or Sicily; or Italy. In September 1798, Lyrical Ballads, the landmark volume by Wordsworth and Coleridge, was published in Bristol by Joseph Cottle. Thereafter, Coleridge nursed an increasingly hopeless love for Sara Hutchinson (whom he addressed in print as ‘Asra’, not quite an unbreakable code), sister to Mary—whom Wordsworth would marry in 1802; there were quarrels and reconciliations; unfinished poems; accusations of plagiarism; lectures, marathon conversations, table-talk—and opium.

The early celebration of French revolutionary principles fell entirely away in the cases of both Wordsworth and Coleridge—and fell away even more steeply, perhaps, in that of Robert Southey, with whom Byron’s ‘Dedication’ to Don Juan was concerned (the first two Cantos appeared in 1819), though he had begun his ‘Preface’ with a swipe at Wordsworth’s unintelligibility and here jabbed at Coleridge’s recent preoccupations.

Byron-Thomas-Phillips

(Byron by Thomas Phillips)

Bob Southey! You’re a poet – Poet Laureate,
And representative of all the race;
Although ‘tis true that you turned out a Tory at
Last, yours has lately been a common case.
And now my epic renegade, what are ye at
With all the Lakers, in and out of place?
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
Like ‘four and twenty blackbirds in a pye,

Which pye being opened they began to sing’
(This old song and new simile holds good),
‘A dainty dish to set before the King’
Or Regent, who admires such kind of food.
And Coleridge too has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,
Explaining metaphysics to the nation;
I wish he would explain his explanation.[8]

There were major achievements still to come from Coleridge, though, barring his restless revising, few of these were in the field of poetry, after the first years of the nineteenth century, and some—the Notebooks—would be barely visible in his lifetime. Wordsworth too, after the publication of Poems in Two Volumes (1807), is generally viewed in terms of poetic decline. In ‘Resolution and Independence’, written in the first half of 1802, though not published until 1807, Wordsworth’s narrator thinks of Chatterton, ‘the marvellous Boy’, whose brief life and tragic death were inextricably linked to St Mary Redcliffe Church, where his father was sexton and found the papers in the Muniment Room which led to Chatterton’s ‘discovery’ of the poet Thomas Rowley.[9] The same stanza concludes with two famous lines:

We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.[10]

And yes, ‘sadness’ would have scanned—and would have rhymed too. But it just wouldn’t have cut the mustard, somehow. . .

References

[1] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969). Volume Two (23 August 1871—13 May 1874), 386.

[2] ‘To Robert Southey of Balliol College, Oxford, Author of the “Retrospect”, and Other Poems’, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Complete Poems, edited by William Keach (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 74.

[3] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), 61-62.

[4] Tom Mayberry, Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Crucible of Friendship, revised edition (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000), 22-23.

[5] ‘Lines composed while climbing the left ascent of Brockley Coomb, Somersetshire, May, 1795: Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 80.

[6] Rosemary Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 74-75; Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 87-88, 89-91.

[7] ‘Lines in the manner of Spenser’: Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 81.

[8] Lord Byron, Don Juan, edited by T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W. W. Pratt (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 37, 41. Southey accepted the post of Poet Laureate in 1813. Byron had assisted Coleridge financially, sending him £100 in February 1816: Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 295. On the Pye joke, see an earlier post: https://reconstructionarytales.blog/2017/08/21/sorrows-joys-magpies/

[9] On Chatterton, see Richard Holmes, ‘Thomas Chatterton: The Case Re-opened’, in Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (London: Harper Collins, 2000), 5-50; Alistair Heys, editor, From Gothic to Romantic: Thomas Chatterton’s Bristol (Bristol: Redcliffe Press, 2005).

[10] William Wordsworth, edited by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 232.

 

Everything as something else

Sea

When I read John Banville’s novel, The Sea, some years ago, one statement stuck in my head, when the narrator observed: ‘Everything now reminds me of something else.’ It stayed with me because this seemed increasingly my own case. If you have an associative memory, in which details tend to cling to others like burrs, as the sheer quantity of matter in that memory becomes unmanageable, it’s increasingly difficult to dredge up a thing cleanly. ‘To see the object as it really is’—a central concern for Matthew Arnold, meaning rather to remove the incrustations of orthodoxy or class habit or cultural assumption: perfection ‘can never be reached without seeing things as they really are; and it is to this, therefore, and to no machinery in the world, that culture sticks fondly.’[1]

How much of a problem is it if something read or heard or, increasingly, seen recalls something else, quotations, images derived from similar-sounding words, parallels and echoes? And, problem or not, is it in any case avoidable—or even desirable that it should be?

‘Now, this power of suggestion is one of the most mysterious properties of words. Everyone who has ever written a sentence must be conscious or half-conscious of it. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations—naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today’. This is Virginia Woolf, who gives the example of ‘incarnadine’, adding: ‘who can use it without remembering also “multitudinous seas”?’[2]

Woolf.2

‘Incarnadine’ isn’t a word I’d use that often anyway, to be honest, but the essential case is made and plenty of other examples confirm it. The word ‘swaddled’, for instance, is now, I think, inextricable from images of the Christ-child, even in the minds of those least-versed in Christian imagery and symbolism. Yet that’s immediately complicated by the example of the word’s use that first springs to mind, T. S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’, where, to borrow a phrase, ‘the quotabilities swarm’:[3]

Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign!’
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger

Tiger

The poem is two and a half pages long; the commentary, twenty. ‘Swaddled with darkness’? ‘The Book of Job’ (38, 9) via a sermon of Lancelot Andrewes.[4]

But the Banville, yes. At some point, without foreboding or focused intention, but merely happenstance (how often and how genuinely are things ‘merely happenstance’?), I browsed my way back to it and noticed (of course) that what I recalled so vividly was not present at all. He had actually written: ‘…everything for me is something else, it is a thing I notice increasingly.’[5]

And (of course) this, or something like it, had cropped up before; many times, probably, but one occurs to me without searching or straining. Towards the end of To the Lighthouse, James, the Ramsay son to whom the first words of the novel are addressed, recalls what the lighthouse has meant to him in the past and compares it with the reality of the structure very close to him, as the boat journey to the rocks on which it stands is almost ended. And he understands that ‘the Lighthouse’ is neither one thing nor the other, not simply, not always. ‘For nothing was simply one thing.’[6] And in Orlando, a work notable above all, I suppose, for changeability, mutability and instability: ‘Everything, in fact, was something else.’[7]

Something else as well, I want to write. Everything turning out to be something completely different from what we believed it to be is too scary a thought; but multiplicity is fine, better than fine, desirable, no, indispensable.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[8]

We are deluged with information now, much of it crazy, much of it incorrigibly plural—and much of it by routes where nothing is filtered or ordered. The internet is a wonderfully accurate reflection of this: a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand links brought up by a typed keyword or phrase. We may recognize a few of the sources and already have them arranged in a loose hierarchy in our minds; but in most cases we can’t tell without clicking on them, assessing, questioning. Many people assume, based on other contexts, that the ‘best’ links are at the top of the page. Alas, it ain’t necessarily so. And the question we ask of them can often not be answered since the lack of the information required to answer it was what prompted the original inquiry. I recall this from the novelist Nicholas Mosley: ‘The experiment is to discover the mechanisms of the brain. But the instruments are constructed by these mechanisms, so the operation is impossible.’[9]

Byron

Information overload. Recreation overload. Writing a letter to Lord Byron (as you do), W. H. Auden remarked:

Indeed our ways to waste time are so many,
Thanks to technology, a list of these
Would make a longer book than Ulysses.[10]

I remind myself that we’ve had eighty years since Auden published his poem to develop ways of wasting our time – and that my favourite edition of Ulysses is 933 pages.

 
References

[1] Culture And Anarchy (1869; edited by J. Dover Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 35.

[2] Virginia Woolf, ‘Craftsmanship’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 88 (referring to Macbeth, II, ii, 59).

[3] Hugh Kenner on Part II of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 194.

[4] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 31, 474.

[5] John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2006), 138.

[6] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927; edited by David Bradshaw, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 165-166, 152.

[7] Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928; edited by Rachel Bowlby, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 138.

[8] Louis MacNeice, ‘Snow’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[9] Nicholas Mosley, Natalie Natalia (Dalkey Archive Press: Victoria, Texas: 2006), 130.

[10] Auden, Letter to Lord Byron, Part II (first published in Letters from Iceland, his 1937 collaboration with Louis MacNeice), in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 177.

 

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.

 

Gathering Roses

Rose

There are seven, or is it eight, buds on our rosebush now. Like many readers, I can call to mind the first line of Robert Herrick’s ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ but then I tend to falter. The poem’s usual title, ‘To the Virgins, to make much of time’, points to those preoccupations with sex and death which are so common in the poetry of that period, perfectly reasonably so, given wars, plagues and an average life expectancy of less than forty years (that this was heavily influenced by a very high infant mortality rate can’t have been that much comfort). So the other three lines of Herrick’s first stanza are:

Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
Tomorrow will be dying.[1]

Be not coy, he advises those maidens, an admonition moved up to headline status in Andrew Marvell’s wonderful To His Coy Mistress. Marvell is also extremely keen to get his lover into bed: of course, he’d like nothing better than to devote tens, hundreds, even thousands of years to praising and adoring her eyes, forehead, breasts and heart. ‘But’, alas, ‘at my back I always hear/ Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near’. And he points out, quite sensibly, that ‘The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace.’[2]

So the rose, or rather, the beauty of the rose, is inextricable from the brevity of its flowering. There are, I see now, a staggering number of poems about roses and often, simultaneously, about beauty, sex and death also. They stretch back to the ancient world—Homer, Horace, Sappho—up through Shakespeare and Milton to the modern period of Frost, H. D., Yeats, De la Mare, Randall Jarrell and Charles Tomlinson.

Go, lovely Rose—
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.[3]

Edmund_Waller_John_Riley

(Edmund Waller, after John Riley)

This is the first stanza of the famous lyric by Edmund Waller (1606-1687), poet and politician; involved in a 1643 plot in the interest of the king, he escaped execution and was banished to France, returning to England in 1652 and becoming an admirer and friend of Oliver Cromwell.

And here’s the first stanza of the ‘Envoi’, carefully dated (1919), to the first part of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie
And build her glories their longevity.

The speaker then thinks of how the grace and beauty might be made to outlast its moment, its natural lifespan, as roses might be made to do:

Tells her that sheds
Such treasure in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour
Braving time.[4]

Henry Lawes set Waller’s ‘Goe lovely Rose’ to music; ‘her that sang me once that song of Lawes’ was almost certainly Raymonde Collignon (Madame Gaspard-Michel), who made her professional debut in 1916, was favourably reviewed several times by Pound when he reviewed music for the New Age under the name ‘William Atheling’, and performed in Pound’s opera, The Testament of François Villon.[5]

A quarter of a century later, in the last pages—what I think of as the ‘English’ pages—of Canto LXXX, part of the Pisan sequence, Pound wrote:

Tudor indeed is gone and every rose,
Blood-red, blanch-white that in the sunset glows
Cries: ‘Blood, Blood, Blood!’ against the gothic stone
Of England, as the Howard or Boleyn knows.[6]

Catherine-Howard

(© National Portrait Gallery, London
Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard
after Hans Holbein the Younger; oil on panel, late 17th century)

The red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of Yorkshire: the thirty-year-long Wars of the Roses and the passing of the Plantagenet dynasty; then the deaths of Katharine Howard and Anne Boleyn on the block; followed by the end of the Tudors with the death of Elizabeth.

But Pound used roses in another context: their delicacy, fragility and vulnerability set against the patterning of energy made visible by, for instance, iron filings acted upon by a magnet.

Hast ‘ou seen the rose in the steel dust
(or swansdown ever?)
so light is the urging, so ordered the dark petals of iron
we who have passed over Lethe.[7]

Pound first mentioned his magnetic ‘rose’ in a 1915 piece on Vorticism, at a time when he was preoccupied with forms of energy. ‘An organisation of forms expresses a confluence of forces [ . . . . ] For example: if you clasp a strong magnet beneath a plateful of iron filings, the energies of the magnet will proceed to organise form. It is only by applying a particular and suitable force that you can bring order and vitality and thence beauty into a plate of iron filings, which are otherwise as “ugly” as anything under heaven. The design in the magnetized iron filings expresses a confluence of energy.’[8]

He returned to the theme—and the image—again in an essay on the medieval Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti,[9] and in 1937, once again found the rose revivified by magnetic energy: ‘The forma, the immortal concetto, the concept, the dynamic form which is like the rose pattern driven into the dead iron-filings by the magnet, not by material contact with the magnet itself, but separate from the magnet. Cut off by the layer of glass, the dust and filings rise and spring into order. Thus the forma, the concept rises from death’.[10]

The idea and the image tend to divert attention from the language used: but the words themselves form highly effective, opposing clusters: ‘dead’ and ‘death’, ‘separate’ and ‘cut off’ set against ‘immortal’, ‘dynamic’, ‘rise’, ‘spring’, ‘rises’.

Ruskin

Eighty years earlier, another writer—another highly contentious figure—began his own rose-centred obsession. John Ruskin, in the preface to his autobiography, Praeterita, referred to ‘passing in total silence things which I have no pleasure in reviewing, and which the reader would find no help in account of.’ Later in the same book, he writes that ‘Some wise, and prettily mannered, people have told me I shouldn’t say anything about Rosie at all. But I am too old now to take advice…’[11]

Rosie—Rose La Touche—was ten years old when she first met Ruskin. She died at the age of twenty-seven. He seems to have asked her to marry him around her eighteenth birthday, though he had clearly fallen in love with her some time before that: she asked him to wait for an answer until she was twenty-one. The story of this long, sad affair, complicated by parental concern, religious mania and Ruskin’s well-documented predilection for young girls, has been traced at length by Ruskin’s biographers. Tim Hilton states baldly that Ruskin ‘was a paedophile’,[12] which, certainly in today’s cultural climate, seems to say both too much and too little. As Catherine Robson points out, ‘There is no evidence that Ruskin sexually abused little girls: the exact dynamics of his encounters with real girls—with Rose La Touche, with the pupils at Winnington, with girls in London, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Lake District—remain essentially unknowable.’[13] Given the ‘non-consummation’ of Ruskin’s marriage with Effie Gray, it seems highly likely that Ruskin never had a full sexual relationship at all.

Roses are everywhere in Ruskin’s work, from the title of his botanical book, Proserpina—not only does the title embrace the word ‘rose’ but Ruskin associated Rose La Touche with Proserpina since at least the spring of 1866[14]—to numerous pages in Fors Clavigera, not least thelittle vignette stamp of roses’ on the title page, of which he writes in ‘Letter XXII’: ‘It is copied from the clearest bit of the pattern of the petticoat of Spring, where it is drawn tight over her thigh, in Sandro Botticelli’s picture of her, at Florence.’[15]

 

 Ruskin-Rosie-1861

(Rose La Touche by John Ruskin, 1861)

And at the last, in ‘Letter XCVI. (Terminal)’ of his great work, Ruskin talks of ‘a place called the Rosy Valley’, which becomes ‘Rosy Vale’, the title of the letter. Rosy Vale, ‘Rosy farewell’. At the head of the letter is a drawing by Kate Greenaway, called, of course, ‘Rosy Vale’. And Fors Clavigera closes with these words: ‘The story of Rosy Vale is not ended;—surely out of its silence the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing, and round it the desert rejoice, and blossom as the rose.’[16]

How much this painful history contributed to Ruskin’s depression and mental decline is impossible to gauge. Rose had died mad in 1875; from 1889 to his death in 1900, Ruskin produced little and, apparently, spoke little, that span of a dozen years eerily echoed in the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, who suffered a mental collapse in 1889 but lived on until 1900. For the last dozen years of his life, Ezra Pound produced practically nothing and spoke—in public—barely at all.

‘You think I jest, still, do you? Anything but that; only if I took off the Harlequin’s mask for a moment, you would say I was simply mad. Be it so, however, for this time.’[17]

References

[1] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 274.

[2] Andrew Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’, in The Complete Poems, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 50. Some readers of Ford Madox Ford prick up their ears at this point, remembering General Campion’s quoting (and misquoting) of this poem: No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 219-220.

[3] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 318.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 557.

[5] Eva Hesse, ‘Raymonde Collignon, or (Apropos Paideuma, 7-1 & 2, 345-346): The Duck That Got Away’, Paideuma, 10, 3 Winter 1981), 583-584.

[6] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 516.

[7] ‘Canto LXXIV’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, 449. Pound critics point to Ben Jonson’s ‘Her Triumph’ here; and to the form of Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the case of the previous quotation.

[8] Ezra Pound, ‘Affirmations II. Vorticism’, New Age, XVI, 11 (14 January, 1915), 277. Later in the series, an article on Imagism mentioned ‘energy’ or ‘energies’ twelve times, ‘emotion’ or ‘emotional’ sixteen times.

[9] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 154.

[10] Pound, Guide to Kulchur (1938; New Directions, 1970), 152,

[11] Ruskin, Praeterita and Dilecta (London: Everyman’s Library, 2005), 9, 471.

[12] Tim Hilton, John Ruskin: The Early Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 253.

[13] Catherine Robson, Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), 122.

[14] Tim Hilton, Ruskin: The Later Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 311.

[15] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, new edition (Orpington & London: George Allen, 1896), I, 427.

[16] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, IV, 507.

[17] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, III, 257,

Waking, Sunday morning

Dante_Inferno_XV

(Gustav Doré, illustration for Dante, Inferno, Canto XV)

Waking on Sunday morning, I listen to the headlines, just to be sure that the 45th President of the United States has not brought about the incineration of a large part of the world because someone called him names in the playground. Then downstairs, to resume my book over coffee, hoping that there’s no significance in the title of the long story I’m finishing: ‘The Nemesis of Fire’.[1]

Sunday seems to preoccupy poets, with its unsettling conjunction of religion and war, of prophecy and delusion.

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

An attractive setting in which to consider questions of religious belief, the possibility of paradise on earth and the acceptance of inevitable endings. There are unsettling moments, to be sure:

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.[2]

More direct, perhaps, is Robert Lowell in ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’, the poem which opens Near the Ocean. Politics and religion in the era of the Vietnam War and, of course, the Six-Day War,[3] bled profusely into one another:

O Bible chopped and crucified
in hymns we hear but do not read,
none of the milder subtleties
of grace or art will sweeten these
stiff quatrains shovelled out foursquare—
they sing of peace, and preach despair;
yet they gave darkness some control,
and left a loophole for the soul.

Lowell

(Via The Poetry Foundation: www.poetryfoundation.org/)

The last three stanzas move from an imagined glimpse of the President (Lyndon B. Johnson on his Sunday morning) to end thus:

No weekends for the gods now. Wars
flicker, earth licks its open sores,
fresh breakage, fresh promotions, chance
assassinations, no advance.
only man thinning out his kind
sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life . . .

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war—until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.[4]

On a Sunday in September 1819, John Keats wrote ‘To Autumn’. The Odes, of which this is one of the most famous, were written, Robert Gittings notes, ‘in what Keats had now come to regard as a fever, a beating at the bars of life.’ Less than five months later, on the night of Thursday 3 February 1820, came the first showing of arterial blood, followed by a second, massive haemorrhage.[5]

Gittings_Keats

There are less portentous Sundays, some offering simple (or complex) pleasure. ‘This is the day that Robert Burns delighted in,’ the Reverend Francis Kilvert remarked in his diary, ‘the first fine Sunday in May.’[6] Fifty years later, D. H. Lawrence was in receptive mood: ‘This Sunday morning, seeing the frost among the tangled, still savage bushes of Sardinia, my soul thrilled again. This was not all known. This was not all worked out. Life was not only a process of rediscovering backwards. It is that, also: and it is that intensely. Italy has given me back I know not what of myself, but a very, very great deal.’[7]

There was a time, not that long ago, when Sunday in this country was either a huge relief, peaceful and relaxing; or stupendously boring, enough to drive you up the wall, depending on your age, character and predilections. Norman Lewis remembered that ‘England, this April [1946], was an everlasting Sunday morning, lying under a spell of emptiness and silence.’[8]

And in the United States? Charles Reznikoff remembered ‘Sunday Walks in the Suburbs’, hardly an Edenic setting:

On stones mossed with hot dust, no shade but the thin, useless shadows of roadside grasses;
into the wood’s gloom, staring back at the blue flowers on stalks thin as threads.

He details rubbish, rats, scared dogs, old women, old men and remarks that:

This is where I walked night after night;
this is where I walked away many years.[9]

Henry Thoreau, though, sought to reach back to something precisely Edenic, before the religious disagreements that complicated the life of his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘It was a quiet Sunday morning, with more of the auroral rosy and white than of the yellow in it, as if it dated from earlier than the fall of man, and still preserved a heathenish integrity’.[10]

SundayBloodySunday

We could certainly do with a large infusion of integrity in public life. But heathenish? No, probably not. Always these complications. Sunday bloody Sunday, as they say. (U2, yes, but John Schlesinger first.)

 

References

[1] ‘Nemesis of Fire’, in The Tales of Algernon Blackwood (London: Martin Secker, 1938), 440-513. The story is about a ‘fire-elemental’, enraged by the desecration of a tomb and the theft of a ‘scarabaeus’, a gem in the form of the dung-beetle, sacred to the ancient Egyptians.

[2] Wallace Stevens, ‘Sunday Morning’, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 66-67, 69.

[3] See Lowell’s comments on the poem in The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 485-486, 487.

[4] Robert Lowell, Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 384, 385-386. See 933-936 for the magazine version of the poem, which included two more stanzas between the last two quoted here.

[5] Robert Gittings, John Keats (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 507, 508.

[6] Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969). Volume One (1 January 1870—19 August 1871), 329: entry for Sunday 7 May 1871.

[7] Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia (1921), in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 123.

[8] Lewis, The World, the World (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996), 18.

[9] Charles Reznikoff, Poems 1918-1936: Volume I of The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff, edited by Seamus Cooney, two volumes (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978), 41.

[10] A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod (New York: Library of America, 1985), 36.

 

‘Remember that I have remembered’

Binyon_via_BBC
(Laurence Binyon via BBC)

A great many people in the English-speaking world, even if unfamiliar with the name of Laurence Binyon, would probably recognise his words. These words anyway:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.[1]

The fourth stanza of seven, used in all manner of places on Remembrance Day, formerly Armistice Day—of course, many people still call it that, though the date refers to only one armistice: the signatures on a document in a railway carriage in a clearing in the forest of Compiègne on 11 November 1918.

Binyon was born on 10 August 1869 (he died in 1943). For literary historians and, perhaps, some art historians, the authorship of those famous words might easily be forgotten or set aside as a mere detail in Binyon’s story, interesting in its own right but also connecting with a great many other stories.

One example would be the Abstract & Concrete exhibition (February 1936), which was organised by Nicolete Gray. She was a friend of Myfanwy Evans, who edited a periodical called Axis, devoted to abstract art, from 1935 to 1937, and married John Piper in the latter year. Nicolete was an art scholar and calligrapher, later a friend of David Jones, publishing a book about his paintings  – and the youngest of Laurence Binyon’s daughters: she married Basil Gray, Binyon’s assistant at the British Museum.[2]

Gray-Jones

(The jacket illustration is Jones’s 1931 self-portrait entitled Human Being).

Another example would be an encounter in the Vienna – or Wiener – Café:

So it is to Mr Binyon that I owe, initially,
Mr Lewis, Mr P. Wyndham Lewis. His bull-dog, me,
as it were against old Sturge M’s bull-dog, Mr T. Sturge Moore’s
bull-dog[3]

The poet and playwright Thomas Sturge Moore was, in a way, Lewis’s mentor at that stage and, thirty years later, Lewis would write from his self-imposed wartime exile in Toronto: ‘How calm those days were before the epoch of wars and social revolution, when you used to sit on one side of your work-table and I on the other and we would talk’.[4] Thirty years before the Pisan Cantos, Pound wrote in Poetry magazine (June 1915) an appreciation of Sturge Moore in which he referred to the poet as ‘more master of cadence than any of his English contemporaries.’ In the same piece, he wrote a famous line that William Cookson would isolate many years later in his edition of Pound’s Selected Prose: ‘The essential thing in a poet is that he build us his world.’[5] And Pound said that these lines of Sturge Moore’s had stayed with him: ‘Aie, aie, aie!/ Laomedon![6]

At the time of that meeting in the Wiener Café, Binyon was Assistant Keeper at the British Museum. He became, in 1913, Keeper of the new Sub-Department of Oriental Prints and Drawings, with the orientalist Arthur Waley as his assistant. The exhibition Binyon organised of Chinese and Japanese paintings ran throughout 1910-12. His access to, and wide knowledge of, oriental art was hugely influential in the development of modernism. He published over forty books, including more than a dozen volumes of poetry and almost as many on British art and literature, another eight on oriental art, plus plays and biographies.

Binyon_Flight_Dragon

Pound often referred approvingly to Binyon’s 1911 book, The Flight of the Dragon, on Chinese and Japanese art (one factor in preparing Pound to respond as he did to the gift of Ernest Fenollosa’s notebooks from his widow, Mary, which resulted in Cathay); and he remembered too Binyon’s thirty-page poem Penthesilea (1905), about the queen of the Amazons, her involvement in the Trojan War and her eventual death at the hands of Achilles, whose spear penetrates her shield:

in her side it pierced
And bore her down; imperially she fell
Without a cry, sank on lost feet, nor heard
Achilles’ dread voice, ‘Art thou satisfied,
Penthesilea?’ but the heavy shield
Rang on her fallen, the helmet rolled in dust
From her proud head, and the long, loosened hair
Tossed one tress richly over throat and bosom
Shuddering strongly up from where the blood
Welled dark about the spear forced deep within;
And sudden as a torch plunged in a pool
Her face lay dead-pale with the eyes quite closed.[7]

Much later in life, Binyon produced a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy in terza rima, which was the version used in the Portable Dante, published by Viking and available from Penguin Books for many years. Pound corresponded with him about his ten-year project and involved himself quite actively in it. In 1934, he published a long, complimentary review, in T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, of Binyon’s version of Inferno. In the course of that review, looking back to his pre-war acquaintance with Binyon at the British Museum, he recalled how he ‘perused, it now seems, in retrospect, for days the tales of . . . demme if I remember anything but a word, one name, Penthesilea, and that not from reading it, but from hearing it spoken by a precocious Binyonian offspring.’[8]

Pound wrote several detailed letters while Binyon was working on the Purgatorio and went through the proofs, commenting to his old teacher William Shepard that Binyon ‘sheds more light on Dante than any translation I have ever seen.’[9]

Ezra Pound 1939 by Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957
(Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound (1939): Tate Modern
© Wyndham Lewis and the estate of Mrs G A Wyndham Lewis
A major exhibition, Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War, is currently at IWM North (until 1 January 2018): The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester, M17 1TZ)

His attitude to Binyon was often one of ‘baffled exasperation’, as Donald Davie phrases it in some fascinating pages on the relationship between them. Binyon, Davie says, ‘knew the unformulated rules of the society that he moved in, and played the game consistently as the amateur that that society required him to be. It is true to this day in England that, if one has learning, one must wear it so lightly that it is unnoticeable.’[10] (That was 1976. Forty years later—?)

before the world was given over to wars
Quand vous serez bien vieille
remember that I have remembered[11]

One other thing that Pound remembered was mentioned in a letter of 6 March 1934, when he asked Binyon: ‘I wonder if you are using (in lectures) a statement I remember your making in talk, but not so far as I recall, in print. “Slowness is beauty,” which struck me as very odd in 1908 (when I certainly did not believe it) and has stayed with me ever since’.[12]

It stayed with him for at least another twenty years, until ‘Canto LXXXVII’: ‘BinBin “is beauty”./ “Slowness is beauty.”‘

 

References

[1] Laurence Binyon, ‘For the Fallen’, first published in The Times, 21 September 1914. See Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 44.

[2] Frances Spalding, John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 86-89.

[3] Ezra Pound, ‘Canto LXXX’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 507.

[4] Letters of Wyndham Lewis, edited by W. K. Rose (New York: New Directions, 1963), 293.

[5] Pound, ‘Hark to Sturge Moore’, Poetry, VI, 3 (June 1915), 139-145 (141, 140). The line was used as epigraph to ‘Part One’ of Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 19.

[6] Richard Sieburth points out that this is the opening to Sturge Moore’s 1903 work, The Rout of the Amazons: Ezra Pound, The Pisan Cantos, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: New Directions, 2003), 148, note.

[7] Collected Poems of Laurence Binyon (London: Macmillan, 1931), 215. More Amazons! Why just then? The Suffragette group called The Bodyguard was dubbed ‘The Amazons’ by sections of the press, but this was a few years later.

[8] Pound, ‘Hell’, in Polite Essays (1937; Plainview, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1966), 28-46 (29). Nicolete was born in 1911; Pound’s memory is probably of 1909 (he met Binyon in February of that year), and thus of one of the twins, Helen or Margaret (born in December 1904). See ‘Canto LXXX’, 506: ‘Mr Binyon’s young prodigies/ pronounced the word: Penthesilea’.

[9] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 311. These letters to Binyon are concentrated in the period April–May, 1938.

[10] ‘Ezra Among the Edwardians’ (1976), collected in Studies in Ezra Pound: Chronicle and Polemic (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1991), 227-231.

[11] Pound, ‘Canto LXXX’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, 506.

[12] Pound, Selected Letters, 255.

[13] Pound, ‘Canto LXXXVII’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, 572.

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’.