I had recently been perusing Cavafy – particularly reading the essay on him written by that doyen of Dons, Maurice Bowra in his book, The Creative Experiment. Bowra, of whom it has been said, ” …..either the most distinguished or the most notorious Oxford don of the early twentieth century. Classicist, poet, wit, raconteur extraordinary, and Warden of Wadham College for over thirty years, he met nearly everyone of consequence in the worlds of literature and politics” He remarks of Cavafy’s abilility to find pathos in quite simple situations and quotes, The Melancholy of Jason poet in Kommagini, a.D. 595–
The aging of my body and my beauty is a wound from a merciless knife. I’m not resigned to it at all. I turn to you, Art of Poetry,
n these all-white courtyards where the south wind blows Whistling through vaulted arcades, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That leaps in the light, scattering its fruitful laughter With windy wilfulness and whispering, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That quivers with foliage newly born at dawn Raising high its colors in a shiver of triumph?
On plains where the naked girls awake, When they harvest clover with their light brown arms Roaming round the borders of their dreams — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree, Unsuspecting, that puts the lights in their verdant baskets That floods their names with the singing of birds — tell me Is it the mad pomegranate tree that combats the cloudy skies of the world?
The most accessible introduction to great philosophers, for me anyway, are the You-Tube programmes made by Bryan Magee maybe some 30 years ago. Particularly interesting was Iris Murdoch talking about Philosophy and Literature. Then there was the lucid conversation with Anthony Quinton on Spinoza and Leibnitz. The clearest philosophy book I managed to grasp however, was Language, Truth and Logic by A.J.Ayer. Freddie Ayer used to appear on the Brains Trust on Sunday afternoons -such excellent stimulating elevating television as we seem to see but rarely nowadays. True conversation seemingly in short supply.
However, skimming through Herman’s delightful book on The Scottish Enlightenment, I came across the intriguing philosopher, Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746). Here is how Herman concludes upon him…”He challenged other forms of oppression, which Locke and even Shaftesbury had ignored…….One was the legal subjection of women. Hutcheson defined rights as universal, and did not recognise any distinction based on gender. The other, even more important was slavery. ‘Nothing’, he said, ‘can change a rational creature into a piece of goods void of all rights.’ In fact Hutcheson’s lectures, published after his death under the title A System of Moral Philosophy, were ‘an attack on all forms of slavery as well as denial of any right to govern solely on superior abilities or riches.’ They would inspire anti-slavery abolitionists, not only in Scotland but from London to Philadelphia.
His thoughts on what he terms variolation are certainly pertinent to our contemporary discussions on vaccination. However, his interest in an early study of the philosophy interface with psychology also makes for a certain claim to fame on behalf of this doctor from Yorkshire. According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Hartley wrote a significant treatise. “The Observations gained dedicated advocates in Britain, America, and Continental Europe, who appreciated it both for its science and its spirituality. As science, the work grounds consciousness in neuro-physiology, mind in brain. On this basis, the central concept of “association,” much discussed by other British philosophers and psychologists, receives distinctive treatment: the term first names the physiological process that generates “ideas,” and then the psychological processes by which perceptions, thoughts, and emotions either link and fuse or break apart. In keeping with this physiological approach, Hartley offers a conceptually novel account of how we learn and perform skilled actions, a dimension of human nature often left unexplored in works of philosophy. Such actions include those involved in speech—and, by extension, the conduct of scientific inquiry.”
Although difficult perhaps to penetrate his writings in detail it seems to me that in relation to certain aspects of volition, memory, sensation and associations are a significant forerunner of Freud and psychoanalysis. It is often stated that Nietzsche’s thought have such an influence but Hartley should be recognised for his insights at much earlier period.
Peliaco quondam prognatae uertice pinus dicuntur liquidas Neptuni nasse per undas Phasidos ad fluctus et fines Aeetaeos, cum lecti iuuenes, Argiuae robora pubis, auratam optantes Colchis auertere pellem ausi sunt uada salsa cita decurrere puppi, caerula uerrentes abiegnis aequora palmis. diua quibus retinens in summis urbibus arces, ipsa leui fecit uolitantem flamine currum, pinea coniungens inflexae texta carinae. illa rudem cursu prima imbuit Amphitriten. quae simul ac rostro uentosum proscidit aequor, tortaque remigio spumis incanuit unda, emersere feri candenti e gurgite uultus aequoreae monstrum Nereides admirantes. illa, atque haud alia, uiderunt luce marinas mortales oculi nudato corpore Nymphas
It is said that formerly pines sprung from Pelion’s peak swam the liquid waves of Neptune To the waves of Phasis and the lands of Aeetes, When the chosen youths, the strength of Argive manhood Choosing to run away with the Golden Fleece from the Colchians, They dared to traverse with swift ship through the salty waters, Sweeping the azure sea with fir oars, For whom the goddess herself occupying the citadels in the highest cities Made the flying chariot with a light wind, Fitting the pine timbers to the curved keel. She first stained inexperienced Amphitrite with sailing; But which likewise plowed the fickle wave with curved ship’s beak And the water, twisted by the rowing grew warm with foam, Aquatic Nereids emerged their faces from the white eddies Admiring the apparition On that day, and hardly any other, mortals saw with their own eyes Marine nymphs, with naked body,
In a recent discussion at Jewish Book Week 2021, Hermione Lee mentioned that this was Stoppard’s favourite play. It was first published in 1997 and given it’s themes I wondered if it’s writing had any connection with Stoppard’s feelings about Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. This very interesting play can be viewed on You Tube but sadly the quality of the sound is not very good.
I think it is interesting that Stoppard who appears not to have had a University Education appears so interested in the minutaie of recondite and eclectic matters such as logical positivism (Jumpers) or textual analysis as in this play.
Isn’t it interesting how the road not taken, so to speak, may become so interesting one’s later in life. This was seemingly the case about higher education with Tom Stoppard who has become so formidably well read and erudite. I was thinking too of James Callaghan a British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1976 to 1979. He became so very interested in Education and seems to have engendered the changes that resulted in the National Curriculum.
The other major figure that springs to mind is George Orwell. However, my most recent encounter with Orwell portrays him rather more as the man of action and not perhaps very interested in University Education as that of describing authoritarian atmosphere of the minor Prep school. I was reading fairly recently an account by Rayner Heppenstall in his engaging account Four Absentees which mentions the time the author spent with Orwell in their Camden flat-https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayner_Heppenstall
It is difficult to imagine what Orwell might have chosen to read had he gone to University and then again he was young at a time well before the expansion of University Education. Perhaps, he is now studied under the area of Media Studies. There appears to be considerable debate about his writing. Personally I found his diaries which I think appeared in Penguin around 1988 absorbingly interesting.
Orwell and Stoppard are both concerned with language and truth. When looking at this play, there is a debate about the relative merits of poetry and academic scholarship as well as the human relationships. Houseman the classicist obsessed by the scientific and heterosexual Jackson. Obsessed too with such close textual analysis that he seems to missed his first in Greats. How might he be diagnosed or labelled nowadays one wonders.
After recently reading Three Rings by Daniel Mendelsohn (A tale of Exile, Narrative and Fate) I have been tempted to explore diversions and must now return to the text above.
The first two lines above do not appear to make a great deal of sense in English. My Heinemann edition translated by F.W.Cornish (Erstwhile Vice-Provost of Eton) 2nd Edition 1914 gives-
Pine-trees of old, born on top of the Pelion, are said to have swam through the clear waters of Neptune to the waves of Phasis and the realms of Aeetes, when the chosen youths, the flowers of Argive strength, desiring to bear away from the Colchians the golden fleece...
Now the obvious difficulty in getting the poetry here is the number of allusions with which the text is crammed. The sort of associations that in Keats time many were familiar. Looking them up…..
Pelion is simply there as a mountain today and looks gorgeous too.
“The flowers of Argive strength” is rather lovely and associated with gladiolus flowers which suggest not only strength but honour and moral integrity. Gladius being Latin for sword. Argive refers to the ancient city of Argos and obviously not the on-line delivery store! Argos (Ancient Argos, located in the Peloponnese in Greece, was a major Mycenaean settlement in the Late Bronze Age (1700-1100 BCE) and remained important throughout the Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman periods until its destruction by the Visigoths in 395 CE)
Finally, there is a little possible alternative at line 14 where freti might replace feri above and seems to mean narrow-anyway freti candenti sounds rather nice though I cannot quite make sense of it. It seemsto refer to a white narrow watery space I am told. See https://nodictionaries.com/text-word-note/1731849-remigio-spumis-incanuit-unda-emersere-freti-candenti-e-gurgite-uultus-aequoreae and according to Cornish might instead mean “wild visages” of the emerging Neriads in the spume of the churning oars. Houseman and probably Stoppard would doubtless be intrigued by these codd. (Codices) Referring to the different manuscripts. Cornish in my book -1st Edition 1912 refers to 7 different manuscripts- one of which is in the Bodleian and one of which is no longer extant but 6 of the others are derived from it. Codex Veronensis.
To give this book a dedication The desert sickened, And lions roared, and dawns of tigers Took hold of Kipling.
A dried-up well of dreadful longing Was gaping, yawning. They swayed and shivered, rubbing shoulders, Sleek-skinned and tawny.
Since then continuing forever Their sway in scansion, They stroll in mist through dewy meadows Dreamt up by the Ganges.
Creeping at dawn in pits and hollows Cold sunrays fumble. Funereal, incense-laden dampness Pervades the jungle
Does this poem convey the feeling of nostalgia to you? Geographically widespread there is certainly a sense of some disorientation. From “cold sunrays”, which suggest a Russian winter, to Kipling’s jungle or the Ganges or even the desert. The heat finds it hard to penetrate into the hollows and even the sunrays seem to fumble on their way to the losses of funereal dampness.
The poem shows Pasternak’s knowledge of Kipling and perhaps the first stanza refers also to Blake’s “Tiger, tiger burning bright”. Both, of course are political poets and the possible symbolism here might be imperial. However, it is the voracious hunger for the irretrievable which pervades the beasts-
A dried-up well of dreadful longing Was gaping, yawning
Tony Harrison is a poet whom I feel I know rather well from his television appearances. He seemed to be on the box quite a lot around 2000 or so. By any criteria his is a radical poet from Leeds. In my imagination I see him as a radical voice from that period along with another favourite poet, Tom Paulin. Harrison is an engaged poet from Leeds and is probably best known for his long poem “V” which was published in 1985. He is an immensely clever poet immersed in his Northern background with which is radicalism is associated and his broad knowledge of the classics. He is a playwright, a film-maker and a translator. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Harrison
In the poem which I discovered recently he is addressing his view of history. How the past has been recorded is an issue that perhaps becomes more pressing as we age. There is much debate about statues currently, who we should remember and what is both consciously and unconsciously addressed. What should we pass on to future generations and how to counteract distressingly current propoganda. This poem comes from the new edition of Selected Poems by Tony Harrison published by Penguin – you can find it here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Harrison He is travelling with his children over moorland-
Past scenic laybys and stag warning signs
the British borderlands roll into view.
They read: Beware of Unexploded Mines
I tell my children that was World War II.
Those borderlands are becoming politically more controversial, there is a simple rhyme-scheme with those dangerous residues beneath the surface. The poem makes the link between khaki uniforms and cavalry twill. It brins to mind the smart casual wear demanded of upper ranks in their so called leisure time. The areas forbidden to play are those marked off by signs and fences which remind the reader of enclosures and the imperial system of trade providing employment in a regulated manner to mill workers. The latter similarly having their time divided by tolling bells.
Mill angelus, and church tower twice as high.
One foundry cast the work-and rest-day bells-
the same red cottons in the flags that fly
for ranges, revolutions, and rough swells.
The alliterative Rs remind us not only of the Union Jack but that to some it was considered the butcher’s apron. The rough swells is almost classical ( Homer’s wine-dark sea) and rowdy posh boys with the ambivalent firing ranges in the background.
.But as the overflowing Tiber often invaded it with raging floods,
breaking into his ploughed fields,
converting them in winter into a lake,
he filled his worn-out boat,
which was drawn up on the beach, with stones,
making it a barrier against the floods.
By this means he repelled the inundation. who would have believed it?
An unseaworthy boat became the protector of the boatman!
Iam senior Ladon Tiberinae nauta carinae
Proxima dilectis rura paravit aquis.
Quae cum saepe vagus premeret torrentibus undis
Thybris et hiberno rumperet arva lacu,
Emeritam puppem, ripa quae stabat in alta,
Inplevit saxis obposuitque vadis.
Sic nimias avertit aquas. Quis credere posset?
Auxilium domino mersa carina tulit.
Moving on from ancient boats protecting retired boatmen, I was intriged by the article in the New Scientist telling how an unmanned ship has just made it’s way with very little remote steerage through the Panama Canal.
You can get on and live your life. This was what I once was severely told by one lively lady. I have rather fretted about this remark ever since-more especially nowadays. More especially during lockdown. I have had a partiality for biography for quite a long time. I have always wanted to understand how others perceive life. Some of my interest in poetry came from reading a book about W.H.Auden -well illustrated with pictures that I borrowed donkey’s years ago from Dulwich Library in Lordship Lane. It was near a splendid little gramophone record shop where I spent money on what seemed expensive long-play records. Reading about W.H.A. I was attracted by the thirties political poetry in particular. It has to be said that Auden was photographically interesting from his languid youth to his craggy face in old age.
A couple of years before this following a minitrek visit to Russia I took an A-level correspondance course in History (1815-1945) and the tutor recommended an approach as expounded by the works of Lord David Cecil. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_David_Cecil Accordingly I went on to read his illustrious book on Lord Melborne. Picking quite at random:-
Tis curiously-blended life produced a curiously-blended type of character. with so many opportunities for action, its interests were predminently active. Most of the men were engaged in politics. And the women- for they lived to please the men were political too. They listened, they sympathised, they advised; through them two statesmen might make overtures to each other, or effect a reconciliation. But politics were not then the sentence to hard labour that in our iron age they have become.
It is not difficult to discern the power and style of Cecil’s prose style. Though in between the carefully balanced sentences, a degree of what is now termed overt sexism appears to the present day reader. On the other hand the power of women in high politics- though by high, I refer to the level of power rather than degree of integrity- emerged here in No 10 last weekend. The relation between Marlborough and the young Queen Victoria emerges as a major theme in this important work. This brings me on to that biographer par excellence Lytton Strachey.
Strachey’s Eminent Victorians as well as his other works were a pleasure to read as well as an education in aspects of political history. It did not exactly give me any particular figure that one might wish to emulate-far from it. These were eloquent and elegant pen-portraits which often showed the neuroticism underneath the surface of the Victorian work ethic. Strachey was immersed in Gibbon and turned wry phrases and ironic comments. In short his wit deeply impressed and his erudition was quite something to attempt to emulate. Then came the marvellous biography by Michael Holroyd whose final pages so portrayed the deep and strange relationship with Dora Carrington. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/16/100-best-nonfiction-books-no-50-eminent-victorians-lytton-strachey-manning-nightingale-arnold-gordon
Here is George from Ireland on Strachey
So my interest in biography has often turned towards political figures. Returning once again to the outstanding Cecil family, it is worth noting that there is a magnificent biography of Lord David Cecil’s Grandfather,Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, KG, GCVO, PC, FRS, DL (3 February 1830 – 22 August 1903) who had been Prime MInister for over 13 years and is considered a master strategist in Foreign Affairs. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Gascoyne-Cecil,_3rd_Marquess_of_Salisbury Lord Salisbury by Andrew Roberts is another fascinating biography. It shows how after a somewhat tremulous beginning at Eton, he employed his many abilities in numerous fields became perhaps to what might be called a Tory intellectual. Robert’s biography is truly engaging and shows for instance, his fascination with amateur scientific experiments, his comfortable but busy life at Hatfield House and his relatively warm relationship with his children.
Should you have time to visit the National Portrait Gallery, you will find the painting of the !st Lord Cecil which bears the motto ‘Sero, Sed Serio’ inscribed on the portrait and translates as ‘late but in earnest‘. Cecil was subsequently appointed Viscount Cranborne in 1604, Earl of Salisbury in 1605
Sailing Home from Rapallo BY ROBERT LOWELL [February 1954]
Your nurse could only speak Italian, but after twenty minutes I could imagine your final week, and tears ran down my cheeks….
When I embarked from Italy with my Mother’s body, the whole shoreline of the Golfo di Genova was breaking into fiery flower. The crazy yellow and azure sea-sleds blasting like jack-hammers across the spumante-bubbling wake of our liner, recalled the clashing colors of my Ford. Mother traveled first-class in the hold; her Risorgimento black and gold casket was like Napoleon’s at the Invalides….
While the passengers were tanning on the Mediterranean in deck-chairs, our family cemetery in Dunbarton lay under the White Mountains in the sub-zero weather. The graveyard’s soil was changing to stone— so many of its deaths had been midwinter. Dour and dark against the blinding snowdrifts, its black brook and fir trunks were as smooth as masts. A fence of iron spear-hafts black-bordered its mostly Colonial grave-slates. The only “unhistoric” soul to come here was Father, now buried beneath his recent unweathered pink-veined slice of marble. Even the Latin of his Lowell motto: Occasionem cognosce,
seemed too businesslike and pushing here, where the burning cold illuminated the hewn inscriptions of Mother’s relatives: twenty or thirty Winslows and Starks. Frost had given their names a diamond edge….
In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother’s coffin, Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL. The corpse was wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil.
There is a truly fascinating analysis of this poem in one of my favourite books. That is to say -The Secret Life of Poems by Tom Paulin. This useful book gives an excellent insight into the way poetry works. That may sound a cliche but in Paulin’s review of this poem you can see just how the critic discovers the levels of meaning within the poem and finally expresses his open appreciation of it. There are a number of introductions to poetry that I have found helpful – Ruth Padel has done this for me in her two anthologies-
The Poem and the Journey: 60 Poems for the Journey of Life
Michael Hofmann (photo) is yet another poet and critic as well as a brilliant translator. Yesterday I was reading his introduction to John Berryman’s Selected Poems which was also very clear and enlightening.
CYDONIAN spring with her attendant train,
Maelids and water-girls,
Stepping beneath a boisterous wind from Thrace,
Throughout this sylvan place
Spreads the bright tips, 5
And every vine-stock is
Clad in new brilliancies.
And wild desire
Falls like black lightning.
O bewildered heart,
Though every branch have back what last year lost, 10
She, who moved here amid the cyclamen,
Moves only now a clinging tenuous ghost.