Category Archives: Literature

Thoughts on history in the making

We seem currently to be going through a period of iconoclasm which has an interesting history itself. One of my favourite plays is “Forty Years On” by Alan Bennett. It often seems to me that British, and particularly English, society resembles some sort of minor public school. Hence I can easily hear John Gielgud intoning Ecclesiastes 44-1:-

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. 2The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. 3Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: 4Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions.

Now, when I googled this a moment ago, I discovered that the first six words of the title refers to a book written some 75 years ago by Agee and Evans with photographs of tenant farmers and their dreadful plight in the depression. The verse from Ecclesiastes was obscured and immediately raises the question about how the meaning of the past can be changed or indeed obscured. It also raises the questions about for whom history might be written, recorded or commemorated.

However, before examining the text, consider the last sentence….” meet For the people, WISE and ELOQUENT are their instructions”. Well it would be nice if the present incumbents of the senior management team were wise and concerned for the people and by no means can the repetitive bumbling be described as eloquence.

(Incidentally, I remember hearing that controversial Cornishman D.M. Thomas remarking once that we had moved from reading Isaiah to watching dire television in two generations!)

Now before we start praising famous men, let alone building statues to them, we also need to consider women and children. The statue which really brought pimples to the skin and still does was near the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin which shows those children going to the West in the Kindertransport and those from whom they have been sundered, facing the death camps in the East. Then, also very moving is the statue by Kathe Kollwitz. This sculpture is under an oculus and exposed to the rain, snow and cold symbolising the suffering of civilians during World War II. It is a pieta- a woman with her dead child. She had lost her son, Peter on the battlefield in the First World War.

At this point I should like to recommend a book and close with a couple of quotations which I think are worth pondering. The book is by Rachel Hewitt and is called “A Revolution in Feeling” It deals with the changes of feelings during the 1790s. To quote from the dust jacket;” Every society in every age, feels differently, and from the seismic shifts of the 1790s Britain emerged the contours of our contemporary attitude to need, longing and emotion”.

Now from that complex but original thinker Walter Benjamin, This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

WALTER BENJAMIN, Theses on the Philosophy of History

Here we return to eloquence again, a reminder that style in historical writers engage our interest from Hazlitt-

The history of mankind is a romance, a mask, a tragedy, constructed upon the principles of POETICAL JUSTICE; it is a noble or royal hunt, in which what is sport to the few is death to the many, and in which the spectators halloo and encourage the strong to set upon the weak, and cry havoc in the chase, though they do not share in the spoil.

WILLIAM HAZLITT, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays

Finally

Finally, I listened to a radio programme last night about refugees in camps across the Channel in France desperate to escape persecution and many of them, children in conditions cramped as in a slave ship. What are we going to do to alleviate their situation?

When German trains saved Jewish kids - EXBERLINER.com

Käthe Kollwitz's sculpture 'Mother with her Dead Son', Neue Wache ...

Notes

On Iconoclasm https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_Iconoclasm

There may be elements of magical thinking in relation to monuments as clearly their destruction does not entail the erasure of the past or the racist structures still in existence. It might be argued that in their removal they can become instrumental towards that aim. Some may also consider that they are works of art which raises further questions about aesthetics – content and form etc.

 

 

Gwyneth Lewis-Sea Virus

Sea Virus

I knew I should never have gone below
but I did, and the fug of bilges and wood
caught me aback. The sheets of my heart
snapped taut to breaking, as a gale
stronger than longing filled the sail
inside me. To be shot of land
and its wood smoke! To feel the keel
cold in a current! To see the mast
inscribing water like a restless pen
writing a fading wake! It’s true,
I’m ruined. Not even peace will do
to keep me ashore now. Not even you.

I was first attracted to Gwyneth Lewis’s work by a poem in Ruth Padel’s collection, 60 Poems for the Journey of Life where her attractive poem, The Flaggy Shore may be found. Clearly she is much interested in marine matters.

The poem has a tension and an elegance about it. It will appeal to anyone interested in messing about in boats but has an edge about it too. Much of the imagery is erotic even sexual. The word fug strikes and catches you back as she says in the next line. It is overpowering and yet speeds you along with considerable force like a dangerous attraction. The word “shot” adds to this general sense of menace and yet also implies the freedom experienced as the liberation of inspiration. The image of the pen as a sail-a simile- reminds of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam –

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

It also reminds of the words written on Keat’s Grave-

The best-known use of a similar phrase is on the gravestone of John Keats: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. (‘Writ‘ is a poetic form of ‘written‘.) This means his fame was transient; it passed away quickly. Then there is Catullus-

1 Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle My woman says that she prefers to be married to no one
2 quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat. but me, not even if Jupiter himself should seek her.
3 dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti, she says: but what a woman says to her passionate lover,
4 in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua. she ought to write on the wind and swift-flowing water.

The poem then is about the possible effects of being driven along by the poetic imagination. The last line has an awesome direct remark to the reader. For some poets their trade requires passion even to the point of not counting the cost. Shelley in his boat springs to mind!

The past uncovered- an aircraft in the sands

Extract from the Daily Mirror

The emergence of this wrecked Beaufighter after more than 75 years struck me as interesting for a variety of reasons. Rather as memories emerge from traumatic periods in the past. It seems to me that much of the current political debate over Brexit and other matters is connected with unresolved conflicts from the past. Also there is the contrast or juxtaposition between the terrible last moments in the cockpit, as the engines failed, and the discovery of the wreck by the arrival of the dog bounding across the sands so many years later.

Thinking of the variety of persons lost from Leslie Howard, the Film-star in 1943, Antoine St Expupery in July 1944 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoine_de_Saint-Exup%C3%A9ry) and the disappearance of Jazz Band leader Glenn Miller in December 1944, I came across this famous poem by W.B.Yeats.

An Irish Airman Forsees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

This  great poem exposes what sometimes is forgotten – the treatment of the Irish in the shady forgotten history of British imperialism. Kiltartan by the way is not far from Galway.

Nanki-Poo in the Rose Garden

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

So writes T.S. Eliot in Burnt Norton, the first of the Four Quartets. It makes one wonder what memories can be recalled of this particular Rose Garden. A slightly strange venue to choose surely? Maybe the door ought not to have been opened? Most will recall the unfortunate and strange meeting that heralded the unfortunate Coalition  Indeed, it was another Special Adviser, Julia Goldsworthy who was to finally conclude, “Many Liberal Democrat activists would have found the Rose Garden love-in between David Cameron and Nick Clegg “sick-inducing”. Perhaps it was to give a green tinge to distract from 260 miles or more of carbon emissions.

It is not just the receding hairline of Cummings that brings G and S’s Mikado character of Nanki-Poo to mind. This histrionic and grumpy individual needs a trickster or Jungian alter ego. Remember it is Nanki-Poo who sings-

The flowers that bloom in the spring,
Tra la,
Breathe promise of merry sunshine —
As we merrily dance and we sing,
Tra la,
We welcome the hope that they bring,
Tra la,
Of a summer of roses and wine,
Of a summer of roses and wine.
And that’s what we mean when we say that a thing
Is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring.
Tra la la la la,
Tra la la la la,
The flowers that bloom in the spring.

This indeed is the Topsy-Turvy World where the Rose Garden becomes the stage for attic antics. Incidentally, Topsy-Turvy is an excellent film directed by the redoubtable Mike Leigh about the making of the Mikado.

The Mikado is relevant here too in more serious ways- it is about a fiercely autocratic society. There is the haughty nobleman, Pooh-Bah.There is making the punishment fit the crime. In Leigh’s film there is drug addiction- there is social distancing and the overwhelming distance brtween performance and the dark and stark reality. In both there is meiosis, a drastic understatement of the situation. Which brings us back to today’s performance attempting to come up smelling of roses.

Durward Lely as Nanki-Poo

 

 

Eavan Boland -Woman in Kitchen

Breakfast over, islanded by noise,

she watches the machines go fast and slow.

She stands among them as they shake the house.

They move. Their destination is specific.

She has nowhere definite to go:

she might be a pedestrian in traffic.

 

White surfaces retract. White

sideboards light the white of walls.

Cups wink white in their saucers.

The light of day bleaches as it falls

on cups and sideboards. She could use the room

to tap with if she lost her sight.

 

Machines jigsaw everything she knows.

And she is everywhere among their furor:

the tropic of the dryer tumbling clothes.

The round lunar window of the washer.

The kettle in the toaster is a kingfisher

swooping for trout above the river’s mirror.

 

The wash done, the kettle boiled, the sheets

spun and clean, the dryer stops dead.

The silence is a death. It starts to bury

the room in white spaces. She turns to spread

a cloth on the board and irons sheets

in a room white and quiet as a mortuary.

When I started looking at this poem today I soon discovered that the poet sadly passed away just last month and there is an obituary which may be found at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/books/eavan-boland-dead.html

This seems to me to be a poem which expresses considerable ambivalence to what at first seem comfortable domestic surroundings. In current circumstances it might seem to have some special appeal. The poet feels herself to be marooned and isolated with domestic noises in the background from perhaps a washing machine or spin-drier. Unlike these machines which may perhaps be seen as having some resemblances to male characteristics she lacks a sense of direction. The element of threat appears in the second verse where the interesting verb “tap” introduces the suggestion of blindness. ‘Tapping’ might be seen as a very quiet noise in contrast with the loud machinery. It carries the possibility of tap dancing too. It also carries meanings of connection.

The tranquil security of something like a Dutch interior becomes still more alien in the third stanza. The jigsaw might well imply cutting up or puzzlement. Although the images of a lunar moonlander and the reflection of a swooping kingfisher are at the same time threatening, bizarre but also carry a strange delight. They seem to suggest the distracted nature of the woman and her longing.

In the final lines a sudden stillness suddenly reigns. All is clean and silent but also overcoming. She at last starts to move but the sheet she irons might almost be a shroud. There seem to be elements of boredom and domestic imprisonment but all recorded with a deceptively light touch. This poem comes from a collection called Night Feed  1982. An Irishwoman and feminist her collection is published by Carcanet Press and very well worth attention.

The Unquiet Street by John Gould Fletcher (1886-1950)

By day and night this street is not still;
Omnibuses with red tail lamps,
Taxi cabs with shiny eyes,
Rumble, shunning its ugliness.
It is corrugated with wheel ruts,
It is dented and pock-marked with traffic,
It has no time for sleep.
It heaves its old, scarred countenance
Skyward between the buildings
And never says a word
On rainy nights
It dully gleams
Like the cold tarnished scales of a snake:
And over it hang arc-lamps,
Blue-white death-lilies on black stems.

I found this poem in the Penguin Collection of Imagist Poetry. I like the cold, gleaming atmosphere of this poem with its feeling of early 20th Century Modernism.  The word omnibus seems of its time but is maybe just an Americanism. There is a feeling of Eliot’s empty lots and the vertical feeling of narrow streets. Restlessness and battered feelings are emphasised with corrugated and rumble and ruts, add onomatopoeiacally, to the wet and cold ambience of the poem. The visual images shine out in various colours.

There is an interesting essay at http://literarylondon.org/the-literary-london-journal/archive-of-the-literary-london-journal/issue-4-1/john-gould-fletchers-city-aesthetic-london-excursion/

For reasons I only partially understand, this poem brought to mind the area around South Kensington Tube station where I was once caught in very heavy rain. There used to be a cafe on the corner which I thought, wrongly it seems, there once was a Lyons corner house. Last year I sat instead in the pleasant settings of Muriels (which has an Antony Powell ring about it –https://www.murielskitchen.co.uk/

Notice that the old omnibus has now taken a different form and last August the area was filled with tourists consulting their mobile phones.

 

 

Ode to the Confederate Dead and Allen Tate

Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves
Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
To the seasonal eternity of death;
Then driven by the fierce scrutiny
Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,
They sough the rumour of mortality.

Autumn is desolation in the plot
Of a thousand acres where these memories grow
From the inexhaustible bodies that are not
Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.
Think of the autumns that have come and gone!—
Ambitious November with the humors of the year,
With a particular zeal for every slab,
Staining the uncomfortable angels that rot
On the slabs, a wing chipped here, an arm there:
The brute curiosity of an angel’s stare
Turns you, like them, to stone,
Transforms the heaving air
Till plunged to a heavier world below
You shift your sea-space blindly
Heaving, turning like the blind crab.

Dazed by the wind, only the wind
The leaves flying, plunge

You know who have waited by the wall
The twilight certainty of an animal,
Those midnight restitutions of the blood
You know—the immitigable pines, the smoky frieze
Of the sky, the sudden call: you know the rage,
The cold pool left by the mounting flood,
Of muted Zeno and Parmenides.
You who have waited for the angry resolution
Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,
You know the unimportant shrift of death
And praise the vision
And praise the arrogant circumstance
Of those who fall
Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision—
Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.

Seeing, seeing only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,
Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising
Demons out of the earth—they will not last.
Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken fields of hemp.
Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run.
Lost in that orient of the thick-and-fast
You will curse the setting sun.

Cursing only the leaves crying
Like an old man in a storm

You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time.

The hound bitch
Toothless and dying, in a musty cellar
Hears the wind only.

Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea,
Seals the malignant purity of the flood,
What shall we who count our days and bow
Our heads with a commemorial woe
In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,
What shall we say of the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?
The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes
Lost in these acres of the insane green?
The gray lean spiders come, they come and go;
In a tangle of willows without light
The singular screech-owl’s tight
Invisible lyric seeds the mind
With the furious murmur of their chivalry.

We shall say only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

We shall say only the leaves whispering
In the improbable mist of nightfall
That flies on multiple wing;
Night is the beginning and the end

And in between the ends of distraction
Waits mute speculation, the patient curse
That stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps
For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim.

What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act
To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave?

Leave now
The shut gate and the decomposing wall:
The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,
Riots with his tongue through the hush—
Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!

Someone told me once that the English spoken in the Southern States was close to the way in which Shakespeare language was spoken back in the day he wrote his plays. I am unsure of the evidence for that but Tate’s voice adds an extra dimension to the You Tube reading. I first came across reading about him in Eileen Simpson’s fascinating memoir “Poets in their Youth” where he appears as an elegant, imposing and somewhat reactionary figure. There is an interesting account of a recent biography of Tate’s life at https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v23/n10/ian-hamilton/i-intend-to-support-white-rule.

This poem has been preoccupying me for a day or two. Firstly, because I recall that some long time ago I used to watch a series on television called O Henry’s Playhouse and watching it again recently I came across this clip from 1957, It was not at all bad television and the following episode is tangentially related to the Confederacy.

However, in the present Covid-19 isolation, many of the lines seem to have extra meaning. During constitutional walks, I cannot help noticing that the side gate of the nearby cemetery has been left permanently open. The fact that it is about 250m from the local hospital is a reminder of the crisis and the daily toll which it is exacting. There is also the feeling that we might have done more to protect the NHS politically by a better defence against the reactionary clutches of the current admonistration. Not to mention policies of Brexiteers who have driven nurses and doctors out of the country.

What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act
To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave?

 

We all live in magnificent houses like Downton Abbey

Arte is a brilliant source of great programmes on various topics, many of which are cultural or historical, in French and in German. Here is one in French in which it is possible to hear the absurd inequalities of the English class system spoken in French. This naturally has the effect of being somewhat  amusing. The voyeuristic pleasure which the lower orders are supposed to derive from the spectacle is supposed to distract from other concerns- like properly funded public services.

The French and German subtitles are useful too, Here is another view of one aspect of English education by a great teacher, novelist and poet.

The Oxford Voice by D.H. Lawrence

When you hear it languishing

and hooing and cooing, and sidling through the front teeth,

the Oxford voice

or worse still

the would-be Oxford voice

you don’t even laugh any more, you can’t.

 

For every blooming bird is an Oxford cuckoo nowadays,

you can’t sit on a bus nor in the tube

but it breathes gently and languishingly in the back of

your neck.

 

And oh, so seductively superior, so seductively

self-effacingly

deprecatingly

superior.

We wouldn’t insist on it for a moment

but we are

we are

you admit we are

superior.

A more gentle and highly amusing perspective on a smaller scale perhaps is the radio series Plum House. It is a Comedy about the eccentric and inept staff at Plum House, former country home of minor 18th-century poet George Pudding. Written by Ben Cottam and Paul Mckenna. It may be found at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07hk30x

 

Paris in colour before the First World War

Baudelaire wrote of the strolling poet  in the Paris crowd:-

The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be himself of someone else, as he chooses. Like those wandering souls who go looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man’s personality. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting.

The solitary and thoughtful stroller finds a singular intoxication in this universal communion. The man who loves to lose himself in a crowd enjoys feverish delights that the egoist locked up in himself as in a box, and the slothful man like a mollusk in his shell, will be eternally deprived of. He adopts as his own all the occupations, all the joys and all the sorrows that chance offers.

The Paris, a few years after Baudelaire’s passing is shown in these remarkable pictures taken between 1900 and 1917. Baudelaire died in 1867 but his remarks are interesting and pertinent to some of the following photographs, which were shot in direct colour using the Autochrome process developed by the famous Lumière brothers in 1903.

In the original French from Spleen (1869)

Le poète jouit de cet incomparable privilège, qu’il peut à sa guise être lui-même et autrui. Comme ces âmes errantes qui cherchent un corps, il entre, quand il veut, dans le personnage de chacun. Pour lui seul, tout est vacant ; et si de certaines places paraissent lui êtres fermées, c’est qu’à ses yeux elles ne valent pas la peine d’être visitées.

Le promeneur solitaire et pensif tire une singulière ivresse de cette universelle communion. Celui-là qui épouse facilement la foule connaît des jouissances fiévreuses, dont seront éternellement privés l’égoïste, fermé comme un coffre, et le paresseux, interné comme un mollusque. Il adopte comme siennes toutes les professions, toutes les joies et toutes les misères que la circonstance lui présente.

 

West Penwith by Adrian Stokes

This poem interests me and looks fairly simple – let us  consider one or two lines and see if we can explore some more deeply. Indeed, this is a poem about surfaces and depth with a number of words that suggest rest- abolish pace, slow, apart and torpor. There is too a general feeling for sculpture as is expressed in his remarks about stone and it’s weathering or erosion by water. Details about Stokes may be found at his Wikipedia entry where it states about his early writing;” In The Quattro Cento he characterized the intense Early Renaissance feeling for material and space as ‘mass-effect’ and ‘stone-blossom’. The stone—deeply respected as a medium – is, he said, ‘carved to flower’ thereby bringing to the surface the fantasies the artist reads in its depths.” Let us continue to dig beneath the surface of these lines.

There seems to be a general feeling of relief perhaps reflecting Stokes returning to Cornwall. The lines about outhouses and stone retrace unmeagre time seems somewhat demanding. Does this mean that such structures seem and suggest aeons of time? Meagre is a synonym for sparse. So this may mean that the scene implies the extensive nature of time. As Stokes studied philosophy, then it is quite possible that some sort of Bergsonian concept of time.{See https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0004s9w }

In the next line herd is somewhat unusual- maybe the light from the shining mica in the granite is being collected by the eye. It also is a homophone for heard which brings a whimsical feeling of  synaesthesia together with the metal clang of time colliding with rhyme. In the next stanza there is hoard and heart which may be associated with the unusual word hurd, the coarse parts of flax or hemp that adhere to the fiber after it is separated. — called also hards. This sounds very much like the Golden Fleece and adds to the reference to the early Cornish tinners. A milksop is a person who is indecisive and lacks courage. Milksop can be a piece of bread dipped in milk. The flower might mean a milkwort  or just a general term for any flower in a field which may have cows in it!

Cow Dairy Happy Stock Photos - Download 2,051 Royalty Free Photos

The word also brings to mind that Stokes was deeply interested in psychoanalysis and was in fact an analysand of Melanie Klein whose work focused around infantile phantasy at the breast. He was also a friend of Barbara Hepworth whom he brought to St Ives where he lived near The Cornish Arms pub with his wife Margaret Mellis, The feelings of support, skin texture and associated tactile imagery come out in the second section where closeness is increased by the use of our. This underlying emotion of support and nursing passivity brings to an end this interesting poem.

The background about Adrian Stokes and his leading contribution to modernism in St Ives may be found at https://www.stivesart.info/lyrical-light/

A useful discussion on Margaret Mellis is at http://www.artcornwall.org/interviews/Margaret_mellis.htm

The Outwardness of Art: Selected Writings of Adrian Stokes: Amazon ...