As someone has commented on You Tube underneath the above, “Wonderful , soulful, expression of Imperial Russia from many aspects just before the Black Curtain of the war that aesthetically affects us into our era!” There are even colour photographs of that strange era in Russia before the Revolution that show the huge contrasts in wealth and also the peaceful landscape which is evoked like a distant Edwardian Summer. Serov died in 1911 having left behind masterpieces of portraiture including his own famous self-portrait. His style was realistic and is still much beloved by the Russian people.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentin_Serov
I have just discovered this film which looks good too-
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
You know how this is: if I look at the crystal moon, at the red branch of the slow autumn at my window, if I touch near the fire the impalpable ash or the wrinkled body of the log, everything carries me to you, as if everything that exists, aromas, light, metals, were little boats that sail toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
Well, now, if little by little you stop loving me I shall stop loving you little by little.
If suddenly you forget me do not look for me, for I shall already have forgotten you.”
This poem contains some moving imagery which reminds me of ice and fire. Glowing embers and decay which are capable of re-igniting. Images which are intangible and sadly to me at least it conveys ambivalence. He is dependent upon being loved and his memory depends upon this too. There is a deep fragility here which makes the poem more beautiful. There is also the strong possibility of exile under discussion. The ash appears to rise like a prayer towards Heaven like little sailing boats of childhood dreams.
This poem may be found in Eavan Boland’s book of collected poems on page 157 and it is from her sequence outside history. It starts thus:-
The German girls that came to us that winter and
the winter after and who helped my mother fuel
the iron stove and arranged our clothes in wet
thicknesses on the wooden rail after tea was over,
spoke no English, understood no French.
We are in Boland’s childhood in Ireland and the political situation in Europe has isolated these girls and put them into linguistic isolation, perhaps similar to that experienced in childhood. This long starting sentence sets the lamenting pace with which this poem is infused. She continues to say that they spoke rapidly; “syllables in which pain was radical, integral; and with what sense of injury the language angled for an unhurt kingdom….I never knew“
The memory of these exile voices reminds Boland of her own exile from the darkness of Ireland and “the drizzle in the lilac, the dusk at the back door” but also of “the tinkers I was threatened with” She is imagining the guttural voices some forty years on and the sadness and pain mixed with these sounds as she reexperiences her loss of her homeland, now teaching in America.
These searing memories she recalls in a very different place-
“Among these salt boxes, marshes and the glove-tanned colours of the sugar maples, in this New England town at the start of winter. ” She appears to miss the past and its pains and ends by saying memorably that; “Here in this scalding air my speech will not heal.I do not want it to heal”
This poem I find appealing to the sense we presently have of dislocation due to the Covid crisis. Trying to retrieve some sense of the normal everyday and usual social interaction. In a sense we have all become exiles and I hear Leonard Cohen’s “and all men shall be sailors then until the sea shall free them” There are reminders for me in this poem of the sense of loss of control which so many feel with Brexit and the separation from the cultural and political values which Europe aspires.
The St Ives September Festival had a range of controversial poets come to visit. I remember there being a huge stir when D.M.Thomas came to read and the proctor’s of moral rectitude in the unlikely form of delegates from the Town Council were said to have occupied the back row to ensure that an unseemly did not take place. Then Gavin Ewart arrived one evening to give a reading in the decorative surroundings of the Penwith Gallery. I am most vague as to when I heard him -around the mid eighties I think. I remember how he was said to have been influenced by Auden and spending a very entertaining evening listening to the poet reading in an amusing and cultured voice that sounded very English some edgy and clever poems. I have been reading Martial at the moment and I have an inkling that Ewart might well have been entranced by that Latin satirist.
Consider the poem which is entitled “The Death of W.S.Gilbert at Harrow Weald” which may be found on the net. It tells of the demise of the famous lyricist of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas:-
Imagine that flat glassy lake in 1911,
a very Victorian part of the prosperous house,
(architect: Norman Shaw),
a beautiful hot summer’s day in 1911.
It proceeds to describe how two Victorian ladies in “decorous bathing garments” enter the lake where the younger gets into difficulties and Gilbert plunges to the rescue:-
He swims to her, shouts advice: ‘Put your hands on my shoulders!’
She feels him sink under her. He doesn’t come up.
She struggles to the bank, he is dead of heart failure.
and finishes with a typical Ewart touch in the next stanza with sweet advice to older men not to fool about with ladies –
But all the same it is good to die brave
on a beautiful hot summer’s day in 1911.
Returning to the theme of my previous posting I think this a great poem-
This sanitisation of what war means and how it can falsely be portrayed parallels my previous posting of the poem by Tom Paulin.
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.
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
In reading about museums I discovered that Derrida had written about archives. He develops a post modern approach to how the perspectives on the past are subject to change. Witness the recent debates about racism and colonialism in relation to this.
There are two moving poems by Louis MacNeice that moved me when I read them this morning. The first was an early poem called just “Museums” with a pronounced rhyme scheme. The second is more interesting and called “In the Reading Room at the British Museum”. The final line is perhaps more poignant than ever.
Museums by MacNeice
Museums offer us, running from among the buses, A centrally heated refuge, parquet floors and sarcophaguses, Into whose tall fake porches we hurry without a sound Like a beetle under a brick that lies, useless, on the ground. Warmed and cajoled by the silence the cowed cypher revives, Mirrors himself in the cases of pots, paces himself by marble lives, Makes believe it was he that was the glory that was Rome, Soft on his cheek the nimbus of other people’s martyrdom, And then returns to the street, his mind an arena where sprawls Any number of consumptive Keatses and dying Gauls.
Entre les dents d’un piège La patte d’un renard blanc Et du sang sur la neige Le sang du renard blanc Et des traces du renard blanc Qui s’enfuit sur trois pattes Dans le soleil couchant Avec entre les dents Un lièvre encore vivant.
Between the teeth of a trap The paw of a white fox And blood on the snow The blood of the white fox And traces of the white fox Who runs away on three legs In the setting sun With between the teeth A hare still alive.
I have previously posted about Red Vienna – the time in the 1930s when an attempt was made to establish a form of social security system in the elegant city and when worker’s flats were built to ease the conditions of poorer citizens. Notoriously, they were shelled by nationalists in the dark period leading up to the Anschluss when the Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany. https://jacobinmag.com/2017/02/red-vienna-austria-housing-urban-planning
Karl Polanyi wrote: “Vienna achieved one of the most spectacular cultural triumphs of Western history … an unexampled moral and intellectual rise in the condition of a highly developed industrial working class which, protected by the Vienna system, withstood the degrading effects of grave economic dislocation and achieved a level never reached before by the masses of the people in any industrial society.”
In my personal psychogeography towns and cities remind me of St Ives where I spent many years of my early life. After the gas works was deconstructed and I think, before the Tate arrived many of the fisherman’s lofts and artist studios next to Porthmeor Beach were replaced by the Barnaloft and then the Piazza flats. They seemed to stand out as a statement of the modernism with which the town had been associated. The interior courtyard of the latter had an interesting Hepworth sculpture. They were not by any means worker’s flats but were frequently occupied by what has since been called champagne socialists.
Before the flats were constructed there was the beach cafe occupied by the Val Baker family. This was a homely venue offering a superb view of the sea and marvellous sunsets over it to the West. Little was seen of Denys himself whom I assumed was upstairs with leonine head bent over the typewriter. Denys may be somewhat forgotten but represented the spirit of bohemian values to the locals. He had been active in promoting the celtic culture as a Welshman intrigued by Cornwall and St Ives in particular. He and his wife were committed to pacifism and had been active in the committee of 100. https://www.rainydaygallery.co.uk/denysvalbaker.html
The Foot family has been long associated with St Ives. Issac Foot, bibliophile and liberal politician as well as a staunch Methodist stood in the town for Parliament. That by-election was rather interesting in the troubled atmosphere of 1937 and very narrow indeed. Isaac Foot went on to become Mayor of Plymouth.
Paul Foot his grandson and active contributor to Private Eye was often to be seen around the town. He was an active and intelligent member of the Socialist Worker’s Party as well as a campaigning journalist with a splendid sense of humour. He died rather young and was a notable loss to radical progress in this country. His book on Red Shelley is a moving introduction to that committed poet. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Foot_(journalist)
Also some years ago spontaneous outdoor performances were given by another group associated with the Foot family-The Footsbarn Theatre Group. These were jolly and musical. Particularly memorable was a performance in St Ives Guildhall of Around the World in Eighty Days with a scence at the Old Bore’s Club which was gloriously funny -a tour de force.
Which leaves us with the intriguing figure of Peter Shore. Any Freudian would not be surprised that given his name he might have been strongly attracted by the glorious beach at Porthmeor. I used to see him taking his morning beverage be-shorted high above the sands at Barnaloft. These buildings were designed by the St Ives Architect, Cyril Gilbert- a shy charming gentleman who later ran the superb Wills Street Gallery near the Police Station. I digress- Shore was a fascinating figure who it seems travelled from the intellectual left of the party to total opposition to what was then called the Common Market. He was for some time an active M.P. for Stepney. Apparently he acted in a sort of Alistair Campbell role in that he advised on media promotion. I well remember how he responded when interviewed later in his career by someone like Robin Day or Brian Walden. He would begin by rephrasing the question and pointing out the precise strength of the case to which he was opposed. It was about then to be devastated by the power of his retort. However, in the questioning this just didn’t happen due to the interviewer’s interruption. You were left with the impression of his honesty and rather sad disappointment. And yet now I feel a little more straight honesty in political matters is crucial- a Balm of Gilead.
Sometimes it is salutary to hear what the opposite case – this clip exudes English chauvinism which is deeply misguided.