Friday, May 29, 2015

Swinburne dries out - the most horrible and loathsome book ever to be got into type and other edifying subjects

Let’s check in with Algernon Swinburne, the fourth of six volumes of his Letters (1960, ed. Cecil Lang), covering 1877 through 1882.  I have run into a selfish problem.  With two volumes of letters to go, I fear that the bulk of the best ones might be behind me.

Swinburne begins the book as an out of control alcoholic, constantly ill, on the verge of death either from internal complaints or a drunken accident.  His friends and mother conspire against him to move him into the house of his lawyer, agent, nurse, and number one fan Theodore Watts, in order to not just dry Swinburne out but to keep him away from bottles.  A seven month gap in the letters is the only indication of the difficulty of the task of keeping Swinburne alive.  His friends succeed, and Swinburne live, and writes, for another thirty years.

Afterwards, though, Swinburne is not quite as interesting in his letters.  He is a lot more interesting than if he were dead.

Some highlights:

Swinburne’s repeated attacks on “that brute beast” Zola’s L’assommoir, a “damnable dunghill of a book” (letter 866, June 8, 1877), “the most horrible and loathsome book ever to be got into type” (942, July 11, 1879).  He singles out not the novel’s alcoholism, which would be too ironic, but the child abuse and filth.  Later (1020, July 3, 1880), Swinburne declares Humphrey Clinker “all but utterly unreadable to me” because of its scatology, at which point I find myself baffled by Swinburne’s Victorian fastidiousness.  All of this from the great champion of Sade’s Justine! “[D]e Sade at his foulest was to Zola at his purest ‘as moonlight unto sunlight and as water unto wine’ in the faculty of horrifying and nauseating the human stomach and the human soul” (942).  Some of this must be class, the aristocrat clubbing the bourgeois upstart with a Marquis.

Celebrity sightings, several before the fact, such as a letter from an 1882 letter by a young Oscar Wilde on behalf of an old Walt Whitman.  Wilde, at this point, had published a single book of poems and was touring America as a celebrity aesthete.  “I thought he seemed a harmless young nobody, and had no notion he was the sort of man to play the mountebank as he seems to have been doing” (1132, Aug. 4, 1882).

And here is John Davidson, at this point a pale aesthete in training, a decade from writing good poetry, declaring Swinburne “the greatest poet since Shakespere” (912, March 28, 1878).  Impressive how Davidson was eventually able to purge all trace of this early worship from his poems.

Speaking of Shakespeare, Swinburne gets into a pointless feud with Robert Browning, the figurehead president of the New Shakespeare Society, over an insult from another member of that organization.  More snobbery: “no person who remains in any way or in any degree associated with the writer of that pamphlet is fit to hold any intercourse or keep up any acquaintance with me” (1065, Feb. 20, 1881).  Good riddance, Browning must have thought, sitting on his balcony in Florence.

Near the end of the book, Swinburne finally meets his hero Victor Hugo.  The episode is a triumph – a triumph of staying alive.  The breathless letter describing the encounter (1193, Nov. 26, 1882) is, charmingly, to his mother.

His white hair is as thick as his dark eyebrows, and his eyes are as bright and clear as a little child’s.  After dinner, he drank my health with a little speech, of which – tho’ I sat just opposite him – my accursed deafness prevented my hearing a single word.

During these years, Swinburne wrote numerous articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica, a verse play, and enough poetry for an astonishing four books – three published in 1880 alone.  There are two great poems in that mass, two I know of.  Tomorrow for those.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Grazia Deledda's Elias Portolu, or how an ex-con becomes a priest

Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce (1902) has a minor character, a priest, named Elias Portolu.  Her next novel is set in the same Sardinian town and is titled Elias Portolu (1903).  Perhaps it is the same character.

Happy days were coming for the Portolu family of Nuoro.  At the end of April their son Elias, who had served his time in a penitentiary on the continent, would come home; then Pietro, the older of the three Portolu boys, was to be married.  (Ch. I, p. 1, tr. Martha King)

Okay, maybe it is not the same character.  Elias returns from prison reformed in the sense that he does not fall back in with his former bad crowd.  His new problem is that he is tormented by love and lust for his brother’s fiancée, Maddalena, and she reciprocates (they are on horseback in this scene, sharing a horse):

Not only did her voice tremble, but her hand, poised on Elias’s belt, was also trembling, as was her whole body collapsed against his back.  He was also vibrating like a broken string and a shadow veiled his eyes: it was the same anguish, the same rapture as his dream.  (III, 64)

But in fact it is the same character.  Elias Portolu is the story of how this man becomes a priest:

In short, it seemed that a ferocious beast thrashed around in that pale young man with the mild appearance who was often seen sitting near the hut, immersed in little holy books.  (VI, 117)

As a means to escape sexual temptation, entering the priesthood is likely a bad move, and Portolu’s path to a religious vocation is painful and dangerous, at risk until the last sentence.  So as far as that goes, well done, Grazia Deledda.

The character is perhaps most interesting for the dream-like states that come upon him, apparently lingering psychological effects of prison, or, as he always thinks of it, “that place,” not even able to think or say the word “prison” without mental preparation.  Portolu’s interaction with the natural world up in the Sardinian mountains, where he works as a shepherd, interact curiously with his prison experience.

Meanwhile Elias, on top of the rock, with his vitreous eyes fixed as though enchanted by the pure splendour of the moon, was unmoving, immersed in a confusion of visions.  He felt the same bewilderment, the buzzing, the vague dizziness that he had felt in the family courtyard on the evening of his return [from prison].  (V, 90)

His father is watching him, wondering if he is “’Planning a crime?  Thinking of becoming a priest?’”  In a book of flattish characters, title character aside, the father is a lot of fun, always bragging about his wealth (which does not appear to be so substantial) and insulting his sons by telling them they are “made of fresh cheese.”

The characters are on the flat side because the main interest of this novel, other than the journey of Elias to the priesthood, is social or cultural.  A long scene at the beginning of the book is set during the Feast of St. Francis; a later scene is set during Carnival.  The ordinary life of the Sardinian shepherds is mixed with their holidays and entertainments.  Meanwhile, the extraordinary life of Elias Portolu mostly takes place within his head.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thomas Hardy as eco-poet - my tusky ones vanish

Writing about Hardy’s theodicy poems I included a couple that were also ecological poems, or something close to it.  Proto-ecological.  “By the Earth’s Corpse,” for pity’s sake.  Hardy’s imagination is well suited to ecology: he is attentive to both nature and time, to natural cycles and to human-made change.  Time, to Hardy, is long.

His ecological sense provides an answer to his question about evil.  In “The Mother Mourns” (PPP), the poet, wandering in the Wessex woods, overhears Nature herself “breathing in aërie accents, / With dirgelike refrain”:

‘No more such!...  My species are dwindling,
    My forests grow barren,
My popinjays fail froim their trappings,
    My larks from their strain.
‘My leopardine beauties are rarer,
    My tusky ones vanish,
My children have aped mine own slaughter
    To quicken my wane.  (ll. 73-80)

Nature says that she will surrender, abandoning the earth to the slime molds:

Let me grow, then, but mildews and mandrakes,
    And slimy distortions,
Let nevemore things good and lovely
    To me appertain’  (ll. 81-84)

The problem, Nature argues, is that Man is too intelligent:

‘I had not proposed me a Creature
    (She soughed) so excelling
All else of my kingdom in compass
    And brightness of brain’  (ll. 21-4)

On the other hand, in “In the Wood” (WP) which a subtitle says is from Hardy’s novel The Woodlanders, although strictly speaking it is not, the speaker is horrfied by the Darwinian struggle of the trees, the way they seem to actively hate each other, “[c]ombatants all!”  The narrator is happy to return to the company of people, where “at least smiles abound” and “now and then, are found / Life-loyalties.”

Let’s see, what else do I want to jot down.  Hardy’s Napoleonic poems are interesting, but perhaps they are just raw material for The Dynasts.  The poems written about – during – the 1902 Boer War are of higher interest.  They are almost all from the point of view of the “soldiers’ wives and sweetharts,” waving farewll to the troop ships or checking the lists of casualties at the War Office.  “Drummer Hodge” is an important exception.  It is almost another eco-poem.  The buried soldier, “uncoffined,” will now be a “portion of that unknown plain,” “[h]is homely Northern breast and brain” food for “some Southern tree.”

I mentioned in a comment a narrative poem (“The Rash Bride,” TL) in which a woman is driven to suicide by Christmas carolers, which is a little bit bleak, and ridiculous, and that poem is followed by one about more Christmas carolers, ghosts this time (“The Dead Quire”).  But the oddest poem in the three books I read must be “The Levelled Churchyard” (PPP), which has more ghosts, this time lamenting about the destruction of their ancient cemetery by “zealous Churchmen’s pick and plane.”  It is another eco-poem, really, although the ecology is that of the ghost:

‘We late-lamented, resting here,
    Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
    “I know not which I am!”

***

‘Where we are huddled none can trace,
    And if our names remain,
They pave some path or porch or place
    Where we have never lain!’  (ll. 5-8, 13-16)

Pretty funny.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Hardy and the purblind Doomsters

Every Thomas Hardy post could be about what I didn’t know.  Did I know that his first books of poems, Wessex Poems (1898), included his own illustrations?  I did not.  He had been an architect; of course he could draw.

He even had his own monogram signature, there in the lower right corner.

Nor did I know about Hardy’s satirical theodicy poems, although I might have guessed.  His oldest poem that is always included with his best, the 1866 “Hap,” is on this theme. 

These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.  (ll. 13-14, WP)

“Hap” is perhaps better described as ironic rather than satirical.  The cluster of God poems in Poems of the Past and Present are satirical.  Whenever God is a character with lines, Hardy is satirical:

        -‘The Earth, sayest thou? The Human race?
        By Me created? Sad its lot?
Nay I have no remembrance of such place:
                Such world I fashioned not.’  (“The God-Forgotten,” ll. 5-9)

And when his memory is jogged, God claims that “’It lost my interest from the first,’” and anyways it’s your fault, mankind, if there has been a problem:  “’All other orbs have kept in touch.’”

One of the best reasons to read a poetry book in its original form is to find these clusters of poems.  With enough repetition, perhaps what the poet is saying will finally penetrate my inattentive head.  So after “The God-Forgotten” comes “The Bedridden Peasant to an Unknowing God,” title self-explanatory, and then the apocalyptic “By the Earth’s Corpse,” in which God does remember that he made mankind, but regrets doing so:

     ‘As when, in Noë’s days,
      I whelmed the plains with sea,
      So at this last, when flesh
      And herb but fossils be,
And, all extinct, their piteous dust
     Revolves obliviously,
That I made Earth, and life, and man,
      It repenteth me!’  (ll.  25-32)

The sequence continues for two more poems, ending with “To an Unborn Pauper Child”:

    Breathe not, hid Heart: cease silently,
    And though thy birth-hour beckons thee,
            Sleep the long sleep:
            The Doomsters heap
     Travails and teens around us here,
And Time-wraiths turn our songsingings to fear.  (ll. 1-6)

The Doomsters have returned, joined by Time-wraiths.  Hardy denied that he was an atheist, and I almost believe him.  He believed, to some degree, in the Doomsters, in powers beyond our understanding, indifferent or even hostile to man.  He may have meant all this as metaphor, but one can believe in metaphors.

Here is Hardy’s idea of a Christmas poem:

The Reminder

While I watch the Christmas blaze
Paint the room with ruddy rays,
Something makes my vision glide
To the frosty scene outside.

There, to reach a rotting berry,
Toils a thrush, - constrained to very
Dregs of food by sharp distress,
Taking such with thankfulness.

Why, O starving bird, when I
One day’s joy would justify,
And put misery out of view,
Do you make me notice you!  (TL)

I am not going to develop the idea, but I might note that the observer here is not God but the author, and that Hardy himself created a world and its people, and that he is the one who heaped “travails and teens” upon them when he just as well could have “strown blisses.”

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Past things were to her as things existent - types of Hardy poems

Looking at the twenty pages of Hardy poems in my Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th edition, I almost feel bad about my superficiality.  Not bad enough to stop.  In concentration, what a great poet.  A great benefit of reading Hardy in his original form, of reading his books, is to dilute him, to make him less great.  Plenty of more ordinary poems, or lines, certainly; lots of repetition and explorations of the same themes.

If anything, I am more impressed with Hardy’s poems now.  The Norton selection skimps on truly late poems, the ones Hardy wrote in his seventies and eighties, but the book that would be up next for me, Satires of Circumstances (1914), wow, that is going to be a good one.

Although there are some new ones, the themes mostly extend those of the novels.  The first volume is titled Wessex Poems, but they are all Wessex poems.  Hardy keeps intact the names (Casterbridge, Mellstock), landscape, and ethos of the novels.  The past constantly intrudes on the present.  A poem about Hardy’s grandmother says it bluntly:

She seemed one left behind of a band gone distant
     So far that no tongue could hail:
Past things were to her as things existent,
      Things present but as a tale.  (“One We Knew,” ll. 29-33, from TL)

But more common is the mixture of “The Roman Road” (in TL) which “runs straight and bare / As the pale parting-line in hair / Across the heath,” and which “thoughtful men” use to evoke Roman legions.  The poem’s narrator, though, remembers walking on it himself with his mother, “A mother’s form upon my ken, / Guiding my infant steps.”  It is a scene from a novel Hardy did not write (or one he wrote but I have not read?).

Similarly, a descriptive poem about an agricultural fair (“After the Fair,” TL) ends with “the ghosts / Of its buried burghees / From the latest far back to those old Roman hosts,” who were “just as these,” just as today’s farmers.

The poem has one terrific stanza, which I will stop and admire for a moment (remembering that the scene is just after the fair):

The shy-seeming maiden so mute in the fair
     Now rattles and talks,
And that one who looked the most swaggering there
     Grows sad as she walks,
And she who seemed eaten by cankering care
  In statuesque sturdiness stalks.  (ll. 13-18)

It is like the confluence of three potential Hardy novels, three Hardy heroines who will now go on to bear their illegitimate children.

Hardy’s narrative poems, are obsessed with illegitimate children.  It is clear that he found, in the poetic form, the freedom to approach the subject directly.  The notes in the edition I am using, The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, Vol. 1 (Oxford, 1982), make it clear that Hardy was subject to constant censorship and rejection by magazines and newspapers because of his shocking subject matter, but in his books he could do what he wanted, which was to publish “The Flirt’s Tragedy,” “The Trampwoman’s Tragedy,” “The Ruined Maid,” and many more of the like.

That last one is unusual in that it is satirical, not gloomy, but it is early, from 1866:

–‘You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!’ –
‘Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,’ said she.

I had not known about the satirical Hardy.  Maybe that would make a good post.  I have a list: theodicy poems (the satirical ones, usually), ecological poems (ahead of his time), pessimistic poems, war poems.  Lots to write about, if I wanted.  A great poet.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Reading Hardy's poems, although we knew no laugh lay there

I read Thomas Hardy’s first three collections of poetry.  Now I will rummage around in them.  They are:

Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898)
Poems of the Past and Present (1901)
Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses (1909)

Like everyone else, I skipped the enormous verse play The Dynasts: An Epic-Drama of the War with Napoleon (1904-8).  And there are five collections to go, if I counted right, published between 1914 and Hardy’s death in 1928.

He had such an unusual career.  Like most collections of lyric poems, these books are grab bags, with poems ranging from the 1860s up to the moment of publication.  The earlier volumes are heavier on poems from the 1860s, but not all that much heavier.  All three books are poems of the past and present.

from Middle-Age Enthusiasms

      We passed where flag and flower
      Signalled a jocund throng;
      We said: ‘Go to, the hour
      Is apt!’ – and joined the song;
And, kindling, laughed at life and care,
Although we knew no laugh lay there.  (from WP)

Hardy’s poems are still a little bit on the miserable side.

The story of the career – I am writing this out for my own benefit – is as follows.  As a student and architect during the 1860s, Hardy wrote large numbers of poems, good ones, too, but almost none were published.  When he turned to novels in the 1870s, he wrote fewer poems.  Many that he did write appear in the novels, either as songs or as prose – Hardy would break poems up for kindling, so to speak.  In the late 1880s, he began to write poems in greater quantities.  The idea that Hardy abandoned the novel for poetry because of the ill treatment of Jude the Obscure (1895) is nonsense.  He was looking for an excuse.  It would be nothing but verse for the next thirty years.

This is odd, right, as a career?  Twenty-five years of substantial novels, then thirty years of poetry?  But the poetry was there all along, first, middle, and last.

For long the cruel wish I knew
That your free heart should ache for me,
While mine should bear no ache for you;
For, long – the cruel wish! – I knew
How men can feel, and craved to view
My triumph – fated not to be
For long!...  The cruel wish I knew
That your free heart should ache for me!  (“The Coquette, and After,” stanza 1, PPP)

Those who remember Jude the Obscure better than I do will recognize this language from Chapter 3, where Sue pours here heart out to Jude – “’it began in the selfish and cruel wish to make your heart ache for me without letting mine ache for you.’”  In the second stanza, the coquette finds that she, in the end, suffers more, as “women always do.”

The poem must have been written just before the novel.  It is a triolet, an adorable medieval French form that had just been popularized in English by Robert Bridges.  He wrote a number of good ones, but not as many, or as good, as Hardy (the Wiki entry uses a great Hardy triolet as its example).  The signature of the form is the repetition of the first lines, however punctuated or placed in a sentence, which fits well with the way Hardy’s characters think, in circles, or even backwards.

The poems are full of Hardy characters and Hardy stories, without the tin-eared sentences that make me wince.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Strong with strength that puts my strength to scorn - the voices of Robert Bridges

Robert Bridges had a scholar’s mastery of poetic form and a fine aesthetic sense.  He did not have a strong voice of his own – he barely had a weak voice – and had little to say that was original.  He made an ideal Poet Laureate.  Why waste the energies of a better poet.

Early on in the little Bridges collection I read there are twelve sonnets from an 1876 sequence that kept growing until there were almost eighty.  The sonnets sound like modernized Shakespeare.  Credibly imitating Shakespeare – impressive.  But it is an example of what I meant by Bridges having no voice:

I have no care for what was most my care,
But all around me see fresh beauty born,
And common sights grown lovelier than they were:
I dream of love, and in the light of morn
Tremble, beholding all things very fair
And strong with strength that puts my strength to scorn.  (ll. 9-14)

If I only quote from poems that contain the word “beauty” I will give an unbalanced – correct, but unbalanced – idea of Bridges.  “Low Barometer” (1921) is substantive and original.  A storm brings out a man’s restlessness:

On such a night, when Air has loosed
Its guardian grasp on blood and brain,
Old terrors then of god or ghost
Creep from their caves to life again;

And Reason kens he herits in
A haunted house.  Tenants unknown
Assert their squalid lease of sin
With earlier title than his own.  (ll. 5-12)

He torments himself until the barometer and sun rise and “thrust / The baleful phantoms underground.”  The poem is pure pathetic fallacy made psychologically sharp.

A different kind of sharpness:

Would that you were alive today, Catullus!
Truth ’tis, there is a filthy skunk amongst us,
A rank musk-idiot, the filthiest skunk,
Of no least sorry use on earth, but only
Fit in fancy to justify the outlay
Of your most horrible vocabulary.  (“To Catullus,” ll. 1-6)

Bridges does not say who he is attacking (“Ev’n now might he rejoice at our attention, / Guess’d he this little ode were aiming at him”), and if he encodes the name I cannot decipher it.  As good as this poem is, it is an imitation of Roman satire.  Bridges was an expert mimic, not a skill that is valued so highly now.

He was good with weather.  Look at the “London Snow

Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
      Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
      Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.  (ll. 3-9)

It is snowing present participles; very clever.  The rhymes in this poem are clever, too.  Once people appear, the poem becomes less of a nature study and more of a ballad, the Ballad of the Winter Commuters:

    For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
      But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.  (ll. 31-7)

There it is again, “beauty.”

The selection of Bridges included at the Poetry Foundation site, just nine poems, is ideal.

Monday, May 18, 2015

I too will something make - Robert Bridges makes poems

Robert Bridges is the poet I have at hand.  He had a long career, with his first book published in 1873 and his last in 1929.  He was close friends with Gerard Manley Hopkins, and his great contribution to poetry, greater than his own poems, was his 1918 edition of Hopkins’s work, almost thirty years after that poets death.  Somehow Bridges knew to wait for the perfect moment, when an audience trained on Modernism was ready for the sprung weirdness of Hopkins.

Bridges’s other great contribution, perhaps, was as a writer of hymns.  The Bridges collection I read, the 1955 Poetry & Prose, ed. John Sparrow, contains none of the hymns and makes no mention of them; nor does the Poetry Foundation biography.

I am just going to write about the lesser achievement of Robert Bridges, his regular old poems.  First, let us look at the testimonials of his contemporaries.  A poetry book of 200 pages includes 25 pages of the poet’s peers praising but also subtly belittling him.  Odd.

Yeats:  “an emotional purity and rhythmical delicacy no living man can equal…  the only poet, whose influence has always heightened and purified the art of others”  (p. xxxvii).

Lionel Johnson:  “These poems then, represent, with much else that is admirable, the scholarship of poetry…  he preserves discretion and propriety… making it impossible for him to outrage fine taste” (p. xxiv).

Arthur Symons:  “It is a kind of essence; it is what is imperishable in perfume; it is what is nearest in words to silence.”

Now there is some fine English Decadent twaddle.

Laurence Binyon: “His beauties are not easily detachable, but inhere in the substance of his work; he cannot be known in quotations”  (p. xxx).

Which will be trouble for me, so I will at this point include a complete poem:

I Love All Beauteous Things

I love all beauteous things,
      I seek and adore them;
God hath no better praise,
And man in his hasty days
      Is honoured for them.

I too will something make
      And joy in the making;
Altho’ to-morrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream
      Remembered on waking.  (1890)

Given the poem’s date, this may look like a standard declaration of Paterian art for art’s sake Decadence, but I do not think that is the case; I think that Bridges means every word.  He had fallen in love with and mastered the art of poetry even though he had little to say, he spent sixty years making beautiful things, culminating in his last poem, published on his 85th birthday, The Testament to Beauty.  Such is the well-lived life.

Die, song, die like a breath,
And wither as a bloom:
Fear not a flowery death,
Dread not an airy tomb!
Fly with delight, fly hence!
‘Twas thine love’s tender sense
To feast: now on thy bier
Beauty shall shed a tear.  (“I have loved flowers that fade, ll. 17-24, earlier than 1890)

I will see what I can do in one more post to breathe some life back into Bridges’s dead songs.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The goddess whom she instinctively adored - Hardy's paganism - plus a fetching nude sheep

I’ll expand on Hardy’s paganism.  Or that of the narrator of Far from the Madding Crowd, easily the most important character in the book.  I do not remember how common mythological references were in other Hardy novels, but Madding Crowd is full of them, and they all come from the narrator.  He is one odd bird.

Some references are mere metaphors.  A group of drinkers “grew as merry as the gods in Homer's heaven” while they listened to “a ballad as inclusive and interminable as that with which the worthy toper old Silenus amused on a similar occasion the swains Chromis and Mnasylus” (Ch. 23)  Virgil’s sixth Eclogue, if you are curious.  The narrator is not afraid of making me look up one of his allusions.  His characters, farmhands and shepherds, would have no idea what he is talking about.

At least one classical reference is pure comedy.  A sheep has just been sheared:

The clean, sleek creature arose from its fleece – how perfectly like Aphrodite rising from the foam should have been seen to be realized –  looking startled and shy at the loss of its garment…  (Ch. 22)

I hope that was meant as comedy.

But as the metaphors and jokes and so on accumulated, I began to realize that none of this figurative language was actually descriptive.  Virgil and Venus do not help us see the scene – metaphor as an aid to precision – but rather add a layer of meaning.  All of my notes are from the middle of the book or later, because early on I did not understand what I was seeing in the text.  I did not understand that when the narrator pulled in a Greek god he meant it.

This was the strangest one:

Although she scarcely knew the divinity's name, Diana was the goddess whom Bathsheba instinctively adored.  (Ch. 41)

Only the narrator (and the reader) see all of these gods swirling around the humans and their sheep.

It was an odd experience reading E. R. Dodd's The Greeks and the Irrational (1949) alongside Hardy:

The Greek had always felt the experience of passion as something mysterious and frightening, the experience of a force that was in him, possessing him, rather than possessed by him.  The very word pathos testifies to that: like its Latin equivalent passio, it means something “happens to” a man, something of which he is a passive victim. (Ch. VI, 185)

The passage describes three of the four major characters.  Or what about the link between , Pan  who is the god of panic, sheep, and panicky sheep (Ch. III, p. 95), all important parts of Hardy’s pastoral novel.  Or  the discussion of Eros as “divine madness, “the one mode of experience which brings together the two natures of man, the divine self and the tethered beast” (Ch. VII, p. 218).  This chance meeting of books made Hardy’s, or the narrator’s paganism and related irrationalism stand out clearly.

Dodds gives a hint about Hardy’s deeper purpose, too.  The classical scholar is pushing back on the simple idea of Greece as the birthplace of Reason.  He argues first that there were always other competing traditions, and that as Greece declined those traditions filled the vacuum, sometimes in decadent forms.  Hardy’s pagan view of life is itself a reaction against – a warning to? – or just an expression of unease about the rationalism of his own time, a reminder of the power of the gods we instinctively adore.  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Why, it might have been worse - Far from the Madding Crowd's view of life

In a recent interview, Tim Parks said that he reads “[f]or the intensity of engagement with someone else’s view of life.”  He is referring to any and all literature, but the intensity is particularly intense in Far from the Madding Crowd, where the marionettes and melodrama – characters and story – are as blatantly in service of grander themes as anywhere in Victorian fiction.  Sometimes this can seem a little artless; sometimes like its own kind of art.

The view of life is something like:

1.  Paganism.  The non-human world has its own force, will and purpose.  The gods (Greek, Celtic, Christian, in a sense) still walk the earth, at least in southwest England.

2.  Time does not pass but accumulates.  “In these Wessex nooks the busy outsider’s ancient times are only old; his old times are still new; his present is futurity” (Ch. 22).  This effect is strong enough in The Mayor of Casterbridge for me to notice it there.  Just as strong in Madding Crowd.

3.  Irrationalism.  In human terms, God or the gods behave capriciously.  On their own terms, who is to say.  Humans also behave capriciously.  They are not only irrational in the usual novelistic ways – trading long-term gains for immediate pleasures, or letting unconscious desires overwhelm conscious wisdom – but behave randomly, which is a hard thing to represent in a novel, where the author is in most senses in charge of the randomness.

I mean, the major drive of the plot can be traced back to a coin flip.  Actually, a book flip, since it is Sunday and flipping a coin would be sinful:  “’Toss this hymn-book; there can’t be no sinfulness in that, miss’” (Ch. 13).  See, Hardy can be hilarious.  Anyway, in an irrational and random world, behaving randomly can be a kind of rationality.

4.  The result is: Fatalism.  Tragedy becomes Sophoclean – you might be destroyed even if you do everything right, and minor transgressions have outlandishly tragic consequences.  You bury a loved one in the best way you can, and the earth rejects the body, just because you did it.  You treat a woman with respectful distance, and she accidentally curses you, assuming the tossed hymn-book business really was random.

Sorry, interruption.  The random decision is to whom to send a valentine, to a little boy or to a neighbor farmer who has caught the heroine’s attention by not gaping at her in public.  The book toss comes up “farmer,” but then the heroine has to seal the envelope.  She has “’a unicorn head – there’s nothing in that…  two doves – no’” but picks “’one with a motto – I remember it is a funny one, but I can’t read it.’”  The motto is MARRY ME; in other words, the beautiful widow sends her bachelor neighbor a valentine stamped with MARRY ME.  This causes a great deal of trouble.  To any Victorianists wandering by – is this a super weird thing to have at hand, or did everyone have a MARRY ME stamp, like it just came with the set?  So odd.

Undigressing:  in the last line of the novel, one of the farmhands says “’But since ‘tis as ‘tis, why, it might have been worse, and I feel my thanks accordingly’” (Ch. 57), again a very funny line, although it is only later Hardy novels that make it a good joke.

An irony of the title is that the rural characters of this Hardy novel are just about as “madding” as whatever urban crowd the title’s Far assumes.  How could they not be?  That is, says Hardy, how we are.

Almost all of the above is not perceived by the characters but is clear to the highly intrusive, hyperimaginative narrator, so I will end tomorrow with a few words about him.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe - towards a Hardy ethos

Thomas Hardy owed George Eliot quite a debt.  He borrows her parties, her choruses of rustics – even Daniel Deronda had a chorus of rustics, for just a page – and a number of specific scenes.  The great climax of Adam Bede (1859) is a long scene where a young woman goes on a long walk.  There is a big complication I will not describe.  Hardy baldly steals the scene, complication and all.  He improves on Eliot by adding a magical dog, “the ideal embodiment of canine greatness” (Ch. 40).

It is a fine scene, a single chapter devoted to one character and one action, a woman walking to town, and having more trouble than it seems she ought to be having.  It could be detached from the novel without much trouble.  Large pieces of the novel are so written, as set-pieces.  Hardy and his shepherd spend five percent of the book (Chs. 36-38) trying to cover the grain ricks before a storm hits.  Way more exciting than it sounds.  Lots of lightning:

The forms of skeletons appeared in the air, shaped with blue fire for bones – dancing, leaping, striding, racing around, and mingling altogether in unparalleled confusion.  With these were intertwined undulating snakes of green, and behind these was a broad mass of lesser light…  Gabriel was almost blinded, and he could feel Bathsheba's warm arm tremble in his hand – a sensation novel and thrilling enough; but love, life, everything human, seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe.  (Ch. 37)

Gabriel the shepherd is working for and in love with Bathsheba – it is her grain they are saving.  The second line shows how the character work, the drama, is carried along by what should not necessarily be a scene with much meaning.  In the next line, just before another lightning strike, the shepherd for some reason notes “how strangely the red feather of her hat shone in this light.”  It is this mix of tiny details and signs of an “infuriated universe” that now look to me like the most effective and unique aspect of Hardy’s art.

In one of the greatest scenes in the book, a woman is buried by the wrong person, and Nature rejects the burial.  This is Chapter 46, “The Gurgoyle: Its Doings,” the openly Ruskinian gargoyle scene.

The persistent torrent from the gurgoyle’s jaws directed all its vengeance upon the grave.  The rich tawny mould was stirred into motion, and boiled like chocolate…  The flowers so carefully planted by [] began to move and writher in their bed.  The inter-violets turned slowly upside down, and became a mere mat of mud.  Soon the snowdrop and other bulbs danced in the boiling mass like ingredients in a cauldron…

Here I was laughing not at Hardy’s jokes or prose but at his audacity, where the combined forces of Nature and English tradition re-sacralize a grave it or they see as desecrated.  Taking literally, this is ridiculous, as absurd as anything I have seen in Hardy except possibly the allegorical cartoon character from Jude the Obscure named Little Father Time.  Within the mythology of Wessex, though, it is to be expected.

Tomorrow: mythology.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Thomas Hardy's occasional stoild "moos," and other good writing

Some examples of Hardy “attempting to convey the intangibilities of his feeling in the coarse meshes of language” and succeeding (Ch. 3).  The character in Far from the Madding Crowd who thinks that line, or who it describes – not so likely he thinks it himself – “remained silent.”  Not Hardy.

The shepherd is goin’ courtin’:

[He] used all the hair-oil he possessed upon his usually dry, sandy, and inextricably curly hair, till he had deepened it to a splendidly novel colour, between that of guano and Roman cement, making it stick to his head like mace round a nutmeg, or wet seaweed round a boulder after the ebb.  (Ch. 4)

One thing we have here is an example of the poet’s imagination, always alert for unlikely yet true comparisons.  One of the great innovations of 19th century fiction was the discovery by novelists it was possible to use poetic effects in their prose, while here a genuine poet has learned to pour his imagery into fiction.  What I find especially poetry-like here, really, is that a single comparison is not enough.  In no novelistic sense are four similes necessary.

They are all plausible comparisons for Hardy’s rustics to make, even if they do not grow mace in Wessex, but they must belong to the narrator.  He is the poet.  “Roman cement” is the most Hardyish signature, with some ancient layer of the ancient past touching everything, even hair color.

Another thing we have here is a genuine Thomas Hardy humor, which is liberally applied to Madding Crowd.  One possible response to my examples of bad writing is that they are meant to be funny.  Like comparing the shepherd’s hair to bat dung and a wet boulder, they are sometimes deliberate, amusing grotesques.

A different kind of grotesque, more Gothic.  Something terrible has just happened, involving, as is often the case in Far from the Maddng Crowd, sheep:

By the outer margin of the pit was an oval pond, and over it hung the attenuated skeleton of a chrome-yellow moon which had only a few days to last – the morning star dogging her on the left hand.  The pool glittered like a dead man's eye, and as the world awoke a breeze blew, shaking and elongating the reflection of the moon without breaking it, and turning the image of the star to a phosphoric streak upon the water.  All this Oak saw and remembered. (Ch. 5)

The language simultaneously describes what shepherd Oak sees and what he is feeling.  The natural world has turned on him.  Note that the scene is not static, not just a painting put into words.  It moves and changes.

The last word, “remembered,” is one of Hardy’s many debts to George Eliot, one of her “flash forward” moments, which Hardy uses somewhat more than she does.

One more, another funny one, but with cows, not sheep:

Here the only sounds disturbing the stillness were steady munchings of many mouths, and stentorian breathings from all but invisible noses, ending in snores and puffs like the blowing of bellows slowly.  Then the munching would recommence, when the lively imagination might assist the eye to discern a group of pink-white nostrils, shaped as caverns, and very clammy and humid on their surfaces, not exactly pleasant to the touch until one got used to them…  Above each of these a still keener vision suggested a brown forehead and two staring though not unfriendly eyes, and above all a pair of whitish crescent-shaped horns like two particularly new moons, an occasional stolid “moo!” proclaiming beyond the shade of a doubt that these phenomena were the features and persons of Daisy, Whitefoot, Bonny-lass, Jolly-O, Spot, Twinkle-eye, etc., etc… (Ch. 24)

Again, a character is present (hidden by my ellipses), but the “lively imagination” does not seem to be hers but rather Hardy’s, or by suggestion mine.  If I did not see the cavernous, ectoplasmic cow nostrils before, I sure do now.  It was passages like this, of which there are a number in Far from the Madding Crowd, that made we wonder is some of what sounded to me like bad writing concealed an occasional stolid “moo!” if I only knew how to hear it.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Wasted through unheeding the comprehension: removing the Nymphean tissue from Far from the Madding Crowd

The first thing to say, as I launch into Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Thomas Hardy’s novel of loyal shepherds, lady farmers, and their troubles, romantic and ovine, is that I am maybe not such a good reader of Thomas Hardy.  I have not read that much – Jude the Obscure (1895), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and some poems, with Wessex Poems (1898) currently in progress – and I did not read those so well. Except the poems; I have always liked those.  I enjoyed Madding Crowd more than the other novels, and I like to think that means I am becoming a better Hardy reader, but there is some evidence that this earlier novel is easier, less complex or maybe more direct about its purpose.  The narrator is pretty direct, at least.

I want to get one big issue out of the way immediately: Hardy’s awful prose, the classic Hardy sentences, the ones where I wonder if English is his third language; if, like the talking moose head, he “learn it from a book.”

Gabriel Oak is the shepherd; he is watching a woman look at herself in a mirror:

Woman's prescriptive infirmity had stalked into the sunlight, which had clothed it in the freshness of an originality.  A cynical inference was irresistible by Gabriel Oak as he regarded the scene, generous though he fain would have been.  (Ch. 1)

The infirmity is vanity.  It is always the narrator, never the characters, who uses this language.  The southeast English shepherds surely do not talk this way.  The clue is that the vocabulary becomes Latinate.

Troy was full of activity, but his activities were less of a locomotive than a vegetative nature; and, never being based upon any original choice of foundation or direction, they were exercised on whatever object chance might place in their way.  Hence, whilst he sometimes reached the brilliant in speech because that was spontaneous, he fell below the commonplace in action, from inability to guide incipient effort.  He had a quick comprehension and considerable force of character; but, being without the power to combine them, the comprehension became engaged with trivialities whilst waiting for the will to direct it, and the force wasted itself in useless grooves through unheeding the comprehension.  (Ch. 25)

The two pages describing Sergeant Troy are Hardy at his worst.  I have seen Hardy fans say that they do not notice lines like these.  How is that possible?  They are so ugly.  I would have thought that the true Hardy fan would not only notice them, but would learn to treasure them, would wallow in them, and would explain to me in, for example, a blog post how they are essential to Hardy’s aesthetic.

Shepherd Oak is looking at the heroine again; so is “criticism”:

Without throwing a Nymphean tissue over a milkmaid, let it be said that here criticism checked itself as out of place, and looked at her proportions with a long consciousness of pleasure.  (Ch. 3)

I have begun to enjoy these kinds of lines myself, but more in the nature of oddities, freaks of literature.  What crazy thing will this narrator say next?

The strange thing – and this is why I want to get the subject out of the way in the first post and never mention it again – is that these gummy mouthfuls are often followed, within a few lines, by fine writing, not just in the novelistic nature writing for which Hardy is best known, but in descriptions of movement, emotion, or speech.  How the good and bad sentences coexist is the mystery.

The different kinds of prose come from different kinds of thought.  It would be interesting to figure out how that works, how Hardy shifts the narrator form one mode to another.  But I do not yet understand what he is doing.  Maybe after the next novel.  Whatever I write next will only be about the one mode, the good one.

Friday, May 8, 2015

We did tire later - Max Beerbohm examines some persons of 'the Nineties'

I am not yet done with minor, or even major, poets of or around the 1890s. A bit of Robert Bridges is in progress, Thomas Hardy is next, I think, then maybe Francis Thompson and  A. E. Housman, who I like to much write about.  Perhaps I will push on a bit to G. K. Chesterton or Walter de la Mare?  Perhaps I will get sick of the whole thing.

I actually began this little digression several months ago when I read the extant works of Enoch Soames, the most minor of the minor poets of the 1890s, so minor that he is fictional, the creation of Max Beerbohm in the “sumwot labud sattire” “Enoch Soames” (1916) found in Seven Men and Two Others.  Soames, a Catholic Diabolist, is the author of two slim volumes of poems – in the 1890s, volumes were always slim or slender – Nocturnes and Fungoids.  The young Beerbohm was one of the few readers of Soames:

He looked at me across his glass of absinthe and asked if I had bought a copy.  His publisher had told him that three had been sold.  I laughed, as at a jest.  (16)

Wait, I see there was a third book.  “I meant, but forgot, to buy it” (18).

Soames is visible, just barely, in the upper right of “Some Persons of ‘the Nineties,’” where he is enduring the gesticulations of William Butler Yeats.  Beerbohm is the dandy between Yeats and Wilde, the one with the faraway gaze and unnaturally slender legs.  The conceit of “Enoch Soames” is that Soames is only barely visible, that no one notices him or will remember him in the future (a deal with the devil and time travel are involved) except as the subject of a Max Beerbohm story.

Soames is invented, but boy is he also Ernest Dowson, in the samples of his verse, at least.  Beerbohm never met Dowson, so he is what Beerbohm imagined Dowson must be like.

‘You read only at the Museum now’ asked I, with attempted cheerfulness.  He said he never went there now.  ‘No absinthe there,’ he muttered.  It was the sort of thing that in the old days he would have said for effect; but it carried conviction now.  (19)

I do not know who the two novelists in “Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton” are meant to be, if anyone.  The first is the author of Ariel in Mayfair, the second of A Faun of the Cotswolds.  Beerbohm is always good with phony titles.

From the time of Nathaniel Hawthorne to the outbreak of the War, current literature did not suffer from any lack of fauns.  But when Braxton’s first book appeared fauns had still an air of novelty about them.  We had not yet tired of them and their hoofs and their slanting eyes and their way of coming suddenly out of woods to wean quiet English villages from respectability.  We did tire later.  (47)

That last line is a good test case.  The reader who does not recognize it as comic should avoid Beerbohm.

Another conceit, running through many stories, is that writers are insane, or were back in the 1890s.  Writers other than Max Beerbohm.

If possible, you want Seven Men and Two Others (1950), which adds “Felix Argallo and Walter Ledgett” to the 1919 Seven Men.  Sorry, NYRB Classics fans.  Page numbers refer to the Prion edition.  “Some Persons of ‘the Nineties’” can be seen on p. 77 of Max Beerbohm Caricatures by N. John Hall, and also on the book’s cover, except that Enoch Soames is of course cut out.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Our viols cease, our wine is death - some bits of Ernest Dowson

I have another minor poet of the 1890s to write up, Ernest Dowson.  I have to write about these poets if I want to keep them straight.  Aesthete, Francophile, small and pale, Catholic convert, drank himself to death (age 32) – the usual stuff, little poems of exquisite beauty drawn from a life that was much otherwise.

His first book of poems, published in 1896, consists mostly of yearning, passionate love poems, Gautier-like enamels and cameos, directed at an eleven year-old Polish waitress.  Now that is different.  She had the good sense to keep Dowson at arm’s length and, six years later, to marry a waiter.  I thought the poems in this book were lovely and musical but numbingly repetitive:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
        Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
               We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
       Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
               Within a dream.

Perfect!  Now repeat forty times, but with more “v” sounds – “the letter ‘v’ was the most beautiful of the letters, and could never be brought into verse too often” (so reports Arthur Symons in the introduction to The Poems of Ernest Dowson, a pleasing book with Aubrey Beardsley illustrations).

Dowson may be best known now for supplying titles to later works – “the days of wine and roses,” “gone with the wind” (can he possibly have been the first poet in English to use that phrase – but he is the source), and many more, including two of the three titles to Michael Moorcock’s bizarro parody-Victorian Dancers at the End of Time books, both from later poems.

In his 1899 Decorations in Verse and Prose, published not long before his death, Dowson had shaken off that fool romance, and it was good for his poetry.  The variety of subject matter expands with no loss in the quality of the verse.  “Carthusians,” for example, a great Catholic poem, in which a sinning aesthete asks monks for help:

Move on, white company, whom that has not sufficed!
    Our viols cease, our wine is death, our roses fail:
Pray for our heedlessness, O dwellers with the Christ!
    Though the world fall apart, surely ye shall prevail.

There are some adorable Paul Verlaine imitations:

O sweet fall of the rain
Upon the earth and roofs!
Unto an heart in pain,
O music of the rain!

There are witches with “lichened arms” who meet “where the wan  grass droops and dies” (“The Three Witches”).  There is a cemetery in Brittany where “dear dead people with pale hand / Beckon me to their lands” (“In a Breton Cemetery”).

And then there are more poems about death, drinking, the vanity of all things, and an aesthete’s despair – maybe there is less variety in the book than I first thought – as in the last poem in the book, “A Last Word,” a sonnet:

Let us go hence, somewhither strange and cold,
    To Hollow Lands where just men and unjust
    Find end of labour, where rest’s for the old,
Freedom to all from love and fear and lust.
Twine our torn hands!  O pray the earth enfold
Our life-sick hearts and turn them into dust.

A great shame that these poems were so closely drawn from life.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The more I read about it the more my knowledge diminishes - The Greeks and the Irrational by E. R. Dodds

Sometimes I need to read a book of criticism that is full of ideas, just to loosen up the drier parts of the brain.  The subject of the book hardly matters.  The Greeks and the Irrational, the 1949 study of the title subject by classicist E. R. Dodds, inflected with the latest in philological, anthropological, and Freudian thinking, was just what I needed.  Some of it is likely wrong, but what does that have to do with ideas?

The point of the book is to set aside Athens as the birthplace of Reason and work through the available evidence about the irrational side of Classical Greek thought and life, the superstitions and magic and weirdness.  Plato, Homer, and the tragic playwrights get most of the textual attention, along with the Pythagorean cult, the Orphic cult, the Bacchic cult, all of the best cults.

The book is packed with witches, oracles, dreams, and daemons, and was nicely complementary to Carlo Ginzburg and Rudyard Kipling, and I assume will mesh nicely with Little, Big.  Dodds – here we see the influence of contemporary anthropologists – would like to link Greek cultic practices to those of Siberians shamans (direct ancestors of Ginzburg’s semi-pagan witch-fighters), which I thought was a stretch until he began to pull examples from various sources about mystics coming to Greece from the North:

Out of the North came Abaris, riding, it was said, upon an arrow, as souls, it appears, still do in Siberia.  So advanced was he in the art of fasting that he had learned to dispense altogether with human food.  He banished pestilences, predicted earthquakes, composed religious poems, and taught the worship of his northern god, whom the Greeks called the Hyperborean Apollo.  (“The Greek Shamans and Puritanism,” 141)

I have omitted the many footnote numbers, five in the above passage, for example, leading to not one but many sources mentioning Abaris, a historical, not mythic, figure, and then many more mentioning other shamans, leading to this wild claim:

Such tales of disappearing and reappearing shamans were sufficiently familiar at Athens for Sophocles to refer to them in Electra without any need to mention names.

I obviously did not understand that particular passage (ll. 62-5) of Sophocles at all, an experience that Dodds let me know repeatedly, in Homer, in Pindar, and especially in Plato; oh how poorly I must have read Plato.  Dodds sympathizes:

But I must confess that I know very little about early Orphism, and the more I read about it the more my knowledge diminishes.  Twenty years ago, I could have said quite a lot about it (we all could at that time).  Since then, I have lost a great deal of knowledge; for this loss I am indebted to [list of scholars]  (147)

This might give an idea of how Dodds’s book is pleasingly readable.  My own great hope is that if I read enough, I will at some point have no knowledge whatsoever.  Dodds has been a big help.

I hope that The Greeks and the Irrational will help spur some ideas about Little, Big.  Dodds ends with an account, social and psychological, of the collapse of reason during the Hellenistic period.  “The Return of the Irrational was, as may be seen from these few examples, pretty complete” (“The Fear of Freedom,” 253).  That has a nice touch of the cyclical ethos of Crowley’s fairy story.  The strange coincidence, though, were the many correspondences between what I was finding in Dodds and what I was reading at the same time in Far from the Madding Crowd.  Talk about the Return of the Irrational!  So as I write about Thomas Hardy next week, I will, if nothing else, lard my posts with quotations from this rich book.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"We don't mean that sort. We hate 'em too'" - some Rudyard Kipling fairy stories

To prepare for a big novel about fairies I thought I would read an earlier books about fairies, Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), in which Kipling plays a cruel trick on unsuspecting children by using a fantasy frame to disguise a book about that teaches  English history.  Why are writers so cruel?  Children are so much better off today, now that they are not expected to know any history at all.

A pair of children are performing  (for an audience of “Three Cows”) their abridged (“as much as they could remember”) version of Midsummer’s Night Dream – on Midsummer Eve – in a fairy circle – which is, obviously, something of a magic spell, one that summons the actual Puck.

‘We – we didn’t mean to,’ said Una.

‘Of course you didn’t!  That’s just why you did it.  Unluckily the Hills are empty now, and all the People of the Hills are gone.  I’m the only one left.  I’m Puck, the oldest Old Thing in England…’ (“Weland’s Sword”)

“People of the Hills,” not “fairies”:

‘And that’s how I feel about saying – that word that I don’t say.  Besides, what you call them are made-up things the People of the Hills have never heard of – little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a school-teacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones.  I know ‘em!’

‘We don’t mean that sort,’ said Dan.  ‘We hate ‘em too.’

That last bit could be the secret epigraph to Crowley’s Little, Big.  Promising enough, but as I said, after Puck and the children share cookies (“Bath Oliver biscuits” – this is Kipling, no vagueness here), the Old Thing begins summoning other Old Things, not fairies but regional historical figures, knights and so on, in order to march the children through 1066 and all that.  Roman Britain, Vikings, the Magna Carta.  Each chapter ends with Puck casting a forgetting spell on the children, a good running joke for a pedagogical novel, the point of which is to make historical episodes so fictionally vivid that they cannot be forgotten.

The historical episodes are linked in a number of satisfying ways, by a magic sword and a gold hoard and the exodus of the fairies and their degeneration from gods – “’England is a bad country for Gods,’” says Puck – and by Kipling’s style, his intense imagination, the way he sees and hears:

When they reached Otter Pool the Golden Hind grounded comfortably on a shallow, and they lay beneath a roof of close green, watching the water trickle over the flood-gates down the mossy brick chute from the mill-stream to the brook.  A big trout – the children knew him well – rolled head and shoulders at some fly that sailed round the bend, while once in just so often the brook rose a fraction of an inch against all the wet pebbles, and they watched the slow draw and shiver of a breath of air through the tree-tops.  Then the little voices of the slipping water began again.  (“The Knights of the Joyous Venture”)

I last saw that trout in a Richard Jefferies piece, “A London Trout,” which ended with the trout’s fate unknown, so it is nice to see he is thriving; I will next see him in the first chapter of Little, Big.

Monday, May 4, 2015

An irrational outgrowth - Carlo Ginzburg help me prepare to read John Crowley's Little, Big

John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981) will be my readalong book of the month – please see Dolce Bellezza for details.   Quite a few book bloggers are, to my pleasure, joining.  Little, Big is an unusual book, a member of whatever genre – dream novels –  contain Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and George MacDonald’s Lilith. It is about a family of fairies who live in the Catskills.

I was tempted to beg off, not feeling that the book fit with whatever else I had been reading, but I read the first chapter to remind myself of what it was like.  “Make it fit,” I thought.  So I have been preparing the battle space.  Today, some true fantasy.

In The Night Battles (1966), Carlo Ginzburg tells two overlapping stories, both hard to believe but both in some sense true.  In 1575, a Catholic priest, an inquisitor of the Inquisition, stumbled upon the surviving remnants of an ancient fertility cult in the isolated region of Friuli (the far northeastern corner of modern Italy).  Four times a year, during the Ember Days, a specially selected group of champions, the benandanti, the good-doers, armed only with fennel stalks, spent their nights in combat with the region’s witches, who were armed with sorghum.  The results of the battles determined the quality of the harvests.  If the witches won, the harvest was bad; if the benandanti won, there would be abundance.

That is one story.  The other is the postmodern detective story in which the Inquisition tries to figure out what is actually going on here.  They have only one frame of reference, witches and witch’s sabbaths, and the idea that there are people with magic powers who fight the witches, who even claim to be doing God’s work, is incomprehensible. 

There was no place in the theological, doctrinal and demonological theories of the dominant culture for the belies of the benandanti: they constituted an irrational outgrowth and therefore either had to be made to conform to those theories or be eradicated.  (88)

It took fifty years of desultory pressure from the Inquisition, but over time the benandanti began describing themselves, detail by detail, in terms the inquisitors could understand, regularizing and thereby exterminating their own practices.  This is what I meant by “postmodern.”  The detectives, confronted with an unsolvable crime they do not understand, which is perhaps not a crime at all, accidentally convert the activity into a crime they do understand, thereby allowing them to solve it.

The historical sources are primarily the records of the bureaucratic Inquisition.  One of Ginzburg’s achievements was to figure out how to work with this evidence.  In a way, this second story, the subtle interaction between folk culture and official culture, is as interesting as the first story.  But then I remember that the first story involves men leaving their bodies to combat witches over the fate of the grape harvest as part of a Christianized remnant of a pagan fertility cult, and that people in early modern Italy openly talked about this until they realized that, oops, maybe a Catholic inquisitor is a dangerous audience for this stuff, and I think, no, that story is really hard to top.

Actually, it is topped by the story of the Livonian werewolf, which Ginzburg uses, along with the Germanic version of the Celtic Wild Hunt and similar legends, as evidence that there is something else going on, something bigger:

Three times each year on the nights of St Lucia before Christmas, of Pentecost, and of St John, the werewolves proceeded on foot, in the form of wolves, to a place located ‘beyond the sea’: hell.  There they battles the devil and witches, striking them with long iron rods, and pursuing them like dogs.  Werewolves, Thiess exclaimed, ‘cannot tolerate the devil’.  The judges, undoubtedly astonished, asked for elucidation.  (29)

Crowley has recommended The Night Battles (1966) as a source for fantasy writers, something radically different than the endless Tolkien knockoffs.  He has used it himself in his Aegypt series, especially in the 1994 Love & Sleep, if I remember correctly.  The essence of those books, and of Little, Big, too, is that there is something else going on.  Crowley, writing fiction, is allowed to elucidate a bit more, to take a guess at the something else.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Cavafy on "the great new Hellenic world"

Cavafy’s “beautiful young men” theme frequently crosses with his other great concern, Greek history.  “In an Old Book” is about the discovery of a watercolor of a nude young man, “those ideal limbs shaped for bed,” in “an old book - / almost a hundred years old,” the kind of book Cavafy would pillage for his poems, which are often Browning-like monologues.

from In the Year 200 B.C.

And from this marvelous pan-Hellenic expedition,
triumphant, brilliant in every way,
celebrated on all sides, glorified,
incomparable, we emerged:
the great new Hellenic world. (1931)

The expedition in the first line is that of Alexander the Great, the creator of Hellenistic Greece; the reason, in some distant way, that a Greek like Constantine Cavafy lived in Egypt.  The speaker is an antiquarian commenting on an inscription over a century after Alexander’s conquest, during the end of a long, slow decline from a cultural peak – from several peaks.  A few years later, the Romans will conquer and absorb Greece.  This history, the date in the title, and the speaker’s failure to understand his own history, is the point of the poem.  Ironist.

“To understand the reasons for this long-drawn-out decline [of the Hellenic world] is one of the major problems of world history,” the classicist E. R. Dodds wrote in 1949 (The Greeks and the Irrational, Ch. VIII, p. 244).  Cavafy wrote many poems on this theme, with settings and characters ranging from Homer’s heroes to the end of Byzantine Greece outside the walls of Constantinople.  His poems frequently have dates in the title.  Cavafy expected his audience, which was just a few close friends, to know what he was writing about.

from A Byzantine Nobleman in Exile Composing Verses

…  incredibly bored,
it’s not altogether unfitting to amuse myself
writing six- and eight-line verses,
to amuse myself politicizing myths
of Hermes and Apollo and Dionysos,
or the heroes of Thessaly and the Peloponnese…  (1921)

This poem is about the decline of learning, the decline of poetry.  Only this poet has any standards anymore, or so he thinks.

His most startling poem of decadence is an earlier one, written in 1898, “Waiting for the Barbarians.”  The poem begins:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

      The barbarians are due here today.

One speaker asks, the other answers, always with the same answer – why bother to do anything, the barbarians are coming.

The poem ends:

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the street and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thoughts?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

This must be among the boldest conceits in 19th century poetry, as much about psychology as history, as much individual as cultural.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

I’ve looked on beauty so much that my vision overflows with it - one side of C. P. Cavafy

Still in or near the 1890s but away from England, to the poems of Konstantinos Petrou Kavaphes, or as I know him C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), secret poet of Alexandria, printing up copies of poems for a few friends while working “as special clerk in the Irrigation Service (Third Circle) of the Ministry of Public Works” for decades (p. 439).  Poetry not only without money – we can take that for granted – but without prestige, without status.  Bold.

I have never read Cavafy, yet I have, because over the last twenty years he has been one of the most reviewed poets due to the baffling number of Cavafy translations over the last twenty years.  I briefly knew an expert in modern Greek poetry, and she was baffled, too – there are so many other great Greek poets, she said.  But every couple of years there is a new Cavafy.

I’ve Looked So Much…

I’ve looked on beauty so much
that my vision overflows with it.

The body’s lines.  Red lips.  Sensual limbs.
Hair as though stolen from Greek statues,
always lovely, even uncombed,
and falling slightly over pale foreheads.
Figures of love, as my poetry desired them
. . . . in the nights when I was young,
encountered secretly in my nights.  (written 1911, “published” 1917)

Cavafy has two modes, almost exclusively two, one being poems drawn from his deep knowledge of Greek history and culture, Classical, Hellenistic, and Byzantine, the other mildly erotic poems about his homosexual love affairs.  Sometimes, as here, the two modes meet.  Cavafy makes sure that a poem that could be merely a metaphor, a poem about poetry, is pulled back to the actual object of desire.  The phrase that does the work, that is not generic, is “even uncombed.”  The poet has someone in mind. 

There, now that he’s sitting down at the next table,
I recognize every motion he makes – and under his clothes
I see again the limbs that I loved, naked.  (from “The Next Table,” 1919)

To my surprise, the editor says that “[i]n the original, the sex of the person sitting at the next table remains ambiguous” (412), an effect unavailable to the English translators.  Cavafy seems to give up this ambiguity in later poems.  “A good-looking boy, a tailor’s assistant / (on Sundays an amateur athlete)” adjusts his tie in a mirror, which

was full of joy now,
proud to have embraces
total beauty for a few moments.  (“The Mirror in the Front Hall, 1930)

Or the friend’s lover who dies “doesn’t want suits any longer”:

Sunday they buried him, at ten in the morning.
Sunday they buried him, almost a week ago.

He laid flowers on his cheap coffin,
lovely white flowers, very much in keeping
with his beauty, his twenty-two years.  (“Lovely White Flowers,” 1929)

The Greek, I am told, generally rhymes and is more metrical if not completely strict, so it must be less plain-spoken than this, which is fresh enough to have been published as prose in the Village Voice in the 1980s.  The puzzle might be that there have not been more versions, that the Cavafy boom did not really start until this century.

I went against fashion and read an old one, the Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard Collected Poems from 1975, source of all of the above.  I now see that there are so many Cavafy translations that this is not even the right Keeley and Sherrard, since a revised version of their book was published in 1992.  It’ll do for now.

Any suggestions for my next Cavafy will be warmly appreciated.