Monday, 23 October 2017

Bridges v Hopkins

Born on this day in 1844 was the poet Robert Bridges, whose greatest contribution to English literature was his collecting and eventual publication of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The two men met at Oxford and were lifelong friends thereafter. However, they were a very odd couple, in most respects as different from each other as chalk and cheese – Bridges firmly anti-Catholic and conservative in all things, including poetry, and Hopkins devoutly Catholic and open to currents of thought and ways of writing verse that were quite repugnant to Bridges. The relationship between the two friends, who undoubtedly had a deep affection for each other, would be better understood if Bridges hadn't, after Hopkins' death, had all his (Bridges') letters to him returned and destroyed (though one survived).
 Bridges clearly did not understand or appreciate his friend's poetry, and was reluctant to publish it (a reluctance endorsed by his fellow poet Coventry Patmore). He might have been right to hesitate, as Hopkins' verse, if published in quantity in the 1880s or 1890s, could well have been dismissed as the most outlandish experimentation. When eight of his poems were published in an anthology in 1893 (five years after Hopkins' death), Bridges included a note on the poet, which ended uninvitingly:

'Poems as far removed as his come to be from the ordinary simplicity of grammar and meter, had they no other drawback, could never be popular, for they have this plain fault, that, aiming at an unattainable perfection of language, they not only sacrifice simplicity, but very often, among verses of the rarest beauty, show a neglect of those canons of taste which seem common to all poetry.'

 Even when Bridges finally brought out a proper edition of Hopkins's poems in 1918, he attached a minatory preface that could scarcely have been more negative:

'Apart from faults of taste, which, few as they numerically are, yet affect my liking and more repel my sympathy than do all the rude shocks of his purely artistic wantonness – apart from these, there are definite faults of style which a reader must have courage to face, and must in some measure condone before he can discover the great beauties.'

Well, cheers, Bob – thanks for that ringing endorsement...
 Since then, of course, the whirligig of time has brought in its revenges: Robert Bridges, one-time Poet Laureate, survives only in a few anthology pieces (like this one), while Hopkins is regarded as one of the great (or, at the very least, 'major minor') English poets.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Blindingly Obvious

A cliché, by definition – my definition anyway – is a phrase that has been so overused it has lost its meaning. A classic example is the oft-used 'blindingly obvious'. This means, or rather meant, so obvious that it was no longer apparent, could no longer be seen. Nowadays it is used to mean merely very obvious. This is a shame, as some things are indeed blindingly obvious – so obvious that no one, apparently, sees them.
  I think there's a case in point in the current brouhaha over alleged 'social apartheid' being practised by Oxford and Cambridge universities. This is of course risible nonsense: the only admissions policy in operation is what it has always been – to select the best applicants. Not necessarily those with the best grades (these two universities wisely rely more on their own entrance exams), but those who will be best suited to the peculiar conditions of an Oxbridge education. That is still what is happening; what has changed is that the state schools are, for various reasons, not providing enough such applicants. So there is, inevitably, an apparent bias towards 'privileged' applicants from private schools.
 When I was at Cambridge, the proportion of entrants from state schools was nearing fifty per cent (I think in my college it was already over that mark). That rising trend would have continued but for one thing – and this is where the 'blindingly obvious' comes in – the abolition of the grammar schools. Whatever the faults of the old grammar / secondary modern system, the grammar school was an astonishingly effective engine of social mobility, propelling unprecedentedly large numbers of bright but 'deprived' children into good universities and top jobs (five consecutive state-educated Prime Ministers in the grammar school era). It was a social ladder like no other, and the imposition of 'comprehensive' education kicked it away, with the result that a far lower proportion of state-school pupils are now equipped for studying at the elite universities (and even those that are often receive no encouragement or preparation from their schools). Instead of bleating about 'social apartheid', the politicians should seriously consider the state of public education and do something serious about it. They might, for example, ponder the fact that this is the only developed country where school leavers are less literate and numerate than their grandparents. How did that happen?

Friday, 20 October 2017

Frits Thaulow

Today is the 170th birthday of the Norwegian painter Frits Thaulow, who settled in France in the 1890s and was for several years an ornament of Dieppe society. He and his Amazonian wife Alexandra presided over a hospitable household to which all were welcome – including Oscar Wilde, at a time when he was being ostentatiously cut by le tout Dieppe (with a few noble exceptions).
  The Thaulows also befriended Aubrey Beardsley and the young Australian painter Charles Conder, an alcoholic with a severe case of nostalgie de la boue. The Thaulows, seeking to keep him safe and occupied, insisted that he move in with them and paint murals on the walls of their villa. Alexandra also commissioned him to decorate some plain white evening gowns for her, as he was particularly skilled at painting on silk. John Rothenstein, who of course was there, remembered how ''visitors were enchanted at the sight of this Brynhilde, dressed in white silk, standing majestic in her drawing room, while Conder fluttered round her, brush in hand, until the white silk was no more, but coloured like a field of flowers'.
 Alexandra was also one of the daring Dieppe ladies who took up the fashionable pastime of bicycling. 'With her enormous thighs encase in knee-breeches,' writes Simona Pakenham (in Sixty Miles from England), 'she mounted her "iron steed" and went for trips to Arques on a tandem, sometimes carrying the diminutive figure of John Rothenstein, who came on holiday visits to Conder, behind her.' If only Max Beerbohm (another ornament of Dieppe society) had been there to draw that...
 The painting above is Jacques-Emile Blanche's bravura portrait of Frits Thaulow somehow managing to paint en famille and en plein air, while smoking a cigarette. Thaulow's own paintings were quieter affairs, documenting his love of the Norman countryside, its pastures and old farm buildings, trees, rivers and millponds. The play of light – especially declining light – on water particularly fascinated him, and he became known as a specialist in watery scenes, like the one below. Not a great painter perhaps, but a very good one – and, by all accounts, a rather fine human being.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Red House

Here's something I wrote for those nice people at Pooky, purveyors of fine lighting to the quality. It's about that remarkable survival, Red House in Bexleyheath...

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

'One of the great works of art of England'

I spent most of yesterday making a long day trip – much longer than it should have been, thanks to various train and taxi problems – into Suffolk. My destination was St Andrew's church in the village of Bramfield. It's a pretty and interesting church – detached Norman round tower, thatched roof, a splendid late medieval screen (detail below) – but I was there to see Nicholas Stone's great monument to Arthur Coke and his wife, Elizabeth, who died in childbirth, 'Christianly and peaceably', in 1627.
 It's an almost stark monument, in black and white marble, with virtually no ornamentation, and the kneeling figure of Arthur Coke, against the wall, is stern and stiff. All the interest lies in the alabaster effigy of mother and child, she reclining at peace with the babe in her arms. It's a piece of work so exquisitely carved that Sacheverell Sitwell describes the rendering of the mother's full sleeve, the pillows under her head and the coverlet over her body as 'worthy of Bernini'. He is right – and he barely exaggerates in declaring that 'This is one of the great works of art of England'. The same could be said, in my view, of a good many of the best church monuments of the early 17th-century golden age. It's a shame we have to travel so far and so long to see them. But it's worth it.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Richard Wilbur RIP

This link on Frank Wilson's Books Inq blog alerted me to the sad news that the great American poet Richard Wilbur has died. He lived a long (96 years), productive and largely very happy life, which ended peacefully – and yet the news hits hard, I think because of what died with him: a surely unrepeatable combination of technical perfection, deep poetic knowledge and respect for tradition, wit and elegance, reticence and grace. Truly we shall not see his like again.
 I've posted many of Wilbur's poems here over the years (as a quick search will confirm). How to mark his death? Surely with this, perhaps his greatest, the poem that even Randall Jarrell (who had mixed feelings about Wilbur's work) called 'one of the most marvellously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written' – A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra...

Under the bronze crown 
Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet   
      A serpent has begun to eat, 
Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down 

            Past spattered mosses, breaks 
On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills   
      The massive third below. It spills 
In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes 

            A scrim or summery tent 
For a faun-ménage and their familiar goose.   
      Happy in all that ragged, loose 
Collapse of water, its effortless descent 

            And flatteries of spray, 
The stocky god upholds the shell with ease, 
      Watching, about his shaggy knees, 
The goatish innocence of his babes at play; 

            His fauness all the while 
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh   
      Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh 
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile 

            Bent on the sand floor 
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come 
      And go in swift reticulum, 
More addling to the eye than wine, and more 

            Interminable to thought 
Than pleasure’s calculus. Yet since this all   
      Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,   
Must it not be too simple? Are we not 

            More intricately expressed 
In the plain fountains that Maderna set 
      Before St. Peter’s—the main jet   
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest 

            In the act of rising, until   
The very wish of water is reversed, 
      That heaviness borne up to burst   
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill 

            With blaze, and then in gauze   
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine 
      Illumined version of itself, decline, 
And patter on the stones its own applause? 

            If that is what men are 
Or should be, if those water-saints display   
      The pattern of our aretê
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre, 

            Spangled, and plunging house? 
They are at rest in fulness of desire 
      For what is given, they do not tire 
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse 

            And riddled pool below, 
Reproving our disgust and our ennui   
      With humble insatiety. 
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow 

            Before the wealthy gate 
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this   
      No trifle, but a shade of bliss— 
That land of tolerable flowers, that state 

            As near and far as grass 
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand   
      Is worthy of water: the dreamt land 
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.

Not an Ex-Parrot

I always enjoy stories of supposedly extinct species being rediscovered – partly because they are in themselves good news, and partly because they suggest we are often rather too liberal in our diagnoses of extinction. The world is bigger – and stranger – than we imagine (stranger than we can imagine, according to Arthur Eddington), and we often underestimate the resilience and staying power of nature.
  Here is the latest news of an Australian bird that was thought to have been extinct for a century – the mysterious Night Parrot. It's hardly surprising that this parrot should have disappeared from view for so long: not only is it nocturnal, it is also a very reluctant flier that prefers to keep to the ground, skulking in thickets of Spinifex grass. At least its call has now been identified, which should make matters easier...
 By the way, the piece I've linked to contains the cherishable phrase 'Spinifex knoll'. Not one you often come across.