Monday, 16 May 2022

Dauntless

 Born on this day in 1862 was Margaret Fountaine, a woman who has been aptly described as ‘one of the strangest lepidopterists Britain has ever produced’. A Norfolk clergyman’s daughter, she was brought up conventionally enough, but, having had her heart broken by an Irish singer whom she pursued all the way to Ireland, she left England to travel in search not of love but of butterflies – a pursuit that was to lead her through various parts of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, the Far East, the Americas and the Antipodes. A dauntless traveller who seemed to fear nothing and to thrive in the most basic living conditions, she probably covered more ground than any lepidopterist has ever done, even in the age of jet flight. Though she sent frequent reports to the entomological journals, it was her other, more private writings that were to secure her posthumous fame...
  When she died – in 1940, while hunting butterflies in Trinidad – she left her collection of some 22,000 specimens to Norwich Castle Museum, and with it a mysterious black box which, she stipulated, was not to be opened until April the fifteenth, 1978. The day came, the box was duly opened, and it was found to contain twelve thick volumes of her journal, covering six decades and more of her life – and containing an astonishingly frank account of her emotional life, notably her relationship with her Syrian dragoman (guide, interpreter and, in Margaret Fountaine’s case, a great deal more). Khalil Neimy had fallen in love with her on their first meeting, despite being fifteen years her junior, and he became her ‘dear companion, the constant and untiring friend’ on her travels for many years. They exchanged rings, and planned to marry and settle in America, but Khalil sadly died on a return visit to Syria in 1929. Wisely, in view of the attitudes that prevailed at the time, they kept their feelings concealed from the world, and Margaret Fountaine equally wisely chose to keep her intimate diaries under embargo until the hundredth anniversary of the date on which she began writing them. When their contents became known, they caused a stir far beyond the world of lepidoptery, and their contents were adapted into two successful books by W.F. Cater: Love among the Butterflies and Butterflies and Late Loves. Margaret Fountaine became, along with Eleanor Glanville (whose life even inspired a romantic novel, Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain), one of the two romantic heroines of butterfly collecting – and that is two more than there are romantic heroes among the men.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

'An affair of places'

 Talking of butterflies – yesterday morning, a summer-like day of blue skies and strong sunlight, I made my way to one of my regular local patches to see what was flying. Surely there would be plenty on the wing on such a day, I imagined – but when I got there, I found nothing resembling abundance. I upped my species tally by spotting my first Small Heath, Common Blue and Small Blue of the year (the last a speciality of this particular site) – but only one of each, and scarcely more than one of anything I saw: three or four Small Coppers was the best of it. Such sparseness at this time of year, when things should be really livening up, is worrying. I do hope the next couple of months bring more of the glorious abundance that is one of the joys of being among butterflies. 
  As I wandered about this patch of Surrey downland, which for me is full of happy memories of family times as well as lepidopteral delights, I reflected that this time next year (even at the present glacial rate of progress) I shall be exploring fresh woods and pastures new as I investigate the butterflies of Staffordshire. I fancy I might miss those Surrey downs and hills more than anything else about living down here. As Wallace Stevens wrote (in Adagia): 'Life is an affair of people not of places, but for me life is an affair of places and that is the trouble.' 

Friday, 13 May 2022

Why Butterfly?

 Why are butterflies called butterflies? It's a question I'm often asked (once my obsession becomes known) and one to which there seems to be no simple answer – or is there?
  Various theories have been advanced. One of the more plausible is that butterflies are named after the butter-yellow (or, in the male, sulphur-yellow) Brimstone, often the first butterfly to be seen in spring. Others have suggested that the name was inspired by butterflies' apparent interest in buttermilk, which does seem to attract some butterflies' attention if it's exposed in the open. There was a folk belief that witches took the form of butterflies and helped themselves to milk and butter. However, if a butterfly devoted its whole life to consuming dairy products, it would scarcely manage more than a few thimblefuls. Butterflies don't eat at all – they're not physically equipped for it; they only drink. All their eating is done at the larval stage – which makes it even stranger that some sources suggest the possibility (based on an Old Dutch word, 'boterschijte') that butterflies are so named because their excrement resembles butter. Butterflies don't excrete or egest anything, except sometimes a little water if they're overfull, so that theory sounds wildly fanciful. 
  In all this puzzlement and conjecture, did no one think to consult Johnson's Dictionary? There the curious reader will find this definition: 'A beautiful insect, so named because it first appears in the beginning of the season for butter.' The season for butter: I must admit that it had never occurred to me that there was a season for butter-making, but that was indeed the case until late in the 18th century, when changes in animal husbandry and improved breeds of cattle made milking and butter-making possible all year round. So there you have it: a butterfly is the insect that flies during the butter season – which extended roughly from March to September, as does the butterfly season. No doubt debate will continue, but it seems to me that Johnson this time got it right. The same cannot be said, however, for his definition of a caterpillar: 'A worm which, when it gets wings, is sustained by leaves and fruits.'  
  Among the most charming, if  not entirely reliable, of Johnson's animal definitions is 'Elephant': 'The largest of all quadrupeds, of whose sagacity, faithfulness, prudence, and even understanding, many surprising relations are given. He is supplied with a trunk, or long hollow cartilage, like a large trumpet, which hangs between his teeth, and serves him for hands: by one blow with his trunk he will kill a camel or a horse, and will raise a prodigious weight with it...' And I like his 'Lion': 'The fiercest and most magnanimous of four-footed beasts.' And here is 'Goldfinch': 'A singing bird, so named from his golden colour. This is called in Staffordshire a Proud Taylor.' I must remember that the next time I'm admiring the numerous goldfinches of Lichfield.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Olafsson Rameau

 Since buying his revelatory CD, Debussy Rameau, I've become mildly obsessed with the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson. His Bach interpretations have deservedly won him great acclaim, and his exploration of Rameau's piano works in relation to those of his musical successor and admirer, Claude Debussy, should raise his reputation even higher. One of the highlights of an album full of wonders is Olafsson's transcription of Rameau's 'Entrée pour les Muses, les Zephyres, les Saisons, les Heures et les Arts' from his last opera, Les Boréades. I've posted this glorious piece in its original form before – here – and below is Vikingur Olafsson playing his equally beautiful version, with bonkers video embellishments, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon: 



Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Jarvis Atingle

 Yesterday, on one of my increasingly rare forays into the woke world of Radio 4, I caught a bit of Jarvis Cocker's new series, Good Pop Bad Pop, a kind of music-themed memoir. Jarvis is a natural radio man, always worth a listen, so I hung around until the dreaded Woman's Hour took over. What caught my ear was Cocker's description of 'the tingle', which is the physical sensation that something special in music (or other arts, no doubt) triggers in the region of the upper spine and back of the head. This sounded familiar – of course, 'the tingle' was Nabokov's index of true art too. Here's one of his several utterances on the subject: 'A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading.' (from Lectures on Literature). 
Unfortunately, the particular tingle that Cocker was remembering – the first he recalls – was occasioned by the ludicrous Peter Sarstedt song 'Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?' Jarvis was set atingle by the line 'I can look inside your head', which, after a string of 'na-na-na's, ends the song.  In mitigation it must be stated that this song was released (and stayed at number one for four weeks) in 1969, when young Jarvis was barely six years old. He can be forgiven that early tingle. 

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Not Yet

 Spring may be arriving in England three weeks earlier than it used to (according to this) – or even a month earlier (according to this) – but clearly no one has told the swifts. These magical birds have been arriving in my neighbourhood on or around the same date for as long as I can remember, sometimes putting in an early appearance in the last days of April, but usually making it in the first few days of May (always, in recent years, by the 7th). This year I was quietly confident that, encouraged by the recent warm weather, they would be, if anything, a little early. But no: here we are on the afternoon – a glorious sunny afternoon – of the 8th, and still not a swift in sight. I do hope nothing has gone wrong on their inward journey... I also hope that, by the very act of writing this, I have ensured that the next time I set foot outside the house I shall see a swift circling above me and instantly experience again that unique lift of the heart and soul – a thrill that is like no other 'first', however late it comes. 

Friday, 6 May 2022

'The little lives of earth and form...'

 On this day in 1977, Philip Larkin wrote one of those tender little lyrics that are among the most cherishable of his late works –

The little lives of earth and form,
Of finding food, and keeping warm,
    Are not like ours, and yet
A kinship lingers nonetheless:
We hanker for the homeliness
    Of den, and hole, and set.

And this identity we feel
– Perhaps not right, perhaps not real –
    Will link us constantly;
I see the rock, the clay, the chalk,
The flattened grass, the swaying stalk,
    And it is you I see.

Here are two more, written in February 1979, short, concentrated and almost sweet, the work of a poet whose best works might be behind him (apart from 'Aubade'), but who is still a master craftsman –

New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new books, too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin. 


The daily things we do
For money or for fun
Can disappear like dew
Or harden and live on.
Strange reciprocity:
The circumstance we cause
In time gives rise to us,
Becomes our memory.

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

The Narrowing Ground

 Following on from my last post – it's worth noting that my own university, Cambridge, decided more than a hundred years ago that works published at any date up to the present might be included in the syllabus for what is whimsically called the English Tripos. I don't think there were any immediate ill effects of this bold move (though further down the line there might well have been), and the change was welcomed at the time by the rather improbable Professor of English, Sir Arther Quiller-Couch ('Q'), who wrote: 'I think it is time to hint at least that the Modern and Medieval Languages Board intend to justify by practice what they meant when, in framing the separate English Tripos, they so far ignored academic tradition and dared the rage of schoolmasters – which, like that of sheep, is terrible – as to open the study of English down to our own times, declining to allow that any past date could be settled, even by university statute, as the one upon which English literature took to its bed, and expired, and was beatified.' 
 Well, in his day there were no signs that English literature might have taken to its bed and expired, but can we be so sure today? With the publishing industry monolithically 'woke' and a vast range of subject matter, language and attitudes effectively outlawed, what are the chances of literary fiction good enough to become classic ever getting published? Time and again, reading classic (or at least excellent) novels from the twentieth century, the worrying thought crosses my mind: 'Would this get published today?' The answer is very often No: too 'difficult', too unusual, no obvious commercial appeal, too problematic and liable to offend against contemporary pieties – in other words, quite unsafe in every way. Would any publisher today stick with Ivy Compton-Burnett year after year? Would most of Evelyn Waugh's and Kingsley Amis's novels, and a good many of Philip Larkin's poems, get published by any mainstream publisher today? When the permitted ground is as narrow as it is today, English literature could well take to its bed and expire, or at least wither on the vine. It might already have happened in the field of humorous writing: in 2018 the Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for Comic Writing was not awarded at all, so dismally low was the standard of the supposedly humorous works submitted. And this comes as no surprise: wherever genuinely funny writing is happening now, it is not often in book form, or even print; increasingly it is being driven to the fringes of the online world. Real comedy, being more than most forms 'liable to offend', is not likely to find a place in today's po-faced, narrowly restrictive publishing world; nor is fiction that does not conform to the political and emotional correctness that is now de rigueur. This is a sad look-out – but at least we still have the riches of former, freer times to sustain us. For now. 



Sunday, 1 May 2022

'For pleasure and edification, not for points credit'

 In 'Culture High and Dry', the first in a collection of essays and lectures published as The Culture We Deserve, the historian Jacques Barzun laments the loss of a broad-based common culture in which all who were likely to take an interest in such matters could be assumed to have a fairly firm bedrock of knowledge and appreciation of literature and the arts (and history, the subject of a later essay). In an age of increasing specialism and declining educational standards, this bedrock can no longer be taken for granted, and the consequences, as Barzun realised, are potentially dire.
  Barzun reminds us that 'the idea of studying literature, studying past art is extremely recent. Down to the 1850s there were no courses in those subjects; they were not subjects at all. And even after they came in, as a hoped-for antidote to science and political economy, nobody believed that contemporary art and literature should or could be studied.' It was assumed that contemporary artists and writers 'would be read or followed by the public for pleasure and edification, not for points credit'. Those interested would 'undergo at first hand, without pedagogy, the formative impress of the latest phase of culture ... As things stand now, the new is brought on campus and dissected before the body has had time to cool.' All is grist to the academic mill, since the various forms of critical analysis deployed bear less and less relation to the work under dissection, the thing itself and how it is experienced, still less to its quality, a concept long ago devalued and jettisoned. Thus academic discourse drifts loose from its ostensible subject and becomes hermetic, and indeed incomprehensible to all but a few academic specialists.
  This is a sad state of affairs, but also, as Barzun, in his civilised, understated way, notes, downright dangerous. When academic analysis comes adrift from its subject and when increasing numbers of students have no deep roots in or knowledge of a wider culture, criticism lies open to any ideology that cares to ride a coach and horses through it. Barzun published these essays in 1989, when he was already in his 80s. Although he lived to the extraordinary age of 104 (dying in 2012), he was at least spared the sight of Critical Race Theory and 'decolonisation' rampaging through an academe of 'safe spaces' and 'trigger warnings', proving his own, very different warnings all too well founded.  



Friday, 29 April 2022

Cavafy

 Today is the birthday in 1863 (and deathday exactly 70 years later) of the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantin Cavafy.  Above is David Hockney's image of Cavafy in his native city, and below is the poem that clearly inspired one of Leonard Cohen's finest songs, 'Alexandra Leaving' (and was itself in part inspired by Antony and Cleopatra and thereby Plutarch).  

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.





Tyler Welty

 Anne Tyler ('the best line-and-length novelist in the world,' in Nick Hornby's cricket-related assessment) was recently on Desert Island Discs, and was, as you'd expect, one of the more rewarding guests of recent times. In the course of the interview, she recalled that she was inspired to be a writer – or, rather, convinced that she could be one – by reading Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples. Naturally I made a mental note and sought out The Golden Apples online.
  I had previously read one or two short stories by Welty, and her last novel, The Optimist's Daughter, which I greatly enjoyed (but don't seem to have written about here). The Golden Apples is a collection of interlinked short stories published in 1949 and set in the fictional town of Morgana, Mississippi, and, in its portrayal of a small town and its people, it has been likened to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. However, Eudora Welty is emphatically a Southern writer, whose tone and style are very different from Anderson's. As a contemporary review of The Golden Apples put it, 'I doubt that a better book about "the South" – one that more completely gets the feel of the particular texture of Southern life, and its special tone and pattern – has ever been written.' I doubt it too – and, on the strength of what I've read so far, I doubt that there have been many better short story collections published since the war. I have read four of the seven stories so far, and two of them – 'June Recital' and 'Moon Lake' – I would describe as masterpieces. I believe a third might be waiting for me when I resume reading (I'm pausing to digest – Welty is rich fare) – 'The Wanderers', which was Welty's own favourite of all her stories.
  I'm sure my American readers will know all about Welty, but she is relatively unknown over here, and I'm glad to have finally discovered her, or rather to have discovered just how good she could be. All thanks to Anne Tyler – who, I was interested to discover, has also told interviewers that it was another Eudora Welty collection, The Wide Net (1943), that awakened her, when she was a 14-year-old girl browsing in the public library: it 'showed her that very small things are often really larger than large things'. Tyler continued to admire Welty, and the admiration was mutual: Eudora Welty said of the last sentence of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (Tyler's masterpiece), 'If I had written that sentence, I'd be happy all my life!' For the record, that sentence is 'And high above, he seemed to recall, there had been a little brown airplane, almost motionless, droning through the sunshine like a bumblebee.' 

Sunday, 24 April 2022

Green

 Events and sheer busyness have somewhat disturbed the wonted tenor of my butterfly year, but this sunny morning I grabbed the opportunity to pay a quick visit to a favourite patch of Surrey (suburban) downland. As ever, there were Brimstones wherever the eye turned, many of them on this occasion engaged in sparring or courtship (which, for one pair, involved a remarkable display of flying backwards). Plenty of Speckled Woods too, and a few Orange Tips (they seem to be doing better in Mercian parts than down South this year), a couple of Peacocks, and lots of very blue Holly Blues... I was hoping to achieve the great spring hat trick of Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper and Green Hairstreak. In the event, however, only the last of these was in evidence this morning – but the little green beauties were flying in greater numbers than I can recall seeing there or anywhere else before (all the Hairstreaks seem to be doing well, which is great news for a Hairstreak obsessive like me). And they were lively today, with much high-speed chasing and aerial scrapping going on. It was a joy to see them, as ever – a welcome foretaste, I hope, of a fine butterfly year to come. 

'Whose Name Was Writ...'

Born on this day in 1904 (in Rotterdam) was the painter Willem de Kooning, one of the giants of Abstract Expressionism. Much of the work of his supposed prime I don't care for – too violent and ugly (hence, perhaps, the sky-high prices he commanded – see also Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud: ugliness pays). However, I love some of his later works, which engage more with natural forms and the possibilities of colour and – hurrah – beauty. Above is one that caught my eye in the big Abstract Expressionist show in London a few years back. Like all such painterly paintings, it needs to be seen in the original. The title is Whose Name Was Writ in Water, clearly a reference to the epitaph on John Keats's grave in the Cemitero Acattolico in Rome: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'. De Kooning was in his 80s when he painted this one, and no doubt thinking of his death and posthumous reputation (which in the event has held up well, though not, of course, as well as Keats's). However, Whose Name Was Writ in Water was not De Kooning's last painting. That was, it seems, this one, untitled like so many of his works, and to my eye one of the best. It was put up for auction, some 25 years after it was painted, by Grace Tafe, the carer who looked after the artist devotedly through the last eight years of his life.  


Saturday, 23 April 2022

A Treasury

 I've been browsing in The Macmillan Treasury of Poetry for Children (1997), a large illustrated volume that Mrs N spotted in one of Lichfield's remarkably well stocked charity bookshops (I hope their trade is not going to be affected by the impending opening of a new Waterstones). The Macmillan Treasury has a foreword by Charles Causley, who begins by approvingly quoting W.H. Auden (writing about Walter de la Mare): 'It must never be forgotten that, while there are some good poems which are only for adults, because they presuppose adult experience in their readers, there are no good poems which are only for children.' Causley's experience as a schoolteacher taught him that 'given a little trust and encouragement, children are as capable of interpreting the signs and signals, the secret messages of poetry, as adults are venturesome enough to make available to them.' 
  The poems in this capacious volume (getting on for 400 pages) were selected not by Causley but by one Susie Gibbs, about whom no information is given – which seems a little unfair, as the poetry is very well chosen.  The anthology is divided into categories, beginning with 'Wild and Free', ending with 'Good Night', and in between such headings as 'Pets and Friends', 'Ballads and Stories', 'Hopes and Dreams', 'Stuff and Nonsense' and 'Love and Friendship'. There is much of what you'd expect to find in an anthology of this kind, but also much that is unexpected – some of it (in line with the Causley/Auden philosophy) quite challenging and 'adult'. The classic poets, as well as the moderns, are well represented,  and there are plenty of poems I had never come across before. This surprising entry, a cautionary verse of sorts, is by A.E. Housman, whose approach to the death of 'lads' is usually rather more elegiac –


The African Lion

To meet a bad lad on the African waste
  Is a thing that a lion enjoys;
But he rightly and strongly objects to the taste
  Of good and uneatable boys.

When he bites off a piece of a boy of that sort
  He spits it right out of his mouth,
And retires with a loud and dissatisfied snort
  To the east, or the west, or the south.

So lads of good habits, on coming across
  A lion, need feel no alarm
For they know they are sure to escape with the loss
  Of a leg, or a head, or an arm.

I was glad to find this one too, a tender little poem by Elizabeth Jennings – 

The Riding School

We are at grass now, and the emerald meadow
Highlights our polished coats. All afternoon
You trotted, cantered us. How mild we were,
Our bodies were at one 
With yours. Now we are cropping at the shadow
We throw. We scarcely stir.

You never saw us wild or being broken
In. We tossed our saddles off and ran
With streaming manes. Like Pegasus almost
We scorned the air. A man
Took long to tame us. Let your words be spoken
Gently. You own the freedom we have lost.

  It is interesting to compare this anthology with the one I grew up with, The Golden Staircase, about which I have written before. Much is different, but there is a gratifying continuity, and much of the best has carried over to this more recent anthology. Any poetry-loving child growing up with the Macmillan Treasury should count themselves lucky: it is a treasury indeed. The illustrations (by Diz Wallis) are good too. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

The Road to Lichfield

 This is the view from the bedroom window of our Lichfield flat, finally ours after seven tortuous months. Now to find a house... Oh, and sell the one down South in the suburban demiparadise. Life will continue complicated for some while, I fear, but we are, as they say, getting there.
And this morning in a charity bookshop I spotted a novel by Penelope Lively called The Road to Lichfield. I think I'd better nip back and buy it.

Monday, 18 April 2022

After Easter

On Easter Monday, there's only one poem that will do –
Kay Ryan's wonderful The Palm at the End of the Mind

After fulfilling everything
one two three he came back again
free, no more prophecy requiring
that he enter the city just this way,
no more set-up treacheries.
It was the day after Easter. He adored
the eggshell litter and the cellophane
caught in the grass. Each door he passed
swung with its own business, all the
witnesses along his route of pain
again distracted by fear of loss
or hope of gain. It was wonderful
to be a man, bewildered by
so many flowers, the rush
and ebb of hours, his own
ambiguous gestures – his
whole heart exposed, then
taking cover.

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Happy Easter

 A very happy Easter to all who graze here.
(This is Titian's Noli Me Tangere, one of the treasures of the National Gallery.)

Saturday, 16 April 2022

'Between the Gardening and the Cookery...'

 A notable anniversary today – the centenary of the birth of Kingsley Amis, born on this day in 1922 to William Amis, a clerk at the Colman's mustard factory, and Rosa née Lucas, whose father was a keen book collector. Young Kingsley hoped to inherit his library, but in the end got only five volumes, and that on condition he wrote on the flyleaf of each 'From his grandfather's collection'. 
  When Kingsley in due course went up to Oxford, it was the beginning of a famous, lifelong friendship with Philip Larkin – a relationship into which, typically, Amis put a good deal less effort than Larkin. Of the books that Amis published in the course of a long, highly productive career – he was nothing if not hard-working and versatile – his first novel, Lucky Jim, could fairly be called an instant classic, and is still his best-known book. Having read most of his novels (avoiding only the genre stuff), then reread some of them, I can only say that Amis endures as a brilliant wielder of prose and, at his best, one of the few genuinely funny comic writers. My favourites among the novels are The Green Man, That Uncertain Feeling, the very dark Ending Up, and of course Lucky Jim. However, it's a long while since I read Girl, 20 and other mid-period works, so that might change. Not that it matters – every Amis fan will have his own list.   
  At Oxford and for some while after, Amis was the poet and Larkin the novelist, with Jill and the wonderful A Girl in Winter to his name. However, Larkin's novelistic inspiration faltered, while Amis found his, and became a novelist first and foremost, with poetry among the many other strings to his bow. Here is a rather fine example of what Kingsley Amis could do as a poet. Yes, it sounds a lot like Larkin – but what's wrong with that?

Something Nasty in the Bookshop

Between the Gardening and the Cookery
Comes the brief Poetry shelf;
By the Nonesuch Donne, a thin anthology
Offers itself.

Critical, and with nothing else to do,
I scan the Contents page,
Relieved to find the names are mostly new;
No one my age.

Like all strangers, they divide by sex:
Landscape Near Parma
Interests a man, so does The Double Vortex,
So does Rilke and Buddha.

“I travel, you see”, “I think” and “I can read'
These titles seem to say;
But I Remember You, Love is my Creed,
Poem for J.,

The ladies’ choice, discountenance my patter
For several seconds;
From somewhere in this (as in any) matter
A moral beckons.

Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart
Or squash it flat?
Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;
Girls aren’t like that.

We men have got love well weighed up; our stuff
Can get by without it.
Women don’t seem to think that’s good enough;
They write about it.

And the awful way their poems lay them open
Just doesn’t strike them.
Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we like them.

Deciding this, we can forget those times
We stayed up half the night
Chock-full of love, crammed with bright thoughts, names, rhymes,
And couldn’t write.




Thursday, 14 April 2022

Maundy Thursday

 A painting for Maundy Thursday – Tintoretto's magnificent Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples, which can be seen in the National Gallery, though it should really be in the church of San Trovaso in Venice, where it hung opposite the Tintoretto Last Supper (which is still there, with a copy of Christ Washing the Feet opposite). An English collector bought Christ Washing the Feet in the 1790s, and it found its way to the National Gallery via the Duke of Hamilton's collection. The washing of the feet, Christ's resoundingly eloquent gesture of humility and service, was a favourite subject of Tintoretto's.
  Incidentally, I hope that when (if?) Charles ascends the throne he revives the excellent tradition (defunct since James II) of the pedilavium, in which the monarch washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday. 

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

The Perils of Interpretation

 I see that Manet's A Bar at the Folies Bergères, one of the great French paintings of the 19th century, has been relabelled as part of the Courtauld Gallery's £57 million 'refurbishment', one of the aims of which is to draw the hapless gallery visitor's attention to 'issues such as racism and sexism in artists' works' – how refreshingly original and unexpected... A propos Manet's masterpiece, we are now informed that the barmaid's 'enigmatic expression is unsettling' – fair enough so far: there is much that is unsettling about this painting, in fact practically everything –  but then comes the clincher: 'especially as she appears to be interacting with a male customer'. Imagine – a barmaid at the Folies Bergères interacting with a male customer! What an unsettling experience that would be – 'Lawks, a man! What's a poor girl to do?'  In fact it's debatable if she is interacting at all with the mysterious, out-of-proportion man at the right-hand edge of the painting – as I mentioned the last time I wrote about A Bar (on Manet Day this year), there are other ways of reading the picture – and if she is, if that man is indeed fixing her with his 'male gaze', there is nothing the least menacing or lecherous about his expression, which is of a piece with the air of melancholy and mystery that pervades the painting. 
  Amusingly, the Courtauld's would-be woke interpretation has itself been attacked for 'misogyny'. Art historian Ruth Millington points out that 'It completely shifts the viewer's attention away from her and on to the man in the picture. This interpretation, in a woke attempt to call out misogyny, unwittingly centres the male gaze. The writer implies that the woman is unsettled by the man's presence, framing her as a passive victim of her circumstances ... In a painting of multiple gazes, it's unfair and misogynistic to emphasise the male perspective.' True enough, especially of a painting so entirely dominated by an enigmatic female gaze – that of the model looking back at the artist and, unsettlingly, at us.  (You can read more of this story in the Telegraph, but online it's hidden behind a paywall.)
  I guess it's a good thing the Courtauld doesn't possess Manet's far more questionable Olympia – 

Or, come to that, Felix Vallotton's La Blanche at La  Noire

 

Monday, 11 April 2022

Joyous and Wonderful

 This is a shameless steal from Bel Mooney, who put it up on Facebook today – but it is such a joyous and wonderful thing I felt I had to share it here. Vivaldi as you never heard or saw it before. Follow the link (I hope it works) and prepare to be amazed and delighted...

https://www.facebook.com/dbstrings/videos/415983300329987

Saturday, 9 April 2022

'Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb...'

 Edward Thomas died on this day in 1917, killed by a shell on Vimy ridge. It was a sad loss to English poetry, an unbearable loss to his family, and a particular loss to his fellow poet Robert Frost, who enjoyed an intense friendship with Thomas and inspired him – previously a prose writer only – to write poetry, with wonderful results. 
Three years after Thomas's death, Frost wrote this poem, To E.T.

I slumbered with your poems on my breast 
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through 
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb 
To see, if in a dream they brought of you, 

I might not have the chance I missed in life 
Through some delay, and call you to your face 
First soldier, and then poet, and then both, 
Who died a soldier-poet of your race. 

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain 
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained— 
And one thing more that was not then to say: 
The Victory for what it lost and gained. 

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire 
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day 
The war seemed over more for you than me, 
But now for me than you—the other way. 

How over, though, for even me who knew 
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine, 
If I was not to speak of it to you 
And see you pleased once more with words of mine? 

'Better than any music'

 Still mired in domestic and family-related busyness (and with a book to review), I find myself with little or no time or mental capacity to do anything much in the way of blogging. 
Here, for the time being, is a quotation culled from that productive lode The Frank Muir Book: An Irreverent Companion to Social History. It's Walter Savage Landon deploring the song lyrics of his time – 

'Why "words for music" are almost invariably trash now, though the words of Elizabethan songs are better than any music, is a gloomy and difficult question.'

Indeed it is – and, having spent far too long suffering the 'music' soundtrack in hotel lobbies, bars and cafés lately, I can confirm that things are no better now. 'Words for music' nowadays seem to consist of a stream of vacuous whining and wheedling that fits the songs all too well. 
  

Sunday, 3 April 2022

Nothing's Impossible

 I happened on this poem while browsing the other night in Thom Gunn's Poems 1950-1966. It's a brave poet who grapples with that slipperiest of notions, that great impossibility – Nothing. But Gunn is nothing if not a brave poet – and a technically resourceful one, here deploying terza rima to carry his theme forward. To be annihilated, Nothing must first exist, but can it exist without bounds of space or time? And if such bounds are there – to say nothing of the observer/poet – Nothing is no longer nothing. It must embrace everything: all or Nothing are perhaps the same thing. Gunn initially treats Nothing as an entity, something existent, defined by absence – 'a huge contagious absence' – something belonging to the timeless, unbounded world of sleep and dreams. Elsewhere, outside the realm of mathematics with its useful zero, Nothing is surely impossible. Or is it? I suspect I'm waffling – here's the poem, and very fine it is –

The Annihilation of Nothing

Nothing remained: Nothing, the wanton name
That nightly I rehearsed till led away
To a dark sleep, or sleep that held one dream.

In this a huge contagious absence lay,
More space than space, over the cloud and slime,
Defined but by the encroachments of its sway.

Stripped to indifference at the turns of time,
Whose end I knew, I woke without desire,
And welcomed zero as a paradigm.

But now it breaks—images burst with fire
Into the quiet sphere where I have bided,
Showing the landscape holding yet entire:

The power that I envisaged, that presided
Ultimate in its abstract devastations,
Is merely change, the atoms it divided

Complete, in ignorance, new combinations.
Only an infinite finitude I see
In those peculiar lovely variations.

It is despair that nothing cannot be
Flares in the mind and leaves a smoky mark
Of dread.
               Look upward. Neither firm nor free,

Purposeless matter hovers in the dark.


As with many of Gunn's poems, the memory of his mother's suicide (when Thom was a teenager) surely looms in the background here. Wikipedia notes that Gunn's 'best poems were said to have a compact philosophical elegance'. Quite so. 

Saturday, 2 April 2022

With Childe?

 The weather may be more wintry than vernal, but April is under way. And here is the strangest April painting I've come across – April (The Green Gown) by the American painter (Frederick) Childe Hassam. Nothing in this domestic interior indicates a particular time of year, apart from the slightly overblown tulips in a bowl on the floor. The mood is overwhelmingly melancholy, and the painting looks like something executed by a follower of Whistler in the 1890s or thereabouts, when Japonisme was all the rage. It was painted, however, in 1920, and, curiously, the picture was originally titled April 1859 (when such an interior would have been unheard-of). Some have taken it to be an imaginary portrait of the artist's mother, Rosa Hawthorne Hassam (a kinswoman of Nathaniel Hawthorne) – and in April 1859 she would have been three months pregnant with Frederick Childe. The placing of the hands lends plausibility to this theory, and the melancholy air is perhaps compounded of the languor and anxiety of early pregnancy, mingled with the solemn mystery of a new life coming into being. It seems a strange subject for a man in his sixties, at the peak of his success, to paint – or was he turning away from all that to look inward, to look back over his life, even to the time before it began, and wondering...?
  Childe Hassam, as he styled himself, is a little known figure on this side of the pond, but he had a very successful and prolific career in America, where he played a leading role in popularising European impressionism. With the rise of modernism and abstraction, he fell out of fashion, but his star rose again with the revival of interest in impressionism in the 1960s and after. One of his 'flag paintings', The Avenue in the Rain (below),  is in the White House permanent collection, and Barack Obama hung it in the Oval Office. April (The Green Gown) hangs in the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston.

Friday, 1 April 2022

Birthday Boy Busoni

 Yesterday was the big day for musical birthdays – Haydn (born 1732) and Bach (1685) – but today comes the birthday of Ferruccio Busoni (born on this day in 1866), composer and pianist. Most would rate him one of the greatest pianists who ever played, but of course he lived and died before gramophone recording had achieved anything like high fidelity. Happily some recordings he made on the extraordinary Duo-Art recording piano have survived – I've written about these before – but here he is on shellac, recorded in 1922, playing Bach: first the C major Prelude that Valentin Silvestrov was playing the other day, then Busoni's own transcription of the Chorale 'Nun Freut Euch', the last section of which (after the 4-minute mark) he takes at dizzying speed. Beneath all the crackle and hiss, I think it's still possible to detect pianistic magic...



Thursday, 31 March 2022

Slim Volumes

 My preference for short books over long ones will be well known to regular readers of this blog. Here I am ten years ago arguing that the future surely belongs to shorter, smaller books. Of course this was more wishful thinking than prognostication, but it must be said that the range of well produced short books available is ever increasing – and I am glad of it. At present, extreme busyness (most of it family- and house-related) and much travelling to and fro by train, to say nothing of the urgent need to thin my overcrowded shelves, means that my reading is largely limited to short and easily portable volumes, and I am always on the look-out for more as I browse the charity shop shelves.
 The other day I picked up Him with His Foot in His Mouth, a Saul Bellow long-short story that I reread with pleasure. I always find Bellow enjoyable company, though I do wonder now if his larger, baggier novels are quite as wonderful as we thought they were when we first read them (of Seize the Day I have no doubts – surely a genuine classic, as is perhaps Mr Sammler's Planet). The Him with His Foot volume that I picked up is one of Penguin's series of well chosen offprints from its Modern Classics list, the Mini Modern Classics, one of several such series drawn from Penguin's enormous list. A complete collection of these miniature Penguins would amount to a microcosm of much of western literature, a whole library reduced to a few feet of shelving. 
  Also very recently, I came across Chekhov's long short story/novella, The Story of a Nobody (also known as An Anonymous Story and The Story of an Unknown Man), in a notably well produced slim volume published by Hesperus Press of London (motto and mission statement 'Et remotissima prope'), a company devoted to republishing neglected shorter fiction – generally 100 pages or less – by English and foreign-language writers. I shall be looking out for more from its list. Meanwhile, the 90-odd pages of The Story of a Nobody – Chekhov's only story set in St Petersburg – will keep me going a surprisingly long time, such is life at present. 
  Incidentally, my hero and role model Alfred E. Neuman makes an appearance in Him with His Foot in His Mouth, as he does in Kingsley Amis's One Fat Englishman. Bellow's narrator describes the friend of his youth (and enemy of his old age) Eddie Wallish as typically grinning 'like Alfred E. Neuman from the cover of Mad magazine, the successor to Peck's Bad Boy'. Peck's Bad Boy, I learn, was a popular fictional character created in the 1880s by one George Wilbur Peck. A mischievous prankster, he was described as a 'vicious little swaggerer' and 'no more than a callous brute' – so really not at all like the amiable Alfred E. 

Thursday, 24 March 2022

Two Orchard Poems

 According to the National Trust (and they're right), apple orchards have been disappearing over the past century and more at an alarming rate. Radio 3 was playing a lot of orchard-related music this morning in response. So here are a couple of orchard poems – both American, both very fine, one a classic...

After Apple-Picking
by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

And a more recent one –

The Apple Orchard
by Dana Gioia

You won’t remember it—the apple orchard
We wandered through one April afternoon,
Climbing the hill behind the empty farm.

A city boy, I’d never seen a grove
Burst in full flower or breathed the bittersweet
Perfume of blossoms mingled with the dust.

A quarter mile of trees in fragrant rows
Arching above us. We walked the aisle,
Alone in spring’s ephemeral cathedral.

We had the luck, if you can call it that,
Of having been in love but never lovers—
The bright flame burning, fed by pure desire.

Nothing consumed, such secrets brought to light!
There was a moment when I stood behind you,
Reached out to spin you toward me . . . but I stopped.

What more could I have wanted from that day?
Everything, of course. Perhaps that was the point—
To learn that what we will not grasp is lost.