Sunday 30 April 2023

'Plying with speed my partnership of knees'

 On this day in 1936 – 14 years after the publication of his Last Poems – A.E. Housman died in Cambridge at the age of 77. He was a reluctant poet, who seldom felt the urge to write verse, and that usually when he was feeling ill or depressed (it shows). Great poet though he was at his best, he regarded his poetry as a 'morbid secretion', akin to that which produces the pearl in an oyster, and he viewed his poems as being far less important and valuable than his contributions to classical studies. 
It would be easy to mark his death with one of his many death-haunted poems, some of which come close to Hugh Kingsmill's parody (the one beginning 'What! Still alive at twenty-two, A clean, upstanding chap like you?'). However, the elegiac was not the only tone that Housman could strike, and one atypical product of his that I've always cherished is this 'Fragment of a Greek Tragedy', a genuinely funny parody of Aeschylus and of the many bad translations thereof. The original version (below) was written for The Bromsgrovian, the magazine of Bromsgrove School, where Housman studied and, for a brief period after his Oxford humiliation (failing his Finals in Greats), taught. Clearly he sympathised with the struggles of his hapless pupils caught in the toils of Aeschylean translation...

[Alcmaeon and Chorus]

    Cho. O gracefully-enveloped-in-a-cloak
    Head of a stranger, wherefore, seeking what,
    Whence, by what way, how purposed are you come
    To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
    My cause of asking is, I wish to know.
    But if perchance, from being deaf and dumb,
    You cannot understand a word I say,
    Then wave your hand, to signify as much.
    Alc. I journeyed hither on Ambracian road.
    Cho. Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?
    Alc. Plying with speed my partnership of knees.
    Cho. Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
    Alc. Mud's sister, not himself, adorns my legs.
    Cho. Your name I not unwillingly would learn.
    Alc. Not all that men desire do they obtain.
    Cho. Might I then know at what your presence aims?
    Alc. A shepherd's questioned tongue informed me that -
    Cho. What? for I know not yet what you will say.
    Alc. - this house was Eriphyle's, no one's else.
    Cho. Nor did he shame his throat with hateful lies.
    Alc. Might I then enter, going through the door?
    Cho. Go; drag into the house a lucky foot;
    And, O my son, be on the one hand good,
    And do not on the other hand be bad.
    And then thou wilt be like the man who speaks,
    And not unlike thine interlocutor.
    Alc. I go into the house with legs and speed.



      In speculation
      I would not willingly acquire a name
      For ill-digested thought;
      But, after pondering much,
      To this conclusion I at last have come:
      Life is uncertain.
      This I have written deep
      In my reflective midriff,
      On tablets not of wax.
      Nor with a stylus did I write it there,
      For obvious reasons: Life, I say, is not
      Divested of uncertainty.
      Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls
      This truth did I discover,
      Nor did the Delphian tripod bark it out,
      Nor yet Dodona.
      Its native ingenuity sufficed
      My self-taught diaphragm.


    Why should I mention
    The Inachian daughter, loved of Zeus,
    Her whom of old the gods,
    More provident than kind,
    Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,
    A gift not asked for:
    And sent her forth to learn
    The unaccustomed science
    Of how to chew the cud?
    She, therefore, all about the Argive fields,
    Went cropping pale green grass and nettle tops,
    Nor did they disagree with her;
    But yet, however wholesome, such repasts,
    Myself, I deem unpleasant.
    Never may Cypris for her seat select
    My dappled liver!
    Why should I mention Io? I repeat.
    I have no notion why.


      Why does my boding heart
      Unhired, unaccompanied, sing
      A most displeasing tune?
      Nay even the palace appears
      To my yoke of circular eyes,
      The right one as well as the left,
      Like a slaughter-house, so to speak,
      Garnished with woolly deaths
      And many shipwrecks of cows.
      I, therefore, in a Cissian strain lament, And with the rapid,
      Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest
      Resounds in concert
      The battering of my unlucky head.

    Eriphyle (within) Oh, I am smitten with a hatchet's jaw!
    In deed, I mean, and not in word alone.
    Cho. Methinks I heard a sound within the house
    Unlike the accent of festivity.
    Erip. He cracks my skull, not in a friendly way:
    It seems he purposes to kill me dead.
    Cho. I would not be considered rash, but yet
    I doubt if all is well within the house.
    Erip. Oh, oh, another blow! this makes the third:
    He stabs my heart, a harsh unkindly act.
    Cho. Indeed, if that be so, ill-fated one,
    I fear we scarce can hope thou wilt survive.

Friday 28 April 2023

A Man's Gotta Do...

 I was thinking recently, as I browsed the shelves of my favourite charity bookshop, that it's about time I read a man's book. Anyone who follows this blog must have noticed that, in the field of fiction at least, women are notably over-represented in my reading, with all those Ivys and Muriels and Willas and Penelopes and Shirleys and Barbaras. I make no apology for this: I think many of the best English and American novels of the 20th century were written by women, many of whom are still underrated. Of course I do quite often read novels by men, but do I read anything much written for men? Do I read anything written in genres that are themselves aimed at men? Well, in recent times I've read and hugely admired two novels that would have to be classed as westerns – Charles Portis's True Grit and John Williams's Butcher's Crossing, but both of these I think transcend their genre; I would class them as classic novels that happen to be westerns. I also greatly enjoyed Donald E. Westlake's The Comedy Is Finished, which I guess could be classed as a thriller, and is certainly a 'man's book'... Maybe it was time to just go ahead and read another, maybe even a western? Sure enough, as I thought these thoughts, the solution practically leapt off the shelf into my hand – a classic western, Elmore Leonard's Hombre, in a paperback edition with a cover unambiguously decorated with the image of a Colt 45 (or something similar). 'Come on,' it seemed to say, 'if you think you're hard enough...'
  As I'm still in a somewhat depleted condition thanks to this annoyingly persistent bug, Hombre has been the kind of undemanding reading I needed. It's a plain tale, plainly told, but artfully framed as the true account of one Carl Everett Allen, who saw it all with his own eyes, and was persuaded to write it down as best he could. In a disarming prologue, he writes that 'I was advised to imagine I was telling it to a good friend and not worry about what other people might think. Which is what I have done. If there's anything anybody wants to skip, like innermost thoughts in places, just go ahead.' Well, there's not much need for  skipping: Henry James it ain't. Carl is a young man, rather naive and much of the time as ignorant as we are of what's going on, so his telling of the story enacts a process of discovery in which he is alongside the reader. This works well, and keeps the reader hooked to the unfolding story, which is probably one that most people are already vaguely aware of – even I was, I think from faint memories of the 1967 Martin Ritt movie. It begins as a stagecoach tale, that classic set-up, as used in the 1939 film that made John Wayne a star (and, come to that, as in the haunting final section of the Coen Brothers' Ballad of Buster Scruggs) – strangers, or near strangers, who, from various motivations, end up together, making what becomes a perilous journey in a stagecoach, or rather a mud wagon that's been commandeered as a substitute. And one figure dominates all, the enigmatic Apache-reared outsider known as 'Hombre' (memorably Paul Newman in the film). When the party find themselves in mortal danger, will Hombre go his own way and save his own life, or rescue the people who have, in their different ways, treated him as an outcast? 
  As narrative is generally not the thing I read a novel for, Hombre has not yielded the deeper satisfactions of fiction, but I didn't expect it to, so I'm not complaining. Though I'm really no judge, it strikes me as a very good, maybe a classic, western, and I've enjoyed reading it. At the very least, it's made a refreshing change from all those Ivys and Muriels and the rest...

Wednesday 26 April 2023

And Peter Porter

It's been good to see so many affectionate and admiring obituaries for Barry Humphries, who surely deserved them all. Many make reference to the generation of talented young Australians who headed for our shores in the Fifties and Sixties: Clive James, Robert Hughes and Germaine Greer are always mentioned, but rarely if ever the poet Peter Porter (about whom I have written many times on this blog). So this would be a good time to resume my one-man crusade to keep the name of this fine, abundantly talented poet alive. It also happens to be Wittgenstein's birthday (born on the same day in 1889 as Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, fact fans), so I'll share this one, in which Wittgenstein, nearing his death, reads himself to sleep, and dreams. The first stanza is obscure, especially the third and fourth lines, but press on through and the poem yields its rewards. The six six-line stanzas are, as gradually becomes apparent, in the palindromic rhyme scheme ABCCBA, the same as Browning's 'Meeting at Night'...  

Wittgenstein's Dream

I had taken my boat out on the fiord,
I get so dreadfully morose at five, 
I went in and put Nature on my hatstand
And considered the Sinking of the Eveninglands
And laughed at what translation may contrive
And worked at mathematics and was bored.

There was fire above the sun in its descent,
There were letters there whose words seemed scarcely cooked,
There was speech and decency and utter terror,
In twice four hundred pages just one error
In everything I ever wrote – I looked
In meaning for whatever wasn't meant.

Some amateur was killing Schubert dead,
Some of the pains the English force on me,
Somewhere with cow-bells Austria exists,
But then I saw the gods pin up their lists
But was not on them – we live stupidly
But are redeemed by what cannot be said.

Perhaps a language has been made which works,
Perhaps it's tension in the cinema,
Perhaps 'perhaps' is an inventive word,
A sort of self-intended thing, a bird,
A problem for an architect, a star,
A plan to save Vienna from the Turks.

After dinner I read myself to sleep,
After which I dreamt the Eastern front
After an exchange of Howitzers,
The angel of death was taking what was hers,
The finger missed me but the guns still grunt
The syntax of the real, the rules they keep.

And then I woke in my own corner bed
And turned away and cried into the wall
And cursed the world which Mozart had to leave.
I heard a voice which told me not to grieve,
I heard myself, 'Tell them,' I said to all,
'I've had a wonderful life. I'm dead.'

Tuesday 25 April 2023

'Like a language we once knew...'

 Late in the day – too late to write much – I learn that it is the 150th anniversary, a big one, of the birth of the underrated (but often, undeniably, verbose) Walter de la Mare. 
Penelope Fitzgerald wrote that De la Mare 'had a more exact ear than perhaps any other English poet. In his verse every pause, as well as every stress, falls into place like a language we once knew, but have to be reminded of' – and this is true of his verse at its best, which often means its shortest. Two very short poems of his that I particularly cherish are these: 


'What is the world, O soldiers?
       It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
   This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
   Through which we go
       Is I.'

(a perfect evocation of grandiose paranoia), and this chilling little number:

'Ann, Ann!
        Come! Quick as you can!
    There's a fish that talks
        In the frying-pan.
    Out of the fat,
        As clear as glass,
    He put up his mouth
        And moaned 'Alas!'
    Oh, most mournful,
        'Alas, alack!'
    Then turned to his sizzling,
        And sank him back.'

Monday 24 April 2023

'The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more...'

 Last night on BBC4 (the only TV channel that does anything to justify the licence fee), I watched a rather wonderful documentary from 1977 called The Queen's Realm: England. Described as 'an aerial anthology of English landscape, poetry and music', it was directed and produced by Ed Mirzoeff and curated and contributed to by John Betjeman, who is very much the presiding spirit of the film. The aerial footage is impressive, and must have seemed quite cutting-edge at the time. It's all filmed from a helicopter – no drones then – presumably using the then novel Steadicam. Landscape, townscape and seascape, all flow by, all artfully mingled with judiciously chosen music and poetry; the effect is often beautiful and sometimes very moving. The poets featured include, among many others, Shakespeare (the John of Gaunt speech opens the film), Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hardy, Hopkins, Clare, Housman, Auden, Larkin and, of course, Betjeman – all immaculately read, by Michael Hordern and Richard Pasco, Prunella Scales and Junet Suzman, and, of course, old Betj himself. 
  What was most striking about the film was that – leaving aside some unchanging and unchangeable landscapes – it was showing us a lost land, a country so very different from the one we now live in, despite the relatively short distance in time. It was a country where factory chimneys still belched smoke, and industrial buildings from earlier times were still in use, where a building's purpose could be read from its appearance – no anonymous out-of-town hangars then – where fields still grew and harvested crops rather than solar panels and wind turbines. It was still a country, clearly, that made things, and one where people did recognisable jobs with simple names and clear purposes, unlike our increasingly abstract present, where so much that was solid has melted into air – a world in which, if you ask someone what their job is, chances are you won't understand the answer (if indeed it means anything). This was a world before computers in every home and office, before mobiles phones, before even the Sony Walkman. It was decidedly a more human world, and a simpler one, more innocent perhaps. I found myself mourning it, and wishing undone so much of what has happened since – even the internet itself, which might well prove to be the most destructive invention ever unleashed by mankind on itself. And yet I love it, and would, I fear, be lost without it. Damn it, if it wasn't for the internet I wouldn't be here, i.e. writing on this blog, which in turn wouldn't be here. This is all getting too vertiginous...
  Oh yes. One of the poets featured, whose work I didn't recognise and had to identify via Google (yes, that internet again) turned out to be Laurence Binyon, about whom I have written before, here and here. This was the passage featured in The Queen's Realm – it's the first stanza of a longer (too long) poem called 'The Burning of the Leaves':

'Now is the time for the burning of the leaves.
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into a weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

The last hollyhock's fallen tower is dust;
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before:
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there;
Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.'

The Queen's Realm is available on the BBC iPlayer, for how long I don't know.  

Sunday 23 April 2023

Alarm? What alarm?

 I was not looking forward at all to receiving the 3pm alarm that was supposed to be going out from somewhere within The Government to every smartphone in the land, so I was relieved when the hour came and nothing happened, no message, no sound, not on my phone nor on Mrs N's.
Call me an anarcho-libertarian but my heart does not warm to the thought that any government has the power to send anything to every smartphone in the nation – and now it seems they can't, even after months of preparation, planning and prepublicity. This incompetence has its reassuring side, but it was also one of the things that worried me about the original plan. Imagine, for a start, the potential for false alarms, mistimings and (in a geographically limited alarm) alerting the wrong people in the wrong place. Much more worrying are the possibilities of hacking a not fully secure system: imagine what havoc the likes of Just Stop Oil or Extinction Rebellion might wreak if they could muster the brain power (which happily seems most unlikely), imagine what bad actors from, say, China or Russia might do...  Still, early reports suggest that a considerable swathe of the smartphone-owning population failed, like me and Mrs N, to hear a peep from The Government. I hope they now abandon this silly and potentially dangerous experiment. 

Saturday 22 April 2023

Barry Humphries

 Sad to hear that Barry Humphries, that man of many parts (some of them rather revolting), has died. He had achieved a good age (89), but even so, as well as grieving his family and friends, his death subtracts from the gaiety of nations. And we can be absolutely sure that he will have no comic successor: his comedy teetered perilously close to the edge even in the more relaxed climate of his peak decades; it would have plunged straight over the edge of the permissible today. The creation that first brought him to notice in this country, the archetypal 'ocker' Barry Mackenzie (in a strip cartoon in Private Eye, drawn by the excellent Nicholas Garland), was a man of unreconstructed attitudes, to put it very mildly, with an endlessly inventive way with Australian profanities. Humphries was so steeped in the murkier byways of Australian slang that he could effortlessly coin new expressions that fitted perfectly into the lexicon. Indeed, there's surely a potential thesis for someone in identifying Humphries' contributions to the Australian language – it must be vast. Maybe it's already been written...
  While Humphries achieved his comic apotheosis in the rise and rise of Dame Edna Everage, housewife superstar, his love of inventive profanity found new expression in the character of Sir Les Patterson, Australian cultural attaché, whose sole professional remit seemed to be the promotion of Tasmanian Blue cheese, a large portion of which was often secreted hygienically down the front of his trousers. With his hideous leer, stained (with God knows what) suit , bulging belly and florid complexion, he was every bit as appalling as our home-grown grotesque, the long forgotten Frank Randle – but, unlike Frank (who had only catchphrases and a drunk act), he had a wonderfully inventive way with language, managing to plumb depths unknown even to Barry Mackenzie. Some of this is preserved in Sir Les's indispensable (to drunken satyromaniacs abroad) book, The Traveller's Tool (1985). I had a copy, which I lost long ago, but I certainly remember it as being quite hair-raisingly, eye-wateringly filthy, and displaying, shall we say, a less than respectful attitude to the legions of oriental ladies who attended to Sir Les's urgent priapic needs. The Traveller's Tool was never reprinted, and is now only available at an exorbitant price. It hardly needs saying that such a book today would not even have made it over the publisher's threshold, let alone found its way into print. The publisher, by the way, was the perfectly respectable Michael O'Mara, and there was no outcry when the book came out. We recognised what comedy was in those days, i.e. something whose business was only to make you laugh – and The Traveller's Tool certainly did that, turning the initial gasp of horror into genuine laughter by the sheer inventiveness of the language and the utter shamelessness of the leering Sir Les's depravity. 
  Humphries created many other characters too, and the most interesting of them, I think, is the one that was Peter Cook's favourite, Sandy Stone, a decent, quiet man living a solitary, rather sad life in a Melbourne suburb. The polar opposite of Sir Les, Stone was a character Humphries worked on over the years: 'Slowly the character has deepened,' he said in interview in 2016, 'so I began to understand and appreciate him, and finally feel myself turning into him.' Indeed, Humphries began to play him without make-up and wearing his own dressing gown. Clearly he could identify with both Sandy Stone and Sir Les; no doubt (says the amateur psychologist) they represented opposite poles of his divided personality. The complete Sandy Stone soliloquies, published in 1990 as The Life and Death of Sandy Stone, might even prove to be Humphries's most lasting work. 
  And there was more: Humphries was fascinated from boyhood by the Aesthetic movement, and became a major collector of 1890s art and books. Like his friend John Betjeman, he had a particular interest in his near-compatriot, the artist Charles Conder (who is mentioned here), and at one time owned the largest collection of Conder's works in private hands. 
  Like many people of huge talent and strong drive, Humphries kept performing for rather too long after his wit had lost its razor-sharp edge – but what a talent it was, what a wit, and what a man. There will never be another. RIP. 

Thursday 20 April 2023

The Sequel

 I spoke too soon. After granting me three days' grace, the bug returned with a vengeance, hitting me with undiminished force and leaving me, after the fever had passed, with a cough that is worse than ever. Hey ho. At least the enforced leisure has given me time to work on a long cherished side project – a much needed (well, by some of us) index of names and places for The Mother Of Beauty – and I think I have enough of my woozy brain functioning to make a decent job of it. I'm finding the exercise enjoyable, even therapeutic, and will have more to say when it's completed.

  What's more, the weather has picked up a little, with a good deal of sunshine offsetting the bitter East wind (Mr Jarndyce would not be happy*). My spirits have been lifted by seeing a few more butterflies – a pair of bright and lively Holly Blues in a sheltered patch of shrubbery by the Tesco car park (from which one can enjoy a splendid view of the Cathedral), a somnolent Peacock and – always a great moment of any spring – my first Orange Tip. Spring is here, summer will come.

* The reference is to John Jarndyce, owner of Bleak House in the novel of that name, and benevolent guardian of Esther. Whenever he was troubled or anxious, he would blame the East wind. Nabokov called him 'one of the best and kindest human beings ever described in a novel'. 

Tuesday 18 April 2023


 Apologies for the (relative) blog silence; I have been doing nothing. Perhaps I should elaborate on that. Last Thursday evening I was clobbered by a quite dramatic, but mercifully short-lived, 'bug' of some kind, which left me somewhat wiped out (and with a very tiresome cough). At the weekend I took myself off to Derbyshire to spend some recuperative time with my cousin. We practised, as best we could, the ancient Italian art of dolce far niente, exerting ourselves only to cook, eat and attend to the animals. On Sunday, however, we did take a walk on Stanton Moor, a pleasing landscape of heather, gorse and birch, not to mention the Nine Ladies stone circle. The day was bitter cold and the skies leaden – no feeling of spring at all, though the plants were dutifully doing their thing and the more muscular among the bumble bees were managing to take to the air. That evening, tuning in with numb fingers to the Countryfile weather forecast, that indispensable work of speculative fiction, I was amused to discover that Sunday had been the warmest day of the year. Clearly Derbyshire hadn't got the memo.
Anyway, I am better for the rest, though the cough persists, and I hope to be a little more communicative in the days to come.

Sunday 16 April 2023

It's That Book Again

Look what's turned up in the Lichfield Cathedral bookshop...

Actually I donated them, to be sold in aid of cathedral funds.
Hurry hurry, while stocks last!

(Apologies for the dreadful photo: the book in question is The Mother of Beauty by one Nigel Andrew.)

Thursday 13 April 2023

Max on Royalty

 Leafing through Max Beerbohm's Works and More – the volume that contains his brilliant essay 'Dandies and Dandies', which I've mentioned before (here) – I happened upon 'Some Words on Royalty'. With a (faintly improbable) Coronation drawing ever closer, I thought I had better have a look at it. It is the opening essay of More, a collection garnered 'from inilluminable catacombs – to wit, files of the Saturday Review, the Daily Mail, the Outlook, Tomorrow and The Musician'. 'Some Words on Royalty' purports to be an account of the recently published memoirs of Count –––––, who was for years a trusted minister of the late Emperor –––––– of –––––––, until, 'in 188–, he was ousted from favour by the machinations of a jealous and not too scrupulous cabal'. It includes, among other juicy material, an account of how the Emperor, wearying of the daily carriage ride in which he showed himself to his subjects, had a lifelike wax automaton of himself made, programmed to turn to either side and wave in the approved regal manner. This proved entirely convincing, and, when an assassination attempt was made on the automaton, the Emperor was acclaimed far and wide for his absolute composure and sangfroid. 'According to the memoirs, the Emperor himself, in a false beard, was standing near the assassin, and was actually arrested on suspicion, but managed to escape his captors in the mêlée and reached the palace in ample time to bow from the balcony'.
  After briefly wondering whether the wax automaton ruse might usefully be employed by our own royal family, Beerbohm finally delivers what are recognisably 'some words on royalty' – and very sensible they seem to me:
'There are some persons who would fain abolish altogether the institution of royalty. I do not go so far as they. Our royal family is a rather absurd institution, no doubt. But then, humanity itself is rather absurd. A State can never be more than a kindergarten, at best, and he who would fain rule men according to principles of right reason will fare no better than did poor Plato at Syracuse. Put the dream of the doctrinaire into practice, and it will soon turn to some such nightmare as modern France or modern America. Indeed, fallacies and anomalies are the basis of all good government. A Crown, like a Garter, implies no 'damned merit'; else were it void of its impressive magic for most creatures. Strictly, there is no reason why we should worship the House of Hanover more than we worship any other family. Strictly, there was no reason why the Children of Israel should bow down before brazen images. But man is not rational, and the spirit of idolatry is strong in him. And, if you take away his idol, that energy that would otherwise be spent in kowtowing will probably be spent in some less harmless manner. In every free public there is a fund of patriotic emotion which must, somehow, be worked off. I may be insular, but I cannot help thinking it better that this fund should be worked off, as in England, by cheering the members of the royal family, rather than by upsetting the current ministry, as in France.' 

God save the King!

Tuesday 11 April 2023

John Nash: War and Peace

 The painting above, one of the definitive images of the Great War, was painted by John Nash. 'Over the Top' shows the 1st Artists' Rifles in a doomed attack at Marcoing on the 30th December, 1917 – an attack in which Nash himself took part, and of which he was one of only 12 survivors, out of a company of 80. The action was part of a vain attempt to stave off a German counterattack that had already regained most of the land recently taken by the British south of Cambrai. The action at Marcoing was a hasty, ill prepared assault, in broad daylight and without artillery support. 'It was in fact pure murder,' Nash later recalled, 'and I was lucky to escape untouched ... It was bitter cold and we were easy targets against the snow and in daylight ... I think the vivid memory of the occasion helped me when I painted the picture and provoked whatever intensity of feeling may be found in it.' A fellow survivor of the assault described seeing Nash afterwards, 'badly shaken and blackened all over with explosive'. He went on leave soon after, and returned as an official War Artist – which he also was in the Second World War.
  Nash, with the encouragement of his brother Paul – who was to become the more successful and fashionable of the two – had decided to become an artist without going through the usual formal training. He was already having some success when he enlisted as a private in the Artists' Rifles in September, 1916 (by which time, according to Nash, there were no other artists serving in the regiment). The first picture he painted that did not take the war as its subject was 'The Cornfield' (1918) – and that became as potent an image of the English pastoral as 'Over the Top' was of the horror of trench warfare. 
   John Nash was born on this day in 1893.

Sunday 9 April 2023

Easter Sunday

 Wishing a very happy Easter to all who browse here. 
The image above is Fra Angelico's Noli Me Tangere, painted around 1440.

Saturday 8 April 2023

Music, Thoughts, Butterflies

 This spine-tingling piece by the Venetian composer Antonio Lotti was one of the highlights of the Good Friday liturgy at the cathedral. The choir sang it beautifully, but they're not on YouTube, so here are the excellent Tenebrae...

I had not attended a Good Friday service for some years, and was perhaps unprepared for the sheer emotional power, the horror indeed, of the Crucifixion narrative. I mean, I know the story well enough and have read it many times, but in such surroundings and told to the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, it hit me with such force that I came within an inch of making a spectacle of myself. As a story of human anguish, cruelty and degradation, culminating in desolation as God (apparently) abandons even His loving son, it surely stands as an emblem and embodiment of the most extreme of human suffering, an endless vista of which, a whole vast history, opens up around the terrible image of the man on the cross. What's worse, it occurred to me as I listened to John's account of the events, is that the telling of the story, in a manner determined to pin the blame on the Jews rather than the Romans (a historical nonsense), seems to provide scriptural justification for the centuries of Jew-hatred that culminated in the unspeakable horror of the Shoah. Tragic irony is too weak a phrase. 

Still (he says with a graunching change of gears), I'm happy to report that Good Friday also gifted me my first butterflies of the year – at last! Brimstones galore, plus one Comma and one Tortoiseshell. The butterfly year has begun...

Friday 7 April 2023

Good Friday

 This Rembrandt print from 1653, popularly known as The Three Crosses, is one of the most dramatically expressive even of that artist's prints. Beginning as drypoint and evolving into a mixture of drypoint and etching, it exists in various states (and in various museums), with the chiaroscuro becoming more and more marked through the ten-year period over which Rembrandt worked on it. In the last stage, many of the attendant figures have disappeared into an engulfing darkness out of which the figure of Christ, forsaken but glorious, shines all the brighter.
The image above is from the Boston Museum of Fine Art. 

Thursday 6 April 2023


 Following on from yesterday's post, here's a nice bit of literary synchronicity. Shelving some books today at the house into which we have still not yet moved, Mrs N opened a copy of Talking to the Sun, Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell's wonderful anthology of poems and pictures 'for young people', and it fell open at this – an exuberant 'date poem' (though the date isn't in the title) by James Schuyler: 

I Think

I think
I will write you a letter,
June day. Dear June Fifth,
you’re all in green, so
many kinds and all one
green, tree shadows on
grass blades and grass
blade shadows. The air
fills us with motor
mower sound. The cat
walks up the drive
a dead baby rabbit
in her maw. The sun
is hot, the breeze
is cool. And suddenly
in all the green
the lilacs bloom,
massive and exquisite
in colour and shape
and scent. The roses
are more full of
buds than ever. No
flowers. But soon.
June day, you have
your own perfection:
so green to say
goodbye to. Green,
stick around
a while.

Wednesday 5 April 2023

'The air was soft, the ground still cold...'

 Today, the 5th of April, is one of those days that has a poem ready-made for it, a gift to literary bloggers and almanackers everywhere. The poem is Richard Wilbur's short, perfect '5 April, 1974' –

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law,
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.

There are not many poems that give the full date – day, month, year – as their title: the most famous is surely Auden's ' September 1, 1939', in which the poet sits in a dive on 52nd Street at the end of a 'low dishonest decade' and tries to find it in himself to 'show an affirming flame'. Three centuries before, in a very different America, Anne Bradstreet had a habit of incorporating the dates of her poems in their titles, as in her touching hymn to the joys and pains of motherhood,  'In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659' – 

I had eight birds hatcht in one nest,
Four Cocks were there, and Hens the rest.
I nurst them up with pain and care,
No cost nor labour did I spare
Till at the last they felt their wing,
Mounted the Trees and learned to sing.
Chief of the Brood then took his flight
To Regions far and left me quite.
My mournful chirps I after send
Till he return, or I do end.
Leave not thy nest, thy Dame and Sire,
Fly back and sing amidst this Quire.
My second bird did take her flight
And with her mate flew out of sight.
Southward they both their course did bend,
And Seasons twain they there did spend,
Till after blown by Southern gales
They Norward steer’d with filled sails.
A prettier bird was no where seen,
Along the Beach, among the treen.
I have a third of colour white
On whom I plac’d no small delight,
Coupled with mate loving and true,
Hath also bid her Dame adieu.
And where Aurora first appears,
She now hath percht to spend her years.
One to the Academy flew
To chat among that learned crew.
Ambition moves still in his breast
That he might chant above the rest,
Striving for more than to do well,
That nightingales he might excell.
My fifth, whose down is yet scarce gone,
Is 'mongst the shrubs and bushes flown
And as his wings increase in strength
On higher boughs he’ll perch at length.
My other three still with me nest
Until they’re grown, then as the rest,
Or here or there, they’ll take their flight,
As is ordain’d, so shall they light.
If birds could weep, then would my tears
Let others know what are my fears
Lest this my brood some harm should catch
And be surpris’d for want of watch
Whilst pecking corn and void of care
They fall un’wares in Fowler’s snare;
Or whilst on trees they sit and sing
Some untoward boy at them do fling,
Or whilst allur’d with bell and glass
The net be spread and caught, alas;
Or lest by Lime-twigs they be foil’d;
Or by some greedy hawks be spoil’d.
O would, my young, ye saw my breast
And knew what thoughts there sadly rest.
Great was my pain when I you bred,
Great was my care when I you fed.
Long did I keep you soft and warm
And with my wings kept off all harm.
My cares are more, and fears, than ever,
My throbs such now as 'fore were never.
Alas, my birds, you wisdom want,
Of perils you are ignorant.
Oft times in grass, on trees, in flight,
Sore accidents on you may light.
O to your safety have an eye,
So happy may you live and die.
Mean while, my days in tunes I’ll spend
Till my weak lays with me shall end.
In shady woods I’ll sit and sing
And things that past, to mind I’ll bring.
Once young and pleasant, as are you,
But former toys (no joys) adieu!
My age I will not once lament
But sing, my time so near is spent,
And from the top bough take my flight
Into a country beyond sight
Where old ones instantly grow young
And there with seraphims set song.
No seasons cold, nor storms they see
But spring lasts to eternity.
When each of you shall in your nest
Among your young ones take your rest,
In chirping languages oft them tell
You had a Dame that lov’d you well,
That did what could be done for young
And nurst you up till you were strong
And 'fore she once would let you fly
She shew'd you joy and misery,
Taught what was good, and what was ill,
What would save life, and what would kill.
Thus gone, amongst you I may live,
And dead, yet speak and counsel give.
Farewell, my birds, farewell, adieu,
I happy am, if well with you.

And then there is Wordsworth's justly famous, much anthologised sonnet, 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802' –

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
I note that Wilbur's poem next year achieves its golden jubilee; no doubt it will reappear here. Meanwhile, if any other date-titled poems occur to you, feel free to comment...

Sunday 2 April 2023


                  On an Etching by J.S. Cotman

                   I wept to see the visionary man 

        – Dryden's Virgil

   There is no richness in this scene,
No life to answer his abstracted stare –
And what we take it that these emblems mean
Is but the index of his inward care;

   The summer-house will always stay
About to fall, the river make no sound
As Lethe-like it bears his strength away
And lapses to the darkness underground;

   And poised above the silent flood
The couchant lion waits, a mask of stone,
Impassive by the tree that will not bud,
The spell-bound youth, beleaguered and alone.

   The landscape is an open grave
At which the artist and his subject gaze;
When acid eats the plate, his skills engrave
Wanhope, a mind that falters and decays.

Yesterday I found myself in a bookshop in Chichester – just the kind of cramped, overstocked, mildly eccentric second-hand bookshop that always gives me a little bibliophilic thrill of anticipation. I scanned the poetry shelves – and straight away spotted the first Dick Davis collection I have ever found in a bookshop. Naturally I bought it. It was The Covenant (1984, Anvil Press), and the ekphrastic poem above gives the collection its cover image – A Summer-House on the Banks of the River Ware by J.S. Cotman. Davis's poem, I think, reflects perfectly the mood of the etching, which he encapsulates in the unfamiliar, officially obsolete word 'wanhope', meaning a state of despair in which all hope is lost, and a sense of futility and defeat pervades everything. 
  The Covenant takes its title from the heartbreaker that opens the collection – 

Fräulein X

And it turned out that with her thanks for the poison Fräulein X had still on more request:
would the friend sing Brahms's 'Vier ernste Gesänge' before they parted.

– Diary of Reck-Malleczewen, December 1938

Unseen, preserved beneath dark velvet, lie
Pale water-colours fugitive to light –
Displayed to none but friendship's gentler eye,
The sanctuaries of her sequestered sight –

Views of the Rhine and of the Holy Land, 
Deep vistas of the spirit's need and rest:
Frail on glass shelfs Venetian glasses stand,
The keepsakes of a life secure and blessed.

Now, in this last desire, she redeclares
Old faith in what is hers – Judaic psalms,
The German tongue: that heritage she shares –
Immutably – with Luther and with Brahms:

And though that sheltered world her childhood knew
Is shrunk to a dark room, though in the street
The mob bays hatred to the German Jew,
This covenant survives, beyond defeat.

The quotation is from Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen's posthumously published Diary of a Man in Despair, his journal of life under the Nazi regime. He died in Dachau.
Brahms's 'Vier ernste Gesänge' (four serious songs) is a late, death-haunted song cycle setting words from the Luther Bible.