Monday, September 30, 2013

A so-called Christmas story from Charles Dickens, out of season, replete with animal food

The Charles Dickens pieces collected as Christmas Stories (1871) have been a ragbag.  They vary in length, tone, quality, and purpose.  Some are co-written, often with Wilkie Collins.  Dickens wrote enough great books that it is worthwhile to scrounge around in his scraps, as I have over the last few years, but I acknowledge that some of these stories have not been too valuable.  I just check them off the Dickens list.

One might ask why I am reading Christmas stories in September.  I had to read 400 pages of them before it sunk in that they have nothing to do with Christmas.  The two I read recently do have ghost stories, so they have that connection to English Christmas.

These two, “Doctor Marigold” (1865) and “Mugby Junction” (1866),like the two “Mrs. Lirriper” stories of  1863 and 1864, are actually quite good.  Dickens was on a little roll.  All four are easy to recommend as minor but genuinely pleasurable Dickens.

In “Doctor Marigold” the pleasure is all in the voice, just as with the “Mrs. Lirriper” stories.  The “Doctor” is actually a traveling dealer in used goods (”a Cheap Jack”)– Doctor is his first name.  The story is inconsequential as fiction, sweet and sentimental as a moral tale.  A child dies in her father’s arms in an affecting scene; a deaf and dumb girl replaces the lost daughter.  That is all fine.  But this is the good part:

I am at present a middle-aged man of a broadish build, in cords, leggings, and a sleeved waistcoat the strings of which is always gone behind.  Repair them how you will, they go like fiddle-strings.  You have been to the theatre, and you have seen one of the wiolin-players screw up his wiolin, after listening to it as if it had been whispering the secret to him that it feared it was out of order, and then you have heard it snap.  That's as exactly similar to my waistcoat as a waistcoat and a wiolin can be like one another.

Now that is literature, making a waistcoat and a wiolin as like one another as possible.  Marigold’s Cockney accent, as you can hear, reaches thirty years back to the great Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers (1836).  Perhaps Dickens was giving himself an anniversary present.

Marigold amusingly compares himself to a politician on the hustings.  He sells from his cart a watch, a pair of razors, and “a frying-pan artificially flavoured with essence of beefsteaks to that degree that you've only got for the rest of your lives to fry bread and dripping in it and there you are replete with animal food,” while the politician from his cart promises “abolition of more malt tax, no malt tax, universal education to the highest mark, or uniwersal ignorance to the lowest, total abolition of flogging in the army or a dozen for every private once a month all round, Wrongs of Men or Rights of Women--only say which it shall be, take 'em or leave 'em, and I'm of your opinion altogether, and the lot's your own on your own terms.”

Marigold, or perhaps his creator, is a natural satirist, always showing how “the Cheap Jack customs pervade society.”  He is a lot of fun to read, regardless of his subject.

The story has four short chapters.  The third is the ghost story, completely unconnected to Doctor Marigold’s tale, narrated by the foreman of a haunted jury.  Don’t ask me.  It’s not bad.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Meredith's storm scene - speculating on how the butterflies and moths saved their coloured wings from washing

The artificiality of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is most obvious in the chapters where he suddenly switches rhetorical modes, when his writing no longer looks like it belongs in a novel of 1859, or any time.  A chapter title like “Ferdinand and Miranda” (I.18), for example, is a signal.  To portray the hero and heroine falling in love, he drops them into The Tempest.  This is the opposite of allegory.  Objects outside of the novel are made to refer to things inside it.

I want to skip to another example, another tempest, my favorite part of the novel, right at the end, Chapter III.11, “Nature Speaks.”  Richard Feverel has gone to Germany for flimsy reasons – it is part of his ordeal – and upon hearing bad, or actually, good, news he plunges into the moonlit Rhineland woods, accompanied only by a little dog, previously unmentioned.  “Something of a religious joy – a strange sacred pleasure – was in him.”  So this is why the scene has shifted to Germany, to plunge into Romantic Nature at its source.

Here where the brook tinkled it was no cool-lipped sound, but metallic, and without the spirit of water.  Yonder in a space of moonlight on lush grass, the beams were as white fire to sight and feeling…  Now and then a large white night-moth flitted through the dusk of the forest…  On a barren corner of the wooded highland looking inland stood grey topless ruins set in nettles and rank grass-blades.  Richard mechanically sat down on the crumbling flints to rest, and listened to the panting of the dog. Sprinkled at his feet were emerald lights: hundreds of glow-worms studded the dark dry ground.

Of course, a ruin, what else.  Perhaps Romanticism is not the right reference.  Richard seems to have wandered in to a Poussin painting, or a Giorgione.  Perhaps I need to drag in Edmund Burke again.  So far, so Picturesque.  It is time for some Sublime.

All at once the thunder spoke. The mountain he had marked was bursting over him.

Up startled the whole forest in violet fire.  He saw the country at the foot of the hills to the bounding Rhine gleam, quiver, extinguished.  Then there were pauses; and the lightning seemed as the eye of heaven, and the thunder as the tongue of heaven, each alternately addressing him; filling him with awful rapture.

Yet the experience of the storm is also an “awful pleasure.”  Soon, “groping about” in the dark, Richard discovers and picks up a living creature, “a tiny leveret” (to the footnotes: “A young hare”).

Now things get really strange:

The rain was now steady; from every tree a fountain poured. So cool and easy had his mind become that he was speculating on what kind of shelter the birds could find, and how the butterflies and moths saved their coloured wings from washing. Folded close they might hang under a leaf, he thought. Lovingly he looked into the dripping darkness of the coverts on each side, as one of their children. He was next musing on a strange sensation he experienced. It ran up one arm with an indescribable thrill, but communicated nothing to his heart. It was purely physical, ceased for a time, and recommenced, till he had it all through his blood, wonderfully thrilling.

The latter is the little bunny licking Richard’s hand.  “What did it say to him?”  The rain passes, Richard comes across a forest chapel , and he exits the woods.  The ordeal is over.  Whatever it was.

So I barely understand what is going on in this scene.  It is amazing but baffling.  I am convinced that it is full of referents that I have not caught.  The famous storm from Virgil’s Georgics, Book I, is in there:

Earth feels the motions of her angry god:
Her entrails tremble, and her mountains nod,
And flying beasts in forests seek abode:
Deep horror seizes every human breast;
Their  pride is humbled and their fear confessed  (tr. John Dryden)

But there must be a number of other storms and forest idylls blended in, poems, paintings, songs, ideas.  Did Meredith invent that bunny, or borrow it?  Or experience it himself, but now it is in fiction, so he converted into invention.

One of the most puzzling mixes of the familiar and the strange that I have ever come across, and thus an achievement.  That is not a bad description of the entire novel.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

George Meredith mocks Jane Austen's favorite novel - The clean-linen of her morality was spotless as his

The key to The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is its deliberate artificiality.  George Meredith’s conception of the novel is unusual.  He fits patterns onto the novel in peculiar ways.  The lead character of The Egoist, which came twenty years Ordeal, is actually named Willoughby Pattern.  He is so named because the motif of willow pattern china runs through the novel, providing an arbitrary structure independent from the action.  It is an advanced technique.

Oh, it is so tempting to hash out the whole thread of eighteenth century literature that runs through The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, one of the novel’s substitutes for china patterns.  I mentioned the parodies of eighteenth century pedagogy, like Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education (1762).  I mentioned that there is a character actually called the Eighteenth Century (“The Eighteenth Century wondered whether she should live to see another birthday,” Vol. II, Ch. 4).

Most amazing is the thoroughgoing parody, or even travesty, of the novels of Samuel Richardson, particularly of Jane Austen’s favorite novel, Sir Charles Grandison (1753), Richardson’s enormously long attempt to portray the ideal man after creating one of English literature’s greatest villains in his previous novel, Clarissa.  Richard the Knight, the Hero, to use Meredith’s epithets, is meant by his father to be another ideal man.  Since Meredith does not believe in perfection, the plan goes topsy turvy.

Sir Charles, for example, demonstrates his virtue by refusing to fight a duel, while Feverel actively incites a duel.  Sir Charles and his correspondents spend what must end up being hundreds of pages discussing in detail whether he can marry a Catholic.  Richard Feverel’s true love is, it turns out, Catholic, but since they are young and in haste the issue is simply brushed aside.   Both heroes make plans to reform prostitutes – guess which one succeeds?

You think I am making this up, but look in Book II, Chapter 3, where we meet a mother with some daughters who might be suitable for Richard Feverel.  She is:

Mrs. Caroline Grandison, said to be a legitimate descendant of the great Sir Charles: a lady who, in propriety of demeanour and pious manners, was the petticoated image of her admirable ancestor.  The clean-linen of her morality was spotless as his.  As nearly she neighboured Perfection, and knew it as well.  Let us hope that her History will some day be written, and the balance restored in Literature which it was her pride to have established for her sex in Life.

Mrs. Grandison ensures the virtues of her eight daughters by dosing them with patent medicine and enforcing an exercise regime that features “swing-poles, and stride-poles, and newly invented instruments for bringing out special virtues: an instrument for the lungs: an instrument for the liver: one for the arms and thighs: one for the wrists: the whole for the promotion of the Christian accomplishments.”

Any time the Grandison family appears, all too infrequently, the comedy is excellent.  The gag culminates in a scene with the youngest daughter Carola, a thirteen year-old who wishes she were a boy and would rather be known as Carl (“That’s the German for Charles”).  Another rarity in Victorian novels.

So this is one complex but highly artificial strand that runs through the whole book.  One more tomorrow, and that will be enough suffering.

One of Meredith’s more baffling sentences - perhaps more than one

Meine Frau has described Thomas Bernhard as the anchovy of German literature, meaning that although many people savor him, for others even the smallest taste of his style ruins the dish.  George Meredith is, let’s say, the Brussels sprout of the Victorian novel.  His style is very much his own.

I switched to a vegetable in deference to the veganism of Colleen of Jam & Idleness, who wrote this encomium to an obscure 1864 Meredith novel.  She is responding with enthusiasm to the powerful flavor of Meredith.  Look at how long her excerpts are (I understand the problem).  Look at this fragment:  “then, like the wise ancients, we should be able to tell to a nicety how far we had advanced in our dithyramb to the theme of fuddle and muddle,” from the middle of a long paragraph about hats.

This is the beginning of Chapter II, when we have been introduced to the hero’s father and little else:

Fame, the chief retainer of distinguished families, has first sounded the origin of the Feverels where their line of Ancestry blossoms with a Baronet; and Rumour, the profane vagabond, who will not take service in any respectable household, whispers that he was a Villain.  At all events, for this proud race, behind his dazzling appearance sits Darkness and democratic Adam, and they cling to him as an ark of pure aristocracy.

The editor of the Penguin Classics editions adds a footnote: “One of Meredith’s more baffling sentences.”  The next page or so of the paragraph makes clearer that Meredith is describing the antique origins of the family.  Although some were hearty enough to fight on “Marston Moor, that great field of phlebotomy,” the family has just barely kept enough sons alive to perpetuate the line, perhaps because of “the Apple-Disease.”  That mysterious concept will not be explained, or mentioned again, for another twenty-five chapters, although the earlier mention of Adam should suggest that Meredith is referring to some aspect of original sin (sexual knowledge, specifically).

Here we see one of the distinctive tics of Richard Feverel, the continuous use of shorthand and nicknames.  The tutor becomes the Wise Youth, the Baronet’s pedagogical method is the System, the hypochondriac uncle is the Dyspepsia, the struggle between right and wrong is the Magian Conflict, and an elderly relative is the Eighteenth Century (“Adrian had to sit alone with Hippias and the Eighteenth Century”).

Those of us who are devoted fans of Thomas Carlyle’s prose will recognize the technique, as in The French Revolution where everything ends up with two names, the invented driving out the actual.  I was amazed to see someone bring this into a novel.

Virginia Woolf, in “The Novels of George Meredith” (1928, in The Second Common Reader), describes Richard Feverel this way:

The style is extremely uneven.  Now he twists himself into iron knots; now he lies as flat as a pancake.  He seems to be of two minds about his intention.  Ironic comment alternates with long-winded narrative.


He has been, it is plain, at great pains to destroy the conventional form of the novel.  He makes no attempt to preserve the sober reality of Trollope and Jane Austen; he has destroyed all the usual staircases by which we have learnt to climb.

I would not want to advise a reader who hates Brussels sprouts to put them on his anchovy pizza.  I enjoy it all well enough myself, but once I realized how deliberately artificial the entire novel was, in style, story and structure, it began to be pretty interesting.  So for tomorrow, the artificial Meredith.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hippy verteth, Ricky sterteth, Sing Cuckoo! - George Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, a novel by George Meredith published in 1859.  Meredith would later be not only famous but regarded as a great Victorian sage, but this novel was not the one that made his reputation.  On the verge of popularity, it was accused of obscenity and pulled from Mudie’s lending library, making it possibly the only novel in history whose sales were damaged by being thought of as a dirty book.  It actually is kind of naughty in places.  Meredith is the most French Victorian novelist I have come across.

The story:  Sir Austin Feverel has been abandoned by his wife (she ran off with a poet).  He is raising his son Richard according to a System, his own personal blend of Rousseau and Lord Chesterfield.  The comic, even mocking tone is instantly identifiable, so the surprise is not going to be if the System falls apart, but how and also who it will crush when it collapses.

Most of the conflict is over choice of mate.  While the father and his System are interviewing suitable candidates, Richard, who is going through a “Romantic poet” phase, wanders into a pastoral poem and meets the dairymaid of his dreams.  Has the System failed?  No, the dairymaid would be perfect of only the strict father could relax for a minute.

The resulting complications should be sufficient to fill out a novel, but instead there is an enormous twist, or at least bend, maybe more than one, leading to some strange scenes and surprises that of course culminate in a terrible ironic crash.

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel contains things I have never seen in a Victorian novel.  At the end of Chapter XIX, a young man is caught reading a pornographic novel:

Mr. Thompson, without any notion of what he was doing, drew the book from Ripton's hold; whereupon the two seniors laid their grey heads together over the title-page.  It set forth in attractive characters beside a coloured frontispiece, which embodied the promise displayed there, the entrancing Adventures of Miss Random, a strange young lady.

Exactly how pornographic the book might be is left to the imagination or independent knowledge of the reader.  Miss Random becomes a symbol of the sexual dangers facing young men (I mean a symbol for the characters, a shorthand they use), as seen in another novel chapter where Richard and poor Ripton attend a party of the London demi-monde, minor nobility and their kept women and courtesans, like something from a Maupassant or Balzac story.  Who knew, from Victorian novels at least, that London even had a demi-monde?

And how many Victorian novels have this – no, I have to set it up.  Richard’s incessantly ironic tutor Adrian sings a parody of a medieval folk song that includes the lines:

Hippy verteth,
Ricky sterteth,
   Sing Cuckoo!  (Ch. 10)

Ricky is of course Richard, and Hippy is Uncle Hippias, who is with them.  Move the scene to a train compartment, just a bit later:

Hippias, on finding the carriage-door closed on him, became all at once aware of the bright-haired hope which dwells in Change; for one who does not woo her too frequently; and to express his sudden relief from mental despondency at the amorous prospect, the Dyspepsy [i.e., Hippias] bent and gave his hands a sharp rub between his legs: which unlucky action brought Adrian's pastoral,

          "Hippy verteth,
          Sing cuckoo!"

in such comic colours before Richard, that a demon of laughter seized him.

          "Hippy verteth!"

Every time he glanced at his uncle the song sprang up, and he laughed so immoderately that it looked like madness come upon him.

This is an actual fart joke, disguised in archaic language (“verteth”), but repeated several times and emphasized by a teenage boy’s laughter at the idea of his uncle’s flatulence.  Even stranger, Richard’s laughter is used in the plot.

To the reader who could not find the joke because of the impenetrable opening prose – “the bright-haired hope which dwells in Change” and so on – let’s talk about that tomorrow.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Everything was making itself more beautiful, everything was making itself more than beautiful, like a rivalry - Beauty on Earth by C. F. Ramuz, or: something better than book blogging

How to move from book blogging to something better?  Michele Bailat-Jones has done it.  She started around the time I did, calling herself the Incurable Logophile, but soon enough, as we all had hoped, Swiss doctors found a cure, and she changed the blog’s name to pieces and got serious about literary translation.  Her first book was recently published, the 1927 Beauty on Earth by Swiss novelist Charles Ferdinand Ramuz.

Bailat-Jones has championed Ramuz at her blog.  I am not sure I would have heard of him otherwise (although Orthofer has him), which is a disgrace, as I can prove objectively using citation counts from the MLA International Bibliography.  Since 1990, there have been 125 articles, books, and so on about Ramuz, 158 about fellow Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and – guess how many about Robert Walser – have you guessed?  – 172 on Mister Bigshot Walser.  Of course the Ramuz scholarship is entirely French.  Disgraceful.  But Bailat-Jones has given us this corrective example.

In Beauty on Earth, a beautiful orphaned teenage girl moves to a small Swiss town to live with her uncle.  She is so very beautiful that she ruins the lives of many of the men she meets.  The story has some curious similarities to Max Beerbohm’s elegant, ludicrous Zuleika Dobson (1911), whatever differences in tone, technique, and purpose the books might have.  Juliette brings out the worst in men, even when they mean to help her; she does so not by any action or behavior but simply by existing.  Dorothy W. aka Rebecca H. at Of Books and Bicycles reviewed the book earlier today.  She fills out the plot.

This Ramuz passage is close to a statement of purpose:

Everything was making itself more beautiful, everything was making itself more than beautiful, like a rivalry.  All these things making themselves more beautiful, always more beautiful, the water, the mountain, the sky, all that is liquid, all that is neither solid nor liquid, but it all holds together; it was like an agreement, a continual exchange from one thing to another thing, and between everything that exists.  And around her and because of her – what he is thinking and telling himself up there.  There is a place for beauty…  (95, the ellipses belong to Ramuz)

The “he” who is “up there” is one (just one) of Juliette’s stalkers, at this point spying on her.  Is he really at the same time experiencing this transcendent vision of beauty on earth?  Ramuz portrays the town, on the shore of Lake Geneva, surrounded by the Alps, as the most beautiful place on earth.  Some of the descriptive writing is a great treat:

We saw the entire cavalry of waves jump into their saddles.  We watched the horsemen come with their white flags.  (179)

So there is a constant ironic interplay between the destructive beauty of the girl and the beauty of the landscape, to which most of the men are inured.  Or perhaps they are so deeply immersed in beauty that they experience some kind of allergic reaction when too much additional beauty enters their world.  Juliette herself turns out to be a devotee of beauty as well, but her allergen is music.

The strangest aspect of the book is the shifting point of view and pronouns.  “He” turns into “we” with ease, and the meaning of  “we” can shift suddenly.  Anyone struck by the “we” that narrates the beginning of Madame Bovary will recognize how Ramuz is playfully extending Flaubert’s idea.  Bailat-Jones writes about the challenges the technique presented to her translation in a little essay at NecessaryFiction.  Dorothy \ Rebecca discusses this as well, although I have to say I think every sentence with the word “reader” in it is wrong.  The shifts in point of view do not disorient but rather orient the reader.  This reader.  Me.

Bailat-Jones says she found it disorienting, too, but luckily she fought the “temptation” to “smooth this out.”  Thank you, well done, thank you.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Now W(uthering)E(xpectations) Are Six

Or, In Praise of Folly.

Every two years I assemble a Selected Wuthering Expectations.  Best, favorite, representative?  I am not sure that I know.  This is what I do, Part 3.

2011 to 2012, that was Portuguese literature.  Eça de Queirós, Machado de Assis, Pessoa.  The week on The Maias; the 60 masterpieces of world literature of Machado; a monkey with a parasol on an elephant.  Be sure to read Pessoa before you die.

A contrary cuss, I am suspicious of enjoyment, and the word “classic,” but enthusiastic about griffins.  The Wuthering Expectations Lifetime Writing Plan.

AphorismsScience fictionLeafcutter antsMusical cheese.

2013 was the year – or the six or seven months – of Austrian literature.  My run of pieces on Adalbert Stifter’s great, tedious novel Indian Summer was the most ambitious writing I have done.  Three weeks of posts on the book and related ideas, beginning and ending with Thomas Bernhard, and dragging in Kundera, Goethe, Broch, Murnane, Hofmannsthal, and more, and all while engaging in a careful reading of the book itself, not simply piling other books on top of it, as tempting as that might be.  Where else could I write such a thing?

Anyone who has developed a sudden if unlikely interest in Austria’s greatest apocalypticist: Karl Kraus week begins right here.

Acting in Uncle Vanya.  Joseph Epstein on Henry James.  Robert Browning is difficult.  My recent and ongoing enthusiasm for Kipling begins here somewhere.  How to read a Victorian novel.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I value the serial nature of the book blog.  Mediocre first posts lead to inspired comments and improved ideas.  After a week of writing – 2,500 to 3,000 words – I finally begin to get somewhere.  At exactly that point, I stupidly jump to something new.  These were fun to write and get better as they go (links to the beginning of the series, of course):

Nobody cares about Little Dorrit – she is so tiny; Hugo’s heist novel The Toilers of the Sea; Collins’s visibly deformed The Woman in White; James’s poorish story Washington Square; Zola’s poorly understood The Kill; Jewett’s domestic picaresque The Country of the Pointed Firs; Trollope’s well-fertilized Orley Farm; Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.  One more link here, to the last post on that novel, about Flaubert's meaninglessness, a hidden key to Wuthering Expectations.

What fun  to read with others.  The big group read of The Savage Detectives was especially productive.  Comb through that week for links to better posts by other book bloggers.

I did a week on W. G. Sebald, beginning with the time I briefly met him.  That is an interesting example.  I had not planned to write on Sebald for a week, not for more than one day, actually, but idea followed idea.

The week on ghost stories was a kind of structured improvisation.  After the first day, readers far more knowledgeable than I am suggested stories that I immediately read, allowing me to instantly concoct all kinds of nonsensical theories.  Haunted beds, 75% of the stories involved haunted beds.  Odd.

It is common enough now to read discussions of how book blogging has changed in the last couple of years.  The big change at Wuthering Expectations is that since my last anniversary I have read two hundred more books and written (or copied) 270,000 more words.

Thanks so much to all of my readers, collaborators, commenters, co-readers.  Thanks to anyone fool enough to write or read a book blog.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Are there flowers at all? - Swinburne's elegy for Baudelaire

One more great Swinburne poem before I give up on him for now, “Ave Atque Vale,” his 1868 elegy for one of his favorite poets, Charles Baudelaire, who had died in 1867.  How will Cecil Lang help me with this one?  “It will be read with pleasure by any reasonably well-informed person, but the choicest appreciation is reserved for those who can take the elegiac tradition for granted and whose pulses beat, like Swinburne’s own, with the poetry of Aeschylus, Dante, and Baudelaire” (The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle, 517).  And people say academic writing has no personality.

The title, from poem 101 of Catullus, is something like “Hail and Farewell.”  Horace Gregory’s translation of Catullus ends:

I shall perform an ancient ritual over your remains, weeping,
(this plate of lentils for dead men to feast upon, wet with my tears)
O brother, here’s my greeting: here’s my hand forever welcoming you
and I forever saying:  good-bye, good-bye.

Loose, but accurate.  I mean it describes Swinburne’s poem well, although not, obviously, his language.  The Roman lentils are replaced with flowers – of evil!

Hast thou found any likeness for thy vision?
    O gardener of strange flowers, what bud, what bloom,
    Hast thou found sown, what gathered in the gloom?
What of despair, of rapture, of derision,
    What of life is there, what of ill or good?
    Are the fruits grey like dust or bright like blood?
Does the dim ground grow any seed of ours,
    The faint fields quicken any terrene root,
    In low lands where the sun and moon are mute
And all the stars keep silence? Are there flowers
    At all, or any fruit?  (Stanza VII)

The conceit that fills most of the poem’s eighteen stanzas is simple enough.  Swinburne is directly addressing the dead Baudelaire, assuming that he is in the Greek underworld.  What do you see there, Charles, the first line above asks?  Any poetry?  “Are there flowers \ At all” – that is a sad line.

The usual Swinburne stuff recurs: Proserpine, the sea, Tannhauser (I did not write about Swinburne’s bizarre Tannhauser poem), an entire stanza about Sappho (“the supreme head of song”).  The flowers and fruits are something different, imported from Baudelaire’s poetry:

Sleep; and if life was bitter to thee, pardon,
    If sweet, give thanks; thou hast no more to live;
    And to give thanks is good, and to forgive.
Out of the mystic and the mournful garden
    Where all day through thine hands in barren braid
    Wove the sick flowers of secrecy and shade,
Green buds of sorrow and sin, and remnants grey,
    Sweet-smelling, pale with poison, sanguine-hearted,
    Passions that sprang from sleep and thoughts that started,
Shall death not bring us all as thee one day
    Among the days departed?  (Stanza XVII)

The description of Baudelaire’s poems – his flowers – could well be about Swinburne’s own verse.  A wonderful poem.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What abject and vomitorious rot - a detour into Swinburne's letters - I am only afraid of his dying

A little break from Swinburne’s poems.  His letters are available in six volumes, in a heroic compilation made by the great Swinburne scholar Cecil Lang.  I have read just the first volume, published in 1959, that covers 1854-1869, age 17 to 32, the period of Atalanta in Calydon and Poems and Ballads.

Edmund Wilson, in the 1962 New Yorker piece I mentioned a few days ago, mentions that he read the six volumes “straight through,” “rather to [my] own surprise.”  They are a lot of fun.  The poet becomes both more and less approachable.

Less:  for example, the swishing.  At Eton, Swinburne, like all the boys, was regularly flogged, and he picked up a sexual taste for masochism.  If he is corresponding with one of his fellow enthusiasts, the subject invariably comes up.  On the positive side, an 1862 letter contains some of the most interesting literary criticism of the Marquis de Sade I have ever seen.  Swinburne and his sadomasochistic chums of course circulated copies of Sade’s books.

More distance:  Swinburne is from a noble family, a status he shared only with Lord Byron among poets, although Swinburne was never anywhere too close to actually inheriting a title.  An earl on his mother’s side, I think.  His father was an admiral.  An uncle had one of England’s foremost libraries.  Swinburne easily treated his artist Bohemian pals, the pre-Raphaelites, as his equals, but not everyone.  His publisher, J. C. Hotten, for example, was a servant.

But this is the kind of service, from Feb. 18, 1867:

You also send me duplicates of Trollope’s last numbers which I have received already in regular order.  This is a waste of time, money, and patience.  (227)

Swinburne is following The Last Chronicle of Barset!  There is an amusing letter – or I remember that there is, since I have lost the page – in which Swinburne laughs at a critic’s idea that he is a deep reader of philosophy and history.  No, it is the easy stuff, all literature, poems, novels, and plays.

Swinburne’s consumption of poetry is astounding.  He routinely attacks Browning and Tennyson, the idols he hopes to displace.  “What abject and vomitorious rot is this of Tennyson’s” (to William Rossetti, Jan. 1, 1868, p. 284); yet a month or two later he praises their latest poem.  He reads every scrap they publish, as well as every other bit of poetry he can get his hands on, as well as Trollope and Collins and Sheridan LeFanu (and, in French, Baudelaire and Flaubert and every effusion of Victor Hugo).  His appetite for literature is a pleasure to behold.

It is matched by his appetite for booze.   Lang includes a number of letters about Swinburne, the most poignant of which are a worried exchange between John Ruskin, Swinburne's father, and family friend Edward Coleridge, nephew of the poet.  Ruskin assures his correspondents that Algernon’s poetry is not obscene (this is 1866),

But his clay is porcelain – jasper – I am bitterly anxious about him, not for the tone of his life – but for its endurance.  I am afraid only of his dying.  (183)

And as time passes, Swinburne’s letters report more illnesses and accidents that are obviously related to his drinking – everyone but Swinburne understands this.  I know the ending to this story, but I will have to wait until volume four to see the climax, which with any luck I will do.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Lisp of leaves and ripples of rain - a glance at Atalanta in Calydon

“Anactoria” went all right.  I will escalate the difficulty.

In 1865 Swinburne published a kind of imitation Greek play, Atalanta in Calydon.  It is dense, in syntax and in classical and Biblical allusions.  “The classical echoes that so enrich the poem also impede appreciation for a generation not nurtured on the classics” write Cecil Lang in the notes to his 1975 The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle (p. 520).  But of course that is why I bought his book, so he can help me out.  Here is his help:  “no one reared on Yeats, Joyce, Pound, and Eliot will be intimidated by the labor of looking up Swinburne’s allusions.”  Face it, literary critics are jerks.

So forget all of that.  Swinburne’s play shows the tragic end of the obscure hero Meleager, a member, with the more famous heroine Atalanta, of Jason’s Argonauts.  Meleager, Atalanta, and many others hunt and kill a monstrous boar.  Squabbling over the spoils leads to some pointless deaths, which drive Meleager’s mother mad and cause the downfall of the hero.  Somewhere in the middle of the play all of this really begins to cook, given that, per Greek dramatic standards, all of the action is offstage.

I will skip to the chorus.  The speech is mostly in blank verse, but the chorus sings:

When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces,
   The mother of months in meadow or plain
 Fills the shadows and windy places
   With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
 And the brown bright nightingale amorous
 Is half assuaged for Itylus,
 For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces,
   The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.  (65-72)

Robert Browning once described Swinburne’s verse as “’florid impotence’, to my taste, the minimum of thought and idea in the maximum of words and phraseology” (in Swinburne: The Critical Heritage, p. 115).  But who really wants song lyrics to be efficient?

There is a long, strange section (1038-1204) where no action at all has occurred but the chorus, sensing disaster, sings about the capriciousness and even evil of the gods, who “up in heaven…  stir with soft imperishable breath \ The bubbling bitterness of life and death” (1105-6), or even a single God (“The supreme evil, God,” 1151), in other words the same theme that returns in “Anactoria” and many other poems in Poems and Ballads, published a year after Atalanta in Calydon.  The chorus, unlike Sappho, retreats from the implications of its own song:

For words divide and rend;
But silence is most noble till the end.  (1203-4)

Of course the silence is instantly destroyed – “I heard within the house a cry of news” (1205).  The boar is slain, the play gets moving, the inevitable disaster falls.

Atalanta in Calydon did not quite make Swinburne famous but it made his reputation.  Other poets were now paying attention.  By 1869, the piece was so well known that Lewis Carroll could title a poem that is as far as I can tell not even a parody “Atalanta in Camden-Town.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Love was born of burns and foams like wine - obscene Swinburne, dramatic Swinburne, conventional Swinburne

A harder Swinburne sample from Poems and Ballads today.  I’ll make an attempt at sense, not just sound.  “Anactoria,” immediately notorious for its supposed obscenity.

It begins – well, it actually begins with a quotation, in Greek, from Sappho.  Skipping that:

My life is bitter with thy love; thine eyes
Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs
Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,
And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.
I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;
Let life burn down, and dream it is not death.
I would the sea had hidden us, the fire
(Wilt thou fear that, and fear not my desire?)
Severed the bones that bleach, the flesh that cleaves,
And let our sifted ashes drop like leaves. (1-10)

A bit of sound, first – the poem has 304 lines, all in rhyming couplets, and I am amazed how little Swinburne sounds like Alexander Pope or the Byron of Don Juan.  I had not realized rhyming couplets could sound like this.  I suspect the secret is Swinburne’s natural enjambment, but I have not pursued the idea.

Next, sense.  “Anactoria” is a dramatic monologue spoken, or sung, or howled, by Sappho, who has recently been abandoned or deceived by the woman in the title.  At the beginning, Sappho wishes they both were dead, but soon she only wishes to kill Anactoria:

I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,
Intense device, and superflux of pain;
Vex thee with amorous agonies, and shake
Life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache;
Strain out thy soul with pangs too soft to kill,
Intolerable interludes, and infinite ill;
Relapse and reluctation of the breath,
Dumb tunes and shuddering semitones of death.  (27-34)

At this point Swinburne has introduced most of the key concepts he will rattle around for the rest of the poem: blood, sea, fire, flesh, death, lips, plus different variations on the idea of music as in that fine, overwrought last couplet.  The poem almost writes itself.  Combine the words in various ways to suggest Lesbian sex:

Yea, all sweet words of thine and all thy ways,
And all the fruit of nights and flower of days,
And stinging lips wherein the hot sweet brine
That Love was born of burns and foams like wine  (47-50)

Admittedly a mild example, but one of many.  The section from 104-114 where Sappho fantasizes about eating Anactoria is something else (“that from face to feet \ Thy body were abolished and consumed, \ And in my flesh they very flesh entombed!” etc.).

The final concept Swinburne needs is God.  He introduces it late.  Self-aware, Sappho indicts both her own anger and her lover’s crime:  “God knows I might be crueller than God”  (152). She can thus generalize her passionate suffering as part of “The mystery of the cruelty of things” (154).  This section, Sappho’s challenge to God, did not make Victorian reviewers look more kindly on the sex:

Him would I reach, him desecrate,
Pierce the cold lips of God with human breath,
And mix his immortality with death.  (182-4)

Finally, a reference I recognize, an inversion of Genesis 2:7, where God animates Adam with his breath.  “Anactoria” is crammed with references from Sappho, and apparently also Catullus and perhaps Ovid’s “Sappho to Phaon,” and more, but since Swinburne knows Greek and Latin and I have only read the poets in translation, I gave up the pursuit as hopeless.

Sappho’s passion cools in the last third of the poem as she comes to a new apotheosis, arguing that she, unlike her no good girlfriend, will achieve divinity through her poetry.

These, woven as raiment for his word and thought,
These hath God made, and me as these, and wrought
Song, and hath it at my lips; and me
Earth shall not gather though she feed on thee.  (243-6)

She will always be with the birds, there will be “no song more like mine” (284).  It is almost a relief that this wild, violent poem concludes with such a conventional idea.  The way that Swinburne whips the idea into a briny, bloody foam, that is worth seeing regardless.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Singing along with Swinburne - Wild leaves that winds have taken, \ Red strays of ruined springs.

Swinburne’s poems are hard to excerpt within giving up on sense, and they are all interesting, so I have had trouble settling on one for today.  Let’s try “The Garden of Proserpine,” from the 1866 Poems and Ballads.  See if I can ease into it.

I remind better readers of Swinburne that I only know his early poems, and only those that the editors of the Yale volume selected.

They picked eighteen poems from Poems and Ballads, by page count about a third of the original volume; thus it is pure foolishness to generalize even about “early Swinburne” since I have no idea what was omitted.  Yet here I am.

“The Garden of Proserpine,” queen of the underworld, yet also a fertility goddess.  Perhaps the garden will be in Hades, perhaps on earth, or perhaps the title means something else entirely.  Earlier in the book there is a long “Hymn to Proserpine” which is likely related, but I will ignore that for now.  The poem begins:

Here, where the world is quiet;
   Here, where all trouble seems
 Dead winds' and spent waves' riot
   In doubtful dreams of dreams;
 I watch the green field growing
 For reaping folk and sowing,
 For harvest-time and mowing,
   A sleepy world of streams.

I hope the songfulness of this stanza is immediately obvious.  I mean little more than that these lines would be easy to adapt to a folk tune.  And also obvious that Swinburne is an absolute master of pure poetic effect, by which I mean the interplay of sounds independent of sense.  Three “w” sounds in the first line, counting “qwiet,” then another in the next line, then two more in the next; drEEms – drEEms – grEEn – fEEld - rEEping in the middle (and more EEs earlier and later), blended with dr-dr-gr-gr and more “w”s.  The formal challenge of the rhyme is difficult, too, demanding three triplet rhymes.  Swinburne keeps it going for twelve stanzas.  Based on the little I have read, he does this all the time.

Later in the poem, Proserpine appears separately, so the narrator can safely be identified with the poet.  I will skip a stanza.

Here life has death for neighbour,
   And far from eye or ear
 Wan waves and wet winds labour,
   Weak ships and spirits steer;
 They drive adrift, and whither
 They wot not who make thither;
 But no such winds blow hither,
   And no such things grow here.

Swinburne does not want to abandon his “w”s, even repeating words from the earlier stanzas.  He repeats every chance he gets.  I did not point it out, but this is also one of Christina Rossetti’s favorite tricks (there are several example in this post).

Now I am skipping to stanza 9:

There go the loves that wither,
   The old loves with wearier wings;
 And all dead years draw thither,
   And all disastrous things;
 Dead dreams of days forsaken,
 Blind buds that snows have shaken,
 Wild leaves that winds have taken,
   Red strays of ruined springs.

Wuh wuh wuh.  Swinburne is not only shuffling earlier words from his own poem, but borrowing them from Percy Shelley’s 1820 “Ode to the West Wind” (of course, what else?), all blown around and scrambled like the leaves in both poems.

As a high-falutin’ substitute for “autumn leaves,” I’ve got to say, “Red strays of ruined springs” is amazing.

Every Swinburne poem I look at will have been written with this kind of attention to sound, sound above imagery, sound above meaning, sound above all.

The editors of the Yale volume tell me that the poem’s Garden “certainly, and exquisitely” is “poetry itself.”  If you were wondering.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Introducing Algernon Charles Swinburne

Introducing him to myself, I mean.  I believe that he was, until a couple of months ago, the only major Victorian poet I did not read in college, even in scraps, just a few famous poems, which was all I read of John Clare and Matthew Arnold and Christina Rossetti and many others, and is still all I have read of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who I think is now the last big name I have not worked on.  Unless Robert Bridges and Ernest Dowson count as major poets and big names.

Perhaps Swinburne is no longer a major poet.  Regardless, he does not offer easy entry.  Many of his best-known poems are long, allusive, a real challenge to concentration.  The editors of the 2004 Algernon Charles Swinburne: Major Poems and Selected Prose (Yale UP) say:

Negotiating a poem by Swinburne requires a state of attention that can scarcely be maintained and that is, in any case, never sufficient.  (xxiv)

Which is hilarious, and, at least as far as maintaining my attention goes, less true for me know than it was twenty-five years ago.  If I do not understand Swinburne, I can at least read him.

The funny thing is that  without reading him I picked up a lot of facts and fun about Swinburne, whether through literary history or magazine book reviews or W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn:

He was small of stature, and at every point in his development he had remained far behind a normal size; he was quite startlingly fine-limbed; yet even as a boy he had an extraordinarily large, indeed outsize, head on his shoulders, which sloped weakly away from his neck.  (162)

This is directly below the a tiny black and white reproduction of the portrait of Swinburne by his friend William Bell Scott.  Perhaps I thought I knew Swinburne just because of this amazing image.  His head really was that big; he really did love the seashore more than any poet I know aside from Whitman.

The portrait is easily that of the man Henry Adams describes meeting in The Education of Henry Adams, the effervescent, endlessly learned talker.  “The idea that one has actually met a real genius dawns slowly on a Boston mind, but it made entry at last.”

My trusty, worn Fifth Edition Norton Anthology of English Literature  gives Swinburne nineteen pages of poems.  Seventeen pages come from 1865 to 1868, age 28 to 31, mostly from the 1866 Poems and Ballads, the book that made Swinburne’s name for the usual mix of good and bad reasons – high-quality writing, charges of obscenity.

This is also the period in which Swinburne was developing his alcoholism, along with his poetry, to a point of perfection.  Friends eventually dried him out and tamed him.

I have been reading Swinburne’s letters along with the early poems, the first of the six volume edition Cecil Lang put together in the 1960s.  The publication of the letters inspired an outstanding “life and works” piece by Edmund Wilson for the New Yorker (also available in The Novels of A. C. Swinburne (1962), where I read it).  Swinburne, as compressed by Wilson:

Here is a life lived entirely for literature, in which nothing else is really important – and since literature is inexhaustible, a life that is immensely enjoyed.

Reason enough to read Swinburne to the extent my attention can handle him, and even to spend a few days writing about his poems.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

William Blake in song, via Martha Redbone and Allen Ginsberg

When I read Christina Rossetti or her lyrical peers, I feel regret that the nineteenth century was such a poor one for English composers.  The poets held up their end, supplying plenty of good material for English lieder, but no English equivalent of Debussy or Wolf appeared to take up the challenge.

The English folk tradition remained strong, though.  If only I enjoyed it more.  I have been greatly enjoying an updated offshoot, The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake (2012) by the Martha Redbone Roots Project.  Redbone skillfully selected and adapted a set of Blake poems, a mix of the Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and some miscellaneous songs that resembled the Appalachian songs of her childhood, no longer exactly English but of course from the same source.

The entire album is available on Bandcamp.  Please try “A Dream” or “The Poison Tree” if you want to hear just one.

Redbone is herself part Native-American, part African-American, and part folkie-American.  Her settings blend the different sides of her background, although I really only hear the Native American elements in the background of “A Dream.”  So two songs are a cappella, “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day” becomes a spiritual (to an old tune, although I can’t identify it), some have more of an English folk flavor, while others are more American.  Listeners with a strong allergy to folk will not be so happy, I guess.  My allergy is mild, and I will always vote for less autoharp, but there is not so much of that here.

Redbone’s singing is the highlight of the album, but she did an outstanding job of choosing texts.  It all  sounds so natural.  For example, this is Redbone’s “The Garden of Love”:

I laid me down upon a bank     
Where love lay sleeping             
I heard among the rushes dank
Weeping Weeping

Then I went to the heath & the wild
To the thistles & thorns of the waste   
And they told me how they were beguild          
Driven out & compeld to be chaste

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.

William Blake’s poem of the same title does not begin until the third stanza.  The first two stanzas are from an entirely different Blake poem that now feels like it should be part of “Garden of Love.”  Maybe it once was.  I do not know the history of the text.  Perhaps Redbone intuited (or researched) Blake’s edits.

For contrast, tryout Allen Ginsberg Sings William Blake (1970), available at UbuWeb, a run at Blake from an entirely different direction.  Ginsberg wanted to capture or create the Dionysian Blake.  Fauns dancing in the forest glade in the moonlight is the idea.  Primeval musical chaos.  The musicians (aside from creaky Ginsberg) are pros – Bob Dorough, Don Cherry, Elvin Jones! – so the cacophony is intentional.  I will point to “Laughing Song” as one that gets especially close to the ecstatic state that was Ginsberg’s goal.

Both albums are legitimate, insightful interpretations of William Blake.  Redbone’s is a lot less likely to clear the room, more likely to be played for pleasure.

The scan of "The Garden of Love" is from Wiki.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Woolf on Rossetti - "I Am Christina Rossetti"

One-ninth of the way through Algernon Swinburne’s six-volumes of collected letters, in 1866, he has not even mentioned Christina Rossetti.  She had published two outstanding books at this point, and Swinburne was an obsessive reader of poetry as well as close friends with her brothers.

In Swinburne’s defense, 1) many letters are lost, 2) at the point I have reached he is amply occupied with the horrified critical reaction to his own blasphemous and obscene book, and also his prodigious alcoholism, and 3), later, although I do not know when, he wrote about Rossetti that “I have always thought that nothing more glorious in poetry has ever been written” and that a particular poem, one I have not read, “was touched as with the fire and bathed as in the light of sunbeams, tuned as to chords and cadences of refluent sea-music beyond reach of harp and organ, large echoes of the serene and sonorous tides of heaven.”

Swinburne is as bad as the folks who write blurbs for novels today.  I found this bee-yoo-tee in Virginia Woolf’s 1930 essay “’I Am Christina Rossetti.’”  Woolf singles out that quote, I am afraid, to mock Swinburne, along with two lesser critics.  “Very little of value has been said about poetry since the world began,” writes Woolf, as if she were familiar with Wuthering Expectations.

Woolf proceeds to follow her own advice and say little, devoting four of her seven pages to a fragmented biography of Rossetti.  At what is this novelist better than fragmented biography?

… in reality she dwelt in some curious region where the spirit strives towards an unseen God – in her case, a dark God, a harsh God – a God who decreed that all the pleasures of the world were hateful to Him.  The theatre was hateful, the opera was hateful, nakedness was hateful – when her friend Miss Thompson painted naked figures in her pictures she had to tell Christina they were fairies, but Christina saw through the imposture…  [Her belief] taught her that chess was wrong, but that whist and cribbage did not matter.

A novel about Christina Rossetti would do well to be careful about making her too sympathetic.  By “do well” I of course mean “do badly”; such a novel would likely do badly and be remaindered quickly.

Woolf also says a bit of value about Rossetti’s poetry, just a little, emphasizing her musicality and sharp eye, as when she points out these marvelous lizards:

My heath lay farther off, where lizards lived
    In strange metallic mail, just spied and gone;
Like darted lightnings here and there perceived
        But no where dwelt upon.  (“From House to Home”)

I have now quoted almost as many lines of Rossetti as Woolf did.  Her criticism method is metaphor.  “Death, oblivion, and rest lap round your songs with their dark wave,” for example.  The piece ends with an apocalyptic fantasy of an underwater London – now that was a surprise.  Rossetti will still be read, even then, that is Woolf’s point.

“’I Am Christina Rossetti’” was published a year after A Room of One’s Own.  It would make a pleasing and useful appendix to that book.

Monday, September 9, 2013

What do you do there? – what have you found? - a glance at Rossetti's aesthetics of renunciation

What I have been finding in Christina Rossetti – this is hardly unusual for Wuthering Expectations – is nothing like a new discovery.  This is her brother William:  “She was replete with the spirit of self-postponement.”  The more I read in and around Christina Rossetti and her circle, the more I understand that they all actually wrote, talked, and thought like this.  That was a digression.  I pulled the quote from the Rossetti introduction of my Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2, 5th ed., p. 1502, where I also find the critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar saying Rossetti created “an aesthetics of renunciation.”

They are suggesting something more complicated than subject matter, but rather an approach to poetry.  The monotony of theme is countered by the variety of setting and form.

I guess this is a sort of side note since it would take too long, and be too dull, to support the argument, but Rossetti must be one of the great masters of form in the language.  She does the subtlest things with line length, for example.  Perhaps some of this is visible in my excerpts.  Rossetti wrote in what must have been a competitive period.  Everyone was working in Tennyson’s shadow, I suppose, so you had to outdo him to be noticed.

So I will drop back to the poem’s setting, which is easier.  I am thinking not of the  setting of a novel, but the setting of a diamond.  A lonely, self-denying diamond.

In “The Queen of Hearts,” the setting is domestic, even humorous.  Two women are playing cards, and the speaker spins out the metaphor that her opponent, lucky in cards and love (unlike the poet), always draws the queen of hearts:

It baffles me to puzzle out the clue,
Which must be skill, or craft, or luck in you:
      Unless, indeed, it be
      Natural affinity.

The affinity of Rossetti’s heroines lies elsewhere.  Her speakers are often ghosts:

“I go home alone to my bed,
Dug deep at the foot and deep at the head,
Roofed in with a load of lead,
Warm enough for the forgotten dead.” (“The Poor Ghost”)

Or are speaking to ghosts:

“What do you do there, underground,
    In the dark hollow?  I’m fain to follow.
What do you do there? – what have you found?” –  (“The Ghost’s Petition”)

Ballads, songs, seasons, fairy tales, dreams, nature poems – all lead to negation and sacrifice:

Then as their plumes fell fluttering to the ground,
    Their snow-white  plumage flecked with crimson drops,
        I wept, and thought I turned towards you to weep:
    But you were gone; while rustling hedgerow tops
Bent in a wind which bore to me a sound
        Of far-off piteous bleat of lambs and sheep.  (“On the Wing”)

These have all been from The Prince’s Progress.  In that book, the selection of non-devotional poems ends with a surprise, a long narrative poem about illegitimacy, “’The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children,’” told by a character who works as a servant for her well-born mother, her parentage a secret to the world.  Whatever kinship the poem might have in its novelistic detail to, say, Elizabeth Gaskell, in the end it is a Rossetti poem:

But nameless as I stand,
My hand is my own hand,
And nameless as I came
I go to the dark land.

“All equal in the grave” –
I bide my time till then:
“All equal before God” –
Today I feel His rod,
Tomorrow he may save:

Sunday, September 8, 2013

No future hope, no fear for evermore - Rossetti's "Prince's Progress" and more

“The Prince’s Progress,” the long narrative poem that leads off Christina Rossetti’s The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems, begins (and continues, more or less) like this:

Till all sweet gums and juices flow,
Till the blossom of blossoms blow,
The long hours go and come and go,
    The bride she sleepeth, waketh, sleepeth,
Waiting for one whose coming is slow:–
        Hark! the bride weepeth.

Which is pretty good, even if I am not sure what the “blossom of blossoms” might be or why it would “blow,” aside from the alliteration.  The one who is slow is the Prince, whose Progress is not as steady as that of the Pilgrim.  He is caught up in the various distractions and sins that lay between him and his bride.  Being a Rossetti poem, the Prince is too late:

“You should have wept her yesterday,
    Wasting upon her bed:
But wherefore should you weep today
    That she is dead?”

The poem has some fine descriptions of the bizarre landscape the Prince must cross:

Some old volcanic upset must
Have rent the crust and blackened the crust;
Wrenched and ribbed it beneath its dust
    Above earth’s molten centre at seethe,
Heaved and heaped it by huge upthrust
        Of fire beneath.

Some bold word choices here, including the double “crust,” mirroring the “blossoms” of the first stanza.  The disadvantage of Rossetti’s landscape and the Prince’s quest is that it evokes Robert Browning’s strange and ambiguous “’Childe Roland to the Great Tower Came,’” one of the Greatest Poems in the Language.  Not the subject but the language evokes one of the other GpitLs, Rossetti’s own “Goblin Market,” published four years earlier:

She cried “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.”

A children’s poem, this was for decades thought of as merely a charming children’s poem.

Rossetti had written a sonnet that strips off the fairy tale but otherwise seems to contain almost everything valuable about “The Prince’s Progress,” fourteen pages compressed into fourteen lines.  The poem dates from 1854 but for some reason was only published posthumously. 


It is a land with neither night nor day,
    Nor heat nor cold, nor any wind, nor rain,
    Nor hills nor valleys: but one even plain
Stretches through long unbroken miles away,
While through the sluggish air a twilight grey
    Broodeth: no moons or seasons wax and wane,
    No ebb and flow are there among the main,
No bud-time, no leaf-falling, there for aye:–
No ripple on the sea, no shifting sand,
    No beat of wings to stir the stagnant space:
No pulse of life through all the loveless land
And loveless sea; no trace of days before,
    No guarded home, no time-worn resting-place
No future hope, no fear for evermore.

I do not understand the title.  Maybe the Prince, or poet, is actually wandering around on a giant cobweb.  Rossetti might have made a fine fantasy novelist.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

That lowest place too high, make one more low - Christina Rossetti in book form

I seem not to have written about poetry for a while.  I will bet I had a good reason, although I do not remember it.  Christina Rossetti’s second book, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems from 1866 will be the book of the moment.  I do not believe I wrote anything about her debut, the 1862 Goblin Market and Other Poems, so perhaps I will glance at it as well.

No, not  perhaps – necessarily.  The comparison is too clear.  Each book begins with the long title poem, each a puzzling fantasy, follows with a series of lyrics – Rossetti is a most songful poet – and ends with a group of devotional poems.  “Goblin Market” is better than “The Prince’s Progress.”  The lyric poems are not so much better poem by poem more varied in the first book as more varied.  The Prince’s Progress is monotonous.  The religious poems – I am not such a good reader of the religious poems.  They all seem good.

Let’s try one of those.

The Lowest Place

Give me the lowest place: not that I dare
    Ask for that lowest place, but Thou hast died
That I might live and share
    Thy glory by Thy side.

Give me the lowest place: or if for me
    That lowest place too high, make one more low
Where I may sit and see
    My God and love Thee so.

The anthologies I have poked around in select lots of poems from Goblin Market and between few and none from Prince’s Progress.  As usual, my judgment turns out to be tediously conventional.  The 5th Edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature skips the book completely.  Cecil Lang’s old The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle picks just one poem, this one, “The Lowest Place.”

It is almost ur-Rossetti.  Christina the Christian martyr.  In the secular poems, her characters martyr themselves to a lover, in the Christian poems to Christ.  I do not know of another poem as bald about the matter as this one.  The first stanza seems conventional, but the second, where the poet decides she has not gone far enough in her degradation, is astounding, psychologically intense and uncomfortable.  An entire book of poems of female martyrdom is in some ways unpleasant, even when composed by a genius.

Where is the poetry in “The Lowest Place”?  It seems like it is all in the rhythm of the poem, purely iambic but pleasingly varied if read conversationally.  It is almost too simple to do much else, aside from the alliteration, and parallel construction, and  - of course once I start poking at it, more falls out.  I am simultaneously reading, or at least gazing upon, the poetry of Algernon Swinburne, exactly contemporary to Christina Rossetti, and I realize that his baroque gibberish makes everyone else look simple, so I will abandon that line of thought.  There will be plenty more to see in Rossetti’s poems.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The silence and the sun remain - Just So Stories illustrations and editions

This is a bibliographic post about Just So Stories.  Useful and nicely illustrated.

On the one hand, there is no reason to fuss over getting an edition of Just So Stories that uses Kipling’s illustrations.  The stories have been published along with other people’s illustrations since they first appeared in English magazines.  A fine recent example is The Complete Just So Stories (1993) which features Isabelle Brent’s colorful pictures which suggest mixtures of Persian miniature painting with African and other patterns.  More at Brent’s website.

On the other hand, no one is likely to out-weird the amateur Kipling:

This is the picture of the Animal that came out of the sea and ate up all the food that Suleiman-bin-Daoud had made ready for all the animals in all the world.  He was really quite a nice Animal, and his Mummy was very fond of him and of his twenty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine other brothers that lived at the bottom of the sea.  You know that he was the smallest of them all, and so his name was Small Porgies…  I don't know the names of the ships.  That is all there is in that picture.  (“The Butterfly that Stamped”)

That is part of the picture’s caption, which reveals the number one reason to make sure you have selected an edition with Kipling illustrations – they are accompanied by Kipling text, good text, strange text.  I suppose much of the strangeness. which is mild, comes from the implicit responses to the infant auditor, the kind of person who asks the name of the sea monster, and whether the monster ate the ships (no), and the names of the ships (“I don’t know”), and on to the exhaustion of one party or the other.

Just once Kipling’s illustration is so good that he has trouble joking about it.

That is from the great “The Cat that Walked by Himself,” a fable that plausibly explains why cats are so bad and are likely to remain so.  My own cats, when I tried to discuss the underlying ideas of the story with them, ignored me, exactly as predicted by  the tale.  Incidentally, “The Cat that Walked by Himself” belongs on any list of Housekeeping Fiction.  I warned that this was a bibliographic post.

The Brent collection, or some similar supplement, is useful not just for the illustrations but because the 1902 edition of the book is missing two Just So stories, one because it was not written until a couple of decades later, and another because it was apparently too sad.  The daughter for whom Kipling conjured up the Just So fables died of pneumonia when she was only six.

Each story is accompanied by a poem.  One of them obliquely refers to the daughter’s death.  It comes after “How the Alphabet Was Made,” in which a father and daughter invent the alphabet from first principles, by which I mean analogy and whimsy.  Tegumai is the father, Taffy the daughter:

          But as the faithful years return
            And hearts unwounded sing again,
          Comes Taffy dancing through the fern
            To lead the Surrey spring again.

          Her brows are bound with bracken-fronds,
            And golden elf-locks fly above;
          Her eyes are bright as diamonds
            And bluer than the skies above.

          In moccasins and deer-skin cloak,
            Unfearing, free and fair she flits,
          And lights her little damp-wood smoke
            To show her Daddy where she flits.

          For far--oh, very far behind,
            So far she cannot call to him,
          Comes Tegumai alone to find
            The daughter that was all to him.

Perhaps it is best not to know any of this.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

You could very seldom see them, and then only when you knew precisely where to look - cracking the code in the Just So Stories

At time the Jungle Books were clearly books for children, at times something else.  The animal and origin fables in Kipling’s  Just So Stories (1902) aim younger and are therefore more purely childish, not just stories for little children, three or four years old, but stories meant to be read to children.  That is not right either.  They are meant to be performed.

They scuttled for days and days and days till they came to a great forest, 'sclusively full of trees and bushes and stripy, speckly, patchy-blatchy shadows, and there they hid: and after another long time, what with standing half in the shade and half out of it, and what with the slippery-slidy shadows of the trees falling on them, the Giraffe grew blotchy, and the Zebra grew stripy, and the Eland and the Koodoo grew darker, with little wavy grey lines on their backs like bark on a tree trunk; and so, though you could hear them and smell them, you could very seldom see them, and then only when you knew precisely where to look.  (from “How the Leopard Got His Spots”)

That is a pretty long sentence for a book aimed at four year-olds.  But for a ham actor parent, perfect.

My understanding is that the stories mostly have oral origins, Kipling improvising and perfecting a tale for his infant daughter.  At some point the tale was firm enough to be transferred to paper, perhaps even sent to a magazine.  A poem was always added, and a couple of Kipling’s peculiar illustrations.  My favorite running joke is his lament that he is not allowed to use color, that the illos would be much better if he were allowed to use color.  “I think it would look better if you painted the banana-tree green and the Elephant’s Child red.”

I assume that the latter is meant to elicit a squeal from the child:  Daddy, elephants ain’t red!  Thus distracting the youngster from all of the pedagogy embedded in the stories: the vocabulary words(sagacity, comestible), science (neap-tide, equinox), anthropology, and moral lessons (“The rest of the time he picked up the melon rinds that he had dropped on his way to Limpopo – for he was a Tidy Pachyderm”).

Then there are the puzzles.  “The letters round the tusk are magic – Runic magic, - and if you can read them you will find out something rather new” – this from “How the First Letter Was Written.”  I tried I don’t know how many combinations of search terms to get the internet to solve the code for me.  No luck.  The internet is useless.

I had to solve the puzzle myself.  Email me if you want the answer.  It turns out to be kind of meta, a message about cracking the code.

How strange Kipling’s imagination must have been.  How many writers are capable of writing animal fables of any quality at all, or original heroic legends.  Kipling’s mythic imagination is perhaps a clue to his uncertain status.  Myth-makers are supposed to be anonymous, and long dead.