Friday, September 04, 2015

Two Mystic Poets and a Bed Bug

Two Mystic Poets and a Bed Bug

One isn’t too surprised about the intimate knowledge of fleas for people who lived in those times when beds and houses were filled with varied creatures who lived alongside human beings very cosily.  In the past we were certainly in touch with Nature in all its moods and variety of living forms, be they pleasant to human beings or not, an animal species alongside all the other animals. They were considered as part of all the living things created by God and so must be studied, tolerated, accepted even if sometimes utterly disliked.  Nowadays, most of so called civilised humanity (those who live in civitas – Latin for towns) have a somewhat sentimental understanding of animals and a perfect horror of  insects, bugs, bacteria , mice, rats and anything that penetrates the sanctity of their homes. We are encouraged now to sanitise our houses into a safe, impenetrable sterility.  And I’m all for it as much as anyone else.

We seldom see flies these days.  But when meat hung on hooks over a fire, lay on a  platter in the larder or left uncovered at times, flies were naturally attracted to the home.  Now we have fridges and freezers; not places where a fly feels comfortable or willing to search for a meal. I remember still those frightful sticky fly catchers in the shape of colourful parrots dangling from my grandmother’s ceiling covered in nasty black victims and feel grateful for fridges and my little larder.  I have no objection to house spiders.  They do a useful job though those huge hairy creatures that seem to invade in the autumn and are especially fond of getting stuck in the bath, have to be fished out and sent off to the garden where they belong.

Many old erotic poems were written about fleas, strange as such a subject might seem.  The poet addressing his loved one would be envious of the creature’s ability to be close to his love in places he could not touch or reach, exploring her milk white bosom, crawling beneath her petticoats to inhabit those areas he would love to be able to explore himself!  This small creature had no boundaries, no conventions as the lover must needs have.  Its death at her hands at the height of its bliss as it sucks her blood was a metaphor for sexuality as the words ‘die’ and ‘kill’ were then considered  to be.  ‘The little death’ they called it because orgasm for a man was said to shorten his life span and take away something from him every time.  Nowadays we believe the exact opposite and say men who have regular sex live longer!   
Bianca Pnzoni Anguissola
 (the artists mother) by Sofonisba Anguissola
Italy 1557

Ladies apparently took to carrying around elaborately bejewelled little fur tippets or zibellino (italian for sable) which they apparently hoped might attract the fleas away from their bodies into the warm fur they held. A rather impossible notions as fleas like warmth it's true but they also want live creatures blood to feed on!  

Bernardino Luini: Lady with a flea fur 1515
Walter's Art Museum 

The first ‘flea’ poem is said to have been written by Ovid but there were others written or told before his.  John Donne’s famous poem ‘The Flea’ is following an older tradition but he uses it in a most effective, witty and cheeky manner to put forward his case to his lady love (whom we assume might have been the lady who later became his wife)

John Donne

John Donne is considered the foremost of the so called ‘metaphysical’ poets.  He was born on January22nd 1572 in London to a Catholic family at a time when Catholicism had been banned in England and scarcely tolerated.  Catholics were banned from many a career prospect in law, politics or the church.  Several members of Donne’s family were persecuted, tortured and considered as martyrs.  His own brother was imprisoned and forced under torture to give away a priest he had been sheltering.  The priest, William Harrington, was hung drawn and quartered, a nasty death  – for what sin?  But, of course, he was considered a traitor and dealt with accordingly.  As for poor Henry Donne, he died in prison of the bubonic plague.  This affected John Donne deeply and made him question his catholic faith.  He was ambitious and wished to prosper and no doubt realised that people were afraid of the Papists, convinced they would create some sort of revolution and call in support those countries still staunchly Roman Catholic and subservient to the Pope in Rome.

Donne must have had a charming and charismatic nature because he escaped all this family harassment.  Or perhaps he had the kind of nature like the tree that bent with the wind and thus survived the storm.  He was educated at a school in Oxford, admitted to Cambridge University at 14 years of age, accepted at 15 to study law at Lincoln’s Inn.  People had short lives in these days and packed action in from an early age.  After his studies he began to travel extensively abroad.  He appeared bent on some sort of diplomatic career, became a member of parliament and was eventually asked by King James (well – ordered really) to become  a cleric of the Anglican church.  He accepted this post and eventually became Dean of St. Paul’s in which great London church lie his remains.

He seems to have been quite a womaniser in his youth, hence many an erotic poem which he shared round his patrons for their amusement much as we might do on Facebook today. The portrait below was possibly painted for a lady he wished to attain.  The undone collar suggests this to some but it was in fact a fashion of the time. However, he eventually fell in love with Anne More and in 1601 married her secretly against the wishes of her father thus getting himself into trouble and even landing in Fleet prison.  He was eventually released but it affected his career. Anne bore him twelve children, of whom two were stillbirths.  The poor woman spent her life pregnant and nursing and caring for the family while Donne scraped a meagre living so that poverty was never far away.   Anne died after the last stillbirth in 1617.   Donne had loved her deeply and mourned her loss in his 17th Holy Sonnet.  As far as we know, he was faithful to her, turning more and more towards spiritual matters, laced with doubts, questions and philosophies.

Donne’ poetry is unusual for the times, often beginning abruptly, full of sudden twists and turns, with unusual metaphors and contrasting, unexpected ideas (called conceits).  It was considered ‘physical’ poetry because poetic metres and styles changed after the laws of Aristotle . . . in other words after physics.   They are witty, ingenious poems, full of complex themes both sacred and profane.  His poetry was written for a few patrons and never published in his lifetime.  The love poems are sexual, sensual, quite different to the ideal of courtly love that had flourished with the troubadors where one’s lady was unobtainable, mysterious, a spiritual object rather than a carnal one.  Donne’s ladies are to be bedded and urgently, lustfully!  He seldom used classical mythology in his poetry as many other poets were wont to do a that time. Instead he chose plain words, plain speaking yet expressed in such a way as to make them fresh, original and even startling.

Thus we come to his amusing poem The Flea.   It has been conjectured that the letter ‘s’ in the fifteenth-sixteenth century looked very like an ‘f’ to gather the subtle ribaldness of ‘it sucked me first and now sucks thee’.  It’s a possibility that Donne might have hinted at this idea and his poems generally contain barely disguised references to states of arousal and bodily fluids being exchanged. Those Elizabethans were a saucy lot.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

Here’s an argument worthy of a lawyer’s mind.  The lustful lover argues that as the flea has bitten them both, it contains them united in love, a marriage bed, a marriage temple.  There is no sin, no shame in this - so why not make love and unite thus?  The lady isn’t convinced and makes to kill the flea and her lover tries to stay her hand but no.  ‘hast thou since purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?’ and not only that but she is triumphant in saying the flea’s death hasn’t affected them one little bit; it certainly hasn’t weakened them.   In which case, retorts the cunning lover, the tiny amount of life blood taken by the flea is like the tiny amount of honour she will lose by yielding to him.   It’s a merry poem and treats his lady as a person of equal wit and intelligence.

In contrast to this humorous look at the flea we turn to one far more horrifying.  The next poetical flea is actually a painting rather than a poem.  It was painted by the mystical poet and artist William Blake whose story I portrayed in my last blog. This tiny but exquisitely painted picture is called The Ghost of a Flea and hangs in the Tate Gallery in London.  Apparently the drawing of the Flea came about when Blake spent an evening with his friend John Varley.  Varley was a student of esoteric subjects and believed in the existence of spirits and those things which required ‘an eye to see and an ear to hear’– in other words those visions beyond the limits of the physical eye and ear and its limited capacities.  He knew that Blake had daily seen visions since an early age, one of which was a tree filled with bright angels and celestial beings and claimed to often be surrounded by ghostly beings as he painted.  Varley and Blake would often meet and hold a kind of séance together in which Varley would call up some historical or mythological being and Blake would sketch the vision that appeared to him.

On this particular occasion it seems as if the image of the Flea came spontaneously to Blake. Varley asked him to sketch it.  Blake did so, saying he saw it very clearly before him.  The result became the little painting now in the Tate.  It is beautifully finished with applied gold leaf on the stars.  A monstrous bull like creature is striding purposefully between rich brocade curtains as if on a stage, the background a starry night perhaps depicting the universe, a symbol of the creation or something greater than the creature, monstrous as it is.   The Flea’s snake like tongue seeks the bowl of food before it.  A strange vision.  But not the first such vision to be thus depicted by the artist.  Blake seemed to have had an inner or subconscious vision of such muscular, often horrifying beings who, for him, were epitomes of all that was loathsome and evil.  The only time he saw a ghost, according to Alexander Gilchrist, his Victorian biographer, was when he lived in Lambeth.  The ghost described was very similar to the vision of the flea and terrified Blake so much he turned and ran.
The Great Red Dragon
 and the Woman clothed with the Sun

What, we wonder, are these visions?  Modern psychology would say they were sub personalities drawn from his own unconscious mind, haunting him as such lost and long-forgotten inner beings do.  They certainly seem to be the Shadow side of Blake’s angelic visions.  Ghostly images do occur and many perfectly sensible, intelligent people claim to have seen them, especially when young.  When we are young, we are open to other realms and states of existence but this open state of mind narrows down till all we see in the end is that tiny portion of existence before our physical eyes – and even that but imperfectly – ‘as in a glass darkly’ – St. Paul would have said.   

Or as Wordsworth had it in Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream
The earth and every common sight
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore: -
Turn wheresoe’er I may
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

But Blake carried on seeing his visions up to the moment of his death.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

William Blake: An Unseen Enemy.

            William Blakes’ soujourn in “Paradise

         “If a Man is the Enemy of my Spiritual Life while he pretends to be the Friend of my Corporeal, he is a real enemy..”
                    William Blake, letter to Thomas Butts,  Felpham April 25th 1803

William Blake

That wonderful, fiery, genius William Blake whose ‘flashing eye’ expressed the indignation he felt at all forms of injustice and tyranny!  This ‘flashing eye’ and the vehement shouts of ‘False!’ were all that a young Chichester lad recalled in his old age of the famous trial of William Blake for evil, seditious and treasonable expressions against King George 111. *

This trumped up charge was the strange and malevolent ending of a period in Blake’s life that had at first promised to be financially successful; a time when he was apparently at his happiest.  Blake had as a friend a man called John Flaxman, a well meaning, though mundanely inspired person, who felt sympathetic towards Blake and wanted to help him along the ladder of success.  Flaxman recommended Blake as an artist-engraver to another friend of his, named William Hayley, a country gentleman who rather fancied himself as a poet.  Hayley was interested and agreed to befriend Blake and push his fortunes up the ladder of fame.  It was indeed a splendid opportunity for Blake and could have been a turning point in his career if he had so chosen.

Thus in 1800, Blake and his wife, Catherine, were invited to move to the pretty seaside hamlet of Felpham, where Hayley lived, so that he would be the closer to his new patron.  Blake now had a charming six-roomed cottage by the sea in exchange for the small residence in his beloved Lambeth which had been his for so many London years.  At this period of time everything seemed set for a new and splendid life cycle.  Blake loved his new home and felt tremendously free and for once surrounded by air, space and the glorious marine beauty of Nature.  It was Paradise and he and Catherine revelled in it all “courting Neptune for an embrace”.
           “we are safely arrived at our Cottage which is more beautiful than I thought it..... Heaven opens here on all sides her golden Gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of Celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard and their forms more distinctly seen; and my Cottage is also a Shadow of their houses...... And Now Begins a New life because another covering of Earth is shaken off ” (letter to Flaxman written Sept.21.1800 Sunday Morning)

At the time that Blake wrote this letter uneasiness even then made its insidious undermining at the roots of his soul, the Dark Stranger had already entered Blake’s life and waited invisible in the wings.  We sense the underlying feeling of sacrifice of dreams, visions and all that upheld Blake’s inner soul, being traded in with a wrenching saturnine reluctance for the sober effort of now having to get down to life’s nitty gritty, like it or not.  Blake, after all, is what Jung would call a puer type, an eternal child as are so many creative geniuses.  Life’s boring realities are always at odds with the celestial vision.  But we all need bread and a roof over our heads and here was Blake’s chance to make good and make some money, fame and fortune.

Yet with all this promising beginning, this paradisical setting, that lurking God, whom Blake both adored and feared deeply and alternately named Satan, Urizen, Christ (as opposed to the mystical, loving figure of the man Jesus) crept in within a mere three years to sour it all, ending with the unpleasant incident of the trespassing soldier and a court case.  Thus the soldier in his way took the role of the serpent whose sinuous undermining led to the eviction of Adam and Eve from their Paradise home, a theme that Blake was forever depicting in his poetry and art. 

The Soldier’s Story:

Sometime in July of 1803 Blake’s apparently innocent and peaceful Felpham Paradise was invaded by a private from the troop of Royal Dragoons stationed nearby.  The man had been invited in to help cut the lawn by the gardener who omitted mentioning this to Blake. He was deeply angry for he hated soldiers, war-mongers and other minions of the State.  He had been an advocate of revolution, followed the works of Thomas Paine, Godwin and other outspoken people of the time, though like all these found the disturbing, grim reality nothing like the ideal.  Plus Blake was paranoid about his privacy; a loner who felt immensely threatened and invaded by the outside world.   He therefore asked the man to leave his garden.  The soldier was impertinent in reply; Blake asked again, the man threatened most unpleasantly to knock his eyes out.  Now Blake was known as a peaceable, good-natured  man and at his later trial many attested to his kindliness and peacefulness.  But there was a hot tempered side to him as well.  Here intruded therefore his own inner warmonger, the invasive soldier within, into the apparent peaceful temenos of his Felpham cottage.  Blake’s intense emotional reaction smacks of a Shadow issue.  An incident which was nothing in itself suddenly became a regular drama.

The incident took place some time between July and August 1803. Blake was already tired of William Hayley and his demands and planning to return to the more secluded atmosphere of London where one might lose oneself totally amidst the collective, while in Felpham he probably was far more of an eccentric object of interest and curiosity.  Certainly it would make Blake feel invaded by some unpleasant transgressor, a Dionysian element as if Neptune, whom he had welcomed at first as his friendly deity when he and Catherine moved to the seaside, was now creeping in as an invader and also as a deceiver.  For the soldier, fiercely ejected by Blake and marched back to his barracks took his own nasty revenge by lying about Blake and swearing that he had uttered words of sedition against the king and country, “damn the King, damn all his subject, damn his soldiers, they are all slaves, when Bonaparte comes, , it will be cut throat for cut throat and the weakest must go to the wall ; I will help him” and so forth.  
However, at the trial held at Chichester Jan.11th 1804,  the soldier was proved to be a down and out ruffian and liar and Blake was aquitted amidst the cheers of his many friends and well-wishers.  The whole incident was nonetheless a peculiar culmination to this time in his life when Blake could have chosen the easy path of conforming to what his patron Hayley needed and for once securing himself a less precarious mode of living which he sometimes seemed to yearn for.   But did he really stand a chance?   Flaxman, in introducing Blake to Hayley, had hinted that Blake would do best at teaching engraving and drawing, making “neat drawings of different kinds” and would be best to be discouraged from “any dependence on painting large pictures, for which he is not qualified either by habit or study”.  This led to Hayley’s well-meant rejection of Blake’s grander and individualistic  ideas from the start. 

“Natural Friends are Spiritual Enemies”.

Flaxman and Hayley were true friends, one might say, but Blake would later state the fact that “natural friends are spiritual enemies”.  What did he mean by this, we wonder?  And why were friendships and general dealings with the collective always so problematic for him?

These “friends” meant well from a worldly point of view, but Blake was not a worldly person.  If he had followed this path, sacrificed his visions and stuck to ‘neat drawings’ we would have yet another mediocre eighteenth artist who would have faded into obscurity with many others.   Blake constantly found himself passed over by those of lesser talents, illustrating books of inferior poets to himself.  By the time the incident took place with the soldier, he had already come to the end of his tether and this incident was probably an expression of his frustration and anger that Paradise had after all turned so sour.  He felt that it was in his native place, in Soho, London, that he was more at ease, more in tune with his visions.  And so he returned to live at South Molton St., a return to his beginnings so to speak for he was born near there.  Here he lived for 17 years, scarcely going out; here he wrote his great work “Jerusalem; the Emanation of the Giant Albion”.   So we cannot help but feel the unpleasant soldier was a better friend than Blake’s supposed benefactors.  And yet while at Felpham, Blake had written another of his great epic poems, “Milton” and drawn some of his finest works, so his time there was not at all bereft of angelic vision for all the difficulties encountered.

Angels and Devils, visions of Heaven and Hell.

 I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my Hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
On England’s green and pleasant Land.

For a Sagittarian, with a Sun-Jupiter conjunction, Blake was strangely insular by nature.  But he has Cancer Rising plus the Moon in that sign in the 12th house.  Emotionally and by habit, he preferred the introverted, inward poetic gaze to the external, limited world of form. Form came through his fiery poetry and pictures. Though he adored Nature he never did landscape drawing for he saw everything with the mythic, imaginative eye that found meaning in all things.  Nature was suffused with the Divine and played upon his deepest emotions and feeling imbues all his works.
               If we take a look again at this important period round 1800-3 we sense  an inner reluctance to give up his dramatic, noble, fiery visions and spiritual values for cramping, dulling, rational, materialistic ones.  His visions are as meaningful now as they were then.  In fact, Blake was a very modern man and many of his pictures border on surrealism.  It is no wonder he appeals to modern man who is equally tormented by the same strange Faustian mixture of atheism, mysticism, cynicism and who tries to make sense of a politically correct  ideal world were all is acceptable and united in an all-embracing fusion yet oddly disintegrated, separate, chaotic, boundary-less and full of incessant anxieties and horrors.   

Blake did at least acknowledge that he had both an Angel and a Devil in him which is more than most of us do and his major works were centred round Milton who wrote Paradise Lost and Regained and Dante’s visions of Heaven and Hell, which Blake magnificently illustrated.  Basically Blake felt his view of God was all angelic and he criticised Dante ‘who sees Devils where I see None’ but this was palpably not the case.  True his tendency was to be positive and optimistic and joyful and see the good in everyone but this naturally had its judgmental, rejecting opposite lurking in the Shadow.  In fact, Blake had a peculiar, confused and tormented vision of God yet there is also the opposing vision of joyfulness, simplicity and colour, song, beauty which he called Orc, his “spiritual Sun” opposed to the natural Sun which he called Satan, the Greek Apollo.  Here he seems to speak of his own inner intuition of the Self, his inner core identity.  He tried over and over again to embody this fierce, highly personal vision of God in his work and to understand Him through it.  He painted, wrote of it all in his verses and songs and gloriously illustrated books with intense passion (Mercury in Scorpio square Mars-Neptune in Leo); the eternal struggle of the visionary against the cramping, stifling bonds of realism.  It also indicates the problems he always felt over well meaning friends who, while feeling intuitively that he was a talented person and genuinely trying to help him, seemed unable to truly understand his work or appreciate his real genius except towards the end of his life.   
Glad Day

Basically Blake was a true alchemist who had to follow the solitary path of his own Great Work, magician, distiller, dissolver, working unceasingly on his vision till the end of his life. He needed to be alone and retreat from the world for he was engaged on a supreme task.  His efforts were the superhuman efforts towards unity and cohesion of the disparate and confused pieces of oneself that float about in the psyche like the pieces of Osiris flung here and there by Dark Seth.  His beloved wife Catherine who worked patiently beside him, sublimating her own personality to help him, was his Isis, his soror mystica, the spiritual sister who labours with the alchemist on his task.  If anyone was Blake’s true friend it was this woman who gave up her life for him, grateful, loving, worshipping God through him – his companion till the end.

William Blake was born 28th November 1757 and died 12th August 1827

*  The Life of William Blake by Alexander Gilchrist  Ch. X1X p.172.  Everyman (J.M.Dent & Sons Ltd. )London
It is first mentioned to Hayley in the letter dated Aug 16th 1803 but there is no mention of it to Butts in a letter dated July 6th 1803.
see P.171-2 of Gilchrist’s book. for date of trial, charge against Blake.

Other books used:  The Portable William Blake:  Viking Press New York 1946
                     William Blake  by Kathleen Raine  Thames and Hudson, London  1977


Monday, March 23, 2015

Finding Your House in a Famous Hopper Painting!

Rocks and Houses, Ogunquit
Edward Hopper
Recently a friend sent me an article on a painting by Edward Hopper called Rocks and Houses, Ogunquit.  The writer of this article, David Millward, was astonished to discover that the house in the picture was his own, somewhat changed in the 100 years since Hopper painted the picture but the scene still recognisable.  The rock in the front had been partially blasted away to make easier access to Perkins Cove, the barn in the middle was gone and also the verandah - while the next door house had been flattened . . . yet, despite these changes, his house was there in the middle behind the remains of the rock.  It had lost much of its quaintness and I wonder if Hopper would have felt it to be as interesting and worth painting if he was to see it now.  Hopper was intrigued by interesting architecture and houses.  But for Millward, it must have been so interesting to see how the scene appeared to the artist all that time ago. What a delightful discovery to make!

House by the Railroad
The picture had been bequeathed by Hopper’s wife, Jo Nivison, an artist in her own right, to the Whitney Museum in New York along with many others.  Hopper was a prolific painter.  Many of his scenes have become very well known.  His House by the Railroad was the model for Hitchcock’s film Psycho, the tall, spooky house where poor Janet Leigh met her death in the infamous shower scene.  It has to be said, it is a strange looking house!  Millward managed to persuade the museum to allow him to come and see Rocks and Houses , now in storage, in situ.  They finally agreed and he was able to view the original painting.  Unfortunately, Millward would have been unlikely to afford to purchase it.  Hopper’s painting now sell for millions.  But when this early painting was done, he wasn’t the famous artist of later years and it isn’t necessarily his best work.

The Lee Shore
My daughter introduced me to the paintings of Edward Hopper and I absolutely love his work.  They are not only full of light, space and interesting scenes, they also tell stories. Hopper himself was a taciturn fellow but his pictures spoke volumes.  The idea came to me one morning at breakfast with a good friend in Alexandria, Washington to write a story about some of the pictures.  I have written six so far and hope to add more as time goes on.  Interestingly I began with House on the Railroad and it became a bit of a spooky story involving a mother!  I didn't realise at the time that Psycho was based on such an idea and I still haven’t watched the film . . . it gave me the creeps just seeing the trailer.   But it’s interesting that this is what the picture drew out of people.  Something interesting in Hopper’s psyche, no doubt!  Houses, the sea are associated psychologically with the idea of Mother and the Feminine.  And houses, sea, boats and women appear in so many of the Hopper pictures.  I love the one above . . . The Lee Shore.  It is so full of movement and light.  And like so many Hopper paintings, taken from strange angles that make the house appear to be in the sea itself.  Hopper spent time in Paris in his youth and learnt a lot from Degas who tended to use interesting and different perspectives. 

My Hopper stories can be read on my website .  I would have loved to make a book of them but it would have entailed writing to varied sources to gain permission to print the pictures with the story.  Without the pictures, the meaning of the story would not be as dramatic.  I hope some of you will take a look at see if you feel the stories fit the pictures.  All I can say is, these are the stories that came to my mind.  You may have others, far better.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Discovering a Treasure Trove: the poems of Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney Photograph Edit.jpg
Seamus Heaney

I have to confess to something very sad.  I had never heard of Seamus Heaney till recently.  I mean to say, he is a greatly acclaimed Irish poet, the winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature who died only a year ago in 2013.  And there was a programme about him on Country File.  I missed all this.  Where was I?

I think this dire omission is because my mind has always been somewhat closed to ‘modern’ poetry.  I’m an unashamed Romantic Philosopher myself and my joy in poetry is derived from the works of William Blake, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and I might kindly go as far as the War Poets, Yeats, Ted Hughes - just about - and a few others.  Then I stop.  (I’m sorry, I can’t abide Sylvia Plath and always felt sorry for Ted faced with this neurotic, narcissistic wife) 
So basically, in the eyes of many, I am a poetry ignoramus.

But thankfully I have a wonderful literature tutor who talks to us about many styles and aspects of literature.  This lady is 80 years old but with a mind sharp as a razor, a memory that holds a library of literary knowledge and who walks about as if she was still only 40.   Her undying enthusiasm and love for her subject, her readiness to learn about new subject matter herself is so inspiring.  I went rather reluctantly to her afternoon talk on Seamus Heaney.  The poems she sent us to bone up on looked incomprehensibe, even pecualiar at times.  Did I really care about this poetry?  

However I went.  And as always, Angela turned the afternoon to one of fascinated interest and exploration into many aspects of this poetry.  Interesting understanding I'd like to share. 

It's all so different when poetry is read aloud.  We then hear the melodic cadences, the unusual words that suddenly aren’t so strange but perfectly appropriate.  Hearing Heaney read his poetry in his soft Irish lilt gave new meaning to it all. When we learns the story behnd it the poem and understand the background and life of the poet, it gives his work a new dimension, a background picture.  All springs to life as if a light has been cast upon a dark corner to reveal a treasure hiding there. 

Seamus Heaney was born in Northern Ireland but lived all his life in Dublin and always associated himself with the Republic of Eire.  He is not an overtly political poet and yet there many little words and phrases that give away his background and the constant underlying fear that was in the hearts of the Irish people.  One poem called A Constable Calls from an album called North (1975) shows this fear well.  It describes a scene from Heaney’s young life when a policeman came to visit the family.  he bore with him an official ledger to take tillage returns, in other words to assess exactly what was produced and grown.  The poem is full of references such ‘the pedal treads (of the policeman’s bicycle)  hanging relieved of the boot of the law’ 

Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster
With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
Looped into the revolver butt.

The Americans might not find this so alarming but the British are unused to policemen with revolvers. However, it was a necessary fact of life in Northern Ireland at that time. The poem ends with the knowledge that his father has withheld the fact he had planted a few turnips at the bottom of the potato field and not declared them.  Guilt and fear enters the boy's heart on his father's behalf.  As the policeman goes we have the lines:

A shadow bobbed in the window.
He was snapping the carrier spring
Over the ledger.  His boot pushed off
And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.

The last line evokes the sound of the wheels perhaps on cobbles or rough ground but it also has the menacing notion of a bomb.  And there were plenty of those going off in Ireland during the troubles. So many troubled young people living with this kind of fear as an everyday image even today.

Heaney wrote a good deal about his childhood as have many poets.  My favourite is Blackberry Picking from his first album Death of a Naturalist (1966).  Most of these remembered childhood scenes start with a sense of innocence and joy which suddenly turns to dismay and even revulsion as he encounters Nature’s darker side.  The blackberries so plump and sweet and delicious when picked can't be kept.  They begin to grow mould and turn sour and stink.  He wants to keep them forever but it’s impossible (certainly in those days of no freezers!)  But nature cannot be captured like this, all is death and decay eventually. Thus is Paradise Lost and the garden of Eden left behind and the boy is obliged to grow up and face the adult world of toil, violence and disillusion.  This always reminds me of Wordsworth’s ‘shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy’ or the poetry of William Blake which speaks with equal sorrow about our lost innocence and childhood joy.  I’ve even written a poem like this myself, a feeble one I know. There are so many poets who have expressed that intense sense of loss of a childhood time when the mind and heart is free of the corruption of adult knowledge, empty of later experiences and ready to find every new experience a source of wonder and awe.  

Heaney, the eldest of nine children, lost his young bother aged four in a car accident.  He describes the sadness and pain of this in his poems.  He wrote many poems about family which are full of tenderness and love. His ability to paint a portrait or a scene is wonderful and many words in the poems appeal to the senses.

The automatic lock clunks shut (The Blackbird of Glanmore)

She sat all day as the sun sundialled
Window splays across the quiet floor.  (Chairing Mary)

…its flesh was sweet
Like thickened summer wine; summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue.  (Blackberry-Picking)

I could go on but maybe you should just take a look at this poems for yourself!  Thank you my dear tutor for bringing this poetry to me and opening my mind to something new and wonderful.  And thank you Seamus for writing these evocative poems. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Diamonds that Destroyed a Palace

The best books are often those given to you by a friend or family.  These are people who understand your taste and you can trust that.  Bailey's book above, 'Black Diamonds' came from a lady I had met only a few times before but she hit the right note with this one. I had over indulged in crime stories and needed something real and moving not a load of corpses and overweight police inspectors.  And this amazing true story of the rise and fall of Wentworth, the beautiful Fitzwilliam family home, was very moving indeed.
second marquess of Rockingham
The house was built for Thomas Watson Wentworth, ist marquess of Rockingham  in the 1700's but Bailey begins her narrative with the death of the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, one of the richest men in Britain at the time, who had by then inherited the estates, the villages, coalmines and the mining and agricultural people that went with it.  It was a grand building, the facade said to be the longest of any house in the whole of the British Isles.  Hundreds of servants were employed to manage the house and grounds and they had to walk five miles of passageways amongst the hundreds of rooms, one for each day of the year. Humphrey Repton had landscaped the beautiful park and filled it with follies, towers and columns.  But over everything lay a very fine pall of dust, the coal dust that darkened the facade and lay on the furniture and gardens.  The house itself stood on hundreds of tons of coal that lay deep in the ground beneath the house.  It was a jewel set on top of the black diamonds so coveted, so needed at the time to help fuel the maws of the Industrial revolution and later to keep afloat the huge British Empire.  The coal was exported to other countries as well making millionaires of the pit owners.
Wentworth House
In the end, the coal which made the 6th Earl so rich a man proved to be the undoing of the house and family and others' greed mixed with political power struggles almost brought the house itself down by undermining its foundations.  The family, also undermined by scandals, hate, jealousies brought about their own ruin, strange stories of bastard heirs, changelings and mothers who turned against their own sons! But there was also a series of sad tragedies that led to their fall.  The later descendants became associated with the Kennedys, another fated and seemingly accursed family.  It is at times as if some malign God takes a dislike to a rich, successful, beautiful family and wreaks revenge for their foolish hubris and misdeeds. 

Wentworth village
The Fitzwilliams were actually much loved by the community of miners who worked their coalfields for them.  The Earl owned the pits, owned, the villages they lived in and paid their wages.  He made sure their homes were reasonable and comfortable, the wages fair, listened to their complaints and on the whole, the men were glad to work for him and not some of the less philanthropic pit owners.  The village was considered wonderful compared to many other depressing, run down miner's villages around the country. Yet, oddly, it was Wentworth that bore the brunt of the Miner's Strike in the deeply depressed era of the 1930's and the aftermath of the war because the ire of the Labour government of the time was aroused against the Fitzwilliams and all their kind.  They became the scapegoats of this wrath.

Sad as it is to read of the demise of this spoilt, beautiful, privileged family, sad as it is to see an old feudal way of life disappear into the mists of time, it was sadder to learn of the terrible poverty, hardships, squalor and slavery the mining communities had to undergo.  It is true to say that they built between them a real spirit of giving, sharing, helping one another.  In the right hands, the feudal system worked well and everyone was well provided for.  But by the 20th century, greed was paramount amongst the pit owners and they were merciless in squeezing every drop of coal from the ground.  The miners were slaves, as bad as the slaves of Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, if not worse.  They lived in the century of mechanisation, enlightenment, wealth in Britain.  Yet their short, endangered lives were spent in the bowels of the earth, they had no choice, where else to go and work in such depressed times but in the mines as their fathers had done before them? 

I felt for the miners.  My uncle was one in Newcastle and I always remember staying with them and having to leave the room when he got home.  His bath was a tin on set before the fire, filled by my auntie who scrubbed his back for him.  But he was always cheerful and gave me a shilling for being good.  I loved him, but like many miners, he died young. It wasn't a life that made old bones.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

I'm not too sure about Flowers

Enjoy this poem by my friend and great poet, Richard Devereux.  He and his family joined us for a walk on our lovely Malvern Hills and we took them to see the famous bluebells.

    bluebells and beyond the bluebells bluebells
    a whole hill-side of bluebells
    the famous Blackhill bluebells
    May Day bluebells
    run-away bluebells
    scampering  bluebells
    drawn to the sunshine – sunshine bluebells
     ding-a-ling bluebells

    my little  girl lies in the bluebells
    in the long grasses and bluebells
    her hair is dressed with bluebells
    I see a painting – girl in the bluebells

    a cry of pain – from the bluebells
    my girl is hurt – stung – forget the bloody bluebells
    she’s been stung by a bee in the bluebells
    no – by a stinging nettle nestling in the bluebells

    there is always a nettle
    in the bluebells

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Stunning Tale: Return of The Native by Thomas Hardy

Recently I came across a paperback of Return of the Native in a second hand bookshop and grabbed it at once.  It was a long time since I had read a novel by Thomas Hardy and this was one I had never tackled.

The trouble with reading a lot of modern fiction (especially thrillers and crime fiction which I do love) is that the dialogue and action are all important with virtually no descriptive passages.  You are carried along at a helter-skelter pace most of the time as the crime is resolved and the characters play their part for a brief moment. It's the storyline that is important, the special style of the detective and his sidekick and often there is a sameness in the characters making them mere appendages to the required action.   Such stories are marvellous when you need something to grab your attention and keep you mesmerised for a while, say at airports, on train journeys or snatched moments of rest in a busy day.  But too much of this fast food diet is like eating too many hamburgers.  Tasty and filling at the time but not really satisfying or even good for mental and emotional growth.  I always feel a need for a little bit of bon cuisine after such a diet, a yearning to delve into something more thoughtful and thought provoking after a few of the fast paced thrillers (though I have been known to live on a feast of Earl Stanley Gardner books for quite a while.  Perry Mason is quite addictive!).

I read many of the great English, Russian, French and American classics from ten years old and onwards and that is thanks to my Greek mother who had a wide ranging taste and education.  It seems amazing now but as a child I was introduced to Charles Dickens at the age of ten at our primary school.  Can you imagine this happening nowadays?  David Copperfield was the first literary book I read and loved and it led me to many other wonderful books. We had a splendid local library were we lived then and I haunted it, avid for the good books available.  Thankfully I read only classics for years, actually avoiding and even scorning 'modern' writers.  But no getting away with it - my daughter was like all our family a great reader and enamoured of crime books in particular and introduced me to crime thrillers. I thank her for it because I enjoy them so much and have since been introduced to other modern writers by her.  And some of them use stunning and wonderful opening descriptions.  One of my favourites is the writer, Nicholas Evans, (The Horse Whisperer) - just read those first few pages of The Divide - his descriptions of the snow covered mountains are sublime.

Catherin Zeta Jones as Eustacia Vye

I say 'thankfully' because the result of all these 'fast food' books is that I do now find it hard work to get into a thick, meaty classic.  They can seem so dauntingly slow and long drawn out in the description department and even the dialogue can be hard work.  People's conversations in past times weren't as snappy as ours today! 

However, I began to read Return of the Native but sadly confess that at first I struggled with the lengthy opening pages of the descriptions of Egdon Heath. (And I still wish they had been cut back by the author- just a little)  However, the brilliance of the prose, the flow of dialogue and unusual characters soon drew me into the story and in no time I was totally immersed in the unhappy lives of Eustacia Vye, her lover, Damon Wildeve, Tamsin Yeobright and the native himself, Clym Yeobright.  I began to feel more and more that the full, rich descriptions of Egdon Heath, this wild, almost desolate natural surrounding in which these people lived and loved, was as much a character as they were.  It formed them and they grew forth from it, part of Nature themselves with the same wild moods and passions that often corresponded to their dramas.  Eustacia hated it, hated the Heath and longed to escape it.  She saw no beauty in its manifold changes and colours.  For her it was a desolation that echoed the state of her own soul.  To Clym Yeobright, the heath had grandeur, beauty and a meaningfulness which the city and its bright lights never held for him.  Their different aspirations and inner lives were in total opposition and they were destined to drive one another apart.  One felt deep sympathy for all the characters in this tale.  They suffered as always the pain of misunderstandings and misapprehensions which for Hardy forms the warp and woof of life's dramas. 

Egdon Heath

'The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to waken and listen .  Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had awaited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the cries of many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis - the final overthrow. '

The Heath becomes an impassive, impersonal watcher and listener to the little fates of those who live there.  It is like some enormous Deity without pity, without anything but being itself for itself.   Human lives come and go but it has been untouched almost since the dawn of time. Night, Nature, the Great Mother is the backdrop to most Hardy stories in which the compelling and passionate lives of his characters dwindle into insignificance in the presence of Nature's ancient detachment.

Many of the lines in this book tuned into my own feelings.  'The vision of what ought to have been is thrown aside in sheer weariness and browbeaten human endeavour listlessly makes the best of the fact that is.'  Many such passages abound and ring a bell for us.  One of the stunning descriptions is of the sound of the night wind blowing through the husks of the dead harebells which can be heard in the immense silence of the heath.  Amazing.  To spend time listening like this, listening to a silence so profound that the faint sound of these brown husks can be heard like a gentle song.

I feel this is one of Hardy's best novels and I hope you agree. 

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