Friday, December 15, 2017

gold wires

Illustration by Frank Cheyne Papé (1910)

[Image source:]

This post begins in a witch's hovel. Florimell, as you can see, seeks refuge there. The witch's son obsesses about their new visitor. Florimell starts to get a creepy feeling about the place, and clears off in the night without saying goodbye. The "accursed Hag" sends a monster in pursuit of her, and the monster returns with a bloodied girdle. The witch thinks her demented son will be consoled by this indication of Florimell's demise, but instead he loses it completely and now threatens to slay his mother. So she decides to knock up a fake Florimell for his use.

The substance, whereof she the bodie made,
  Was purest snow in massie mould congeald,
  Which she had gathered in a shadie glade
  Of the Riphoean hils, to her reueald
  By errant Sprights, but from all men conceald:
  The same she tempred with fine Mercury,
  And virgin wex, that neuer yet was seald,
  And mingled them with perfect vermily,
That like a liuely sanguine it seem'd to the eye.

In stead of eyes two burning lampes she set
  In siluer sockets, shyning like the skyes,
  And a quicke mouing Spirit did arret
  To stirre and roll them, like a womans eyes;
  In stead of yellow lockes she did deuise,
  With golden wyre to weaue her curled head;
  Yet golden wyre was not so yellow thrise
  As Florimells faire haire: and in the stead
Of life, she put a Spright to rule the carkasse dead.

(Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Bk III Canto 8, Stanzas 6-7)

The witch's son is delighted with this apparent return of a newly compliant Florimell, but is far too clownish to be able to hang on to her once a gentlemanly swaggerer happens along. In fact the False Florimell proves to be the source of much contention among the testosterone-fuelled knights of fairyland.

The False Florimell seems not to be able to fasten the girdle of chastity
[Image source: Illustration by Walter Crane, from the Chiswick Press edition of 1894-1896.]

Spenser's story casts a critical glance at Petrarchan conventions of celebrating a woman's external attributes by reifying them (as snow, roses, jewels, etc). A couple of years after this was published, Shakespeare came at the same topic from a different angle.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare. (Sonnet 130)

The wire to which both Spenser and Shakespeare allude was produced by the medieval technique of wire-drawing. In those days wire was made of precious metals and its use was ornamental, as a component in jewellery and rich costumes.

Twisted gold wire in Elizabethan necklace

[Image source:]

"Grape" pendant of amethyst and gold wire

[Image source:]

Both of the above, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, came from the Cheapside Hoard, an extraodrinary collection of jewellery discovered by builders in 1912. It was probably the stock of a Jacobean goldsmith.

Wires were gold-coloured, of course. Shakespeare's point about "black wires", in the fourth line of his poem, is that there's no such thing. His mistress, in all her stark, unapologetic reality, makes a bonfire of all these stale conceits. Though as it transpires, Shakespeare himself found her a good deal too hot to handle.

 [Image source:]


Nobody knows who this mistress of Shakespeare's was, supposing his poem was modelled on a real mistress, but various names have been thrown around and one of the most interesting is Emilia Lanier (aka Æmilia Lanyer, Æmilia Bassano), who published her own book of poetry Salve Deum Rex Judaeorum in 1611, a couple of years after Shakespeare finally published his sonnets.

In the dedication of her work to Margaret, the dowager countess of Cumberland, Lanier too reflects on the reification of beauty.

Thou faire example, live without compare,
With Honours triumphs seated in thy breast;
Pale Envy never can thy name empaire,
When in thy heart thou harbour'st such a guest:
Malice must live for ever in dispaire;
There's no revenge where Virtue still doth rest:
All hearts must needs do homage unto thee,
In whom all eies such rare perfection see.

That outward Beautie which the world commends,
Is not the subject I will write upon,
Whose date expir'd, that tyrant Time soone ends,
Those gawdie colours soone are spent and gone:
But those faire Virtues which on thee attends
Are alwaies fresh, they never are but one:
They make thy Beautie fairer to behold,
Than was that Queenes for whom prowd Troy was sold.

As for those matchlesse colours Red and White,
Or perfit features in a fading face,
Or due proportion pleasing to the sight;
All these doe draw but dangers and disgrace:
A mind enrich'd with Virtue, shines more bright,
Addes everlasting Beauty, gives true grace,
Frames an immortall Goddesse on the earth,
Who though she dies, yet Fame gives her new berth.

That pride of Nature which adornes the faire,
Like blasing Comets to allure all eies,
Is but the thred, that weaves their web of Care,
Who glories most, where most their danger lies;
For greatest perills do attend the faire
When men do seeke, attempt, plot and devise,
How they may overthrow the chastest Dame,
Whose Beautie is the White whereat they aime.

[The full text is available here:]

Emilia Lanier, portrait by Nicholas Hilliard

[Image source: ]

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Pocket Litter

Extracts from this month's Pocket Litter (a Writers Forum magazine, published irregularly since 2011) :


Been hope of old.
Been led of pooh.

Beep fond.
Beep fond loo.
Beep fool nod.
Beep eon fold.
Beep flood
Beep hold of one.
Beep hole nod of.  Beep.

Bop. Won dring. Bop flee.
Debone fool nob.
Deep lob.
Deepen hoof.

Do flee. Hope?
Dole eel end.
Feed noble pooh.
Fen hope lob ode.
Fled oboe.
Fondle hobo pee.

(from Phone: That Buzzing Noise)


(from Score - 1B)

This piece is connected to Xavier's Me & My Whale project -- see


he has been kicking the ball well tonight

he's been good

looking for two

measures a kick to the top of the square

not a good fifty to give away

so too thomas

switches through the middle

well taken care of in the end

well the conversation goes on

(from Transcript 04/04)


Re Pocket Litter :

For futher information contact

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

the knowledge of nature

St Mary's Church, Birkin (c. 1140)

[Image source: . Photo © Alan Murray-Rust (cc-by-sa/2.0) ]

Can the knowledge of nature be itself a part or product
of nature, in that sense of nature in which it is said to be
an object of knowledge ? This is our first question.

I've been taking a look at Thomas Hill Green's Prolegomena to Ethics. Green (1836 - 1882) was a British Idealist in phlosophy (along with F.H. Bradley and others), and a vocal Liberal in politics. Green, who was born in the village of Birkin in the West Riding, was appointed Whyte's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford in 1877. That appointment allowed him to set about his major work, but it was left unfinished when he died from blood poisoning in March 1882, and was published posthumously (his fellow Balliol man A.C. Bradley acting as editor) in April 1883. (A large part had already appeared in Mind.)

Here's the quote in its context. Green is querying the contention that the moral aspects, and even the epistemological aspects, of our conscious life can be considered part of a materialistic Nature (as per Hume, Mill, evolutionary theorists...).

§8. The elimination of ethics, then, as a system of precepts,
involves no intrinsic difficulties other than those involved
in the admission of a natural science that can account for
the moralisation of man. The discovery, however, that our
assertions of moral obligation are merely the expression of
an ineffectual wish to be better off than we are, or are due
to the survival of habits originally enforced by physical fear,
but of which the origin is forgotten, is of a kind to give us
pause. It logically carries with it the conclusion, however
the conclusion may be disguised, that, in inciting ourselves
or others to do anything because it ought to be done, we
are at best making use of a serviceable illusion. And when
this consequence is found to follow logically from the con-
ception of man as in his moral attributes a subject of natural
science, it may lead to a reconsideration of a doctrine which
would otherwise have been taken for granted as the most
important outcome of modern enlightenment. As the first
charm of accounting for what has previously seemed the
mystery of our moral nature passes away, and the spirit of
criticism returns, we cannot but enquire whether a being
that was merely a result of natural forces could form a theory
of those forces as explaining himself. We have to return
once more to that analysis of the conditions of knowledge,
which forms the basis of all Critical Philosophy whether
called by the name of Kant or no, and to ask whether the
experience of connected matters of fact, which in its metho-
dical expression we call science, does not presuppose a prin-
ciple which is not itself any one or number of such matters
of fact, or their result.

Can the knowledge of nature be itself a part or product
of nature, in that sense of nature in which it is said to be
an object of knowledge ? This is our first question. If it
is answered in the negative, we shall at least have satisfied
ourselves that man, in respect of the function called know-
ledge, is not merely a child of nature. We shall have
ascertained the presence in him of a principle not natural,
and a specific function of this principle in rendering know-
ledge possible.

On that last point, Green elaborates the metaphor a little later:
"there is a sense in which man is related to nature as its author,
as well as one in which he is related to it as its child" (§10).


Green uses the example, a rather dramatic one, of an engine driver who misreads a signal. The engine driver, wondering if has made a mistake, has a conception of the "real", as opposed to the mistaken and illusory world of the unreal. From where do we get that conception?

a consciousness of
events as a related series — experience in the most elemen-
tary form in which it can be the beginning of knowledge —
has not any element of identity with, and therefore cannot
properly be said to be developed out of, a mere series of
related events, of successive modifications of body or soul,
such as is experience in the former of the senses spoken of.
No one and no number of a series of related events can be
the consciousness of the series as related. Nor can any
product of the series be so either. ... (§16)

§17. ' Perhaps not,' it may be replied, ' but may it not be
a product of previous events ? ' If it is so, a series of events
of which there is no conscious experience must be supposed
to produce a consciousness of another series. On any- other
supposition the difficulty is only postponed. For if the
series of events which produces a certain consciousness of
other events is one of which there is a consciousness, this
consciousness, not being explicable as the product of the
events of which it is the consciousness, will have in turn to
be referred to a prior series of events ; and ultimately there
will be no alternative between the admission of a conscious-
ness which is not a product of events at all  and the supposi-
tion stated — the supposition that the primary consciousness
of events results from a series of events of which there is no
consciousness. But this supposition, when we think of it,
turns out to be a concatenation of words to which no
possible connexion of ideas corresponds. It asserts a rela-
tion of cause and effect, in which the supposed cause lacks
all the characteristics of a cause. It may be questioned
whether we can admit anything as a cause which does not
explain its supposed effect, or is not equivalent to the con-
ditions into which the effect may be analysed. But granting
that we may, a cause must at least be that to which experi-
ence testifies as the uniform antecedent of the effect. Now
a series of events of which there is no consciousness is
certainly not a set of conditions into which consciousness
can be analysed. And as little can it be an antecedent
uniformly associated with consciousness in experience, for
events of which there is no consciousness cannot be within
experience at all.

...Nature, with all that belongs
to it, is a process of change : change on a uniform method,
no doubt, but change still. All the relations under which
we know it are relations in the way of change or by which
change is determined. But neither can any process of change
yield a consciousness of itself, which, in order to be a con-
sciousness of the change, must be equally present to all stages
of the change ; nor can any consciousness of change, since the
whole of it must be present at once, be itself a process of
change. There may be a change into a state of consciousness
of change, and a change out of it, on the part of this man
or that ; but within the consciousness itself there can be no
change, because no relation of before and after, of here and
there, between its constituent members — between the pre-
sentation, for instance, of point A and that of point B in the
process which forms the object of the consciousness.  (from §18)


I'm not a philosopher, but I understand that Green is working towards an "infinite regress" kind of reductio ad absurdum in which A, on the materialist view, depends on B depends on A depends on B depends on A.... It's a classic example of using the word "itself" to attempt to clinch an illuminating point.

But this is like the chicken and the egg. We know that neither chicken nor egg came "first", they evolved together as a combined group, very slowly, from different creatures with different eggs.  Why could not the nature we experience, and our understanding of that nature (so far as we can in fact understand it) come slowly into existence alongside each other as a combined group, and from the same common source, namely an older and less developed and less self-conscious nature?

This is not a denial of what Green is anxious to defend, namely morality, religion and democracy. It's more a matter of seeing these principles as immanent in the wonderful complexity and mystery of nature, rather than as transcendent principles injected from a world above.

From this perspective it's obvious that I resist the rhetorical implications in the merely of  "merely a result of natural forces", by which Green smuggles in a prior discrediting of what has yet to be examined.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Christmas tree sentences

Frenchay Forestry, Bristol

[Image source:]

Every establishment has to have its Christmas tree. The most impressive one I saw this past week-end was outside the Milk Churn, a newly built Hall & Woodhouse chain pub on the expanding Hampton Park trading estate in Melksham.

At IKEA, in the understore carpark, there were queues of people threading sociably into a gridded square stacked with sleeved trees. The trees (fresh Norway Spruces, smelling of rain and resin) were £25 each but the irresistible point was, they also gave you a £20 IKEA voucher to use in the shop.

Laura doesn't like them using real trees. She's planning to get a £4 artificial tree from Homebase. She wants to decorate it on Wednesday, while she's looking after Shelden for the afternoon.

Nordmann Fir, the non-drop Christmas tree -- they call them "Nordmanns" in the trade.

Not liking to buy a real fir tree may seem a bit illogical when we'll happily buy wooden shelving, or give bunches of cut flowers, or consume cabbages, etc.  And since young trees lock up more carbon than older ones, the regular consumption of Christmas trees ought to be a good thing from the climate change perspective. A lot better than throwaway Christmas jumpers, anyhow.

Our sensitivity perhaps has something to do with the tree being a whole organism (at any rate, the whole organism above ground). We are reacting, I suppose, like those many meat-eaters who like the look of burgers or steaks but would not much relish looking at a whole dead cow. There's something, too, about the use to which our fir tree will be put to. It's going to be a centrepiece of celebration and piety, and that feels a bit too close to an old-school sacrificial rite. And finally, as if in mockery of the victim, its intended role is as a simulacrum of a living tree, displaying for us its fresh juicy leaves and resinous wood, even though its own death is certain, even though the fatal dissevering has already been performed. (And conifers, being a primitive sort of plant life, cannot re-grow from that. )

How can we not respond to the pathos of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Fir-Tree" , from 1844?  

.....the Tree was pulled out and thrown—rather hard, it is true—down on the floor, but a man drew him toward the stairs, where the daylight shone.
"Now a merry life will begin again," thought the Tree. He felt the fresh air, the first sunbeam—and now he was out in the courtyard. All passed so quickly, there was so much going on around him, that the Tree quite forgot to look to himself. The court adjoined a garden, and all was in flower; the roses hung so fresh and odorous over the balustrade, the lindens were in blossom, the Swallows flew by, and said, "Quirre-vit! my husband is come!" but it was not the Fir-tree that they meant.
"Now, then, I shall really enjoy life," said he, exultingly, and spread out his branches; but, alas! they were all withered and yellow. It was in a corner that he lay, among weeds and nettles. The golden star of tinsel was still on the top of the Tree, and glittered in the sunshine.
In the courtyard some of the merry children were playing who had danced at Christmas round the Fir-tree, and were so glad at the sight of him. One of the youngest ran and tore off the golden star.
"Only look what is still on the ugly old Christmas tree!" said he, trampling on the branches, so that they all cracked beneath his feet.   ....

(In the 2011 Danish TV film, they softened Andersen's story by introducing a note of hope at the end. The tree still died, but one of its cones fell to the ground and seeded. But perhaps the makers thought a big turd-shaped spruce-cone would seem unfamiliar or unattractive, so in the film they used a pine-cone instead. Anyway, spruce trees don't produce viable seed until they are at least twenty years old and quite tall, so the cones are in full light. It's such fun being pedantic!)

The Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is a magnificent big tree of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. It only really looks at its best in its native woods. Its timber doesn't last well out of doors, but has many uses inside. For example, it is the standard "tonewood" of violins, cellos, etc; it is what Stradivarius violins are made of.

Six years after Hans Andersen's story, in 1850, Dickens wrote "A Christmas Tree", one of his most wonderful short pieces. I can't resist giving its opening lines:

I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects. There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; and there were real watches (with movable hands, at least, and an endless capacity of being wound up) dangling from innumerable twigs; there were French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks, and various other articles of domestic furniture (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton), perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping; there were jolly, broad-faced little men, much more agreeable in appearance than many real men--and no wonder, for their heads took off, and showed them to be full of sugar-plums; there were fiddles and drums; there were tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peep-show boxes, and all kinds of boxes; there were trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices; there were guns, swords, and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises; in short, as a pretty child, before me, delightedly whispered to another pretty child, her bosom friend, "There was everything, and more." This motley collection of odd objects, clustering on the tree like magic fruit, and flashing back the bright looks directed towards it from every side--some of the diamond-eyes admiring it were hardly on a level with the table, and a few were languishing in timid wonder on the bosoms of pretty mothers, aunts, and nurses--made a lively realisation of the fancies of childhood; and set me thinking how all the trees that grow and all the things that come into existence on the earth, have their wild adornments at that well-remembered time. (from "A Christmas Tree")

[Teetotum: A spinning-top with four or six numbered or lettered faces, that can be used to play games in a similar way to dice.]

Something magic about a small child gazing up at the sparkling tree with all its decorations. The heart of the home. Household deity, worship of capital, a residual longing for the temples of the woods, from which our houses seal us, in all other respects so conveniently? Aspiration of the parents, seeing their trouble rewarded by such guileless absorption of the values of the family?

Or does the festooned tree lead the small eyes up, like Plato's ladder of love in the Symposium, from the material of hanging chocolate to an angel, scarcely visible in the mundane world, but seeing and supervising all, and pointing with its china hand to still more dizzying ascents of the spirit into the zenith?

When I was a child, we'd get the Christmas box down from the loft (it was an old suitcase). There were various decorations inside, such as goats and stars made from straw and red wool; very fiddly to disentangle from each other,  also quite fiddly to loop round the thin pricking needles of the spruce. There were other painted figures made from pine: gingerbread men, and an orange fox (rumoured to be a spring decoration, but always brought out at Christmas because it wasn't worth going to the trouble of getting the suitcase down from the loft in March just for the sake of a couple of spring decorations. Less appealing to my parents, but more so to myself, were the sumptuous glittering glass baubles. We only had about four of them. I insisted on hanging them up myself. On a couple of them the fittings were a bit broken, exposing a throat of jagged glass on which you could cut yourself if you weren't very careful.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

A greeting to Denmark

German troops march in Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation

[Image source:]

Your house lies shuttered in dark tonight
and dampened the conversation sounds,
Oh Denmark! who lit the flame of art
   for a thousand years in our northern lands.
In the church that Absalon built in Lund
A song of memory should come after:
'Twas Danish culture that was our ground,
   and Tegnér his music found
   in honoured Oelenschläger.

Mörklagt ligger i kväll ditt hus
och dämpad är tonen i samtalsorden,
Danmark! Som tände bildningens ljus
   för tusen år sen i Norden.
I kyrkan som Absalon byggde i Lund
ett minnesaltare sången äger:
det var på den danska kulturens grund
   Tegnér i upplyst stund
   bekransade Oelenschläger.

Four-stringed was the northern lute that has burst:
but our hands seek now for that friendly grip.
Yet Christian still stands firm at the mast
   of Denmark's unbroken ship.
How could this proud people ever expire
once joined in Grundtvig's hymn of praise?
Unquenched by diktat of earthly power,
    God's soul-searchlight, the fire
    kindled by Kierkegaard's blaze!

Fyrsträngad var Nordens luta som brast:
nu söker vår hand de förlorade greppet.
Än står Kung Christian vid högan mast
     obruten på Danaskeppet.
Hur skulle det folk kunna tigas ihjäl,
som Grundtvig har sjungit med psalmsång samman?
Ej släcks på jordiska makters befäl
   Guds sökarljus i den själ
   där Kierkegaard tände flamman!

Joyous for parted friends to meet
In the springtime of books, or on summer morns;
sweet too, when snow sweeps winter-white
     its banner round fields and lawns.
Then glows at daybreak the sun so red
as if to inscribe a solemn promise:
From nights of unease and the soul's hard bed
    in the morning a flame will spread
    in Denmark's sacred colours!

Ljuvt är för vänner att komma hit
i bokarnas vår eller sommardagar,
ljuvt även då snön sveper vintervit
   sin fana kring fält och hagar.
Då flammar i gryningen solen så röd,
som var det ett löfte den frambesvärjer:
Ur nätter av oro och själanöd
   skall tändas en morgonglöd
   i Danmarks heliga färger!

[Extremely free translation... :)  The flag-conceit in the final stanza foreshadows Don Paterson's "Imperial". ]

Hjalmar Gullberg, a very popular Swedish lyric poet of the 20th century, came from Malmö in the extreme south of Sweden. This is his poem "Greeting to Denmark", published in 1942 when Denmark was under Nazi occupation  (in what's probably his best-known collection, Fem kornbröd och två fiskar = Five barley-loaves and two fishes). The poet is, we imagine, looking across the Öresund channel towards Copenhagen, some ten miles west of Malmö as the crow flies.

The poem emphasizes Denmark's role as a crucible of civilization in the Nordic world.

St 1

Absalon, a 12th century bishop, first of Roskilde in Denmark, then of Lund in Sweden. Presumably the "church" in question is Lund Cathedral, though its foundation predated Absalon's tenure. (Scania, now the southernmost part of Sweden, was part of Denmark until the mid-17th century.)

Esaias Tegnér (1782 - 1846), Swedish romantic poet whose epic Frithjof's Saga was once famous throughout Europe. The poem was somewhat influenced by the Helge of the Danish poet Adam Gottlob Oelenschläger (1779 - 1850).

St 2

N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783 - 1872), pastor and poet, important in the growth of Danish nationalism, also in Lutheran renewal, and in national politics (he began as a conservative but moved towards liberalism); a major composer of hymns and sacred songs. (He was also a pioneering Anglo-Saxonist and the first person to translate Beowulf into a modern language.)

Danish Jews fleeing to Ystad in Sweden in October 1943

[Image source:]

The Nazi occupation, from 1940, was at first a peaceful cooperation and Denmark retained a high degree of self-government. This cooperation allowed them to resist the imposition of Nazi directives (such as anti-semitic policies). King Christian and the prime minister remained in situ, and came to be revered as symbols of a continuing Danish national identity. A few Danes were enthusiastic supporters of the Third Reich and fought on the Eastern Front. The question of whether cooperation was the right strategy continues to be debated to this day. But most Danish Jews survived, whereas in rebellious Norway a large part of the Jewish population was liquidated. In summer 1943, perceiving that Germany was losing the war, Danish resistance strengthened and as a result the Nazis dismissed the government and declared direct rule and a state of emergency. Danish Jews were assisted by fishermen to escape across the Öresund channel to Sweden. The Danish resistance organized acts of sabotage, the Nazis sent some Danish police to concentration camps and carried out other revenge killings, but by now they were too weakened to fully gain control of Denmark, and could not prevent general strikes in 1944. In October 1944, Hitler himself approved the confiscation of all Danish bicycles. Liberation came on May 5th, 1945.

Danes celebrate liberation, Copenhagen May 1945

[Image source:]

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Monday, December 04, 2017

"species character of animal life"

a murmuration of starlings

[Image source:]

Like two looslely-held divining rods suddenly slithering across each other, two highly disparate reads (Mark Lilla and Vincent ) have suddenly brought Hannah Arendt into my focus.

A quick read of the opening pages of The Human Condition made me feel like there was nothing I wished to read more -- unfortunately, that's not an uncommon experience.

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.   (Genesis 1:27)

There are two creation stories at the start of Genesis.

Arendt says in a footnote:

1 . In the analysis of postclassical political thought, it is often quite illuminat-
ing to find out which of the two biblical versions of the creation story is cited.
Thus it is highly characteristic of the difference between the teaching of Jesus
of Nazareth and of Paul that Jesus, discussing the relationship between man and
wife, refers to Genesis 1:27: “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the
beginning made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4), whereas Paul on a similar
occasion insists that the woman was created “of the man” and hence “for the
man,” even though he then somewhat attenuates the dependence: “neither is the
man without the woman, neither the woman without the man” (I Cor. 11:8-12).
The difference indicates much more than a different attitude to the role of woman.
For Jesus, faith was closely related to action (cf. § 3 3 below) ; for Paul, faith was
primarily related to salvation. Especially interesting in this respect is Augustine
( De civitate Dei xii. 21), who not only ignores Genesis 1:27 altogether but sees
the difference between man and animal in that man was created unum ac singu-
, whereas all animals were ordered “to come into being several at once”
(plura simul iussit exsistere) . To Augustine, the creation story offers a welcome
opportunity to stress the species character of animal life as distinguished from the
singularity of human existence.

The footnote glosses the following part of her main text, regarding "action" (one of the three key terms in this book, with a special definition of activity between human beings).

....       in its most elementary form, the human
condition of action is implicit even in Genesis (“Male and female
created He them ”), if we understand that this story of man’s crea-
tion is distinguished in principle from the one according to which
God originally created Man ( adam ), “him” and not “them,” so
that the multitude of human beings becomes the result of multipli-
cation . Action would be an unnecessary luxury, a capricious in-
terference with general laws of behavior, if men were endlessly
reproducible repetitions of the same model, whose nature or es-
sence was the same for all and as predictable as the nature or
essence of any other thing. Plurality is the condition of human
action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way
that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives,
or will live.

The "species character of animal life" reminds me of the observation by Hazlitt that I often seem to refer to.  Hazlitt was saying that we tend to experience nature in species terms: on our walk we see primroses and lambs, we don't usually have much awareness of them as individuals. Augustine is saying that animals don't have individual significance in the way that we do.

Following up the Augustine reference:

But it is ridiculous to condemn the faults of beasts and trees, and other such mortal and mutable things as are void of intelligence, sensation, or life, even though these faults should destroy their corruptible nature; for these creatures received, at their Creator's will, an existence fitting them, by passing away and giving place to others, to secure that lowest form of beauty, the beauty of seasons, which in its own place is a requisite part of this world. (from De Civitate Dei, xii, 4)

Now that we have solved, as well as we could, this very difficult question about the eternal God creating new things, without any novelty of will, it is easy to see how much better it is that God was pleased to produce the human race from the one individual whom He created, than if He had originated it in several men. For as to the other animals, He created some solitary, and naturally seeking lonely places,—as the eagles, kites, lions, wolves, and such like; others gregarious, which herd together, and prefer to live in company,—as pigeons, starlings, stags, and little fallow deer, and the like: but neither class did He cause to be propagated from individuals, but called into being several at once. Man, on the other hand, whose nature was to be a mean between the angelic and bestial, He created in such sort, that if he remained in subjection to His Creator as his rightful Lord, and piously kept His commandments, he should pass into the company of the angels, and obtain, without the intervention of death, a blessed and endless immortality; but if he offended the Lord his God by a proud and disobedient use of his free will, he should become subject to death, and live as the beasts do,—the slave of appetite, and doomed to eternal punishment after death. And therefore God created only one single man, not, certainly, that he might be a solitary bereft of all society, but that by this means the unity of society and the bond of concord might be more effectually commended to him, men being bound together not only by similarity of nature, but by family affection. And indeed He did not even create the woman that was to be given him as his wife, as he created the man, but created her out of the man, that the whole human race might derive from one man. (De civitate dei, xii, 21 complete)

[You would not, perhaps, suspect from Arendt that Augustine goes on to talk about "the unity of society and the bond of concord". Though in a way that sharpens her own emphasis on our necessary condition of "plurality" (and on politics as a way of negotiating it).]

Maybe I should continue Augustine's quotation on to the start of the next section, where it becomes clearer where his argument is going. It is not really so much about disparaging the life of animals as despairing that humans are so often worse.

And God was not ignorant that man would sin, and that, being himself made subject now to death, he would propagate men doomed to die, and that these mortals would run to such enormities in sin, that even the beasts devoid of rational will, and who were created in numbers from the waters and the earth, would live more securely and peaceably with their own kind than men, who had been propagated from one individual for the very purpose of commending concord. For not even lions or dragons have ever waged with their kind such wars as men have waged with one another. (Start of De civitate dei, xii, 22)

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Friday, December 01, 2017

Reindeer lichen (Cladonia rangiferina)

Cladonia rangiferina

[Image source: . Photo by Konrad Wothe.]

This species is called grålav ("grey lichen") in Swedish, but more commonly known as renlav ("reindeer lichen"), though the latter is a collective term that also covers some other slightly less ubiquitous Cladonia species. It's the winter food of reindeer, who hoof it out from beneath deep snow in the boreal forests.

In the days before sealed double glazing, northern Swedes used to place a layer of grålav in the gap between the inner and outer panes to keep it condensation-free through the winter. (

A post to mark the publication, yesterday, of Drew Milne's In Darkest Capital: Collected Poems  (Carcanet). I have always had a strong aversion to Collecteds in paper format, as being too bulky for the high-intensity portable immersion that I feel poetry requires, but in Kindle format they suddenly make a bit more sense. Drew thus becomes the second person, alongside Sir Walter Scott, whose collecteds are on my smartphone. Turns out they're both Dunediners.  

In other respects it's possible to tell the difference. There has never been the slightest mystery what Drew's poems are about: his radically disenchanted Cambridge Marxist punky perspective on the corrosive destructiveness of the capital-driven world. In Drew's case there's also a strongly ecological side to all this, none too optimistic, and his interest in lichens fits in round about here. (That's about as infantile a way of putting it as I can come up with right now.)

For now let's do the predictably obvious, and instead of delving into the earlier work  (I'm keen to re-encounter "Foul Papers" and "the Trojan light", among others) head straight to the very end of the book and the newish sequence Lichens for Marxists. (The volume of published poetry about lichens has just risen sharply.) 


some for trophies some to flag
in canvas imperial some to lie
blinded by prospects of relics
scarce quick to a lichen trail
subsisting through the poo-jok
welcome to anthropogenic gases
our polluting breath one cloud
after another sung oft & aloft
tracers to cap data in cuilkuq
and beyond this arctic haze by
any other misnomer would smell
as rank in source signature of
Eurasian air the name spelling
car lungs into the troposphere
and albedo as the polar scalps
warm to softly falling sulphur
& carbons settling on cladonia
rangiferina misnamed cryptogam
or reindeer ...

..wilds spent to a chemical sink
the sheet like flows so turbid
so given over to written scree

I chopped a little bit out, just so it doesn't feel like I'm completely undercutting yesterday's publication. 


Arctic haze is the phenomenon of a visible reddish-brown springtime haze in the atmosphere at high latitudes in the Arctic due to anthropogenic air pollution. A major distinguishing factor of Arctic haze is the ability of its chemical ingredients to persist in the atmosphere for an extended period of time compared to other pollutants. ...  Arctic haze was first noticed in 1750 when the Industrial Revolution began. Explorers and whalers could not figure out where the foggy layer was coming from. "Poo-jok" was the term the Inuit used for it. [Source:]

Above, the illustration that accompanied the first publication of the poem, which was here:
(The pamphlet tied in with an event at the Polar Museum (Scott Polar Research Institute) in Cambridge in 2014-2015.)

For more on the lichen poems, see this commentary by Stephen Collis:

I was struck by Stephen's structural analogy :

"The poem is “beautiful,” I think, the way lichen might be said to be beautiful: it reveals startling pattern, a turbid interweaving over a surface (the solid substrate here being climate science — “anthropogenic gases,” “poo-jok” ....) ..."

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

poets of the world

The last post was about Fernando Pizarro, a local poet from NW Spain.  The best information I could find about him was here:

Afterwards I started to the explore a bit more widely and realized that its scope is giddying.  (The highly productive editor is  the poet Fernando Sabido Sánchez.)

 There must be samples of about 2,000 Spanish poets alone, 1,250 Mexican, more than 1,800 Argentinian...  and a bit of most other countries: 250 UK poets,  1,000 Americans, 55 Haitians, 144 Guatemalans, 70 Finns, 64 Iranians, 42 Icelanders,  102 Swedes, 133 Japanese, 92 Vietnamese, 60 Morroccans  ..(  For a few countries the coverage is surprisingly light: just 17 Nigerians and 8 Pakistanis, for example. )

 Poems may appear in the original language or translations (Spanish, English, German...) . Annoyingly for the purposes of this blog post, the texts are not electronically copyable.

In such a vast horde is it possible to find the silence needed to encounter a poem? 


from Gieve Patel (India), "Bombay Central"

That odour does not offend,
The station's high and cool vault
Sucks it up and sprays down instead,
Interspersed with miraculous, heraldic
Shafts of sunlight, an eternal
Station odour, amalgam
of diesel oil, hot steel, cool rails,
Light and shadow, human sweat,
Metallic distillations, dung, urine,
Newspaper ink, Parle's Gluco Biscuits,
And sharp noisy sprays of water from taps
With worn-out bushes, all
hitting the nostril as one singular
Invariable atmospheric thing,
Seeping into your clothing
The way cigarette smoke and air-conditioning
Seep into you at cinema halls ....


from Sandeep Parmar (UK), "Against Chaos (after Jagit Singh)"

He who has not strode the full length of age, has counted
then lost count of days that swallow, like fever, dark chaos,

And you, strange company in the backseat of childhood,
propped on the raft of memory like some god of chaos,

You threaten to drown me: wind through palmed streets.
Oracle of grief. The vagrant dance of figures in chaos

carting trash over tarmac. Stench of Popeye's Chicken,
the Capitol Records building, injecting light and chaos

into the LA sky. That paper boat in rainwater, rushing, dives
out of my reach and old women give no order here to chaos, ...


Fun ways to improve your Spanish: pick a pretty straightforward funny poet (such as Australia's Emmie Rae ), read one of the poems in English, then read the Spanish translation.

new york city

sent you home a picture of my naked chest and
your were like, shit is dangerous on the internet
for your sake I'm deleting that and when I
ordered a small iced coffee it was twice the
size of my head and I hugged it like a real
boyfriend or a baby which seemed appropriate
considering the circumstances I guess.

nueva york

te envié a casa una foto de mi pecho desnudo
y te pusiste como "esta mierda es peligrosa en internet,
lo borraré por tu bien" y pedí un café con un trozo de hielo
de dos veces el tamaño de mi cabeza y lo abracé como
si fuera my verdadero novio o como a un bebé porque
teniendo en cuenta las circunstancias
parecía lo corecto, supongo

(Translation by Óscar García Sierra)

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

After Fernando Pizarro

Valladolid: tower of the Iglesia del Salvador

[Image source:]

About Fernando Pizarro:

Fernando Pizarro García: A poet and prose writer - also a judge - b. 1951, from the Valladolid area. And it was during a rushed hour in Valladolid last September that I bought his book Cuando la noche (1999)*. Here are some very free translations.  (Some of the Spanish texts are in the link above.)

Of confused genesis,
of indefinite limits,
you are the enemy.  You arrive
devious and demand treacherous
an unequal, bloody struggle.
But you are not, you do not exist,
because the tenacious attempt to annihilate you
is the cruel struggle to give you life.
And in the end you appear. And you are another,
innocent dispossession of a pledge
obsessive, exhausting, useless


Guilt gave birth to fear,
fear to hate,
and hate to revenge.

On the back of dark silence,
like four horsemen, they ride,
erasing the horizons.

How hidden the dagger,
how deep the wound.

Exposed, trusting,
the noble breast to the blow.
And it arrived unerringly.

And how dark now,
how slow the agony.

Divided body and heart into two halves,
I look from the nothing to the nothing and see
just a dense blanket of ash on everything.
Time and laziness. More laziness and more time.
And the rain insistent on the window-pane.
Lights, shadows, reflections. And in the street,
matter streaming towards nothing.


T hat my voice be not just a cry
what you hear not only an echo
silence will be 
                               nothing changes.


City  frosted  by  the fog


How sky so blue.
How blue  so cold.
How cold in the blue
of so sky


On a wind that polishes the corners
fast clouds ride pillion


Other expectation, though vain, lovely


So blue in the blue.
So green in the green.
In the blue and in the green,
how much light.


Bled by the light the hours,
all in the sky just horizon.


What destroyer the sun of the outskirts.
How luminous its light. And  how evident.


In that sea,
                               all was shipwreck.
And in its demolished coast,
                                         all shadow.


On the ruffled track of the water
indecisive      glare        iridescent


A    dense   stormy   sky,
frontier of the countryside silent & flat


Yet something green in the already yellow


After the expectation
this renunciation
resignation    to accepting the defeat

* The title Cuando la noche  refers to some lines in a well-known poem ("A mano amada..")  by Ángel González Muñiz:

Cuando la noche impone su costumbre de insomnio
y convierte
cada minuto en el aniversario
de todos los sucesos de una vida.

When the night imposes its habit of insomnia
and turns each minute into the anniversary
of all the events of a life

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Monday, November 27, 2017

continuing with Cymbeline ... Honour

Posthumus and Imogen

Carrying on from my previous chatter:

Cymbeline and the pundonor.

(Cym.)Thou art welcome, Caius.
Thy Caesar knighted me; my youth I spent
Much under him; of him I gather'd honour,
Which he to seek of me again, perforce,
Behoves me keep at utterance.

(Act III.1.67-71)

The "point of honour" (Spanish pundonor) is not  a new theme in Shakespeare - see e.g. Claudio in Much Ado - but now it's restlessly recycled in Cymbeline. [In modern Spanish, pundonor means "self-respect".]

"At utterance" is connected with "utter" in the sense of extreme or total,  rather than enunciate. Cymbeline is saying that he feels obliged to defend his honour to the very last gasp. He attempts to suggest to Lucius  that since Augustus originally conferred the honour, Cymbeline owes it to Augustus to take good care of it, to maintain it at all costs. Even should it be Augustus himself who loses out as a result (i.e. by not receiving his tribute). 

Cymbeline is "punctilious", both in his defiance and in his contrasting courtesy to the ambassador Gaius Lucius, a friend of long-standing, and one to whom Cymbeline feels obligations ("his goodness forespent on us" II.3.56).
Typical of this play, that the otherwise anodyne Cymbeline suddenly speaks so well here. Typical too, that it eventually turns out that Cymbeline never wanted to withhold the tribute, but was set on to it by the Queen and Cloten.

Points of honour are serious things, but they can also be convenient post-rationalizations when you want to provide a public explanation for a chosen course of action.


The crucial point of honour is of course Posthumus's wager in I.4. The wager appears to gain nothing for Posthumus, yet he's manoeuvred into feeling compelled to take it up. The wager is about Imogen's "honour" (in male eyes --- i.e. chastity).

(Jac.) .. and I will bring from thence that honour of hers which you imagine so reserv'd.

Accepting this infamous wager is increasingly a point of honour: Jachimo leads Posthumus into a position from which he can't draw back without disgrace.

Imogen calls out Jachimo correctly:

    Thou wrong'st a gentleman who is as far
    From thy report as thou from honour...

That's right. As Jachimo himself confesses much later, " Knighthoods and honours borne / As I wear mine are titles but of scorn".

But Jachimo is too skilled an operator to be caught by Imogen. He promptly and smoothly retracts his slander about Posthumus, making good use of the magic word:

    He sits 'mongst men like a descended god:
    He hath a kind of honour sets him off
    More than a mortal seeming...

Thus mollified, soon it's Imogen who is putting her honour (not, as she thinks, her chastity) on the line:

     (Jac.) 'Tis plate of rare device, and jewels
    Of rich and exquisite form, their values great;
    And I am something curious, being strange,
    To have them in safe stowage. May it please you
    To take them in protection?
  IMOGEN. Willingly;
    And pawn mine honour for their safety. Since
    My lord hath interest in them, I will keep them
    In my bedchamber.

"Honour", the word if not the reality, opens all doors.

Cloten too has an inflamed sense of honour, though he's a bit dim about it.

Even a Remainer has to admire the force of some of his Europhobic statements in III.1. " Why
should we pay tribute? If Caesar can hide the sun from us with a
blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him tribute for
light ..."

The queen is thoroughly pleased with their hard-line approach.

  QUEEN. He goes hence frowning; but it honours us
    That we have given him cause.

But if Cloten is a baying dog in politics, he's less effective in private life, where he believes his honour is best manifested by being grossly offensive to social inferiors.

Unfortunate that he tries it out on Guiderius who, when he encounters Cloten's rudeness, doesn't agonize about it too much. He cuts Cloten's head off. But it's clear that even this rough-hewn youth is acting from motives of honour.


Shakespeare had aimed some shafts at honour before, for example in Act I of Titus (where the hero makes disastrous calls on the basis of honour),  and most memorably of course in  1 Henry IV.  Inevitably Cymbeline casts a glance at it:

(Bel.) the toil o' th' war,
    A pain that only seems to seek out danger
    I' th'name of fame and honour, which dies i' th'search,

But warlike honour is only one kind. In this play, "honour" mostly means impeccable behaviour in the eyes of society. Cymbeline, in many ways so backward-looking, also looks forward to the comedy of manners.

Guiderius and Arviragus lamenting the "death" of "Fidele"

(Picture by Arthur Rackham, 1899. Image source: , where it is said to come from the Folger Shakespeare Library, but I couldn't see it in their current list of Cymbeline images.


Friday, November 24, 2017

Red maple

I moved to a new neighbourhood in Swindon a couple of weeks back, and immediately got interested in this small crimson-looking tree.  (Photos from 15th November 2017).

It's obviously a kind of maple, and the best match for the leaf shape that I could find is Red Maple (Acer rubrum). 

This is a big tree from eastern North America with an upright habit -- a major constituent, of course, of those famous Fall colors.

In fact it's now the commonest tree in the north-eastern USA, but it was a lot less common when European settlers arrived. This is thought to be because they started to control the wildfires, and that worked in favour of Red Maple (deep-rooted trees like hickories and oak can survive wildfires, but shallow-rooted trees like Red Maple cannot).

(There's also a theory that the 1938 hurricane severely reduced the percentage of White Pine: )

Apart from Red Maple, it's also known as Swamp Maple, Water Maple, and Soft Maple. The latter is comparative: the timber is a bit softer than some other maples, but it's still very much a hardwood.

In Britain, horitculturalists seem to call it Canadian Maple. This is a bit surprising as the maple leaf on the Canadian flag, introduced in 1965,  is often said to be Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum). (In fact the design was stylized and not based on any species in particular).

There are garden cultivars grown in the UK including "Brandywine", "Red Sunset", "October Glory" and "Schlesingeri", but all the images I've seen look more upright than this one. A dazzling sight in mid-November, anyhow.

The leaves are highly toxic to horses, apparently.

Red Maple is one of the three maple species most commonly used to make Maple Syrup (along with Sugar Maple (A. saccharum) and Black Maple (A. nigrum). For the second time in about a week, we are talking about a process that European settlers learnt from Native Americans.

The real attractions of the Hollowell farm, to me, were: its complete retirement, being, about two miles from the village, half a mile from the nearest neighbor, and separated from the highway by a broad field; its bounding on the river, which the owner said protected it by its fogs from frosts in the spring, though that was nothing to me; the gray color and ruinous state of the house and barn, and the dilapidated fences, which put such an interval between me and the last occupant; the hollow and lichen-covered apple trees, gnawed by rabbits, showing what kind of neighbors I should have; but above all, the recollection I had of it from my earliest voyages up the river, when the house was concealed behind a dense grove of red maples, through which I heard the house-dog bark. I was in haste to buy it, before the proprietor finished getting out some rocks, cutting down the hollow apple trees, and grubbing up some young birches which had sprung up in the pasture, or, in short, had made any more of his improvements.   (from Thoreau's Walden, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For") 

[Thoreau sold back the Hollowell farm when the previous owner decided he wanted it after all, and went to the woods at Walden instead.]

Already, by the first of September, I had seen two or three small maples turned scarlet across the pond, beneath where the white stems of three aspens diverged, at the point of a promontory, next the water. Ah, many a tale their color told! And gradually from week to week the character of each tree came out, and it admired itself reflected in the smooth mirror of the lake. Each morning the manager of this gallery substituted some new picture, distinguished by more brilliant or harmonious coloring, for the old upon the walls.  (from Thoreau's Walden, "House-Warming") 

The leaves fell a week later. This photo is from 22nd November 2017.

New England Fall Colors

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