Sunday, November 23, 2014

happy christmas

Abies nordmanniana

Christmas trees for sale in Asda. Someone had torn off a branchlet, which I eagerly salvaged.

When I was a child the Christmas tree both in Sweden and England was invariably Norway Spruce (Picea abies) and what people of my generation will fondly remember is pricking their fingers on the sharp needles, the difficulty of preventing the heavier baubles from slipping off the rather thin glossy foliage, and later sweeping up all those needles, which tend to fall off in the dessicated air of modern houses. Of course the Norway Spruce is also a much-loved component of the Nordic forest.

Anyway, the luxury Xmas tree of today, as seen here, is Caucasian Fir (Abies nordmanniana, sometimes called Nordmann Fir); the needles are stouter, pleasant to handle, and usually don't fall off. The labels say that you can plant the tree out when Christmas is over. I'm a bit sceptical about that, since most silver firs dislike town air, but apparently on basic soils it does better than Norway Spruce.


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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones (1749)


Tom (Albert Finney) and Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman) in the 1963 film of Tom Jones

Tom Jones (1749) was the most admired of eighteenth-century novels, at least by the English novelists of the nineteenth-century "great tradition", and it is still admired today (for example, by Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography). Yet it has not always proved easy to write about. This piece picks up from one of the classic essays, by William Empson in 1958 (it's on JStor).

In what I'm going to say there are spoilers from the outset, and I seriously urge you not to look at this if you're just embarking on a reading of Tom Jones. To prevent accidental contamination, there now follows a short advertising break!

*

RENEWABLE IS SERIOUS.

On that afternoon [in May 2014] Germany generated 74 percent of its electric needs from renewable sources. (Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books)

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/jul/10/climate-will-we-lose-endgame/


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Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Coxwold-Gilling Gap



The view towards Kilburn White Horse. The Hambleton Hills in the distance, and the Howardians at our back.

This was on a walk from Kilburn to Byland Abbey on 9th August.

The Coxwold-Gilling Gap is a rift valley formed at the end of the Cretaceous period. The land fell 500-1000ft between the two parallel faults where the Hambleton and Howardian escarpments now face each other, about a mile and a quarter apart.
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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Hester Lynch Piozzi: Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson (1786)

Hester Lynch Piozzi in 1785-86, by an unknown Italian artist


[Image source: National Portrait Gallery]

Chronology

1709  Samuel Johnson born
1735  Marries Elizabeth (Tetty) Jervis
1740/41 Hester Lynch Salusbury born
1746-55 Johnson’s Dictionary
1749   The Vanity of Human Wishes
1750-60 The Rambler, The Adventurer, The Idler
1752  Tetty Johnson dies
1759  Johnson’s mother dies. Rasselas
1763  Johnson meets James Boswell
1763  Hester marries Henry Thrale.
1765  Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare.
         Johnson meets the Thrales. A year later, he moves in with them.
1775  Journey to the Western Islands
1777-81 Lives of the Poets
1781  Henry Thrale dies
1783  Hester moves to Bath. Last meeting with Johnson (April).
1784  Hester marries Gabriel Piozzi (July). Death of Johnson (December).
1785  Hester writes Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson in Italy (Summer).
          Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.
1786  Anecdotes published.
1791  Boswell’s Life of Johnson
1809  Gabriel Piozzi dies
1821  Hester Piozzi dies

The main points arising from this chronology are as follows. Johnson was in his mid-fifties when he met the two young friends who did so much for him and who would become his chief biographers (Boswell and Hester Thrale disliked each other, by the way). His wife had died more than a decade earlier. The literary achievements that had established him were in the past; he was semi-retired. In another sense, his life may be said to have begun again. During the remaining twenty years of his life he lodged most of the time with the Thrales, in fact for most of each week throughout their marriage. Hester was usually pregnant; the Thrales had twelve children. Henry Thrale’s death, the burden of supporting an increasingly difficult Johnson, and his disapproval of the liaison with Piozzi, brought all this to an end. Hester’s life, in turn, began again. She was about 24 when she first met Johnson, and about 42 when they last saw each other.

She revered Johnson; he was always her friend; and she had nursed him through serious depressions. Still, her book is quite candid; there was something monstrous about him. At first his presence in the house (she calls it her confinement) was “terrifying”, towards the end “irksome”. Boswell tries to canonize him, portraying his prejudiced, bullying and often unintelligent conversation as if it was a dialogue in heaven.

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Alexander Pope (1688-1744):An Essay on Man

Alexander Pope in 1716, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller

[Image source: Philip Mould Historical Portraits, which describes how portraits of Pope concealed his bowed and crippled appearance.]

An Essay on Man in Four Epistles

[The epistles were published separately in 1733-34. Apparently written in 1730-31, but perhaps Pope deliberately gave them a Horatian three years to mature.]

The madness of superfluous health, says Pope in one of the chiding moments in the Essay on Man. There are rather too many chiding moments. The balance feels wrong. One did chide in such expository poems, Hesiod had done it, so had Lucretius, but Pope's lessons have not a sufficiently copious enthusiasm to excuse his lofty reproofs.  Go, wiser thou... Go wondrous creature... Fools! (he proceeds) thou fools ... Blind to truth... Cease then... - and much more in the same vein. This is not so much about enlightening the insanely healthy questioners as about telling them to shut their noise: Whatever is, is RIGHT. His paean to Order involves too much ordering people about.

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

John Gay: The Birth of the Squire (1720)





"Gay has all the gifts of a great poet except the highest intensity of passion and imagination", I read in one of those multi-volume paperback surveys of EngLit that were so popular thirty years ago. The writer (Charles Peake) seems to be inadvertently recalling Matthew Arnold on Chaucer, and indeed it's Chaucer who is bound to come to mind - not so much Chaucer's manner as, what is yet more unusual, some kinship in the vistas opened up by the poetry - when we read such lines as the following:

Beagles and spaniels round his cradle stand,
Kiss his moist lip and gently lick his hand;
He joys to hear the shrill horn's ecchoing sounds,
And learns to lisp the names of all the hounds.
With frothy ale to make his cup o-'er-flow,
Barley shall in paternal acres grow:
The bee shall sip the fragrant dew from the flow'rs,
To give metheglin for his morning hours;
For him the clustring hop shall climb the poles,
And his own orchard sparkle in his bowles.

This is early in the poem, when Gay is still, just about, doing what his subtitle claims: imitating the Pollio of Virgil (i.e. the fourth Eclogue). Hence the sentence beginning "With frothy ale" runs parallel with Virgil's prophecy of a golden age. Nor can the beauty of such a harvest be denied. [*see Note 2]
Surely Pope learnt from here the prophetic music beginning "Another age shall see the golden Ear", that would end the Epistle to Burlington? Yet Pope's  "His father's acres who enjoys in peace" is as it were ironized in advance by Gay's vision, written ten years earlier, of a golden age requiring heroic capacities for all-day drinking on the part of its chief consumer. 

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Albert Camus: L'Étranger (1942)

Le Livre De Poche edition, jacket design by Lucien Fontanarosa 


[Image source: Alexis Orloff, https://www.flickr.com/photos/aorloff/6072937176/]


A book that (as The Outsider, in Stuart Gilbert's translation) was on all our male youthful minds and bookshelves in the 1970s. In other words a classic Peng-gie Modern Classic, along with Gormenghast, The Glass Bead Game, etc.

(I think I studied it for French A-Level, along with Racine's Britannicus , Voltaire's Candide and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.)

 L'Étranger being so short and easy to read, is a good study-text for schools; you can still find out all about it in Shmoop and places like that. And it still gets plenty of discussion, though I've a feeling its moment has passed, that the urgency of the issues Camus intended to raise is less clear-cut than it was, and that on the other hand time has only tended to reinforce the issue of the book's quite primitive attitudes to women and to colonized "natives". In particular our awareness of and contacts with the Arab world have been completely overhauled since 9/11; westerners can no longer regard the Arab world as something separate. But as recently as 1980, when The Cure released an admired single called "Killing an Arab" (based on  L'Étranger), I was probably typical of British 21-year-olds in having only the smallest sense that this could possibly offend someone. I don't necessarily claim that modern sensitivities in the west are all 100% positive or well-directed, but I do think they mostly are and they've certainly changed how we think and feel, especially in the study. (Meanwhile in the real world, it remains unclear when the number of Arabs being killed by Westerners is going to stop accelerating.)

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Alain-René Le Sage (1668-1747): Gil Blas de Santillane



.... I therefore went in search of Doctor Sangrado, and brought him to the house. He was a tall, meagre, pale man, who had kept the shears of Clotho employed during forty years at least. This learned physician had a very solemn appearance, weighed his discourse, and gave an emphasis to his expressions: his reasoning was geometrical, and his opinions extremely singular.

After having observed the symptoms of my master’s disease, he said to him with a very physical air: “The business here is to supply the defect of perspiration, which is obstructed: others, in my place, would doubtless prescribe saline draughts, diuretics, diaphoretics, and such medicines as abound with mercury and sulphur; but cathartics and sudorifics are pernicious drugs, and all the preparations of chymistry are only calculated to do mischief: for my own part I practice a method more simple, and more sure. Pray, what is your ordinary diet?” – “My usual food,” replied the canon, “is broth and juicy meat.” –“Broth and juicy meat!” cried the doctor, surprised, “truly, I do not wonder to find you sick: such delicious victuals are poisoned pleasures and snares, which luxury spreads for mankind in order to ruin them the more effectually. You must renounce all palateable food: the most salutary is that which is most insipid: for as the blood is insipid, it requires such victuals as partake the most of its own nature. And do you drink wine?” added he. “Yes,” said the licentiate, “wine diluted.” –“O! diluted as much as you please,” replied the physician, “what an irregularity is here! what a frightful regimen! you ought to have been dead long ago. How old are you, pray?” –“I am going in my sixty-ninth year,” replied the canon. “Right,” said the physician, “an early old age is always the fruit of intemperance. If you had drunk nothing else than pure water all your life, and had been satisfied with simple nourishment, such as boiled apples, for example, you would not now be tormented with the gout, and all your limbs would perform their functions with ease. I do not despair, however, of setting you to rights again, provided you be wholly resigned to my directions.”


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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

William Congreve: The Way of the World (1700)

William Congreve, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller



William Congreve (1670-1729) threw over his career as a dramatist at the age of thirty. The Epilogue to The Way of the World ends:

So poets oft, do in one piece expose
Whole belles assemblées of cocquets and beaux.

It was not so true of other poets as it was of him. The Way of the World soars above the details of its ingenious plot-line and even the real passion of its lovers - it creates an edifice of wit that none could match, and you feel this came easily to him, easily enough to cast aside after a disappointment.  

What single model, indeed, could deserve the honour of inspiring such a flight as Lady Wishfort's ever-more-salacious propriety?

But as I am a person, Sir Rowland, you must not attribute my yielding to any sinister appetite, or indigestion of widow-hood; nor impute my complacency to any lethargy of continence– I hope you do not think me prone to any iteration of nuptials––
Wait. Far be it from me––
Lady. If you do, I protest I must recede– or think that I have made a prostitution of decorums, but in the vehemence of compassion, and to save the life of a person of so much importance––
Wait. I esteem it so––
Lady. Or else you wrong my condescension––
Wait. I do not, I do not––
Lady. Indeed you do.
Wait. I do not, fair shrine of virtue.
Lady. If you think the least scruple of carnality was an ingredient––

The scene can only end by being interrupted. What coarse stuff "Malapropisms" must seem to be, after this.


(2008)


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John Dryden (1631 - 1700)


John Dryden (portrait by John Michael Wright, c. 1668)
[This recently identified painting was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 2009 (Image from ArtFund)]

Scattered notes written in 2001 and 2004...

Dryden’s Poems

January 2001. For the last four months or so I’ve been reading Dryden. It began with an accidental dip into the Auden/Pearson anthology of English poetry - a book my father acquired from a brief dalliance with Heron Books, a sort of classic book club. He passed it on to me when I began university twenty-five years ago. I’ve always used it, and it survived the purge of my library in 1996 - by choice not accident; I wanted to keep the canon by me.

So, I dipped in Volume III, my least-loved period in English verse. Then I wanted to read Absalom and Achitophel in full, so I went to Waterstone’s. There was no Dryden at all - I was astonished, and then of course hooked on the quest. A second-hand bookshop in Bath supplied further inadequate selections, eagerly devoured. Then came the Arthos selection, found in St Leonards on Sea; like all in the Signet series, generous and attractive. Finally the Oxford Poems, borrowed from Frome library, and - ordered from bookshop - the cheap Wordsworth volume - £2.99, and as complete as any.

[This curious hiatus of Drydens didn’t last; there are now, it seems, a mass of Selected Drydens in the shops (2002).]

Dryden is a poet who can’t quite be made to fit into a single volume. But after many years I can more or less claim that I have read another “complete” English poet, to add to Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Milton and Keats; but that was all a long time ago. It means more now; there’s less time. And I have really immersed: I feel like saying (as biographers do) “Dryden has been a good companion”. Indeed, I don’t want it to end. I have an eighteenth-century volume of Plutarch with an introductory Life by Dryden; his prose too is a fine thing – though somehow a bewilderingly different thing.

None of the books mentioned is really complete because there’s no Aeneid - though I have since discovered that this has an unexpectedly vigorous life on the Internet, since it’s invariably the translation used by those benefactors who have made Virgil available on their websites. I was at first misled into thinking that the bulky Oxford volume was complete but it’s a selection, pointedly excluding The Hind and the Panther. I appreciate the polemical gesture, but don’t really condone it; a poet’s original work, however unsatisfactory, must always supply a fuller idea of the writer than translations. And whether Hazlitt is right to say this, it is certainly a higly defensible claim, that  “it has more genius, vehemence, and strength of description that any other of Dryden’s works, not excepting the Absolom and Achitophel. It also contains the finest examples of varied and sounding versification...” You need The Hind and the Panther to sign off Dryden.  

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

another note on Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights - Naturalism


Penguin English Library jacket (1970s style) - turning a detail of Branwell's bad picture into an iconic image


[Branwell's painting of 1833-34, commonly referred to as the Gun portrait, showed himself and his three sisters. Emily was 15 or 16 at the time. Arthur Bell Nichols thought the portrait so poor (or so unworthy of his late wife Charlotte) that he destroyed it, retaining only the bit showing Emily, who had definitely come out the best. Nevertheless, her portrait is markedly improved by the cracks (which, for instance, make her nose look interestingly snub instead of characterlessly straight), but what above all transforms the effect is  the Penguin jacket-designer's crop.  This, by eliminating the back of Emily's head, conceals the Victorian sloping shoulder-line and the languid hair, and creates a much more forceful image. This woman, we're convinced, already has Wuthering Heights in her sights.]

This note is about David Daiches' 1965 Introduction to the Penguin English Library edition of Wuthering Heights.

And first some trivia.


DAVID DAICHES

1.  Professor Daiches was an interesting man - read his 2005 obituary in The Scotsman:

http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/professor-david-daiches-1-720657

His surname (Jewish/Yiddish rather than Scottish) is pronounced  "day chiz"  or "die chiz". That's probably how you pronounced it already, but it's good to know..!


NOVELETTISH

2.  Daiches (referring to an article by Thomas Moser, in which Heathcliff is identified with the Id) says:

This view involves an admission that the latter part of the book - Heathcliff's revenge and its final abandonment, the growth of love between the younger Catherine and a now-civilized Hareton - is inferior and indeed novelettish, the grafting on to the real novel of a conventional moral pattern ... etc etc. 

OED novelette, n. :

1. A story of moderate length having the characteristics of a novel. Now: a short, light, romantic, or sentimental novel (freq. depreciative).

These days the unusual word "novelette" is apparently still used in the world of writing competitions to refer to a fiction longer than a short story but shorter than a novella, i.e. 7,500 - 18,000 words, approximately.

But from the 1850s up until the late 1960s the principal meaning of "novelette" was derogatory. It referred to a class of books that were typified by sentimentality, triviality, and trite morality. They might be chauvinistically dismissed as reading material for young ladies or uneducated persons.  The novelette might be regarded as namby-pamby.  A typical example is A.A. Milne's send-up "The Seaside Novelette".

http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/37693/

I suspect most "penny-novelettes" were pretty much the direct forebears of what my own generation called "Mills and Boon romances".

(On the other hand the word novelette could also be used to mean trashy genre fiction, e.g. a "pornographic novelette").

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

in the business park



I once wrote a post in which I extolled the botanical virtues of my local scruffy industrial estate. And maybe the message of today's post should be, Don't neglect the business park!

The business park environment can be characterized by ample, but highly manicured, green space; many trees and shrubs, often exotic, for reasons of privacy and low maintenance; often some freshwater features (artificial ponds); extensive tarmacked and paved areas. Sometimes the business park may include a "nature reserve" (there's one in mine) but that's a separate topic. In this post I am talking about the business park proper.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Metambesen - Robert Kelly etc


[This note, about a new US poetry PDF site, has now been moved to Intercapillary Space:

http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/greetings-to-metambesen-robert-kelly-etc.html

]


Random bonus Metambesen quote:

Refusing to define it. What comes against these other magics. That I do is
enough. From this center I react, train crawling north still above ground,
fog and rain trails, umbrella hat and rain-jacket soaked through. Rain from
the ground up.   (Tamas Panitz)

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer - Leyendas


The striking portrait of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer painted by his brother, Valeriano Domínguez Bécquer. An iconic image formerly used on 100-peseta notes.

This was my holiday reading, bought at a beachside bookstall on the Playa del Cura in Torrevieja (Alicante). My book contained only seven of the twenty-eight legends; I imagine from the attractively minimal apparatus that it was a booklet supplied free with some newspaper or other.

Leyendas (1860-65) is a well-known book in Spain, and a regular on the school curriculum; Becquer's stories have also been adapted for children.  It is a collection of romantic tales in the tradition of Hoffmann and Heine. Most of the stories feature the supernatural. Another implication of the title is that the author doesn't consider any of the stories to be true. This creates a fertile arena for literary artistry; in effect, these are early exercise in the use of an unreliable narrator, because the author's commitment to the material is always uncertain. The artistry co-exists happily with a healthy simplicity for the most part, but sometimes the ironies become more restive. Bécquer is also, of course, an important poet, his poems speaking with a kind of direct freshness that was then new in Spanish literature.

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scraps of a journey

Glebionis segetum in farmland

Corn Marigold (Glebionis segetum), a native of the E. Mediterranean, long since spread to arable land in the rest of Europe and historically once a serious weed;  apparently there are medieval Scottish laws about the farmer's duty to eradicate it.

I found this group a few days ago in farmland near Abbeville (Normandy) and, since they were reasonably far away from any dwelling, I supposed they might be - not native, of course, but - at least a "natural" occurrence of a genuine weed going about its weedy business. It's often difficult to be sure, because these pretty flowers are now often included in wild-flower-meadow seed-mixes and deliberately introduced into urban planting schemes; doubtless the origin of the stray plants I see in Swindon. Meanwhile, Corn Marigold had become quite local in its former arable haunts; some people link this to the modern practice of liming soil to lower its acidity.


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Monday, September 22, 2014

arbaraxa

Dec ontufestamingge en lespid guarnic sospedacho al anche gruzura, anfitron es jeguiles dy Ana; bes cantua suprin, de fallem cin ye tojos infetjiles, arrohagarys luministry i harrabad carcules yn circla. Vano erminsty deo ur munkea frayly, dysw Quyrys yun iyer constaba.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

lazy journalism

I realize because I've done it that a lot of journalism is lazy, that's to say just researched at the desk by googling things. And this behaviour with its sometimes interesting but never verifiable findings is typical of the modern writer's lifestyle.

I think that's why every so often I write about nature. Even though much of what I say is still second-order information sourced from books or the internet, still the fact is that I did see the plants with my own eyes, and here's the photo to prove it.

Something was real. And it was that real contact that I wanted to report; but even then it isn't easy. To describe the real moment. So quite often I fall back on related material that I've read somewhere else. And I just hope that what I'm writing manages to convey some little breath of that true moment about which, so often,  I feel so tongue-tied.


*

What is a forest?  For me the idea contains reassuring elements of darkness and infinitude, that is, uncountableness.

Levin, of course, reproves his brother-in-law's vagueness. No, a forest isn't really infinite. A merchant always counts the trees before he buys.


*

I supposed I had no brothers. And indeed I don't. But when I listened to my first vocal overdub I was surprised by the effect it had on me. It sounded like I had brothers. We were singing a country song and we sounded like crooning cowboys.

*












Monday, August 04, 2014

Sir Walter Scott: Tales of a Grandfather, Marmion, etc.



[Original frontispiece of Tales of a Grandfather, Second Series as published by Cadell in 1829 (actually Nov 1828). From the Walter Scott Image Collection, Edinburgh University Library.]

A LONGER NOTE ON Tales of a Grandfather (1827-31) and The History of Scotland (1829)

Tales of a Grandfather is a history of Scotland up to 1745 - at least this is the bit that people usually talk about, and it equates to the first three series; there was a fourth series (1831) on French history, and an abandoned MS of a 5th series, continuing the French history. The abandonment may have been related to Master Littlejohn's death at ten years old.  He was the grandchild addressed in these volumes, though Scott didn't except in the early pages make much concession to infantile capacities. He does however dwell on memorable tales (even if legendary) and he steers clear of analysis. Until quite recently this was a widely-read book in Scotland; it makes a bizarre appearance in the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s Tomorrow Belongs to Me (1975) – Harvey (born in 1935) made a virtue of being older than other rock stars and of having access to forgotten things. The History of Scotland  (for the Cabinet Cyclopaedia) covers a briefer period, ending in 1603. This is harder to come by, but it makes better reading than the first series of TOAG, which covers the same ground. Both however are good books, if this kind of historical material interests you; in other words, wars, power-struggles, heroic and villainous deeds; not much about social or cultural matters.

On the assumption that even scholars are likely to leave these volumes unread, I’ll mention some passages that deserve attention. (TOAG is, however, currently in print as four paperback volumes with new titles.)

TOAG Chapter XXXIV (the first of the second series), is titled “Progress of Civilisation in Society”. It’s on such a theme that one gains from the clarity enforced on a writer who addresses a child. This is what most of Scott’s contemporaries thought, if they thought at all, but rarely had occasion to say: for example, about the origin and function of property, money, trade, social class and education. It’s interesting that Scott mentions peoples who did not know about boiling water (natives of New South Wales) or even making a fire (presumably the Tasmanians, at that time still in existence).

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Sir Walter Scott, Woodstock (1826)



[Frontispiece of 1871 edition, image from Russell Library, McMaster University

The action of Woodstock is extraordinarily concentrated on its titular location; we are mainly inside the Lodge, almost as often in the grounds, sometimes in the town, but the only time we get any further afield during the main narrative is when Wildrake meets with Cromwell at Windsor (Chs VIII-IX). This scene (which Lockhart ridiculously called better than Macbeth) is certainly a fine one and it sets up a touch of menacing expectation; at some point we know we will see more of Cromwell.

But the novel’s strength is already there and it is fugal in nature.  Woodstock persistently and often literally goes over the same ground. The most speedily revolving cogs are e.g. Wildrake the disguised cavalier gving vent to his royalist feelings or having a drink, motifs that recur incessantly. At a more stately pace, consider the number of substantial scenes that occur while approaching the Lodge:

Approach 1: Trusty Tomkins, then Joceline (Chs 2-3)
Approach 2: Everard and Wildrake (Ch 5)
Approach 3: Everard, Wildrake, Mayor, Holdenough (Ch 10)
Approach 4: Everard, Wildrake, then Tomkins, Harrison (Ch 14)
Approach 5: Everard, Charles, Sir Henry Lee (Ch 25)
Approach 6: Charles, Alice, Rochecliffe (Ch 28)
Approach 7: Cromwell, Pearson and soldiers, Everard, Holdenough, then Rochecliffe, Joceline (Ch 33)

Somewhere at the back of the reader’s mind is the persistent feeling of “I’ve been here before”. Thus when we attend the planned duel of Charles and Everard in Chapter 28, we feel the weight of accumulated combat: this very pair have already crossed swords at the end of Ch 24, Wildrake has mimed a combat with Harrison, Henry Lee has fenced with Tomkins. These clashings have always come to nothing, but the sensation grows that someone, sometime, is going to get themselves killed out here. And that is in fact what’s about to happen, when Joceline’s quarterstaff smacks into Tomkins’ temple.

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Sir Walter Scott, Quentin Durward (1823)



When I wrote my mini-critiques of Scott’s novels, I was rude about this one and I still think I’m right. The praise accorded it in the book by Angus and Jenni Calder seems inexplicable to me, unless they were dazzled by its reception in Europe. For all that, it’s a book that can be read, just. The awful judgment of a critic - was it Taine? - that Scott is “tame” is not easily shrugged off, yet  the critic perhaps didn’t fully appreciate Scott’s anti-heroic instincts.

It occurs to me too that Scott’s interest in royalty is associated with a determination to view the behaviour of a human being when untrammelled by institutions. In the Duke of Burgundy and King Louis he has his chance. These were exceptional lives in their own time, but ours have more in common with them than with the merchants and soldiers. We don’t have all the wealth, but we do have nineteen parts of the freedom. We too can become our own personalities.

C.L Bennet’s (of Dalhousie University) comatose 1967 introduction to Quentin Durward betrays how unrewardingly Scott has been read for at least a century, and what an increasingly ungrateful task popular publishers found it to present Scott classics. This copy, “specially selected for the Airmont Library from the immortal literature of the world”, appears as usual never to have been read.

There are after all considerable obstacles in the path of one who may have been attracted (or whose gift-buying relative was attracted) by the front cover, with its muscular hero (in an astonishing costume of Ivanhoe-meets-Rob Roy) posing heroically while a pitched battle engages furiously a few yards away. After Bennet there is Scott’s 1831 Preface which, with some seriousness and some dullness, and a full page of quotation in French, moralizes over King Louis XI, dispiritingly adding: “It will be easily comprehended, that the little love intrigue of Quentin is only employed as the means of bringing out the story” (as poor a piece of salesmanship as Henry James’ remarks on the mechanism of The Ambassadors). This is one of the later Prefaces that ought now to be relegated to an appendix, because it destroys the effect that Scott first aimed for. He was not one of those rare artists (like Brahms) who could add new material so seamlessly that we are convinced the whole work was built around it.

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Sir Walter Scott, The Abbot (1820)



[Catherine Seyton, engraving after Landseer, 1833. "As they put off, Roland thought he could discover the face of Catherine Seyton... peeping from a loophole to view his departure" (Ch 25). Image from The Walter Scott Image Collection at Edinburgh University Library.]


“By Heaven, Catherine, your tongue wears as many disguises as your person!” Roland Græme complains of the girl he loves. He’s mistaken, for the “audacity” that we admire in Scott’s most entrancing heroine is not deceptive at all, though admittedly she does try to take advantage of the Lady of Lochleven’s belief in a supposed poisoning. The circumstances are a bit unusual. Normally Catherine is, whatever Roland thinks, perfectly sincere and direct. Her games are the spiritedness of youth, and “in sad earnest” she hardly troubles to hide even her love for Roland, and certainly never her unalterable commitment to the Catholic faith. Scott’s most attractive women (Flora MacIvor, Rebecca) are for some reason often committed to a creed he disapproves.

The Abbot is indeed a book full of even more than the usual quota of people in disguise. In the village of Kinross, Roland encounters four in very short order: Henry Seyton as a country maiden, Magdalen Græme as Mother Nicneven, Father Ambrose as a “mean and servile” retainer, and Father Boniface as the gardener Blinkhoolie. All are of course adherents to the “ancient and only road” (Mary’s phrase) that the ruling Protestant party is trying to suppress.

Disguise has the potential of allowing someone to assume a character that expresses their inner selves more openly than their everyday identity does, and here this might be claimed (in their different ways) of both Magdalen-as-Nicneven and Boniface-as-Blinkhoolie.

Pursuing that line of thought as regards Henry is intriguing, but the truth is that whenever Roland tries to treat Henry femininely he walks into a wall. This seems maybe like a crude device for nourishing an artificial mystification in Roland’s mind; he keeps mistaking Henry-as-maiden for Catherine, his supposedly “identical” twin, and there seems no good reason why the real Catherine doesn’t enlighten him. (Roland is apparently unaware that Catherine has a twin at all, even though Henry Seyton is a prominent noble.) The upshot is an androgynous tangle that links the three in features of their personalities. But what is “audacity” in Catherine is impulsiveness and violence in the two young men.

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Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy (1818)


(Above: Jacket of Rob Roy, illustrated edition in Coleccion Historias, Editorial Bruguera, Barcelona 1960 - currently for sale.)


I have finally re-read Rob Roy, and found myself pronouncing it a failure (albeit one written in the midst of Scott’s best period). If so, it’s an interesting kind of failure.

The author of Waverley was, as that book sufficiently shows, an innovator by nature. Rob Roy’s failure is the sort that only innovations are prone to.

It‘s a travelling book, the locale shifting as the book proceeds. In that respect it’s like Waverley or Guy Mannering. This is familiar from picaresque novels, but Scott’s novels are not picaresque novels; they seek a unity of purpose that is different. Or, one could speak of a “narrative logic” - and therefore, potentially, a failure in that “logic” -  that is not courted by picaresque novels. Besides, in the picaresque novel the travelling is a device. The stage backcloth moves but the hero never gets to a new country. When Scott began to make Scotland seem Scottish, that was the end - for the moment, anyway - of the picaresque novel.

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Sir Walter Scott, Old Mortality (1816)


[Image from www.forgottenbookmarks.com]


With Tales of My Landlord, Scott took the opportunity to break free from the already-palpable constraints of being "the author of Waverley" and travelled back a lot further than 60 years; Old Mortality takes place 127 years since. Nevertheless, of all his novels it was the one that stirred most political debate in Scotland. When Scott put the Covenanters stage-centre, he was writing about a historical group who had in recent times become a political symbol of resistance to government tyranny, e.g. for the textile workers who assembled at Loudon-hill in 1815 to celebrate Napoleon's escape from Elba.

The recently-restored title, The Tale of Old Mortality, reminds us that the narrative purports to be based on stories told by the latter-day Covenanter "Old Mortality", as adapted by the author Peter Pattieson,  who writes:

My readers will of course understand, that, in embodying into one compressed narrative many of the anecdotes which I had the advantage of deriving from Old Mortality, I have been far from adopting either his style, his opinions, or even his facts, so far as they appear to have been distorted by party prejudice...

In fact the narrative that follows certainly does not look as if it could have had any basis in such tales as Old Mortality might have spun, except very sporadically, as perhaps in the heroic account of MacBriar's torture and execution; Scott, once he starts to write the story, doesn't attempt to make it reflect the complicated provenance that he has imagined for it in the frame.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

business today

The acquisition of WhatsApp has given Facebook two major advantages, believes Brian Taylor, Digital MD at Jaywing.

"It's removed a serious competitor threat," he explained. "Where Facebook owns 'capturing our moments', WhatsApp dominates one-on-one communication, particularly in emerging markets across Asia."

(Times of India article)

Something about that word "moments" reminds me of some other piece of business language that I read recently. Oh yes, that's it. It was the mission statement in British American Tobacco's investor piece.

WORLD'S BEST AT SATISFYING CONSUMER MOMENTS IN TOBACCO AND BEYOND

(BAT: Our Vision and Strategy)

Our "moments", those things we think most private to us, are of course commoditized. But it's easy to forget that, and it's arresting to see the word used in these contexts.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

under the black poplar




Black Poplar (Populus nigra ssp. betulifolia)




Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola forma serriola)
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Friday, July 25, 2014

More flora of West Swindon



An outbreak of Meadow Cranesbill  (Geranium pratense) by the cycle track near John Lewis at Home. Photo from 22/6/14, hence living up to its Swedish name of Midsommarblomster.


Great Water-dock (Rumex hydrolapathum) by the remnant of canal. Photo 22/6/14.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

literary trivia


I'm following Tom Clark's daily posts about the Gaza war on children. I don't want to, but I am.

http://tomclarkblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/hijos-de-un-dios-menor.html
http://tomclarkblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/and-then-alien-turned-toward-zanna.html
http://tomclarkblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/i-am-bullets-oranges-and-memory-mahmoud.html
http://tomclarkblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/have-mercy-mr-obama-do-you-have-heart.html
etc

I read D.S. Marriott's Dogma last night. This is a Barque pamphlet whose contents would have subsequently ended up in one of the more recent Shearsman collections, but I do like a pamphlet.

Marriott's poems are consciously impure, they develop an image of someone who cannot be other than a thrown-together mixture of drowned ghosts and western imagery. The latter, of course, pre-eminently includes the Cambridge influence that continues to sound in these poems even though it's so obvious how different these poems are from Prynne or Milne or Brady or Sutherland.

The poems are impure not because they think it's thrilling to be impure, as per the Montevidayan swamplands (bit of reductive stereotyping there, but you'll know what I mean); these poems are impure because they can't help being impure. Because the conditions of life don't allow it. Specifically black life, according to Marriott's desolately unillusioned analysis.

Andrew Duncan has mentioned Eliot in the same sentence as Marriott, which I interpreted as an attack, but it isn't so. Duncan actually wrote a brilliant and informative piece about Dogma here:

http://jacketmagazine.com/20/dunc-r-trio.html

But anyway, Eliot did cross my mind while reading the Dogma poems.

The Barque people also sent me Monika Rinck (trans. Alistair Noon), which I don't remember ordering but am glad to have, and Streak_Willing_Artesian_Forgotten which I haven't read but which surprises me by being so beautiful to look at.  I'm talking about when you open it up and look at the poem - the beauty comes from the book as a whole product.  The jacket on its own is just functional (and a shade of green that reminds me of something put together in a classroom, which it probably was).

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sir Walter Scott's novels, a brief guide




Those dusty, dull-bound, heavy books lie like pre-Cambrian bedrock on the lower shelves of pubs and hotels. Such is the fate of the former best-seller, the man who popularised tartan shortbread tins, the man who speckled the suburbs of Birmingham with houses called Loch Lomond in streets called Waverley Crescent and Lammermoor Close, where the daughters were once named Rowena, the sons Nigel. 

Scott is the most under-rated writer in the canon of British literature, second only to Dickens among our great nineteenth-century novelists, readable, fertile, vivid, profound, a master. Like every great novelist, he has huge faults. His English prose style is clumsy and slipshod; he “sows from the sack, not from the hand” and the impact of his best work, essentially poetic, is hard to represent from quotations. His output is vast and many of his novels fail. He inaugurated, if he did not cause, the curious Victorian literary convention that sexual feelings don’t really exist; his scenery and weather are often perfunctory, his heroes and heroines are for the most part as stiff as bookmarks. He was also a Tory and a Unionist, which meets with little favour here. But his massive humanity, comedy and invention are triumphs: once discovered, he is never abandoned. So here goes: 25 novels in six pages, a lifetime of reading. 

THE SCOTTISH PERIOD (1814-1820)

Although these are his earliest novels, they are not beginner’s work. When he published Waverley anonymously he was already 40, a celebrated man of letters thanks to his sensationally popular narrative poems. The novels of this period include his greatest achievements. Some of the later novels are deeply immersed in (lowland) Scottish culture too, but here it’s a continuous presence, the lifeblood of the books.

1.  Waverley (1814)

Seminal, and deeply pondered over many years, this is the first historical novel worthy of the name in world literature. Perhaps his masterpiece, although subtler achievements were to follow. Here are all his great themes: the process of change in society, adolescence, humour, outcasts, ideals, compromises, progress and extinctions. Every adventure, every western movie, every sci-fi fantasy adventure you’ve ever read is indebted to this brilliantly innovative book; not to mention Balzac, Tolstoy, George Eliot... A great place to start.10 out of 10.

2.  Guy Mannering (1815)

Scott with a head of steam up, this is frankly an improvisation. Despite its many wonderful scenes and characters, it’s carelessly executed and doesn’t run very deep. The Victorians loved it, but in our severer times: 7 out of 10.

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Flowers of Roslagen - July 2014




Above: a distant Ek (Quercus robur, Pedunculate Oak) framed by aspen, birch and pine.

These pictures were taken in or near Harö in Roslagen. (Coastal edge of Uppland, more or less the northern part of the Stockholm archipelago). Harö means "Hare Island". It isn't quite an island now, but it probably was until recently; the land rises fast along this coast. Nevertheless, the sea is always nearby, and Roslagen's mild climate allows many plants of south/central Sweden to flourish further north than elsewhere. The spectacle of oak and ash trees - and roses! - growing among the usual pines and spruces is extraordinary to a Norrlander's eyes.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Sir Walter Scott: The Black Dwarf (1816)



The Black Dwarf was published as the first volume of the first series of Tales of My Landlord; the other three were occupied by Old Mortality. Scott allowed a friend to echo his own thoughts about the deficiencies of the material and brought the curtain down more quickly than he'd originally planned. Here the classic Scott gear-change is disorientating rather than thrilling.

This, at any rate, is Scott's account of the matter in the final paragraph of his 1830 Introduction. But the Edinburgh University Library page gives a different impression. According to this page the ending was rushed because Scott was being pressured by his new publishers Blackwood and Murray. It also seems to suggest that the original plan for Tales of My Landlord was four one-volume tales. That could be reconciled with Scott's account only if this plan was a short-lived idea that was already on the scrapheap by the time Scott was composing the The Black Dwarf.  Anyway, Old Mortality was surely conceived on spacious lines from the first.

The main deficiency that Scott talks about is the Black Dwarf himself, and certainly this static creation (Note 1) doesn't convince as a realistic portrait. Nevertheless I'm sure that Scott's insights into the anguish of being cursed with a monstrous appearance must have influenced the young Mary Shelley, who was just starting to write Frankenstein when The Black Dwarf appeared*.

Besides the deficiencies of the lead character, the book has a perfunctory insurrection (how unlike the one in Old Mortality!) and a double kidnap that incomprehensibly fizzles out. So reading the book is more a matter of salvaging lovely details than committing to the tale as a whole. But the details are worth your trouble. This is Scott in 1816, after all!

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

D. S. Marriott Poetry links

[This mini-note about the poet D.S. Marriott has moved to Intercapillary Space:

http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/ds-marriott-poetry-links.html


Instead, here's a bit of "The Dog Enchanter":

What if he were to set off
panting through the ruins
swishing his tale
                     over debris
mooching near the craters
the full-throated bark
deep inside the vertebrae
synchronized
           to the weak, the yielding—
his trick to know that ‘ghost’
isn’t the right word for
                              scents
maundering his way
over the ragged ridgeline
where mines make effigies of sense
                 and the universe presses in
pissing on the leafless trees:
                out there, see him return,
                              where the dust
makes his tracks so easy to see
                      as the journey opens before him
                      his cry impending.
                             Yes, see him return...



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Thursday, June 19, 2014

midsummer wood



New leaves of Common Box (Buxus sempervirens)





Not-yet-open panicles of Tufted Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa).

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

John Aubrey: The Natural History of Wiltshire (1656-91)

John Aubrey in 1666, portrait by William Faithorne


[Image from the Ashmolean Museum website]

The book I have read is in fact an abridgement first published in 1847. The book was not published in Aubrey’s lifetime and represents a sort of ongoing compendium of “papers” that was added to over many years. He had freely offered these papers to Dr Plott, so he does not seem to have thought of them as a book, even when “tumultuarily stitch’t up”.

[This 1847 edition is available on E-Gutenberg.]

I pointed out a maybug on the pavement of a residential street in Bath. “Look at his antennae, they look like fans”, I lectured happily to a child in the vicinity -  “and look! his poo is green!” The child lingered while we strolled off up the hill. When we were far enough off, there was a stamping sound.

Of his own secret impulse to “make a scrutinie into the waies of nature”, Aubrey says that generally “’Twas held a sinne”, and of himself “Credit there was none; for it gets the contempt of a man’s neighbours”. So it does still, except in highly buffered zones such as universities (where, however, Natural History is not regarded as a subject).


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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Molière (1622-73)


[pseud. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]



Molière, re-imagined by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752)

You can easily read through Molière, mildly entertained, but thinking, how hackneyed all this is! When two people are at cross-purposes for pages at a time (e.g. Harpagon and Valère in Act V of L’avare), it seems a weak sort of entertainment, like a sitcom before the watershed. Then the sun shines, you feel a little more apt to join the human race, and all the jokes get deeper, they put down roots and extend into the play around them.

Scene from Tartuffe directed by Dominique Serrand, photo Michal Daniel 2006


Le Tartuffe, ou L'Imposteur (1664, revised several times to 1669)

A famous play, but the text that grew out of its difficult history is rather a bodge. Orgon seems to impose on himself, and this utter stupidity distracts from Tartuffe's power. When we eventually meet Tartuffe he seems a bit dim himself, merely a snake in the grass. The main point of the drama, Tartuffe's deception of his host, is hardly dramatized.

"Tartuffe himself is a titanic creation, one who makes our own 'Heap of Infamy' seem by comparison a mere cringing shadow" (John Wood). Strange remark. I really have a problem with seeing Tartuffe as a titanic creation. A role that doesn't appear until Act III more or less cedes any claim to be a protagonist. All we see him as is a conventional seducer. His power as a hypocrite is known only indirectly, and deceives no-one but Orgon and his mother. (Wood's allusion dates him - he is referring to Uriah Heep in David Copperfield.)

[This is a useful free Tartuffe, with introduction by Roger W. Herzel, translation by Prudence L. Steiner.

http://ptchanculto.binhoster.com/books/-Lit-%20Recommended%20Reading/Theater%20-%20Drama/Moliere_Tartuffe.pdf

]


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Monday, June 09, 2014

Bird Cherry (Prunus padus)

Here are some photos of Bird Cherry (Punus padus) when it was newly in bloom  (I took these on April 15th 2014 in West Swindon).






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Friday, May 23, 2014

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Sejanus (1603), The Alchemist (1610), Catiline his Conspiracy (1611), Bartholomew Fair (1614)


Ben Jonson, portrait by Abraham van Blyenberch

[Image taken from the splendid website of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, http://universitypublishingonline.org/cambridge/benjonson/k/essays/jonsons_images_essay/1/ . This is the painting in the National Portrait Gallery. Though unsigned, there's little doubt of the artist or the sitter; it was immediately much copied. It apparently belonged to George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, and it probably shows Jonson in about 1618.] 

Sejanus (1603) 

I have always favoured Ben Jonson’s writing - he is of course abundantly entertaining, but there is something else too, a sort of rugged justice in the grain of his writing, so it's a something I can also find in a poem, even in a panegyric addressed to some obscure noble. ("Favoured" means that I think I approve of Ben Jonson, rather aside from any particular thing that happens when I read him.) 

In spite of this I had never happened to read some of his masterpieces. Sejanus deserves to be called one of these, and is an astonishing play.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

specimens of the literature of Sweden: bottle of shampoo






This is an everyday shampoo. "Swedish hair-care tradition from Dalarna", says the bottle. The county of Dalarna, romantically rural but not too remote from Stockholm, has desirable connotations and is often thought of as the home of folksong; a sort of hyperreal heart of the Swedish nation, as exemplified by the painted wooden horses (dalahästar) that you find in airport souvenir shops, or the idyllic domestic paintings by Carl Larsson that you find on calendars. Here these idyllic connotations are helped along by the fanciful floral design on that very traditional Swedish shade of grey-blue. In Sweden there is, or is imagined to be, a continuity between nineteenth century folk art and tasteful modernist design: in the UK the discontiuity is felt to be stark. This sense of integration with the folk-past has very profound implications for Swedish life and for its economy. It is one of the main stories that Sweden sells to the world. It sells it to its own people too.

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Friday, May 09, 2014

Anne Righter: Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (1962)




Anne Righter (née Bobbyann Roesen, later Anne Barton, 1933 - 2013) is mainly remembered for this book, her first.

When I bought it recently (from Oxfam, because it was the cheapest book in the shop), I imagined hopefully that it would talk about the conception of the play that was shared by Shakespeare, his fellow-actors, and their audiences. Of course that conception could only be discovered by inference. But Righter sticks to a narrower and more directly accessible topic, Shakespeare's use of the play-image within the plays themselves. And, after all, this rigorous concentration does lead to interesting results. The principal one of which, is that Shakespeare's play-references grow to a sort of apotheosis of positivity around 1600, with the chorus speeches of Henry V* and the troupe of players in Hamlet, before then turning negative in character (the poor player who struts and frets). The negativity being especially apparent in Troilus and Timon.
Righter concludes that after 1600 Shakespeare experienced a growing disillusion with the stage; so her book is in effect a late contribution to the Victorian notion of Shakespeare's "dark period". But she links this observation to the history of the Elizabethan drama as a whole. After a long period of development from medieval drama, involving both disintegration and reintegration, a certain high point of naturalistic drama was attained (above all in Shakespeare), then something curdled and then came the transformation into masque which is echoed in certain ways by the elimination of naturalistic illusion in Shakespeare's last plays.

*To be accurate about this, Righter suggests that the Chorus's self-deprecating references to the "Wooden O" etc might mark the beginning of Shakespeare's disillusion with the stage. But I see the speeches as really glorying in the incredible things the stage can do, albeit by recruiting the audience's imagination.

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Saturday, May 03, 2014

Leaving the cottage

(poem still in progress)

LEAVING THE COTTAGE

1

The grass lies on the land - 
     that set of keys.

Dumb as a bunch of keys, the grass is.
    It’s you who know!

Do you know what you know?
   Take this clutch of grass

and potter back and forth,
  letting out your prisoners.

2

This blue morning is also over Syria;
    this sky is too high for

that kind of division.
   A dove clears its bowels as it

takes off into the air.
   So many have engraved

their messages on the blue stone:
    everyone is writing on the cover, and

yet the pages are blank.

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Thursday, May 01, 2014

My essay about Tim Allen now on Intercapillary Space

My longish review-essay of various works by the fantastic contemporary UK poet Tim Allen is now on Intercapillary Space:

http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/tim-allen-settings-etc.html

As usual the essay initially took shape on this blog. I've removed it from its original location, but if you are curious about the context and why I start off by talking about classic novels rather than modern poetry, then this will expain it all:

http://michaelpeverett.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/interim-cluttered-desk.html



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Monday, April 28, 2014

William Shakespeare: King Lear (1605-06)


[Cordelia (Ashley Ricard), Lear (Ron Gural), Regan (Trina Beck), Goneril (Rebecca Frank) in a Tulane Shakespeare Festival production from 2009. Photo by Brad Robbert, image sourced from http://www.nola.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2009/06/post_30.html]


[Line references are to the Series 3 Arden edition, ed. R.A. Foakes, 1997. This conflates the three scenes usually numbered II.2-4 into one tremendous composite scene that begins at dawn and ends at night (II.2).]


From The Faerie Queene, Bk II, Canto X:

                                 27

Next him king Leyr in happie peace long raind,
  But had no issue male him to succeed,
  But three faire daughters, which were well vptraind,
  In all that seemed fit for kingly seed:
  Mongst whom his realme he equally decreed
  To haue diuided. Tho when feeble age
  Nigh to his vtmost date he saw proceed,
  He cald his daughters; and with speeches sage
Inquyrd, which of them most did loue her parentage.


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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Prunus avium 'Plena'




Prunus avium 'Plena'.  Photos taken 15th April 2014 (a very early year), when a lot of the flowers are opening but the leaves are still small and reddish.

This a double variety of Wild Cherry. It flowers a bit later than most single-flowered Wild Cherry trees, and even from a distance has a noticeably different appearance when flowering: more tufty and irregular, the flowers less obviously sleeving the shoots.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities - "bestselling novel of all time". Allegedly.





The internet generally, and Wikipedia in particular, is obsessed with records. Consequently, you are quite likely to run across the widely repeated claim that  A Tale of Two Cities is (as the Wikipedia article on Charles Dickens puts it) "the best selling novel of all time".

It isn't the most unlikely statement I've ever heard, but when I tried to trace it back to an authoritative source, I at first got no further than a chatty review by the novelist David Mitchell  in the Daily Telegraph from May 8th 2010.

 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/7685510/David-Mitchell-on-Historical-Fiction.html

"Charles Dickens’ second stab at a historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, has sold more than 200 million copies to date, making it the bestselling novel – in any genre – of all time."

 Did Mitchell know what he was talking about? Maybe, but it seems that no-one else does.

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