Thursday, September 21, 2017

the guardian moon and her comrade star

Crescent moon with Venus at evening

[Image source:]

I recently wrote a post about Emily Brontë's earliest dated poem.

Here's the poem again:

Cold clear and blue the morning heaven
Expands its arch on high
Cold clear and blue Lake Werna's water
Reflects that winter's sky
The moon has set but Venus shines
A silent silvery star

(In or before July 1836, age 17)

I've been reading Emily's complete poems in chronological order of composition, and now I've reached the other end of her output, some ten years later on. And suddenly there comes a flicker of memory of that early poem:

M.A. Written on the Dungeon Wall - N. C.

I know that tonight, the wind is sighing,
The soft August wind, over forest and moor
While I in a grave-like chill am lying
On the damp black flags of my dungeon-floor --

I know that the Harvest Moon is shining;
She neither will wax nor wane for me.
Yet I weary, weary, with vain repining,
One gleam of her heaven-bright face to see!

For this constant darkness is wasting the gladness
Fast wasting the gladness of life away;
It gathers up thoughts akin to madness
That never would cloud the world of day

I chide with my soul -- I bid it cherish
The feelings it lived on when I was free,
But shrinking it murmurs, 'Let Memory perish
Forget for thy Friends have forgotten thee!'

Alas, I did think that they were weeping
Such tears as I weep -- it is not so!
Their careless young eyes are closed in sleeping;
Their brows are unshadowed, undimmed by woe --

Might I go to their beds, I'd rouse that slumber,
My spirit should startle their rest, and tell
How hour after hour, I wakefully number
Deep buried from light in my lonely cell!

Yet let them dream on, though dreary dreaming
Would haunt my pillow if they were here
And I were laid warmly under the gleaming
Of that guardian moon and her comrade star --

Better that I my own fate mourning
Should pine alone in the prison-gloom
Than waken free on the summer morning
And feel they were suffering this awful doom

[No. 164 in Janet Regazi's edition, dated August 1845.]

* M.A. is a Gondal character, not known from other sources. N.C. : the Northern College. This was indeed a college, where children of the Gondal nobility were educated. But in the Gondal world every building has its dungeon.

Both Emily and Anne wrote "dungeon wall" poems. And in fact Anne's dungeon wall poem of 16 Dec 1844 "Though not a breath can enter here" had introduced the motifs of sensory exclusion and of being neglected by the free world.  Emily's poem meditates more deeply on that. It lingers between the captive's evocation of lustrous late summer evenings and the actual exclusion of all trace of them from the captive's dungeon.

It was written only a few weeks before "The Prisoner". Self-pity is explicit in this sketchy lyric, while the heroine of "The Prisoner" conspicuously defies self-pity and she mentions no friends upon this earth;  nevertheless, her pitifulness does seem to be an understood thing.

Anyway, "that guardian moon and her comrade star" means the moon and Venus.  The two have been linked since very early times.  As the brightest objects in the night sky, they often seem to have the sky to themselves, particularly during a misty twilight when fainter objects can't be seen. They sometimes appear quite close together: a waxing crescent with the evening star after sunset (as in the photo above), or a waning crescent with the morning star near dawn.  A fairly close conjunction takes place around 8 times a year (about half of them during hours of darkness)

[As on the well-known crescent-and-star symbol on many flags. This is often mistakenly identified with Islam, but Islamic thought deplores visual images, especially for the divine. The crescent-and-star was an emblem of the Ottoman Empire; its origins are pre-Islamic.]

Emily's poems usually speak rapturously of the heavens, and especially of these two comrades. In the sensation-starved and solitary life of Haworth, their appearance in a window was something that mattered. She saw them as nurturers and comforters.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

uk - france - spain - portugal - spain - france - uk

Monday, September 18, 2017

The moral cleanup in Measure for Measure

Pompey (Barzin Arkhavan) and Mistress Overdone (Amy Kim Waschke) in the Seattle Shakespeare Company's 2003 production of Measure for Measure
[Image source:]

I wrote in detail about Measure for Measure before.

During an empty Saturday last week I picked up the old Penguin edition in a charity shop in Westbury, sat in the van and re-read J.M. Nosworthy's introduction.

I felt there was a lot of accord between this editor's opinions and mine, but there was one glaring difference. Nosworthy regards it as firmly established that the Vienna of the play is in a state of deplorable moral decay and is in urgent need of reform. Whereas my reading treated this view of Vienna as pretty much a media illusion, a pretext for orators to thunder Something must be done when, actually, nothing can or will be done.

I think really I must have been wrong. Nosworthy argues that, apart from people (such as the Duke) telling us that Vienna's morals have been neglected, the evidence of such neglect is abundantly shown by the presence in the play of Lucio, Pompey, Mistress Overdone ...(Claudio and Juliet even, or the Escalus who protests  at the news of well-born Claudio being made an example of?).  And evidently there's many a production of Measure for Measure that takes great delight in creating a particularly seedy atmosphere. (E.g. Dromgoole's 2015 Globe production .)

Yet... I still find it hard to believe that Vienna in the play is really in a radically bad way. Is it much different to Elizabethan London, where the theatre companies set up on the south bank alongside the brothels, out of reach of the city authorities?

In Hamlet and in Macbeth Shakespeare's poetry creates for us the image of places (Denmark and Scotland) in terminal moral decline. (Such decline is seen as following from the vices of the ruler.) 

But when is Measure for Measure's Vienna ever described in those terms?

On the contrary, don't we see all sorts of redeeming features in the lively social lowlife of the play -- more, even, than in the Eastcheap of Henry IV?

In a way Measure for Measure is quite a soft-hearted play. Yes, it contains a bawd, a madam, a rakish gentleman .... but no actual young prostitute. (Whereas the figure of Doll Tearsheet in Henry IV Part II casts a significantly less merry light on what goes on in Eastcheap, and what happens when there's a crackdown too.)

A lot depends on our reading of the Duke's confidences to Friar Thomas in Act I Scene 3. By that time the moral clean-up is already in operation. The Duke says that this was his intention. Friar Thomas makes the reasonable point that the Duke ought to be leading the moral crusade himself. The Duke's explanation is ingenious but not altogether persuasive. And we are very swiftly given the impression that the real subject of the Duke's experiment is not the people's loose morals but how Angelo takes to his task. Angelo is like one of those volunteers for Psychology research from whom the real purpose of the test is withheld. The Duke has deceived Angelo about the reasons for his own absence. Furthermore in Act I Scene 1 he has conspicuously issued no special orders -- not a word there about Vienna needing a clean-up -- , so Angelo and Escalus are left having to work out the details of government. As Act II Scene 1 shows, Escalus differs largely from Angelo in what ought to be done: contrary to Angelo's expressed wish, he fails to whip any of the characters apprehended by Elbow. (Elbow is a remarkable reprise of Dogberry  - and Escalus' delightful laissez-faire advice to Elbow comes out of the same source..)
The estimable Shmoop tells us that the Duke "is fed up with the sinful ways of his people" ... which is an inference at best, not something he ever says.  The way the Duke tells it, it's with mild regret that the lion has slept for 19 years.

The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

Yes.... Bit of a sense of anti-climax there...  Well how do you read it?  Impassioned?... or lip service?


Friday, September 15, 2017

the nations

Vego (a Swedish vegetarian/vegan food magazine): Summer, Autumn, Winter

[Image source:]

My life and theme remain defined by the statement of national identity that I was already issuing at the age of five, when asked to give an interesting fact about myself: I am half-Swedish. Nearly every post in this blog is in some way preoccupied with the thought of what nations are, or are imagined to be.  The significance of being uncertainly part of two different nations; the personal questions it raised in respect of who I thought I was, and how I should behave, and what I should feel, have never left me. I've lived all my life in England. An undefined sense of lack of congruence has driven my interests and obsessions. Not being able to more than half-identify with England or Britain, I've always felt very strongly the absurdities and injustices of nationhood, the imposition of nationhood. But this discomfort and this critique coexists with a secret patriotism. The "native land" (for which the Romans had a single word patria) remains a meaningful concept so far as my emotions are concerned, however often I might fear or loathe the manifestations of patria in others.

For several years now I've been labelling some of my posts by country, that is by labels such as Specimens of the literature of Sweden (Finland / Spain ...) though I've only bothered to do this with places that I write about quite often. Nations are an inevitably useful way to organize. But I do find myself questioning the approach now, even though I won't change it. I think it rewards a sort of prejudice that is perhaps venial but widely shared.

It's like this. Encountering the overwhelming riches of culture (I too, like Ashbery, always seem to be discussing an overpopulated world), we readers make choices. It's good to read (or "study") one or two topics or authors (or national literatures) in unusual depth; we learn things then that we will never learn from a merely superficial knowledge of everything. On the other hand we see the point of reading widely; we know all too well the limitations of mere specialism. So we follow the dictum: learn a lot about a few things, and a little about a lot of things. If I might counsel perfection, the perfect reader's profile would also have aspirations to a range of intermediate areas of sub-specialism: a select group of topics or authors in whom we will certainly never be experts but in whom we choose, sometimes rather arbitrarily, to take a closer interest than we can pay to most of the other worlds of literature. These interests begin and then they tend to grow. Fo instance, I'm more likely to read a book from Africa than a book from South East Asia. There's no particular reason for that, I've never been to Africa, it certainly isn't a value judgment, and I recognize (as many African authors also say) that Africa is too huge and varied for the term "African literature" to have much meaning. Neverthless, I just happen to have read a few (a very few) African books already, I've become involved somehow. And once I'm involved, of course I want to read more.

And then the counter-argument: that we all need, at rather regular intervals, to step out of our own ruts. Most likely, this post is going to kickstart me into reading something from SE Asia!

But this national-literature-consciousness is bound to my own era and indeed to the very completism against which I have often argued. The early (1950s) Penguin Classics on the shelves of my childhood (in those early days, Penguin Classics consisted of translations only: books originally written in modern English were out of scope) didn't then have black spines. Instead, they had a rather complex colour coding scheme reflecting the language or literature to which the book in question belonged. As far as I remember, it went something like this:

Red: Russian
Grass-green: French
Rich reddish-brown: Classical Greek
Purple: Classical and Medieval Latin
Orange: Middle English
Sandy brown: Arabic/Middle East
Olive green: German
Yellow: Indian and Far East
Mediterranean Blue: Italian
Slightly greenier Blue: Spanish
Shea-nut brown: Scandinavian

I think a younger reader will most likely read Murakami and Paulo Coelho and Mohsin Hamid and Roberto Bolaño without the slightest intention of "doing" the country from which the author hails, perhaps without the thought ever occurring to them that the book they are reading has anything to do with any particular nation or literature. That an author comes from Brazil is perhaps not intrinsically more interesting than that they come from Swindon or Hornsea. Besides, many contemporary authors no longer live in their country of origin but in a big city elsewhere.

And yet the question of nationality continues to seem important to me. Perhaps pessimistically, against a background question of "What gives significance to anything at all"?

An article I happened to read yesterday, about ideas of nationality that are something more than exclusive.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Rudyard Kipling: "Dayspring Mishandled"

Manallace and Lady Castorley (Costerley)

[All images are taken from ,  George Simmers' very interesting blog. These are C.E. Brock's illustrations for the original publication of "Dayspring Mishandled" in the Strand magazine (July 1928), when the story appeared alongside P.G. Wodehouse's Mulliner story "The Passing of Ambrose" and the latest chapter of Sapper's The Female of the Species. In this version the name is Costerley. It was changed to Castorley when the story appeared in Limits and Renewals in 1932.]

Kipling leaves the account of Castorley’s original sin very shadowy, but throws plenty of clues around. I think Craig Raine (in A Choice of Kipling's Prose, 1986) is obviously right to point out that the words

and, it was said, proposed to ‘Dal Benzaguen’s mother, who refused him

describe a cover-up story intended to save face for all parties. The truth is that Castorley refused her, having just become a man of independent means, and presumably having formerly seduced her with promises that he now reneges on. This, Raine argues convincingly, is the only interpretation that makes sense of the dying Castorley’s statement that “There was an urgent matter to be set right, and now that he had The Title and knew his own mind it would all end happily and he would be well again.”

Besides, the theme of public deception is a dear one to Kipling (e.g. in “The Gardener”); unlike the Zola that he so admired he was able to view these genteel hypocrisies sympathetically, and many of his best stories are structured around the tactful uncovering of long-nurtured secrets.  So Raine’s insight is compellingly Kiplingesque, but it is far from clearing up all the murk, and in fact Kipling did not intend it to be fully cleared up.


[Kipling directs us to his story of 1913, “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat” . This is in several respects a companion-piece to “Dayspring Mishandled”; it shares some of the settings, e.g. hack journalism and the music hall, and has some seeds of  the distinctively witty style. It is also a story of revenge, but unlike “DM” exemplifies the all-too-common type of Kipling revenge story in which everything goes to plan and, in the words of Edmund Wilson, “The Wrong is made a guy from the beginning, and the high point of the story comes when the Right gives it a kick in the pants”. One character in it, Vidal Benzaguen, is a young music-hall star, adored by the young men of her time and on the threshold of international fame. Her fame is one reason why, in the later story, her mother can be naturally referred to by no other name than “’Dal’s mother”. At the same time the withholding of a name implies reticence about delicate matters.


‘Dal can be envisaged as about seventeen years old, which means that, though we are told she was born after the events in the opening pages of “Dayspring Mishandled” , it cannot have been very long after. In strict fact, this is impossible. The Graydon/Neminaka era is clearly the early to mid-1890s – and in fact the Dowson poem quoted by Manallace is of 1896. But the fictional date of “TVTVTEWF”, though basically contemporary (i.e. with 1913, the date of publication) is bound to be imagined as having taken place a few years earlier, as stories that describe fictional events of national scope always are. In fact, it must be 1904 or not very long after, since the death of Nellie Farren (a real music-hall performer) is referred to by one of the characters as if it’s fresh news. So there isn’t actually enough  time for Vidal Benzaguen to grow up. But this is to ignore the magical illusions of the music-hall, and of course the starry fantasy in which both stories are dipped, especially this earlier one. ‘Dal’s name is very possibly only a stage name. “Benzaguen” (more commonly “Benzaquen”) is Jewish, most frequent in Spain and France. “Vidal” is Spanish, French or (especially) Catalan – again frequently in a Jewish context. The two names fit like hand and glove. And she’s dark-haired; but her speech is pure London, with perhaps a touch of Irish (“Ah! Tell a fellow now...”). So one can speculate that Vidal’s mother was (possibly) Irish and (almost certainly) musical-theatrical herself. This gives point to two references in “DM”. The first is to Gilbert and Sullivan. Manallace’s first plan was to turn his story-idea into a comic opera; no doubt he envisaged ‘Dal’s mother taking the role of Gertrude. The second is the episode, briefly referred to in two widely separated sentences, in which a drunk Manallace has words with a negress in yellow satin, later named as Kentucky Kate, outside the old Empire. The Empire, in Leicester Square, was then a music hall. In 1894, a national sensation was caused by a moral crusade to prevent it being re-licensed. This was on the basis of indecency both off and on stage. The former charge referred to its promenade, in which beautifully dressed prostitutes touted for custom. Was “Kentucky Kate” a performer or a prostitute? Probably the former, but Manallace’s quote from Dowson’s poem (in which a man lying in a prostitute’s arms is haunted by memories of the true love to whom he claims to have been “faithful, in his fashion”) might suggest the latter. Was Manallace rejecting a proposition from Kentucky Kate, or was he making a passionate avowal about a mutual acquaintance?


The historical figure of Nellie Farren hangs over all this. She was a singing, dancing, comedy actress of the 1880s and early 1890s, especially associated with the Gaiety Theatre. Among other things she was a well-known performer in Gilbert and Sullivan operas such as Trial by Jury. Her popularity was unrivalled, but her career was cut short in 1892 by a spinal disorder that crippled her. She died in 1904. In “TVTVTEWF” the narrator, making avuncular conversation to the young Vidal (to whose sexiness he, like the young Olyett, is highly responsive – she “stood behind us all alive and panting”), has talked about Nellie as her famous predecessor in his own heyday. The details of this conversation aren’t reported; perhaps he said “You remind me of her”. Anyway, she captures Vidal’s imagination. Later she interrogates him: “Did you love Nellie Farren when you were young?” and he answers: “Did we love her? ... “If the earth and sky and the sea” – There were three million of us, ‘Dal, and we worshipped her.” The narrator, of course, is deflecting the personal nature of the question. On the other hand Nellie’s somewhat otiose presence in the story is surely meant to be seen as a touching personal tribute. But fan-worship grades quickly into passionate love when there is opportunity. In the same story Olyett, who “in common with the youth of that year... worshipped Miss Vidal Benzaguen of the Trefoil immensely and unreservedly”, later gets engaged to her. So I imagine that when, near the start of “DM”, we are told that Manallace “adored”  Vidal’s mother...” this subtly chosen word implies that his love began, though it did not end, as a member of the theatre audience.


None of this aside is definite enough to be turned into a piece of detective-work along the lines of John Sutherland’s books.  What it does do is illuminate some of the subtler shades of meaning in “DM” . For example it explains why ‘Dal’s mother would attract multiple admirers and why everyone who was part of the Neminaka scene would know who she was; as a popular entertainer, she was a kind of public property. And it explains why the Castorley who writes about “Bohemia” but lives in fear of being compromised would want to distance himself from her. One can construct a fairly melodramatic tale in which Castorley deserts Vidal’s mother when she is already pregnant with his child, in which the later “husband” was merely an arrangement to explain that child, and in which Castorley’s behaviour is in some way the cause of her paralysis and death – but the details of all this are meant to be unclear, and of course are all the more effective because they are, we gather, too frightful to be spelt out.]      


Raine’s insight does re-orient the story, putting a little flesh on the bones of Castorley’s undoubted beastliness. But while the story presents Manallace’s revenge as fully justified, it does progressively call into question whether anyone, even Castorley, can be finally condemned. A dying, duped and cuckolded man is always an object of pity. However awful his behaviour, how much of it was down to mere common immaturity, lack of self-knowledge, and characteristic self-centredness? A great crime does not imply a great criminal.


The moderation of this conclusion, refreshing as it is to a reader of Kipling’s work in bulk, wouldn’t be noteworthy in anyone else’s. Comparisons with Chekhov don’t exactly spring to mind.


Like all Kipling’s best stories, “Dayspring Mishandled” creates its own fictional world; style, content, setting and image. For example, it’s just about the only Kipling story that is genuinely funny (compare “Aunt Ellen”, above).


His private diversions were experiments of uncertain outcome, which, he said, rested him after a day’s gadzooking and vitalstapping.


... for ‘our Dan’, as one earnest Sunday editor observed, ‘lies closer to the national heart than we wot of’.


We were rewarded by the sight of a man relaxed and ungirt – not to say wallowing naked – on the crest of success.


‘and, after all,’ he pointed out, with a glance at the mirror over the mantelpiece, ‘Chaucer was the prototype of the “verray parfit gentil Knight” of the British Empire so far as that then existed.’


‘If I pull the string of the shower-bath in the papers,’ he said, ‘Castorley might go off his verray parfit gentil nut....’


The first and last of these quotations represent Manallace’s sense of humour, characteristically boyish and modest. The narrator’s tone is more sardonic, his humour grading into comments like “in which calling he loyally scalped all his old associates as they came up” and “an unappetizing, ash-coloured woman”. He is brisk, conversational, and effortless. Both humorists (like everything else in the story) merit our attention.

The narrator visits Manallace in his lab

The narrator doesn’t appear openly and in the first person until a few pages and a fair few years have passed; but covertly, he has already appeared twice, first as “a man” who guided Manallace home from Neminaka’s, later as “Some member of the extinct Syndicate” who wrote to Castorley asking for help towards a new treatment for Vidal’s mother. This somewhat furtive arrival in his own story is a hint that the narrator is meant to be identified as Rudyard Kipling himself (“‘Tell me what the tale was about, though. That’s more in my line.’”) Since he is effectively abetting Manallace in a kind of murder, there’s an element of confession about the story. Like Manallace’s disastrous ink recipe, later developments “entangled us both”.


Manallace’s interests, after April 1914 when ‘Dal’s mother died, and the night of the air-raid in which he learns the truth about how Castorley behaved towards ‘Dal’s mother, are murderous. “She seemed to have emptied out his life, and left him only interests in trifles.” But that was only “seemed”. When the narrator rumbles Manallace’s forgery, Manallace admits that “I owe my interests to Castorley”. It’s odd to express murderous hatred in terms of indebtedness. But in fact Manallace’s lethal intentions have required him, from the start, to get very close to Castorley, and to adopt a habit of sticking up for him (“The changes sickened me, but Manallace defended him, as a master in his own line who had revealed Chaucer to at least one grateful soul”). That’s before the narrator is in on the plot, but even afterwards Manallace continues to speak of Castorley with positively maternal affection: “I’m going to help him. It will be a new interest.... His book’s taking more out of him than I like, though...” And when he adds “And he’s just the sort of flatulent beast who may go down with appendicitis”, this hardly sounds like hatred in the first degree. His whole program, of conveying “our pleasure and satisfaction to them both”, of wrapping himself “lovingly and leisurely round his new task”, of creating “obligations” on Castorley’s part, begins to take possession of him. Manallace, who when we first meet him can produce an astonishing tale around a few random pictures, does not need anything much from his love-objects. He cared for Vidal’s mother (whose eyes betrayed her love for someone else) through years of total paralysis; and he is quite capable of caring for Castorley, a despicable egotist whom he has every reason to hate. When he comes to understand that Castorley is terminally ill, unloved and cuckolded, he throws the brakes on at once; but it didn’t need Lady Castorley to make him re-consider. Once confronted with the reality of Castorley’s suffering, he would have tried to back off anyway. Not possible, however; Manallace’s dilatoriness in fact accelerates Castorley’s decline.



            ‘Ah Jesu-Moder, pitie my oe peyne.

            Daiespringe mishandeelt cometh nat agayne.’


Gertrude’s lament to some extent applies to Manallace, whose life has become curiously distorted. But it applies with much greater force to Castorley, as he dimly perceives (“’Plangent as doom, my dear boy – plangent as doom!’”). Castorley is from the start preoccupied with a fear of being “compromised”. No doubt his severing of connection with Vidal’s mother arises from a panic about entanglement. His later refusal to assist in her treatment (“he had ‘known the lady very slightly...’”), though it repulses us with its cold-heartedness, is actually down to fear – of being compromised. He has set out to manipulate his way to a successful career, coldly choosing “a speciality”, flattering, fawning, and so on. But Kipling, both as narrator and author, is honest enough to admire the sheer hard work that Castorley puts himself to. He identifies with it of course. Castorley’s failure is inevitable, however, because he is not as conscienceless as he needs to be. His last speech is a poignant fantasy of setting things right again, but “Dayspring mishandled cometh not againe”.


Castorley’s blatant desire for official recognition, though always covered with a saving phrase about Chaucer, is for himself and his insecurities. He wants the knighthood because he wants to prove to himself that his careerism, though founded on a conscious betrayal of love (his own, as well as Vidal’s mother’s), was somehow justifiable. When Castorley’s anguished conscience finally does break through it remains intermingled with this stupidity: “There was an urgent matter to be set right, and now that he had The Title and knew his own mind...” 


“Dayspring Mishandled”, a story by an old, ill, distinguished writer about an old, ill, distinguished writer, is obviously unusually personal; or rather, it’s unusual for Kipling to focus on this particular element in his personal existence. But despite personal aspects of the content, the greatness lies rather in the very impersonal nature of the story that is produced; it is a great performance.  


Kipling, as Edmund Wilson and many others have pointed out, is an overt admirer of “doers”, but in the context of letters, his own profession, he can for once liberate himself (that is to say, from an over-insistent reverence for people who can do what he can’t) to write a perfect demolition of “doers”.  I mustn’t be vague about such precise art: it is a context of popular letters, and is alive from the first with sparkling awareness of the tawdriness, fakery, fun and optimism of that context. Clearly what is at issue here is not austere artistic vocations of the Jamesian sort; Castorley’s Chaucerian gambollings, though he obviously regards them as having a higher status (“‘Literature’”) than, say, Manallace’s historical tearjerkers, reflect the amateur and popular nature of literary studies, Middle English in particular, in that pre-Leavis era.      


This setting is marvellously suited to a tale in which the achievements of “doing” are understood to be irrelevant frippery compared to the real life-choices that a human being makes. Kipling has not really changed his spots. He still values “doing”, except when it is literary. (“Manallace made a reputation, and, more important, money for Vidal’s mother...”). Even a story such as this is based on the morality of Stalky & Co. But of Kipling as of everyone else, one may come to see that his weaknesses are also his strengths.


The context is in fact the centre of what makes the story great; the events seem to emerge naturally from it. That’s why Phillip V. Mallett, for example, could be so appreciative even though he didn’t know as much as we now do (thanks to Craig Raine) of Castorley’s wickedness. It’s also why a page or a paragraph of Kipling can be read on its own and is still great – I mean Kipling at his best - which you wouldn’t say of Chekhov. A great Kipling story is like a poem in this respect. It differs from most poems, I think, in that the author’s painstaking research and intricate craftsmanship are not something to be distinguished from the “lasting worth” of the work. In Kipling’s case, the research and the craftsmanship are precisely the things that matter, and it’s in their terms, vulgar and unsuggestive as they may seem, that we ought to discuss him.     


Manallace laying his trail


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Pruniers / Cerisiers : Mirabelle / Bigarreau

The Mirabelle is a kind of small edible plum grown in several countries across Europe but especially associated with the region of Lorraine in France.  The two main varieties are connected with the cities Metz and Nancy.

The oval Mirabelle fruit has golden skin, often specked or flushed with red. Mirabelles are widely used in fruit tarts and cakes, and they are the most common plum used for making plum brandy.
The Mirabelle de Nancy being very sweet and tangy is often eaten fresh, the smaller Metz variety being preferred for jams.

Some people call the Mirabelle plum Prunus domestica ssp. syriaca.  (According to legend, the tree was propagated from a wild plum found in Anatolia.) Other people place it in Prunus institia (alongside damsons and bullaces).

Though it looks an awful lot like a cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) it is not regarded as one and it certainly doesn't come into bloom so early. Nevertheless, the two taxa are often confused; partly because they both have small fruit (and cherry plums are often yellow, among other colours);  partly as a result of confusion between the words "mirabelle" and "Myrobalan" (the cherry plum being also known as the Myrobalan Plum).

Mirabelle de Nancy

[Image source:]

Mirabelle de Metz

[Image source:]


And so from plums to cherries, or pruniers to cerisiers if you prefer.

"Bigarreau" is a word used in naming many sweet cherry varieties.

Ultimately the term comes from the Middle French "bigarrer", meaning to variegate. "Bigarreau" therefore originally meant variegated, marbled, parti-colored. And it seems that the original Bigarreau cherries were white cherries with red-and-white skins. The fruits were also notably large and firm-fleshed, and it's actually this last quality that has become the defining characteristic.

Many growers still use the following tripartite scheme to classify the sweet cherries:

Prunus avium var duracina. Bigarreau Cherry.  Large fruits, hard-fleshed varieties.
Prunus avium var juliana. Heart Cherry. Large fruits, soft-fleshed varieties.
(Prunus avium var avium. Common or Wild Cherry. Small fruits.)

Bigarreau Napoleon - a famous variety known as "Naps" by cherry aficionados

[Image source:]

Consequently, many Bigarreau cherry varieties don't have mottled skins but nevertheless have the term Bigarreau in their name as an indication of type and ancestry.

Merton Bigarreau produced in the UK in 1924, from Knights Early Black and Bigarreau Napoleon

[Image source:]

Bigarreau Moreau - an old French variety, can be prone to fruit splitting

[Image source:]

Bigarreau Burlat - one of the most popular varieties in France

[Image source:]

I first became aware of the word "bigarreau" by a rather indirect means: I came across the bizarre word "bigarrå" in a Swedish detective novel and wanted to find out what sort of tree I was reading about. It seems that "bigarrå" is a more commonplace word in Swedish than "bigarreau" is in English.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

a pleasant smell of frying sausages

In the Garment District, New York

[Image source:]

That pesky John Ashbery has effortlessly hijacked this post, displacing such potential future topics as Mirabelle Plums and Bigarreau Cherries, Sibelius' Kullervo, Perennial Sow-thistle, nations as organizing frames, Measure for Measure, Osyris alba, Le Canal du Midi, vikings in Normandy, Emily Critchley, Emily Bronte, The Lay of the Last Minstrel,  and I don't know what else.


A pleasant smell of frying sausages
Attacks the sense, along with an old, mostly invisible
Photograph of what seems to be girls lounging around
An old fighter bomber, circa 1942 vintage.
How to explain to these girls, if indeed that’s what they are,
These Ruths, Lindas, Pats and Sheilas,
About the vast change that’s taken place
In the fabric of our society, altering the texture
Of all things in it? And yet
They somehow look as if they knew, except
That it’s so hard to see them, it’s hard to figure out
Exactly what kinds of expressions they’re wearing.
What are your hobbies, girls? Aw nerts,
One of them might say, this guy’s too much for me.
Let’s go on and out, somewhere
Through the canyons of the garment center
To a small cafe and have a cup of coffee.
I am not offended that these creatures (that’s the word)
Of my imagination seem to hold me in such light esteem,
Pay so little heed to me. It’s part of a complicated
Flirtation routine, anyhow, no doubt. But this talk of
the garment center ....

(The whole poem is here:   )

Ashbery's poem is guilelessly sexist, the way things could be in 1975, but for that reason illuminating, and in fact you might prefer to describe it as "about" sexism. The gaggle of imaginary girls that the poet describes as having "tiny intelligences" are very evocative of the way we solitary strangers experience socializing groups of girls (and lads, it's true). There's no getting any sense out of them, we say comfortably (to hide, more often than not, our real discomfort).

One of Ashbery's perennial themes is the experience of a high-population world. This poem is about that, too. Though the girls are, as the poet sincerely says, only his imaginary creatures, yet in fact this poem is about his and our habitual experience of those large crowds of real people that we don't know. In the high-population world we always translate them into imagination to a certain extent. The unvarnished communication of real with real tends to be jarring.

And we arrange them, as my TEFL course advises, into groups. ("Advice on teaching large classes".). A class of 50 students should be divided into five groups of ten who are asked to sit and work together. Each group should contain at least one strong-ability student who can guide the others.

The "garment center", aka the Garment District, is a high-fashion area of Manhattan. But the poet goes on to reflect that the bleaching sunlight in his imaginary photograph can only be Californian. So it seems that the imaginary girls are prone to flights of imagination themselves. In their case, naturally, the imagination is completely in the thrall of magazine culture.

The poet's view of the girls is generally dismissive (these Lindas and Sheilas; "I have already forgotten them") and sometimes appreciative: "astonishingly young and fresh" ... but then youth and freshness is what young girls always bring to the party, of course -- I mean, once the observer has reached middle years. The phrase is a way of acknowledging, after all, how very unastonished one is...

So is this a failure of the poet's imagination, since he is after all imagining the girls? Yes: but that is a due recognition that even our own creatures soon develop inscrutability: and how much more the real people!  Can the real people even be distinguished, so large is the element of projected imagination in men's thoughts about women?

(A less sheerly dismissive "appraisal", if no less stereotypic, might have noted the girls' superiority in respect of expressive quickness, unerring backchat, fluency in social and body language, judgment of relevance, clarity of vision, and so on. Freshness is also an intellectual quality.)

So the poem is completely accurate in its account of the inability of different parties on the same street to make any real connection. ("This guy's too much for me"...) . The mutual low esteem with which gang and individual regard each other.

Yet this is hardly a counsel of hopelessness. We know that snatched out of our habitual spheres of operatio, and from no matter what sociolinguistic groupings, we mere persons can still meet each other meaningfully on many large grounds.

But nor is it only  a matter of social comedy ("Mixed Feelings").

When we meet possibly in the lounge of a modern airport,
They looking as astonishingly young and fresh as when this picture was made
But full of contradictory ideas, stupid ones as well as
Worthwhile ones, but all flooding the surface of our minds
As we babble about the sky and the weather and the forests of change.

This continuous experience of existence, as a daily fact, of "contradictory ideas" and "forests of change" defines a state of affairs in which communication with others as different from us as can be is plainly a matter of urgency. Though the poet enjoys the feebleness of communication as romantic evidence of the ungraspable largeness of the world, it's really a blight.

John Ashbery in 1975 (photo by Peter Hujar)

[Image source: . The picture is in the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution.]


But what about the pleasant smell of frying sausages?

It places the thinking in a quotidian context, but not unmixed with desire. And that seems just right for this projectedly-flirtatious meditation. The coffee drifts in to the poem later, and maybe even the orange juice; the poem ending in a post-prandial feeling of alert tranquillity.


Monday, September 11, 2017

the brothers seven

Leevi Lehto's self-Englished collection Lake Onega and other poems has been unavailable for a few years, following the demise of Salt as a poetry publisher. I'm pleased to say that it's now back in print, what's more with two new atttractions:  my 2009 ramble through the contents of the original edition, and more substantially, a new and thrilling Englishing of the poem "Rounds From A Racheting Rocket". 

This is an extract of "Rounds from a Racheting Rocket", amounting to about half the poem:

sprung up a beautiful green-refreshing tree
but t' others push'd on to Turkkila
on our ardurous trek. We come to the bloody carcass
like a wat 's though the Feller's
legs was only three
& fled the snowy track beneath
& rac'd that murderous stone... the black stocks, which
he back up from underneath the many-headed pack,
         and flows
seeks to cham us up in its teeth the rounds
from a racheting rocket
an antrickal wall.
                                Once the battle was broach'd the snow
pierc'd the beautiful beast's brow, and so fell
to inspect the baited pit. E'en from
who but minutes afore expected to die, singing
asleep deep neath the snowy spruce & would lash out
the outside wall, lower'd it carefully into the pit, and then,
builded a fire on one bank, lapp'd the eggs,
however, and Timo still tarry'd a rungate
but Tuomas skirred in like a granite cliff, and where
the caribou set a screaming pace cross the hard-cut snow, but
drowning... in death-throes...

Lehto's original Finnish poem was a collage from Aleksis Kivi's remarkable Seitsemän veljestä  (Seven Brothers), the first Finnish novel (maybe not quite the first, but it's the one everyone knows). When it was published in 1870, Kivi was already well on the way to drinking himself to death. Leevi's English version of the poem makes use of Douglas Robinson's new translation of Kivi's masterpiece into quasi-Shakespearian English (The Brothers Seven, 2017).

Wikipedia is quite helpful on the storyline and on the different personalities of the seven brothers. Of the two mentioned here, Timo is "simple and earnest"; his elder brother Tuomas is "strong as a bull". You'll meet the others in the extract below. Juhani is the bossy eldest brother; Simeoni has a distinct penchant for alcohol.

Robinson's translation was preceded by his book on translation theory, Aleksis Kivi And/As World Literature.

Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of major and minor literature, Robinson argues that translators have mainly “majoritized” Kivi—translated him respectfully—and so created images of literary tourism that ill suit recognition as world literature. Far better, he insists, is the impulse to minoritize—to find and celebrate the minor writer in Kivi, who “sends the major language racing.”

Jacket of an early edition of Seitsemän veljestä 

Unfortunately I can't find any extracts of Robinson's translation on-line, but I did find the following extract from Richard Impola's 2005 translation:

Evening fell, a melancholy September evening; Eero brought the beer from Routio and Timo sent word that the bath was ready; and the men's sullen temper revived a little.They set out to their bath, and Timo threw water on the heated stove until the blackened stones heaped over it cracked with a noise like rifle-fire and a cloud of hot steam was wafted round the bath-house. Each plied now with all his strength the supple bunches of leafy birch-twigs, so grateful to the skin; they bathed and washed their wounds, and the furious beating of the twigs was heard afar outside the building.

Juhani: Our wounds are getting a real Turkish polka. Hot steam in the sauna, that's the best medicine for soul and body. But my eye stings like Satan. Well, itch away and sting, all the hotter will I make it for thee. How is thy muzzle, Aapo?

Aapo: It's beginning to melt.

Juhani: Wipe away at it and beat it like a Russian hammers his nag, and it'll soon be softer. But more steam, Timo, seeing it is thy job tonight to wait on us. That's it, my boy! Let it come. Oh, but it's hot there, it's hot there! That's the way, my broth of a brother!

Lauri: It fair bites at my finger-nails.

Juhani: Let our nails get a basting, too.

Aapo: Stop throwing water now, boy; or we'll soon have to climb down from here, every man of us.

Eero: Go on praising him and we shall soon be roasted to cinders.

Juhani: That's enough, Timo. Don't throw any more. For Hell's sake stop throwing water on that stove! Art ye coming down from the platform, Simeoni?

Simeoni: I'm coming, wretch that I am. And ah, if ye only knew why!

Juhani: Tell us.

Simeoni: Man, remember the furnace of the lost and pray night and day.

Juhani: Stuff! Let the body have it if it wants; for the hotter the sauna the greater its healing-power. That ye knowest.

Simeoni: Whose hot water is this in the bucket near the stove?

Juhani: It's mine, as the smith said of his house. Don't touch it.

Simeoni: I'm going to take a drop of it, anyway.

Juhani: Don't do it, brother mine, or there'll be trouble. Why didst thou not warm some for thyself?

Tuomas: Why be so snappy without cause? Take a little from my tub, Simeoni.

Timo: Or from mine, under the platform steps there.

Juhani: Have some of mine then, too, but see thou leavest me at least half.

Lauri: Eero! thou imp, take care I don't throw thee off the platform.

Aapo: What trick are you two up to in the corner?

Juhani: What's the sqabbling about? Eh?

Lauri: Blowing on a fellow's back.

Aapo: Softly, Eero!

Juhani: Hey, troublemonger.

Simeoni: Eero, Eero, can't even the stewing heat of the bath remind thee of the fires of Hell? Remember Juho Hemmola, remember him!
Juhani: He saw when he was stretched on a sickbed the fiery lake, from which he was saved that time, and all because, as it was then said to him, he had always thought of Hell when he was on the sauna platform. But can that be daylight shining through your corner?

Lauri: Bright daylight.

Juhani: Oh the beast! The sauna sings its last note. So let the first aim of my mastership be a new sauna.

Aapo: A new one's needed, it's true.

Juhani: Ay, no gainsaying that. A farm without a sauna is no good either from the standpoint of baths or the babies a wife or the farm-hands' women might have. Ay, a smoking sauna, a barking hound, a crowing cock and a mewing kitty, these are the signs of a good farm. Ay, there's plenty to do for the one who takes over our home. A little more steam, Timo.

Timo: It shall be given thee.

Simeoni: Don't let us forget that it is Saturday night.

Juhani: And let us take care our skins aren't soon hanging from the rafters, like the former maidservant's.

Simeoni: That was the maid who never had time to take her bath with the others, but dillied and dallied in the sauna long after all the others had gone to bed. Then one Saturday night she stayed longer than usual. And what did they find when they went to look for her? Only a skin hanging from the rafters. But it was a master-hand had done the flaying, for the hair, eyes, ears and even the nails had been left in the skin.

Juhani: Let this be a warning...He-he, how skittishly this back of mine takes its steam! As though thou hadst not tasted a birchtwig since New Year's Day.

Lauri: But who had skinned her?

Timo: Who, thou askest. Who else but the...

Juhani: Old 'Un himself.

Timo: Ay, he who goes around like a roaring lion. A horrible story!

Juhani: Timo-lad, stick that shirt of mine from the rafters there into this fist.

Timo: What, this one?

Juhani: Ho! 'Tis Eero's little rag he offers to a full-grown man. Ah thee! That middle one there.

Timo: What, this one?

Juhani: That's a man's shirt. Ta, brother. A horrible story, say I too, to go back to what we were speaking of. Let it be a reminder to us that "the eve is the height of a feast-day." Now let's wash ourselves as clean as though we had just come from the midwife's nimble paws; and then shirt under arm to the house, so that our over-heated bodies can get a skinful of cool air on the way. But I do believe this beloved eye of mine is getting better. Naked and hot, they went from the sauna to the livingroom, their bodies glowing like the sunlit stem of a birch-tree. Arrived within, they sat down to rest a while, sweating copiously. Then little by little they dressed themselves. And now Juhani began concocting an ointment for the whole wounded brotherhood.

(Source: from which I also took the image)

The brothers seven, from an open-air production at Savonlinna in 2013

[Image source:]

The whole of Kivi's novel can be read online:

in Finnish:

and in this 1929 English translation by Alex Matson:

I've read the first chapter and it's a lot of fun.

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Friday, September 08, 2017

strawberry tree

It is

something spun I found or believe in the red-and-green leaves.

There's something broken in the gold-and-brown leaves.

There's something real in the green-and-green leaves.

In the brown and purple leaves I returned to tell

surrounding the haze,

brocade fiber switch
of the canopy, focus,

sun yet streaming on brown-striped arms and legs.
A man draws near. He comes alongside with the steady, purposeful strokes of a man accustomed to speaking.

But I can't reply. How will we share

our crimson childbed, our separate prams parked in the shade?

I shrieked and the strawberry fell into my mouth.

Weren't we then fish of the same water?

Swimming through the port-holes and the weedy eye-sockets?

We shrieked and our strawberries fell into our mouths.

And it isn't good or bad, it's Only.


You'll get cold if you don't dry off.

I say to you in all seriousness, I eat one.


Sunday, September 03, 2017

Out of my books

Charles Trenet, French entertainer, commemorated at Aire de Narbonne-Vinassan.
So I began with Memoires d'un cure de France, and when I'd read a chapter or two I moved on to Scott's first big poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Then I read all the rest of Ken Edwards' marvellous eight + six, began it again, began Scott's poem again, meanwhile "soldiering on" with the Life of Bonaparte (now back in Paris after his Palestinian troubles) .. Meantime I had acquired some books in Spanish. I had a look at a book on animal behaviour, and now I'm reading about Heidegger Arendt and Jaspers in Mark Lilla's Pensadores temerarios, i.e. Reckless Thinkers.

[Mark Lilla's pro-capitalist liberalism is an excellent vehicle for his discussions of old philosophers, in part because its broad but limited point of view makes for a smooth uncomplicated narrative of highly abstruse people. Its limited insight on other topics can be sampled in this fine current essay, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, about the white president:


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