Monday, August 20, 2018

The Shakespeare Garden

Someone at Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex (now the Bader International Study Centre, affiliated to Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario) had the laudable idea of planting a Shakespeare Garden with plants mentioned in Will's writings.

 Here are a few photos of the attached quotations.

Queen Gertrude, announcing Ophelia's death to Laertes.

"Crow-flowers" might mean ragged robin, or might mean crowfoot, the white aquatic buttercup: -- as in Millais' painting, where crowfoot has a starring role alongside Elizabeth Siddal.

The meaning ragged robin is attested by Gerard in his Herball (1597), a book we know Shakespeare read (it's used in the late additions to LLL). The OED claims that Crow Flower was a longstanding folk name for Crowfoot but can find no example earlier than John Clare, unless this is it.

The commonly-seen symbolic interpretations of ingratitude, childishness, and neatness, contradictory as they are, all refer, I think, to Crowfoot. (But symbolic interpretations of Ophelia's flowers are as plodding as Shakespeare is subtle. He's swift, intuitive and, always, dramatic. The lines have no intention of getting bogged down in a single meaning.)

Millais is thought to have painted his crowfoot from life, at a spot on the River Hogsmill in Ewell, Surrey.  He idealized it, no doubt, but he certainly worked from life. Gertrude's "long purples" (generally reckoned to be Early Purple Orchid, though the evidence is none too strong) are represented in Millais by the riverside plant Purple Loosestrife.

A modern image of Millais' spot, in the link below, is thoroughly depressing.. the dark stream almost lost amid rank growth of Himalayan Balsam.

The seductive lover to the maid. (Naturally, blaming her for his yielding to passionate entreaty.)

When thou impressest, what are precepts worth
Of stale example? When thou will inflame,
How coldly those impediments stand forth
Of wealth, of filial fear, law, kindred, fame!
Love's arms are peace, 'gainst rule, 'gainst sense, 'gainst shame,
And sweetens, in the suffering pangs it bears,
The aloes of all forces, shocks, and fears.

"Aloes" here just means bitterness, a figurative expression derived from the medicine "bitter aloes", which is indeed the product of plants of the Aloe family.

Perdita, in conversation with Polixenes.

Most of the flowers in the garden were over, but the streaked gillyvors were still going strong, in accordance with Perdita's preceding words:

                         Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer's death nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest flowers o' th' season
Are our carnations and streak'd gillyvors,
Which some call nature's bastards...

Perdita dislikes the horticultural messing with natural wild plants, evinced by such showy blooms as this. Polixenes defends the art of horticulture as itself a work of nature.

In fact Act III Scene 12.

Euphronius (once Antony's schoolmaster), acting as his makeshift and abject ambassador to Caesar:

Euph. Such as I am, I come from Antony :
I was of late as petty to his ends
As is the morn-dew on the myrtle-leaf
To his grand sea.

Of late... The grand sea is all over now.

The end of a long passage of valedictory advice by Henry IV to a younger son, Thomas of Clarence, urging him to be a peacemaker to his brothers:

                   Learn this, Thomas,
And thou shalt prove a shelter to the friends,
A hoop of gold to bind the brothers in,
That the united vessel of their blood,
Mingled with venom of suggestion --
As force perforce the age will pour it in --
Shall never leak, though it do work as strong
As aconitum or rash gunpowder.

Clar. I shall observe him with all care and love.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Empty your pockets

Contents of my hoodie pocket.

A sprig of Irish Juniper (Juniperus communis 'Hibernica'), with smaller denser foliage and a more columnar shape than the standard wild plant. The latter is now quite uncommon in the southern UK, and the junipers in towns and gardens are always varieties. This sprig came from the industrial estate, where there are a pair of junipers flanking the entrance to a small office.

Crumpled tissue from Costa Coffee, with the legend "Better latte than never". You get given a tissue if you buy e.g. a slice of cake. You can't just grab a clutch of tissues yourself anymore. This is all part of the industry's effort to reduce landfill waste. I've been told by staff thattCosta now recycle nearly everything. (Despite much office myth, takeaway cups can be recycled, but not in the standard cardboard.. you need to put them with the drinks cartons. ) . I've also been told (by staff) that Pret A Manger recycle almost nothing. I can't confirm either story, but every chain needs to address the problem. Somewhere ahead, the south-western chain Boston Tea Party doesn't use disposable cups at all... If you want a takeaway drink you have to bring your own ecocup, or rent one.

Marble found in the lane. Opaque green base, with streaks of blue, red and yellow. Such a common type must have its own name, but I haven't managed to find it. 90% of the world's marbles are manufactured by Vacor de Mexico, founded in Guadalajara in 1930.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

their possessions

A.S. Byatt in 1986, photograph by Tara Heinemann

[Image source: In the National Portrait Gallery.]

A.S. Byatt: Possession: A Romance (1991)

A book that I've always been distantly aware of but never expected to read. However, my Dad bought me a copy and the day came when, afflicted with toothache, I thought I'd give it a try And my toothache didn't put me off; which was odd, because it had ruined Purcell and placed Leevi Lehto right out of the question. Possession is really a treat for duvet days; be aware that spoilers will follow.

[For the benefit of anyone who has not read Possession but is still determined to read my post about it, I should explain that it's set partly in Victorian times (where Randolph and Christabel are poets) and partly in the present day (where Roland and Maud are literary scholars).]


About the two poets:

They both had to be made, and they couldn't be made from nothing. Randolph Henry Ash is Browning adapted: about 66% Browning. (There is a little of Arnold, too, so far as the Norse epic is concerned.) This is obliquely confessed, inasmuch as so prominent a contemporary literary figure as Browning himself is never mentioned within the text; nor do we ever hear the term "dramatic monologue" (Ash once speaks of "dramatized monologues"). Byatt needed to be cautious about muddying her presentation. But when Randolph Henry Ash's poetry draws very close to Browning's, we are doubtless meant to notice it fondly.

e.g. Gods, Men and Heroes (Ash, 1856); Men and Women (Browning, 1855). 

 "Mummy Possest" (Ash); "Mr Sludge, the Medium" (Browning)

Cromwell (verse play - Ash); Strafford (verse play - Browning)


Or consider the Ash letter in which he talks not only about Paracelsus but D.D. Home.  

And pause to admire Byatt's list of popular Ash poems, the ones that the child Roland (Hang on, what was that I just said?... )  recalls his mother reading aloud to him: "I grew up on [Ash's] idea of Sir Walter Raleigh, and his Agincourt poem and Offa on the Dyke." With Ash, as with Browning (thinking of Dramatic Lyrics), the genuinely popular poems are evidently a different set from the ones discussed by textual critics such as the adult Roland himself. This list evokes vague memories of e.g. the "Cavalier Tunes" and "How They Brought the Good News from Aix to Ghent" and "At the 'Mermaid'", though Ash is conceived as sticking more closely to British themes, compared with Browning's omnivorous European/Middle Eastern historical palate.   

But when it comes to Ash's poetry, Byatt has a freedom to deviate from her basic model. Sometimes indeed the poetry is very Browning-esque -- say, the opening of "Swammerdam" --, but it is both Browning minus and Browning plus. Ash inherits little of Browning's characteristic ellipses and tics, the profuse language and simultaneous impediment of articulation that Chesterton memorably compared to a knot in a piece of wood. In Ash's work there are no abbreviations - o' , i', 'twere, 'tis - and no outrageous meters or newly-coined stanza-forms. Nor, as we've seen, does the London-based Ash betray much of Browning's enthusiasm for Mediterranean scenes, humanists, painters, musicians... On the other hand, Ash takes a particular interest in Victorian science, geology, natural history and Darwinism (the sorts of interest that we wish Browning had had: though often a brilliant observer of nature's surfaces, he never seems to want to understand them). Ash's blank verse is a little more early-twentieth-century in manner than Browning's: for example, he favours the short sentence that occupies the first half of a line:

But I had other leanings. Did they come

These things are there. The garden and the tree

Browning rarely if ever deploys that kind of clipped expression. Or consider this, from elsewhere in "Swammerdam":

                                          .... ride with the wind

To burning lands beneath a copper sun

Or never-melted mountains of green ice

Or hot dark secret places in the steam

Of equatorial forests, where the sun

Strikes far above the canopy, where men

And other creatures never see her light

Save as a casual winking lance that runs

A silver shaft between green dark and dark.

That vision of tropical rainforest was unknown to earlier Victorian poets, it was an idea that only became familiar later, in the age of aeroplanes and ecology.  (You might compare Ash in this mode with slightly later and lesser-known writers such as William Canton (1845-1926)).

Christabel Lamotte's poetry cannot be pinned down to a primary model in the same way -- nor was it so necessary. Being a comparatively obscure (verging on amateur) author, we'd expect her to experiment with a number of different styles and sometimes to be quite generic: that she'd have an integrity of character rather than a formed manner. Her published short lyrics are like Christina Rossetti ("Christabel's reputation, modest but secure, rests on the restrained and delicate lyrics.." - as the early twentieth-century Veronica Honiton is made to say,  - a sentence so exact in its satire that I'm sure I'ver read it before). Christabel's unpublished lyrics are more like Emily Dickinson. The extracts from Melusina and the City of Is remind me as much of Tennyson as anyone -- and they're very good.     


Byatt has a lot of fun not just with Veronica Honiton, and Dr Nest's Helpmeets, but with the feminist essays of the present: Herself Herself Involve, LaMotte's Strategies of Evasion. One of the things Byatt’s book expresses very well is how the Victorian women can't quite seize on this late-20th-century feminism, they are trapped in a patriarchal world and its thought-forms, and must either be unhappy or make their happiness by negotiation with it: Blanche, Christabel and Ellen all face the same conditions. The crippling burden of, for instance, the word Man standing both for one gender and for human civilization itself, is made very clear. Yet, this being a story still inflected by that patriarchal inheritance, it recurrently arrives at situations where Ash and Roland are notably good-natured, while Christabel and Maud are comparatively hostile, unpredictable, untender. By "recurrently" I do not mean overwhelmingly. But it is noticeable enough, especially in the light of Randolph Henry Ash's final appearance as a highly sympathetic patriarch with a broad-brimmed hat, to provoke reflection. Somehow he, the impulsive embracer on the common, the impulsive wrecker of séances, - and the adulterer too - does not seem to risk himself to anything like the extent Christabel does. And in fact she spares him, as in a different way Ellen does too. They, more than Randolph, take responsibility for their lives. It is somehow connected with this, I think, that much more of the novel is seen through Roland's eyes than Maud's. At the end, this may even seem odd -- Maud after all is the one who has to adjust to her inheritance, yet we don't know her thoughts. And in the one chapter where Randolph and Christabel appear as characters in a novel, the presentation is chiefly through Randolph's eyes. Thus the book to a certain extent perpetuates the conditions that its women struggle against:  of finding themselves objects of the gaze and the embodiment of one kind of mysterious Other. Perhaps this was a necessary condition of the book being so easily a "Romance". I definitely think it goes some way to explaining why Possession was so much more widely popular and celebrated than Byatt’s earlier books.      

The Browning connection goes further still. To a certain extent the relationship between Ash and LaMotte glances at Browning's courtship of Elizabeth Barrett, that keen disciple of spiritualism. More than "glances", really:  the Brownings' letters are simply and absolutely the model for Byatt's letters between the two clever poets who increasingly love each other; though the letters in Possession are a little less elliptical and have a whole lot more narrative. Anyway, it's the events of Wimpole Street, above all,  that are being re-imagined to more sharply focus on Byatt's concerns. And this concealed background continues to resonate, in the vague sense that Ash (like Browning) is allowed to act the part of a saviour, bringing a kind of dangerous tonic in his own person. Powerfully as Possession exposes the crucial early roots of feminism and the desperate need for it, it also allows itself to be a comedy, to celebrate the completion of heteronormal love, to smile benignly on everyone and to reflect, temperately enough, on "how far we've all come since then".     


Roland at one stage toys with the idea of writing some poetry of his own. Byatt's conception of poetry in the 1980s is a mainstream one, and here is one of the most lucid (because unguarded) descriptions of it that I've seen. True, it's a statement by a novelist, but then mainstream poetry is intimately linked to mainstream novels.  

It begins with Roland thinking more about readings -- he has just read Ash's "The Garden of Proserpina" for the dozenth time -- and in particular what he (or maybe  Byatt) considers to be good readings: not dutiful mappings and dissections, nor personal nor impersonal readings as such, but

Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark - readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that is was always there, that we, the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognisant, our knowledge.

Thus sensitized (no doubt the fundamental cause of Roland's euphoria is really the unlooked-for but so-welcome news of three job offers).. Thus sensitized, Roland's wordlists begin to come to life, crystallizing around the evening's accidental features -- not the quantifiably important ones -- as if they were themselves revelatory:

Tonight, he began to think of words, words came from some well in him, lists of words that arranged themselves into poems, "The Death Mask", "The Fairfax Wall", "A Number of Cats". He could hear, or feel, or even almost see, the patterns made by a voice he didn't yet know, but which was his own. The poems were not careful observations, nor yet incantations, nor yet reflections on life and death, though they had elements of all these. He added another, "Cat's Cradle", as he saw he had things to say which he could say about the way shapes came and made themselves. Tomorrow he would buy a new notebook and write them down. Tonight he would write down enough, the mnemonics.

He had time to feel the strangeness of before and after; an hour ago there had been no poems, and now they came like rain and were real. 

It's a pity that Byatt doesn't give us one line of Roland's poetry. Perhaps she could not easily do so, perhaps this poetry (unlike the Victorian poetry) could not be imitated without inappropriate laughter. At any rate it's clear that Roland's is a very different way of conceiving the writing of a poem from Ash's or LaMotte's.


"I pretended to be their lawyer, in a hurry with important information, and got told where they were. Which is, The Old Rowan Tree pub, on the North Downs, near, but not very near, Hodershall. Both of them. That's very significant."

This is Euan MacIntyre talking about Hildebrand Ash and Mortimer Cropper. When Byatt wants to get on with things and direct the whole story towards a comedy-adventure story, she is breezily slipshod; that first sentence covers two different phonecalls to two different people.

Euan's point about "near, but not very near" is easy to understand. The rascally pair, we gather, are staying somewhere that in itself would hardly point to Hodershall as their object at all -- say, ten miles away. It needs the additional fact that they are there together to sharpen Euan's suspicions to near-certainty. We infer that Ash and Cropper have deliberately avoided parking themselves right on top of their intended sphere of operations, so as not to arouse undue interest.

These inferences are all very clear, but when we turn the page and come to the next chapter, it turns out that The Old Rowan Tree (now renamed the Rowan Tree Inn) is only a mile from the isolated Hodershall churchyard, and is in fact the nearest dwelling to it. So it seems that Byatt decided to relinquish the good idea of Ash and Cropper being circumspect in favour of the better idea about the Great Storm. If everyone were to get back from the churchyard to a place suitable for the comfortable inspection of papers, it would need to be, on that particular night, no more than a short walk.

This reminds me that the thrillingly unexpected sentence is this: "In that moment, the great storm hit Sussex." But why Sussex? No part of the North Downs is in Sussex (and, as a matter of fact, though the storm of 15/10/87 wreaked havoc in Sussex, it was even fiercer in Kent). Did Byatt originally envisage Hodershall as on the South Downs?  

But anyway, why is McIntyre talking about downs? Surely it's a little unusual to describe a pub's location as "on the North Downs". Not very specific, while sitting in Mortlake, when southward of London the North Downs extend 100 miles from Farnham to Dover. Not very idiomatic either: people would normally say something like. “near Leatherhead” (Hodershall is apparently near Leatherhead). Unless, that is, you are romanticizing landscape, which evidently Byatt is, as she lurches into ever more popularized versions of romance (she even has the essential two villlains for her graveyard scene).

But there is an underlying motif here, too. Three ranges of chalk are encountered in the book: the Lincolnshire Wolds, the Yorkshire Wolds (Flamborough Head), and the North Downs. Thus chalkland oddly joins with the book's other repeated motifs, such as the six bathrooms and the many fine meals conjoined by "and"s ("They sat over buckwheat pancakes in Pont-Aven and drank cider from cool earthenware pitchers and asked the dificult questions"). 

If I used the word "slipshod" (I did), this reminds me of another peculiarity. The older Sir George Bailey had a passion for exotic trees, and several of them are mentioned. They're a mixed bag, though: along with some unexceptionable trees Byatt mentions Japanese Juniper (a procumbent shrub that grows no taller than 50cm), Caucasian walnut (alternative name for the common walnut, which is not at all exotic, though sometimes confused with Caucasian wingnut), Persian Plum (non-existent, though it might refer to that commonplace dusky ornament of small gardens, Pissard's Plum). Or take the hay-meadow where Randolph Henry Ash meets Maia - it contains (among many other plants) yellow snapdragons and larkspur, not things you might expect to find rioting in a Lincolnshire meadow - or is Byatt one step ahead of me, knew of the larkspur that was once a cornfield weed in Cambridgeshire and surmised that it might also have occurred in Lincolnshire?  Or, perhaps she's consciously mimicking the effect of botanical lists in old books where, so often, we have to infer or guess which species are meant. But the point is -- well, I don't really know what the point is, but these thrown-together lists make a striking contrast with the attention to detail elsewhere. (And LaMotte's memories of the North York Moors in the extract from Melusina seem very precise, too. To what extent are we to suppose that the mention of Paracelsus in the Proem is specifically owed to Ash's remarks in his letter?)

A striking contrast, apparently. But our belief in unified character perhaps slides over collages. Ellen Ash's journal style seems perfectly realized (did you too, reader, work out that when she writes her generous remarks on Melusina, she was well aware that Miss LaMotte had been her husband's mistress?) - "This morning Bertha was found to be slipped away... What should best be done?..." and that memorably tight-lipped sentence: "That matter is now I hope quite at an end and wholly cleared up". Or Christabel's epistolary style, with its slightly breathless intellectuality and its constant subquotations of Shakespeare et al ("I will tell you a Tale - no, I will not neither, it does not bear thinking on - and yet I will....").


How far is Possession a supernatural tale? No more than any other romance -- say, Scott's...  But there are moments when the supernatural sneaks into view. Roland and Maud will never find out that they are repeating Randolph and Christabel when they make their trip to the Boggle Hole. Val at one point unwittingly and creepily quotes Blanche Glover about being a superfluous woman: at this point, the story looks like it might not make that gear-shift towards comedy. And then there is the surprising turn of events that reveals Maud as the direct descendant of the two childless poets. That is all:  but novels are supernatural in a different way also. As is pointedly shown when, in contrast to all this piecing-together of evidence and remains, the novel suddenly shows us scenes that it's impossible anyone could know of. You might wonder, reasonably, if the last one of those scenes, the one with Ash and Maia, is “made up” in a different way from the others :- that is, more explicitly made up, a fantastic embroidery.  


I thought no more about Christabel LaMotte's story "The Glass Coffin" until I coincidentally discovered that the homeopathic remedy Gelsemium is known as the "glass coffin". (I imagine Peter Redgrove must have written poetry about that!) But anyway, I then googled the expression and realized that the common source was a fairy tale made famous by the Brothers Grimm. LaMotte's story follows the outline but has many lovely variations like the animals in the house in the wood, and the glass key. And it also makes a proto-feminist move, commenting on the original tale:

'Of course I will have you,' said the little tailor, 'for you are my promised marvel, released with my vanished glass key, and I love you dearly already. Though why you should have me, simply because I opened the glass case, is less clear to me altogether, and when, and if, you are restored to your rightful place, and your home and lands and people are again your own, I trust you will feel free to reconsider the matter, and remain, if you will, alone and unwed....' 

This discussion continues very amusingly, but the upshot is that the lady (or young woman - LaMotte disdains the use of "maiden") certainly does intend to marry the tailor, so that's why I call it proto-feminist -- constrained by the possibilities of Victorian existence -- as discussed previously.    

[Written in 2009, slightly revised]

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Tuesday, August 07, 2018

in the strong room

"Now you see me", painting by Markus Åkesson (2018)

[Image source:]

There's times Andrea Brady's The Strong Room (2016) seems like a determined effort to incinerate any last possibility of describing her as Cambridge School in a limiting way. "The Underworld", for example, is an extended, funny and thought-provoking transcript of Andrea and her daughter making up a utopia-poem. "The Leavings" is as shameless a declaration of committed love as you could easily find. The #Direngezi poem is frankly adapted to a mixed audience united by solidarity not poetry.

With such poems before me, it no longer seems very appropriate to stress the difficulty of  Andrea's poetry (as I did when writing about her previous collection Cut From the Rushes).

Nevertheless, there are still plenty of poems in the more recent book that evade being pinned down so easily. One of my favourites is "40 Days and 40 Nights". It alternates between Day stanzas and Night stanzas (despite the title, only six of each). Here are the opening stanzas:


Wind covers ears in cornmeal, sky overlord
of original pink waves the placards for 'liberation'
but these fringed miniscules make an ache,
a winter knot, dropped in a speculative apartment,
attention it takes practice to pay
to the vegetable soul breaking up
volumes of private air. Practice
being curative, as wintering
geese evoke the media plea: who wants
this life. Not me, the television
shows incurable sadness, nights drift
with residue.


The narrow human attitude is a landing
strip of forested karst, it ripples
outward from the spinal border /
birds light / long yellow lines
mark out causeways in sensation.
The strips between scratches
between licks
are Crimean fields quivering like
sound. Moving plates, marks
of a parochial encounter. The rest
all too vast for governance gets
broody and a little pissed off.
When the tongue skips over them
leaving thirty clicks of unspent
twitches bickering in its wake
the stomach ditched, grassland
unmowed, it scalps a moon-warmed
vast peasanted terrirtory,
your punky nails the pickets
of paranoid garrison towns.

A note subjoined to the title says: A response to George Bataille's 'The Mouth'

This is the quotably brief meditation La Bouche, published in 1930 in Documents, a Surrealist art magazine edited by Bataille.

“The mouth is the beginning or, if one prefers, the prow of animals; in the most characteristic cases, it is the most living part, in other words, the most terrifying for neighbouring animals. But man does not have a simple architecture like the beasts, and it is not even possible to say where he begins. In a strict sense, he starts at the top of the skull, but the top of the skull is an insignificant part, incapable of attracting attention and it is the eyes or the forehead the play the significatory role of an animal’s jaws.”
“Among civilized men, the mouth has even lost the relatively prominent character that it still has among primitive men. However, the violent meaning of the mouth is conserved in a latent state: it suddenly regains the upper hand with a literally cannibalistic expression such as mouth of fire, applied to the cannons men employ to kill each other. And on important occasions human life is still bestially concentrated in the mouth: fury makes men grind their teeth, terror and atrocious suffering transform the mouth into the organ of rending screams. On this subject it is easy to observe that the overwhelmed individual throws back his head while frenetically stretching his neck so that the mouth becomes, as far as possible, a prolongation of the spinal column, in other words, it assumes the position in normally occupies in the constitution of animals. As if explosive impulses were to spurt directly out of the body through the mouth, in the form of screams. This fact simultaneously highlights the importance of the mouth in animal physiology or even psychology, and the general importance of the superior or anterior extremity of the body, the orifice of profound physical impulses: equally one sees that a man is able to liberate these impulses in at least two different ways, in the brain or in the mouth, but that as soon as these impulses become violent, he is obliged to resort to the bestial method of liberation. Whence the narrow constipation of a strictly human attitude, the magisterial look of the face with a closed mouth, as beautiful as a safe.”


So the "narrow human attitude" in the second stanza above,  is here in Bataille's piece.

Which I think is brilliantly suggestive, by the way, yet also inadequate.  Why would the livingness of an organ be defined by its terrifying aspect in the eyes of a different species? (Presumably, a prey species.) I stop thinking about what the words might tell me about life, instead I'm  thinking what they tell me about Bataille.

But yes, I'm fascinated by the mouth. I'm fascinated by baby's fascination, her intent focus on the mouth of the adult, as if it's indeed the seat of life, everything comes from there. But even before that, it's the eyes. The first thing she learnt to know is the eyes. The first message that passed was the smile, and that was learned from the eyes.  But even before that, the baby and the mother knew each other. Life precedes the face.

Is it even really true that, as Bataille blithely implies, the mouth is the prow in most animals? Not really. It's the nose that is the prow, in a wolf or dog, for example. First because the nose is the most important sense, for these animals. Second, because the nose, or specifically its bridge, is bony.  When you design a moving abject like an animal, you make sure its projections are bony so they don't get injured.  Mouths are soft and need protection. So I'd dispute Bataille's animal physiology, and even his observation.

 But nevertheless, I like what he wrote. For example about the closed mouth of the magister. That was true. It was a power-play, though not such a timeless or universal one as Bataille supposed.

On the other hand, capitalism knows that models must be photographed with the mouth open. The iconography of an open mouth is participation, that is, economic consumption. No-one wants to see a closed safe in an advert.


The poem-title "40 Days and 40 Nights" opens out other vistas. It could allude to Jesus' temptation in the wilderness; it's also the title of a 2007 book about the test case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which ruled that teaching creationism ("Intelligent Design") in biology classes violates the First Amendment; the title of a  2002 sex comedy movie in which the male lead takes a bet to give up sex for Lent, and is "raped" by his ex-girlfriend to make him lose the bet (responses to the movie have been mixed); and a really fantastic Muddy Waters song.

All of these vistas seem relevant, but the poem stands without them, a record of days and nights traversed by pain, blurry insomnia and sexual frustration, an interrogation of the body's depths and surfaces.


Rain falls in ears, rabbits fizzle on
workbenches where they are stripped crying
and alive for angora.  .....

That's the start of another stanza. This refers to revelations in the media (e.g. in 2013 and 2016) about cruelty at angora farms, especially during the plucking process.

The stretched, screaming rabbits might be an illustration of Bataille's text, kind of.

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Sunday, August 05, 2018

Chateaubriand's rivers

François-René de Chateaubriand, c. 1790. Portrait by Anne-Louis Girodet

[Image source: . Portrait from around the time of Chateaubriand's travels in America.]

On the first page of Atala (1801), Chateaubriand describes the once-enormous colony of Nouvelle-France:

La France possédait autrefois, dans l'Amérique septentrionale, un vaste empire qui s'étendait depuis de Labrador jusqu'aux Florides, et depuis les rivages de l'Atlantique jusqu'aux lacs les plus reculés du haut Canada.

Quatres grands fleuves, ayant leur sources dans les même montagnes, divisaient ces régions immenses : le fleuve Saint-Laurent qui se perd à l'est dans let golfe de son nom, la rivière de l'Ouest qui porte ses eaux à des mers inconnues, le fleuve Bourbon qui se précipite du midi au nord dans la baie d'Hudson, et la Meschacebé qui tombe du nord au midi, dans le golfe du Mexique.

[At one time France possessed, in North* America, a vast empire that extended from Labrador to the Floridas, and from the shores of the Atlantic to the remotest lakes of upper Canada.

Four great rivers, having their sources in the same mountains, divided these immense regions: the St Lawrence which debouches to the east in the Gulf of the same name; the river of the West which carries its waters into unknown seas, the Bourbon river which drains from south to north into Hudson Bay, and the Meschacebé which runs from north to south, into the gulf of Mexico.]


* l'Amérique septentrionale. "Septentrional" means northern or boreal; its derivation is from the seven stars of Ursa Major/The Plough/Big Dipper. A pretty rare word in English, but common in romance languages.


Chateaubriand  pauses to explain that the last of these four rivers is the Mississippi, the opening scene of his romance.

The St Lawrence retains its name today. The "fleuve Bourbon" evidently means the Nelson River, which drains so much of Canada and the northern USA ; York Factory, at its mouth on Hudson Bay, was once named Fort Bourbon.

The "rivière de l'Ouest" completes the geographical symmetry. The only possible candidate would be the river now named the McKenzie River, which drains a large part of northern Canada into the NW Arctic Ocean. The Vicomte did know about it; he reviewed Alexander McKenzie's travel journals on their first publication in  July 1801, three months after the publication of Atala. But so far as the maps show, Nouvelle-France had never extended so far into north-west Canada as to reach the McKenzie basin.

But anyway, Chateaubriand was never too constrained by reality. What he wanted to suggest here was the four rivers of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10-14). [This idea seems to be buried deep in the religious feelings of humanity. The holy Mount Kailash in Tibet guards the headwaters to four great Asian rivers (the Indus, Sutlej, Bramahputra and Ganghara/Ganges).]  In his Atala Nouvelle-France is indeed a kind of Eden, with a dazzling profusion of nature and its own beautiful but too-innocent Adam and Eve.

[Readers of Martin Chuzzlewit may see the association of the mid-west with Eden in an altogether different light.]

In reality, the nearest we can come to Chateaubriand's mythical central mountains is the small city of Hibbing in St Louis County, Minnesota, founded in 1893, 45 years after Chateaubriand's death. Though at the modest elevation of 1,500 feet, it's a triple watershed,  so the rain that falls on  Hibbing runs variously into Hudson Bay, the Gulf of St Lawrence and the Gulf of Mexico.

The spirit of Chateaubriand's emphasis on rivers is right. The largely inland "empire" of Nouvelle-France, which surrounded the much smaller British colonies along the eastern seaboard, was the product of river-exploration. This opened up immense tracts of land to French control. But the control was more on the map than in reality. The total population of French emigrants was barely 10,000. They had, comparatively speaking, very good relations with the native Americans (who were encouraged to apply for French citizenship, on equal terms with native French); compared, that is, with the brutal attitudes of the British and Spanish colonists. I suppose a cynic might argue that the French colonists were respectful more through force of circumstance than their own enlightened attitudes.

At first the battle for control was a proxy war: the Iroquois, fur suppliers to British and Dutch colonies, seeking to wipe out the Algonquians, Hurons and others who traded with France. And when direct conflict came, in 1754-63, Nouvelle-France couldn't hold out against the much more populous colonies of the British. In the course of fifty years the whole "empire" was lost or ceded, the only remnant today being the tiny islands of St Pierre-Miquelon, just off the Newfoundland coast.


Thursday, August 02, 2018


I made a brief evening foray to Barbury Castle, an iron-age hillfort on the scarp of the Marlborough Downs, a few miles south of Swindon. The fort is an 11-acre enclosure surrounded by two concentric ramparts separated by a deep ditch.  (The earth was extracted from the ditch and piled to either side -- hey presto, fortifications.) This time I walked round the inner rampart.

Barbury Castle dates from the 6th Century BCE, but it was in such a good spot, right on the ancient Ridgeway and commanding a vast view to the north and west, that it was later useful to the Romans, the Saxons, and the US Army Air Force, who sited anti-aircraft guns here during WWII.

Cirsium acaule - without stems

Dwarf Thistle (Cirsium acaule). This is the common form, normally experienced as a sharp pain when you sit down on it by mistake.

Cirsium acaule - with stems

This is the less frequent form, in which the flowers (contrary to their Latin name, which means "stemless") actually do have stems. 

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

some poems from Karin Boye's Hearths (1927)

[Image source: .  I think the photo is by the celebrated Anna Riwkin and dates from 1933, but I haven't been able to confirm it.]

From Hearths (1927)






The Two Lineages



This song is for the children of wrath

on the thistle-heath, the heathen;

those that the angel with the flaming sword

expelled from a lost Eden.

Thistledown, thistledown,

across the ground is windblown,

having no means to root or grow

within that closed-up garden.



Yet the myths say that the sons of God

thought the earth then so gorgeous,

on the dawn hills, in the gold lustre

of those days in the first ages,

that they met with the daughters of men

under moon-billowing darkness,

and seeded children with aether-seed;

with the trace of heavenly harmonies.

To meet their descendants is amazing;

their hands are profuse with joys.

Yes, I've met some passing among the thistles,

who have passed along sacred shores... –

Yet nights of sleepless grieving,

these too amount to something;

and any who has known what anguish is

knows more than most who study.



I have seen them passing among the thistles;

free, light, transparent –

and I quivered with worship, with longing

for a glance, or just a movement.

But tell me: – Who has touched our race’s root,

those souls of glimmering streams,

or you – with your eyes that are full of night,

your mouth red with bloody dreams?





Keep Moving



The day of satisfaction is not best.

The better day — that is a day of thirst.


Though there’s a goal, a reason for our journey,

really the road itself is why it’s worth it.


The best goal is to make camp overnight,

with the fire lit, and something quick to eat.


In places where you only stay the once,

your sleep is sound, your dream is just a song.


Break up, depart! The new day dawns pale.

Our life's adventure is perpetual.






The Falling Morning Star



“Fall,” said the Lord then, “fall,

obstinate morning star! Yes,

gladly I give you darkness,

you that are dearest to me of all.”


“Fall,” said the Lord then, “fall,

fire of blazing turquoise!

Gleam in the deep’s long tortures,

raise your citadel’s coal-black wall!”


“Fall,” said the Lord then, “fall!

You that would taste all evil.

Will you come back, as usual?

You that are nearest to me of all.”





Lilith’s Song



Rainclouds hanging heavy

swell in the tender darkness where they’re stored,

night-blueish grapevine clusters

heavy with wine, that hushed over earth is poured,

heavy with deep-born wine,

heavy with secret force,

wrested from sea and heavens

and bitter dew in the utterest dark’s expanse.


Living’s heady vapour

cools into droplets, falls through the dead-still night.

Drink deeply! you will maybe

grasp the key, where no-one has set her foot...

land where the spirit, loosed

out beyond time’s frontiers

tastes in eternal spaces

things that no-one thinks of or sees or knows.


Under waking country

seethe unearthly seas of joy and woe,

world-deep smithy-forges

from which comes (like a wave-spat) all we see.

Dare you attempt the road

that opens in fear's carouse?

Fear-stricken, yet favoured,

you come to the eternal Mothers’ sombre house . . .


Flakes on widest waters,

Oh deep-born flower who never knew her root,

mayfly averse to nightfall –

comes the time you’ll enter the Mothers’ night!

Dying is black with pain.

Dying is white with bliss.

Plunged in its murmuring waves you

cease to think of life’s pale, clouded coast.



[Translations by me.]

[Image source: . Detail of a sculpture of Karin Boye by Peter Linde in Kungsportavynen, Göteborg (the city of her birth).]

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Monday, July 30, 2018

the local author / anachronism

Katherine McMahon: After Mary (London: Flamingo, 2000)

This is a historical novel about English Catholics in the early seventeenth century. It is so well-written that we soon come to trust; here there will be no badly made scenes.


The dialogue is written in neutral modern English, always sharp and absorbing, yet somehow recalling Mills and Boon romances.


“But you must surely have longed to be more active all these years.”

“I’m not the adventurous type. I only do as I’m told.”


“Shall we go to the cathedral first? Shall we see what it’s like to be in a Catholic church?” Isabel asked.

“We’re expected in the Rue Grosse.”

“Ten minutes. Just to convince ourselves of where we are.”


But Isabel Stanhope’s story doesn’t lead in a conventional Mills and Boon direction, though it draws on that genre’s fire, idealism, and avoidance of the explicit.


The descriptive writing is like this:


Behind lacy iron gates the house was burnished the colour of toast.


He was a tallish man with a complicated face and flaky scalp.


He folded his hands and pom-pommed a little tune to himself.


When she pushed back the door the smell of raw wood and incense was at once replaced by a rush of autumn air.



The logic of Isabel and her world is that Shakespeare, in the book’s most nervous moments, can only be rejected with appalled incomprehension. But it is not the rejection of a pious seventeenth-century Catholic; it is the rejection of a modern awareness.


The brilliance of those descriptive sentences is inescapably linked to the anachronism of the dialogue and the implied conceptions of action. Nothing could have been thought in this way, yet these things (or something like them) must have happened. There is indeed a yawning void in our ability to grasp the everyday life of the past. The writers didn’t record it, though we sometimes devceive ourselves into thinking they did.

The effect of the anachronism is to make the book’s image a “fantasy” - a liberating effect when it is employed so seriously. I persistently question what (or where) the book is really about. The ending is thoroughly satisfying. Mary Ward’s project is feminist as well as (or perhaps more than) religious. All the male characters fail Isabel, unless perhaps Father Turner, who (with splendid anachronism) clinches matters thus:


Your penance, my dear Mistress Stanhope, and it is a heavy one, is to follow the dictates of your own conscience.



[Image source: . Katharine lives in N. London.  This is from an interview with the author in a local magazine covering "S. Hertfordshire / N. Middlesex".]


After Mary draws on the historical figure of Mary Ward (1585 - 1645), a Roman Catholic nun who founded a non-contemplative women's community in St-Omer in 1609, to much conservative disquiet within the church. She conceived it as a sister movement to the Jesuits. The movement carried on after her death, though official status was withheld until 1703. As the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary / Sisters of Loreto,  it now runs 150 schools worldwide: Mary Ward was granted the title Venerable in 2009. (

Mary Ward was born in Mulwith, three miles SE of Ripon in North Yorkshire. Presumably this was at Mulwith Farmhouse, though the present-day building is a mid-18th-century construction. Mulwith is on the north bank of the river Ure.


Katherine McMahon's website: . Her tenth novel, The Hour of Separation, set in Belgium in March 1939, is just out.

Katharine McMahon's interesting article "Memory and Fiction: Why Historical Fiction is also Contemporary Fiction":

Katharine McMahon on her lifelong obsession with the Brontës: . 

(The Hour of Separation has submerged connections with Villette.)

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