Tuesday, November 19, 2019

of fields Before I had had my milk


Wind, just arisen
(Off what cool matters of marsh-moss
In tented boughs leaf-drawn before the stars,
Or niche of cliff under the eagles?)
You of living things,
So gay and tender and full of play,
Why do you blow on my thoughts -- like cut flowers
Gathered and laid to dry on this paper, rolled out of dead wood?

I see you
Shaking that flower at me with soft invitation
And frisking away,
Deliciously rumpling the grass . . .

So you fluttered the curtains about my cradle,
Prattling of fields
Before I had had my milk.
Did I stir on my pillow, making to follow you, Fleet One --
I, swaddled, unwinged, like a bird in the egg?

Let be
My dreams that crackle under your breath . . .
You have the dust of the world to blow on.

Do not tag me and dance away, looking back . . .
I am too old to play with you,
Eternal child.


Poem by Lola Ridge, text as published in Poetry (October 1918). The text on PoemHunter has "mattress" in the second line -- which must be right, I suppose -- but inferior punctuation, etc.

Lola Ridge, b. Dublin 1873, emigrated age 4 to New Zealand, educ. Sydney, moved to San Francisco 1907 then New York. Worked as a model and in factories. First book, The Ghetto, about the Hester St area of the Lower East Side. Committed left-wing activist (her third collection is called The Red Flag), d. New York 1941.


East River

Dour river
Jaded with monotony of lights
Diving off mast heads….
Lights mad with creating in a river… turning its sullen back…
Heave up, river…
Vomit back into the darkness your spawn of light….
The night will gut what you give her.


An Old Workman

Warped… gland-dry…
With spine askew
And body shrunken into half its space…
Well-used as some cracked paving-stone…
Bearing on his grimed and pitted front
A stamp… as of innumerable feet.


Wall Street At Night

Long vast shapes… cooled and flushed through with darkness….
Lidless windows
Glazed with a flashy luster
From some little pert cafe chirping up like a sparrow.
And down among iron guts
Piled silver
Throwing gray spatter of light… pale without heat…
Like the pallor of dead bodies.


Here's one of the longer New York poems.



Crass rays streaming from the vestibules;
Cafes glittering like jeweled teeth;
High-flung signs
Blinking yellow phosphorescent eyes;
Girls in black
Circling monotonously
About the orange lights…
Nothing to guess at…
Save the darkness above
Crouching like a great cat.
In the dim-lit square,
Where dishevelled trees
Tustle with the wind—the wind like a scythe
Mowing their last leaves—
Arcs shimmering through a greenish haze—
Pale oval arcs
Like ailing virgins,
Each out of a halo circumscribed,
Pallidly staring…
Figures drift upon the benches
With no more rustle than a dropped leaf settling—
Slovenly figures like untied parcels,
And papers wrapped about their knees
Huddled one to the other,
Cringing to the wind—
The sided wind,
Leaving no breach untried…
So many and all so still…
The fountain slobbering its stone basin
Is louder than They—
Flotsam of the five oceans
Here on this raft of the world.
This old man's head
Has found a woman's shoulder.
The wind juggles with her shawl
That flaps about them like a sail,
And splashes her red faded hair
Over the salt stubble of his chin.
A light foam is on his lips,
As though dreams surged in him
Breaking and ebbing away…
And the bare boughs shuffle above him
And the twigs rattle like dice…
She—diffused like a broken beetle—
Sprawls without grace,
Her face gray as asphalt,
Her jaws sagging as on loosened hinges…
Shadows ply about her mouth—
Nimble shadows out of the jigging tree,
That dances above her its dance of dry bones.


A uniformed front,
A glance like a blow,
The swing of an arm,
Verved, vigorous;
Boot-heels clanking
In metallic rhythm;
The blows of a baton,
Quick, staccato…
—There is a rustling along the benches
As of dried leaves raked over…
And the old man lifts a shaking palsied hand,
Tucking the displaced paper about his knees.
And a frost under foot,
Acid, corroding,
Eating through worn bootsoles.
Drab forms blur into greenish vapor.
Through boughs like cross-bones,
Pale arcs flare and shiver
Like lilies in a wind.
High over Broadway
A far-flung sign
Glitters in indigo darkness
And spurts again rhythmically,
Spraying great drops
Red as a hemorrhage.


Here's another of her poems remembering childhood. This is a section from the autobiographical sequence Sun-Up.


Cherry, cherry,
glowing on the hearth,
bright red cherry….
When you try to pick up cherry
Celia’s shriek
sticks in you like a pin.

When God throws hailstones
you cuddle in Celia’s shawl
and press your feet on her belly
high up like a stool.
When Celia makes umbrella of her hand.
Rain falls through
big pink spokes of her fingers.
When wind blows Celia’s gown up off her legs
she runs under pillars of the bank—
great round pillars of the bank
have on white stockings too.

Celia says my father
will bring me a golden bowl.
When I think of my father
I cannot see him
for the big yellow bowl
like the moon with two handles
he carries in front of him.

Grandpa, grandpa…
(Light all about you…
ginger… pouring out of green jars…)
You don’t believe he has gone away and left his great coat…
so you pretend… you see his face up in the ceiling.
When you clap your hands and cry, grandpa, grandpa, grandpa,
Celia crosses herself.

It isn’t a dream….
It comes again and again….
You hear ivy crying on steeples
the flames haven’t caught yet
and images screaming
when they see red light on the lilies
on the stained glass window of St. Joseph.
The girl with the black eyes holds you tight,
and you run… and run
past the wild, wild towers…
and trees in the gardens tugging at their feet
and little frightened dolls
shut up in the shops
crying… and crying… because no one stops…
you spin like a penny thrown out in the street.
Then the man clutches her by the hair….
He always clutches her by the hair….
His eyes stick out like spears.
You see her pulled-back face
and her black, black eyes
lit up by the glare….
Then everything goes out.
Please God, don’t let me dream any more
of the girl with the black, black eyes.

Celia’s shadow rocks and rocks…
and mama’s eyes stare out of the pillow
as though she had gone away
and the night had come in her place
as it comes in empty rooms…
you can’t bear it—
the night threshing about
and lashing its tail on its sides
as bold as a wolf that isn’t afraid—
and you scream at her face, that is white as a stone on a grave
and pull it around to the light,
till the night draws backward… the night that walks alone
and goes away without end.
Mama says, I am cold, Betty, and shivers.
Celia tucks the quilt about her feet,
but I run for my little red cloak
because red is hot like fire.

I wish Celia
could see the sea climb up on the sky
and slide off again…
…Celia saying
I’d beg the world with you….
Celia… holding on to the cab…
hands wrenched away…
wind in the masts… like Celia crying….
Celia never minded if you slapped her
when the comb made your hairs ache,
but though you rub your cheek against mama’s hand
she has not said darling since….
Now I will slap her again….
I will bite her hand till it bleeds.

It is cool by the port hole.
The wet rags of the wind
flap in your face.


Terese Svoboda on Lola Ridge:


and on her own journey into writing Ridge's biography:


[Image source: https://therumpus.net/2016/11/anything-that-burns-you-a-portrait-of-lola-ridge-radical-poet-by-terese-svoboda/ .]


Monday, November 18, 2019

Tobias Smollett: Peregrine Pickle (1751)

1769 Print by Charles Grignion after Henry Fuseli

[Image source: https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?from=ad&fromDate=1740&images=true&objectId=1651337&page=1&partId=1&searchText=commodore&to=ad&toDate=1790 . The scene is from Chapter II. The one-eyed Commodore Trunnion attacks Lieutenant Hatchway with his crutch after one sarcastic crack too many. Hatchway fends him off with his elevated wooden leg. On the left, Tom Pipes looks on undisturbed. The only person to whom this nightly performance is new is the phlegmatic figure on the right: Gamaliel Pickle, future father of the hero. The person in the doorway ought to be the landlord feigning astonishment, but I can't explain the headgear, and wonder if this is an invented woman attendant, as in Rowlandson's later picture of the same scene.]

I've been racking my brains about how to encapsulate The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle for others and for my own later self. Because, let's face it,  in the internet era the occasions when we actually read through an 800 page novel are all too rare. In the end I've decided to just paste one of its 114 chapters (a short one).

Peregrine takes leave of his Aunt and Sister, sets out from the Garison, parts with his Uncle and Hatchway on the Road, and with his Governor arrives in safety at DoverThis, however, was the last effort of invention which they practised upon him; and everything being now prepared for the departure of his godson, that hopeful youth in two days took leave of all his friends in the neighbourhood, was closeted two whole hours with his aunt, who inriched him with many pious advices, recapitulated all the benefits which, through her means, had been conferred upon him since his infancy, cautioned him against the temptations of lewd women, who bring many a man to a morsel of bread, laid strict injunctions upon him to live in the fear of the Lord and the true Protestant faith, to eschew quarrels and contention, to treat Mr. Jolter with reverence and regard, and above all things to abstain from the beastly sin of drunkenness, which exposeth a man to the scorn and contempt of his fellow-creatures, and, by divesting him of reason and reflection, renders him fit for all manner of vice and debauchery. She recommended to him oeconomy, and the care of his health, bad him remember the honour of his family, and in all the circumstances of his behaviour, assured him, that he might always depend upon the friendship and generosity of the commodore; and finally, presenting him with her own picture set in gold, and an hundred guineas from her privy purse, embraced him affectionately, and wished him all manner of happiness and prosperity.
     Being thus kindly dismissed by Mrs. Trunnion, he locked himself up with his sister Julia, whom he admonished to cultivate her aunt with the most complaisant and respectful attention, without stooping to any circumstance of submission that she should judge unworthy of her practice; he protested, that his chief study should be to make her amends for the privilege she had forfeited by her affection for him; intreated her to enter into no engagement without his knowledge and approbation, put into her hand the purse which he had received from his aunt, to defray her pocket expenses in his absence, and parted from her, not without tears, after she had for some minutes hung about his neck, kissing him and weeping in the most pathetic silence.
    Having performed these duties of affection and consanguinity overnight, he went to bed, and was by his own direction, called at four o'clock in the morning, when he found the post-chaise, coach and riding-horses ready at the gate, his friends Gauntlet and Hatchway on foot, the commodore himself almost dressed, and every servant in the garrison assembled in the yard, to wish him a good journey. Our hero shook each of these humble friends by the hand, tipping them at the same time with marks of his bounty; and was very much surprized when he could not perceive his old attendant Pipes among the number. When he expressed his wonder at this disrespectful omission of Tom, some of those present ran to his chamber, in order to give him a call, but his hammock and room were both deserted, and they soon returned with an account of his having eloped. Peregrine was disturbed at this information, believing that the fellow had taken some desperate course, in consequence of his being dismissed from his service, and began to wish that he had indulged his inclination, by retaining him still about his person. However, as there was now no other remedy, he recommended him strenuously to the particular favour and distinction of his uncle and Hatchway, in case he should appear again; and as he went out of the gate, was saluted with three chears by all the domestics in the family.
The commodore, Gauntlet, lieutenant, Peregrine, and Jolter went into the coach together, that they might enjoy each other's conversation as much as possible, resolving to breakfast at an inn upon the road, where Trunnion and Hatchway intended to bid our adventurer farewel; the valet de chambre got into the post-chaise, the French lacquey rode one horse and led another, one of the valets of the garison mounted at the back of the coach; and thus the cavalcade set out on the road to Dover.
As the commodore could not bear the fatigue of jolting, they travelled at an easy pace during the first stage; so that the old gentleman had an opportunity of communicating his exhortations to his godson, with regard to his conduct abroad: he advised him, now that he was going into foreign parts, to be upon his guard against the fair weather of the French politesse, which was no more to be trusted than a whirlpool at sea. He observed that many young men had gone to Paris with good cargoes of sense, and returned with a great deal of canvas, and no ballast at all, whereby they became crank all the days of their lives, and sometimes carried their keels above water. He desired Mr. Jolter to keep his pupil out of the clutches of those sharking priests who lie in wait to make converts of all young strangers, and in a particular manner cautioned the youth against carnal conversation with the Parisian dames, who, he understood, were no better than gaudy fire-ships ready primed with death and destruction.
    Peregrine listened with great respect, thanking him for his kind admonitions, which he faithfully promised to observe. They halted and breakfasted at the end of the stage, where Jolter provided himself with a horse, and the commodore settled the method of corresponding with his nephew; and the minute of parting being arrived, the old commander wrung his godson by the hand, saying, 'I wish thee a prosperous voyage and good cheer, my lad; my timbers are now a little crazy, d'ye see; and God knows if I shall keep afloat till such time as I see thee again; but, howsomever, hap what will, thou wilt find thyself in a condition to keep in the line with the best of thy fellows.' He then reminded Gauntlet of his promise to call at the garison in his return from Dover, and imparted something in a whisper to the governor, while Jack Hatchway unable to speak, pulled his hat over his eyes, and squeezing Peregrine by the hand, gave him an iron pistol of curious workmanship, as a memorial of his friendship. Our youth, who was not unmoved on this occasion, received the pledge, which he acknowledged with the present of a silver tobacco-box, that he had bought for this purpose; and the two lads of the castle getting into the coach, were driven homewards, in a state of silent dejection.
    Godfrey and Peregrine seated themselves in the post-chaise, and Jolter, the valet de chambre and lacquey bestriding their beasts, they proceeded for the place of their destination, at which they arrived in safety that same night, and bespoke a passage in the pacquet-boat which was to sail next day.

(Peregrine Pickle Chapter XXXVII (1st edition, 1751) -- corresponds to Chapter XXXIII in the 1758 revision)

It may justly be complained that my sample chapter fails to represent the book's hard-boiled character. That is true. Be assured that the advice of his guardians has no apparent influence on young Peregrine's conduct.

But still, there's a warm-hearted side to Peregrine Pickle too.

Here, anyway, is the hero within the affectionate "family" that's adopted him.  (Tom Pipes, you won't be surprised to learn, has set his mind on accompanying Peregrine, and turns up during a storm in mid-Channel.)

Peregrine's biological parents have rejected him. Smollett doesn't trouble to think up a complicated explanation; his mother just loathes him. It's stark and credible.

But he's been indulgently brought up by the immortal Commodore, who married his aunt -- though that hardly tells the story. (Aunt Grizzel's fondness for Peregrine, admittedly, is mainly motivated by the thought of spiting her sister-in-law.) Peregrine is a strapping lad, hot-headed, satirical, mischievous and handsome. He makes a lot of trouble. His attachment to that nautical trio the Commodore, Hatchway and Pipes is prominent among his rather few redeeming features. Peregrine's relations with women (including his beloved Emilia) aren't likely to win much approval. An unfriendly description of Peregrine could make him sound like a grossly over-privileged Bullingdon-style rake, who ceaselessly persecutes those less fortunate than himself.

And should the hero of a picaresque novel in the Spanish tradition be quite so wealthy, we wonder? The narrative engine of Gil Blas (Smollett had published the classic translation in 1748),  is the hero's need to make a living. Peregrine never has any thought of working, until, late in the book, he decides to go into politics; which, ironically, promptly results in the loss of what remains of his money.

But as it turns out, this gentrified variant on the picaresque works really well. To give him his due Peregrine is also loyal (in his own fashion), generous, and an enemy to all forms of oppression. He has other qualities that, if not exactly virtues, are attractive and healthy: spontaneity, warm passions, unaffected emotion, a total absence of insincerity or hypocrisy (except, of course, when executing one of his innumerable cruel jests). And he often regrets his own misdeeds.

No man was more capable of moralizing upon Peregrine's misconduct than himself; his reflections were extremely just and sagacious, and attended with no other disadvantage, but that of occurring too late.

(Ch. XLV)

This we can relate to with some sympathy. But in its volatile way the paragraph then turns sourer. Peregrine has earnestly entreated Emilia to write to him in Paris, but her note's arrival is ill-timed and he neglects it; he now has greater sexual ambitions.

If Peregrine is sometimes superhuman and sometimes subhuman, he also makes a surprisingly good Everyman. Some qualities he shares with his author (e.g. the satire, the hot temper). Peregrine on his continental travels is often quite obviously and naively standing in for Smollett himself (who travelled abroad in 1750 during the composition of Peregrine Pickle). At such times Peregrine is an unobtrusively normative and right-hearted observing eye. In Smollett's unwearying and rigorously non-self-analytical narrative, these potentially contradictory aspects of his hero make him, I think, more convincing. For example, Peregrine generally breaks free from the control of his pedantic and ineffectual governor Jolter; but every now and then, he confers with him and even accepts his advice. There's an elasticity to the relationship, as too with Pipes, Hatchway, Emilia herself and her brother (the Gauntlet of the above chapter). The relationships and attitudes change from encounter to encounter, they are not completely predictable.


Peregrine Pickle is, I suppose, in the hinterland of "English literature". It meant much to Scott, who admired its fertility of invention, its breadth and its poetry; and to Dickens, on whom it was enormously influential. (It's still a slight shock, when  Peregrine is finally cast into the Fleet for debt, to discover so many foreshadowings, not only of Pickwick's imprisonment, but of those supreme pages of Dickens in which he describes the Dorrit family's life in the Marshalsea.)

But the book is still usually described in slightly apologetic terms: it gets compared unfavourably with Tom Jones (1749), or with Smollett's own more admired (and shorter) novels Roderick Random and Humphry Clinker. Probably this perception goes back, not so much to the initially poor reviews (great books often get poor reviews), but to Smollett's revision (1758), which eliminated some of the coarser episodes and some of the attacks on public figures; it feels like an admission that Peregrine Pickle wasn't quite as it should be. Despite this doubtful start, it became much relished by the public for the next eighty years. Editions and illustrations abound.

The open quality of the novel and its hero give it, I think, a distinctive kind of appeal; though some may feel this openness goes too far when it admits the enormous digression of Lady Vane's Memoirs (as well as the briefer one about the Annesley case). They're interesting narratives, but they raise different kinds of questions than those that a fiction can resolve. Perhaps the real meaning we should place on the revision is that Smollett had stumbled on a literary form that was intrinsically open-ended.

1810 print by John Dadley after Luke Clennell

[Image source: https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3002120&partId=1 . This is Emilia, surprised and disgusted by the contents of "Peregrine's" letter (Ch XXII; revised edn Ch XIX).]

1823 illustration by George Cruikshank

[Image source: https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3506196&page=2&partId=1&searchText=pistol%20duel%20 . On the ramparts of Antwerp: the duel (fomented by Peregrine) between the painter Pallet and his curiously-never-named companion the doctor (left). Peregrine is the doctor's second. Pipes, acting as Pallet's second, is preventing his retreat (Ch LXVIII; revised edition Ch LXIII.]


Wednesday, November 13, 2019


Plastic mustard containers from Portugal and Sweden

Regret? Certainly... But it's time to give up on unnecessary plastic packaging.

Mustard is so easy to buy in glass jars, much better from the recycling perspective.

In Sweden, but not in the UK, metal "tomato puree" tubes are also popular packaging for mustard and other similar pastes. That's another good solution, if you like squeezing out a trail.

I appreciate that plastic dispensers are the practical solution for burger vans and lounge bars. But I can't justify having them at home.

I suppose I'm not alone in sometimes looking at the supermarket shelves not as full of products we want to buy but as a series of commodities that someone is trying to shift: plastic, sugar, wheat...


The table condiment is usually made from White Mustard (Sinapis alba), Black Mustard (Brassica nigra), or the S. Asian Brown Mustard (Brassica juncea). But these plants and their allies have many other uses, e.g. as edible (canola) oil, biofuels, and even for cleansing soil contaminated with heavy metals.

Here's a great article (from an Australian/New Zealand perspective) about the different mustard species and their uses, properties, and chemistry:



The electric guitar was the music of hydrocarbons.


Mortality      (Dödlighet)


We go on but they are gone, he
with his fingers on the
Gloster Gladiator.

From out at sea:
streets, suburbs. The patch
of tree trunks like coal. White light,
the redbreast hopping.

I'll race you home.
Once they glimpsed
the small creatures playing
on the fallen branch.
Was life long enough?

Lunch. Shepherd's pie in the elderly ward.

Cat's whisker. Can you hear?

We must preserve Venice.

Washing-machine. The hot grey
sun of Arabia. Mentally clear, ill.
Have you worn another hole
in that stocking?

Tender May time. I stretched --
No they had run off. In Kensington Gardens.


He arrived at the slow home --
easy, or hard? In its swept
all-shadow he
dispersed; his
shallow breaths, closed
lids, and now even
his ruins had
been left behind on the
journey. He had existed,
it made no difference. Beyond
the horizon, where turquoise still exists,
a tumult of rain-
and-sun moved through the gears,


Monday, November 11, 2019

Tomas Tranströmer: "Six winters"

[Image source: https://www.google.com/amp/s/vallterrier.com/2009/12/30/istapp-of-the-day/amp/ ]

Six winters     (Sex vintrar)


In the black hotel a child sleeps.
And outside: the winter night
where the big-eyed dice are rolling.


An elite of the dead fixed in stone
in Katarina churchyard
where the wind shakes in its armour from Svalbard.


One winter during the war while I lay sick
a giant icicle grew outside the window.
Neighbour and harpoon, memory without explanation.


Ice hangs down from the edge of the roof.
Icicles: the upside-down Gothic.
Abstract herd, udders of glass.


In a siding an empty railway carriage.
Still. Heraldic.
With the journeys in its claws.


Tonight snow haze, moonshine. The moonshine jellyfish itself
trembles before us. Our smiles
on the way home.  Enchanted avenue.

The second poem in Tomas Tranströmer's 1989 collection For living and dead (För levande och döda).  Here was the first one.

Katarina Church (Kyrka) in Central Stockholm [Image source: Wikipedia]. Since Tranströmer's poem the church has had to be rebuilt due to fire damage. New to the elite dead is Anna Lindh, the Minister of Foreign Affairs who was assassinated in 2003. Also here is the much-loved troubadour Cornelis Vreeswijk, who died in 1987, and going a little further back, Sten Sture the Elder (died 1503),  regent of Sweden and still a potent name forty years later, as recounted in Strindberg's Gustav Vasa.

[Image source: https://www.svt.se/nyheter/lokalt/stockholm/naturfenomen-i-stockholms-skargard-lockar-dykare ]

Large influx of jellyfish in the Stockholm archipelago, October 2019.


Thursday, November 07, 2019

12, Bath Road

Following my last post, I found myself revisiting my grandmother's house, which I still know so well.

Those grandparent addresses, 12 Bath Road and Fridhemsgatan 11 ("elva"), were the continuities that stuck. We ourselves, like other young families going places, moved house every couple of years, but Mutti and Mormor were more stable.

"Mutti" was our English grandmother, Ruth Peverett née Plowright. She lived in this quiet cul-de-sac street in Eastbourne, a street that I childishly assumed was named after the kind of bath you have before bed-time.

And I noticed that the shape of the street,  which ended in a blank wall, did indeed resemble a bathtub. Along both sides were small terraced houses. No. 12 was the innermost on one side, apart from a small office, a broker's or something.  All the houses looked much the same, but the doors were different colours. Mutti's was black, which I considered very stylish. Though my secret favourite, a little way up the road, was primrose yellow.


We come into the hall, a corridor with the staircase at the far end. Here was the bust of Beethoven, looking fierce and gloomy, and also the grandfather clock that we had to wind every morning. As I tour the rooms now, I can see all the objects, one by one, so vividly that it's hard to believe that they aren't still there. But I know they aren't. After all one of them, a heavy dome of blue Venetian glass, is right here in my own flat, being used to prop the bedroom door open.

It was a small terraced house, with a cement back garden which had a hydrangea in a tub. To one side, a shed with an outside lavatory.

Sometimes I think I remember the house better than I remember Mutti herself. But it isn't true.
It's just easier to pin down static objects. A person is never static. Here she is, first thing in the morning, kneeling on the mat while she lays the coal fire in the grate. She's scrumpling up pages from an old copy of the Radio Times, or the church magazine. (She also used these resources to make sheets of toilet paper.) When she's ready, we light a spill and apply it to the fire lighters at rear left, and rear right.  If the spill is less than half burnt, she stubs it out for next time. We see the warmth long before we feel it, like winter sun.

If I ever chance to meet Mutti again (it's a chance I can't quite bring myself to give up on), I feel we won't be strangers, we'll interact as in this memory.

And yet I also know that even while she still lived, we had lost our togetherness. I was in my twenties, she was in a care home. I had already mislaid my Mutti and didn't know how to bring her back when I visited her. The present moment took over from nostalgia: the ceaseless shifting of her foot as she sat in her armchair and we tried to chat, but she now had no life of her own to chat about, and mine felt difficult to share. 12, Bath Road had gone while I was away at university, preoccupied with my own life, things that then seemed more important.


But I find I'm repeating a poem I wrote thirty years ago. I've managed to track it down, I'm not recommending it, but it's useful for me so I'll paste it here.



When I was a child & you were old
Your shadowy friends, the telephone calls
That interrupted our play - & how they'd talk!
But in the darkness of eight o'clock,
As definite as the hall clock,
I had you to myself & knew in sleep
How you put yourself to bed without a thought
Of anything but library books due for return
& the shoes put out to take to the menders.

The breeze in the road that blows the raindrops
Into resembling snow;
A cry of gulls out there,
Of rigging & the shouts of men
Preparing a ship to sail,
Not well imagined, but with a remembered scent
Of the morning wind flapping in flintwalled streets
On the way to church.

I am a little boy, whose feet stop well short of the bed-end, leaving a tranquil space that is draped in a gaily checkered shawl, & here the hot-water bottle makes an isolated hummock, like Glastonbury Tor.

Their origins & purposes obscure, I lay
& stared for a long time at the boxes
On the dresser, glass & pewter, intricate
& utterly placid, before it occurred to me
That it must be morning.

"Is that you dear?
Grannie's still in bed."

I never saw you sleep. I snuggled in beside you
While you read the prayer-book, advancing the bookmark
To another page, then turning to the end
To read a psalm. Later, I watched you dress,
Intrigued by your wrinkled belly and behind,
Folded like whipped cream in a bowl.

Then you fiddled at your dressing-table with an ebony hand-mirror, or tiny jars in silver braziers, half-full of vermillion & turquoise paste. You also powdered your nose, which age had softened and enlarged, so that like other grown-ups you appeared gigantic, even arboreal.

On an awkward knee-high table by the bed was a wireless installed by Tony; it gave constant trouble, you couldn't even tune it, you always said: "I'll ask Tony to fix it." & you pretended you didn't need it. Sacrifice was your commonest key.

In the days before my appetite increased
& yours disappeared,
Sometimes you made porridge in a small unstable saucepan.
Having styled yourself Mutti,
You persuaded me that you were somehow German;
Like your alpine jigsaws & Oberammagau.
& besides, you'd played the violin.
You appeared to inhabit the world of Brahms or Beethoven.

You gave me toast, cut into ranks of soldiers,
& spread with dripping & Marmite, which you mispronounced.

The dripping (later I worked it out) had been carried home triumphantly in a bowl covered in muslin, from a house where you had been asked to "help out", the fruit of a patient, humble request. I've heard you ask for vegetable water, & refuse to budge despite dissuasion, despite embarrassed offers to purchase all kinds of fresh vegetables for you. You had grown accustomed to the borders of service, rejecting thanks & rejecting thanks until our gratitude was swollen & inflamed like a fire to which you had applied the bellows. This odd behaviour was forgiven you.

Inappropriate, 26-inch screen,
Twin-garage gold, you wouldn't wear
Even in August in a garden
Where your dark silver hair & brooch,
Settled on coal-grey,
Defined your later age
& your attenuated ceremonial,
Empty of robust macaroni-stuffing appetite
If not compulsion.

That was when you visited
Cross-country, changing at Heathfield;
I imagine you over-heating
Toting a tiny suitcase
Of olive-black leather
Or some cheap substitute
Not without elegance
The neatness of rationing.

Quick sympathy, long absences,
Clumsy calls you couldn't manage:
It is autumn, beauty.
& you getting smaller,
Breasting the leaves,
Gasping for air.

With iron face I mourned your destruction
Before it happened. Perhaps you didn't see,
In the long quiet pauses, while you shuffled your feet,
& I timed my visit to end for the train.

An evening alone, & with inordinate effort
I try to recover the rules of a patience
We shared a quarter-century ago.
"Once in a Blue Moon" you said it was called;
But I must misremember, for it comes out every time.

And what was her name?
How fully I enjoyed the lack of confidences,
Your ready recognition
That all was beyond me.


Tuesday, November 05, 2019

The poetry of cruelty

The poet, notwithstanding this discouragement, begg'd hard that he might exhibit a specimen of his performance; and being restricted to a few lines, he repeated the following stanzas, with the most rueful emphasis.

Where wast thou, wittol Ward, when hapless fate
From these weak arms mine aged grannam tore:
These pious arms essay'd too late,
To drive the dismal phantom from the door.
Could not thy healing drop, illustrious quack,
Could not thy salutory pill prolong her days,
For whom, so oft, to Marybone, alack!
Thy sorrels dragg'd thee thro' the worst of ways?

Oil-dropping Twick'nham did not then detain
Thy steps, tho' tended by the Cambrian maids;
Nor the sweet environs of Drury-lane;
Nor dusty Pimlico's embow'ring shades;
Nor Whitehall, by the river's bank,
Beset with rowers dank;
Nor where th' Exchange pours forth its tawny sons;
Nor where to mix with offal, soil and blood,
Steep Snowhill rolls the sable flood;
Nor where the Mint's contaminated kennel runs:
Ill doth it now beseem,
That thou should'st doze and dream,
When death in mortal armour came,
And struck with ruthless dart the gentle dame.

Her lib'ral hand and sympathising breast,
The brute creation kindly bless'd:
Where'er she trod grimalkin purr'd around,
The squeaking pigs her bounty own'd;
Nor to the waddling duck or gabbling goose,
Did she glad sustenance refuse;
The strutting cock she daily fed,
And turky with his snout so red;
Of chickens careful as the pious hen,
Nor did she overlook the tomtit or the wren;
While redbreast hopp'd before her in the hall,
As if she common mother were of all.

For my distracted mind,
What comfort can I find?
O best of grannams! thou art dead and gone,
And I am left behind in sad funereal lay,
Ah! woe is me! alack! and well-a-day!

These interjections at the close of this pathetic elegy, were not pronounced without the sobs and tears of the author, who looked wishfully around him for applause, and having wiped his eyes, asked the chairman's opinion of what he had read.

(Peregrine Pickle, Chapter CII.)


Snow Hill, area with a water conduit, in the City of London. Presumably the "sable flood", however, were the foul waters of the adjacent River Fleet, still uncovered in 1751. This was near to Smithfield Market, evidently the source of the offal, etc.
The Mint:  a notorious slum area in Southwark (it had been a "liberty" for debtors until 1723).


The irony is, this is clearly supposed to be a very bad poem, but from the arresting over-alliteration of the first line, I find that I at once begin to read it with more attention and enjoyment than most other poems of that age. I'm even touched. (After all, I adored my own grandmothers, and I've written poems to them.) I was touched, too, by the redbreast hopping at her feet. For Smollett, that kind of naturalism, in a poem, was evidently crashingly bathetic.

In both Peregrine Pickle and the later pamphlet Habbakkuk Hilding, Smollett makes personal attacks on Sir George Lyttelton* (politician and patron of the arts) and on his favoured author Henry Fielding. Lyttelton had kept the young Smollett dangling with unfulfilled promises concerning his play The Regicide. No-one really knows what Fielding had done to become the target of Smollett's venom. Smollett portrays Lyttelton as a vain poetaster susceptible to the crudest flattery, and implies that Fielding profited from venal practices attached to his Westminster magistracy (practices that Fielding in fact was instrumental in stamping out).

These lines are based on Lyttelton's once-admired Miltonic elegy "To the Memory of a Lady lately deceased", written in 1747 following the death of his young wife Lucy in child-bed (Smollett's stanzas correspond to stanzas 7,8,11 and 17 of Lyttelton's 19-stanza poem). Smollett's burlesque is commonly called "cruel". And indeed, however little we may think of the original poem, such a record of personal grief hardly seems fair game. 

Smollett was temperamentally combative. An opponent's distress tended to make him more merciless. But he usually regretted his assaults, and was not intransigent. He later wrote generously of Lyttelton in the Continuation of his History of England, and of Fielding in his introduction to the translation of Don Quixote.

[Info from Scott's excellent 1821 note on Smollett:




Anyway, Smollett did induce me to read through Lyttelton's poem. The first stanza, at least, has a broken plainness of thought that I liked very much.

At length escap'd from ev'ry Human Eye,
From ev'ry Duty, ev'ry Care,
That in my mournful Thoughts might claim a Share,
Or force my Tears their flowing Stream to dry,
Beneath the Gloom of this embow'ring Shade
This lone Retreat, for tender Sorrow made
I now may give my burden'd Heart Relief
And pour forth all my Stores of Grief,
Of Grief surpassing ev'ry other Woe
Far as the purest Bliss, the happiest Love
Can on th' ennobled Mind bestow,
Exceeds the vulgar Joys that move
Our gross Desires, inelegant, and low.

Also the sixth, about the couple's children:

Sweet Babes, who, like the little playful Fawns,
Were wont to trip along these verdant Lawns
By your delighted Mother's Side,
Who now your Infant Steps shall guide?
Ah! where is now the Hand whose tender Care
To ev'ry Virtue would have form'd your Youth,
And strew'd with Flow'rs the thorny Ways of Truth?
O Loss beyond Repair!
O wretched Father, left alone
To weep Their dire Misfortune, and Thy own!
How shall thy weaken'd Mind, oppress'd with Woe,
And drooping o'er thy LUCY'S Grave,
Perform the Duties that you doubly owe,
Now She, alas! is gone,
From Folly, and from Vice, their helpless Age to save?

These are the subsequent passages that Smollett most closely parodies:

Where were ye, Muses, when relentless Fate
From these fond Arms your fair Disciple tore,
From these fond Arms that vainly strove
With hapless ineffectual Love
To guard her Bosom from the mortal Blow?....

Nor then did Pindus, or Castalia's Plain,
Or Aganippe's Fount your Steps detain,
Nor in the Thespian Vallies did you play;
Nor then on Mincio's Bank
Beset with Osiers dank,
Nor where Clitumnus rolls his gentle Stream,
Nor where through hanging Woods
Steep Arno pours his Floods,
Nor yet where Meles, or Ilissus stray. ....

...Ev'n for the Kid or Lamb that pour'd its Life
Beneath the bloody Knife,
Her gentle Tears would fall,
As She the common Mother were of All.

For my distracted Mind
What Succour can I find? ...


I get confused by this titles thing.

I think "Sir George" would have been the correct form in 1751. George became baronet on the death of his father in that year, but I dare say had already been knighted (at that time, the automatic right of a baronet's eldest son on reaching the age of 21). A few years later, following a stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was raised to the peerage, thus becoming Lord Lyttelton.

It feels misleading to apply a later
honorific when talking about an earlier period in someone's life. That would be like talking about Sir Paul McCartney setting fire to a condom in Hamburg.

But this can get over-pedantic. The author of Rob Roy was plain Walter Scott at the time, but it would be ridiculous to object to Penguin Books putting "Sir Walter Scott" on the jacket. That's become his author-name, regardless of chronology.

And of course women authors have mostly preserved their author name, ignoring later marriages, never mind honorifics. (The Shakespearean scholar Ann Righter was an exception, confusing generations of students by publishing her later books as Ann Barton.)

Labels: , ,

Friday, November 01, 2019

swam faster than time

The forgotten captain

We have many shadows. I was on the way home
in the September night when Y
broke out of his grave after forty years
and kept me company.

At first he was quite empty, a mere name,
but his thoughts swam
faster than time
and caught up with us.

I set his eyes to my eyes
and saw the war's ocean.
The last boat he commanded
grew forth under us.

Out and back crept the Atlantic Convoy ships
those that would survive
and those that had the Mark
(invisible to all)

while the sleepless days and nights succeeded
but never him --
the float-vest sat under the oilskin.
He never came home.

It was an intern's weeping that bled him
in a hospital in Cardiff.
He could finally lay himself down
and be transformed into horizon.

Goodbye No. 11 Convoy! Goodbye 1940!
Here ends world history.
The bomber hung overhead.
The heather bloomed.

A photo from the start of the century shows a beach.
There stand six clothed boys.
They have sailing boats in their arms.
What serious expressions!

Boats that became life and death for some of them.
And to write of the dead
is a game too, that grows heavy
with what is to come.


The opening poem in Tomas Tranströmer's 1989 collection For Living And Dead (För levande och döda), poorly translated with a bit of help from Google Translate and probably some recollection of Robin Fulton's rendering.

I've left in my mistakes. The intern's weeping is really internal weeping. No. 11 is really 11-knot.

I passed through Västerås in the summer, an unassuming working town. I would have paid it more attention if I'd known that Tranströmer lived here from 1965 onwards.

In fact it's a town with a lot of history.

Back in 1878 it was where that bright boy from Dalarna Erik Axel Karlfeldt attended the school now known as the Rudbeckianska Gymnasiet. (A then-separate part of today's school had been founded, back in the seventeenth century, by Bishop Rudbeck, father of the eccentric scientist Olaf Rudbeck, who keeps finding his way into my posts!

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

autumn sun

Early nightfall from now on, but as if to soften this civil blow Nature followed up a rainy and blustery Saturday with a rare sunny Sunday, and everyone came out to play. We took a stroll around the old lanes on the edge of Frome.

This strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) was alive with the sound of bees. The fruit takes a full year to ripen, so in October you can see both blossom and fruit.

In Portugal they make jam with the fruit (medronho), but here it tends to be neglected. (In the Victorian language of flowers, strawberry tree is sometimes translated as "esteem, not love".)

Whatever, the ripe fruit is worth trying raw. The luscious peach-coloured flesh is mildly sweetish,  but the tiny seeds do get caught in your teeth.

Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea). A new flush of blossom in a shady lane.

Laura's studies in Sumac (Rhus). Most of the pics in this post are hers.

How could you miss, yet so it was,
the fruit of noonday and the antique crowns
               At the last, murmuring something indistinct, that escaped love's grasp
Only the silence rolled over the waters

A last few blackberries.

Looking over the valley of the young river Frome. Those hills in the distance are in Wiltshire.

Hedgerow Cranesbill (Geranium pyrenaicum).

Another snacking food, in my opinion. Hawthorn doesn't taste of anything much, but the texture is agreeable and it's everywhere, so I always eat one or two when I go out.

Manna Ash (Fraxinus ornus).

This was a more committed bit of foraging, last week. A second batch of rowan and apple jelly; the rowan tree outside has now been well stripped, up to head height. The crown is for the birds!

Fridolin's folly

In 1917 the unsettled state of Finland led to food shortages. In that part of the world, famine was still a living memory. The architect Torkel Nordman of Björneborg (Pori) sent his friend Jean Sibelius, living in Ainola, a present of a shoulder of smoked mutton. To avoid exposing hungry postal workers to temptation, Nordman sent it in an empty violin case.

In response Sibelius composed the song "Fridolins dårskap" (Fridolin's folly) for male voice choir; Nordman was a keen member of the Björneborg choir. Erik Axel Karlfeldt's poem of 1901 was doubly appropriate. It refers to a leg of mutton, evidently meaning a violin!

(Information from Maria Nylund's article.)

This is my free translation:

Fridolin's folly

Only just roach time, salmon jumping,
winter's hardly blown out,
but you're as red as in olden days
eyes gleaming as you look about.
Your ideals are broken crockery,
your feelings the stalest wine,
so what's with your soul's intoxication,
ancient Fridolin?

What's it to you the primrose smiles,
the cranesbill's pink as the dawn?
Have you still got some garland to give,
you all the women scorn?
You who would blend the sighs of your breast
with the rustle of woodlands green,
is there any human voice that replies,
sighing back "Fridolin"?

You stroll in frock-coat to your knees,
with high and gleaming hat,
the scent of balsam in your hair,
and sporting a wild cravat.
To think that on the fragrant paths
of swaggering nineteen
I still should meet you coming along,
oh ancient Fridolin!

Go home, and scrape the leg of mutton
hanging on your wall,
and sing about our empty years,
the dregs of past recall.
Lay strong beer on the splinters
of the mangled violin,
and play the evening songs about
your sadness, Fridolin!

Fridolins dårskap

Knappt leker mört, knappt hoppar lax,
knappt blåses vintern ut,
då står du röd som fordomdags
och glimögd vid din knut.
Vid idealens spruckenhet
och känslans skämda vin,
hvar får din själ dess druckenhet,
du gamle Fridolin?

Hvad bryr det dig att vivor le,
att nävans kind är täck?
Har du ännu en krans att ge,
du många kvinnors gäck?
Hvad suckan blandas av ditt bröst
med djupa skogars hvin?
Finnes än, till svar, en mänsklig röst,
som suckar: Fridolin?

Du går med knäsid gångjärnsrock
och hög och fejad hatt,
du dragen balsam i din lock
och bär en skön kravatt.
Ack, på de unga narrars stig,
där vällukt svävar fin,
att jag ännu skall möta dig,
du gamle Fridolin!

Gå hem och gnid det fåralår,
som hänger på din vägg,
och sjung om våra tomma år
och sälla dryckers drägg.
Gjut dubbelt öl på flisorna
av sargad violin,
och gjut o aftonvisorna
ditt svårmod, Fridolin!

Fridolins dårskap (Sibelius), sung by the Gothenburg Academic Choir:

Erik Axel Karlfeldt refused the Nobel Prize for Literature during his lifetime (he headed the committee), but was awarded it posthumously.

He was the son of a farmer in Dalarna. He changed his name from Eriksson to Karlfeldt when his father, who had got into financial difficulties, was convicted of forging the signatures of relatives and was jailed for two years.

Fridolin, as you may have guessed, is an alter ego of the poet himself. Two of his collections were titled Fridolin's Songs (Fridolins visor, 1898) and Fridolin's Pleasure Garden (Fridolins lustgård, 1901).

I didn't have time to learn Sibelius' melody, so I made up my own...

Labels: ,

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Kingsway Shakespeare

During my more leisurely stays at mum and dad's, there usually comes a time when I take their handsome copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare off the shelf to read up on whichever play I'm currently obsessed with (this time it was Julius Caesar).

It's the Kingsway Shakespeare, published by Harrap in 1927. Frederick D. Losey, M.A., supplies a brief, pithy preface to each play. He is usually good reading in a bad-tempered sort of way. If he disapproves of the play in question, he berates Shakespeare for having written it. If he approves of the play, he deplores the idiotic things that other people have said about it. He is moralistic, judgmental and untroubled by doubt. But the directness of his response to Shakespeare often throws up interesting ideas.

Losey's prefaces were originally written for an American edition of Shakespeare's works, published in 1926 by the John C. Winston company. He was a native of New York, born in 1868 in Conesus. His Alma Mater was the University of Rochester, NY. He was an educator, an active and popular public lecturer and also gave public readings of Shakespeare.

Here's a 1914 lecture by him about the role of the scholar in American public life:

At this time he was Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Alabama. A Mrs Frederick D. Losey was involved in the movement for women's suffrage in Alabama around the same time; presumably this was his wife.

The other added attraction of the Kingsway Shakespeare (leaving aside its principal author!) is the fourteen illustrations, by various eminent artists of the time. I think these pictures, remembered from my childhood, must have been quite influential on how I conceive some of Shakespeare's plays. Towards the end of last week's visit I hastily took some snaps, so here they are. (A couple are quite blurred, unfortunately.)

The pictures can't have been commissioned specially for this edition, since some of the artists were dead by 1927. All the artists lived and worked in London, even if they were born elsewhere. That well-trodden career path was also, of course, Shakespeare's own.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, III.3.149. Illustration by W.H. Margetson

FALSTAFF.  "I love thee : help me away : let me creep in here."

Falstaff clambering awkwardly into the laundry basket. But what really takes the eye is Mistress Page's smile.

William Henry Margetson (1861 - 1940) was a Londoner, famed for the beautiful be-hatted women in his paintings (Wikipedia).

Love's Labour's Lost, V.2.383. Illustration by Isobel L. Cloag (error for Gloag)

BEROWNE. "O ! I am yours, and all that I possess."
ROSALINE. "All the fool mine?"

My favourite of all the pictures here, perfectly catching the paradoxical combination of freshness and artificiality in Love's Labour's Lost.

Isobel Lilian Gloag (1865 - 1917), born in London; her parents came from Perthshire (Wikipedia).

The Merchant of Venice, IV.1.234. Illustration by J. Walter West

PORTIA. "Bid me tear the bond."

Portia as angel, or as inquisitor? Shylock is almost turned away from us, but not enough to hide his hooked nose, that depressing cliché of antisemitic myth.

Joseph Walter West (1860 - 1933), grew up in E. Yorkshire and later lived in and around London (Biography).

All's Well That Ends Well, I.1.62. Illustration by Dudley Hardy.

HELENA. "I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too."

Another essence-capturing image, the very non-pregnant Helena in the midst of this Beardsley-style mourning group.

Dudley Hardy (1867 - 1922) was born in Sheffield and later lived in London (Wikipedia).

The Winter's Tale, III.3.121. Illustration by Eleanor F. Brickdale

SHEPHERD. "So, let's see. It was told me I should be rich by the fairies."

The cusp of The Winter's Tale, the moment when its tragic mood begins to be transformed into romance. The coast of Bohemia being imagined as the North Sea in its dourest mood.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872 - 1945) was born in Surrey and lived in London (Wikipedia).

King John, IV.1.73. Illustration by W.H. Margetson.

ARTHUR. "O ! save me, Hubert, save me !"

Prince Arthur, Hubert and a very sinister glow.

Henry IV Part 2, III.2.144. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

FALSTAFF. "Shadow will serve for summer ; prick him."

Falstaff again, in one of the great scenes from the sourly brilliant sequel.

Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939), the most famous illustrator of his time, born in Lewisham, lived in London, W. Sussex and Surrey (Wikipedia).

Henry VIII, III.1.12. Illustration by F.C. Cowper.

SONG. "In sweet music is such art,
               Killing care and grief of heart."

From a scene now generally agreed to be Fletcher's. It's a lovely song though.

Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877 - 1958), born in Northamptonshire, lived in London (Wikipedia).

Romeo and Juliet, III.5.42. Illustration by Sir Frank Dicksee.

ROMEO. "Farewell, farewell ! one kiss, and I'll descend."

A pretty sexy picture of Juliet clasping Romeo at full extent.

Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee (1853 - 1928). A Londoner, celebrated for historical scenes as well as portraits of fashionable women (Wikipedia).

Macbeth, IV.1.64. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

FIRST WITCH. "Pour in sow's blood, that hath eaten
                            Her nine farrow."

Macbeth's moment of deceptive truth. The witches' recipe was the first Shakespearean poetry that haunted my childhood imagination.

King Lear, V.3.271. Illustration by Solomon J. Solomon.

LEAR. "Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha
              What is't thou say'st?"

Lear's cruelly protracted agony. Cordelia almost standing, as if she might indeed still be alive. In the background lies the body of Goneril, or Regan, face covered.

Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860 - 1927), born and lived in London. One of the few Jewish members of the RA. Also a pioneer of camouflage during WW1 (Wikipedia).

Othello, II.1.1. Illustration by Frank Brangwyn.

MONTANO. "What from the cape can you discern at sea ?"

Frank Brangwyn, I feel, is the best artist on show here, though maybe not the best illustrator. His sun-striped Cyprus is tense and strangely static. Something terrible is indeed on its way, but it isn't the Turkish invasion.

 Sir Frank William Brangwyn (1867 - 1956) was born in Bruges to Welsh parents; lived and worked in London. Estimated to have produced over 12,000 works (Wikipedia).

Antony and Cleopatra, III.9.49. Illustration by J.H.F. Bacon.

ANTONY. "I have offended reputation,
                    A most unnoble swerving."

After Antony's wretched self-humiliation at Actium. (nb. This is Act III Scene 11 in most editions.)

John Henry Frederick Bacon (1865 - 1914), another Londoner (Wikipedia).

Sonnet 102. Illustration by Frank Brangwyn. 

"Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays."

Brangwyn opts for a rather Italian-looking springtime: and, of course, blithely heteronormalizes those troublesome sonnets.

My love is strengthened, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear;
That love is merchandized, whose rich esteeming,
The owner's tongue doth publish every where.
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer's front doth sing,
And stops his pipe in growth of riper days:
Not that the summer is less pleasant now
Than when her mournful hymns did hush the night,
But that wild music burthens every bough,
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
   Therefore like her, I sometime hold my tongue:
   Because I would not dull you with my song.


Powered by Blogger