Monday, October 15, 2018

Puig Campana

The Puig Campana, the impressive mountain behind Benidorm, Finestrat, Villajoyosa.... The second highest in Alicante Province.

Ermita San Antonio, a hamlet behind Villajoyosa.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Shifting northward

On our way up the AP-7. No major posting till I've crossed the channel!

La Safor services, south of Valencia, clouding. Eye-catching ribbons of crag on the mountains behind. Around and towards the coast, more towns and villages we haven't seen.

I'm reading Galdos' Siete de Julio, sixteenth novel of the 46 Episodios Nacionales ... Set in 1822. The only one I've read before is the first one, Trafalgar. They're easier to read than his greater novels. I wish I could read them all, but I'll be happy with half a dozen.

These short novels we're Galdos' bread and butter, they were popular with readers. There's nothing quite like them in English or French. The fairly standardized plot motifs may recall Balzac or Dickens, but the historical events are real. (Which also distinguishes them from Trollope's "political' novels.) Galdos' comedy, language and observations are a delight.

According to the antiquated Britannica entry online, the final (unfinished) series shows some decline in Galdos' powers. That doesn't seem to be the view held in Spain.

That was my personal holiday souvenir. Before that, my imagination was in a Finland-Swedish groove; I'm reading Ulla-Lena Lundberg's novel Ice, and Gösta Ågren's trilogy. (Names vague and inaccurate.)

And before that, Drew Milne, Mark Lilla and Daniel Defoe. Plus quite a lot of leafing through the Mediterranean Plants book. It doesn't seem like much, in seven weeks. Not so many words are needed when around me the scene shifts constantly.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Tostada tomate

There was a photo but I deleted it.

LavaClick is open.

All my other sentences begin with "I want to..." Lies for the most part.

A boy with his dad. Whacking Ghost Hunter with the soft mallet.

His arm around her shoulders. Life. Going somewhere.

The driver carries laundry bags inside.

Monday, October 08, 2018

by the river Jerte

The first time I went to Plasencia I backed my van into a parked car. The second time wasn't a good time either, and I began to think the place was accursed. But this time we discovered the beautiful park beside the river Jerte, and spent several tranquil hours bathing our feet and drinking green tea among the picnicking families and the behatted domino players.

Al Olmo del Puente Viejo

Pasé bajo tus ramas árbol viejo
y absorto me admiré de tu grandeza:
grabé mi nombre un día en tu corteza
y a tu sombre imploré de ti un consejo.
En las aguas del Jerte que es tu espejo,
con amor reflejaste tu belleza
compendio de humildad y de nobleza
que con bondad me ofreces. Ya me alejo,
de tu sombra frondoso ¡árbol amado!,
pero pienso volver a contemplarte
cuando pase viajero o peregrino
en pago a las consejos que me has dado.
Tan sólo con mi amor podré pagarte,
¡celoso vigilante del camino!

To the elm beside the old bridge

I passed beneath your branches, ancient tree,
and absorbed I admired your grandeur:
one day I carved my name in your bark
and in your shade I implored your advice.
In the waters of the Jerte which are your mirror,
lovingly reflecting your beauty,
is compounded the humility and nobility
that you offer in good will. Now I am far
from your leafy shadows, beloved tree,
yet I mean to return to contemplate you,
whenever there passes a traveller or pilgrim,
in payment for the counsel you once gave me.
Only with my love can I repay you,
zealous watcher of the way!

Poem from 1983 by the Placentino poet Sixto Martín Rodriguez. (i.e. from Plasencia).

Plasencia, in Extremadura, has a bullfighting tradition, and the only other references I found to this poet are in bullfighting magazines.

Friday, October 05, 2018


inside looking out

Knocking on heaven's door

Portal of the Basilica de Santa Maria in Elche, by the sculptor Nicholas de Bussy (1640?-1706). He was born in Strasbourg (at the time within the Holy Roman Empire) so is described as "German", but he moved to Spain early, married a Spaniard, and all his known works are in Spain.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Plaza Julian Romea, Murcia

Teatro de Romea, Murcia

Monument to Fernandez Caballero

Fernandez Caballero, a native of Murcia, was a composer of zarzuelas.
Iglesia Conventual de Sto. Domingo

Three photos from the Plaza Julian Romea in the city of Murcia in SE Spain.

This post is in memory of Tom Clark, poet and blogger, who died in August. I don't suppose Tom ever went to Murcia but his remarkable free-ranging posts had the whole world as their topic.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018



 The art of poetry? Look at the trees,
an old discovery. The wood
is what you cannot see. Your work
is finished when the words
protect something!

Gösta Ågren, from Hid ("Hither"), translation by David McDuff.

In art something is always concealed, even if it's only the occasion of making, or sometimes not even that, but only the acquired skillset that produces the making, or the thought behind it.

But "protect" implies more than "conceal". The hidden substance in the poem has life of its own.

Or rather.... (thinking of Ågren's tree image) it's the poem as a whole that is the living entity.

You can imagine the poem protecting its vital organs... or its cambium... but it's the act of protecting that reveals life.

I'm not getting metaphysical here. A poem doesn't live in the same way as a living creature. It can't wander around on its own, it needed writing and it goes into suspension until it's read.

But all life depends on others to a large extent. I even believe that a poem has some rights. As an artefact it deserves my reverence, I think.

Ågren's trees, we must suppose, are the tall straight timber trees of the north... pine or birch, spruce or aspen. But this reminds me that readers, like country folk who depend on wood stoves to get through winter, always have their own motives for coming close to the forest of poetry. Readers are practical in that respect.

And indeed without some motive the reading is apt to be anodyne. In the same way that though we don't much like a friend who wants to change us, we soon grow frustrated with a friend who doesn't have an interest in what we do and plainly doesn't want to do anything with us apart from completing a thin social ritual. Who just wants us on their list.

When I was younger I read vast numbers of poems in that spirit, and it didn't do either them or me much service.


But on this matter of the poem protecting, concealing, or at any rate containing something. It raises a question about honesty in poetry (I am talking about poetry though I think it applies to all the arts).

Ordinary, open, transparent language is the language used by dishonest people. I am one of those. Most often, the dishonest people believe that they are honest.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Journal

Laura and Sasha were talking about writing LOVE on the base of their plastic water bottles, using an indelible marker. The idea was to arouse positive feelings while you drank.

"On Mike's you'd have to write DRYDEN," Laura laughed.

It was true... After two weeks in the wild, the mere mention of the forgotten name sent a shock of joy through my body.

As I confessed to them, this time I had come away rather short of reading matter. Not in terms of quantity. I had reached Jacques Derrida in Mark Lilla's Reckless Thinkers (translated into Spanish), and the defence of Dresden in Scott's Life of Buonaparte. I had whizzed through Drew Milne's Go Figure a couple of times. And I still had my backstop, Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece.  But still, I felt something was missing.

"I might have a book for you," said Sasha. "Anna and Charlie left some with us."

She went to hunt in her van. "What about Defoe? A Journal of the Plague Year?"

I was stunned. Trying to articulate what was missing in all these generals and philosophers, I couldn't put it any better than that I wanted a book where men acted like men and not like chessmen. Defoe, of course, fitted the bill perfectly.


The great plague of 1665 turned out to be the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in the UK. Defoe couldn't know this. His 1722 book had, indeed, partly an eye to fears aroused by contemporary outbreaks in Europe.

Overall, such epidemics are in decline, especially in the west. But still, AIDS (or "sida" as they call it in Spain) is a recent and deadly plague. Among communities of gay men the scale of loss in the 1980s was at least comparable to what Defoe described in his docufaction.

Tom Crewe: "Here was a plague"...


By September, though, with the plague at its most ferocious, Defoe's imperturbable narrative recalls... Well, the only analogy I can think of is population-processors of the Einsatzgruppen type... (Though Death and his scythe would have been the natural image then.)

The confusion among the people, especially within the city, at that time, was inexpressible. The terror was so great at last that the courage of the people appointed to carry away the dead began to fail them; nay, several of them died, although they had the distemper before and were recovered, and some of them dropped down when they have been carrying the bodies even at the pit side, and just ready to throw them in; and this confusion was greater in the city because they had flattered themselves with hopes of escaping, and thought the bitterness of death was past. One cart, they told us, going up Shoreditch was forsaken of the drivers, or being left to one man to drive, he died in the street; and the horses going on overthrew the cart, and left the bodies, some thrown out here, some there, in a dismal manner. Another cart was, it seems, found in the great pit in Finsbury Fields, the driver being dead, or having been gone and abandoned it, and the horses running too near it, the cart fell in and drew the horses in also. It was suggested that the driver was thrown in with it and that the cart fell upon him, by reason his whip was seen to be in the pit among the bodies; but that, I suppose, could not be certain.
In our parish of Aldgate the dead-carts were several times, as I have heard, found standing at the churchyard gate full of dead bodies, but neither bellman or driver or any one else with it; neither in these or many other cases did they know what bodies they had in their cart, for sometimes they were let down with ropes out of balconies and out of windows, and sometimes the bearers brought them to the cart, sometimes other people; nor, as the men themselves said, did they trouble themselves to keep any account of the numbers.


By this stage Defoe has so accustomed us to inhabiting his plague city that we feel only a slight crescendo of horror. The numbers numb. We are ready to assent to universal destruction, and can only wonder that any are left to witness it.

But new waves of the destitute keep stepping up to man the deathcarts , though no longer to quarantine the infected houses; what was the point, when the whole street had died?


And yet, as even this extract shows, there is a certain resistance to apocalypse in its sturdy placenames. Defoe's book is about a living city, though pictured in its extremity.

We know from the start that the book's narrator survives his close brush with Death. So he curiously recalls Robinson Crusoe, but relocated from a desert island to a world that is simultaneously peopled and empty. So do the three heroes of the inset narrative, who set up their tents and shelters in Epping forest, and parley with initially hostile natives. 


Every reading of the book ends up talking about the plague. For Defoe's age this "visitation" had been a malign wonder, but a wonder nonetheless: just the sort of thing that had preoccupied Aubrey.

Discussing wonders was an early way of starting to write about normality: Defoe's book is one of the first to convey an idea of the normal life of a great city. Defoe began from a very different though equally religious basis, compared to Dryden's Annus Mirabilis. Different too from Shakespeare's timeless London in the Henry IV plays. In Shakespeare's time, too, the plague was not a wonder. Shutting up the infected in their houses began in 1603, but it's Defoe who discusses this at length. New fields lay open to his different perspective.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

After thunder

Half an hour of rain; by morning the land had imbibed it. But the smell of rain entered the caravan: the new green blades grew another centimeter.

This was all, but it was like the first lengths of a jigsaw puzzle.

Thursday, September 13, 2018


We apply words
From the urban Code Napoleon:
We say Arbutus, outcrop and pit,
Swale and berm, clay Cistus and mantis.
But the changing land resists our labels;
A slope slips like a slow treacle,
Frost passes unhindered to the next hollow,
A shadow lengthens without a jump but
It never straightens,
And in summer the skeleton
Of itself, prepares green rosettes
From the earth's hidden roots.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


.. is not its real name.
The ants. So we suspended the rule about cups on the ground.
A solitary black beetle crosses the ants' path. I saw this many times.
The future is fearful, but it hurts less than the past.
Cork-oaks, stripped to maroon tights.


Night sky: Venus, Mars red and bright,
The familiar constellations mothed with other stars,
The Milky Way a daze
Like a fossil layer.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The place

So bright that my eye sees the broom as white fire.

But later, so dark we can't find our way back.

Friday, September 07, 2018


The river Pisuerga.

We noticed there is a Hotel Olid here, but that may be a back-formation, the origin of the name Valladolid is disputed.

Fountains in the Campo Grande, beside the statue of José Zorilla.


Quevedo lived here for a while, so did Cervantes (the house still survives). Christopher Columbus died here, in 1506. Philip II and Philip IV were both born here... It was a royal seat of Castile at the time.

The monument to Cristofer Colón at the other end of the Campo Grande. It was intended to be sited in Havana, but the plan changed because Cuba declared independence. (I think.) 

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Cepsa Itziar

I'm in Basque country, with an extremely sweet lemon tea and a very large pan chocolate. I think that's Txokolate in Basque.

Reading about Alexandre Kojève. He said both history and philosophy ended with the Napoleonic wars. The Code Napoleon had introduced the Universal State. (This is all to do with Hegel seeing Napoleon on horseback at Jena in 1806, and describing him as the Weltseele.) Now it was just a case of when we get there.

More when I get a moment!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

the lane

I've walked this lane on the edge of Frome hundreds of times over the last twenty years, but it was only a couple of days ago that I focussed in on some unusually-lobed bramble leaves, growing at the foot of a hedge .... And this led to the rapid discovery, as I learnt to pick out those leaves from the rest, that this whole network of lanes was full of Dewberry (Rubus caesius), growing alongside, or rather beneath, the more vigorous arching growth of the brambles. 

Young stems, with a whitish bloom and many rather weak prickles. On older stems the prickles have mostly been rubbed off.

The fruits were mainly over, but I found this one.  Differs from blackberry in fewer, larger drupelets, with a bluish bloom. 

This is the European Dewberry.  Common in the southern UK, with a preference for basic soils (Frome is on limestone, the Lower Jurassic). 

In Sweden it is called Blåhallon (blue raspberry); quite common in Skåne and Gotland, found also as far up as Mälarland. 

 In North America there are a dozen other dewberries, and some can be a fruit crop, considered to have a sweeter flavour than blackberries. Our species has too few fruit to be worth gathering: the flavour is said to be sweet but a bit insipid.

The poetic name "Dewberry" has made it popular in skincare products and health supplements. So far as I can see its healthy properties (antioxidants, Vitamin C) are just the same as blackberries. 

The hedges were full of normal blackberries, on which I've been gorging. Some, like the ones in the photo above, seemed a bit intermediate. My limited knowledge of the complexities of Rubus fructicosus agg. prevents further surmise.

Like most townsfolk, our usual country haunts are on the edge of town, precisely the places that are likely to be built on next. And sure enough, there are grand plans for three thousand homes here. I don't know if these ancient lanes will be obliterated or just islanded. 

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Monday, August 27, 2018

There is a just God

Crossing the Berezina, 26th-27th November, 1812

The destruction of the Grande Armée in 1812 horrified, fascinated and, you might say, troubled the intellects of all Europeans. How could the great Napoleon, the master of lightning-quick manoeuvres in Lombardy and on the Danube, the greatest of military minds, ... How could he with such rank stupidity engage on so ruinous and futile an expedition as the invasion of Russia? ... Already warned by the example of Charles XII at Pultowa, and so poorly planned, so defiant of advice, so insufficiently motivated? (But it's easy to be wise in hindsight, and perhaps Napoleon's judgement was as sound as ever? Andrew Roberts' recent biography Napoleon the Great seems to list in that direction.)

Tolstoy argued against the "great man" view of history, but his own book undercuts him: it's Tolstoy who elevates Kutuzov to the status of saviour of the fatherland. Tolstoy tried to reframe history as the will of the people, but the idea that the will of the French people demanded the expedition to Moscow is contrary to all evidence.

Much earlier, Scott had thought about it. He rubbishes the idea that the catastrophe arose principally from an early onset of winter. This only exacerbated the sufferings of an army that was already doomed.

Scott proposed an explanation in moral terms. Bonaparte's invasion of a recent ally was unjust, evidence how low his ideas had fallen by continual resort to power politics. His own grotesque pride, moreover, had deranged his judgement; he thought he would triumph just by turning up.

Scott concludes:

Thus a hallucination, for such it may be termed, led this great soldier into a train of conduct, which, as a military critic, he would have been the first to condemn, and which was the natural consequence of his deep moral error. He was hurried by this self-opinion, this ill-founded trust in the predominance of his own personal influence, into a gross neglect of the usual and prescribed rules of war. He put in motion an immense army, too vast in numbers to be supported either by the supplies of the country through which they marched, or by the provisions they could transport along with them. And when, plunging into Russia, he defeated her armies and took her metropolis, he neglected to calculate his line of advance on such an extent of base, as should enable him to consolidate his conquests, and turn to real advantage the victories which he attained. His army was but precariously
connected with Lithuania when he was at Moscow, and all communication was soon afterwards entirely destroyed. Thus, one unjust purpose, strongly and passionately entertained, marred the councils of the wise, and rendered vain the exertions of the brave.

We may read the moral in the words of Claudian.

 “ Jam non ad culmina rerum Injustos circvisse queror; tolluntur in altum, Ut lapsu graviore ruant.” CLAUDIAN, in Rufinum, Lib. i., T. 21.

Life of Buonaparte, Ch LXIII.

The quotation, by the late Latin poet Claudius Claudianus, comes from a poem celebrating the downfall of a corrupt opponent of his patron. It is the last two sentences of this passage:

My mind has often wavered between two opinions: have the gods a care for the world or is there no ruler therein and do mortal things drift as dubious chance dictates? For when I investigated the laws and the ordinances of heaven and observed the sea's appointed limits, the year's fixed cycle and the alternation of light and darkness, then methought everything was ordained according to the direction of a God who had bidden the stars move by fixed laws, plants grow at different seasons, the changing moon fulfil her circle with borrowed light and the sun shine by his own, who spread the shore before the waves and balanced the world in the centre of the firmament. But when I saw the impenetrable mist which surrounds human affairs, the wicked happy and long prosperous and the good discomforted, then in turn my belief in God was weakened and failed, and even against mine own will I embraced the tenets of that other philosophy which teaches that atoms drift in purposeless motion and that new forms throughout the vast void are shaped by chance and not design — that philosophy which believes in God in an ambiguous sense, or holds that there be no gods, or that they are careless of our doings. At 
  last Rufinus' fate has dispelled this uncertainty and freed the gods from this imputation. No longer can I complain that the unrighteous man reaches the highest pinnacle of success. He is raised aloft that he may be hurled down in more headlong ruin. 

But does Napoleon's disastrous campaign really vindicate a just God in the way described by Claudian? Yes, Napoleon lost, it was a bodyblow to his empire. But his expedition led directly to the death of around a million people, none of whom was Napoleon himself. How could it be just that those million people should die?

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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Insect ID

I love flowers but I don't know much about the insects that visit them. This ignorance has occasionally nagged at me, but not much. This tiny post (because really I'm still preoccupied with the Shakespeare Garden) is a gesture in that direction. The internet, of course, has made it much easier for non-specialists to have a fair stab at insect ID.

Female Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax). Frome, 21st August 2018.

This was meant to be a photo of a particularly luscious newly opened bloom of Perennial Sow-thistle (Sonchus arvensis), but it was photobombed by this insect.

The insect seemed familiar, and so it ought to. The cosmopolitan Eristalis tenax is, according to Wikipedia, the most widely distributed syrphid (hoverfly) species in the world. The males look different from the females (though just as familiar). The larvae are rat-tailed maggots living in sewers and stagnant pools where there's a nice crop of bacteria to feed on.

Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas ssp. eleus ab. caeruleopunctata). Herstmonceux, 18th August 2018.

Back in the gardens of Herstmonceux again, this was a smallish butterfly that obligingly sat still for the camera. Small Copper. OK, I'll try and remember that.

This form is caeruleopunctata, with a row of blue dots on the hindwing. It's basking on some verbena (V. bonariensis or similar).


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, and quotations alongside. Reading these, the peaceful garden becomes a ripple of voices.

 Here are a few photos of the attached quotations.

Queen Gertrude, interrupting the conference between Claudius and Laertes with news of Ophelia's death:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them...

"Crow-flowers" might mean ragged robin (as claimed on the notice), or might mean crowfoot, the white aquatic buttercup: -- as in Millais' painting, where crowfoot gets 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 symbolism of Ophelia's flowers is a popular topic. Crow flower is said to be symbolic of ingratitude, childishness, and neatness; contradictory as they are, all these interpretations refer, I think, to crowfoot, or buttercups in general. (But symbolic interpretations of Ophelia's flowers are as plodding as Shakespeare is subtle. He's swift, intuitive and, always, dramatic. His 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.  For example, he mingled plants of spring, midsummer and late summer, all in full bloom. Gertrude's "long purples" (generally reckoned to be Early Purple Orchid, though the evidence is none too strong) are represented in Millais by the credible riverside plant Purple Loosestrife. He tidied up the scene,  but he did paint from life.

So a modern image of Millais' stream, as shown in the link below, is rather a shock... the dark water almost lost as it winds between rank stands of Himalayan Balsam.

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.

The seductive lover addressing the maid. (And naturally, blaming her attractions for his own bad behaviour.)

"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.

This is 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 one. 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..." Well, the days of Antonine hyperbole are all up now, but Euphronius leaves us with one of the most astonishing.

This comes from the end of a long passage of valedictory advice by Henry IV to one of his younger sons, Thomas of Clarence, urging him to be a peacemaker to his brothers when troublemakers cause dissension:

                   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.

Nurse. They call for dates and quinces in the pastry.

A remark by the Nurse to Lady Capulet, amid the early morning bustle of preparations for Juliet's wedding to County Paris.

Lady Capulet has not been in Juliet's confidence for a long time. The Nurse used to be, but unbeknownst to herself Juliet has now shut her out, disgusted by her worldly advice to forget Romeo and enjoy Paris.

Neither speaker, therefore, has an inkling of what we've just witnessed and is about to burst on them, Juliet's staged "death".

Thy banks with pioned and twilled brims,
Which spongy April at thy hest betrims
To make cold nymphs chaste crowns...

(The Tempest, IV.1)

Iris invoking Ceres, within the spirit-masque performed at Prospero's command for Miranda and Ferdinand.

The meaning of the line is highly uncertain. Some think that "pioned and twilled" refer to plants. Peony, Marsh Marigold, and Orchid have been suggested for the former word, Willow for the latter. Others (thinking of "pioners" = sappers, trench-diggers) propose that the line is about river maintenance: "pioned" meaning "trenched" (to prevent silting), and "twilled" referring to woven basketry used to prevent bank erosion.

Whichever, the outre language is evidently intentional. Principally, this is to distinguish the inner performance of Ariel's spirits from ordinary speech that's already much elevated. But intuitively, Shakespeare had been discovering for a long time a dramatic language that could more powerfully and swiftly evoke natural scenes than by listing  its components. In reality, every natural scene is too rich in detail for us to take in. So there's an essential cloudiness in our comprehension of nature; part of our experience is awareness of our own ignorance, of limited selection and the personal assignment of significance. You could see the late artistry of this river evocation as a development of Gertrude's river scene in Hamlet (above). There too the list of plants isn't fully definable, but impressionist; and their significance is for each listener to make out.

My cherry lips have often kiss'd thy stones,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee.

This is Thisby, played by Francis Flute the bellows-mender, addressing Wall, played by Tom Snout the tinker.

Thisby's words sound inadvertently rude, as was no doubt the intention

Lucio. I was once before him for getting a wench with child.

Duke (disguised as a friar). Did you such a thing?

Lucio. Yes, marry, did I but I was fain to forswear it; they would else have married me to the rotten medlar.

Implying the wench in question was a pox-ridden whore.  The fruit of the medlar has to be rotten (bletted) before it's palatable.

Lucio is, as usual, outrageously offensive; our own outrage is somewhat tempered by the belief that he always talks for effect and that most of his tales are made up.

Dry up thy marrows, vines, and plough-torn leas;
Whereof ungrateful man, with liquorish draughts
And morsels unctuous, greases his pure mind,
That from it all consideration slips!

A misanthropic Timon, solus, addressing the earth, in which he's digging for roots.


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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