Monday, May 25, 2020

Cambyses, King of Kings

Achaemenid coin showing the king with a bow in his left hand and a spear in his right hand (c. 450 BCE)

... for instance, there was the case of Prexaspes, a man who was highly valued by the king and used to bring him his dispatches, and whose son was the king's cupbearer -- also a position of no small honour. On one occasion Cambyses said to this distinguished official: 'What sort of man do the Persians think I am, and what do they say about me?' 'Master,' Prexaspes replied, 'you are highly praised by them, and they have but one criticism to make: they say you are too fond of wine.' This enraged Cambyses. 'So now,' he said, 'the Persians say that excessive drinking has driven me mad. They said something quite different before; but I see it was a lie.' For on a former occasion, when a number of Persians were sitting with him, and Croesus was also present, he had asked what they thought of him compared with his father, and they had answered that he was better than his father, because he had kept all Cyrus' possessions and acquired Egypt and the command of the sea into the bargain. Croesus, however, was not satisfied with this opinion, and said: 'Son of Cyrus, I at least do not think you are equal to your father; for you have not yet a son like the son he left behind him in yourself.' Cambyses was delighted with this, and praised Croesus' judgement, and it was the memory of this incident which made him, on the present occasion, say in a rage to Prexaspes: 'I'll soon show you if the Persians speak the truth, or if what they say is not a sign of their own madness rather than of mine. You see your son standing there by the door? If I shoot him through the middle of the heart, I shall have proved the Persians' words empty and meaningless; if I miss, then say, if you will, that the Persians are right, and my wits are gone.'
   Without another word he drew his bow and shot the boy, and then ordered his body to be cut open and the wound examined; and when the arrow was found to have pierced the heart, he was delighted, and said with a laugh to the boy's father: 'There's proof for you, Prexaspes, that I am sane and the Persians mad. Now tell me if you ever saw anyone shoot so straight.'
   Prexaspes knew well enough that the king's mind was unbalanced, so in fear for his own safety he answered: 'Master, I do not believe that God himself is a better marksman.'  (Herodotus, The Histories, translation by Aubrey de Selincourt revised by John Marincola.)

Cambyses II was the Achaemenid "Great King" from 530 - 522 BCE. Modern historians don't take Herodotus' characterization of Cambyses as a power-drunk killer very seriously; they assume his sources were highly unfavourable. (And though archaeology tells us very little about Cambyses, that little contradicts some of Herodotus' assertions, while others may derive from cultural misunderstandings.) It's a different kind of truth that confronts us here.

Achaemenid coin showing the king with a bow in his left hand and a dagger in his right hand (c. 400 BCE)


Saturday, May 23, 2020

garden geraniums

Geranium phaeum 'Marchant's Ghost'

New out in my pocket-handkerchief garden today, this subtle whisper, Geranium phaeum 'Marchant's Ghost' (distributed by Graham Gough of Marchants Hardy Plants, E. Sussex, 2005: "ghostly, pale grey-lavender flowers the texture of satin"). It retains the distinctive flower-shape, though not the chocolate colour, of Dusky Cranesbill (Geranium phaeum, Sw: Brunnäva), native to much of Europe but only a garden escape in the UK and Sweden.

Disconcertingly, it dies right back to the ground in winter, unlike most other geranium species.

Geranium phaeum 'Marchant's Ghost'

Geranium x oxonianum 'Wargrave Pink'

This variety, 'Wargrave Pink', is one of many garden selections of the hybrid Geranium x oxonianum, collectively known as Druce's Cranesbill. The parents of the hybrid are French Cranesbill (Geranium endressii) from the western Pyrenees, and Pencilled Cranesbill (Geranium versicolor) from the Mediterranean. According to Stace the hybrid can be distinguished from the former by its longer styles (>4mm) and from the latter by its petals not curving back at the tips.

When the flowers first open they are deep pink and only the stigma is seen, as in my close-up. Then they turn much paler and the ring of stamens appear, initially grey-blue.

Geranium x oxonianum 'Wargrave Pink'

Geranium nodosum
Knotted Cranesbill (Geranium nodosum), another species from southern Europe (Pyrenees, Alps, Jura). Glossy toothed leaves, the upper ones three-lobed, and an erect habit. Difficult to capture the lilac colour of the flowers unless you shade them, otherwise the camera tends to show them as bleached white, as in the breezy photo below.

Geranium nodosum

Leaves of Geranium nodosum

Geranium macrorrhizum

And yet another species from southern Europe, Rock Cranesbill (Geranium macrorrhizum); it's native to the SE Alps and the Balkans. The S-shaped stamens are distinctive. This is the species that the bees get most excited about. The hairy leaves are scented. The essential oil is valuable; but note that the oil commonly labelled "Geranium" comes from Pelargonium graveolens.

Leaves of Geranium macrorrhizum

Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo'

Geranium x cantabrigiense is a hybrid between Rock Cranesbill (Geranium macrorrhizum, see above) and Dalmatian Cranesbill (Geranium dalmaticum), native to Croatia. A sterile hybrid, but the bees still like it.

Geranium lucidum

And then there are the native species.... This is Shining Cranesbill (Geranium lucidum, Sw: Glansnäva), with beautiful but small flowers of clear pink. My camera insisted on seeing the the flower as white until I draped it in heavy shade.

Geranium dissectum

Cut-leaved Cranesbill (Geranium dissectum, Sw: Fliknäva), growing on the edge of the tarmac.

Geranium robertianum

And almost in the porch, that most familiar wild species of all, Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum, Sw: Stinknäva). This one has quite an unusual petal-shape; the individuals vary greatly, while never being mistakable for anything else. The Swedish name alludes to the scent of the plant, which many people find unpleasant.

Leaf of Geranium pratense

At some point soon I'll be seeing the purple-blue flowers of Meadow Cranesbill (Geranium pratense, Sw: Ängsnäva). Twenty years ago we introduced it into Laura's garden, it spread itself around and has now made its way to mine.

Ivy-leafed Geranium (Pelargonium peltatum cultivar)

And finally, we have to talk about these! It was Linnaeus who unwittingly sowed centuries of confusion when he placed these plants in the genus Geranium; they are indeed in the larger family Geraniaceae, but were soon split off into the separate genus Pelargonium; there are around 200 species, predominantly from southern Africa. They are unfailingly popular as bedding plants for containers and baskets, they flowering all summer until the frost kills them, and they are still what most British gardeners mean when they use the word "geranium". (Accordingly, the plants we've been talking about up to now are often distinguished by the term "hardy geraniums".)


Thursday, May 21, 2020

Marianne Dashwood

Marianne (Kate Winslet) and Elinor (Emma Thompson)

 [Image source: . From Ang Lee's 1995 movie adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.]

Two sisters; the sensible elder one is fond of drawing, the passionate younger one plays the pianoforte. That's the premise of Ann Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1790). But contrasted sisters feature in many other novels of the 1790s, too.

In Radcliffe's novel the lead role in the story is very definitely taken by the younger sister Julia. Jane Austen reversed that emphasis. She presented Sense and Sensibility (1811) principally from the viewpoint of the elder sister, Elinor Dashwood. A balanced view of the book should probably focus much more on Elinor. Yet it's Marianne who asks  the questions, who bothers us, and who gives this Jane Austen novel its distinctive flavour.

Marianne's sensibility, or rather her belief in the sensibility valorized by novels, is extreme. For Marianne is doctrinaire on these points; "her opinions are all romantic", Elinor tells Colonel Brandon (Ch 11). In that respect Sense and Sensibility, specifically Marianne's part in it, continues the critical examination of current literary values that was played out by Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey (written 1798-99).

The practical difference between the sisters is perhaps better stated without using the words of the title. The sisters aren't enormously different in either sense or sensibility. But Elinor, we are told at once, has a "coolness of judgment" that contrasts with the "eagerness" and "imprudence" manifested both by Marianne and their mother (Ch 1). In a precisely similar situation, i.e. an agreeable admirer who doesn't declare himself, the sisters behave in opposite ways. Elinor, re Edward Ferrars, doesn't allow her feelings full rein (Ch 4). Marianne, re Willoughby, does just that (Chs 9 - 16).

"I do not attempt to deny," said she, "that I think very highly of him -- that I greatly esteem, that I like him."
   Marianne here burst forth with indignation --
   "Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment."
   Elinor could not help laughing. (Ch 4)

And we laugh too, at this early juncture. A younger sister (Marianne isn't yet seventeen) may harmlessly give vent to vehement opinions, prejudices that are essentially literary, particularly in a matter where her own heart isn't engaged and she isn't called on to act.

Those literary prejudices continue to operate in her early opinion of Willoughby: "His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story" ... "that is what a young man ought to be. Whatever be his pursuits, his eagerness in them should know no moderation, and leave him no sense of fatigue" (Ch 9).

There's still some laughter in the next dialogue of values between the sisters, but it's getting more strained. Sarcasm? Reductiveness? Neither sister can be quite exonerated from those charges.

"Well, Marianne," said Elinor, as soon as he had left them, "for one morning I think you have done pretty well. You have already ascertained Mr Willoughby's opinion in almost every matter of importance. You know what he thinks of Cowper and Scott; you are certain of his estimating their beauties as he ought, and you have received every assurance of his admiring Pope no more than is proper. But how is your acquaintance to be long supported, under such extraordinary dispatch of every subject for discourse? You will soon have exhausted each favourite topic. Another meeting will suffice to explain his sentiments on picturesque beauty, and second marriages, and then you can have nothing farther to ask." --
   "Elinor," cried Marianne, "is this fair? is this just? are my ideas so scanty? But I see what you mean. I have been too much at my ease, too happy, too frank. I have erred against every common-place notion of decorum; I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull and deceitful: -- had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared." (Ch 10)

Elinor's unprompted comment, offered under the guise of playfulness, contains at least two grains of sand. One of them Marianne doesn't notice; the implication that Willoughby's expressed opinions chime in all too neatly with Marianne's own, that he follows her lead and, in consequence, shouldn't be taken on trust. (And, in fact, we soon see that he's loose with the truth; he "does not dislike" Colonel Brandon, and almost immediately afterwards claims the privilege of continuing to dislike him as much as ever (Ch 10).)

 The other is an older sister's mockery of the limited range of a younger sister's preoccupations. (It's the same kind of joke about the young that the narrator (or Elinor?) makes re Sir John's entertainments: "in winter his private balls were numerous enough for any young lady who was not suffering under the insatiable appetite of fifteen". After all, Marianne isn't so much beyond that age.)

In Marianne's reply, perhaps the word "reserve" is the key term here. For Marianne it's plainly pejorative, like the other three adjectives she uses, "spiritless, dull and deceitful". But "reserve" might also describe Elinor's behaviour throughout the novel, and particularly, of course, in regard to the undeclared Edward Ferrars of that earlier conversation.

Yet Elinor too sees "reserve" as a word with a negative valency. This is a joint judgment by the sisters, on Lady Middleton:

Her manners had all the elegance which her husband's wanted. But they would have been improved by some share of his frankness and warmth; and her visit was long enough to detract something from their first admiration, by shewing that though perfectly well-bred, she was reserved, cold, and had nothing to say for herself beyond the most common-place inquiry or remark. (Ch 6)

Later, Elinor reflects on the nature of Lady Middleton's reserve: "Elinor needed little observation to perceive that her reserve was a mere calmness of manner with which sense had nothing to do" (Ch 11).

Reserve must not be cold; frankness and warmth are positive goods; but reserve arising from sense (prudence, discretion, sensitivity to others' feelings, propriety) is a practical good, a necessity. Thus, Elinor and Colonel Brandon, the moral grown-ups of the novel, both in their beliefs and in their behaviour. Here they are talking about Marianne's "romantic" opinions:

". . . A few years however will settle her opinions on the reasonable basis of common sense and observation; and then they may be more easy to define and to justify than they now are, by any body but herself."
   "This will probably be the case," he replied; "and yet there is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions."
   "I cannot agree with you there," said Elinor. "There are inconveniences attending such feelings as Marianne's, which all the charms of enthusiasm and ignorance of the world cannot atone for. Her systems have all the unfortunate tendency of setting propriety at nought; and a better acquaintance with the world is what I look forward to as her greatest possible advantage." (Ch 11)

To which Colonel Brandon makes this enigmatic addendum:

". . . but a change, a total change of sentiments -- No, no, do not desire it, -- for when the romantic refinements of a young mind are obliged to give way, how frequently are they succeeded by such opinions as are but too common, and too dangerous! I speak from experience. I once knew a lady who in temper and mind greatly resembled your sister, who thought and judged like her, but who from an inforced change -- from a series of unfortunate circumstances" -- Here he stopt suddenly . . .  (Ch 11)

The story he refers to is eventually narrated in Vol II Ch 9. But to dread youthful romanticism being succeeded by misery and even by "falling" (as happened to the not-very-similar Eliza) is scarcely an argument in favour of that romanticism.

But still, for all her bad manners, for all her wilful wrongness, for instance about the weather (twice with very fateful effects), there's some deep things to be said for Marianne's ardour, though Brandon doesn't quite manage to say them. Without her emotional candour and her eagerness, what is life for? It cannot be just a matter of prudence and reserve, of crossing the Ts, of negotiation and maintenance, of avoiding a mess. Marianne's imprudence and refusal to hold back gives meaning as well as trouble to the lives of those around her, and when she looks back on it from her own respectable married existence it may continue to give meaning to that, too.

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Monday, May 18, 2020

home crafts

Postcard: watercolour by Carl E Johansson

Poesin är den stuvbit som blir över sedan livsekvationen lösts på ekonomisidorna och riksdagen sagt sitt.   (Source: .)

Poetry is the shred of fabric that's left over when the equation of life has been solved in the economy pages and when the Riksdag has had its say.

(Werner Aspenström, 1918 - 1997)

Längre har jag inte hunnit

Nu ser jag honom åter,
gränslinjens fågel,
i ljuset dels,
i skuggan dels,
hör det dubbla ropet
från en tudelad fågel:
en svart vinge
och en vit vinge
flygande tillfälligt
bredvid varann.
Den som söker en mening
finner två meningar.
Längre har jag inte hunnit
fast våren gått,
och sommaren förrunnit.

Further I haven't gotten

Now I see him again,
the bird of the boundary,
partly in the light,
partly in the shade,
hear the divided cry
from a bird divided in two,
one black wing,
one white wing,
flying by accident
beside each other.
He who seeks a meaning
finds two.
Further I haven't gotten,
though spring has passed
and summer flown away.

(Werner Aspenström, translated by W.H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg)

The last word of the poem is often given as "förunnit"... I'm not sure if that's a recognized alternative spelling or just a typographic error.

 A couple of quick translations (by me) of poems from Werner Aspenström's collection Dikter under träden / Poems under the trees (1956)

Sommaren i Sverige

Havet och skogen och lövsångaren
som skvätter från gren till gren
-- som en utanläxa! Sömngångaraktigt,
med vintersömnen ännu i ögonen
träder jag in i den gröna kyrkan.
Någon spelar på en tvåstämmig orgel.
Det finns fruktbarhetsgudar?
Det finns dryader och källnymfer?
Jag överlämnar mig åt den gröna färgen.
Jag fyller mig med grönt som en bladlus.
Jag idisslar, säkert har jag klöver.
Låt molnen lustvandra över bergen, tänker jag,
och löjorna häpet dansa på vatten,
tids nog skall flyktigheten gripas:
i morgon!
                 Då landar på min hand
den förgänglighetens tanke
som vi kallar trollslända.
Ett gult löv lösgör sig
och faller klingande mot marken.
Sommaren måste hastigt bärgas, hösten
närmar sig med toppeld i asparna,
kråkorna driver som tung rök
över de vattensjuka fälten.
Regnet droppar från gren till gren,
snöflingan dalar från vinter till vinter
-- som en utanläxa!
Allting upprepas i mitt hjärta.
Jag väntar ingenting och väntar
dryadernas slutliga återkomst.

                                      Kymmendö, 1954

The summer in Sweden

The sea and the wood and the willow warbler
that squirts from branch to branch
-- like a lesson learnt by heart! Sleepwalker-like,
with the winter sleep still in my eyes
I step into the green church.
Someone is playing on a two-reeded organ.
Are there fertility gods?
Are there dryads and nymphs in the springs?
I surrender myself to the green colour.
I fill up with green like an aphid.
I chew the cud, surely I have hooves.
Let the clouds saunter over the mountains, I think to myself,
let the astonished shoals of bleak dance in the water,
soon enough such fleetingness is arrested:
                  And now there lands on my hand
the transience-thought
that we call a dragonfly.
A yellow leaf releases itself
and falls with a clang to the ground.
The summer must be quickly gathered in, the autumn
draws near with beacon-fire in the aspens,
the crows drift like heavy smoke
over the waterlogged field.
The rain drips from branch to branch,
the snowflake descends from winter to winter
-- like a lesson learnt by heart!
Everything is repeated in my heart.
I expect nothing and I expect
the dryads' ultimate return.

                                         Kymmendö, 1954

(Kymmendö is an island in the southern part of the Stockholm archipelago.)


På frågan om sin ålder svarade trollet:
"Tre ekeskogar såg jag växa upp,
tre ekeskogar åter ruttna ned."

Medellivslängden his hundar är tolv år.
Tjugoåriga hästar leder man till slaktaren.
Jag antecknar min trettiosjunde födelsedag.

Sent, men ej för sent att vaska guldsand
i solrännan. Allt kött är inte hö.
-- Men gladast fotens lek i forna gräset.


On the question of his age the troll replied:
"Three oakwoods I have seen grow up,
three oakwoods once more rot down."

The average life expectancy of dogs is twelve years.
A twenty-year-old horse goes to the knacker's.
I see it's my thirty-seventh birthday.

Late, but not too late to pan the gold sands
in the sun's runnel. All flesh is not hay.
-- Yet gladdest the feet playing in the long-ago grass.

(Translation by me)

Postcard: watercolour by Carl E Johansson

Ortalaby (aka Ortala) is in Roslagen, the archipelagic coast of the historic county of Uppland, just to the north of Stockholm.

"Ortalaby" is also the name of one of Melker Stendahl's ten summer-pictures for piano:

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Thursday, May 14, 2020


Meadow Saxifrage, Bulbous Buttercup, Ribwort Plantain, Daisy. Cley Hill (Wiltshire), 10th May 2020.

Meadow Saxifrage (Saxifraga granulata, Sw: Mandelblomma). This is on the northern brow of the hill; the next four pictures are from southern slopes.

Quotidian poetry glances in this post. Giramondo Publishing are great with newsletters, they've just emailed us a sample poem from Laurie Duggan's forthcoming collection Homer Street. It's a new Afterimage of the indigenous Australian artist Dorothy Napangardi, and I hope it's OK to paste here.

It’s the double negative,
the not not there that holds you:
tracks where there seem to be none,
contours of sand, salt lines
converging in a dip.

Wavering colours behind the nets
regroup when you alter focus.
Does the dark recede or advance?

A square of linen may measure space
when the space we know is destroyed.
On a white wall, somewhere else maps itself out
and the daylight streets are not the same.

Some of the previous poems in Laurie's revelatory series were published in Afterimages (Polar Bear Press, 2018).

Mouse-ear Hawkweed. Cley Hill (Wiltshire), 10th May 2020.

Mouse-ear Hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum, Sw: Gråfibbla).

From the free Shearsman sampler of Second Tongue (2020), Keith Payne's translation of Galician poems by Yolanda Castaño:


E o azougue gastado no espello do toucador.
Dende a man que procura o pálpito
aproveito folios xa usados;
a tinta negra da outra cara advírtese por tras
e penso
que tamén se escribe así,
anotando palabras novas mentres outras
se transparentan.


And the quicksilver gone from the mirror.
From the hand feeling for the trace
I make the best of jaded pages;
the black ink from the flip side shows
and I think
this could also be writing;
scribbling new words while other
earlier words
seep through the page.

Common Rock-rose. Cley Hill (Wiltshire), 10th May 2020.

Common Rock-rose (Helianthemum nummularium, Sw: Solvända).

Chalk Milkwort. Cley Hill (Wiltshire), 10th May 2020.

Chalk Milkwort (Polygala calcarea). This species doesn't occur in Sweden. (There's a possibility it might be Common Milkwort (P. vulgaris), I'll have to go back and check.)

Poem found online by Lisa Samuels, from Foreign Native (Black Radish Books, 2018):

The city inside you

Nearby space as painting and the walls

quiet in the long car so one is bound

with one’s head and mouth    held in head

the shapely eyes and round eyeballs

curling at you minxing for a set of reasons like

when two persons spread meat kissing

from the love performance    fly the parcel

Near the station a lateral man scores his mind

en masse    a group in plastic planting

very near each other’s holders suture suture

blue light intervals keep my footage

steady like the Steady Hands of Experience

breathe for allegory    push but how can allegory

frame dear life    push out the floor

Common Twayblade. Cley Hill (Wiltshire), 10th May 2020.

Common Twayblade (Listera ovata, Sw: Tvåblad).

It began with snow
There was snow
I was not snow
I was in the snow

The snow was white
And wet
The snow was silent

The snow was white
And wet
The snow was silent

It was I
And it was the snow
I was not white
I was not cold
I was not wet

It was I
And it was the snow

(From Words (oomphpress, 2019), Paul Cunningham's translation of one of the two long poems in Helena Österlund's Ordet och färgerna (2010).)

Barren Brome. Cley Hill (Wiltshire), 10th May 2020.

Barren Brome (Anisantha sterilis aka Bromus sterilis, Sw: Sandlosta). (A rare coastal grass in Sweden.) This was in the farm lane leading to the hill, not on the chalk itself.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Quentin Durward again

Isabelle  (Marie-France Boyer) and Quentin (Amadeus August)

[Image source: . This and the photos below come from the Franco-German 1971 TV series directed by Gilles Grangier.]

So for the second time recently, I've found myself re-reading a Sir Walter Scott novel about which I was somewhat critical in the past (though I said some good things too), and feeling how wrong and trivial those potshots were. This time I saw only the originality and colour, the stark fact of Quentin Durward (1823) landing the fully-fledged historical novel firmly in mainland Europe and throwing open a new paintbox for any who cared to dip in: as Vigny, Mérimée, Balzac and Hugo immediately did. It's true that Scott was already famous in Europe (and his fame, unlike Byron's, resulted from genuinely being read and relished). But Quentin Durward, more than any of its predecessors, acted as a starter-pistol.

Even in recent times, Quentin Durward has left behind deeper traces of its existence in Europe than in the English-speaking nations. Of course it makes a difference that Louis XI and Charles the Bold are as vivid historical characters to the French as Henry VIII to the British.  It's symptomatic that the Hollywood swashbuckler The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955), with Robert Taylor, is only interested in the romance, but the ample 1971 Franco-German TV series that I used to decorate this post is absorbed with the historical detail; they made changes, but in an expansive way rather than a reductive one; they also invented a loyal servant (Bertrand, played by Philippe Avron) so Quentin had a reason to speak his thoughts aloud. (Those with WiFi may like to know that most, or perhaps all, the episodes are on YouTube. I watched the first one; Louis XI is astounding.)


Not that I was in any way alone in criticizing Quentin Durward, or Scott's novels in general. I was fascinated to come across an anonymous 1823 piece in the London Review that dismisses it as a mere rehash of earlier novels, and dismisses Scott as an author diminished by every new publication, his older books no longer much read, an ephemeral entertainer. The reviewer's prediction that Scott would soon be forgotten by the public proved correct. It isn't very easy to defend Quentin Durward against this kind of broadside. Its themes are so absorbed into its adventure that it may appear to have none. (I wonder what modern novels the reviewer did admire. Only Fielding receives praise.)

In that older note I started at the very beginning: in the case of Quentin Durward, it isn't a very good place to start. Anyway this time I'll go to the very end, when Scott  dramatically cuts away from the crowded action, in mid-conversation.

   “Nay, if it be young Durward,” said Crevecoeur, “I say no more.—Fortune has declared herself on his side too plainly for me to struggle farther with her humoursome ladyship—but it is strange, from lord to horseboy, how wonderfully these Scots stick by each other.”
   “Highlander shoulder to shoulder,” answered Lord Crawford, laughing at the mortification of the proud Burgundian.
   “We have yet to inquire,” said Charles thoughtfully, “what the fair lady's sentiments may be towards this fortunate adventurer.”
   “By the mass” said Crevecoeur, “I have but too much reason to believe your Grace will find her more amenable to authority than on former occasions.—But why should I grudge this youth his preferment? Since, after all, it is sense, firmness, and gallantry which have put him in possession of WEALTH, RANK, and BEAUTY!”
   I had already sent these sheets to the press, concluding, as I thought, with a moral of excellent tendency for the encouragement of all fair haired, blue eyed, long legged, stout hearted emigrants from my native country, who might be willing in stirring times to take up the gallant profession of Cavalieros of Fortune. But a friendly monitor, one of those who like the lump of sugar which is found at the bottom of a tea cup as well as the flavour of the souchong itself, has entered a bitter remonstrance, and insists that I should give a precise and particular account of the espousals of the young heir of Glen Houlakin and the lovely Flemish* Countess, and tell what tournaments were held, and how many lances were broken, upon so interesting an occasion; nor withhold from the curious reader the number of sturdy boys who inherited the valour of Quentin Durward, and of bright damsels, in whom were renewed the charms of Isabelle de Croye. I replied, in course of post, that times were changed, and public weddings were entirely out of fashion. In days traces of which I myself can remember, not only were the “fifteen friends” of the happy pair invited to witness their Union, but the bridal minstrelsy still continued, as in the “Ancient Mariner,” to “nod their heads” till morning shone on them. The sack posset was eaten in the nuptial chamber—the stocking was thrown—and the bride's garter was struggled for in presence of the happy couple whom Hymen had made one flesh. The authors of the period were laudably accurate in following its fashions. They spared you not a blush of the bride, not a rapturous glance of the bridegroom, not a diamond in her hair, not a button on his embroidered waistcoat; until at length, with Astraea, “they fairly put their characters to bed.” But how little does this agree with the modest privacy which induces our modern brides—sweet bashful darlings!—to steal from pomp and plate, and admiration and flattery, and, like honest Shenstone
   “Seek for freedom at an inn!”
To these, unquestionably, an exposure of the circumstances of publicity with which a bridal in the fifteenth century was always celebrated, must appear in the highest degree disgusting. Isabelle de Croye would be ranked in their estimation far below the maid who milks, and does the meanest chores; for even she, were it in the church porch, would reject the hand of her journeyman shoemaker, should he propose faire des noces, as it is called on Parisian signs, instead of going down on the top of the long coach to spend the honeymoon incognito at Deptford or Greenwich. I will not, therefore, tell more of this matter, but will steal away from the wedding, as Ariosto from that of Angelica, leaving it to whom it may please to add farther particulars, after the fashion of their own imagination.
   “Some better bard shall sing, in feudal state
   How Bracquemont's Castle op'd its Gothic gate,
   When on the wand'ring Scot, its lovely heir
   Bestow'd her beauty and an earldom fair.”

(Quentin Durward, Ch XXXVII)

The final lines are Scott's own (Isabelle's castle Bracquemont is mentioned as early as Ch XVIII), but he also looses off a firework display of cultural references that post-date the action of the narrative (something he had almost entirely held in check during the course of that narrative, except in the chapter epigraphs); so suddenly we get Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alexander Pope on Aphra Behn, William Shenstone and Ariosto, the long coach and the souchong.

The Shenstone line is hardly a quote. It refers to this delightful poem from 1735 (apparently inspired by the White Swan Hotel in Henley in Arden, Warwickshire):

Written at an INN on a Particular Occasion

To thee, fair Freedom! I retire,
From flattery, cards, and dice, and din;
Nor art thou found in mansions higher
Than the low cot, or humble inn.

’Tis here with boundless power I reign,
And every health which I begin,
Converts dull port to bright champagne;
Such Freedom crowns it, at an inn.

I fly from pomp, I fly from plate,
I fly from Falsehood’s specious grin;
Freedom I love, and form I hate,
And choose my lodgings, at an inn.

Here, waiter! take my sordid ore,
Which lackeys else might hope to win;
It buys what courts have not in store,
It buys me Freedom, at an inn.

Whoe’er has travell’d life’s dull round,
Where’er his stages may have been,
May sigh to think he still has found
The warmest welcome – at an inn.

(Carol Rumens wrote a lovely post about the poem in The Guardian: )

Shenstone's poem is about the liberating atmosphere of commercial establishments, about flight from pomp and circumstance, society and family. Scott's postlude is also about that, and much more. He pretends that public weddings are out of fashion and that his women readers will be offended by the account of one, though of course we understand that the real reason is, who wants to be detained with the details of a wedding once all the book's dramas are over? Still, it was true about the change of custom, to some extent. "Honeymoon" (in the sense of the bridal couple going on a journey straight after the wedding), was first attested in 1791; it was an idea that began in Britain, but Scott is joking about it being a universal practice; it was a novel and genteel idea, and no milkmaid would have contemplated a honeymoon in 1823.  He must have been right, though, in sensing a new aversion to the rather un-private consummations of the bridal couple in old-fashioned wedding festivities. The sphere of the private and personal, of what is not said and not seen, was dramatically expanding. It was a topic of acute concern to both Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen.

This acknowledges that the historical romance in which we've been engaged wasn't, of course, exactly an accurate account of the way things were done in fifteenth-century Burgundy. Quentin has a nineteenth-century sensibility, as well as sense (according to Crevecoeur), and is rewarded -- but a glint's already appearing -- with a "moral of excellent tendency" that is, to impoverished Scottish emigrants seeking a living and respectability on foreign soil.

Louis XI (Michel Vitold) and Quentin (Amadeus August)

[Image source: .]

At the same time, the slightly premature dropping of the curtain (neither Isabelle nor even Quentin are present for that final conversation)  afflicts us with a momentary sense of loss and of how vivid and solid the world of Quentin Durward had become to us, in spite of its indirectness and discretion -- or perhaps because of it. Before the conversation came one of Scott's strongest battle-scenes, the punitive expedition against Liège (the other is in A Legend of Montrose); here are a few extracts:

For a long time the cries of the soldiers repeating their signals, and seeking to join their several banners, sounded like the howling of bewildered dogs seeking their masters. But at length, overcome with weariness by the fatigues of the day, the dispersed soldiers crowded under such shelter as they could meet with, and those who could find none sunk down through very fatigue under walls, hedges, and such temporary protection, there to await for morning—a morning which some of them were never to behold. A dead sleep fell on almost all, excepting those who kept a faint and wary watch by the lodgings of the King and the Duke. . . .
   The scene was now become in the utmost degree animated and horrible. On the left the suburb, after a fierce contest, had been set on fire, and a wide and dreadful conflagration did not prevent the burning ruins from being still disputed. On the centre, the French troops, though pressed by immense odds, kept up so close and constant a fire, that the little pleasure house shone bright with the glancing flashes, as if surrounded with a martyr's crown of flames. . . .
   But at this moment the column which De la Marck had proposed to support, when his own course was arrested by the charge of Dunois, had lost all the advantages they had gained during the night; while the Burgundians, with returning day, had begun to show the qualities which belong to superior discipline. The great mass of Liegeois were compelled to retreat, and at length to fly; and, falling back on those who were engaged with the French men at arms, the whole became a confused tide of fighters, fliers, and pursuers, which rolled itself towards the city walls, and at last was poured into the ample and undefended breach through which the Liegeois had sallied. . . .
   The confusion was general in every direction. The shrieks and cries of women, the yelling of the terrified inhabitants, now subjected to the extremity of military license, sounded horribly shrill amid the shouts of battle—like the voice of misery and despair contending with that of fury and violence, which should be heard farthest and loudest. . . .
   Her call was agonizing, but it was irresistible; and bidding a mental adieu, with unutterable bitterness of feeling, to all the gay hopes which had stimulated his exertion, carried him through that bloody day, and which at one moment seemed to approach consummation, Quentin, like an unwilling spirit who obeys a talisman which he cannot resist, protected Gertrude to Pavillon's house, and arrived in time to defend that and the Syndic himself against the fury of the licentious soldiery.
   Meantime the King and the Duke of Burgundy entered the city on horseback and through one of the breaches. They were both in complete armour, but the latter, covered with blood from the plume to the spur, drove his steed furiously up the breach, which Louis surmounted with the stately pace of one who leads a procession. They dispatched orders to stop the sack of the city, which had already commenced, and to assemble their scattered troops. The Princes themselves proceeded towards the great church, both for the protection of many of the distinguished inhabitants who had taken refuge there, and in order to hold a sort of military council after they had heard high mass. (Ch XXXVII)

What Scott didn't say: "The next day, Liège surrendered, and at the command of Charles the Bold, hundreds of Liègois were tied together and thrown into the Meuse river. The city was set alight and is said to have burned for seven weeks." (

I wonder if that was the fate of Hans Glover,  the "stout young man" who was "bachelor to Trudchen Pavillon". Gertrude, the Syndic's daughter, is a character whose importance far outweighs the few paragraphs in which she appears. Here was her conversation with Isabelle, the last time we were in  Liège:

   No sooner had the Syndic and Quentin left the room than Isabelle began to ask of Gertrude various questions concerning the roads, and so forth, with such clearness of spirit and pertinence, that the latter could not help exclaiming, “Lady, I wonder at you!—I have heard of masculine firmness, but yours appears to me more than belongs to humanity.”
   “Necessity,” answered the Countess,—“necessity, my friend, is the mother of courage, as of invention. No long time since, I might have fainted when I saw a drop of blood shed from a trifling cut—I have since seen life blood flow around me, I may say, in waves, yet I have retained my senses and my self possession.—Do not think it was an easy task,” she added, laying on Gertrude's arm a trembling hand, although she still spoke with a firm voice, “the little world within me is like a garrison besieged by a thousand foes, whom nothing but the most determined resolution can keep from storming it on every hand, and at every moment. Were my situation one whit less perilous than it is—were I not sensible that my only chance to escape a fate more horrible than death is to retain my recollection and self possession—Gertrude, I would at this moment throw myself into your arms, and relieve my bursting bosom by such a transport of tears and agony of terror as never rushed from a breaking heart.”
   “Do not do so, lady!” said the sympathizing Fleming, “take courage, tell your beads, throw yourself on the care of Heaven, and surely, if ever Heaven sent a deliverer to one ready to perish, that bold and adventurous young gentleman must be designed for yours. There is one, too,” she added, blushing deeply, “in whom I have some interest. Say nothing to my father, but I have ordered my bachelor, Hans Glover, to wait for you at the eastern gate, and never to see my face more, unless he brings word that he has guided you safe from the territory.”
   To kiss her tenderly was the only way in which the young Countess could express her thanks to the frank and kind hearted city maiden, who returned the embrace affectionately, and added, with a smile, “Nay, if two maidens and their devoted bachelors cannot succeed in a disguise and an escape, the world is changed from what I am told it wont to be.”
   A part of this speech again called the colour into the Countess's pale cheeks, which was not lessened by Quentin's sudden appearance. He entered completely attired as a Flemish boor of the better class . . . . (Ch XXIII)

(Scott gave his future dramatizers splendid opportunities to display their attractive leads in a variety of costumes!)

I hope those sentences from the sack of Liège will demonstrate that the tapestry of Quentin Durward is by no means only a matter of colourful characters. But at its best it is characters, action and locale all interacting, as in this midnight departure:

Avoiding all conversation with any one (for such was his charge), Quentin Durward proceeded hastily to array himself in a strong but plain cuirass, with thigh and arm pieces, and placed on his head a good steel cap without any visor. To these was added a handsome cassock of chamois leather, finely dressed, and laced down the seams with some embroidery, such as might become a superior officer in a noble household.
   These were brought to his apartment by Oliver, who, with his quiet, insinuating smile and manner, acquainted him that his uncle had been summoned to mount guard purposely that he might make no inquiries concerning these mysterious movements.
   “Your excuse will be made to your kinsman,” said Oliver, smiling again, “and, my dearest son, when you return safe from the execution of this pleasing trust, I doubt not you will be found worthy of such promotion as will dispense with your accounting for your motions to any one, while it will place you at the head of those who must render an account of theirs to you.”
   So spoke Oliver le Diable, calculating, probably, in his own mind, the great chance there was that the poor youth whose hand he squeezed affectionately as he spoke, must necessarily encounter death or captivity in the commission intrusted to his charge. He added to his fair words a small purse of gold, to defray necessary expenses on the road, as a gratuity on the King's part.
   At a few minutes before twelve at midnight, Quentin, according to his directions, proceeded to the second courtyard, and paused under the Dauphin's Tower, which, as the reader knows, was assigned for the temporary residence of the Countesses of Croye. He found, at this place of rendezvous, the men and horses appointed to compose the retinue, leading two sumpter mules already loaded with baggage, and holding three palfreys for the two Countesses and a faithful waiting woman, with a stately war horse for himself, whose steel plated saddle glanced in the pale moonlight. Not a word of recognition was spoken on either side. The men sat still in their saddles as if they were motionless, and by the same imperfect light Quentin saw with pleasure that they were all armed, and held long lances in their hands. They were only three in number, but one of them whispered to Quentin, in a strong Gascon accent, that their guide was to join them beyond Tours.
   Meantime, lights glanced to and fro at the lattices of the tower, as if there was bustle and preparation among its inhabitants. At length a small door, which led from the bottom of the tower to the court, was unclosed, and three females came forth attended by a man wrapped in a cloak. They mounted in silence the palfreys which stood prepared for them, while their attendant on foot led the way, and gave the passwords and signals to the watchful guards, whose posts they passed in succession. Thus they at length reached the exterior of these formidable barriers. Here the man on foot, who had hitherto acted as their guide, paused, and spoke low and earnestly to the two foremost females.
   “May heaven bless you, Sire,” said a voice which thrilled upon Quentin Durward's ear, “and forgive you, even if your purposes be more interested than your words express! To be placed in safety under the protection of the good Bishop of Liege, is the utmost extent of my desire.”
   The person whom she thus addressed muttered an inaudible answer, and retreated back through the barrier gate, while Quentin thought that, by the moon glimpse, he recognized in him the King himself, whose anxiety for the departure of his guests had probably induced him to give his presence, in case scruples should arise on their part, or difficulties on that of the guards of the Castle. (Ch XIV)

Ludovic Lesly ["Le Balafré"] (Noël Roquevert) and Quentin (Amadeus August)

[Image source: .]


*When I watched that first TV episode, I was surprised to see the lands of Isabelle de Croye briefly displayed on a map of northern France; they were shown as consisting of, approximately, the western half of Picardy, from Amiens to the coast near Dieppe.

In Quentin Durward Isabelle and Hameline are fictional characters. But the noble house of Croÿ did exist (and still does), and Scott would have come across the name (as "Croy") very early in his reading of Philippe de Commines; the house rose to prominence under the Dukes of Burgundy.  (In fact the pronunciation is disyllabic, something like "Croo-ey".) The dynastic name was adopted from the château of Crouy-Saint-Pierre, which is just to the west of Amiens. Then there was the name that Scott gave to Isabelle's castle, Bracquemont, which was another noble family name of the period (Robert de Bracquemont became Admiral of France in 1415), and is also a place-name, a commune just east of Dieppe. So you can see how the TV producers came up with their map.

Scott himself avoids specifying the location of Croye's domains, but as you can see in his Epilogue he calls Isabelle "the Flemish Countess" and my general impression from e.g. Hameline's reminiscences is indeed of a more easterly location. (For instance her favourite topic, The Passage of Arms at Haflinghem; the latter is a name Scott may have found in the Abriss einer allgemeinen Historie der Gelehrsamkeit of Johann-Andreas Fabricius, there spelled "Haflingem" and associated with Liège.)

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Thursday, May 07, 2020

He had to get a job

Michael had been incredibly lucky to spend seven years at university. First there had been three years at Exeter (1976-1979), where in the end he got a II.1 in English. In the second and third year of the Exeter course the students chose from various different specialisms, and Michael chose Medieval Studies. His teachers were Avril Henry (Medieval art), Marion Glasscoe (Medieval mystics), and Mike Swanton (Anglo-Saxon).

Perhaps he might have got a First; he always had the knack of doing well in exams. But he was also a confirmed procrastinator, and he struggled to focus on the coursework that made up a proportion of the final mark. His Medieval Arts folder, supposed to represent a year's work and thrown together on the very last night before it was to be handed in, was a disgrace.

Wanting to continue at university but feeling a lack of confidence in applying for a PhD, he applied to do a one-year MA at Durham (1979-1980) in the Department of Medieval Languages and Literature. His tutor was Victor Watts, but he had other teachers too; for instance, he studied Dante with Hugh Shankland. At the end of the year he managed to forget to turn up for one of the exams, but amidst general consternation was luckily permitted to take the exam the following day, on the understanding that in the mean time he must not have any contact with his fellow candidate.

He wanted to carry on at Durham and do a PhD on that intriguing poem Piers Plowman.  But the Department of Education and Science, perhaps remembering that he hadn't got a First, didn't feel like committing to a further three years of postgraduate support.

In something like despair, Michael applied instead to do a PGCE and become a schoolteacher. He was accepted at Manchester, but the uncomfortable interview had confirmed his feeling that (in spite of a family background in education) he felt utterly unsuited to, and dispirited by, the thought of teaching the school curriculum to schoolchildren. He was painfully shy.

In a difficult phone call to his parents, he announced that he would refuse the offer to take a PGCE, and would instead leave university and take a job. He had no idea what. He was twenty-two, but the only careers that interested him were rock star, poet and academic, in that order.

A day or two later, his parents called back. His parents, together with his beloved grandmother Ruth (the family called her "Mutti"), would find the money for him to stay and do the PhD. He was overwhelmed with relief and gratitiude, at any rate all the relief and gratitude a boy could feel who had never known hardship.

He would, it was true, need to earn a little money on the side. He got a morning job in the Durham branch of Boots, unloading and shelf-stacking.

At the end of his first year of study for the PhD (1980-1981), another application was made to the DES. This time they saw it differently, since Michael had demonstrated his commitment (or rather, his family had). So the way was now clear, and Michael no longer had to show up at Boots at an early hour.

Michael read widely and variously, published a paper, and did a little teaching of undergraduates (very badly). He did many other things during these magical years, which aren't recounted here. He had a real friend, he had a little love-making, he watched cricket and snooker all day on the hall of residence TV, he joined a band in Leeds for a week, he discovered wild flowers and spent whole days in the woods. But when his grant money ran out in the summer of 1983 he had not written a single word of his PhD thesis.

So now it was really necessary to get a job. But only for the money. He looked for a fairly undemanding job, so he would have some energy in reserve to work on his thesis in the evenings. He went on the dole (somehow contriving to carry on living in university residence), and he took the civil service entry examination in Newcastle. He also ticked an innocent-looking box when asked if he might be interested in considering a post in IT. He knew nothing about computers and had often made mock of the bizarre computing terms that his best friend (a physicist) used to entertain him with: clock, bus, bootstrap ...

He might have gone anywhere in the country, but when the appointment came it was to the Department of the Environment administrative offices at Ashdown House on the back edge of Hastings, which was pretty much home territory for Michael. He began work there in April 1984, though at first it wasn't really work. In those days Executive Officers in the IT specialism spent their first six months being trained: he learned the main parts of a computer (Central Processing Unit, data in and out, peripherals); the programming language COBOL; and the proprietary ICL operating system, GEORGE 3.

It was a beautiful spring and summer in 1984, with fine weather from April onwards. Michael took more interest in the flowers he saw on the way to work (Blackthorn, Grass Vetchling) than either his IT training or the thesis work that lay in wait for him at home.

He lived for some colourful weeks in a Hastings doss-house, and then moved into the house that his parents (preparing for their retirement) had just bought in Battle, paying only a modest rent. (He shared this house with a university friend who was now based at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in nearby Herstmonceux.)


OK, I can't keep this up any more. I thought I would experiment with writing some memoirs in the third person, after re-reading an old post of mine about Xenophon. I wondered if it might give me a more objective perspective, perhaps lead to greater honesty and balance, or perhaps stir memories that I wouldn't have if I was just chatting away in my own voice.

And in some respects it did open up new channels. The need to give an account led me, for example, to wonder how it was that, while my grant money must have run out in June 1983, I didn't start work in Hastings until April 1984 (a date scored on my memory by all the CVs I've written over the years). But at the same time, I felt that this account contrived to miss out almost everything that was interesting about those years, all the people I met or loved, everything that really happened, that is to say, happened in ways that seemed important to me at the time. And the mask kept slipping; suddenly it was "these magical years"; this was not the tone of Xenophon, who never mentions his feelings.

There were a couple of other difficulties with a third-person account that I hadn't anticipated.

The first was, what was my name? To my family and myself, up until I went to university, I had always been Michael, occasionally varied with the familiar Swedish version Mika. It was at the Christian Union, which I joined in Freshers' Week when I arrived at Exeter, lonely and looking for companionship, that I was first called Mike. It was a name I enjoyed being called, and it was the name that has stuck, all through my university days and my professional IT days, and also within my various later families. Today even my parents call me Mike as often as Michael. But at the time of this memoir, they and Mutti would certainly have called me Michael. As for me, I thought of myself by both names, "Michael" evoking my childhood and my true identity from the perspective of history; "Mike" evoking the everyday person who walked around in the present day, drank Sunderland Draught Bitter and carted his record collection from one study-bedroom to another.

The second difficulty was, my memory was full of gaps, so if I was writing in my usual voice I'd have used a lot of metataxtual commentary like "as far as I remember" or "others whose names I've forgotten" or "I think it was in Newcastle". The third-person account simply has no way of expressing these things. The reader is to accept what is written as the only record of the events. The reader may wonder how complete the record is, whether something has been suppressed, whether such-and-such a statement is an error or a lie, but that's all speculation. This limitation has its good side. It forced me to try a bit harder, to retrieve Mike Swanton's name by looking up books he had edited; Hugh Shankland's name suddenly popped into my mind after I'd given up on it.

Still, I think it's back to the first person from now on.


Memoirs are usually interesting to close family, but I think they have to earn their interest to others. It's good to have done exceptional things, as Xenophon did, and to be the first to write about that kind of thing, as Xenophon was. Just being true isn't enough, but it's important, and I was surprised as I gradually became aware how many half-truths I had allowed to slip through the first draft (these have been corrected).

But for the author, writing memoirs is fascinating and can be transforming. They stir thoughts long asleep, with unpredictable consequences. Our buried memories are not complete, but they are rich. We recognize faces in old photos; not always, but often; I clearly recognized a photo of John MacKinnell (another Durham teacher), and though I'm puzzled to recall exactly what I studied with him, I've no doubt that those studies are still partly engraved in my mind. When someone reminds us of an event, we say (with a kind of wonder), Yes, Now I remember! For we don't just assent, we remember. Though (like me) you may find nothing less interesting than jokes, don't you always feel you know if you've heard a joke before?

But we don't remember everything, as I know from glancing through old university essays that I evidently wrote but haven't the least memory of. So it's a natural question, since we have only one life, How much do I remember?  And wasn't there something I meant to do?  And are there answers there, to questions I'm only asking now?


Wednesday, May 06, 2020

upon May

Stachys sylvatica. Swindon, 4th May 2020.

Together we will find a way
In the first days of May . . .

The 4th of May. These celebrated early days of May, invoking so many snatches of lyric but not where they came from.

Accelerating climate change means it feels more like late May. The cherry blossom is long gone, the grasslands swell. But I'm still scratching around in the deepening shade of the woods, where there are secrets to be found. The woods of West Swindon are rather mysterious places.

Here's a shapely group of fresh Hedge Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica, Sw: Stinksyska).

Stachys sylvatica. Swindon, 4th May 2020.

Valborgsmässoafton, Walpurgisnacht, is the evening of 30th April, and then it's May Day, the first of a clutch of family birthdays: my nephew Nick on 1st May, and my sister Miranda on 3rd May.

Chaucer seems to have attached some importance to 3rd May, too. He selects it as the date  that Palamon broke out of his prison (The Knight's Tale), the date of the action of The Nun's Priest's Tale), and the date Pandare was afflicted by love-sickness (Troilus and Criseyde).

John P. McCall (MLN vol 76, No. 3 (Mar 1961), pp. 201-205) suggested that Chaucer thought of it as a day when lovers feel their desires with especial keenness, and that Chaucer inferred this from Ovid's Fasti, where 3rd May is assigned to celebrations of the goddess Flora.

But May, of course, was when most stories happened.

Ac on a May morwenynge on Malverne hilles     (William Langland, Piers Plowman, Prologue, line 5)

But love, whilst that thou mayst be loved again --
Now, whilst thy May hath filled thy lap with flowers,
Now, whilst thy beauty bears without a stain --
Now use the summer smiles, ere winter lowers.   (The beginning of Samuel Daniel's Delia Sonnet 32)

No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May, and hearing our intent,
Came here in grace of our solemnity.       (A Midsummer Night's Dream, IV.1.137-139)

[Shakespeare momentarily forgetting the date implications of his title?]

Silene dioica. Swindon, 4th May 2020.

In dappled sunlight on a woodland edge, Red Campion (Silene dioica, Sw: Rödblära). 

Common throughout GB. Its distribution in Sweden is rather peculiar; it's common through most of Sweden, including most of Norrland, but less so in the east of the country from Stockholm southwards (the region that is typically richest in plant species), and rare in Gotland and Öland. I can only suppose that some other plant or plants are so favoured by Baltic conditions that they contest its niche. 

Cynoglossum germanicum. Swindon, 4th May 2020.

Green Hound's-tongue (Cynoglossum germanicum). Rare in the UK, absent from Sweden.

The photo below gives a better idea of the plant's size at this time of year.

Cynoglossum germanicum. Swindon, 4th May 2020.

Aquilegia vulgaris, Anemone nemorosa, Stachys officinalis. Swindon, 4th May 2020.

A classy grouping, on a woodland edge, of Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris, Sw: Akleja), Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa, Sw: Vitsippa) and Betony (Stachys officinalis formerly called Betonica officinalis, Sw: Humlesuga).

Aquilegia vulgaris. Swindon, 4th May 2020.

Stachys officinalis. Swindon, 4th May 2020.

Shady conditions usually mean that plants take longer to flower, but since shade also means shelter, it sometimes triggers an individual plant to flower exceptionally early, like the Betony above.

Betony is common through most of GB, except Ireland and northern Scotland. In Sweden it's an extreme rarity, known only in a handful of southern sites.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2020

the home paddocks

You're back on the boards squeezing streams of water from your hair and back. And you think; moving down into the first line of a Robert Gray poem, that's like making a dive. Here's the start of one of them.

The Fishermen

There comes trudging back across the home paddocks of the bay,
pushing its way
waist-deep in the trembling seed-heads of the light,
a trawler, with nets aloft
and motor that thumps like an irrigation pump
on the monolithic cloud. That cloud is straining out the sunrise
of a Bible tract,
which shows a few lumps of islands and the one boat
in the blazing sand-box of the sea,
while close-up the edges of such a volatile grit
are being swept ashore.

It is all noticed by someone in pajama stripes
and venetian slats of light,
at one of the wide bungalows
above the wind-moulded scrub, by two early walkers going down a track
onto the dunes,
from where they will watch the baggy sea that is practicing its
ju-jitsu on the kelp.

Only the harsh approval of the gulls
that the fishermen are back, the small boat
swimming heavily with nose up,
after a night far out on the phosphorescent plain, in a seething culture
of hatching snake eggs, or from deep
in an icy slush
of moonlight, the sea corrosive-smelling
and raw like rust. Back from the cobra-flaring,
gliding and striking sea, goaded it would seem by their presence there,
who tear
up by the roots the nets and lobster traps;
from a sea sweaty with stars, or one black and flowing with crepe;
a sea that erupts
and falls on them so hugely that only the radio mast could have shown
in the foam, if they'd had one. The fishermen have been taught
by each other that if swept away
in such a sea, without a jacket, which they don't wear in their work,
to swim down and make an end of it,
since they will never get back.
They live inside a dream
out there; everything they know about is in shadow,
who sometimes see a liner,
further off, go drifting past them like a town
on the moon,
and who see the ocean vomit a black whale
as if that were its tongue.

(beginning of "The Fishermen", in Coast Road: Selected Poems (2014))

Robert Gray, born in 1945, grew up on the north coast of NSW. 

It's difficult to detach this poem in my mind from Tim Winton's Dirt Road, though Winton's fishermen are in WA. I'm sure Australian readers would see glaring differences between the two writers, but when you're reading far away and ignorantly the loudest thing you hear (since you can make out so little) is a shared character of sound.


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