Friday, July 25, 2014

More flora of West Swindon

I'm using "The Link" to refer to West Swindon District Centre as a whole.

Toad Rush (Juncus bufonius) , a significant lawn-like colony in the shade of the pedestrian underpass that connects the Link to Shaw Ridge. Usually flooded in January. Toad Rush grows where the soil never truly dries out.

This is J. bufonius sensu strictu, according to the classification published by Cope and Stace in 1978:


On the other side of the Link centre, on the edge of the shallow ponds, I found Common Club-rush aka Bulrush (Schoenoplectus lacustris) with its round stems. In my opinion these ponds could do with some TLC, they are choked with slime and litter, but the Bulrushes are excellent.


Whichever way the weathercock turns
Grasses sedges rushes and ferns.

Golden meadow a haze in the sun
Deep in the shadow where the waters run.


Friday, July 18, 2014

literary trivia

I'm following Tom Clark's daily posts about the Gaza war on children. I don't want to, but I am.


Read D.S. Marriott's Dogma last night. This is a Barque pamphlet whose contents probably ended up in one of the more recent Shearsman collections, but I do like a pamphlet.

Marriott's poems are consciously impure, they develop an image of someone who cannot be other than a thrown-together mixture of drowned ghosts and western imagery. The latter, of course, pre-eminently includes the Cambridge influence that continues to sound in these poems even though it's so obvious how different these poems are from Prynne Brady and Sutherland.

The poems are not impure not because they think it's thrilling to be impure, as per the Montevidayan swamplands (bit of reductive stereotyping there, but you'll know what I mean); these poems are impure because they can't help being impure. Because the conditions of life don't allow it. Specifically black life, according to Marriott's desolately unillusioned analysis.

The Barque people also sent me Monika Rinck (trans. Alistair Noon), which I don't remember ordering but am glad to have, and Streak_Willing_Artesian_Forgotten which I haven't read but which surprises me by being so beautiful to look at.  I mean, once you open it up and look at the poem. The jacket is just functional (the shade of green looks like something put together in a classroom, which no doubt it was).

I am still finishing my second read-through of Scott's The Black Dwarf. Also about a third of the way through Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave, an extraordinary book (and obviously, a lot of fruitful synergy with Marriott's writings here). I'm over half way through Fielding's Tom Jones, a book that seems to have fallen hugely in repute since my youth; the characters are in Worcestershire, more or less. I'm just in to Act 3 of Henry VI Part II: the noble factions are seeking to eliminate Humphrey of Gloucester so they can fly at each other's throats.

 I got deeply immersed in the Maggie O'Sullivan selections of her own poetry in Out of Everywhere. My carrying-around books are Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece and Tim Allen's Eight + Six. Ha ha, only joking (and forgotten the real name).

Still in a Tim Allen groove, it finally crossed my mind (bit slow on the uptake) that The Carousing Duck might be some sort of paratext of his earlier volume The Cruising Duct.

Hardly any reading took place in Sweden  (light is never good in a tent) but I'm left with a complex memory of roses and sedges all mixed up with Evert Taube.

Also from Reality Street: over half-way through David Miller's anthology of prose, The Alchemist's Mind. I keep reading more of Andrea Brady's Cut from the Rushes, I must have read most of it now.

Meanwhile, on the internet, I flick through a couple of essays by Peter Larkin (get hold of  this stuff by signing up to One of them is about a US poet called Susan Stewart who I never heard of before, so I go and read some of her poems, which I like and envy.

Here is "The Forest" (the poem that Peter Larkin was mainly writing about):

Now I remember that the piece I read last night in The Alchemist's Mind was by David Rattray. It was called the "Spirit of St Louis"; it was one of those show-off-your-learning descriptions without obvious direction and (can you gather) I didn't think it was such a massive deal, but I did wonder who the author was He was lots of interesting things; translator, contributing editor for Reader's Digest, experimental poet; he died in 1993. This enquiry took me to Bomb Magazine (he was a contributing editor there too), and here I found three delicious new poems by Gale Nelson from, apparently, a second tranche of his This is What Happens when Talk Ends project.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sir Walter Scott's novels, a brief guide

Those dusty, dull-bound, heavy books lie like pre-Cambrian bedrock on the lower shelves of pubs and hotels. Such is the fate of the former best-seller, the man who popularised tartan shortbread tins, the man who speckled the suburbs of Birmingham with houses called Loch Lomond in streets called Waverley Crescent and Lammermoor Close, where the daughters were once named Rowena, the sons Nigel. 

Scott is the most under-rated writer in the canon of British literature, second only to Dickens among our great nineteenth-century novelists, readable, fertile, vivid, profound, a master. Like every great novelist, he has huge faults. His English prose style is clumsy and slipshod; he “sows from the sack, not from the hand” and the impact of his best work, essentially poetic, is hard to represent from quotations. His output is vast and many of his novels fail. He inaugurated, if he did not cause, the curious Victorian literary convention that sexual feelings don’t really exist; his scenery and weather are often perfunctory, his heroes and heroines are for the most part as stiff as bookmarks. He was also a Tory and a Unionist, which meets with little favour here. But his massive humanity, comedy and invention are triumphs: once discovered, he is never abandoned. So here goes: 25 novels in six pages, a lifetime of reading. 


Although these are his earliest novels, they are not beginner’s work. When he published Waverley anonymously he was already 40, a celebrated man of letters thanks to his sensationally popular narrative poems. The novels of this period include his greatest achievements. Some of the later novels are deeply immersed in (lowland) Scottish culture too, but here it’s a continuous presence, the lifeblood of the books.

1.  Waverley (1814)

Seminal, and deeply pondered over many years, this is the first historical novel worthy of the name in world literature. Perhaps his masterpiece, although subtler achievements were to follow. Here are all his great themes: the process of change in society, adolescence, humour, outcasts, ideals, compromises, progress and extinctions. Every adventure, every western movie, every sci-fi fantasy adventure you’ve ever read is indebted to this brilliantly innovative book; not to mention Balzac, Tolstoy, George Eliot... A great place to start.10 out of 10.

2.  Guy Mannering (1815)

Scott with a head of steam up, this is frankly an improvisation. Despite its many wonderful scenes and characters, it’s carelessly executed and doesn’t run very deep. The Victorians loved it, but in our severer times: 7 out of 10.

3.  The Antiquary (1816)

On the surface this is even more chaotic and heterogeneous than Guy Mannering; but this time it all works out. This is Scott’s supreme book about conversation, conviviality and human company: a little-known delight. 9 out of 10.

But his sister understood these looks of ire (rescued from drowning, and no food in the house). “Ou dear! Monkbarns, what’s the use of making a wark?”

  “I make no wark, as ye call it, woman.”

  “But what’s the use o’ looking sae glum and glunch about a pickle bains? – an ye will hae the truth, ye maun ken the minister came in, worthy man – sair distressed he was, nae doubt, about your precaurious situation, as he ca’d it, (for ye ken how weel he’s gifted wi’ words,) and here he wad bide till he could hear wi’ certainty how the matter was likely to gang wi’ ye a’. He said fine things on the duty of resignation to Providence’s will, worthy man! that did he.” (The Antiquary, Ch 9)

4.  The Black Dwarf  and  5.  Old Mortality (1816)

Old Mortality is his most exciting and perhaps greatest book, one of the best-imagined stories in English. A profound meditation on violence, fanaticism and repression; pick it up at Chapter 2 (as the Calders advise) and watch how Scott’s insidiously slack-limbed narration sucks you in. 10 out of 10.

The Black Dwarf, a short novel published with it, has some fine pages but never gets far off the ground. 5 out of 10. (Longer Note.)

6.  Rob Roy (1818)

A brief, fiery and penetrating book lies hidden inside a baggier, more uneven one. In no book does Scott come closer to a critique of the conventional ruling class that he approved, in no book is the fact of the Highlands more challengingly posed. But we have to wade through a lot of idling and Gothic plotting in Northumberland to get to the serious heart of this, so all in all - 7 out of 10.  
7.  The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818)

In the early years of this century, this won an undeserved reputation as Scott’s only real masterpiece. For the first 200 pages, indeed, he is at his highest pitch (but hardly his uniquely highest pitch): this Edinburgh is like Balzac’s Paris with all the gaps filled out. It should have been his best book. But it goes disastrously out of its way in the third volume thanks to Scott’s always excessive fascination with royalty, and never completely recovers. Badly flawed though it is, 9.5 out of 10.

8.  The Bride of Lammermoor (1819)

Rumoured to have been dictated in delirium and subsequently unremembered by its author (whose life was a catalogue of sicknesses), this is the most un-Scott-like of his masterpieces: a brilliant, bleak, secretive tragedy that operates with intense restraint. Beautifully structured, it shows (along with Old Mortality, Kenilworth etc) that Scott was the most naturally gifted designer of a novel in our tradition. (The French equivalent, in this respect, is Balzac’s Une ténébreuse affaire.)  9 out of 10.

9.  A Legend of Montrose (1819)

This is Scott’s book about war, and the mercenary Rittmeister is one of the most morally troubling (and entertaining) characters he created. Elsewhere, though, it’s thinnish and looks hurried. 7 out of 10.


It’s commonly supposed that the unprecedented success of Ivanhoe, his first book set outside Scotland, turned Scott’s head, and led him away from the true sources of his inspiration (with the anomalous exception of Redgauntlet). The reality is more complicated. Scott’s books always occupied the borderland with romance anyway, and the best books of this period (e.g. The Abbot, Kenilworth) are as good as all but the very best of his earlier novels – and arguably stranger.

10.  Ivanhoe (1820)

Anyone who wants to understand the Victorian imagination needs to start with this. England went Ivanhoe-mad; this is the public-school boy’s book par excellence. And today? Well, it’s a rich and humane adventure with a few deeper chords (Rebecca, the greenwood...). But when all’s said, only half of Scott’s greatness is on view here. 6 out of 10. (Longer Note.)

11.  The Monastery  (1820)

This was considered a failure even at the time of its first publication, so is now never read. The November weather, the Tweed and the reformation period suit Scott well, and though the story doesn’t quite add up he’s in easy spirits throughout. 6 out of 10.

The river was not in flood, but it was above its ordinary level – a heavy water, as it is called in that country, through which the monk had no particular inclination to ride, if he could manage the matter better.

  “Peter, my good friend,” cried the sacristan, raising his voice; “my very excellent friend Peter, be so kind as to lower the drawbridge. Peter, I say, dost not hear? – it is thy gossip, Father Philip, who calls thee.”

  Peter heard him perfectly well, and saw him into the bargain; but, as he had considered the sacristan as peculiarly his enemy in his dispute with the convent, he went quietly to bed, after reconnoitring the monk through his loop-hole, observing to his wife that “riding the water in a moonlight night would do the sacristan no harm, and would teach him the value of a brig the neist time, on whilk a man might pass high and dry, winter and summer, flood and ebb.” (The Monastery, Ch 5)

12.  The Abbot (1820)

Characteristically, Scott’s response to his first avowed failure was to write a sequel to it.  Roland and Catherine are Scott’s most lively young couple, and the tension of the theme (Protestantism outlawing Catholism) make this a romance with an edge. 8 out of 10.

  “You talk riddles, my lord,” said Mary; “I will hope the explanation carries nothing insulting with it.”

  “You shall judge, madam,” answered Lindesay. “With this good sword was Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, girded on the memorable day when he acquired the name of Bell-the-Cat, for dragging from the presence of your great-grandfather, the third James of the race, a crew of minions, flatterers, and favourites, whom he hanged over the bridge of Lauder, as a warning to such reptiles how they approach a Scottish throne. With this same weapon, the same inflexible champion of Scottish honour and nobility slew at one blow Spens of Kilspindie, a courtier of your grandfather, James the Fourth, who had dared to speak lightly of him in the royal presence. They fought near the brook of Fala; and Bell-the-Cat, with this blade, sheared through the thigh of his opponent, and lopped the limb as easily as a shepherd’s boy slices a twig from a sapling.” (The Abbot, Ch 21)

13.  Kenilworth (1821)

Perhaps his most under-rated book, this tragedy of ostentation and gorgeous surfaces is a not unworthy companion to The Bride of Lammermoor, the extended description of the revels at Kenilworth unmatched in moral and dramatic intensity. Scott’s sixteenth-century England is utterly unlike what we expect, a nightmare of fortune-hunters and trapdoors that unfolds with a dreadful logic and expires like a thunderclap on the last page. 8 out of 10.

14.  The Pirate (1822)

Scott had loved visiting the Shetlands, but he couldn’t raise a good novel out of it. The things that had moved him were untranslateable into any fiction even he could imagine. Dreary, tame and unconvincing. 3 out of 10.

15.  The Fortunes of Nigel (1822)

Like all the other books he set in the seventeenth century, Scott’s London novel suffers from the inevitable comparison with his own Old Mortality, and in a different way with the Jacobean city comedies from which he plundered so much material. Nigel is colourful but inadequately felt, and dead from the waist down. 4 out of 10. 

16.  Peveril of the Peak (1822)

Much derided, this long book is good for about half its length before finally coming apart at the seams. The prelude is excellent, and Peveril’s journey across England beautifully poised, but Scott abandons his most arresting characters and the ending becomes a wearisome game of chess. 4 out of 10.

17.  Quentin Durward (1823)

Often considered the best of the costume dramas, this architectural, expansive adventure is finely conceived but often feebly written, and the European setting too often recalls Balzac, a fatal comparison when Scott is short of his best. 5 out of 10. 

18.  St Ronan’s Well (1824)

I haven’t read it! Rumoured (but not reliably) to be a masterpiece,  described by others as a bitter satire, by others as a flop; the latter is perhaps least unlikely, but you never know. The only Scott novel set in his own time, though “The Antiquary” comes close. 6 out of 10, at a guess.

19.  Redgauntlet (1824)

For many, his greatest book. Beneath its casual surface is a profoundly poetic meditation on romance itself, intuitive, mature and brilliantly imagined. Its innovative structure incorporates, along with much else, that supreme short story, “Wandering Willie’s Tale”. The closing chapters in Cumberland, alas, fall a bit short. 9 out of 10.

20.  The Betrothed  and 21.  The Talisman (1825)

The first of the “Tales of the Crusaders” is indisputably minor, a book that can be read (like The Pirate) only for the pleasure of hearing its author’s voice. The second has been over-rated, and creaks with stage-management under the sun of Palestine. Both 3 out of 10.

RUIN AND DECLINE (1826-1832)

In 1826, the fragile financial system of the printing and publishing trade collapsed. Scott, who was a secret partner in his own printing house, was brought down with it. Rather than plead bankruptcy, he offered to pay his creditors off with the proceeds of future writing. It was a decision that saved his honour and his home, at the cost of literally writing himself to death. (Apart from the novels, these last years produced such daunting monuments as his gigantic Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, now never seen or read: also, his private Journal, a grievous and brilliant book.)

22.  Woodstock (1826)

This intricately rotating microcosm in the unsettled backwash of the English civil war was half-completed when financial ruin, bereavement and illness dropped on its author in quick succession. But in the finished novel it doesn’t show; Scott was a stoic at noon and midnight; the full but sombre palette is there from the start. 6 out of 10. 

23.  The Fair Maid of Perth (1828)

The best novel of his last period, this warm and wintry adventure, full of incident and humour, shows that Scott had lost none of his inner wisdom and imagination, if only circumstances would allow him to deploy them. 7 out of 10.

24.  Anne of Geierstein (1829)

Haven’t read it. The drudgery of writing it drove Scott to distraction, but this tale of medieval Switzerland is reputed to be no worse than run-of-the-mill. A presumed 4 out of 10.

25.  Count Robert of Paris  and 26.  Castle Dangerous (1832)

Haven’t read them. Embarrassments, these, the former set in eleventh-century Byzantium, the latter in medieval Scotland. Described, by those few who have ventured in, as the worst novels he wrote. Presumably 1 or 2 out of 10.

27.  The Siege of Malta

Desperately ill, Scott went on a recuperative trip to the Mediterranean, collapsing during his return and dying in his own bed. While abroad, he wrote this book and also a novella called Bizarro. Lockhart decided they were not publishable and when they eventually appeared (in 2008) you could see why. No amount of tidying up broken sentences can disguise the calamitous decay of the author’s faculties. These spasms of compulsive writing are fascinating from a medical point of view. The imagination goes first, and the second half of The Siege of Malta is a bare-bones retelling of history with no fictional characters at all.

(The Walter Scott Digital Archive, produced by Edinburgh University Library, will give you graphics of Lambert & Butler “Waverley” Straight Cut Cigarettes, engravings of Catherine Seyton, links to all sorts of interesting material that you won’t know about – for example, the aging Mark Twain’s extraordinary letters about the Waverley novels – and a more comprehensive guide to all Scott’s works. Also, a link to Carlyle’s review-essay on Lockhart’s biography: I must admit, I don’t find it an easy matter to read Carlyle on any subject. But it’s well worth persisting, if only for the salutary effect of a view that resolutely declines to idealize its subject. Carlyle is unenthusiastic; he argues that what we call “greatness” in Scott is something less than what he thinks greatness in the absolute sense (Goethe is his touchstone). It must be admitted that nearly all writing about Scott is characterized – I will not say vitiated – by a vein of reverent idealization, from which my own notes are by no means exempt. Carlyle was also prescient in anticipating that Scott’s phenomenal popularity would be temporary. As it happens his own work is now in even deeper eclipse, and that of his hero Goethe too, at any rate in the English-speaking world.)  


Flowers of Roslagen - July 2014

[still in build]

These pictures were taken in or near Harö in Roslagen (northern part of the Stockholm archipelago area).*
Harö means "Hare Island". It isn't quite an island now, but it probably was until recently; the land rises fast along this coast. Nevertheless, the sea is always nearby, and Roslagen's mild climate allows many plants of south/central Sweden to flourish further north than elsewhere. The spectacle of oak and ash - and roses! - growing among the usual pines and spruces is extraordinary to a Norrlander's eyes.

Norrland was one pole of comparison/contrast for me. The other was the UK.

As often, I noticed how "British" species often look different in Sweden.

Both the roses and the oaks struck me as comparatively slim and elegant (if you can imagine Quercus robur being elegant). The roses grow upright, without the support of hedgerows (which don't exist here), and look rather precarious on their ridiculously slender stems.

So in fact these cosily familiar species of our homelands are not fully known to us if homeland is the only place we've seen them. What do they know of oak trees, who only England know?

"Roslagens Ros": Wild rose among spruce trees.

En (Juniperus communis, Juniper) growing as a small tree - it's more commonly a shrub - at Holmen.

Spenört (Laserpitium latifolium), a species that does not occur in the UK and has no English name. The large many-rayed umbels were highly appreciated by the flower-arrangers among us. This was the most prominent umbellifer in these parts, along with Ground Elder, which grew in great quantities. The Swedish population - mainly in the east, where it's associated with deciduous woodland - is rather isolated from the plant's heartland; L. latifolium is essentially a central European plant that occurs from W. Russia right across to N. Spain, staying well away from the North Sea.

Bulbils of Tandrot (Cardamine bulbifera, Coralroot Bittercress).

"On a flowering island in Roslagen's bay..."


Monday, June 30, 2014

Sir Walter Scott: The Black Dwarf (1816)

The Black Dwarf was published as the first volume of the first Tales of My Landlord; the other three were occupied by Old Mortality. Scott allowed a friend to echo his own thoughts about the deficiencies of the material and brought the curtain down more quickly that he'd originally planned; the upshot is that the classic Scott gear-change is here disorientating rather than thrilling.

This, at any rate, is Scott's account in the final paragraph of his 1830 Introduction. The Edinburgh University Library page gives a different impression. It says the ending was rushed because Scott was being pressured by his new publishers Blackwood and Murray. It also seems to suggest that the original plan for Tales of My Landlord was four one-volume tales.

The main deficiency that Scott mentions is the Black Dwarf himself, and certainly his static creation (Note 1) doesn't convince as a realistic portrait. Nevertheless I'm sure that Scott's insights into the anguish of being cursed with a monstrous appearance must have influenced the young Mary Shelley, who was just starting to write Frankenstein when The Black Dwarf appeared. Besides that, the book has a perfunctory insurrection (how unlike the one in Old Mortality!) and a double kidnap that incomprehensibly fizzles out.

So reading the book is more a matter of salvaging lovely details than committing to the tale as a whole. But the details are worth your trouble. This is Scott in 1816, after all!

For a start there's the opening few pages describing the April snow and the sheep-farmers' glorious conversation at Pattieson's village pub (with self-serving intrusions from Jedediah) (Note 2) And that segues very nicely into Hobbie Elliot returning across Mucklestane Moor after an unsuccessful day's deer-stalking, his meeting and conversation with Patrick Earnscliff. Scott is brilliant at evoking the open moor, though he forgets to tells us the time of year (it must be autumn, however).

This excellent start is slightly troubled by a premature jump of nearly a year; when we pick up the action again, with Elshie being now well established in his hovel, it's the following August (the heath is in full bloom).

Elshie's first meeting with Isabel Vere is a moving if rather emblematic scene. Willie of Westburnflat (in conversation with Elshie) is a brief firework.

Note 1. I call him static because the early chapters all take place at his croft and because he claims to be too immobilized to think of going to warn Hobbie Elliott - he has no horse and perhaps his legs are too short to ride one. But towards the end he shows up at Ellieslaw and I suppose we must assume he was transported there by Ratcliffe.

Note 2. This opening should be understood as following on from Jedediah's splendid "Introduction to the Tales of My Landlord", which these days is usually found prefixed to Old Mortality.

I'm not sure if Scott in the end didn't intend the whole of The Black Dwarf as a sort of fancy portal to OM, with which it is so incommensurate. A recurrent theme in BD is that insurrections, violence, duels and feuds don't really matter; they are all treated lightly and seem to be without serious consequence. In that respect its presiding genii are the reiver Willie of Westburnflat and the wild but honourable rebel Mareschal.

This inconsequence is, of course, in marked contrast to the deadly outcomes of its greater companion.

By the way, how on earth could Elshie fail to be recognized as Sir Edward Mauley, given his highly distinctive appearance?


Thursday, June 26, 2014

D. S. Marriott Poetry links

[This mini-note about the poet D.S. Marriott has moved to Intercapillary Space:

Instead, here's a bit of "The Dog Enchanter":

What if he were to set off
panting through the ruins
swishing his tale
                     over debris
mooching near the craters
the full-throated bark
deep inside the vertebrae
           to the weak, the yielding—
his trick to know that ‘ghost’
isn’t the right word for
maundering his way
over the ragged ridgeline
where mines make effigies of sense
                 and the universe presses in
pissing on the leafless trees:
                out there, see him return,
                              where the dust
makes his tracks so easy to see
                      as the journey opens before him
                      his cry impending.
                             Yes, see him return...


Thursday, June 19, 2014

midsummer wood

New leaves of Common Box (Buxus sempervirens)

Not-yet-open panicles of Tufted Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa).

Decaying puffball.

This and the next three photos show an outbreak of Bearded Couch (Elymus caninus).

Elymus caninus, stems and leaves

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

John Aubrey: The Natural History of Wiltshire (1656-91)

John Aubrey in 1666, portrait by William Faithorne

[Image from the Ashmolean Museum website]

The book I have read is in fact an abridgement first published in 1847. The book was not published in Aubrey’s lifetime and represents a sort of ongoing compendium of “papers” that was added to over many years. He had freely offered these papers to Dr Plott, so he does not seem to have thought of them as a book, even when “tumultuarily stitch’t up”.

[This 1847 edition is available on E-Gutenberg.]

I pointed out a maybug on the pavement of a residential street in Bath. “Look at his antennae, they look like fans”, I lectured happily to a child in the vicinity -  “and look! his poo is green!” The child lingered while we strolled off up the hill. When we were far enough off, there was a stamping sound.

Of his own secret impulse to “make a scrutinie into the waies of nature”, Aubrey says that generally “’Twas held a sinne”, and of himself “Credit there was none; for it gets the contempt of a man’s neighbours”. So it does still, except in highly buffered zones such as universities (where, however, Natural History is not regarded as a subject).

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Molière (1622-73)

[pseud. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]

Molière, re-imagined by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752)

You can easily read through Molière, mildly entertained, but thinking, how hackneyed all this is! When two people are at cross-purposes for pages at a time (e.g. Harpagon and Valère in Act V of L’avare), it seems a weak sort of entertainment, like a sitcom before the watershed. Then the sun shines, you feel a little more apt to join the human race, and all the jokes get deeper, they put down roots and extend into the play around them.

Scene from Tartuffe directed by Dominique Serrand, photo Michal Daniel 2006

Le Tartuffe, ou L'Imposteur (1664, revised several times to 1669)

A famous play, but the text that grew out of its difficult history is rather a bodge. Orgon seems to impose on himself, and this utter stupidity distracts from Tartuffe's power. When we eventually meet Tartuffe he seems a bit dim himself, merely a snake in the grass. The main point of the drama, Tartuffe's deception of his host, is hardly dramatized.

"Tartuffe himself is a titanic creation, one who makes our own 'Heap of Infamy' seem by comparison a mere cringing shadow" (John Wood). Strange remark. I really have a problem with seeing Tartuffe as a titanic creation. A role that doesn't appear until Act III more or less cedes any claim to be a protagonist. All we see him as is a conventional seducer. His power as a hypocrite is known only indirectly, and deceives no-one but Orgon and his mother. (Wood's allusion dates him - he is referring to Uriah Heep in David Copperfield.)

[This is a useful free Tartuffe, with introduction by Roger W. Herzel, translation by Prudence L. Steiner.


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Monday, June 09, 2014

Bird Cherry (Prunus padus)

Here are some photos of Bird Cherry (Punus padus) when it was newly in bloom  (I took these on April 15th 2014 in West Swindon).

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Sejanus (1603), The Alchemist (1610), Catiline his Conspiracy (1611), Bartholomew Fair (1614)

Ben Jonson, portrait by Abraham van Blyenberch

[Image taken from the splendid website of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, . This is the painting in the National Portrait Gallery. Though unsigned, there's little doubt of the artist or the sitter; it was immediately much copied. It apparently belonged to George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, and it probably shows Jonson in about 1618.] 

Sejanus (1603) 

I have always favoured Ben Jonson’s writing - he is of course abundantly entertaining, but there is something else too, a sort of rugged justice in the grain of his writing, so it's a something I can also find in a poem, even in a panegyric addressed to some obscure noble. ("Favoured" means that I think I approve of Ben Jonson, rather aside from any particular thing that happens when I read him.) 

In spite of this I had never happened to read some of his masterpieces. Sejanus deserves to be called one of these, and is an astonishing play.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

specimens of the literature of Sweden: bottle of shampoo

This is an everyday shampoo. "Swedish hair-care tradition from Dalarna", says the bottle. The county of Dalarna, romantically rural but not too remote from Stockholm, has desirable connotations and is often thought of as the home of folksong; a sort of hyperreal heart of the Swedish nation, as exemplified by the painted wooden horses (dalahästar) that you find in airport souvenir shops, or the idyllic domestic paintings by Carl Larsson that you find on calendars. Here these idyllic connotations are helped along by the fanciful floral design on that very traditional Swedish shade of grey-blue. In Sweden there is, or is imagined to be, a continuity between nineteenth century folk art and tasteful modernist design: in the UK the discontiuity is felt to be stark. This sense of integration with the folk-past has very profound implications for Swedish life and for its economy. It is one of the main stories that Sweden sells to the world. It sells it to its own people too.

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Friday, May 09, 2014

Anne Righter: Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (1962)

Anne Righter (née Bobbyann Roesen, later Anne Barton, 1933 - 2013) is mainly remembered for this book, her first.

When I bought it recently (from Oxfam, because it was the cheapest book in the shop), I imagined hopefully that it would talk about the conception of the play that was shared by Shakespeare, his fellow-actors, and their audiences. Of course that conception could only be discovered by inference. But Righter sticks to a narrower and more directly accessible topic, Shakespeare's use of the play-image within the plays themselves. And, after all, this rigorous concentration does lead to interesting results. The principal one of which, is that Shakespeare's play-references grow to a sort of apotheosis of positivity around 1600, with the chorus speeches of Henry V* and the troupe of players in Hamlet, before then turning negative in character (the poor player who struts and frets). The negativity being especially apparent in Troilus and Timon.
Righter concludes that after 1600 Shakespeare experienced a growing disillusion with the stage; so her book is in effect a late contribution to the Victorian notion of Shakespeare's "dark period". But she links this observation to the history of the Elizabethan drama as a whole. After a long period of development from medieval drama, involving both disintegration and reintegration, a certain high point of naturalistic drama was attained (above all in Shakespeare), then something curdled and then came the transformation into masque which is echoed in certain ways by the elimination of naturalistic illusion in Shakespeare's last plays.

*To be accurate about this, Righter suggests that the Chorus's self-deprecating references to the "Wooden O" etc might mark the beginning of Shakespeare's disillusion with the stage. But I see the speeches as really glorying in the incredible things the stage can do, albeit by recruiting the audience's imagination.

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Saturday, May 03, 2014

Leaving the cottage

(poem still in progress)


The grass lies on the land,
     that set of keys.
Dumb as a bunch of keys, the grass is.
    It’s you who know!
Do you know what you know?
   Take this clutch of grass
and potter back and forth,
  letting out your prisoners.


This blue morning is also over Syria;
    this sky is too high for
that kind of division.
   A dove clears its bowels as it
takes off into the air.
   So many have engraved
their messages on the blue stone:
    everyone is writing on the cover, and
yet the pages are blank.

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Thursday, May 01, 2014

My essay about Tim Allen now on Intercapillary Space

My longish review-essay of various works by the fantastic contemporary UK poet Tim Allen is now on Intercapillary Space:

As usual the essay initially took shape on this blog. I've removed it from its original location, but if you are curious about the context and why I start off by talking about classic novels rather than modern poetry, then this will expain it all:


Monday, April 28, 2014

William Shakespeare: King Lear (1605-06)

[Cordelia (Ashley Ricard), Lear (Ron Gural), Regan (Trina Beck), Goneril (Rebecca Frank) in a Tulane Shakespeare Festival production from 2009. Photo by Brad Robbert, image sourced from]

[Line references are to the Series 3 Arden edition, ed. R.A. Foakes, 1997. This conflates the three scenes usually numbered II.2-4 into one tremendous composite scene that begins at dawn and ends at night (II.2).]

From The Faerie Queene, Bk II, Canto X:


Next him king Leyr in happie peace long raind,
  But had no issue male him to succeed,
  But three faire daughters, which were well vptraind,
  In all that seemed fit for kingly seed:
  Mongst whom his realme he equally decreed
  To haue diuided. Tho when feeble age
  Nigh to his vtmost date he saw proceed,
  He cald his daughters; and with speeches sage
Inquyrd, which of them most did loue her parentage.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Prunus avium 'Plena'

Prunus avium 'Plena'.  Photos taken 15th April 2014 (a very early year), when a lot of the flowers are opening but the leaves are still small and reddish.

This a double variety of Wild Cherry. It flowers a bit later than most single-flowered Wild Cherry trees, and even from a distance has a noticeably different appearance when flowering: more tufty and irregular, the flowers less obviously sleeving the shoots.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities - "bestselling novel of all time". Allegedly.

The internet generally, and Wikipedia in particular, is obsessed with records. Consequently, you are quite likely to run across the the widely repeated claim that  A Tale of Two Cities is (as the Wikipedia article on Charles Dickens puts it) "the best selling novel of all time".

It isn't the most unlikely statement I've ever heard, but when I tried to trace it back to an authoritative source, I at first got no further than a chatty review by the novelist David Mitchell  in the Daily Telegraph from May 8th 2010.

"Charles Dickens’ second stab at a historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, has sold more than 200 million copies to date, making it the bestselling novel – in any genre – of all time."

 Did Mitchell know what he was talking about? Maybe, but it seems that no-one else does.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Gerald Brenan, Richard Ford, Ronald Fraser

Gerald Brenan (portrait by Dora Carrington)

(Image from

Gerald Brenan, South of Granada (1957) 

This feels like it's becoming a rare occasion. I've actually finished a book, what's more a book that I haven't read before, and I've even read it in the prescribed order, from start to finish!  Dr Johnson, they say, never finished a book. I fear I'm going the same way, and can only look back with some relief at all the books I got under my belt in my twenties.

South of Granada, published in 1957 but mainly about Spain in the 1920s, is probably the most admired book in the "Hispanist" genre (i.e. books about Spain in English), notwithstanding Richard Ford. Most of it is about living in a then-remote village (Yegen) in the Alpujarras. The road from Almeria to Granada didn't yet exist, and only mule-traffic was possible. Don Geraldo is now remembered by a plaque, a circular walk (Brenan walked vast distances) and a projected museum. [Chris Stewart's popular books (Driving over Lemons etc) are also set in the Alpujarras. Did you know Chris was once a founder member of Genesis? Wikipedia can be quite interesting sometimes. Eventually everything becomes swamped by its hyperreal projection. The trivia section is what makes tomorrow's news. (In effect, the word "iconic" means "rich in trivia"; there's a vacuum at the heart of it.)]

One of the nicest things, I now remember, about writing about a book is that it gives me a chance to re-discover the pages that, by the time I finish it, are already gliding out of my memory.  Have I commented before, on the tendency of book reviewers to get hung up on the book's ending, to the detriment of their review? And sadly it's rare for the ending to be the most important part of a book.

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Prunus sequence UK

Prunus 'Shirofugen', 20th April 2014

In 2014 we're seeing a more spread-out sequence than last year so it's easier to make sense of what's going on  (in 2013 all the early flowerers, except P. cerasifera, were held back by the freezing March and then bloomed all at once). These dates/times are for Southern England. As it's been such a mild winter this year, these dates are very early, around three weeks earlier than last year.

Phase I (very early, before equinox (Mar 20)


Prunus cerasifera (Cherry-Plum)  - starts before the end of Feb.

Prunus spinosa (Blackthorn)  - starts mid-March, before the equinox; continues to mid-April.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

cherry laurel begins

Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) just coming into flower, on March 21st 2014. (On the same day I also saw the first flowers of Wild Cherry (P. avium) and Sargent Cherry (P. sargentii).)

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Monday, March 24, 2014

hand off

The grass lies on the land,

(1)        that set of keys.

Dumb as a bunch of keys, the grass is.

            It's you who know!

Do you know what you know?

           Take this clutch of grass

& potter back and forth,

           letting out your prisoners.


Friday, March 21, 2014

visit to the local sewage farm

...attracted in by morning sun and a large golden patch of Colt's-foot (Tussilago farfara).

Photos from 17th March 2014.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Jenny Allan's "Kit"

Now transferred to here:


Thursday, March 13, 2014

William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure (1604)

Kenneth Colley as the Duke* in the 1979 BBC film

[* In the First Folio, the Duke is named as Vincentio (not Vicentio!) at the end of the text, in the "The names of all the Actors". No-one calls him by that name in the text itself, (well, you wouldn't) and so far as I can see he is always just Duke in the speech prefixes and SDs.]

In short order and skyingly, Measure for Measure can now be enjoyed for what it is, a wonderful and serious romantic comedy that is more usefully seen in apposition to Twelfth Night than to the plays it’s more commonly linked with. It works by fleet-footed scenes (all, bar the final one, rather brief) and is not afraid to leave gaps and to make momentary, casual use of characters and situations in pursuit of its object. The play has in fact a formal brilliance that perhaps was a springboard for Shakespeare to leap beyond such perfection into the wild elongations of Lear and Antony and Cleopatra.

Measure for Measure was after Shakespeare’s death rather neglected for three centuries. The reasons, e.g. its bawdiness and the central place it gives to dubiously legal sex, no longer survive as “problems” and nor do the more recent concerns that have been expressed as moral doubts about the behaviour of (chiefly) the Duke and Isabella. Problematizing is not after all a once-for-all process; problems vanish sometimes, and to notice this is a necessary clarification that does not, as some people fear, make things less complex than they are; on the contrary, it just clears the deck for what now appear as the real complexities.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

pulmonaria begins

Pulmonaria officinalis
Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), just coming into flower. I saw this one, just coming into flower on 5th march 2013, in a young woodland shelter belt between road and housing in West Swindon.

Pulmonaria is good for chest ailments, thus proving the doctrine of signatures to be not so silly after all. But probably the resemblance of the spotted leaves to diseased lungs was only noticed when the medicinal properties were already known. If Pulmonaria had been good for heartburn or urinary infections then we'd see that, instead.  NB I'd like to have a definite literary source for this resemblance. I'm quite suspicious about it, and it isn't in William Coles Art of Simpling.

P. officinalis is native to central Europe, and is a frequent non-native plant almost throughout the UK. In Sweden it's much rarer and  only seen in the extreme south. On the other hand P. obscura (unspotted leaves) is native and fairly common in central Sweden. (This latter is the plant known in Sweden as Lungört; P. officinalis is known as Fläcklungört.) P. obscura is also known (though incredibly rare) in Suffolk,  - first recorded 1842, but very likely native: all records are on ancient woodland and nobody bothers to grow P. obscura in gardens.

Pulmonaria officinalis, early flowers


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

29/10/00 - Alone in the flat - I revert to atavistic behaviour - reading Shakespeare, whose plays I’ve neglected for ages. The last time it was The Merry Wives of Windsor - this time The Merchant of Venice - a better play, indeed intermittently gripping (I.3, IV.1). Questions unanswered: Why is Antonio sad (I.1)? Is Shylock’s speech supposed to sound “foreign”? What does “The quality of mercy is not strained” mean, exactly? Why does Portia deny Shylock his principal? (She has saved Antonio - what else matters?)


Yes, there’s no doubt Shakespeare keeps us waiting in the Merchant - in fact, it’s our main posture. Hate and financial embarrassment are significantly more interesting than love in this play. So Act I builds with a dramatic force and logic like the swiftest tragedies. Portia appears as a lively prattler - her good sense is a benefit of economic independence - you can hardly foresee how instrumental she will become in the major plot.

In I.3 it must be said that Antonio behaves with dignity; his outburst of anger surely appeals to us as a principled rejection of usury. In fact we have only Shylock’s word for Antonio’s anti-Semitism, and if Antonio acts imprudently here it is from the practical and productive motives of love (Antonio not denying his previous bald rudeness, but not displaying it either). If his later explanation of Shylock’s hatred is countenanced, it seems that the play intends us to think that Shylock is morbidly over-sensitive. Which is how inconvenient oppressed minorities are usually described by their oppressors.

Whatever may be justly said in extenuation, I think the Merchant is seen most accurately as fundamentally anti-Semitic and also (in David Nirenberg’s terms) anti-Judaic - an author working within the general climate of opinion. If Shakespeare for the most part restricts coarse racial insult to the lips of Graziano, that is more from manners than principle - Graziano is a great joker (so no harm done, then?) and is within the fold of the righteous - fit to marry Nerissa.

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Note for "Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights"

This is a post I will probably write one day. But for the moment:

It's always nice to recommend on-line material,  and I think the following is a terrific collection of biographical and critical ideas by Clare B. Dunkle (arising from her researches for a prequel to Wuthering Heights)

She writes about the question of Emily's hypothetical second novel here:

Emily could have had more than two years for writing a second novel - i.e. from the time that Wuthering Heights was first packed off to publishers (July 1846?)  up to when she became ill on October 1st, 1848 (at Branwell's funeral).

[Can I complain here that Brontë chronologies on the web are incredibly inconsistent? Some say that Emily wrote Wuthering Heights between October 1845 and June 1846, some say it was written from December 1845 to July 1846, others again say it was probably begun in August 1845. Beware how your casual guesswork develops immortality! Again, some say that the agreement with Newby to publish Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey was in July 1847, others say August 1847 - this I'd have thought was a matter of record. Bloom's Notes* clearly states that it was on  July 15th that the sisters agreed to Newby's proposal that they bear part of the production costs.]

Juliet Barker says that Emily and Anne at first reacted to the many rejections of their first novels by retreating into the privacy of Gondal. She thinks both Tenant and Emily's possible second novel were begun around mid-1847. In The Brontës she says (re the coming year - 1848): "there was much to look forward to... Emily and Anne had got their first books in print and were both working on a second novel..."

Dear Sir,--

I am much obliged by your kind note and shall have great pleasure in making arrangements for your next novel. I would not hurry its completion for I think you are quite right not to let it go before the world until well satisfied with it, for much depends on your next work. If it be an improvement on your first you will have established yourself as a first-rate novelist, but if it falls short the critics will be too apt to say that you have expended your talent in your first novel. I shall therefore have pleasure in accepting it upon the understanding that its completion be at your own time.

Believe me, my dear Sir,
yrs. sincerely,
T.C. Newby

Feb. 15, 1848

Thomas Newby's letter of Feb 15th 1848 implies that Emily had definitely begun a second novel but not yet completed it. Of course Emily was under no compulsion to tell him the whole truth, she might in fact have practically finished it, or again, she might still have been only projecting it. The only thing that seems definite is she told him there was going to be a second novel. (The rascally Newby seems to me to give quite good advice.)

The letter has no addressee name on it, and it isn't absolutely conclusive that the letter IS addressed to Ellis Bell rather than Acton Bell. (It would of course make perfect sense if addressed to Anne, then midway through The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.) However, the letter was found in Emily's writing desk. Among other things in this desk there was also an empty envelope from Newby that is addressed to Ellis Bell. The letter and the envelope were separate, but the folding of the letter is consistent with it having arrived in this envelope.

Emily's last dated poem was Sept 14, 1846. So basically there is no known creative work from the last two years of Emily's active life.

According to Bloom's Notes* there is a conjecture that Emily spent some of her last years writing an "expanded version of Wuthering Heights", which of course does not survive. I have no idea of the source of this conjecture.

Charlotte could (as Clare says) quite likely have destroyed the putative second novel out of concern for Emily's reputation. "All the evidence suggests it," though, is too strong. It's also entirely possible that Emily ordered its destruction herself. We know she was a perfectionist and we know she had sensitivities about things being published without her control. Also, if Emily did order its destruction then  it might have been Anne she asked, rather than Charlotte. It's all speculation. (Margaret Lane, The Bronte Story, 1953. - quoted here: 

The disappearance of the Gondal prose writings is almost more painful still, because we know more about them. It's certainly possible that Charlotte destroyed them after the death of her two sisters, though I don't know if she would necessarily have thought them in any danger of being published. It's also possible that Emily and Anne took the decision to destroy them. After all that's the most common fate of adolescent writings - their authors get rid of them.

So I think the claim "Again, almost certainly, Charlotte disposed of them when she went through her sisters' papers" is overstated. Clare infers Charlotte' attitude from some minor edits (e.g. of poems and WH) and her public judgments of her sisters' work, which seem to us so distressingly lukewarm. But I don't know what evidence there may be that Charlotte did do any actual destroying. What I do know is that she didn't destroy the Angria work that she wrote with Branwell, though she might quite reasonably have thought of it as prejudicial to her own and her brother's reputation, if she was the kind of tender-minded tidy-upper who would worry about the Gondal writings. Who knows, maybe Charlotte was the family member who was least exacting when it came to tidying up papers? Against this, of course, you could argue that Charlotte might have been too ill to deal with her own juvenile work in the same way she had allegedly dealt with Emily's and Anne's.

Also, you might reasonably tend to link the absence of Gondal prose (though not Gondal poems) with the virtual absence of any personal papers relating to Emily and Anne. That's really what lies behind Juliet Barker's complaint that you could (with pardonable overstatement) write the known facts of their lives on a single sheet of paper. It seems unlikely that two dying sisters could both have been so determined to destroy all mark of their past lives. Surely this loss of their papers occurred after their death.

Coming back to the other side again, Charlotte re-edited Wuthering Heights in 1850, and though she made unauthorized changes to paragraphing and to the rendering of Joseph's dialect, her main intention was to put right the many errors in Newby's edition (Newby having ignored Emily's list of corrections). Was this evident care for her sister's work compatible with otherwise obliterating her history and the bulk of her writings? Perhaps. "'Wildfell Hall' it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve." There's a sinister ring to that remark. Suppression, though in this case impracticable, was apparently something Charlotte viewed without qualms.

Perhaps as a result of proprietorial remarks like that, we tend to assume Charlotte the famous novelist would naturally feel that she had control over the manuscripts left behind by her sisters. That may be right, but it is rather a big assumption. The unquestioned head of the family and the inheritor of Emily's and Anne's manuscripts would of course be her father, Patrick Brontë. (Charlotte's manuscripts, on the other hand, became the property of her husband, who published The Professor.) So perhaps it was Patrick who destroyed the Gondal prose and Emily's "second novel"; or again, he might have acted in collusion with Charlotte while she was still alive. There are doubtless facts here of which I'm ignorant.

We need to remember that we don't know. It's always tempting to put named individuals into the frame (just as Shakespearean-authorship folk always pick a nobleman). But Emily's and Anne's papers could have disappeared or been destroyed without Charlotte's involvement, especially after Charlotte's death. Persons responsible unknown.

* Harold Bloom, ed. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (Bloom's Notes), 1996.I found this online, but I can't track it down again.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Miny imperial

#the tower
towers, buoyant serapi
Berenice strolled on flags
and on heavy inscriptions
Oh, heavenly. I am stood here patient enough

Have you forgiven gas attax yet?

I must feed my child
Cathy.. betrayal #

Berenice scrambled flailed
the plaster knife ran all over the surface
They mustered, unbuttoning

Sov, du lilla videung

Franco in Moscow

Language can't say what I know

They're always asking for strength

the village lives only on its surface,
courting, labouring...
its dead are forgotten

Life, an illusion

The pearl waves pouring through the flume

An afternoon dark with mustering pines

And the child ran into the barn, I panicked,
I couldn't see her I flew
and then I trod on my ankle
like a fool

I banged the cupboards
and the dust flew what a dingy night

I was life, multitudes, when I came to know this.

I rose straight up with my child held above my head, the warmth of patterned blankets descended from Government Hill and burst into floral borders is that the way you imagined it


yellow mint tabs, caplet abstracted, multiplication red plaza mosaic,
The figures were cultivating the green, soil plots and the cream chimneys,
generators of a low grey thudding hum across a walkway behind a temple.
The fox-form slunk into the bramble,
The fox's buoyed tail like the sock of coastal plains; no paintings near the coast,
grey and mint panels, ranks of long canted grass reflexion,
the lofted spokes energised, enervated. sink-white aloft. 


Monday, February 17, 2014

flowers from Jämtland (July 2013)

A few more photos from my stay in Jämtland last July:

Angelica sylvestris

Wild Angelica (Strätta, Angelica sylvestris). One of the most characteristic plants of Norrland.  Often, as here, flushed pink. Grey Alder in the background. 

Dianthus deltoides

Maiden Pink (Baknejlika, Dianthus deltoides). Quite common in villages, road-verges, old farmsteads, pastureland... anywhere, in short, that human beings have managed to win back from the blanket forest.  

Trichophorum alpinum

Cotton Deergrass (Ullsäv, Trichophorum alpinum, formerly known as Scirpus hudsonianus). Common in northern Sweden. Once recorded in Scotland (a bog in Angus from 1791 - c. 1813), but long extinct. An extremely beautiful sight, I thought.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The flowers of Jämtland - Nattviol

Platanthera bifolia flowers and fruits

Pictures from a stay in East Jämtland last summer (early July 2013).

Above, Lesser Butterfly-orchid = Nattviol (Platanthera bifolia). This one is the woodland variety with longer spurs (ssp. latiflora (Drejer) Löjtnant), known in Sweden as "Skogsnattviol".  On the right of the picture above, you can see a dried-up spike from the previous year.

Nattviol means "night violet" and refers to the fragrant scent at evening, designed to appeal to moths.

Here in Jämtland it's close to the northern limit of its range, but this should not lead you into thinking that the plants are rare or sickly.  Here in the woody copse known as "Sjögrens" at the back of our old summer cottage (to which, alas, we were saying our goodbyes) there has always been this healthy colony of nattviol. Perhaps the conditions are exceptionally good, in the sheltered Indal valley, on a calcareous west-facing slope.

Nattviol is a common plant in Sweden (especially central Sweden) and much celebrated, tending to become a symbol of the mystery and melancholy in those white nights of summer.

Dofta, dofta nattviol,
sommarnatt är ljum,
ingen oro sjuder.
Och till skogens tysta rum
långt ur fjärran ljuder
vemodsensam bondfiol.

Fragrant, fragrant night-violet,
summernight warm,
no unease here.
In the wood's silent spaces,
far from commotion,
one sad and lonely peasant violin.

(Erik Grotenfelt - a Finland-Swedish poet, 1891 - 1919. This unhappy poet, novelist and children's-book author, who was an early champion of Edith Södergran, received his military training in Germany, fought for the Whites during the Finnish Civil War, ordered the execution of sixty Red Guards and at least two women at Västankvarn in May 1918, initially carried out the sentences himself  (the men, he said afterwards, were not experienced in the enforcement of judgments), and shot himself a year later.  He was later claimed by Finnish Nazis as an inspirational forerunner, which more or less terminated any lingering interest in his writings.)

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Thursday, February 06, 2014

New on Intercapillary Space...

I've put up a couple of little notes on Intercapillary Space.  They are not much more than annotated links but they cover quite a lot of interesting ground (of a modern-poetry-and-poetics variety, but also taking in militancy and civil unrest, tiger economies, friendship...).

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Tapping World Summit 2014

Yes, it's that time of year again....

The summit starts on February 24th. Lots of free stuff but it is time-limited, so make sure you sign up before the 24th and you can get a mass of free info about how (and why) to tap. Get on there now and you can watch Nick Ortner's 30-minute chat with Wayne Dyer, which is amazing.

As for the summit itself, I'm expecting it to be the usual format of two presentations a day, all conducted by the brilliant Jessica Ortner.

(If you don't know why you'd be at all interested in this, then EFT aka "tapping" is a simple but profound technique for changing how you do things to get through life.)

If you're bothered about how this fits with conventional medicine, check out the interview with Lissa Rankin MD:


Tuesday, February 04, 2014

What did the summer contain?

What did the summer contain?
(16)   It wasn't only the pine-scent, wasn't only
the meadow-sides flowing like a bright flag.
         At the river you picked up a
                                              handful of
         not only red river-gravel but all
            those one-syllable words: air, & love ...
(What dumb signposts they are! We who are tired
             of kicking up & down the same old road,
well, we have left some dents on them.)
         But, what was it?
Where the grass rippled up a bank,
         where we danced a mazurka & the
                                   sun became a golden berry -
what worm of no syllables
        lay wreathed & smiling in its gut?    


Monday, February 03, 2014

William Shakespeare: King John (1595?)

Mrs Siddons on Constance, quoted in Thomas Campbell's Life of Mrs Siddons

King John is now about the least-performed of Shakespeare’s plays. I have read a review of a college production at M.I.T.; but it’s a long time since Mrs Siddons and her directors seized eagerly on the role of Constance to make a showstopping display of female loftiness.  The words used by Mrs Siddons, Mrs Jameson and others are “vehemence”, “passion” and “exquisite sensibility”. These were topics of urgent interest. The Romantic/Victorian cult of “the feminine nature” - though really depending on a belittlement of women as practical agents, as is now easily seen - permitted the relief of some acute pressure in that bizarre culture.

R. L. Smallwood’s interpretation of the play (in the New Penguin Shakespeare, 1974) turns its back on all this to emphasise the centrality of the Bastard and Hubert as, eventually, decent bystanders. This reading is humane and detailed, but it has some scarcely acknowledged difficulties. (Despite the evidence of speech prefixes, I hardly accept Hubert as identical with the citizen on the walls of Angiers. The two roles have clearly defined functions and nothing but questions seems to be gained from assimilating them.)

One difficulty is that the Bastard’s outrageous (and nearly implemented) suggestion that Angiers be levelled first and argued over later must be regarded as a sort of sarcasm. The idea is proposed with considerable energy. Another is that the Bastard is not shown as being in possession of the facts, so far as John’s death warrant on Arthur is concerned. This matters if his decisions are to be regarded as morally normative.

                                    If thou didst but consent
            To this most cruel act, do but despair...

So he says to Hubert. But John did consent, and the Bastard, not knowing this, is not really put to the test.

A better approach to this rumbustious character is via his kinship with Richard Coeur de Lion. His impatience with treaties is a military and temperamental one. He is well positioned to make deflating criticisms but he is not at all suitable as a comprehensive guide to political and national behaviour. Pugnacity is a sort of behaviour that is occasionally useful.

It is perhaps with these issues in mind that someone else has proposed playing King John as a “black comedy”, i.e. (so I suppose) a play in which all the action is to some extent vain and there is no moral centre. “Black comedy” seems to me an anachronistic genre, I mean when applied to Shakespeare; it can glide over difficulties but not help us.

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