Friday, July 21, 2017

Prussian doves

Dancing forest on the Curonian Spit

[Image source:
. Photo by Anton Agarkov /]

This post jumps off from a poem in Alistair Noon's collection The Kerosene Singing (Nine Arches Press, 2015). The poem begins:


The wagtail's plumage a woodcut,
the sandbank a log
traffic balances along
between lagoon and Baltic
and into Lithuanian mists.

"Oblast" means province or region and is an administrative unit used in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but the topography leaves no doubt which oblast we are talking about in this case. This is Kaliningrad, the Russian semi-exclave between Poland and Lithuania. The sandbank is the Curonian Spit, and the lagoon is the Curonian Lagoon.


Here's the second stanza of Noon's poem:

The bricks cohere to a Kirche,
squat and ziggurat-roofed.
The Word seconded to Slavic:
nave hung with fresh icons
now the interregnum
as a barn has passed.

The stanza alludes to the forcible dispersion of the German-speaking population at the end of WWII, and their replacement by Russian-speakers . The "interregnum" is the era of Soviet atheism before the church came back into use.

The church in question is in Rybachy, the largest settlement in the Russian part of the Spit. Wikipedia notes:  "The red brick former Lutheran church was built in 1873 when the village was still part of Germany. It is one of the oldest remaining buildings in Rybachy. After the Second World War it was used for wheat storage. Only in 1992 was the church handed to the Russian Orthodox Church to be renovated. It is named after St Sergey of Radonezh and is in use once more as a church, now catering to the Orthodox community." (,_Kaliningrad_Oblast)

Describing the church as "ziggurat-roofed" is a bit impressionistic, but I  do see what he means:

Church of St Sergey, Rybachy

[Image source:,_Kaliningrad_Oblast]

Reconstructed facade of the great Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq

[Image source:]

With scrupulous sequence, the final stanza of the poem moves SW down the spit to the National Park exit near Zelenogradsk. Here the spit is at its narrowest. (The National Park is Kurshskaya Kosa, the smallest in Russia.)

They sow the alders
to halt the dance of the dunes,
the lagoon smooth as a salt plain.
Cattle gaze from the tarmac,
and a pig is loose in the village.
The coach will take us
under the turnpike
and out of the National Park.

{The village with the pig might be Lesnoy.]

The poem opens up progressively to the emptiness and space in the landscape. By the time of that deadpan last sentence, it's hard to say what was ideal, what real; what kind of threshold had been crossed here, and as the poem ends is it now un-crossed?

Sandbank: Curonian Spit

[Image source:
. Photo by Anton Agarkov /]

Found anecdote:

“I love fishing here. We used to come here for flounders when I was just a kid,” says Vitya, a young red-nosed fisherman. “Back then we didn't just catch fish, we used to bake crows! Nah, honestly! We'd lay our fishing net out on the ground and bait it with fish. We could catch more than a hundred crows a day.

Then we'd pluck them, chop the heads and legs off and sell them at the market. Of course, the buyers didn't know they were buying crows! We even made up a special name for them — we called them ‘Prussian Doves!’”

(from an article by Daria Gonzalez here:]

Curonian Spit - Dancing Forest

[Image source:]

The strange forms of the mysterious Dancing Forest - a pine forest that grew up  on a former Nazi air-strip - are naturally associated by many with the dancing sand dunes among which the forest grows. A less romantic but still unproven theory is that the unusual bases of these pine trees reflect contortions of the young shoots due to infestation by caterpillars of the Pine Shoot Moth Rhyacionia buoliana . Or the fungus Melampsora pinitorqua . Or maybe there was human interference at an early stage, perhaps with the intention of growing timber with a natural curve (though pine is not a suitable timber for boat-building).

A similar mystery surrounds the Crooked Forest at Nowe Czarnowo, a village near Gryfino, West Pomerania, Poland. This is another pine plantation, thought to have been planted around 1930.

The Crooked Forest at Nowe Czarowo

[Image source:]


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jeffrey Archer: A Twist in the Tale (1988)

Anyone familiar with the dire literary reputation of Jeffrey Archer’s books will understand why, in the end, I decided to go for a collection of short stories. The actual desire to read him, scarcely (I admit) very urgent, originated in a hotel foyer in Malta in January, 2000.


I supposed then that some of the obloquy that came his way must be undeserved. He had been a prominent member of a government that was universally detested by intellectuals; so I expected some prejudice. And then, the plot of his first novel (idly leafed through in the foyer) suggested more than a hint of John Buchan, another Conservative politician some seventy years earlier; a popular author whose books I happened to like. I could well imagine, however, that any modern follower in that line would be exposed to critical condemnation.


Alas, I was disappointed in my anticipation, and the book really is bad –- so bad that even those who themselves would hardly class as sophisticated readers could make great play with it. This makes it difficult to write about (I have written, and deleted, numerous paragraphs at this point).


What does “bad” mean? It means that the composition does not accept my values; and that I hardly understand what values it lives by.  It means that I am experiencing an instinct to kill it, perhaps with elegant dispatch or, probably more effective, by not writing about it at all.


The style of the book is unadorned and by most standards barely competent.


“Certainly,” said Christopher, and began the task of undoing the larger package while Margaret worked on the smaller one.


“I shall need to have these looked at by an expert,” said the official once the parcels were unwrapped.


Any author wedded to conventional standards of good writing would put a line through all that, replacing the “clumsy” or “laboured” presentation with something swift like “They unpacked the carpets”. But, of course, a radically different standard is at work here; one will only be able to grasp it when one finally sees that the original text is in fact “just right”.

The important thing, for instance, is not speed, but the relishing of certain conventions, the staler the better. The reader enjoys Christopher's polite but crisp "Certainly", and the companion-like, cheerful, unspoken compliance of his wife/pal. Hush, Middle England values are being promulgated. And then there is the joy of those awe-inspiring words "I shall need to have these looked at by an expert", words that the thrilled reader has waited all their lives to hear, the promise of some kind of official recognition, like possessing a really interesting illness.

I quite like this story, in which Christopher and Margaret represent the readers’ view of themselves, a worthy pair who are appalled by vulgar ostentation (reminiscent, in that respect, of any bonding pair in any Mills & Boon book). Christopher and Margaret are a childless couple who work hard, “pore over maps” before their holidays, are devoted to each other, and hope to land an authentic bargain that is strictly within their means. The story, such as it is, contrasts their own behaviour with that of Ray and Melody Kendall-Hume, a dreadful couple; vain, insensitive luxury-yacht-owners who are deservedly ripped off by an astute Turkish carpet dealer. Then the dealer (I fear, somewhat improbably) gives up a slice of his profit in order to reward Christopher and Margaret for their genuine appreciation of first-class carpets with what amounts to a fabulous gift. But my paraphrase is already starting to mislead and to seek relief in a certain irony; the improbability would not be noticed by Archer’s true audience. 


Here is a summary of the other stories; in the circumstances, much the most useful and eloquent thing I can supply.  1. A man punches his unfaithful mistress, accidentally killing her, but gets his rival put away for murder (TWIST: he withholds from us until the last page that he is the foreman of the jury). 2. An upright Nigerian, investigating corruption, tries to persuade a Swiss banker to betray the names of his account-holders (TWIST: he has stolen money himself and wants to open an account). 3. A young man is prevented by his authoritarian father from working at the car factory; he is forced to take a job at the Savoy and becomes one of the world’s leading chefs, thanks to the father whose firmness he now appreciates. 4. A man receives a foreign decoration (3rd Class); the quality of the decoration is poor, mere brass and glass, and because of a rivalry going back to childhood he is induced to pay Aspreys a fantastic sum to make a superior copy of the original; the foreign ruler spots this and adroitly grabs his fabulous copy by honouring him with an upgrade to 2nd Class – then he presents the purloined copy to the Queen (as 1st Class). 5. A female narrator describes how she ended up with a man called Roger (TWIST: we are “led up the garden path” because she is actually a cat). 6. After the war a former POW sticks up for the nicer of his Japanese camp officials and saves them from execution. They end up running an electronics empire and, when he becomes a Dean, shower his cathedral with donations. (TWIST: the ex-Major is only in charge of a factory, but the ex-Corporal turns out to be the company President). 7. A chess-player asks a gorgeous but apparently not very skilled newcomer back to his flat for games of double-or-quits chess – money on his side against stripping on hers. She thrashes him in the last game; she’s in fact a chess champion. 8. The President of the Wine Society is challenged by a sneering rich type to name some wines from his cellar; he gets them all wrong, but only because the butler has been swapping the wines with inferior stuff and passing on the originals to the local inn, whose winelist has a deservedly high reputation. 9. A man decides to kill another man who he thinks has seduced his wife (by faking a skiing accident). The attempt falls short of murder, but it turns out that his wife didn’t give in anyway (TWIST: at the ski resort she knew all along what her husband was up to). 10. Two men have a violent public quarrel at the golf club, and one sues the other for slander. It ends in an out-of-court settlement (TWIST: they are in league; it’s a tax fiddle.) 11. A Rabbi’s son tells in a letter how he fell in love with a woman who once mocked him; they are kept apart by their families; the woman dies in childbirth, her daughter soon after, and the man kills himself (TWIST: his father the rabbi is not reading the letter for the first time; he has read it every day for ten years.)   



[I have now read one of his full-length books, A Matter of Honour (1997). This is a much “better” book, that is to say a book I feel easier about admitting, because it conforms to a finely-honed popular genre, in this case the thriller/spy novel. The author of such a work is relatively insignificant, since most of its power is generated by tried and tested mythical images (for example, the amateur on the run who is unable to put his trust in his own side, only in complete strangers). The values in this book are identical to those embodied in Christopher and Margaret – surprisingly domestic, and reminiscent of the Daily Mail group of newspapers, who seem almost single-handedly responsible for the admiring blurbs produced by the publishers. If I wanted to explore the Archer world more closely, I think I’d begin (though of course I couldn’t end) with his writing about the arts. In the short story we learnt that the secret of a first-class Turkish carpet is the number of knots per square inch. In the novel, the genuine icon can be known by the tsar’s silver seal on the reverse. So aesthetic values can be recognized, as long as they have an objective bottom line, like a bank balance. In another scene we learn that expertise in Shakespeare means being able to recite the names of his 37 plays (while being tortured in the Russian embassy –- you make your escape uttering a triumphant crack about the Two Noble Kinsmen). But Archer (or his audience) is impatient with the intangibles of art. One of the novel’s characters, Robin Beresford, is a (female) double-bass player. A hefty woman, and the most impressive thing about her technique is that she knows how to carry the instrument. Robin is the most winning personality in the book, and we almost begin to think that "the RPO", like the British cycling team, are something to cheer for. But Archer can’t resist making a reassuring joke to remind us that, after all, the men in the orchestra are all nancy boys. Elsewhere, a professor Brunweld is resigned to spending three days in the Pentagon, away from his demanding family: “He would never have a better opportunity to settle down and read the collected works of Proust”. This is a joke against both academics and Proust (supposed a monumentally prolix bore who would take fully three days to read).]




Friday, July 14, 2017

Karleen Koen: Through a Glass Darkly (1986)

My comments on this sweeping historical romance (“the grandest love story ever told”) connect with what I wrote elsewhere about Katherine McMahon (2000). But anachronism is by no means so prominent a feature of Koen's method; you might say that Karleen Koen’s sense of the present is indistinguishable from her sense of the eighteenth century.


It is a vast book, and towards the end is plainly preparing for its sequel. The end of the grand love story is not the end. As it happens that accords with our persistent troubled idea that the love story is after all not quite grand, but qualified in manifold ways, its hero inappropriately old, an inconstant bisexual whose love for Barbara may not after all be his deepest (that may have been his love for her grandfather). There is no pretence that Barbara’s hopeful sketches play any part in his subsequent beginnings of Devane House – his gigantic dream, which she allowed herself to think of as “their dream”. He dies, it seems, hardly aware of her –- there is no sugary concord here. He is ruined and disgraced. Barbara’s happiness coincides with, but does not redeem, a profoundly corrupt Parisian milieu and the death of all her younger brothers and sisters from smallpox. These are not flaws. In Barbara’s tumultuous day-to-day experience everything co-exists, as in life.


You know what kind of a book this is, of course. Which almost blinds you to its unpredictability: to Philippe, Harry, Mary, Thérèse, the smallpox, the sodden father, the duel, the Bubble. No story goes the way it should. Everyone is a victim. The characters are effortlessly maintained, but the tie between character and destiny is intangible. Diana (Barbara’s whorish, mercenary mother) is an arbitrary exception – her stupid resilience pleases us in the end. She begins to assume, when nothing else can, the halo of comedy; a surprising discovery, the kind of thing that may happen when you write without bother about critics, knowing you will attract none (I don't count).


The story is well-laden with goods (Roger is very rich). One of Karleen Koen’s characteristic sentence-forms is the rushed list, separated by “and”s:


It was Christmas Eve. Saylor House was bustling with servants cleaning floors, polishing furniture and silver. Delicious smells of roasting capon and goose and turkey wafted from the kitchen. Various sets of small tables were being moved into the great parlour and the hall and set with heavy damask trimmed in lace and china plates and silver forks and spoons and knives and cups and salt cellars. It would be a late supper, at eight, and then the adults would stay up toasting the evening and watching the yule log burn...



This is 1715. Lest you doubt, turkey had been a popular Christmas dish in England since  around 1650. The author’s research throughout is fairly impeccable but the syntax proclaims that anyway all the detail is to be flown through in pursuit of the elusive tissue of a life that won’t stop going on. The other characteristic sentence-form is the one-word sentence, usually a name. Roger. Barbara. These sentences are like stabs, their meaning comprising whole passages of experience that are signposted as adequately though of course as drastically as we name a dot on a map as :-- London.


Her grandmother had saved the letter, giving it silently back to her; she read it and reread it until it tore along its creases. I am not a fool, he wrote, I know there is much to be explained between us. Philippe. Who smiled at her under the great dome of Roger’s pavilion of the arts. If Roger thought she would pack her trunks and rush headlong to London tohis waiting arms, he had another thought coming. (Besides, she had rushed headlong once, already, in the spring, and he had not even realized it. Rushed headlong into Philippe’s smile. Like running into a wall.) She would wait. She would let her heart tell her what to do, and she would not make one move from Tamworth until she was certain. Roger could wait  . . . as she had waited. She still had much to deal with. There were dark dreams of her father and of Jemmy. Of Charles and Richelieu, who opened their arms to her, but somehow she could never reach them. She had to understand it all. And herself. Roger, wait. As I have waited. Ah, Roger, the girl who loved you in Paris does not exist, and the heart of the one who does is so hard . . . it needs to soften. I need time to heal, to forgive and forget . . . 


It doesn’t much matter what Barbara’s heart tells her; unknown to her, Roger is already dying. Yet because we share Barbara’s experience we will continue to feel that what the heart tells matters totally. What other people may tell is nothing, it’s of no consequence unless the heart accords with it and absorbs it into its own telling.

This is what Roger says to Barbara in the last few months of his life, the last thirty pages of his life.

            ‘Behind,’ he whispered. ‘The French are massed behind . . .’



            ‘Barbara.’ He croaked out her name. ‘H-hurts.’



(After her performance in the Christmas play) Roger stared at her, his mouth compressed. ‘I hurt . . .’



            ‘I . . . love . . . you . . .’


This was Karleen Koen's first book, and at the time it set some kind of record for a publisher's advance to a new author. She has now written four books, all ,I think, set in the eighteenth century.


Thursday, July 13, 2017


Above my 1-bedroom flat on the estate there is another 1-bedroom flat, which is occupied by Jan, a sweet-natured girl of around 40, but with a terrible past. Her flat is usually quite social. For several weeks during this hot summer Jan's flat contained her untamed daughter Sophia along with grandson Lewis. (They came on a week's visit, but stayed the month.) This was in addition to the normal complement:  Jan's new bloke -- a merry, laughing soul whose name I've yet to learn --- Jan's 18-year-old son Matt, Matt's uncle, Matt's best mate, and not forgetting the pit bull terrier Yorkie, an amiable but nervous animal with a background, as Jan said to me, almost as troubled as her own.

There was a lot of noise and a lot of chaos, most of it down to Lewis, an independent four-year-old who seemed to have no prior acquaintance with concepts such as bed-time, private property or prohibitions. But despite the trials of Lewis, and despite all the usual quota of animated disagreements, it was obvious that Jan was in a good place. She even works three days a week now, and I hear her singing along to R'n'B on the computer.

Completely different to the dark-ringed ghost I first knew, trapped in a desperate relationship with a junkie who spent all her money.  All through the night they talked, and always with the same outcome: he'd got nowhere else to go. Sometimes he'd go to a hostel for a few days, but then he'd come and plead and the kind-hearted Jan would have him back.

Meanwhile, downstairs, I drift back late from the office or from evenings out, and spend an hour in the luxury of silence and solitude. I read a little Spanish poetry, play a tune on the guitar, smoke, add a note in my blog and drop exhausted into bed.

And I wonder at how they can all stand it, upstairs. The thought crosses my mind that co-habiting is, when all's said and done, an adaptation for poverty.

(You may object that it's for bringing up a family, but that's a kind of poverty too. Or at least, they tend to go together!)


‘Oh, of course,’ said Mr Dombey. ‘I desire to make it a question of wages, altogether. Now, Richards, if you nurse my bereaved child, I wish you to remember this always. You will receive a liberal stipend in return for the discharge of certain duties, in the performance of which, I wish you to see as little of your family as possible. When those duties cease to be required and rendered, and the stipend ceases to be paid, there is an end of all relations between us. Do you understand me?’
Mrs Toodle [Dombey chooses to call her "Richards"] seemed doubtful about it; and as to Toodle himself, he had evidently no doubt whatever, that he was all abroad.
‘You have children of your own,’ said Mr Dombey. ‘It is not at all in this bargain that you need become attached to my child, or that my child need become attached to you. I don’t expect or desire anything of the kind. Quite the reverse. When you go away from here, you will have concluded what is a mere matter of bargain and sale, hiring and letting: and will stay away. The child will cease to remember you; and you will cease, if you please, to remember the child.’
Mrs Toodle, with a little more colour in her cheeks than she had had before, said ‘she hoped she knew her place.’
‘I hope you do, Richards,’ said Mr Dombey. ‘I have no doubt you know it very well. Indeed it is so plain and obvious that it could hardly be otherwise. Louisa, my dear, arrange with Richards about money, and let her have it when and how she pleases. Mr what’s-your name, a word with you, if you please!’
Thus arrested on the threshold as he was following his wife out of the room, Toodle returned and confronted Mr Dombey alone. He was a strong, loose, round-shouldered, shuffling, shaggy fellow, on whom his clothes sat negligently: with a good deal of hair and whisker, deepened in its natural tint, perhaps by smoke and coal-dust: hard knotty hands: and a square forehead, as coarse in grain as the bark of an oak. A thorough contrast in all respects, to Mr Dombey, who was one of those close-shaved close-cut moneyed gentlemen who are glossy and crisp like new bank-notes, and who seem to be artificially braced and tightened as by the stimulating action of golden showerbaths.
‘You have a son, I believe?’ said Mr Dombey.
‘Four on ‘em, Sir. Four hims and a her. All alive!’
‘Why, it’s as much as you can afford to keep them!’ said Mr Dombey.
‘I couldn’t hardly afford but one thing in the world less, Sir.’
‘What is that?’
‘To lose ‘em, Sir.’

(from Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son Chapter 2)


I remember reading about certain migratory seabirds, perhaps it was Arctic Terns, who return to the same coastal rock year after year, after almost circumnavigating the globe. They pair for life, but so strong is the instinct for personal space, that when they return in spring after almost a year apart, it takes a long time for them to settle and to allow their mate near them, and during this period they repeatedly ward each other off, stabbing with their fierce bills.

Birds normally have a high stress level leading to an easily triggered flight response (the chemical in question is corticosterone). That's useful for survival at most times of year. But in order to allow them to get on with nesting and mating early in the year, the birds are able to cut their normal corticosterone production by about 50%.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

people saying the news of light

The wind blew over the grainy fields
People saying the news of light

railway flashed in shadow, perfunctory
feet in shoes clattered down stairs
flash of a granite worktop
swing of a big fish swimming beneath
the eye of a little person
the pivot in meadows of seaweed.

A paper blew over the furniture outlet,
it could become a forest of breath
but I don't believe it. The child in the fish shoes
had buds in his ears: he was listening to chewing-gum.
Why would you disentangle your ideas --
wouldn't it harm them?


Something that stays in the ear... as a growing
child in the womb, as the growing secret of a grave,
what sways with the listener, slowly, to sombre strings,
while we look forth, electrified by sound, to the changing fields
and the swinging skies.

As if this poem doesn't have a single thing to organize,
has no texts to reply to.



Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Much Ado, Two Gentlemen, Belleforest, Bandello

Beatrice (Ellie Piercy) and Benedick (Paul Ready)

[Image source:, from a 2014 production at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, directed by Maria Aberg]

It's commonplace that Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1590) foreshadows a host of features of Shakespeare's later comedies. This post discusses (well, let's not be too ambitious, it notes) the especially close relationship with Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598)

TGV is, as its title indicates, firmly grounded on the relationship between two male pals (Valentine and Proteus). In the opening scene, Proteus is the lover and Valentine is the scorner of love. Likewise, the opening scenes of MAAN present Claudio as the lover and Benedick as the confirmed bachelor.  There are a hundred differences in nuance, I grant. Shakespeare has an aversion to repeating himself.  But beneath the marvellously developed flesh the primitive skeleton is there. 

In both plays the supposed scorner of love yields with ease to the power of love. In both plays, too, the supposed lover goes on to behave appallingly and in ways that modern audiences find difficult to reconcile with an uncomplicated happy ending. Proteus after sundry treacheries threatens rape, while an easily beguiled Claudio hurls vile accusations at his love and appears rather untroubled when informed that she has died of his harsh treatment.

There are other parallels between the two plays, if you go looking for them. The dim-witted Watch, for example, might seem to grow out of Valentine's daft band of robbers in the forest.

And of course Leonato's false account of Beatrice with the letter recapitulates Julia's behaviour in the earlier play.

But an area where the plays firmly differ is the heroines.  MAAN doesn't deal in breeches roles. Its women are emphatically within their family circles.  Hero in MAAN is curiously muted, absent, and lacking in stature (in every sense) --- Penny Gay (see link below) points out that Hero and Claudio never address each other on stage until the shaming scene.

In fact MAAN is, in terms of pure plot-technique, a distinctly creaky affair. (Notably so compared with the perfection of A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example.) Who can credit or understand Don John's motiveless malignity? What reason is given (answer: none) for Claudio's and Don Pedro's feeble gullibility? Why are Borachio and Conrade so happily willing to do evil, yet so easily unmasked, and then so urbanely penitent? Why does Don Pedro think that he assists by wooing Hero in Claudio's name, why does Claudio go along with this, and why does he then get jealous?  and so on....

That line of thinking can lead to questions about stagecraft too. Isn't the subplot about Claudio's jealousy of Don Pedro , rather swiftly resolved, just filling out the early part of the play because the subsequent plot about Claudio's jealousy of a stranger is too slender? Isn't the scene where Beatrice overhears staged revelations about Benedick a little too inertly a re-run of the scene where Benedick hears about Beatrice? And aren't the witty Claudio and Hero of these scenes a bit out of sync with the way their characters behave within their own subplots? And why did Shakespeare not do more to establish Margaret and Ursula beforehand, so they come forth here like successive afterthoughts? Contrariwise, what happened to Claudio's uncle and (in the quarto) Hero's mother? Why, finally, do we seem to be heading for a duel between Benedick and Claudio, but the author drags his heels over it, and precipitates the denouement before swords are crossed? 

In all this there is an insouciance, if not downright clunkiness, that the play's popularity triumphantly over-rides. 


Of course one can see a lot of this differently. When Leonato addresses various unnamed bystanders as "cousins" (1.2), it builds a picture of the kind of large family establishment that a governor of Messina would be bound to maintain. There, and in the little interludes during the masquerade with Margaret and Ursula, in the impotent pugnacity of the two old men Leonato and Antonio, in the late interchange between Benedick and Margaret, -- in all this we can recognize the same kind of freewheeling impressionism that Shakespeare uses also in Measure for Measure. We can appreciate that Claudio's momentary dismay at being usurped by Don Pedro, or Benedick's threatened duel with Claudio, operate less as story-lines than as incidents, around which the marvellous social interplay accretes.The play is more about talk than action.

Thus, the potentially dramatic scene of Claudio "witnessing" his love's inconstancy (with many soliloquising asides and groans, no doubt -- as in Belleforest), is dismissed by Shakespeare (who decided later to have a try at that kind of scene, in Troilus and Cressida). Instead, the backstory is moved to the front and we have the less momentous, yet equally faked, scenes of "witnessing" in the garden.

As for these two garden scenes that are inartistically placed right next to each other (as it may seem),  the second one is certainly not so funny as the first, for example there is no equivalent to Claudio's off-message improvisation about Benedick's circumspection in combat.  But it's quite an interesting scene in its own right,  being all in verse and being almost the only scene in which we hear Hero speaking at length. She has a sort of childish simplicity, combined with pretty images drawn from nature, that is rather attractive. She has no mischief about her and makes no sly digs at Beatrice.

As usual, a view of the source provides some answers. Here is Belleforest's 18th Histoire from Vol 3 of Histoires Tragiques (pp. 475 - 515)

This is an adaptation into French of Bandello ("Bandel").  It's possible Shakespeare encountered the story via a lost translation into English. Belleforest story is twice the length of Bandello's, almost entirely because of expansion of sentiment and rhetoric.

Here's one answer from the source: it turns out that Don John's motiveless malignity has exactly the same cause as Iago's i.e. because Shakespeare decided to eliminate the motive of disappointed love for the heroine.

(MAAN and Othello are somewhat connected. In each of them, a first-rate military man idealizes a highborn beauty, reveals a distinct naivety about women, is easily duped by ill-willers, and flips into gross condemnation of his lady as a whore.)

The location in the source, as in the play, is Messina, and the historical setting (in which Shakespeare takes no interest) is the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. Peter III of Aragon was helping the Sicilian rebels in their successful overthrow of Charles of Anjou (from pure self-interest; he considered his wife Constance as the rightful owner of Sicily).

The names Don Pedro and Lionato come from Bandello (possibly mediated through Belleforest).

Belleforest tells us that after his victory Pierre d'Aragon (i.e. Don Pedro) ruled from Messina. Pierre plays no part in the ensuing narrative, just in its framing context. [In fact Belleforest, for patriotic reasons, is strongly against Pierre, so far as the historical conflict is concerned. A.R. Humphreys (2nd Arden) used Belleforest's passing negative comment to argue that Shakespeare, with his "positive" view of Don Pedro, was probably drawing on Bandello directly and not via Belleforest. I'm not persuaded anything can be made from this.]

Here´s Belleforest getting down to the nitty-gritty:

Entre vne grand' troupe de seigneurs de la suyte royale, en y auoit vn estimé fort vaillant de sa personne, & que auoit fait preuue de sa gaillardise en toutes les guerres contre las François, & ailleurs, & pource fort aymé & caressé du prince, & s'appelloit ce gentilhomme Timbree de Cardone, duquel pour la plus parte ceste histoire est bastie, & pour raison de l'amour qu'il porta à vne fille Messinoise, le pere de laquelle auoit à nom Lionato de Lionati gentilhomme de maison ancienne entre les Siciliens.

Ceste Damoiselle s'appelloit Fenicie, belle entre les plus belles, gentille, courtoise, & qui en bonne grace, & doux maintien emporta celles qui de son temps viuoyent en la royale cité de Messine. ...

Here's the gist of the subsequent 40 closely-packed pages, shorn of the numerous long rhetorical passages.

We are told that Fenicie (think Hero...) is scarcely more than 14 or 15 years old.
Her admirer from afar is the top noble and royal favourite Timbree, Comte de Cardone (think Claudio...).

The source emphasizes at length Timbree's difficulties in getting to see, meet or address the girl he has fallen for.  Messina's is a society where women rarely go outside the family circle. Fenicie, though pleased that the royal favourite is her admirer, has a high sense of family honour.
There follows an exchange involving an ancient chambermaid as a go-between, with many pages of anguished rhetorical "what ought I to do?" meditations, in which Timbree weeps and laments his loss of manliness and decision, while within Fenicie the power of Love battles Reason and Duty in the medieval manner. Timbree sends letters and songs (Benedick, you'll recall, accuses Claudio of being suddenly addicted to poetry), the chambermaid describes Timbree's piteous torments, and an upset Fenicie forbids her to ever raise the topic again (just like Julia in TGV).
Timbree at length confides in a Messinese pal (never named), who agrees to speak to Messer Lionato on the subject, and within a short paragraph it's suddenly all settled, Lionato and his wife being thoroughly pleased with their daughter's match, and the betrothal announced to the citizens of Messina with all happiness.

BUT, (excursus on the vagaries of Fortune), nothing is assured in this world. Timbree has a friend Gironde (start thinking Don John/Borachio/Conrade here, though as you'll see the differences are significant....), a noble and a respected soldier,  who has long been secretly  in love with Fenicie, but got nowhere with his suit (no details are given as to how this suit was manifested, if it was; one's impression up till now had been that Timbree was the first admirer who ever impinged on Fenicie's consciousness). Anyway Gironde, this noble gentleman, becomes madly jealous, loses all regard for reason or honour and decides to wreck the engagement -- attending only to his own interest, like a typical Sicilian (Belleforest/Bandello remarks parenthetically) -- (excursus on Envy). He hires a man fit for no good, one of those Parisian blades who hang around the court, and who happens to be known to Timbree. This unnamed man goes to Timbree and after mock-reluctantly beating about the bush says that his honour compels him to inform him that there is a gentleman who sleeps two or three times a week with Fenicie, and that he will, as customary, be attending him there this very evening. And if Timbree promises to do no offence either to him or the gentleman, Timbree can witness it all.

Timbree is dumbstruck, but, more moved by pride than by love for his lady, thanks his informant coolly as having done him a service, and agrees to all the conditions, asserting that he bears no ill will to the fortunate lover or his accomplice. (He already speaks of Fenicie and of women generally in a disrespectful way.)

Gironde's servant tells Timbree to watch at 23:00 on the ruinous side of Lionato's mansion, where there's a chamber, rarely used, that overlooks the street.  Meanwhile Gironde arrays himself and his servant in gorgeous clothes... Timbree while waiting soliloquises on the deceitful appearance of Fenicie, and on inconstancy generally. His meditations interrupted by a noise, he sees his informant with a perfumed gallant (Gironde) and overhears Gironde telling the informant to be careful with the ladder, because Fenicie frette that he made too much noise with it the last time they were here. The lurking Timbree suffers agonies and longs to fly at his enemies but remembers his promise. The conspirators scale the wall into Lionato's palace. Timbree's love is turned to hate and he doesn't even wait to witness anything else. The next day Timbree sends a message via the Messinese gentleman who had originally broached the match with Lionato. The Messinese finds Lionato with his wife and daughter, as he hoped. He apologetically recounts Timbree's message to Leonato, which is that it's not Lionato who's to blame, but he'd better find another husband since it turns out that his daughter has yielded her virginity to another lover.
The message is received with astonishment. Lionato (unlike in MAAN) is staunch in defence of his daughter's virtue, and suggests that Timbree is trying to wriggle out of the marriage because he has found out that Lionato is not so wealthy as he had supposed, and Lionato's family is admittedly not on the level of the Count's. At this point Fenicie turns deadly pale and drops into a faint. Well-wishers, all assured of her innocence, surround her bed, and when she recovers breath, she addresses them in passionate defence of her honour, and then appears to expire, without any sign of life visible to the doctors.

Lionato, believing he has lost his daughter, berates fortune and regrets the decision to ever get involved with the upper echelons. Then he attempts to console his wife with philosophy. She shuts herself up, accompanied by her sister-in-law (Fenicie's aunt), in Fenicie's chamber, where they wash her daughter's face and at the touch of the warm water Fenicie begins to revive. Lionato's wife and the instantly summoned Lionato are overcome with joy. However they don't go public on Fenicie's recovery, since the name of Fenicie has been publically dishonoured, but weight the coffin with rubble and allow the funeral to go ahead, intending that their daughter might at some point re-emerge to commence a new life with an unsullied name.  All who attend the funeral are very angry with Timbree. Lionato provides a poetical epitaph.

News of the funeral having reached Timbree, he is overcome with remorse and a sense of having wronged Fenicie (who does indeed appear to him once dead, as Shakespeare's Friar suggests, in the ideal form in which he first loved her). He does not feel culpable, since he saw what he saw, but he does start to wonder if there might have been some dirty business. He remembers that he did not see anyone actually let the conspirators in, and he recollects that this part of the palace is not in use. And it occurs to him that it's pretty implausible that Fenicie, who sleeps in the chamber next to her father, could at midnight secretly get out through the main door, as she'd have to do in order to get to the disused part of the palace.

While he's thinking this, Gironde (seeing himself as the cause of Fenicie's death) suddenly repents, seeks out Timbree and asks to speak to him in private. They go into the church where Fenicie's monument is. Gironde throws himself before Timbree and confesses all, begging Timbree to take his life, or otherwise he'll take his own. Timbree weeps, Gironde weeps. Timbree though in despair doesn't feel like punishing Gironde, since he acted through love. Timbree laments his own credulity and his shaming of Fenicie. Timbree has pity on the despairing Gironde and renews his friendship towards him. He asks Gironde to join him in publishing Fenicie's innocence. [This emphasis on noble forgiveness of a friend who betrayed you evokes more thoughts of TGV.]

They visit Lionato and his wife, and tell all, begging for forgiveness, which Lionato gladly gives, giving thanks to God that his daughter's innocence is publically re-established. Timbree says that though it hasn't worked out that Lionato is literally his father-in-law, he hopes that Lionato will consider him as a son. Lionato afrees and requests that he should be allowed in due course to choose Timbree's wife for him. Gironde also asks for forgiveness, which Lionato gives, though not with as much warmth as to Timbree, since he does regard Gironde as the source of all the mischief.

Timbree continues to attend Lionato's house over several years, and Fenicie's reputation is completely restored. Meanwhile, living in seclusion, Fenicie (now 18) has grown taller and wiser, so that she would not be instantly recognized as the Fenicie of former days. She has a younger sister Belle-Fleur, nearly as beautiful as her, who is now 15.

Lionato now says to Timbree that the time has come to redeem his promise as Lionato has found a bride for him, and could Timbree and Gironde meet him the following Sunday at a village two or three miles from Messina? Lionato presents Timbree with Fenicie (under the name of Lucilie), whom he gladly marries but doesn't recognize. Nevertheless he keeps being drawn back to her face, fascinated by its resemblance to Fenicie's. Fenicie's aunt, seeing this, asks the count innocently: Were you ever married before? And he breaks down in tears, and recounts the sad past and his undying shame and misery night and day. (Gironde breaks in, insisting on taking his burden of guilt.) The aunt asks Timbree to recount the whole story. She then asks him, "Prior to marrying your new bride, what would you have done to get Fenicie back?" He replies, Anything, descend into Hell like Orpheus, etc. A delighted Lionato can no longer withhold the truth and "Lucilie" is revealed as Fenicie. Timbree and the whole company are filled with joy. Gironde asks for Belle-Fleur's hand in marriage, which Lionato gladly agrees to, and all ends happily, though not rapidly, with royal revels and with moral reflections.


There's obviously no comparison in point of quality between Belleforest's forty turgid pages and Shakespeare's incandescent comedy. Nor can the story-line in either work be claimed to be very credible in terms of absolute naturalism. But Belleforest is at least internally consistent in terms of the conventions of romance: while in that respect, perhaps surprisingly, Shakespeare tends to damage the story.

Some, perhaps most, of these changes can be explained by pretty basic requirements for turning a story into a drama.  Long passages of time are a no-no on the stage, so Claudio needs to discover he's been deceived and repent and be forgiven, more or less instantly. Timbree's years of repentance and dutiful fealty to Lionato make us feel his eventual reunion with Fenicie as much more acceptable and moving, in a Winter's Tale kind of way. You could say Timbree has proved his right to forgiveness, he's proved that he's changed. How can Claudio do that in a day? Hanging an epitaph on a tomb doesn't really do it.

Don John and his fellows do evil for no apparent reason. Don John disappears and Borachio and Conrade (equally for no apparent reason) are perfectly happy to repent.  By contrast, Gironde's actions, both the wrongdoing and the repentance, are well-founded. But then Gironde's story is largely solitary and internal. It would be difficult to dramatize disappointed love, and equally difficult to dramatize a reversion to deep repentance. Shakespeare migrates the source of the villainy into the heart of Leonato's palace and the social ambit of his play, but at the expense of neglecting the villains' motives.

Shakespeare invents a Friar to come up with a hare-brained scheme about Hero pretending to be dead in order to make Claudio repent. By contrast, in Belleforest the general belief in Fenicie's "death" comes about by natural circumstance and the fiction is maintained for good reasons. But the scenes of Fenicie's faint, recovery, apparent death, and second recovery are intrinsically static. The Friar's scheme is not too credible, but it does get the story moving along to things that audiences are more interested in.

Shakespeare adds Margaret's apparently innocent role in the deception... (probably remembering Ariosto).  Belleforest has no such inadvertent female accomplice. The addition has the implicit weakness that it doesn't occur to Margaret to speak out when her mistress is accused. [Again, Othello comes to mind...]  Why did Shakespeare do this? The actual scene of the deception is not shown. Apparently, to make Claudio's deception feel more credible. What Claudio "thought he saw" is more easily excused if it includes an apparent Hero. The deception in Belleforest is actually rather convincing, but it couldn't be persuasively defended on stage: What, you became convinced of Fenicie's inconstancy when you never even saw her? Shakespeare further extenuates Claudio's error by introducing Don Pedro as an open-minded second witness. (This also means that Claudio has someone to confide in on-stage.) Few will feel more sympathetic to Claudio as a result. After all, it's not the fact of him being duped that is the issue, it's what he does about it, i.e. the violent shaming at the altar.

The shaming is as vehement as it is, perhaps for two reasons. Firstly, because Shakespeare shows us Claudio's emotions in action: the violence is partly his love for Hero, as well as his despair. In Belleforest, the equivalent is a cold little message sent by someone else's hand. The second reason is to compensate for not really dramatizing the narrative's well-established context of Messinese over-protective families and  the enormous disaster of a publically besmirched reputation.


So we can elaborate a bit on the "insouciance" now. MAAN depends on a plot, but Shakespeare is pretty rough with the timescales and with necessarily externalizing what was internal in Belleforest/Bandello. He doesn't care all that much because the focus of MAAN is at one remove from this plot, creating the anxieties here noted by Coleridge:

Take away from Much Ado About Nothing all that which is not indispensable to the plot, either has having little to do with it, or at best, like Dogberry and his comrades, forced into the service when any other less ingeniously absurd watchmen and night-constables would have answered; take away Benedick, Beatrice, Dogberry, and the reaction of the former upon the character of Hero, and what will remain? In other writers the main agent of the plot is always the prominent character. In Shakespeare so or not so, as the character is in itself calculated to form the plot. So Don John, the mainspring of the plot, is merely shown and withdrawn.

(John Drakakis, link below, is very good on this.)


Some links about Much Ado About Nothing that I found interesting:

John Drakakis, "Trust and Transgression: The discursive practices of Much Ado About Nothing" in Machin and Norris, eds., Post-structuralist Readings of English Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 59 - 84.  Mostly available here:

Michael Dobson writes about the darkness at the heart of the play, and its parallels with Othello:

As always, the Shmoop view is well worth a read:
(though the claim that Claudio weeps when his soldierly feats are honoured is a mistake: it's Claudio's uncle who weeps.)

Emma Smith writes about the emphasis on male-male bonding and the misogynistic structures of the play.
Penny Gay on Beatrice, Benedick, speech and gender roles:
Commentary on MAAN from the Hudson Shakespeare site. I am not sure who wrote these excellent commentaries, unless is was Jon Ciccarelli (the company's artistic director); but this is an informed and balanced view addressing a lot of the issues raised in my post. It takes a sensible way out of some of the dilemmas by firmly placing Benedick and Beatrice as the real centre of the play, and by pointing out the abundant evidence that the pair are already in love at the beginning of the play, long prior to the garden scenes.

Martin Mueller "Shakespeare's Sleeping Beauties: The Sources of 'Much Ado About Nothing' and the Play of their Repetitions" (Modern Philology 91 (1994) pp. 288-311. Read it for free on MyJstor.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

wild cherries

Fruits of Prunus avium (Wild Cherry) -- Moredon, Swindon, 1st July 2017

As the tree's English name is Wild Cherry, I suppose the fruits are "wild cherries".

The Latin name Prunus avium means "of the birds", implying that the fruit is not eaten by humans but by birds (woodpigeons are particularly fond of them). [This has led to a lot of confusion with a quite different native tree the Bird Cherry (Prunus padus).]

Like Fergus the Forager (Fergus Drennan) in the first of the links given below, I was previously put off examining the matter any further by two widespread myths: "Most wild food books will inform you that fresh from the tree they are too mouth-puckeringly sharp to eat, and that you must gather them under-ripe before the birds get them all. Both these apparent facts are utter nonsense, or at least deeply suspect!"

That's what I've found, too. The Wild Cherry is one of our commonest native trees and in years such as 2017 the fruit is abundant. Ripe fruit is easy to find. The fleshy layer is thin compared to shop cherries, but it nevertheless makes a very palatable snack, not too sour, with a fresh, sharp flavour.

I'm happy to learn that a few people do make use of wild cherry fruit, and it's rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants. (Though as with most Prunus species, there's also a few toxic cyanogenic glycosides flying about, but not in the ripe flesh.) Wild cherries were an important food of our Stone Age ancestors, and large numbers of cherry stones are often a feature of their habitations.

Various links that touch on the topic:

(I don't have my Swedish berry bible Bärboken to hand, but from what I remember it's pretty unenthusiastic about P. avium.)


Monday, July 03, 2017

Carl Jonas Love Almqvist: Det går an

A steamship built in 1903, at Mariefred, near Strängnäs

[Image source: , from an excellent site (in English) by the Public Transport enthusiast "Busspojken" (]

C.J.L Almqvist,  or Carl Jonas Love Almqvist,  (1793 - 1866), or Carl Jonas Ludvig Almquist (according to his gravestone in Solna churchyard),  is an important Swedish author from the Romantic/Realist era. 

Det går an (1839) was one of his most celebrated and controversial works (it forced him to give up his post as a school rector). The title literally means "It is acceptable", Albert's reponse to Sara's outline proposal of an egalitarian, unmarried relationship.

Full text online:

Translated into English as Sara Videbeck by Adolph Burnett Benson (1919). Happily this translation is available online:

The story takes place on a steam ferry. The ferry starts in Stockholm and, by the end of the first chapter, arrives at Strängnäs on Lake Mälaren (called Lake Maelar in the English translation).

Here's an extract from the first chapter, describing some early brushes between Albert, the gallant sergeant, and Sara, the strangely independent glazier's daughter:


showing his hands, "I too have thrown my ring into the lake. It was the best we could do."

First a sharp survey from top to toe, followed immediately, however, by an almost imperceptible though tolerably sweet smile, then an exquisitely sparkling look, which instantly disappeared, constituted her answer. "Is the ring in the lake? Oh!" she added.

"I hope a pickerel has already swallowed it," said the sergeant.

"A big perch took mine."

"Now when the pickerel swallows the perch," resumed the sergeant, and bowed his head, "which I hope will happen very soon, the two rings will still come to lie -- under the same -- heart." The last was whispered with a tender protraction of the words, but the sergeant's purpose failed completely. The girl turned away abruptly without answering, and joined the other maids.

"Prosit, my boy!" he said to himself. "Squelched again! And why speak of a heart? And on deck! But one thing pleases me: she didn't take it amiss that I ventured to address her at all. Therefore, don't be faint-hearted!"

He went down into the dining-room and bought a cigar, lighted it, came up again, sat down on his trunk with a free and lofty mien, drew long clouds of smoke from his cigar, and seemed content.

He noticed that the attractive glazier's daughter passed him several times quite unconcerned, now and then adjusting the pink silk knot under her chin and fingering the beautiful lace of her neckerchief, which fell down over her breast. She talked freely with the other girls, and seemed very much at ease.

The cigar, like so many other things in this world, came to an end. The sergeant threw away the little stump, which was still afire, with the intention of tossing it into the lake; but the stump was so light that it went only a short distance on deck and lay there smoking. At once came a foot in the prettiest little polished shoe, and stepped on it, so that it was extinguished instantly. The sergeant raised his eyes from the foot to the head and saw the girl stranger. Her glance met his. He rose hurriedly from his trunk, approached her with a polite bow, and said: "Thank you my dear girl! My cigar hardly deserved to be touched by your foot -- but --"

A cold, scornful expression in her face was her answer.

( From Det går an, Chapter 1)


I say "happily", because though I've had a volume of Almqvist on my shelves for a few years now, I've found it difficult to start reading it, because aside from all the usual challenges of reading Swedish I struggle with the old-style spelling and vocabulary. (Swedish spelling was substantially reformed in 1906.)

E.g., from the middle of the above passage:

– När nu, återtog sergeanten och böjde hufvudet, gäddan slukar aborren, som jag hoppas snart sker, så komma ändock de begge ringarne att ligga – under samma hjerta! Det sista uthviskades med en öm dragning på orden, men som alldeles misslyckades för sergeanten. Flickan vände sig tvert bort utan att svara, och blandade sig med de öfriga jungfrurna.

– Prosit junker! sade han till sig sjelf. Afbiten på ny stat! och hvarföre tala om hjerta? och på däck! Men ett fägnar mig: hon misstyckte icke, att jag vågade ett du till henne. Fördenskull och alltså, aldrig mamsell mera!

I can count 14 archaic words or spellings in that, and there's probably more that I've missed.

Note that the line translated by Burnett as "she didn't take it amiss that I ventured to address her at all" actually means "... that I ventured a du to her" i.e. the informal second person pronoun.

Strängnäs Cathedral

[Image source:]

When he examined the shores they were passing, he noticed that the steamer was about to put into Strängnäs. Sailors far out on the lake can see the large cathedral and its majestic spire, which commands the whole Södermanland neighbourhood. Only at close range can one discern a number of small red wooden houses straggling below the church...

( From Det går an, Chapter 1)

As an E-W waterway Lake Mälaren was such an important civilising feature of ancient Svealand  that three of Sweden's tradional counties are named by their position relative to the lake: Uppland to the north, Västmanland to the west and Södermanland to the south.

C.J.L Almqvist, portrait by Johan Gustaf Köhler

[The images above and below come from this web page about portraits of Almqvist: ]

C.J.L. Almqvist, portrait by Carl Peter Mazer

Labels: ,

Friday, June 30, 2017

in a time of plague

Los animales y la peste

En los montes, los valles y collados
 de animales poblados,
 se introdujo la peste de tal modo,
 que en un momento lo inficiona todo.
 Allí donde su Corte el león tenía,
 mirando cada día
 las cacerías, luchas y carreras
 de mansos brutos y de bestias fieras,
 se veían los campos ya cubiertos
 de enfermos miserables y de muertos.
 "Mis amados hermanos"
 exclamó el triste Rey, "mis cortesanos:
 ya veis que el justo cielo nos obliga
 a implorar su piedad, pues nos castiga
 con tan horrenda plaga:
 tal vez se aplacará con que se le haga
 sacrificio de aquel más delincuente,
 y muera el pecador, no el inocente.
 Confiese todo el mundo su pecado.
 Yo, cruel, sanguinario, he devorado
 inocentes corderos,
 ya vacas, ya terneros,
 y he sido, a fuerza de delito tanto,
 de la selva terror, del bosque espanto".
 "Señor" dijo la zorra, "en todo eso
 no se halla más exceso
 que el de vuestra bondad, pues que se digna
 de teñir en la sangre ruin, indigna
 de los viles cornudos animales
 los sacros dientes y las uñas reales".
 Trató la corte al Rey de escrupuloso.
 Allí del tigre, de la onza y oso
 se oyeron confesiones
 de robos y de muertes a millones;
 mas entre la grandeza, sin lisonja,
 pasaron por escrúpulos de monja.
 El asno, sin embargo, muy confuso
 prorrumpió: "Yo me acuso
 que al pasar por un trigo este verano,
 yo hambriento y él lozano,
 sin guarda ni testigo,
 caí en la tentación, comí del trigo".
 "¡Del trigo!, ¡y  un jumento!",
 gritó la zorra, "¡horrible atrevimiento!"
 Los cortesanos claman: "Éste, éste
 irrita al cielo, que nos da la peste".
 Pronuncia el Rey de muerte la sentencia
 y ejecutola el lobo a su presencia.
Te juzgarán virtuoso
si eres, aunque perverso, poderoso;
y aunque bueno, por malo detestable,
cuando te miran pobre, miserable.
Esto hallará en la Corte quien la vea,
y aun en el mundo todo. ¡Pobre Astrea!

(Fábulas morales, Book 3 number 2, by Félix Maria de Samaniego. Based on a fable by La Fontaine, apparently.)

Loosely translated:

The animals and the plague

In the mountains, valleys and hills that are inhabited by the animals, there came once such a plague as in a moment struck down all in its path.

The lion was holding his court, where he was wont to watch each day the hunts, combats and tournaments of meek brutes and wild beasts. But even from here you could see the fields already covered with miserable sick and dead creatures.

"My beloved brothers," exclaimed the sad King, "my courtiers: you see that a righteous Heaven obliges us to implore His mercy, since He punishes us with such a horrible plague. Maybe He would be placated by a sacrifice of the most guilty of us. Let the wicked die in place of the innocent! So confess, everyone, your sin.  I, cruel, bloodthirsty, I have devoured innocent lambs, yes, and cows, and calves. And from the volume of my crimes I have been named the Terror of the Jungle, and the Dread of the Forest."

"Oh Sir," says the fox, "as for all that, it's nothing more than the noble excess of your majesty, that is pleased to tint, with the blood of these vile horned creatures, the sacred teeth and the royal claws."  

The court considered the King far too scrupulous.

Then from the tiger, the ounce and the bear, were heard confessions of rapine and of murder by the thousand. But being such great ones, these testimonies were dismissed (leaving all flattery aside) as nunnish scruples.  

A donkey, however, became very confused and burst out: "I accuse myself that when passing through a cornfield this last summer, I felt so hungry and the wheat looked so luscious, and there being no guard or anyone to see, I fell into temptation, and I ate some of the wheat."

"Eat wheat!! A donkey!!" cried the fox, "Oh, hideous crime!"

The courtiers cried out, "This is he, this is he, who incenses a just Heaven and brings the plague upon us!" 
The King pronounced the death sentence, which the wolf carried out in his presence. 


You will be judged virtuous if you are, though wicked, powerful; and criminal if you seem, though good,  poor and wretched. Thus it is in the court, and even in the whole world. Oh,  Astraea!


Labels: ,

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

drifting round Peter Philpott's poetry

From A Second Life (you can read the whole marvellous lot online):

Look we haven’t come through: the boat
took us back home, of course, how silly not
to realise these truths: only here, only now
this misty island marred first by glaciers then people
why didn’t we realise we’re free of gods but not trouble
no one left to save us but our selves, each soul
bargaining in vain not to be taken home, Ukanian Ingerlund
where the longest dead control the language & the mind
why didn’t we realise we’d be wading thru this brutish mud?

Last week, coincidentally, I had a work experience student alongside. Turned out that Jake hailed from Bishop's Stortford, and at the name something stirred in my mind, connected as I thought with early morning flights to Sweden, or visits to nearby backwoods in deep Hertfordshire.

What I didn't recall, until, at the end of the day,  I picked up Wound Scar Memories, is Peter Philpott being a long-term Stortford resident. Wound Scar Memories ends with a hefty discursive dazzler about the Dark Ages; Stortford's history plays quite a big part in it, along with the Germanized Brythonic name Cerdic, later the basis of Scott's invented name Cedric in Ivanhoe. (I think Scott would have been delighted to learn of a British element in the Anglo-Saxon founder-patriarch, but that's by the by.)

The quotation I started with  exemplifies a few things about PP's praxis. His poems are fast reads and probably quite rapidly written. There's usually a couple of things to consult the notes about, but the pace is important, the switching of the thought; because dynamics is part of the whole-body expression by which we come to know each other. And in this case we soon get acquainted. The Peter of the poems, though not perhaps quite all of the man himself, is a person we know. I feel I would rather talk of a person than an instrument. And yet the years of inhabiting this praxis have had cumulative value, like someone learning to play an instrument: his latest poems are usually his best.


Here's another extract from the same collection (poem 73):

Laughter, though, sustaining
all this miraculous disorderliness
nostalgia of the non-human
– it glitters! somehow slippery as
oh, bêche-de-mer – what allows this?
joy, skipping through our mongrel lives
to the horizon, that buffet of possibilities

Here it definitely helps to read up a little about "bêche-de-mer " (Sea Cucumbers).

Not just to learn that the food has a notably slippery texture, but to more fully appreciate the poem's probing away from all angles at anthropomorphism, at heroism, at ideal human shape: at Michaelangelo's David, you might say.


... said it did not matter if no one ever read the poem, nor even if the poet forgot the poem before it was written, or if the poet was not even aware of the poem, but dreamt it and then forgot the dream. The poem had existed, and had influence upon the world. A true reader would discover it, read it from its consequences in the world. Such readers, unfortunately, were rare; but, then, so too, were poems.

From: The fragments.  A poem based on classical lyrical fragments, apparently.

Gareth Prior writing about The Ianthe Poems :

About Peter Philpott:

About A Second Life (and its predecessor Within These Latter Days)
(So far as I can make out, neither of the more recent books The Ianthe Poems and Wound Scar Memories constitutes the potential third part of this magnum opus.

Within These Latter Days


An extract from The Ianthe Poems hand-copied (under mild protest) from Blart 2 ( (I do think online poetry really deserves to be electronically copyable.)

oh the singing of those free children

their noses are disgusting

                        facing us and

                        gnomish like


their own visas to here

in art




                            outside this tight circles

                             justice is people

                             as wooden clogs

                             bears are burnt


                             in these streets

                             the catch?

                             great mulligatawny mops

                             strangled to live


                              moving into wobbles to

                              where it's busy


at last

terrible reptiles

typed up forms

don't eat


Something that doesn't come across in these extracts, but is a feature of all these recent poem sequences, is what I'll term "phrase transformation".  (I'm sort of basing that on the analogy of "theme transformation" in Liszt's music.)

What this means is that while each poem stands on its own (if not quite so securely as the reader may wish), some of its words and phrases are usually transmutations of words and phrases in preceding poems. Likewise, its own phrases turn up, transmuted, in the poems that follow it.  (To give a single example, "asparagus" turns into "Asperger's".)

Without going very deeply into this, there seems to be a clear connection with Peter's perception that identity is never really unitary, that origins are never origins (there's always something that comes before them), that impurity and mongrelism are the basis of life, that we all depend on each other and can't ultimately be prised apart.


Wound Scar Memories is, to a certain extent concerned with Petrarch, and it openly references those two recent Petrarchiasts Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, poets in whose work we perhaps breathe a comparable atmosphere, relish a comparable zip and humour as in PP's writings, though in other respects all three are doing very different things.


Powered by Blogger

Nature Blog Network