Monday, February 26, 2007

Rose the Red and White Lily

How much refrain can you tolerate, has always been a question for me. As a child I was annoyed by the way that “I Saw Three Ships” kept harping on about Christmas day in the morning, and it was a trial I could never endure to submit to a rendering of the interminable later verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: once one had the five gold rings firmly in hand, the rest was just a knees-up. Even such songs as "One man went to mow" and the great "Old MacDonald had a farm" were, I am sorry now to confess, only half-tolerated by me. And in my teens I despised any pop song that descended into chorus-repeats half-way through: Mott the Hoople's Honaloochie Boogie was my paradigm case, if you want to know. I just always wanted more invention, I wanted to be kept busy and entertained. I needed stories.

I didn't guess at a different way of listening until I heard this:


It took Salford to sneer at me what ought to have been obvious and in fact ought to have been instinctive in my dancing feet if I'd had any, that neither music nor verse are fundamentally about serving up content in that bedtime-story kind of manner. But never mind that for the moment.

In "Flower of the Holy Ghost", a poem from the anonymous collection Carmina Agnetae (London, late 19th c.), the slender narrative of Lady Eglantine and Sir Eynyon is manacled to an especially punitive refrain. There are 34 stanzas in all but I think you will find stanzas 5-9 an adequate sample:

     And crowned queen of beauty there,
          (Flower of the Holy Ghost,)
     Sat Eglantine that maid so fair.
          (Earthly flowers will fade away,
          But the lilies of heaven bloom for aye
          To pleasure the angel host.)

     Upon a dais, enthroned on high,
          (Flower of the Holy Ghost,)
     Beneath a gold wrought canopy.
          (Earthly flowers will fade away,
          But the lilies of heaven bloom for aye,
          To pleasure the angel host,)

     Clad in white samite, fair to see,
          (Flower of the Holy Ghost,)
     With surcoat of silken broidery.
          (Earthly flowers will fade away,
          But the lilies of heaven bloom for aye,
          To pleasure the angel host.)

     And kneeling lowly at her knee,
          (Flower of the Holy Ghost,)
     To take the prize of chivalry,
          (Earthly flowers will fade away,
          But the lilies of heaven bloom for aye,
          To pleasure the angel host.)

     He came, Sir Eynyon the Fair,
          (Flower of the Holy Ghost,)
     The victor of the tourney there.
          (Earthly flowers will fade away,
          But the lilies of heaven bloom for aye,
          To pleasure the angel host.)

I had to use cut-and-paste to avoid the unspeakable boredom of all that retyping. The printers at New Temple Press, Fleet Street, had no such recourse. They had to set up the lines of type 34 times. Once they missed the full stop after “host”, and once they made it a comma – in stanza 6, above. They couldn’t make up their minds if the fifth line deserved any kind of end-stop. On 16 occasions they gave it a comma, on 18 occasions they didn’t bother.

But whether anyone, even the author, even the hapless typesetter, has ever “read” the poem sequentially from beginning to end, this I find hard to credit. I certainly haven’t. After a couple of stanzas I just skimmed through the narrative lines and skipped all the rest, the same way I handle any other poem with a stupid refrain.

But I think this is quite a good poem, all the same. There are a lot more things to do with a poem apart from reading it.

The “Flower of the Holy Ghost” (which is also the poem’s title) is columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) – poetically to be conceived in its white form, where the resemblance to communing doves is more striking.

The Lady Eglantine makes a chaplet out of columbine at the beginning of the poem: something few people today would know how to do: you need a base, e.g. dried woodbine.

The contrast between earthly and heavenly blooms is in several respects confused: one must suppose, deliberately. Is it sensible to choose, as your instance of an earthly bloom, one with such transcendent associations as the "flower of the Holy Ghost"? Is it sensible, in this already blurry context, to name your earthly heroine after the fragrant Rosa rubiginosa or sweetbriar?

Perhaps it’s also Eglantine, despite being a model of chastity and submissiveness, who is set in contrast to the lilies of heaven?

Red roses and white lilies have gone together in literature for a very long time. There were not many other flower names that literate Europe would commonly understand: they were principally interested in useful plants. For the decorative, "roses and lilies" was a sufficient shorthand, like "gold and silver" for wealth. The historian Athenaeus (fl. 200CE) on the accession of a Ptolemy:

As for the whole floor, it was strewed with every kind of flower; for Egypt, thanks to its mild climate, and the fondness of its people for gardening, produces abundantly, and all the year round, those flowers which are scarce in other lands, and then come only at special seasons. Roses, white lilies, and many another flower never lack in that country.

From this skeletal alphabet of only two letters, a vast symbolism effloresced. From classical literacy the trope of roses and lilies filtered down into European folk culture. These immemorial pairings in European lyrics and ballads are founded more on earlier symbolism than on real flowers; more on the debris of imported literacy than on native wisdom. As with folk-art generally, the bit that matters is the transmutation.

But what plants were the authors speaking about, originally?

The original white lily is the “Madonna Lily”, Lilium candidum (formerly known as Lilium album), native to the Balkans and west Asia, iconographically connected with the Virgin Mary (for centuries there were usually lilies in paintings of the Annunciation)

The original cultivated red rose (in Europe) is Rosa gallica – thought to have been introduced in Roman times to southern Europe (including of course Gaul) from western Asia.

By the middle ages (as e.g. the red rose of Lancaster), the cultivated rose was already usually semi-double, as in the ancient variety known as the “Apothecary’s Rose”, Rosa gallica officinalis (below) . As you can see the colour is light crimson rather than scarlet, the golden stamens still well out in the open.

It is obvious that looking at these 21st century digital photographs does not give you, cannot give you, an accurate idea of what was seen or imagined by a 2nd Century historian. Our interpreting eye is quite different from his: consider for example that it was unknown until the 18th century CE that flowers had a sexual function! We also see the colours differently; if you have no word for magenta then this flower is red, as in all paintings and illuminations. Besides, when you look at the photo and you are morally certain that this picture is only a year or two old, you make all sorts of inferences about where we are and what is outside the frame: a modern garden with machine-mown lawns - for example.

Thus in a sense more than merely literal, these are modern blooms...

103B.5 The knights they harped i their bower,
         The ladies sewd and sang;
         There was mair mirth in that chamer
         Than a’ their father’s lan.
103B.6 Then out it spak their step-mither,
         At the stair-foot stood she:
         I’m plagued wi your troublesome noise!
         What makes your melodie?
103B.7 O Rose the Red, ye sing too loud,
         White Lillie, your voice is strang;
         But gin I live and brook my life,
         I’se gar you change your sang.

I talked about a common understanding, but what was commonly understood was a decorum about appropriate usage. The exact images with which one imbued the words "rose" and "lily" was a more personal matter. The singer of the Child Ballad 103 about the two sisters, Rose the Red and White Lily would most likely have no personal acquaintance with the flowers pictured above, and would imagine local equivalents: in Scotland, dog-rose and lily-of-the-valley, perhaps. When we read the poems ourselves, we conceive not the living instances at which the digital camera is pointing, but legendary red and white flowers of dream-like size and simplicity.

Carmina Agnetae has masses of poems but only one theme, the early loss of love through bereavement. And the lilies of the afterlife. Its characters, its Eglantines and Eynyons come to grief so quickly that there is no chance of individualizing them. Only when gone for ever or mourning for ever are they faintly aglow with erotic life - as if having only now understood their purpose. Only among the lilies of the afterlife is there a glimmering of pleasure.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

in a silent way

By chance, I passed by an exhibition of Victoriana in the corridor (we'd had to configure a laptop and projector). It was late on Friday afternoon, so I stopped and idled, and anyway I was waiting around for someone else who had a 3G issue.

Small oil of a bench, by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), titled Interior of a House at Lindos; a study for Cleobolus instructing his daughter Cleoboline. I had to jot this title down, it seemed irresistibly comical. (Partly because it brought to mind Deacon's Boyhood of Cyrus, fictional painting in Powell.)

But really this was just yokel hilarity. Lindos is on the island of Rhodes, and Cleobolus was its ruler (6th century BCE, also one of the "Seven Sages of Antiquity"). The peculiar thing is that Lord Leighton supposed it worth his while to use a real Lindos interior as the model for his painting. Was this a genuine effort at authenticity - or at least, one particular conception of authenticity - , or was it all to do with creating a story for the PR people: the value of the painting would be naturally enhanced if it had a story attached to it: Did you know, the painter-adventurer had actually travelled to Lindos to research his subject!

This is how the completed painting turned out:

[image courtesy of Vost's: Fine art valuers, advisers and brokers]

There's not much memory of the hasty little daub that was actually painted at Lindos, except for some of the colour values - certainly none of its rough charm, though in compensation the girl Cleoboline's expressive feet and arms are "a picture", as they say.

The most valuable painting was one of Atkinson Grimshaw's moonlit scenes - you can bid for it next Wednesday if you like. I'd enjoyed Grimshaw's paintings on many a book-cover - The Woman in White, Edwin Drood, The Secret Agent, that kind of thing. I was surprised how small it was. The moonlight was as thrilling as ever, and I don't suppose Grimshaw used an aerosol can, but his layering system reminded me of those teams of quick-shot artists with spray-cans and cutouts who churn out spectacular high-VOC scenes of mountains, waterfalls and lunar craters - you can watch them any hot night along the promenade at Palma Nova. I wanted to say something pretentious to my companion about Grimshaw's winter trees being elms such as you'd never see nowadays, but I didn't really know what I was talking about - how rare the chance to know elm silhouettes... - perhaps the one on the left is only a scraggy oak.

There was also three top-quality drawings by Waterhouse and a funny, affectionate cartoon by Rossetti of Siddal.

But maybe what I liked best was a water-colour by Anna Alma-Tadema called The Idler's Harvest. That stern morality is belied by the picture, which does indeed portray a hay-meadow with tall thistles running to fluff, but what a meadow! Sun-soaked and with hardly a breath of wind, high on the shoulder of a big hill, it seems like a most idyllic place to have your easel carried by a servant. "Blessed are the Idle," Anna might have blasphemed. But perhaps that wasn't in her nature. Like her father she was amazingly skilful at painting tiny detail - it's a tiny painting, but the musk thistles tremble with botanical precision among strawy August grasses and, hazily beyond them, a chasmic view into the greener valley below.

There were other things to see, a plate designed by Pugin and made by Minton, an 18" carving of a mail-clad knight bearing a banner with a strange device - I suppose, a monumental knick-knack for the study - , but I went to chase up my user. Round the back of the building we were packing up the servers. It was the value of the pieces that kept us talking, even though you'd pay just as much for a Fiber Connect SAN or a Netfinity server farm. But this felt different, somehow. Christies' security were parked up discreetly in the wood, listening to the radio. We joked about stashing a couple of the lesser items inside the Pickfords van. No-one would ever think of that, and we'd be away up the M42 by the time anyone noticed.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

bronze impulse

Sky. Clouds, down.

Data CDs, puddles, up.

spray, hairdo under the trees - february haze - collects -


     you are not sincere,
     I can't stand your voice.
     If it was my choice
     we would not be here.

You are not sincere, you're broken and scrabbling in panic, you talk words but it's a long roll of excuses and to head me off


spray, say syrup ;-
hollow-chinned tureen

copperbeaten temples, prise it, thumbnail along the seam, hinged sherbet-cup. Similar to a clock inside, gears cogged at 90°, an oily rag in the lid, eyes staring, up.

the sky plane pastry, marked by a cooling-tray


Sunday, February 04, 2007


There’s a pilot scheme round here for recycling food waste. I’ve got a council-issued kitchen bin, plastic, rich brown in colour, in which I deposit my food waste. The waste is heat-treated and so can include meat, though I don’t eat meat. I'm not really sure what it's used for, compost I suppose. But how do you define food waste? Food no longer desirable, certainly; cold and congealed on the side of the plate like lumpy western mountains. Or food that’s been allowed to go off, but disgusting more than toxic; blackened pimentos, jade-capped yoghurts, bitty milk. Also, the offcuts of kitchen preparation: potato peelings, the fibrous parts of vegetables, avocado skins and stones. These bits and pieces are certainly not digestible by humans (which of course is why I cut them off and throw them away in the first place).

I meditate idly, but rather frequently, on this matter. Food off-cuts are not necessarily food in themselves. Take nutshells; say, the shattered stone of an almond (not strictly a nut but a kernel). Who can eat the stone of an almond, or the shell of a hazelnut? Undeniably, they class as food waste, but still, they are basically wood, and the only creature that would like to eat them is woodworm. So, if I'm allowed to throw nutshells in the bin, shouldn’t I reasonably be allowed to throw other bits of wood in there too? Perhaps not table-legs, exactly, that would be a bit extreme, but pencil shavings, twigs, fir-cones? (I confess, my particular household economy does run to an unusual number of twigs.) Should the definition of food waste include any material that can be eaten by something (i.e. basically, biodegradable)? Would this include the prunings of pot-plants? Could I in good conscience toss in fragments of a plant I know to be highly poisonous - to humans -; hemlock, perhaps? (Again, I admit this to be a dilemma not all householders will find as pressing as I do.) Insects happily consume candle-wax, tissues, fag-ends, putty, ink, medicines, fabrics…

I’m getting late for work, again.

What about our own body parts, which I conceive to be highly nutritious to micro-organisms? When I die, could the food waste accommodate me? More immediately, what about nail-clippings (well, if eggshells are OK…), blood, snot, ear-wax and the dust off the bedside table?

What about the sweepings of cut hair around the base of a kitchen stool? My imagination dives into the bio-degrading earth and sees how its processes soften and dissolve the knottings of our civilization; how fibres become loose and pulverized, how even plastic twine eventually fragments; otherwise the upper layers of the healing earth would by now be one gigantic mare's-nest of tangled cords into which you couldn’t plant a spade.

Hair is odd, mysterious stuff. It's something that we mammals share with plants; we are both terrestrial groups of creatures, and plant hair has one of the same principal functions as mammal hair, protection from the sun's heat (plants, however, have different methods for dealing with winter cold). Of course plants vary greatly in hairiness, some coated in thick down while others are waxy smooth - the resemblance of plant stems to "limbs" has always struck the human imagination and is reflected in our languages.

They say your body stops growing before you’re twenty, your feet never get any bigger. But hair, nails and skin, well, they just go on growing. Are they part of our bodies or not? In our civilization we have developed a great many taboos concerning hair, especially recently. It would not be going too far to say, we hate hair. The etymology of barbarism is by no means only about the customs of ancient peoples.

Things we put in our mouths (we have come to feel), should definitely not be hairy. I have read, in one of those books about hedgerow gleanings, that comfrey leaves are as cool and mild as cucumber; that a couple of fresh leaves of comfrey make a highly palatable filling for a sandwich. I’ve tried this and it’s not far off true, but this comfrey snack is never going to make money for anyone, because comfrey leaves are covered in bristles. Kiwi-fruit skins are edible, but very few people think of eating them; they’re too furry. Nectarines are displacing peaches – children now are repelled by a peach's woolly bloom. As for animal food, hair is right off the menu, though an occasional pig’s bristle emerging from a piece of golden crackling is vaguely thrilling, evoking the rough, messy heartiness of a feast of roast meat turned heavily on a spit over a fire. In a more general way we are fussy about the outsides of any food, vegetable or animal. People don’t feel good about fish-skin, fatty or webby elastic tissues, dimpled or pimpled or slimy surfaces. We scream with amused horror witnessing the TV trial of westerners in the jungle consuming insects and other very small creatures; as much as anything, because it necessarily involves them registering the shelly or rubbery surfaces in their mouths. Small size is an issue, when it comes to our animal food. In my meat-eating days we were sometimes repaid for various services in hare. Unfortunately the kids never really took to hare, and I admit I was a bit squeamish myself. It wasn't picking out the shotgun pellets that bothered me, it was, well, a skinned hare is just about baby-size and baby-shape, and I didn't like chopping it into quarters. I suppose that’s one reason our era has lost all enthusiasm for eating rabbits, though our not-so-distant ancestors went into mouth-watering ecstasies about a snared coney. The fact is, we don’t like our animal foods to be recognizable. We gather in crowds to eat the insides of cows and pigs, but we have developed ways not to be shown the eaten-out shells of their external appearance. Somewhat analogous to vultures, whose naked heads enable them to probe deeply into the wound of a kill and to tear flesh from the inside, emerging without ruffled feathers.

Hair and nails are conceived as vegetable growths that are to be maintained for the relief of the public mind, like a front garden. When we see this not done, we infer a sub-social being, a wild person to be avoided and despised. It’s surprising how enduring this attitude is. Since I like to investigate woods and meadows rather energetically, I've learnt only too well how instant and instinctive the reaction is to “straws in the hair”, to a too-close contact between one’s body and a twig or leaf. Everywhere you go these are considered unmistakable signs of lunacy and idiocy. Even flowers are considered rather wild adornments of the person (as per King Lear, Ophelia...); only to be forgiven if they are conceived as celebrating the play-time of someone who is very beautiful, very young, very rich or very in love.

Western society is unprecedentedly hairless, and becoming more so. The naturally luxuriant growth of female hair under the arms, on the calves and around the pubic region is viewed with almost as much terror as the equally natural growth, for many women, of facial hair. Keep your lawn trimmed, as one expression has it. Eliminating (or, in the pubic case, at any rate neatly corralling) this "unsightly" hair is simply the most minimal, the most scarcely-even-needing-to-be-mentioned, basic of “taking care of yourself”; for your self, it seems, is something quite different from, something urgently to be distinguished from, your natural body. Nor is the male entirely exempt from such profitable prejudices. Male shoulder-hair, back-hair and even chest-hair are coming to be perceived as grotesque, unkempt, not really acceptable. Beards and moustaches are generally unpopular, certainly beyond the pale unless very short and groomed. The closer that neighbourhoods are to real poverty (that is, to a more natural existence), the more determinedly they maintain this line, and the shorter the hair. Here on the estates, the danger of letting oneself go, of slipping across the border of settled society into vagabondism, nomadism, weird solitude; onto the roads, into state care and greasy lodgings, into the streets; (metaphorically speaking, into the woods and fields); the vital importance of badging oneself as a member of the strongest community; all this is far more palpable than it is in prosperous circles, where a floppy, unkempt mane can be flourished, with scarcely any social consequences, as a gesture of mild rebellion against one’s surroundings.

But fashion and youth are always looking out for something new and different. Why is it that our society keeps on getting less hairy? Well, because youth leads fashion, for one thing. Another is that models, actors and celebrities, those critical opinion-formers, tend not to have very much hair, except on female heads. Their careers require rapid-fire changes, jumping in and out of costumes, a new look every week. This is much more practical if you keep virtually close-shaved; after all, a beard takes a long time to grow and cannot be conveniently taken off at will. Tallness, slimness and hairlessness work best, if you are a model; over time, these attrbiutes have proved the best for showing off clothes and accessories. Over time, we too tend to adopt not so much the wares on display as the underlying template of these human coat-hangers, these sites for product placement.

It's also about commodifying ourselves. That's something that humans have always done, it's our idea of being desirable, but the principal commodities that we are familiar with are no longer herd animals. Our principal commodities are machine-tooled, moulded in metal and plastic, shiny and slim. We wish to be as flexible and smooth as fish glinting in tropical waters.

For fish are yet more animal than we are. Here on land, we animals have distinguished our lifestyle from our vegetable companions by becoming more mobile, more speedy. Plants are slow. The rapid, flitting accidentals caused by the breeze, the rain, and the surrounding animal life are protectively filtered out by the plant’s senses; it only takes notice of what is so gradual that it must be important. (When I accidentally reflect the sun off my shiny mobile phone onto a crocus in the shade, it does not instantly open its petals; from the plant’s point of view, that would be sheer madness.) The plant lives in its one spot and, unconfined by the need to move around, grows its unique response to its only world, a baroque complexity of outline, a frost-work of branches and twigs and leaves and ray-florets. For an animal, protuberances of that sort would be highly inconvenient, constantly getting snagged and at risk of breaking off. The animal body is, comparatively speaking, rounded, symmetrical, compact, with a very short outline, and with severe limits when it comes to size. Society has always been uneasy about protuberances; even universal ones, if they happen to jut unusually, cause distraction and fidgetiness, cause conversations to dry up. Society has always positively loathed warts, carbuncles, boils and other things that we call, with vegetable implication, “growths”. Society fears people who are the wrong shape or size. Growth is what plants do, that’s how they live, it’s what they do instead of moving around. We, in some respects more animal than our forebears, super-animal perhaps, now hate hairiness because a hairy person, someone who lets hair “sprout”, has too much outline, and verges on plant-life; static, helpless, disturbingly unconcerned.

Three degrees by the end of the century...

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