Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Oxford horse-chestnuts - St Leonards-on-Sea shingle

Yesterday evening, feeling gloomy, lonely and tired, I plunged into a book drawn randomly off the shelf; it was a selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins' Poetry and Prose. It was the prose I read, mainly; though before going off to sleep I read a little of the "Deutschland" and after the light was out listened for a while to my brain sponaneously constructing gibberish in Sprung rhythm, which it appeared to manage as sure-footedly as blank verse. But mostly I read the prose.

The most engaging piece, for me, was the early Platonic Dialogue on the Origin of Beauty, written 1865. This is unfinished, and it's basically a slow trainwreck, because it gets more and more bogged down in detail and ever less likely to successfully resist "de gustibus non est disputandum", which is what the Professor of Aesthetics is trying to do. But the early pages are enjoyable. He and his two pals begin with the horse-chestnut leaf, said to be at its most beautiful when it has seven leaflets, not six. (The Professor is working towards a fairly uninteresting insight about variety within uniformity.) The tree Aesculus hippocastanum has between 5 and 7 leaflets. You would expect Hopkins to be a close observer and he is, just as later in his journals writing about oak foliage. The only odd thing is when the Professor talks about Vesica Piscis (i.e. a lens shape), suggests that they are inferior to the Horse-Chestnut shape when it comes to making fans, then makes a fan of lime leaves to prove it. - But after all, lime leaves are unsymmetrically ovate/cordate, not lens-shaped at all! And of course it is not right to compare a (lime) leaf with a (chestnut) leaflet, but Hopkins seems to be unaware of this distinction.

Hopkins was passionately interested in his own apprehensions of nature, and yet he never seems to have been interested in learning the botanical words (like ovate or cordate) that would have made things clearer for him. Instead he preferred to be at the forefront of his own research with its own terms, fretty quains and all the rest. The same perversity comes out in later life when he firecely asserts, (but with suspicious repetition) that he doesn't care about not being able to read much or write much or publish anything at all.

The dialogue moves on to oak trees:

"We were speaking of the chestnut-trees, of their unsymmetrical growth. Now is the oak an unsymmetrical tree?"

"Very much so; O quite a rugged boldly-irregular tree: and this I should say was one of the things which make us invest it with certain qualities it has in poetry and in popular and national sentiment," said Hanbury.

"Very observant. You mean of course when it grows at liberty, rather than when influenced by confinement, cutting and so forth."

"Yes: what I say will of course be truest of the tree when uninfluenced by man."

"Very good. Now have you ever noticed that when the oak has grown to its full stature uninfluenced, the outline of its head is drawn by a long curve, I should think it would be that of a parabola, which, if you look at the tree from a little way off, is of almost mathematical correctness?"

This matter of being uninfluenced by man is almost the wrong way round. Before man, almost every oak tree was confined in dense woodland. It is the standard tree, carefully preserved in the isolation of parkland, that develops the parabola. Yet the parabola is part of nature, of course. (The horse-chestnut illustrates this even better. The few wild populations, in the Balkans, look very different from the handsome tree we are familiar with - small, tough, and crowded. Like other tree species, notably the Monterey Cypress, it seems to have ended up becoming trapped and hanging on in an ecological niche that doesn't really suit it.)

The other thing that stood out for me, reading Hopkins' letters, is mention of Campbell, alongside Milton, as one of the two masters of style - an idea that Arnold originated, I think. This is (presumably?) the Romantic Poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), who regarded the following as his best poem. Well, I like this poem too, but that's because of the feeling of excitement that comes with the thought of striding beneath the Marina in that blessed spot, scene of such significance to my own life.

Lines On The View From St. Leonard's

by Thomas Campbell

Hail to thy face and odours, glorious Sea!
'Twere thanklessness in me to bless thee not,
Great beauteous Being! in whose breath and smile
My heart beats calmer, and my very mind
Inhales salubrious thoughts. How welcomer
Thy murmurs than the murmurs of the world!
Though like the world thou fluctuatest, thy din
To me is peace, thy restlessness repose.
Ev'n gladly I exchange yon spring-green lanes
With all the darling field-flowers in their prime,
And gardens haunted by the nightingale's
Long trills and gushing ecstasies of song,
For these wild headlands, and the sea-mew's clang --

With thee beneath my windows, pleasant Sea,
I long not to o'erlook earth's fairest glades
And green savannahs -- Earth has not a plain
So boundless or so beautiful as thine;
The eagle's vision cannot take it in:
The lightning's wing, too weak to sweep its space,
Sinks half-way o'er it like a wearied bird:
It is the mirror of the stars, where all
Their hosts within the concave firmament,
Gay marching to the music of the spheres,
Can see themselves at once.

Nor on the stage
Of rural landscape are there lights and shades
Of more harmonious dance and play than thine.
How vividly this moment brightens forth,
Between gray parallel and leaden breadths,
A belt of hues that stripes thee many a league,
Flush'd like the rainbow, or the ringdove's neck,
And giving to the glancing sea-bird's wing
The semblance of a meteor.

Mighty Sea!
Cameleon-like thou changest, but there's love
In all thy change, and constant sympathy
With yonder Sky -- thy Mistress; from her brow
Thou tak'st thy moods and wear'st her colours on
Thy faithful bosom; morning's milky white,
Noon's sapphire, or the saffron glow of eve;
And all thy balmier hours, fair Element,
Have such divine complexion -- crisped smiles,
Luxuriant heavings and sweet whisperings,
That little is the wonder Love's own Queen
From thee of old was fabled to have sprung --
Creation's common! which no human power
Can parcel or inclose; the lordliest floods
And cataracts that the tiny hands of man
Can tame, conduct, or bound, are drops of dew
To thee that could'st subdue the Earth itself,
And brook'st commandment from the heavens
For marshalling thy waves --

Yet, potent Sea! alone
How placidly thy moist lips speak ev'n now
Along yon sparkling shingles. Who can be
So fanciless as to feel no gratitude
That power and grandeur can be so serene,
Soothing the home-bound navy's peaceful way,
And rocking ev'n the fisher's little bark
As gently as a mother rocks her child? --

The inhabitants of other worlds behold
Our orb more lucid for thy spacious share
On earth's rotundity; and is he not
A blind worm in the dust, great Deep, the mall
Who sees not or who seeing has no joy
In thy magnificence? What though thou art
Unconscious and material, thou canst reach
The inmost immaterial mind's recess,
And with thy tints and motion stir its chords
To music, like the light on Memnon's lyre!

The Spirit of the Universe in thee
Is visible; thou hast in thee the life --
The eternal, graceful, and majestic life
Of nature, and the natural human heart
Is therefore bound to thee with holy love.
Earth has her gorgeous towns; the earth-circling sea
Has spires and mansions more amusive still --
Men's volant homes that measure liquid space
On wheel or wing. The chariot of the land
With pain'd and panting steeds and clouds of dust
Has no sight-gladdening motion like these fair
Careerers with the foam beneath their bows,
Whose streaming ensigns charm the waves by day,
Whose carols and whose watch-bells cheer the night,
Moor'd as they cast the shadows of their masts
In long array, or hither flit and yond
Mysteriously with slow and crossing lights,
Like spirits on the darkness of the deep.

There is a magnet-like attraction in
These waters to the imaginative power
That links the viewless with the visible,
And pictures things unseen. To realms beyond
Yon highway of the world my fancy flies,
When by her tall and triple mast we know
Some noble voyager that has to woo
The trade-winds and to stem the ecliptic surge.
The coral groves -- the shores of conch and pearl,
Where she will cast her anchor and reflect
Her cabin-window lights on warmer waves,
And under planets brighter than our own:
The nights of palmy isles, that she will see
Lit boundless by the fire-fly -- all the smells
Of tropic fruits that will regale her -- all
The pomp of nature, and the inspiriting
Varieties of life she has to greet,
Come swarming o'er the meditative mind.

True, to the dream of Fancy, Ocean has
His darker tints; but where's the element
That chequers not its usefulness to man
With casual terror? Scathes not Earth sometimes
Her children with Tartarean fires, or shakes
Their shrieking cities, and, with one last clang
Of bells for their own ruin, strews them flat
As riddled ashes -- silent as the grave?
Walks not Contagion on the Air itself?
I should -- old Ocean's Saturnalian days
And roaring nights of revelry and sport
With wreck and human woe-be loth to sing;
For they are few, and all their ills weigh light
Against his sacred usefulness, that bids
Our pensile globe revolve in purer air.
Here Morn and Eve with blushing thanks receive
Their freshening dews, gay fluttering breezes cool
Their wings to fan the brow of fever'd climes,
And here the Spring dips down her emerald urn
For showers to glad the earth.

Old Ocean was
Infinity of ages ere we breathed
Existence -- and he will be beautiful
When all the living world that sees him now
Shall roll unconscious dust around the sun.
Quelling from age to age the vital throb
In human hearts, Death shall not subjugate
The pulse that swells in his stupendous breast,
Or interdict his minstrelsy to sound
In thundering concert with the quiring winds;
But long as Man to parent Nature owns
Instinctive homage, and in times beyond
The power of thought to reach, bard after bard
Shall sing thy glory, BEATIFIC SEA.

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