Wednesday, March 30, 2016

splintered apprehension

This entry is a stub post that lists, so far as I can remember them, all the books that I or L. have read that have an Afghanistan setting.

Rudyard Kipling, "The Man Who Would Be King" and "Dray Wara Yow Dee" (both 1888).
In the former, Peachey and Dravot head for Kafiristan, in NE Afghanistan. In  the latter, the unnamed narrator, apparently an inhabitant of the Khyber pass, moves easily between Afghanistan and British India.
Nick Danziger, Danziger's Travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers (1987)
Åsne Seierstad, The Bookseller of Kabul (2004)
Magsie Hamilton Little, Dancing With Darkness (2011)
Debbie Rodriguez, The Kabul Beauty School (2007)
Debbie Rodriguez, The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul (2011)
Eric Newby, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958)
Joseph Kessel, The Horsemen (1968)
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea (2008 - mostly Pakistan, partly NE Afghanistan)
A book (title and author forgotten) about the nineteenth-century Anglo-Afghan wars

Not one of them written by an Afghan, as yet...

However I have read a little of Ferdowsi, the tenth-century poet. Balkh, now in N. Afghanistan, was then part of "Greater Khorasan", and the Shahnameh is regarded as as a national epic throughout the area of former Persian influence, i.e. not only Iran but Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia etc. Khorasan was the cultural centre of Greater Iran in those times, producing much Persian literature and poetry (incl. e.g. Rumi), scientists (e.g. Avicenna) and a long list of Islamic scholars.

Herat in 1969

[Image source:]


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

more March flowers from the Torrevieja coast

Eruca sativa

Eruca sativa, with violet veins on the four club-shaped petals. Used as a food-plant; both leaves and buds are succulent, with a mild rocket-like tang.

Leaves of Eruca sativa

This plant was extremely common along the coast, but a frustrating search of Blamey/Grey-Wilson stubbornly failed to reveal its name. It's, in the broadest sense, a rayless chamomile, up to 50cm tall but more typically 20cm, much-branched with quite large button heads (about 2cm across) and leaves resembling an Achillea, but presumably an Anthemis or Matricaria. Occasionally, as below, it produces a few rays.

There is another picture of what's clearly the same species here (the photo is from near Malaga): . The author states that it's Anthemis rigida, native to the NE Mediterranean, but from what I've read about the latter species it's only up to 15cm tall, and images look very different (e.g.

So the mystery continues.

Gynandris sisyrinchium

A small iris-like plant, apparently very common, but I was spellbound when I saw this group at Mar Azul. 

Another common plant I didn't identify, though this time just because I forgot to look it up. Too "busy" playing the guitar or reading Lope de Vega...  (An internet search strongly suggests that it's Reichardia tingitana.) 


Friday, March 25, 2016

Penguin Clásicos

I did a double-take when I caught sight of these beauties in the bookshop at Zenia Boulevard. Could it really be, I wondered: a Spanish-language equivalent to our own esteemed treasury of Penguin Classics, a collection of world literature but with the focus naturally set not on the Anglo-Saxon but the Hispanic?  

Well, yes and no, as it turns out. All the ones I've seen are 2015/2016 re-badges of classic editions that originally appeared in some other Spanish series, and the resemblance to our own Penguin Classics starts and ends with the jackets. Within, they resemble other typical Spanish editions of classics: for example, the introductions are in a rather standard format that begins with historical background, then the author's life and work, then a bit about the work itself and its reception, and finally quotations of mainly appreciative comments by earlier authors and scholars. I can't help noticing the marked gender disparity among the editors; editing Spanish classics is still an almost entirely male preserve. 

Random House are serious about the Penguin Clásicos, though, with a steady stream of new releases, as documented here: .

There's a good few translations of classics from other languages: for instance I noticed Poe, Austen, Stoker, Shakespeare and Zola (La obra). But of course it's the wealth of Spanish-language items that I couldn't resist sampling. 

While on holiday I struggled through the most famous poem by Jorge Manrique, a 15th century nobleman writing in the fierce throes of the end of the feudal age, and now I'm in the middle of reading, with somewhat less difficulty, Lope's brilliant 1608 play Peribañez

A night-time view of Avenida Desiderio Rodriguez in Torrevieja, my favourite street in the whole world (not that I am by any means an expert in streets). I had intended to give the Avenida its own blog post, but my internet searches failed to supply even the slightest information about who Don Desiderio Rodriguez was. It's a long straight wide street leading south from the centre of Torrevieja, next to the coast but, except at Playa de Naufragos, separated from it by apartment blocks. At the Torrevieja end it passes by the Puerto - a beach within the harbour - and Acequíon, the irrigation channel that connects the sea with the salt lake. Here, I always think, is the spiritual and practical heart of the town; because Torrevieja has been a town of salt and habaneras for much longer than it's been today's extraordinary urban experiment in sunny living for residents who between them, it's said, speak more than 100 languages. Here at Parque Doña Sinforosa or in the Plaza Islas Canarias it's very apparent that Torrevieja is still a thoroughly Spanish town. 

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Pallenis maritima (syn. Asteriscus maritimus, Odontospermum maritimum)

Low plant of Mediterranean coastal rocks, flowering Mar-Jun. Very common here on the Alicantine littoral. 

Pallenis maritima

The plant has been shuffled around from genus to genus. When I first wrote this post I titled it Asteriscus maritimus . Then I discovered (in A.W. Taylor's Wild Flowers of Spain and Portugal, 1972) that the plant was also known as Odontospermum maritimum . And now I've learned that the currently preferred name is Pallenis maritima . 

It has a N. African desert relative called Pallenis hierochuntica which is a "resurrection plant"; that is, a plant that can survive indefinitely in a dormant dessicated state, and is brought to life by water. (The technical term is hygrochastic.) 

"Hierochuntica" means "of Jericho" and connects it with another better-known resurrection plant, the cruciferous "Rose of Jericho" (Anastatica hierochuntica), often sold to Christian pilgrims as a fascinating novelty souvenir of their trip to the Holy Land and specifically the oasis-city that is one of oldest inhabited places on earth. The idea of the "resurrection", from the plant's point of view, is to wake up and release the seeds at the moment when conditions are ideal for germination. The plant is celebrated in Jewish and Islamic folklore and traditional medicine. 


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Mediterranean March

Pix from Cabo Roig 23 March 2016. Monday was rainy, Tuesday cloudy, today clear and sunny.

Friday, March 18, 2016

F O T O, poems 31 - 40

Abisko: view of Torneträsk

31.   (Me sitting in long grass by the fjord)

It was incredible that grass should grow
and pine-trees drop fat needles on the path,

oyster-catcher run rings around us squawking,
and evening boats bob calmly, this far north.

32.   (Fjord)

Starved beauty of borderland, beach, road,
caravan lots, sat still on the rough, cool grass

when evening broods, and closes like an eye.
In a snap making the ending endless.  

33.   (View of mountains)

Each morning I live in the face of untravelled lands
but I can’t come now. Knee-deep in bilberries and fern-fronds

high up above the highway and the bay, I’m busy but
each night I sleep in the grip of untravelled lands.

34.  (Rallarrosen “the navvy’s rose”)

No trace now of the anxious, sprawling camps,
no clanking barrows, no chinking hammer, no men.

Empty land, but alive. The unsweet roses
threw a blast of silent plumes after the train.

35.  (Birch woods Riksgränsen)

We called through the open door. Yes, it was a café,
and yes, she could do us coffee, though nothing to eat.

She balanced the tray slowly across the granite ground
to the only table. And after all it had a few cakes on it. 

36.   (Abisko turiststation)

The deerherds pitched on the high pass. At midnight
smoke whispered from their huts, on the postcard.

In the “Playstation” we showered and queued for dinner. 
Mum said: “kåtor” and Dad said: “goahte”.

37.   (The ground with Saxifraga aizoides)

We dashed our bikes on the ground,
the wheels still spinning. The day had begun.

Red, yellow, orange glowed the streamlets.
Through space flew my greedily sucking lungs.

38.   (Slate rockface with orange lichen)

The boreal zone, which is dominated by conifers;
and the arctic zone, which is dominated by lichen.

This is the arctic. What you see doesn’t really exist,
unless it’s portable — which this isn’t.

39.   (The waterfall)

Water plunges all together
and comes up sparkling

and unharmed. It’s idiotic but
no wonder it’s laughing.

40.  (Laura above the waterfall, kicking feet in the air)

In the airy wink of your calves
lives the pedalling of small, soapy feet.

Your own, and your children’s. “Maybe soon
I’ll be a grandmother. Oh, I can’t wait!”


Back-story. Poems 31-32 are at Skibotn (Norway), as night (but not darkness) falls. Next morning (33) our road-trip turned south, crossing back into Sweden at Riksgränsen, where the road runs alongside the railway that was built to export Swedish steel to the west via the Norwegian port of Narvik (34, 35). Poems 36-40 take place at Abisko where we stayed two nights. Abisko Turiststation, beside lake Torneträsk in the far north of Sweden, is located in the notable rain-shadow cast by the Kebnekajse massif; we had (mostly) brilliant weather, while the rest of Norrland lay under incessant rain. 

Poem 36, last line. These are the Swedish and Same words, respectively, for the tepee-like huts used as temporary habitations by travelling Same. 

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

the dream of some space in our lives

Holiday brochures (West Swindon District Centre, March 17th 2016)

I'll be on holiday until 29/3/16 and I probably won't be doing any more posting until I get back. Some of my recent posts have been substantially enlarged since first posted, notably the ones on The Saint's Tragedy and on last week-end's visit to Victoria Park, Greetings! and have a great equinox!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

crossing paths with Penguin Modern Poets 15

Penguin Modern Poets 15: Bold, Braithwaite, Morgan

I got this book a few years ago from a cardboard box beside the canal in Bath. It was a sunny June day, and we were on a breathless walk down Widcombe Hill into Smallcombe Vale then back onto the shoulder of Bathwick Hill, and so down again, traversing Sydney Buildings and the canal (buying book at this point), and finally past some allotments to emerge suddenly through a narrow slit in the massive foot of a railway bridge and to discover ourselves just over the road from the cricket ground in central Bath.

I can't honestly claim to have read this book in any meaningful sense, but I've carried it about in backpacks, with damaging impact on a jacket that for some reason is now extremely friable. It's a first edition (1969) and it was bought, apparently, in the bookshop at Sussex University, perhaps by the "Squires" whose name appears on the flyleaf.

Of the three poets in Penguin Poets 15:

The socialist poet Alan Bold's career proved to be short. He pretty much stopped publishing poetry in the early 1970s, possibly a consequence of his heavy drinking. He died in 1998.

This is the beginning of "That's Life?" (Naturally, I was drawn to the Walter Scott reference...)

Far from the scent of the crocus
And the pavanne of Scottish daffodils
A loud crash was heard in Princes Street.
Safe from the steady gaze
Of the grey carrara marble Scott
A jabbering unknown tramp had died.
One could certainly doubt it
But the blood was fresh
Enough to say he lived
Once. A peering crowd of blanket faces
Did not ponder if he loved,
Or had been loved, instead
They wondered at how far ahead
In life they were. Were they more
Than one rung up the ladder of life?

[*Not sure why Bold particularly calls them "Scottish" daffodils. Eastern Scotland is, however, one of the main producers of cut daffodils, along with Lincolnshire and Cornwall. The idea is that the flowering seasons of the three areas should be spread out, allowing specialist pickers to move up the island. Sometimes this goes wrong, as in 2012 when cold weather in Cornwall and exceptionally warm weather in Scotland meant that all three crops ripened at the same time.]

Edward (subsquently Kamau) Braithwaite, born in Barbados, is an internationally known and much admired poet, now aged 85.

Many of his poems in PEP 15 are set in Africa, where he lived for several years. The following extract comes from "The Forest", an exciting venture into a mysterious dark different world contrasted with the open-air world of desert, Ra and Sphinx, kings and gods.

Time to forget

these gods.
The jewelled sun

has splintered
on these leaves.

The moon-
light rusts.

Only the frogs wear jewels
here; the cricket's chirp is

emerald; the praying mantis'
topaz pleases; and termites'

tunnel eyes illuminate the dark.
No sphinx eyes close and dream

us of our destiny; the desert
drifting certainties outside us.

Here leaf eyes shift, twigs
creak, buds flutter, the stick

becomes a snake: uncertainties adrift
within us.

Edwin Morgan died in 2010, aged 90, and is commonly regarded as one of the finest Scottish poets of recent times. This is most of the beautiful love-poem "Phoning":

and I dialled Montreux
a sudden impulse
we had to laugh
at that chain of numbers
Grand Hôtel des Alpes
and we spoke to your sister
Glasgow to the snows
and the sunny funiculars
and meetings by a lake
so far from Law and
the pits and cones
of worked Lanarkshire
my arm on your shoulder
held you as you spoke
your voice vibrating
as you leaned against me
remembering this
and your finger tapping
my bare knee
to emphasize a point
but most of all
in that dusky room
the back of your head
as you bent to catch
the distant words
caught my heart
as the love
with which I make
this sunset chain

rear jacket, showing more of the magnificent Japanese lacquer work

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Kneeling on the grass

Grass near sunset  (Victoria Park, Bath ,March 12th 2016)

Prunus 'Accolade' (Victoria Park, Bath, March 12th 2016)

The first warm Saturday.
The pause; bare trees.

Ornamental cherry-tree crown at sunset (Victoria Park, Bath, March 12th 2016)

Prunus 'Accolade' above the pond (Victoria park, Bath, March 12th 2016)

Amenity grassland at  sunset (Victoria Park, Bath,  March 12th 2016)

Early blossom on Prunus 'Accolade' (Victoria Park, Bath, March 12th 2016)

A grass circle (Victoria Park, Bath, March 12th 2016)

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Wednesday, March 09, 2016

F O T O, poems 21 - 30

Skibotn harbour, photo by Matti Paavola

21.   (Inside a hut for travellers)

The walls still tell the names,
but it’s empty in cloudy August.

The ash in the grate remains
from that blaze of winter quarters.

22.   (Me at the top of a pine)

Those light-starved spruces, pretty, narrow and black…
and now the last sprinkle of trees, you can board the tallest,

and walking you breast the canopy; snow has broken it, 
animals come to scratch and scent twigs in a forest.

23.    (The view south)

There it all is. No track beyond that dip.
Try to take it in: the land that no-one made.

And no it's not eloquent. Maybe like a child
who is unconcerned and uninjured.

24.   (Mum and Dad in northern Lappland their parents)

You, their blood, have outdistanced them;
it began with that miraculous cranky Morris

(1960) and you roared along the sea-front in the rain. 
But I won’t do this, I won’t so outdrive your glories.

25.   (The mountains)

Bolstered in the mountains, I fancy,
lurks undisturbed the snowstorm’s emperor.

Much is hiding there that never resumes.
A child makes outlines on the forest floor.

26.   (At a table in grillen, Mum & Laura, sunset)

Shadows crossed the golden omelette,
golden pommes frites, shy icy beer.

In that moment, we made a hearth, “us four”;
it could get broken, but not disappear.

27.  (Laura in grillen)

Sea-moisture, bottle-brown stream-moisture,
pine-mist on deep open sea-slopes.

Evening; your stovebrown babysoft hair
tangled and tumbled from the hair-clip.

28.  (Waving ice-cream by the fjord)

The glaciers yes they should be eaten,
sugared with amazing orange dye.

Something human about it factories lorries
no it’s you waving: raw, casual ceremony.

29.  (Moored boats)

The gloved fingers of the fjord jostle the dishes,
and to see the captains’ temples is really not solemn.

Their reverent hearts are breaking gladly in town.
We starlings prod hereabouts, we feel at home.

30.  (Grey beach last sunshine on hills Who owns the land?)

It is so tranquil in the cool night shadows
while the sunset still rotates way up in the air

and lights up Yykeänperä's rocks. We strolled and sat

by the shore as if it were no-one's and nowhere.


Back-story: 21-24 As before, in the far north of Sweden near the river Lainio. (Thereafter we crossed the border into Finland at Karesuando, and drove NW, passing into Norway a couple of hours later.) 25-30 are located at Skibotn ("Yykeänperä" in the Same language), where we stayed overnight. Skibotn is on a coastal fjord but is ringed by mountains and has no open view of the sea. 

(21.) Norrland's wilderness huts are used more in winter than in summer. 

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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Charles Kingsley, The Saint's Tragedy (1848)

Portrait of Charles Kingsley by Lowes Cato Dickinson, 1862

[Image source:]

Reading this old Victorian book confronts us with a thoroughly modern problem, which in one word we may term: blasphemy. I'm thinking of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo and Jyllands-Posten.

Kingsley was a devout Christian, but strongly anti-Catholic. His Saint's Tragedy is a verse drama (intended purely for reading, I doubt it was ever staged) that tells the story of the medieval saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), still venerated in central Europe and especially within the Franciscan tradition. Doubtless I am not being theologically exact in suggesting that to write irreverently of a saint amounts to blasphemy; that word, no doubt, can strictly only be applied when the topic is God himself; but still, Kingsley's play would be, we imagine, pretty deeply affronting to pious Catholics. In our secular and relativist era most of us feel that it's wrong to cause gratuitous offence to those who hold different beliefs from ourselves (this sense of consideration has been reductively termed self-censorship). Kingsley, on the other hand, was more than willing to offend Catholics. Those were less globalized days than ours, but he would have known that some Catholics in England would look over his play. His principal audience, however, was English Protestantism.

Not that he portrays Elizabeth without sympathy or admiration; she is the heroine of his play. (Furthermore, he wants to claim her as a proto-Protestant.)  But no Catholic could ever see a saint's life as a tragedy;  for them Kingsley's title could only be a contradiction in terms.

Kingsley's play shows us  Elizabeth being "constructed" as a saint by Conrad of Marburg, the papal inquisitor that she ill-advisedly appoints as her confessor. This idea of construction comes from Devon Fisher's excellent book Roman Catholic Saints and Early Victorian Literature (2012), but it doesn't account for all the play's subtleties: Elizabeth and Conrad undoubtedly pursue a lived sainthood, not merely its form.

Elizabeth's belief (it derives only partly from Conrad) that married sexuality is fundamentally opposed to the sainthood she strives for is presented as a grievous error, one she finally repents. Kingsley portrays her "discipline", her fasting, and her wild charities - all those outcomes of her extreme idealism - as essentially mistaken.

My expectations of Victorian verse-drama aren't high, and I might be losing my sense of perspective if I call this a brilliant exception to the rule, but it's what I feel like saying. Others apparently don't agree: Devon Fisher approvingly quotes John Maynard:  like Kingsley's other works, The Saint's Tragedy has "an importance beyond the talent [it displays]".  But, a few clunky Shakespeare-isms aside ("Guta: Still on your children?"), I can't say I'm really seeing this lack of talent.

One reason The Saint's Tragedy is such a readable play is that Elizabeth's passionate saintliness is set against such a rich variety of contrasts: Conrad and the ultra-authoritarian church, Elizabeth's own sympathetic but less rigorous servants, the laxities of worldly prelates, the bluff and un-dogmatic (but sometimes self-interested) nobles, and the sometimes warm-hearted but often ungrateful and bitter populace. Refreshingly for a Victorian play, no-one is portrayed as completely admirable. (Browning's Strafford can be compared in this respect; too often, though, Browning's dramas are concerned with issues that seem essentially undramatic.)

Kingsley's dramatic qualities are all the more impressive because his spacious play covers long tracts of time and he's determined to stick to Dietrich's story. This means that the action of the drama doesn't always fit his message particularly well. For instance, rather than showing the marriage of Lewis and Elizabeth caving in under the pressure of her beliefs, he records their parting at the height of their love, when Lewis sets off for the crusades and an unheroic death at Otranto. Kingsley makes fresh capital out of this by portraying Elizabeth's deeply conflicted response to her husband's vow. A little later, one ill-natured commentator remarks: "I'd never elbow him off to crusades with my pruderies." This remark, we see, is uninformed and wrong. But perhaps it isn't entirely wrong? Refusing to shape the history so it dictates its own interpretations, Kingsley allows multiple viewpoints to sit alongside each other, not fully resolved.

In the notes, he laments his own minor alteration of chronology so that Elizabeth's canonization precedes Conrad's death. In principle, he believed, "[T]he most strict historic truth would have coincided, as usual, with the highest artistic effect". Only failure of imagination made him have recourse to this arrangement (allowing Conrad to play a major role in sealing the canonization and to reflect on his finished work).


Online text of The Saint's Tragedy

The play takes place in various locations in the well-forested federal state of Thuringia in central Germany. The Landgraviate, into which Elizabeth married, lasted from 1131-1247.

The following gives an outline of the action, with some quotations from the scenes that interested me most.



In two contrasted parts, the first being a setup for the second. Epimetheus prays that our dismal modern age can be inspired to emulate the noble deeds of the German Middle Ages. Prometheus uses the images of natural decay and new growth to propose a healthier relationship to the past than mere emulation: we must not repeat it, we must use it to answer the more complex questions of our own age.

What though fogs may stream from draining waters?
   We will till the clays to mellow loam;
Wake the graveyard of our fathers’ spirits;
   Clothe its crumbling mounds with blade and bloom.


Elizabeth, a royal child but an orphan, has been brought up in the foreign court of Thuringia. She has grown up alongside the young Landgrave Lewis, as brother and sister. She isn't popular or respected at the court. She's religiously inclined but, to her nurse Isentrudis and the friendly old Count Walter, her distress is a silent longing for Lewis, which they intend to do something about.


Lewis and Count Walter riding around Thuringia. They discuss being a ruler. They meet the monk Conrad (evidently Kingsley wants to introduce him early); he tries to inspire Lewis with religious fervour. Lewis is responsive to some extent. Lewis dreams of a saint-wife and names Elizabeth (Conrad exits at this point). Walter seizes the occasion to tell him that Elizabeth loves him and is only waiting to be wooed. Lewis accuses himself of cowardice, avows his love and asks Walter to tell Elizabeth.


Elizabeth with the dowager Sophia, an unattractive figure who dislikes her and her saintliness. Walter comes to bring the news, and Elizabeth is transformed into happiness.


The bridal feast. Elizabeth trembling with joy but terrified of her duties.


The bedroom. Lewis asleep; Elizabeth awake on the bare boards, after forcing her maids to scourge her, conflicted between the joy of love and religious self-denial. Lewis wakes and is horrified to see her wounds.

Lewis. But doleful nights, and self-inflicted tortures --
Are these the love of God? Is He well pleased
With this stern holocaust of health and joy?

(Eliz.)...It pleases me to bear what you call pain,
Therefore to me 'tis pleasure; joy and grief
Are the will's creatures; martyrs kiss the stake --
The moorland colt enjoys the thorny furze....
.....'Tis such medicine
Which breeds that paltry strength, that weak devotion,
For which you say you love me. -- Ay, which brings
Even when most sharp, a stern and awful joy
As its attendant angel -- I'll say no more --
Not even to thee -- command, and I'll obey thee.

(Lewis.)  ... Horror melts to pity,
And pity kindles to adoring shower
Of radiant tears! Thou tender cruelty!
Gay smiling martyrdom! Shall I forbid thee?
Limit thy depth by mine own shallowness? ....

The lovers are reconciled and go back to bed.


A Fool makes cynical remarks on saintliness; Elizabeth moralizes on this, and knows she needs to go deeper. Lewis arrives, describing Conrad's preaching. Elizabeth explains why she feels she needs the implacable Conrad as her confessor. Lewis is persuaded, Conrad appears and speaks with an un-subservient  but potent mixture of humility and sternness. Count Walter comments:

So, so, the birds are limed :-- Heaven grant that we do not soon see them stowed in separate cages...


Conrad, drunk with his sudden elevation, soliloquizes...

... she is most fair!
Pooh! I know nought of fairness -- this I know,
She calls herself my slave, with such an air
As speaks her queen, not slave; that shall be looked to --
She must be pinioned or she will range abroad
Upon too bold a wing; 't will cost her pain --
But what of that? there are worse things than pain --

Elizabeth swears total obedience to Conrad.


Elizabeth gives herself to works of charity for the starving poor, but is rebuked by Conrad for failing to attend a service. He makes to abandon her.


Conrad and Elizabeth are reconciled, her works of charity continue.  Count Walter provides captious but sympathetic commentary.


A peasant and woodcutter converse by a mountain chapel. Elizabeth appears with her newborn infant.


The famine. A merchant arrives with corn and is almost lynched. Elizabeth engaged in charitable works.


Disgruntled discussion by nobles and prelates about how wrong Elizabeth is to feed the poor. Count Walter reports (with some enjoyment) a bitter attack by Conrad on these worldly nobles and prelates. Lewis enters and they cautiously criticize his wife's charities. He summons her to hear them, and she talks them round (in Lewis' eyes, anyway.).


A love-duet between Elizabeth and Lewis. Then he introduces the possibility of him going away on a crusade. Elizabeth is distressed, the more so when it turns out he has already made a vow to go. Elizabeth blames Conrad, who disclaims responsibility.


Parting of husband and wife, with songs by various classes of crusader.


Elizabeth with her waiting-women, already seeing herself as a widow. The dowager appears and harshly announces Lewis' sudden death, of sickness. Elizabeth's wild despair. The new Landgrave banishes her, and her separation from her children is announced.


Elizabeth in the street, with her waiting-women, turned away by all. She meets her children. Recounts her harsh treatment by the poor, who recognize her pride.


The scene switches to Bamberg. Elizabeth says she doesn't deserve to enjoy her children (she comes over as rather self-obsessed here). The venial bishop of Bamberg notes how Conrad orders her around.


Funeral of Lewis at Bamberg Cathedral. Elizabeth gathers followers to stand up for her children's wrongs.


Conrad persuades Elizabeth to give up her children, but does not allow her to give up her wealth. Conrad's young follower Gerard protests at Conrad's unswerving harshness to Elizabeth.

Ger.   Alas, poor lady!
Con.  Why alas, my son?
She longs to die a saint, and here's the way to it.
Ger. Yet why so harsh? Why with remorseless knife
Home to the stem prune back each bough and bud?
I thought the task of education was
To strengthen, not to crush; to train and feed
Each subject toward fulfilment of its nature,
According to the mind of God, revealed
In laws, congenital with every kind
And character of man.
Con. A heathen dream!
Young souls but see the gay and warm outside,
And work but in the shallow upper soil.
Mine deeper, and the sour and barren rock
Will stop you soon enough. Who trains God's Saints,
He must transform, not pet.....

The conversation continues. Conrad's alpine glacier image of hell gaping all round our paths.


Count Walter and Count Pama visit Elizabeth's miserable hut and are shocked by her transformation. They mention her royal father seeking her return to Hungary and offering her half his wealth. Elizabeth explains:

.....that child and father
Are names, whose earthly sense I have forsworn,
And know no more: I have a heavenly spouse,
Whose service doth all other claims annul.


Elizabeth's hut, with a leprous boy. The two horrible old women who scourge her, insult her, and act as Conrad's informers. Conrad, as in II.3, hints at elements of lust both in his unshakeable cruelty to Elizabeth and in the feelings of pity that he stifles. He orders her to attend the burning of two heretics, but doesn't insist on this final degradation. He forbids her to give alms or care for the poor.

Eliz. Oh, let me give!
That only pleasure have I left on earth!
Con. And for that very cause thou must forego it,
And so be perfect. She who lives in pleasure
Is dead, while yet she lives; grace brings no merit
When 'tis the express of our own self-will.
To shrink from what we practise; do God's work
In spite of loathings; that's the path of saints.


Elizabeth's death-bed. Conrad stage-manages the death of a saint. Elizabeth in her final words asserts that her true love was always her young husband.


Several years later. Convent at Marpurg. Two aged monks and Gerard discuss Elizabeth's canonization. Gerard reports Conrad's speeches before the council and his accounts of miracles.


At Mayence. Conrad reviews what he did to Elizabeth, full of doubt about whether his behaviour was justified. Beset by terrors. Sees all as vanity. Values dogma little (see also IV.1). [At such moments I think Kingsley means us to agree with him, though not approve the path by which he arrives at this insight.] Conrad and Gerard set off to Marpurg, though forewarned of the danger.


They are assailed by a vengeful band whose loved ones Conrad has burnt for heresy without trial. Gerard and Conrad die.


Kingsley's interest in St Elizabeth apparently started with conversations aimed at persuading his wife of the sanctity of the marriage-bed.

That biographical background, of course, adds a piquant interest to the play.

So does the fact that Kingsley in his early youth had felt a very strong emotional pull towards Catholicism.

So do the personal erotic drawings that show that Kingsley found self-flagellation and bondage sexually exciting.

But all of these things might anyway be suspected from a close reading of The Saint's Tragedy. Conrad at times becomes almost the hero. It's obvious with how much inwardness Kingsley could write of him.


Kingsley's portrayal of the Middle Ages is intentionally negative, and must be seen as taking on the established Romantic tradition of idealizing the period; Scott's Ivanhoe and The Talisman are signal instances. Chivalry and courtesy play no part in Kingsley's vision.


Kingsley based his account on the life of Elizabeth by her contemporary, Dietrich of Appold. In one respect its accuracy has subsequently been questioned: later commentators have doubted that Elizabeth was indeed forcibly exiled when her brother-in-law became Landgrave, and have supposed instead that she voluntarily exiled herself.

[Image source: Like most modern pious images of St Elizabeth, this stained-glass window shows the loaves of bread, which she is carrying to the poor in the lap of her apron, miraculously turned into roses. Kingsley's play disdains mention of this and other legends.]


Monday, March 07, 2016

Victor Canning

We will yet save you from the glutine. The aples is better bruised first.

There was a moon, five days past the full, and striking sparks of quicksilver from the outcrops

the easeful sweep of his legs, and the feeling of hard ground under him, came like a balm after his cramped day in the pit

A great velvet moth burred into his face

Once from the pale sky a shooting star drew a curve of instant fire

a train rattling by, and as he opened his eyes he saw the brightly-lit windows swirl before him like a cinema-screen, saw nodding heads and faces that gaped through the glass

Victor Canning

Victor Canning was a hard-working popular novelist of the mid-century. Forty-one books are listed and I expect they are all good; the kind a straightforward reader could not merely enjoy but love. I suppose the hardbacks went into lending libraries (perhaps they are still there) and the paperbacks onto railway bookstalls in the home counties. The titles may be quotations (His Bones are Coral), sporting tags (Doubled in Diamonds) or the sort of thing that Robert Ludlum later tried to trademark (The Scorpio Letters). 

I have only read two of them, and they are very different, though not as different as they can be made to sound. Mr Finchley discovers his England (1934) is a rumbustious tale of a balding bachelor’s summer holiday, which turns into a chain of delightful misadventures. Venetian Bird (1951) is a taut thriller whose hero is a self-disgusted private enquiry agent. But the later book is fundamentally warm-hearted, and the earlier one is not as sentimental as you’d expect. Both heroes “find themselves”, just the thing that the readers dreamt of (I think the readers would have been men), as they peered out from their ossified jobs and ossified leisure. 

I extracted the lines above from two pages of Mr Finchley. Canning had a marvellous gift for description on the run. But the dialogue in Mr Finchley  belongs to an age before the talkies, expansive and literary. Venetian Bird, on the other hand, is like this:

San Marco itself seemed cut out of metallic paper, livid golds and greens under the powerful lights, and the Campanile was a great raw finger scratching at the dark sky with its sharp nail.

Rosa was lying back in her chaise-longue listening to the radio when he arrived. She held up a hand to stop him from talking, nodded at the bottle on the low table and went on listening. Someone was reading poetry – a resonant, compelling voice. Mercer poured himself a drink, half-listening . . .

            “Sperai ch il tempo, e i duri casi, e queste
                        Rupi ch’io varco anelando . . .”

Rosa had always had a weakness for poetry. He lit a cigarette and watched her. Her eyes were shut and the large face was stupid in its contented collapse. Ten years ago and few men would have turned away from her bed if invited. Now . . .her feet stuck out from the bottom of the wrap and he saw the pink bulge of flesh over the curve of her slippers like over-stuffed sausages.

                        “. . . Amor fra l’ombre inferne
                        Seguirammi immortale, omnipotente.”

The voice stopped and she switched the radio off.

“Ugo Foscolo – one of my favourites.”

“I like his voice.”

“You’re a barbarian, dear boy. Foscolo’s dead. It was being read by another poet – Madeo Nervi. He’s coming to Venice soon for some Arts Festival. I shall go and listen to him. You can take me – if you’re here.”

“I will – if I’m here.”

She said: “Within the last hour someone’s cracked you on the forehead. The blood’s scarcely dry.”

“I ran into a wall.”

“In your job that happens sometimes.”

He got up and walked around the room with his glass in his hand. He stopped by the window, running one finger gently along the slats of the blind.

“Did you find anything about the girl Medova?”

“Not much.” She knew he wasn’t going to talk. She didn’t want to know anything for herself, but talking might help him. She’d made it her business to have a look at the girl and had been jealous – pleased in fact by her jealousy like someone coming into a cold room and finding a red ember waiting to be blown to warmth under the grey ashes.

(How easily, by the way, the author deals with everyone speaking Italian throughout the book. Mercer’s is very good, of course, but not up to engaging with a poem on the radio when it’s already half-way through. Instead, he fixes on the voice.)

Eva Bartok and Richard Todd in the 1952 movie Venetian Bird


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