Thursday, November 30, 2017

poets of the world

The last post was about Fernando Pizarro, a local poet from NW Spain.  The best information I could find about him was here:

Afterwards I started to the explore a bit more widely and realized that its scope is giddying.  (The highly productive editor is  the poet Fernando Sabido Sánchez.)

 There must be samples of about 2,000 Spanish poets alone, 1,250 Mexican, more than 1,800 Argentinian...  and a bit of most other countries: 250 UK poets,  1,000 Americans, 55 Haitians, 144 Guatemalans, 70 Finns, 64 Iranians, 42 Icelanders,  102 Swedes, 133 Japanese, 92 Vietnamese, 60 Morroccans  ..(  For a few countries the coverage is surprisingly light: just 17 Nigerians and 8 Pakistanis, for example. )

 Poems may appear in the original language or translations (Spanish, English, German...) . Annoyingly for the purposes of this blog post, the texts are not electronically copyable.

In such a vast horde is it possible to find the silence needed to encounter a poem? 


from Gieve Patel (India), "Bombay Central"

That odour does not offend,
The station's high and cool vault
Sucks it up and sprays down instead,
Interspersed with miraculous, heraldic
Shafts of sunlight, an eternal
Station odour, amalgam
of diesel oil, hot steel, cool rails,
Light and shadow, human sweat,
Metallic distillations, dung, urine,
Newspaper ink, Parle's Gluco Biscuits,
And sharp noisy sprays of water from taps
With worn-out bushes, all
hitting the nostril as one singular
Invariable atmospheric thing,
Seeping into your clothing
The way cigarette smoke and air-conditioning
Seep into you at cinema halls ....


from Sandeep Parmar (UK), "Against Chaos (after Jagit Singh)"

He who has not strode the full length of age, has counted
then lost count of days that swallow, like fever, dark chaos,

And you, strange company in the backseat of childhood,
propped on the raft of memory like some god of chaos,

You threaten to drown me: wind through palmed streets.
Oracle of grief. The vagrant dance of figures in chaos

carting trash over tarmac. Stench of Popeye's Chicken,
the Capitol Records building, injecting light and chaos

into the LA sky. That paper boat in rainwater, rushing, dives
out of my reach and old women give no order here to chaos, ...


Fun ways to improve your Spanish: pick a pretty straightforward funny poet (such as Australia's Emmie Rae ), read one of the poems in English, then read the Spanish translation.

new york city

sent you home a picture of my naked chest and
your were like, shit is dangerous on the internet
for your sake I'm deleting that and when I
ordered a small iced coffee it was twice the
size of my head and I hugged it like a real
boyfriend or a baby which seemed appropriate
considering the circumstances I guess.

nueva york

te envié a casa una foto de mi pecho desnudo
y te pusiste como "esta mierda es peligrosa en internet,
lo borraré por tu bien" y pedí un café con un trozo de hielo
de dos veces el tamaño de mi cabeza y lo abracé como
si fuera my verdadero novio o como a un bebé porque
teniendo en cuenta las circunstancias
parecía lo corecto, supongo

(Translation by Óscar García Sierra)

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

After Fernando Pizarro

Valladolid: tower of the Iglesia del Salvador

[Image source:]

About Fernando Pizarro:

Fernando Pizarro García: A poet and prose writer - also a judge - b. 1951, from the Valladolid area. And it was during a rushed hour in Valladolid last September that I bought his book Cuando la noche (1999)*. Here are some very free translations.  (Some of the Spanish texts are in the link above.)

Of confused genesis,
of indefinite limits,
you are the enemy.  You arrive
devious and demand treacherous
an unequal, bloody struggle.
But you are not, you do not exist,
because the tenacious attempt to annihilate you
is the cruel struggle to give you life.
And in the end you appear. And you are another,
innocent dispossession of a pledge
obsessive, exhausting, useless


Guilt gave birth to fear,
fear to hate,
and hate to revenge.

On the back of dark silence,
like four horsemen, they ride,
erasing the horizons.

How hidden the dagger,
how deep the wound.

Exposed, trusting,
the noble breast to the blow.
And it arrived unerringly.

And how dark now,
how slow the agony.

Divided body and heart into two halves,
I look from the nothing to the nothing and see
just a dense blanket of ash on everything.
Time and laziness. More laziness and more time.
And the rain insistent on the window-pane.
Lights, shadows, reflections. And in the street,
matter streaming towards nothing.


T hat my voice be not just a cry
what you hear not only an echo
silence will be 
                               nothing changes.


City  frosted  by  the fog


How sky so blue.
How blue  so cold.
How cold in the blue
of so sky


On a wind that polishes the corners
fast clouds ride pillion


Other expectation, though vain, lovely


So blue in the blue.
So green in the green.
In the blue and in the green,
how much light.


Bled by the light the hours,
all in the sky just horizon.


What destroyer the sun of the outskirts.
How luminous its light. And  how evident.


In that sea,
                               all was shipwreck.
And in its demolished coast,
                                         all shadow.


On the ruffled track of the water
indecisive      glare        iridescent


A    dense   stormy   sky,
frontier of the countryside silent & flat


Yet something green in the already yellow


After the expectation
this renunciation
resignation    to accepting the defeat

* The title Cuando la noche  refers to some lines in a well-known poem ("A mano amada..")  by Ángel González Muñiz:

Cuando la noche impone su costumbre de insomnio
y convierte
cada minuto en el aniversario
de todos los sucesos de una vida.

When the night imposes its habit of insomnia
and turns each minute into the anniversary
of all the events of a life

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Monday, November 27, 2017

continuing with Cymbeline ... Honour

Posthumus and Imogen

Carrying on from my previous chatter:

Cymbeline and the pundonor.

(Cym.)Thou art welcome, Caius.
Thy Caesar knighted me; my youth I spent
Much under him; of him I gather'd honour,
Which he to seek of me again, perforce,
Behoves me keep at utterance.

(Act III.1.67-71)

The "point of honour" (Spanish pundonor) is not  a new theme in Shakespeare - see e.g. Claudio in Much Ado - but now it's restlessly recycled in Cymbeline. [In modern Spanish, pundonor means "self-respect".]

In modern European languages, there's a half-buried connection between "point" and "honour" (as in the word "punctilious").  The Swedish supermarket that announces: "Därför sätter vi en ära att hitta den bästa råvaran" (That's why we make a point of sourcing the best raw materials) is using the word "ära" (honour). Company honour has a definite existence in marketing and strategy and even in practice. It does not exist within the breasts of a team of passionate staff, as the publicity always tries to convey; its expression is a hard-headed marketing decision that may be changed in the future and may be ignored where convenient and undetectable. No-one regularly oversees the consistency of such expressed points of honour with practice. But still, it's something that can be appealed to.

As for office colleagues who "make a point of", say,  shopping around for the best home insurance deals, this may sound like pure self-interest. However one must take into account the absolute aversion of office males to speaking of emotions or moral values. This punctilious financial control, derided by flouncy imaginative types like me, is no doubt part of a much wider scheme of life that will educate their young children and ensure their financial stability. The concept of honour is really there, though submerged.

Oh yes, Cymbeline

"At utterance" is connected with "utter" in the sense of extreme or total,  rather than enunciate. Cymbeline is saying that he feels obliged to defend his honour to the very last gasp. He attempts to suggest to Lucius  that since Augustus originally conferred the honour, Cymbeline owes it to Augustus to take good care of it, to maintain it at all costs. Even should it be Augustus himself who loses out as a result (i.e. by not receiving his tribute). 

Cymbeline is "punctilious", both in his defiance and in his contrasting courtesy to the ambassador Gaius Lucius, a friend of long-standing, and one to whom Cymbeline feels obligations ("his goodness forespent on us" II.3.56).
Typical of this play, that the otherwise anodyne Cymbeline suddenly speaks so well here. Typical too, that it eventually turns out that Cymbeline never wanted to withhold the tribute, but was set on to it by the Queen and Cloten.

Points of honour are serious things, but they can also be convenient post-rationalizations when you want to provide a public explanation for a chosen course of action.


The crucial point of honour is of course Posthumus's wager in I.4. The wager appears to gain nothing for Posthumus, yet he's manoeuvred into feeling compelled to take it up. The wager is about Imogen's "honour" (in male eyes --- i.e. chastity).

(Jac.) .. and I will bring from thence that honour of hers which you imagine so reserv'd.

Accepting this infamous wager is increasingly a point of honour: Jachimo leads Posthumus into a position from which he can't draw back without disgrace.

Imogen calls out Jachimo correctly:

    Thou wrong'st a gentleman who is as far
    From thy report as thou from honour...

That's right. As Jachimo himself confesses much later, " Knighthoods and honours borne / As I wear mine are titles but of scorn".

But Jachimo is too skilled an operator to be caught by Imogen. He promptly and smoothly retracts his slander about Posthumus, making good use of the magic word:

    He sits 'mongst men like a descended god:
    He hath a kind of honour sets him off
    More than a mortal seeming...

Thus mollified, soon it's Imogen who is putting her honour (not, as she thinks, her chastity) on the line:

     (Jac.) 'Tis plate of rare device, and jewels
    Of rich and exquisite form, their values great;
    And I am something curious, being strange,
    To have them in safe stowage. May it please you
    To take them in protection?
  IMOGEN. Willingly;
    And pawn mine honour for their safety. Since
    My lord hath interest in them, I will keep them
    In my bedchamber.

"Honour", the word if not the reality, opens all doors.

Cloten too has an inflamed sense of honour, though he's a bit dim about it.

Even a Remainer has to admire the force of some of his Europhobic statements in III.1. " Why
should we pay tribute? If Caesar can hide the sun from us with a
blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him tribute for
light ..."

The queen is thoroughly pleased with their hard-line approach.

  QUEEN. He goes hence frowning; but it honours us
    That we have given him cause.

But if Cloten is a baying dog in politics, he's less effective in private life, where he believes his honour is best manifested by being grossly offensive to social inferiors.

Unfortunate that he tries it out on Guiderius who, when he encounters Cloten's rudeness, doesn't agonize about it too much. He cuts Cloten's head off. But it's clear that even this rough-hewn youth is acting from motives of honour.


Shakespeare had aimed some shafts at honour before, for example in Act I of Titus (where the hero makes disastrous calls on the basis of honour),  and most memorably of course in  1 Henry IV.  Inevitably Cymbeline casts a glance at it:

(Bel.) the toil o' th' war,
    A pain that only seems to seek out danger
    I' th'name of fame and honour, which dies i' th'search,

But warlike honour is only one kind. In this play, "honour" mostly means impeccable behaviour in the eyes of society. Cymbeline, in many ways so backward-looking, also looks forward to the comedy of manners.

Guiderius and Arviragus lamenting the "death" of "Fidele"

(Picture by Arthur Rackham, 1899. Image source: , where it is said to come from the Folger Shakespeare Library, but I couldn't see it in their current list of Cymbeline images.


Friday, November 24, 2017

Red maple

I moved to a new neighbourhood in Swindon a couple of weeks back, and immediately got interested in this small crimson-looking tree.  (Photos from 15th November 2017).

It's obviously a kind of maple, and the best match for the leaf shape that I could find is Red Maple (Acer rubrum). 

This is a big tree from eastern North America with an upright habit -- a major constituent, of course, of those famous Fall colors.

In fact it's now the commonest tree in the north-eastern USA, but it was a lot less common when European settlers arrived. This is thought to be because they started to control the wildfires, and that worked in favour of Red Maple (deep-rooted trees like hickories and oak can survive wildfires, but shallow-rooted trees like Red Maple cannot).

(There's also a theory that the 1938 hurricane severely reduced the percentage of White Pine: )

Apart from Red Maple, it's also known as Swamp Maple, Water Maple, and Soft Maple. The latter is comparative: the timber is a bit softer than some other maples, but it's still very much a hardwood.

In Britain, horitculturalists seem to call it Canadian Maple. This is a bit surprising as the maple leaf on the Canadian flag, introduced in 1965,  is often said to be Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum). (In fact the design was stylized and not based on any species in particular).

There are garden cultivars grown in the UK including "Brandywine", "Red Sunset", "October Glory" and "Schlesingeri", but all the images I've seen look more upright than this one. A dazzling sight in mid-November, anyhow.

The leaves are highly toxic to horses, apparently.

Red Maple is one of the three maple species most commonly used to make Maple Syrup (along with Sugar Maple (A. saccharum) and Black Maple (A. nigrum). For the second time in about a week, we are talking about a process that European settlers learnt from Native Americans.

The real attractions of the Hollowell farm, to me, were: its complete retirement, being, about two miles from the village, half a mile from the nearest neighbor, and separated from the highway by a broad field; its bounding on the river, which the owner said protected it by its fogs from frosts in the spring, though that was nothing to me; the gray color and ruinous state of the house and barn, and the dilapidated fences, which put such an interval between me and the last occupant; the hollow and lichen-covered apple trees, gnawed by rabbits, showing what kind of neighbors I should have; but above all, the recollection I had of it from my earliest voyages up the river, when the house was concealed behind a dense grove of red maples, through which I heard the house-dog bark. I was in haste to buy it, before the proprietor finished getting out some rocks, cutting down the hollow apple trees, and grubbing up some young birches which had sprung up in the pasture, or, in short, had made any more of his improvements.   (from Thoreau's Walden, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For") 

[Thoreau sold back the Hollowell farm when the previous owner decided he wanted it after all, and went to the woods at Walden instead.]

Already, by the first of September, I had seen two or three small maples turned scarlet across the pond, beneath where the white stems of three aspens diverged, at the point of a promontory, next the water. Ah, many a tale their color told! And gradually from week to week the character of each tree came out, and it admired itself reflected in the smooth mirror of the lake. Each morning the manager of this gallery substituted some new picture, distinguished by more brilliant or harmonious coloring, for the old upon the walls.  (from Thoreau's Walden, "House-Warming") 

The leaves fell a week later. This photo is from 22nd November 2017.

New England Fall Colors

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

thinking again about Cymbeline

Emma Fielding as Imogen, in an RSC production from 2003

[Image source:]

Cymbeline was one of the last plays that Shakespeare wrote on his own. More than that is difficult to assert.  Shakespeare may have been working on The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest all at the same time.

Pericles, that very seminal play, had been performed in early 1608. It was a big hit, much to Jonson's annoyance (he called it a "mouldy tale"). You can understand that Shakespeare might have decided to write more plays in the same vein. 

But there was a delay.

London always had a low background level of plague, but sometimes the level rose. The London playhouses were made to close if "the plaguey bill"* rose above 30 dead per week. [Some scholars think the cut-off point was 40 rather than 30.] Anyhow now, for 17 successive months, between July 1608 and January 1610, the plague level was more than 50.

* Alas! Alas! Who's injur'd by my love?
What merchant's ships have my sighs drown'd?
Who says my tears have overflow'd his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguey bill? ...

(John Donne, "The Canonization")

Finally performances resumed. We have records of Macbeth and Othello being played at the Globe in April 1610.  Coriolanus, Shakespeare's final tragedy, is a difficult play to date but the consensus is for 1608-09 with, we can speculate, a first performance in early 1610. (There's no record of any such performance, but some 1610 sources, such as Jonson's Epicoene, seem to allude to Coriolanus.)

Then in July 1610 the plague levels rose again, so there was another closure of six months until early 1611. The earliest known performances of Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale come from May 1611. The Tempest was played at court that November (in all likelihood, there had been earlier public performances).

[ Info from Leeds Barroll, "Shakespeare and the Second Blackfriars Theater" in Shakespeare Studies 33 (2005). ]

The main thing that stands out about the years 1607-1611 is that Shakespeare's productivity dropped by half. For the previous 15 years he had averaged  two plays per year, but in these five years he wrote only five plays. And this trend continued, with just the three Fletcher collaborations in the years 1612-1614. We can only speculate about the reasons for the slowdown.


What's clear is that the five plays have close links with each other. The scenes of greatest emotional intensity are connected by a general theme of "secular salvation", particularly figured by family reconciliations. It's secular salvation because the protagonist receives it in this life, not for eternity. Generally speaking the protagonist who receives salvation is male and the agent or agents of salvation are female. This is all far too schematic, but let's spell it out anyway.

All of the plays take place in pre-Christian or never-never type places and times, where the gods are only pagan. The salvations figured in the plays have no explicit Christian trappings. (All the odder, in The Tempest, where Naples and names like Sebastian and Ferdinand clearly proclaim a context of Christendom.)

The theme began to become prominent for Shakespeare, perhaps, with King Lear ... with the crazed king's reunion with Cordelia, with her "No cause, no cause" (IV.7). Lear's salvation is short-lived, of course, but he does have it, and it's not meaningless even if heartbreak soon follows; a Lear in which the king was never reconciled with Cordelia at all would have been even darker. At this moment his own behaviour to his daughter, the misunderstandings of the past, are all forgiven, he receives what he could never expect, he can redeem the past.

The emotional heart of Pericles is the miraculous reunion with his daughter Marina. Mouldy tale or not, the drama is intensely moving at this point.  And in the climax of The Winter's Tale Leontes is reunited first with his daughter Perdita and then, even more miraculously, with his wife Hermione. (Both believed long since dead.)

In a way these scenes achieve their deep poignancy because, in our heart of hearts, we feel that such complete redemption of the past is something that doesn't happen in real life. People who act like Leontes don't get a second chance. And yet the dream flickers, it's there, sometimes in life incredibly good things do happen, we can sometimes begin again, at least a bit....  So the contemplation of these secular salvations doesn't actually feel like escapism but like being exposed to deeps within our own hearts, to irredeemable losses that we mostly keep stoppered up. It's a serious matter.

Coriolanus partakes in the theme too. But in this case it isn't so much salvation experienced as salvation earned, when Coriolanus saves the city of Rome at the expense of his own life. Once more the secular salvation is connected with a family meeting, with his wife and mother.

So what about Cymbeline? Here the king is indeed reunited with his daughter, and also his two sons, lost some twenty years earlier. Regarding these sons, we're never told the details of how Belarius came to be falsely accused of treason (which led to the kidnap) and to what extent it may have been Cymbeline's fault, and it's all so long ago that the king shows no sense of missing his sons.  There's a coolness about all this compared to the high-intensity scenes I've been discussing in the other plays. We are told (by the Gentleman in the opening scene) that the king suffers from the falling out with Imogen, but it's only late in the play that the king himself says anything of the kind. On her part Imogen seems to regard her father as not much more than a nuisance; she's entirely focussed on her husband Posthumus. And it's to Posthumus that the theme of secular salvation now applies. He believes he's caused his wife Imogen's death in the madness of jealousy (like Leontes), and he longs only to die. Then she's there...  (He doesn't recognize her, and knocks her down.).  Imogen likewise believed that her husband was dead, but Shakespeare doesn't develop her feelings in the same way as Posthumus. (In fact, she seems to recover from her bloodstained access of grief with remarkable speed, at the end of IV.2) So it's almost a double salvation of husband and wife here, but Posthumus is definitely the major recipient.

The Tempest doesn't, of course, fit so patly into this scheme. Certainly, Alonso is reunited with the son who he thought was dead. But The Tempest's emotional centre is more dispersed. In particular, it's dispersed to the early scene recounting when Prospero and Miranda escaped Naples together, and each is the other's salvation. At the end of the play the theme returns in Prospero's speech to the audience, where he asks for salvation in the form of a fair journey to Naples (or, it may be, New Place).


But. The errors of fitting one play to the shape of another.  These reflections centre us on the famous reunion:

  IMOGEN. Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?
    Think that you are upon a rock, and now
    Throw me again. [Embracing him]
  POSTHUMUS. Hang there like fruit, my soul,
    Till the tree die!

But Cymbeline, that "flamboyant oddity" as Donald Mackenzie puts it, can't be contained by this theme. Characteristically, the play carries on for another 300 rather less interesting lines, during which both Imogen and Posthumus have plenty to say.

Posthumus' salvation cannot have quite the same poignancy as Pericles' or Leontes', because of the drastically shorter timescale.

Fruit is not really supposed to hang on a tree forever, it's meant to fall.  So Posthumus' line can be seen as limiting Imogen's potential, but the main point is that Posthumus's life will be fruitful so long as Imogen is with him. Indeed that Imogen really is his soul.

My sense is that Cymbeline lies between The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Compared to The Winter's Tale, it's no longer as committed to the "secular salvation" theme:  the theme proliferates, but as it does so it loses its centrality. Cymbeline is starting to be meta-dramatic, as The Tempest is.

Shakespeare was immersing himself in his past. Pericles had returned to Apollonius of Tyre, a source of The Comedy of Errors.
And, as before during extended playhouse closures, Shakespeare turned to poetry. The publication of the Sonnets in 1609 is surely no coincidence, Shakespeare I guess would have been working to shape this volume in 1608-09. The bulk of its contents date from the early to mid 1590s, but there was other material from ten years later, including The Lover's Complaint (and probably the last twenty of the sonnets to the young man). I'm not sure how much revision he did at this stage, but he woukd, at any rate, have been reading his earlier work and refining the collection into the Delian shape he wanted.

Placing the emphasis on Posthumus likewise brings centrally the brilliant scenes of the wager with Jachimo and the latter's apparent victory. But at the same time, these scenes remind us how Cymbeline is weirdly full of echoes from other plays. In these scenes it's Othello. Jachimo plays the role of Iago. Posthumus becomes crazed with jealousy in a minor reprise of Othello. Imogen, missing her bracelet and imagining the consequences, is reprising Desdemona and the whole business with the handkerchief. Cymbeline's words to Imogen momentarily feint at Lear ("O disloyal thing,That shouldst repair my youth, thou heap'st A year's age on me!").

But what's especially characteristic of Cymbeline is the wide range of earlier Shakespeare that it recycles.In III.1, the scene about the tribute, we seem to back in the territory of Henry V or King John (whose opening line it half steals). When Posthumus boasts of his wife's chastity we remember Collatine's boasting of his wife Lucretia and where that leads: the story told by Livy and Ovid and taken up in The Rape of Lucrece. And when Posthumus declares that, should Iachimo prove Imogen a whore, he'll forget his hostility and treat  Iachimo as a friend who had done him a service, this is a motif straight out of one of Shakespeare's favourite sources, the Belleforest/Bandello source for the Claudio story in Much Ado About Nothing.

When Imogen (disguised as Fidele), draws her sword before entering the cave, hoping anyone she meets will be just as frightened by it as she is, we're in the world of Twelfth Night with Viola.
Cloten is a reprise of Demetrius and Chiron in Titus Andronicus. Here, as in The Tempest, Shakespeare brings back the theme of rape, untouched since the early days of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Titus. Oh yes, Two Gentlemen... young man goes abroad and makes an idiot of himself, loyal girl puts on boy's clothing and follows.... .

Our sense is of a flamboyant play, yes, but a mixture. Does Cymbeline ever reveal its own character, or does its identity only subsist in being a unique blend?

The Tempest, likewise "an echo-chamber of Shakespearian motifs" (Stephen Greenblatt), still manages to be itself...

It's interesting that these reprises of the past, in both Cymbeline and The Tempest,  are always on a reduced scale compared with the original. Jachimo, for instance, compared to Iago is smaller, does less harm, is less disturbing, and has far less lines. The theme of rape comes back in a few lines and allusions, but there is no actual rape (as in Titus), and no imminent threat of rape on stage (as, momentarily, in TGV). Leontes' fourteen years of purgatory become reduced to Alonso's three hours...

There's a sense of the author shuffling through a stack of old photographs, without lingering on any of them for very long. The other image from modern technology that keeps occurring to me is a flickering screen.

These images of speed (shuffling, flickering) are to do with alternation of mode, not with speed of action ... Macbeth, say. Cymbeline is also an expansive play, one of Shakespeare's longest.

One major difference between Cymbeline and The Tempest : the latter is dominated by its patriarch figure Prospero. Cymbeline, on the other hand, is a young people's play (those echoes of 2GV being relevant here).  Its older characters tend to be portrayed as lacking power to control the energies of youth. Cymbeline himself is a most feeble monarch; Belarius can only watch as his young charges pull away from the life he wants them to live;  the Queen is evilly-inclined but does no damage, because she helplessly reveals who she is, so everyone knows it and takes the appropriate precautions;


There's a lot of consensus about Cymbeline's kaleidoscopic effect and it's worth quoting some of it.

Here's the film critic Roger Ebert (writing about an apparently-not-very-good screen adaptation):

"To be fair, the basic material itself is not especially hot. Yes, it is Shakespeare but the play itself is little more than a rehash of elements that he has already handled with more insight in previous works ("Romeo & Juliet," "Othello," "Hamlet" and "As You Like It," to name a few) and is so plot-heavy that the characters feel more like traffic cops trying to move the story along than people about whom one is supposed to care. Many scholars have cited it as proof that Shakespeare was getting bored with his own work by this point in his career, though some, such as Harold Bloom, have looked upon it a little more forgivingly by suggesting that it was an example of Shakespeare deliberately spoofing himself. Whichever school of thought you subscribe to, this is not one of the Bard's more frequently revived efforts and after watching this take on it, I can understand why.

The action transposed to a modern-day American East Coast city, the film stars Ed Harris as Cymbeline, the king of the Briton Motorcycle Gang, a group that has forged an uneasy truce with the Roman police force that allows them to do business without interference. ... " 


The following extracts are from Ali Smith's piece in The Independent  :

"Cymbeline: how can such a late play be such a mutinous and energetic young man’s game too? It’s as if the later Shakespeare is liquidising a cocktail of Twelfth Night, Othello, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet, throwing in some chunks and shreds of the history plays, and mashed it all into this consciously mischievous, wildly messy flourish of a narrative, one that winks not just at those foregone plays themselves but at the audience’s expectations of the shapes they’ve taken....

So pantomime-like are the asides and scene-shifts that it becomes a play more about the knowing status of its own audience than about that of the protagonists, all feeling their ways through a plot whose only real consistency is their shared blindness about their own misapprehensions. ..."

Guiderius (Kenji Urai), Cymbeline (Kohtaloh Yoshida), Arviragus (Satoru Kawaguchi) in a 2012 Ninagawa production at the Barbican

[Image source:]


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

the Cross-in-Hand

The Cross-in-Hand, Gore Hill, Batcombe, Dorset -- late spring
[Image source: . Photograph by Nigel Mykura.]

"I think I must leave you now," he remarked, as they drew near to this spot. "I have to preach at Abbot's-Cernel at six this evening, and my way lies across to the right from here. And you upset me somewhat too, Tessy—I cannot, will not, say why. I must go away and get strength. … How is it that you speak so fluently now? Who has taught you such good English?"
"I have learnt things in my troubles," she said evasively.
"What troubles have you had?"
She told him of the first one—the only one that related to him.
D'Urberville was struck mute. "I knew nothing of this till now!" he next murmured. "Why didn't you write to me when you felt your trouble coming on?"
She did not reply; and he broke the silence by adding: "Well—you will see me again."
"No," she answered. "Do not again come near me!"
"I will think. But before we part come here." He stepped up to the pillar. "This was once a Holy Cross. Relics are not in my creed; but I fear you at moments—far more than you need fear me at present; and to lessen my fear, put your hand upon that stone hand, and swear that you will never tempt me—by your charms or ways."
"Good God—how can you ask what is so unnecessary! All that is furthest from my thought!"
"Yes—but swear it."
Tess, half frightened, gave way to his importunity; placed her hand upon the stone and swore.
"I am sorry you are not a believer," he continued; "that some unbeliever should have got hold of you and unsettled your mind. But no more now. At home at least I can pray for you; and I will; and who knows what may not happen? I'm off. Goodbye!"

[A short while after they part, Tess meets a solitary shepherd.]

"What is the meaning of that old stone I have passed?" she asked of him. "Was it ever a Holy Cross?"
"Cross—no; 'twer not a cross! 'Tis a thing of ill-omen, Miss. It was put up in wuld times by the relations of a malefactor who was tortured there by nailing his hand to a post and afterwards hung. The bones lie underneath. They say he sold his soul to the devil, and that he walks at times."

(from Tess of the D'Urbervilles,  Chapter XLV)

Some stories say that there was the shape of a hand carved on the stone. Apparently there is none there now (though I seem to make one out in the late summer photo by Trevor).

Cross-in-Hand, winter

[Image source:,_Dorset]

Above, John Simpson's three-minute film of visiting the Cross-in-Hand.


Elisabeth Bletsoe's Landscape from a Dream (2008) contains, among other astounding and complex poems, one called "Cross-in-Hand". It begins, perhaps, with Tess's working hand. I'll quote that opening, up to the first of the prose annotations, just to give a sense (though by no means a complete one) of how far the poem opens out.  The poem is also about a walk from Cerne Abbas (Hardy's Abbot's Cerne) to Evershot (Hardy's Evershead); the walk would have passed the Cross-in-Hand about midway. It becomes, also, about other resonances in the touch of old stones and the simples of the field (Bletsoe drawing on her homeoepathic interests). But the violation meted out to Tess is figured through the whole poem.

no slack-twister I, see
my work-strong arms; gloves
    thick as a warrior's &
a rope of hair like a ship's cable

polishing grain against my side
my bones become milk:
see how the stalks
                              imitate me
moving in the wind's electric spindle

working the ricks, binding
               sheaves to me, the
wrist's bare skin scarified by
stubble &
                     the rain's arrows

To orient: to bring into clearly understood relations, to determine how one stands. Quincunxial signs I thread long by; A's magic well, church, folly, trendle, sky-notch. Beak through stone, the one who tracks me, and the other for whom I wait. High Stoy, Dogbury Hill wave a fringe of dark, concentrate the toxin rape-fields, xanthin and arsenic-yellow. One field flares and then another, under the wheel of cloud. Drunk on rare pollens I would dance on this floor of lights, finger-hoops of earth spraying, apricot-coloured and friable. Serrated with pig-huts, dry as a kex. To study the architectonics of hogweed. To unpack the poppy-bud of its outraged silk, corolla visibly hurt to the end of its days. 

I torce the necks of wounded gamebirds,
shock of come-apart cervicals .... 


High Stoy and Dogbury Hill are other eminences near to Gore Hill. (Hardy mentions them at the beginning of Ch II of Tess.)

Here's another piece I wrote about this poetry collection:

Cross-in-Hand, late summer

[Image source: Photo by Trevor Williams, used by permission.]

A photo from late summer, with wild marjoram at the foot of the stone.

Cross-in-Hand, early spring

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Friday, November 17, 2017

More to say

Apologies to regular readers. The blog is being severely impacted by soul-destroying labour on my TEFL end-of-course assignment.  I've gone soft when it comes to this kind of thing.


Our "English" family came together at our house at Christmas. We lived upstairs in an old oast-house. Out in the weald, the hop-fields were grey and an empty forest of poles, the ducks flew around the pond shrieking.

A day or two before, here came my grandmother on the bus, with her small brown suitcase and her presents wrapped in re-used wrapping paper. We went out into the garden with my mother and cut sprigs of holly with plenty of red berries on them.

Here too came my great-aunt, once a receptionist in Harley Street, and still with a certain brisk city air about her. She learnt to drive late in life, but not very well, and it was a relief when her small DAF automatic came through the winding lanes and chugged up against the garden gate without actually hitting it.

I and my sister --- I still had only one in those days --- had been taken Christmas shopping in Tunbridge Wells.

On Christmas Eve we had our "Swedish" Christmas, and then we opened the presents sent from Sundsvall. We sat around the tree, decorated with straw goats and straw tomtegubbar, and we also admired the snowy scene that my father set up on a bookshelf, where the figurines of priest and skiing angel and crib and bearded dwarf and horse-drawn sledge gathered together on a lumpy terrain of cotton wool. We ate herrings, boiled potatoes, and Christmas ham. At some point my mother would put the Swedish long-dance on the gramophone. It was a high-tempo medley beginning with Nu är det jul igen and proceeding through various other Christmas favourites. We joined hands in a chain and flew uproariously through every room in the house.

On Christmas Day we had the "English" Christmas: a proper roast, but more often a capon than a turkey. Just before dinner (it was really a sort of late lunch), the adults watched the Queen's Speech. My sister and I were, of course, more interested in examining the bright parcels under the tree and trying to guess what they might contain.

We never had cranberry sauce.*  We would have lingonberry sauce (sent over from Sweden), or my mum's home-made grape "jelly", rather delicious but runny. (The oast-house had an ornamental grapevine on its west wall.) 

In those days the family still kept up a pretence of drinking alcohol, something that no-one particularly liked, but considered an essential part of any celebratory meal. I learnt to let the red wine "breathe".

My sister and I were allowed wine with water. Often there was an adult conversation about how it was good to introduce children to alcohol early, so it lost its mystique. It certainly worked in our case, we drink about two units a year.

At the time, however, we were most enthusiastic. The most reluctant wine-drinker, even more reluctant than my mother, was my grandmother. But this was not because it was alcohol. My grandmother was always reluctant, even ungracious, when she was offered any kind of treat. Eventually she gave in.  I observed her behaviour closely, understanding that she was a much better person than the rest of us. Even today, I still have difficulty accepting a gift graciously.

Then we had Christmas pudding. My dad made "brandy butter" by whisking up butter in a dish with brandy. He also poured brandy over the pudding and set light to it, so that it flickered with blue flames when brought to the table. Inside the pudding he placed verious silver threepennies and other silver trinkets in the shape of wedding-bells or money-bags. Then he tried to ensure that everyone got a trinket in their slice of "pud". The trinket told your fortune. Now and then someone would choke or break their teeth on a trinket.

After dinner we went for a walk down the rutted lane between grey farmlands, the dog scampering ahead of us just as if it had no concept of Christmas, had not overeaten nor drunk wine, and this was merely another brilliant day.

Even so, the dog was not neglected at Christmas. My mother always bought it a new squeaky toy, and it was a joy for us the first time the dog made the toy squeak.


*This was down to a sort of naive anti-Americanism.

We regarded "American" cranberries as very inferior to "true" cranberries, i.e. Swedish lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea).  So far as the flavour is concerned, I still prefer lingon for meat dishes, it's much less sweet than cranberry. But our facts were wrong, because lingonberries are not cranberries, that is, they do not belong to the distinct cranberry subsection of Vaccinium. (There is a European cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus), a tiny shrub that grows on the surface of bogs, but how it compares in flavour to American cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon)  I don't know, and I should think it's impossible to harvest commercially, the fruit yield would be far too low.  European emigrants learned from Native Americans to harvest American cranberries, around 1550.

In the same chauvinistic vein we regarded American blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum etc) as extremely inferior to "true" blueberries, i.e. Swedish blåbär (Vaccinium myrtillus, known as bilberries or whortleberries in English). Once again, we had our facts wrong. European bilberries do not belong to the blueberry subsection of Vaccinium. Both kinds of berry are excellent but they are very different.  Bilberries are great for jams and pies, but fresh bilberries can only be used on a domestic scale, they do not keep well and the juice is extremely staining.  Fresh blueberries (now so ubiquitous, but a rare sight in Britain twenty years ago) proved to be a splendid, robust and versatile fruit. And they've deservedly stormed the pantheon of international supermarket fruits, to the great benefit of all our healths.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Västra Bunnerstöten

[Image source:]

If you are at Storulvån STF hostel, and you can tear your eyes away from the enticing destinations to the SW, but instead look towards the east across the river Handölån, you'll see the Bunnerfjällen massif, lying south of the big lake Annsjön, and north-east of the Tjallingdalen valley, and west of Vålådalen.

It's a rarely visited area, and none of the major walking routes go near it. There are several summits of which the highest is Västra Bunnerstöten, though it has had other names in the past (1,554m or 1,545m according to other sources).

The map and the pages below come from Sven Kilander's 1955 book Kärlväxterna övre gränser på fjäll i sydvästra Jämtland ("Upper Limits of Vascular Plants on Mountains of South-Western Jämtland") (Acta Phytogeographica Suecica 35). The whole book can be accessed using the link above. It includes a summary in English (pp. 183-189).

Kilander went there four times, on 18-19 July 1943,  2 Aug 1949, 20-22 July 1950 and 24-26 August 1951. Unlike Abrahamsson (see below), he was lucky with the weather.

V Bunnerstöten is a somewhat lower mountain than those in the Sylarna and Helags massifs but near the summit it just creeps into the high alpine category, Kilander considers (p. 80).

Kilander investigated some 25 mountains in the area.  Many, perhaps most, of his height records come from Stora Helagstöten, a higher and more southerly mountain than V Bunnerstöten. (As Kilander admits, the Sylarna group might have produced more records if it hadn't been so forbiddingly precipitous.)

A few species, however, grew highest on V Bunnerstöten:

Lycopodium annotinum (Interrupted Clubmoss)
Asplenium viride (Green Spleenwort)
Pinus sylvestris (Scots Pine. The specimen was 7 cm tall, and dead at the top)
Hierochloë odorata (Holy-grass)
Carex atrata x norvegica  (Black Alpine Sedge x Close-headed Alpine Sedge)
Carex glacialis (Glacier Sedge)
Arctystaphylos uva-ursi (Bearberry)

On his last day on the mountain Kilander noticed traces of a serpentine outcrop, but didn't have time to investigate properly; the demands of this unusual geology, high in toxic metals and with a high percentage of magnesium to calcium, can produce an interesting flora. Here he found the rare Cerastium alpinum var. glabrum   (now called ssp. glabratum) along with Viscaria alpina.
The highest record for Equisetum pratense (Shade Horsetail) was on the neighbouring summit Östra Bunnerstöten, outside Kilander's study area but re-confirmed from Smith's record of 1920.


Tore Abrahamsson went to Bunnerfjällen too, as he recounts in his 1992 book Okända Fjäll (Unknown Mountains). His visit began on 7th September, and the weather was mostly awful, but he took some gloomily impressive photographs.

The composer Wilhelm Peterson-Berger passed along its flank in 1906, accompanying a topographical expedition from Handöl to Ljungdalen. Abrahamsson quotes a couple of lyrics from Peterson-Berger's early choral work  En Fjällfärd  (P-B wrote the words himself) -- see below.  Abrahamsson also quotes from the opening page of the book in his own backpack, Mörkrets hjärta by Joseph Conrad. An excellent book to read, I imagine, as darkness closed in on the tumbledown shelter beside the Bunnersjöarna (a pair of plateau lakes to the north of the area shown in the map).

Here's some very bad photos of photos from Tore Abrahamsson's book.

Bunnersjöarna: twin plateau lakes on the Bunnerfjällen massif

Västra Bunnertjärnen, a tarn just north of the summit of Västra Bunnerstöten

The pass between Sitäntja and Västra Bunnerstöten, with Tjallingklumpen in the background.

Bunnerfjällen, from Annsjön

Here's three of the songs from En Fjällfärd :

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Maynard Mack (1909 - 2001)

Maynard Mack

[Image source:]

Maynard Mack was a professor at Yale, born in Michigan. Mostly remembered as an Alexander Pope scholar, but he was interested in Shakespeare too, and I've been reading him on Shakespeare's tragedies.

Samuel Johnson, it's said, never read a book through. I begin to recognize this behaviour in my own life. Increasingly my contacts with authors are  becoming more fleeting, usually far less than a whole book. In this case, it's a paper from 1960, "The Jacobean Shakespeare: Some Observations on the Construction of the Tragedies", which was included as an appendix to the Signet Othello that I picked up in a charity shop yesterday lunchtime. (Edition by Alvin Kernan, another Yale academic; it was published in 1963.)

Mack writes about patterns that the tragedies have in common.

The hyperbolic tendencies of the hero(es). "Comic overstatement aims at being preposterous. Tragic overstatement aspires to be believed."

The hero's down-to-earth foil (Horatio, Kent, Iago, Enobarbus, Menenius, Mercutio, Cassius).

Or, say, Desdemona talking to Emilia. "The alabaster innocence of Desdemona's world shines out beside the crumpled bedsitters of Emilia's --  ... but the two languages never, essentially, commune -- and, for this reason, the dialogue they hold can never be finally adjudicated."

Dramatization of the conflict between the values of the individual ( integrity, to be oneself) and the values of the social ( accommodation to existing circumstance, to survive).

Mack also writes about "indirections": ways in which one part of the action mirrors another, or one character's words are seen to illuminate another. So that Edgar and Gloucester and the Fool, all speaking for themselves, yet somehow illuminate Lear too. Likewise the three sons Fortinbras, Laertes and Hamlet illuminate each other.

Mirrorings: Bianca's appearances shedding light on Othello's dimming view of Desdemona.

Mirror scenes: the opening scenes and what they introduce about the field of action of the rest of the play. Hamlet (mystery, solving), Othello (manipulation), Lear (hierarchical nature, bestial nature), Antony and Cleopatra (the great debates of lovers).

Symbolic entrances and exits: the emblematic deaths that tell us about someone else's experience: John of Gaunt, Mamillius, Eros.

Motifs:  the three Poisonings in Hamlet Act I, Act III, Act V: Claudius' corruption of an entire society.

The transforming journeys (Hamlet to England, Macbeth's re-visit to the Witches, or Lear and Gloucester to Dover).

The cycle of change in which the hero becomes the hero's antithesis: the perfect, accomplished courtier Hamlet becomes obscene and cruel and dithering; the supremely self-possessed Othello raves, rolls around, and hits out;  the majestic Lear becomes a deranged wanderer; These transformations reveal, however, a potential that always lay within them.

The madnesses of the tragic heroes. But let's hear some of Mack's own words:

"Moreover, both he [Lear] and Hamlet can be privileged in madness to say things -- Hamlet about the corruption of human nature, and Lear about the corruption of the Jacobean social system (and by extension about all social systems whatever), which Shakespeare could hardly have risked apart from this license. Doubtless one of the anguishes of being a great artist is that you cannot tell people what they and you and your common institutions are really like --- when viewed absolutely -- without being dismissed as insane. To communicate at all, you must acknowledge the opposing voice, and it is as deeply rooted in your own nature as in your audience's. "

Their madness is like Cassandra's. [It] "contains both punishment and insight. She is doomed to know, by a consciousness that moves to measures outside our normal space and time; she is doomed never to be believed, because those to whom she speaks can hear only the opposing voice. With the language of the god Apollo sounding in her brain, and the incredulity of her fellow mortals ringing in her ears, she makes an ideal emblem of the predicament of the Shakespearean tragic hero, caught as he is between the absolute and the expedient."

Mack's essay leads up to the proposal that Jacobean drama (meaning Webster as well as Shakespeare) is obsessed with acts of self-will , especially when the agents are "stripped to their naked humanity and mortality, and torn loose from accustomed moorings". He suggests this obsession was premonitory of the upheavals and conflicts of the coming century. 


Many illuminations, then. I find something deeply attractive in the essay, though I'm hard-pressed to put my finger on it.  The prose-style is workmanlike but not particularly elegant or breathtaking. Perhaps it has something to do with the essay coming out of a past era, with the natural interest attached to reading something that nobody reads any more. It's also the kind of work that I steadfastly neglected back in 1976 when I began my degree studies in Eng Lit , when Mack and Frye and Brooks and Abrams and all the others might well have been my daily bread .... but I usually preferred reading more Lit  -- more plays, more poems --  rather than getting a handle on the critical conversation of my own time. Only now, it seems, do I begin to feel curious about the person behind the eminent name... What did they look like, who were they?

Mack's bigger assertions don't seem especially persuasive -- about Jacobean drama, for instance: you want to ask, What about Jonson, What about Philaster? If the tragedians' debate about self-will was so socially urgent, how did it come to be displaced by tragicomedy and masque?

And then, you remember the stark differences between the plays. Mack recognizes those stark differences, as who could not,  but his essay purposely looks for common patterns. Fair enough, but take this matter of madness, for instance. Othello behaves as madly as any other of the tragic heroes, but his madness seems especially un-Cassandra-like. It intuits nothing -- nothing true, that is -- , but, on the contrary, comes before us expressly in the form of delusion, error, utter blindness.

And again, concerning self-will, our primary sense of Othello is how, on the contrary, he's bent to someone else's will...

The themes of multi-culturalism, ethnicity, xenophobia, that bulk so large in the Othello criticism of today, and in my own reading of it, are completely absent from Mack's account. (Though I found myself pausing at the choice of "alabaster" to describe Desdemona's innocence.)  In the context of his own times there's nothing in the least unusual about this. It's remarkable, considering that, how much the play says to him, and how much he can tell us us about it.

Maybe this is what I find attractive about his essay, a feeling of being in such sure-footed company, of someone who knows every scene so well, whose quotations are always apposite, who sees no need to limit himself to only one aspect (imagery, or plot, or performance, for instance); who's always intelligent, agreeable, never perverse. It disarms me, I don't feel like being very critical.

Maynard Mack (possibly in 1942?)

[Image source:]

I was surprised - maybe I shouldn't have been, but I was -  how few on-line pics there are of such an eminent scholar.  These three are the only ones I could find.

Maynard Mack

[Image source:]

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