Saturday, December 30, 2017

verse in the shires

During the last and most unhinged phase of Xmas shopping I found myself in W.H. Smith buying Lego sets. Standing in the queue to check myself out, I glanced at the books on display, and noticed this doorstop, brusquely revalued, which for some reason I found funny. And then I thought, I really can't pass it up at that price,  I'll get it as a present for .... um... um... well, I'll decide later...  Waking up the next morning, it no longer seemed a bright idea to fob it off on a loved one;  I realized that I'd simply have to keep it for myself.

Paul Keegan's 1100-page anthology, first published in 2000, is notable for organizing the poems not by author but by publication date. (Publication in a collection, not in a magazine.) It doesn't really make a lot of sense in earlier centuries, and even in the 20th century it's surely only the very cream of the mainstream whose book publications, well-signalled to national media, can be envisioned as causing a public stir. (Those are, indeed, just the type of poets that populate the final part of Keegan's anthology.) The sequencing may be tough to justify rationally but it has a nice effect. Passing between Wyatt and Surrey and Wyatt and Surrey, is a reading experience that illuminates both, perhaps especially the less extrovert Surrey. Pieces by Sir Walter Raleigh come to us widely separated, under the years 1590, then 1592, then 1600, then 1618. I think Keegan is right to claim that this freshens our response to each poem; we're no longer so intent on placing it within the context of an oeuvre.

Keegan ended the millennium by trying, for perhaps the final time, to encapsulate the whole canon of poetry into a single paper-printed book. The sacrifices were necessarily drastic. The sequencing cunningly disguises the gaps:  poets who, we eventually realize, aren't going to show up at all: Lydgate, Hawes, Lindesay, Gascoigne....  On the other hand, he includes verse translations, which is great. So in this early period we can enjoy bits of Douglas's Virgil, Surrey's Virgil, and Harrington's Ariosto (personally, I have never succeeded in enjoying Golding's Ovid*). The anthology is limited to poets from the British Isles, and to poets born before 1950 -- its final years, therefore, seem particularly thin, with no young voices and no sense of how poetry in English has been transformed in our times into a world poetry, and how modern poetic communities traverse continents.

Keegan seems to think that his pragmatic geographical restriction might "maintain the pressure on a chronology defined in local rather than global ways. In the twentieth century there have been terminal pressures upon the idea of the local, only the echo of which can be heard in these pages." But reading through the anthology I keep reflecting how poets in English have always pushed beyond localism.

Nevertheless, let's end with a few local onions that I pulled up on my way past, finishing up in my home county of Wiltshire.


Come and daunce with me
    In Irlande.                             (Anon)


Ac Gloton was a greet cherl and greved in the luftynge
And cowed up a caudel in Clementis lappe;
Ys none so hungry hounde in Hertfordshyre
Durste lape of that lyvynge, so unlovely hit smauhte.  (Langland)


Had he no fere but his fole by frythes and downes,
Ne no gome bot God by gate with to carp,
Til that he neghed ful negh into the North Wales.
All the iles of Anglesay on lyft half he holdes
And fares over the fordes by the forlondes,
Over at the Holy Hede, til he had eft bonk
In the wyldrenesse of Wyrale ....     (The Gawain-poet)


He has tane Roull of Aberdene
And gentill Roull of Costorphin --
Two bettir fallowis did no man se;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

In Dunfermlyne he has done roune
With Maister Robert Henrisoun ....   (Dunbar)


And whereto serve that wondrous trophei now,
That on the goodly plaine neare Wilton stands?
That huge domb heap, that cannot tel us how,
Nor what, nor whence it is, nor with whose hands,
Nor for whose glory, it was set to shew
How much our pride mockes that of other lands? (Daniel)

* I could also have lived without Barnabe Barnes' repellent rape-fantasy sestina, here positioned just before Sidney's "Ye goteheerde gods", whose Mozartian qualities have no chance of being heard.  To be fair, the plot of  Arcadia is pretty morally hideous too, but that's why we excerpt the poems...  Rape was generally on (male) poets' minds at the time. Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen and Titus, we have written about before.  Hero likes Leander, but you'd have a hard job demonstrating consent when Leander, bold, deaf and pitiless, climbs into her bed in Marlowe's poem. Marlowe's Amores poems delight in amplifying the rape elements in its Ovidian source.  Does Drayton's "No and I" sonnet attempt to demolish the whole validity of a woman withholding consent?

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) - revised

[I originally wrote this post in January 2010, but I've just discovered that I confused two quite different Mediterranean plants. This is the corrected version!]

Like most flower-fans I pay excessive attention to the first flowers of the year. We always notice these harbingers. (This same distortion occurs among the non-botanist public: they can all recognize snowdrops, daffs, primroses and bluebells but they can't name the plants that flower later on.)

 I feel a bit rueful about my comparative neglect of the plants who crowd into midsummer, when there's so many kinds that we working folk are lucky even to notice them, never mind write about them. It's somehow part of the tantalizingly sweet character of, say, Grass Vetchling,  that we'll nearly always miss out on it.

Anyway I'm still grateful -- no, I'm more than grateful, I'm delighted -- for the chance to be seasonably excessive about Winter Heliotrope, a plant introduced from North Africa and seen here flowering in the very un-African surroundings of Weston-super-Mare in January. [nb I also saw these plants in bloom on Jan 1st 2011, after an unusually cold December]

Like other butterburs, it is dioecious and there is an odd discrepancy between the distribution of the male and female plants. Only the male plant is known here. Likewise our common native butterbur: the male plant is found throughout England but the female plant is seen only in the north. I don't fully understand how such plants get distributed outside their heartland: mainly by human activity I suppose, plus I imagine they regenerate tenaciously from small fragments.

The other curious thing about the plant, aside from its own slight charms (which include a vanilla-like scent), is the name "heliotrope" which means growth or movement towards the sun.

The name was originally applied to two common Mediterranean plants, both of which may be said to "follow the sun" in their own ways.

Heliotropium europaeum

[Image source:]

1. Heliotropium europaeum. It's part of the borage family. The inflorescence is bowed over, with the small white flowers all developing along the upperside (a helicoid cyme, for any botanists out there).
Culpeper called it the Greater Turnsole.

Chrozophora tinctoria

[Image source:]

2. Chrozophora tinctoria.  A spurge relative. Pliny had called it Heliotropium tricoccum, and Gerard called it Heliotropium minus, the Lesser Turnsole. Dull-looking in itself but once important as a source of the dye turnsole or folium, used in the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. It was also used to dye Turkish carpets; as a cosmetic dye for fingernails etc (like henna), and as a food colouring; it turned acid foods red and alkaline foods blue, like litmus paper.  (It: tornasole comune) (As a result, litmus itself, which is actually a lichen, has sometimes been named turnsole.)

[For lots more about this, I recommend the 2002 article by New Zealand dyeing enthusiast Belinda Sibly aka Mistress Rowena Le Sarjent:


According to the Spanish Wikipedia entry ( these two plants were assumed to be related because of their grey-hairy appearance from a distance.

I'm not aware of anything especially heliotropic about Petasites fragrans, which is happy to bloom stolidly in shade. Most likely the transference of the pretty name is down to a superficial visual resemblance to one of the above species.

"Heliotrope" is too good a word to resist. Among many other things it's the name of a kind of decorative stone (a bloodstone), classically dark green with mysterious flecks of red; the stone's name is owed to certain ancient theories about how the sun gets into the stone and produces these flecks.

Heliotrope is also the name for a vivid purple colour; this use is fairly modern (1882) and it refers to the intense colour of the garden heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens, from Peru).

Slime as art, in Weston woods. (In all probability, this was Velvet Shank.)

The derelict roof-line of the Royal Pier Hotel in Weston-Super-Mare (plus Brean Down in the distance).

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

wipers, and no wipers

[Image source:]

Forty miles in light misty rain, round about midnight, when the windscreen wipers aren't working, isn't great. The cabin heating wasn't working either, but that was a minor consideration. I stopped regularly to wipe the windscreen. After each wipe the rain showed only as diamond pin-pricks, but soon this water reformed into the same veil of heavy drops as before.

Visibility wasn't so bad when I could put the headlights on full beam, except when road-signs reflected the light straight back.  Whenever there was on-coming traffic I had to slow to a crawl. When I joined the motorway I couldn't use full beam so instead I got close up behind a well-lit HGV doing a steady 55 and tailed it all the way to Swindon. The driver may have felt a bit haunted. At speed, the raindrops furled up the windscreen and on to the van roof.

[According to Meng Zhi (link above), in this scenario you can see better if you put on sunglasses.]

Windscreen wipers are one of those parts of a vehicle that are so clearly essential that they haven't changed much in a century. I started to wonder about the origin of windscreen wipers.

The original designs, such as Mary Anderson's in 1903, were manual; the driver operated a lever inside the cabin to clear the wind-shield. Automated wipers arrived in the 1920s. The associated windscreen washer was an idea of the 1930s. Wipers for headlights (remember those?) appeared in the 1970s.

 I didn't have much headspace for thinking as I drove along; most of the time I was peering in case a night walker or parked car suddenly loomed up ahead of me. But I did remember Louis MacNeice's poem "The Wiper". His film noir allegory seemed quite desirable.

The Wiper

Through purblind night the wiper
Reaps a swathe of water
On the screen; we shudder on
And hardly hold the road,
All we can see a segment
Of blackly shining asphalt
With the wiper moving across it
Clearing, blurring, clearing.

But what to say of the road?
The monotony of its hardly
Visible camber, the mystery
Of its invisible margins,
Will these be always with us,
The night being broken only
By lights that pass or meet us
From others in moving boxes?

Boxes of glass and water,
Upholstered, equipped with dials
Professing to tell the distance
We have gone, the speed we are going,
But never a gauge nor needle
To tell us where we are going
Or when day will come, supposing
This road exists in daytime.

For now we cannot remember
Where we were when it was not
Night, when it was not raining,
Before this car moved forward
And the wiper backward and forward
Lighting so little before us
Of a road that, crouching forward,
We watch move always towards us,

Which through the tiny segment
Cleared and blurred by the wiper
Is sucked in under the axle
To be spewed behind us and lost
While we, dazzled by darkness,
Haul the black future towards us
Peeling the skin from our hands;
And yet we hold the road.

(from his book Solstices, published in 1961).

That lulling rhythm, with its few masculine endings -- the word "road" three times, plus a couple of others near the end -- is a little narrative about doing some activity that is sort of automated, but with those stray reminders that there's a world beyond the automation, and an overview in which the road is not just something experienced but something that exists and has significance.

Interesting that the poem always speaks of "the wiper" in the singular. Most 1950s cars had twin windscreen wipers, just as they do today (unless you drive a Toyota Aygo).

On the other hand, the poem speaks of the driver in the plural, not "I" and "me", but "we" and "us".  So the poem speaks of us as a collective who all share the same experience, but it also emphasizes that the experience is a solitary one, each of us staring at his/her driver's-side wiper. We individuals are isolated from each other in our "boxes of glass and water".

But are "we", nevertheless, embarked on a communal enterprise, and buoyed, at least a little bit, by a sense of shared experience?  That's the nub of it, I think. Are we really moving forward together with a collective purpose, or is that just sentimentality, really we're on separate consumerist journeys, each trying to get our own best deal in terms of indulgence vs effort ?


Monday, December 18, 2017

Epideixis and the Lord Chancellor

Portrait of Sir Edward Hyde, after Sir Peter Lely

[Image source: Wikipedia ]

My budget copy of the Poetical Works of Dryden, published by Wordsworth Editions in 1995, is basically an eye-wearying reprint, on cheap paper, of a double-column edition from way back -- it looks like one of the old Oxford Standard Authors Collecteds (not that it divulged anything about the original edition or its editor(s)).

It did, however, add a punchy introductory note, by Dr David Marriott. (I can't help wondering if this was an early piece by D.S. Marriott, the brilliant poet and author of the cultural studies On Black Men and Haunted Life.)  The note's emphasis is on Dryden as a potent player in the political and cultural spheres; and that seems to me the right emphasis. Dryden's poetry is actively political in a very different sense from just giving vent to opinions. Dryden occupies the public sphere and contests it; he attempts, mostly on behalf of the ruling powers, to wrest the narrative.

One of several phrases I've lingered on is Dryden's "epideictic elegance".  Epideictic can mean rhetorical in an empty way -- all style and no content.  "Epideictic" can also refer to the rhetoric of praise and blame, referring to the typically commendatory, encomiastic and celebratory poems. Either way, the elegance is for use (as John Carey, if I remember correctly, said about Hooker).

That Dryden is, if you like, a propagandist, doesn't stop me caring very much for his poems and indeed toying with the thought that a political poetry of today could learn from him.


One of his early poems following the restoration of Charles II is addressed To my Lord Chancellor, presented on New-Years-Day, 1662. The Lord Chancellor was Sir Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon; effectively the Chief Minister of Charles' government, also Chancellor of the University of Oxford (whence "the Clarendon Press"), also the author of that marvellous if nauseous History of the Rebellion that Hugh Trevor-Roper called "the historical bible of the Tory Party".

Dryden says to him:

You have already wearied Fortune so,
She cannot farther be thy Friend or Foe ;
But sits all breathless, and admires to feel
A Fate so weighty that it stops her Wheel.

As it turned out, Fortune didn't sit breathless for very long. The first attempt to impeach Clarendon came in 1663, ill-health and bereavement followed, government colleagues didn't doubt his loyalty but found his peremptory opinions intolerable, he fell out of favour with Charles and was dismissed in 1667.


Those ironies of hindsight are inescapable for such engaged poetry. Yet Dryden's poem has an honest clarity that at least recognizes possibilities of downfall (his propagandism is not about obfuscation).

Let Envy then those Crimes within you see
From which the happy never must be free ;
Envy that does with Misery reside,
The Joy and the Revenge of ruin'd Pride.

Those lines encapsulate a repeated leitmotiv of Clarendon's History, as for instance in its early pages on the Duke of Buckingham. "Malice" always means attempts to topple the Great, by gossip that may or may not be true. We're slightly taken aback by Dryden's use of the bare unvarnished word "Crimes" -- he must, we think, mean imputed crimes, but for the blink of an eye he seems to mean real crimes -- yet this too is true to the spirit of the History, where the Royalist courtiers have always a variety of faults (Clarendon calls them "infirmities") that a captious public might consider crimes.

The whole poem is like the cogs of a watch, and some damage is done by extracting, but here's a couple of favourite passages.  The first is about the relationship between minister and monarch, drawing on the imagery of science:

The Nation's Soul, our Monarch, does dispense
Through you to us his vital Influence ;
You are the channel where those Spirits flow
And work them higher as to us they go.
    In open Prospect nothing bounds our Eye
Until the Earth seems join'd unto the Sky :
So in this Hemisphere our utmost view
Is only bounded by our King and you.
Our Sight is limited where you are join'd
And beyond that no farther Heav'n can find.
So well your Virtues do with his agree
That, though your Orbs of different Greatness be,
Yet both are for each other's use dispos'd,
His to enclose, and yours to be enclos'd :
Nor could another in your Room have been,
Except an Emptiness had come between.


This second one considers the arts of peace.

Shown all at once, you dazzled so our Eyes
As new-born Pallas did the Gods surprise ;
When, springing forth from Jove's new-closing Wound,
She struck the warlike Spear into the Ground ;
Which sprouting leaves did suddenly enclose,
And peaceful Olives shaded as they rose.
    How strangely active are the Arts of Peace,
Whose restless Motions less than War's do cease !
Peace is not freed from Labour, but from Noise,
And War more Force, but not more Pains, employs.
Such is the mighty Swiftness of your Mind
That like the Earth's, it leaves our Sense behind,
While you so smoothly turn and roll our Sphere
That rapid Motion does but Rest appear.

[I feel a slight chagrin to discover that Johnson in his Lives of the Poets picked out just the same extracts as I have. According to Johnson and subsequently Scott, this early poem is Dryden's most metaphysical performance.]


Clarendon's History of the Rebellion was published posthumously in 1702-04 by his younger son Lawrence, disgusted by Whig histories of the civil war that sympathised with the Roundheads. Lawrence's fierce introduction was a rallying cry for the Tories. His father wrote intimately but temperately. He knew that the history could never be published during his lifetime. He wanted to record the truth of extraordinary times and he did not give vent, much, to invective.

I have the more willingly induced myself to this unequal task, out of the hope of contributing somewhat to that blessed end [sc. "the binding up of wounds"]: and though a piece of this nature (wherein the infirmities of some, and the malice of others, must be boldly looked upon and mentioned) is not likely to be published in the age in which it is writ, yet it may serve to inform myself, and some others, what we ought to do, as well as to comfort us in what we have done. For which work, as I may not be thought altogether an incompetent person/ having been present as a member of parliament in those councils before and till the breaking out of the rebellion, and having since had the honour to be near two great kings in some trust, so I shall perform the same with all faithfulness and ingenuity ; with an equal observation of the faults and infirmities of both sides, with their defects and oversights in pursuing their own ends ; and shall no otherwise mention small and light occurrences, than as they have been introductions to matters of the greatest moment; nor speak of persons otherwise, than as the mention of their virtues or vices is essential to the work in hand : in which I shall, with truth, preserve myself from the least sharpness, that may proceed from private provocation, and in the whole observe the rules that a man should, who deserves to be believed.

Its author's scrupulous veracity and humane nature were admitted even by opponents. What took them aback, and modern readers are likely to agree with them, is the entirely genuine tones in which Clarendon sings the praises of self-seeking courtiers and politicians, whose appalling behaviour he has just laid out for us in unstinting detail.  [Catherine Macaulay, for instance, wrote: "the author's conclusions are so much at war with his facts that he is apt to disgust a candid reader with his prejudices and partiality".]

The history was begun at Scilly and continued during exile in Jersey, while the war was still going on. After his downfall he worked on it further, weaving in part of his own memoirs, originally a separate work.

I suppose no-one would call Clarendon, a lawyer with a love of immense sentences, an unputdownable storyteller. Nevertheless, when the story starts (in 1628, with James' favourite the Duke of Buckingham egging on Prince Charles to make a clandestine visit to Madrid), it really is thrilling. Scott, another Tory lawyer, must have imbibed a lot from this, and not just when it came to his own portrayal of James I in The Fortunes of Nigel.)

Clarendon's is also one of the earliest prose narratives I know in which the realistic delineation of character is attempted. He shared with Aubrey and Pepys the age's new interest in the minutiae of individual psychology and mannerisms.

Here's some extracts, beginning with the aged King James I, now bitterly regretting his consent to the scheme.

These reflections were so terrible to him, that they robbed him of all peace and quiet of mind; insomuch as when the prince and duke came to him about the despatch, he fell into a great passion with tears, and told them that he was undone, and that it would break his heart, if they pursued their resolution ; that, upon a true and dispassionate disquisition he had made with himself, he was abundantly convinced, that, besides the almost inevitable hazards of the prince's person, with whom his life was bound up, and besides the entire loss of the affections of his people, which would unavoidably attend this rash action, he foresaw it would ruin the whole design, and irrecoverably break the match...

The prince and the duke took not the pains to answer any of the reasons his majesty had insisted on ; his highness only putting him in mind of the promise he had made to him the day before, which was so sacred, that he hoped he would not violate it; which if he should, it would make him never think more of marriage. The duke, who better knew what kind of arguments were of prevalence with him, treated him more rudely ; told him, nobody could believe any thing he said, when he retracted so soon the promise he had so solemnly made ; that he plainly discerned, that it proceeded from another breach of his word, in communicating with some rascal, who had furnished him with those pitiful reasons he had alleged ; and he doubted not but he should hereafter know who his counsellor had been : that if he receded from what he had promised, it would be such a disobligation to the prince, who had set his heart now upon the journey, after his majesty's approbation, that he could never forget it, nor forgive any man who had been the cause of it.

[James calls in Sir Francis Cottington, much to Buckingham's annoyance...]

They told him, that being to have only two more in their company, as was before resolved, they had thought (if he approved them) upon sir Francis Cottington and Endymion Porter, who, though they might safely, should not be trusted with the secret, till they were even ready to be embarked. The persons were both grateful to the king, the former having been long his majesty's agent in the court of Spain, and was now secretary to the prince; the other, having been bred in Madrid, after many years attendance upon the duke, was now one of the bedchamber to the prince : so that his majesty cheerfully approved the election they had made, and wished it might be presently imparted to them ; saying, that many things would occur to them, as necessary to the journey, that they two would never think of; and took that occasion to send for sir Francis Cottington to come presently to him, (whilst the other two remained with him,) who, being of custom waiting in the outward room, was quickly brought in ; whilst the duke whispered the prince in the ear, that Cottington would be against the journey, and his highness answered he durst not.
The king told him, that he had always been an honest man, and therefore he was now to trust him in an affair of the highest importance, which he was not upon his life to disclose to any man alive ; then said to him, " Cottington, here is baby Charles and " Stenny," (an appellation he always used of and towards the duke,) " who have a great mind to go by post into Spain, to fetch home the infanta, and will have but two more in their company, and have chosen you for one. What think you of the journey?" He often protested since, that when he heard the king, he fell into such a trembling, that he could hardly speak. But when the king commanded him to answer him, what he thought of the journey, he replied, that he could not think well of it, and that he believed it would render all that had been done towards the match fruitless : for that Spain would no longer think themselves obliged by those articles, but that, when they had the prince in their hands, they would make new overtures, which they believed more advantageous to them; amongst which they must look for many that a would concern religion, and the exercise of it in England. Upon which the king threw himself upon his bed, and said, " I told you this before," and fell into new passion and lamentation, that he was undone, and should lose baby Charles.

There appeared displeasure and anger enough in the countenances both of the prince and duke ; the latter saying, that as soon as the king sent for him, he whispered the prince in the ear, that he would be against it ; that he knew his pride well enough ; and that, because he had not been first advised with, he was resolved to dislike it ; and therefore he reproached Cottington with all possible bitterness of words ; told him the king asked him only of the journey, and which would be the best way, of which he might be a competent counsellor, having made the way so often by post : but that he had the presumption to give his advice upon matter of state, and against his master, without being called to it, which he should repent as long as he lived ; with a thousand new reproaches, which put the poor king into a new agony on the behalf of a servant, who he foresaw would suffer for answering him honestly. Upon which he said, with some commotion, " Nay, by God, Stenny, you are very much to blame to use him so. He answered me directly to the question I asked him, and very honestly and wisely : and yet you know he said no more than I told you, before he was called in." However, after all this passion on both parts, the king yielded, and the journey was at that conference agreed on, and all directions given accordingly to sir Francis Cottington ; the king having now plainly discovered, that the whole intrigue was originally contrived by the duke, and so violently pursued by his spirit and impetuosity.
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, portrait by Michiel J van Miereveld (1625)

[Image source: Wikipedia.]

Sir Francis Cottington, anonymous portrait
[Image source: Wikipedia. The painting is in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 605).]

Endymion Porter, portrait by Daniel Mytens (1627)
[Image source: Wikipedia. In the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 5492).]


A chance discovery today was this comprehensive and helpful introduction to Dryden's work, on the Poetry Foundation site.

The site has equally detailed introductions to most other canonical poets of English Literature. This one, like a good many of the others, has no by-line.

Lawrence Hyde, Earl of Rochester (Clarendon's younger son): Portrait by Willem Wissing, c. 1685

[Image source: Wikipedia. Gotta be one of the most insane swagger portraits ever...]

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Friday, December 15, 2017

gold wires

Illustration by Frank Cheyne Papé (1910)

[Image source:]

This post begins in a witch's hovel. Florimell, as you can see, seeks refuge there. The witch's son obsesses about their new visitor. Florimell starts to get a creepy feeling about the place, and clears off in the night without saying goodbye. The "accursed Hag" sends a monster in pursuit of her, and the monster returns with a bloodied girdle. The witch thinks her demented son will be consoled by this indication of Florimell's demise, but instead he loses it completely and now threatens to slay his mother. So she decides to knock up a fake Florimell for his use.

The substance, whereof she the bodie made,
  Was purest snow in massie mould congeald,
  Which she had gathered in a shadie glade
  Of the Riphoean hils, to her reueald
  By errant Sprights, but from all men conceald:
  The same she tempred with fine Mercury,
  And virgin wex, that neuer yet was seald,
  And mingled them with perfect vermily,
That like a liuely sanguine it seem'd to the eye.

In stead of eyes two burning lampes she set
  In siluer sockets, shyning like the skyes,
  And a quicke mouing Spirit did arret
  To stirre and roll them, like a womans eyes;
  In stead of yellow lockes she did deuise,
  With golden wyre to weaue her curled head;
  Yet golden wyre was not so yellow thrise
  As Florimells faire haire: and in the stead
Of life, she put a Spright to rule the carkasse dead.

(Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Bk III Canto 8, Stanzas 6-7)

The witch's son is delighted with this apparent return of a newly compliant Florimell, but is far too clownish to be able to hang on to her once a gentlemanly swaggerer happens along. In fact the False Florimell proves to be the source of much contention among the testosterone-fuelled knights of fairyland.

The False Florimell seems not to be able to fasten the girdle of chastity
[Image source: Illustration by Walter Crane, from the Chiswick Press edition of 1894-1896.]

Spenser's story casts a critical glance at the Petrarchan convention (a blazon) of celebrating a woman's external attributes by reifying them (as snow, roses, jewels, etc). A couple of years after this was published, Shakespeare came at the same topic from a different angle.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare. (Sonnet 130)

The wire to which both Spenser and Shakespeare allude was produced by the medieval technique of wire-drawing. In those days wire was made of precious metals and its use was ornamental, as a component in jewellery and rich costumes.

Twisted gold wire in Elizabethan necklace

[Image source:]

"Grape" pendant of amethyst and gold wire

[Image source:]

Both of the above, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, came from the Cheapside Hoard, an extraordinary collection of jewellery discovered by builders in 1912. It was probably the stock of a Jacobean goldsmith.

Wires were gold-coloured, of course. Shakespeare's point about "black wires", in the fourth line of his poem, is that there's no such thing. His mistress, in all her stark, unapologetic reality, makes a bonfire of all these stale conceits. Though as it transpires, Shakespeare himself found her a good deal too hot to handle.

 [Image source:]


Nobody knows who this mistress of Shakespeare's was, supposing his poem was modelled on a real mistress, but various names have been thrown around and one of the most interesting is Emilia Lanier (aka Æmilia Lanyer, Æmilia Bassano), who published her own book of poetry Salve Deum Rex Judaeorum in 1611, a couple of years after Shakespeare finally published his sonnets.

In the dedication of her work to Margaret, the dowager countess of Cumberland, Lanier too reflects on the reification of beauty.

Thou faire example, live without compare,
With Honours triumphs seated in thy breast;
Pale Envy never can thy name empaire,
When in thy heart thou harbour'st such a guest:
Malice must live for ever in dispaire;
There's no revenge where Virtue still doth rest:
All hearts must needs do homage unto thee,
In whom all eies such rare perfection see.

That outward Beautie which the world commends,
Is not the subject I will write upon,
Whose date expir'd, that tyrant Time soone ends,
Those gawdie colours soone are spent and gone:
But those faire Virtues which on thee attends
Are alwaies fresh, they never are but one:
They make thy Beautie fairer to behold,
Than was that Queenes for whom prowd Troy was sold.

As for those matchlesse colours Red and White,
Or perfit features in a fading face,
Or due proportion pleasing to the sight;
All these doe draw but dangers and disgrace:
A mind enrich'd with Virtue, shines more bright,
Addes everlasting Beauty, gives true grace,
Frames an immortall Goddesse on the earth,
Who though she dies, yet Fame gives her new berth.

That pride of Nature which adornes the faire,
Like blasing Comets to allure all eies,
Is but the thred, that weaves their web of Care,
Who glories most, where most their danger lies;
For greatest perills do attend the faire
When men do seeke, attempt, plot and devise,
How they may overthrow the chastest Dame,
Whose Beautie is the White whereat they aime.

[The full text is available here:]

Emilia Lanier, portrait by Nicholas Hilliard

[Image source: ]

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Pocket Litter

Extracts from this month's Pocket Litter (a Writers Forum magazine, published irregularly since 2011) :


Been hope of old.
Been led of pooh.

Beep fond.
Beep fond loo.
Beep fool nod.
Beep eon fold.
Beep flood
Beep hold of one.
Beep hole nod of.  Beep.

Bop. Won dring. Bop flee.
Debone fool nob.
Deep lob.
Deepen hoof.

Do flee. Hope?
Dole eel end.
Feed noble pooh.
Fen hope lob ode.
Fled oboe.
Fondle hobo pee.

(from Phone: That Buzzing Noise)


(from Score - 1B)

This piece is connected to Xavier's Me & My Whale project -- see


he has been kicking the ball well tonight

he's been good

looking for two

measures a kick to the top of the square

not a good fifty to give away

so too thomas

switches through the middle

well taken care of in the end

well the conversation goes on

(from Transcript 04/04)


Re Pocket Litter :

For futher information contact

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

the knowledge of nature

St Mary's Church, Birkin (c. 1140)

[Image source: . Photo © Alan Murray-Rust (cc-by-sa/2.0) ]

Can the knowledge of nature be itself a part or product
of nature, in that sense of nature in which it is said to be
an object of knowledge ? This is our first question.

I've been taking a look at Thomas Hill Green's Prolegomena to Ethics. Green (1836 - 1882) was a British Idealist in phlosophy (along with F.H. Bradley and others), and a vocal Liberal in politics. Green, who was born in the village of Birkin in the West Riding, was appointed Whyte's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford in 1877. That appointment allowed him to set about his major work, but it was left unfinished when he died from blood poisoning in March 1882, and was published posthumously (his fellow Balliol man A.C. Bradley acting as editor) in April 1883. (A large part had already appeared in Mind.)

Here's the quote in its context. Green is querying the contention that the moral aspects, and even the epistemological aspects, of our conscious life can be considered part of a materialistic Nature (as per Hume, Mill, evolutionary theorists...).

§8. The elimination of ethics, then, as a system of precepts,
involves no intrinsic difficulties other than those involved
in the admission of a natural science that can account for
the moralisation of man. The discovery, however, that our
assertions of moral obligation are merely the expression of
an ineffectual wish to be better off than we are, or are due
to the survival of habits originally enforced by physical fear,
but of which the origin is forgotten, is of a kind to give us
pause. It logically carries with it the conclusion, however
the conclusion may be disguised, that, in inciting ourselves
or others to do anything because it ought to be done, we
are at best making use of a serviceable illusion. And when
this consequence is found to follow logically from the con-
ception of man as in his moral attributes a subject of natural
science, it may lead to a reconsideration of a doctrine which
would otherwise have been taken for granted as the most
important outcome of modern enlightenment. As the first
charm of accounting for what has previously seemed the
mystery of our moral nature passes away, and the spirit of
criticism returns, we cannot but enquire whether a being
that was merely a result of natural forces could form a theory
of those forces as explaining himself. We have to return
once more to that analysis of the conditions of knowledge,
which forms the basis of all Critical Philosophy whether
called by the name of Kant or no, and to ask whether the
experience of connected matters of fact, which in its metho-
dical expression we call science, does not presuppose a prin-
ciple which is not itself any one or number of such matters
of fact, or their result.

Can the knowledge of nature be itself a part or product
of nature, in that sense of nature in which it is said to be
an object of knowledge ? This is our first question. If it
is answered in the negative, we shall at least have satisfied
ourselves that man, in respect of the function called know-
ledge, is not merely a child of nature. We shall have
ascertained the presence in him of a principle not natural,
and a specific function of this principle in rendering know-
ledge possible.

On that last point, Green elaborates the metaphor a little later:
"there is a sense in which man is related to nature as its author,
as well as one in which he is related to it as its child" (§10).


Green uses the example, a rather dramatic one, of an engine driver who misreads a signal. The engine driver, wondering if has made a mistake, has a conception of the "real", as opposed to the mistaken and illusory world of the unreal. From where do we get that conception?

a consciousness of
events as a related series — experience in the most elemen-
tary form in which it can be the beginning of knowledge —
has not any element of identity with, and therefore cannot
properly be said to be developed out of, a mere series of
related events, of successive modifications of body or soul,
such as is experience in the former of the senses spoken of.
No one and no number of a series of related events can be
the consciousness of the series as related. Nor can any
product of the series be so either. ... (§16)

§17. ' Perhaps not,' it may be replied, ' but may it not be
a product of previous events ? ' If it is so, a series of events
of which there is no conscious experience must be supposed
to produce a consciousness of another series. On any- other
supposition the difficulty is only postponed. For if the
series of events which produces a certain consciousness of
other events is one of which there is a consciousness, this
consciousness, not being explicable as the product of the
events of which it is the consciousness, will have in turn to
be referred to a prior series of events ; and ultimately there
will be no alternative between the admission of a conscious-
ness which is not a product of events at all  and the supposi-
tion stated — the supposition that the primary consciousness
of events results from a series of events of which there is no
consciousness. But this supposition, when we think of it,
turns out to be a concatenation of words to which no
possible connexion of ideas corresponds. It asserts a rela-
tion of cause and effect, in which the supposed cause lacks
all the characteristics of a cause. It may be questioned
whether we can admit anything as a cause which does not
explain its supposed effect, or is not equivalent to the con-
ditions into which the effect may be analysed. But granting
that we may, a cause must at least be that to which experi-
ence testifies as the uniform antecedent of the effect. Now
a series of events of which there is no consciousness is
certainly not a set of conditions into which consciousness
can be analysed. And as little can it be an antecedent
uniformly associated with consciousness in experience, for
events of which there is no consciousness cannot be within
experience at all.

...Nature, with all that belongs
to it, is a process of change : change on a uniform method,
no doubt, but change still. All the relations under which
we know it are relations in the way of change or by which
change is determined. But neither can any process of change
yield a consciousness of itself, which, in order to be a con-
sciousness of the change, must be equally present to all stages
of the change ; nor can any consciousness of change, since the
whole of it must be present at once, be itself a process of
change. There may be a change into a state of consciousness
of change, and a change out of it, on the part of this man
or that ; but within the consciousness itself there can be no
change, because no relation of before and after, of here and
there, between its constituent members — between the pre-
sentation, for instance, of point A and that of point B in the
process which forms the object of the consciousness.  (from §18)


I'm not a philosopher, but I understand that Green is working towards an "infinite regress" kind of reductio ad absurdum in which A, on the materialist view, depends on B depends on A depends on B depends on A.... It's a classic example of using the word "itself" to attempt to clinch an illuminating point.

But this is like the chicken and the egg. We know that neither chicken nor egg came "first", they evolved together as a combined group, very slowly, from different creatures with different eggs.  Why could not the nature we experience, and our understanding of that nature (so far as we can in fact understand it) come slowly into existence alongside each other as a combined group, and from the same common source, namely an older and less developed and less self-conscious nature?

This is not a denial of what Green is anxious to defend, namely morality, religion and democracy. It's more a matter of seeing these principles as immanent in the wonderful complexity and mystery of nature, rather than as transcendent principles injected from a world above.

From this perspective it's obvious that I resist the rhetorical implications in the merely of  "merely a result of natural forces", by which Green smuggles in a prior discrediting of what has yet to be examined.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Christmas tree sentences

Frenchay Forestry, Bristol

[Image source:]

Every establishment has to have its Christmas tree. The most impressive one I saw this past week-end was outside the Milk Churn, a newly built Hall & Woodhouse chain pub on the expanding Hampton Park trading estate in Melksham.

At IKEA, in the understore carpark, there were queues of people threading sociably into a gridded square stacked with sleeved trees. The trees (fresh Norway Spruces, smelling of rain and resin) were £25 each but the irresistible point was, they also gave you a £20 IKEA voucher to use in the shop.

Laura doesn't like them using real trees. She's planning to get a £4 artificial tree from Homebase. She wants to decorate it on Wednesday, while she's looking after Shelden for the afternoon.

Nordmann Fir, the non-drop Christmas tree -- they call them "Nordmanns" in the trade.

Not liking to buy a real fir tree may seem a bit illogical when we'll happily buy wooden shelving, or give bunches of cut flowers, or consume cabbages, etc.  And since young trees lock up more carbon than older ones, the regular consumption of Christmas trees ought to be a good thing from the climate change perspective. A lot better than throwaway Christmas jumpers, anyhow.

Our sensitivity perhaps has something to do with the tree being a whole organism (at any rate, the whole organism above ground). We are reacting, I suppose, like those many meat-eaters who like the look of burgers or steaks but would not much relish looking at a whole dead cow. There's something, too, about the use to which our fir tree will be put to. It's going to be a centrepiece of celebration and piety, and that feels a bit too close to an old-school sacrificial rite. And finally, as if in mockery of the victim, its intended role is as a simulacrum of a living tree, displaying for us its fresh juicy leaves and resinous wood, even though its own death is certain, even though the fatal dissevering has already been performed. (And conifers, being a primitive sort of plant life, cannot re-grow from that. )

How can we not respond to the pathos of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Fir-Tree" , from 1844?  

.....the Tree was pulled out and thrown—rather hard, it is true—down on the floor, but a man drew him toward the stairs, where the daylight shone.
"Now a merry life will begin again," thought the Tree. He felt the fresh air, the first sunbeam—and now he was out in the courtyard. All passed so quickly, there was so much going on around him, that the Tree quite forgot to look to himself. The court adjoined a garden, and all was in flower; the roses hung so fresh and odorous over the balustrade, the lindens were in blossom, the Swallows flew by, and said, "Quirre-vit! my husband is come!" but it was not the Fir-tree that they meant.
"Now, then, I shall really enjoy life," said he, exultingly, and spread out his branches; but, alas! they were all withered and yellow. It was in a corner that he lay, among weeds and nettles. The golden star of tinsel was still on the top of the Tree, and glittered in the sunshine.
In the courtyard some of the merry children were playing who had danced at Christmas round the Fir-tree, and were so glad at the sight of him. One of the youngest ran and tore off the golden star.
"Only look what is still on the ugly old Christmas tree!" said he, trampling on the branches, so that they all cracked beneath his feet.   ....

(In the 2011 Danish TV film, they softened Andersen's story by introducing a note of hope at the end. The tree still died, but one of its cones fell to the ground and seeded. But perhaps the makers thought a big turd-shaped spruce-cone would seem unfamiliar or unattractive, so in the film they used a pine-cone instead. Anyway, spruce trees don't produce viable seed until they are at least twenty years old and quite tall, so the cones are in full light. It's such fun being pedantic!)

The Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is a magnificent big tree of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. It only really looks at its best in its native woods. Its timber doesn't last well out of doors, but has many uses inside. For example, it is the standard "tonewood" of violins, cellos, etc; it is what Stradivarius violins are made of.

Six years after Hans Andersen's story, in 1850, Dickens wrote "A Christmas Tree", one of his most wonderful short pieces. I can't resist giving its opening lines:

I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects. There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; and there were real watches (with movable hands, at least, and an endless capacity of being wound up) dangling from innumerable twigs; there were French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks, and various other articles of domestic furniture (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton), perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping; there were jolly, broad-faced little men, much more agreeable in appearance than many real men--and no wonder, for their heads took off, and showed them to be full of sugar-plums; there were fiddles and drums; there were tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peep-show boxes, and all kinds of boxes; there were trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices; there were guns, swords, and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises; in short, as a pretty child, before me, delightedly whispered to another pretty child, her bosom friend, "There was everything, and more." This motley collection of odd objects, clustering on the tree like magic fruit, and flashing back the bright looks directed towards it from every side--some of the diamond-eyes admiring it were hardly on a level with the table, and a few were languishing in timid wonder on the bosoms of pretty mothers, aunts, and nurses--made a lively realisation of the fancies of childhood; and set me thinking how all the trees that grow and all the things that come into existence on the earth, have their wild adornments at that well-remembered time. (from "A Christmas Tree")

[Teetotum: A spinning-top with four or six numbered or lettered faces, that can be used to play games in a similar way to dice.]

Something magic about a small child gazing up at the sparkling tree with all its decorations. The heart of the home. Household deity, worship of capital, a residual longing for the temples of the woods, from which our houses seal us, in all other respects so conveniently? Aspiration of the parents, seeing their trouble rewarded by such guileless absorption of the values of the family?

Or does the festooned tree lead the small eyes up, like Plato's ladder of love in the Symposium, from the material of hanging chocolate to an angel, scarcely visible in the mundane world, but seeing and supervising all, and pointing with its china hand to still more dizzying ascents of the spirit into the zenith?

When I was a child, we'd get the Christmas box down from the loft (it was an old suitcase). There were various decorations inside, such as goats and stars made from straw and red wool; very fiddly to disentangle from each other,  also quite fiddly to loop round the thin pricking needles of the spruce. There were other painted figures made from pine: gingerbread men, and an orange fox (rumoured to be a spring decoration, but always brought out at Christmas because it wasn't worth going to the trouble of getting the suitcase down from the loft in March just for the sake of a couple of spring decorations. Less appealing to my parents, but more so to myself, were the sumptuous glittering glass baubles. We only had about four of them. I insisted on hanging them up myself. On a couple of them the fittings were a bit broken, exposing a throat of jagged glass on which you could cut yourself if you weren't very careful.

Epiphany at Frome Recycling Centre 

In the UK it's considered a social duty to throw away or hide all your Christmas decorations on (or preferably before) "the twelfth day of Christmas". The 6th January is therefore a day of utilitarian gloom, in marked contrast to the celebrations of Epiphany in other European countries.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

A greeting to Denmark

German troops march in Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation

[Image source:]

Your house lies shuttered in dark tonight
and dampened the conversation sounds,
Oh Denmark! who lit the flame of art
   for a thousand years in our northern lands.
In the church that Absalon built in Lund
A song of memory should come after:
'Twas Danish culture that was our ground,
   and Tegnér his music found
   in honoured Oelenschläger.

Mörklagt ligger i kväll ditt hus
och dämpad är tonen i samtalsorden,
Danmark! Som tände bildningens ljus
   för tusen år sen i Norden.
I kyrkan som Absalon byggde i Lund
ett minnesaltare sången äger:
det var på den danska kulturens grund
   Tegnér i upplyst stund
   bekransade Oelenschläger.

Four-stringed was the northern lute that has burst:
but our hands seek now for that friendly grip.
Yet Christian still stands firm at the mast
   of Denmark's unbroken ship.
How could this proud people ever expire
once joined in Grundtvig's hymn of praise?
Unquenched by diktat of earthly power,
    God's soul-searchlight, the fire
    kindled by Kierkegaard's blaze!

Fyrsträngad var Nordens luta som brast:
nu söker vår hand de förlorade greppet.
Än står Kung Christian vid högan mast
     obruten på Danaskeppet.
Hur skulle det folk kunna tigas ihjäl,
som Grundtvig har sjungit med psalmsång samman?
Ej släcks på jordiska makters befäl
   Guds sökarljus i den själ
   där Kierkegaard tände flamman!

Joyous for parted friends to meet
In the springtime of books, or on summer morns;
sweet too, when snow sweeps winter-white
     its banner round fields and lawns.
Then glows at daybreak the sun so red
as if to inscribe a solemn promise:
From nights of unease and the soul's hard bed
    in the morning a flame will spread
    in Denmark's sacred colours!

Ljuvt är för vänner att komma hit
i bokarnas vår eller sommardagar,
ljuvt även då snön sveper vintervit
   sin fana kring fält och hagar.
Då flammar i gryningen solen så röd,
som var det ett löfte den frambesvärjer:
Ur nätter av oro och själanöd
   skall tändas en morgonglöd
   i Danmarks heliga färger!

[Extremely free translation... :)  The flag-conceit in the final stanza foreshadows Don Paterson's "Imperial". ]

Hjalmar Gullberg, a very popular Swedish lyric poet of the 20th century, came from Malmö in the extreme south of Sweden. This is his poem "Greeting to Denmark", published in 1942 when Denmark was under Nazi occupation  (in what's probably his best-known collection, Fem kornbröd och två fiskar = Five barley-loaves and two fishes). The poet is, we imagine, looking across the Öresund channel towards Copenhagen, some ten miles west of Malmö as the crow flies.

The poem emphasizes Denmark's role as a crucible of civilization in the Nordic world.

St 1

Absalon, a 12th century bishop, first of Roskilde in Denmark, then of Lund in Sweden. Presumably the "church" in question is Lund Cathedral, though its foundation predated Absalon's tenure. (Scania, now the southernmost part of Sweden, was part of Denmark until the mid-17th century.)

Esaias Tegnér (1782 - 1846), Swedish romantic poet whose epic Frithjof's Saga was once famous throughout Europe. The poem was somewhat influenced by the Helge of the Danish poet Adam Gottlob Oelenschläger (1779 - 1850).

St 2

N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783 - 1872), pastor and poet, important in the growth of Danish nationalism, also in Lutheran renewal, and in national politics (he began as a conservative but moved towards liberalism); a major composer of hymns and sacred songs. (He was also a pioneering Anglo-Saxonist and the first person to translate Beowulf into a modern language.)

Danish Jews fleeing to Ystad in Sweden in October 1943

[Image source:]

The Nazi occupation, from 1940, was at first a peaceful cooperation and Denmark retained a high degree of self-government. This cooperation allowed them to resist the imposition of Nazi directives (such as anti-semitic policies). King Christian and the prime minister remained in situ, and came to be revered as symbols of a continuing Danish national identity. A few Danes were enthusiastic supporters of the Third Reich and fought on the Eastern Front. The question of whether cooperation was the right strategy continues to be debated to this day. But most Danish Jews survived, whereas in rebellious Norway a large part of the Jewish population was liquidated. In summer 1943, perceiving that Germany was losing the war, Danish resistance strengthened and as a result the Nazis dismissed the government and declared direct rule and a state of emergency. Danish Jews were assisted by fishermen to escape across the Öresund channel to Sweden. The Danish resistance organized acts of sabotage, the Nazis sent some Danish police to concentration camps and carried out other revenge killings, but by now they were too weakened to fully gain control of Denmark, and could not prevent general strikes in 1944. In October 1944, Hitler himself approved the confiscation of all Danish bicycles. Liberation came on May 5th, 1945.

Danes celebrate liberation, Copenhagen May 1945

[Image source:]

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Monday, December 04, 2017

"species character of animal life"

a murmuration of starlings

[Image source:]

Like two looslely-held divining rods suddenly slithering across each other, two highly disparate reads (Mark Lilla and Vincent ) have suddenly brought Hannah Arendt into my focus.

A quick read of the opening pages of The Human Condition made me feel like there was nothing I wished to read more -- unfortunately, that's not an uncommon experience.

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.   (Genesis 1:27)

There are two creation stories at the start of Genesis.

Arendt says in a footnote:

1 . In the analysis of postclassical political thought, it is often quite illuminat-
ing to find out which of the two biblical versions of the creation story is cited.
Thus it is highly characteristic of the difference between the teaching of Jesus
of Nazareth and of Paul that Jesus, discussing the relationship between man and
wife, refers to Genesis 1:27: “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the
beginning made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4), whereas Paul on a similar
occasion insists that the woman was created “of the man” and hence “for the
man,” even though he then somewhat attenuates the dependence: “neither is the
man without the woman, neither the woman without the man” (I Cor. 11:8-12).
The difference indicates much more than a different attitude to the role of woman.
For Jesus, faith was closely related to action (cf. § 3 3 below) ; for Paul, faith was
primarily related to salvation. Especially interesting in this respect is Augustine
( De civitate Dei xii. 21), who not only ignores Genesis 1:27 altogether but sees
the difference between man and animal in that man was created unum ac singu-
, whereas all animals were ordered “to come into being several at once”
(plura simul iussit exsistere) . To Augustine, the creation story offers a welcome
opportunity to stress the species character of animal life as distinguished from the
singularity of human existence.

The footnote glosses the following part of her main text, regarding "action" (one of the three key terms in this book, with a special definition of activity between human beings).

....       in its most elementary form, the human
condition of action is implicit even in Genesis (“Male and female
created He them ”), if we understand that this story of man’s crea-
tion is distinguished in principle from the one according to which
God originally created Man ( adam ), “him” and not “them,” so
that the multitude of human beings becomes the result of multipli-
cation . Action would be an unnecessary luxury, a capricious in-
terference with general laws of behavior, if men were endlessly
reproducible repetitions of the same model, whose nature or es-
sence was the same for all and as predictable as the nature or
essence of any other thing. Plurality is the condition of human
action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way
that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives,
or will live.

The "species character of animal life" reminds me of the observation by Hazlitt that I often seem to refer to.  Hazlitt was saying that we tend to experience nature in species terms: on our walk we see primroses and lambs, we don't usually have much awareness of them as individuals. Augustine is saying that animals don't have individual significance in the way that we do.

Following up the Augustine reference:

But it is ridiculous to condemn the faults of beasts and trees, and other such mortal and mutable things as are void of intelligence, sensation, or life, even though these faults should destroy their corruptible nature; for these creatures received, at their Creator's will, an existence fitting them, by passing away and giving place to others, to secure that lowest form of beauty, the beauty of seasons, which in its own place is a requisite part of this world. (from De Civitate Dei, xii, 4)

Now that we have solved, as well as we could, this very difficult question about the eternal God creating new things, without any novelty of will, it is easy to see how much better it is that God was pleased to produce the human race from the one individual whom He created, than if He had originated it in several men. For as to the other animals, He created some solitary, and naturally seeking lonely places,—as the eagles, kites, lions, wolves, and such like; others gregarious, which herd together, and prefer to live in company,—as pigeons, starlings, stags, and little fallow deer, and the like: but neither class did He cause to be propagated from individuals, but called into being several at once. Man, on the other hand, whose nature was to be a mean between the angelic and bestial, He created in such sort, that if he remained in subjection to His Creator as his rightful Lord, and piously kept His commandments, he should pass into the company of the angels, and obtain, without the intervention of death, a blessed and endless immortality; but if he offended the Lord his God by a proud and disobedient use of his free will, he should become subject to death, and live as the beasts do,—the slave of appetite, and doomed to eternal punishment after death. And therefore God created only one single man, not, certainly, that he might be a solitary bereft of all society, but that by this means the unity of society and the bond of concord might be more effectually commended to him, men being bound together not only by similarity of nature, but by family affection. And indeed He did not even create the woman that was to be given him as his wife, as he created the man, but created her out of the man, that the whole human race might derive from one man. (De civitate dei, xii, 21 complete)

[You would not, perhaps, suspect from Arendt that Augustine goes on to talk about "the unity of society and the bond of concord". Though in a way that sharpens her own emphasis on our necessary condition of "plurality" (and on politics as a way of negotiating it).]

Maybe I should continue Augustine's quotation on to the start of the next section, where it becomes clearer where his argument is going. It is not really so much about disparaging the life of animals as despairing that humans are so often worse.

And God was not ignorant that man would sin, and that, being himself made subject now to death, he would propagate men doomed to die, and that these mortals would run to such enormities in sin, that even the beasts devoid of rational will, and who were created in numbers from the waters and the earth, would live more securely and peaceably with their own kind than men, who had been propagated from one individual for the very purpose of commending concord. For not even lions or dragons have ever waged with their kind such wars as men have waged with one another. (Start of De civitate dei, xii, 22)

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