Wednesday, August 29, 2018

the lane

I've walked this lane on the edge of Frome hundreds of times over the last twenty years, but it was only a couple of days ago that I focussed in on some unusually-lobed bramble leaves, growing at the foot of a hedge .... And this led to the rapid discovery, as I learnt to pick out those leaves from the rest, that this whole network of lanes was full of Dewberry (Rubus caesius), growing alongside, or rather beneath, the more vigorous arching growth of the brambles. 

Young stems, with a whitish bloom and many rather weak prickles. On older stems the prickles have mostly been rubbed off.

The fruits were mainly over, but I found this one.  Differs from blackberry in fewer, larger drupelets, with a bluish bloom. 

This is the European Dewberry.  Common in the southern UK, with a preference for basic soils (Frome is on limestone, the Lower Jurassic). 

In Sweden it is called Blåhallon (blue raspberry); quite common in Skåne and Gotland, found also as far up as Mälarland. 

 In North America there are a dozen other dewberries, and some can be a fruit crop, considered to have a sweeter flavour than blackberries. Our species has too few fruit to be worth gathering: the flavour is said to be sweet but a bit insipid.

The poetic name "Dewberry" has made it popular in skincare products and health supplements. So far as I can see its healthy properties (antioxidants, Vitamin C) are just the same as blackberries. 

The hedges were full of normal blackberries, on which I've been gorging. Some, like the ones in the photo above, seemed a bit intermediate. My limited knowledge of the complexities of Rubus fructicosus agg. prevents further surmise.

Like most townsfolk, our usual country haunts are on the edge of town, precisely the places that are likely to be built on next. And sure enough, there are grand plans for three thousand homes here. I don't know if these ancient lanes will be obliterated or just islanded. 

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Monday, August 27, 2018

There is a just God

Crossing the Berezina, 26th-27th November, 1812

The destruction of the Grande Armée in 1812 horrified, fascinated and, you might say, troubled the intellects of all Europeans. How could the great Napoleon, the master of lightning-quick manoeuvres in Lombardy and on the Danube, the greatest of military minds, ... How could he with such rank stupidity engage on so ruinous and futile an expedition as the invasion of Russia? ... Already warned by the example of Charles XII at Pultowa, and so poorly planned, so defiant of advice, so insufficiently motivated? (But it's easy to be wise in hindsight, and perhaps Napoleon's judgement was as sound as ever? Andrew Roberts' recent biography Napoleon the Great seems to list in that direction.)

Tolstoy argued against the "great man" view of history, but his own book undercuts him: it's Tolstoy who elevates Kutuzov to the status of saviour of the fatherland. Tolstoy tried to reframe history as the will of the people, but the idea that the will of the French people demanded the expedition to Moscow is contrary to all evidence.

Much earlier, Scott had thought about it. He rubbishes the idea that the catastrophe arose principally from an early onset of winter. This only exacerbated the sufferings of an army that was already doomed.

Scott proposed an explanation in moral terms. Bonaparte's invasion of a recent ally was unjust, evidence how low his ideas had fallen by continual resort to power politics. His own grotesque pride, moreover, had deranged his judgement; he thought he would triumph just by turning up.

Scott concludes:

Thus a hallucination, for such it may be termed, led this great soldier into a train of conduct, which, as a military critic, he would have been the first to condemn, and which was the natural consequence of his deep moral error. He was hurried by this self-opinion, this ill-founded trust in the predominance of his own personal influence, into a gross neglect of the usual and prescribed rules of war. He put in motion an immense army, too vast in numbers to be supported either by the supplies of the country through which they marched, or by the provisions they could transport along with them. And when, plunging into Russia, he defeated her armies and took her metropolis, he neglected to calculate his line of advance on such an extent of base, as should enable him to consolidate his conquests, and turn to real advantage the victories which he attained. His army was but precariously connected with Lithuania when he was at Moscow, and all communication was soon afterwards entirely destroyed. Thus, one unjust purpose, strongly and passionately entertained, marred the councils of the wise, and rendered vain the exertions of the brave.

We may read the moral in the words of Claudian.

 “ Jam non ad culmina rerum Injustos circvisse queror; tolluntur in altum, Ut lapsu graviore ruant.” CLAUDIAN, in Rufinum, Lib. i., T. 21.

Life of Buonaparte, Ch LXIII.

The quotation, by the late Latin poet Claudius Claudianus, comes from a poem celebrating the downfall of a corrupt opponent of his patron. It is the last two sentences of this passage:

My mind has often wavered between two opinions: have the gods a care for the world or is there no ruler therein and do mortal things drift as dubious chance dictates? For when I investigated the laws and the ordinances of heaven and observed the sea's appointed limits, the year's fixed cycle and the alternation of light and darkness, then methought everything was ordained according to the direction of a God who had bidden the stars move by fixed laws, plants grow at different seasons, the changing moon fulfil her circle with borrowed light and the sun shine by his own, who spread the shore before the waves and balanced the world in the centre of the firmament. But when I saw the impenetrable mist which surrounds human affairs, the wicked happy and long prosperous and the good discomforted, then in turn my belief in God was weakened and failed, and even against mine own will I embraced the tenets of that other philosophy which teaches that atoms drift in purposeless motion and that new forms throughout the vast void are shaped by chance and not design — that philosophy which believes in God in an ambiguous sense, or holds that there be no gods, or that they are careless of our doings. At last Rufinus' fate has dispelled this uncertainty and freed the gods from this imputation. No longer can I complain that the unrighteous man reaches the highest pinnacle of success. He is raised aloft that he may be hurled down in more headlong ruin. 

But does Napoleon's disastrous campaign really vindicate a just God in the way described by Claudian? Yes, Napoleon lost, it was a bodyblow to his empire. But his expedition led directly to the death of around a million people, none of whom was Napoleon himself. How could it be just that those million people should die?

'You observe,' said Candide to Martin, 'that crime is sometimes punished. That rogue of a Dutch captain has had the fate he deserved.'
   'Yes,' said Martin. 'But why should the passengers have perished too? God has punished a scoundrel, but the devil has drowned the rest.'  (Candide, Ch XX)

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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Insect ID

I love flowers but I don't know much about the insects that visit them. This ignorance has occasionally nagged at me, but not much. This tiny post (because really I'm still preoccupied with the Shakespeare Garden) is a gesture in that direction. The internet, of course, has made it much easier for non-specialists to have a fair stab at insect ID.

Female Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax). Frome, 21st August 2018.

This was meant to be a photo of a particularly luscious newly opened bloom of Perennial Sow-thistle (Sonchus arvensis), but it was photobombed by this insect.

The insect seemed familiar, and so it ought to. The cosmopolitan Eristalis tenax is, according to Wikipedia, the most widely distributed syrphid (hoverfly) species in the world. The males look different from the females (though just as familiar). The larvae are rat-tailed maggots living in sewers and stagnant pools where there's a nice crop of bacteria to feed on.

Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas ssp. eleus ab. caeruleopunctata). Herstmonceux, 18th August 2018.

Back in the gardens of Herstmonceux again, this was a smallish butterfly that obligingly sat still for the camera. Small Copper. OK, I'll try and remember that.

This form is caeruleopunctata, with a row of blue dots on the hindwing. It's basking on some verbena (V. bonariensis or similar).


Monday, August 20, 2018

The Shakespeare Garden

Someone at Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex (now the Bader International Study Centre, affiliated to Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario) had the laudable idea of planting a Shakespeare Garden with plants mentioned in Will's writings, and quotations alongside. Reading these, the peaceful garden becomes a ripple of voices.

 Here are a few photos of the attached quotations.

Queen Gertrude, interrupting the conference between Claudius and Laertes with news of Ophelia's death:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them...

"Crow-flowers" might mean ragged robin (as claimed on the notice), or might mean crowfoot, the white aquatic buttercup: -- as in Millais' painting, where crowfoot gets a starring role alongside Elizabeth Siddal.

The meaning ragged robin is attested by Gerard in his Herball (1597), a book we know Shakespeare read (it's used in the late additions to LLL). The OED claims that crow flower was a longstanding folk-name for crowfoot but can find no example earlier than John Clare, unless this is it.

The symbolism of Ophelia's flowers is a popular topic. Crow flower is said to be symbolic of ingratitude, childishness, and neatness; contradictory as they are, all these interpretations refer, I think, to crowfoot, or buttercups in general. (But symbolic interpretations of Ophelia's flowers are as plodding as Shakespeare is subtle. He's swift, intuitive and, always, dramatic. His lines have no intention of getting bogged down in a single meaning.)

Millais is thought to have painted his crowfoot from life, at a spot on the River Hogsmill in Ewell, Surrey.  He idealized it, no doubt.  For example, he mingled plants of spring, midsummer and late summer, all in full bloom. Gertrude's "long purples" (generally reckoned to be Early Purple Orchid, though the evidence is none too strong) are represented in Millais by the credible riverside plant Purple Loosestrife. He tidied up the scene,  but he did paint from life.

So a modern image of Millais' stream, as shown in the link below, is rather a shock... the dark water almost lost as it winds between rank stands of Himalayan Balsam.

When thou impressest, what are precepts worth
Of stale example? When thou will inflame,
How coldly those impediments stand forth
Of wealth, of filial fear, law, kindred, fame!
Love's arms are peace, 'gainst rule, 'gainst sense, 'gainst shame,
And sweetens, in the suffering pangs it bears,
The aloes of all forces, shocks, and fears.

The seductive lover addressing the maid. (And naturally, blaming her attractions for his own bad behaviour.)

"Aloes" here just means bitterness, a figurative expression derived from the medicine "bitter aloes", which is indeed the product of plants of the Aloe family.

This is Perdita, in conversation with Polixenes.

Most of the flowers in the garden were over, but the streaked gillyvors were still going strong, in accordance with Perdita's preceding words:

                         Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer's death nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest flowers o' th' season
Are our carnations and streak'd gillyvors,
Which some call nature's bastards...

Perdita dislikes the horticultural messing with natural wild plants, evinced by such showy blooms as this one. Polixenes defends the art of horticulture as itself a work of nature.

(In fact Act III Scene 12.)

Euphronius (once Antony's schoolmaster), acting as his makeshift and abject ambassador to Caesar:

Euph. Such as I am, I come from Antony :
I was of late as petty to his ends
As is the morn-dew on the myrtle-leaf
To his grand sea.

"Of late..." Well, the days of Antonine hyperbole are all up now, but Euphronius leaves us with one of the most astonishing.

This comes from the end of a long passage of valedictory advice by Henry IV to one of his younger sons, Thomas of Clarence, urging him to be a peacemaker to his brothers when troublemakers cause dissension:

                   Learn this, Thomas,
And thou shalt prove a shelter to the friends,
A hoop of gold to bind the brothers in,
That the united vessel of their blood,
Mingled with venom of suggestion --
As force perforce the age will pour it in --
Shall never leak, though it do work as strong
As aconitum or rash gunpowder.

Clar. I shall observe him with all care and love.

Nurse. They call for dates and quinces in the pastry.

A remark by the Nurse to Lady Capulet, amid the early morning bustle of preparations for Juliet's wedding to County Paris.

Lady Capulet has not been in Juliet's confidence for a long time. The Nurse used to be, but unbeknownst to herself Juliet has now shut her out, disgusted by her worldly advice to forget Romeo and enjoy Paris.

Neither speaker, therefore, has an inkling of what we've just witnessed and is about to burst on them, Juliet's staged "death".

Thy banks with pioned and twilled brims,
Which spongy April at thy hest betrims
To make cold nymphs chaste crowns...

(The Tempest, IV.1)

Iris invoking Ceres, within the spirit-masque performed at Prospero's command for Miranda and Ferdinand.

The meaning of the line is highly uncertain. Some think that "pioned and twilled" refer to plants. Peony, Marsh Marigold, and Orchid have been suggested for the former word, Willow for the latter. Others (thinking of "pioners" = sappers, trench-diggers) propose that the line is about river maintenance: "pioned" meaning "trenched" (to prevent silting), and "twilled" referring to woven basketry used to prevent bank erosion.

Whichever, the outre language is evidently intentional. Principally, this is to distinguish the inner performance of Ariel's spirits from ordinary speech that's already much elevated. But intuitively, Shakespeare had been discovering for a long time a dramatic language that could more powerfully and swiftly evoke natural scenes than by listing  its components. In reality, every natural scene is too rich in detail for us to take in. So there's an essential cloudiness in our comprehension of nature; part of our experience is awareness of our own ignorance, of limited selection and the personal assignment of significance. You could see the late artistry of this river evocation as a development of Gertrude's river scene in Hamlet (above). There too the list of plants isn't fully definable, but impressionist; and their significance is for each listener to make out.

My cherry lips have often kiss'd thy stones,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee.

This is Thisby, played by Francis Flute the bellows-mender, addressing Wall, played by Tom Snout the tinker.

Thisby's words sound inadvertently rude, as was no doubt the intention

Lucio. I was once before him for getting a wench with child.

Duke (disguised as a friar). Did you such a thing?

Lucio. Yes, marry, did I but I was fain to forswear it; they would else have married me to the rotten medlar.

Implying the wench in question was a pox-ridden whore.  The fruit of the medlar has to be rotten (bletted) before it's palatable.

Lucio is, as usual, outrageously offensive; our own outrage is somewhat tempered by the belief that he always talks for effect and that most of his tales are made up.

Dry up thy marrows, vines, and plough-torn leas;
Whereof ungrateful man, with liquorish draughts
And morsels unctuous, greases his pure mind,
That from it all consideration slips!

A misanthropic Timon, solus, addressing the earth, in which he's digging for roots.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Empty your pockets

Contents of my hoodie pocket.

A sprig of Irish Juniper (Juniperus communis 'Hibernica'), with smaller denser foliage and a more columnar shape than the standard wild plant. The latter is now quite uncommon in the southern UK, and the junipers in towns and gardens are always varieties. This sprig came from the industrial estate, where there are a pair of junipers flanking the entrance to a small office.

Crumpled tissue from Costa Coffee, with the legend "Better latte than never". You get given a tissue if you buy e.g. a slice of cake. You can't just grab a clutch of tissues yourself anymore. This is all part of the industry's effort to reduce landfill waste. I've been told by staff thattCosta now recycle nearly everything. (Despite much office myth, takeaway cups can be recycled, but not in the standard cardboard.. you need to put them with the drinks cartons. ) . I've also been told (by staff) that Pret A Manger recycle almost nothing. I can't confirm either story, but every chain needs to address the problem. Somewhere ahead, the south-western chain Boston Tea Party doesn't use disposable cups at all... If you want a takeaway drink you have to bring your own ecocup, or rent one.

Marble found in the lane. Opaque green base, with streaks of blue, red and yellow. Such a common type must have its own name, but I haven't managed to find it. 90% of the world's marbles are manufactured by Vacor de Mexico, founded in Guadalajara in 1930.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

their possessions

A.S. Byatt: Possession: A Romance (1991)

A book that I've always been distantly aware of but never expected to read. However, my Dad bought me a copy and the day came when, afflicted with toothache, I thought I'd give it a try And my toothache didn't put me off; which was odd, because it had ruined Purcell and placed Leevi Lehto right out of the question. Possession is really a treat for duvet days; be aware that spoilers will follow.

[For the benefit of anyone who has not read Possession but is still determined to read my post about it, I should explain that it's set partly in Victorian times (where Randolph and Christabel are poets) and partly in the present day (where Roland and Maud are literary scholars).]


About the two poets:

They both had to be made, and they couldn't be made from nothing. Randolph Henry Ash is Browning adapted: about 66% Browning. (There is a little of Arnold, too, so far as the Norse epic is concerned.) This is obliquely confessed, inasmuch as so prominent a contemporary literary figure as Browning himself is never mentioned within the text; nor do we ever hear the term "dramatic monologue" (Ash once speaks of "dramatized monologues"). Byatt needed to be cautious about muddying her presentation. But when Randolph Henry Ash's poetry draws very close to Browning's, we are doubtless meant to notice it fondly.

e.g. Gods, Men and Heroes (Ash, 1856); Men and Women (Browning, 1855). 

 "Mummy Possest" (Ash); "Mr Sludge, the Medium" (Browning)

Cromwell (verse play - Ash); Strafford (verse play - Browning)


Or consider the Ash letter in which he talks not only about Paracelsus but D.D. Home.  

And pause to admire Byatt's list of popular Ash poems, the ones that the child Roland (Hang on, what was that I just said?... )  recalls his mother reading aloud to him: "I grew up on [Ash's] idea of Sir Walter Raleigh, and his Agincourt poem and Offa on the Dyke." With Ash, as with Browning (thinking of Dramatic Lyrics), the genuinely popular poems are evidently a different set from the ones discussed by textual critics such as the adult Roland himself. This list evokes vague memories of e.g. the "Cavalier Tunes" and "How They Brought the Good News from Aix to Ghent" and "At the 'Mermaid'", though Ash is conceived as sticking more closely to British themes, compared with Browning's omnivorous European/Middle Eastern historical palate.   

But when it comes to Ash's poetry, Byatt has a freedom to deviate from her basic model. Sometimes indeed the poetry is very Browning-esque -- say, the opening of "Swammerdam" --, but it is both Browning minus and Browning plus. Ash inherits little of Browning's characteristic ellipses and tics, the profuse language and simultaneous impediment of articulation that Chesterton memorably compared to a knot in a piece of wood. In Ash's work there are no abbreviations - o' , i', 'twere, 'tis - and no outrageous meters or newly-coined stanza-forms. Nor, as we've seen, does the London-based Ash betray much of Browning's enthusiasm for Mediterranean scenes, humanists, painters, musicians... On the other hand, Ash takes a particular interest in Victorian science, geology, natural history and Darwinism (the sorts of interest that we wish Browning had had: though often a brilliant observer of nature's surfaces, he never seems to want to understand them). Ash's blank verse is a little more early-twentieth-century in manner than Browning's: for example, he favours the short sentence that occupies the first half of a line:

But I had other leanings. Did they come

These things are there. The garden and the tree

Browning rarely if ever deploys that kind of clipped expression. Or consider this, from elsewhere in "Swammerdam":

                                          .... ride with the wind

To burning lands beneath a copper sun

Or never-melted mountains of green ice

Or hot dark secret places in the steam

Of equatorial forests, where the sun

Strikes far above the canopy, where men

And other creatures never see her light

Save as a casual winking lance that runs

A silver shaft between green dark and dark.

That vision of tropical rainforest was unknown to earlier Victorian poets, it was an idea that only became familiar later, in the age of aeroplanes and ecology.  (You might compare Ash in this mode with slightly later and lesser-known writers such as William Canton (1845-1926)).

Christabel Lamotte's poetry cannot be pinned down to a primary model in the same way -- nor was it so necessary. Being a comparatively obscure (verging on amateur) author, we'd expect her to experiment with a number of different styles and sometimes to be quite generic: that she'd have an integrity of character rather than a formed manner. Her published short lyrics are like Christina Rossetti ("Christabel's reputation, modest but secure, rests on the restrained and delicate lyrics.." - as the early twentieth-century Veronica Honiton is made to say,  - a sentence so exact in its satire that I'm sure I'ver read it before). Christabel's unpublished lyrics are more like Emily Dickinson. The extracts from Melusina and the City of Is remind me as much of Tennyson as anyone -- and they're very good.     


Byatt has a lot of fun not just with Veronica Honiton, and Dr Nest's Helpmeets, but with the feminist essays of the present: Herself Herself Involve, LaMotte's Strategies of Evasion. One of the things Byatt’s book expresses very well is how the Victorian women can't quite seize on this late-20th-century feminism, they are trapped in a patriarchal world and its thought-forms, and must either be unhappy or make their happiness by negotiation with it: Blanche, Christabel and Ellen all face the same conditions. The crippling burden of, for instance, the word Man standing both for one gender and for human civilization itself, is made very clear. Yet, this being a story still inflected by that patriarchal inheritance, it recurrently arrives at situations where Ash and Roland are notably good-natured, while Christabel and Maud are comparatively hostile, unpredictable, untender. By "recurrently" I do not mean overwhelmingly. But it is noticeable enough, especially in the light of Randolph Henry Ash's final appearance as a highly sympathetic patriarch with a broad-brimmed hat, to provoke reflection. Somehow he, the impulsive embracer on the common, the impulsive wrecker of séances, - and the adulterer too - does not seem to risk himself to anything like the extent Christabel does. And in fact she spares him, as in a different way Ellen does too. They, more than Randolph, take responsibility for their lives. It is somehow connected with this, I think, that much more of the novel is seen through Roland's eyes than Maud's. At the end, this may even seem odd -- Maud after all is the one who has to adjust to her inheritance, yet we don't know her thoughts. And in the one chapter where Randolph and Christabel appear as characters in a novel, the presentation is chiefly through Randolph's eyes. Thus the book to a certain extent perpetuates the conditions that its women struggle against:  of finding themselves objects of the gaze and the embodiment of one kind of mysterious Other. Perhaps this was a necessary condition of the book being so easily a "Romance". I definitely think it goes some way to explaining why Possession was so much more widely popular and celebrated than Byatt’s earlier books.      

The Browning connection goes further still. To a certain extent the relationship between Ash and LaMotte glances at Browning's courtship of Elizabeth Barrett, that keen disciple of spiritualism. More than "glances", really:  the Brownings' letters are simply and absolutely the model for Byatt's letters between the two clever poets who increasingly love each other; though the letters in Possession are a little less elliptical and have a whole lot more narrative. Anyway, it's the events of Wimpole Street, above all,  that are being re-imagined to more sharply focus on Byatt's concerns. And this concealed background continues to resonate, in the vague sense that Ash (like Browning) is allowed to act the part of a saviour, bringing a kind of dangerous tonic in his own person. Powerfully as Possession exposes the crucial early roots of feminism and the desperate need for it, it also allows itself to be a comedy, to celebrate the completion of heteronormal love, to smile benignly on everyone and to reflect, temperately enough, on "how far we've all come since then".     


Roland at one stage toys with the idea of writing some poetry of his own. Byatt's conception of poetry in the 1980s is a mainstream one, and here is one of the most lucid (because unguarded) descriptions of it that I've seen. True, it's a statement by a novelist, but then mainstream poetry is intimately linked to mainstream novels.  

It begins with Roland thinking more about readings -- he has just read Ash's "The Garden of Proserpina" for the dozenth time -- and in particular what he (or maybe  Byatt) considers to be good readings: not dutiful mappings and dissections, nor personal nor impersonal readings as such, but

Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark - readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that is was always there, that we, the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognisant, our knowledge.

Thus sensitized (no doubt the fundamental cause of Roland's euphoria is really the unlooked-for but so-welcome news of three job offers).. Thus sensitized, Roland's wordlists begin to come to life, crystallizing around the evening's accidental features -- not the quantifiably important ones -- as if they were themselves revelatory:

Tonight, he began to think of words, words came from some well in him, lists of words that arranged themselves into poems, "The Death Mask", "The Fairfax Wall", "A Number of Cats". He could hear, or feel, or even almost see, the patterns made by a voice he didn't yet know, but which was his own. The poems were not careful observations, nor yet incantations, nor yet reflections on life and death, though they had elements of all these. He added another, "Cat's Cradle", as he saw he had things to say which he could say about the way shapes came and made themselves. Tomorrow he would buy a new notebook and write them down. Tonight he would write down enough, the mnemonics.

He had time to feel the strangeness of before and after; an hour ago there had been no poems, and now they came like rain and were real. 

It's a pity that Byatt doesn't give us one line of Roland's poetry. Perhaps she could not easily do so, perhaps this poetry (unlike the Victorian poetry) could not be imitated without inappropriate laughter. At any rate it's clear that Roland's is a very different way of conceiving the writing of a poem from Ash's or LaMotte's.


"I pretended to be their lawyer, in a hurry with important information, and got told where they were. Which is, The Old Rowan Tree pub, on the North Downs, near, but not very near, Hodershall. Both of them. That's very significant."

This is Euan MacIntyre talking about Hildebrand Ash and Mortimer Cropper. When Byatt wants to get on with things and direct the whole story towards a comedy-adventure story, she is breezily slipshod; that first sentence covers two different phonecalls to two different people.

Euan's point about "near, but not very near" is easy to understand. The rascally pair, we gather, are staying somewhere that in itself would hardly point to Hodershall as their object at all -- say, ten miles away. It needs the additional fact that they are there together to sharpen Euan's suspicions to near-certainty. We infer that Ash and Cropper have deliberately avoided parking themselves right on top of their intended sphere of operations, so as not to arouse undue interest.

These inferences are all very clear, but when we turn the page and come to the next chapter, it turns out that The Old Rowan Tree (now renamed the Rowan Tree Inn) is only a mile from the isolated Hodershall churchyard, and is in fact the nearest dwelling to it. So it seems that Byatt decided to relinquish the good idea of Ash and Cropper being circumspect in favour of the better idea about the Great Storm. If everyone were to get back from the churchyard to a place suitable for the comfortable inspection of papers, it would need to be, on that particular night, no more than a short walk.

This reminds me that the thrillingly unexpected sentence is this: "In that moment, the great storm hit Sussex." But why Sussex? No part of the North Downs is in Sussex (and, as a matter of fact, though the storm of 15/10/87 wreaked havoc in Sussex, it was even fiercer in Kent). Did Byatt originally envisage Hodershall as on the South Downs?  

But anyway, why is McIntyre talking about downs? Surely it's a little unusual to describe a pub's location as "on the North Downs". Not very specific, while sitting in Mortlake, when southward of London the North Downs extend 100 miles from Farnham to Dover. Not very idiomatic either: people would normally say something like. “near Leatherhead” (Hodershall is apparently near Leatherhead). Unless, that is, you are romanticizing landscape, which evidently Byatt is, as she lurches into ever more popularized versions of romance (she even has the essential two villlains for her graveyard scene).

But there is an underlying motif here, too. Three ranges of chalk are encountered in the book: the Lincolnshire Wolds, the Yorkshire Wolds (Flamborough Head), and the North Downs. Thus chalkland oddly joins with the book's other repeated motifs, such as the six bathrooms and the many fine meals conjoined by "and"s ("They sat over buckwheat pancakes in Pont-Aven and drank cider from cool earthenware pitchers and asked the dificult questions"). 

If I used the word "slipshod" (I did), this reminds me of another peculiarity. The older Sir George Bailey had a passion for exotic trees, and several of them are mentioned. They're a mixed bag, though: along with some unexceptionable trees Byatt mentions Japanese Juniper (a procumbent shrub that grows no taller than 50cm), Caucasian walnut (alternative name for the common walnut, which is not at all exotic, though sometimes confused with Caucasian wingnut), Persian Plum (non-existent, though it might refer to that commonplace dusky ornament of small gardens, Pissard's Plum). Or take the hay-meadow where Randolph Henry Ash meets Maia - it contains (among many other plants) yellow snapdragons and larkspur, not things you might expect to find rioting in a Lincolnshire meadow - or is Byatt one step ahead of me, knew of the larkspur that was once a cornfield weed in Cambridgeshire and surmised that it might also have occurred in Lincolnshire?  Or, perhaps she's consciously mimicking the effect of botanical lists in old books where, so often, we have to infer or guess which species are meant. But the point is -- well, I don't really know what the point is, but these thrown-together lists make a striking contrast with the attention to detail elsewhere. (And LaMotte's memories of the North York Moors in the extract from Melusina seem very precise, too. To what extent are we to suppose that the mention of Paracelsus in the Proem is specifically owed to Ash's remarks in his letter?)

A striking contrast, apparently. But our belief in unified character perhaps slides over collages. Ellen Ash's journal style seems perfectly realized (did you too, reader, work out that when she writes her generous remarks on Melusina, she was well aware that Miss LaMotte had been her husband's mistress?) - "This morning Bertha was found to be slipped away... What should best be done?..." and that memorably tight-lipped sentence: "That matter is now I hope quite at an end and wholly cleared up". Or Christabel's epistolary style, with its slightly breathless intellectuality and its constant subquotations of Shakespeare et al ("I will tell you a Tale - no, I will not neither, it does not bear thinking on - and yet I will....").


How far is Possession a supernatural tale? No more than any other romance -- say, Scott's...  But there are moments when the supernatural sneaks into view. Roland and Maud will never find out that they are repeating Randolph and Christabel when they make their trip to the Boggle Hole. Val at one point unwittingly and creepily quotes Blanche Glover about being a superfluous woman: at this point, the story looks like it might not make that gear-shift towards comedy. And then there is the surprising turn of events that reveals Maud as the direct descendant of the two childless poets. That is all:  but novels are supernatural in a different way also. As is pointedly shown when, in contrast to all this piecing-together of evidence and remains, the novel suddenly shows us scenes that it's impossible anyone could know of. You might wonder, reasonably, if the last one of those scenes, the one with Ash and Maia, is “made up” in a different way from the others :- that is, more explicitly made up, a fantastic embroidery.  


I thought no more about Christabel LaMotte's story "The Glass Coffin" until I coincidentally discovered that the homeopathic remedy Gelsemium is known as the "glass coffin". (I imagine Peter Redgrove must have written poetry about that!) But anyway, I then googled the expression and realized that the common source was a fairy tale made famous by the Brothers Grimm. LaMotte's story follows the outline but has many lovely variations like the animals in the house in the wood, and the glass key. And it also makes a proto-feminist move, commenting on the original tale:

'Of course I will have you,' said the little tailor, 'for you are my promised marvel, released with my vanished glass key, and I love you dearly already. Though why you should have me, simply because I opened the glass case, is less clear to me altogether, and when, and if, you are restored to your rightful place, and your home and lands and people are again your own, I trust you will feel free to reconsider the matter, and remain, if you will, alone and unwed....' 

This discussion continues very amusingly, but the upshot is that the lady (or young woman - LaMotte disdains the use of "maiden") certainly does intend to marry the tailor, so that's why I call it proto-feminist -- constrained by the possibilities of Victorian existence -- as discussed previously.    

[Written in 2009, slightly revised]

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Tuesday, August 07, 2018

in the strong room

"Now you see me", painting by Markus Åkesson (2018)

[Image source:]

There's times Andrea Brady's The Strong Room (2016) seems like a determined effort to incinerate any last possibility of describing her as Cambridge School in a limiting way. "The Underworld", for example, is an extended, funny and thought-provoking transcript of Andrea and her daughter making up a utopia-poem. "The Leavings" is as shameless a declaration of committed love as you could easily find. The #Direngezi poem is frankly adapted to a mixed audience united by solidarity not poetry.

With such poems before me, it no longer seems very appropriate to stress the difficulty of  Andrea's poetry (as I did when writing about her previous collection Cut From the Rushes).

Nevertheless, there are still plenty of poems in the more recent book that evade being pinned down so easily. One of my favourites is "40 Days and 40 Nights". It alternates between Day stanzas and Night stanzas (despite the title, only six of each). Here are the opening stanzas:


Wind covers ears in cornmeal, sky overlord
of original pink waves the placards for 'liberation'
but these fringed miniscules make an ache,
a winter knot, dropped in a speculative apartment,
attention it takes practice to pay
to the vegetable soul breaking up
volumes of private air. Practice
being curative, as wintering
geese evoke the media plea: who wants
this life. Not me, the television
shows incurable sadness, nights drift
with residue.


The narrow human attitude is a landing
strip of forested karst, it ripples
outward from the spinal border /
birds light / long yellow lines
mark out causeways in sensation.
The strips between scratches
between licks
are Crimean fields quivering like
sound. Moving plates, marks
of a parochial encounter. The rest
all too vast for governance gets
broody and a little pissed off.
When the tongue skips over them
leaving thirty clicks of unspent
twitches bickering in its wake
the stomach ditched, grassland
unmowed, it scalps a moon-warmed
vast peasanted terrirtory,
your punky nails the pickets
of paranoid garrison towns.

A note subjoined to the title says: A response to George Bataille's 'The Mouth'

This is the quotably brief meditation La Bouche, published in 1930 in Documents, a Surrealist art magazine edited by Bataille.

“The mouth is the beginning or, if one prefers, the prow of animals; in the most characteristic cases, it is the most living part, in other words, the most terrifying for neighbouring animals. But man does not have a simple architecture like the beasts, and it is not even possible to say where he begins. In a strict sense, he starts at the top of the skull, but the top of the skull is an insignificant part, incapable of attracting attention and it is the eyes or the forehead the play the significatory role of an animal’s jaws.”
“Among civilized men, the mouth has even lost the relatively prominent character that it still has among primitive men. However, the violent meaning of the mouth is conserved in a latent state: it suddenly regains the upper hand with a literally cannibalistic expression such as mouth of fire, applied to the cannons men employ to kill each other. And on important occasions human life is still bestially concentrated in the mouth: fury makes men grind their teeth, terror and atrocious suffering transform the mouth into the organ of rending screams. On this subject it is easy to observe that the overwhelmed individual throws back his head while frenetically stretching his neck so that the mouth becomes, as far as possible, a prolongation of the spinal column, in other words, it assumes the position in normally occupies in the constitution of animals. As if explosive impulses were to spurt directly out of the body through the mouth, in the form of screams. This fact simultaneously highlights the importance of the mouth in animal physiology or even psychology, and the general importance of the superior or anterior extremity of the body, the orifice of profound physical impulses: equally one sees that a man is able to liberate these impulses in at least two different ways, in the brain or in the mouth, but that as soon as these impulses become violent, he is obliged to resort to the bestial method of liberation. Whence the narrow constipation of a strictly human attitude, the magisterial look of the face with a closed mouth, as beautiful as a safe.”


So the "narrow human attitude" in the second stanza above,  is here in Bataille's piece.

Which I think is brilliantly suggestive, by the way, yet also inadequate.  Why would the livingness of an organ be defined by its terrifying aspect in the eyes of a different species? (Presumably, a prey species.) I stop thinking about what the words might tell me about life, instead I'm  thinking what they tell me about Bataille.

But yes, I'm fascinated by the mouth. I'm fascinated by baby's fascination, her intent focus on the mouth of the adult, as if it's indeed the seat of life, everything comes from there. But even before that, it's the eyes. The first thing she learnt to know is the eyes. The first message that passed was the smile, and that was learned from the eyes.  But even before that, the baby and the mother knew each other. Life precedes the face.

Is it even really true that, as Bataille blithely implies, the mouth is the prow in most animals? Not really. It's the nose that is the prow, in a wolf or dog, for example. First because the nose is the most important sense, for these animals. Second, because the nose, or specifically its bridge, is bony.  When you design a moving abject like an animal, you make sure its projections are bony so they don't get injured.  Mouths are soft and need protection. So I'd dispute Bataille's animal physiology, and even his observation.

 But nevertheless, I like what he wrote. For example about the closed mouth of the magister. That was true. It was a power-play, though not such a timeless or universal one as Bataille supposed.

On the other hand, capitalism knows that models must be photographed with the mouth open. The iconography of an open mouth is participation, that is, economic consumption. No-one wants to see a closed safe in an advert.


The poem-title "40 Days and 40 Nights" opens out other vistas. It could allude to Jesus' temptation in the wilderness; it's also the title of a 2007 book about the test case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which ruled that teaching creationism ("Intelligent Design") in biology classes violates the First Amendment; the title of a  2002 sex comedy movie in which the male lead takes a bet to give up sex for Lent, and is "raped" by his ex-girlfriend to make him lose the bet (responses to the movie have been mixed); and a really fantastic Muddy Waters song.

All of these vistas seem relevant, but the poem stands without them, a record of days and nights traversed by pain, blurry insomnia and sexual frustration, an interrogation of the body's depths and surfaces.


Rain falls in ears, rabbits fizzle on
workbenches where they are stripped crying
and alive for angora.  .....

That's the start of another stanza. This refers to revelations in the media (e.g. in 2013 and 2016) about cruelty at angora farms, especially during the plucking process.

The stretched, screaming rabbits might be an illustration of Bataille's text, kind of.

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Sunday, August 05, 2018

Chateaubriand's rivers

François-René de Chateaubriand, c. 1790. Portrait by Anne-Louis Girodet

[Image source: . Portrait from around the time of Chateaubriand's travels in America.]

On the first page of Atala (1801), Chateaubriand describes the once-enormous colony of Nouvelle-France:

La France possédait autrefois, dans l'Amérique septentrionale, un vaste empire qui s'étendait depuis de Labrador jusqu'aux Florides, et depuis les rivages de l'Atlantique jusqu'aux lacs les plus reculés du haut Canada.

Quatres grands fleuves, ayant leur sources dans les même montagnes, divisaient ces régions immenses : le fleuve Saint-Laurent qui se perd à l'est dans let golfe de son nom, la rivière de l'Ouest qui porte ses eaux à des mers inconnues, le fleuve Bourbon qui se précipite du midi au nord dans la baie d'Hudson, et la Meschacebé qui tombe du nord au midi, dans le golfe du Mexique.

[At one time France possessed, in North* America, a vast empire that extended from Labrador to the Floridas, and from the shores of the Atlantic to the remotest lakes of upper Canada.

Four great rivers, having their sources in the same mountains, divided these immense regions: the St Lawrence which debouches to the east in the Gulf of the same name; the river of the West which carries its waters into unknown seas, the Bourbon river which drains from south to north into Hudson Bay, and the Meschacebé which runs from north to south, into the gulf of Mexico.]


* l'Amérique septentrionale. "Septentrional" means northern or boreal; its derivation is from the seven stars of Ursa Major/The Plough/Big Dipper. A fairly rare word in English, but common in romance languages. Shakespeare uses it:

Thou art as opposite to every good
As the Antipodes are unto us,
Or as the south to the Septentrion.

(York to Margaret, 3H6 1.4)


Chateaubriand  pauses to explain that the last of these four rivers is the Mississippi, the opening scene of his romance.

The St Lawrence retains its name today. The "fleuve Bourbon" evidently means the Nelson River, which drains so much of Canada and the northern USA ; York Factory, at its mouth on Hudson Bay, was once named Fort Bourbon.

The "rivière de l'Ouest" completes the geographical symmetry. The only possible candidate would be the river now named the McKenzie River, which drains a large part of northern Canada into the NW Arctic Ocean. The Vicomte did know about it; he reviewed Alexander McKenzie's travel journals on their first publication in  July 1801, three months after the publication of Atala. But so far as the maps show, Nouvelle-France had never extended so far into north-west Canada as to reach the McKenzie basin.

But anyway, Chateaubriand was never too constrained by reality. What he wanted to suggest here was the four rivers of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10-14). [This idea seems to be buried deep in the religious feelings of humanity. The holy Mount Kailash in Tibet guards the headwaters to four great Asian rivers (the Indus, Sutlej, Bramahputra and Ganghara/Ganges).]  In his Atala Nouvelle-France is indeed a kind of Eden, with a dazzling profusion of nature and its own beautiful but too-innocent Adam and Eve.

[Readers of Martin Chuzzlewit may see the association of the mid-west with Eden in an altogether different light.]

In reality, the nearest we can come to Chateaubriand's mythical central mountains is the small city of Hibbing in St Louis County, Minnesota, founded in 1893, 45 years after Chateaubriand's death. Though at the modest elevation of 1,500 feet, it's a triple watershed,  so the rain that falls on  Hibbing runs variously into Hudson Bay, the Gulf of St Lawrence and the Gulf of Mexico.

The spirit of Chateaubriand's emphasis on rivers is right. The largely inland "empire" of Nouvelle-France, which surrounded the much smaller British colonies along the eastern seaboard, was the product of river-exploration. This opened up immense tracts of land to French control. But the control was more on the map than in reality. The total population of French emigrants was barely 10,000. They had, comparatively speaking, very good relations with the native Americans (who were encouraged to apply for French citizenship, on equal terms with native French); compared, that is, with the brutal attitudes of the British and Spanish colonists. I suppose a cynic might argue that the French colonists were respectful more through force of circumstance than their own enlightened attitudes.

At first the battle for control was a proxy war: the Iroquois, fur suppliers to British and Dutch colonies, seeking to wipe out the Algonquians, Hurons and others who traded with France. And when direct conflict came, in 1754-63, Nouvelle-France couldn't hold out against the much more populous colonies of the British. In the course of fifty years the whole "empire" was lost or ceded, the only remnant today being the tiny islands of St Pierre-Miquelon, just off the Newfoundland coast.


Thursday, August 02, 2018


I made a brief evening foray to Barbury Castle, an iron-age hillfort on the scarp of the Marlborough Downs, a few miles south of Swindon. The fort is an 11-acre enclosure surrounded by two concentric ramparts separated by a deep ditch.  (The earth was extracted from the ditch and piled to either side -- hey presto, fortifications.) This time I walked round the inner rampart.

Barbury Castle dates from the 6th Century BCE, but it was in such a good spot, right on the ancient Ridgeway and commanding a vast view to the north and west, that it was later useful to the Romans, the Saxons, and the US Army Air Force, who sited anti-aircraft guns here during WWII.

Cirsium acaule - without stems

Dwarf Thistle (Cirsium acaule). This is the common form, normally experienced as a sharp pain when you sit down on it by mistake.

Cirsium acaule - with stems

This is the less frequent form, in which the flowers (contrary to their Latin name, which means "stemless") actually do have stems. 

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