Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Mary Wortley Montagu

Selimiye Mosque, Edirne

In late 1716, Mary's husband was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The family travelled overland to Costantinople; en route they spent several weeks in Adrianopke (=Edirne).

Mary enthusiastically described an incognita visit to the magnificent Selimiye Mosque in her letter of May 17th (O.S.) 1717.

These letters were mostly, or wholly, a literary device. They were shaped, after the author's return to England, drawing on material from her diaries.

Nobility calls to nobility, landowner calls to landowner, so Mary presents a pretty favourable picture of the Ottoman nobility, despite the enclosure of women, the dominance of lawless janissaries etc. On the other hand, her account (in the same letter) of the Jews, who she says control all the city's finance,... is typical of its era. Antisemitism took its particular character from the diaspora, from the (enforced) landlessness of the Jews. They were citizens of nowhere.


In a letter from Pera (Constantinople), Mary expounds an object-letter; a coal means "May I die, and all my years be yours!"; a piece of paper means "I faint every hour!" But she laments: "I am in great danger of losing my English... I live in a place that very well represents the tower of Babel : in Pera they speak Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Russian, Sclavonian, Wallachian, German, Dutch, French, English, Italian, Hungarian ; and what is worse, there are ten of these languages spoken in my own family. My grooms are Arabs; my footmen, French, English, and Germans ; my nurse, an Armenian; my housemaids, Russians ; half a dozen other servants, Greeks ; my steward, an Italian ; my janissaries, Turks ; so that I live in the perpetual hearing of this medley of sounds, which produces a very extraordinary effect upon the people that are born here ; they learn all these languages at the same time, and without knowing any of them well enough to read and write in it. There are very few men, women, or even children, here, that have not the same compass of words  in five or six of them. ...."

"Sclavonian" probably means Serbo-Croat. "Wallachian' means Romanian.

Despite this lament the purity of her English style was much admired at the time. (It's difficult, now, to get a sense of just what this meant; it's an aesthetic or moral value that we rarely talk about now.)


The 52 letters were are referred to under various designations; Turkish Embassy Letters, Letters from Turkey, Turkish Letters, etc. All a bit misleading, since many of the letters describe the journey there and back. The letters can be read in full here:


The book I've read is a 1921 selection edited and annotated by Hilda Chatwin, entitled Letters from Constantinople. Methuen's English Classics were aiming this one at girls in private education.


Like other noblewomen, Mary was an ur-feminist more by  personal example than general precept. (Most famously, by adopting the Turkish practice of smallpox innoculation,  which western physicians had dismissed as folklore.)

That is a very sketchy link to Adrienne Rich, but I wanted to mention Mark Ford's fine article on Rich in the current NYRB:


I remember writing once about Adrienne Rich, but the post isn't online now... perhaps I already decided it wasn't up to much. If I ever get to a laptop again, I'll check it out.

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Monday, October 29, 2018

Fair lights

Generally the surface geology gets younger as you travel from NW to SE Britain, but the Weald breaks this rule... it's an anticline, a sort of eruption that exposes older layers than the surrounding chalk.  Here's where the Weald meets the sea, forming these sandstone cliffs to the east of Hastings. The Hastings Beds are from the early Cretaceous; about 140 million years old.

Thursday, October 25, 2018


In reality, this old farmhouse, this arboretum and garden are more for me than just home. Actually I have many homes, I don't even know how many. I've tried to find them in several ways. One is with the help of trees. When I find a tree that I like, the place where it grows must be one of my homes. This is of course not only true of trees but of other plants as well, of the natural environment as a whole, of the landscape. In trees the spirit of the place, the genius loci, reveals itself with more clarity and force than in other plants, even in animals and people. Maybe with as much force as in stones.

(Jaan Kaplinski, from Ice and Heather (1989), English translation by the author with Fiona Sampson.*)


Stone is what the poem begins with; appropriate, in its solidity and fixity, for a meditation on the meaning of "home". Jaan Kaplinski, an Estonian, wrote the poem around the time of the "singing revolution", which foreshadowed the independence of the Baltic states. Discontent in Estonia was fuelled by Russian plans for grand-scale mining, which it was feared would lead to demographic change similar to the Russification of the formerly Finnish Karelia.

But Kaplinski isn't essentialist in that kind of way. The individual is paramount. The individual has many homes. A place is many places, Estonia's deep history, as well as its recent history, is much more than Estonian; it can't be owned.

Nevertheless, Kaplinski owned the old farmhouse I suppose. Perhaps the feeling of having many homes depends on having one rather definite, legal, fixed home. I don't know.

Perhaps it depends too on being well-travelled, as Kaplinski is. The poem is subtitled Notes of a migrant. As the farmhouse he bought is only half an hour's drive from his birthplace Tartu, we must understand "migrant" in the sense of a restless traveller, rather than in the more recent and often pejorative media sense of unwanted immigrant.

So the poem is equivocal in its pulls both towards rootedness and rootlessness. Hence perhaps the emphasis on peoples, like the Sami and native Americans, who are both deeply native (the original human inhabitants of their lands) and until recently nomadic (without fixed homes).

Ventures into the past question the meaning of place; the stone of Estonia was deposited there from Scandinavia; geologically Estonia is neptunian ... Washed there by water, not a product of forces from within the earth like the plutonic plateau of Armenia

It's an enlightened equivocation, which I share, of the kind that has produced the rude reactions of today. To our dismay the home as fortress has asserted its legitimacy across the world.

Here's some more:


I feel that I definitely belong to an ecosystem, I have a place there, but I haven't yet found it....

At other times and in other places people had soul animals, totems as they are often called... I believe that we still have these relatives, that besides the genus Homo we belong to other genera, whether we admit it or not.

It is possible that this is not a Linnaean relationship, that we are not so much related to a genus or a family, but to an ecosystem, a plant society or a life form. Maybe it means we are related to the genius loci. In any case we do not belong, solely and sometimes not at all, to the place where we are born and grown up. Our citizenship, our origins and affinities, are much more complicated. We are citizens of the world, although this doesn't mean we are perfectly at home everywhere in the world...


... I think Christianity is agoraphobic: God got a home that was built as a fortification ... A Romanesque church was a bridgehead of the heavenly legions into this world ruled by Satan. Under the vast arctic sky of Lapland all this seems ridiculous and incomprehensible. How can people retire into their values, fears and beliefs like snails into their shells? How can one live in this world so egotistically, how is it possible to lose the sense of wonder, to live without noticing this sky, these white rocks, these crowberries, checkerberries, dwarf birch trees and diapensias? How is it possible to turn one's back on it all and build huge stone castles where there is art, music, colour, aroma and spirituality, where there are just no life and no light of men, no plantain and knotgrass, and of course no Heath plants?


A church is also a theatre where the audience is protected from outside distraction. A church is also a home, that is, a building with an inside.

"Checkerberries" is rather a surprise. The context implies Lapland plants -- the poem was partly written in Alta in northern Norway -- but Gaultheria is a N. American genus and doesn't occur in Europe.

Maybe it's just a translation mistake, but it's fortuitously illuminating about the kind of thought in the poem. It's intimate, casual, chatty and not on oath. Kaplinski tells us that Diapensia was discovered in Scotland only 20 years ago. Actually in 1989 it was 38 years ago. But the slight inaccuracy doesn't concern us, does it? In conversation things have a certain latitude, as Miss Crawford says, "Never is a black word... But in the never of conversation I do think so..." Maybe this casualness is necessary to release the ideas in the poem, to get them out there without too much preamble and circumspection.


"I have been to Lapland twice..." This seems to be Lapland in the wide sense of Sápmi, the whole transnational area where the Sami live; since the locations he names are Lovozero in Russia and Alta in Norway. People concerned about "Lapp" being an imposed colonial (Swedish) term would prefer to restrict usage of "Lapland" to the historical provinces of that name in Sweden and Finland. But the English-speaking world doesn't know enough about the complex history or sensitivities, and the Sami have never been interested in forming a nation-state (the usual means of internationally promoting a new chosen name), so "Sápmi" will likely remain unknown to common English usage, and "Lapland" will remain the commercially valuable term, the winter holiday destination, home of Santa and his reindeer.... and roughly contiguous with Sápmi.


My quotes fail to reflect the pain in the poem; the ruin of Tartu, the woman thrown back into the flames of her house, the execution of two Sami. And the envonmental catastrophes that feel even more pressing now than in 1989.


* In Evening Brings Everything Back, Bloodaxe 2004. As often, one laments and is baffled by the lack of a proofreader. I'd do it!

Jaan Kaplinski's website, with lots of work in English translation as well as Estonian:


More extracts from Ice and Heather:



Monday, October 15, 2018

Puig Campana

The Puig Campana, the impressive mountain behind Benidorm, Finestrat, Villajoyosa.... The second highest in Alicante Province.

Ermita San Antonio, a hamlet behind Villajoyosa.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Shifting northward

On our way up the AP-7. No major posting till I've crossed the channel!

La Safor services, south of Valencia, clouding. Eye-catching ribbons of crag on the mountains behind. Around and towards the coast, more towns and villages we haven't seen.

I'm reading Galdos' Siete de Julio, sixteenth novel of the 46 Episodios Nacionales ... Set in 1822. The only one I've read before is the first one, Trafalgar. They're easier to read than his greater novels. I wish I could read them all, but I'll be happy with half a dozen.

These short novels we're Galdos' bread and butter, they were popular with readers. There's nothing quite like them in English or French. The fairly standardized plot motifs may recall Balzac or Dickens, but the historical events are real. (Which also distinguishes them from Trollope's "political' novels.) Galdos' comedy, language and observations are a delight.

According to the antiquated Britannica entry online, the final (unfinished) series shows some decline in Galdos' powers. That doesn't seem to be the view held in Spain.

That was my personal holiday souvenir. Before that, my imagination was in a Finland-Swedish groove; I'm reading Ulla-Lena Lundberg's novel Ice, and Gösta Ågren's trilogy. (Names vague and inaccurate.)

And before that, Drew Milne, Mark Lilla and Daniel Defoe. Plus quite a lot of leafing through the Mediterranean Plants book. It doesn't seem like much, in seven weeks. Not so many words are needed when around me the scene shifts constantly.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Tostada tomate

There was a photo but I deleted it.

LavaClick is open.

All my other sentences begin with "I want to..." Lies for the most part.

A boy with his dad. Whacking Ghost Hunter with the soft mallet.

His arm around her shoulders. Life. Going somewhere.

The driver carries laundry bags inside.

Monday, October 08, 2018

by the river Jerte

The first time I went to Plasencia I backed my van into a parked car. The second time wasn't a good time either, and I began to think the place was accursed. But this time we discovered the beautiful park beside the river Jerte, and spent several tranquil hours bathing our feet and drinking green tea among the picnicking families and the behatted domino players.

Al Olmo del Puente Viejo

Pasé bajo tus ramas árbol viejo
y absorto me admiré de tu grandeza:
grabé mi nombre un día en tu corteza
y a tu sombre imploré de ti un consejo.
En las aguas del Jerte que es tu espejo,
con amor reflejaste tu belleza
compendio de humildad y de nobleza
que con bondad me ofreces. Ya me alejo,
de tu sombra frondoso ¡árbol amado!,
pero pienso volver a contemplarte
cuando pase viajero o peregrino
en pago a las consejos que me has dado.
Tan sólo con mi amor podré pagarte,
¡celoso vigilante del camino!

To the elm beside the old bridge

I passed beneath your branches, ancient tree,
and absorbed I admired your grandeur:
one day I carved my name in your bark
and in your shade I implored your advice.
In the waters of the Jerte which are your mirror,
lovingly reflecting your beauty,
is compounded the humility and nobility
that you offer in good will. Now I am far
from your leafy shadows, beloved tree,
yet I mean to return to contemplate you,
whenever there passes a traveller or pilgrim,
in payment for the counsel you once gave me.
Only with my love can I repay you,
zealous watcher of the way!

Poem from 1983 by the Placentino poet Sixto Martín Rodriguez. (i.e. from Plasencia).

Plasencia, in Extremadura, has a bullfighting tradition, and the only other references I found to this poet are in bullfighting magazines.


Friday, October 05, 2018


inside looking out

Knocking on heaven's door

Portal of the Basilica de Santa Maria in Elche, by the sculptor Nicholas de Bussy (1640?-1706). He was born in Strasbourg (at the time within the Holy Roman Empire) so is described as "German", but he moved to Spain early, married a Spaniard, and all his known works are in Spain.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Plaza Julian Romea, Murcia

Teatro de Romea, Murcia

Monument to Fernandez Caballero

Fernandez Caballero, a native of Murcia, was a composer of zarzuelas.
Iglesia Conventual de Sto. Domingo

Three photos from the Plaza Julian Romea in the city of Murcia in SE Spain.

This post is in memory of Tom Clark, poet and blogger, who died in August. I don't suppose Tom ever went to Murcia but his remarkable free-ranging posts had the whole world as their topic.


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